Burger King’s Student Loan Initiative Came Across as Inconsiderate Toward a Growing National Crisis

Partnering with a fin-tech company that’s tied to Navient sure doesn’t help

Burger King character is using flame thrower; An arrow points to the fire the flamer thrower started saying "Your Student Debt Goes Here"
Burger King's initiative to pay off student loan debt felt like a brand trying to capitalize on a serious problem. Burger King

Millennials are often thought of as an influential generation and the go-to audience for marketers, but there’s one trend I’m sure that we all wish we didn’t have to partake in: The student loan debt crisis.

The total amount of student debt in the U.S. is well over $1 trillion, spread out among 44 million Americans. Every industry is impacted and affected by this (some more than others), but recently Burger King saw this crisis as an opportunity to get in front of its customers and audience. At the end of last month, the fast food staple sent out the following tweet:

While it wasn’t made clear at the time of the tweet, this move preceded Burger King’s Whopper Loans initiative to help customers pay off their student loans. Burger King partnered with fin-tech company Earnest for this special project. To enter the sweepstakes, you had to download the BK mobile app or participate through mail-in.

It’s clear from the now-viral tweet that we’re all hungry for student loan relief. But the reality is that there are a student loan and a millennial debt crisis, and neither should be used as a marketing tactic for contests and promotions, no matter how “well intended” it may seem. Burger King’s student loan initiative didn’t feel clever; it simply felt like a brand trying to capitalize off the latest social media craze while poking fun at a serious issue.

The fast-food industry is a billion-dollar industry full of investors and backers, and their total prize grand prize of $250,000 is a small piece of what the financial backing possibilities could be of a business their size. When Burger King launched their “Whopper Detour” campaign, their app received 1.5 million downloads in just nine days. Could you imagine how $1.5 million would make an impact on those of us who are drowning in debt? It’s also important to note that we’re now living in a time where consumers are exhausted with superficial and shallow promises and want to be sure that companies and brands that they spend their hard-earned money are connected to the greater good, not just profits.

The student loan crisis has become a topic of discussion even for 2020 hopefuls because it has made an indelible mark on not just students, but families and the generations that are coming behind us. It’s something to be taken seriously, which is why Burger King’s tweet comes across as tone deaf with no real attempt to help those who are in need.

It’s a stark contrast to the campaign that the United Negro College Fund and national haircare brands African Pride and JFM Curl Peace are now embarking on. This June, they announced their Wear Your Crown With Confidence Loan Forgiveness and Scholarship Program that will transform the lives of African American and black students dealing with crippling student loan debt. The brands took an approach that creates an authentic opportunity to connect with their consumers.

“Ninety percent of our top leadership team are black women who all graduated from HBCUs, and we all know someone who is struggling with crippling student loan debt, and we’re well aware of the statistics on how higher education debt affects our community,” said Dawn Thompson, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Strength of Nature, parent company of both African Pride and JFM Curl Peace.

It comes across as insensitive and manipulative during an era where crowdfunding to pay medical expenses has become our norm.

The irony of Burger King partnering with a fin-tech company whose parent company is Navient, a student loan company that has gained off of this crisis, is too strong to ignore. It’s another component of the campaign that makes it feel even more ingenuine. As we’ve seen with brands like Ben & Jerry’s, a strategic partnership to help with a cause creates a long-lasting commitment, a bar that African Pride set for themselves immediately.

“If we as a company were going to join this conversation and really have an impact, we wanted to make sure we did it right, and we knew that we didn’t want to do it alone,” Thompson said. “Which is why we partnered with the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), an organization whose mission has always been rooted in providing and funding scholarships for black students in need. Because of their excellent track record, we knew they’d be the perfect partner to help us bring this vision to life.”

This is not to say that the solution to our crisis lies in the hands of companies who are in charge of making burgers—they didn’t create this crisis, after all. But it comes across as insensitive and manipulative during an era where crowdfunding to pay medical expenses has become our norm.

The only way I wouldn’t be opposed to this is if Burger King’s competitors also stepped in to create their own student loan contests. Partnerships that are grounded in commitment and long-term dedication to a cause with a specific tie-in to the issue at hand would be more effective.

Melissa Kimble is a Chicago-based writer, digital strategist and founder of #blkcreatives, a digital collective and lighthouse for black culture's most impactful creators.