Monday, 4 February 2008

Fully Loaded

Up to January 31, 2008 when I noticed that the posters that had been up had disappeared, Kentucky Fried Chicken had on Norwich bus shelters (which are part of Clear Channel Outdoor) and local point of sale a poster showing a KFC meal served in a open sardine tin with the tagline: Fully Loaded.

I shall attempt here to deconstruct this poster for clues into its meanings and the likely reasoning behind the creative decisions made in this campaign and my impressions of it.

KFC is a brand leader in the global fast food market and ensures its market share against stiff opposition with a huge advertising budget, which in 2001 was 787 million USD. Therefore I would assume that KFC consider every piece of brand communications very carefully and would subject their campaigns to rigorous analysis rather than rely on the gut instinct of advertising creatives.

It appeared to me, as a pedestrian and bus rider, that this campaign was limited to the local area. I had the opportunity to visit nearby Lowestoft in the same week where there was no sign of this campaign. References I found with Google indicate that this campaign is for a limited time meal combination that has been marketed elsewhere.

The 'Fully Loaded' tagline is by no stretch original copywriting as it is presently used by the US chain Checkers and Campbell's Chunky Soups and as a movie title. The phrase is a cultural artifact in its own right. Although it has many associations, the meanings are generally consistent and the other uses do not present any obvious liability, rather more, they reinforce each other. It's most common usage is to describe automobiles that have all the optional features included therefore it makes the promise: nothing has been left out. It signifies abundance. The phrase is catchy and evocative shorthand, everything that a slogan should be.

The first impression I had of this advertisement was of ambiguous messages which I suspect are intentional. The visual and textural elements combined to express both concrete and abstract terms. Rationally this poster is an explicit pitch emphasizing the convenience, quality and value of a combination meal by signifiers with concrete meanings but the poster is also rich with implied messages that are dependent on the imagination and culture of the viewer. I shall try to expand – with my layman’s grasp of semiotics - on just a few of the signifiers in the following matrix.

Concrete promises

  1. Price by price sticker
  2. Quantity and forms of food and drink by images and text descriptors
  3. Quality of food by images of real food
  4. Appealing flavours of food by text descriptors
  5. Appealing textures of food by images of real food
  6. Value by combination of quantity and price
Abstract promises

  1. Convenience by sardine tin metaphor for take-away container
  2. Convenience by angle of view of products
  3. Good Value by over-filled sardine tin
  4. High quality by KFC brand reputation
  5. Quality by colour scheme significance

Decoding abstract or hidden meanings depends on the viewer's interpretation and hard evidence is almost non existent but it is understood that advertising influences the conscious and subconscious mind and it can alter behaviour without the recipients being aware of it [2]. The New York Times reported that "new studies reveal a subconscious brain that is far more active, purposeful and independent than previously known.

The effect of advertising messages on a subconscious, emotional level is something I am confident a multi-national corporation such as KFC would have some knowledge of; either by reference to scientific research or trial and error but it is for the reader to decide where KFC's messages are pitched and where they are landing.

The poster’s offers are a inelegant construction where the key promise is deduced from a quality that is emphasized with visual metaphor and the tagline to compare the price. The central conceit of using a sardine tin as a metaphor for the box meal is, to me, meant to convey that the portions are generous and reinforced with the tagline; that conveys "nothing is lacking" and when compared with the price given, the viewer would deduce that X quantity + Y price = favourable value. The visual metaphor used here is often used elsewhere(see example given) for overcrowding - such as in rail passenger rights campaigns - and here it implies there is too much food for the container it comes in, which reinforces the price/quantity comparison.

However, the visual metaphor of the sardine tin used as a tray or take-away box did not communicate these meanings directly to me. It took a moment to decode what this meant as a whole. I would posit that this choice of metaphor was not overtly an entirely successful one. The sardine tin as a metaphor has some liabilities.

I offer its Wikipedia entry as evidence of the ubiquity and variety of the sardine metaphor; Sardines occupy a unique position in our shared cultural and literary heritage. This is mostly because of the interesting way that they come to us: packed tightly in cans which once upon a time were opened with an external key. From this image we get the ubiquitous phrase, "packed in like sardines." Sardines packed in their tins present an image of the organic oppressed by the inorganic which has frequently struck a chord with artists and social commentators. We see this image constantly in art and editorial cartoons; we even hear about it in Radiohead songs. Playwright and comedian Alan Bennett memorably used the image of a sardine tin as a metaphor for life (where we have lost the key).

I find it interesting that the sardine tin motif was not carried through on to the serving box and it has eluded me to find any use of another context combining metaphors 'crowded like sardines' and 'loaded with features' so I would say their connection is original but this construction is so jarring in its visual grammar (as in Leborg's book of the same name) that it takes on a surrealist quality.

The small size and discrete placement of the price sticker on the poster suggests that something else is being promised. As price is being underplayed, I suspect that quantity of food for the price it is not the only feature or benefit and some other more abstract meaning is intended.

An aspect of the sardine tin iconography that I should like to decipher is the rolled back lid and its inaccurate scale to the food products. There are innumerable ways sardine tins open. The 'key' and partly rolled back lid here have a revelatory quality and this conveys (to me at least) that the products, (the bun, drink and fries), have a narrative back story as they have been unusually combined by an unseen hand inside a tin and are now unleashed. By literally surrounding the product with the sardine tin, this infers transference of the values (crowding) of the sardine tin (an object with a known purpose as a container) to the food. Promises of plenty are evoked but it is stretching the bounds of credibility as it is unusual to serve food in a relatively giant sardine tin, although it is not beyond possibility.

I presume the creative team behind the KFC ad considered carefully how a captive audience at bus shelters and the passing pedestrian would react to the juxtaposition of these unusual elements and strove to achieve a visual pun with 'sardine tin + fully loaded' that took a second or so to 'get' and such visual puns strike the right balance of challenge and reward in the fleeting window of opportunity for attention.

Comparing the 'pitch' to the product in-store by photos on flickr I found that at point of sale, the branding on the serving box makes a very different promise. Here the Fully Loaded tagline is supplemented by "now seriously satisfy your appetite" and its crane hook and chain graphics emphasize a heavy 'load' being lifted by the customer. I am puzzled to understand the relevance as a carry through from the posters of this crane motif except that cranes carry "loads"

I also question the intent of the borders of the tagline copy as I cannot see a accentuating purpose for the darts and rectangle except that it makes the tag line an imposter as a sardine tin label and it is somehow similar to an icon for a theatre or movie ticket. Could this be a subtle hijack of the awareness of the Disney movie? Another ubiquitous word association is "meal ticket" and perhaps this motif straddles the two.

It is well understood that if you can make a viewer stop and look at your advertisement twice, its message may become more memorable. Puzzles are regularly used in advertising and Honda's current campaign is based on six puzzles which have to be solved to unlock benefits. Recent research at Simon Fraser University [4] shows that puzzle solving creates a false sense of familiarity with a brand and creates a preference for the brand which must be a boon to advertising.

I find it interesting that on the poster the word 'meal' that appears in the tagline is turned sideways and so does not follow the scan of a reader's eyes and so could fail to register at the optimum viewing distance. On one hand, the both deliberate inclusion and attempt to defeat reading the word 'meal' could be to prevent any claim of infringement by the Walt Disney Company or other trademark holders who may have trademarked fully + loaded and so may consider 'anything: fully loaded' as an infringement. The potential for lawsuits however frivolous is not taken lightly as brand rivals seem to delight in aggressively hindering their competitors with lawsuits. Also, if the tagline on the poster and box was unambiguously ‘Fully Loaded Meal’ it does not reference so immediately the cultural connotation of feature-rich products.

The 'Fully Loaded' tagline is most likely to be connected to the popular phrase that has long been a part of American usage (reinforcing the US origin of the KFC brand) and this is culturally acceptable in the UK (although it is a recent import) but there is the possibility, as I made the connection myself, that the viewer would connect the 'loaded' to mean loaded with high fat, sugar and salt content which at the present time is a negative aspect of fast food. There is the negative connotation of ‘loaded’ as in dice being tampered with and someone is either wealthy or intoxicated if they are ‘loaded’. A play on meanings not lost on the publisher of the men’s magazine ‘Loaded’.

Today major food corporations like the tobacco companies are keen to distract consumers from any message about potential harm by their product. In this instance, the use of ‘loaded’ could appeal to males by an indirect but established connection to machismo by association with automobiles and is infer rebellion against the facts that such foods have health risks. KFC would not be the only fast food company to do this. On the Checkers poster there is a secondary tag line "fries with attitude" alledging these '"fully loaded" fries are perhaps as rebellious and incompliant as an adolescent.

A connotation (deliberate or unintentional) with risk or harm is not necessarily a bad thing when marketing a product. The example of 'Death' cigarettes with packets branded with a skull and crossbones as well as health warnings shows that people can have a perverse conscious or subconscious delight in danger and associations with risk and rebellion are constantly exploited by advertisers. Despite its admitted brand position as a joke and so likely to be a short-lived fad, the Death cigarette brand was immensely popular and it was only a ruling against its tax arbitrage scheme that lead to the brand's demise rather than any failure of the product in the marketplace with consumers.

The fast food industry as a whole has come under growing criticism for the fat and salt content of its food and its marketing practices [5] and like the tobacco companies, some have come to emphasize that the responsibility lies with the consumer to make informed choices. There is, as I perceive it, a message that something that is "Fully Loaded" appeals to a baser pleasure and subconscious hunger that fatty food satisfies. Their is research, such as John Hoebel's work at Princeton, that fried foods rich in fats are addictive. [6]

Given that it is in KFC's interest to neutralize negative associations between fried foods and unhealthy diets, the use of a sardine tin has a sinister possibility that they are using the concurrent healthy associations with sardines to visually confuse the message of unhealthy food in the way Marlboro and Camel cigarettes built associations with the healthy outdoors. Although a rational consideration would not make that association, it is the subconscious that wakes the appetite and says it is hungry.

There are other subtle hints that KFC considers these issues. This poster uses the recent redesign of KFC's Colonel Sanders trademark and I notice that part of the colonel's makeover is to switch his clothing from a coat and tie to a kitchen apron. As a KFC logo redesign would not be considered lightly, perhaps this was to emphasis that KFC products are cooked and to use the connotations of home and friendliness as well as freshness and by extension health that kitchens have.

I also consider it important to notice that the sardine tin and food products appear photographed (although the sardine tin looks digitally constructed) in a red infinity cove. This colour has obvious brand associations but also the setting evokes an atmosphere of both the film premiere's red carpet and a show room.

Kenneth R. Fehrman, a professor of interior design at San Francisco State University and co-author of 'Color, The Secret Influence' states that red, a color often used in advertising, is proven to cause an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, thereby increasing a person's tendency to make impulse purchases. It is unlikely to be an accident that all the major fast food outlets utilize red predominantly in their colour schemes.

The red carpet is another icon with many useful meanings that KFC might want to associate with its product. The history of these associations is as old as ancient Greek myths. Agamemnon was tricked by his wife into walking across a red carpet fit only for the "feet of the gods." We generally associate a red carpet now with celebrities and royalty and premieres of special events. Something on a red carpet has status.

There is also a message in the visual grammar of the angle of view the view has of the product on the red field. Here the viewer is slightly dominant, but close to neutral, which suggests subconsciously that the product is passive and harmless and within reach. When advertisers want to signify strength and robustness, such as for heavy trucks, or success and aspiration, they tend to raise the product to dominate the eyeline of the viewer. To convey intimacy and smallness, the viewpoint is most often downwards. The sheer quantity of discourse on this subject proves alone that such considerations are far from trivial.

1 Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (2001) Eric Schlosser


3 The Contextual Effect of the Local Food Environment on Residents' Diets: The Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Study - Morland, Wing & Roux

4 Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, Unscrambling words increases brand name recognition and preference, Volume 20, Issue 5 , Pages 681 - 687

5 Super Size Me - Morgan Spurlock.