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.)
There’s a fried-chicken sandwich floating in the stratosphere.
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.