ave you ever gone out for a burrito, waited in line, carefully picked out your favorite toppings, taken your dinner home, and then been overcome with the sudden urge to fuck your food?
Chipotle certainly hopes so, if a recent string of extremely sexually suggestive tweets the fast food chain has been sending out to its nearly 800,000 followers is anything to go by. Instead of featuring photos of scantily-clad, attractive people sensually biting into their food, the tweets are more like straight-up sexts from a person you don’t remember giving your number to.
“Back seat, windows up, that’s the way you like to guac,” one tweet reads, aping Ludacris’ 2001 ode to all manners of public sex What’s Your Fantasy before adding: “Don’t be a fool, wrap your burrito.”
But why? Why is Chipotle bragging about how long and thick its burritos are and inviting customers to get into public threesomes with trios of cheese-covered tacos? More importantly, though, why are other business like Kraft, one of the largest food companies in the world, following suit?
When I spoke with sex-positive therapist and podcaster Raquel Savage, she explained to me that on a very basic level, companies like Chipotle are leaning on the tried and true tactic of using sexual provocation to direct catch consumers’ attention where they want it. What better way to distract people from a recent outbreak of a virus that left customers spewing from both ends than to hit on them?
“Since they’re primarily using social media, they have to interest people in 140 characters or less. Sex does that. Easily,” Savage told me. “Brands will try anything to stay relevant and stay in their customer’s good graces, especially when a number of their stores are closing multiple locations due to food poisoning.”
In a way, Chipotle’s gonzo tactics make sense for a company aimed at young people that, unlike its fierce competitors, doesn’t take out television ads. Devour, on the other hand, is a different story.
Imagine if you took your father’s old-fashioned Hungry-Man TV dinner, doused it in bacon-scented Axe and set it ablaze before you extinguished the flames with a thick coating of blue cheese. That’s Kraft’s new line of Devour frozen meals in a nutshell. The tagline for the Devour ad campaign? “Food you want to fork.”
The ads are about as subtle as the slogan would imply. In one 30-second spot, a man huskily taunts his bowl of bacon-infused macaroni and cheese, tells it to say his name, and spanks the pile of noodles with his fork. Another centers around a pool boy eating the lady of the house’s “obscenely creamy” chicken enchiladas before being caught by her husband.
Devour brand manager Molly White told AdAge that Kraft is marketing Devour as a “crave-able” line of frozen foods squarely aimed at men between the ages of 20 and 30, and it shows. Each of the brand’s 12 entrees are categorized into six flavor palettes (creamy, crispy, cheesy, spicy, sweet, and smoky) and feature
phallic manly ingredients like sausage, bacon, and various permutations of liquid cheeses.
Devour’s packing, font choice, and TV spots all ooze a very particular type of stylized sexuality that Jean Kilbourne, an author and feminist filmmaker who has studied advertising for decades, says has always played a role in the way that food’s marketing to people. It’s just that now, brands are eschewing tongue-in-cheek coyness in favor of full-frontal food porn.
“The trend towards overtly sexualized food advertising really began about 15 or 20 years ago,” Kilbourne told me. “It’s gotten more extreme because advertisers always have to shock us more every time.”
Back in 2005, for instance, while unifying the branding for its Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s chains, CKE Restaurants launched a controversial ad campaign for the “Spicy BBQ Six Dollar Burger.” The campaign featured Paris Hilton wearing a bathing suit and high heels as she lathered a Bently in suds using a loofah and her body. The spot was, of course, topped off with shots of Hilton pretending to stuff her face with a greasy burger.
The ad was ubiquitous and immediately caught the attention of the Parents Television Council, a conservative group that complained that there was no way for parents to know if and when it would appear. In response, CKE’s CEO Andy Puzder told the PTC to “get a life,” saying that there was no explicit depiction of sex in the ad.
“This isn’t Janet Jackson — there is no nipple in this,” he said. “There is no nudity, there is no sex acts — it’s a beautiful model in a swimsuit washing a car. [T]here are far worse things on television that these groups should be worried about.”
Even Carl’s Jr. founder Carl Karcher expressed disappointment that the business he’d built on “Christian principals” had resorted to using sex to sling burgers and fries. It didn’t matter; CKE turned the provocative ads into a tradition that would go on to include the likes of Kim Kardashian and Kate Upton.
I reached out to both Chipotle’s social media team and Publicis Seattle, the agency that produced Devour’s commercials, to talk about their respective ad campaigns, but neither of them got back to me, which is unfortunate because they’re both doing something pretty wild.
The thing that sets Chipotle and Devour apart from Carl’s Jr. is that they’re not saying that eating their food will lead to sex with Paris Hilton. They’re saying that you should want to have sex with the products themselves.
Devour is especially canny, because it plays into the stereotype that there are men who can’t be bothered to cook or go out and meet potential sexual partners, and then weirdly subverts the idea by offering up its calorie-dense products as an answer to both problems. Why leave the house for sustenance or companionship when you can just Devour all of your needs at once?
In her book Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel, Kilbourne argues that, in their never-ending quest to sell people things, advertisers eventually began to frame products–particularly food–not as goods to use and consume, but as people to build intimate relationships with. That, Kilbourne says, coupled with the rise of the “personal brand,” which explicitly fuses personhood with advertising, has made it easier for companies to try and sell a sort of false intimacy. But she stresses that this trend can come with a number of drawbacks.
“When advertisers turn products into people, it encourages us to feel passion for products and not people,” Kilbourne told me. “That can be problematic when the product is addictive like alcohol, but with food it’s a bit trickier. Food isn’t necessarily as addictive as alcohol, but ads like these can normalize deeply negative relationships to food.”
Kilbourne’s right. As off-putting as watching a man groan at his food as he molests it in a commercial may be, it’s another when you actually see a man shoving his penis into fried chicken sandwich. Over the weekend, the #McChicken hashtag (warning: potentially NSFW!) sandwich went viral after a man uploaded himself masturbating with a surprisingly intact McChicken sandwich from McDonald’s.
But is it really so weird for a man to want to get carnal with a bag of fast food? Foods like berries, honey, whipped cream, and chocolate are well-established as socially-acceptable edible items that people openly talk about bringing into the bedroom and a cursory search through PornHub reveals that regardless of sexual orientation, people are watching plenty of food-fucking porn.
Raquel Savage, she was quick to explain that ads like these could, in theory, act as a positive dogwhistle to some people with food-related fetishes, but that we shouldn’t assume the commercials were consciously targeted at kinksters.
“I don’t think the general public sees these kinds of ads and makes the connection that it could be a food fetish or that food fetishes even exist,” Savage told me. “The general public, even with internet access, conceptualizes fetishes as Fifty Shades of Grey type activities. Most are aware of the concept of aphrodisiacs but I don’t imagine they relate these kinds of advertisements to that either.”
Sitophilia or, as it’s more commonly known, “food play” exists in a unique space in the public consciousness. Much like BDSM and other forms of power play, sitophilia is one of the most commonly-referenced fetishes in pop culture (see: American Pie, True Blood, 9 1/2 Weeks, etc.)
As Nottingham Trent University Professor Mark Griffiths wrote in a blog post explaining the basics of sitophilia, the connection between eating food and having sex isn’t all that difficult to make despite the relative lack of academic research into the fetish itself.
“There has long been an association between eating and sexual behaviour on many different levels,” Griffiths wrote. “Eating and sex are both basic human needs and sometimes interact more directly. Many would also agree that eating (in and of itself) can be a sensual activity.”
So maybe Chipotle’s gastronomic sexts and Devour’s softcore ads for chicken and waffles are really just the next step in selling consumers on the age-old idea of an aphrodisiac, a food whose very substance is the essence of sexual potency. Even if that were the case, though, Jean Kilbourne encouraged me to look at the ads and their products with the same kind of critical eye that one might use on a potential partner.
“These products are heart attacks on a plate that most people shouldn’t be eating,” Kilbourne told me. “It’s like asking if there’s such a thing as a good cigarette ad. I don’t think there’s a way to sell food like that in a sort of ‘good’ way.”