American Idol Ad: KFC ‘Sneaky Snacker’ is Brandwashing


Normally I’d toss this American Idol-KFC “Buffalo Snacker” blurb in the ‘who cares’ hype hamper to keep from giving KFC more PR buzz, but frankly, this whole ‘hidden message’ ad trend has me tweaked.

Aside from the toxicity of targeting kids with MORE KFC transfat-laden junk food on the season premiere of the über-popular reality show among the tween-n-teen scene, they’re using the covert ops secret code treatment that kids go for every time.

Last year, these guys got nailed for subliminal advertising by embedding the word “Buffalo” on screen when a viewer fast-forwarded through it using a DVR and it caused an industry flurry akin to playing the Beatles White Album backwards.

This year the first 10,000 KFC site visitors identifying how the ad airing on American Idol differs from the regular KFC :30 spot will get a coupon for a free heart attack on a plate. (er, sorry, I mean, sandwich)

Amazing what kids will do for a buck. Quite literally. The thing costs 99 cents to begin with, and is the nutritional equivalent of wringing fried grease into your mouth, but the ‘entertainment’ thrill of winning something, interacting with your food, and being ‘in the know’ might as well be youth-branding in surround sound. (KFC’s interactive calculator gets an A+ though, can’t say they’re bluffing anyone there)

Is the tactic new? Actually, it’s quite retro. Remember those Sunday comics with the ‘spot the difference between the two cartoons?’ Or the Highlights puzzles in the dentist’s waiting rooms? Compare the funny man with the ballcap off/on?

Same gig. But they weren’t branding brains for bucks or baiting kids with junk food & commercialism.

Marketers now go after kids with reckless abandon, using the ‘mini-adult’ formula with narry a thought about impact, consequence, habits or health.

This article from the KFC promo prompting replays in slo-mo to ‘crack the code’ proudly proclaims, it’s “geared toward young consumers who are tech-savvy…they love to play games. This is a creative way to get them to pay attention to a commercial.”

Yup. Just ask the gang at fellow junk food giant, Frito-Lay who used elusive SMS texting codes “inNw” (if not now when) targeting kids via phone and outdoor ads so kids would interact with their chip wrappers in an ongoing build up to the big stealth reveal for the (drum roll please) ‘Black Pepper Jack’ Doritos launch.

Their site had full mobile mania with an instant messaging (IM) interface that let teens unlock hundreds of video and audio clips and games.

Call it ‘brand integration’ or ‘multi-platform’ delivery or whatever adverbuzz hipspeak you wish, it essentially means you’re slamming kids from all directions and making a game of it to boot.

Obviously, there’s complicity here. Kids love this stuff. I’m not going to open the ‘nanny’ nation argument, as I’m not a censorship fan nor a tech-filter freak…

I’m asking our industry for accountability, responsibility, ethics and reason…connecting the dots between media and marketing’s impact on the physical and emotional health of kids. (junk food, body image, desensitization, etc.)

Ad Age ran a great commentary on ‘brandwashing’ by Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy and here are a few snippets that will make you squirm. (If not, why not?)

“…Advertisers are now working to harness the power of our emotions through research on “neuroscience” and “psychophysiology.” As the ARF and AAAA explained in 2005 during Advertising Week, the industry wants to “capture unconscious thought, recognition of symbols and metaphors… Emotional responses can be created even if we have no awareness of the stimuli that caused them.”

Yikes. He sums up some of our consortium’s behavioral marketing concerns much more eloquently than I. It was nice to see some erudite contributions in the Ad Age response dialogue too. Gives me hope our nonprofit isn’t talking in an echo chamber, after all ad industry pros are often parents too.

Hammering kids with Coke product placement on American Idol and embedding chicken codes that target tweens and teens on a wildly popular cult favorite like this is clearly target marketing with guerilla tactics.

It’s micropersuasion with a dose of techno-tie-in follow through. Talk about ‘influencers’ that make me shudder.

American Idol has spawned more knock-offs than a Rolex in the far east, with rabid fans that track and blog every episode.

It’s such a hit that I use a similar format (minus the mean-spirited snarky comments) in a counter-marketing session called ‘Idolized’ where kids’ come up with better role models in our own version of ‘user generated content’ for media literacy.

In fact, it’s so popular I’m the only one in gym class that draws a blank stare from our instructor when she tosses out “who should’ve won” and buzz fills the room as everyone seems on a first-name basis with these folks except me. (Ditto ‘Dancing with the Stars’, Survivor, any reality show du’ jour; media’s massive impact scales far beyond youth)

When advertising infiltrates pop culture boasting of its stealthiness, using phrases like “Sneaky Snacker Tradition” and “first-ever documented hidden message in a national TV ad” it’s as if we’re sanctioning deception and embracing the blurred lines of branding.

It’s all part of a wink-wink nod to advertainment blending right into the program, product placement, and public platform.

This kind of content shifts to a gigantic water cooler moment reducing the zeitgeist of cultural thought into vapid digestibles placed in our mind and in our body.

KFC has the audacity to sign off their PR puffery as continuing their “ad tradition” with this “national challenge.”

A tradition of what…trickery? And, ahem…a “national challenge?”

C’mon folks, this is a ‘Where’s Waldo’ moment on a :30 slab of chicken advertising, not a middle east peace agreement…Sigh.

The thought of some child eagerly fixated on the ad with a laptop at the ready to “spot the alteration” and frantically log in to claim the coupon makes me want to weep.

Is this what we want for our kids? For our culture?

Brandwashing is the kindest term I can use.



  1. shane perrone says

    Check out

    Kentucky fried cruelty

    you will never eat kfc again. I am not agaisnt eating meat, i even support eating healthy free range meat, but i honor the animals who make a sacrifice for us, while kfc pisses on their responsibility to shape up and spend the extra couple cents to at least give the chickens a slightly less painful life.

  2. yes, Shane, the ‘factory farming’ issue is huge, and the HSUS is all over it. I’ve been supporting their efforts from the get-go…and applaud the progress they’ve made…strong lobbying group they have, indeed!

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