14 Apr 2015

Bones and all: the KFC story

Alan Wanders – Account Executive at Spreckley

I have a KFC meal once a year. What began as an accidental trend became a rule I’m now very precious of. In fact, I remember every KFC I’ve had for the past five years, from the dizzying highs of a large Coke to the shameful lows found at the end of a solo bucket. I had myself down as an oddity, but apparently I’m not the only one with strange fried chicken habits.

After watching The Billion Dollar Chicken Shop on BBC One, it became clear that, besides from a few fried chicken devotees, market research shows that lots of people share an ambivalent, unfulfilled relationship with KFC. They like it, but like me, are able to exercise restraint. KFC is seen as the occasional, guilt-inducing treat.

I put this down to the publicity campaign for KFC, which even among fast food chains is especially one-dimensional. There is a clear gap between their advertising campaigns, which summon an appetite for fried chicken through warm tones and charismatic multicultural families, and their widely rubbished position in national press. From health scares in restaurants to the poor conditions of the chicken’s living standards, bad publicity is status quo for the KFC press office.

With its wings clipped in the ‘credible’ national media, KFC is having a crisis of perception, reflected in their market research and by dwindling sales. As the programme reveals, public mistrust of the product’s quality and nutritional benefits are among the many reservations that keep people walking past the high street chain. Is this need for credibility in national media enough to open the doors to the BBC, when they ask to make an invasive documentary on the company that has traditionally kept its back office operations concealed from the public? Apparently it is. Well, it has to be better press than a Panorama investigation…

Besides, the recent track record of documentaries focusing on the inner functioning of companies has been generally positive, both in terms of viewing figures and public reception. BBC programmes on Iceland, British Airways and Claridge’s signal the rise of a new genre of documentary, implicitly and complicitly tied to corporate institutions.

Interestingly, of all the day-to-day health and safety issues revealed by the programme, it was the way the chicken was advertised that national media took most issue with. The Mirror and the Daily Mail highlighted tweets about viewers’ disbelief that KFC hires a food stylist to manicure chicken burgers before a shoot. ‘So that’s why burgers look better on the ads’ all of Twitter said at once.

Although unsentimental and not immediately promotional, the viewer falls again for the oldest trick clever PR agencies often make use of, and becomes invested in personal drama. It’s the peculiar, banal stories of genuinely likeable individuals that make the documentary watchable. The condescending health inspector, the happy-go-lucky chicken farmer and the started-from-the-bottom serial franchisee paint a picture of the importance of regular employment to modern Britain.

By conceding to the warts-and-all portrayal demanded by the BBC’s documentary format, KFC invited its customers to participate with the brand in a way unexplored by decades of numbing Pavlovian advertising. And if a controversial superbrand of the fast food industry is able to pull it off, why can’t any other major consumer brand?