The curious case of Burger King’s sudden support for net neutrality

In 2018, open internet rules are a branding exercise — even for a fast-food chain.

The debate over net neutrality has a little bit of everything: Activists, protests, well-heeled corporate lobbyists, name-calling, Russian trolls, Twitter memes, Twitter abuse, multiple late-night television rants and even a scary death threat or two.

And now it’s become a branding exercise.

Enter Burger King. The fast-food chain known for ads featuring a silent, lurking, crown-adorned mascot has decided it absolutely must to come to the defense of rules that require internet providers to treat all web traffic equally.

The unlikely campaign takes the form of a video: In it, the company dupes some of its customers into thinking they must pay higher prices for faster delivery of their burgers. And guess what, it’s a metaphor: It’s supposed to show what the web would be like if it had fast lanes and slow lanes, where operators can prioritize some content over others. It is a real fear in the minds of net neutrality advocates, who are still seething after the Trump administration last month eliminated the government’s open internet rules.

Remarks one guest at the end of the video: “I didn’t think ordering a Whopper would really open my eyes to net neutrality!”

Me neither! Anyway, it is about marketing.

It is the age of brands — or rather, #woke brands, those hyper-aware corporate behemoths with gargantuan marketing departments that see in every social and political cause du jour an opportunity for 15 minutes of web infamy.

Net neutrality may seem like a wonky telecom battle with little relevance to a fast-food giant. But it has attracted millions of Americans’ comments and seemingly touched a nerve, particularly among millennials — a fickle crowd that Burger King seeks now to court with its ads.

Otherwise, Burger King did not weigh in at the FCC in 2015 when it wrote the net neutrality rules that the agency’s Republican leaders later scrapped in December. Burger King has not filed a lawsuit to challenge the repeal. A spokeswoman declined to say Wednesday if it would launch or join one later.

Burger King does not lobby for the open internet on Capitol Hill, according to its federal ethics forms, and it similarly did not answer questions this week about its support for a congressional effort to restore the rules. Does Burger King know what a Title II telecommunications service is?

So why did it produce the ad? In the words of Fernando Machado, their global chief marketing officer: “We believe the internet should be like BURGER KING® restaurants, a place that doesn’t prioritize and welcomes everyone. That is why we created this experiment, to call attention to the potential effects of net neutrality.”

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