Big corporations are increasingly using their power to comment on wider societal issues. Last year, Burger King released an advert about bullying. The advert recorded real customers as they ordered from the popular fast food restaurant. When they were in the restaurant, some child actors played out a scenario where one child was being verbally and physically bullied. Surprisingly, only 12% of people intervened and tried to stop the bullying. In contrast, 95% of customers complained when they were given a 'bullied' burger that had been mashed up. One customer even said he would have intervened if he had seen the man 'bullying' the burger, which is surprising considering he did not intervene when he watched a child get bullied.
It is easy to judge these customers for not standing to the child's defence, but it is likely that most people in this situation would behave in the same way. The advert displays how social consensus can influence behaviour, in particular the bystander effect. This occurs when people don’t help someone because you are with other people who aren’t helping. Darley and Latané (1968) explained this in terms of diffusion of responsibility. In this study, participants witnessed an actor having a fit over a microphone. As the graph below shows, when there are more people witnessing the event, it takes longer before someone does anything to help. In a smaller group, people feel more of a responsibility to help. In the context of the Burger King advert, individuals didn’t help because they could see that no other customers were helping. Had there been fewer customers around, maybe more people would have helped the younger boy.
Researchers have concluded that vivid messages are more emotionally interesting (Nisbett and Ross, 1980), which is why it was effective for the advertisers to use real footage of customers reacting in the situation. This allows viewers to put themselves in the shoes of the people in the shop and consider how they would react. Although most people would like to believe that they would step in to help the child, the advert shows that it is unlikely that they would. Hopefully, the vivid and emotional message will be memorable enough to encourage people to follow in the footsteps of the 12% who stepped in if they are ever in a similar situation.
Darley, J. M., & Latane, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of personality and social psychology, 8, 377.
Nisbett, R. E., & Ross, L. (1980). Human inference: Strategies and shortcomings of social judgment.