Taco Bell Gave Me a Cellphone. It Came With a Past.

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March 28 2014 12:39 PM

Taco Bell Gave Me a Cellphone

Then I started getting urgent calls from ConEd and the Bronx Criminal Court.

taco bell phone.

Photo by Adam Chandler

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.

taco bell phone.

Photo by Adam Chandler

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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.”

taco bell phone.

Photo by Adam Chandler

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).

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