The ultimate goal of any marketing expenditure is always increased sales, or at a minimum burnishing the brand in a way that makes it more valuable—to consumers, investors, and so forth. But when it comes to the specific act of advertising, perhaps the biggest pot of gold at the end of the commercial rainbow is earned media: Free press coverage and the attendant cultural cachet that far outstrips the dollars spent to garner that publicity.
Marketers are ravenous in their pursuit of earned media, even if it means violating terms of service and users’ trust.
The latest offender is KFC.
To launch the new Kentucky Burger in the Middle East, the UAE-based agency Memac Ogilvy & Mather partnered with three popular artists in the region—Flipperachi, Moh Flow, and Shébani—who transformed their profile pages into de facto KFC ads. Kentucky Burgers graced their cover photos, bios, profile pictures, and events, and the artists’ playlists also featured song titles that read like the following: “Discover,” “New,” “Kentucky,” “Burger,” “Come & Visit,” “KFC,” “Get It,” and “Before It’s Too Late.” Taken together on a playlist, the net effect was one big ad tagline.
When I speak with Memac Ogilvy & Mather creative Fernando Montero González, he says that it seemed like the perfect way to get free media coverage. I asked him why people who paid to avoid ads would want to see any of this, and he said that the one thing they kept in mind before launching the campaign was not to interrupt the user experience. “Our communication was placed in a way that the user had a choice to embrace or ignore it,” González says. “Through the first-ever ad on Spotify Premium we are proving that ads can coexist with the user experience without interrupting them. The idea is a bit polarizing, but that’s what gives it traction.”
I guess I’m part of the problem then.
But this isn’t an earned media win. Because this isn’t a creative idea. Rather, it’s an arrogant middle finger to anyone paying Spotify for the privilege of not seeing a chicken sandwich when all they want is music from some of their favorite artists.
What this “hack” is, is an example of a certain kind of creative self-delusion that can run rampant in advertising from time to time, about the work’s place and its role in the culture. The same kind that last year led the North Face to evade Wikipedia editors in order to ever so slyly embed its products in high-traffic tourism pages for sites such as Peru’s Huayna Picchu, Brazil’s Guarita State Park, and Scotland’s Isle of Skye. The same kind that led Planters and its agency Vaynermedia to violate Twitter’s terms of service by astroturfing the popularity of Baby Nut memes so as to make its Super Bowl campaign appear more popular than it may actually have been.
In a way this is worse than what the North Face and Planters did, because people on Spotify Premium actually pay real money explicitly to avoid seeing or hearing advertising. This is a hack the same way you’d “hack” the quiet car on the train by busting in to yell about fried chicken at the top of your lungs. No one wants that. In fact, the reason they’re there in the first place is to avoid you.
I can see why the agency thinks this is a creative breakthrough. Go to any industry conference or awards show (and not just in advertising), and you’ll be sure to find celebrated examples of advertising appearing in unexpected places. Coke in Stranger Things. Burger King at McDonald’s. A Taco Bell hotel. Gatorade on Nikes. With each breakthrough, the bar is set ever higher, and the pressure to make noise becomes stronger. But just like a curious pooch who wanders to the edge of the invisible electric fence you put in the yard, agencies and brands sometimes need a shock to remind them that they’ve come too close to the property line.
This is one of those times.
KFC hasn’t yet responded to a request for comment. Neither has Spotify, but you can be damn sure they’re pissed off. KFC has essentially made null and void Spotify’s brand promise to its own customers that if they pay $10 a month they won’t see ads. Go to a KFC, and when someone orders a five-piece and fries, give them a link to RapCaviar instead and see how happy they are. This deep-fried deceit also disrespects all the advertising that’s actually worked hard to earn our attention on its own merit. Hamburger Helper’s mixtape and Popeyes streetwear didn’t need such treacherous techniques.
The lack of self- and pop-cultural awareness here is mind-boggling. Read the room. This isn’t innovative. It’s not creative. It’s manipulative and shady. In a time of Cambridge Analytica, listening devices, and sponcon, those are two labels that most good advertisers are desperately trying to avoid. Attention, if it’s to have any value, needs to be earned.
It’s why they call it earned media.
Otherwise, sneaking in the backdoor like this is just chicken.