Last week, I became one of 1,000 people to receive a Taco Bell Breakfast Phone, a disposable cellphone that promised multiple opportunities to win Tex-Mex swag and free trips. The phones were part of the company's aggressive campaign to emotionally prepare the world for the national unveiling of Taco Bell’s breakfast menu, which launched Thursday to much fanfare. As the great reveal drew nigh, my burner phone rang off the hook. And not just with calls from Taco Bell.
It all started when I tweeted in praise of Taco Bell earlier this month, which I frequently do and which usually causes me to lose followers. The company had released a branded Vine video in which a waffle pops out of a toaster and magically becomes a Waffle Taco—the syrup-drenched pièce de résistance of the new Taco Bell breakfast menu. It was beautiful; I tweeted that Alfonso Cuarón should eat his heart out. Seconds later, something exhilarating and entirely unprecedented happened. I received acknowledgement from the brand’s Twitter account in the form of a direct message: “Want to be a part of something awesome with Taco Bell?”
Well, of course I did. Who wouldn’t? (Don’t answer that.) I called the listed number and relinquished every piece of personal information short of my Social Security number and blood type to a disinterested but polite person on the other end who in turn revealed the contours of my breakfast phone-to-be. Nine days later, UPS arrived with a package from Taco Bell HQ in Irvine, Calif. “OPEN ME NOW,” a sticker implored. “IT’S REALLY IMPORTANT.” My heart fluttered.
Inside the padded envelope, which had been sent Next Day Air—that costly emblem of postal urgency—was a Samsung T404G (c. 2010), an adorable normcore throwback to the dumb-phone era. It had a slide-out keyboard and no headphone jack, and it came installed with a vaguely Orientalist game called Luxor Quest. On the back of the phone was a life-affirming decal: “THIS IS YOUR BREAKFAST PHONE. IT COULD RING AT ANY TIME! KEEP IT WITH YOU ALWAYS.”
I silently pledged that I would. After all, this was the closest I had ever come to a pure and magical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory moment. After decades of obsessive loyalty and countless devotional tweets and pictures about Taco Bell, my beloved brand finally loved me back. I immediately plugged in my breakfast phone, and while it charged, I imagined all the noble missions I’d run for God and Crunchwrap. Put a dead fish on Eric Schlosser’s car? Consider it done. Fake a seizure at a Mickey D’s during prime Egg McMuffin hour? Just get me some Pop Rocks.
Moments after I hysterically tweeted, Instagrammed, and Facebooked the pictures of my new status signifier, the phone buzzed to life. It was a call from an 800 number. The moment, my moment, had arrived:
This is Greg, and I’m giving you a call from Capital One. We have a lot of options that have recently become available to you and wanted to discuss them with you. Please give us a call at ...
When I hung up, my breakfast phone chirped again. I had six voice mails waiting for me. Had I already been derelict in my duties? I hadn’t. But someone else had:
Hello, this is the Marie Curie High School, calling to inform you that your child [name withheld] was marked absent from school today. Please send a signed note with your child when he returns to school to verify this absence. Please keep in mind that your child is required by the chancellor of New York City to have 90 percent attendance for promotion, so please send your child to school every day.
All six voice mails were the same prerecorded truancy warning, which was depressing not only for its content, but for also for the fact that it wasn’t gender-neutral and had wrongly presupposed that the missing student was male. A few hours later, I received an automated call from Nationwide Security Services offering me a free alarm system if I placed a company sign in my front yard. (I don’t have a front yard.)
The Taco Bell missions, which started the next day, ultimately turned out to be underwhelming contests that rewarded social media promotion of the brand. The “challenges” promised prizes ranging from the brand appropriate (a Taco Bell skateboard deck) to the oddly alluring (a Waffle Taco–scented air freshener) to the frankly overwhelming (free breakfast at Taco Bell ... for a year).
Some quick investigating revealed that I was much lower on the social media totem pole than many of my competitors, one of whom was a singer from California with 88,000 followers who managed to get his plea for Taco Bell–themed bed sheets to trend worldwide. I’d long been a voluntary shill for the company, but something felt dirty about shilling at the company’s direct behest. I decided to be a trained seal with principles, dedicating all my promiscuous hoop-jumping to the pursuit of the most extravagant prizes. The second mission, delivered via automated recording, was one such prize:
On the beach in sunny California, or taste your first Waffle Taco in New York City. Just use #wakeuplivemas #contest and tweet where you want to try Taco Bell's breakfast in the continental United States. Be sure and tell us why. We'll pick a favorite and legit fly you there. For real.
The timbre of the voice on Taco Bell’s automated messages could only be described as Knowing Bro: too cocksure for you to dismiss, too clueless to not say “legit” in nearly every single message, and too casual to begin a transmission with a simple hello. I sprang into action, tweeting that I wanted to be sent to Downey, Calif., home of the very first Taco Bell. (It was early in the morning, OK?) When the phone rang hours later, I scrambled to pick up, hoping it was a call to name me as the winner:
[Name withheld] has a court-ordered appearance for a desk appearance ticket and must appear at Bronx Criminal Court at 265 E. 161st Street, Bronx, N.Y., 10451, on Tuesday, March 25 at 9:30 in the morning. If you have received a desk appearance ticket from the police and the date and time are different from the information you just heard, follow the directions on the desk appearance ticket.
After this Kafka-esque directive, I wanted to speak out. It had become clear that my burner had a history. But I also felt like I would be betraying the honor bestowed upon me by my favorite brand if I suddenly began committing digital samizdat against the taco state. I also wanted to grant the rare reprieve that no one in my life circle ever gives Taco Bell: the benefit of the doubt. Maybe my burner was a fluke. As if anticipating my concerns, Taco Bell soon sent a clarifying text:
Taco Bell: When we call, we’ll call from 949-863-8339 or 310-866-2965 and we’ll text from 75289. Accept no imitators. and disregard messages from other numbers.
The rest of the week was a blur of promised riches and urgent reminders, none of which really seemed to be addressed to me. Tweet a haiku and get a Waffle Taco T-shirt. I’m calling about your ConEd bill. Don’t forget to hashtag your sleepy selfie for a chance to win $100. Hello, this is Marie Curie High School … Show us your excited face on Instagram.
A final text came on Wednesday night announcing that the missions were over. All that was left was breakfast. Just after 7 a.m. on Thursday, not far from Union Square, I ordered what might have been the first A.M. Crunchwrap and Waffle Taco ever served in New York City.
Biting through the Crunchwrap’s tortilla wrapper and into that gratifying medley of bacon, hash browns, cheese, and egg, I was just another guy eating a $5 breakfast on 14th Street. At that moment, I was reminded that one reason I enjoy Taco Bell is precisely because I don’t feel like an insider when I eat it. I could be wanted in court, in hock to ConEd, parent to a delinquent child, or just someone who had decided he could live mas without getting too close to his brand—and none of it would matter. In other words: Never send to know for whom the Taco Bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
When I got home, sated, I received another text on my breakfast phone:
Hey Family I just thought I would let you know that Tuesday I had my store Manager interview and I passed! So I think as of April 16th when my knew store opens I will officially be a store manager. :)
I knew this was a good time to turn off my breakfast phone for good. But then I got the sudden urge to play Luxor Quest.