Pop Culture and Mental Health: Helpful or Financially Exploitative?

I don't like to use the phrase "mental health is trending," but I will. Over the past few years, mental health and the discussion of eating disorders, depression and anxiety have nearly become part of our everyday lives. Large companies such as Adobe and Netflix have spoken out about the importance of mental health care for employees. In addition, athletes like Joey Julius, former Penn State Football kicker, have spoken about how their hidden disabilities have prevented them from doing what they love.


Mental health has become part of a larger conversation and it's a relief to see the number of resources which have become available for those struggling. Considering nearly 1 in 5 adults in the United States live with a mental illness, myself being part of that statistic, it's important for free resources like the National Suicide Prevention Hotline exist for those in need.


As mental health has become more prevalent, numerous brands have spoken out about the topic in various campaigns. These campaigns are often met with mixed reactions of support and the feeling of disgust as to whether or not these brands are genuinely helping or cashing in on a trending topic in order to boost revenue and publicity. So this begs the question, have mental health in pop culture become more financially exploitative than they have been helpful?


Burger King | "Real Meals"


A campaign launched in 2019 for Mental Health Awareness Month, Burger King published a video on social media launching their new "Real Meals."

Other than a clear jab at McDonald's "Happy Meals," this campaign shines light on the fact of not everyone wakes up happy and we should let each other feel the way we want to feel; or to put it into their words "All I ask is that you let me feel my way," piggybacking off of the brand's slogan "have it your way."


What makes this campaign unique is Burger King's partnership with Mental Health America. Paul Gionfirddo, President and Chief Executive of MHA, said more than 3,000 people use the MHA’s online mental health screening program each day. Of this total, a third are adolescents age 11 to 17 and another third are 18 to 24 years old. Working with brands like Burger King — “a company that reaches young people, and that young people go to for reasons other than their mental health worries” — might help destigmatize mental health issues and encourage people to get help earlier in life, he said.


What this campaign did well is their dedication to partner with a major mental health organization in order to show their support. Burger King has also donated an undisclosed amount to MHA, which will go to help the nonprofit continue their efforts.


This ad, however, did fall short on a few accounts. Unfortunately, this was a true ad and was only hidden somewhat well behind mental health awareness. Burger King failed throughout the ad to educate on resources or encourage those suffering to seek help. I felt as though Burger King was suggesting rather than seek a professional to talk to, I should just accept my feelings and instead purchase a 1500+ calorie fast food meal.


While this campaign is creative in their efforts to remind the public that they shouldn't feel pressured to change the way they feel, it fails in the primary purpose of Mental Health Awareness Month -- to create awareness. Burger King had little to no information on resources nor did the company share statistical evidence to show the epidemic currently facing the United States. For this campaign, I find it more financially exploitative than helpful.

Mental health is not a marketing tactic and many professionals, on both the B2C marketing side and mental health awareness side, agree there should not be crossover. If a company wants to support the mental health community, why must it flow into their marketing endeavors. Is this not a more appropriate task for a corporate social responsibility team?


If you are in a position of decision making, and there are conversations at your company about ways to support the mental health community this upcoming Mental Health Awareness Month, please keep in mind where lines need to be made and how you can support more than simply stockholders.