A Bland New Day at Chili’s

The trouble with this latest Chili’s campaign from Hill, Holliday is that the set-up — about a spoof competitor, a chain of restaurants called PJ Bland’s, which offers up food made of actual cardboard and hilariously meaningless slogans like “Stuff to eat right up the street!” — is way more fun to watch than the solution part, wherein we learn why Chili’s is superior. Because we really don’t — better than bland is not a reason to go there.

Indeed, mocking the whole casual-dining experience is a lot easier to do than actually coming up with a compelling reason to eat at one of those joints — never mind the total brain-buster of differentiating Chili’s from the rest.

Maybe it’s just me, but the corrugated cardboard French fries are as inventive and delightful as any piece of pop art. All the behind-the-scenes videos on pjblands.com are pitch-perfect, from showing the food stylist “pulp out” the stuff to the super-clever take-off on the food descriptions: “Our t-bone is our thickest grade-A base material, served with our twice baked, hydropulped spud.”

The first two-thirds of the TV commercial is equally compelling, with our host and founder, the all-beige-wearing Mr. Bland, proudly showing us his ’70-style earth-tone eatery. He stops to chat with guests and ask about the food. The answers are deadpan lines like, “Not bad. Not good, but not bad” and “Average, but there’s a lot of it.”

By comparison, the beauty shots of the actual Chili’s food seem kind of same old same old, if not gross — gleaming and oily and red but not necessarily delicious.

This idea of going from drab to Technicolor is not new, of course — in advertising, everyone’s hoping to replicate that Wizard of Oz moment, where ah, the product is Oz. But in the context of 30 seconds, the monochrome part, counterintuitively, often tends to overshadow the color, which, due to time constrictions, necessarily comes off as an afterthought.

This is also the case with a Campbell’s Soup commercial, where a typical dad-type family guy is robotically pulled through his all-putty-colored house until he hits the kitchen, where a chef serves him a hearty red bowl of Campbell’s. He responds with a good line: “I like the taste of taste.” But every time I see it, I admire the visual vibe of the colorless house — it’s got a Martha Stewart-esque aesthetic. By comparison, the soup looks kind of garish and fake.

The PJ Bland’s Web site is chock-a-block with fun, including a “Bang out a Meal” game, where you get points for making the “proprietary base material” blander. While I admired the skin that slowly crawls over the corner, showing us the Chili’s logo and the vibrant red pepper, it also came to seem like an annoying interruption from building the Bland dream house. Chili’s is also into social media on Twitter — there’s a PJ Bland’s feed, where old P.J. himself spends his time making bland puns.

So, I started wondering why a restaurant chain would spend all this media time seeking to distinguish itself from “bland,” which is hardly a ringing endorsement. After all, the reality is that much of the food at Chili’s has flavor only because it’s loaded with sodium and fat (and calories). Anyone who goes there should know that the Smokehouse Bacon Cheeseburger, for example, packs 2,400 calories and about three days’ worth of sodium. At least the cardboard has lots of fiber.

But after coming across a “Join the Bland Movement” area on the Web site, it hit me. On a deeper level, “bland” is being used as a synonym for “healthy.” So, after all the jokes, what Chili’s is really doing is paving the way for big, bad food to not only stay in the game but be considered the answer to our troubles.

That’s one way to promote such food — it might kill ya, but at least it’s not boring.