Home > Culture, Politics, Television > Taco Bell’s “Routine Republic” Ad and the Discourse of Post-Post-Capitalism

Taco Bell’s “Routine Republic” Ad and the Discourse of Post-Post-Capitalism

Taco Bell, it turns out, is rolling out a breakfast menu. This is precisely the sort of leading-edge current events revelation that you come to this blog to hear about, I’m sure. What sort of items are offered for breakfast at Taco Bell? I could probably do some googling and then tell you, but it doesn’t really matter, since you’re probably not going to eat them anyway. The truly important thing to know about Taco Bell’s new breakfast menu is that this brain-scrambling, utterly brazen “short film” commercial advertisement has been conceived of, shot, and released to promote it. Watch. Just… watch.

There it is: one billion-dollar fast-food corporation selling unhealthy, standardized assembly-line nutriments (Taco Bell) artfully accusing another billion-dollar fast-food corporation of selling unhealthy, standardized assembly-line nutriments (McDonald’s, the evident target of “Routine Republic”). Not only that, but the accusation metastasizes into a hyperbolic but imaginative and compelling portrait of the mass hawking of inferior conformist breakfast sandwiches as undergirding a bleak, greyscale totalitarian dictatorial state run by jackbooted McRed Army clowns and suffused with Soviet-style pro-regime propaganda urging conformity and routine. Two Young Adult dystopian fiction types rebel against this authoritarian order and take a runner for a bell-ringing utopia surrounded by green fields, where other free-spirited bright young things smile and chat al fresco in an old European piazza and chow down on Crunchwrap Huevos Supremes or whatever the heck is inside that hexagonal tortilla.

There’s so much to unpack here, one hardly knows where to begin. We’ll leave aside the above observation that Taco Bell and McDonald’s are marketing pretty much the same thing when you get right down to it (and even if you don’t), and will try not to get too bogged down in advertising agency Deutsch’s audacious conceit that Taco Bell’s fare represents some food-borne embodiment of wild-eyed freedom and individualism when compared to the oppressive conformity of McDonald’s drab factory food product. That particular twist in the discourse is prime-grade “rebel sell” material at its most unthoughtful and cynical and is not really terribly interesting except in the magnitude of its bald-faced hypocrisy, which must surely be at least partially ironic in scope. Corporate advertising has long emphasized the freedom of choice represented by the product at hand while corporate distribution and retail enforces an inflexible order of consumption, and this is not much different.

But “Routine Republic” establishes the favoured product’s liberating potential in contrast to the rigid imposition from above that characterizes the product and supporting presentation favoured by its (much more successful) competitor. The ad depicts the drained Iron Curtain quotidian reality of this McState in extremely clever and biting detail, and this depiction is the most salient feature of “Routine Republic”. Indeed, it winds up feeling more like the ad’s raison d’être than the promotion of the client’s product; “Routine Republic” is more a hit piece against McDonald’s than it is a commercial for Taco Bell. In this way as well as for its mock-serious characterization of minor divergences in corporate policy as tantamount to Orwellian oppressive absolutism, “Routine Republic” is deeply indebted to Apple’s legendary “1984” ad for its first Macintosh (which has now accrued an almost unbearable weight of irony, considering Apple’s latter-day rigid regime of tech hegemony).

Thus, the Routine Republic is a realm of stark industrial tower blocks and shuffling queues of mundanely depressed drone citizens, awaiting their limp, unsatisfying slab of morning protein and carbohydrates. Overseen by an eager voyeuristic face-painted commander (let’s call him Ronald McBrezhnev) at the pinnacle of a panoptic tower, clown-faced military underlings stand at the ready to punish any deviation from collective order, and indeed spring into action when our revolutionary heroes bolt from the food line. Peeling, discoloured propaganda posters blanket the walls on either side of the penitentiary-type yard, extolling the virtues of the morningtime mass mandate with the primary warning colours of Communism (and, eerily, also of McD’s) and overcompensatory images of populist contentment (as you can see to the right and below on the left).

This latter critique of McDonald’s image-making is the sharpest and most sophisticated offered up by “Routine Republic”, and the most lingering and unsettling comparison to authoritarian regimes. McDonald’s and Communist states alike cultivate aggressive public imagery of happiness, depicting their customers/comrades as smiling, cheerful multitudes uplifted by the beneficent regard of their monolithic patron. The inverted double-smile logo, the Happy Meals, the in-restaurant play-zones, the overt appeals to childlike delight and frequent tie-in deals with Disney entertainment (another multinational corporation with an aggressively cheerful public face); McDonald’s presents itself as a conduit of happiness above all.

“Routine Republic” turns this self-presentation on its head, likening it directly to the similar and fundamentally dishonest self-presentation of Communist regimes as essentially positive shepherds of a contented flock of citizens. The tokens of happiness in the Routine Republic are twisted into mechanisms of hegemonic oppression. The surveillance tower includes a yellow corkscrew slide, down which the subalterns of centralized power (painted clowns which trade on the countercultural conception of these makers of merry as figures of horror) slip to chase down the dissenters. To escape the Republic, the dissenters must cross a moat filled with multichromatic plastic balls, a liminal border between slavery and freedom like an inverted funhouse Berlin Wall. The discourse of happiness that supports and elides both McDonald’s mass-produced digestive misery and authoritarianism’s mass-produced social misery is exposed as a thin veneer of spin which will be brutally enforced by state violence; consumption is not a path to happiness any more than collectivism.

Punchdrunk with its own galloping wit, “Routine Republic” goes much farther than it intends to into a sneering outright critique of American capitalism’s very core. The aforementioned Taco Bell Town that the dissenters escape to, heralded by the company’s trademarked bell gong sound, is a literal city upon a hill, hearkening back to the Massachusetts Puritan John Winthrop’s biblical invocation of the new land his people were settling as a shining example of Christian-infused American exceptionalism. The idea has been repurposed by many subsequent American political leaders (most notably the noted Cold Warrior Ronald Reagan), but “Routine Republic” inverts it almost inadvertently. Tacotopia is inhabited by joyous and beautiful multicultural sun-children, contentedly feeding on the re-packaged “distinctive” cuisine of America’s much-maligned underclass southern neighbour in a distinctly Old World urban setting (prompting a brusque question: Has anyone at Deutsch ever been in a Taco Bell?).

The City of Breakfast Liberty upon the Hill is effectively marked as inherently foreign to common American experience, while the sphere of influence of the American corporate brand par excellence is marked as inherently oppressive and prison-like. The Routine Republic is the America of McDonald’s, and Taco Bell seeks to free its shackled masses yearning to breathe free with an infusion of international (ie. UnAmerican) flavour. Taco Bell’s one-time tagline “Run for the Border” takes on a brave new dimension from this perspective, coloured more than a little by the contours of the Blue State/Red State culture war. One must “run for the border” (metaphorically/culinarily at least) to evade the stifling conformity of McDonaldized America, the ad suggests.

There are many historical ironies and criss-crossing discourses at work in “Routine Republic”, and many (though likely not all) have found their way into this discussion of its implications. It is worth noting one in particular, which is the historical symbolism of the penetration of the McDonald’s brand into markets like post-Soviet Russia and limited-free-market China. More than any other corporation (even than its corporate partner Coca Cola), McDonald’s came to represent the terms of the freedom represented by American consumer capitalism as opposed to the oppression of the Communist bloc. That implication deserves to be challenged, but even those who do so must acknowledge its ingrained prominence. The deepest irony of “Routine Republic”, then, is that the company that once represented a shaft of capitalist light in the centrally-planned darkness behind the Iron Curtain is being characterized as embodying a contemporary resurrection of that darkness. And that characterization comes not from radical Left anti-capitalist activists but from a market rival that differs from the target of their withering criticism more in scale than in methodology or practice. Our current social, economic, and cultural moment is sometimes termed post-capitalism, but advertising discourse like “Routine Republic” might herald nothing less than a species of post-post-capitalism.

Categories: Culture, Politics, Television
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