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Jeff Bezos: Yo quiero Taco Bell

The Amazon chief executive and one-time Time magazine "Person of the Year" is the latest pitchman for Taco Bell, known for its popular talking Chihuahua.

Jeff Bezos has some pretty big paws to fill.

The Amazon chief executive and one-time Time magazine "Person of the Year" is the latest pitchman for Taco Bell, known for its popular talking Chihuahua.

In a new Taco Bell commercial, Bezos plays himself in a mock board meeting, asking surrounding executives: "PDAs, handhelds--I've seen these. What do we have that's new?"

Out comes Taco Bell's new quesadilla, oozing with cheese and stuffed with meat. Bezos says in an earnest voice, "Can I get a demo?" A blonde woman tastes the Mexican snack and responds with an overly enthusiastic "Mmmmm."

According to a spokeswoman at Taco Bell, Bezos lends credibility and the perception of innovation for the Mexican fast-food chain. Advertising executives at Amazon's former ad agency, Foote, Cone & Belding, asked Bezos to do the ad as a favor. He's donating his pay from the commercial to the Special Olympics.

The message is that the quesadilla is a cutting-edge product--not just a staple that Mexican restaurants and homes have been slapping together for generations. The slogan: "Think outside the bun."

Despite the fact that Amazon and Taco Bell have no cross-promotional agreements and don't sell any of the same products, an Amazon spokesman said the ad extends the brand recognition of the largest online retailer.

"In many cases, these commercials extend the visibility of the company," said Bill Curry, an Amazon spokesman. "It is a compliment that Amazon is associated with innovation and thinking outside the box."

But critics questioned whether Bezos was doing the ad purely as a favor to his former ad agency and to benefit the Special Olympics. Some say the ad may have been an unconscious attempt for Bezos to recapture his glory days of the late 1990s, when he was a cultural icon.

Back then, business publications portrayed the affable, wide-eyed executive as the quintessential dot-com entrepreneur: young and smart, leading a company that would change the way people shop, and making corporate America change the way it did business.

Amazon's stock hit an all-time high of $106.63 in December 1999, only days before Time magazine named Bezos person of the year. The 35-year-old "king of cybercommerce" became the fourth youngest Time recipient ever, after Charles Lindbergh, Queen Elizabeth II and Martin Luther King Jr.

Now the unprofitable company faces growing skepticism on Wall Street, and business publications frankly question whether Bezos can deliver on his promises. The stock touched as low as $6.69 Friday, down 51.16 percent since January and only 5 cents above its 52-week low.

Given Bezos' precipitous rise and fall, it's not surprising that he's starring in a commercial--even a relatively frivolous pitch for a quesadilla, said Laura Shamas, a professor of cultural mythology at Pepperdine University and the University of California. The irreverent commercial could be a way for the embattled Amazon chief to reclaim the fame and folk-hero status he achieved in the 1990s, she said.

"The Amazon CEO is saying, 'I'm not just a high-tech innovator, America--I eat tacos, too,'" Shamas said. "This effort will allow the public to see him in a new light--as a king of persuasion, beyond his original arena of achievement."