Thursday, May 31, 2007

Is Jupiter in the Seventh House?

On "Star Trek," they'd called it a rift in the space-time continuum. I prefer the less-dramatic notion that the apocalypse is upon us, but the full-moon theory could also fit. Clearly something paranormal must be happening to generate headlines like the ones we've been reading on the wire services all week.

Consider, for instance, the lethal dispute that erupted at a Wendy's unit in Miami over pepper sauce. A drive-thru customer wanted to singe his taste buds with enough of the chili-based condiment to fill a wading pool. But the crewmember reportedly held the line at three packets, citing the store's sauce-distribution policy. The patron insisted that he needed more sizzle, and demanded at least 10 packets. The employee astutely decided to bend the rules and handed over seven more of the foil containers, but the customer still wasn't happy. A manager went outside to defuse the situation, and was promptly shot in the arm by the guest, who zoomed off with his meal and 10 packets of hot stuff. News reports noted that the culprit was accompanied by a woman, who must have thanked the fates for bringing her such a catch. Fortunately, the manager's injuries were not life-threatening, according to the accounts, which noted that he was treated at a hospital and released.

It's a shame the guy with the smoking mouth (and gun) couldn't be used to demonstrate the new market-research tool that was rolled out of the lab this week by some white-coated types in New York. The technology gauges consumers' reactions to brands, products and packaging by scanning the brains of subjects as they look at the items, thereby revealing their "secret thoughts," the promoters explained. The approach is based on the sound science that different areas of the brain kick into motion for pleasure, while others rev up at times of revulsion or retching. By taking a snapshot of the mind in motion, marketers can tell what consumers really think of their products or advertising, instead of merely asking them. Mr. Sauce, I suspect, might've yielded a scan that could double as a desert-scene screensaver.

On their own, those news developments would have been shrugged off as mere curiosities. Suspicions of a pattern arose because they came too soon after an incident that prompted several of us to wonder if we just weren't getting some elaborate joke. Indeed, the editor who covered the situation for us filed her story with the preface, "Let the puns begin." You just don't get that many chances to write a restaurant-related article that pivots on the word "anus."

Yet that was the case when CKE Restaurants sued Jack in the Box last week for running commercials that knocked competitors' Angus burgers. In the opinion of the Carl's Jr. parent, the spots suggested that the name "Angus" is based on cattle anatomy, not breed. Jack owed it to the chains now selling the premium beef to point out that the meat isn't anus-based, CKE insisted.

If the situation had erupted one week hence, we might've indeed shrugged it off as a late April Fool's joke, or some tongue-in-cheek volleying by two arch-rival Southern California chains. But it did happen last week, and the moon won't be completely full until tonight.

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