Joey Chestnut BANNED: How To Make A Meal Out Of A PR Controversy
Chase Koeneke | Associate Creative Director

If you haven’t heard the news, let me help you ketchup. Last week, Joey Chestnut, 16-time Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog-Eating Contest winner, was banned from the event by its organizers. His crime? Well, currently he’s shilling for rival plant-based hot dog producer Impossible Foods. 

It sounds like there may be some real beef between these two parties, but everyone appears to be making the best of the situation with some juicy PR spin. So I grilled Elasticity’s Public Relations Manager Collin Schuck to help me break down all the PR magic at play here. 

George Shea has been in public relations since 1988, and he really has a taste for it. One of Shea’s first gigs was doing PR for a small hot dog eating contest put on by his client, Nathan’s Famous. Taking advantage of a controversy in which a competitor was caught cheating, Shea has transformed the event, turning it into a July 4th tradition playing out each year on ESPN, as well as parlaying it into an official sports organization — Major League Eating. 

Shea embraces the chaotic and controversial. He once submitted a phony scholarly article about why fat people actually can’t eat all that much, just so he could go on TV and complain about how it got rejected.

So when Chestnut — the hot dog eating contest’s meal ticket since 2007 after he dethroned long-time champ Takeru Kobayashi and has dominated ever since — signed a sponsorship contract with Impossible Foods, carnival barker Shea knew exactly how to spin his client’s chili reception to the news. 

Nathan’s Hot Dog Contest has been dealing with some fatigue as of late. Chestnut has won the event 16 of the last 17 years, often winning by more than 20 wieners (and buns) over his nearest competition. Who wants to watch a sport where the outcome feels predetermined? Even in professional wrestling, WWE’s longest-reigning champ, Bruno Sammartino stayed on top for only 7 years – much less than Joey’s decades of dominance – and recent dominator Roman Reigns only went 1,316 days.

As it turns out — fewer and fewer people. Ratings have slowly declined the past few years, from 1.35 million viewers in 2021, down to 1.03 in 2022, and 1.008 last year. A big controversy with your biggest star gets people interested, and there are really only two outcomes: You unban him at the 11th hour (which is still possible, based on MLE’s statements) and get the additional boost of a returning and redeemed hero, or you leave the ban in place and let everyone speculate on who will fill the vacancy. 

The smart money choice to be the new face of the competition might be Miki Sudo, who has been the top-ranked woman on the MLE circuit. She once ate 48.5 dogs in the contest, which puts her in real contention to win a Chestnut-less event. With the renewed interest in women’s athletics thanks to the US Women’s National Soccer Team and Caitlin Clark’s debut in the WNBA, there’s no better time for Sudo and MLE to capitalize on the situation. Plus, if Chestnut gets unbanned next year, you can pit the new champ against the champ who never officially lost his crown — a delicious-sounding storyline if I’ve ever heard one. 

Let’s be frank, losing the biggest draw to your event is never ideal. But George Shea, Joey Chestnut and all their hangers-on have sunk their teeth into this controversy and are milking it for all it’s worth, from a PR perspective. And that’s going to put more food on everyone’s table.

Chase Koeneke
Chase is the resident writer at Elasticity, playing with language and polishing messages to a mirror sheen. A graduate of the University of Missouri’s journalism program, he’s well-versed in everything from AP style to social media marketing, always looking at ways to use fewer words to forge deeper connections with consumers and businesses. But putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys, as the case may be) isn’t the whole story. His skill set also includes concepting, strategy, editing and even the occasional directing of video when called upon, and he’s worked with clients as varied as Brown-Forman, the St. Louis Blues and Bass Pro Shops.
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