“All I ask is that you let me feel my way.”
That's the refrain of a new video promoting mental health awareness. The unlikely source? Burger King.
The fast-food giant is hardly the first corporation to blend marketing with a serious social issue. But it makes its new slate of "Real Meals" - named after "real" moods like blue, salty and expletive-inducing - an irreverent talking point on the often-stigmatized topic of mental health and couples it with video that touches on such themes like bullying, teen pregnancy and student debt.
Though the campaign may not encourage everyone to seek help, experts say, it could spark conversations around depression, anxiety and other disorders, especially among teens and young adults.
Mental Health America, which collaborated on the effort, typically partners with organizations in the health sphere, such as insurance or pharmaceutical companies “who see this stuff everyday,” said Paul Gionfriddo, the group’s president and chief executive. “For companies outside of this space putting this kind of value of messages about mental health — that for us is priceless.”
The campaign's centerpiece is a short video with glimpses of people asking "that you let me feel my way." In the first frame, a young man sitting on the edge of his bed, head down, says, "Not everybody wakes up happy. Sometimes you feel sad, scared, crappy."
The frames switch between a teenager being bullied at school. A young woman who packs up her office and saying her "boss is such a freaking creep." A man unsure how he'll ever pay off his student loans. A young mother who's told she isn't old enough to raise her daughter.
More than 44 million U.S. adults experience some form of mental illness, according to Mental Health America, and youth rates are on the rise.
Gionfriddo said more than 3,000 people use the MHA's online mental health screening program each day. Of that total, a third are adolescents ages 11 to 17 and another third are 18 to 24 years old. Working with brands such as Burger King - "a company that reaches young people, and that young people go to for reasons other than their mental health worries" - might help destigmatize mental health issues and encourage people to get help earlier in life, he said.
“These things start at the shallow end of the pool — it’s bullying, it’s abuse, it’s neglect,” Gionfriddo said. “All of those people who are going to have bad outcomes are in that pool of people who are dealing with the kinds of issues that are raised here.”
Celebrities have also had a hand in raising awareness around mental health. On Thursday morning, “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek, who is battling stage 4 pancreatic cancer, said that chemotherapy has brought on “deep, deep sadness.” Cancer treatment can be unpredictable, he said, adding that “there’s nothing wrong in saying I’m really depressed today and I have no idea why.” Other public figures — from Lady Gaga to Catherine Zeta-Jones to J.K. Rowling to Jon Hamm to Kristen Bell - have also opened up about their own struggles.
Burger King's messaging often trolls McDonald's (which, it should be noted, runs the Ronald McDonald House for families with sick children). The "Real Meals" are a not-so-subtle jab at the child-oriented "Happy Meals." Diners can choose from a Blue Meal, a Salty Meal, a YAAAS Meal and others - though they all simply bundle a Whopper, fries and drink. (The meals are only available in select restaurants in Seattle; New York; Los Angeles; Austin, Texas; and Miami Beach.)
Burger King's messaging has also taken on taboo topics before. In 2017, a Burger King ad called on people to speak up against bullying - and made them consider whether they'd step in or stay quiet. A three-minute video showed a kid being bullied inside a Burger King restaurant while most other diners looked on. Yet when it came to a "bullied Whopper" - which had been smashed by an employee before being served - almost all the customers got up to complain.
From a marketing standpoint, brands used to rally around meaningful issues with "more rhetoric than reality," said Beth Egan, an advertising professor at Syracuse University. But Egan worried that the ad could hurt, rather than help. The video "went straight for the negative and abandoned the hopefulness," she said.
"Watching the video, I felt like if I was really feeling down, I don't know that I'd feel better," Egan said. "And I'm not sure I'd feel better after I eat a Whopper either!"
Still, Burger King is “really good at getting attention,” said Jonathan Maze, executive editor of Restaurant Business Magazine. The strategy is a simple one: figure out what your customers are talking about (and throw in a little jab at McDonald’s).