Friday, October 26, 2007

Foul pitch

I wish I’d been at Fenway Park last night, an admission that’s not easy for a Yankee fan to spit out. But at least I could’ve watched the game without having to retch through the worst baseball sell-out since the Black Sox Scandal of 1919. If you caught Taco Bell’s painfully strained promotion during Fox’s broadcast of the game, you’ll sympathize completely. Normally I’d rather tongue-kiss David Ortiz than set foot in a gloating Red Sox Nation during a World Series. But I’ll take Schilling over that sort of shilling any day of the baseball calendar.

Here’s what happened: With the Red Sox ahead by just one run, the heart of the Rockies’ lineup was coming up to bat. At that very moment, Fox commentator Joe Buck alerted us that we were going to hear an earlier-recorded snippet of conversation from a mic’d-up Royce Clayton, a second-string shortstop for the BoSox. For the benefit of the non-baseball fans among you: That’d be like “60 Minutes” interrupting an interview with Osama Bin Laden to cover a cat stuck in a tree.

“Hey, you like Taco Bell?,” Clayton asked Red Sox rookie Jacoby Ellsbury, who looked about as engaged as a 4-year-old in church. Clayton proceeded to explain that Taco Bell would give free tacos “to every person in the country” if a player on either team stole a base that night. “America’s depending on you,” he informed his young teammate.

Cut back to Buck, narrating a clip of Ellsbury stealing a base earlier in the game. Buck, one of the most respected commentators in sports, then informed the audience that the free tacos would be available next Tuesday between 2 and 5.

Say it ain’t so, Joe.

And tell us you’re not going to play along any further than that.

But he does. Matt Holliday, the Rockies’ best hitter, rips a single to set up a possible rally for the Rocks. Now Buck segues us to in-the-stands commentator Chris Myers, who’s sitting with Taco Bell chief operating officer Rob Savage. Myers articulates THE question on the minds of baseball fans at that moment: How can Taco Bell afford to give everyone in America a taco, when that has to cost millions?

“It’s all for our customers,” for whom every taco will be “made fresh for you,” Savage somberly replies.

Myers then presents Savage with a takeout container of (presumably New England) chowder inside a Taco Bell bag, and scars young baseball fans forever by closing with, “We’re thinking outside the bun.”

Buck, having found his conscience again, offers an obviously sarcastic, “Chris, great work.” At which point booth mate Tim McCarver burst out laughing. “From Schilling to shilling,” he quips, and both broadcasters resume calling a game then being pitched by Red Sox legend Curt Schilling.

It’s essential that restaurant marketers find new ways of reaching an audience that’s drifting away from traditional media. But the goal is to engage that hipper, more irreverent crowd, not to alienate it with a heavy-handed plug of that sort. Even co-conspirators like Buck and Myers seemed embarrassed to be associated with something that clunky. Used-car salesmen were probably cringing.

On Thursday afternoon, Applebee’s announced that it had chosen an apple as its new pitchwoman. A few hours later, Taco Bell and Fox reached for a lemon.

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