Plucky Jim Perdue Returns to TV, Crying Foul Over Competitors’ Claims About Antibiotics

Tough men, tender chickens

Jim Perdue—son of Frank, the tough man who made tender chicken—is back pitching Perdue Farms poultry.

At a time when most every TV spot features models and celebrities, Perdue might seem a little out of place. He's 65, graying at the temples and rarely dresses in anything fancier than a denim shirt. But he isn't just the third generation of Perdue to operate the No. 3 chicken producer in America—right now, he's the most powerful piece of marketing artillery the family-owned brand can muster.

"Putting him in front of the camera brings the kind of authenticity that only someone who's the CEO and owner can have," Eric Christianson, Perdue's marketing vp, told Adweek. "And our message is an important one."

That message: Perdue's chickens are antibiotic-free and have been since last year.

In the last four months, both Tyson Foods, the biggest chicken producer, and McDonald's have announced plans to curtail the use of antibiotics in their chickens—good news, but those pledges come with strings attached. Both companies plan to eliminate the use of antibiotics also used in humans. But ionophores, antimicrobial feed additives used to boost chickens' weight, will still be permitted.

Health watchdogs have decried this loophole, and so has Perdue, which eliminated all antibiotics last year and points out that, in Tyson's case, the promised curtailing may not happen until 2017.

"Some of my competitors plan to reduce their use of antibiotics over the next few years," Perdue says in the spots. "But what are you having to dinner tonight?"

It's a compelling question if nothing else. "When he looks into the camera and speaks, people listen and make the connection because his name is on the product," said Amos Goss, group creative director for the VIA Agency, which created the campaign.

"There are a lot of confusing messages being proliferated in the market right now," added VIA's group strategy director, Dan Bailin. "This is a hard-hitting, simple message—an evolution of how Frank would have delivered it."

Frank Perdue starred in around 200 TV commercials in the 1970s and 1980s and made the brand a household name. The elder Perdue, who died in 2005, is a legend in marketing circles for demonstrating that one of the best ways to sell a product is to feature the company's president staring straight at the camera and speaking plainly about it.

But things were simpler in Frank Perdue's day when the message essentially was that Perdue chickens were tender and juicy, and if you didn't like them, Frank would give you your money back. These days, shoppers ain't just savvier about the chicken they buy, they're anxious about what goes into their meats. A 2012 survey by Consumers' Union found that 72 percent of Americans were very or extremely concerned about the overuse of antibiotics in animals, mostly because it can create disease-resistant "superbugs," which sickened 2 million people last year.

"Antibiotics are not a subject you can make light of," Christianson said. "So it comes to credibility. Jim's not trying to sell you something. He's trying to tell the story."

Well, sure. But he's also trying to sell you something—chicken—just like his father did.