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In-The-Box '96

Hit the Road, Jack: The burger frranchise has discovered in its big-headed, back-from-the-dead mascot a presidential candidate who has it all: the business credentials of a Perot, the fast-food fetish of a Clinton, and an injury that makes Dole's war wound look like a scrape on the knee.

What does a hydrocephalic fast-food CEO have in common with Ross Perot?

By Richard Sine

Rooting around town for a cheap greasy fix the other day, I stumbled onto a political campaign. A window sign proclaimed the Palo Alto restaurant "Campaign Headquarters." The lawn sign out front demonstrated its candidate loyalty. And the cook behind the counter sported a T-shirt bearing a quote from its candidate of choice: "What this country needs is a no-nonsense, take-charge kind of clown."

There was a ballot box by the counter, and ballot slips giving three options: Bob, Bill and, in huge letters, JACK. Realizing I was the only person left in the restaurant, late at night, I emptied out the box and tallied the slips.

Twenty-two votes for Jack, two for Bob, none for Bill. If Jack in the Box customers stuffed the real ballot boxes this year, it appears that Jack, as a third-party candidate, might have had a devastating effect on Bill Clinton.

Now the CEO of an expanding $1 billion family restaurant chain, Jack is an American success story that would bring a tear to the eye of even the most cynical voter. The candidacy is a real coup for Jack in the Box owner Foodmaker Inc., which has suffered from a rocky relationship with its now-favorite son.

In the company's early days, Jack in the Boxes in towns like Campbell actually were huge jack-in-the-boxes, with an enormous clown's head floating on a cube outside each restaurant. But in a series of television ads in 1983, the food chain literally blew up the clown in an effort to appeal to the adult market. The strategy worked well enough until E. coli bacteria in the burgers killed three young children in 1993, and nearly killed the chain, too.

The next year, Jack apparently decided it was time to take things into his own hands. A series of commercials portrayed Jack, after extensive reconstructive surgery, sneaking into Jack in the Box headquarters and dynamiting the boardroom just as the company had dynamited him. (For those of you who haven't watched television lately, Jack crawled out of his box long ago and now looks like any other business-suited executive except for the the enormous spheroid head, carrot nose and smiley face.)

Since Jack came back, his chain has seen two years of steady growth. As a candidate, Jack has it all: the business credentials of a Perot, the fast-foot fetish of a Clinton, and an injury that makes Dole's war wound look like a scrape on the knee. With the help of his grateful parent company, Jack has made company political maneuvers look like the heroic struggle of an underdog.

Ross Perot always insisted that he wouldn't run for president except at the behest of the people. Jack can apparently claim the same thing. Foodmaker insists the candidacy did not start as some promotional idea. It was a San Diego surfer and graphic designer for the food chain, Scott Allan, who spearheaded the effort to draft Jack. He kicked off the campaign with a rally at the Republican National Convention.

Allan calls his party BURGER, for Burger Users Rally for Greater Eating Reform. "Me and my friends were sitting around and discussing how boring all the candidates were, how all the fun had gone out of it," Allan explains.

Allan says he has a more serious aim of increasing voter participation. Campaign materials refer to a toll-free voter registration number. I was more interested in his party credo on the Web, which features the rather frightening tenet: "We believe in having everything we want, with everything on it."

On Oct. 7, Jack threw his pointy yellow hat into the ring. "I have weighed the options of a Presidential race as seriously as I weigh the quarter-pound burger," Jack says in his acceptance speech, reprinted on the Burger Party's Web page. Echoing Charles Wilson, former chairman of General Motors, Jack tells us: "I believe this country should be run like a fast-food restaurant--efficiently and with a smile."

Jack's deft blending of free marketeering and down-home earthiness calls to mind another two-party system outsider. Allan, however, begs to differ. "He doesn't look anything like Perot," Allan says. "He's got no ears at all."

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From the October 24-30, 1996 issue of Metro

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