In the last two centuries, you could measure society by its literature and poetry. Romanticism (1800-1850), for example, was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution – which in itself was a jarring experience that turned time and action in to a commodity and gave birth to bleak landscapes. In the following century, World War 1 gave rise to great literary works in which characters were scarred by war. In another hundred years, they won’t need to read the books of our time to understand us. They’ll just need to look at our advertising campaigns. Advertising, and marketing, have become the new mirrors through which we reflect society, our values, our frustrations and our yearnings. And though Taco Bell’s “Routine Republic” campaign highlighting a pair of #breakfastdefectors is really just about fast food, you’d be terribly wrong to think we’re just talking about food. We’re talking about much more. We’re talking about the point at which three generations meet, discovering what they have in common. From Baby Boomers, to Generation X and newcomer Millennials, the one thing they all have in common is a desperate need to be free. Though we’re not facing the bleak landscape of an Industrial Revolution, and nor are we facing a war at the horrific magnitude of World War I, we are facing something very real and psychologically jarring in a devastating new way: inauthenticity and regulation. Without getting into a long-winded discourse about how we’re more trapped than ever before in any time in history, we can agree that there is an increased amount of regulation and surveillance on our individuality than ever before. It’s despotic and Taco Bell gets that. And audiences are raving over that connection. The last three to four generations has seen has seen a significant push back highlighting dystopian societies. A move that officially spun out of the perfectly packaged lifestyles of the fifties, it’s an idea of dystopia that takes several forms. We saw it in 1948, when George Orwell published 1984, an ominous tale of a world to come that we see in Taco Bell’s “Routine Republic,” marked by the emphasis on ‘double speak’ in phrases like “same is happy,” and so forth. In the early 60’s and through the 70’s, we saw a faux-utopia – a place where everything seemed perfect but was not. Fauxtopia was captured in movies such as Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, and in TV shows like The Prisoner. More recently, we’ve seen versions of dystopia in films like V for Vendetta, Hunger Games, Divergent, and so forth. We’re even seeing in it envelope-pushing mini-series like Black Mirror’s episode titled “15 Million Merits.” Taco Bell understood this. It connected it’s brand, and that of rival McDonald’s with something we identify. We hear the Orwellian double-speak; we recognize V for Vendetta’s all-seeing ‘chancellor’ and the post-apocalyptic poverty found in Hunger Games. And finally, there’s the epic escape of the symbolic Adam and Eve as seen in Logan’s Run (later poorly remade as The Island). These are cultural anchors we recognize, including of course the brilliant chosen track by the Ramones, which had its own double meaning: a Blitzkrieg on routine. For anyone still confused about why revolution and defection is really important, consider where else we’re seeing these strong currents. The theme of revolution continues with TV shows like TURN and Sons of Liberty, as well as in other films like Snow Piercer, Branded, Minority Report, Matrix, Equilibrium, and so on. We’re seeing it in literature, most famously with just about anything Neil Gaiman has written in the last decade, but even with Harry Potter and His Dark Materials. We’re seeing it in the work place with thought leaders like Seth Godin and Malcolm Gladwell and a greater shift toward the free agent economy that allows people to be people first and workers second. It’s everywhere. It’s in the fabric of who we are today as a people. We are people who want to break free from routine, who want to reimagine a reality without control, and act as change agents with the freedom to determine our course – even if that means simply choosing a better breakfast menu. Taco Bell gets this. They told a story – and a brilliant one at that. They shared a message we can all relate to or want to relate to.
The internet was buzzing last week with Taco Bell’s riotous new commercial launching a highly creative attack ad against breakfast rival, McDonalds. “Routine Republic,” a 3 minute pre-released commercial, which officially aired during The Walking Dead’s 90-minute season finale, was an Orwellian masterpiece that showed an “outdated” brand as fundamentally dystopian. Gabriel Beltron, in an Adweek post titled “Taco Bell Launches Cold War Against McDonald’s With Propaganda Imagery,” describes it best. Beltrone writes, “McDonald\'s affable but intrinsically creepy mascot is reimagined as a sunken-eyed Stalinist clown (though perhaps bearing closer resemblance to Mao). He rules over a small army of look-alikes and an oppressed proletariat in a decrepit, cloistered city with a beefy security apparatus. Run-of-the-mill breakfast sandwiches are his preferred method of subjugation.” Audiences loved it. They thought it was clever, original and creative. Marketing and ad people, however, were floored. To us, it’s a genius because it packages emotion and movement with a product. It understands us…and more importantly, it understand culture. That’s what it really comes down to: culture. Who can see the ad and not think of The Interview, the recent comedic parody of North Korea that started near cyber wars. Taco Bell gets it: no one likes Communism, dictatorships, and unoriginality. The commercial was anything but unoriginal. How do you take apart a brand that exudes fun and play, and turn it into something nefarious? Taco Bell did it and brilliantly. They turned clowns into eerily reimagined mindless foot soldiers – so that if I wasn’t scarred before, I certainly am now. They turned slides into threatening portals that facilitate Gestapo-like clowns that much cl . They even destroyed the idea of a ball pit, turning it into a final desperate attempt to keep you contained. The use of sound was strategic too. You’re fed sound bites from the Routine Republic, with the only break in that monotony being the ‘escape’ soundtrack, “Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones. After that the next sound of distinction is the now-ominous Taco Bell ring of the bell. It’s a bell. It’s a bell we’ve heard a before, but with the right placement in the right ad, it becomes a sound of freedom. It becomes something we connect with. It becomes a calling. (If McDonald’s is listening, I have an idea for a come-back campaign that works against Taco Bell’s own branding) This isn’t the first round between fast food giants. The Huffington Post’s, Carly Ledbetter writes an article titled “Taco Bell’s New Ad Portrays McDonald’s as a Communist State.” In it, she describes how “the so-called ‘breakfast wars’ between the two fast-food chains typically involve a few snarky exchanges.” Taco Bell’s ad campaigns against rival McDonald’s, has escalated past a battle of the brands and taken on the face of political mudslinging where the focus of your message isn’t about how awesome you are, but rather how terrible your opponent is. The snarky exchanges Ledbetter’s talking about refer to a past creative campaign by the fast food chain. Prior to the recent “Routine Republic,” Taco Bell hijacked mascot Ronald McDonald by bringing together people legally named “Ronald McDonald” and having them declare their love for Taco Bell’s breakfast menu. McDonald’s, holding the lion’s share of the breakfast fast food market, is a natural target for Taco Bell. The ‘Mexican’ fast food chain has worked hard in recent years to rebrand itself for a millennial crowd. “Routine Republic” just ensured they secured that goal. However, they didn’t just rely on an ad; they turned a commercial into a mini-movie and the mini-movie into a movement. You didn’t just see a commercial; you were called to action. Taco Bell supported the campaign by creating its own landing page, developing propaganda posters and even offering loyal supporters a ‘defector’ kit.
Nothing pairs better with one of America’s beloved national treasures, the Liberty Bell, than some 99 cents crunchy tacos, right? Taco Bell thought so. That’s why in 1996, the fast food chain announced that they will be buying the Liberty Bell, in order to reduce the country’s debt, as well as the fact that “Taco Bell’s heritage and imagery have revolved around the symbolism of the bell. Now we’ve got the crown jewel of bells.” Thankfully, the thousands of patriotic Americans that called in to complain about the dishonorable union were relieved to learned that it was just a marketing scheme, and the historical monument was certainly not up for sale. The event went down as one of the most memorable marketing stunts of the decade. On the day of April 1st (which should have been a super dead giveaway), a full-page ad appeared in six major newspaper publications announcing that Taco Bell will be purchasing the Liberty Bell and will change the name to “Taco Liberty Bell.” They also clarified that the bell will spend half the time in its home in Philadelphia and the other half in the Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine. This grand declaration brought on a massive negative response. People were calling into both the Taco Bell headquarters as well as Philadelphia’s National Park Service to find out if the ad was true. Apparently, Philadelphia wasn’t on the joke either, since the park’s spokespeople were also surprised at the news. Then at noontime on the same day, Taco Bell issued a second press release, revealing that it had all been an April Fools joke and there was never any purchase of the Liberty Bell. However, some people were still bitter about the use of the national monument, which symbolizes those who have bravely fought for this country’s freedom, as part of a playful joke. Then again, many observers have pointed out that the Liberty Bell was incorporated to several other product advertisements over the years, including insurance, beer, and even board games. The profits clearly spoke for itself. Taco Bell spent about $300,000 on the campaign, but raked in about $25 million worth of free publicity. Sales-wise, the restaurant had an increase in revenue by $500,000 on the same day, and then $600,000 the following day. Maybe the fact that Taco Bell was now in ownership of a national monument that makes its tacos even more appealing, or just because people wanted to get in on the hype too, but no one can deny the marketing success in this story. Entrepreneur magazine included it in its list of “Top 10 Successful Marketing Stunts,” and Museum of Hoaxes named it number 4 on its list of “Top 100 April Fool’s Day Hoaxes of All Time.” With so many more available national monuments still out there, we wonder which company will be next to make an extravagant purchase … Carl’s Jr and the Statue of Liberty, perhaps?