Burger King is the latest brand to use depression as a marketing tool

Burger King’s latest ad campaign is a bizarre critique of McDonald’s Happy Meals.

“Not everybody wakes up happy,” a man sitting on his bed intones to start the new Burger King ad.

Burger King’s latest promotion is called #FeelYourWay, which is a play on the company’s decades-old slogan “Have it your way,” except it’s ostensibly about depression.

“Not everybody wakes up happy,” a man sitting on his bed intones to start the new Burger King ad. “All I ask is that you let me feel my way.”

His spoken word poem (yes, really) is picked up and iterated upon by a teenage girl who finds the word “skank” carved into her locker, and then an adult woman whose boss did something creepy, a young man who has so many student loans he will live with his parents forever, another young man who has just been ghosted and worries about dying alone, and a young mother in overalls who marches down the street announcing the rhyme, “They say I’m too young to raise my baby girl / Take your opinion and suck it world.”

For Mental Health Awareness month, Burger King has partnered with Mental Health America to release a Blue Meal, a Yaaas Meal, a Pissed Meal, a Salty Meal, and a DGAF Meal in select cities for one month. This is, apparently, a critique of McDonald’s Happy Meals. (They are oppressive in their insistence on happiness. Or something.)

it’s ok to #feelyourway pic.twitter.com/JiMDnzWCaI

— Burger King (@BurgerKing) May 1, 2019

Leaning into a popular Twitter joke format, Burger King tweeted Wednesday morning, “not sure who needed to hear this today, but it’s ok not to be happy all the time. all that matters is that you #FeelYourWay.”

Responses to this tweet were mixed. “thanks big king <3 love you guys,” said a teenager. “ilysm,” the burger chain replied. A Twitter user with a Pepe the Frog avatar responded “thank you burger king, very cool,” to which the brand sent a thumbs up. “This tweet has me feeling a type of way because when was an assistant manager at [Burger King] I was so overworked and stressed that I cried in the walk-in multiple times…” said another woman.

Burger King has been working on establishing a faux-human Twitter presence for some time. The day before #FeelYourWay launched, it tweeted, “how’s everyone feeling?” In early April, Burger King invited its followers to “pour one out for google plus,” the failed Google social network. A few weeks later, the account tweeted, simply, “yeet.” (A reference to a Vine dance challenge from five years ago.)

health insurance becoming more expensive because you indicated you were predisposed to depression by buying the sad burger king meal

— Jack Koloskus (@koloskus) May 2, 2019

To be fair — if we really need to be “fair” to massive corporations and the advertising agencies they employ (in this case, the Boston-based MullenLowe) — Burger King is not the first brand to use depression, millennial anxiety, or general malaise to sell food. Tons of brands speak in the first person on the internet now, often to express enthusiasm or disappointment or generalized awe that Beyoncé still exists and is releasing work. Denny’s Diner has been using this strategy on Twitter for several years, and literally tweeted “we’re not just a diner, we’re also your buddy,” earlier this year.

In September 2018, the frozen steak brand Steak Umms made waves with a tweet storm that started, “why are so many young people flocking to brands on social media for love, guidance, and attention? I’ll tell you why. they’re isolated from real communities, working service jobs they hate while barely making ends meat, and are living w/ unchecked personal/mental health problems.”

(Note: “meat.”)

“For years, brands have packaged a seething pessimism that is felt by today’s young adults and sold it to us to drive business,” Eater’s Chris Fuhrmeister wrote, reflecting on the year in food advertising in December. “They’ve played their part in ramping up the waves of depression and disillusionment that come as a result of prolonged exposure to bad vibes and bad news.” The Steak Umms tweets were an obvious culmination of the trend, he argued. And “if channeling the dark inner thoughts that plague millennials continues to garner engagement and sales, it won’t be long until all the other brands join in the melancholy.”

It was a good prediction, and here we are now.

Despite the fact that human feeling is not a meme, the press has, for the most part, covered the Burger King promotion with nothing but good faith and credulity. AdWeek opens its coverage with a prolonged meditation on the relationship between comfort food and depression, eventually revealing that “#FeelYourWay is designed to help destigmatize conversations around mental health.” “Burger King ‘Unhappy Meals’ Capture All The Feels From Pissed to Yaaas,” writes Newsweek. The Today Show refers to Burger King’s Unhappy Meals as “a new line of meal boxes that honor a full range of human emotions.”

It should go without saying, I think, that a line of meal boxes does not honor the full range of human emotions, and instead flattens the full range of human emotions into a handful of options (including “DGAF and “YAAAS,” which are not emotions). Whatever market research these brands are referencing — which obviously told them that young people are anxious and financially insecure and suffering from emotional isolation — could have been cited as a good reason not to manipulate and exploit customers any more than is necessary to sell a hamburger.

Anyway, it’s okay to be sad.*

*If you are buying a hamburger in Austin, Seattle, Miami, Los Angeles, or New York City now through May 31, 2019.

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