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Marketing the Munchies: How Fast Food Companies Target Stoners

From 420 calorie burritos to Taco Bell's "Fourth Meal," fast-food companies are pushing products to stoners like never before.
 
 
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This past spring, professional skater Rob Dyrdek opened his MTV show, called “Fantasy Factory,” by taking a specialized burrito gun and trying to blow burrito-sized holes through his friends.

"We're taking over the burrito game," he shouted, after covering his office walls in guacamole. It was part reality TV in the direct lineage of the Jackassfranchise, and part marketing scheme: turns out those weren’t just any burritos. They were Loud Mouth Burritos, a new line of tortilla-wrapped gruel (they come in pizza and cheeseburger flavors) developed by the entrepreneurially promiscuous Dyrdek, who is 38 years old, and his cousin Chris "Drama" Pfaff. 

The stunt itself was mostly forgettable, as much of MTV’s programming is these days. And the burritos are destined to join the crowded shelves of microwaveable gas station snacks. But then a couple weeks ago,  TMZ broke some interesting news about Dyrdek’s burritos: They’ll be marketed "directly to stoners." It's a remarkably blunt, if slightly risky, approach for a guy whose paychecks typically depends on  teenagers' allowances and the spending money of corporate suits at Viacom. But it also makes sense, given the longstanding overlap of three activities: watching MTV, smoking pot smokers and chowing down on frozen burritos. Calls to Loud Mouth to confirm this strategy went unanswered, and its website makes no references to weed. But the answer is easy to find if you know where to look. 

In fact, it’s right there on the back of the burrito: 420 calories.

Stoners began scouring Taco Bell ads for even more subliminal references. Is that the sound of someone taking at hit five seconds into this video?  Is the bell at the end of commercials making the sound of the word “bong”?

That kind of winking and nudging is typical in the emergent genre of ads aimed at stoners, a once taboo marketing approach recently embraced most blatantly by the fast food industry. Just look at the actor in the next burger commercial you see. Odds are he’ll be a glassy-eyed Spicoli, dropping coded reefer references (see Jack in the Box's favorite  mumbling pothead). Companies as big as Taco Bell and General Mills have gotten in on the act and they’re reaping the rewards. Taco Bell, with its Doritos-taco hybrid and  “late night munchies” tagline saw a  six percent sales increase in the first quarter of 2012. General Mills, which revived Cheech and Chong for a Fiber One  web campaign, deemed the ad  so successful it plans to do more just like it. Then there’s Sonic and its  hallucinating twenty-something dreaming of man-sized cheesy tots. Carl’s Jr. is touting its  “wake and bake” habit. Denny's is promoting a  reggae-loving unicorn. And who could forget the ultimate stoner picaresque in modern cinema: "Harold and Kumar go to White Castle." White Castle actually signed on for that film (and its sequel). 

“If you're targeting that heavy fast food user you need to speak their language,” says Denise Yohn, a brand consultant who’s worked with restaurants for 25 years. “One way to do that is to talk about partying and munchies. To the mainstream audience it may just sound like late nights and drinking, but to a certain audience they're talking about getting stoned.”

No company better straddles the line than Taco Bell. Owned by Yum! Brands (which sounds like it was named by a stoner), Taco Bell  introduced the idea of the “Fourth Meal” in 2006. Described as “the meal between dinner and breakfast,” Fourth Meal was launched with a goofy website full of pajama-clad kids wandering the streets and gorging on Gorditas. About the same time Taco Bell ads began referencing the “late night munchies,” a gaggle of Tex Mex-based  superheroes were concocted to “save people everywhere from cruddy combos and late night munchies,” and soon a  song composed around those three words showed up in TV and radio ads. Stoners quickly caught on and began scouring Taco Bell ads for even more subliminal references. Is that the sound of someone taking at hit  five seconds into this video?  Is the bell at the end of commercials  making the sound of the word “bong”?