Why Everybody Loses in the Taco Bell and McDonald's Breakfast Wars

Taco Bell wants to liberate you from a world of mundane breakfasts, or at least, that’s what they want you to think. Their latest ad campaign targets McDonald’s as a dreary dictatorship kept afloat by an oppressive team of Ronald McDonalds. They’ve plastered cities with fake McDonald’s propaganda and aired a 2-minute commercial which depicts zombified consumers waiting in long lines for Egg McMuffins. The A.V Club’s Katie Rife joked that the ad was “apparently inspired by one of its PR executives catching The Hunger Games on Netflix one night during an especially decadent cocaine binge.”


The commercial also seemingly cribs from John Carpenter’s 1988 science-fiction film They Live, a movie that tells the story of a nameless drifter who comes to discover that the country is controlled by aliens who manipulate the masses through subliminal messages. The drifter, played by former professional wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper, only realizes the society’s totalitarian structure after he finds a special pair of sunglasses that expose the hidden functions of mass media.

“These glasses function like critique-of-ideology glasses,” says the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek in his film A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, ”We live, so we are told, in a post-ideological society. We are addressed by social authority not as subjects who should do their duty, but subjects of pleasures: ‘Realize your true potential,’ ‘Be yourself,’ ‘Lead a satisfying life.’ When you put the glasses on, you see dictatorship in democracy.”

This is precisely the basis behind Taco Bell’s ad. The company wants you to put on proverbial glasses and make your way to one of its many locations. At the end of the commercial the Ramones' “Blitzkrieg Bop” begins to play and the breakfast-eaters of the world lose their chains. Taco Bell’s punk-rock alternative to banal morning cuisine is symbolized by something called a Biscuit Taco, which is probably self-explanatory and between 370-470 calories depending upon what fillings you want.

On one hand, Taco Bell’s ad campaign is an old story. Corporations have been co-opting the rebelliousness of youth culture for years, Taco Bell wanting you to view it as some anti-corporate renegade isn’t much different than Nike using the Beatles “Revolution” to sell you sneakers, but this is just one tactic in a much wider conflict that is referred to by business insiders as the Breakfast Wars, a fight to see who can dominate the $30 billion morning food market.

According to studies, fast-food traffic during breakfast is increasing, while lunch and dinner purchases are on a downward trajectory. A 2011 survey demonstrated that almost half of consumers swung by a quick service stop for breakfast, up from just a third just two years before. In 2011 there was a 2% increase, then another percent in 2012. In 2013 sales rose by 3%.

The reasons behind the increase are hard to pinpoint, but probably have something to do with the fact that Americans work more than anyone in the industrial world, and while CEO pay and productivity have soared, wages have stayed stagnant for most citizens. If people in the United States are hitting up drive-thrus at a more compelling clip at the beginning of the day, it’s likely connected to the fact that, while leisure time has virtually evaporated over the last 35 years, the need to log more hours has increased.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 30 percent of employed Americans get less than seven hours of sleep a night. A study conducted by Mathias Basner, of the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, shows that work actually makes us wake up too early. Basner examined the sleep and work patterns of 124,517 Americans. His results show that with every hour Americans work later in the morning, sleep time increases by 20 minutes. Americans slept about only six hours when starting work before or at 6am and almost 7.5 hours when starting between 9 and 10.

The Breakfast Wars are, in fact, being fought by the most vulnerable victims of these economic trends. Taco Bell is one of the worst-paying jobs in America but the CEO of its parent company Yum! Brands pocketed $94 million off “performance pay” in 2011 and 2012 alone. In case you’re wondering, the corporation is able to deduct “performance pay” from its taxable income. This in addition to the infamous Walmart trick of having the government effectively fund its workforce. According to a 2013 study, Americans taxpayers end up paying almost $7 billion a year to supplement the wages of fast food workers. According to the website Glassdoor, the hourly pay for a Taco Bell crew member ranges from $7-$10, with an average hourly pay of $8.

According to a Demos study, in 2012, the compensation of fast-food CEOs was more than 1,200 times that of the average fast-food worker. While fast-food CEOs are some of the highest paid people in our economy, their workers are easily the worst paid. The average worker makes less than $19,000 a year and real wages for staff have increased just .03% since the year 2000.

McDonalds is currently locked into an interesting lawsuit in Seattle. After the city increased its minimum wage to $15, the company devised a strategy to fight the idea of their workers actually taking home a living wage by citing the 14th Amendment.

If you’re thinking, “Isn’t that the amendment that addressed citizenship rights for recently freed slaves?” you’re absolutely right. McDonald’s is claiming it has the same rights as a person. While many like to blame such moves on the Citizens United verdict, New Jersey blogger Shawn Hamilton recently explained the historical precedent at work here: “This is an old trick. In the years following the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, its most successful claimants were not black Americans fighting the rising tide of the Klan or Jim Crow, but rather railroads and utilities companies fighting ‘discrimination’ by the state. The 14th Amendment would become what W.E.B. Du Bois called the ‘chief refuge and bulwark of corporations,’ while African Americans spent the next century trying to make it applicable to actual human beings.”

McDonald’s is appealing to our sense of freedom and democracy, much the same way Taco Bell is. Both companies believe they maintain the same rights as individuals, Taco Bell just wants you to think it’s a much cooler person. The Breakfast Wars are just the latest example of two clashing corporations maximizing their profits via exploitation. The war might be waged by low-income workers and stressed commuters, but to the victor go the spoils whether a Ramones song starts playing or not.

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