How fast food got caught in the crossfire of viral social debates, as Shake Shack, Wendy's, and Taco Bell are forced into the spotlight
Fast-food chains including Taco Bell, Domino's, and Shake Shack have been pulled into the cultural and political debates of the moment over the last week — usually due to viral videos, tweets, or allegations. People's relationships with fast-food brands help make certain problems and situations feel personal, forcing a direct connection between customers and social or political issues. The result is an environment in which viral stories about fast-food brands are exploding online every day. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
When Krispy Kreme started trending on Twitter Tuesday morning, dozens of people had the same thought — had the beloved Southern doughnut chain been cancelled? In fact, Krispy Kreme hadn't said anything racist, as one person worried. People were just craving doughnuts. But in 2020, it's not much of a reach to assume that a brand trending on Twitter is the tip of the iceberg for a far darker story. Just as Krispy Kreme was trending, Shake Shack made headlines after three police officers went to the hospital after drinking milkshakes at the chain. New York City Police Department's chief of detectives said on Tuesday said that no foul play had been found, despite the president of the Detectives' Endowment Association saying Monday night that officers were "intentionally poisoned by one or more workers." Around the same time, a Domino's tweet from 2012 suddenly exploded on Twitter. The exchange showed Domino's thanking current White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany for saying the chain was better than any New York City pizza. In response, celebrity chef Dave Chang tweeted, "F--- you @Dominos," while political consultant Rick Wilson said Domino's "killed" its brand. "Welp. It's unfortunate that thanking a customer for a compliment back in 2012 would be viewed as political. Guess that's 2020 for ya," Domino's tweeted in response on Tuesday. Fast food and viral political debates go together like burgers and fries
Domino's and Shake Shack weren't even the only brands to be roped into social and political debates on Twitter in the the last few days. On Thursday, the hashtag #RIPTacoBell went viral after social media personality Elijah Daniel reposted a video of an employee being fired for refusing to remove a Black Lives Matter mask. Taco Bell said in a statement that it had apologized to the employee last week and that it did not have any policies banning Black Lives Matter masks, but the hashtag was already trending. "I'll put something out there and they're like, alright, we're trending this right now," Daniel told Insider's Palmer Haasch. "We don't stand for this. Everybody has very similar beliefs, or we're accepting of each others' beliefs because they're not radical, I think." Daniel has kicked off numerous social media campaigns on issues related to social justice, highlighting how brands get caught in the crossfire in viral debates. Part of the reason that fast-food chains are forced into the spotlight is that social media provides a way for people to highlight injustice that has long been present, but often ignored. There are hundreds of thousands of chain restaurants in the US, so it makes sense that racist incidents and political clashes are playing out in these spaces. Social media simply introduces these issues to a wider audience. In one high-profile incident, a video of two Black men being arrested for trying to use a Starbucks bathroom sparked a national conversation and an internal reckoning at the coffee chain. Starbucks ultimately changed its bathroom policy and closed all US locations to "conduct racial-bias education geared toward preventing discrimination." But, viral fast food-centric outrage can also spread information, both purposefully and accidentally. Earlier this year, a police office resigned after his claim that a McDonald's employee wrote "f---ing pig" on his receipt went viral. Last month, Wendy's faced backlash because people believed the CEO donated to President Trump's reelection; in fact, an independent franchisee had done so. Starbucks' history shows how and why chains end up in the spotlight
In some cases, people purposefully link backlash and debate to well-known fast-food brands. Starbucks is one of the most prominent examples of a chain being caught up in viral debates, again and again. Starbucks is a vocally progressive chain, which has taken public stances on issues such as gun control, gay right, and — most recently — Black lives matter. Longtime CEO Howard Schultz was floating a potential presidential run as an anti-Trump independent last year. Before the viral bathroom incident, Starbucks went viral for supposedly anti-Christmas red cups. In 2016, there was an alt-right campaign for people to say their name was "Trump," apparently to force baristas to say the name "Trump" out loud. There have been multiple viral hoaxes claiming that Starbucks is giving away free coffee to Black customers and undocumented immigrants. Starbucks' progressive reputation as well as its status as a cultural icon has made it a convenient, recognizable symbol — and an easy target. Figures on the far right have regularly pulled Starbucks into "culture wars" over everything from Christmas to undocumented immigrants. Because the coffee giant is so well known, it can easily stand in as a symbol of progressive, corporate beliefs. In other viral stories, Starbucks' position in debates over social issues has been less intentional, but still impactful. Beyond mere symbolism, the massive number of Starbucks locations means that any discussion or debate linked to Starbucks becomes instantly relatable to people across the US. When two men were arrested for attempting to use the Starbucks bathroom, for example, the incident struck a nerve with other Black people who had faced similar discrimination. Meanwhile, white customers were able to understand the incident as racist in part because they had used Starbucks bathroom or loitered at the coffee shop for hours, without facing any repercussions. Purposeful or not, the Starbucks connection immediately makes political or social issues personal for anyone who has ever visited the chain. What fast food is even more personal in the Trump era
Starbucks is just one example of a well-known brand making a certain issue feel personal for customers. Threatening to boycott Wendy's because you think the CEO donates to Trump, or relating to a Taco Bell worker who was banned from wearing a Black Lives Matter mask brings issues closer to home — or, closer to your local fast-food join. Stories of discrimination or perceived injustice go viral in part because it is easy to imagine these things happening at your local Starbucks or Taco Bell. Since President Trump's election, boycotting or supporting companies has become an increasingly popular way for people to voice their political beliefs. "Donald Trump is somebody … who very much personalizes the economy in a way I've never seen a president do before," Lawrence Glickman, a Cornell history professor who wrote "Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America," told Business Insider in 2017. "That kind of leads him in the path of consumer activists, because they're kind of trying to do the same thing, for different reasons," Glickman continued. "A lot of times, it's very hard for consumers to see, 'How does my shopping list have a political impact?' But when Donald Trump tells you it does, it's easy for his supporters to see that — but also his critics to see that." In other words, the fast-food chains you visit symbolize — to some degree — your political beliefs. As a result, it makes sense that people want to pay attention to links between brands and social issues, as well as take it personally when chains seem to fall short. However, it is often workers, not corporate executives, who bear the brunt of people taking fast-food chains' politics and politicized policies personally. As workers have attempted to enforce safety policies to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, some have faced violence and harassment from customers. And, workers say, fear of viral backlash can make chains quick to blame individual employees instead of probing deeper. "Any mistake and they fire you to try and save face with the brand," said one Starbucks employee earlier this year. SEE ALSO: Workers at chains like Kroger, Costco, and Waffle House are on the front lines of an increasingly violent war between mask supporters and opponents Join the conversation about this story » NOW WATCH: Why thoroughbred horse semen is the world's most expensive liquid
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