Mark Ritson: Putting the C in KFC is an advertising error

KFC’s new ad by Mother puts chickens front and centre, but given the realities of how its birds are reared it’s a dangerous route to go down.

KFCNothing is ever completely straightforward with advertising but the latest turn of events at KFC is odd even by ad land’s standards. The story so far…

After 15 years with Bartle Bogle Hegarty, KFC launched an agency review at the start of the year and eventually opted to move its business to Mother, but not before BBH bowed out with a quite spectacularly strange ad featuring former Game of Thrones actor Kristian Nairn and a hoard of hungry customers.

Barely a week later and new agency Mother has already premiered its first work for KFC. The new ad introduces a very attractive chicken that looks into camera and flaunts her stuff provocatively as rap music blazes away in the background. The strapline, ‘The whole chicken, and nothing but the chicken’, ends the rather entrancing little film.

The ad itself is beautifully shot and clearly part of a new KFC strategy to focus on the provenance and quality of its meat. KFC’s CMO Meg Farren confirms that: “At KFC we’re proud of our chicken, we’re not afraid to show it. ‘The Whole Chicken’ represents a step change for us, taking a bolder stance when it comes to engaging with our loyal customers and fans.”

But there are two potential problems with such a bird-centric approach. First, most consumers like to live in a world in which animals and meat have either no, or only a tangential, connection to each other. Carnivores are notoriously hypocritical beasts. They don’t eat pigs for breakfast, they have bacon. Deer becomes venison. Baby cow becomes veal. That little bag of dried pigs blood is black pudding. We keep as much distance between the beast and the meat as we possibly can.

That’s clearly a problem for KFC because they are now transgressing one of the oldest rules of meat marketing with their new campaign. You can show the raw meat glistening on the plate. You can have as many long lingering shots of the joint coming out of the oven as you like. You can even have a small army of relatives sitting round the family table eating away. But thou shalt not show the actual beast in question at any point or risk alerting the happily hypocritical carnivore that the little life in front of them is about to get carved up to satisfy their hunger.

I know Mother is being disruptive here and someone down in the Redchurch Street HQ was keen to break the rules for its new client. But some rules, even though we don’t like to say it in marketing, are best left unbroken.

KFC can’t carry this off

Clearly those rules have started to change somewhat in recent years. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has almost single-handedly pushed back against the separation of beast and meat and reconnected them in a noble attempt to highlight the importance of eating animals that have been well treated and humanely butchered. Perhaps KFC and Mother are hoping to tap into this new demand for provenance and greater connection between the meat we eat and the animals we butcher.

But therein lies the other, bigger problem for KFC and its new campaign. There is a world of difference between the long-lived, healthy animals running around atop plush green hills at River Cottage and the unfortunate army of juvenile birds destined for a KFC bucket.

KFC might be proud of its chickens; everyone else is less impressed.

I have no idea the age of the attractive white bird in The Whole Chicken ad but she looks a little old to be working for KFC. Its birds don’t make it past their 42nd day on earth before they are gassed and processed. And I say “earth” but that really isn’t fair. As the BBC’s 2015 Billion Dollar Chicken Shop documentary revealed, KFC birds never see “earth”, instead they spend their 42 days on sawdust and bird shit inside giant buildings with 30,000 other birds and never set foot outside.

KFC says all its suppliers meet or exceed UK and EU legal requirements and adhere to Red Tractor welfare standards. But the captivity and concentration of these animals are two of the reasons KFC continues to use antibiotics in the UK and, according to its own CSR website, believes that they play “an important role” in maintaining the health of its animals. In the US, the brand is phasing out antibiotics by 2018.

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My point is not to accuse KFC of cruelty or recommend anyone take up a meat-free diet. This isn’t PETA’s weekly newsletter. My point is that before you start showing animals in your ads, promoting provenance and talking about how “proud” you are of your chickens, you need to be able to deliver. One of the oldest mistakes you can make with advertising is to position your brand on something the customer wants that you simply cannot deliver on. And I don’t think KFC has a good enough approach to animal welfare to be able to carry off this new ad campaign.

And I’m not alone. It would be unfair to use animal rights evidence against KFC when so much of that material is tainted with an anti-meat agenda. But the gold standard for animal assessment is The Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare (BBFAW). Compiled by independent experts, the BBFAW ranks all the major food manufacturers around the world on the manner in which they raise, manage and butcher the animals they process.

The ranking itself runs from ‘tier 1’ companies like Waitrose and Marks & Spencer, which are seen as global leaders when it comes to animal welfare, down to ‘tier 6’ companies like Domino’s and Kraft Heinz, where BBFAW finds “no evidence” that welfare is on the business agenda. KFC, part of the Yum! conglomerate of brands, was ranked in ‘tier 5’ in 2016, where companies that demonstrate “limited evidence of implementation” are put. KFC might be proud of its chickens; everyone else is less impressed.

Again, let me reiterate, I am not saying that KFC or Yum! are doing anything wrong in being ranked so poorly on animal welfare. My point is that even if I were M&S or Waitrose and justifiably proud of the way I rear animals, I’d still think very carefully about showing a beautiful, personable and extremely alive chicken dancing around in my TV advertising. If I were KFC I’d stay about two million miles away from it.

Talk about Kentucky. Talk about being fried. Hell, talk nonsense using one of the stars from Game of Thrones. Just don’t mention the chickens and certainly don’t put them front and centre in your advertising.

  • Professor Mark Ritson will be teaching the next class on the Marketing Week Mini MBA in Marketing from September 2017. To find out how it could make you a more confident, more effective and more inspired marketer, and to book your place, click here.
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Comments
  • Carrie Eames 19 Jul 2017 at 4:18 pm

    For me, it’s the copy: ‘Whole chicken’ just makes me think about what exactly might be in some of their products…

  • Angie Moors-Menkens 20 Jul 2017 at 8:18 am

    I was about to say the same Carrie, the copy counjoured up thoughts of feet, beaks and organs! Never has an article made me so proud not to eat this tripe 🙂

  • Richard Broadbent 20 Jul 2017 at 8:23 am

    Superb article. There’s a reason why DeBeers went with ‘A Diamond is Forever’ rather than showing a South American man with limited medical insurance about to climb down a big hole.

    • Victoria Hamilton 20 Jul 2017 at 4:41 pm

      No comment – just a like!

  • Russell White 20 Jul 2017 at 8:35 am

    I saw the ‘premiere’ of this ad on Channel 4 when it first aired – Mark neatly explains why it just doesn’t work. One of the first lessons I learned in marketing was you ‘sell the sizzle, not the sausage’ – the advert seems to show KFC and its agency forgot this basic rule.

  • Mike Longhurst 20 Jul 2017 at 8:39 am

    Surprising that such advertising truisms need to be repeated. I definitely don’t want the whole creature in my box and would far rather not be personally introduced to what I’m going to eat. For me it is branding the negative.

  • Justin Mier 20 Jul 2017 at 8:57 am

    Perhaps to round out the narrative, the selection of rapper DMX for the music track is spot on, considering he was convicted of animal cruelty charges in 2008 for running an underground dog fighting operation.

  • Andy Haywood 20 Jul 2017 at 9:15 am

    Consumer willingness to blindly and conveniently forget the realities of butchery is a key seller of meat. It’s a lot harder to do when you have to look into the eyes of a street-wise chicken with attitude. Unless KFC is going full veggie, I’m not sure who they’re trying to appeal to – No one roots for Mrs Tweedy in Chicken Run, right?

    Still, end this ad with a sudden interrupting axe chop and you’ve got a powerful protest video.

  • Laura Nasham 20 Jul 2017 at 9:16 am

    In the first few seconds of its premiere, you could guess it was KFC. And just as quickly, most were probably thinking, ‘what the hell?’. Although I don’t think many people care to see the ‘beast before the feast’, but here we are talking about the ad and it definitely hasn’t put me off eating chicken.

    • Andy Haywood 21 Jul 2017 at 3:42 pm

      Good point – people have been putting off thinking of the beast for years and years. One sassy chicken won’t change that, but I do now have KFC on the brain.

      Not the best ad, in fact, rather forgettable if not for the controversy, but definitely reminds me I’ve not had a Chicken Zinger in a while..

  • Ed Smallman 20 Jul 2017 at 10:19 am

    The Mother of all Cluck Ups.

  • Ann Harding 23 Jul 2017 at 3:44 pm

    Perhaps there’s the key to the target market hook. I was expecting the parting shot was to be a chop to the neck, blood splattering to lens. Reminds me how shocked I was to hear your prediction that Kate Moss’ cocaine arrest would turn to gold. Hey, got us talking, and spreading the logo, eh?

  • Michael Hind 24 Jul 2017 at 9:59 am

    As usual, Mark Ritson is spot on. What I find dispiriting is to consider that some senior marketer for KFC has considered this creative pitch from the agency to be just what’s needed to bolster the credentials of what is, frankly, a junk food brand. What happens to common sense when cocooned within the bubble of a cosy office in E2, fuelled by Pret, copious lattes and San Pellegrino? Surely, when stepping out in to the street, the real world, one would come to ones senses?
    Apparently not. Even worse is to contemplate the meeting where said marketer presents to own management board and gets the nods all the way around the table, as if they were all part of small all-knowing strategic astral plane, where ordinary people no longer exist.
    It’s poor and I can almost imagine Peta and others getting out the OS map of UK chicken farms.

  • Vicki Johnson 24 Jul 2017 at 11:22 am

    Like others, my immediate reaction concerned ‘whole chicken’ and the association with bones, beaks, feet and anything else caught up in a meat grinder!

  • Richard Fullerton 25 Jul 2017 at 2:54 pm

    Mark, your assertion is right, KFC and its agency, Mother, are breaking the obvious rule. But you’re suprisingly muted in your criticism. This is a major creative strategic blunder. And the ad is terrible also – we’ve all seen animals dance to rap or grime or whatever. Not original. So you missed the obvious put-down – this is a ‘turkey’ of an ad. This story reminds me of an old Nandos poster in the window of one of its restaurants I walked past once. Nandos major in chicken dishes and the poster said: ‘We respect vegetarians. All our chickens were fed on vegetables’. Touche.

  • Julia Eppingstall 2 Aug 2017 at 4:14 am

    Brilliant article and observation Mark. I find it interesting that KFC would break the golden rule of ‘carnivore cognitive dissonance’ & especially to do it with such false claims. Their consumers may consciously chose to remain blissfully ignorant (or just don’t care) about the fact that chickens were once living/innocent/voiceless creatures. That doesn’t mean they’re stupid enough to believe the chickens were actually treated with any element of humanity before they were destroyed for our junk food thriving society. It would be silly for KFC to imply they had decent animal welfare standards amongst other things they’ve implied in this ad… I believe it’s a negative for the brand, however I don’t believe it will damage their key audience who will always value their own feast before… ‘beast’.

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