A Crash Course in Fast Food Marketing

I was going to an Arby's for lunch the other day (terrible of me, I know), and I found a sign on the door sternly informing me that the restroom was for customers only, and that this is so they can keep their prices down, by minimizing labor and materials they have to spend on their restroom.

At first glance, this seems like a fine idea. If you're not patronizing the establishment, it seems kind of irresponsible to come in, use their bathroom, then bail entirely.

But at second glance, how much money do you think they spend, on a yearly basis, on people who come in to use the bathroom, but don't buy anything? How many of those people would be deterred by a tersely worded sign on the front door? I would be stunned if they spent more than $20 a year on labor and supplies for a restroom used by people who would be honestly deterred by that sign. Is the $20 they save worth the callous impression that that sign left me with? Probably not. The good will of people who might be put off by that sign is probably worth more than the money they'd spend on the restroom.

But at a third glance, when was the last time you went to a fast food establishment, and honestly took the demeanor of the staff into account? When I go to eat fast food, I go because it'll be quick, and I know exactly what I'll get. Whether or not the cashier is a surly pimply faced teenager doesn't really enter into my mind.

And yet, in my neighborhood, there's a Wendy's that, for one reason or another, constantly attracts interesting and friendly people, from the old lady (now deceased, sadly) who would come by to clean up your table and ask you how your day was, to the dozen or so World War II fighter pilots that get together there on Wednesdays to talk old war stories. That is the only fast food establishment I've ever intentionally chosen to go to for any reason other than convenience or a particular craving, so I can't truthfully say that the callous sign on the front of the Arby's would actually ever deter my business, so maybe it's not a bad idea after all.

Arby's just doesn't have my goodwill. They don't have any ill will on my part, but the Arby's brand is in every way value neutral in my mind. A sign telling me that the restroom is for customers only doesn't really hurt their brand in my head, but a sign saying, “Restrooms open to everyone!” wouldn't exactly engender a meaningful amount of good will either.

The simple fact of the matter is that fast food restaurants don't really make any of their business by having much of a brand. Some people go to Jack in the Box because they have some free floating attachment to the idea of Jack in the Box, but truthfully, most people go because it's either the closest, or they prefer Jack in the Box food to other similar offerings. If you wanted fast food, would you honestly go to another location because your first choice didn't open their bathrooms to people who weren't customers?

Business 101 teaches you that cutting non-essential costs means more revenue, and Marketing 101 teaches you that establishing goodwill towards your brand is worth quite a bit of money, but Marketing 102 teaches you that if you don't have a brand in the first place, half measures probably aren't worth it.


He Loves to Fly

An instructive example:

In The Simpsons episode “He Loves to Fly and He Do'hs”, probably best known for featuring a guest voice by Stephen Colbert, Homer needs to deliver some bad news to Marge, so he decides to do it aboard a private plane.

When he hires the private plane, the exchange goes something like this:

Pilot: Well, anything for a fellow marine.
Homer (nervously): Semper... uh, fudge!
Pilot: Did you just say “Semper fudge”?
Homer: No, I said the right thing.

This is a mildly amusing exchange, but not that important in the long run, other than it reinforces Homer's bumbling doofus persona that features so heavily into most Simpsons episodes, but later on, aboard the plane, Homer finds the pilot passed out, only waking up long enough to inform Homer that he didn't think he'd be flying today, so he did a bunch of heroin.

Another mildly amusing exchange, except that suddenly and without warning, the dynamic has flipped from Homer being the incompetent one to the pilot being the incompetent one. You have an idea of who this pilot is based on is two lines of dialog, and then a later joke that involves him runs entirely counter to who you think this character is. Because they flipped the clearly established character relationship without ever addressing it, something kind of rings false.

You know that high play you were in where you were an extra, and your drama teacher always told you that it was important that you knew exactly who your character was, and where they were going after they left the stage?

Yeah, turns out this is what happens when you don't do that.



This weekend, against my better judgment, I saw X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The movie was mediocre, but more than anything else, it got me thinking about my reaction to the previous movie, the 3rd X-men one.

There were two major problems I had with that film. First of all, Magneto, at least in my head, is distinguished because of his amazing plans. Giving prison guards pills to increase the level of iron in their blood (while medically suspect) is the most basic idea in terms of ridiculously circuitous plans that I imagine he might develop.

My memory is a little hazy, but in the most recent instantiation of the X-Men comic series, he mounts a plan to break out of jail that involves building a machine to fool people into thinking mutant powers had gone wild, so that a particularly impressionable youth would assume the blame, Professor X would reach out to this youth, they would get into a conflict with the government over the youth, and in the ensuing completely unrelated jailbreak that the X-Men mount, Magneto manages to escape.

Yes, it's kind of stupid, but it's also kind of awesome.

What was Magneto's plan in the third X-Men movie? Get a whole bunch of mutants together and... I guess just kind of all run at Alcatraz at once? You're serious? It looked awesome, but Velociraptors in Jurassic Park showed more forethought than that.

Also, the idea of the Phoenix is kind of an issue, I think. I don't know the canon well enough to have any opinion about what the Phoenix should be, so that wasn't problematic, but I couldn't help but feel cheated for all the wasted potential there.

If a team of superheroes has amazing powers, and finally finds a threat which their powers simply cannot oppose, they have only one choice to avoid being defeated: Find a new way in which to be heroic.

There was a little bit of that in the third X-men movie. No one could fight Jean Grey as the Phoenix, and only Wolverine was able to kill her because of their previous relationship, but it was portrayed that he was able to get up to her because of his healing powers. If Wolverine saves the day because he has healing powers... who cares? But if Wolverine saves the day because he understands that being a Superhero is more about being heroic than kicking ass, that's a movie I'd see in a heartbeat.

(Oh, and a fun fact for all you X-Men fans out there: X-Men is successful because it's Superheroes + Degrassi. Think about it.)