‘It’s not bad pizza. It’s bad players.’
This is the story that Papa John’s is trying to augment into reality. In case you missed it, last week founder John Schnatter claimed that Papa John’s sales are in free fall, not because garlic butter will cover only so many multitudes of sins—double cheeseburger pizza with pickles? just no—but because some NFL players have knelt during the national anthem. Seems he feels his millions of ad dollars entitle him to tell the NFL what to do.
Not only does his argument come off like a ’50s studio head snapping at a star, “I don’t pay you to think. I pay you to twirl the baton. So shut up and twirl,” in the kind of B-movie that our film writer Pat McLeod would love; it shines a nasty light on the very thing he wants to change: declining sales.
You don’t have to be a public relations whiz to know that this was a terrible miscalculation. Drunk photos aside, Schnatter has heretofore been pretty savvy in his dealings with the public, so this 100 percent avoidable gaffe came as a surprise. Maybe he didn’t consult his PR team first. Maybe he recently hired them fresh from Trump University.
I have no idea what Schnatter was thinking before he let fly, but now he’s probably thinking ‘Sonofabiscuiteater, that was stupid.’ ’Cause in the week since, Schnatter’s pizza has unwilling become embraced by … drumroll please … Nazis! Yep, Nazis. As Newsweek reported, and I am not making this up, a neo-Nazi website claimed that Papa John’s was the official pizza of the alt-right, which prompted the company to urge racists not to buy their pizza. (Tip: Take white pizza off the menu. Problem solved. Another tip: If you’re not selling enough pizza, maybe don’t tell people not to buy your pizza.)
As hilariously well-deserved as this turn of events may be, Schnatter was merely employing a move from the public figure playbook: If you don’t like the story they’re telling about you, tell one you do like. It sounds dumb and sometimes it backfires, but it works often enough. The trick is in telling a story that people are more inclined to believe than the old one.
In this case, Schnatter seems to have thought people were more likely to believe a story about football players giving Papa John’s the shits in terms of sales, than one about consumers being turned off by sawdust-hewn dough sprinkled with plastic cheese byproduct, the demented cousins of vegetables and sodium pellets because, gee, I don’t know, they have taste buds. (Those pepperoncini peppers, though. #Delish)
Schnatter didn’t realize that it would take about five seconds for the story to become one about an ultra-rich owner of a pizza company who’s so clueless he thinks his company’s sales are slipping because football players have taken a knee against systemic racism in law enforcement.
This is an example of narrative control backfiring. Often it does not and the new account passes into the national awareness as fact. Take the ludicrous claim that there were millions of fraudulent votes cast last November. It was and is quantifiably false, but for some people, it was an easier pill to swallow than a president who lost by 3 million votes and nonetheless won the election. Just months later, polls found that nearly a quarter of all voters believed the lie; as of August, nearly half of Republicans polled believed that Trump won the popular vote. This is successful narrative shift.
Today we see this tactic being employed on the NFL protests. And it’s working, but only on the people you’d expect it to.
Before the Nov. 5 Jaguars home game against the Bengals started, a plane flew overhead, trailing a sign urging people to boycott the NFL. I don’t know who paid for it, but I’m guessing that they’ve bought into the narrative of football players disrespecting veterans, the flag and, of course, ’Merica. It’s a story that plays well on the Bob Evans circuit. I’m also guessing that whoever paid for the plane is white, middle-aged and male, doesn’t think that they’re a racist, or that they’ve benefitted from living in a country with a racism problem. And I doubt they’re much inclined to believe anything to the contrary.
What do we do about those who stubbornly insist on believing farce? Keep wasting our breath? Wait for them to die off? Have faith that eventually truth will out?
I’m keeping the faith. You’d have to be out of your mind to call the NFL anti-American or anti-veterans; the games at EverBank Field are on the boot camp level of patriotism indoctrination. Eventually everyone will remember that.
Until then, I’m going to do my part by telling stories about great local pizza places that beat the pants off the salty upholstery that dude on TV sells, and throw in the odd anecdote about people who pay big bucks to fly signs at football games instead of donating to veterans in need.