In September 1997, TWBA/Chiat/Day introduced Gidget, whom you may know better as “the Taco Bell chihuahua.”
Their 30-second TV spots opened to show Gidget making a mad dash through various parts of the city, seemingly toward a female chihuahua perceived to be his girlfriend. Toward the end, it’s revealed that Gidget isn’t actually running for the girl, but for the Taco Bell nearby.
Gidget became an instant star, and his one-liner an instant catchphrase among Americans. He plastered billboards, T-shirts, news inserts and toy shelves - if it could be manufactured, Gidget’s face was on it. Was there anything Gidget couldn’t do?
In fact, there was - despite being “'one of the best advertising icons in recent memory” according to TWBA/Chiat/Day president Tom Carroll, his presence failed to increase overall sales. Taco Bell dropped the agency and went on to pursue other advertising strategies with FCB Southern California.
However, just because Gidget’s career ended abruptly doesn’t mean his legacy didn’t endure — for better or for worse.
Shortly after Gidget’s TV stardom came to a halt, many popular female celebrities began toting chihuahuas. At the same time, chihuahuas began arriving en masse at animal shelters. They quickly became one of the most populous breeds within these shelters — second only to pit bulls. This epidemic was especially prevalent in the Los Angeles metropolis — which happens to be where both Taco Bell’s headquarters and Hollywood are located.
The Guardian refers to the homeless chihuahua epidemic as “Paris Hilton Syndrome” — a problem so distinct that the west-coast canines were shipped in droves to shelters across the country to alleviate their overflow. Less than half of the dogs in shelters make it out alive, and a whopping third of some shelters are comprised of chihuahuas.
Solid causation is impossible to determine due to lack of bookkeeping in many animal shelters, I’ve developed a few hypotheses supported loosely by chronological data:
A) Gidget’s stardom led to rising demand of chihuahuas as pets. Seeing a market for the pups, many chihuahua puppy mills sprung up.
B) American celebrities were quietly recruited to “advertise” chihuahuas to encourage fans to adopt the rising numbers of chihuahuas in shelters. Movies such as Beverly Hills Chihuahua and Legally Blonde followed suit.
C) Owners who adopted only because their favorite stars did soon realized they could not care for chihuahuas and returned them to shelters - thus repeating the cycle.
This is important for two reasons:
A) Unlike celebrities who fade after a few years in the spotlight, chihuahuas are dependent on others to stay alive after the hype fades. TWBA/Chiat/Day probably didn’t anticipate this.
B) Ad agencies can, however, learn from this. Because it’s possible Taco Bell helped spur the chihuahua influx, it’s important to consider this when bringing specific breeds and animals into the spotlight.
Taco Bell’s sales may have suffered — but their losses pale in comparison to the mass amounts of chihuahuas euthanized since the end of their campaign.
But surely it won’t happen again. We don't really hype any particular breed the way we hyped chihuahuas over a decade ago...right?
Read more at:
Taco Bell drops TBWA/Chiat/Day: http://www.nytimes.com/2000/07/19/business/media-business-advertising-taco-bell-abruptly-drops-agency-that-created-its.html
Common Shelter Breeds: http://articles.barkpost.com/most-common-breeds-in-shelters-2015/
Loose Shelter Statistics: http://articles.latimes.com/2009/dec/10/local/la-me-chihuahuas10-2009dec10
Paris Hilton Syndrome: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/dec/10/chihuahuas-paris-hilton-syndrome
Chihuahuas as a Fashion Accessory: http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/02/14/10401067-yesterdays-fashion-todays-surplus-chihuahuas
Cross-Country Chihuahua Exports: http://cronkitenewsonline.com/2014/04/with-overabundance-of-chihuahuas-in-shelters-groups-exporting-them/
Gidget history: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taco_Bell_chihuahua