It’s a burger joint known for its tacos and irreverent mascot, but Jack in the Box has a lot more snacks and hijinks where that comes from.
George via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Robert O. Peterson opened the first Jack in the Box restaurant in San Diego, Calif. in 1951 by converting one location of his Oscar’s restaurant chain into a new animal altogether: a drive-thru hamburger stand. Having bought the rights to an intercom-based drive-thru setup from another restaurateur, Peterson started expanding this new model, mounting the intercom inside a plastic clown. Today, the company operates over 2200 restaurants (mostly on the West Coast), though the clown-tercoms have long since been replaced with regular speaker setups.
In the late ’70s, Jack in the Box decided to shed its circus-like interiors, lose the clowns atop its restaurants and in its drive-thrus, and evolve into something that’d appeal more to adults than children. So, in 1980, the chain kicked off a decade or so of ‘premium fare’-aimed marketing with a commercial in which a group of employees blow up the mascot while a drive-thru customer gives the order to “Waste him!” Later commercials, including one from 1981, continued to echo the idea of explosive changes going on at the restaurants.
The mid-’90s “Jack’s Back” campaign reestablished the mascot (“thanks to the miracle of plastic surgery”) and was meant to help reinvent the company after a major E. coli contamination crisis in 1993, which resulted in several deaths and left the chain near bankruptcy. The campaign’s TV commercials quickly established that the new-and-improved character—now named Jack Box—was indeed back in town, but the use of a remote detonator bomb in the ad drew criticism in the wake of domestic terror attacks along the East Coast.
A later commercial, from 1997, shows Mr. Box sparking a violent confrontation with a man who’s been calling the chain “junk in the box.” Jack shows up on his doorstep unannounced and chases the man through his house and into his back yard (with the cameraperson running along behind, Cops-style). He force-feeds the naysayer Jack in the Box fare while pinning him to the ground. “Tasty!” the man declares while a menacing Jack asks, “You’re not just saying that ’cause I could snap your arm like a twig?” The ad was only shown after 10 p.m., and it won an award at an international advertising festival the following year.
Texas.713 via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
For a fast food mascot, Jack Box is an extremely developed character—one who, according to the company, may look “a bit like a clown, due to a genetically inherited large white head” (a trait only affecting Box family males) but is nevertheless “a serious businessman.”
Over the course of more than 2200 English- and Spanish-language commercials, we’ve learned that Jack has a wife named Cricket, a son named Jack Jr., and mullet-sporting cousins in Philly. The chain’s “Jack Facts” page also mentions that he is 6’8″ (without his hat), was born on May 16, and speaks Mandarin. As a 1996 presidential candidate, Jack reportedly also “beat out Bill Clinton and Bob Dole in a national independent virtual poll.” In 2009, however, the company decided to test his popularity and relevancy, so Jack got hit by a bus. This took him out of commission until an “unprecedented” outcry from fans in the form of thousands of emails and letters convinced the company to keep him on as spokesperson.
Me and the Sysop via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Actor and ad man Richard “Dick” Sittig lends his voice to Jack Box’s big white head, but he has also been nurturing and shaping the character and masterminding Jack commercials since 1995. After pioneering the “Jack’s Back” era with a larger ad firm for two years, Sittig split off and formed his own agency, Secret Weapon Marketing, which since been handling Jack in the Box ads since.
Commercials featuring Jack Box have accounted for huge growth in the company, and have developed a cult following thanks to an “irreverent humor” that especially tickles younger men, the LA Times reflects. Sittig told the paper, “If our target was a 75-year-old woman, we’d be a Hallmark card.” As to who Mr. Box really is, Sittig painted an image for Adweek that is part adventurer, part tycoon: “[Being] intimidating is part of Jack’s persona—a Trump-ian, or actually a Branson kind of thing. He’s a larger-than-life celebrity CEO.”
Ryoh A via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Since “reigniting the antenna ball craze in 1995 with [the] Classic Jack antenna ball,” Jack in the Box has reportedly sold or given away over 28 million antenna balls—or enough to adorn around 11% of the 253 million cars in the United States—plus “more than 5 million other premiums bearing Jack’s likeness,” such as collectible Pez dispensers.
Jack swag has also included occasional movie promos, like a 1995 line of posters and cups celebrating the release of Star Trek: Generations—the promotion invited customers to “Galaxy-Size” their meals and/or “beam up to bigger fries” for only 39 cents extra.
Undeniably alluring as they are, Jack in the Box’s 2-for-99-cents tacos don’t necessarily have a lot in common with the typical fast-food taco. Nevertheless, the chain sells about 400 million of them per year, all without having changed its basic recipe—seasoned meat lump, two triangles of American cheese, some shredded iceberg lettuce, and a little sauce—in around 50 years. The main difference is that today’s Jack in the Box taco meat mixture now has some textured vegetable-based proteins in there, too.
In recent years, a number of new and established restaurant chains have been trying to cash in on the “fast-casual dining” craze that’s put businesses like Chipotle at the top of the lunch break heap. While McDonald’s, for one, has only recently experimented with “build-a-burger” sit-down restaurants in the past year or so, Jack in the Box was ahead of the trend with its JBX Grill locations—opened on a trial basis in 2004, and featuring cozier chairs, fancier toppings, and even a few fireplaces—though perhaps too much so; sadly, they were scrapped just two years later.
Coming from a born-and-raised California chain, it’s possible that Jack in the Box’s recent ad campaign “featuring vacant, half-baked millennials” was responding to recent legislative and cultural shifts that have made marijuana a lot more accessible to Golden State residents.
Explained in one ad spot, the promotional $6 Munchie Meal is a “boxful of crunchy crave-ables,” appropriate for that window between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. when “things get weird” and containing items that an experimental snacker might concoct (and get really excited about): a grilled cheese sandwich grafted to a burger, a chicken bacon melt with a hashbrown patty wedged in, and so on. In another 2014 commercial, a young woman and a puppet version of Mr. Box, chilling out in bean-bag chairs, discuss the pros and cons of having spoons for hands before Puppet Jack suggests a late-night food run.
The Week reported, however, that the fast food company insists it’s not deliberately targeting pot smokers but rather “folks looking for indulgent treats,” such as “late-night shift workers and millennials who get the munchies at odd hours.” So…stoners, yes?
As Guinness notes, the restaurant was awarded the honor this past March for constructing an “eight-story-high voucher measuring an incredible 185.81 m² (2,000 ft²), highlighting a Buy One Get One Free (BOGOF) offer on ‘Buttery Jack,’ a quarter-pound burger with garlic herb butter melted on top.” Customers were allowed to ‘redeem’ the coupon by displaying a picture they’d taken of it at checkout.