Based on the absurdities of some of their menu items, Taco Bell seems like a pretty ridiculous place to work. It's like a Wonka factory with cannons firing miscellaneous foods at simultaneously launched tortillas. Whatever absurd configuration lands on the floor first becomes their next best-selling food mutant.
But as wild and unpredictable as their Lovecraftian menu can be, their marketing is pretty generic. They're always presenting their crazy experiments with a relatively straight face. You'd think their overall corporate persona would be more aligned with the surrealist ad campaigns of Old Spice and Starburst. Those companies rely on self-aware weirdness to get your attention. Taco Bell just puts out a gentle press release about genetically splicing together a burrito and some spaghetti to create the new Screaming Spagherrito, so named because it's spicy and because it screams a lot. Their commercials are similarly dull. "We're open at 2 a.m. So if you're hungry and crave a brush with violent indigestion, pop on by and try the Five Dollar Doritos Locos Call Your Mom She's Worried About You box."
That's why Taco Bell's website fascinates me. Most companies only have sites in the first place so some random dude doesn't snatch up the URL. But on Taco Bell's website, I can find all the weirdness I've expected to see from their advertising. I don't know how long it's been this way, since I've only previously used the site to familiarize myself with their freak show menu so I don't get flustered by its grotesque beauty in line at the drive-thru. Looking back, I wish I would've scrolled down the page just a little bit more to reach the Promised Land: the weird descriptions they've written for their food.
For contrast, here's how McDonald's describes the Big Mac on its product page:
Mouthwatering perfection starts with two sear-sizzled 100% pure beef patties and Big Mac sauce, sandwiched between a sesame seed bun. American cheese, shredded lettuce, onions and pickles top it off.
Simple. Direct. Just 30 words to describe their flagship sandwich, the sandwich that will stand valiantly on the bow of the S.S. McDonald's as it sinks.
Here's only a quarter of the words Taco Bell uses to describe the general concept of fountain drinks:
Hey, this is a cup. It comes in four sizes, and you can fill it with the fountain drink of your choice.
You can put ice in it, too, if you want. You've probably experienced a cup before, so let's talk about what you really want to know: our place in the ever expanding universe.
If you were to get all four of these cups, you'd find that they comfortably fit inside each other. Each, an identical but smaller version of itself, like a Taco Bell Matryoshka doll. Matryoshka dolls, for all of you running to Wiki right now, are those traditional wooden Russian dolls that have one doll inside another doll, inside another doll, etc. Not only are they beautiful examples of Eastern European craftsmanship, but they're physical metaphors for life's complex layers of awareness. See, like our fountain drink cups or Matryoshka dolls, human experience is predicated on macro and micro iterations of the cogs that build it.
It's like that for nearly every description on the site. So much of it feels like a middle-aged guy was asked to binge Rick And Morty and use some of that distilled magical essence to explain burritos. Almost every product page is filled with non-sequitur irreverence that uses fast food Tex-Mex as a backdrop to get "deep" or "surreal" with "comedy." Each page is written like a shortform article with original titles, almost like blog posts. They even have Facebook and Twitter share buttons. Don't worry; you blocked the only people who've used them a long time ago.
Before I go too deep into it, know that some of the descriptions are actually a little funny. For instance, Taco Bell acknowledges that it's weird that you could buy just a cup of seasoned rice from them if you want in the title of the page in question, which reads "Wait, You Just Want Rice?" This is followed by the subtitle "Are you sure?" Then, after they try talking the reader out of buying their products, the paragraph ends with "just know that literally NOBODY gets just rice from Taco Bell." That's the kind of self-aware pandering we irreverent millennials want out of our corporate brands. If their Breakfast Quesadilla description was just a step-by-step lesson on how to dab, I wouldn't be surprised.
From there, the descriptions can be filed into a few subgroups, which range from attempts at irony that miss the mark to ramblings that feel like someone hacked the website and filled it with nonsense that corporate hasn't noticed yet. Like Taco Bell itself, most of it is terrible and I love it all.
A recurring theme is Taco Bell ironically-but-not-ironically praising themselves for being awesome. They use all the jokey product descriptions to disguise how they truly see themselves, like in this snippet on the Cheesy Gordita Crunch:
Not often does a food innovation come along that completely transforms the way we eat, yet the Cheesy Gordita Crunch has become a lasting staple of our personality as Taco Bell. It's a privilege to witness a culinary phenomenon of this magnitude during our tiny slice of life on this earth.
I can see Taco Bell executives repeating that mantra word for word in the mirror at least ten times a day. Rather than use phrases like "mouthwatering perfection" the way McDonald's did for the Big Mac, Taco Bell describes the Chalupa Supreme as "a Dante-esque culinary anomaly." I don't know why a restaurant would describe one of its own dishes as an abnormal taco from Hell, but it does set up a standard to describe the five layer beefy bean burrito as "a Chaucer-esque journey into glorious irrelevancy" and the cinnamon twists as "like Sophocles, but super delicious, bro."
The write-up for the Crunchwrap Supreme (which is kind of like a taco Frisbee. Really. Just throw one) paints it as a legendary musical artist that golfs on its own island and receives honorary doctorates while regular Crunchwraps "end their culinary careers booking shows at regional casinos to help pay rent." Ignoring that it's really weird to see a restaurant diss its own food, all that separates the lowly and pathetic Crunchwrap from the enviable Crunchwrap Supreme is sour cream and a vague layer of tomatoes. But apparently that's enough to develop its own caste system. The writers of these descriptions were so high off of their Crunchwrap musical artist metaphor that they felt they had to carry this sense of superiority to its logical conclusion: shading Drake in the description of a soft taco:
It's so soft, it exclusively listens to Toronto hip-hop.
Attributing distinctly human qualities to food is another popular running theme throughout the descriptions, from the Dressed Egg Taco resembling "you in your current state of being bundled up in a sleeping bag" to the Fiesta Taco Salad, described as a party at "lettuce's house" and the shredded cheddar cheese is the guy no one invited -- which implies that Taco Bell thinks they shouldn't have put cheese on the thing they're going to serve you, but oh well! Shredded Cheddar Cheese is here, and its boombox is filled with nothing but Limp Bizkit.
The real masterpiece is the description of the 7-Layer Burrito. The writer puts the reader in the role of a voyeur peeking in on the lives of the individual burrito layers as if they lived on their own floors in an apartment building, in what might be the most disrespectful and oddly beefy homage to Rear Window imaginable.
Latin rice is an elderly woman on the second floor who grows rhubarb in her apartment garden. Shredded lettuce is the handy landlord on the fourth. Reduced-fat sour cream is a reclusive rich guy who lives on the top floor. Guacamole is a dancer on the third floor the voyeur is in love with but has never spoken to and only watches from afar. I take offense to Taco Bell casting me, the reader, as some sort of prowler spying on the sensual moves of guacamole, probably with binoculars and heavy breathing. That's entrapment. For the record, my interest in guacamole is strictly platonic, with the possibility of delicate hand stuff.
Every once in a while, though, the writer give you a peek into the dark psychosis that fuels all of this. In some of the descriptions, it's plain to see that Taco Bell is having an existential crisis. It chose to express its profound confusion through a series of short essays on the deeper metaphors hidden between the tortillas and cheese. It wears its crisis on its sleeve, as seen in the title of the Doritos Cheesy Gordita Crunch essay: "A Really Delicious Identity Crisis."
However difficult an identity crisis can be, it's only made worse when you deny your real identity. If you want an example of how to handle an identity crisis with grace, look no further than the Doritos Cheesy Gordita Crunch.
At first I suspected that whoever wrote this had been emotionally scarred by nacho cheese at some point in their life, especially after reading the post about the Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Taco Supreme, as it described the memory of a child's birthday wish for a tuxedo-wearing T-Rex best friend with gobs of optimism before immediately crushing it with the cold cynicism of adulthood, realizing "the dream is dead; Rex isn't coming." After more research, I think I discovered the true source of the Taco Bell food description writer's pain, or at least a metaphor that alludes to it, in the write-up for the Smothered Burrito. It describes a once-loving, now-broken relationship between a burrito and its sauce topping.
Everything is great for the first few months, but then burrito starts to see a few red flags in sauce. Maybe it gets a little too jealous of other sauces. Maybe sauce gets a little angry when burrito goes to the mall with other burritos. Now, burrito just spends weekends shopping for deals on lawn furniture and falling asleep to cable television at 10 P.M, a shadow of the burrito it was before being smothered by red sauce.
How the writer found the strength to not break the metaphor and end the piece with, "And screw you, Karen." is admirable. That would've actually been a more upbeat ending than what was delivered:
We'd feel kind of bad for the burrito, but honestly it's just too dang delicious with red sauce all over it. Plus, it's just a burrito, and burritos don't have feelings.
That's the writer bravely admitting that his pain has caused him to become emotionally disconnected. He is the burrito. He needs to make a change, so he turns to the Spicy Tostada. The writer admires the Tostada for being unafraid to be itself, "unlike people who wear a mask to keep everyone from seeing what's truly on the inside," even though he tries to brush off its break through by suggesting the reader is reading too much into it:
... wait ... no no no, it's a metaphor, keep that on ... Oh jeez. You, ummm ... really took that whole "open-faced" thing to a place we weren't expecting.
Through every description, the writer refers to themselves with the royal "we." But the illusion breaks for just a moment in the second sentence in the Double-Decker Taco page. The writer begins with, "I like to imagine ..." before going on to theorize that hard and soft shell tacos probably share a bathroom to do god knows what together.
Who are you? Why are you writing these? I'd ask you to stop, but I want to see if this taco manifesto ends with someone screaming atop a burning Taco Bell / KFC joint location. But I don't think it will, as the writer found inspiration in the Spicy Tostada and ultimately found hope again in the menu item that helped them verbalize their disillusionment. After realizing the tuxedo-wearing T-Rex best friend would never be real, they one day "see a billboard for a Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Taco Supreme."
The Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Taco Supreme reignites their passion and wonder. The writer realizes that if Taco Bell can turn a dumb pipe dream about a crunchy taco with a shell made of Doritos into one of the best-selling fast food items of all time, he or she can make even their most impossible dream come true. It's an inspiring message about how, with a little effort, any of us can make a fortune selling delicious, absurd garbage.
Luis would like to thank Cracked senior editor Anita Serwacki for showing him the page for Taco Bell's fountain drinks, which sparked an obsessive plunge into a rabbit hole padded with fluffy tortillas. You can find Luis on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook.
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