Raised to be aggressively skeptical of consumerism in general and advertising in particular, I have, throughout my adult years, embraced this foundational credo and developed it. I dutifully change channels during commercial breaks and flip right past magazine ads, for example. I diligently disable any and all online pop-ups. I watch on television virtually nothing that hasn’t already been DVR’d, allowing me to buzz right through any and all consumer appeals. When I am obliged to confront an advertisement, I delight in letting loose upon it all my powers of sarcasm and mockery. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of a single instance where I was moved to purchase anything on the basis of its formal advertisement.
Anything, that is, except special edition burgers mongered by fast food giants.
Much as I’m loath to admit it, I am quite helpless in the face of fast-food burger innovators and their army of propagandists.
I recognize this is for the major character flaw it is. Perhaps by writing about this phenomenon, this innermost shame, I hope to overcome it. Until that time, I am putty in the hands of Burger King each and every time it trots out a special-edition Whopper.
The King and his competitors are a sophisticated bunch. It’s not merely the power of their advertising. They spend years in secret labs researching and building into their products the neuroscientific triggers designed to elicit in unsuspecting consumers, like me, the desired Pavlovian response. When it comes to new burgers, I am essentially their Munchurian Candidate.
Ads for existing burger products don’t have the same effect. You could pimp Big Macs to me all day long and I wouldn’t be moved. I know from Big Macs, and I’m over them.
However, when the burger establishment pitches me a new, highly accoutered beefy morsel, I MUST TRY IT.
Intimates of mine may well read this and say, “Well, Hal is famously enthusiastic about all things edible.” And this is true. The same parents who so well prepped me to resist consumerism also imparted to me, by nature and nurture, an overdeveloped appreciation of worthy foodstuffs. But while I’m saddled with an unnatural love of pizza, for example, I don’t see an ad for some new Domino’s product and rush out to buy it. I don’t notice a fancy new offering at my local pizzeria and feel any immediate urge to sample it. Introduction of a new chicken-based sandwich leaves me essentially unmoved.
The burger situation, however, is anomalous and insidious. Something about cow flesh reaches my involuntary subconscious on a primal, somewhat frightening level.
I recently ran across the above ad — for something Jack in the Box is calling the Hot Mess. Am I the only one intrigued by the mere name of this thing? We don’t even have Jack in the Box in Maine, or anywhere in New England, so far as I know. Still, I am plotting my next trip to the West Coast where I can cram a Hot Mess down my pie-hole forthwith.
Methinks it’s the special edition aspect that truly breaks down my fragile defenses. Homer Simpson famously fell victim to the charms of the Ribwich, a McRib-like concoction whose periodic availability (“for a limited time only!”) he meets with unbridled enthusiasm. Indeed, Homer ultimately follows the Ribwich around the country, from city to city, like a Grateful Dead fan.
Thankfully, I don’t have the need to eat these things over and over, but I must try them. When Dairy Queen unleashed its Flamethrower burger — hot sauce, jalapenos, pepper jack and bacon — I naturally went out and sampled one straightaway. Okay, several.
I get over such things in due course, but it’s the initial curiosity that gets to me. If they’re equipped with bacon and/or jalapenos? Well, it’s “Katy bar the door…”
I’m a Burger King guy, because I like underdogs and their fries have always been superior, but mainly because their menus have routinely featured more bacon-bedecked items than McDonalds’, or any other competitor’s. Naturally, it didn’t take me long to sample their new “Angry” Whopper, so called because of the jalapenos, complemented by bacon and onion rings — formidable!
Wendy’s Baconator combined the same time-honored lure of cured meats with another clever name. Of course I’m gonna try that. If they ever figure out a way to work a fried egg in there, I’ll be among the first in line.
The value proposition is another trigger. Much has been written about the obesity of underprivileged Americans due to the remarkable affordability of fast food. A clear connection there, in my view. For the pure delivery of calories (worthless calories, but calories nonetheless), $7 goes a very long way. No, I don’t need a second Whopper — but if you’re offering me one for a dollar? I’m likely to be persuaded by that, even if I’m not hungry. Two Egg McMuffins for $3? Only a fool would pass that up.
I’m already over the recently unveiled Angry Whopper. Been there, done that. But this Hot Mess thing… It’s in my head. I’m headed to California in April. I’m intrigued enough that I may well bypass the SoCal delights of In ‘n Out Burger.
The regional nature of some chains does figure prominently in this equation, so far as I’m concerned anyway. I’m participate in an NBA fantasy league, so I watch a lot of NBA TV, where they merely co-opt regional cable feed from, say, Sacramento, and share it with the nation. The commercials there naturally feature West Coast brands like Carl’s Jr. or Jack in the Box — that’s how I discovered the Hot Mess. When I first started traveling in Florida, I had an uncontrollable urge to investigate what Checkers had to offer. In North Carolina, how can one travel around the state and not drive-thru at Biscuitville?
In Kalamazoo, Mich., from whence my wife hails, I was, for a time, fascinated by something called Hot ‘n Now, a local chain that serves only drive-thru patrons from small, purple, A-framed establishments in mall parking lots. “Oooh… What’s that?” I cooed to her the first time we passed one.
“Ugh. They’re disgusting,” she reported.
“Well, yeah. Naturally… But we’re going to need to turn around.”