As a 20 something college kid, I thank God everyday for the existence of Taco Bell.
Without the almighty Bell in our lives, I am not sure what we would do. Honestly, I have yet to encounter a single person that says that they do not like the fast food eatery - outside of agreeing that the metric system sucks, the universally liked Taco Bell is about as close as Americans have gotten to reaching a consensus on anything.
As Thanksgiving is a holiday dedicated to shoveling inordinate amounts of food down your throat hole, I decided to celebrate America's favorite eatery by examining its influence on popular culture. As it turns out, that little restaurant has had quite the impact on how we look at entertainment, and I figure why not celebrate cultural nostalgia through a drive-thru perspective?
In short, this article is not just a celebration of Taco Bell, but the culture weaved around the restaurant, too. You would not think that examining the last 30 years of a fast food restaurant would yield a pretty damned comprehensive evaluation of American pop culture, but, yeah, you would be surprised. And not only that, but exploring the changes of the restaurant throughout the years also demonstrates the changes that have occurred in U.S. society during that same time frame meaning that as the Bell goes, so does the rest of the nation.
Take note, fast food connoisseurs - this is not just a celebration of Taco Bell's history over the last three decades, but in many ways, a look at the evolution of U.S. history since the 1980s, as well.
30 YEARS OF TACO BELL
A look at cultural evolution outside the bun
In case you have not noticed, fast food restaurants have changed considerably since the late 70s and early 1980s. I guess the most obvious change is that thirty years ago, fast food restaurants actually resembled fast food restaurants.
This photo here was taken at a Taco Bell sometime in the early 1980s. As you can see, it is very much a bistro-style environment, with wooden tables and chairs, dining cloths, and a very restaurant-ish feel as far as lighting and layout goes.
Flash forward about a decade to the 1990s. Now, Taco Bell more closely resembles the archetypical fast food establishment, with a drive thru lane and a more modernistic (read: plastic) vibe. The wooden furniture has been replaced by polyurethane booths, and the old-school yellow lighting fixtures have been replaced by fluorescent lighting tubes. Whereas Taco Bell was a place designed for eating in in the 80s, by the 90s, it has been remodeled as a restaurant for those in a hurry and on the go. Paper menus have been replaced by billboards placed above the cashiers desk, and those fancy dining cloths have been replaced by brown paper towels. Clearly, the emphasis for the establishment is on the fast food aspect of its namesake, and most definitely not the restaurant portion.
By the middle of the 2000s, however, most Taco Bells in the U.S. had become hyper-fast food establishments. These are restaurants were the emphasis is almost entirely on the fast-food aspect, with virtually zero emphasis on the dining-in portion of the services. Most Taco Bells in the U.S. are open until 3a.m., but what do you know? The lobby for dining-in closes in most franchise restaurants at around 11 p.m. Since Taco Bell is one of the few major fast food restaurants in the U.S. without a line of breakfast items, its pretty important to note that Taco Bell has a dining-in timetable of about 12 hours, compared to the 18 or so hours for a Burger King of a McDonalds. Although Taco Bell currently has the operation hours of a traditional restaurant, their services are almost wholeheartedly committed to producing take-out food as fast as humanly possible.
And then, there are these:
Say hello to the future of fast food in the U.S., the micro-fast food restaurant. In a corporate world were cost-cutting has become a key element of business modeling, Taco Bell has slowly but surely turned into a micro-fast food restaurant, meaning it is a restaurant designed not only for take-out, but for those that want absolutely NOTHING to do with sitting down and eating a meal at an establishment.
Not only are modern Taco Bells generally smaller than the old school restaurants, they often share space with other franchises as part of the combination chain movement pioneered by YUM! Foods in the mid 2000s. That, and you re beginning to see such micro-fast food restaurants within other establishments, such as department stores, college campuses, sporting arenas, and heaven help us, hospitals and government buildings. Believe it or not, there are even a few micro-fast food restaurants set up in IRAQ to service U.S. military and private contractors!
So what does the change in Taco Bell architecture say about U.S. society over the last 30 years? Well, primarily, the fact that we are hard-pressed for time, and secondly, the virtually-omnipresent expansionism of corporate branding has become an almost natural aspect of our lives. Where are we headed in the next 20 years? If those two trends continue, its quite possible that we may see the COMPLETE elimination of dine-in Taco Bells in the next ten years, as well as slimmed down franchise that more closely resemble hot dog stands than fast food eateries. Depending on how sci-fi techie you want to get, there could be some downright unfathomable changes to our dining experiences by 2030. Could the day be approaching were all you have to do is hit the INSTA-TACO-BELL app on your smart phone and a robot drone drops a value meal on your front porch? Before you laugh, just remember: in 1980, the idea of being able to eat at a combination Taco Bell/Pizza Hut at a Wal-Mart was considered too ridiculous to ponder, too.
Taco Bell is really an extraordinary fast food establishment for a number of reasons, especially in regards to the restaurants use of aesthetics. Whereas most fast food restaurants have underwent numerous logo and design changes, Taco Bell has had just ONE major logo and design overhaul since 1980.
As you can see, it really is not that big of a change, as all the company did was swap out the brown color scheme for a sleeker purple one. Subsequently, the company altered the design of its building and its wrappers to accommodate the aesthetics shift for the product. Yeah, it is a noticeable change, but all in all, it really was not THAT radical of a change in design and brand imagery.
That said, these slight changes may actually be indicative of a change in consumer culture. Visual designers have noted that colors seem to subconsciously affect peoples behavior, especially in a restaurant environment. Essentially, the more muted the colors, the more likely people are to just hang out, whereas the sharper and more vibrant the color scheme, the quicker most patrons are to enter and exit the establishment. The sharper aesthetics design for modern Taco Bells may be seen as a sign of that shift from traditional restaurant to fast food eatery - with the visual emphasis on speed as opposed to experience.
Secondly, the aesthetics change COULD be indicative of the restaurants change from being an ethnic food specialist to a borderless fusion food service. Have you noticed how Taco Bell has seemed to downplay the Hispanic food aspect of their service since the 1990s? Trust me, there is a reason why the company has shifted taglines from make a run for the border to think outside the bun. That is because the Taco Bell product has become a globalized one, and one of the hardest markets for the company to penetrate has been the Latin American one. Since the old school brown and gold logo and border lingo has been seen as some as indicative of (or even insensitive to) Latin American culture, the purple, bun-less transition may very well be an attempt by the company to re-brand itself as something other than a Mexican food service. And if you needed any proof for my assertion, note this: in Mexico, Taco Bell is actually marketed as an AMERICAN FOOD restaurant.
The other aesthetics changes over the years have been so subtle that most people have not even noticed them. Although it is fairly common now, Taco Bell was one of the first mass market food chains to give consumers access to the soda fountain, and the restaurant was one of the first in the U.S. to strike deals with major soda manufacturers to produce chain-exclusive colas, like the Mountain Dew Baja Blast campaign from a few years back.
And then, there are the condiments. Although you probably have not realized it, Taco Bell was really an innovator when it came to restaurant layout, as it provided consumers with a one-stop cubby hole for all of their utensil and sauce needs. Taco Bell was one of the first retailers in the U.S. to carry combination fork/spoon hybrids (sporks, foons, whatever you want to call them), and as far as the sauce packets go? Needless to say, there has been some evolution there, as the brand has not only expanded its line-up, but used the technically free condiments as a stand-alone advertising selling point for the chain.
You know, instead of giving you a basic primer on how the Taco Bell menu has changed (long story short, there is more stuff now than there was in 1980, obviously), I have decided to run down some of the discontinued items Taco Bell has promoted over the decades. I assure you, this just isnt pointless foodnography, it is also a glimpse at how consumer tastes - both figuratively and literally - have changed over the years.
A good place to begin would be with the LONG-forgotten Bell Beefer. For those of you born AFTER Ronald Reagans presidency, you would have absolutely ZERO exposure to this Taco Bell menu item. Heck, even the people that were around when the item was originally offered have probably forgotten it even existed, for that matter!
The Bell Beefer was Taco Bell's first. . .and to this very day, ONLY. . .foray into the world of sandwich making. Essentially, the Bell Beefer was just some ground beef on two hamburger buns - basically, a Sloppy Joe, only without all of the Sloppy.
If it sounds sort of weird that a company that bills itself as being above the lowly bun would have at any point contemplated the release of its own hamburger, the fact that the company has also experimented with its own line of French fries would have to be an altogether different kind of mind-blowing revelation.
Yes, Taco Bell fries are a reality. Note, not were a reality, are, as in you can actually order them in many non U.S. restaurants today. At several points throughout the 80s, 90s and 2000s, the company has toyed around with making the fries a wide-scale product in America: could the 2010s be the decade where they FINALLY become a standard item on the menu?
Around the mid 80s, Taco Bell decided to expand its menu to include several items that, at first glance, really do not seem to gel with the whole Mexican food theme. For example, the less-than-well received Seafood Salad here:
Of course, Mexican Seafood is a pretty common restaurant item: just not one you would find at a fast food restaurant, where refrigeration technology (especially circa 1986!) really were not up to snuff for properly freezing things like shrimp and salmon. Needless to say, this one did not stay on the roster for very long. . .
One of the all time great Taco Bell controversies involves the discontinuation of the original enchirito. In the early 90s, the enchirito was one of the most popular items on the menu, and around the mid 90s, the franchise, for some bizarre reason, cut them from the line-up. After an uproar from Taco Bell enthusiasts across the U.S. the enchiritos were ultimately brought back into circulation, although in a completely different form from what we early 90s fans remembered.
Apparently, black olives must have went extinct around 1999, I presume.
Now here's an example of corporate synergy at work: what do you get when you combine Taco Bell with Fritos? If you answered, a kick-ass chili and burrito combination, you would be muy correcto.
And, hey, let us not forget about the long discontinued chili cheese burrito, which gave many of us delightful bouts of indigestion around the late 90s and early 2000s.
Since gorditas and chalupas aren't really breakfast type foods (unless you are in college, of course), Taco Bell has not really had too much success with its periodic attempts to break into the early morning sector of the fast food world. Even so, its an experiment Taco Bell has tried numerous times before, and it would not surprise me in the slightest if we see at least one or two more attempts at introducing sausage, egg and cheese quesadillas before the decade is over.
The blackjack taco from 2009 is emblematic of how the market has changed since 1980, for a number of reasons. For starters, it really is not that drastic of a change to the basic taco you can pick up at the restaurant. In the 80s and 90s, it was all about introducing these grand, experimental ideas on the marketplace, and today, it is about toying around with proven formulas just delicately enough to get people to view them as something different. And for those of you that are wondering how the whole user-generated movement has affected the Taco Bell menu?
Meet the Doritos Locos Taco, a product being test marketed in California as we speak. The creation - a legit menu item at some Bell locations - is based on a time-tested dorm recipe that merges snack food and fast food into a singularity. Does this mean that we are on the fast track to being able to purchase Taco Bell branded burrito pies or taco sandwiches, like the sort of stuff you would see on Epic Meal Time or This Is Why Your Fat?
As you can see, consumer tastes have changed quite a bit, from the days of Sloppy Joe Tacos and Shrimp Burritos to our experimental junk food-stuffed tacos and odd-hued burrito offerings. If I had to venture a guess, I would think that in the upcoming years, Taco Bell will probably cater more towards specialized tacos, making the chain more like a Subway or a Quizno's than the largely non-transparent fast food chain we know today. And of course, you would be able to order your own custom taco from your smart phone - a service that several pizza chains have already begun using.
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Taco Bell was always an anomaly in the world of fast food, because I do not recall them ever saturating the market with exclusive tie-ins the way most fast food retailers did. That is not to say that they did not - they actually had some downright MASSIVE campaigns, as we will soon examine - but compared to McDonalds or Burger King, they really did not seem to cater to the kiddie market all that much. Perhaps that is a testament to the greatness of Taco Bell s food line-up: the stuff is so good that they didn t even NEED to lure in the kids with free toys, playgrounds or gimmicky cartoon characters to get them to want to go there.
As far as promotions go, Taco Bell really did not start going all out until the early 90s. And even then, let us just say that their choices for promotions were, well, rather dubious in hindsight.
ENTER THE ROCK CUPS.
You know, a lot of people see modern pop culture did not begin until Smells Like Teen Spirit, and if this commercial from 1990 is any indication, holy hell, are they ever right. Consider me as surprised as you are to find out that the Scorpions were still THAT relevant post the fall of the Berlin Wall.
As part of the company s early 90s campaigns, they decided to use, of all licenses, Rocky and Bullwinkle to hawk their goods. Here are two commercials that feature the duo battling the nefarious Boris burgers from 1993:
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It was not until 1994, however, that Taco Bell decided to take that astronomical leap and make a promotion so unbelievably huge that even Donald Trump would have called it too much. Forget making a commercial or a couple of advertisements, Taco Bell decided to star in its own movie.
Demolition Man, starring Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes, is one of my favorite guilty pleasure movies of the 1990s, and its probably one of yours, too. As part of a financing deal for the movie, Taco Bell paid an extraordinary amount of money to have the company INTEGRATED into the plot of the movie, marking one of the most brazen displays of shameless product placement in the history of American cinema.
In the film, Taco Bell was the ONLY fast food restaurant left following a post-earthquake rattled California. The crazy thing is, the name Taco Bell was actually dubbed out in several international releases, and in some cable TV airings in the states, the scenes were edited to reference ANOTHER fast food juggernaut!
Following the Demolition Man promotion (which, honestly, was kind of a dud), the company decided to promote NBA star Shaquille O Neal as its latest spokesman, creating a series of ads that warned viewers about Taco Neck Syndrome in the mid 90s.
Although mildly more successful than their last putsch, it was actually their next promotion that would prove the company s all time most popular. . .
For whatever reason, that talking Chihuahua became the greatest idea Taco Bell marketing execs ever churned out. Although Taco Bell claims that sales went down during the marketing campaign, several polls indicated that the campaign helped spark the fast food chains popularity in the late 90s - not that it did not entail a little overlap with some other dubious licensing crossovers, of course.
Today, Taco Bell does not really have a central mascot or marketing gimmick - unless you want to count those god awful 50 Cent commercials from a few years back, which you don't. Perhaps as an attempt to re-brand the chain as something other than an ethnic food retailer, the current trend for Taco Bell marketing seems to be skewed towards a rather bland campaign highlighting various meal packages - meaning that the company appears to be targeting on-the-go families as its number one clientele base. As the worldwide recession continues, expect to see more campaigns anchored around economized meals and value boxes than anything centric to any pop cultural characters or marketing mascots. . .although, I, for one, would love to see that dog make a triumphant return to the world of television, wouldn't you?
Well, this is probably the easiest way to see how times have changed from the 80s until now. I guess you really do not need too much commentary for these things, but I will try to provide a little bit of insight and analysis as we trek our way from the Carter era to the Obama administration.
This first video is from 1979, and yeah, it most certainly feels like it. . .and that is even WITHOUT the little quip about gasoline rationing at the end! Anyway, this thing has pre 80s written all over it. The Dorothy Hamil haircuts, the super generic clothing, and most importantly, the party atmospherics. As you can see, the big selling point here is the restaurant experience. You and your friends can come on down to the local Bell and just kick back and have a jolly old time eating tacos and slurping down Pepsi. In some ways, it feels like the commercial is advertising the fast food chain as more of a hanging out place than a place to get food. . .a marketing hook that, as we know by now, just is not going to last for too much longer.
Now, here is one from 1985. Obviously, things have changed quite a bit over six years, as the key aspect of this commercial involves the food items, and not the restaurant as a social gathering place. The Pizzazz Pizza (what we call a Mexican pizza today) is displayed as something of a celebrity in this commercial, as the ad tries to inspire consumers to flock to the nearest chain and try out their new-school concoction. The one holdover from the 1979 commercial is the antagonizing of competing hamburger joints. . .an aspect of the company s marketing strategy that seems to persist throughout the ages.
This commercial, from 1986, is basically the same deal as the Pizzazz Pizza spot, only this time, the ad highlights a package deal instead of a single meal. Whereas the first commercial highlights socialization and the second one highlights a specific product, this ad is focused on the value incentive instead. This is something of a recurring theme throughout the years, as during times of economic stagnation, the advertising for the chain seems to almost ALWAYS focus on thrift over style OR substance.
This is an ad from 1988, which marks the very end of Reagan s America. One of the really weird things you will notice about fast food commercials is that during election years, they seem to play into the whole cult of personality thing and present their foodstuffs as these vaunted, celebrity like objects. The commercial also demonstrates the company s turn towards re-branding itself as a Mexican food specialist, with the Pizzazz Pizza getting relaunched as the wayyy less Americanized-sounding Mexican Pizza. Pay careful attention to that as we progress throughout the 90s, and see if you can spot the moment the company decided to switch back to a more Americanized theme for its advertising.
In addition to providing us with one of the most hilariously awful commercial jingles of the decade, this TV spot from 1990 plays the Southwestern food motif to the hilt. At this juncture, the company has pretty much TOTALLY submersed itself in the Mexican-ized theme for its product, with the intent of getting consumers interested in some mildly exotic sounding foods. Hot on the heels of the Savings and Loans scandal, this commercial once again highlights the value incentives of the product - which, of course, leads us perfectly to. . .
. . . this 1991 spot, featuring a hamburger-hating MC Hammer. At this point, one could say that the company was trying to re-Americanize itself, but since this was really the starting point for globalization, it could more or less just be an attempt to appeal to contemporary pop cultural interests. No matter how you look at it, the key component of this commercial is not the food, but the commercial itself, which marks the beginning of an industry-wide meta-advertising trend that will last for almost two whole decades.
This 1993 spot is an example of the meta-advertising trend, as well as the cult-of-personality marketing technique. At this point, the fast food wars were ON, and companies were dumping tons of money into commercials, with the ideology that the most visually memorable spots were an absolute necessity for the brand - even if those commercials really had next to nothing to do with the product. Even so, there is still an emphasis on a new food product here, and a special emphasis on the SIZE of the food, which by the mid 90s, would become anathema to the entire fast food racket...
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. . .and this 1995 spot sums up what I am talking about perfectly. By the mid 90s, the U.S. economy was booming, and since people had so much disposable income, there was actually a SURPLUS of foodstuff around. Coupled with a cross-cultural trend emphasizing weight loss (this was the decade of Kate Moss and Ally McBeal, after all), Taco Bell decides to highlight more health-conscious menu selections here, in another meta-advertising-ish commercial.
1999 was probably the zenith of the technology boom, and this spot highlights a couple of sociological markers that hark back to lucrative times. For starters, how about the soccer mom imagery? In a post-recession America, those things have all but died out. . .but I digress. I have talked a lot about meta-advertising, and this spot represents the point in time in which the marketing technique kind of went overboard. The visual imagery here is strong, no doubt, but it is so blunt and disconnected from the actual menu items it is supposed to be hawking that after watching it, you have no real idea what product was being pitched to you. The idea of using non sequitur humor became an industry standard by this point, and would soon become the predominant marketing hook in the field. . .
. . .as apparent by this 2001 spot, in which the menu item being advertised is downplayed to the point that you really do not KNOW what is being advertised until almost the very end of the commercial. While this spot utilizes a contextual sort of humor as a meta-advertising hook, advertising trends would switch over to a less structured model of comedy very shortly. . .
. . .and by 2004, absurdist, NON-referential humor would be a common feature of TV advertising. In the post-ironic, post-9/11, post-Internet age, many companies - Taco Bell included - began airing commercials that were intended to be parodies of their own branding, a sort of oblique, ultra-obscured self-referential humor that, well, really was not funny at all. At this point, there is not just miniscule references to food products, but very little reference to the COMPANY BRAND, either.
2008 was really the start of the economic recession in the U.S., and this commercial (which ran during the Super Bowl), represents the hyper-proliferation of the non-referential humor motif. In case you have not noticed, a lot of the ads up to this point featured references to middle class life - office cubicles, SUVS, extravagant shopping sprees, etc. As things slowly begin to take a nose dive in the market, pay careful attention to this last ad, and tell me what the marketers are trying to REALLY convey to the audience.
And we close with this 2010 spot, which takes the non-referential humor model to an absolutely ABSURD extreme. The commercial is really a parody of a parody, a context-less spot that is so far removed from reality that you do not know if it is trying to sell you a burrito, a movie, an upcoming video game or what. Once again, however, we find ourselves with an appeal to our wallets, with the food marketed based not on our taste buds, but our financial worries. Needless to see, as much as things have changed since 1979, in a lot of ways, they really have not changed at all.
At the end of the day, how do you gauge the influence of Taco Bell on modern pop culture? Well, if you ask me, the restaurant has had a lot of impact on not only the way we view fast food, but fast food marketing, as well. The question is, ultimately, whether or not Taco Bell had an influence on society, or if society simply changed on its own and Taco Bell merely reflected the changes that go in on culture. As a journalism student, I have done WAY too much research on modern media theories, and analyzing the growth and evolution of the fast food chain throughout the last three decades demonstrates pretty much all of them. Clearly, marketing and pop culture (as a whole, of course), has the ability to alter social trends, but at the end of the day, I think it is the social trends (independent of any SINGLE cause) that has more influence on how companies operate, brand themselves, and expand throughout the years.
Using Taco Bell as a case study, you can see how entertainment and culture have changed TREMENDOUSLY since 1980. Not only have the demographics changed, but a lot of the old constructs of the 80s have been all but eradicated, thanks to the advent of new technologies and cultural influences. There has been a definite consumer shift over the last three decades, and a WHOLE lot of things play into that - but I will leave that research up to you to finish.
So, with everything said and done, what is the point here? Well, times change, and so do the things we hold dear. Although things naturally evolve over time, often becoming things they once were not, we still vest a lot of interest in the things that we grew up with. . .hence, the very reason why this website exists.
Yes, Taco Bell has changed into something it used to not be, and so has everything else in the world. As I said earlier, the evolution of Taco Bell is really a microcosm of the evolution of popular culture as a whole since the early 80s, and as such, we cannot help but look back and smile at just how much ground we have traversed from then to now.
All in all, there really are not too many things out there that is as fun as charting the wondrous, twisting and yes, filling progress that comes along with simply getting older.
And thankfully, making a run for the border was, and remains, one of those unflappable cultural monuments that seems to age right alongside us.
James Swift is a freelance writer and author of two books, How I Survived Three Years at a Two-Year Community College: A Junior Memoir of Epic Proportions and Mascara Contra Mascara: A Tale of Two Masks. He believes that he deserves free Taco Bell for life after writing this article.
My Twitter: twitter.com/jswiftmedia My YouTube Channel:youtube.com/user/JSwiftMedia My Blog: internetisinamerica.blogspot.com