I am sent dozens of PR pitches a day. I am not some cutting-edge tastemaker; I get these because of my publicly listed email address and lax spam filter. I received one last week that was formatted like the others–boldfaced celebrity name, idiot-proof “WHAT/WHY/WHERE/WHEN” matrix, ironic public relations boilerplate about confidentiality–but it caught my eye. Allow me to summarize: Nick Lachey, of boy band and reality show fame, would be singing about a new Wendy’s cheeseburger at one of the chain’s New York restaurants. Specifically, he would be singing people’s tweets that contained the #PretzelLoveSongs hashtag.
Before we go further, please know that I will eventually use this forum to talk about Wendy’s new Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger. That’s what this entire Monday evening was about, after all. I would be doing you, myself, Nick Lachey, a PR firm, two separate marketing companies, and the good people of Wendy’s a disservice if I didn’t get to the damn cheeseburger.
But for now, I want to talk about everything that came with it. The toppings, if you will.
The combination of “remember the ’90s?” celebrity, campy musical performance, and social media campaign was not merely designed to catch the eye; it was patently obvious that it was tailored to get attention.
Advertising started with sincere pitches for products (“Buy X because Y”). Later, ads set themselves apart by demonstrating awareness of themselves as ads. I.e. they used their own cleverness and self-reference as a selling point (SEE: Isuzu, Joe). With the advent of social media, the most powerful marketing comes from consumers passing along much of the message via Facebook, Twitter, etc. And to get us consumers to do that, companies need to trick us into doing their legwork by setting up a scenario in which we earnestly believe our social standing will be enforced or improved by participating in a pitch.We have to believe that we are in on the joke.
This is how to sell a cheeseburger in 2013. It is exhausting.
The #PretzelLoveSongs event was held at a 34th Street Wendy’s that I’m familiar with because of its proximity to my primary care physician’s office–I always treat myself to a spicy chicken sandwich and fries after appointments. My parents probably didn’t think their tactic of using fast food to bribe me to go to the doctor would last through adolescence only to be co-opted by adult me, but here we are, at a Midtown Wendy’s I know remarkably well.
The first floor looked like any Wendy’s except I was politely informed by a young woman standing at the door that only takeout orders were available due to a private event on the second floor. “I am press,” I said, like a complete dweeb, as if I were crossing police tape or something. Before I could recant, I was being escorted upstairs.
The second floor didn’t look like a Wendy’s. There was a small stage that was hemmed in by two large flatscreen TVs, theater lighting, a cordoned-off section for a camera crew, and a crowded seating area with numbered tables like a comedy club.
Nick Lachey sat behind a row of ficuses and other houseplants constructed to make a flimsy living wall. He was in the midst of an interview and apparently my turn was next. I knew that I had been penciled in for a ten minute Q & A, but I really just wanted to watch the event and eat a cheeseburger. I came slightly unprepared, so I started cataloging my Nick Lachey knowledge: He’s a member of 98 Degrees, he hosts a television program called The Sing-Off, and he used to be in a reality show about his then-marriage. I also deduced that he’s a pretty nice guy because he was patiently answering all of the interviewer’s questions (of which there were many). They were on a three-parter about Frosties when a PR rep told them to wrap it up.
I crossed the ficus barrier and sat down. I asked him a vague question about the tour he and 98 Degrees are currently on with New Kids on the Block. I believe my question was, succinctly, “So, the tour?” During his thoughtful answer, he mentioned that he was in San Jose yesterday for a show and would be flying back to the West Coast–to Seattle–tomorrow. “You must be exhausted,” I said, genuinely aghast at the miles he had to clock for what would amount to a thirty minute appearance. He shrugged, which was the closest he came to displaying the slightest bit of fatigue that evening.
According to my digital recorder, the entirety of the interview clocked in at a downright Frost/Nixon-ian two minutes and ten seconds.
A polite, young employee wearing a fitted black Wendy’s T-shirt and slim-cut black pants showed me to my table. There was an alarming number of these tall, attractive young men and women working at this event as waiters, waitresses, and host/esses. I assume they were hired through a modeling or entertainment agency, but I couldn’t find a way to ask without insinuating or implying a whole slew of things I didn’t want to be accused of thinking.
I’d say around a dozen of these young contractors staffed the event, and they were working extremely hard shuttling orders and retrieving Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburgers from downstairs, where cooks were undoubtedly also working very hard preparing new-fangled burgers for us folks who had gathered to celebrate a hashtag upstairs while also cooking meals for the to-go crowd that was filtering in from one of New York’s busiest streets.
Meanwhile, on stage, comedian and emcee Michelle Buteau was keeping the crowd engaged with an ongoing, extemporaneous set. It couldn’t have been an easy gig, but she was energetic and somehow able to keep everything relatively on topic. The topic being, of course, the cheeseburger.
She even worked blue a couple times, and had a nice, light-hearted back-and-forth going on with some executive in the audience about “keeping it clean.”
That’s another thing I noticed: I’d venture a guess that 80 percent of the crowd worked for Wendy’s, PKT (their marketing firm), or VML (their digital agency).
Seated at my table was a group of women who worked for either PKT or VML. They were describing their subway delay, and I wanted to ask whether it was related to the young man who reportedly urinated on a third rail and died the night before, but I abstained and instead asked about the process of marketing a new cheeseburger. My neighbor loosely explained that it is an incredibly long process, one that includes test restaurants, focus groups, and all the other relevant tools of the trade.
I am familiar with these mythical fast food test restaurants because, when visiting my grandparents in Ohio, I would always stop at the McDonald’s by Port Columbus Airport. Here, the menu was full of unfamiliar options that were usually far too exhilarating or risky for my youthful palate to explore. Many of those tests never made it to nationwide establishments, but every so often, I could brag to my friends that the brand new McWrap they were seeing advertised in Chicago wasn’t new at all to a hip, plugged-in individual like myself.
On the rare occasion that I was brave enough to try an unfamiliar menu item, I was never handed a survey or asked what I thought about it. I can only assume that the McDonald’s corporation entered my order into some sort of algorithm that it would eventually use to determine whether or not the foodstuff was ready for prime time.
“Ready for Prime Time,” it turns out, is an appropriate aphorism for the fate of these chosen meals because the Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger I had come to try was about to be serenaded by a platinum-selling recording artist and television star.
Michelle Buteau called up Shelly Thobe, Wendy’s Director of Hamburgers and the inventor of the Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger. As she explained how the burger came into being and what sets it apart–“its artisan-baked bun”–silent Today Show clips played on the TVs showing Kathie Lee and Hoda Kotb preparing to eat Shelly Thobe’s invention. These were spliced with pull-quotes about the cheeseburger from various news outlets including CNN, MSNBC, and USA Today.
I looked around and figured some of the people in the audience had been responsible for getting the cheeseburger mentioned by these news organizations. It probably took repeated emails, meetings, and even trips around the country to get it done, but they did it.
At that point, I noticed a deep red cloth napkin with “#PretzelLoveSongs” embroidered on it that had been placed on my table. Everyone had one, including, I’m sure, the PR and marketing folks who had worked so hard to get the message out to NBC and the like. This stitched hashtag was a reminder that, nowadays, getting a Today Show spot was nice, but having something “go viral” was priceless.
Millenials (the cheeseburger’s target demographic, according to Advertising Age) don’t watch too much Kathie Lee & Hoda. However, they eagerly share their earnest love for all things nostalgic online. That’s why Nick Lachey and his guitar player were tuning up at the back of the restaurant.
Michelle Buteau talked about how the Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger would go great with a glass of red wine. This suggestion received a smattering of genuinely warm applause and a few pleasured groans from some in attendance. I checked my watch; she had about fifteen minutes left in her set.
My Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger was served on a wooden breadboard with french fries. The burger was tasty and the bun really was the best part–it was chewy and kept the cheddar cheese sauce and honey mustard under control. The patty was thick (and cut into a square, of course), and I scarfed mine down despite having eaten lunch a mere two hours prior to the event. Oh, there was bacon too, which was nice.
I started to wonder what would have happened if they just released the cheeseburger nationwide and let people decide whether or not they wanted to eat it while in line to order in Missouri or Colorado or wherever. This thought was interrupted by loud applause; Nick Lachey took the stage.
He smiled and welcomed everyone who was live-streaming the event at home. I’m not sure how many people were taking advantage of the live feed, but it made me extremely aware of the fact that I was being watched. Specifically, I was aware of that I was being watched as I desperately pawed at the table in search of a paper napkin to wipe my face, unaware that an embroidered cloth one was on my lap.
Nick Lachey launched into the song he had pieced together from people’s tweets that contained the #PretzelLoveSongs hashtag. I scanned the audience and saw Wendy’s Director of Hamburgers Shelly Thobe positively beaming at Lachey from her seat. Earlier, she had explained that she’d started at Wendy’s as an intern and worked her way up. No matter how many focus groups or marketing executives were responsible for this moment, it was pretty cool to watch Thobe hear people’s glowing words about her creation, as sung by a sweet-voiced, real-life star.
He then played another song and closed with “I Do (Cherish You),” which was one of 98 Degrees’ biggest hits. All three tunes sounded pretty good considering the acoustics of the second floor of a Wendy’s have to be less than ideal.
The live-stream ended and Frosty cones were handed out. The entire thing was, in all honesty, about as well-produced as any event I have ever seen in person. It required a huge staff of full-time and part-time employees, highly paid executives, head chefs, line cooks, mysteriously attractive young people, comedians, and entertainers. Almost all of this wasn’t for the cheeseburger directly, but rather for the hashtag. All these people had worked extremely hard and spent long hours in the hope that #PretzelLoveSongs would catch on and briefly join the online vernacular.
As I made my way outside, Frosty cone in hand, a large group of paparazzi had gathered on the sidewalk. They were bunched together, waiting for Nick Lachey to be hurried out and away. Hanging outside the restaurant was a large banner with an image of the Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger and that old refrain, “#PretzelLoveSongs.”
I’m not sure who tipped off these outlaw photogs, but if I had to guess, the number was coming from inside the Wendy’s. It had the smell of another (albeit much flimsier) attempt at making this months-long process seem like a happy, viral accident.
The Frosty cone was the definition of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The melty malty deliciousness of a Frosty needs a cup to pool in–the cone wasn’t doing its job.
I wanted to check Twitter on my phone for mentions of “#PretzelLoveSongs,” but the sticky Frosty goo flooded my fingers and left me marooned by Madison Square Garden, looking for a place to wash up. Luckily, I remembered my physician’s office had a Purell dispenser in its lobby.
Once relatively clean, I dug my phone out of my pocket to see how the live-streamed viral marketing event was playing out on the desired channels. I blankly looked at the screen.
I couldn’t remember the damn hashtag.