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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