Is this for real?

It’s a funny ad with a good song (not so much a jingle, but a “jindle,” that is, an understated indy pop riff, used as background to a concept, instead of the usual maddeningly catchy series of three or four notes) that takes good-natured shots at fast food competitors. There’s also some real intelligence behind the theme itself: “You know when it’s real.”

Authenticity is said to be in high demand, and what makes something seem real is not just the thing itself but the way that it’s packaged. “You know when it’s real” contains both, in a triple meaning (with bacon):

(1) Wendy’s uses real food

“We never freeze em like a hockey puck, or / keep em stuck / like some others may / in a warming tray.” It’s probably safe to take these claims at face value, given the popular understanding that advertisers are not allowed to lie outright. Wendy’s philosophy, the song says, is good old honesty. True or not, the claims are Wendy’s way of setting up the field in its favor, creating its own definition of “real” that it can’t fail to fulfill: real means serving food that’s been recently cooked, using “fresh,” and not frozen, beef. I doubt we take time much time to question what fresh means, either.

(2) And you know it

Including “you” is one of the most inspired strategies in Wendy’s campaign. The desire to find things out for ourselves instead of from authority is a distinctly American quality; intentionally or not, the close-up of a timeworn “Declaration of Real,” the actor dressed as a craggy Abe Lincoln, and the fake Statue of Liberty featured in the spot are echoes of this fierce independence. Social networking has given this quality a shot of steroids. People have banded together against crappy products and their promises. Smart advertising has become more like a petition and less like propaganda in response. By putting You in the picture, Wendy’s syncs itself up with this cultural shift. It also frees itself from the burden of proof, introducing a completely subjective definition for what’s real.

3) People really like Wendy’s

How to bring up the next point without trotting out the overwrought but ever true McLuhanism… it’s impossible. The medium is the message, and in the online arm of this integrated campaign, a Wendy’s Real Time microsite features what appear to be live Tweets popping up in little dialogue boxes. It’s a long time coming; somebody has invented a bot that mines Tweets for certain keywords and re-Tweets them. “Hungry” appears to be one of those words. Not necessarily hungry for Wendy’s, although the restaurant is occasionally mentioned. Perhaps there are canned Tweets mixed in among the authentic ones.

Wendy's Real Time
Wendy’s retweets – real or canned?

Some of the Tweets have nothing to do with food or Wendy’s at all. They just reflect online chatter, a discussion Wendy’s wants you to believe it’s a part of. But are these actually authentic Twitter accounts?

You’re skeptical at first. The Tweets really do look engineered (some of them must be; stay long enough on the sight and you will see some repeats). But if you click on any one of them, you do end up on someone’s Twitter profile. I tried it. There was @baby_ge0rge, whose latest update said, “#whatsbetter Booty or Breasts???” It depends I guess. Are they real?

– Eric Hayward