Disclaimer: The intention with this blog is to discuss some of the ways that myself and others have noticed that brands use times like Mental Health Awareness Month as a platform to promote themselves and their products. Often, this results in shifting the focus (and profit) towards themselves rather than for the causes the brand seems to be advocating.
Of course, I support the campaigns in themselves — as long as the causes are getting the backing they need, then the means which they get the social visibility and funding isn’t important, given of course it is harmless.
Over the years, brands have figured out that appealing to our emotions and morality, rather than just our desires, is especially profitable.
Under the guise of a mental health awareness campaign, several brands have recently taken to social media in the hopes of strategically using the occasion to sell more product.
One memorable and recent example is Burger King’s ‘Real Meals’.
In their press release on May 1st, Burger King announced their partnership with Mental Health America; a show of their support in “addressing the needs of those living with mental illness and to promoting the overall mental health of all Americans”. The idea of the ‘Real Meals’ line is to acknowledge that “No one is happy all the time. And that’s ok”. With the ‘Pissed Meal, Blue Meal, Salty Meal, Yaaas Meal and DGAF (Don’t Give a F — -) Meal’, customers are encouraged to embrace how they feel in ways that apparently Burger King felt that they couldn’t before.
And, of course, nothing shows well-intentioned support of self-care like an international fast-food chain trying to sell burgers and fries. Ah, the epitome of promoting well-being!
Though only a limited time release, in a few select restaurants in the US, the attention that this campaign received was huge. Quickly the internet responded to the alleged mental health campaign with equal parts enthusiasm and disgust.
We have seen this before with mental health campaigns which have completely missed the mark. One example — which just might be the most memorable and strange — was when ‘Sunny D’s’ social media team decided to take to Twitter to express their ‘feelings of hopelessness’. This odd attempt to seem relatable by simply tweeting “I can’t do this anymore” sparked quite the conversation.
In fact, even more bizarrely, other brands decided to jump on the bandwagon and continue this strange role-play.
From the back and forth, discussions emerged, questioning what is fair game in the world of advertising; are there topics which cannot be moulded into a marketing strategy?
Although an oversimplification, all advertising is manipulation and exploitation at its core, and so how are these campaigns any different?
It’s hardly foreign knowledge that sex sells. Practically every other advert somehow manages to link their product to sex, but since these types of adverts have over-saturated the media, brands have had to evolve to keep customer attention.
It seems that appealing to our morals and social identities is now the way forward in corporate marketing. Sex sells and now ‘morals’ do too.
It’s not hard to recognise that Sunny D’s depression tweet was a calculated, quick, and free way of getting some attention. These somewhat weird attempts by brands to appear relatable and personal on social media (as if they aren’t corporations just trying to sell you their product) end up coming off as, at best, funny, and at worst, incredibly insulting.
But it’s important to recognise that Burger King and Sunny D are not the only ones to do so, these are simply some examples that I think are the most memorable.
Brands commodifying the need to be seen and heard that marginalised and ill-represented groups have is nothing new.
In fact, in the heart of Pride Month, it’s hard to miss the minimum effort attempts by big name brands to appear supportive of the LGBTQ+ community.
While a growing number of brands — including but not short of Harry’s, Converse, Levi’s, Absolut, and B_ND — are making use of this increased attention to donate a percentage of profits (or all profits from select products) to charities supporting the LGBTQ+ community, we still too often see support and ally-ship at face value only.
Brands will plaster a general statement on a rainbow logo, and maybe a promotional video that goes viral, and then the other 11 months of the year is radio silence.
The rise of brands using social media to present themselves as an individual with morals, hopes, and feelings is strange enough in itself. But what really takes it to the next level of buck-wild for me, is the way people interact with these tweets and videos.
Some people love it — swearing allegiance to the brand, somehow inspired by the fictitious bravery of a multi-million-dollar corporation sticking up for the marginalised (in the most low-risk, bare-minimum way).
Others hate it — their misplaced passion shown in tweets about how they will be boycotting said brand, maybe accompanied by a video of them destroying their own property (as if that does anything other than destroying their own property… they’ve already got your money, just don’t give them any more…).
All this boils down to one simple idea: creating controversy.
Unfortunately, none of us are immune to the charm of advertising, hence why it works so well and why in the UK alone, 2018 yielded an advertising spend of £19.9 billion.
Commodification of social justice — be it in the form of mental health awareness, LGBTQ+ rights, recognising and fighting racism, or advocating women’s right — has proven to be a lucrative market to corporations. Naturally, these companies continue to make use of this opportunity.
Whenever there’s controversy surrounding a company or an individual, what we consistently see is a massive increase in conversation about said company. Marketing teams which recognised this pattern quickly understood that controversy is synonymous with marketing; and potentially free marketing at that.
Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of people were interacting with the Sunny D twitter account; memes were being shared, think pieces and blogs were being written, video essays, podcasts, and radio shows were talking about them. This account, which typically gets around 20 replies/few hundred likes per tweet was suddenly getting all this attention and free advertising.
With Burger King, we see the same thing. Here the original tweet was far less seen but the articles, blogs, videos it generated were still abundant.
Arguably the most recognisable example of a company recognising this trend in social media marketing is the Nike campaign from September last year. The ad itself is actually really great, with a powerful message; the ad features predominantly black athletes and their success, narrated by Colin Kaepernick, and supportive of his activism.
However, the response to this campaign is the truly important part to Nike; the accumulated 29 million views to date is only the cherry on top. As expected, there was a distinct divide in reaction to the ad. On one end of the spectrum, you had people applauding Nike, thanking the brand for standing beside these genuinely great individuals. On the other end, people stormed to the internet to bombard anyone who would listen with tweets about how this was disgusting of Nike to do, filming videos of them burning their expensive Nike shoes, ripping the logo off of socks and shirts.
How did this affect Nike? Well, people were certainly talking about them! Share prices increased 7.47% in the weeks following the ad, to the highest in the company’s history until April this year, and the endorsement gave way to Nike’s market value rising by $6 billion.
When we see companies like Burger King make these attempts to appear accepting, supportive, and relatable, what should be clear is that more often than not, we are only seen as potential customers, rather than an individual to related to, with regards to our mental health. Now, perhaps this is all unwarranted cynicism, but it really is quite difficult to react in any other way in the face of poetic irony as exhausting as an international fast food brand meekly preaching self-care whilst trying to sell burgers of all things, especially since research has extensively linked junk food and poor diet to poor mental health.
As I’ve written in my previous blogs, discussing how we interact with the movies and shows that we watch, we must be just as, if not more conscientious about the social media we interact with. As hard as it is, if we’re more aware of how we read these supposed mental health awareness campaigns, we can be better about what we do in response.
It’s all well and good to support a brand being supportive of Mental Health Awareness or Pride or any form of activism but what is even better is to support those causes you care about directly.