The Most Dystopian Marketing Stunt Ever?

KFC is promising $11,000 to the first baby named after Colonel Sanders and born on his birthday.

Tursk Aleksandra / timquo / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

The name Harland hasn’t been in fashion for quite a while. The last time it cracked the top 1,000 names for American baby boys was about 70 years ago. Even in 1918—the year in the 20th century that produced the most Harlands—there were only 155 of them born.

The name would likely have maintained its obscurity for decades, perhaps never to return. But Harland might soon make a comeback, thanks to the efforts of, strangely enough, Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Harland is the first name of the fast-food company’s founder (and now mascot), Colonel Sanders, and the company announced on Wednesday that it will award $11,000 to the first baby born on September 9, Sanders’s birthday, bearing the name Harland. Per a press release, the gift of $11,000 is “in honor of KFC’s 11 herbs and spices” and is intended for the newborn Harland’s college tuition.

In other words, there might soon be a child whose naming rights were effectively purchased by a company that sells fast food. Surely KFC intended for this stunt to get attention and press, which is a disappointing confirmation of the lengths to which corporations will go to set themselves apart in the churn of the social-media age.

It is sad to think of the conversation young Harland’s parents might someday have with him, explaining that he is named for the respected patriarch not of his family but of the company that makes the Double Down. Sadder still to imagine the conversation when the teenage Harland asks his parents, tears in his eyes, why they can’t afford tuition at the college of his dreams; his parents will have to explain that their resources are constrained by the number of herbs and spices in KFC’s original recipe. Most devastating of all is the pain of the uncompensated Harlands, babies who couldn’t make it out into the world fast enough on September 9 to claim first prize.

Marketing has never been a principled business, but KFC’s offer seems a new low. Embedded in the winky branding—when I asked if the promotion was real, KFC responded, in part, “As real as a crying newborn baby”—is the dispiriting recognition that college costs an obscene amount of money, and likely still will when our hypothetical Harland might finally matriculate. The company’s promotion minimizes the very real financial strain that college puts on families; it offers them help in exchange for, you know, just a small favor. Harland could always go by his middle name, right?

(When I asked KFC whether the rising cost of college inspired the promotion, the company responded, “Ever the entrepreneur, Colonel Sanders bounced back from a series of failed jobs and business ventures to found Kentucky Fried Chicken in his 60s. We couldn’t think of a better way to honor him than to help support Baby Harland’s future successes with a college donation.”)

KFC has a penchant for the outlandish—it launched a chicken sandwich into space last year, and got a lot of media attention for doing so—but this latest stunt is uniquely unsavory. Judith Donath, an advisor at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard and the author of The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online, says it feels that way because it’s a large corporation’s attempt to “insert itself at such a personal level into the life of this yet-unborn child.” (Donath did, however, note that many parents already do name their children after corporate entities without any outside prodding—consider all the children out there named for Disney princesses.)

Also concerning is the possibility that this promotion has been calibrated to induce outrage online. It is reminiscent of when, two months ago, the pancake chain IHOP joked about changing its name to IHOb, the “b” standing for burgers. People got worked up about it on social media, which only drew more attention to the company. But a faux corporate name-change (IHOb) is innocuous in a way that a real human name-change (Harland) isn’t.

When I asked KFC if it was thinking about how the Harland promotion would play on social media, it said, “With everything we do, including through social media, we always try to show up in unexpected ways while staying true to our roots and striving to make the Colonel proud.” And when I asked if it anticipated any backlash, the company responded, “Our hope with this promotion is to reignite America’s love for the name Harland based on [Sanders’s] passion, determination and his real American dream story.” (When I wrote back asking if they’d answer my original question, I didn’t receive a response.)

Is KFC really oblivious to how creepy it is for a child’s name to be directly influenced by a company? Or is it intentionally crossing a line to get attention? “On the most positive side,” Donath said, “I can imagine someone in the marketing department who really likes the company. They work for it, they market for it, they’re fond of it, and this would be so cool—It’s a cool name, I’ve always liked it, we could do this and it’s great marketing and someone would get this money—and they’re not really doing it cynically. But you could also see this as this completely cynical person in the marketing department saying, We could get a ton of buzz around this and we could always deflect it by saying, look, we’re helping pay for college.”

Regardless of whether September 9 brings any new Harlands into the world, KFC’s marketing strategy has arguably already worked. USA Today covered the company’s offer unblinkingly. (“This isn’t a clucking joke, people,” the reporter wrote cheekily.) Other media outlets have written uncritically about the stunt, too. Press coverage like this is valuable marketing—it will easily do more for KFC than $11,000 will ever do for Harland.