Deconstruction Gallery

Taco Bell Loaded Grillers

In their “Girlfriend” ad, Taco Bell represents its customers as people who are highly social and out in the world, hanging out at bars, concerts, food trucks, and parties. Featuring an attractive, heterosexual, white couple, the ad targets young white men in an urban environment by showing men always having fun with friends and a girlfriend. While Taco Bell always caricatures Mexican culture through the cultural appropriation of food, this ad also markets sexism with a side of eating. The ad speaks from a guy’s perspective about girlfriends taking some of men’s food. The Loaded Grillers, the ad claims, are “grilled inside a tortilla so you don’t have to share.”

“Girlfriend” opens with an attractive woman and man sitting next to each other at a bar. The woman has a salad in front of her and the man has a plate of chicken wings.  As the woman reaches for and bites into a chicken wing, a deep male voice narrates, “To all the girlfriends out there who just wanted to try a chicken wing.” While the pair is at a concert, she grabs some of his nachos and eats them, with the narrator saying, “Who just wanted one of our nachos.” While showing her taking chili cheese fries from his basket at a food truck, the voice says, “And who said things like ‘I’m fine’ when we’re ordering chili cheese fries.” Finally, at a party, the narrator says, “Sorry, but you’re gonna have to get your own,” while the man bites into one of Taco Bell’s Loaded Grillers.

The commercial persuades its target audience through humor and the bandwagon persuasive technique. “Girlfriend” uses ordinary people, albeit beautiful people living an active, urban lifestyle. Since these fun, pretty people are eating Loaded Grillers, the ad urges the viewer to do so as well. Eating the Loaded Grillers is presented as a gateway to having the lifestyle of this couple. The ad normalizes these huge portions of junk food for men, which are more calories than men are likely to need in a day. The ad also uses a form of card stacking, setting up the girlfriend’s desire for food as a joke that is easily knocked down.

On the surface, the ad may be encouraging women to eat by telling them to “get your own.” However, the ad is built on an unhealthy stereotype about women’s eating: namely, that women don’t eat. And if a woman gets a little hungry during all of that not eating and wants a bite of her boyfriend’s nachos? Then the ad shows that she becomes annoying to men. Media has shown women abstaining from food for a very long time and encouraged this behavior in girls. Remember Strawberry Shortcake from the 1980s? As Seiter explains in Sold Separately, Strawberry Shortcake was constantly baking pies, cakes, and other sweets, but never took a single bite of any of them throughout the series.

Moreover, the ad also perpetuates unhealthy relationships with food for men, implying that manhood is tied up in eating massive quantities of unhealthy food. What if a man wants to order a salad? This choice is not validated as manly within our media system. In addition, “Girlfriend” implies that the man is paying for the food, thus affirming an economic structure where women are supported by men in order to reify traditional masculine and feminine heterosexual roles.

Media, including beauty magazines, advertisements, video games, television shows, films, and more, create unrealistic standards of beauty that even models can only reach with Photoshop.  Through the objectification of women, media helps create a culture where women are appreciated more for their beauty than their abilities, and that culture has real consequences, like up to 50% of American women on diets at any given time and 20 million women with eating disorders. Eating disorders result in death more than any other mental illness. Eating disorders affect men, as well. However, this ad is an example of how media portray women’s eating as inherently problematic, while men eating fast food is normalized.

This week is National Eating Disorders Week (Feb. 23 to Mar. 1, 2014) put on by National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). According to NEDA, more than half of teenage girls “use unhealthy weight control behaviors such as skipping meals, fasting, smoking cigarettes, vomiting, and taking laxatives.” “Girlfriend” shows passing up food as so normal in women that it’s the butt of the joke in the ad. Moreover, it places the blame for this on individual women, who should just order food for themselves, instead of placing blame on the culture of media telling women that they must be thin and vilifying women who are fat.  

We are not claiming that the ad necessarily portrays a clinical eating disorder. Nor are we saying that eating disorders are caused by the media, rather than a mix including genetic, medical, psychological, environmental, and other factors. However, media, including this ad, help to create a culture that encourages unhealthy relationships with food for women. For example, the girlfriend in the ad is portrayed as typical, a type of girlfriend that most men can relate to.  The ad relies on the fact that viewers will identify with the experience in the ad or else the marketing would be ineffective. This sort of eating is portrayed as a norm, not something that is out of the ordinary. Moreover, consuming copious amounts of fast food is normalized for men.

One of the untold stories in this ad is what happens to the woman in the ad if she were to get her own food, eating the giant plates of nachos, chili cheese fries, chicken wings, and Loaded Grillers in the ad. Of course, it doesn’t show the health effects for men or women who eat this way. In addition, it doesn’t show the consequences for the girlfriend if she gained weight. In an ideal world, her weight wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t cause her to be less likely to get hired, less likely to be promoted, or paid up to 6% less than non-overweight people in the same positions. But that’s not the culture we live in. See the National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance for more information on size discrimination.

Other untold stories include the number of women and men who live with and die from crippling eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating and eating disorders not otherwise specified (EDNOS). The health effects of eating disorders can be calamitous, which can include an abnormally low heart rate and blood pressure, severe dehydration that can cause kidney failure, rupture of the esophagus and stomach, and many more. People with eating disorders have an especially difficult time finding treatment. As NEDA explains, “Although eating disorders can be treated successfully, some insurance companies refuse payment for much needed care.  Even when health care costs are covered in part, the reimbursement to families remains inadequate for patients with eating disorders.”

Women are constantly caught in a Catch-22. The ideal shown in this ad is a heterosexual woman who either eats a lot of unhealthy food or never wants a bite of her boyfriend’s nachos, but who is also very thin. And then people wonder why the unfortunate answer to these mediated portrayals is often an unhealthy relationship with food. Ads, television shows, and films could show women eating full meals, instead of creating an expectation that women shouldn’t eat. American culture, the “Girlfriend” ad included, creates a very fine line which women must walk to fit into accepted standards.

Taco Bell is not selling quality nutrition and urges the overconsumption of fat, calories, and sodium. For more about how food marketing encourages health problems, come to our free screening of the documentary Feeding Frenzy from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Apr. 6 at Guild Cinema in Albuquerque. Sut Jhally, executive producer of the film, will be on a panel after the screening along with local food justice advocates from Media Literacy Project, Los Jardines Institute, American Friends Service Committee, Tewa Women United, and Native Health Initiative.