"Thanks For Suing Us!" Taco Bell Takes On "Beef-Gate"

A California woman’s beef with Taco Bell over the ingredients in her taco served up an interesting crisis management case study last week. The food fight has turned into a class-action lawsuit alleging false advertising by the chain. The suit claims its tacos are only 36 percent beef, which, if true, means they wouldn’t even qualify as beef under USDA regulations.

As usual, social media helped turn the suit into a blogosphere feeding frenzy. A supremely unappetizing photo of something called “taco meat filling” spiced up some of the negative posts, and online commentary was heated. Stephen Colbert launched a frankly hilarious mock defense of the chain that called its key ingredient “beef adjacent.”

(Best PR hijack may be from PETA, which put out a tongue-in-cheek statement congratulating Taco Bell on moving away from meat, and urging it to go “100 percent cruelty-free.”)

The news made for juicy copy, but the risk is more serious than a reputation ding. According to MediaPost, in the week since the beef suit was filed, the chain’s BrandIndex perception score among adult fast-food customers has fallen from 25.2 to 11.7. That’s a hefty drop.

But the chain mobilized fairly quickly to bite back. It launched into a drill that’s unfortunately become a standard recipe for QSR crisis response. But this feedback had real attitude. Full-page newspaper ads signed by president and “chief concept officer” Greg Creed denied the tacos are mostly filler. “Thank you for suing us,” sneered the giant headline. Saucy! The chain also threatened a countersuit and put Creed on the hot seat in a series of major media interviews.

Social media was also on the crisis management menu. Taco Bell’s Facebook wall features frequent postings about the situation, including the (arguably) unflattering Colbert parody and some very mixed commentary by fans. Creed took his case to YouTube with a folksy, but impassioned, video statement. He looked friendly and at ease explaining that its tacos are actually 88 percent beef, and that the remaining 12 percent is water, seasonings, and a longish list of other ingredients like silicon dioxide and “isolated oat product.”

But, when asked about “isolated oat product” by ABC News, Creed admitted he didn’t know what it is, but assured us that “it’s there for a purpose.” I’d argue that the guy in charge should be able to answer that question, and even be able to whip up a taco on-air to show how it’s done. (This is the “Undercover Boss” era, after all.) In the ideal world, the company would be able to produce a “Chief Yum Officer” who could credibly speak to its recipe, while leaving out technical jargon.

But I think the chain knows its core customers, and its response was cooked up for them. Hence, the cheeky tone of the ads, and the CEO’s casual admission that he’s not a food scientist. If it loses the suit, it will lose credibility, of course. But, despite quibbles on tactics, the tone of its communications seemed to hit the spot… not unlike a 99-cent taco.

Banned-Ad Gimmick Loses Super Bowl PR Points

As Super Bowl XLV approaches, marketing pundits are suiting up for the ad-stravaganza, but I’m naturally more interested in the PR Bowl. It’s a big part of the marketing investment, and it’s fun to watch brands try to score free media coverage weeks ahead of time.

But, one much-practiced play that’s losing ground is the “banned” ad. Marketers complain indignantly via press release that their commercial was rejected, then post it on YouTube in hopes of driving views. The tactic is tired. Too many companies have jumped on the banned-wagon, for one thing. And several just aren’t credible; I doubt they could cough up the $3 million for a 30-second spot. More importantly, the prohibited ads just aren’t very interesting. No wonder AdAge  pledged that it wouldn’t cover a single one.

Ashley Madison is trying again with a spot featuring a porn star. Yawn. I’m assuming it was rejected due to the nature of its business, since the commercial itself is tamer than the typical GoDaddy spot. (As a bonus, there’s a more X-rated one on YouTube.)

A somewhat more successful PR play was from conservative site JesusHatesObama.com. Its spot has scored more than 200,000 views and some online controversy. But, despite the provocative name, the ad is another animated bobblehead video from a group that seems far more interested in selling t-shirts than engaging in a public dialogue.

The most interesting twist so far is from Doritos. First, it has a lock on the banned-ad video channel with its annual Crash The Super Bowl crowdsourcing contest. But when “Feed Your Flock,” an entry that seemed to compare the chips to the holy eucharist, drew fire from Catholic groups and others, the brand showed some skillful defensive moves in pulling the spot. But, it’s still courting controversy; otherwise, why bother with a contest? This week, it’s teasing the media with a pair of gay-themed ads that seem to skirt the bounds of good taste. (Although what passes for good taste during the Super Bowl, where sexist and toilet humor meets family viewing, is beyond me.)

I think the ads are more silly than funny, and they may offend some, but that’s the price of admission. Plus, the production values beat the other dubious spots, and I can appreciate the tradecraft. By refusing to say if it will air the spots, the brand has spiced up the pre-game competition a little and gained more PR yardage through greater involvement in the pre-kickoff conversation.


Tucson And The Power Of Metaphors

When, in the aftermath of the Tucscon tragedy, some linked it to Sarah Palin’s gun sight map, I was actually irritated. Any attempt to politicize what happened is revolting, and it seemed like a red herring at best. (In my book, images don’t kill people, semiautomatic weapons kill people. But this blog is about communications.)

We use military analogies in PR and marketing speak all the time. Brands battle for share, we’re always in agency shoot-outs, we target different customer segments, and things blow up. It means nothing, right? Most of these terms have lost their association with violence, at least in a business context.

But what about others? Casual and private speech is one thing. How the most influential figures in media, culture, and government debate the issues of the day may be another. After all, we communicators give a great deal of weight to our choice of words, particularly in preparing speeches for corporate and political leaders. Each turn of phrase is carefully crafted to convey the attributes we want linked to the company or brand. It made me think again about the power of the metaphor in heated political rhetoric like much of the speech we heard last summer when the, uh, war to pass healthcare reform was being waged.

That’s why I was fascinated to hear author James Geary speak about effect of metaphors on our unconscious. Geary, the author of “I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World,” makes the case that metaphors in political rhetoric and imagery have a profound and largely non-conscious effect on us. I also consulted a family member who’s a clinical psychologist about metaphors and their potential to influence unstable individuals. Here’s what she wrote:

Metaphors are very powerful. They influence everyone, the mentally stable and the unstable. However, it may not be that the metaphor has greater influence for the unstable, but only that the unstable have less control over their impulses. The thoughts and emotions stirred up by a metaphor could be more likely to lead to impulsive behavior in the unstable for that reason.

She pointed me to “Therapeutic Communication,” a textbook by Paul Wachtel. Wachtel states, “every overt message… carries with it a second message, a meta-message … that conveys an attitude about what is being conveyed in the focal message.” So, the language or imagery chosen by a person, particularly an authority figure like a therapist, or an elected official, can convey not only the literal message, but also their attitude about what they’re saying. An authority figure using a military or violent metaphor may be subtly implying their endorsement of such behavior.

Words, images, how we communicate – it all matters, both literally and metaphorically. That certainly doesn’t mean that overheated rhetoric is why the shooting happened. It isn’t. But the aftermath has served as a reminder for many of us in communications to respect what we do, and to do it wisely.

When Bad PR Is Good For Business

Boycotts are powerful, but they can also be PR magnets, drawing attention where none is deserved.

That seems to be the case with the attempts to pressure Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade goods, to drop one of its sellers. Etsy is known not only for the business opportunities it provides to artist-entrepreneurs, but for its strong community and a culture that celebrates one-of-a-kind craftsmanship and creative expression.

But an Etsy boycott started to gather steam late last year over a specific member of that lovely, artsy community, a company called youstupidbitch.com. Not the typical Etsy craft-preneur, is it? This seller features hand-drawn greeting cards that mock such serious and sensitive conditions as rape, Down syndrome, cancer, and AIDS.

It’s honestly hard to imagine anyone having a use for the cards, and I don’t blame the mommy bloggers, advocates, artists and others who’ve expressed outrage over the merchandise. They’re right to be repelled by the messages.

And it baffles me that Etsy has been unresponsive to the complaints, even deleting all Facebook posts about the issue, no matter how respectful. The vendor’s very presence, and Etsy’s head-in-the-sand handling of the complaints, seem utterly antithetical to its culture and community standards. Check out Shel Holtz’s post for an analysis of the non-response. It’s also been a PR black eye. The buzz trickled up to the major media, resulting in a CNN report by an admittedly over-the-top Jane Velez Mitchell.

But what bothers me more is that the furor over the obnoxious cards has been good for business, or so it seems. Before October, when anger over the cards’ content began to build, the seller reported sales of exactly zero. Today, it’s showing 89 cards sold, most over the past couple of weeks. Now, I know 89 cards isn’t much, but the whole controversy reminds me of the Amazon.com pedophile book uproar, which turned a disgusting, self-published “guide” for child molesters to best-seller status among e-books. Ugh.

The Amazon situation, at least, was important as a precedent, because public pressure forced it to take responsibility for its merchandise. The learning there was that a private company, unlike the government, can choose its own vendors and enforce its own Terms of Service. That’s not censorship, it’s just good business. And, the protest worked. It took Amazon a single day to reverse its position and drop the book in question. But I still have trouble with the fact that the PR hoopla put money in a pervert’s pocket.

It’s easy to jump online to organize a movement in the heat of the moment. It feels good to vent online, or call the media, but I think we’ve become too quick to marshall our social and economic clout (and Klout.) There are times when a movement or boycott is misplaced, and I think this is one of them. Here’s why: Etsy’s situation is different from Amazon’s; the cards are tasteless, but they don’t condone or promote an illegal act. Second, Etsy isn’t a retailer, it’s a marketplace; its storefronts are separate businesses. Finally, a truly successful boycott would just hurt other Etsy sellers, while giving the card vendor buckets of publicity.

Maybe it’s boycott fatigue, but I’ve become a proponent of what I’m calling the “ignore-cott.” Here’s what I wish concerned citizens and influencers would do when confronted with an obnoxious or tasteless product. Don’t call a press conference, put up a Facebook page, or tweet to thousands of followers. Instead, express your opinion to the business in question. Tell them you will never use their products. Then, don’t. End of story.

What Happened In Vegas: Top Trends From CES 2011

And I thought it was 2010 when CES got its mojo back. By the end of day one of CES 2011, I knew this year’s geekfest would easily top last year’s. The recession seems to be receding, the innovation thriving, and the news flowing. Here are the top trends from CES 2011.

Tablets, tablets, tablets. Not since Moses came down from the mountain has there been so much hype over the tablet and e-media category. Virtually every company showed an i-Pad killer, or, more reasonably, an i-Pad alternative. The smart players have created products to exploit the iPad weaknesses, like size, or lack of flash compatibility, and the result is that there’s literally something for everyone.

We’re all connected. Yes, it’s been threatened for years, but the promise of the connected living room is finally coming true. TVs, kitchen appliances, and even cars will be on the grid. Partly due to the use of the same wireless sensors that monitor energy usage in the home, it will now be at our control from must about anywhere.

Smart TV. It’s ironic that, while what we watch may be getting dumber (“Real Housewives,” anyone?) TVs are showing real smarts. Soon you won’t be able to find a TV that doesn’t offer Web access through the same apps we use on smartphones. The implications for e-commerce and customer service are clear. Next stop: social TV.

A need for speed. Gadgets are not only getting smarter, they’re faster for 2011. With 4G picking up steam, data speeds are racing towards the single biggest bump forward in years. Fasten your seat belts.

Immersive entertainment. I may never leave home again. Some of the large-screen TV demos in Vegas reminded me of the launch of virtual reality. Our client Sharp showed a video cube created from 60 LCD panels that was dizzying in its impact. 3D TV is bigger and brighter as more 3D content is expected to come on stream. Entertainment has never been so exciting, or so accessible.

Entertainment to go. It’s also portable. At our client’s booth I watched a demo of a content flicking technique, from tablet to large-screen TV, or from tablet to smartphone, that was just awesome. I have a seven-year-old daughter, and it gave me chills to think how different her media consumption will be from mine as a child. It’s personalized, portable, and literally at her fingertips. I’ve seen the future!