Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Death and Bacon Cheeseburgers

Imagine the publicity value when someone actually dies at the Heart Attack Grill. And the restaurant will still be able to say, “You can’t say we didn’t warn you.”

The Heart Attack Grill has been open in Las Vegas for less than a year, selling food that defies all the rules of common sense about eating. Imagine, for example, an oversize bacon triple cheeseburger that adds up to more food than an active person would sensibly eat in three days. Add alcohol and cigarettes, and it’s obvious that the occasional customer will fall over dead. The risk is no secret, even if you don’t follow the science news — it is emphasized with signs at the entrance and food item names on the menu. The restaurant’s food has already sent two customers out on stretchers (fortunately, both survived) and some accounts suggest that other emergency room visits have been of customers who came directly from the restaurant.

It’s a clever psychological stance that the Heart Attack Grill employs. The message is, in effect, “You know eating like this will kill you eventually, but go ahead and enjoy it.” It preempts the objections to the potentially deadly effects of the food by mentioning the element of danger first — in the first two words of the restaurant name. The preemptive warning may also be sufficient to preempt the lawsuits that could follow.

But if this strategy is a hit so far, with curious diners flocking to the novelty restaurant, the long-term result may be to push people in the opposite direction. As people consider the restaurant and its food risks with varying degrees of seriousness, it leads to discussions. How big does a cheeseburger have to be to kill a person? When people start to ask this kind of question, it forms a lasting cognitive association. In this case it has people drawing a connecting line between processed meat and early death. Eventually, people will learn that there is a real scientific answer to the cheeseburger question. The scientific answer might be vague and probabilistic at this point, but it is specific enough to tell you that if maximizing your chances of good health is the priority, you wouldn’t eat a bacon cheeseburger at all, regardless of size.

The short-term risk in eating a bacon cheeseburger, even a jumbo one, might be small, but that won’t matter when the story is told about the first person to keel over and die upon eating one at a restaurant called the Heart Attack Grill. It’s a story that, when it happens, will push people in two directions. Thousands may want to take on the challenge of eating the biggest bacon cheeseburger they can find. But millions may no longer want to eat burgers or beef at all. And that’s how the mystique of the Heart Attack Grill, even as it boosts its own business, works against the beef industry in the long run.