MHB WEEKLY: By the students, for the world

Stink Outside the Bun: The Taco Bell PR Saga | January 31, 2011

For fast food chain Wendy’s in the 1980s, all it took was an old woman yelling “Where’s the beef?!?” to both skyrocket the popularity of burgers and etch a classic catchphrase into advertising history. Meanwhile, for Mexican chain Taco Bell, a similar question has been nothing as of late but a source of headache: What, exactly, is the beef?

According to Beasley Allen, the Alabaman law firm that filed class action against the Bell one week ago, a scientific analysis of the restaurant’s seasoned meat yielded concerning results: just 35% of the ground beef is actual animal meat, while the remaining 65% is an amalgam of man-made flavors and coloring agents — including maltodextrin, autolyzed yeast extract and silicon dioxide — that are as hard to pronounce as they might be to stomach. In its lawsuit, Beasley Allen asks not for monetary compensation but for Taco Bell to take responsibility for false advertising. For the chain, this could mean either a mandatory recipe overhaul or a future without mentioning the word “beef” in its ads; instead, a euphemism like “taco filling” would have to be used in its place.

This isn’t the first time, of course, that a fast food joint has been caught blushing in the media. In 1993, Jack in the Box faced violent criticism for selling burgers infected with E. Coli, which lead to four deaths and cost the chain $160 million in legal punishment. Just last year, meanwhile, an advisory board in San Francisco voted to ban toys from McDonald’s Happy Meals if the contained food and drink totaled more than 600 calories — a rule that goes into effect in December of 2011. But in the face of its own controversy, Taco Bell has employed a bold and relatively newfangled PR move: responding immediately with attitude and humor.

Within days of the court filing, Taco Bell bought ad space in several major newspapers — the L.A. Times, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times among them — and ran a full-page retort titled “Thank you for suing us…Here’s the truth about our seasoned beef.” The ad, styled like a traditional press release, calls the claims against Taco Bell “completely false” and reassures consumers that the restaurant’s meat is “88% Beef and 12% Secret Recipe…[added] to give the meat flavor and quality.” On Friday, meanwhile, Taco Bell president Greg Creed appeared on Good Morning America to defend his tacos after posting an explanatory video on YouTube that has already logged 90,000 views in four days (see below). Asked by George Stephanopoulos of ABC News whether his “Thanks for suing us” campaign was like “waving a red flag in front of a bull,” Creed responded with a key strategy of modern marketing: “I think when your reputation is sullied, you have to be swift and you have to be decisive.”

Indeed, Greg Creed’s quick and witty response may very well create a golden opportunity out of a tough situation, and a chance to reconnect with consumers and reinforce their faith in Taco Bell’s food. Some are arguing otherwise, but, provided that Taco Bell’s claims — that its meat is 100% USDA-approved and 88% beef — are valid, the chain might very well emerge as a winner both legally and publicly in this fight. Psychologically, consumers want to see companies as human and sympathetic, not as major corporations selling sludge and calling it pure snow; Creed’s response not only gives a face to his company — even tempered with an endearing Aussie accent — but also uses humor and personality versus the technical and stiff language of his accusers. What remains to be seen is simple: whether there’s bull in Taco Bell’s meat or bull in Creed’s statement.

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    Established in 2009 at USC, the Master's of Science in Human Behavior is designed to equip students with knowledge of consumer psychology, social media and market analysis skills. This is our blog. Subscribe

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