America is a Mass-Addiction Society

Dr. Jeffrey D. Sachs explains (in Chapter 7 of the Addiction and Unhappiness Report in America) how originally, psychologists and public health specialists applied the concept of addiction mainly or exclusively to substances such as tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, opioids (both natural and synthetic), and other drugs. Recently, many psychologists have come to regard various behaviors as potential addictions as well; such addictive behaviors include gambling, social media, video games, shopping, unhealthy foods, exercise, extreme sports, and risky sexual behaviors, among others. Behaviors like these may become compulsive, with individuals pursuing them to excess, despite the awareness of their harmful nature to the individuals themselves or to those around them (including family and friends).

Shopping, Eating, Exercising Hurt Half of All Americans

According to the Sussman report, about half of the American population suffers from an addiction. These statistics were so high that the concept of “addiction epidemic” was introduced to describe the situation and the label “Mass-Addiction Society” was created to describe American society. Dependency behaviors and personal unhappiness have comorbidities with depressive and other mood disorders, in addition to the abuse of substances, illicit behavior, and a general state of discomfort and stress.

Unfortunately, the United States’ historical failure to implement public health policies that emphasize well-being over corporate interests must be addressed to respond to the addiction epidemic.

Other so-called “developed countries” shouldn’t consider themselves immune to such a destiny either.

Overcoming the idea of dependence on a “substance” (such as opioids, alcohol, and tobacco) and introducing the concept of “behavior addiction” is a novelty. The point is all in the abuse rather than in the use: working too much (workaholism, especially in a hypercompetitive society like ones in “developed economies”), excessive physical activity, compulsive shopping, “screen addiction,” and sex addiction may, at most, have some stigma attached to them; but by and large, people don’t typically view them as deleterious. Yet when they turn into dependencies, these activities can cause the total loss of control.

Some theories hypothesize that “[s]elf-control in general is an exhaustible resource and once exhausted (due to stress, anxiety or other reasons) the results are shortsighted and impulsive decisions. In general terms, stress of various kinds leads to exhaustion, which leads to addictive behavior.

Within the concept of “behavior addiction,” we can also find food behaviors, which can affect the entire population, both in terms of consumption and production. In fact, studies show that the increasing availability of food does not correspond to a decrease in the voracious attitude typical of when this availability was not there (Lee Goldman, Too Much of a Good Thing, 2015). Moreover, it is known that, in order to make its products more desirable, food companies put additives (like sugar and salt) that create addictive behaviors towards that food (Adam Alter, Irresistible: The Rise Of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, 2017).

This leads us to Burger King.

Can Fast Food Be Addictive yet “Sustainable”?

On March 31, 2019, Burger King launched a taste test video to launch the Impossible Whopper in the U.S. in collaboration with Impossible foods, a company in which Google, Bill Gates, and others have invested. Later that year in November, the company launched the Rebel Whopper in 2400 restaurants across Europe in collaboration with Unilever, which in 2018 had acquired The Vegetarian Butcher, the company that produces the Rebel Whopper. Again a taste test video for each european country has been used to advertise it.

Both the Impossibile Whopper and the Rebel Whopper have a great surprise inside. “100 percent Whopper, 0 percent beef”. 

All the video campaigns show the reactions of Whopper fanatics while tasting the veggie Whopper, a meatless hamburger. And of course they all are pleased with the great taste![/embed]

According to Burger King’s chief marketing officer, Fernando Machado, the objective of introducing the Impossible Whopper in all Burger King restaurants is not to satisfy a niche for vegetarians or vegans (who, by the way, filed a lawsuit against the company in the United States on the charge of not paying attention during the preparation of the 100% vegetable hamburger, which was contaminated by grease from beef hamburgers). “ I have high expectations that it’s going to be big business, not just a niche product,” Mr. Machado said. Burger King wants to satisfy the desire of meat-eating consumers who are becoming more and more attentive to their environmental impact and health. Many commentators welcomed the introduction of this product innovation in regards to both competitive advantage over main rival McDonald’s and effectiveness in reducing environmental impact. And in fact, months after Burger King started serving a plant-based version of its signature Whopper, McDonald’s announced in September 2019 that it was rolling out its own veggie burger.

José Cil, CEO of Restaurant Brands International––Burger King’s parent company––called the Impossible Whopper “a huge success” as it quickly became “one of the most successful beginnings in the history of the company’s products.” The launch strongly contributed to accelerated sales in the United States: in the third quarter of 2019 there was growth of 5%, the highest rate of the brand since 2015, with a “significant acceleration” compared to the first two quarters of the year. 

But enthusiasm has a short life. “While we did see a deceleration in comparable sales growth in the U.S. from the third into the fourth quarter, our core business continues to perform well and absolute sales levels remain very healthy,” said Cil. According to the company, the price point for the Impossible Whopper has been a challenge to some diners.

While we are still waiting to evaluate the economical impact, some studies have been carried out on the Impossible Whopper’s potential health effects.

The first results have shown that the innovation’s base ingredient (soy leghemoglobin) is a protein produced from genetically modified yeast cells. This protein has never been tested before on the human organism and has not been officially approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It may be premature to predict the effects on human health and the environment, but it is simple to understand that the Impossible Whopper is not a healthy choice: to achieve the same taste, the veggie burger is rich in saturated fats, and it contains significantly more sodium than a beef burger does.

In short, rather than help to cause a momentous change in the eating habits of millions of citizens around the globe, Burger King decided to solve another issue: unsustainable agriculture. The burger chain did not create the addiction with its product (the addiction was already there) yet they are not trying to solve the issue. Nonetheless, the plant-based burger offers a viable option for meat-eaters to eat more sustainably and ethically.

Is offering a more sustainable dietary option that is still unhealthy, considered to be a good ethical business example?

Whatever your answer, we think Burger King needs to be more transparent about its plant-based burger’s nutrition facts and ingredients list. The campaign is undoubtedly persuasive, which is all the more reason for Burger King to be more up front with the product’s details. Ultimately this brings us to the main point: at the center of any purposeful communication (advertising for good), shouldn’t there be a code of ethics?

Article written in collaboration with Stefano Serafinelli, clinical Psychologist, mindfulness intervention trainer.

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Author: elena grinta

I have been dealing with communication for 20 years, I have worked in marketing for large international and Italian companies and I know the mechanisms of advertising persuasion. I decided to invest my know-how and my skills to use the available resources of companies (budgets but also human capital) in positive transformation. Because to students from all over the world I teach at Purpose Brands in Catholic University I wish to give more and more examples of virtuous companies that have invested for the future, of everyone (and there are already many!). Because if we watch, without acting, without taking responsibility, we have no excuse.

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