Playing Chicken

Three firemen on a break sit in their firehouse and talk over lunch. “Whatcha got there?” asks one as he puts down a KFC bag and begins unwrapping his meal. “Buck o’ noodles, 99 cents,” says the guy in the middle, proudly. “Man, you’re smart,” says the other. “We wasted our 99 cents on these new Buffalo Snackers from KFC.” He explains the details of the sandwich, down to the sesame bun. “And to think we could have had noodles.” Their laughter gives way to the requisite product shot: close-ups of the oozing buffalo sauce and the “crispy” lettuce. A voiceover repeats the description the happy fireman gave earlier.

Though it sounds like a pretty typical commercial, it is the first time an agency and a client tried to use the DVR technology that is frightening their ROI-loving little hearts to their advantage. At least, that’s the spin. See, I’m sure you already heard all about it, as it was PR-ed pretty heavily. It needed to be. For about a week, the commercial included a “top-secret message.” That’s right, if you used your remote control and slowed down the spot frame by frame, you would find a “top-secret code” that gave you a free Snacker. The first 75,000 to crack the code (buffalo—can you get more obvious?) got the sandwich.

But would anyone have paid attention to the spot, created by Foote Cone & Belding in Chicago, without all the noise about the “top-secret code”? It’s doubtful. It’s pretty forgettable otherwise. Nothing about the scene feels natural, the actors look stiff and their dialogue is a heavy-handed bore. Which I guess is appropriate, since the whole ploy seems heavy-handed to begin with. It seems the only place the agency made an effort is with the idea to reverse the consequences of the technology that is threatening the life of the TV commercial: It aims to attract attention to the spot rather than divert it. It’s trying to use the DVR revolution to its advantage by asking consumers to use their remotes to slow down their commercial-viewing rather than speed through it. But it is soooo not worth it.

First of all, give us a spot worth watching. If you’ve got that to begin with, you don’t need an embedded “top-secret code” to generate excitement. Consumers still appreciate a well-crafted ad that has entertainment value. Even in the age of DVR technology, if there’s a visual that catches the eye while fast-forwarding, they’ll stop to take a peek. Network executives have said that more than half of DVR users pay attention to commercials even while fast-forwarding and have gone back to watch spots they’ve accidentally skipped.

Secondly, as long as you’re going through the trouble of embedding a secret message and making us work to find it, make it worth our time. I guess a free coupon should be gift enough, but come on, give us a laugh, surprise us. Give us a “Subservient Chicken,” or a little bonus that makes the added effort worth more than a coupon clipping.

To be fair, FCB probably couldn’t do much with the embedded image, since anything other than what was already promoted in the spot would be considered subliminal advertising. Even playing with the lore of subliminal advertising in that shot could have been more interesting—putting the code in ice cubes, for example. Better yet, since consumers with DVR technology would most likely fast-forward through the commercial pods, give us a commercial that actually works with the consumer’s natural behavior, a message that turns up only when the spot is sped up: “STOP! YOU’VE GOTTA CHECK THIS OUT!!”

DVR technology is giving consumers the ability to opt out of their commercial breaks—and executions like this one aren’t going to do much to add to the life expectancy of the TV commercial. It is becoming more imperative that brands engage consumers with their messaging rather than simply present it and hope something sticks. The agency managed to get consumers to interact with their ad, both on TV and on their Web site. KFC took a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough.

This promotion was more about the promotion of the promotion rather than the technology it used. It was a gimmick to get people to pay attention. And it was somewhat successful. I can’t tell you the last KFC ad I actually noticed, and, for what it’s worth, people are talking about the spot, not so much for what is it but for what it represents—marketers trying to leverage the technologies that are allowing consumers to ignore them.

We’ll likely see more “interactive” TV ads in the future. I wonder what they’ll look like when one box becomes standard for all your computer/TV needs. But for now, you don’t need a hyped-up ad with a special code to get people to stop and watch your spot. You just need to do what all the great agencies have been doing since the beginning of TV: creating a worthwhile experience. And this one, sadly, didn’t fit the bill.