A few weeks ago, I watched the first couple of rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament. In addition to wearing a deep groove in my couch, I was subjected to hour upon hour of ridiculous advertisements for everything from cars to insurance to underwear. While nothing could top the surreal terror of the Hanes underwear campaign that features Michael Jordan and Kevin Bacon inexplicably cohabitating (Huh? Do these guys even know each other? And what about their families? Really weird), the fast food commercials left the deepest scar on my psyche. Each one has its own problems. Let's break them down one by one (most of these are still airing, so you can probably see them tonight on prime time or during the sporting event of your choosing).
Mickey Ds is unveiling a new third-pounder burger made from Angus beef. A couple of things interest me here. The first is the rise of the Angus brand of beef, a topic too large to tackle in a post about television commercials. Surely you've noticed that, all of a sudden, the meat in the burger you are eating is branded. This is a fairly recent phenomenon, and I expect it to grow. I can't wait for the Neiman Ranch pork sandwich to debut at Burger King. The bottom line is that, while Angus beef is a high quality brand of beef, it isn't some exotic gourmet meat. Its rise is largely the product of a successful branding campaign. The second interesting thing about the McDonalds commercials is that they have chosen Southern California as a test market. When Edan saw the ad, she said, "I guess if it sells here they figure it will sell anywhere." This represents the prevailing national attitude about California, namely that we eat better than people in, say, Missouri. This is not entirely true. While there is a segment of the population that has popularized sandwiches with sprouts on them (these are the people to blame when you get a slice of avocado on your club sandwich), there are also more fast food joints in LA than anywhere I've been. Tons of taco stands, tons of old school burger places (like Tommy's), all of the national chains, and a bunch of big fast food chains that don't necessarily have outposts on the east coast (Jack in the Box, In-N-Out, Baja Fresh). Not to mention a million places that offer both donuts and Chinese food (a combination I'd never seen until moving west of the Mississippi). What was McDonalds attempting to accomplish by testing the burger in the SoCal market? I'm not sure. My guess is that Southern California, with its racial, economic, and ethnic diversity, offers a fairly realistic cross section of the American population as a whole (but that's just a guess). As for the ads themselves, they were among the least offensive of the bunch, despite one that included three idiots doing the worst Boston accent since those Jimmy Fallon SNL skits. Why is McDonalds introducing a 1/3 pounder? Doesn't this go against the grain in a society where so many people want (and need) to lose weight? Will it be successful or is Bill Maher right when he says Americans are too dumb to realize a third of a pound is bigger than a quarter of a pound?
Jack in the Box
I'm probably the only one who feels this way, but I can't stand the Jack in the Box advertising campaign (for those of you who live in a Jack in the Box-free zone, I'll summarize: Jack, a guy with a huge clown head, is CEO of the actual Jack in the Box restaurant chain). I don't like Jack. He thinks he's the smartest guy in the room, and everybody else is an idiot. In most of the ads, he's so snarky, I find it hard to believe nobody had sued his ass for discrimination or workplace harassment or something like that. And his wife is always portrayed as a closet sexpot suburban Stepford wife (Ooh, I hate that!). Also, if he has a giant clown head, and his wife has a regular human head, how does that work? Why does his kid have a smaller clown head? Shouldn't he have a grotesque half-clown, half-human head? How did she give birth to him? It must've been a cesarean. I know I'm the only one who thinks about these things. I have a problem. The other thing I hate about Jack in the Box is their "everything and the kitchen sink" approach to menu construction. I don't know about you, but something is wrong with a place that has fried chicken, pizza, tacos, burgers, and fancy faux-gourmet ciabatta bread sandwiches. Pick something and stick with it, Jack.
Carl's Jr. (or Hardees, depending on where you live)
Now we're getting to the heart of the matter. Carl's Jr. has always been known for their vulgar, hyper-masculine advertising (these are the people who made the infamous Paris-Hilton-washing-a-car-in-a-bikini-while-eating-a-hamburger ad), so I suppose I shouldn't really be surprised anymore when their ads portray men as brainless, sex-crazed calorie consumers. And yet I am. The most recent Carl's Jr. campaign involves a guy and girl...well, why don't you just watch it.
(I'll twiddle my thumbs while you watch the ad. Because I can't figure out how to make it appear here.)
There are many, many things wrong with this commercial, but I'd like to focus on a couple. First of all, why is the guy staring at the waitress so openly? He's with his girlfriend; is he retarded? Secondly, why is the waitress staring back? She's not a stripper, so why is she trying to seduce this dork? It doesn't make any sense. And the girlfriend, the only one in the ad giving a half-decent performance, by the way, would not just sit there and take it. I think she would throw her fries at "Sarah" and call her a slut. Or maybe that's just what I would do. On a production note, I would've cast a brunette for one of the roles (probably the girlfriend). The two women look too similar. Unless that's the point and I'm just not getting it, I would've tried to make them look as different as possible while still making them both pretty. But that's just me, and what do I know? I just have a Masters Degree in this shit. The bottom line is that Carl's Jr. makes a commercial that manages to offensively portray both men and women. Congratulations, Carl's Jr., mission accomplished (in a George W. Bush sort of way).
Carl's Jr. has always sold testosterone. That's nothing new. Their best ads were the "Burger, Fries, and a Coke" campaign, which emphasized the ease, familiarity, and simplicity of their 'cuisine.' It was successful on a number of levels, not the least of which that it managed to make the burger seem appetizing. This wing commercial does nothing, other than remind me why I'll never eat at Hooters again.
In N Out
The winner for the cheapest looking commercial, and yet strangely, maybe the most effective. All they do is show the burger, put up a really lame slogan relating to basketball or March Madness, and play the jingle. The burger looks good, the music is familiar. It actually makes you want to a burger. Funny how In N Out always seems to get it right.
Subway continues to push the fact that it serves healthier food than their fat-happy competitors (and continues to downplay the fact that their sandwiches taste like whatever condiment you choose to put on them and little else). The most recent commercial has a couple pulling up to the drive-thru and ordering some disgusting body parts like blubber, a gut, and a double chin. My problem with this commercial is that the woman orders a "badonkadonk butt," and she orders it like it's a bad thing. Jamie Foxx begs to differ, ma'am.
Wendy's, Taco Bell, and KFC
Wendy's ads have sucked since Dave Thomas died. There's just no getting around that. Taco Bell continues to push the concept of 'Fourthmeal', which is probably less healthy than eating a 1/3 pound of Angus beef. KFC, meanwhile, continues forcing Lynard Skynard down our throats. We get it, you're southern. Fried chicken, "Sweet Home Alabama." That's great. Keep it up. Also, they have a lot of ads where families sit down and eat a big bucket of chicken at their kitchen table. The idea is that KFC brings families together. But what I always take away from these ads is that the family is too lazy to cook and is probably going to die early from heart disease or diabetes. I might be reading the subtext here, though.
Anyway, there you have it. The current crop of fast food ads is not too sweet. But are they ever?