Will Consumers Have a Real Beef With Taco Bell?

Using the lawsuit to hawk the product cheaply might haunt Taco Bell.

March 3, 2011 — -- I was sitting in Dr. Paulo Francini's classroom in Florence, Italy, as a college exchange student when a discussion broke out about the "polli enteri," whole dead chickens that hung in markets throughout Italy. We Americans thought they were disgusting, at best, and perhaps even unsanitary.

Dr. Francini explained that as a kid accompanying his mother to market, he had learned how to determine the health of the chicken and that it was in America where he grew concerned because there was no way to figure out where our shapeless, processed and plastic-wrapped birds came from or what condition the bird was in before it met its demise.

Fast-food chain Taco Bell, accused of selling taco filling made mostly of filler, began an aggressive advertising campaign Friday to assure consumers that its product is largely (88 percent) beef. Will this risky strategy assuage the average Taco Bell consumer or increase scrutiny of the chain that has not been afraid to "think outside the bun" with its advertising and marketing strategies?

Taco Bell, the chain that introduced us to the drive-thru diet with the caption "Eating Better Just Got Easier" and now on the offense against claims that its taco meat is just 35 percent beef, is combating the assertion with an ad campaign that features employees stating the product is 88 percent beef and offering an 88-cent crunchwrap supreme. Surprisingly, the spots don't take place in stores.

There is an on-screen message explaining that the people in the spots are real employees. The employees themselves are in uniform and are in front of a seamless white backdrop that places them not in a restaurant or for that matter, anywhere. They assert the product's beef content and one employee says, "I'm going to get one myself."

They might have been better served by taking the real employees out of their uniforms so people could better relate to them and putting them somewhere like a real restaurant or an actual location. They also could have trotted out an independent expert or two and at least one independent study. With a pending lawsuit, perhaps using the situation to lower the price and hawk the product at an even cheaper price might come back to haunt them.

Late Tuesday, Taco Bell filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in a Los Angeles federal court.

"Our motion to dismiss this frivolous lawsuit speaks for itself, so we are focusing on vigorously defending our brand's reputation and providing consumers the facts about our seasoned beef," said a Taco Bell spokesperson. "Our seasoned beef recipe calls for 88 percent premium USDA inspected beef and 12 percent seasonings, spices, water and other ingredients to provide taste, texture, moisture, and quality."

Fat and Calories Next?

In a video, CEO (since February) Greg Creed personally assures consumers that the product is 88 percent beef. He is dressed casually in a Taco Bell logoed button down oxford and appears in an undisclosed location that has a tall table in the background and at one point a couple walks across in the background.

He has a pronounced Australian accent and cites no studies nor specific proof, just his assertion that what he is saying is true. He smiles and appeals directly to the 35 million "amazing and loyal" customers each week. By directly addressing consumers, Creed has initialed his separation agreement if the courts don't agree with him.

The truth is the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a specific set of requirements for a product to be labeled beef. This requirement limits the amount of water and binders that can be used. Consequently, the specific formula used by Taco Bell could conceivably be prohibited from being called beef.

If the ruling is against Taco Bell, the ad campaign, which includes TV, radio, newspaper and Internet key words, could be a colossal error. At the very least, it might put more intense scrutiny on other attributes of the product such as fat profile and calories, both areas where Taco Bell is vulnerable.

There is a clear movement in the United States toward more natural ingredients and healthier alternatives. From the White House to Walmart, companies and consumers alike are taking heed and making changes.

In the digital world in which we now live, dictators are toppled and companies are exposed with the ability regular people connected by technology have to share information and opinions. Gone are the days when a CEO could grab a camera crew and his best suit and make "it" go away.

Taco Bell needs to plan more carefully in order to keep this smoky mess from becoming a grease fire.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Larry Woodard is a director on the Advertising Week board and chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies' New York Council.