KFC's "Racist" Ad Reveals American Consumers' Ignorance

Last Updated Jan 11, 2010 10:49 AM EST

KFC has pulled an ad in Australia after American YouTube viewers decried it as racist -- even though it is not, actually, a racist ad (video below). The events underline the insularity of the U.S. as consumer culture becomes increasingly international, and Americans' infamous ignorance of the way the world works beyond its borders.

The ad in question shows a white Australian cricket fan, "Mick," surrounded by raucous black West Indies fans. "Need a tip when you're stuck in an awkward situation?" Mick asks the camera. He then passes out a bucket of chicken, bringing the crowd under control. "Too easy," he says.

Here's a typical reaction on YouTube:
shanners000: Do you need to calm the partying black people? Use a bucket of fried chicken, the #1 stereotpye about black people!
But, as virtually everyone outside America understands, this is not an ad about African Americans or even black people. It's a skit about the rivalry between Australia and the West Indies in cricket, a game played all over the world (except for the U.S.). West Indies fans are notorious for their rowdy support. (You can see some of it here.)

The fried-chicken/black-people stereotype is virtually unknown outside the U.S. Thus, Americans are angry because they don't understand cricket, and because they falsely believe that white Australians associate all black people with fried chicken. As my BNET colleague Katherine Glover notes:
KFC's Australian ad guys did not choose fried chicken because of racist associations so much as because of the fact that KFC's main product is -- surprise! -- fried chicken.
Australians are baffled by the "controversy," and by the fact that KFC has capitulated to it:
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.
Even Americans who "get" it, don't get it. Another YouTube commenter:
SouthernNYCgal: I still don't get it. The West Indian cricket fans are laughing and having fun. Why is he uncomfortable?
You can see why KFC pulled the ad -- the alternative was explaining to Americans what it feels like to get stuck among a crowd of fans from another country at a sporting event -- a sporting experience most Americans will never have but is common around the rest of the world.

This, believe it or not, is an important point. When it comes to international sport, America is the lonely kid standing at the edge of the playground who refuses to join in. The world plays cricket while the U.S plays baseball; the world plays soccer while the U.S. plays "football."

These differences will become increasingly sharp as consumers in China, India, and Brazil become more important to advertisers. The KFC incident demonstrates that American companies may have to ignore -- or educate -- Americans if they want to communicate in an internationally relevant way.

UPDATE: Check out this highly misleading story in the New York Daily News. The report doesn't make the slightest effort to describe what the ad is actually about, but reports the "cries of racism" as if KFC had done something wrong.

UPDATE 2: BNET's Glover is really kicking ass on this thing. Now KFC is being blamed falsely for a racist Korean ad by a competing chain.

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