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Sunday, May 26, 2024

These brands are profiting off of your misery

Young people are depressed and as anxious as ever — some companies see that as a financial opportunity

Millennials and members of Generation Z have a lot to be down about. Stagnant wages, skyrocketing housing prices, job automation and a crippling debt crisis have all caused millennials to spiral into a new form of downward mobility. All of this has made them the first generation in the modern era to have future prospects worse than their parents. Generation Z, meanwhile, is not faring much better. Gun violence, social media exposure and the increasing threat of climate change serve as reminders of a bleak future and have left today’s teenagers lonely and distraught. Members of Gen Z are the most likely of all generations to report poor mental health, with 91% stating they experience physical or emotional symptoms like anxiety or depression — and brands have taken notice.

Earlier this month, Burger King became the latest company to hop on the mental health advertisement bandwagon, launching its “#FeelYourWay” promotional campaign aimed at the emotionally downtrodden. Through a dark advertisement displaying contemporary stressors like student debt, slut-shaming and hostile work environments, the fast food chain took aim at rival McDonald’s iconic “Happy Meal” by proclaiming, “No one is happy all the time. And that’s OK.” In what could have otherwise been straight out of The Onion, Burger King used the ad as a launching platform for its “Real Meals”; the Blue Meal, YAAAS Meal, Pissed Meal, Salty Meal and DGAF Meal all among the new products.

Of course, this type of corporate cynicism is hardly new. Kaitlyn Tiffany of Vox noted that Burger King is merely the latest company to utilize millennials’ emotions and mental health as selling points. This technique is particularly prominent on Twitter, where nearly every corporate brand now tweets in first person, creating false, youthful personas through angsty posts and the awkward adoption of modern slang. Although typically playful and benign, these accounts sometimes take a darker and more problematic route, tweeting in a manner reminiscent of someone going through a suicidal or depressive episode. The official Twitter account for SunnyD, for example, recently tweeted nothing but the message “I can’t do this anymore.”

In much of the same way that brands have co-opted social justice movements as a means to bolster advertising — typically despite largely questionable workers’ rights records — the appropriation of mental health issues has come at a time when many companies are under fire for the mistreatment of their employees. Allegations of understaffing, long hours and low wages, for example, were all cited by Burger King employees in the aftermath of the company’s latest campaign. Incidentally, the fast food giant has also adopted the aforementioned “woke” capital approach. The company caused a stir with recent tweets appearing to endorse a string of incidents in which a number of conservative politicians in the United Kingdom were attacked with milkshakes (yes, seriously).

Burger King, of course, cares not about the mental wellbeing of its employees and customers, but rather about maximizing profits. In doing so, Burger King and numerous other companies adopting this strategy have created a dangerous trend of advertisements that trivialize legitimate mental disorders and offer material items as an appropriate solution. While this may seem harmless at first, deep down it’s a cynical ploy, aimed at commodifying yet another component of human suffering.

Written by: Brandon Jetter — brjetter@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.


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