Ad Report Card: Jack in the Box Pops Big Tobacco

010723_VideoClip It’s not unusual for an advertiser to take pot-shots at a rival company. But it’s interesting to see one poke fun at a completely unrelated industry, and in fairly pointed terms. Consider a recent commercial that does just that on behalf of Jack in the Box, the fast food chain—not exactly a traditional source for critiques of corporate behavior. In the discussion below, I’ll be giving away the ad’s punch line, so if you want to see it first, click the picture above.

The ad: A stern-looking doctor, or at least a guy in a doctorish white coat, strides through a laboratory. “For years,” he says authoritatively, “doctors have urged you to eat foods low in fat and high in fiber.” He whips off his glass for emphasis. There’s a quick cut to him in close-up. “Apparently, we got that all wrong.” He whips off his glasses again. There’s another cut as he moves through the lab. “A new study shows that men, and women”—he whips off his glasses for the third time, by now making it clear that there’s something intentionally off here—”should eat more stuffed jalapeños and bacon cheddar potato wedges.” He slips a couple of transparencies into a light box, showing the foods in question, which appear unhealthy enough to cause heart attacks in random passers-by. “Tests prove that when added to your meal, whole jalapeños stuffed with three kinds of cheese and bacon cheddar potato wedges—can remove wrinkles.” Now we cut to an office, where a guy in a tie is showing this clip to the Jack in the Box mascot, Jack, who appears to be a man but with a huge round clown head. The guy-in-the-lab clip continues on the office TV. “Furthermore,” the ersatz doctor is saying, whipping his glasses off, “I believe bacon prevents hair loss.” Jack looks on and asks, “Where did you find this guy?” The man in the tie grins and says, “Tobacco company.” Punch line delivered, we get a very quick sell job: “Make it a meal,” says a voice-over as bags bearing the Jack in the Box logo appear on screen. “Order a side.”

Healthy strategy? I used to think that we as a nation had had our fill of beating up on tobacco companies and would move on to find some new, all-purpose corporate villain. But I guess that’s not the case. Instead the notion of tobacco companies as staffed by scurrilous liars is so widespread that even another big firm can safely use them as the butt of a joke. And in an odd way, the willingness of a private business to ridicule Big Tobacco seems somehow more effective than even the most vicious attacks of anti-smoking groups.

Actually, whether or not it works as an anti-tobacco broadside, the spot does a pretty good job on behalf of Jack in the Box. It’s genuinely funny, for starters, but it also manages to make the actual product on offer a centerpiece of the ad, as opposed to the lately more traditional style of simply telling a 27-second joke and throwing the company’s name in at the end.

Less palatable. There is of course another wrinkle here, which is either ironic, risky, devious, or all of the above: Yes, Jack in the Box is mocking tobacco firm dishonesty, but then again what they’re peddling is not exactly health food. After all, if that guy in the lab coat is transparently lying, then how exactly do jalapeños stuffed with three kinds of cheese fit into a low-fat, high-fiber diet? The answer is a wink and a shrug.

It’s an interesting strategy, particularly for a company that was once most famous for the 1993 incident in which a large outbreak of E. coli poisoning traced back to the chain’s burgers. In the recent best-seller Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser writes that Jack in the Box subsequently took serious steps to clean up its act and has even “assumed the mantle of leadership on food safety.” On the other hand, he also notes comments from a Jack in the Box honcho complaining about industry critics and suggesting that the ability to enjoy a fast food meal is “the very essence of freedom.” Hmm. I don’t know if the fake doctor will pop up in sequel Jack ad, but if so, that sounds like a nice bit of dialogue for him.

Anyway, for the vast majority of viewers, all of that won’t matter a bit: It’s a funny ad, and the product takes center stage. In short, a grade-A commercial—good enough, I’m sure, to make those tobacco companies jealous.