Network Dropped Ad Due to 'Hidden Message'

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Score one for the buzz marketing team at Kentucky Fried Chicken.

In rejecting a commercial for KFC, the ABC TV network may have given the chicken chain enough free publicity to recoup the costs of its sandwich giveaway. The Walt Disney Co.-owned network blocked the spot, which encouraged viewers to replay it in slow motion to find a hidden message as the key to getting the $1 sandwich for free, in an effort to comply with a Federal Communications Commission ruling on subliminal advertising.

11,000 entries
KFC saw Web-site visits spike to 11,000 entries after the spot first aired, and as of today, more than 70,000 people have submitted codes for the free sandwich.

ABC was the only network to block the hidden message, pointing to its longtime policy to not air spots known to carry “anything that would be below the audience threshold of sensation of awareness.” Yet KFC widely promoted the spot as a publicity stunt in a Feb. 23 press release hyping the first hidden message in a national ad.

“This program gives us the chance to generate news in a completely unconventional way,” Tom O’Keefe, executive creative director on the KFC account at Interpublic Group of Cos.' FCB, New York, said in the release.

The message was also visible to viewers even without slowing down the spot, albeit briefly.

“Any fear that flashing a coupon code is going to somehow turn people into animatrons and march over to KFC is completely ridiculous,” said Patrick Vargas, associate professor-advertising at the University of Illinois. He called the KFC ploy a new twist to James Vicary’s subliminal message claim in the late 1950s that he presented a hidden message of “drink Coca-Cola and eat popcorn” to moviegoers. “This is a very similar thing. ABC just adds to the hype. It’s fun, but it’s certainly not dangerous.”

Subliminal persuasion
Two executives close to the situation said ABC wanted to steer clear of any subliminal persuasion because not every viewer has the technology to slow down the spot and see the hidden message. “Some people still watch TV using rabbit ears,” said one.

KFC parent Yum Brands has used a buzz-marketing strategy for several years and is well-known for creating publicity stunts to fuel promotions from space launches to elections.

In fact, KFC had been trying to come up with a way to do this for years, said the KFC spokeswoman. “It was a PR-buzz idea years ago, but technology wasn’t around to make it work,” she said. “It definitely played off the consumer who is tech-savvy and loves to play games. ... We thought it would be great to take our existing 30-second commercial and make it an interactive commercial.”

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