Critic on the loose -- EW's resident critic discusses the glory of fast food

Food is entertainment. Fast food is pop culture. A burger is more American than any old slice of pie. I used to go to McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Roy’s, Taco Bell, and all our food-and-fun factories as often as I could. I adored the food, the atmosphere, the eavesdropping. If I wanted to know what America thought of a TV show or a politician, I’d go to a fast-food joint and listen. There, people don’t dress up and posture the way they do at work or on dates. They just eat; they’re real. Fast food is the true American cuisine. And I loved it.

Then I went to have my cholesterol counted; they’re still counting. So I had to swear off American food — no fried stuff, no meat, no cheese, no breakfast egg sandwiches, no buttered buns, no milk shakes. . .no fun. I switched to a diet of raw brussels sprouts and warm water. I was what I ate and I hate what I ate.

But not long ago, Burger King invented the BK Broiler, a broiled, not fried, chicken sandwich that I could eat without shame (as long as I left off the ranch sauce). It’s a low-cholesterol delight. Now, you may wonder what this has to do with entertainment; my entire staff certainly wonders every time I start ranting on the subject. Well, this has at least as much to do with entertainment as broccoli does with presidential politics. It’s simple: The BK Broiler has allowed me to return to fast-food joints and hear the audience speak. And the BK Broiler could mark a happy ending to Burger King’s unhappy saga with advertising.

For years, Burger King blamed its troubles or hung its salvation on advertising. Sales would stagnate and the company would fire one ad genius and hire another and come out with a new campaign; sales still wouldn’t go up and they’d do it all over again. They could have asked me what was wrong: The buns were soggy and so was the lettuce. But they didn’t ask.

They invented Herb, the Ishtar of ad campaigns. You remember that disaster: All America was supposed to be searching for a guy named Herb who was the nerdiest American alive — nerdy simply because he’d never tasted a Whopper. But America was too busy hooting at Herb to look for him. Burger sales didn’t soar.

The company turned to gimmicks, jury-rigged new products like pizza burgers, Mexican burgers, and tiny burgers. When gimmicks failed, they tried new slogans: ”We do it like you’d do it” and ”Best food for fast times.” Still, sales didn’t soar.

I always pitied the ad agencies stuck in this bind. This was the sort of turkey account Larry Tate would have handed to Darrin Stephens on Bewitched. Advertising can point you to a good product but it can’t improve the product. It’s not that powerful.

Now things have changed. Burger King has yet another new ad campaign, this one based on the ungrammatical slogan ”Sometimes You’ve Gotta Break the Rules.” I’m not sure I know what that slogan means, but I’m not sure we’re ever supposed to know. At the same time, company executives acknowledge the need to improve speed, service, cleanliness, and quality; that’s good.

And more important than any of that, Burger King has a new product, the BK Broiler. The beauty of the Broiler is that it doesn’t feel like the product of number-crunching demographic research or spreadsheets. It’s not a gimmick. It’s an idea. Some smart person at Burger King noticed that people are eating lots of chicken ($5 billion on fast-food birds last year versus $1.4 billion in 1980) and that Burger King, the place that broils not fries, could invent a low-cholesterol new fast-food treat. Simple, elegant, successful. According to The New York Times, Burger King sells Whoppers at a rate of 2 million a day; but after only a few weeks, it sells BK Broilers at a rate of 1 million a day. So now the company doesn’t have to rely just on slogans. Now the ad people have something to advertise. Call me strange, call me weird, but I find that exciting, even entertaining. And I’m delighted that I can return to fast-food palaces to hear what the country thinks of Twin Peaks or Deborah Norville. I’m an American again.