Soon there will only be two kinds of ads on broadcast TV: commercials for things that make you sick and commercials for things that cure the illnesses caused by the things that make you sick. That’s why fast-food ads are stocked with images of youth living it up, while Big Pharma ads feature old people enjoying themselves despite their afflictions. These two types of ads follow each other with an inexorable logic, alternating the vibrant primary colors of childhood with the washed-out pastels of old age. TV tries to create life in time slots. Drama and comedy are interrupted on schedule for servings of Chicken McNuggets and pills. On broadcast TV, those are the Ages of Man.
This restless flickering between life and death makes sense for a time in which the broadcast networks’ mission of offering entertainment for the whole family generates diminishing returns. Now their shows can really only be tolerated by people who don’t have driver’s licenses: the very old and the very young. Network television has redefined the family to mean shut-ins and people with curfews. “Linear” TV presupposes a captive audience; the youngest and oldest members of the family are more captive than the ones in-between. And “linear” implies a narrative that starts at one point and ends at another. TV commercials remind us what those points are.
Fast food and thirty-second TV commercials, primary sites of consumerism and its discourse for the last six decades, are being swept into the dustbin of history—or hosed out of its parking lot, as the case may be. And as they wane, one fast food brand has turned to the twentieth-century’s great ideological struggle to fight for territory on a new ideological battlefront: breakfast. The conflict between capitalism and communism, pitched in TV commercials as a battle between freedom and authoritarianism at least since Apple’s “1984” spot, now returns, courtesy of Taco Bell, with all its co-opted revolutionary imagery intact, this time with the added benefit of being able to refer to the Hunger Games movies. From computers to the Cola Wars and now on to the breakfast sandwich, the long march into kitschified Cold War triviality makes a great leap forward with Taco Bell’s “Routine Republic” short film, which implores viewers to break the chains of the McMuffin and become “breakfast defectors,” and was probably made in response to Chipotle’s beloved “The Scarecrow” ad-film of two years ago.
Taco Bell revives this thirty-two-year-old idea at a time of great social change and dissatisfaction, but now this is a joke twice-removed. To remove it further, keep in mind that Yum! Brands, Taco Bell’s owner, is a Red-State corporation which donates very, very heavily to Republican PACs, is headed by a conservative Christian, and pays its CEO around $5 million a year. Right after watching one of Taco Bell’s thirty-second breakfast defector spots, a short version ancillary to the short movie, I happened to be reading a new book in the 33 1/3 series on Devo’s album Freedom of Choice, in which Devo’s Gerald Casale points out that when that album came out in 1980, “There was no such thing in corporate society as rebellion. Rebellion was purely a marketing tool.” The breakfast defectors are here with their hashtag to remind us of the endless loop we’re caught in. To rub niacin in this endless death by a thousand cuts, the music in “Routine Republic” is the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Presumably none of this inhabits the living memory of the demographic Taco Bell wants to defect.
Few in it can be expected to know what the words “defector” or “blitzkrieg” meant in the twentieth century. But that doesn’t matter when the ad is played as a dumb meta-joke cynically premised on the notion that rebellion is meaningless. Taco Bell represents freedom, a kind of totally branded freedom with its own fun symbol—which means of course that McDonald’s represents totalitarian slavery. Half of that formulation, at least, is right—contra James Franco’s recent “I loved it” defense of McDonald’s in the Washington Post—but here Taco Bell is really kicking a clown when he’s down. McDonald’s is in steep decline, with profits way down again this quarter. The chain’s latest botched attempt to rebrand features a new Hamburglar, who was roundly mocked after his debut for his striking resemblance to a Magic Mike casting call reject. And these days it’s not only working at McDonald’s that feels like slavery. Eating in one has a distinct prison-cafeteria feel, too.
So it’s no wonder that its competitor should seize the mantle of unconditional morning-bloat freedom. In the new campaign, Taco Bell emphasizes the freedom of mobility its breakfast sandwich allows, in dramatic contrast to the Egg McMuffin’s alleged sloppiness, which ties the consumer down with the oppressive rites two-handed eating and napkin use.
This mobility extends beyond the franchise counter, however, to the delivery systems Taco Bell can now use to reach its core audience. No longer tied to linear TV, Taco Bell enthusiasts (or as they might have been known in the lexicon of the Cold War right, Bellitarians) can now avoid standard McDonald’s commercials with pretty much the same aplomb that permits them to decline a McMuffin or ridicule the new Hamburglar. The digital-savvy management team at Yum! Brands has decided that the 30-second spot is a poor vehicle for freedom’s message, so now Taco Bell is producing new content in this brave new world of short-film ads. (Of course, why someone would actually want to watch Taco Bell’s short film is another question altogether.)
With every formal disruption in the genres and platforms of advertising comes the same message of consumer revolution and youth rebellion. Here, in “the next generation of breakfast,” the lameness of applying the idea of revolution to breakfast sandwiches is part of the joke—a joke at the expense of Millennials and their younger brothers and sisters, who can, in the millisecond they pay attention to any of this, congratulate themselves for being able to process it so quickly. The intended reaction here is “heh.” But a short film is too long for that. The “dollar cravings” items on Taco Bell’s menu will eventually be “dime cravings” or “penny cravings,” even as the chain’s ads threaten to swell like the stomachs of its consumers.