NEW YORK — Taco Bell is turning to TV commercials to battle damage to its image from a lawsuit questioning its taco filling.
The fast-food chain has been on the defensive since it was herded into the media spotlight by a lawsuit that claimed the restaurant’s seasoned beef filling did not have enough beef to be billed as such. Taco Bell has repeatedly said the claim is false.
The new $3 million television ad campaign comes the week that Taco Bell is due to respond to the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in California.
Taco Bell initially fought back with full-page ads last month in national newspapers. The print ads made a splash with the headline “Thank you for suing us.”
The company also launched a social media campaign, urging Twitter users to voice their support. And earlier this month Taco Bell offered Facebook fans a free crunchy beef taco to thank them for their loyalty.
Taco Bell said it planned the TV campaign after company studies showed the previous campaigns reached only about half the population.
“You want everybody to hear it,” Taco Bell Chief Marketing Officer David Ovans said. “You have to go to a mass-market, broadcast approach to get the story straight.”
The Alabama law firm that filed the lawsuit last month in California has said its testing showed the filling was made of only 35 percent beef and therefore couldn’t be called “beef.” The Beasley Allen law firm of Montgomery, Ala., had no comment Monday.
In the television commercials, Taco Bell employees talk about the filling and direct customers who want to know more about what’s in it to the company’s website.
The commercials don’t mention the lawsuit, but emphasize the company’s message that the filling is 88 percent beef and 12 percent “signature recipe” consisting of seasonings and other ingredients. They also promote a weeklong deal for an 88-cent Crunchwrap Supreme, which regularly costs $2.39. The commercials will run on network and basic cable TV, including sports and news shows.
DePaul University communications professor Joe Marconi said the new ads are unlikely to have much impact because customers who enjoy Taco Bell will probably continue to go, while those who don’t normally eat there still won’t.
The ads risk putting renewed attention on the concerns about the filling, Marconi said.
Laura Ries, president of Ries & Ries, said Taco Bell should be taking a more grass-roots approach, including creating a video showing how the meat is made.
“This is a problem that is very difficult to solve with words alone,” she said. “It needs pictures.”
Marconi suggested Taco Bell post the ingredients at its restaurants.
Taco Bell said its TV ad campaign involves about 20 percent more commercials than it would run to introduce a new menu item.
Taco Bell is owned by Yum Brands, based in Louisville, Ky. Yum said when it released its earnings earlier this month that the lawsuit has had a “negative short-term impact.”
Taco Bell has faced other public-relations concerns in the past, including a 2006 E. coli outbreak that sickened at least 70 people and a rat infestation in a New York City KFC/Taco Bell restaurant filmed by a TV news camera in February 2007.
Taco Bell says it serves more than 36.8 million customers a week in almost 5,600 U.S. restaurants.