In an advertising age of quick-witted humor, flashy visuals, and memorable mascots, companies must constantly compete with one another over more than just the quality and originality of their product. This came up in a conversation I recently had with a marketing professional, who asked to remain nameless. The particular advertisement in question was Taco Bell’s recent graduation themed clip. In this advertisement, a Taco Bell spokesman jokes that it is a shame one graduate has his degree in arts. While it isn’t incredibly productive to hold a grudge against a corporation, many people have expressed distaste and anger over this commercial, which played online, on television, and at the movies. What exactly is the problem here? Other than the fact that Taco Bell seems to be alienating one of its largest customer bases (college-aged liberal arts students), it seems that consumer and company relationships have become too personal. Brands are increasingly involving themselves in the lives of customers, and, while this is good for the companies, it requires a great deal of responsibility on the advertiser’s part to not step on any toes or underestimate the intelligence of the consumer.
Deborah Weinswig (2016) takes note of the growing phenomena in branding, explaining how brands are extending beyond the product and into personal experience and identity. Weinswig writes, “The most successful brands are telling a story that consumers are eager to hear and be a part of, which usually goes far beyond whatever the brand is actually selling and delves more into experience.” My friend, who has worked for fifteen years as an entrepreneur in the Oklahoma City area, dissected this problem by pointing out that new commercials are becoming less about selling a product, and more about selling a lifestyle. While this is certainly not a new phenomenon, it is an increasingly evolving occurrence that comes with popular nationwide chains. There is already widespread brand recognition for chains like Taco Bell, who encourage their loyal customers to enjoy the “Live Màs” lifestyle. Brands like Taco Bell, Arby’s, Totino’s, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Coke have large social media presences where they produce content, whether it be funny, pointed, or informational, almost constantly. Instead of fighting for interest in their product, companies today are competing for attention by producing funny and outrageous content in order to associate their brand with different aspects of a customer’s life and personality.
If there is any danger in this, it is to the customer, not the company. While Taco Bell may have alienated a few regular purchasers by putting down arts students, they likely didn’t see a large drop in their profits, despite the rage on social media. From a marketing perspective, modern schemes of advertising through a comedic and personal outlet, whether it be on the living room T.V. or the potential customer’s Twitter feed, are good for business. The problem, we surmised, comes down to how seriously we, as consumers, take our relationship with our preferred brands. While large corporations make absurd or overpriced commercials that can cause outrage, eye-rolling, and headaches, consumers must be careful to not get caught up in the “lifestyle” of a brand. Although life has been made easier and more enjoyable by chains and franchises, consumers should be careful not to become beguiled by clever marketing tricks that put more effort into swaying public opinion through flash and aesthetic than product quality.