The Taco Bell dog, Gidget, was a 12-pound Chihuahua that was in the right place at the right time to become a big star.
Sue Chipperton, an animal trainer with Studio Animal Services, a company that provides all types of animals for the entertainment industry, was looking for puppies one day in early 1995. She visited the home of a West Highland terrier breeder where she planned to select Westie puppies for an upcoming shoot.
A Chihauhua also lived with the breeder and had pups. When Chipperton saw the big-eared one, just 8 weeks old, she was smitten. Gidget, the pint-sized pup was confident, outgoing, energetic, and “filled with personality”–the traits a trainer looks for when selecting a dog for studio work.
“I called Karin McElhatton, the co-owner of Studio Animal Services, to get permission to bring the dog back with me,” writes Sue Chipperton in a chapter she contributed to the book, Animal Stars: Behind the Scenes with Your Favorite Animal Actors. The pup went home with her to begin work.
In training, Sue found the dog to respond well to two things: tasty treats and her favorite toy, Mrs. Hedgehog.
The Taco Bell Dog’s Star Turn
In 1997, the advertising agency proposed using a Chihuahua to draw attention to Taco Bell. Three dogs were selected to be in the cmmercial. Dinky was to star, and Gidget was Dinky’s love interest. The third dog, Taco, was there in case something went wrong with Gidget or Dinky.
With the three dogs gathered, the director paused the action for a moment and went over and switched positions of the dogs. Now Gidget was to play the lead.
In that first commercial, the dog is walking purposefully along a busy street. A beautiful female Chihuahua looks at him longingly, but he
ignores her and continues along his way until he comes to a fellow eating a Taco Bell taco.
Pinning the fellow with a mighty stare, Gidget utters (via a voice-over and animation of her mouth): “Yo quiero Taco Bell” (I want Taco Bell).
So successful was the commercial that “Yo quiero…?” became an oft-repeated phrase, and Taco Bell had a star on its hands. For the next three years (through 2000) Gidget (and Carlos Alazraqui, the comedian cast to do the voice-over work) had a regular gig.
The “Drop the Chalupa” commercial was as well-liked as the first commercial, and that saying, too, caught on with the public, as did “Viva Gorditas!” Other commercials featured Gidget trying to trap Godzilla (part of a promotion with the film) and Gidget involved in all sorts of escapades in order to get to Taco Bell.
Gidget on Set
Gidget’s work ethic was remarkable. As Nipperton describes her, she would literally come alive with excitement when they arrived at a studio. Once taken to the set and shown her mark, she had no problem locating the camera and looking directly into it. As Chipperton says, “She quickly learned that if she got into position, she would get a treat.”
Crew members came to love the day Gidget was the dog on the schedule. One day as Gidget and Chipperton arrived, Sue overhead the director of photography comment, “This is going to be a long day, guys. Working with a dog is always difficult.”
When they were called to set, Gidget made her way confidently through all the legs to sit on her mark and turned to look at the camera. She nailed the shot in one take.
The director said, “I’ve never seen anything like that.” Gidget was a pro.
While her role for Taco Bell required discipline and personality, Gidget was not asked to any tricks. However, she did need training to be certain she was prepared for where she was to be and what was to happen to her.
Chipperton relates that in one case she was to be riding in the rear of a taxi. One of the shots was done with the taxi in motion on a street. Gidget was harnessed at the right height in the back of the taxi; one animal trainer was lying on the floor of the backseat to be with her for the shoot; Chipperton was on the sidewalk where Gidget had a clear view of her.
The other scenes were filmed with the taxi on a gimbal—a big ball that moves the car up and down without it actually being driven. Helping Gidget become accustomed to being on a platform in the cab while the cab moves on the gimbal was an important part of her training.
Protecting the Animal Stars
When dog trainer and animal are at work, the animal trainer is responsible for helping the animal perform as requested, but he or she must take equally seriously protecting the animal while on set. “With a small dog like a Chihuahua, that takes on even more importance,” writes Chipperton. When they were filming Se7en with Brad Pitt, Pitt’s dog walker accidentally let his three dogs loose. Chipperton held Gidget above her head as the dogs cornered her with their barking. The dog walker rescued them eventually.
Many animals are sensitive to noises or chaos, none of which particularly bothered Gidget. However, on the Taco Bell set, the client, agency, and crew took to quieting down the moment Gidget came on set. They were very protective of her. If a director wanted to make a correction and the action was stopped, Chipperton would return Gidget to her crate and then work out the new instructions with the director in order that Gidget not be stressed. When a take was completed, Sue Chipperton would toss Mrs. Hedghog, and that was Gidget’s cue to fetch the hedgehog and go back to her crate to rest.
During the height of her fame as the Taco Bell dog, Gidget flew first class, was invited to open the New York Stock Exchange, and she made an appearance at Madison Square Garden and on numerous talk shows.
Opposition to the Taco Bell Dog
The Taco Bell dog commercials ultimately ran into three major roadblocks, the combination of which finally brought the campaign to an end. Because the dog was often seen in costumes and with an accent that furthered the Mexican stereotype, Hispanic groups called for an end to the campaign.
In addition, Taco Bell was hit with a lawsuit by two Michigan men who met Taco Bell representatives at a licensing show. The men had spent a year in talks with the company about developing a talking Chihuahua as the company spokesman. The creation of Gidget constituted theft of creative work, according to the the lawsuit. A jury awarded them $30.1 million in compensation plus nearly $12 million in additional interest.
And finally, the Taco Bell dog did not move the needle on sales. Despite toys and paraphernalia created in Gidget’s likeness because the dog was so popular, it hadn’t changed the finincial losses Taco Bell was incurring. The campaign was stopped; the agency was fired, and the president of the company was tossed out.
Life After Taco Bell
After the campaign ended, Gidget still had some jobs. She was in a Geico commercial and a Hardee’s commercial and appeared in Legally Blonde 2: Red, White, and Blonde (2003).
In the movie, Gidget played the mother of Bruiser (played by Moonie, one of Gidget’s real life favorite dogs), Reese Witherspoon’s dog in the movie. In one scene, the two dogs have a reunion after mother and son have been separated for a long time. Because Moonie and Gidget were friends, the trainers actually separated the dogs for a few days, so the reunion caught on camera was two real dogs happy to see each other again.
But for the most part, she was so heavily identified as the Taco Bell dog that she was constantly typecast. When she was 10, Karin McElhattan and Sue Chipperton agreed that it was time for Gidget to retire.
Taco Bell Dog Retirement
She spent the last five years of her life, romping on the beach in Venice, California, with Chipperton’s three other dogs, and had a very happy and normal life.
When Gidget was 15 she had a massive stroke. Chipperton was at home that day and was able to rush her into the vet but there was nothing to be done. Magazines and talk shows all mentioned her passing, and there were many types and styles of tributes, some of which can still be seen on YouTube.
For another dog used in advertisng, see RCA Dog: An American Icon.