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Is the Kentucky Fried Chicken ad racist?

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So, there has been lots of coverage (of US coverage) in Australia, and some coverage (of the Australian coverage of the US coverage) in the US, about an advertisement designed for the Australian market where an Australian cricket fan, finds himself in a crowd of West Indian cricket fans. To placate the “scary” crowd (who seem to be very happy and enjoying the cricket), the Australian hands out a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken. This advertisement forms part of the company’s "KFC’s Cricket Survival Guide" summer promotion campaign (click here to see other ads in the campaign).


At first glance, from my perspective, it seemed like a relatively unimaginative and uncontroversial ad, albeit with a weird connection between deep fried chicken (with 15 per cent of your daily fat requirement in every piece) and sport.


The furore emerged, fueled by smallish US media outlets (such as The Young Turks), and other US pundits (and later picked up by the New York Daily News and other media), who have suggested that the advertisement is racist, predominantly because of the connection between African-Americans and fried chicken, as well as the connotation that the guy might be in danger amongst a group of “black people”.


As a result of this “furore” in the US, the Australian office of Kentucky Fried Chicken today withdrew the advertisement from Australian television, and apologised for any offence the cricket ad had caused in America, saying it had been misinterpreted as racist.


From my perspective, there are two parts to the debate. The first issue is to consider who the target market of the advertisement was – the Australian market – and ask whether there were connotations of superiority or racism implied in the “text”. The second issue is that of the international nature of media and communication, and whether media outlets, marketers, and advertisers need to always consider the international market as a potential audience of their communications.


So, the first question to answer is whether the advertisement is racist? I think it is pretty clear that the intent of the advertisement was not to portray any racial superiority of white over black, nor to highlight issues around the connection between African-American slavery, the deep south, and fried chicken.


It is clear that KFC developed the advertisement purely for the Australian market, and therefore, Australians would not perceive any racial connotations or overtones, beyond stereotypes such as the steel-drums, the dancing, and the absence of any white West Indians. In general, these stereotypes, while simplistic, are reasonably free of any racism (which is generally defined as a belief that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race).


While there is plenty of racism in Australia, as there is in every other country on the planet (to think otherwise would be naive), this particular ad doesn’t do much toward supporting it. It could not even be considered a "dog-whistle" communication.


If this advertisement had been developed and presented to the US market, there are a whole range of cultural and historical elements that would have influenced how that particular market interprets the text. These factors weren’t considered by KFC or the agency, Olgivy and Mather, because there was no intention for the advertisement to play outside the local, Australian, market.


Indeed, the fact that the advertisement was connected with cricket, would suggest that it was a very specific campaign for a very specific vehicle – the Australian cricket season (I think the factor that seems to be missing from this debate is the obscene connection between deep fried chicken and sport, but that one seems to have “gone through to the keeper”).


There is another layer of complexity here in the way that some in the US are interpreting this text, which is the influence of the Hey Hey It’s Saturday blackface incident, as well issues around Australia’s treatment of indigenous people. This can’t be discounted in terms of how Australians might be seen in other countries, but those who are more intelligent in their understanding of nations, and their occupants (i.e., who recognise that there are wide ranging views about issues amongst Australians, as there would be in other countries, including the US) would be able to bring a more sophisticated interpretation to this particular campaign.


The second issue is whether a local campaign needs to consider the world market when it develops communication strategies. As I said on Sunrise on Channel 7 on Thursday (7 Jan) morning, this is a very complex issue. In a world of YouTube, blogging, twitter, etc., should corporations consider the effect of their communications outside the target market?


At a broad level, I would have to say that this issue has shifted modernistic views of managerialism (predominantly focused on planning and controlling), and therefore, my response would be yes.


But, as with all things, each case has to be considered individually. I don’t think KFC could have predicted that there would have been interest in the US in relation to this advertisement (which first aired in late November, 2009), nor could they have predicted or have been concerned about the connection between African-Americans, fried chicken, and racism, in an ad. that portrays West Indians and Australians (who do have a rivalry, but not a racist one).


KFC have done the right thing by withdrawing the ad (which they had planned to do very soon, anyway). But the issue here is whether multi-nationals have to consider the world reaction to every communication that they offer to every market. I would argue this would be very difficult, and a waste of resources versus return on investment. The apology and the withdrawal of the ad were smart tactics.


The problem is that with the advent of the internet, everyone who has access can bring their particular interpretation to any text. This is what international marketers have always had to contend with when exporting communications, but there is a new level of complexity when people who aren’t being intentionally targeted, are seeing the communication, interpreting it with their contextual background, and then commenting on it, so that it returns to the sender of the communication, who then has to decide what to do with the information. We are definitely not living in a (completely) modernist world anymore – in the past businesses could pretty much decide who saw a communication, because of the interruptive broadcast media model, along with national boundaries, but this, and the Hey Hey incident highlight the postmodern world of media that managers and marketers need to start to come to terms with.

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