KFC: Fried chicken is health food!

Advertising deconstructed.
Nov. 10 2003 11:05 AM

Chicken-Fried Bull

A new ad says KFC's drumsticks are good for you.

KFC, the fast-food chicken chain, has a new ad out that seems, judging by my e-mail, to be bothering a lot of people. The problem is that the ad strongly suggests that fried chicken is the cornerstone of a healthy diet. Apparently, some people find this misleading. (You can see the spot at AdAge.com.)

The commercial begins with a stereotypical Lazy American Man slumped in the living room in front of The Game. In comes his slim and perky wife, who says, "Remember how we talked about eating better?" This causes Lazyman to make a face (understandably, I think). "Well," says the wife, "it starts today." Then she plops a 12-piece bucket of chicken in front of him. An announcer quickly reels off various facts and figures suggesting that KFC's chicken is healthier than Burger King's Whoppers. Lazyman, choking down another mouthful, removes any doubt among viewers that he's anything other than a slow-witted jackass by telling his wife that he's only doing this for her. The wife makes a sour face. What a miserable couple.

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Anyway, KFC is plunging forward with this campaign, giving no apparent thought to the possibility that some will find it preposterous. In a somewhat astonishing press release, the company says it intends to "educate the public" that "fried chicken can be part of a healthy, balanced diet" and quotes the company's executive vice president of "marketing and food innovation" as saying: "With more and more Americans on diets and increasingly health-conscious, we thought it was important to get this information to consumers so they can judge for themselves how to make KFC part of their healthy lifestyle."

But it turns out that there are at least a handful of people who don't really buy the idea that a bucket of fried chicken is healthy eatin'. Well, of course it's not. Here's a little secret about advertising: It can be misleading. (You may not know this, but in real life, there is no brand of chewing gum or hair gel that will instantly transform you into a pulsing object of sexual desire. For instance.) After all, pretty much every ad for a weight-loss scheme or potion features not a picture of a pile of millet, but a shot of that one huge slice of chocolate cake or obscenely large steak that you're allowed to scarf down if you follow all the other rules.

Presumably, the KFC people simply figured that if the ever-credulous American public is willing to accept Dr. Phil as a weight-loss guru, or to buy the idea that Subway sandwiches will melt away their rolls of fat, then surely they'll lap up this pitch like so much chicken grease. Yeah, the company's official line talks up exercise (while the guy in the ad is a picture of sloth) and moderation (while showing two people splitting a bucket of the stuff). But who'll notice?

In a particularly brilliant maneuver, KFC's press release further suggests that you can make its chicken even more healthy by removing the skin. You have to appreciate the comedy of telling people to buy fried chicken and then toss the skin away. I only wish they'd had the guts to go further and point out that you can make your KFC bucket-meal healthier still by removing the skin, and then throwing away the chicken and preparing yourself a nice salad. (Try it. It's so good for you that afterward you can have a cigarette—provided you don't smoke it, of course.)

KFC will not go broke for having underestimated the stupidity of the American public, but I don't think this campaign is going to do much for sales. But the problem isn't that the ad is misleading (since it's fooling no one); the problem is that it so badly misunderstands the point of fried chicken. Fried chicken, done well, is a worthwhile thing. Its decadence trumps the entire concept of the "healthy lifestyle" and makes dieting seem like a flawed, pointless exercise for tedious goody-goodies (or awful and unhappy people like the couple in the ad). If KFC wants me to buy their fried chicken, the company should try to convince me that its product is actually worthy of the name. Maybe they considered that idea at some point—and decided that selling the stuff as health food just seemed more credible.

Rob Walker is a columnist for Yahoo Tech, a contributor to Design Observer and the New York Times, and the author of Buying In.

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