…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
Junk Food, Cheap Ad Space: Kentucky Fried Chicken to Take Advantage of Cash-Strapped Cities

by Meg White

Their grub may be “finger-lickin’ good,” but will Kentucky Fried Chicken’s secret recipe make a dent in the financial woes of struggling American cities? The restaurant chain announced a new advertising strategy this week seeking to take advantage of budget shortfalls in several municipalities across the nation.

KFC — owned by Yum! Brands, which identifies itself as “the world’s largest restaurant company” — sent out a letter asking cities to consider allowing the chain to plaster its ads on fire-safety equipment in exchange for a cash infusion.

The letter (filled with vaguely inappropriate puns such as “Is your city feeling the heat?”, “budgets across the country are under fire” and “the topic of fire safety really starts to heat up”) was sent out to mayors across the country this month, requesting that submissions of interest be turned in by Jan. 28.

Two Indiana cities have already undertaken a trial run of the program, with Indianapolis receiving $5,000 and nearby Brazil getting $2,500. KFC plans to spend $15,000 more on three cities to be announced shortly after the application deadline.

Just in case you see this as just another silly gimmick, you should know that the ad world sees such stunts as the next wave of incisive advertising. From the Associated Press:

Alternative marketing efforts like this have been growing as people become immune to conventional advertising, said Allen Adamson, managing director of branding firm Landor Associates.

“I think it’s the tip of an iceberg… as marketers struggle to find places to reach consumers and as cities look for ways to squeeze more dollars,” Adamson said.

Laura Ries, president of marketing consulting firm Ries & Ries, said marketers must find new places to reach consumers.

“People ignore advertising, they try to get away from it whenever possible,” she said. “So hitting them in unusual and unlikely places … is likely to get some attention.”

Of course, KFC wants you to see them as nothing but benevolent. A KFC spokesman told the AP that it “helps us in terms of creating goodwill with consumers.”

KFC tries to conjure up the image of their “mascot,” the Colonel, going around and fixing up fire stations. Language in the offer letter explicitly changes “ads” into a “stamp of approval”:

…because the Colonel has become an expert on all things fiery with the introduction of KFC’s new Fiery Grilled Wings, he’ll provide his stamp of approval on each and every hydrant or extinguisher he replaces or helps repair.

In reality, it’s more of a business transaction than anything else. KFC slaps their sticker on some equipment and pays the city in question a couple grand. Voilà.

And their choice of fire safety, unwelcome puns aside, is a crafty one. Would I allow fiery death to befall one of my fellow Chicagoans, just to have my view of the city unobstructed by advertising? Of course not!

But really, that’s a false choice. Why, in the city with the highest sales tax in the country, would we need to rely on a private company to help pay for basic civil safety?

And “help” is the operative word here. According to JEA, a Florida water, sewer and electrical management board, the installation of a fire hydrant costs between $2,500 and $4,500 depending on the site.

Using these numbers, the presumably $5,000 going to each city would likely cover just one new hydrant, with a little left over so the city can give away or install a couple hundred branded smoke detectors (which generally run from $5 to $20 each) and/or ad-emblazoned fire extinguishers (costing anywhere from $15 to hundreds of dollars, depending upon the size and type). Some might characterize that as mere chickenfeed (sorry, I had to).

Those who characterize advertising as a form of city blight see this as more than just a plug for ruptured city budgets, however. This afternoon, I got a chance to talk to Micah White (no relation), a contributing editor to Adbusters, a magazine “concerned about the erosion of our physical and cultural environments by commercial forces” (check back Monday for the full interview). Of course, I just had to ask him what he thought of KFC’s plan.

“Just like a physical environment can be polluted, so can the mental environment… by advertising,” White said. “They’re polluting our mental environment by allowing corporations to advertise on our fire hydrants.”

Though I haven’t seen any research on the effects of advertising in municipal spaces, I’d be willing to bet that items associated with city government are seen — subconsciously or not — as having more authority than a privately-owned billboard. That is likely part of the reason this ad space is seen as so innovative by the experts quoted in the AP article above.

White speculated that such an association might be something local governments come to regret.

“It has a different effect in terms of undermining our confidence in government,” he said.

This isn’t the first time KFC has used city budget deficits to its advertising advantage. Last spring KFC announced a similar program targeting potholes in city streets, filling them and then spraying a non-permanent ad over the repaired road.

The restaurant company called it a road “re-freshment” program, though I think a “chicken in every pot-hole” approach would have been more appropriate (oops. I did it again, didn’t I?).

Both partnership programs play into the trend (of which Chicago can pretty much claim the American forefront) of privatization of city services. Granted, the situation of leasing ad space on municipal property for a month is different than, say, the proposition of leasing the operation of one’s parking meters for 75 years.

But it’s all rolled into the larger notion coming out of the Reagan Revolution. The trickle-down debt from federal tax cuts, combined with the economic downturn of late, has created a situation where municipal governments are being shrunk to drown-in-bathtub-size.

Without the necessary funds to reinvest in themselves, cities are shortsightedly turning to the same outsourcing and privatization schemes that got them into this situation in the first place. So, for example: Not only were Chicagoans mad as hell about the private parking meter company jacking up rates, but Mayor Richard M. Daley considered changing around municipal law to allow KFC to spray its ads on the potholes the city couldn’t afford to fix on its own.

Consider this: With the Colonel filling potholes or fixing hydrants, there is less need for city workers. Those stable, well-paying jobs decrease in a recession, piling on problems for employment in the city. Income tax revenue is slashed, calling for further cuts in city services. It’s an oversimplification, but you get the idea.

In the end, I imagine a former Chicago city worker: unable to afford to park downtown, or fix the flat tire caused by the city’s damaged roads, but still able to purchase a bucket at KFC.


Originally published at BuzzFlash.com.

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