The Taco Bell Effect: Why We Need a New Conversation about Food

I’m going to come right out and say it: I’m ashamed of myself.

Actually, I guess I’m more ashamed of the culture of which I am a part. As an advertising student, I often have conversations with my friends and classmates about our favorite ads. What makes for truly good creative? Which messages break through the clutter and actually make us pay attention? It’s a hard task, and when we see something that actually stands out, we notice.

When I first saw the new Taco Bell campaign, which features a group of men named Ronald McDonald affirming their love for its new breakfast menu, I was quick to think: how clever. I loved it. It’s funny in a subtle way, it’s paradoxical, it’s attention-grabbing, and most importantly, it’s different in style and direction than most other other ads in the fast food industry. When I saw McDonald’s response on Facebook, asserting that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” I chuckled to myself and thought something along the lines of: oh, the joys of social media. Finally, brands can just go at each other with such ease and timeliness. Fabulous.

Then, suddenly, it hit me. Good creative or not, the Taco Bell ads are intended to sell a product. Not just any product, but its Waffle Taco, which debuts on its new breakfast menu. And whether or not I can appreciate the creative, I can’t appreciate the fact that this campaign is just one of many that works behind-the-scenes to fuel the growing healthcare problems in America. More specifically, these are the types of campaigns that create a seemingly invisible layer of influence on our nation’s wellness. This is the biggest campaign in Taco Bell’s history, which logistically makes sense for them since fast-food breakfast is expected to grow by 9% in the next nine years. Sure, but why are these the messages that dominate our culture? A waffle taco for breakfast? Really?

I’m not trying to say that Taco Bell or fast-food restaurants in general are the sole problem behind our rising obesity and health problems. In fact, they’ve been making an effort to become more transparent and offer “healthier” menu items for years now; so in a way, I can appreciate the effort. I guess it’s better than not trying at all. What concerns me is the fact that this campaign is just one in the sea of messages that we receive every single day. The Waffle Taco spot is just one-half of a minute in your day, yet what impact is it really having on you? How likely are you to stop by a Taco Bell now and try one of these menu items instead of a healthier option? Even if you think the ad has no impact on you, as just one of the millions upon millions of persuasive messages you see and hear in your day-to-day life, the fact that these are the messages that dominate the food and restaurant industry’s advertising is a scary one indeed.

Where are all the positive messages about food? Why are the brands that sell the truly healthy, good for you and the earth products hidden so deep below the McDonalds and the Taco Bells of the world? It’s a sad realization that these big corporations have so much influence over us and can frame the way we think about food in this country. It’s no wonder that we have such problems with obesity when these are the types of messages we see on a daily basis. But for someone just starting out in the ad industry, it’s also an exciting and optimistic realization for me. There’s something missing in the way that food is being communicated and sold to us. There’s tremendous opportunity for brands that sell trustworthy food – you know, the kind that’s actually good for you – to break through and come up with creative just as good as, if not better, the Ronald McDonald Taco Bell campaign.

So why am I ashamed? Because I was susceptible to this ad just as everyone else probably is. I liked it, it made me laugh, it made me think. So while we can appreciate good creative, we just need to rethink what all this work is aimed toward. If we want to work to fix the growing healthcare problems that exist in our world, especially in the food industry, we can start by re-framing the way we communicate it.

(Again, this isn’t a personal bash against Taco Bell or any Taco Bell advocates out there. This is more focused on the way we are talking about food and how we can start to steer the conversation in a more productive, healthy, sustainable way.)

the balancing act

Trying to eat healthier can be such a daunting task. For me, I used to find that at times when I successfully prepared and ate healthier meals at home, I craved sweets and junk when I was out more than ever. All my strategic planning and resourcefulness got tossed to the side as I internally justified my giving-in to these cravings. Cue life’s eternal struggle for achieving balance.

It’s when we think of things as extremities that we get so caught up in figuring out which end of the spectrum we’re supposed to land on. I try to justify my decisions by compromising: I can eat this plate of nachos if I skip breakfast. I can have this ice cream because I just had a big bowl of broccoli. That type of thought process causes nothing but self-induced stress, guilt, and, most likely, some unwanted added poundage. So instead of always thinking in polarities, I’m working to restructure the way I frame my thoughts. Rather than seeing things in life as two ends of a spectrum, and constantly being torn back and forth between the two polar ends of it, I’m trying to land somewhere in the middle and bask in the joyfulness that comes with such balance.

This mentality applies to many other aspects of life also. But is balance a good thing? Or is that simply settling for less? Is it unambitious of me to say that it’s okay to not strive for the absolute highest version of your goal because it’s more realistically achievable if you aim for middle ground?

Maybe so, but I’ve found, at least lately, that it makes more sense for me to meet myself in the middle. Rather than striving to be a 100% healthy eater, I let myself indulge occasionally. My rule as of late has been eating healthy all week long and preparing all that food at home, then on the weekends I can eat whatever/go wherever I want. At first, I was living it up with brunches and nachos and pizza (…I know), but by the time Monday rolled around, I found that I was actually craving a salad. My body just naturally wanted to eat healthier once it had been exposed to both types of food. Now, I still let myself eat whatever I want Friday-Sunday (okay, sometimes Thursday night-Sunday), but I find that I just don’t want to eat as much junk anymore. I’ve become more likely to choose a healthy option because it simply makes me feel better physically.

By allowing myself that room to breathe and shutting up those voices in my head that tell me to feel bad for eating a treat every once in a while, I was able to find balance, and with that balance comes the ability to naturally choose the better option. By letting myself live in that middle space, I was able to, almost unconsciously, gravitate toward the end of the spectrum that made more sense for me. And as with most problems in life, I think if we only quieted those voices telling us you can’t do this, you shouldn’t do that, you’ve got to exceed in this, and instead focused on finding balance in the chaos of whatever we’re going through, things would work out much better in the end.

Is there any truth in this? What things do you struggle to find balance in? I’d love to keep the conversation going, so let me know!

Either way, I can say for a fact that treating yourself to chocolate-covered strawberries for Valentine’s Day is always a good decision. Balanced or not.  :)

Remembrance

It’s snowing in Boston. I am cuddled up under my electric blanket (like a g-ma) with a cup of tea scrolling through pictures that look like this:

Provincetown, MA

Provincetown, MA

I took this picture two summers ago, when my aunt and I decided to take a random day trip to P-Town on the Cape. It was one of those perfect summer days, where the sun warms your skin just enough to break a sweat, but you aren’t bothered by it one bit. We took the ferry from Boston & showed up to this place neither of us had been before with no plan. We wandered around, shopped a little, then found a place to rent bikes and rode through some trails to the beach. We locked up the bikes and headed down to the water. My flip flops patiently waited for me at the boardwalk where I left them. I waded in to the cool ocean and felt genuine, complete happiness. Because I was 100% consumed by “the moment”. Living in the present. All that jazz. It’s not hard to feel happy when the sun is shining on your face, your bare feet are warm in smooth sand, and the sound of the Atlantic is calming you.

It gets a bit harder to appreciate “the moment” when that moment consists of trudging down a dark city street, slipping with each step you take on caked layers of snow and ice building up along the sidewalk, chunks of snow flying at your face. It’s a little bit harder to see the good in that. It’s harder to take it for what it is.

On my way home from my first day at my internship today (which went really well by the way, thanks for asking), I had to remind myself that walking in the snow isn’t a bad thing. It’s just not a day at the beach. I actually stuck my tongue out and tasted the flakes as I started to realize that here I was wasting such a truly wonderful moment by thinking about how inconvenient this snowfall was. It wasn’t ice cream, but hey, that’s what summer is for.

Take some time tonight to think about what you’re rushing through instead of simply taking a moment to appreciate. There are so many elements to this life that we don’t ever notice. It’s only once they are past us that we start to regret not noticing them sooner.

The 124-day-long New Year

I know, I know… this New Year’s Resolution-esque post is two weeks late. But part of my resolution was to stay away from technology as much as possible over the holiday break, so cut me some slack.

Normally, with a new year comes an overwhelmingly optimistic feeling of growth and opportunity. I am really good at packaging up things that happen to me so that they fit nice and neatly into my life, and that helps me to have an ongoing sense of stability with how everything’s playing out. Yay, me. I’ll usually make a few goals for the upcoming year and then forget about them a few weeks later because, well, doesn’t everybody?

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credit: Forbes.com

But this year… oh man, this year is different. I have spent the past month or so feeling completely suffocated. I am drowning and crushed. I’ve been frantically screaming out to anyone who cares to listen. Why? Because my year ends in 124 days.

Okay, okay. I am being so completely overdramatic. But with graduation becoming this dark and eery shadow looming in the distance, I have got to figure out a way to stop looking at it with so much fear. I’ve got to turn this into a glimmering sparkle of hope and stop hiding in my pajama pants while cycling through Netflix and anxiously awaiting my future encounter with this monster.

So, the way I’m trying to see it now is that I’ve got 124 days until the next chapter begins. That’s a better way to look at it, right? Just another chapter. And hopefully I will be able to work out a way to make this all fit nice and neatly.

The true traveler

Since coming to the UK in September, I have started to learn the difference between being a traveler and being a tourist, between sightseeing and actually experiencing a place. I’ve been to seven different countries in a little over three months. I am not trying to boast, because I know there are people in my program who have gone to many more than that, and I feel it can get quite competitive among the students here as to who goes to the most places in the least amount of time. It’s as if we are proud that we can hop across these borders with such ease, when I have always had an intuitive feeling that this couldn’t be the way to do it. Did we all forget Emerson’s timeless advice, that it is about the journey, not the destination, that matters? But, regardless, I have participated. Because of the cheap flights that exist thanks to RyanAir and other discount airlines, I’ve been able to do the hectic Friday to Sunday trip – backs packed before work, speeding from desk to train to airport to hostel, days filled with rushing around and usually underwhelming sightseeing, and then a Sunday trip back to London to get minimal sleep for Monday morning’s class. It was rather exhausting, to say the least. I remember speaking with a German friend I met here in the beginning of September, who told me his favorite way to experience a new city is to sit outside and drink a cappuccino while watching the people that pass by him on the street. At the time I thought, how European. Now I am wondering if there is something intrinsically wrong with our desire to lead such fast-paced lives, competing over how much of this earth’s surface we can cover, with no real depth of understanding beneath it.

Two weeks ago we finished our internships and were able to breathe again. We had a few days off and were able to travel like we had intended to when we signed up for studying abroad. Two of my roommates and I went to Geneva for a night and then to visit some friends living in Saint Gervais, a small ski resort town across the French border. Since the slopes haven’t opened yet, there wasn’t much to do in the area. So we ate, and we drank, and we watched Love Actually and Elf to get in the Christmas spirit, and we played with their puppies, and we just relaxed – for the first time practically this entire time I have been abroad. Our other trips have been so jam-packed with plans and itineraries and schedules, and something is bound to go wrong in that type of scenario. I always felt a huge relief when I would return from these trips to my flat in London, ready to be back even after only two days. This was the first time I didn’t feel that eagerness to return. Coincidentally, it was my last trip before I leave the UK to go back to the states in four days, and still, I am not sure I feel that eagerness to return.

On the second day in Saint Gervais I sat out on the balcony of our friends’ apartment and drank coffee while looking out at the shockingly beautiful view of Mont Blanc. Throughout the day, the sun paints the mountain different shades of gray to pink to blood red, as it begins to set in the background and leaves the small town to solitude for another quiet night. It is a peaceful place, a place of solitude. Sitting on that balcony, I was reminded of the perspective I learned about visiting a new place back in September. Sit and observe, feel and notice what’s really around you – embrace the simplicity of that, and you will learn the difference between traveling and touring, between really experiencing a place and simply visiting.

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It can be so easy to get caught up in the rush of having all these opportunities at our fingertips. We are able to travel to places near and far, we are able to actually see things I have only seen on TV or in magazines. Yet when I think back on my time abroad, I doubt I will really remember visiting the Colosseum or the Vatican, the countless churches and cathedrals, or even the Eiffel Tower. Sure, they are beautiful and important and historic, but the things that will stick with me for a long time are the moments experienced in these places themselves. Places don’t change people – it’s not that easy. Things like noticing the way the sand feels under your back while napping on the Welsh coast, or wondering about the troubled young girl sketching on the edge of the Seine; feeling how the leaves crunch under your feet in Hyde Park, or the rush of jumping from a cliff into the Mediterranean, or seeing the the way the sun paints the tallest mountain in the Alps – those are what stick with you. Those are the moments that change you. Those are the things I will remember. Not the amount of countries I have visited and crossed off my bucket list, not the rushed lines in the airports, not the lack of sleep and stressful days of tourist traps – but the moments.

Maybe I am not so eager to return home because I am learning that it doesn’t really matter where you are. What matters is how you perceive it.

The New Business Mission

I had a thought-provoking conversation with a friend recently about the differences in ideology behind non-profit organizations and for-profit businesses. Ultimately, a business should be driven towards making a profit as its end goal by management, but his point was that the word “profit” almost seems taboo nowadays.  He thought that often times people who naturally shy away from the “go-get-em” mentality associated with the notion of sales, profit and the entire corporate world tend to be the very ones working for non-profit organizations, and because of this, something is missing.  Whether this be a lack of effort, or an inability to measure progress quantitatively, or a different sense of success and achievement in the workplace, he felt that a non-profit organization is lacking what essentially makes a business successful in the first place: a profit (well, duh, it’s a non-profit organization, after all).

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I argue that raising awareness for a cause isn’t all that much different than raising a profit.  Whether the for-profit business is trying to direct the consumer toward making a purchase and the non-profit organization is trying to get the consumer to donate toward a cause, is the process not mostly the same? Get the audience’s attention, and speak to them about something (be it a product or a movement, a service or a cause) that makes them act (be it purchasing or donating, investing or campaigning) – isn’t that more or less the same exact path?

As far as workplace ideologies, I do agree that there are many differences between the for-profit and nonprofit worlds, but I can’t really speak to that yet specifically.  I can say that some of my favorite companies, and some that are bound to be the most successful, are the ones that take this business mentality of making a profit and combine it with the very human need to give back and help the world in some way.

As we become increasingly active consumers through social media and expect more and more transparency from brands, we are beginning to have a certain expectation that must be met in order for a company or organization to live up to our standards. With this change, more businesses are adopting characteristics of the non-profit organization, offering products or services to consumers but with a little something extra: the human element, whether that be profit donations to certain causes or operating under sustainable practices. Businesses like Toms, with its one-for-one mission, and Roozt, where you can browse and purchase products that benefit a ‘movement’ of your choice, understand that and are adopting the ideologies of non-profit organizations by offering something to customers that goes above and beyond the typical business model from product sale to profit. They are offering customers the ability to give back, while still taking for themselves.  They are letting customers become donors, passive audiences to become engaged difference-makers, and transforming sales to donations.  These companies are still making a profit, yes, but they are doing so in a way that is helping more than just their own business.  They are reaching out to more people and creating an exponential influence, while dually satisfying the customer’s desire to give back and making a (slightly smaller) profit.

Are the two really that different? Or are we moving more and more to a world where businesses will be focused on giving back and becoming more sustainable, because they must in order to survive? By choosing to buy from brands that operate with this mentality, we can make an active change in our communities and around the globe. And as marketers, we must keep in mind the human element that many consumers are looking for in today’s brands, or we risk losing them to those who have already left behind the old ways.