Why mental health advocates are backing Burger King's Unhappy Meals

Some dismiss it as a cheap stunt, but experts say the campaign could help young consumers.

Why mental health advocates are backing Burger King's Unhappy Meals

Is Burger King’s Real Meals campaign a distasteful commercialization of Mental Health Month? Or, as some public health experts argue, is it just what’s needed to expand awareness of the month?

The fast-food chain introduced five limited-edition, themed Whopper meal boxes this month: Pissed in red, Blue for sad, Salty in teal, YAAAS in purple and "DGAF -- short for "don’t give a f---" -- in black. The Unhappy Meals, which are a clear dig at rival McDonald’s, come complete with video and the hashtag #FeelYourWay, a tweak on Burger King’s "Be Your Way" slogan.

A big brand campaign for a month designated to a particular health cause is nothing new. Every October, brands flood the marketplace with pink products and campaigns for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  Last November -- or Movember -- iconic brand mascots sported moustaches to raise awareness of men’s health issues. However, marketing for Mental Health Awareness Month in May has typically been driven by advocacy groups in partnership with influencers opening up about their struggles with emotional well-being.

For instance, the National Alliance on Mental Illness is working with the likes of author Utkarsh Ambudkar and actor A.J. Mendez on a PSA campaign.  

Burger King’s Unhappy campaign is off the menu for Mental Health Month. Yet Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Mental Health America, says that’s exactly why his community-based nonprofit agreed to be a partner on the campaign, providing feedback on possible names for the Unhappy Meals.

"The conversation about mental health starts to become much more normalized when a big brand like Burger King comes to an organization like ours and wants to partner in providing our resources to this audience of young people that we share and, not only that, put their marketing genius behind it,’" he says.

Many companies provide financial donations to MHA, as does Burger King, but what’s more important to Gionfriddo is the campaign backing the message.

"We may be a 110-year-old company, but we’re a nonprofit without big budgets, so this broadens the reach of the resources we have and frankly resources of other mental health groups," he explains.

The meal boxes promote the nonprofit’s screening test for mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Alarmingly, 48% of the about 1,000 people between the ages of 11 and 17 who take its test each month report having suicidal thoughts. If MHA can get more young people screened, it can also get more of them in front of the resources they need, notes Gionfriddo.

He adds that his organization knew the risks of partnering. Given the Unhappy Meals campaign is so different from anything in the marketplace about mental health awareness, "we knew we had both our reputations and our constituencies at risk," Gionfriddo says.

The bet has paid off. Gionfriddo says he is pleased with the campaign’s metrics, noting that of about 2,500 earned media stories, about 80% of the coverage has been positive.

"Where some of the criticism has landed is about mental health being used as a device to sell burgers to young people, but that isn’t what it’s about. There are other ways [Burger King] could have cleverly spent this money if they wanted to sell more hamburgers," he says. "Burger King has gone above and beyond what corporations have typically done. If other brands see from their example this can be a way to help build audience, other non-traditional brands could get involved in mental health awareness and help change lives."

A Burger King representative could not be reached for comment.

An uneasy combo
Experts don’t fault the campaign for taking a dig at rival McDonald’s to sell burgers, nor do they blame Burger King for supporting Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s combining those two that left a bad taste in some people’s mouths.

"I love Burger King poking the Mc'Bear by going after McDonald's iconic Happy Meals. [The launch of] Unhappy Packaging depicting moods is brilliant and reflective of a challenger brand. Consumers can feed their need for personal expression like they do with their emojis," shared marketing futurist Tony Chapman on LinkedIn. "What I can't stomach is the connection back to sales. If BK had followed one of two paths, 100% supporting mental health through their foundation or using their Unhappy Meals as a fun way to poke the McBear, my sentiments would be different."

Burger King’s involvement with the cause also seems random, notes Kate Ryan, MD, U.S. at Diffusion PR.

"The problem with this campaign is that is doesn’t read as authentic or genuine for the brand. While mental health awareness is an extremely worthy topic, this feels like a creative idea that sounded fun and flashy in the room, but was never sense-checked on whether it was true to the mission of the brand or of the mental health crisis in America," she says. "I’m encouraged they partnered with the Mental Health Association, but there is such a thing as a creative idea for creative ideas’ sake."

Hitting the target
Greg Matusky, president and founder of Gregory FCA, says the campaign is easy to criticize for taking a jab at a competitor in the name of mental health while trying to move product. His firm has worked with the likes of Canon Treatment Centers and Recovery Centers of America, which deal with mental health as it relates to addiction. Yet he says critics should consider Burger King’s target: teens and young adults. Many social campaigns directed at them can feel like an after-school special or nothing more than background noise.

"Sometimes, to open up conversation, you need to be on the edge and do something that some people might find controversial, because it you don’t, it just feels like another [financial] contribution or partnership," notes Matusky. "I spoke to a number of mental health and social workers, who told me acting happy all the time is a way young people mask how they are truly feeling, and the inability to express one’s emotions is often what can lead to depression and anxiety."

Both supporters and critics will be watching to see what Burger King does next.

"It will be interesting to see how Burger King follows this up," says Matusky. "I’d recommend a very thoughtful and genuine conversation about what mental health professionals have told them causes anxiety and depression."

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