Big Fast Food Is Losing Its Mind Selling Crap To Millennials
Kentucky Fried Chicken recently released a free dating sim called I Love You, Colonel Sanders! That you are likely unsurprised says a lot in itself. But how does a fast food titan evolve from '90s "Hey, here's what we sell" advertising like this ...
... to winking "You'd fuck our mascot, right?" ads like this?
The game's premise is that, as a culinary student, you dream of seducing the irresistible Colonel Sanders while learning to cook "delicious" KFC products. Over the course of 90 excruciating minutes, you must deal with the wacky antics of your excitable best friend, your mean rival, and other characters so generic that they feel like they were copied off of TV Tropes pages. Your reward, other than potentially getting to taste the Colonel's hot gravy, is to gaze upon KFC menu items presented in fetishistic detail.
It's not without it critics, but KFC received a wave of positive media for releasing a free game with a 12-year-old Newgrounds user's sense of humour. Your teacher ... is a dog? This monster ... is made of sporks? LOL, so random! It has over 4,300 Steam reviews and an overall "Very Positive" rating, which is comparable to a modest indie hit. And yes, some of those reviews are ironic, but that's like ironically buying a gag gift -- the end result is identical. You still spend time in a bizarre capitalist fever dream where life revolves around how wonderful KFC is and a deep lust for the Colonel's potato wedge is an implied character trait.
But when a megacorporation that sees people primarily as chicken receptacles releases a marketing stunt about earning the love of its mascot (a real man who grew to despise the quality of his own brand's product), it's important to look at some context. KFC has lost 1,400 American locations since 2004 (that's over 25% of their stores), and they're far from the only struggling fast food company. Older people are eating out less, millennials prefer delivery from quick-service restaurants, and while Gen Z likes fast food, they're also increasingly concerned about nutrition. That leaves little room for "Shove this greasy fried food down your gaping maw" to be an effective message, and in that diminished space, KFC is getting its ass kicked by Chick-Fil-A. Fast food is largely staying afloat by raising prices, but that won't work forever.
So fast food needs to reinvent itself, but its attempts have been ... scattershot. KFC's been trying to make the Colonel more fuckable for years. They released a free Victorian romance novella in 2017, Colonel Sanders was a ripped playable character in WWE 2K18, and they offered up a "Chickendales" strip routine for Mother's Day. Again, he was a real person who compared KFC's gravy to "wallpaper paste."
And we're reasonably sure he never dropped any elbows off the top rope.
But I Love You, Colonel Sanders! is certainly a success, if the hordes of YouTubers talking about how "hilarious" it is / giving KFC tons of free advertising are any indication. And having people talk about how KFC is quirky is better than having people talk about how KFC has no apparent plan to address their huge carbon footprint, how they've made a significant contribution to obesity crises in Africa and China while also helping China work on their facial recognition software, or how they dragged their feet on changing a supply line that pulped sensitive swathes of rainforest and committed a variety of sad human rights abuses to produce paper and palm oil. These and other issues can't be brought up during pillow talk with Colonel Sanders.
We're not trying to make you feel guilty about enjoying fried chicken, which we consider to be a food group, but "Look at how wacky we are!" is how giant brands now grab and deflect the attention of consumers who are otherwise supposedly immune to advertising. This isn't even KFC's first video game, but a 2015 one didn't get much attention. They had to refine their approach.
Meanwhile, Wendy's countered with the release of Feast Of Legends, a free tabletop RPG where you must -- and try not cringe so hard that you pull something here -- aid "The Clapback Queen" of Freshtovia in her struggle against the United Clown Nations. (A shot at McDonald's and, uh, the United Nations?) It's a D&D ripoff where adventurers can be a member of the Order of the Asiago Ranch Chicken Club, if their lives are sad and sweaty enough for that to be appealing.
If that all sounds moronic, then congratulations on still having a soul, but not a single person on this planet has to play a second of, ugh, Feast Of Legends for it to be a success. The avalanche of "Look at this goofy thing!" and "Wow, they wrote a whole 100-page guide!" headlines / clickable ads were the success. It's not like any real effort was even put into it. It doesn't take an MFA to change D&D bandits to "Beef Bandits," and Queen Wendy is referred to as "first of her name, breaker of fast food chains, defender of all things fresh, never frozen" because the writers didn't bother to look up how Game Of Thrones ended. But it's enough to distract attention from yet another round of labor rights violations and their CEO making tone-deaf complaints about income inequality driving customers away while they eliminate jobs and keep wages low. Strangely, there is no quest to resolve the repeated sexual abuse claims made by Wendy's tomato farmers.
Companies have been advertising with video games since the Atari era, and completely divorcing advertising from the ostensible traits of their products since at least whenever Mad Men was set. (The 1840s? It's been a while since we watched it.) When you do it right, it works: Juicy Fruit's deranged aspirational 1980s ad campaign about cool young adults who ski, probably do cocaine, and get 20 seconds of flavor from gum they put in their mouths like they're filming porn was being parodied by Family Guy decades later (and by "parodied," we mean recreated wholesale with no joke or observation).
But at a time when SunnyD tweets about depression and goddamn Little Debbie swoops in with suicide prevention tips, brands are embracing subjects they would have considered disastrous to touch before. It's difficult to imagine the KFC of the '90s pulling its I Hope Colonel Senpai Will Notice Me shit, and now Polygon is pointing out that a $35 billion trash food conglomerate is muscling into (and mocking) a genre where underrepresented people look for good storytelling. It's like if Burger King's CMO showed up at your local open mic night to joke about how tasty his buns are.
They don't need to sell their product as long as they've established a personality, which is why we live in a world where Vita Coco joked about drinking piss, the greasy pile of salt and divorced dad despair known as Steak-umm has been personified as a woke absurdist millennial, and brands getting in a "fight" earns them articles like "Taco Bell Smacks Down Old Spice On Twitter," because surely nothing makes you feel smacked down like piles of free attention.
Comments that would have once been gaffes resulting in apologies and fired interns, like Bud Light joking about hating Coors drinkers, are now carefully calculated statements made by professionals, because having a personality that looks human deflects attention from all the human misery and/or gastrointestinal distress these brands create. KFC likes movie parodies, so they're just like us, aside from all those years they spent profiting from child and slave labor!
Brands have to engage with their customers somehow, so this is just what advertising is now that commercials are rapidly losing their relevance, print ads only target the soon-to-be-deceased, everyone is an expert at YouTube's "click the Skip Ad button" minigame, and clicking on a banner ad is viewed as an early symptom of a brain tumor. But aside from a reminder that we all live in a William Gibson novel, keep in mind that being quirky is how brands target you when they have nothing else of value to add to your life.
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