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'Yo Quiero RESPECT'

And now Chihuahuas have it since the Taco Bell's ads have made them the toast of the town. They may be tiny, but their spirits are big, fans of the breed say.

March 02, 1998|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You have to put yourself in the position of a Chihuahua--which is 10 inches off the ground, tops--to understand why the little dogs have gotten such a bad rap. Here you are, standing up your straightest, and you're still too short to see or be seen. Yap yap, nip nip. If you don't dance around and make noise, you could accidentally be trampled to death. So what if they say you look like a tipsy rodent and sound like a car alarm? So what if they mock your penchant for lolling in human laps? Does that make you any less of a dog? Don't they know a canine can be teensy on the outside and a giant within?

Now they do.

"Yo quiero Taco Bell."

That line--"I want some Taco Bell"--may have saved the the breed's reputation. Suddenly, Chihuahuas have taken off, earned the dignity they deserve, been granted their overdue 15 minutes of fame.

Suddenly, those big Chihuahua personalities are exploding out of 6-pound bodies topped by tiny apple-shaped heads, and onto the small home screen.

"People are getting a look at how big in spirit these little dogs are," says Sandra Whittle, of Chesterfield, Va., who breeds Chihuahuas and is president of the Chihuahua Club of America. The Taco Bell campaign is good PR for the often-misperceived breed, she says. It shows the dogs as they are: personable, intelligent and energetic, rather than as airhead accessories for people to use as live fashion props. "Speaking for myself and not the club, I like the dogs in the ads. I'm not sure they conform to breed standard."

By this she means the official American Kennel Club standard, which simply states that a Chihuahua is "a graceful, alert, swift-moving little dog with saucy expression . . . and terrier qualities of temperament . . . not to exceed 6 pounds." The dogs are generally thought to have been miniaturized in China centuries ago and transported to the state of Chihuahua in Mexico, from which their name comes. Whittle says her phone has been "ringing off the hook" with potential customers since the Taco Bell ads began to air.

Breeders and pet stores now have Chihuahua waiting lists. Some people don't even ask for the critters by name, requesting only to see "a Taco Bell kind of dog."

At Pet Love, in the Beverly Center, six of seven Chihuahuas from a recent shipment were sold within a week. They are registered with the American Kennel Club and sell for $1,100 each, says Celerino Evangelista, who works at the store.

"They're cute, have great temperaments and are economical to own," he says. "It's like buying a small car instead of an SUV. They eat little, poop little and you can park them anywhere."

And all it took was two ad guys sitting in a Venice cafe. Or in a Michigan warehouse, depending on whom you believe--litigation is pending on the matter of who came up with the Chihuahua idea. The two-man Wrench Co. of Grand Rapids, Mich., claims it held ongoing talks with Taco Bell last year in an effort to turn its own creation, Psycho Chihuahua, into the fast-food firm's mascot. Taco Bell acknowledges it held discussions with Wrench, but not for that purpose. Two creative directors from Taco Bell's Venice-based ad agency, Chiat / Day, came up with the "Yo Quiero" Chihuahua concept, claims Taco Bell, which is headquartered in Irvine. The company says Clay Williams and Chuck Bennett were at a beach cafe when the sight of a dog on a mission gave them the idea.

Chihuahuas also have Dinky and Gidget to thank. They're the DiCaprio and Winslet of the Chihuahua set, overnight stars of the "Yo Quiero" commercial that was filmed last year in Miami. Dinky also starred in the subsequent El Pollo Loco commercial that spoofed the Taco Bell campaign.

In fact, Dinky and Gidget are such hot dogs these days that neither they, nor the people who surround them, are allowed to talk to the press.

"We are under exclusive contract to Taco Bell. We cannot discuss particulars of the commercials or the specific dogs, their names, weights, ages or anything else," says a good-natured Joel Silverman, dog trainer for Steve Martin's Working Wildlife company in Frazier Park, in Kern County. That's where Dinky and Gidget currently live. Silverman did allow, while talking about employable dogs in general, that the best actors are usually not pure bred, but mixed mutts who would not win any ribbons in American Kennel Club shows. They often come from shelters, he says.

Joe Gherrera, a vice president of El Pollo Loco, on the other hand, is happy to have a Chihuahua chat.

"The Taco Bell dog was too fun of a target to pass up," he says. So the firm's ad agency at the time created an ad in which comedian Paul Rodriguez tells the Cary Grant of Chihuahuas about the dangers of eating too many tacos.

"Ay, ay, ay," the little Sino-Mexican dog replies. "The minute our ad aired, Dinky and Gidget got an exclusive contract from Taco Bell, to keep us and anyone else from getting hold of them again."

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