Branded Repaired Potholes Will Inspire Road Rage, Not Sales

KFC's Plan, While a Good Example of Cause Marketing, Is Not a Foolproof Idea

By Published on .

This column will be constructed in three parts.

The first part will explain why KFC's plan to repair potholes in U.S. cities is a good example of ambient advertising, with a touch of cause marketing thrown in. The second part will explain why branding repaired potholes is nonetheless not a foolproof idea. The third part will point out why this is one of the dumbest semiotic blunders in marketing history.

Marketer: KFC
Agency: In-house
KFC potholes
Will everyday Americans be grateful to KFC for pitching in for the community? Or will they have a slightly different reaction -- such as, let's say ... disgust?
So let's begin at the beginning. As some guy continues to say in this very publication -- over and over, to the point of tedium -- media advertising is an endangered species. It gets harder and harder to communicate a brand message, at a price, in the time and place intended, for the various audiences you wish to impress. Advertising online, where ad avoidance is integral to the culture, offers no immediate solution.

Where, then, to put your logo in front of the consumer? Well, in the retail space, duh ... especially your own. The best place to locate your customers is obviously in your place of business. But, then, they've already been converted, haven't they? So that pretty much limits the reach of your sermon-to-the-choir loft. The advantage of ambient messaging is that it inhabits (or, perhaps, infests) the whole rest of the physical world.

Thus, some motorist encountering a former pothole, embossed or painted with the KFC service mark, can't help but notice. A corporate logo encountered out of context has far more impact than it does in the context of the company's own domain. And that same motorist will fully understand that, in these uncertain economic times, a fried-chicken chain has wound up usurping one of the most basic functions of municipal government. To the extent that that engenders gratitude, KFC will benefit. Here's how KFC's Javier Benito put it: "This program is a perfect example of that rare and optimal occurrence when a company can creatively market itself and help local governments and everyday Americans across the country."

But will everyday Americans be grateful to KFC for pitching in for the community? Or will they have a slightly different reaction -- such as, let's say ... disgust? Disgust that there is simply nothing left immune to ad messages, not even freakin' road repair. Disgust that their communities have to whore themselves to a chicken joint to keep the roads maintained. Disgust that the civic-minded KFC folks aren't so civic-minded as to refrain from turning a supposed bit of philanthropy into a cheap quid pro quo and further blighting the urban environment with their obnoxious logos.

Can you see how the extra impact of out-of-contextness, in that scenario, confers something less than a marketing advantage? On the contrary, it could trigger a stampede to Popeye's.

It's certainly clear that, on the conscious level, this scheme could net out in either direction: KFC the heroes or KFC the opportunistic scumbags.

The thing is, however, that the true net of this exercise will not likely turn on the conscious level. It will turn on a matter of semiotics, which is the art -- or accident -- of embedding meaning into or deriving meaning from nonverbal messaging. And, on this point, we simply have to ask you: If you were selling a fast-food item such as KFC's chicken-flavored doughnuts, which go right past your stomach and head straight for your coronary arteries, where they lodge themselves until you finally collapse shoveling snow, would you really want to promote the imagery of tar and gravel being stuffed into a hole?

We wonder what the chain's next marketing gambit is. Our guess: a joint promotion with JiffyLube.

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