Let’s All Stop Panicking About Taco Bell

Last week, the results of survey produced by The Harris Poll proclaimed Taco Bell to be the favorite Mexican restaurant in the country. Predictably, people freaked out. Even people that haven’t shared a food photo in their social media lives posted with angry blood on my social media feeds. The general sentiment could be succinctly surmised with one word:  “Really?”

No, not really. Those that feel compelled to defend the honor of hole-in-the-wall taquerias everywhere can slow their roll. The poll isn’t worth getting worked up over. It’s not even worth commenting about the assumed ignorance of the pollsters, even if it’s tempting to shake your head at them in disgust.  The Harris poll that allegedly crowned Taco Bell king was brand-driven popularity contest designed to yield generic, vanilla results. Unfortunately, The Harris Poll – and subsequently, news outlets everywhere – did a terrible job of conveying this message.

The poll that caused so much fuss is the corporation’s EquiTrend poll. It’s main purpose is to gauge a known brand’s health, which is done by asking randomly chosen people questions concerning a brand familiarity, quality, and future regard. The survey’s 3,000 brands, which represent more than just food, are selected by The Harris Poll and arbitrarily whittled down to groups of forty before being presented to the survey-takers. The poll’s Mexican food category pitted Taco Bell up against chains like Chipotle, Baja Fresh, and Del Taco. None of these metrics provide indicators of the poll being an arbiter of culinary excellence. All it really does is highlight the preferred fast-casual joint to grab something when you’re in a pinch.

Besides, the poll only solicited the opinion of roughly 77,000 people nationwide. That’s a small sample size to determine an epicurean beat-all in any category regardless of how the poll was designed. It’s also safe to assume some of the pollsters that comprised this meager collective live in places where Mexican food choices are a combination of scant and lousy. Taco Bell may be the best Mexican food option for someone living in, say, southern Indiana. This may be tough for a Southern California resident to reconcile, but such a thing is possible, if not probable.

If you’re going to be upset at anyone or anything over the poll results, be upset at The Harris Poll and the news outlets for breathlessly turning the results in a vehicle to bait foodies into shuddering at perceived American culinary ignorance. Since it was a poll to measure brand vitality, all of the drummed-up ire could have been diffused by emphasizing the restaurant’s branding aspect. If the agencies simply would have tacked on the word “brand” to their headlines, people would have probably shrugged their shoulders and moved on with their day instead of frantically cobbling together Facebook posts declaring the writers of the film “Demolition Man” to be semi-prophetic, among other things.

But that didn’t happen, probably because sensationalism sells. Based on all of the social media grousing that cropped up in the story’s wake, there were plenty of buyers. To that end, what else can be said other than caveat emptor?