Fast Food Restaurants Market ‘Extreme’ Food for Shock Value

Back in the Great Depression, people who were worried about their economic prospects would escape to the fairgrounds for an afternoon of cheap thrills — the human cannonball, the bearded lady, the daredevil who high-dived into 12 inches of water.

How far we have fallen. Now, in the midst of the Great Recession, we’re infatuated with … stunt food.

Two impulses — our hunger for calories and our urge for diversion — have congealed into a new kind of escapist entertainment: a visit to the local fast-food franchise to indulge in a we-dare-you meal that would infarct a bull elephant.

And franchises are only too happy to join in the fun. From the KFC Double Down to the Wendy’s Triple Baconator, purveyors of fast food have launched an all-out campaign to stuff U.S. diners with the most dramatic, decadent, and, let’s just say it, disgusting menu items their research kitchens can come up with. It’s an arms race for the ultimate belly bomb.

The question is why. And why now? The answer, as a fast-food fan in the Oval Office was once fond of saying: It’s the economy, stupid. When times are tough, people like to do dumb, self-destructive things, such as get drunk, gamble, and eat a sandwich with heart-stopping levels of calories, fat, and sodium.

“When under stress, it’s human to turn to overindulgence as an escape,” says Tom Potisk, holistic health expert and author of Whole Health Healing. “That’s why in a sour economy, gambling, drug use, and overeating are rampant.” It also helps that these meals are dirt cheap, allowing consumers to fill up for only a few bucks.

Of course, our national obsession with obesifying fare is not confined to hard times. Through booms and busts, there have been steak places serving finish-it-and-it’s-free slabs of beef. For years, food trucks on the carnival circuit have been deep-frying everything they can think of, from pickles to Twinkies, and serving it on a stick. And the granddaddy of grandiose sandwiches, the Luther — a bacon cheeseburger on a Krispy Kreme glazed donut that was a favorite of the late Luther Vandross — was cooked up at a bar in Decatur, Ga., back in the prosperous days of 2005.

But it’s only in the past year that fast-food franchises have discovered the concept of stunt foods and run with it. The trend started in earnest last spring, when KFC debuted the Double Down, an extravagantly unhealthy concoction of bacon, melted cheese, and “Colonel’s sauce” served between two deep-fried chicken filets.

Launched on April 12, 2010, the Double Down was an immediate media sensation. It starred in YouTube videos. It was a top-trending topic on Twitter. Food bloggers were fascinated by it. Jay Leno joked about it for a week.

Is it good? Not really. The New York Times’ restaurant critic declared it “disgusting.” And apparently KFC customers agree. For all the fanfare surrounding the audacity of the sandwich, sales have been limp. KFC owner Yum Brands (which also owns Pizza Hut and Taco Bell) said in its last quarterly earnings report that the Double Down accounted for only 5 percent of KFC sales. To be considered a hit, a new product has to do better than 10 percent.

But sales aren’t the point. Yum Brands chief financial officer Rich Carucci called the Double Down numbers “immaterial.” The aim is to stir up publicity, and in that regard, the Double Down was an overwhelming success.

“If I were the marketing person in charge at KFC, I would have been thrilled with the Double Down,” says Jim Kukral, a Web-marketing consultant and author of Attention! This Book Will Make You Money: How to Use Attention-Getting Online Marketing to Increase Your Revenue. “When the Double Down came out, that’s all I heard people talking about. The amount of attention they got without paying for it was incredible.”

Particularly impressive was the buzz the Double Down generated online among bloggers and on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. For a while it was everywhere. And the key to its popularity was not its excellence but its offensiveness. Want to turn heads on the Internet? Turn stomachs.

“Often when a franchise comes out with a new item, the marketing department is figuring out ways to make it obnoxious enough that people will talk about it,” Kukral says. “I believe that the interactive teams at ad agencies are getting involved at the core level of product creation. It’s not the chefs coming up with these things, it’s marketing. It’s all about creating a reaction in people, getting them to have an emotion.”

The Double Down certainly created an emotion at KFC competitors. And that emotion is envy. Following quickly on the heels of the Double Down have come the following.

  • Denny’s Fried Cheese Melt: a grilled cheese sandwich with deep-fried mozzarella sticks in the middle
  • Carl’s Jr.’s Foot-Long Cheeseburger: a scud missile of ground chuck and bun
  • Friendly’s Ultimate Grilled Cheese Burger Melt: a burger between two grilled cheese sandwiches
  • Burger King’s Pizza Burger: a “pizza” of pepperoni, mozzarella, pesto, and marinara sauce on a massive sesame seed bun cut in to six slices

The race is on, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Whether you like these items or not, franchises don’t really care. The intent is to grab some mind share with customers and encourage them to remember your name at mealtime.

“How important is it to be aggressive with these new-product rollouts? Very important,” says Tammy Katz, chief executive officer of Katz Marketing Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in food and beverage marketing. “Each time a consumer decides where he’s going to lunch, he thinks about a short list of three or four places. These items help a franchise stay relevant. And if you don’t innovate, the other guy will.”

It seems that mega-meals are now an indispensable ingredient in the marketing of a national fast-food franchise. And as long as they keep people coming in the door, we’ll be seeing more of them.

How long can food chains generate these emotional responses from their menu items? “They can do this forever,” Kukral says. “The market is so huge, they can release a new, disgustingly over-the-top sandwich every month and people will still want to talk about it. This is just the beginning.”

Tim Devaney has been a senior editor at Red Herring, Industry Standard, and San Francisco magazines, and editor-in-chief at the Berkeley Monthly and Peninsula magazine. He currently handles marketing communications for Working Assets, a long-distance, wireless, and credit card company in San Francisco.

Tom Stein has contributed to leading business and general interest publications including Wired Magazine, Business 2.0, Venture Capital Journal, and Tennis Magazine. Previously, he held staff-writer positions at the San Francisco Chronicle, Red Herring, and InformationWeek. He also was a senior editor at Success Magazine, where he covered some of the most unusual and utterly unique entrepreneurial companies in the world.