Taco Bell Pays the Price for Messing With 50 Cent

Careless Publicity Ploy Blows Up Into Lawsuit, Fuels Bad PR

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- It was just supposed to be a cute ploy for free publicity. Now Taco Bell is embroiled in an increasingly nasty and intensely public lawsuit with rapper 50 Cent.
50 Cent
50 Cent Credit: AP

Fiddy (birth name Curtis Jackson) sued the Bell back in July, when the chain sent an "open letter" over the PR wires encouraging him to drive up to one of their locations, rap his order and then change his name to 79, 89 or 99 Cent, just for the day. In turn, the Yum Brands chain would donate $10,000 to the charity of his choice.

But Mr. Jackson claims the marketer hadn't consulted him, and so filed suit. The news was picked up from hometown newspaper to E! online.

"He gets substantial sums of money when he chooses to endorse something, and he controls it pretty closely," said Mr. Jackson's lawyer, Peter Raymond of Reed Smith. He added that the Taco Bell offer gave the appearance of his client's consent.

Argument reignites
Publicly, that should have been the end of it. But Mr. Raymond said that a reporter called him last week asking about events in the case, and Mr. Raymond directed him to documents, including Taco Bell's answer to Mr. Jackson's complaint, which was filed in September. Mr. Raymond said that the reporter incorrectly determined that the chain had filed a countersuit, which led to fresh firestorm of publicity.

The document's language certainly provided grist for the stories. In it, Taco Bell refers to Mr. Jackson as someone who uses his "colorful past to cultivate a public image of belligerence and arrogance." It also describes Mr. Jackson as having a "well-publicized track record of making threats, starting feuds and filing lawsuits."

"They chose to kind of defame his character," Mr. Raymond said. "And yet they used his name without his permission in the advertising. I'm curious as to why they'd want to say what a bad character he is. I guess that's going to be their defense somehow."

Taco Bell spokesman Rob Poetsch declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said, "We're disappointed that Mr. Jackson didn't simply say yes or no to our genuine and charitable offer to change his name to 79, 89 or 99 Cent."

Taco Bell and its Yum Brands counterparts are known for stretching the boundaries for free media plays. Last year, KFC offered to make a charitable contribution in the name of any person willing to do a chicken dance on the field during the Super Bowl. During March madness, Pizza Hut offered free pizza to the entire campus of any 16-seeded team that beat a top seed. It's still never been done. But while some of these plays have been controversial, none has risen to the level of acrimonious lawsuit.

Taco Bell looks 'desperate'
In fact, some crisis experts describe this as an unqualified PR disaster for Taco Bell. "It's making them look desperate, making them look tired, making them look disconnected," said crisis consultant Robbie Vorhaus. It's also a tough time to get investors to swallow a big legal bill for a promotion gone awry.

"Today, with money as tight as it is, with people struggling so hard to make ends meet, with trillions of dollars being lost in stock value, and you're going to sue 50 Cent?" Mr. Vorhaus said.

Sally Stewart, also a crisis expert, doesn't think the litigation will materially harm Taco Bell, but wonders why the chain didn't spend another five minutes vetting the promotion. "If someone goes berserk in your restaurant, that's something you can't prevent," she said. "Something like this is preventable."

So far, the chain's foibles with Fiddy don't seem to have impacted the brand much. According to BrandIndex, Taco Bell's buzz scores seem to have stayed relatively constant after Mr. Jackson filed his case in July, and after the second wave of stories last week.

"While the lawsuit is not likely to significantly weigh on the brand, either in the short term or the long term, this is a bit of a distraction for Taco Bell," said Ted Marzilli, senior VP-brand group at Brand Index parent YouGovPolimetrix. "As long as 50 Cent and his legal team are pushing this in the press, it might benefit Taco Bell to defend itself, but ultimately the brand wants to get back to getting its message out -- talking about the food and the value proposition."
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