Hot Dog King Oscar Mayer Faces the Cookout Season That Wasn’t

New spot shows people firing up the grill in the age of social distancing

Oscar Mayer logo over a cul-de-sac
'Front Yard Cookout' depicts a barbecue in the burbs in the time of Covid-19. Oscar Mayer

According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, we Americans eat somewhere around 20 billion hot dogs a year, which works out to 70 dogs for each of us. That’s good news for Oscar Mayer, which makes the best-selling wieners in the United States.

Or, at least, it would normally be good news.

Summer grilling season is fast approaching, a time when Americans will down 818 hot dogs every second. But with social distancing mandates in effect across the country, the coronavirus threatens to pour water on the barbecue.

Which is why Oscar Mayer has switched things up a bit. In a spot debuting this morning, the 137-year-old processor of bacon, salami, bologna—and hot dogs—is telling Americans that while the pool party might be off, it’s still OK to fire up the barbecue. “Front Yard Cookout” shows neighbors who live in a suburban cul-de-sac having a cookout in the time of Covid-19, by rolling their backyard grills to the ends of their driveways and greeting one another from a safe distance.

“We may not be able to gather together,” intones the earnest and compassionate-sounding narrator, “but we can grill together.”

Even though the 30-second mcgarrybowen-produced spot is a call to action for the entire summer, Oscar Mayer has specified May 2 as an actual cookout day, inviting Americans to share their photos on social media. For every time the #FrontYardCookout tag appears on Twitter, the company will donate a meal to Feeding America. (That’s on top the million meals Oscar Mayer has already pledged.)

Oscar Mayer’s head of marketing Jess Vultaggio told Adweek that while the brand was essentially making the best of a challenging situation, it still has faith that grill owners won’t let a pandemic keep them indoors all summer.

“While we know the warmer weather is testing the resolve of everyone trying to maintain safe social distancing practices, we expect many Americans will continue to try to do just that, even if they’d rather be having their typical gatherings,” Vultaggio said. “’The Front Yard Cookout’ is our suggestion of how you can do both—maintain some of those neighborly traditions and activities in this new normal we’re all adapting to.”

As it turns out, Oscar Mayer isn’t the only brand having to adjust its strategy as backyard season approaches. On March 28, Scott Moody, co-owner of PK Grills, kicked off a nationwide “virtual barbecue” called Stay In and Cook Out, which encouraged outdoor cooking enthusiasts to fire up their grills and share photos, videos and recipes with the hashtag #StayInCookOut. In Greenville, S.C., food charity Project Host decided to turn its popular annual cookout into a virtual one, inviting anyone to “throw on an apron, fire up the smoker or grill and participate” by posting photos or a video to Facebook or Instagram.

Over at the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, a planned marketing campaign for National Barbecue Month (which is May) has been reworked to tout “virtual neighborhood cookouts,” which means everyone grilling in their own backyard while waving at the neighbors over the hedge.

Covid-19 might well take the fun out of summering, but the association’s communications director Emily McGee doesn’t regard it as a disaster. To the contrary. “I do see this as an opportunity to encourage people to use their grills more,” she said. “Since people are home now, they may have the time to go beyond seeing it as a special occasion or weekend activity. We will also be encouraging people to try new dishes or techniques on their grills as well. We are concerned about the sales, of course, but hope that by promoting grilling it may encourage people to purchase a grill.”

It’s worth pointing out that, social isolation notwithstanding, these trying times have actually benefitted the hot dog segment overall. According to IRI, frankfurters rang up sales of well over $275 million for the four weeks ending April 12—up nearly 35% from the preceding four-week period and up 62% over this time last year. In fact, a good many foods that are easy to store and fast to make, and also please the kids have experienced a sales bump in the past few weeks.

Nonetheless, now is obviously not a “good” time for anyone, and Vultaggio said that any ad campaign in the offing right now has to strike the right tone. “Regardless of the work, there’s always a concern that a message—even a positive one—may not be received well,” she said. “Oscar Mayer and [its parent] the Kraft Heinz Company is actively looking for ways we can help right now while remaining true to our brand values.”

Oscar Mayer actually has some experience promoting a product in the middle of a national crisis. Eighty-four years ago, the company debuted its now famous Wienermobile during the depths of the Great Depression. The 27-foot motorized hot dog appeared in parades, parked in front of grocery stores and even paid visits to hospitals. “It’s that Oscar Mayer mission and legacy that we’re trying to uphold in these times, when everyone is missing their friends and family, to give people a reason to smile and a way to get together,” Vultaggio said.

“Safely, of course,” she added.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.