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Mini Case Study Taco Bell Thanks For Suing

CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Taco Bell has launched a national advertising campaign in response to a lawsuit filed Jan. 19 against the fast-food chain regarding its "seasoned ground beef."

The fast feeder is placing full-page ads in national and local newspapers to fend off charges made in a class action suit that Taco Bell misleads consumers when it says its restaurants serve "seasoned ground beef" or "seasoned beef" and is actually serving "taco meat filling," while the remainder consists mainly of "extenders" and other non-meat substances.

Taco Bell print ad

"Our number one priority is to inform and reassure our customers and employees," said David Ovens, Taco Bell's chief marketing officer in an email statement to Ad Age. "So we are defending the reputation of the brand in the same way you'd defend your own reputation if someone made false accusations about you. We are telling our customers the truth using only the facts about our food."

The lawsuit asks that Taco Bell, which is owned by Yum Brands, properly advertise and label food items, and to launch a corrective advertising campaign to educate the public about the true content of its food products.

Taco Bell is taking out full-page ads in national dailies including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and USA Today, as well as in local newspapers including Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register, San Diego Tribune, and San Francisco Chronicle. The print ads, as well as a Hispanic campaign, were created by Interpublic Group of Cos.' DraftFCB, Taco Bell's agency of record.

The print ad copy reads: "Thank you for suing us. Here's the truth about seasoned beef. The claims made against Taco Bell and our seasoned beef are absolutely false. The only reason we add anything to our beef is to give the meat flavor and quality. So here are the REAL percentages. 88% Beef and 12% Secret Recipe." The ad goes on to elaborate on that 12%, saying that the rest consists of water (about 3%), spices (about 4%), and "oats, caramelized sugar, yeast, citric acid, and other ingredients that contribute to the flavor, moisture, consistency, and quality of our seasoned beef (5%)."

As part of an online effort, Taco Bell posted a YouTube video featuring Taco Bell President Greg Creed talking about the brand's seasoned-beef recipe. The video was to appear on YouTube, the company's website, tacobell.com, and Facebook. The videos will be supported with ads on search engines and other social-media networks.

Taco Bell's response is a much more public and aggressive one than fast feeders typically take. McDonald's, for instance, in recent months was sued in California in a play to get the company to stop using toys to market directly to children. The company issued a statement and has not aggressively addressed the issue.

Of course, taking such a public course of action has inherent risks. "It is risky because it requires that the facts be air-tight and the company be totally confident in them," said Gene Grabowski, senior VP-chair of the crisis and litigation practice at Levick Strategic Communications. "This approach would indicate that the company is extremely confident in the facts and knows it will be vindicated. It's much more typical to issue a statement that is one or two sentences and address the crisis in a court of law. It's done like that because it's low-risk and doesn't force you to publicly try your case. Taco Bell is publicly trying its case."

Mr. Grabowski added that although the move is risky, there's potential for payoff in positive publicity, potentially renewed brand perception and increased sales.

Taco Bell's move has also given the company a little more control over the situation. Sara Jones, managing director and director of the crisis practice at Mercury Public Affairs, said that although Taco Bell waited a few days to respond to the lawsuit, the fast feeder has since gained the upper hand. "Taco Bell is getting its footing and is putting the plaintiff's attorneys on the defensive. The plaintiff's attorneys were aggressive before, and now they're being questioned on the results of their beef testing and hiding behind a legalese response."

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court Central District of California Southern Division by Montgomery, Ala.-based law firm Beasley Allen along with the San Diego law firm Blood Hurst & O' Reardon. The plaintiff is California resident Amanda Obney, who filed on behalf of "herself, all others similarly situated and the general public."

Beasley Allen is standing by its lawsuit. W. Daniel "Dee" Miles, a shareholder at Beasley Allen Law Firm, said in an email statement to Ad Age: "The facts alleged in the filed lawsuit against Taco Bell are absolutely correct. We will try this lawsuit in the Federal Court in California, not the press. We have no further comment on Taco Bell's latest advertisements or statements as we will do our work on this case in the trial court."

Prior to today's ad campaign, Taco Bell's brand perception dropped since the Jan. 19 filing, according to YouGov's BrandIndex survey results. Taco Bell's Index score for adults 18 and older who have eaten in a fast-food restaurant at least once in the past three months has fallen fast, from 25.2 to 11.7, in only one week. The drop puts Taco Bell below the entire fast-food sector's average score, which currently stands at 12.2.

YouGov BrandIndex's scores range from 100 to -100 and are compiled by subtracting negative feedback from positive.

Taco Bell had also been in the news in the last week due to its advertising on controversial MTV show "Skins," which features explicit content among teenagers. After the premiere, the fast feeder said it would no longer buy ads during the show, citing a lack of fit for the brand.

The law firm that filed a class-action lawsuit against Taco Bell in January alleging that the fast-food chain's seasoned beef wasn't beefy enough to be called beef said Monday it was throwing in the tortilla.

The Alabama firm Beasley Allen said its decision came after Taco Bell changed its marketing practices and disclosed more information about the beef product it uses in tacos, chalupas, gorditas and whatever else the company can think to put it in.

For its part, Taco Bell also seemed pleased, but the company had a slightly different account of how the nacho chip crumbled. The allegations were "absolutely wrong" from the start, Taco Bell said in a statement, and the company isn't "making any changes to its products or advertising." No money changed hands either, Taco Bell said.

Early this year, the plaintiffs asserted that Taco Bell's seasoned beef filling couldn't be called beef under USDA standards because it contained more oats, seasonings and fillers than meat.

Taco Bell pulled out all the stops to refute the allegations and bolster its reputation, spending between $3 million and $4 million, according to Associated Press. The chain even turned to a video spoof, created before the suit was filed, of a Saturday morning superhero cartoon: Super Delicious Ingredient Force who fights Baron von Bland.

It also released videos that defended its beef filling on YouTube. The company insisted that its product is 88 percent beef, not 35 percent as an attorney from the firm had claimed.

In a statement Monday, Beasley Allen said it was satisfied with Taco Bell's response to its questions. "From the inception of this case, we stated that if Taco Bell would make certain changes regarding disclosure and marketing of its 'seasoned beef' product, the case could be dismissed," said Dee Miles, a Beasley Allen attorney. The firm did not respond to a request from Shots for further detail on its decision.

Taco Bell CEO Greg Creed said in the statement that the withdrawal of the suit "sets the record straight about the high quality of our seasoned beef and the integrity of our advertising." Furthermore, he said, "We took great exception to the false claims made about our seasoned beef and wish the attorneys had contacted us before filing and publicizing a lawsuit that disparaged our brand."

So what is in Taco Bell's seasoned ground beef? Here's the full list of ingredients straight from the company's site:

Beef, Water, Seasoning [Isolated Oat Product, Salt, Chili Pepper, Onion Powder, Tomato Powder, Oats (Wheat), Soy Lecithin, Sugar, Spices, Maltodextrin, Soybean Oil (Anti-dusting Agent), Garlic Powder, Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Citric Acid, Caramel Color, Cocoa Powder (Processed With Alkali), Silicon Dioxide, Natural Flavors, Yeast, Modified Corn Starch, Natural Smoke Flavor], Salt, Sodium Phosphates. CONTAINS SOYBEANS, WHEAT

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