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FOODIE RUSTICA: FEBRUARY 2009

Opinion: Why I've had it with Carl's Jr. (or 'It's the fries, Stupid')

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(Feb. 9, 2009)—For starters, I write this post with the awareness that those responsible for the Carl’s Jr. ad campaigns are just begging for this type of attention—and possibly reading it with the hope it’s the byproduct of one or all of the following:

  • A love-starved, looks- and weight-conscious woman susceptible to manipulation by men’s jealousy games
  • A food-loving woman—slightly overweight to obese—who feels under-represented in their “desperate to shock and offend” commercials
  • A femin-ista/nazi standing up, yet again, for the sisterhood by ranting about how sexist ad campaigns damage perceptions around women

Could I be—or have been—any of these women on any given day? Maybe. And if the Carl’s Jr. ad camp feels satisfied by that, then I guess they’ve earned their pay.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about why I’ve had it with Carl’s Jr.—and it might not be what you think.

As a child, after finishing up jazz or ballet lessons, my friends and I would head to the nearest fast-food restaurant, which was of course, a Carl’s Jr. Looking back, I find the connection interesting, young girls taking dance classes, where we were made to feel self-conscious about our appearance—every minute detail pertaining to our young figures, not to mention our faces and how our stage make-up looked. Then, in spite of all of that, enjoying our hard-earned eats at what would eventually become an arrogant offender of chauvinism in advertising. Nonetheless, we were always excited to spend the money our parents gave us on a Famous Star burger with—what were once—semi-thick fries, and a soft drink.

That, my friends, is my earliest memory of Carl’s Jr.—a smiley-faced star staring back at me whenever I ordered a hamburger, fries and a Coke to satisfy the hunger brought on from endless pirouettes and “kick ball change.” I believe to this day, that is why I remained a loyal patron of Carl’s for so many years—except for my “skinny bitch” and vegetarian phases where fast food was rare on my repertoire of eats.

But I did make it through that era—alive but a mal-adjusted Corporate America employee, where being a regular fast-food customer is practically a requirement. And that’s when Carl’s Jr. became hot on my list of regular places to eat. It was also during this time I realized something. That the best fast-food fries—thin, crispy and golden—which were once the exclusive pride and joy of McDonald’s were being replicated at Carl’s Jr. And it was during this time, I became hooked on Carl’s Jr. chili-cheese fries.

The dominatrix, car-washing commercial featuring America’s Train Wreck Paris Hilton was in full swing, drumming up controversy on the six o’clock news. Around the same time, an ultra-thin model riding an electronic bull, while shoving a hamburger in her mouth emerged as Carl’s Jr.’s “F-you” and answer back. Like any other thinking woman, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Is this how the Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s corporation really feels about women?” But even that was not enough for me to launch a personal boycott of those oh-so-tasty chili-cheese fries.

Not too long after I’d become hooked on that gluttonous dish—carb- and fat-heavy and putting the “C” back in “Comfort Food”—Carl’s stopped selling them. They still offered the thin, crispy, McD’s-inspired fries, but gone was the chili. And therefore, gone was the chili cheese. And therefore, gone were my occasional junk-food instant gratifications, which were always followed by gastro-intestinal discomfort. No explanation. No warning. Just a straightforward, “I’m sorry, we no longer sell those,” from the voice coming out of the drive-thru sign. Thankfully, my world had not melted away completely, with my next best option always being the Deluxe Chili Cheese Fries from—let’s say it together—Del Taco.

"Given that Pizza Hut did it first, it looks like Carl’s Jr.’s ad gurus are incapable of coming up with an original idea outside of one that’s hurtful to women."

Meanwhile, one misogynistic commercial after the other was coming out from Carl’s Jr.—the Eminem-inspired “Flat Buns” commercial, which embarrassingly not only made me laugh but prompted me to sing along. The hot-wings commercial, which reminded “guys” that Buffalo wings were to be enjoyed during “boys’ night out,” as a skanky waitress wiped down a table while making seductive eye contact with another girl’s boyfriend.

Then there are commercials not so flattering to men. Like the one with the whole avocado inside of the blender, promoting some guacamole sandwich. Please now. Even the stupid guy would say that was stupid. Its latest ad showing what looks like some college kid on the verge of taking his sassed up girlfriend to a “fancy steak dinner,” I would also think, is an insult to men. I say this because the men I know are proudly discerning when it comes to their steak dinners. But okay, it’s just a joke. I get it.

But the most desperate of all of the Carl’s Jr. ads neither feature men playing head games with their girlfriends nor skanky women trying to lure away another woman’s man, but the straight-up, shameless rip-off from Pizza Hut / Pasta Hut showing pasta lovers enjoying a Pasta Hut dish in a mock Italian restaurant.

Carl’s Jr. resurrected their ad campaign for the Six-dollar Sandwich by showing customers in a sit-down casual restaurant (Red Robin comes to mind) enjoying a beefy burger with all the fixings. Given that Pizza Hut did it first, it looks like Carl’s Jr.’s ad gurus are incapable of coming up with an original idea outside of one that’s hurtful to women. And I say this without knowing what the predominant gender is behind these campaigns. As a female, I’ve learned the source of this type of male-female societal representation could be either a man or a woman.

As for the chili-cheese fries, Carl’s Jr. had started offering them again. And I couldn’t help but wonder if a regulatory recall is what pulled the item off the market in the first place. So while I had already moved on to Carl’s No. 1 special, I was pleased to have my favorite dish back.

In the fall of last year, I was still faithful to the big yellow star. On a road trip to the Bay Area, I pulled over, needing to order a quick lunch. “I’ll either turn left and go to McD’s or right and go to Carl’s Jr,” I thought. But I decided to turn right. While staring at the menu, I noticed a photo of thicker fries, which Carl’s was promoting as freshly cut potato fries. I thought to myself, “Hmm, they’ve added new fries to their menu.” I had not even thought that they could discontinue selling the thin, crispy, golden fries. The horrors!

But my optimistic notion was wrong. When I got my bag, I reached in and saw those thick, so very pretentious fries with skins on them. I asked the guy behind the drive-thru window what gives, and he told me they were no longer selling the thin crispies. “You’re kidding,” I thought.

And thus marked the end of my loyal patronage of Carl’s Jr.

Since then, I have not been back. Not even for a Green Burrito. And today, I muse over how a company pushing the limits when it comes to advertising can so easily lose a loyal customer when they mess with a formula that’s brought them success. After all, they’ve changed their style of fries at least twice as far as I know.

We can say all we want about McDonald’s, but the truth is, and parents know what I mean, you can order a Quarter Pounder (or a Cheeseburger Royale) and thin, golden fries, and to this day, they will be the same as they were when we were your children’s age. As for fries, the same holds true for In N’ Out Burger and Del Taco, with the Jr. Whopper keeping Burger King still close to my heart (not to be confused with arteries).

As for the TV commercials, another company like GoDaddy can get away with its outrageous ads as long as they keep offering an excellent product and friendly customer service. But if the company were to ever slip in those areas, what would keep those who find their commercials offensive commercials coming back?

Then there’s Jim Beam. I’m not a Jim Beam drinker, so I can’t speak to product loyalty in light of that ridiculous ad they have running now—the one showing some lingerie-clad girlfriend saying through a pathetically fake accent that her “man can do whatever he wants.” That commercial is horrendous because what it’s saying is, “I’m a pretty woman who’s looking for a man who will treat me poorly.” This might beg someone from the Jim Beam ad crew to say, “Lighten up, it’s just a commercial.” But if astute means cleverly aware, then I am astute. These advertisers know what they’re doing and how they are affecting mass perceptions, even when their “play dumb” routine makes for a great spin campaign.

As for Carl’s Jr., it’s “later days happy-faced star.” And now that I think about it, I’ve been looking for an excuse to stop giving them my money. Now I have one. Does this mean I’d go back to Carl’s Jr. if they started offering the thin, golden fries again? No. If I want the real thing, I’ll head up the street to that other drive-thru joint. Ba-da-da-da-da. I’m lovin’ it.

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