Burger King is known for its flame-broiled Whopper and its creepy, plastic-headed monarch of a mascot, but it's not exactly known for its socially conscious advertising. Maybe that should change.
Earlier in October, which is National Bullying Prevention Month, Burger King released an anti-bullying PSA in partnership with NoBully.org. The spot, which you can watch above, is called "Bullying Jr." and it puts bullying in a very public setting. About 30 percent of students around the world are bullied each year, the ad begins, before cutting over to a staged bullying incident in a Los Angeles Burger King. As this high school junior is bullied by some other teens, real customers are shown simply watching — or trying not to watch — the events unfolding in front of them.
The twist on the incident is that many of these customers received a "bullied" Whopper Jr. with their order, burgers that had been smashed into something that looks more like a deconstructed burger than a normal fast-food hamburger. Ninety-five percent of the folks who received a "bullied" Whopper — which is about $2, without fries or a drink — came up to the counter to complain about the burger. A mere 12 percent of customers intervened in the bullying in some way. The point is made pretty starkly when a Burger King employee asks an irate customer, "Had you seen me bullying this burger, would you have stood up and said something?"
"Yeah," replies the customer, sounding both confused and oblivious.
"Good to know," the employee replies, looking a little disheartened. Obviously that customer didn't do anything about the teenager getting bullied.
At play here is the bystander effect, a behavior exhibited by people when they see someone else in trouble but choose to do nothing about it, especially when there are other people around. We mentally pass the buck, thinking, "Oh, someone else will help. It's not my problem. After all, I have this smashed up $2 hamburger to deal with right now."
The bystander effect is, in no small part, one reason why people get bullied, among other abusive behaviors. The ad makes this pretty clear, too, by showcasing not only two instances of people stepping in to help the teen, but by also having actual bullied teens discuss their own experiences of how someone standing beside them helped during a bullying incident.
Yes, the ad rather cynically engages in serious product integration to make its point — a Whopper Jr. and a high school junior, get it?! — but it's still a point worth making.
Want to know more about countering the bystander effect? Teen Vogue has an excellent rundown on how to handle yourself when you see bullying.