A recent Taco Bell ad campaign featuring jokes about the Illuminati has caused a considerable stir online. Younger viewers (ostensibly the ad’s target audience) enjoyed the commercial’s dark humor, while older generations take offense at its irreverence toward what they believe is a serious and dangerous subject. But strong reactions to this campaign have emerged on both sides on social media. The unusually hot debate represents some of the inherent risks and potential benefits of strongly targeting one demographic while ignoring the sensibilities of others. When releasing a risky campaign like this one, social media monitoring can be a crucial tool that allows savvy brand managers to understand the brand’s audience and stay informed of developing sentiment.
On December 15th, 2017, Taco Bell released its #Belluminati advertising campaign. This series of ads parodied Illuminati conspiracy theories and posed the existence of the “Belluminati”: a secret society of powerful people who for whatever reason seem to control the Taco Bell dollar menu. The advertisement features imagery popular within conspiracy theorists: the symbols on the U.S. dollar bill, connections between seemingly insignificant numbers, and attractive, cloaked figures congregating in dimly-lit underground lairs.
The commercial is clearly aimed at younger generations, whose absurd and often dark sense of humor has been puzzled over and written about in major publications such as The Washington Post and The AV Club. Erika Pages, a social psychologist at ASU, says that this sort of dark humor “could be a coping mechanism due to all the pressures that society puts on younger people. It’s very retrospective and self-reflective.” In addition to seemingly touchy subjects such as suicide and mental illness, younger generations in America often joke about conspiracy theories ranging from the absurd (such as flat earth and chemtrails) to the serious or even culturally traumatic (the JFK assassination or the 9/11 attacks). Many have speculated that it is growing up during and after 9/11 itself that is at least partially the cause of this perceived flippancy toward subjects that older generations would consider “off limits” for jokes. However, millennials most often believe that their jokes are not making light of the suffering of the victims of these events, but rather are mocking the conspiracy theorists themselves.
As the millennial generation has entered the workforce and has become an emergent force of American consumers, corporations and advertisers have found themselves with the challenge of walking the line between catering to the darker, stranger sensibilities of millennials, while also not alienating older generations which comprise the rest of their consumer base.
The reaction among a good deal of millennial / Generation Z Twitter users to the #Belluminati campaign has been largely positive, with users “riffing” on the #Belluminati concept and making jokes that mock popular beliefs and phrases used by conspiracy theorists.
However, there is a noticeable and stark generational divide in the reactions to this ad campaign. While younger people tended to react positively toward it, those from older generations were confused and often upset by the humor in the advertisements. Negative reactions also largely came from highly religious or right-leaning social media accounts. The most visible response to the advertisement campaign thus far has been the country musician Charlie Daniels’ reaction:
This tweet has more than 15k retweets and has been screen-capped and shared widely on other social media platforms – and among younger people, largely in an ironic way meant to ridicule Daniels for taking a harmless joke advertisement about a defunct secret society as such a grave insult.
That said, Daniels is not alone with regard to older people reacting negatively to the advertisements:
Alex Jones himself – one of the world’s most famous conspiracy theorists, weighed in negatively on the advertisement as well.
The public reaction to this campaign illustrates why speaking to younger generations with their own sensibilities and style of humor may also run the risk of alienating older generations. According to InfoScout, consumers under 24 years of age and between ages 25 and 34 comprise the majority of Taco Bell patrons, while consumers aged 55-64 and 64 years and older rarely patronize Taco Bell. Considering this, it is not hard to see why Taco Bell decided to market so aggressively to younger consumers, while actively excluding older ones. Additionally, negative responses from polarizing, hyper-conservative figures like Jones could, alone, act as endorsement for Taco Bell’s brand.
It’s worth noting that millennials are not the only generation who, in their youth, enjoyed a reputation for dark humor and flouting authority. A parallel could be drawn between this campaign and Coke’s creation and promotion of “OK Soda”, which attempted to harness the hyper-nihilistic and ironic humor of the early- to mid-1990’s youth culture (think MTV TV show ‘Daria’ and grunge rock band Nirvana) with cans featuring disaffected cartoon faces and promotional slogans such as “What’s the point of OK?” and ironic claims that the drink “tastes like carbonated tree sap.” The risk with this advertisement campaign was that the company focused on catering only to Generations X and Y, with a total lack of regard for older consumers. Comics & Cola described the campaign as “horribly cringe-worthy, an overt, overly affected, too-cool-for school attempt to get down with the kids, a fundamental lack of understanding your audience, coupled with a muddled and heavy marketing approach.” Ultimately, OK Soda was deemed a commercial failure and was pulled from the Coke line of products.
Social media was in the distant future during the release of the OK Soda promotion, but if there had been Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr it would be possible through social listening to detect the risks of this campaign earlier. Additionally, the consumer response could have been analyzed faster, and the campaign (or even the product itself) could have been reworked in order to avoid this type of outcome. In the case of the #Belluminati campaign, it’s possible that the negative reaction from older generations has actually enticed younger users to consume more Taco Bell, and at very least it’s helped feed a spiraling, viral campaign among Taco Bell’s core audience. In either case, advanced social monitoring tools and services could help Taco Bell gauge reactions across audiences, providing them with useful consumer insights and up-to-the-minute observations on their brand health.
ListenLogic specializes in tracking and analyzing social media conversations in order to uncover valuable consumer insights including real-time tracking of marketing campaigns. To learn more about how social media analytics can support your team’s efforts, head to our website.
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