Dmitry Rukhlenko / hdesignflux / Shutterstock / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

Every so often a tweet breaks out of its social medium, and finds its way to Instagram and Facebook. On Wednesday, the tweet spreading across the internet came from Burger King.

Either Burger King was saying that it was going to send money to student borrowers using Cash App, a mobile payment service (a $cashtag is its version of a username), or the fast-food giant was trolling all 92,000 people who responded to the tweet. Some of the responses to the Whopper purveyor were in jest, others seemingly genuine, but everyone wanted to know: Is anyone actually getting any money?

On Thursday, Burger King provided an answer. An ad showed a white screen overlaid with a jarring statistic in slime green as “Pomp and Circumstance”— you know, the graduation song—plays; “65 percent of students enter the world with student debt,” it says. Then, in an abrupt transition, the Burger King “King” appears swinging a flamethrower like Michael B. Jordan in Fahrenheit 451. “Your student debt goes here,” a caption bubble reads.

To be clear, no one who sent in a $cashtag actually got money from Burger King. This was a marketing stunt to promote Burger King’s new initiative, called “Whopper Loans.” It encourages borrowers to make a purchase through its app (but there is no purchase necessary, per a bit of fine print), enter their monthly student-loan-debt amount, and then “cross your fingers.” “LET BURGER KING EAT YOUR STUDENT DEBT,” a promotional site declares. The contest runs for two weeks. During the first and second weeks, the company is providing 150 prizes of up to $500 in debt relief; each time someone completes the form, that person will be eligible for the grand prize of up to $100,000 in debt relief. (If the grand-prize winner’s loans total less than $100,000, the difference will not be paid in cash.)

College is expensive, so brands have taken to these kinds of social-media antics occasionally. Last year, Kentucky Fried Chicken announced that it would pay $11,000 to the first baby born on September 9, Colonel Sanders’s birthday, who bears the name Harland—Sanders’s real name. As my colleague Joe Pinsker wrote at the time, “Surely KFC intended for this stunt to get attention and press, which is a disappointing confirmation of the lengths to which corporations will go to set themselves apart in the churn of the social-media age.”

Burger King’s marketing push doesn’t require parents to sell away the naming rights to their child for an amount that is unconscionably low, given the expected rising costs of college. But it could have, instead, had a normal sweepstakes—you know, buy a burger, win some money, and do with it what you will—although that would hardly gin up the attention that paying off loans would.

And by doing it this way, BK could actually be saving some of the money that’s on offer. If the winner of the contest has the average amount of student debt—$28,560 as of 2017, according to a report from the Institute for College Access and Success—the company will be spending significantly less than the promised $100,000. When I asked a representative for the campaign about the potential amount of the payoff, she noted that Burger King also has a foundation that last year gave out $3.7 million in scholarships.

Student debt is a problem that needs a systematic fix. Without such a fix, a dystopian genre of debt relief is filling the void: the billionaire generous enough to pay off a class of graduates’ student debt, the game show where contestants compete for a student-debt-free life, the chicken place that wants to name your child, and the home of the Whopper that wants your $cashtag. This genre treats the idea of debt as a sweepstakes that only a lucky few can win; the fear is that people will get accustomed to it.

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