Bailey Calfee
Sep 1, 2023

KFC criticized for playing into racist stereotypes in new OOH campaign

The reaction to the campaign shows a chasm between industry and audience perceptions, and highlights the work around DE&I that still needs to be done in the advertising world.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Last week, KFC Canada released what was meant to be a lighthearted campaign apologizing to the utensils abandoned when customers eat its “finger-lickin’ good” chicken. A video spot was launched alongside the out-of-home (OOH) ads showing consumers abandoning their utensils to the tune of Air Supply’s “All Out of Love.”

Out-of-home imagery captured people eating the brand’s fried chicken with their hands through the reflection of said abandoned silverware. But the casting decisions for these billboard visuals have been widely criticized on social media—namely X, formerly known as Twitter — for reflecting a racist stereotype.

The three billboard designs only depict Black people eating fried chicken, calling to mind racist stereotypes for many who scrolled upon the imagery.

“While the commercial showcased real people sharing real moments, the billboards showcased only caricatures of Black ones,” says Tyra Jones-Hurst, managing partner at agency Oliver and founder and managing partner at InKroud, a diversity-focused agency within Oliver.

She adds that the OOH ads “dampened what should have been a cheeky and refreshing take on an old slogan into a classically harmful and stale stereotype for the Black community.”

The racist associations between Black people and fried chicken have been extensively researched, with origins rooted in slavery. Chickens were the only animals that enslaved people were allowed to raise for themselves, and in the 1900s, some restaurants played on minstrelsy to denote the quality of their chicken dishes.

Though the stereotype is widely researched and well-known, particularly in the U.S. South where KFC was founded, this idea still made it to execution.

The outcome is an example of the advertising industry’s “loosening up from where it had been a couple years ago” in regard to prioritizing cultural competency and DE&I initiatives, says Kumi Croom, managing director at agency Duncan Channon.

Empowering diverse people in the room

Given the size of KFC’s brand, it’s reasonable to assume that the approvals process for a campaign such as this would have been extensive. Croom notes that the typical campaign goes through at least three rounds of approvals prior to launch, “but oftentimes more than that, depending on the client structure.”

Ned Brown, chief creative officer at agency Bader Rutter says, “work gets seen hundreds and hundreds of times by many, many people, both the internal teams that are working on it and by the clients.”

“There’s often a legal review, then you’re potentially working with a production partner,” he says. Broken down further, the visuals are shot by a photographer and there’s likely a director involved, not to mention “the people who rig the lights, [style] the wardrobe and do prop styling and makeup.”

“The number of people [involved] is amazing,” he said.

The fact that so many people typically have eyes on a campaign calls into question whether anyone, at any level, brought up concerns during production. KFC and its agency in Canada, Courage, did not reply to requests for comment.

Jones-Hurst posits that the problem is less about the number of approval rounds and more about “whose feedback is considered valid in the decision making process.”

“I don’t doubt that someone within the creative process raised an eyebrow or had a second thought about this, but if they lack influence over the decision makers, speaking up would do little to sway power players into considering the larger impact or harm something like this would have on a community or to their brand,” she says.

It’s unclear who was in the room during the conception of this campaign or how many rounds of approvals it went through prior to launch.But if there were criticisms from those in the room with different backgrounds and perspectives that could be echoed by a segment of the target audience, it’s necessary to “include them into that conversation, listen and take that perspective into account — strongly,” says Croom. More than just having diverse voices on staff, “the inclusion and equity part of the conversation is so important.”

Jones-Hurst echoes this, adding that agencies need not only diverse teams, but “diverse people in positions of power who are respected, valued and encouraged to bring their experiences to the table to help mitigate misses like these.”

Without varied perspectives, “if the people approving and giving feedback on creative are not attuned to what’s going on in culture, they will always miss the mark.”

This stereotype runs far and wide

One might wonder whether, since the racist stereotype is rooted in the U.S., it may not have been common knowledge for the Canadian teams involved.

But Jones-Hurst, a Black Canadian, says this does not reflect her personal experience, adding that she can personally “recall jokes about chicken and watermelon said to me as a child all the time, even while living in the predominantly diverse city of Mississauga, Ontario.”

“The challenges of being a visible minority and the stereotypes that come along with it do not disappear simply because you’ve crossed the border,” she notes.

Even further, “KFC is a global brand with a huge imprint in the United States,” notes Brown. As a global brand, it’s even more likely for the campaign to be seen beyond Canada, adds Croom.

Specifically for KFC, because its hero product is fried chicken and the brand is rooted in the American South, a baseline understanding of such a stereotype should be communicated amongst the brand and its partners.

More than that, “we live in an age of information,” adds Jones-Hurst. “Black Lives Matter was one of the biggest movements of this generation and called for the self-education of all people on the Black experience, along with a cry to halt anti-Black racism in an effort to bring equity for all. To be unaware of the implications is to be willfully ignorant and a part of the problem.” 

The billboards were just one part of the campaign

The OOH visuals were only one part of the whole campaign; the video spot shows much more diverse casting than the billboards and doesn’t seem to reflect harmful stereotypes. But marketers have pointed out that each element of a campaign should stand on its own. 

“You still have to take a look at how that work gets segmented out,” Croom points out. 

In this case, it’s clear from the reaction on X that those who only saw the OOH imagery were left with a negative impression of the campaign as a whole – leaving a clear potential for a negative brand impact.

“All of us who are in this business know that someone may only ever see one thing, so that one thing has to be right,” says Brown. “No one's going to sit there and view your campaign case study to get the whole view of all of the touch points.”

In this case, the billboards’ blatant use of stereotypes overshadowed representation seen in other parts of the campaign. 

. “The decision to make Black people eating fried chicken the focal point for this portion of the campaign felt intentional and culturally insensitive, whether it was meant to be or not,” says Jones-Hurst.

Industry understanding lags behind audience savvy

The advertising industry as a whole responded positively to the KFC Canada campaign. Multiple LinkedIn posts celebrated the launch, and KFC Canada marketing director Azim Akhtar was inundated with positive replies to his post showing the OOH work on X. The spot was also a favorite among trade publications. 

Perceptions may have been muddled due to the strength of the campaign visuals and its clever art direction. Both Croom and Brown note the craft of the campaign, and Brown commends the team for finding “a way to take KFC’s long standing slogan and reinvent it in a way that no one had thought about before.”

But the success of the launch shows how quick the industry is to ignore potentially damaging ads in favor of celebrating creativity. Being, to an extent, “blind” to how the idea was expressed visually “is a bigger statement about how far we need to go as an industry,” says Brown.

“The stark difference [in reaction] is an accurate reflection of how non-inclusive or diversely represented the industry really is and a direct answer to ‘how does this keep happening?’” says Jones-Hurst. “It is very clear that there is not only a disconnect between the people who make the content and the people who absorb it, but also a disconnect in what’s really happening ‘on the ground’ in culture.”

She notes that today’s consumer wants to see themselves represented “in progressive and nuanced ways,” so “diminishing their identities and impeding progress by defaulting to age-old stereotypes inhibits the consumer connection and conveys inauthenticity where brands opt to tout inclusion, as was intended in the full 60-second spot.”

“Yes, part of our job is to do something that’s captivating and compelling, that will grab people’s attention,” he adds. “But the other part is the responsibility to put messages out into the world that are the right kinds of messages for humanity.”

What needs to change?

There will always be campaigns that strike the wrong chord with an audience or individual, so its impossible to completely avoid ever missing the mark. 

“I don't think there's a set of processes or procedures that could have prevented or fixed this,” says Brown. “This is still about the industry at large and about us collectively shifting how we think.”

Catching issues like this before they get out into the world requires institutional changes to create marketing organizations that actively reflect the diversity of their audiences. 

“The only way to shift the state of representation in the industry is to actively make space for those outside of the status quo to have meaningful impact and value at every level for truly authentic and culturally relevant content,” says Jones-Hurst. 

“You can’t accurately portray an audience if you don’t understand how they think and feel — and you can’t understand how an audience thinks and feels if you don’t also make space for them to be represented inside and outside of the boardroom.”

Creative review councils can also offer insight that may have gone unnoticed. Croom notes that Duncan Channon has an internal creative review council made up of individuals across the business who share their perspective to help “catch something just like this.” Dentsu Creative has a similar process, as previously noted by Campaign

Gathering as many unique perspectives as possible, allows for more informative conversations. “Black people are not a monolith,” says Jones-Hurst, noting the varied reactions to the campaign. While some found the work offensive, others saw nothing wrong with it.

Even if the campaign still went through, if more eyes were on it throughout production, she adds, the team would have been more prepared for the audience’s reaction.

“The point remains that having a diverse set of eyes and viewpoints involved in the end-to-end creation of content would ignite constant constructive and thought-provoking discourse internally before even reaching the court of public opinion.”


Campaign US

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