Originally created 02/21/99

Taco Bell's Chihuahua kept on short leash



In a commercial world where frogs croak for a brewery and a bunny drums up business for a battery company, it's probably no surprise that a Chihuahua would end up barking about tacos for Taco Bell Corp.

But not even advertising industry executives who created the quirky ad campaign guessed how popular the "Yo quiero Taco Bell" (I want Taco Bell) ads would become.

"We never set out to create an icon for the company, but that's what it became," said Clay Williams, creative director at TBWA Chiat Day, which dreamed up the dog for Irvine, Calif.-based Taco Bell. "What we set out to do was create a fun, interesting campaign."

The minuscule dog with the permanent smirk and the evocative voice was one of 1998's hottest advertising phenomena. And restaurant company executives are betting that the dog will -- to borrow a phrase from the Energizer Bunny -- keep going and going and going.

"People only get tired of boring ads," said David E. Novak, vice chairman of Tricon Global Restaurants, the Louisville, Ky.-based company that owns Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut. "If we can keep it exciting, (the Chihuahua) can last forever."'

Whether counted in dog years or fiscal quarters, the cash that the Chihuahua is able to keep ringing up in burrito sales will be determined by how adept its handlers are at safeguarding the dog's carefully crafted image and personality.

Too much exposure among media-savvy teens, experts say, and the canine will die a premature death.

"We're really cautious about having him burn out before his time," said Mr. Williams, who is charged with keeping the Chihuahua's image fresh. "We view it like a TV sitcom, which could go on for 10 or 12 years if we manage it correctly. But the onus is on us to ensure we don't overexpose it."

The campaign already has endured a few rough spots. Leaders of some Latino groups have complained that the dog and its accent are demeaning.

Some franchisees grew worried that the dog's hip image could have been damaged last year when Taco Bell allowed Kraft to use the Chihuahua in advertising for a licensed line of food goods sold in grocery stores.

The star of Taco Bell's commercials is a female Chihuahua named Gidget (portrayed in the ads as a male) who flies to commercial shoots first class with her handlers.

The dog's voice is provided by 36-year-old San Fernando Valley resident Carlos Alazraqui.

The dog first barked "Yo quiero Taco Bell" in the summer of 1997 during an ad that ran in the Northeastern states.

"Taco Bell was immediately on the map in those states in a way that it just wasn't before," said Taco Bell chief marketing officer Vada Hill.

Recognizing that consumers wanted more of the dog, Taco Bell quickly shifted the emphasis to the Chihuahua.

So far, this dog's life seems to have benefited from the media attention. The fast-food chain expects to sell 10 million plush-toy versions of the dog -- at prices ranging from $2.99 to $3.99 -- during a Valentine's Day promotion.

That's on top of 13 million units rung up during the quarter ended Dec. 26.

It's rare in the advertising industry for the star of a commercial to generate that kind of interest in a world dominated by movie-related characters.

"What they've got is a property not unlike what Disney or another entertainment producer might have," said Marty Brochstein, executive editor of Licensing Letter, a New York-based trade publication. "They have a phenomenon of sorts, and they're doing a very good job of leveraging it."

Demand among youngsters who play with the plush toys and adults who collect them continues to ignite Internet bidding wars. Taco Bell, meanwhile, is developing its own line of licensed merchandise, ranging from T-shirts to pens, carrying the dog's image.

And along the way, the Chihuahua has done exactly what Chiat Day promised it would: burnished Taco Bell's image among teen-agers and consumers in their 20s as a hip place to eat.

Sales in Taco Bell restaurants open for at least a year -- an important barometer in the fast-food industry -- were up 3 percent in 1998, and up 9 percent during the final quarter when the plush toys were on sale.

But Taco Bell has been careful not to be too cute, the company's chief marketing officer said.

"What's important is that you don't try to be cool; the coolness has to come out of the fresh situation we create for the dog." And if there are questions about where the campaign is heading? "We say, `What would the dog do?"' Mr. Hill said with a straight face.

Chiat Day's Mr. Williams agreed: "We knew we had to be subtle in advertising to the teen-age market because they're really savvy," he said. "If they feel they're being marketed to, they'll tune you out."

That's the main reason Taco Bell has rejected licensing agreements that could dilute the Chihuahua's appeal to kids.

Sales of plush toys and T-shirts are a welcome addition to the bottom line, but "they've been very strategic about what they've done," Mr. Brochstein said. "They've never lost sight of the fact that they're in the business of selling food, not dogs."

The dog that has completed nearly 20 commercials is now filming a new batch of ads that will run in the spring, when Taco Bell introduces a line of more expensive menu items to be sold during the dinner hour.

The Chihuahua also will share the spotlight later this year when Tricon unveils a massive Star Wars promotion covering the Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut chains.

Marketing observers note that the Chihuahua managed to succeed on Hollywood's terms last year during a popular Godzilla commercial in which the little dog referred to the big-screen beast as a lizard.