When Food Goes Viral

Courtesy of Pizza Hut

Earlier this week, Pizza Hut trotted out a pie with hot dog bites baked into the crust. “Pizza Hut has created the perfect combination for American tastebuds,” they exclaimed in a press release. This Frankenfood is a ploy to drum up new business as Americans move from the convenience of fast food to more healthy options. Pizza Hut is not the only culprit of these gonzo kitchen experiments; Hardee’s and Dunkin Donuts have rolled out their own crackpot foods that seem like a self-aware joke about a certain American ideal: this foodstuff is so crass that it’s American as fuck.

If you pair these abominations with the otherworldly portions of food that are being sold at an unbelievable discount – KFC’s $5 Fill-Up, Taco Bell’s 5 Buck Box, etc. – you’d think that these brands have eaten their own tail in order to get customers. Most Americans who actively exclude fast food from their diets are not likely to be enticed by a pizza that’s the spiritual cousin of the big rig in Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s surely not frequent patrons that need a marketing campaign to get through the door. Who, then, are these unique customers whose dollars are being chased?

It would seem that this combination of guilty pleasure ingredients and WTF-ness is perfect for a marketing campaign targeted at a try-anything-once demographic of nihilistic pleasure seekers – those of us who spend their money more indiscriminately and have more of it to blow. Simply put, young people. Foods like the Hot Dog Stuffed Crust Pizza are not intended to be a menu staple. Brands understand the power of the internet, and shuffling out these ridiculously real menu options guarantees their immortalization on Instagram, Twitter and topical Buzzfeed listicles. Thus, these kitchen sink foodstuffs become a viral experience.

The viral experience reminds young customers why they liked Pizza Hut before the brand went off to college and got all “artisan.” Customers that the marketing campaign targets likely found out about Hot Dog Stuffed Crust Pizza from their favorite social media site, proving that the formula works to get people to pay attention, and maybe in the door if they’re feeling a little self-loathy that day. Yet, if the ethos behind the scheme relies on a try-anything-once attitude, how do these places expect to retain customers who have traded in their KFC Double Down for grass-fed lamb lollipops?

In a time when restaurateurs are shying away from using a word like “pizza” in their menus and substituting it with “flatbread,” brands are slowly catching up to the nomenclature of gourmet dining. Your coworkers won’t judge you if you tell them you downed an entire flatbread by yourself while your boyfriend was out of town for a week, but if tell them you shame-ate a stuffed crust meat lover’s pizza? You may as well wear your Snuggie into work and affix a sign to your chest that says “I have given up.” Pizza Hut rebranded late last year to appeal to the patrons they lost in this dining paradigm shift, rolling out 16 new “artisan” pizzas, to include honey sriracha crust and some “skinny” options, among others. As Pizza Hut quickly realized, no one was banging down their doors to have their sriracha craving satiated by a dying pizza chain.

Pizza Hut is now relying solely on the cachet of a Snapchat-oriented meal experience in order to draw attention and customers into its business. Other chains, meanwhile, are relying on the Man vs. Food-like absurdity of gluttonous volume while maintaining an unbeatable price tag. Taco Bell, Jack in the Box and McDonald’s all offer boxes filled to the brim with burgers, fries, and tacos. All of it is enough to feed a village – or a family of four – for around $10. To get a sense of how much food your $10 can buy, consider the Dinner Box from McDonald’s: Inside this hellscape of a cardboard lunch pail are two cheeseburgers, four small fries, two Big Macs and 10 chicken nuggets. Once again, all of this will only cost you around $10. That’s a lot of food for you, your friends and, maybe, the neurological side effect of your late night recreations. Fast food wants young people to know that they get it; they can hang.

Courtesy of McDonald’s

In trying to stay hip to youth culture, brands struggle to keep up with the contradictory nature of what their key demographic cries out for. “Pizza is bae,” for sure, and in this time of Pinterest, anything seems possible. Chocolate chip cookie stuffed brownies? Absolutely. Birthday cake cinnamon rolls? You betcha. Bacon-wrapped grilled cheese? There is undoubtedly a step-by-step tutorial out there of how you, too, can ruin your cholesterol levels within the comfort of your own home. When these kinds of foods are floating around the internet, being shared and liked among lists and pages of low-calorie, low-fat, paleo foods, the line becomes blurred. Brands are noticing the demand for healthier options and, in response, are providing 800-calorie packed salads that are the dietary equivalent of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. They’ll give you what you want – some lettuce, maybe a few strawberries – and top it with fried chicken and buttermilk ranch. These options look good next to the burgers and fries, having all the appearance of health but none of the nutritional value.

There are real consequences for those who rely on fast food restaurants as a source of nutrition due to their income level. While viral marketing campaigns work – to an extent – to keep chains afloat, they don’t offer long-term solutions to everyday problems in a lot of homes in America. It is much cheaper to go to McDonald’s to feed your family than it is to go to the grocery store and pick up the ingredients for a nutritious, organic meal. The markup on these items creates a divide between those who can afford to be healthy, and those who cannot.

While many might argue that healthy living is a choice, for many, it simply isn’t. Though these brands may be targeting a younger audience with more cash to burn, it’s the ones with little disposable income being caught in the crossfire. That’s why these ideas in extremity are as reckless as they appear in their advertising. It’s one thing for a show on SpikeTV to laugh at the surreal aspect of the calories involved with these monstrosities; it’s another thing to co-opt this and actually sell it.

In South L.A., a moratorium was placed on the establishment of fast food franchises in 2008. This was viewed as a combative move to help people make healthier food choices and lower obesity rates. Instead South L.A., an area of the city whose neighborhoods are mostly working class, saw an increase in obesity rates in 2015. In 2007, the area reported that 63% of people were overweight or obese. By 2011, that number jumped to 75%. The reason for such a staggering rise in the percentage was due to the fact that, while there was a halt to the establishment of more fast food, there was no counterbalance of healthy greengrocers being established in areas that are considered “food deserts.” It’s not a stretch to infer that these same results may occur in other food deserts around the country if a similar moratorium were imposed. The scary part is that the percentages for those who are overweight or obese may rise at an unprecedented level due to the surge in voluminous offerings being pushed out not only to the targeted audience but to customers for whom these chains are their only options.

It’s hard to tell if these companies will manage to acquire the customers that they desire with their reactive campaigns which draw inspiration from lampooned food terrorists such as Guy Fieri and Adam Richman. Both have had a significant impact in how people view unhealthy choices and what those choices say about you. For a great deal of young people, there is a fair amount of irony and hilarity to be had by partaking in these experiences. In effect, the brands have pushed to show young people that they are also in on the joke. Yet, when there are people whose health is at odds with these awful gimmicks, it feels more appropriate to gag.

Co-written with Camille Redfern (@thatss0rtaraven)

1 comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: