Future Tense

Why Is Burger King Weighing In on the Net Neutrality Debate?

People wait in line at an airport Burger King.
Burger King made a net neutrality explainer using Whoppers. Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images

Burger King’s new ad for the Whopper, which doubles as an explainer on net neutrality, is going viral. Released on Wednesday, the “Whopper Neutrality” commercial has already amassed more than 1.5 million views on YouTube and is second on the site’s trending list as of Thursday afternoon.

The commercial makes use of an extended metaphor to explain the “fast lane, slow lane” principle at the core of the net neutrality debate. Now that the FCC has voted to roll back Obama-era net neutrality regulations, internet service providers (ISPs) are allowed to control the speeds at which websites are able to deliver content. Whereas net neutrality rules dictated that ISPs had to treat all content equally, the providers can now charge more to have content load faster, thus the fast and slow lanes.

The Burger King version of this concept involves customers discovering that the speed with which the restaurant fulfills their Whopper orders is dependent on how much they’re willing to pay. The fastest speed costs an exorbitant $25.99, while the slowest is $4.99, closer to the usual price of a Whopper. By the end of the video, the customers appear exasperated by the ordeal of navigating this tiered system. You can see the full video here:

The debate around net neutrality has in the past focused on websites themselves having to pay more money to reach visitors, rather than internet users paying higher fees to more quickly reach certain websites. However, under the FCC’s permissive new approach, ISPs are technically allowed to levy higher fees on websites and netizens as long as the providers disclose the charges.

Burger King’s ad is then, on balance, a good illustration of a plausible scenario in a world without net neutrality. But why is the fast food chain weighing in on telecommunications policy?

Tony Romm argues in Recode that the ad is nothing more than a “branding exercise,” an attempt to tap into the overwhelming public ire, especially among millennials, that FCC’s vote has drawn in recent months. It’s similar to the point that the Atlantic’s Joe Pinsker made about Netflix and Google’s support of net neutrality, even though changes to the policy won’t likely affect them because of their sheer size. He therefore speculates that the tech giants realize the PR benefit of siding with the public on a raging debate.

There’s little indication as to how ending net neutrality would hurt Burger King, so it might just be the case that its marketing department saw the ad as a win-win by educating the public on the relatively-esoteric debate while also selling itself as a hip, progressive alternative to McDonald’s.