Fast Food Fails at Immersive with ‘Jack’s House of Crunch’ (Review)

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Photo courtesy Cashmere Agency’s Twitter

Once upon a time, immersive events were strange and secret, or at least they seemed that way. Then, brands learned about immersive entertainment. Now, immersive is everywhere and everything is immersive. Out there, outside of the enthusiast world, the word has lost meaning, the way any word does if you repeat it enough times. It seems like every week, yet another brand is trying to entice me to come and check out their “immersive,” Instagram-friendly experience. Let me tell you some of the things PR people have tried to convince me were “immersive”:

  • A pop-up store that had a very large suitcase you could take a picture in front of
  • A pop-up store with a mural you could take a picture in front of
  • An outdoor concert at a mall
  • A restaurant with an open kitchen
  • A [venue] with a/an [object] you can take a picture in front of

Not all branded immersive experiences are bad. A lot of them are quite good and manage to weave together a compelling narrative. Brands have that capacity because they, unlike most indie creators, have the money required to rent desirable spaces, book quality talent, and build beautiful sets.

But some of them suck. They suck because they don’t hire people with experience putting on immersive events, they copy the most basic elements of things they’ve seen before, they put very little effort into designing a narrative journey of any kind, and they only exist for aspiring influencers.

I’m going to try to illustrate the difference between a quality branded immersive event and/or selfie palace and one that sucks using Jack’s House of Crunch, a middling immersive experience meant to promote chicken strips.

Jack’s House of Crunch promised a multi-sensory, ASMR-inspired exploration of Jack in the Box’s new spicy chicken strips. This, I said to myself, sounds like the exact kind of thing to explore these feelings I’ve been having about brands and immersive. Because if it was terrible, it would allow me to blather on about the idea of brands co-opting an art form, but poorly. And if it was amazing, then… well, I mean… that in and of itself would be amazing.

Plus, Jack in the Box has always been a little weird. After the company was the center of an E. coli catastrophe in 1993, they rebranded by introducing a mascot who looks like Slender Man, if Slender Man were also a clown. (To be fair, Slender Man did not exist until 2009.) Despite the fact that ‘Jack’ looks precisely like the kind of presence that would appear on your front lawn if you were the protagonist in a home-invasion horror movie, his off-kilter advertising campaign has been particularly well-received and the fast food chain enjoys a fair amount of popularity today. That makes Jack in the Box the kind of brand that fans are apt to engage with, as opposed to brands that are boring or that people hate, like, say, Comcast or Equifax.

Jack’s House of Crunch took place in a lofted storefront space on Fairfax. There were three photo installations in the main room: a chicken finger parody of the street art “angel wings” every Instagrammer poses with; several sauce-themed mirrors that made it look like you were wearing a cartoon accessory, and a statue of a large chicken finger being dipped in ranch dressing.

Upstairs, there was the obligatory “ball pit,” only this one was very shallow and full of foam chunks that were meant to be chicken nuggets. They were very unappetizing, possibly because they looked like soiled sponges. This is also where one could experience L’eau de Jacques, a line of sauce-scented fragrances. Yes, if you wanted to spritz yourself with a cloudy perfume sure to make you smell like Buttermilk Ranch, you could. This scent would probably make you a hit at Midwestern potlucks. I grew up there, so I feel qualified on this topic.

The best installation was the ASMR room, where you could don headphones and watch a synced commercial of a young woman gently exploring a chicken strip.

Now, if you’re going to say you have an ASMR experience, the key is that the video should actually give people who experience ASMR “tingles” — that’s the accepted parlance of the whisper community. As someone who has experienced ASMR since childhood, I am happy to report that this commercial does, in fact, give me tingles. I stood in this room by myself and watched this commercial six times, surrounded by oven installations that looked like some layer of fried Hell. This felt clever because people who make ASMR videos do actually eat fast food in them, as a common ASMR trigger is the sound of someone eating. For instance, if you want more Jack in the Box ASMR, you can watch this guy eating fast food for 11 minutes. Michelob Ultra has also embraced ASMR in advertising, running a whispery Super Bowl commercial featuring Zoë Kravitz earlier this year.

There was also, in theory, food at Jack’s event, though none of it ever made its way to me.

Aside from the ASMR room, most of the experience was an extremely minimal, mundane, and middling effort to get influencers to pretend they were having a good time. It was almost surprising how little effort had gone into the whole thing. I mean, if you’re not going to make something great, why do it at all? It feels like you’d achieve better brand awareness by simply standing on the street handing out free boxes of chicken.

Jack’s House of Crunch wasn’t as bad as Egg House, which is, to date, the worst one I’ve seen yet. Is the problem that a single food item just can’t be the centerpiece of a selfie museum? One would be inclined to say no, as the Museum of Ice Cream arguably started this whole thing with a series of fully-planned out rooms that actually did look cool when you photographed them. And despite the saccharine silliness of it all, Candytopia managed to create rooms that were fun and fit together well under an overarching theme.

I think the problem is a lack of interstitial tissue between photos ops at some of these things. Brands and money-driven people want to do this stuff as cheaply and quickly as possible, hoping that a well-cropped and filtered photo can convey the illusion of a good installation and thus inspire FOMO in those who weren’t invited.

It’s the immersive equivalent of saying, “We’ll fix it in post” too many times.

Both Egg House and Jack’s House of Crunch contained a series of installations scattered around a concrete space that had not been otherwise decorated. There was no clear path to follow, literally or narratively, in either space and thus, both looked kind of like trade show floors. And while that may not matter much to Jack, who just wanted to tell people about his chicken strips, it should have mattered to Egg House, which charged $40 a person.

The installations were also just super “meh.” Egg House essentially copied 29 Rooms (but poorly), while Jack in the Box’s shallow chicken pool was just sad. However, it was also funny, which is where Jack succeeded; they latched onto something topical and had a sense of humor about it. It’s the same reason their often dark ads do well and win awards. Jack’s at least managed to use all five senses. Egg House was little more than an uninventive Olan Mills.

So if you’re a brand who wants to make an immersive experience that works beyond just photos, what do you do? Well, look at something like I Like Scary Movies, where every single room was carefully designed with large-scale pieces and sets. Though it was tailored to the selfie-taker, there was something interesting and special in each room. Now add a narrative. What story is your brand trying to tell? That’s Marketing 101. Now, tell that story via a path that makes sense, versus shoving people in a concrete box with a few scattered installations and expecting them to figure it out. (Or build a guillotine and dismantle capitalism altogether.)

If you’re wondering why I’m being so negative about a free event, there are two reasons:

  1. I’m tired of reading glowing reviews of mediocre things, written by people whose primary objective is to get free tickets to future mediocre things, so they can get gift bags full of mediocre branded objects.
  2. I like immersive events and I want them to be good. I want people to fall in love with immersive experiences the way I have. I want them to have transformative experiences while engaging in their escapism. And while I understand that a fast food chain is probably never going to give you an emotional epiphany, I want brands that have the financial ability to make fun experiences to hire the creators, actors, and writers who will use that money to pay their bills while they’re making their transformative opuses on the side. I also don’t want people to become jaded and assume that “immersive” means a blah time in a selfie palace. My fear is that that’s already happening.

Let’s keep immersive weird, even if we have to share it with brands.

Jack’s House of Crunch has concluded.

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