By now you’ve heard of it.  Heck, you might even have tried it.  Yes, I’m talking about the Taco Bell diet.  It’s the “diet” that, according to the official site, “is not a weight loss program.”  Interesting.  I can count the number of times I’ve eaten at Taco Bell on one hand, but I still know that something doesn’t feel right about this.

Technically, Taco Bell’s Drive Thru Diet just takes existing menu items and replaces the cheese, sauces and guacamole with salsa and calls it “fresco.”  This erases about 20-100 calories per item.  If you’re watching your calories and have a penchant for fast food, this could very well help you out a bit.  But to call anything from Taco Bell a “diet,” when even the website admits that it’s not true, is just poor marketing. 

On his blog Scalable Intimacy Mike Troiano writes that, “Where once you could focus on driving the product reality by shaping market perception, now you must also gather market perception to shape the product reality.”  Wonderfully phrased, this rule that becomes more and more important everyday, as social media, cellphones and other new ways of communicating continue to burrow into our daily lives.  The people who determine market perception are more empowered by the minute, and when something isn’t right, they’ll make that known.

Case in point: According to AdAge, the words now most closely associated with Taco Bell are “fat,” “stop,” and “joke.”  Social media is puncturing their message like a million tiny needles.  The reality of the public’s perception is that it’s a difficult thing to change and even more difficult to trick.  Had Taco Bell approached their health food offering differently, as McDonald’s has, things could have been different for them.

Working in PR, there are lots of lessons I take away from this.  Transparency is key in all communication and companies that understand this are most likely to win the support of their audience.  Not just transparency with the public, but with the press and with their agency partners as well.  You can’t slap an audience in the face by making ludicrous claims about a product or service.  Respect and loyalty are built gradually and messaging must be consistent, or it will be called out.  As one online commenter stated, “It is pretty difficult to convince consumers that you have a diet plan after several months of telling them to stay up late for their "fourth meal" of the day.”

Contributed by Jim Fay.  Follow him @JGF3