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Bow to the Marketing Masters Behind the KFC Double Down Frenzy

April 15, 2010

Ed. Note: TBTS’s own Matt Shorr was of course ahead of the curve in writing about the Double Down. He smelt it and dealt it when it was still being market-tested, fer cryin’ out loud. This is further proof that TBTS is on the cutting edge of analyzing all triglyceride-heavy cultural ephemera.

Not only does the KFC Double Down have bacon on it, I think it may be on the verge of becoming the new bacon. And by bacon, I mean Bacon. Not the food, but the meme, the ironic pop culture fetish.

And for that, the marketing wizards behind the Double Down frenzy just might deserve to be lifted up into the pantheon of masters of their field. During this onslaught of media coverage of the Double Down’s release “event,” I’ve marveled at the KFC marketers’ many accomplishments. Let’s run down the grease-stained list:

1. First, and most obviously, they’ve achieved the twin goals shared by every brand when it introduces a new product: buzz and free advertising. Granted, most of the TV I watch is via DVR with commercials fast-forwarded, but I’ve yet to see an actual paid advertisement for the Double Down. And yet, the thing is everywhere, and countless media outlets seem to be talking about it. Late night hosts are joking about it. Interns and recent J-school grads are being assigned by their editors to eat a Double Down and do write-ups or live-blogs of their experiences. Exceptionally snooty food critics are even venturing out of their gourmand bistro-caves to sample and condemn it.

It seems to me that most if not all of this attention will help, not hurt, KFC’s efforts to reach and persuade its target market and even expand beyond its usual demos. First, there is a cultural divide at work here, and to those millions of Americans who see the major national media as elitist sources of untrustworthy opinions, the condemnation of the Double Down is probably a sign that they’re going to like the product. Second, I’d wager that a whole lot of people inclined to do such things will buy and eat at least one Double Down for the ironic humor value. They’ll do it for the story they can tell at work or at this weekend’s social outing. Jeez, I think I’ve got at least one foot in both of those camps.

2. All this hubbub is for a product that’s really nothing special or outlandish, at least by corporate food standards. There are well-known dishes at fast food and other types of national chain restaurants (Olive Garden, Applebee’s, etc.) that are far worse nutritionally than the Double Down. If the two KFC boneless chicken breasts were topped with bacon and cheese and served on a plate with a fork, it would be no big deal. If they were put on a bun to make a double chicken-bacon-cheese sandwich, it would be no big deal. So the headline-grabbing prowess of the KFC Double Down basically amounts to what could justifiably be called a triumph in product design. And somewhere, the sadistic meat-mavens behind the Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr. Monster Thickburger are kicking themselves in hindsight for their silly decision to include a BUN with their version of the “arterial apocalypse.”

3. So what does this have to do with bacon? Well, as anyone who’s been on the Web in the last few years knows, a whole lot of people who fancy themselves clever love to joke about how awesome bacon is. This has nothing to do with the question of whether bacon is actually awesome (hint: it is), and it has everything to do with some folks’ unending need to find new ways to say, “I’m in on the joke.” [I’m not leaving myself out of this group I’m identifying, mind you.]

I think there’s already a similar dynamic at work with the KFC Double Down, except this time it’s starting at the level of massive familiarity only a multinational corporation can easily generate. [Contrast this with the bacon meme, which started in the dark corners of the Internet. Granted, such places are the haunts of truly the cleverest people in the world, but they still had to build bacon’s memetic mojo gradually.] In other words, I think the KFC Double Down could become, at least for a little while, sort of a “branded meme,” and it could do it quickly rather than gradually.

In fact, it may already be happening. As mentioned above, so many news outlets are doing basically the same piece about this product–let’s watch and/or listen to and/or read about some poor low-level employee who eats one of these things–just to show that they’re in on the joke. KFC may simultaneously succeed at positioning their product as the food of choice for those who distrust the “cultural elites” who try to “tell them what to eat.” So the Double Down may ultimately come to be the new representative of two opposite cultural mindsets: those who can’t believe what “some ignorant people put into their bodies,” and those who eat indulgent food out of some sense of rebellion against invasive cultural and political forces.

I would argue that the bacon meme has occupied this lofty perch for a while now, and it’s grown tiresome. There’s certainly a large backlash already in place. The KFC Double Down could well become the branded successor to bacon’s throne. If it does, that would be a marketing triumph of historic proportions, and we would all have to bow down (as low as our distended chicken guts would allow) to acknowledge KFC’s branding genius.

Now I’m off to check my schedule. I’ve got to carve out some time to go to KFC, eat a Double Down, tell my friends that I actually ate one of “those crazy things,” and then write something about how awesome and how evil this new product that isn’t anywhere near as unhealthy as about 100 other fast-food products is. And then I’ll have to go to the gym.

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