When does tongue-in-cheek go too far?

When does tongue-in-cheek go too far?

We’ve talked about KFC a lot on Exchange in recent months. From festival blunders to creative cut through, the fast-food chain has repeatedly shown that it’s not going to chicken out of making a statement.

Its latest statement, however, has proved more controversial than most, perhaps strangely due to the lack of controversy. Vaguely firing in the face of the vegan movement, KFC’s new ‘I Love You Bacon Burger’ campaign runs on the premise that they’ve had spectacularly bad luck – or bad planning, one might argue – in the timing of its release of a multi-meat burger.

The tagline, ‘bad timing never tasted so good’, and its related OOH adverts poke fun at what KFC have dubbed the ‘year of the vegan’, with many swapping fried chicken for vegetarian or vegan alternatives – of which KFC UK currently offers none, it’s worth noting.

Other messages featured in this campaign include ‘Vegan sausage roll it ain’t’, displayed outside Greggs stores across the UK. Certainly, this is not the first time we’ve seen fast-food brands take a swing at one another, but the copy accompanying KFC’s advert goes some way to negating the impact of this seemingly risky move, as does the fact that they have a vegan chicken burger in the works as we speak.

The copy on one ad reads: “We picked a peculiar time to launch our meatiest ever burger… A peculiar time because 2019 is, according to no less than The Economist, ‘The Year of the Vegan’. We would have sold more of them in 2018. Or 2017… Unfortunately for us though, The I Love You Bacon Burger is only ready now. Which is a shame for our sales figures. But a treat for (those remaining) bacon lovers.”

The copy, arguably, was crucial to deterring the inevitable backlash to such a divisive campaign from those taking steps to reduce their meat intake – but isn’t this exactly the kind of risk we’ve seen KFC willing to take time and time again? Their infamous ‘FCK’ ad last year seemed to hit the nail on the head of the irreverent brand their marketing communications have been building in recent years. This new caveated message, however, seems to lack the same impact.

Speaking on the launch, Marcus Buck, senior brand manager at KFC commented: “Let’s face it, we’ve timed this burger badly. We’re launching the I Love You Bacon Burger in a year when unprecedented numbers of people are eschewing meat and embracing the aubergine. But for those bacon lovers that remain, this one’s for you. It’s so irresistibly tasty – try one before you turn vegan.”

Is irreverence irrelevant?

We’ve long seen brands attempt to navigate an irreverent tone of voice with varied levels of success. The likes of Innocent have bolstered their brand awareness with a social media presence characterised by no-nonsense humour and community interaction, with almost 1,000,000 collective followers. Conversely, brands such as Poundland have struggled with controversy surrounding risqué campaigns such as ‘Elves behaving badly’ and its wasteful ‘Gift of Nothing’ for Valentine’s Day.

Irreverence is certainly attention-grabbing, but with increased sensitivities largely emphasised by social media facilitating direct access to brands, is there a renewed risk? The volume of disruptive marketing at present would suggest that even if there is, brands are not deterred.

However, as a generation is emerging that is increasingly concerned with social responsibility, poorly executed irreverence can draw ire. Firms cannot be blind to this zeitgeist, nor can it avoid the fact that a younger audience, who have grown up with smartphones in their hands, want to see the apology and are willing to boycott places that don’t meet their expectations. When they ran out of chicken, KFC creatively apologised via every tool at their disposal, but that was a bang, and this is a whimper; they have almost snuck out a pre-apology before anyone knew there was an outrage.

Conviction is key, and perhaps this is where KFC fell short with their latest campaign. Bold statements must be backed by bold moves – and where they’re not, customers will see through them. Besides, for all the skill of their apologies, a confused message rarely wins consumers and tone-deaf timing, whether you own up to it or not, is a significant misstep. They’re certainly no chickens, but this is the age of the vegetarian.

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CIM Ally Lee-Boone & Adam Pyle
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