You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Taco Bell has long been one of TV’s most ubiquitous advertisers. But it’s conquering that screen with something straight out of the movies.

The fast-food chain best known for items like the Cheesy Gordita Crunch and Cinnamon Twists recently sparked attention for its newest menu item – Nacho Fries – with a TV commercial that looks just like a sneak preview a viewer might see at the local bijou. The nonexistent film depicted in the spot is called “Web of Fries,” and stars actor Josh Duhamel as a man consumed with bringing fries seasoned with Mexican spices and dipped in warm nacho cheese to greater renown – only to find “the burger people” will do anything they can to block him. Taco Bell sold 53 million orders of the new offering in the first five weeks of the campaign.

Now the Yum Brands chain is considering a sequel, says Tracee Larocca, Taco Bell’s senior vice president of advertising and brand engagement. “A lot of people are selling fries,” she says. “We had to find a way that felt really different and get people’s attention.”

Taco Bell isn’t the first marketer to latch on to the power movie trailers have over the public at large. In an era when TV viewers are more prone than ever to skip over advertising, however, the format may prove more of a draw than in the past. Trailers “are newsworthy,” says Brian Sheehan, a professor of advertising at Syracuse University’s SI Newhouse School of Public Communications. “People are always on the lookout for something that they may want to watch in the near future.”

A good movie trailer (or its second cousin, the TV promo) can go viral in seconds. Consider the case of “Solo,” a new “Star Wars” entry that focuses on Han Solo’s early days. Walt Disney put up a sneak-peek trailer during NBC’s recent broadcast of Super Bowl LII. Or contemplate CBS’ 2016 decision during Super Bowl 50 to announce the looming cancellation of “The Good Wife” – and break the news in a promotional spot during commercial time.  Ad buyers and TV executives don’t like to say this out loud, but they all know that movie trailers get viewers to pay more attention to the screen than the usual 30-second ads for kitchen cleaners and razor blades.

“Research confirms that different types of executional formats generate different levels of awareness and interest in consumer product advertising,” says Roger Beahm, executive director of the Center for Retail Innovation at Wake Forest University School of Business. Movie trailers, he says, tend to have more of the stuff that helps sell: visualization of consumer benefits; drama; and synchronization between what viewers are being told and what is being shown on the screen in front of them. “All of these characteristics have shown strong correlations to sales-generating advertising,” he says.

Brett Craig went from driving in his car to helping drive the success of the Taco Bell launch. The executive creative director of Interpublic Group’s Deutsch was in his car one day, returning from a meeting with Taco Bell executives when an idea hit him. “We knew we had these fries that were different, and for some reason, the idea of ‘Big Fries’ or ‘Big Burger’ occurred to me – the same way you might think of ‘Big Tobacco’ or ‘Big Government.’ It just made me laugh,” he recalls. More ideas flew as he broached the concept with colleagues. “The movie-trailer format just seemed like the best and the only concept that would be able to convey the story.”

Trailers, he says, “are really just condensing a two-hour story into a digestible 60-second story.” And with that, Taco Bell had plenty of dramatic highlights without the need to put millions of dollars into an actual film release.

tv icon Column tv icon
A continuing series about branded entertainment

The restaurant chain often remembered for slogans like “Run for the Border” and “Yo Quiero Taco Bell” (the latter often voiced by a chihuahua between 1993 and 2004) has long backed bolder advertising. In recent years, the company has used innovative food items and pokes at its burger rivals to grab a bite of consumer attention. In 2014, for example, Taco Bell elbowed its way into breakfast by hiring talent agencies to find dozens of people actually named Ronald McDonald – also the name of the famous advertising character who worked for decades on behalf of a certain fast-food rival – and talk up new early bird entries like the “A.M. crunchwrap” in commercials.

When you’re treading into frontiers controlled by others, it’s not a time to step lightly, says Taco Bell’s Larocca. Efforts behind the Nacho Fries launch “can’t just be an average campaign,” she says. “We are trying to bust into a product category that has been well established. It has to be really different.”

Use the movie-trailer conceit for the wrong reasons, experts caution, and you may have a flop on your hands.

Advertisers ought to have something as dynamic to announce as the first look at a Marvel superhero – a surprising new product, service or benefit. “It works best when the thing being sold is actually new and exciting, rather than just trying to make a small message about an existing product feel new and exciting,” says Sheehan, the advertising professor. If Taco Bell’s idea becomes more widely used across Madison Avenue, suggests Wake Forest’s Beahm, the need to entertain consumers might distract advertisers when their real mandate is to sell. “The only true wins come when sales and market share goals are met,” he warns, not when consumers pass along a favorite video segment.

Taco Bell has box-office of a sort to prove the ad’s value. In the weeks during the launch, says Larocca, “one in three orders included Nacho Fries. Consumers are going crazy for these things.” Sounds like Taco Bell’s movie-trailer idea may offer a chance for a new take on a Hollywood film franchise: “The Hunger Games.”