Taco Bell has not released a new breakfast item. Instead, it has released a new series of commercial spots for its existing breakfast offerings, and the ads all take a really weird angle: Taco Bell is apologizing for being too innovative with breakfast, vowing instead to keep its breakfast menu simple going forward. That’s right, Taco Bell is telling consumers that it’s sorry for its own food.
We’re talking about the fast food chain that created a Naked Egg Taco with a fried egg for a shell, the restaurant that pioneered the Doritos Locos Taco, the brand that boldly interpreted the chicken sandwich craze in its own special way. Innovation is one of the things Taco Bell is most known for—and most celebrated for. Why run from that singular reputation?
CNN spoke to Sean Tresvant, chief brand officer of Taco Bell, about the unusual advertising campaign. “We honestly over-innovated in breakfast,” he said. “When you look at today’s consumer and the [fast food] breakfast business, it’s about familiarity and it’s about comfort.”
Familiarity? Comfort? What is this, Old Country Buffet? It seems like an odd statement from a company whose entire appeal is that it gives the consumer the ability to screw around with the food.
Why Taco Bell is “apologizing” in its ads
The new 30-second TV spots center on Saturday Night Live alum Pete Davidson, whom the brand chose because he’s someone who understands the consequences of “overdoing it”—a nod to the fact that he’s a habitual line-stepper when it comes to his comedy (to some people, anyway).
“Sometimes, we go too far,” Davidson says in the commercial below. “I have, and that’s why Taco Bell has hired me to make an apology for them.”
“Taco Bell went a bit crazy with its breakfast,” Davidson continues as a montage of past breakfast menu items flashes on screen, including the aforementioned Naked Egg Taco LTO (limited-time-offering) and the stunty Waffle Taco LTO, which was a tiny, folded waffle with sausage and eggs tucked inside. “It was too much. What you need in the morning is tasty, simple food: fluffy eggs, melty cheese, sausage, hash browns, maybe wrap it in a warm tortilla.” (This is, of course, a description of Taco Bell’s Breakfast Crunchwrap.)
I’m not the only one who thinks that Taco Bell undercutting its own strong suit seems a little off, especially in a high-profile advertising blitz. Blake Hundley, founder of Taco Bell’s largest unofficial online community, Living Más, is no fan of the new campaign.
“My main issue is the whole idea behind apologizing for past innovations,” Hundley told The Takeout via email. “Taco Bell has always been known for being the innovative fast food brand, and I think the items [referenced in the ad] actually boosted their launch of breakfast.”
“Either way, both items mentioned [the Waffle Taco and the Naked Egg Taco] are from 2014 and 2017 (if I recall correctly) and it’s 2022 now,” Hundley added. “It’s irrelevant to mention them only to promote your breakfast with a headline of dissing your earlier breakfast.”
Diehard fans agree. In this Living Más Reddit thread, other users vent about the sentiment of the Davidson ads.
“Mannnnnn this sucks,” one user writes. “The halcyon days of the early-mid 2010s are well and truly done. This. Fucking. Sucks. The things that actually made Taco Bell exciting and interesting, the ‘cult’ fast food brand, are just not going to happen under [current Taco Bell CEO] Mark King. If it wasn’t clear before, it should be by now.” Taco Bell declined to comment for this story.
Do apology campaigns work for fast food brands? Ask Domino’s
Something important to note is that Taco Bell is not alone in apologizing for its past menu items. Domino’s ran a massive campaign in 2009 apologizing for its reputation as a low-quality pizza chain. I remember those commercials distinctly, thinking they were an odd move back then, too.
Turns out, these ads were a godsend for the brand. Bloomberg reported that after the apology ad campaign and a revamping of its recipes and ingredients, Domino’s received a wave of favorable media attention. Stephen Colbert even highlighted the new-and-improved product on an episode of The Colbert Report, taking a bite and saying, “Is that pizza, or did an angel just give birth in my mouth?”
After the ads aired, the first three months of 2010 saw an impressive increase of 14% in same-store sales for Domino’s. Bloomberg suggested that they would have been even higher if orders weren’t mostly coming through the phone; if the restaurant was slammed, employees were more likely to let the phone ring off the hook while cranking out pies during a rush.
This was a risky ad campaign, for sure, but it seemed to have done the trick. Perhaps that’s where Taco Bell is getting its inspiration. But that begs the question of whether or not lightning can strike in the same place twice. For his part, Hundley doesn’t think the approach fits the Taco Bell brand.
“I’m no ad expert, but I also don’t believe in being a critic without a solution,” he said. “I personally feel like Taco Bell can just as easily advertise their breakfast options without bashing their own creativity of the past. The gimmick of an apology doesn’t serve any benefit in my mind.”
When I asked Hundley what he’d say to Taco Bell’s chief brand officer Sean Tresvant about the Davidson commercials, he had no criticism of the current breakfast menu, and he doesn’t think it has to change—but the brand should play to its strengths when it comes to promoting it.
“I know numbers don’t lie, but there has to be some middle ground,” he said. “To hear those statements feels like a stab at the fans who became fans during a long period of exciting and innovative LTOs.”