First published in National Times
A Guest post by Melbourne-based writer James Schloeffel
We now know that Colonel Sanders’ poultry empire isn’t just about dishing out greasy chicken and fake potato. It is also racist. At least that is what some American YouTube viewers and parts of the mainstream American press would have you believe.
And why? The fast food chain ran a TV advertisement involving fried chicken and West Indian cricket fans. Apparently this is offensive, we have since been told, because it perpetuates the stereotype that black people eat a lot of fried chicken.
The world may have finally gone mad. The only offensive thing about the ad is the atrocious, hackneyed acting, common to all KFC productions. But it’s not racist. Quite simply, KFC sponsor the cricket; Australia is playing the West Indies this summer; KFC sell fried chicken. It isn’t any more complex than that.
Using the critics’ definition, the only way “racism” could have been avoided was if KFC excluded fried chicken, West Indians or both from their advertising. To level such restrictions would be absurd. Yet, given that KFC has now pulled the ad in response to the American criticism, that is effectively what has happened.
Racism is a serious issue and needs to be taken seriously. Millions of people have died because delusional dictators and their followers have felt threatened by the differences of other races. Millions more have suffered inequality and prejudice in their daily lives because of their racist countrymen. Labeling this ad – a simple, if cringe-worthy plug for fast food – racist makes a mockery of the word.
Yet it is part of a growing trend to brand anyone who makes an observation about, or overtly refers to race, as a racist. The danger is that by bandying about the R-word with such abandon, the real meaning of the term becomes devalued. We start to confuse or equate someone who makes a cultural reference or observation with someone who believes their race is superior or who discriminates on the basis of race, which is what racism is.
Not that KFC was trying to make any kind of cultural observation or comment. If the Americans in question had seen any of the Colonel’s past Australian TV work, they’d soon realise KFC are way too unsophisticated for that. But even if KFC had intended to portray West Indians as more partial to chicken than the rest of us, is that really racist? Does it present West Indians as inferior? Does it prejudice or disadvantage them? By that logic a tourist brochure showing an Englishman drinking a pint of warm beer or an Australian surfing on Bondi should be banned.
But there is a bigger issue at play here. Our fears of being labelled a racist have led us to avoid making any comment on — or even acknowledge – the differences among cultures. Many of us are tentative to refer to race at all due to some innate feeling that it may be inappropriate. Yet when my six year-old son describes his school friends, he talks about their skin colour (brown, light brown, pink etc), hair colour and height, and not necessarily in that order. It seems perfectly natural to him. And why shouldn’t it? He is calling it as he sees it, without prejudice or intolerance.
As adults we have become paralysed. We freely use hair colour, gender and personality traits to describe people, but we seize up when faced with the prospect of defining someone’s skin colour or race, as if it would somehow be an insult.
At a pub recently a friend asked me to deliver a drink to someone I hadn’t met before and when I asked what the person looked like, he said she had dark hair. Had he also described her as Asian, or indeed Thai, I would have found her much more quickly. Race has become the elephant in the room.
We should follow the example of our children. Our differences are what make us interesting, our racial characteristics help define who we are. We should not be ashamed about them, nor be afraid to notice differences in others.
So yes, the actors in the KFC were West Indians, yes they were black, yes they liked chicken (maybe more than the white guy in the ad, maybe not), but these are merely observations, not racist taunts. Let’s focus on stamping out real racism and leave the chicken mongers to make their silly ads.
Read the published version and related comments: www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/kfc-ad-a-storm-in-a-fried-chicken-bucket-20100111-m21e.html
James is a freelance copywriter and marketer from Melbourne, Australia.
He is regular contributor to titles such as The Melbourne Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and Marketing Magazine on topics as diverse as Barbie’s 50th Anniversary, why your company didn’t invent the iPod and how the Australian parliament could be turned into a reality TV show.
In another life James was Marketing Manager for STA Travel (both in Australia and the UK) and now freelances – as a copywriter and marketing consultant – for a number of brands and agencies.
To contact James or to read more of his writing, visit www.jamesschloeffel.com