Exit Chihuahua Last Tuesday, Taco Bell announced that it was firing the advertising agency TBWA/Chiat/Day. Which pretty much looks like corporate doings as usual. Taco Bell's corporate parent, the sinisterly named Tricon Global Restaurants?also the shadowy hand behind KFC and Pizza Hut, and, no, I swear I'm not nicking this stuff from mid-90s comic books about sci-fi villain moguls plotting evil deeds in futuristic boardrooms?has shuffled some upper management around, with Peter Waller departing and being replaced by a guy named Emil Brolick?as The New York Times put it?as "president and chief concept officer." Brolick was formerly "senior vice president for new product marketing, research, and strategic planning" for Wendy's, which this writer is absolutely stunned to learn is not really the sole effort of Dave, a kindly old guy in an apron who sets up medical experiments designed to induce average Joes into choosing cheeseburgers over hot chicks named Heather.
Here's what happened: Despite the wild cultural success of the Chihuahua and "Yo quiero Taco Bell" and "Drop the chalupa!"?all of which were Chiat/Day's creative efforts?Taco Bell was experiencing sluggish sales. New York 1 reported a "6 percent decrease in sales," whatever that means, being a simplification of a complex interweaving of capital and material and labor and a thousand other elements for the purpose of a local news broadcast. And unfortunately for this Peter Waller cat, Tricon had recently "announced it had posted a higher-than-expected 26 percent rise in second-quarter operating earnings. But those sluggish sales at Taco Bell caused the company to lower its full-year operating earnings forecast." What that basically means is?this writer presumes?that all those paranoid corporate guys looking for something to do had nothing to pay attention to other than Taco Bell, and so they started poking and prodding at it and firing people and making changes, and generally fucking with it in a thousand ways productive and unproductive.
My limited experience of the corporate world is that it's ruled by the Peter Principle?that folks who are good at their jobs are promoted, and if they're good at that job, they get promoted again, and they will continue to be promoted until they finally arrive at a position for which they are unqualified and/or ineffective. And to some degree, people commenting in the media on the firing of the agency are aware of the essential clusterfuckness of the situation. "Somebody has to be blamed," commented Ron Paul, the president of Technomic, a "restaurant consulting company." "It's not shoot the messenger, it's shoot the agency."
The lesson for those of us not on the corporate inside is that visibility does not necessarily equal profit. For instance: Who's sold more records, Destiny's Child or Jennifer Lopez? The answer is Destiny's Child, by a million records. Despite Jennifer's iconic status and cultural omnipresence. When they write the book about the era, Jennifer Lopez will be the hood ornament on the zeitgeist. But that doesn't necessarily translate directly to bucks.
And so it is with our beloved Chihuahua, the dog that launched a thousand screensavers. The dog that caused thousands of gullible people seeking companionship to get their own Chihuahuas, only to discover that they were actually skittish, freaked-out, disagreeable animals who didn't really make pithy remarks in the style of a Latino Pepe Le Pew. The dog that caused J.J. Walker?perhaps the most embarrassing man in the history of television?to leave his seat on David Letterman and exhort repeatedly, apropos of nothing, "Drop the chalupa! Drop the chalupa, baby!" The dog that forced every Mexican fast-food eatery in the Western world to drop their advertising strategies and parody the Chihuahua instead. A friend of mine was once standing on a corner in Bushwick, watching the presidential motorcade pass by on its way to the airport. "Hey Beel Cleenton!" a guy shouted out. "Drop the chalupa!"
Apparently the wisdom that people go to Mexican eateries to buy tacos?not to show support for a talking dog?isn't a new observation in the ad business. "It's an old rap that doesn't hold water," said a guy from Chiat/Day in the Times. "It's product and promotion that drive frequency and loyalty to fast food. It's advertising's job to create a window, and we created a pretty big window." Apparently the Taco Bell people had recently downgraded the Chihuahua's role in commercials in favor of a focus on, gasp, the actual food. "That's not what we wanted to do," grumped the Chiat/ Day guy.
Those of us who were of legal drinking age around the time of the sublime cultural rift when hair metal split and Kurt Cobain came into the picture are prone to a belief that popular culture suddenly got smarter around that time. To some extent this is just a function of run-of-the-mill generational haughtiness, and the fact that the people in the advertising and creative worlds began to be closer to our own age and thus reflect our set of references. But to some extent I think we might be right; I think that the general level of writing on television has improved in the past decade. Personally, my hope was?and kind of still is?that corporate culture would at least develop a sense of obligation to entertain with their commercials; that there is no way to reverse the flow of a world increasingly stuffed with shills and pitches everywhere that a shill or a pitch can fit, but that maybe out of a general desire to beautify their environment the corporate powers might choose to create quality programming. But the only real way to achieve this is to prove that quality programming is more commercially viable than sheer hucksterism.
In my own world, music, it is increasingly likely that the actual musical product will become so easy to duplicate for free that trying to make a buck selling it will be impossible. And it's likely that making money from distributing a free product will hinge on the same thing that keeps this paper running?advertising. What's really depressing about this scenario is just how backward and ugly music advertising tends to be; television ads for records are usually a clip from the video and a b-grade voiceover guy going, "New record! Out now! Artist name! Record Title!" The videos themselves tend to be relatively unsophisticated affairs. MTV promos and bumpers, the general esthetic identity of MTV, tend to be a lot sleeker, prettier, more of the cultural moment and more interesting than the videos they frame. Which is a great thing to bring up to music industry people when they whine about how MTV doesn't play videos anymore. And when we speak of the music industry, we are of course talking about an industry that in its 40 most profitable years has yet to learn how to sell its products to people once they get out of college?i.e., when they start actually making money to spend on music.
The Chihuahua is the property of Tricon Global Restaurants, not the TBWA/Chiat/Day agency. Actually, a corporate spokeswoman told CNNfn that the Chihuahua "continues to be a part of our advertising." Chances are that they're not gonna completely drop a character that's been such a hit, even if he can't sell gorditas. But the people who wrote the stuff that everybody found so hilarious?"Here leezard leezard," etc.?have been dumped. I'd love to be able to write a good doomy column about how a crucial moment has passed, how the pendulum is beginning to swing back from better entertainment to blander, safer advertising. But I think the only people who this hasn't occurred to yet are the people like me, who don't buy the tacos, rather than the people trying to sell them.