The Human Cost of Viral Food Crazes
World War III will not be fought by explosives, nor by ammunitions, nor by cyber attacks. Instead, the weapon that will chiefly be used in the upcoming class wars will be a Popeyes chicken sandwich.
This is the implication of the latest fast-food craze news cycle, which has been dominated by news of the Popeyes chicken sandwich. Upon its release a few weeks ago, the Popeyes chicken sandwich dominated news headlines across the country, which quickly led to it selling out in all stores. (Full disclosure: the author has not, at this time, tasted the Popeyes chicken sandwich, though she has oft bragged to her friends of her ability to sniff out a franchise location from multiple blocks away.) The immense popularity of the sandwich spawned countless think-pieces attempting to put the fried chicken wars into context; in a similar vein, it has also spawned a number of viral news stories about the lengths people have gone to acquire such an item. A Tennessee man, for instance, filed suit against Popeyes, accusing the brand of false advertising after it ran out of sandwiches; terrifyingly, on Monday a Houston man pulled a gun on employees when they informed him the sandwich was no longer in stock.
Thankfully, no one was injured in the latter incident, and most outlets aggregating the story covered it as little more than a bizarre news item highlighting the extreme lengths gluttonous Americans will go to to get their fix of deep-fried shit. Yet that story, combined with reports of Popeyes’ employees being subject to grueling working conditions as a result of the incredible demand for the sandwich, draws into sharp relief the actual potential consequences of a fast food item going viral, which may go far beyond the momentary spike in cholesterol levels.
Of course, the uproar over the Popeyes chicken sandwich is not at all historically unique, says Laura Ries, the president of Atlanta-based marketing strategy firm Ries & Ries and author of The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR. The strategy of limiting supply in order to increase demand is firmly entrenched in American culture, stemming from the days of Coors Lite, which became an in-demand item on the East Coast in the 1970s due to the fact it was only sold in 11 states in the West. While currently known primarily as a mid-tier beer, Coors was highly in demand on the East Coast for some time, to the degree that the premise of an entire film was predicated on a black-market Coors smuggling ring. (That film, by the way, would be 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit.) “There’s this psychological aspect of people wanting what they can’t have,” Ries tells Rolling Stone, adding that she wouldn’t be surprised if Popeyes ran out of the sandwich on purpose in order to further fuel demand.
In terms of fast food franchises specifically, this limited availability strategy was likely first used by McDonald’s in order to market the Shamrock Shake in 1970 and, later, the McRib (which actually flopped when it was first introduced on the market, then became the subject of national clamor every time it was reintroduced sporadically throughout the 1980s and 1990s). But it wasn’t until the advent of social media that this stratagem truly gained widespread traction, with various case studies from KFC’s DoubleDown to Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte to Dominique Ansel bakery’s cronut proving its success.
As outlined by an in-depth Eater piece on the subject, the formula is usually the same: A billion-dollar marketing team uses social media to launch into virality a product as Instagram-friendly as it is calorically appalling, until it sells out and/or is discontinued by the vendor, which in turn propels even more demand. Often, the item in question doesn’t even have to be very appetizing; in fact, the more unsavory, the better. Consider, for instance, the KFC Double Down, which consists of a sliver of bacon, a triangle of melted cheese, and a thin patina of sauce sandwiched between two fried chicken patties. The Double Down was introduced onto the market in 2010 and then reintroduced, to widespread revulsion, in 2014. The KFC Double Down became a national joke, a pre-Trump-era shorthand for American gluttony and intellectual laziness in late-night standup routines. But it also helped boost KFC’s brand profile immeasurably, leading the company to keep it on the market much longer than initially intended. In the same vein, Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte, a seasonal beverage introduced in 2003 that almost immediately became synonymous with a generic personality type, didn’t even have pumpkin in it until 2015, when the product had already become firmly ensconced in the cultural lexicon.
The enormous success of such items has underscored one very fundamental psychological principle that can be interpreted one of two ways. The first, and more generous, interpretation is that in a popular culture that has become increasingly fractured and diffuse, people are driven by the desire to participate in shared experiences; as my Rolling Stone colleague Anna Peele put it, “besides Disney properties, fast food crazes are the only monoculture we have.” A second, perhaps less generous interpretation is that people have a tendency to want what everyone else has. “People don’t like to say they’re influenced by others, but clearly they are,” says Reis. “After all, if people see a line forming in street, a lot of the times they’ll just get in line, without knowing what they’re waiting for.”
More troublingly, as brands increasingly followed in KFC’s footsteps, tossing their own grotesque fast food item into an already-chaotic news cycle like a lawn gnome being thrown into a tornado, it’s becoming clear that this strategy is coming at a cost. Most obviously, this cost has been the mental health and well-being of franchise employees. In 2017, McDonald’s introduced a limited-edition Szechuan sauce, a product inspired by the cult hit Rick and Morty that fueled overwhelming demand. During the Szechuan sauce fracas, beleaguered McDonald’s employees had to contend with barrages of verbal abuse from dissatisfied customers becoming increasingly aggressive, to the degree that, in some locations, the police had to be called. The demand was so intense that Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland distanced himself from the stunt, tweeting at fans to “please be cool with the employees” and saying he and co-creator Dan Harmon had nothing to do with it.
Additionally, many low-wage workers at the chain were subject to excruciating working conditions as a result of the increased demand. Some workers put in 60-hour weeks to meet demand; another told Vox that she worked a 12-hour shift until her legs went numb. One photo of a dejected-looking Popeyes employee sitting outside the store even went viral, receiving the full meme treatment (though many later correctly pointed out that exploiting an exhausted worker for the amusement of the Twitter masses was perhaps not the most sensitive response.) Such stories shouldn’t just serve as grist for the viral news mill; they should serve as testament to the damage wrought by a capitalism system fueled by incessant demand and an obsessive focus on the bottom line, and should be read accordingly.
Here at the San Jose Mcdonalds. This is our reaction to the shortage of #szechuansauce #giveusthesauce #rickandmorty pic.twitter.com/sIGaUZKDKj
— KTAFITNESS (@Chauncey_Boy) October 7, 2017
On a less immediate but equally troubling level, the discourse surrounding fast food crazes often rapidly becomes so laden with subtext as to take on entirely new, and extremely problematic, meaning. Following the peak of the pumpkin spice latte craze, the beverage became inextricably associated with the personality trope of the “basic bitch” — specifically, an Uggs-wearing, North Face-toting, young white woman. While this trope has thankfully receded somewhat from public discussion, the association between PSLs and young women has not, to the degree that that some have argued that virtually any discussion of the product is inherently infused with misogyny. Similarly, the discussion of the Popeyes chicken sandwich craze ended up sowing the seeds of racism and elitism when photos of black customers waiting in line for the sandwich spawned memes questioning why black people were so lazy as to be willing to wait on line for Popeyes, but not vote in the 2016 election.
None of this is to say that the Popeyes chicken sandwich should be “canceled” (though considering you can no longer purchase it, it effectively is), nor is it to say that Popeyes is to blame for spawning such a frenzy, particularly considering the brand did not appear to intend it as a massive viral stunt; as Ries says, the advertising campaign was fairly low-key, indicating that the craze could have been one of the rare instances where an item spread organically by word of mouth, rather than a massive marketing campaign fueling demand. (Thanks, Chik-fil-A.) Further, when it comes to the viral news stories about people filing lawsuits alleging humiliation and emotional distress and literally wielding a gun against terrified employees, it’s hard to take them as anything but a few bad actors “trying to get attention” and taking drastic action to do so, as Ries puts it, comparing such stories to 1980s coverage of crazed, hair-pulling soccer moms kicking and screaming to get their child a Cabbage Patch Kid.
It is to say, however, that such stories should not simply be treated as grist for the viral news mill about wacky, gluttonous Americans driven by an obsessive love for fried food. They should be taken for what they are: narratives infused with deeply held ideas about race and class, that reflect the damage wrought by a capitalist system fueled by incessant demand and an obsessive focus on the bottom line. The fast food marketing machine comes at a cost, and that cost is real human lives: of workers on the 12th hour of their shift, hiding behind a cash register from a gun-wielding maniac; of people innocently waiting on line who go viral and find themselves getting doxxed by right-wing nut jobs; and of fried chicken connoisseurs who couldn’t get their shit together to wait in line on the first day and ended up missing the boat entirely. Because when all is said and done, I still really, really want to try it.