This Is What It Sounds Like When Brands Cry
There’s a ubiquitous joke on Twitter that goes like this: “Sir, this is an Arby’s.” That sentence is the punch line, deployed after a setup in which an earnest speaker expounds on anything from elaborate pop-culture theories to sports to politics — only for it to be revealed that, all along, he was ranting at an innocent fast-food cashier. My favorite iterations are self-deprecating gibes at the speaker’s own spiraling neuroses and bugbears. (“Ugh, this paper has another logistic regression with way too many variables for such a small data set. You’d think by now people would know, but NO!” “Sir, this is an Arby’s.”) If the joke has a point, it’s that the pressures of modern life — or at least Twitter — lead us to blurt out decontextualized tirades to anyone in the vicinity; that we’ve lost our ability, or willingness, to read the room. Because the room here is a fast-food restaurant — a space that, like Twitter, helps produce the alienation that generates its business — there’s a recursive quality to the meme. Both are equally appropriate sites for a nervous breakdown.
It makes sense, then, that Twitter alerted me to a video that nearly gave me a nervous breakdown. It begins with a man sitting dejectedly on a twin bed, his voice cracking as he confesses: “Not everyone wakes up happy. Sometimes you feel sad, scared — crappy.” A misfit teenage girl arrives at school, finds the word “SKANK” scrawled on her locker and tearfully looks forward to the day she can leave her “closed-minded town.” Stomping down the stairs, a woman in business casual roars that her boss is “such a freakin’ creep!” and throws papers everywhere before storming out of frame. A 20-something collapses onto the couch and, shellshocked from his student loans, realizes, “I’m never moving out of my parents’ home.” A woman pushes a baby stroller down a hollowed-out suburban street and tells us: “They say I’m too young to raise my baby girl. Take your opinions and suck it, world.”
Sir, this was a Burger King commercial. Part of a partnership with the nonprofit Mental Health America — as well as an unsubtle dig at the McDonald’s Happy Meal — the nearly two-minute “short film” promotes a limited-time, select-city product called “Real Meals,” which correspond to a customer’s “real” mood: Blue, Salty, Pissed, DGAF and YAAAS. In place of information about where to seek help if you’re experiencing feelings of depression, which would usually appear at the end of a public-service announcement, title cards explain: “No one is happy all the time. And that’s O.K.,” followed by an image of each of the Real Meals, jarring pops of color after the gloomy video. (No matter which mood you announce to the cashier taking your order, or to the touch screen that has replaced her, each box contains the same thing: a Whopper, fries and a drink.)
Setting aside the unique ludicrousness of calling something a “Pissed Meal,” ads for fast food have always been somewhat absurd. We know from experience that most people aren’t having that much fun with their friends at a McDonald’s, but we understand why the commercials sell the fiction that they are. By contrast, the scenes depicted in the #FeelYourWay campaign seem to acknowledge the real reason people eat fast food — not always as a celebratory treat or quick bite on the road but sometimes as an immediate consolation for daily miseries and humiliations. It’s comfort food dispensed in an uncomfortable space. Thoroughly branded, increasingly automated and unflatteringly lit, fast-food chains are staffed and patronized by people who, more often than not, would rather be somewhere else. They’re a heavy-handed expression of the cruelty of the American economy, and their pervasiveness a testament to its efficacy.
The popularity of the “Arby’s” joke demonstrates the total failure of branding to obscure those negative associations. No one expects much from these places. What’s disorienting about this Burger King commercial is that it seems to abandon any hint of aspirational branding: It never once suggests that Burger King will improve these people’s crappy lives in any way. Instead, it implies that Burger King is a brand that will make sense within the context of their crappy lives — and, by extension, ours.
Insulting both the customer and the product might seem like a bad strategy for selling stuff. But it’s consonant with a broader shift in advertising, fueled by social media, whereby brands have felt compelled to veer dramatically off-script and imitate the most attention-seeking people online: Netflix recently ranted on Twitter about the sexist connotations of the term “chick flicks”; inspired by a negative comparison, Vita Coco threatened to send one hater a jar of urine; Steak-umm has cultivated a bizarre, meme-fluent Twitter presence that breaks the fourth wall to discuss the difficulty of social media marketing and refers to the company’s core product as “frozen beef sheets.” All this antiadvertising has succeeded in doing is making our world feel yet more corporatized. Even our friends’ cheerful recommendations for miracle skin-care products or life-changing apps can sound as if there’s something in it for them. Everywhere is an Arby’s, sir.
“Life sucks — you might as well eat Burger King” is a reasonable attitude for an individual to espouse in this situation. We’re beholden to forces beyond our control, and refusing to deny that we live under conditions that enrage and depress us is a mode of minor protest. The commercial does get that right: Having to perform happiness all the time is exhausting, particularly when the systems that make you miserable depend on the myth that everything is all right. So when the news release for “Real Meals” says the campaign “celebrates being yourself and feeling however you want to feel,” it performs a convenient elision: No one wants to be irritated, depressed, angry, fed up or hopelessly broke. Coming from a corporation, the message is especially disturbing. Burger King is not a person; life sucks at least in part because of Burger King.
Though the ’90s are having a cultural revival, there’s still something a bit retro about criticizing advertising; it’s the kind of thing that might earn you a “Sir, this is an Arby’s” online. After all, our brands are doing their best to read the room, and the mood is grim. (Earlier this year, the account for the citrus drink SunnyD tweeted, “I can’t do this anymore” — interpreted by many as a faux-cryptic suicide threat.) The generation they now have to relate to is defined by its anxiety, debt and apocalyptic fears. An ad like this makes a very specific gamble: that their customers are too downtrodden to care about the evils of fast food. They might be right.
Lauren Oyler is the author of “Fake Accounts,” a novel about dating and social media to be published in 2021.
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