Taco Bell Launches Wacky Web Promotion

In a public-relations stunt designed to drive traffic to its Web site, “Mexican-style” fast food chain Taco Bell is offering a free taco to everyone in the U.S. if the Mir space station hits a floating target placed in the South Pacific.

In advance of Mir’s fiery crash back to Earth, which experts are predicting will occur on Friday, the company has placed a floating, 40-by-40 foot purple bull’s-eye (on which “Free Taco Here” is written) in the South Pacific Ocean off the coast of Australia.

Mir is the single largest man-made object ever sent into orbit and brought back to Earth. The 15-year-old, 138-ton Russian space station is expected to pass over Japan before plummeting into the South Pacific.

Here’s the deal: if the core of Mir hits the designated Taco Bell target upon its re-entry, every person in the U.S. will have an opportunity to obtain a coupon for a free taco, valid at participating Taco Bell restaurants.

Coupon distribution, redemption and offer details will be made available to consumers on the Taco Bell Web site. Taco aficionados also will have to register at www.tacobell.com to receive the free taco, if Mir hits the target.

For now, the site features a “crash countdown” timer, and reportedly also will Webcast minute-by-minute footage of the crash.

“Taco Bell is capturing the imagination of millions of people as they eagerly await Mir’s return to earth,” said Chris Becker, vice president of brand communications for Irving, Calif.-based Taco Bell Corp. “If Mir rings our bell, we will offer a free taco to everyone in the U.S.”

Spending was not disclosed on the effort, which, if anything, demonstrates how a concerted public relations stunt can be used to drive traffic to a brand’s Web site.

In fact, just hours after the announcement, the Taco Bell site was straining visibly, ostensibly from Internet traffic. Several pages failed to load altogether on Tuesday night, although the problem appeared to have been fixed by Wednesday morning.

Now, let’s say Mir does hit the target. There are approximately 275.6 million people living in the United States. At approximately $0.99 per taco (as priced in the New York metropolitan area), Taco Bell would stand to lose $272.8 million in sellable taco “inventory” alone. That’s one pricey PR campaign. (Taco Bell Corp. said it has taken out an insurance policy to cover the anticipated cost of the free taco redemption.)

But Taco Bell stands to receive a staggering amount of consumer data in the event of having to issue coupons — data that could be put to use in future direct marketing campaigns.

In addition, there’s probably some upsell value in the gimmick, since the standard Taco Bell taco is regarded as simply a prelude to the Gordita — which itself is considered by many a hungry, fast-food-fiending journalist to be Taco Bell’s most enticing offering.

It’s thus worth speculating that should everyone receiving a free taco also purchase a Santa Fe Beef Gordita (at $1.29) and a medium soda ($1.59) — or even a whole Santa Fe Beef Gordita Value Meal #8 ($4.65) — it could mean approximately $520.9 million to $1 billion in additional sales — almost a fifth of Taco Bell’s total annual revenue.

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