So many junk-food outlets, so many gimmicks. Ex-"Saturday Night Live" stars. Juicy burgers dripping on luscious babes. Even a poignant Hal Riney assembly-line-sub pastorale. To get the attention of the crap-eating universe, the fast-food chains have thrown in everything but the kitsch 'N Sync.
That is, until now.
Jack in the Box will soon unveil its latest spot -- a self-conscious ad about advertising such as we've become accustomed to, but about three steps more distant from face value. The hook is a new video from an 'N Sync-like teenybopper group called the Meaty Cheese Boys.
Girl, you know that there's one thing that I love.
It's not you I'm thinkin' of.
I want the ultimate cheeseburger.
Cheese meat. Cheese cheese meat. And that's it.
Baby you know it's hot and juicy.
'Cause Jack won't make it till you order it.
It is a dead-on parody, nailing the style, wardrobe, choreography and even Single Universal Melody of the various boy groups: 'N Sync, Back Street Boys, 98 Degrees, Boy Zone, 5ive, LFO, etc. -- except its adolescent fixation is gastronomic, not romantic.
Credit writer/director Dick Sittig, founder of the (but, of course) absurdly named Kowloon Wholesale Seafood Co., the Santa Monica agency that is the de facto in-house shop for Jack in the Box.
While still at Chiat/Day, Mr. Sittig resurrected the previously deep-sixed Jack character as a busy CEO who happens to have a Styrofoam jack-in-the-box head -- sort of Lee Iacocca meets Frosty the Snowman, lampooning corporate life and the machinations of fast-food marketing while simultaneously showing mouth-watering closeups of Jack in the Box sandwiches.
This, in the wake of 1993's E. coli tragedy that nearly destroyed the company, was part of a two-pronged strategy:
1) Stop killing customers.
2) Recapture consumer trust, particularly in the core audience.
The core audience, of course, is 16-year-old boys. So Sittig followed the now well-traveled path of extremely self-referential advertising jokes, aimed at the supposedly media-savvy MTV generation. The strategy wasn't necessarily inspired, but the ads themselves have been. And the results have been phenomenal: record profits and 18 consecutive quarters of increased per-store sales.
All the while, the CEO Jack gag has ventured ever deeper into postmodern irony. In this spot, the music video is an ad gimmick, presented to Jack by the company's marketing director, who tells Jack, "Girls love this!"
"Our target is men," an exasperated Jack replies.
"What's a target?" the marketing goof asks.
Lame punchline, but never mind that. We've just seen a real ad comprising a fake video for a proposed fake ad that fails because it's off the fictional -- but actually quite real -- strategy. The mind reels. It's like opposing mirrors, a kind of infinity.
But also affinity, because it's easy to enjoy, to get the joke, to utterly buy in. The ongoing saga of a half-man/half-puppet chief executive may be absurd, but the fetching menu and food-shots photography are not. And the real irony is, whoever plays CEO Jack gets to do something in these clever commercials Dave Thomas would probably love to do in his monstrously insipid ones: