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A Little Bark Gives Taco Bell a Bigger Bite

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a commercial world where frogs croak for a brewery and a bunny drums up business for a battery company, it’s probably no surprise that a Chihuahua would end up barking about tacos for Taco Bell Corp. But not even advertising industry executives who created the quirky ad campaign guessed how popular the “Yo quiero Taco Bell” (I want Taco Bell) ads would become.

“We never set out to create an icon for the company, but that’s what it became,” said Clay Williams, creative director at TBWA Chiat Day, which dreamed up the dog for Irvine-based Taco Bell. “What we set out to do was create a fun, interesting campaign.”

The minuscule dog with the permanent smirk and the evocative voice was one of 1998’s hottest advertising phenomena. It has appeared in nearly 20 commercials and is now filming a new batch of ads that will run in the spring, when Taco Bell introduces a line of more expensive menu items to be sold during the dinner hour.

Restaurant company executives are betting that the dog will--to borrow a phrase from the Energizer Bunny--keep going and going and going.

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“People only get tired of boring ads,” said David E. Novak, vice chairman of Tricon Global Restaurants, the Louisville, Ky.-based company that owns Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut. “If we can keep it exciting, [the Chihuahua] can last forever.”’

Whether counted in dog years or fiscal quarters, the cash that the Chihuahua is able to keep ringing up in burrito sales will be determined by how adept its handlers are at safeguarding the dog’s carefully crafted image and personality. Too much exposure among media-savvy teens, experts say, and the canine will die a premature death.

“We’re really cautious about having him burn out before his time,” said Williams, who is charged with keeping the Chihuahua’s image fresh. “We view it like a TV sitcom, which could go on for 10 or 12 years if we manage it correctly. But the onus is on us to ensure we don’t overexpose it.”

Fast Promotion to the Top Dog

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The campaign has already endured a few rough spots. Leaders of some Latino groups have complained that the dog and its accent are demeaning. Some franchisees grew worried that the dog’s hip image could have been damaged last year when Taco Bell allowed Kraft to use the Chihuahua in advertising for a licensed line of food goods sold in grocery stores.

And Taco Bell executives won’t talk about a lawsuit filed last year in Michigan by Wrench, a two-man marketing firm that claims Taco Bell stole the idea for a Chihuahua campaign from them.

Chiat Day executives are adamant that the idea for the Chihuahua commercials sprang from a lunch meeting when Williams and fellow Chiat Day executive Chuck Bennett were surprised to see a Chihuahua with an attitude amble past their table in a Venice Beach restaurant.

The star of Taco Bell’s commercials is a female Chihuahua named Gidget (portrayed in the ads as a male) who flies to commercial shoots first-class with her handlers. The dog’s voice is provided by 36-year-old San Fernando Valley resident Carlos Alazraqui.

The dog first mouthed “Yo quiero Taco Bell” in the summer of 1997 during an ad that ran in the Northeastern states. “Taco Bell was immediately on the map in those states in a way that it just wasn’t before,” said Taco Bell chief marketing officer Vada Hill. Recognizing that consumers wanted more of the dog, Taco Bell quickly shifted the emphasis to the Chihuahua. “We always knew we had a charming, cute execution. What we saw then was ‘Wow, this may be a campaign idea--the campaign idea.’ ”

So far, this dog’s life seems to have benefited from the media attention. The fast-food chain expects to sell 10 million plush-toy versions of the dog--at prices ranging from $2.99 to $3.99--during a Valentine’s Day promotion now winding down. That’s on top of 13 million units rung up during the quarter ended Dec. 26.

It’s rare in the advertising industry for the star of a commercial to generate that kind of interest in a world dominated by movie-related characters. Marketers say the Chihuahua’s closest relatives could be the frogs and lizards that populate Anheuser-Busch’s Budweiser spots.

“What they’ve got is a property not unlike what Disney or another entertainment producer might have,” said Marty Brochstein, executive editor of Licensing Letter, a New York-based trade publication. “They have a phenomenon of sorts, and they’re doing a very good job of leveraging it.”

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Demand among kids who play with the plush toys and adults who collect them continues to ignite Internet bidding wars. Taco Bell, meanwhile, is developing its own line of licensed merchandise, ranging from T-shirts to pens emblazoned with the diminutive dog’s image.

The campaign has sparked jokes by “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno and drawn parody ads from the competing El Pollo Loco and Jack in the Box chains. A commercial that pitched a vegetarian bean burrito even won praise from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

And along the way, the Chihuahua has done exactly what Chiat Day promised it would: burnished Taco Bell’s image among teenagers and consumers in their 20s as a hip place to eat. Sales in Taco Bell restaurants open for at least a year--an important barometer in the fast-food industry--were up 3% in 1998, and up a staggering 9% during the final quarter when the plush toys were on sale.

Taco Bell executives say the canine star has easily surpassed campaigns with human celebrities such as Los Angeles Laker star Shaquille O’Neal, who previously was hired to pitch tacos and burritos.

“We’re enjoying the highest awareness levels our advertising has ever generated,” said Taco Bell Vice President Peter Stack. “And we rank very highly on unaided advertising awareness--when the question is simply ‘What good restaurant advertising have you seen?’ ”

Williams ties the Chihuahua’s appeal to an early decision to give the dog the attributes of Taco Bell’s core customer: teenage males with attitude who love fast food. That went against the grain in advertising, where icons typically represent the company or its products.

“Wendy’s has [founder Dave Thomas] and Jack in the Box has Jack, but we wanted to turn that concept 180 degrees by focusing on attributes of the customers--die-hard Taco Bell fans who just love the food,” Williams said.

But Taco Bell has been careful not to be too cute, Hill said. “What’s important is that you don’t try to be cool; the coolness has to come out of the fresh situation we create for the dog.” And if there are questions about where the campaign is heading? “We say, ‘What would the dog do?’ ” Hill said with a straight face.

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Chiat Day’s Williams agreed: “We knew we had to be subtle in advertising to the teenage market because they’re really savvy,” Williams said. “If they feel they’re being marketed to, they’ll tune you out.”

That’s the main reason Taco Bell has rejected licensing agreements that could dilute the Chihuahua’s appeal to kids. Sales of plush toys and T-shirts are a welcome addition to the bottom line, but “they’ve been very strategic about what they’ve done,” Brochstein said. “They’ve never lost sight of the fact that they’re in the business of selling food, not dogs.”

A Strategy to Keep Little Face Fresh

Taco Bell executives say they’re well aware of the need to keep the Chihuahua’s image fresh. “The key responsibility of the Chihuahua is to connect with our customers, to make them crave the food and come into the restaurants,” Stack said. “That’s the No. 1 job. Everything else has to be supportive of that goal.”

Novak maintains the dog and its writers are up to the task.

“I just saw some of the new commercials and they’re fun,” he said. “It shows that we can find new and different ways to use the Chihuahua.”

The Chihuahua will also share the spotlight later this year when Tricon unveils a massive “Star Wars” promotion covering the Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut chains. Marketing observers note that Chihuahua managed to succeed on Hollywood’s terms last year during a popular “Godzilla” commercial in which the little dog referred to the big-screen beast as a lizard.

Tricon and Taco Bell are playing their “Star Wars” cards close to the vest.

“I’ll have to tell you to stay tuned and check back in another month or so,” Novak said. “But we’ve found a nice way to bring it all together.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Yo Quiero My Agent

Taco Bell’s Chihuahua isn’t the first talking pet to hit the big time. Morris the cat has had a 30-year gig as spokes-animal for 9 Lives cat food. A look at the two:

The Newcomer: Taco Bell Chihuahua

Product: Teen food

Language: Trilingual (English, Spanish, Dog)

Attitude: Cool

Food tastes: Tortillas and stuff

Personality: Party on

Living arrangements: Has own place

Marketing: Model for plush toys

Activities: Leads revolution

*

The Veteran: Morris the Cat

Product: Cat food

Language: When it suits him

Attitude: Cold

Food tastes: Finicky

Personality: Put the food down and no one gets hurt

Living arrangements: Makes self at home

Marketing: Mangler of plush toys

Activities: Stretches


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