Taco Bell Will Give You Free Food If You Give Them Free Data [Updated]

Update, December 7, 2020: Say it with us, readers: "Branded apps aren't really about transactional earnings, they're about collecting incredibly valuable metadata full of useful consumer insights that can be sold as a commodity itself." Okay, it's not the snappiest motto, but it's worth keeping in mind when fast food deals sound too good to be true. As Delish heralded last week, from now until December 15 Taco Bell is offering a free Chalupa Cravings Box to anyone who signs up for its loyalty rewards program. The box is a $5 value (give or take) which includes a Chalupa Supreme and a Crunchy Taco and a Beefy 5-Layer Burrito and Cinnamon Twists and a medium fountain drink. But the personal data you provide when you sign up for this rewards program is of limitless value to the fast food chain.

Again, if you love Chalupas and saving money—two reasonable priorities—then this might very well be a fair tradeoff for you! If so, we sincerely hope it's the best and beefiest deal you enjoy all month long. Just make sure you take the word "free" with a grain of salt. Especially because this combo meal already comes with its own sodium warning.

Original post, October 7, 2020: Back in late September I wrote about how Taco Bell's new wine, Japaleño Noir, was a commendable product both because it came from an interesting Canadian wine region and because it helped to promote the idea of pairing wine with Mexican food. But then Taco Bell revealed that it had only made 33 cases of wine (396 bottles total), signaling that the entire thing was a cheap publicity stunt and that it was effectively impossible to purchase the wine. Well now Taco Bell is back on its bullshit just in time for the holidays: the digital "Taco Gifter."

As reported by QSR Magazine (with a hat tip to Eater for alerting us to the story), Taco Bell's new app launched on October 4 (National Taco Day) and allows customers to "select a gif, enter the recipient's name, add a personal message, checkout and then send a unique URL to their taco-loving friend via text, email, DM or any other form of communication." What QSR's story fails to mention is that the website isn't about sending digital taco gifts: it's actually designed to allow you to send someone a $2 gift certificate, which theoretically is good for one taco.

As Allison Robicelli recently explained, branded apps (and websites) aren't really about transactional earnings, they're about collecting incredibly valuable metadata full of useful consumer insights, and can be sold as a commodity itself. So Taco Bell's "send your friend a taco" site is cute, but it's also yet another way for your data to be harvested by a huge, faceless conglomerate.

The entire premise of the Taco Gifter is somewhat flawed. For starters, the fine print on the Taco Gifter website notes that every transaction includes a $0.35 "purchase transaction fee," meaning that for your $2 purchase you're paying a fee of between 17-18%. Taco Bell also notes that "Taco prices vary and may exceed $2." So really, your gift of a taco might not actually get someone a taco; instead they might be required to spend their own money on your gift to make up the difference. But also, the Taco Gifter FAQ notes that a taco might cost less than $2, meaning that your gift recipient will be left with less than a dollar's worth of credit on their Taco Bell account. As Consumer Reports notes, it's actually really tricky to find ways to spend the final remaining cents leftover on a gift card. Your $2 gift card is likely going to give Taco Bell money that it'll never have to exchange a taco for. (This is, to be clear, why most restaurants and retail chains love selling gift cards.)

Lastly, who goes to Taco Bell for a single taco? The promotion gets customers in the door so that they'll end up tacking on other purchases. None of this is significantly more nefarious than the tactics that fast food chains have always used to maximize their profits, but in 2020, the "download our app" or "register for an account" requirement comes with a lot more strings attached than a simple coupon or gift certificate would have in the past. It's a shame that the Taco Gifter doesn't just let you email a "GOOD FOR ONE TACO" coupon to a friend that they can scan and redeem at the register, which seems like a promotion that'd actually encourage gift-giving.