Taco Bell's Counterintuitive Diet

Ads promise weight loss, but can the fast-food chain deliver?

Jan. 6, 2009 — -- In most American households, at least one person started the new year with the resolution to get healthier and lose weight.

Millions began diets. Tens of thousands joined health clubs. And an undetermined number began their diets at Taco Bell. That's right: Taco Bell.

Taco Bell has begun a controversial ad campaign introducing the Drive-Thru Diet. According to Taco Bell, their new "Fresco Menu" can help with "calorie reductions."

The fine print says this menu is not a weight-loss program. That makes the fact they call it the Drive-Thru-Diet a little misleading, but consistent from a chain whose "Fiesta Taco Salad," with 770 calories and 41 grams of fat, is the worst thing on the menu.

Do you remember Jared Fogle, the young man who claimed to have lost 245 pounds eating twice a day at Subway? Fogle became their national spokesman in 2000 and has appeared in over 70 TV commercials pushing Subway as a healthy fast-food alternative. Subway has used eating healthy as its marketing platform and even started a foundation to fight childhood obesity. Its slogan, "Eat Fresh," is one of the most recognizable in fast-food advertising. The strategy has worked well. With over 32,300 locations, Subway has surpassed McDonald's as the fast-food chain with the most outlets.

Now Taco Bell is singing out of Subway's hymn book. They have hired Christine Dougherty as a spokeswoman. Dougherty claims to have lost 54 pounds over two years eating at Taco Bell. As proof, a commercial juxtaposes a picture of chunky Christine with the now-svelte Christine fresh off the Taco Bell diet.

Taco Bell has done its homework. Americans spend over $50 billion a year on diet-related products., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. On any given day, 45 percent of women and 25 percent of men are on a diet, the CDC says.

According to doctors and researchers alike, the diets followed by Jared and Christine -- calorie-restrictive diets -- are the most difficult to do and nearly impossible to maintain. Experts explain that any diet that severely restricts caloric intake will lead to weight loss, no matter what the food choices are.

The problem, they warn, is these diets are too narrow in focus and not sustainable in the long term.

Proof positive may be recent pictures of a chubby Jared despite the hefty salary he is paid that would motivate him to keep the weight off. In fact, Christine's diet, at 1,250 calories a day, is just 50 calories above the minimum number of calories doctors believe is safe to eat each day according to the American College of Sports Medicine.

Fast-Food Diets: Truth in Advertising?

The purpose of this column, however, is to explore Taco Bell's campaign as it relates to responsible advertising. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University predict that 75 percent of Americans will be overweight by 2015 and 41 percent will be obese. They blame, in part, misleading spins in food advertising.

Although consumers are complicit, marketers make it difficult to get accurate information about empty calories, trans fats and serving sizes. Earlier this week I went to Taco Bell's Web site and had an extremely difficult time getting past the diet messages to information about the nutritional composition of the food. Even once I found it, I was still confused about what it meant.

In spite of my objections to Taco Bell's campaign, I predict it will pay off for the chain. America is about freedom and choice, and a healthy lifestyle must be the choice of the individual.

But I also think that one of this country's growing problems is that we allow companies to overstep boundaries. From extreme reality TV to subprime mortgage lending to misleading marketing, it seems to be increasingly acceptable to push the envelope until it breaks and people get hurt.

I have a hard time believing that dieters belong at Taco Bell. If the local adult bookstore opened a children's section, would you let your child go there? If the corner liquor store served fresh squeezed juices and egg-white omelets, would it be a suitable place for an alcoholic?

Taco Bell's well-designed Web site and wonderfully edited TV spots seem to me more like a carefully constructed campaign than a faithful reflection of the chain's role in the American diet.

The work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Larry D. Woodard is president and CEO of Vigilante, a New York-based advertising agency that develops consumer-centric advertising campaigns. He is also chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies New York Council and the recipient of many prestigious industry awards, including two O'Toole Awards for Agency of the Year, the London International Award, Gold Effie, Telly, Mobius, Addy's and the Cannes Gold Lion. A blogger and a frequent public speaker, Woodard enjoys discussing the intersection of media, politics, entertainment and technology.