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The Semiotics of GrubHub

For a year or so now I’ve been noticing GrubHub ads:

…deliberately crude post-South Park pieces reminiscent of Tao Lin’s visual art. (GrubHub’s website continues the aesthetic; see, for instance, the About Us page. And it’s a good thing they made these new ones—their original, older ads were pretty boring.) Two-dimensional revels, they seem all surface.

But there’s more going on, I’d argue, in these pictures. Let’s start with the most obvious one:

(Image taken from this Tumblr account.) When I first saw this ad, I was slightly startled by its raunchiness. Its maker didn’t even swap out the “S” in “S#!t” for a dollar sign, a longtime comics practice. But while I imagine some people complained, the ads are still everywhere in Chicago; my friends who have commented on them have told me they find them clever, cute.

I started paying closer attention, a decision rewarded by this ad:

That photo is taken from a blog post whose author was offended by the image. I don’t share her assessment; rather, I appreciate the, um, lengths the advertisement goes to in establishing its phallic subtext. Although the male painter’s easel and canvas blocks the life model’s genitals, his right arm sweeps upward to the left, making a suggestive trajectory. If that weren’t enough, the brush he holds in his left hand leaves even less to the imagination. Beside him, the female artist’s wide-eyed eyeline reinforces the pattern. Even the word balloon that contains the revelatory phrase “hot dog” complements that sexually-implicit diagonal (“sexuagonal”?).

We can read even deeper: the male artist has already completed a good deal of the figure, while the female artist has barely touched her canvas. Has she shown up late to the class? Or has she been ogling the life model’s crotch the entire time? Meanwhile, the male artist holds his palette, Austin Powers-style, in front of his painting’s groin. (He’s mulling over which shade he wants to use?)

Let’s tread deeper still: why is the women so intent on the nude man’s crotch? Why has her more industrious classmate yet to paint that portion of the fellow? (The palette represents potential.) Why is the model longing to be delivered a hot dog? The answer is simple: the ad is conflating two classic Freudian “anxiety dreams”: appearing naked before others, and taking a test you’ve forgotten to study for (or having to go onstage in a play where you’ve forgotten all your lines). The life model clearly has no penis.

After these two ads, I was hardly surprised when I kept finding sexual subtexts in others:

On the right, our friend from the life drawing class?

And another one—I wish I could find a copy of it—features a man and woman in bed. He’s asking, “What are you in the mood for?” She answers, “Something spicy!” Pretty overt. (The cute touch in this one is that she’s blocking her chest with a laptop, which has a pear in lieu of an apple. Which is a bit of a loss, in terms of straight sexual symbolism, even though it does raise the question of what pears represent, and what they cost you.)

My favorite GrubHub ad, however, is actually the one at the top of this post:

(Image taken from here.) I overlooked this one myself, until the more explicit ads taught me how to read them. Four folks, two men and two women, hungry for burritos.

Where are they? I see two readings. In the first, they’re at work in some office: the men have ties, and two sheets of paper litter the ground. The white boxy thing in the image’s center background could then be a photocopier, which would explain why the one woman’s perched on it. This is clearly the end of the workday. (Those two sheets of paper on the ground, then, are copies of…)

In the second, even dirtier reading, the photocopier transforms into a bed, and the four folks (two couples?) are at someone’s home, are in fact in someone’s bedroom. And why are they so happy (or as the ad puts it, so “excited”)? They’re super-hungry? They’re such big fans of Mexican food? No, clearly they’re already in a good mood. I don’t see any alcohol around; maybe they’ve taken ecstasy? No, that’s too much a stretch… But the men are in a state of partial undress, and the one woman’s sitting on the bed. A-ha! We’ve cracked it: they’re ordering burritos as a prelude to group sex.

Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And I suppose the office reading still permits a ménage à quatre. That said, the artist missed a real opportunity here: the man should be saying “¡Fantástico!”

I’m convinced in my orgiastic reading of this last one, although no one else I’ve explained it to has so far quite agreed with me. The fact that more recent GrubHub ads have been tamer has not helped my case:

“She’s so drunk that she thinks the birds are talking.” Pretty weak (although the post I nabbed the above picture from argues that those birds are Twitter mascots, which is cute). Another recent ad—again, sorry no image—features a vampire rejoicing over his ability to order pasta without garlic. Um, he’s a vampire ’cause of Twilight? C’mon, GrubHub! You’ve built your brand on this—don’t disappoint me!

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

13 thoughts on “The Semiotics of GrubHub

  1. Bravo, sir. Bravo. ::while slow clapping::

    This is Jack, I’m the creative director here at GrubHub, and am responsible for the ads you – amazingly enough – have decoded with a shocking degree of accuracy. The way you were able to deduce that the office employees are on ecstasy shows you have the observatory skills reminiscent of a young Sherlock Holmes. But why? Why am I hiding these meanings? What is my end game? That my friend, is the question you should be asking.

    The timing of this couldn’t be better, as we’re in the beginning stages of our next round of ads, and you have inspired me to work harder to hide more clues even deeper into the ads. I’ve long held a secret hope that one day everybody who sees our ads would succumb to the primal urges being planted in their heads by silly cartoon characters they see on the trains and finally world domination would be mine! Would I say I’m like a modern day Walt Disney? I wouldn’t wouldn’t say that, let’s put it that way.

    While I’m thrilled somebody has finally discovered some (yes, only some) of the hidden meanings in our ads, truth be told I’m disappointed it took this long. So I issue a challenge you sir (or anyone), to uncover the remaining clues and solve the mystery that is hidden deep within them.

    I’ll give you a hint: Why do so few of our characters have feet? Answer it correctly, and there’s a gift card in it for you or anyone else who can figure it out.

    The game is afoot!


    PS. The legal department is telling me I have to clarify that I am joking. I told them that saying it’s a joke would ruin the joke. They didn’t laugh.

    PPS. The gift card part is real, if somebody emails me with the correct answer, I’ll send them a gift card.

  2. The character’s don’t have feet because it’s a subtle identifier of your brands core equity: Delivery. If they had feet, they could go get the food themselves. Alas, they can not.

    Also, a few of my professional observations:

    Quickly communicate the benefit of the service? Check
    Establish consumer tension to solve? Check
    Consistent tone and message? Check
    Communicate a call to action? Check
    Uniquely enter the space in an attention grabbing way? Check

    At the end of the day, GrubHub is just selling food. That’s what the ads are doing.

  3. As Jack’s boss, I remain appalled and amused by his work… and now his post.. I’ve maintained these mutually exclusive emotions simultaneously for several years now.

    He can, in fact, draw feet.

  4. Saxton –
    A. Good response, perhaps a little too good…
    B. But it’s still wrong.
    C. Pick a name other than Saxton, it’s a dead giveaway you know me.

    Famous Celebrity
    Clearly, that’s not a barrier for us…

    S. Freud
    Sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s more than that. But wrong.

    Thanks… I guess?

  5. I should read your post earlier, because I just saw the “something spicy” ad today. (It’s my fault, I know. I actually opened this window before I went out.)

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