How Chef Boyardee Was on the Congressional Ballot in New York

Flip Remark by Congressman Sean Maloney Draws Venerable Brand into Politics, Creating a Potential Crisis by Association 

11/10/22 – – Among the unexpected outcomes of this week’s midterm elections was Republican Mike Lawler’s victory in New York’s redrawn 17th Congressional District (Rockland County and parts of Westchester) over Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney. Contributing to the outcome was a gaffe by Maloney, who has been in Congress for 10 years, that will be used by political and communication consultants as an example of what not to do.

In an interview with Halston Media Productions that aired October 27, Maloney was asked about the impact of inflation on area families. Here’s his unfortunate response:  

“Yeah, well, I grew up in a family where, you know, if the gas price went up, the food budget went down. So by this time of the week, we would be eating Chef Boyardee if that budget wasn’t gonna change. So that’s what families have to do.”

Critics compared Maloney’s gastronomic advice for his struggling constituents to Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake” response to a question about what poor Parisians should do during a bread shortage. A guillotine ended the dismissive French Queen’s political career. Maloney’s public service appears to have been cut short at the ballot box.     

Mike Lawler turned to Twitter to highlight his opponent’s display of insensitivity:

“According to @spmaloney, Hudson Valley residents who are struggling to put gas in their tank and food on their table should eat Chef Boyardee! I have a better idea — let’s Fire Sean Maloney and reduce inflation so that New Yorkers can afford to live here and eat what they want.”

So, now that we know the fate of Lawler and Maloney, what should Chef Boyardee do?

Imagine you are a public relations executive at Conagra Brands, the company that markets Chef Boyardee canned pasta products. Is this uninvited spotlight a good or bad thing for your venerable brand? Did Maloney’s remark position Chef Boyardee as a cheap default meal for financially strapped families? Or did the Congressman’s plug alert consumers to the affordability and value of the product?

Whatever the impact, Conagra Brands is doing the right thing: Nothing.

I’ve written many times about predicaments I call “crises by association;” out-of-the-blue incidents that draw a company, person or product into a controversy they have nothing to do with. While every such situation is unique, the best strategy in most cases is to let the resulting publicity and social media conversation play out without protesting or offering commentary. This caution is especially important to consider when the storm you’re being pulled into is political and your chiming in could be interpreted as choosing sides.

I feel for the Conagra folks, who I’m sure take their responsibility to defend their brands very seriously. Chef Boyardee products have earned a place on American’s dinner tables since talented Italian immigrant Ettore “Hector” Boiardi in 1928 offered canned favorites from his popular New York restaurant to local grocers. His confident face and perfectly tilted white pleated chef’s hat are on every can. Sales were at historic levels during the COVID pandemic, when shoppers were limiting their trips to the supermarket.

What is the positioning of Chef Boyardee? Here’s my take: I was fortunate to work for insightful entrepreneur Alfred Taubman for more than 30 years. He referred to the consumer appeal of products like Chef Boyardee as, “guaranteed mediocrity.” That’s not a bad thing. Very successful businesses have been built around this underrated promise: Holiday Inn, McDonald’s, Wonder Bread. You’re never delighted by experiences with these established brands, but you’re almost never disappointed. They’re not the cheapest choices, and certainly not the most expensive. You know what you’re going to get, and you get it — every time. That’s how I feel, thinking back on my childhood, about Chef Boyardee.

The only other relevant memory I have is of my mother dismissing any critique of her cooking with the scolding phrase, “Well excuse me, Chef Boyardee . . .”

Consumers who like Chef Boyardee products will resent Congressman Maloney’s flip remark (as the voters did) and not change their shopping patterns. People who may already look down on the brand were never going to buy the product in the first place. Conagra’s intervention — other than thanking people who praise the pastas on social media platforms — would only invite political resentment and extend this problematic conversation.

I hope Conagra stays the course. Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words by tone-deaf Congressmen will never hurt you.  

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