Transcript

569:

Put a Bow on It
Transcript

Originally aired 10.09.2015

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/569

Prologue.

Ira Glass

OK. We are so far past this point now, it's hard to remember when the turning point was. But there actually was a turning point, and it was five years ago. What I'm talking about is you know those weird, mashup foods that fast food places keep gleefully launching into the world, like that pizza with the little hot dogs as the crust that Pizza Hut put out. Or Taco Bell did a waffle taco. Denny's put out a grilled cheese sandwich that inside was not just grilled cheese, but also mozzarella sticks inside the sandwich. Hardees put out a burger that had a cheese steak as the topping for the burger. Literally, like slices of steak and cheese and onions were on a burger as the topping.

Anyway, so these Frankenfoods, or food mashups, or extreme foods-- there's no standard term for these yet in the industry-- they've been around for a little while. But there was a turning point. People in the food industry will tell you there was a turning point. There was a real turning point, this moment when they kind of came into their own. And it was five years ago, and it was a sandwich called the Double Down.

KFC put it out. You may remember this. This is the one where fried chicken is the bread of the sandwich with bacon and cheese in between. And with the Double Down, one of the things that made it a turning point was, first of all, how extreme it was. But the other is, I think, it became clear that the food industry was in on the joke. Like, the Double Down, it was self aware of its own ridiculousness.

And whenever I see an ad for one of these things, I've wondered, OK, if these things exist, that means that somewhere, there's a room where people have to make these up and they have to debate, which one are we going to do? Which means that there's a list. And then there are guys sitting around a table. And somebody will bring one up, and they'll say, no, no, no. You know, everybody-- we've done that. Everybody's done-- that's so old. That's tired.

And somebody will bring up another one. They'll be like, sir, you've gone too far. You know, and I just was like-- I just wanted to know, like, what happens in that room? What is that discussion like? And fortunately, I work with somebody who also was interested, and she ran this down. Zoe Chace, welcome to show.

Zoe Chace

Oh hello, Ira.

Ira Glass

Hello. So Zoe, you went to the room where this happens.

Zoe Chace

I did. I went to Saint Louis, Hardee's headquarters. Hardee's is the same company as Carl's Jr. And I brought you back a souvenir, Ira. In fact, there is a list.

Ira Glass

This is of possible sandwiches?

Zoe Chace

This is possible burgers that do not yet exist, that are just in the minds of the people at Hardee's. And they wrote them down on this list.

Ira Glass

How many burgers did they consider?

Zoe Chace

Maybe 200 products.

Ira Glass

Mhm.

Zoe Chace

And before I give you the list, because I know you want the list, I just want to play a little game with you.

Ira Glass

Sure.

Zoe Chace

I'm going to read you two burgers. One of them is from the list. One of them I just made up. See if you can figure out which one is real.

Ira Glass

OK.

Zoe Chace

First, the Napa burger, OK. Caramelized onions, Merlot glaze, arugula. And the Beyonce burger. Honey, and if you like it, you put an onion ring on it.

Ira Glass

If that Beyonce burger thing is real--

Zoe Chace

It's genius.

Ira Glass

That is genius. I just want to say for older people, there's a song by Beyonce, OK?

Zoe Chace

Everybody knows this song. You don't have to explain it to our audience.

Ira Glass

OK. So--

Zoe Chace

So the Napa burger or the Beyonce burger.

Ira Glass

I, mean the Beyonce burger sounds too good to be true. But I have to say the Napa burger, it doesn't sound like you would market a Merlot thing to a fast food customer. It seems like a completely different market, right? Like, somebody who's into Merlot is not at a fast food place buying a burger, I think.

Zoe Chace

Snob.

Ira Glass

OK, fair enough. But I still think that Merlot drinkers are not going to want their fancy Merlot on a fast food burger, so I'm going with the Beyonce burger.

Zoe Chace

No. That is not correct. I made up the Beyonce burger.

Ira Glass

All right. All right.

Zoe Chace

OK. Do you want to do another one?

Ira Glass

One more.

Zoe Chace

OK. All right. These two. 50 shades of pork burger.

[LAUGHTER]

OK.

Ira Glass

OK.

Zoe Chace

The burger itself is 50% pork, 50% patty, bacon aioli and whipped bacon on top. Here's the other burger, a clambake burger. Fried clams, corn salsa, Narragansett lager glaze.

Ira Glass

Well, they both seem totally unlikely. I'm going to go with 50 shades of pork just because the name is so great.

Zoe Chace

That's the one. That one's real.

Ira Glass

OK. So Zoe, so there's this list of all these burgers. They make this list. What happens then?

Zoe Chace

OK. So the next thing is that a team of executives will just vote up or down, simple vote.

Ira Glass

This is just like their feeling about it?

Zoe Chace

This is just based on the name of the burger, like what they think.

Ira Glass

OK.

Zoe Chace

And they whittle the list down to about 30. The next step in the process is maybe the most important because the next step is the taste test. And in the taste test, they make the burgers. They make the burgers that they imagined up in that room.

And a few guys sit down in a room. They eat the sandwiches. They discuss intensely. And they decide which ones will be real, which ones are going to move forward, actually be marketed, released into a few restaurants, tested on actual consumers and maybe go national.

Ira Glass

OK. And so this is the room where they figure out, Zoe, not just what the new foods are going to be but what they're going to call them and what story they're going to tell us to get us to buy them?

Zoe Chace

Yes.

Ira Glass

Because I assume, like a lot of situations-- and this is actually the subject of today's radio show-- so often, what's important is not the literal facts of what's real but how you tell the story, what you say about it. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. We have arrived at Act One of our show, where Zoe, you go to--

Zoe Chace

The room where it happens.

Ira Glass

Tell us everything.

Act One. The Room Where It Happens.

Zoe Chace

First, the room. It's a kitchen, a fast food kitchen, an exact replica of what you'd find at a Hardees-- a charbroiler, a walk-in fridge, a fixing station, fryers.

Brad Haley

Walk-in refrigerators and freezers.

Zoe Chace

In the room are the men-- Brad, Bruce, Mark, and Eric. Brad shows off the kitchen.

Brad Haley

And this is kind of the engine of our restaurants because we charbroil our burgers and chicken sandwiches. So there's a charbroiler here that feeds--

Zoe Chace

Picture a group of slightly nerdy science teachers-- Dockers, short sleeved button-up types. That's what they look like. But these guys are a big deal in their industry. They're trendsetters. For instance, meat as a condiment, these guys made that a thing. Like pastrami on a hamburger, or that cheese steak on top of the burger, that was in the early days of the food mashups.

And Brad helped save another fast food company years ago, Jack in the Box. In 1993, maybe the most famous food poisoning episode in burger history, when E. Coli from Jack in the Box burgers killed four kids. Brad was in charge of the ad campaign that's credited with saving the company.

Brad Haley

We're going to start with breakfast items and get our palate warmed up that way.

Zoe Chace

Today, Brad, Bruce, Mark, and Eric sit together at an industrial table, me too. We each have a place setting and a printed menu.

Brad Haley

We'll start with the cinnamon swirl French toast breakfast sandwich, kind of a sweet and savory combination for breakfast. A steak and egg biscuit after that. A mac and cheese Thickburger. I'm reading this now. Stakehouse Thickburger, big chicken masher, pepperoni pizza fries, and a Ding Dong ice cream sandwich for dessert.

Zoe Chace

And they have to maintain an appetite through the whole thing.

Brad Haley

And the only way we can do it is these cups become very important. We use spit cups. It's like a wine taster or a coffee taster.

Zoe Chace

Except burgers. Just big, plastic to go cups full of chewed up burger. A wrapped up breakfast sandwich then arrives in front of each of us, the steak and egg biscuit.

Brad Haley

Steak and egg biscuit.

Zoe Chace

Bite, chew, spit. The biscuit, I'll say, incredible. Steak and egg, eh. Then, one by one, they each give their opinion.

Man 1

I like the idea of a steak and egg biscuit but I was expecting kind of more of a grill flavor.

Man 2

Visually also, I thought I really wanted to see, like, the charbroiled character. And it looked a little more baked or boiled kind of beef. It didn't have the visual I wanted, so I think we've got some work to do. Mark?

Mark

Yeah, pretty similar.

Zoe Chace

These guys aren't chefs. They're marketers. Their expertise is in, will America actually buy this thing, which is answered in the look as much as the taste. The next sandwich up, it's a large burger.

Brad Haley

Bacon mac and cheese Thickburger. Macaroni and cheese, and bacon bits.

Zoe Chace

Again, chew, spit, talk. It tastes like a bacon cheeseburger, a good one, but it's weird because noodles.

Brad Haley

I'm not sure what to do with this one because it's cheesy, which is really important. You taste the macaroni and cheese. But overall, that's kind of a bland flavor. And if we put other ingredients on it to make it overall more flavorful, I'm a little worried we're going to cover up the mac and cheese because it's a subtle flavor. So I have no good idea for how to fix that. Fun idea, though.

Mark

Same thing. I was struggling with it. I don't know if it's texturally, there's nothing that comes through with the macaroni. There's nothing that just makes it pop.

Zoe Chace

I guess I was just wondering where was the hot sauce.

Brad, Bruce, Mark, and Eric are pensive.

Man 1

The hot sauce idea is kind of interesting.

Man 2

It could actually be like a buffalo mac and cheese would be kind of-- yeah, that would be pretty cool.

Man 1

Tabasco might be too just vinegary, but buffalo might work.

Zoe Chace

I'm stunned listening to this.

Brad Haley

Let's try it.

Man 1

Would we add it as a sauce or would it be blended into the cheese of the mac and cheese?

Man 2

Either way. I think I'd like the visual better if it was added as a sauce because then it would run like streaks through.

Zoe Chace

I am giddy with power, OK. I can't believe what just happened. Eric says he's going to do some more testing, bring the bacon mac and cheese burger back to the group with a buffalo wing sauce.

There are a few reasons that guys like these are churning through these food mashups right now. One big one is fast food is losing market share to places like Chipotle, Panera, more upscale, healthier. So a way for fast food to compete is to go in the other direction-- downscale, greasier, sell to their core customers, 18 to 34-year-old guys. Though industry analysts told me it's nearly as many women as men.

And of course, there's money to be made in selling a sandwich that makes people want to take a picture of themselves while they eat it, but only to a point. The question is, will they eat it twice? The Double Down, you know the one where the chicken is the bun, as groundbreaking as it was, it didn't sell that great after people tried it once. Brad, Bruce, Mark, and Eric say it's too expensive to roll out a new product that you'd never order twice.

Newscaster

This is a taco that's the talk of the town.

Zoe Chace

What they want is something that food industry people say Taco Bell did better than anybody in 2012, when they released that taco whose shell was a Dorito.

Newscaster

It's what one marketing consultant calls a marriage made in belly busting heaven. Doritos, the Super Bowl brand that helped turn America into a nation of chunky chip munchers, providing a nacho cheese flavored shell.

Zoe Chace

The Doritos Locos Taco sold and sold and sold and sold-- $375 million in its first year. This is an amazing year for Taco Bell. Every sandwich that arrives on our plates here in Hardee's test kitchen, that is the goal.

Zoe Chace

All right. What's happening here?

Brad Haley

Eric, tell us what we've got here.

Eric

This is a new sandwich idea.

Zoe Chace

The next sandwich is up.

Eric

It's called Big Chicken Mashers. It's got mashed potatoes and brown gravy on it, some garlic pepper, onion straws, American cheese, and our big chicken filets.

Zoe Chace

You really call it the Masher?

Eric

Well, I don't know.

Man 2

If we can't come up with a name, it's probably not going to sell. We run into that a lot where we have a great product, but what do you do with it?

Man 1

Careful. Hot out of the fryer. Might be [INAUDIBLE].

Zoe Chace

The Big Chicken Masher turns the taste test metaphysical, like actually. The issues that plague the masher are beyond its physical traits, because its physical traits are pretty good.

Man 1

I really like the flavors. It's like eating a Sunday chicken dinner. The mashed potatoes, the gravy goes really well with the flavor of that crispy chicken. I really like the crunchies in there. So I like the product. The idea I'm worried about. I'm not sure there's a market out there for people to eat mashed potatoes on a sandwich. I don't know if we can sell it, but I think anybody who bought it would really like it. But--

Zoe Chace

Would you say more about that? Why?

Man 1

It's not enough for a product to taste good. It has to sound good or you'll never find out that it tastes good.

Brad Haley

It also has to kind of hold together as an idea. It can't just be five ingredients that we put together and it tastes good.

Zoe Chace

What they're looking for is the story they're going to tell to explain why the weirdness makes sense. And it's got to be a pretty good story-- simple, punchy. Half ironic wouldn't hurt. That is just as hard as coming up with the sandwich. Here's an example of when it works. The product is a hamburger topped with a hot dog topped with potato chips. But listen to the story they tell about it.

Man

What's more American than a cheeseburger? This cheeseburger, loaded with a hot dog and potato chips, in the hands of All-American model Samantha Hoopes in a hot tub in a pickup truck driven by an American bull rider on an aircraft carrier under the gaze of Lady Liberty as she admires the most American Thickburger with a split hot dog--

Zoe Chace

It can be really hard to figure out what to say even about a burger that's delicious. And sometimes they get stuck, like when they put pulled pork on a burger-- not the most appetizing picture the way I just described it. And Brad says it didn't test well.

Brad Haley

And we kept trying different names. We had called it the pulled pork burger or the southern burger. And finally, I think Bruce had the idea of calling it the Memphis Barbecue Burger. And we tried that and it worked incredibly well.

Zoe Chace

What do you think it is about the word "Memphis" that's evocative in the way that pulled pork is not?

Brad Haley

I think it made it a bigger story. And Memphis obviously just sounds like they would know barbecue, so it sounded like it was more of a creation.

Zoe Chace

The chicken masher needs that kind of story. Say the mama's chicken sandwich, like a Sunday chicken dinner at grandma's on a farm with a handmade quilt as the tablecloth with a basket of puppies on the table. And you're seven years old again and it's your birthday. And they're considering something like that, but they're cautious. Even the macaroni and cheese burger, they tell me, is an easier sell than the chicken masher.

Brad Haley

Cheese is something that people already are looking for on a burger, that they expect on a burger. We've only thrown one new thing in. Throwing in mashed potatoes and gravy is not something people have really ever seen on a chicken sandwich. So the macaroni is the new part of the macaroni and cheese. The mashed potatoes and gravy is all new.

Zoe Chace

Oh, I see. The leap is greater, you think, for the person getting the sandwich.

Brad Haley

The leap is greater.

Zoe Chace

Mashed potatoes goes too far. Note: At this stage in this kitchen, there are no consumer surveys, no charts in front of them, no research, just gut. They just have a feeling people will be weirded out. And that feeling is built into this process.

What happens next is more data driven. They test some of the sandwiches in a dozen restaurants, put up all the advertising like it's a national rollout, then survey everyone who orders one. But that's in the future. For now, it's Brad, Bruce, Mark, and Eric just geeking out here in the room where it happens. It's like somebody playing you their favorite songs.

Eric

Brad came up with this one. It tastes like-- well, see what you think, but it tastes like a pepperoni pizza with a French fry crust, which is kind of like two wonderful things coming together.

Zoe Chace

The guys seem to like it. I don't. I'm like, why bathe fries in marinara? Why macaroni and cheese yes and mashed potatoes no? There is no answer. There's mystery. It's just a feeling.

Ira Glass

Zoe Chace is one of the producers of our show.

[MUSIC - "THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENS" BY LESLIE ODOM, JR., LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA, DAVEED DIGGS, ORIERIETE ONAODOWAN, AND ORIGINAL BROADWAY CAST OF HAMILTON]

Act Two. The Wedding Crasher.

Ira Glass

Act Two, the wedding crasher. So today's program is about situations where the facts are not enough by themselves. You need to still figure out what story best goes with those facts. So the ad about your new fast food burger is as important as the ingredients. Well, Ahamefule Oluo has been puzzling over how to tell one story for a lot of his life. It's the story of a stranger who also is his dad.

Ahamefule Oluo

I always say that I've never met my father, but that's not really true. I once spent an entire month with him. Unfortunately, it was the first month of my life, and I was too busy chewing on my own fist to make the most out of this quality time.

My parents had been together seven years when my father went home to visit his family in Nigeria and didn't come back. He had come to the United States to go to college. As soon as he got here, he met my mom, a white lady from Wichita. They got married, had two kids. And then, two months after he graduated with his doctorate and one month after I was born, he was gone, continents away. And he never saw his wife and kids ever again.

Growing up, I knew a lot of other kids whose dads weren't around, but I had nothing in common with them. Their dads were deadbeats. Mine was a powerful African chief who was going to return any day to save us. I knew this because that's what my mom told me all the time. Of course, my mom didn't know he wasn't coming back. So to prepare for his return, she raised us to be Nigerian, or as Nigerian as a sheltered white woman from Kansas could.

Our comfort food was jollof rice, fufu, and egusi soup. When I got in trouble, my mom would yell, [NIGERIAN], which my older sister and I understood as Nigerian for "Watch out. Mom's pissed." And then mom would say, "Your father would never let you get away with that." She talked about him like he was still our dad, like he was a presence instead of an absence.

My mom always refers to her years with my father as the best time of her life. They lived in a small African immigrant community in Texas. My mom dove head first into Nigerian life. She wore a traditional wrap and prepared feasts with the other women. My dad was in fact a chief, which is an honorary title. In practice, it meant my mom and dad were often invited to weddings as the guests of honor. And he'd pull out some crazy jewelry for the occasion and give a toast. He was always great at giving toasts. She told me my dad had a commanding presence that could make a room go silent.

The way she described it, it was paradise. Everyone took care of one another. If you didn't have any food, you could just go to your neighbor's apartment and they would feed you, no questions asked, which sounded great to me when I was a kid because we often didn't have food. My mom did everything she could-- manual labor, odd jobs. But it was just so much for her to bear on her own. At night, she would lock herself in her room and cry. My sister and I could hear it, but no one talked about it. When our electricity or our phone would get cut off, my mom would say something like, things will be different when your dad comes back, or we won't have to worry about this when we move to Nigeria.

I wanted to be Nigerian like my dad. Anytime I would do a geography report in school, it was always on Nigeria. Until the second grade, everyone I knew, including my family, called me by my middle name, Joe. It was the only name I'd ever known. When I learned that my actual first name was Ahamefule, a Nigerian name, I immediately made an executive decision that I never wanted anyone to call me Joe ever again. My grandparents thought it was a phase. It wasn't.

It went beyond the name. I wanted to look Nigerian. Unfortunately, I didn't really know what Nigerians looked like and Google Images didn't exist at the time. So my school photos are basically a 10-year-old's best guess-- a weird hat, a colorful print shirt, a shark tooth necklace. Why not? Nigeria's by the ocean, right?

Years passed. He never called. He never wrote a single letter. My mom started talking about my dad less and less until she didn't really talk about him at all anymore. Looking back on it now, I'm sure she gave up hope he'd ever return, and it got too embarrassing to pretend he would. There was no moment when we decided as a family to face the facts, and she never divorced him. She never said a negative word about him.

In my teenage years, I put away the African hat. It felt like I'd been wearing a birthday hat to a party that no one else showed up to. Up to this point, I had wholeheartedly embraced my mother's story about my dad. But now I started considering alternatives.

My mom's parents never liked my dad. They were convinced that this was purely a green card marriage, an elaborate plot to take advantage of their young and innocent daughter. My sister, who's just a year older than me, never bought my mom's story about my dad either. She acted like he didn't exist. I tried to do the same.

And then, when I was 16, my dad sent us a letter. The letter was addressed to my sister Ijeoma and me from the Honorable Chief Dr. Samuel Oluo. In it, he expressed how excited he was to finally find us. We weren't hiding. And he included his telephone number in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

Our father talked to Ijeoma first. She told him how excited she was to start college in the fall. She was going to study political science, just like he did. She told him about her job at the bookstore. They talked for about 20 minutes, and then it was my turn.

My hands shook as I clutched the large, black, cordless telephone. Hello, I said. "Ahamefule," he shouted, loud and distorted by the terrible connection. "It is so great to hear your voice. I have missed you so very much. Tell me about yourself. What do you want to be when you grow up?"

Well, I replied, I'm already doing what I want to do when I grow up. I'm a musician. I play the trumpet. I'm already starting to get paid and everything. The line went silent. "No, no. That is not good. I do not approve. You need to do something more sensible. Musician is not a job. You can't support a family with musician."

My eyes welled with tears. "Can you put Ijeoma back on the phone," he said, sounding resigned. I handed her the telephone, walked into the kitchen, and poured myself a glass of water.

I was done. What kind of person did this to their family? A bad person, that's what kind. I hated him. He tried to call a couple more times, but I didn't answer. And then he stopped calling.

After this, I started to look at my mom with pity. How did she get duped that bad? It's so humiliating. And how could she drag me into her delusions like that? I wasn't going to let myself be like her anymore. I got closer to my sister. A year later, I moved out of the house. I was 17. I moved on with my life.

Eight years passed. On Tuesday February 21, 2006, I received a phone call from a Nigerian half brother I'd never met informing me that our father had died. We only spoke on the phone for a few moments. The connection was terrible. I remember that I was wearing a yellow shirt, which seemed like a ridiculous color for the occasion.

I felt so stupid for crying that it made me cry more. The only solace I had is that I knew that this was going to be the last time. It was over. The nail was literally in the coffin, or whatever people in Nigeria are buried in. And just like that, I turned the corner from I've never met my father to I will never meet my father. The story was final. It had a beginning, a middle, and now an end. He was a father who had abandoned his children forever.

I got married this past July. It was a small ceremony at a cabin outside of Seattle. We worked hard to cull the guest list down to a manageable number. On the day, there was only one person who showed up uninvited. He was someone I had never met, my Nigerian half-brother Basil, the one who had called me nine years earlier to tell me about our father's death. I had no idea he even knew I was getting married, yet there he was in the woods in America, insisting from the moment he arrived that he needed to give a toast. Because it's a wedding, we have it on video.

Basil

I'm glad that I'm here to see this day. I'm glad that Aham and Ijeoma have grown to be so beautiful and so intelligent.

Ahamefule Oluo

It was like he was speaking to us on behalf of our father.

Basil

I assure you that the family back home in Africa is so proud of you. And they left me a message, which is to tell you that whatever it is you've lost, whatever emotional damages you've suffered, we're going to make sure you get all of it back.

Ahamefule Oluo

I had no idea where this was going. And then, Basil said he wanted to clear something up about my parents' marriage.

Basil

Everyone would know that that marriage was real. It was never a green card marriage and it would never be a green card marriage because he has a green card.

[LAUGHTER]

Ahamefule Oluo

I can't explain how bizarre this felt to hear my long lost Nigerian brother talking at my wedding about my mother's marriage to our dead father. Nobody quite knew how to react. Mostly, people laughed. My mom was standing to my left. She was bawling. He was saying her marriage was real. It was what she had said all along.

Basil was staying for five weeks, and he was staying at my house, both facts I was unaware of until he got here. He came with giant bags of gifts from Nigeria-- native instruments, handmade clothing, jewelry, and even antiques from our family's village. He was on a heartfelt mission. His mom had been begging him for years to put the family back together.

And more than anything, he wanted us to get to know each other. He told me that he wanted to go everywhere that I went. He came with me when I ran errands. He even came to my business meetings. I make my living as a musician, and while he was here, I was playing trumpet in a play. Basil went to the play three nights in a row. He said he loved it. He said my dad would have loved it, too.

We talked for hours every day, a lot about our dad. As far as I knew, Ijeoma and I had been basically forgotten decades ago, tossed aside and never spoken about again. But Basil still says that wasn't true. According to Basil, my father had baby pictures of me and Ijeoma hanging in his house, and not just baby pictures. Later, he had photos of me as an adult with my two daughters that he printed from MySpace. I didn't even know that he knew he had grandkids in America.

He told everyone in Nigeria about us. He told them my mom was an amazing woman and he couldn't wait for everyone to meet her. He even had property set aside to build a house for us. There was a whole plan. He would get elected to political office, start making money, and then send for us.

And at first, his plan was working. My father was elected to state office right after he got back to Nigeria, but then was deposed in a military coup after only months. Basil said he had bad luck his entire career. He was always struggling financially. Basil was saying our dad really wanted to bring us to Nigeria. I asked him if I could record us talking about this just-- I don't know-- to get it on the record. When we sat down, he told me that people in Nigeria knew our dad abandoned us, and it was the source of his biggest shame. He always planned to fix it.

Basil

I think he kept thinking that there will be a time when everything would be fine, and then everyone will be together again. Unfortunately, it's not working.

Ahamefule Oluo

Basil is only 11 months younger than me. And if you remember that I was one month old when my father left, you already know the first thing he did when he got back to Nigeria. Basil told me that my dad had 12 kids, a few of them older than me and my sister, which means he deserted their family to start ours. My father didn't have a great relationship with most of his children, but Basil said it was different. The culture is different. Polygamy is normal, and children don't have the same expectations of their fathers.

Basil

You don't blame him so much. The African society doesn't actually demand as much fatherhood as the Western culture does demand. You could have kids and be caring in the African sense, but in the Western sense be absolutely nowhere.

Ahamefule Oluo

Still, Basil was deeply hurt that our father wasn't around for him. He refused to call him dad. He calls him Sam. But like me, Basil was obsessed with him growing up. Even though he wasn't a great dad, Basil says he was a really great guy. My dad went back to his village to visit his mom every single weekend, even in terrible weather. Apparently, he helped a lot of young people get into college. He cared about his community. He was genuinely dedicated, an incorruptible politician in the most corrupt country on earth.

It was really difficult for me listening to my brother talk about all the great things our father did for other people. Why couldn't he have been dedicated to us? I swung back and forth between sympathy and anger. I couldn't stop thinking about him. When I woke up, when I went to bed, when I was on stage playing the trumpet, he was still on my mind.

Were my mom and Basil right? Was he this fantastic guy? Or was he a deadbeat who didn't really care about his own kids? I decided to get everyone together-- my brother, my mom, and my sister Ijeoma. We met at my mom's one bedroom apartment. She made Nigerian shrimp and rice, and then we sat down in a circle in the living room.

Ijeoma Oluo

So anyway.

Ahamefule Oluo

Thank you, everyone, for coming here.

Ijeoma Oluo

Yes.

Ahamefule Oluo

My mom said you couldn't imagine what this meant to her. She and Basil had been talking, and she was so happy to hear that she was right all those years, that our dad had missed us.

Mrs. Oluo

Well, I made up my own little story. And my own story was actually probably pretty close to actually what it was. And that was that he had so many responsibilities back home. And that was my belief. And that he knew I'd be fine with my family here and that his family back home wouldn't be. And that's what I had in my head.

Ahamefule Oluo

But in a lot of ways, we weren't fine, though.

Mrs. Oluo

No, I know.

Ahamefule Oluo

But I mean, in terms of--

Mrs. Oluo

But, I mean, that's what he thought I thought. You know, I thought he thought that.

Ahamefule Oluo

You thought that he thought that you were--

Mrs. Oluo

Yeah. Yeah. And back then, my mom and dad were making really good money. And I thought maybe he thought that they would take care of us and not know that we were desperately poor five different ways.

Ahamefule Oluo

I remember when we were so poor, I remember thinking, I wonder if my dad knows how poor we are?

Mrs. Oluo

Yeah. I've thought that, too.

Ahamefule Oluo

And if that would make any difference.

Basil

Well, who knows, because everyone back home, too, believes that you guys are doing fine.

Mrs. Oluo

Yeah.

Ahamefule Oluo

He says everyone back home believes you're doing fine. Basil says that if our dad had known, that would have made a difference, just as my mom always believed it would. He would have figured out a way to help. And if he was alive today, he would have wanted to come to my wedding to visit us.

Basil

He would have wanted to come.

Ijeoma Oluo

Well, I'm glad that you came instead of him.

Ahamefule Oluo

That's my sister Ijeoma. She says our dad visiting may have helped me and my mom, but not her.

Ijeoma Oluo

But you being here means a lot. You aren't our dad and you weren't his mistakes. You aren't any of that. You're just our brother, so I'm glad that you came.

Basil

Sam would have made you think otherwise.

Ahamefule Oluo

Basil says Sam, our dad, would have made you think otherwise.

Ijeoma Oluo

You know, I've talked to him.

Basil

He's not about-- I know that man, you know. He's very forceful.

Ahamefule Oluo

He's very forceful. Basically, he would have won you over. My mom is nodding enthusiastically.

Mrs. Oluo

Yeah.

Basil

He knows how to get at things.

Mrs. Oluo

Don't you see him in her?

Basil

That's-- you know, you just say all of this--

Mrs. Oluo

She doesn't know it.

Basil

You just say all of this because he's not here. If he had come, no. My goodness.

Ijeoma Oluo

I think the thing, though, Basil, I don't think you understand what it's like watching the people you love most in the world go through so much pain because of someone who's not here. And that was my only wound. I never felt like I wish I had a dad, never. I don't think I ever thought that to myself. I never thought, I wish I had a dad. What I remember thinking was, I wish my mom wasn't so heartbroken all the time and crying all the time, and I wish that she was happy and I wish she saw how--

Mrs. Oluo

Yeah, but that's because you didn't know him.

Ijeoma Oluo

No, but mom, no--

Mrs. Oluo

Wait, wait, wait. Let me just say what I want to say, and that is put yourself back in the '70s in Denton, Texas.

Ahamefule Oluo

This is a story my mom loves to tell about my dad, how he won over everyone in their small white town with his charm, how he got them all to celebrate Nigerian Independence Day.

Mrs. Oluo

Everybody was just, you know, amazed at what he created. He had that whole entire town.

Ijeoma Oluo

I don't know what that has to do with what I was talking about.

Mrs. Oluo

He was an amazing man.

Ijeoma Oluo

He was an amazing man who left his kids and sent two letters in 30 years.

Mrs. Oluo

I know. I know.

Ijeoma Oluo

So for me--

Mrs. Oluo

I know, but see, that's what I have.

Ijeoma Oluo

But what-- I know. And that's your truth.

Mrs. Oluo

But, I mean, that's why I grieved. That's why--

Ijeoma Oluo

Yeah, I know. But I feel like this is-- maybe this is why I'm not good at these sorts of conversations in groups because I feel like everybody tries to make their personal reality everyone else's reality. And for me--

Mrs. Oluo

No, I don't.

Ijeoma Oluo

--it doesn't mean anything to me what type of person he is because he had no part in raising me, no part at all of anything. He was a detriment to my upbringing. And I don't want anyone to push him on me.

Mrs. Oluo

Yeah, no.

Ijeoma Oluo

I don't want to think anything about him because he chose not to be here. You're my brother because you're here and you're being my brother. You're my brother.

Ahamefule Oluo

It's hard to argue with that. I feel the same. What use is an amazing man that didn't want you? Basil listens carefully to Ijeoma.

Basil

Everyone, you know, has the right to feel--

Mrs. Oluo

They do.

Basil

--as they feel right now. But I tell you, if Sam was here today, you probably would have been mad at him for one week, two weeks, or three weeks. He would have found his way into your heart. That's the truth.

Ahamefule Oluo

That's his truth, and my mom's too, but not Ijeoma's. And I'm as confused as ever. The only thing that's very clear to me now is I'm not going to get my answers from them.

A few days after the conversation, I was driving out to a portrait studio in the suburbs. My mom had been saving a coupon for half off a family portrait, and she wanted to use it to get a picture with all of us wearing the traditional clothing Basil brought from Nigeria. Everyone was there-- my mom, my siblings, Ijeoma's two sons, my two daughters. It was the day before Basil's plane back to Nigeria.

The whole family took turns changing in the bathroom, safety pinning what wouldn't fit. My daughters and my nephews were playing around in the bright, colorful clothes of their ancestors, running and laughing, hitting each other on the head with ceremonial fly whisks. I was sitting in the corner, watching it all, still thinking about my dad. Hearing so much about him from Basil, what he was like as a real person, the ups and downs of his life, all the weekends he went back to his village, every young person he helped out. He had so long to fix things with us but he didn't. Every day was a new opportunity and he passed them all by until there were none left.

I looked around me at my family, and I felt something I had never felt before. I felt pity for him. He never learned to be a father. He never got what I have now. I can't imagine never seeing my kids again. It would ruin my life. All he had were photos printed from the internet. I get the photos and the real family.

[MUSIC - "FILL THE VOID" BY THE NOTHING AND THE GOLDENHORN]

Ira Glass

Ahamefule Oluo is a musician and writer in Seattle. He's written a musical about his dad called Now I'm Fine. It's going to be at Under the Radar Festival at the Public Theater in New York this coming January.

Coming up, what should Volkswagen's new slogan be? OK, I have a suggestion. My suggestion, "never again." And every ad executive we ran that idea by before this week's show hated that idea. What they suggested instead in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Three. Drivers Wanted. Really Really Wanted.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, "Put a Bow on It." Each of our acts today is about a group of people who are trying to figure out not just the facts of a situation, but what story to tell-- to tell themselves, to tell others-- about it.

We've arrived at Act Three of our show. Act three, drivers wanted-- really, really wanted. So this thing occurred to all of us here when we were putting together today's radio show. You remember back in Act One, Zoe Chace talked to that guy Brad Haley, who was in charge of marketing in an old job for Jack in the Box back when four children died from E. coli. People stopped going to Jack in the Box and they had to create an ad campaign to turn things around, get the public's trust back.

Well, here around our office for weeks now, Zoe has been obsessed with another company, Volkswagen, that of course has been in the middle of a giant PR crisis ever since the revelation that they had been lying to consumers and cheating emission standards for years. And Zoe and all of us here when we heard about the Jack in the Box campaign when she was researching that story, we wondered, what kind of ad could VW do? What could VW possibly say right now to make us trust them again?

And so Zoe called that guy, Brad Haley, whose marketing brought back Jack in the Box from the edge to see what kind of advice he would give to VW. And she called his peers, other advertising people at other agencies, to find out what kind of ads they would make if VW were their client. Several of them actually went to the trouble to make ads for us, which Zoe has for you now. Full disclosure before we start, Volkswagen was once an underwriter, a sponsor, here on our program years ago. Anyway, here's Zoe again.

Zoe Chace

The first thing Brad Haley told me when I got him on the phone is that ads can only do so much. He says to change how people feel about your company, to change your image, that takes time. They didn't have that luxury back then.

Brad Haley

In our experience at Jack in the Box, I think we didn't have a lot of time because sales had been so horrifically damaged that I think the brand's survival was at stake.

Zoe Chace

So at first, they just cut prices to get people to come into their stores, no matter how afraid people were of being poisoned.

Brad Haley

We ran actually very aggressive deals to get people to come back. There was a deal called the Big Deal, I think it was. I remember it was a small hamburger, taco, fry, and a drink for $0.99. People still tell me that they remember getting that deal when they were in college when they were poor students. And that seemed to do a lot of the work. That got a lot of people back in the restaurant.

Zoe Chace

And then to change people's feelings about Jack in the Box, they did create an ad campaign, a famously successful one. The guy who came up with the idea for the ads and wrote them is Rick Sittig. He owns the ad agency Secret Weapon Marketing. He also came up with the Energizer bunny. So here's how he diagnoses the situation for Volkswagen right now.

Rick Sittig

They're screwed because they have abused their customers' trust. And it takes a brand decades to win people over. There's no empathy out there for them.

Zoe Chace

Back when Jack in the Box was in a similar situation, here's what Rick did. He says he knew people were looking for accountability.

Rick Sittig

They want someone to pay for the mistake, and some head needs to roll. And it can either be real or it can be symbolic.

Zoe Chace

So in the first spot in this ad campaign, a big headed clown in a business suit walks into the headquarters of Jack in the Box. He says he's the original founder of the company who had been forced out a long time ago.

Jack

Hello. I'm Jack, founder of Jack in the Box. Perhaps you remember when I was fired.

Zoe Chace

Yes, Rick is the voice of Jack.

Jack

Today, I'm back, and ready to make Jack in the Box better than ever.

Zoe Chace

Then, Jack explodes the boardroom, a room full of the old Jack in the Box management. Never does the clown say, sorry for all the E. coli that happened. He just says he's in control now and moves on-- not that this really happened in the real world. Jack in the Box did not fire their entire management team. They did make some big changes, like they totally revamped their food safety system.

Rick Sittig

So that was happening in the real world. And then symbolically, in the advertising world, they were under new management. And the new guy with the big head came in. And he was funny and charming. And everybody sort of forgot about the tragedy, and we were all moving on.

[KNOCKING]

Brad

Did I win something?

Jack

My sources tell me you've been calling Jack in the Box "Junk in the Box."

Brad

So?

Jack

I take these things personally, Brad.

Brad

Get lost.

Jack

Sure. Just try my food, apologize, and I'll go.

Brad

I said beat it, clown.

Jack

Listen, punk. I've spent millions of dollars improving my kitchens to make our best burgers ever.

Brad

You're psycho!

Zoe Chace

Note that the customer apologizes to the company, not the other way around. That is how diabolical these ads are. And it worked. The number of Jack in the Box restaurants almost doubled in the years that this campaign was running.

Zoe Chace

So Volkswagen, is there an advertising campaign that could maybe help them out?

Rick Sittig

I only have one idea, and it's always blowing up people in a boardroom.

Zoe Chace

Rick actually doesn't want to give a new campaign to Volkswagen because Honda car dealers are a client of his, so they're a competitor. But three other ad agencies were up for making the next ad for Volkswagen. And calling around, I learned that for ad agencies, this is personal in a way I had no idea about. The reason they care so much is this magazine ad from 1959.

Kirk Souder

Here comes this little kind of ugly car, and when a culture is screaming think big, everything was about bigger and more. And it takes this ad, puts the car really small in the corner surrounded by an immense amount of white space, and just says Think Small.

Zoe Chace

Kirk Souder is co-founder of creative agency Enso. He studied this ad in school and the lemon ad that came after. Everybody does. Kirk's agency specializes in doing campaigns that make companies look like they care about the world. When a Fortune 500 company sponsors an educational program or throws its weight behind a small business, these guys might be responsible.

Kirk is a sincere guy-- California crunchy optimistic about the world. He says it's not enough for VW to just apologize. They've got to use their folly to actively make the world better. Even before that, Kirk suggests opening up VW to some kind of third party.

Kirk Souder

You know, an investigative documentarian group, like a Frontline or an Alex Gibney who can come in with the charge of discovering what happens in a company that actually leads to this type of gross infraction.

Zoe Chace

Kirk went ahead and made a promo for this imaginary documentary.

Man

A new series from Alex Gibney, the director of The Smartest Guys in the Room, Coming Clean, Inside Volkswagen.

Man

My most urgent task is to win back trust.

Man

This is the story of one of the largest frauds in history, the struggle of an iconic auto company to reinvent itself.

Zoe Chace

In today's advertising world, you might call this sponsored content, journalism style reckoning funded by Volkswagen.

Man

With unprecedented and unlimited access from Volkswagen, we get to the bottom of what happened to learn from what went wrong so it will never happen again, and to create new standards for all business. Coming Clean, Inside Volkswagen.

Zoe Chace

Next, we went to the ad agency M&C Saatchi, Maria Smith and James Bray. Saatchi works with all sorts of brands you've heard of-- Lexus, HBO. But Maria and James in particular focus on companies that are like underdogs in the market-- Yahoo, Uggs for men. And like other ad people I talked to, they're like, aw, Volkswagen.

Maria Smith

Da, da, da. Do you remember that? Just really nice little slices of life.

Zoe Chace

Their advice to Volkswagen is also pretty somber.

Maria Smith

Just shut up. Just be quiet. Stop making excuses. And just start listening to the conversations that are happening out there.

Zoe Chace

Volkswagen can't speak, Saatchi says. No one would believe them anyway. Maria and James think you've got to crowd source the fix. Build a website. Let people vote on how VW can atone for their sins. For instance, plant 100,000 trees, or fund research to fix the ozone.

Woman

Imagine if a company like Volkswagen let you decide its fate, not lawyers or legislators, not politicians or lobbyists. You, drivers and passengers, environmentalists, mothers, fans, skeptics, anyone who's listening to this right now, everyone who feels betrayed.

Zoe Chace

Advertising has changed, these guys say. Today, it basically means jumping into what's already happening in social media and being part of that conversation, whatever it is.

James Bray

You'll hear this a lot, but brands are no longer what brands say they are. Whatever those people are out there saying about your brand is what you are. So this idea was to actually embrace that.

Zoe Chace

I've got to say, like, the internet is so scary. People could be so mean to them. Do you think that you might be, like, throwing this company to the wolves?

James Bray

Yes. Did they deserve to be? Yes. For a company that's willing to be thrown to the wolves like that, suddenly we all find them approachable again.

Zoe Chace

So you think even watching them get beat up--

James Bray

I don't think our intention is to get them beat up. I think it'll be smarter than that. I think the way we can filter suggestions out, we can make sure of that. But we also don't want to sugarcoat it, you know?

Woman

It's what you'd do if you really wanted to make things better. That's why we're doing it. We want to make Volkswagen better. So make your voice heard at makeitbettervw.com. You've seen us at our worst. Now tell us with your vote how we can live up to our best. You vote. We'll listen.

Zoe Chace

All the ad agencies I talked to said that in order to get credibility back, Volkswagen first has to make something that is not a car, like a documentary, a code of ethics, or a website, some sort of grand gesture, like this idea from our last ad guy, Rich Silverstein from Goodby, Silverstein, and Partners, the agency who made Got Milk.

Rich Silverstein

People come to advertising agencies when they're desperate. They don't have an answer. So why don't you coat it with some honey?

Zoe Chace

And you just tried to think of the most amount of honey you possibly could.

Rich Silverstein

I wanted to pour that honey all over that diesel engine.

Zoe Chace

Here's the honey. Move the VW headquarters to Detroit, the bleeding heart of the American auto industry. Then run an ad that's big and splashy and unapologetically American.

Rich Silverstein

The entire cast of Hamilton would be walking down Eight Mile at night. It would be sexier. We'll wet the road down. It's always sexy when you do that.

Zoe Chace

When the road is wet?

Rich Silverstein

When you shoot car commercials, you always wet the road down so it glistens. Come on. Anything looks better when it's glossy. And so you wet the road down, and they're shining. And they're walking towards us. And they're singing. And in the background, the beat of it will be sampled, we totally screwed up, actually from the CEO who said it.

Man

Volkswagen is sorry. We have totally screwed up.

Man

We the people's wagon, in order to build a more perfect engine, establish trust and ensure our company's tranquility, provide for our defense.

Rich Silverstein

The cast from Hamilton will be using the United States preamble. I'm thinking, anyway. We're working on this now. Jeez.

Man

--fictious emissions. We lied. They were 40% higher than the [BLEEP] we submitted. And we admit our decision was whack and lacking the vision, but at least we engineered that software with exquisite precision. Yo, I'm kidding and it's time for us--

Rich Silverstein

And it will kind of go to the defense that if we come to America, we'll fix everything and you'll buy our cars again.

Man

Honestly, we've got a lot to offer the US economy. Imagine German engineers in the land of the free.

Man

(GERMAN ACCENT) Wait. Are you suggesting we move the entire VW company to--

Man

That's right. Detroit.

Zoe Chace

We reached out to Volkswagen and to the ad agency that has the Volkswagen account. They declined to talk to us. But I did run the three ad ideas by Brad and Rick, the guys who turned Jack in the Box around with their marketing campaign, to see which ad they think would work the best. Brad likes the voting one. He says millennials like being a part of things. And he's got a campaign like that in the works for his company Hardee's. Rick kind of likes the documentary idea because he thinks the most important thing to do now is an investigation.

Rick Sittig

The people who did this are going to have to be identified and terminated publicly. Kurt and Gerhardt and Wilhelm and Heinrich, or whoever they are, they're going to have to be sacrificed because Volkswagen needs to live on.

Zoe Chace

And they have to move fast. Their brand is being defined by everybody else right now. Rick thinks they can't be off the air for more than a couple months. This is no time to think small.

Ira Glass

Zoe Chace.

[MUSIC - "WHAT CAN I SAY AFTER I SAY I'M SORRY?" BY DINAH WASHINGTON]

Well, our program was produced today by Jonathan Menjivar with Sean Cole, Neil Drumming, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, Miki Meek, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our editor is Joel Lovell. Julie Snyder is our editorial consultant. Production help from Lily Sullivan. Seth Lind is our operations director. Emily Condon's our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our business operations manager. Elna Baker scouts stories for our show. Kimberly Henderson is our office coordinator. Research help today from Michelle Harris and Christopher Swetala. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, whenever we go out and get drinks, he always says to me, you talk enough on the radio. But here--

Maria Smith

Just shut up. Just be quiet.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "WHAT CAN I SAY AFTER I SAY I'M SORRY?" BY DINAH WASHINGTON]