This month, Consumer Reports magazine rates fast food restaurants, and in the hamburger category, the California-based chain In-N-Out Burger sits at the top. Though I've lived in Los Angeles since graduate school, I've never been in one.
Nor do I intend to.
Therein lies the tale.
But let's go back a bit first.
Ever since my school days, I've had plenty of friends urging me to join them on an In-N-Out run. Who knows why I never did initially? Maybe I didn't like the design, the name, the unfamiliarity, the jingle, I have no idea. There was nothing compelling keeping me away.
Then, I discovered something about the company that did make me hesitant. The company was putting Bible verses at the bottom of soft drink cups and inside burger wrappers. (Not the verse itself, but a pointer to them. For example, Matthew 21:7). I wasn't offended -- hey, it's their store -- just that hiding messages seemed sort of creepy to me. And they themselves clearly recognized that many customers wouldn't like it, otherwise they'd have been upfront, rather than trying to sneak "code" into some crevice underneath the French fries.
But that's not the reason I won't go.
We have to step back again.
I don't celebrate Christmas. It's not my personal faith. But I love the season. Good cheer, fellowship, bright lights. And especially the music.
I've always loved Christmas carols -- not just the secular holiday songs, but even the sacred music. Time was when radio stations played Christmas songs all December to set up the season. Over the past decade or so, however, programming began to change, and although Christmas shopping ads started earlier, Christmas carols were starting later, rarely played regularly until the week before December the 25th.
That wasn't enough Christmas music for my taste, and so for the past 10 years I've been putting together a big collection of Christmas songs. Searching out used record stores, buying CDs, taping off the radio, making MP3 files. And at this point, I've got almost 100 recordings. All so that starting on December 1st, I can start playing Christmas music everywhere. Fa la la! It's wonderful. And by the time Christmas comes, even though it's not something I celebrate, I'm all the more full of the spirit of the season.
And on Christmas Eve, I always seek out one of those radio stations that plays Christmas music for 24 hours "with limited commercial interruption." I let the music play throughout my home (and every year listen to the brilliant BBC recording of "A Christmas Carol" with Sir Ralph Richardson and Paul Scofield -- the best adaptation of the story I know of) and then waft off to sleep with my clock radio on all through the night. No, it's not my personal faith, so it doesn't have that particular meaning for me, but it's lovely music and a joyful lifelong tradition.
Which brings us to The Reason.
I'm guessing you can sense where this is going. But trust me, it's worse.
One Christmas Eve, perhaps 15 years ago, I found one of those All Christmas Music stations. And that particular year, those limited commercials were sponsored by In-N-Out Burgers.
Once an hour, a special holiday commercial would come on. "In-N-Out, In-N-Out, seasons greetings from In-N-Out," followed by a warm greeting by the spokesman, spinning a gentle word of holiday kindness to all. I listened for hours and eventually drifted off the sleep.
In the middle-of-the-night, about 3 AM, I drifted back half-awake, and the radio was of course still playing.
What I also heard was a new In-N-Out Burger ad. And I was soon staring bleary-eyed at the radio. I can only paraphrase from the distance of 15 years, but what I heard was --
"In-N-Out, In-N-Out, seasons greetings from In-N-Out."
"This holiday season, give the greatest gift a person can give. Give the gift of Jesus. Put Jesus in your heart and pass the joy of Jesus Christ to others. Believe in Jesus and bring Him into your life. Merry Christmas from In-N-Out."
"In-N-Out, In-N-Out, seasons greetings from In-N-Out."
And I was now wide awake.
I want to be clear: I think that In-N-Out Burgers has every right to make ads like this. It's their company, it's their belief. They can spread the gospel all they want, and I completely understand.
I just think it's a terrible way to sell hamburgers.
The next day, to make absolutely sure I'd heard the ad correctly, I wrote the radio station. Remarkably, I received a phone call from the station manager, who confirmed it and was mortified, apologizing that the station had only listened to a couple ads, yet approved them all. "We never would have put that ad on had we heard it first," he said.
I also mentioned the ad to a very conservative friend who is a devote Roman Catholic, to get his reaction. And he was extremely upset by it. "This is not how you should sell burgers," he stated. "And this is not how you should promote the Church."
Anyone can feel differently. But this transcends religious belief.
I just personally think it's a terrible way to sell hamburgers.
I don't care how "good" anyone's food is. When I'm eating my burger and fries, I don't want that to come with a side of preaching. I don't want to be sermonized to in a restaurant. That's why God created churches and temples.
Personal belief is one thing, even for a corporation. But honestly, if someone is asking you to patronize their store, asking you to spend your money on their products, then telling these very same potential customers that their personal faith is actually wrong and that they will never be truly happy or ever fulfilled or saved by God Almighty is just, to me, a terrible way to sell hamburgers.
I simply prefer to give my money to businesses that aren't suggesting that I'm probably going to Hell.
Follow Robert J. Elisberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RobertElisberg