With the presidential election past, it may become the hottest debate of the next few months: Should the Big Boy follow Speedy Alka-Seltzer into the corporate-symbol retirement home?
Or should a spiffed-up Big Boy, shorn of his high pompadour and changed out of his checkerboard pants and into something a bit more current, continue to stand tall in front of the nation's 836 Big Boy restaurants?
The decision may be yours, just as it was Nov. 6.
Marriott Corp. hopes you'll decide to intervene in their decision on Big Boy's fate. The franchisor of Big Boy restaurants (locally, they're called Bob's Big Boys, elsewhere they carry other first names, depending on the franchisee) has decided that, rather than make the hard corporate choice about whether to can the chubby cherub or just send him in for an Elizabeth Arden makeover, it's going to let the public decide.
Sure, it's a publicity stunt, but who cares? People have been driving by the big Big Boys outside those restaurants for years, and a radical change could be jarring -- kind of like McDonald's painting the Golden Arches purple. Or maybe not. Ayway, why shouldn't the public get a chance to decide -- especially if Marriott sells a few more burgers in the process?
Marriott is "reevaluating" Big Boy because the little guy just doesn't seem to quite convey the image the company wants for its Big Boy restaurants these days.
You see, Marriott is in the process of a makeover of its own. It's been upgrading Big Boys from something just this side of roadside hamburger joints to something a little more fancy, They've beefed down menus, toned down the decor and gone for more of a fern bar effect.
So it doesn't take much imagination to picture what the current Big Boy would look like standing in, or at least in front of, a fern bar full of well-dressed, upscale -- nay, Yuppie -- patrons.
"He is somewhat old-fashioned looking," says Vince Webb, director of marketing for the East Coast Big Boys and the brains behind the Big Boy promotion. "Teens, we find, are somewhat disdainful of him -- he's not cool."
The question, Webb explains, is, "Does the symbol stand for the type of restaurant Marriott wants ? Does he say light, airy, greeny? Or does he have hamburger written all over him?"
Okay, all those who think "hamburger," raise your hands.
"We wanted to come up with a very unique and compelling way of telling people that we've changed," Webb says. "So we said, let's use the Big Boy character as a symbol of change."
Of such notions great publicity stunts are born. So far, the company is distributing "Should he stay or should he go?" placemats, hats and other materials to the restaurants, and running a television commercial in which "Mr. Big" says the Big Boy has to go. It is not clear whether Mr. Big and the Big Boy are related.
So far, the Big Boy's future is being debated only in Washington, Baltimore and Cleveland, but Webb expects that it eventually will become a national issue as other Big Boy franchisees pick up the campaign.
Since Marriott has just started fanning the flames that eventually could consume the Big Boy, the company isn't sure yet how it will proceed with the promotion. But it's going to let the public make the ultimate decision. "We know that we're going to get into a vote at this point," Webb says. "We're going to let consumers vote and we're going to abide by that vote."
Naturally, there are some problems with these big-time publicity stunts. "Most of our banners have been stolen from the restaurants and are decorating University of Maryland fraternity houses," Webb says. "It's touching, in a way, but it's expensive."
Of course, if the Big Boy is to be a symbol of change, Marriott has to come up with something for him to change into -- although he might just go away entirely. After all, Saturday Night Live boiled one of its standing jokes, Larry the Lobster, a few seasons back after the crustacean came out on the wrong end of an audience vote. Marriott may be trying to dump its chubby checkerboard, but the company isn't quite so inhumane about these things. "If the Big Boy were to go, we would not shoot him, kill him and send him away," Webb says. "We would simply phase him out."
More likely, the Big Boy will simply be updated. First created in 1936 (and corporate symbols are not born, they are created), the Big Boy last had a full-scale refurbishing back in 1954, which pretty much accounts for his looks. At some point within the past few years, the hamburger he was holding disappeared -- even then Marriott knew the Big Boy image was changing -- and he adopted a suspender-popping, chest-out stance. But that still ain't the '80s.
So Marriott, with the help of one of the high-priced corporate-symbol design outfits, has begun thinking about some more contemporary looks for the Big Boy.
The one where he wears a single silver glove was ruled out almost immediately. But something out of the Preppy Handbook? Now that's a possibility.
Webb reveals that designs on Marriott's drawing boards include a Big Boy with blow-dried hair and khaki pants, if not a madras shirt. But it's just not the same.
"When you make him a preppy, a Yuppie-looking guy, you've got to get rid of the checkerboard, slim him down a little bit," Webb says. "When you do that, you lose a little something. . . . What we end up with is a normal-looking person standing there."
That would not do. The Big Boy may look odd, but at least he's unique. And as a symbol of change, he's supposed to change for the better.
It all gets kind of frustrating at times, Webb allows, and there have been thoughts of a compromise solution. Why update him from the 1950s to the 1980s? Why not just stop somewhere in the middle? "You could put him in a leisure suit so you don't jump right to the '80s," Webb says. "You stick him in the '70s and leave him there for a decade or so."
The Big Boy in a leisure suit? No way.
And so, the search for a better Big Boy might wind up with the old Big Boy, Webb hints. If college kids are stealing the promotional banners, how much longer can it be before the Big Boy joins the Three Stooges and Jim Morrison as a cult hero? And can Big Boy chic be far behind? The garment industry may soon be scrambling to put Americans into designer checkerboard jeans and Big Boy T-shirts.
But that's the future. First, America must decide whether the Big Boy should stay or go, or at least update his wardrobe.
Bone up on the issues, read the speeches, make a logical choice. Vote early, as they say, and vote often. You can save the Big Boy.
Or you can turn the page.