Where’s the beef? Just do it. We have the meats. Don’t leave home without it. And, of course, wazzzzaaaaaap. Slogans and campaigns are integral to a major corporation’s success, and no advertising campaign has lingered in the pop culture lexicon in quite the same way as Yo Quiero Taco Bell.
On its 25th anniversary, we thought it was worth revisiting this now-iconic slogan, the dog that made it famous, and the popular restaurant chain that actually suffered because of it. As recognizable as the slogan may be, few people remember just how disastrous it was to Taco Bell’s image, and not only because many people found it horribly offensive.
It all started in September 1997 with a charming little commercial starring Gizmo the dog, an adorable chihuahua who went on to appear in a GEICO commercial as well as 2003’s “Legally Blonde 2.” In the 30-second advert, Gizmo can be seen eyeing another chihuahua down the block before he starts running toward her.
However, when he and his chihuahua-to-be finally cross paths, Gizmo keeps running in favor of a nearby hardshell taco he wants before saying the iconic line, “Yo quiero Taco Bell,” voiced by actor and comedian Carlos Alazraqui, a main cast voice actor on shows like “The FairlyOdd Parents” and “Rocko’s Modern Life.”
The commercial is cute enough and isn’t explicitly offensive despite toeing the line pretty closely. It was really in the subsequent commercials that things started getting a little dicey. The next ad from 1997 had a similar premise, with Gizmo forgoing a connection with another chihuahua to get a bite of some Taco Bell (this time featuring “Arrested Development” actor Tony Hale!) using the signature catchphrase.
By the time 1998 rolled around, Taco Bell started thinking outside the bun with their Gizmo-centric campaign, testing out some new ideas that rubbed quite a few people the wrong way. While the campaign still employed the “Yo Quiero Taco Bell” slogan, the company started seeing what kind of mileage they could get out of their new mascot.
For instance, Cuban-Americans nationwide became outraged when Gizmo sported a beret in some promotional materials in an obvious nod to Che Guevara. “We wanted a heroic leader to make it a massive taco revolution,” said the chain’s advertising director, Chuck Bennett.
In a 1998 LA Times article titled “Latino Leader Calls for Taco Bell Boycott,” a Sacramento-based civil rights activist named Mario Obledo said, “To equate a dog with an entire ethnic population is outrageous, despicable, demeaning and degrading,” demanding that Taco Bell discontinue the commercials under threat of a general strike by the chain’s employees.
Earlier that same year, the LA Times published a piece titled “Yo Quiero Respect and Sensitivity,” which profiled the opinions of multiple Latinos who had seen the commercials. Looking back at these takes from the late 90s, it’s almost striking how little the discourse around Latin American representation has changed in more than 20 years.
“I am happy that they are finally using Spanish in the media. I would be happy if they showed even more Mexican culture in advertising,” said a 21-year-old senior at Pierce College named Wendy Hernandez. “Sometimes protest groups have a valid point, but sometimes they take it too far. The real concern now is immigration and the protest groups are losing sight of this major issue.”
Another senior from Cal State Northridge named Miguel Paredes noted that “Yo quiero Taco Bell” was not the first offensive campaign by the popular restaurant. “People, particularly Chicanos, find this advertisement offensive because Taco Bell has a history of commercials that were insensitive to the struggle of Mexicans in the United States,” he said. “The previous emblem with the Mexican with the sombrero taking a nap and the ‘Run For the Border’ campaign were very offensive.”
For some, like Pierce College junior Miguel Angel, the disparaging aspects of the commercial also seemed to be subconscious. “At first I thought the commercial was funny,” Angel said. “But then I noticed the house and the street it is filmed on. It portrays lower-class people. It gives the impression that the only people who eat at Taco Bell are Latino and low-income.”
And finally, Cal State Northridge junior Greg Barajas felt like the commercials reinforced harmful stereotypes about Mexicans, and said, “This country has a racist history, with cultural genocide against Mexicans going back to the Mexican American War. The United States has always been dependent on Chicanos to perform the low-paying jobs. The role of the lower-class worker is imposed on the Mexican people and institutionalized by racism.”
Although the chain attempted to redirect the “Yo Quiero” ads in 1999 to paint a less culturally alienating perspective, some of the damage that had been done would prove to be irreparable. The most notable example is a 1998 lawsuit against Taco Bell which claimed the campaign had been pitched by two Michigan men at a New York Licensing Show in 1996.
The 1999 ads were a bit more creative and actively tried to steer away from the stereotypes with which Taco Bell had become a little too comfortable. But their effort was mostly for naught after they paid out a total of $42 million dollars in damages to the two men in 2003. “Drop the Chalupa” may have been another hit slogan, but it didn’t really matter all that much in comparison to how much money Taco Bell lost because of the campaign.
To add insult to injury, the campaign actually led to a decrease in revenue despite its popularity. In the second chapter of their book, “Worst Ideas Ever,” authors Daniel B. Kline and Jason Tomaszewski wrote, “Unfortunately, while the dog was famous and more people knew about Taco Bell, less people actually ate there.”
They continued, “A talking dog who loves your restaurant’s food, it seems, while cute, does not exactly send the right message to the public. Instead, it apparently sent the message, ‘Our food is dog food,’ and despite the wildly popular (and expensive) ad campaigns, sales actually slumped for the chain.” It’s estimated that Taco Bell lost about 6% percent of its yearly revenue from the commercials alone, leading them to discontinue the campaign in 2000.
Tom Kenny, the voice actor who plays the titular role in “SpongeBob SquarePants” and longtime friend of Carlos Alazraqui, attributed the poor reception from Latinos as a driving force behind the discontinuation, according to a book called “The Magic Behind the Voices” by Tim Lawson and Alisa Persons.
Taco Bell severed its ties with advertising agency TBWA Worldwide and ended up suing them after paying out $42 million to the two Michigan men in 2003. By 2009, Taco Bell was now 0 for 2 in lawsuits related to Gizmo thanks to TBWA’s representation, Venable partner Douglas Emhoff. The same Douglas Emhoff who is now Vice President Kamala Harris’ husband and second gentleman of the United States.
You really can’t make this stuff up.
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