Monday, February 05, 2007

15 minutes of infamy

It’s only right that we observe a moment of silence for all the chickens who gave their lives so Super Bowl fans would never see the bottom of a wings platter during this year’s game. And while you’re decompressing from what’s become a blockbuster event for restaurants, or at least the ones that offer takeout, delivery or catering, let me bring you up to date on the industry news of the day. The rest of the nation may be watching developments in Iraq. But our trade, strangely, is more hung up on wash-outs lunging for their second 15 minutes of glory. Which, of course, brings us to K-Fed.

For the un-cool among you, that’s shorthand for Kevin Federline, estranged husband of Britney Spears and current bane of the industry’s anti-defamation forces. He was impugned by association for starring in a Super Bowl commercial for the Nationwide Mutual Insurance, a part of the company’s “Life Comes at You Fast” campaign. The spots subtly promote the value of insurance by humorously noting how a person’s financial situation can be up-ended in a flash. The K-Fed execution shows the aspiring rap artist enjoying his wealth, fame and ability to dress like a pimp. Then it cuts to a fast-food manager yelling at him to snap out of his daydream and focus on boxing up an order of fries. Supposedly he’s gone from riches and stardom to working the fry station at some big chain, a tongue-in-cheek reference to how his real-life fortunes have changed since getting the boot from Britney.

The suggestion that a fast-food job is the other polar opposite of a dream career prompted the National Restaurant Association to send a letter to Nationwide’s CEO last week, besieging him not to run the spot. The communication suggested that the insurance conglomerate was seriously besmirching the trade. Even though the NRA acknowledged that it hadn’t seen the commercial, it gave Nationwide a pointed or-else: Yank the spot, or the association would let restaurants know how the insurer—in many cases, their insurer—had dissed the trade.

I wish the industry hadn’t done it. The letter generated a tremendous amount of local coverage and considerable discussion in the blogosphere. Much of it wasn’t favorable to the business. It made the restaurant trade, truly a collection of small businesses, seem like Big Business with a toothache—too cranky and highfalutin to bear even the mildest of jokes. And if you’ve seen the spot, you’ll know that it really didn’t slag restaurant jobs. It was a put-down purely of Federline.

He acknowledge as much in the apology he issued shortly before the commercial aired. He called it “a Saturday Night Live skit on myself,” and, in character, joked that maybe it would land him some big-time movie roles.

At least some industry chains got the joke. Taco Bell rode the wave of publicity by writing Federline to offer him a job. It cited a comment he’d made last year about wanting his pre-school-aged kids to learn the importance of working by someday taking jobs at Taco Bell.

“We're flattered,” Taco Bell wrote, “but obviously they're too young to work for us. So here's our offer to you: Come work for us, just for a one hour shift. We'll get you a uniform, a custom name tag and show you what a great place Taco Bell is to work.”

It was a take-off on a take-off. And it used humor to make a point. It’s a shame well-intentioned but louder industry voices hadn’t come up with that response first.


  1. What the NRA doesn't get is that Nationwide Insurance is more in tune with the thinking of a large number of folks: burger flipping jobs are considered the bottom of the barrel. I can't tell you how it made my blood boil one day to be in line at a McDonald's and hear some women dissing the staff and saying she would never let her kid work as a burger flipper. I risked the ire of the manager when I told her if she didn't want her kid to do the cooking, what made it OK for someone else's kid to do the cooking for her and perhaps if she felt the association was wrong to skip eating out altogether. What the NRA needs to do is not criticize Nationwide, we need to get together and remind people that we are the folks who fee them and their families, that we bring them to the table to share their day. That we are professionals and work to assure safe food supplies that not only affects what we serve in our restaurants, but whet they bring home from the grocery. And we need to remind them that a job in food service teaches invaluable skils like dealing with people, dealing with co-workers, career building, networking, dressing, following rules and having a good time, enjoying what you do and making a customer day better. The NRA needs to stick to it's job of promoting our industry, not getting into sandbox slapping matches.

  2. It's too bad the NRA can't find an ounce of humor. I grew up in a poor household and had to work fast food so I could save up money to go to college. I worked at Taco Bell and McDonald's through school so that I could buy my books and eat.
    At the time it was just about the only decent paying job I could find and it taught me a lot about responsibility. It taught me humility and how to work with others. But I also knew that I did not want to work the fry station for the rest of my life.
    C'mon NRA, don't you get it? K-Fed was making fun at himself. Something that you should probably do a little more of.