Can a Burger King ad really perpetuate the stigma of mental illness?

by Cody Dolan on April 16, 2010 · 9 comments

in stigma

A few weeks ago, Burger King debuted a commercial featuring the King, its decidedly off-putting mascot, running amok through an office building, handing out the chain’s newest burger designed to make you feel like you’re not actually eating fast food. The King is chased by stereotypes:  a bowtied, labcoat-wearing psychiatrist with unkempt gray hair and two nurses/enforcers/security guards dressed all in white with black shoes and black belts. “He’s crazy!” they yell. “This King’s insane” to give away such a hearty burger for only $3.99.

Michael Fitzpatrick of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and David Shern of Mental Health America were offended and outraged, and recently told a reporter from the Washington Post as much. Fitzpatrick called the ad “blatantly offensive” and Shern more or less agreed.

Allow me to put this in simple terms. This ad featured a corporate mascot throwing a chair through a window, running through a window himself, charging into an office kitchen and then calmly handing a large sandwich to a befuddled worker. He’s tackled by the enforcers and then supposedly dragged away to the closest mental health facility for trying to sell hamburgers for less than these people deem socially acceptable.

For the uninitiated, the King wears a flowing, flamboyant robe over vestments not seen outside of portraits from the 1400s, white tights and black Pilgrim-style shoes. The costume is topped off with a rubber mask featuring a perpetually beatific expression and a grown-up version of those paper crowns we all got from Burger King as kids. Google “Burger King mascot” and the third link down takes you to a story about the “Top 10 creepiest fast-food mascots.” In fact, Google auto-completes searches for the King with “burger king mascot creepy.”

I bring this up to ask a simple question:  aren’t we taking this a bit too seriously? We see a buffoonish character acting outlandishly in an attempt to sell cheap meat. I understand that throwing around terms like “crazy” or “insane” can be hurtful, but I also understand that Burger King wasn’t trying to portray those suffering from mental illness as being likely to defenestrate chairs (or themselves) in the name of low-priced hamburgers.

Authors oftentimes have foolish characters make foolish points so that audiences know not to take certain lines of reasoning seriously. Isn’t that what’s happening here? Can an ad featuring a fake king whose past exploits have involved shoving money into the pockets of random passers-by and standing by in darkened rooms while people sleep in order to present them with gigantic breakfast sandwiches upon their awakening really lead to further stigmatization?

What’s more stigmatizing:  this commercial, or last September’s season premiere of the well regarded and award-winning Fox series House?  If you didn’t watch it, this two-hour episode featured the title character’s experiences inside a psychiatric hospital. Like most made-for-TV mental hospitals, this clinic had room for one of each TV stereotype:  the Person Who Won’t Talk, the Manic Depressive, the Guy Who Thinks He’s Superman, the Guy Who Wears a Robe All Day, the Paranoid Schizophrenic, etc.

Dr. House is “cured” in the end when he beats his addiction to painkillers and decides to follow his doctor’s treatment plan, but he is clearly set up throughout the episode as the one “normal” guy in the place. Wouldn’t more viewers see that episode and decide to put off treatment out of fear of being one of those characters?

De-stigmatizing mental illness is essential, urgent work that will take the full talents of intelligent people, people like Mr. Fitzpatrick and Mr. Shern. Their organizations do so much good for those afflicted with mental illness and their families that it would impossible to detail it all in this space. In this instance, however, it seems to me that they’ve drawn attention to an advertisement that didn’t need or deserve it.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Iris Tramm June 13, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Mental illness is a physical disability and, by law, a protected class. If this ad made “fun” of racial or ethnic minorities, or amputees, or cancer patients there would be outrage, and rightfully so. There is no “appropriate” or “harmless” way to make fun of a physical disability, and it is particularly offensive when done to sell a discretionary consumer product like fast food hamburgers. This is the most insidious aspect of discrimination. Not only are those with mental illnesses stigmatized ALREADY for having a mental illness, but then further lambasted for pointing out such continued stigmatization as an “overreaction”. Frankly, I’m appalled at the complacency demonstrated by the commenters there. I would expect more compassion and education in those who read and write a mental health blog associated with such a respected institution.

Cathi May 14, 2010 at 8:25 pm

Well, what if mentally retarded people somehow made it into the ad, or black people, or some other group? It’s just not appropriate.
I think all ads should just involve fat balding white guys making fun of themselves — let’s see how often that happens. Do you think they’ll have ads about their crotch rot or bad breath or geezer leaks or STDs?

Rob April 20, 2010 at 10:16 pm

One has to wonder how effective this commericial has been at selling hamburgers. Do we really live in a culture that is moved toward any action by such “humorous”, hyperbolic, sterotypical slapstick? Sadly, I suspect it works. Don’t worry about Burger King or all the others like them, worry about the culture. Work to change that and ads this will take care of themself.

Tina April 20, 2010 at 10:06 pm

I agree whole heartedly with Cody. We can often times be overly sensitive and see problems where they don’t exist, and I think that’s the case here. I always try to stop and think: if this is the worst thing that happens to me today, then am I okay. In this case, if the worst thing that happens to me today is that an intentionally silly Burger King character makes an equally as silly comment about being “crazy,” then I am going to be okay.

Kathleen April 20, 2010 at 9:57 pm

I appreciate what was written here. Lets not worry about a little light hearted humor used to sell a hamburger. Those having issue with such humor have lost their focus and need to look back where they are spending their time and energy. Mental health is an important issue, I am certain there are more important issues to focus on.

Julie April 19, 2010 at 11:04 am

I recall the inital article about this “outrage” a few weeks ago and thinking “Really?! This is what we’re going to rant about this week?”. When I saw the title of this blog post, I thought it was going to be more of the same. Upon further reading, I was relieved that I wasn’t the only one to think that the ad was being taken way too seriously. There are so many more things to rant about regarding stigma of mental illness and offensive ads that exisit – this was hardlly worthy of the attention it received. I think a “lighten up, people!” is in order. Thanks for the blog post!

Mary Rothwell April 18, 2010 at 4:38 pm

I feel that we should not endorce any company that uses stigmas to sell a product, no matter who it is of. Though it may seem harmless, and outrageous, it is still a put down. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. People that have these issues can’t stand up for themselves and speak up. Someone needs to. Its just like the ‘little’ jabs at women, different races, and anyone that is different for anyone else, you cannot have these type of jokes or jabs or sayings and it not put the intended parties down. Not only will it put them down in their hearts and minds, but what about the children that see it and they are not grown up enough to know that it is supposed to be harmless? This and any reference to these labels have a huge snowball effect, whether or not it is supposed to be ‘harmless’.

David April 16, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Honestly, I didn’t think twice about the content of the commercial when I saw it. In fact, I barely remembered the ad when I read about the “controversy” in the Washington Post. But thanks to the over reaction, I will remember if for sure.

In today’s society where we all seem to be so extremely sensitive and offended at the drop of a hat, it all serves to desensitize people to real outrages.

Marcus April 16, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Does PETA get offended when Road Runner and Wilie E Coyote commit animal on animal violence?????

Does the National Association of Cat Lovers cry foul whenever Jerry outsmarts Tom or Tweety brutalizes Sylvester????

Do all British People get offended by Austin Powers???

Does everybody get offended by Family Guy??

In a world where so many need so much to even take a Burger King commerical as a literal interpretation of mental illness is just…..well…..crazy……..

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