Ok, just going to tell you right off, fair reader, that though I am a journalist and pledged to stay fervently objective, I've decided to go a bit subjective on the matter of KFC's new National Fried Chicken promotion around a so-called robotic Col. Sanders. In case you haven't yet heard about this promotion around an animatronic version of the brand's founder, dubbed H.A.R.L.A.N.D (Human Assisted Robotic Linguistic Animatronic Networked Device), click here for a video created by Funny or Die show-n-tell
First, in the interest of full disclosure, I have no investment or other interest in this brand,but I thought that was pretty darn funny and poignant, given the changing state of the restaurant industry as it struggles with how best to use technology. And that kind of response is also what I expected to find in the online buzz about the promotion.
I was so very wrong.
Apparently, the 30-second spot built around H.A.R.L.A.N.D. as part of this promotion hit social media-land like a bag of sewage, prompting nothing but bone-deep digs at the brand on its Twitter feed, including comments like "This is so creepy..." and "My daughter says this is creepy!"
Others used the promotion as a chance to make even harsher commentary around the brand and industry as a whole, including comments like "Your commercials will go down as the stupidest EVER!"
and "...wondering if he's, the robot, is making $15.00 an hour ... lol.." or just the plain old opportunistic "Y'all aint tweet about discounts today?...This is the worst #NationalFriedChickenDay ever."
In fact, even a single slightly positive comment was hard to find on the brand's Twitter feed, though this one (below) is kind of a backhanded compliment.
In its response to a question about the criticisms, KFC Public Relations Representative Kasey Mathes said that while recording the Funny or Die video at a Torrance, California location, "our real customers expressed the full range of emotions one can expect when confronted with an animatronic Colonel Sanders at a KFC drive-thru."
Unfortunately, I have little experience observing animatronic restaurant brand founders engaging with customers in drive-thru locations, so I can't provide any real details on the nature of those drive-thru diners' reactions. Obviously though, the Yum-parented brand believed in this campaign as it was likely not cheap to pull off.
For instance, the animatronic colonel himself is a fine piece of machinery that uses speech recognition, artificial intelligence technology and text-to-speech techniques to transform a KFC drive-thru operator's voice into a synthesized drawl for Colonel Sanders. So H.A.R.L.A.N.D. repeats whatever the drive-thru operator says, not only offering customers an unusual participatory way to engage with the brand, but also a chance for KFC drive-thru employees a way to really have some fun on the job. That checks a lot of successful campaign boxes.
But, Mathes indicated that thus far other than that California video shoot, "there are no scheduled appearances" for the machine with guests. Then, somewhat cryptically again, she added, "We anticipate H.A.R.L.A.N.D. will show up every so often when we need a robot Colonel spokesbot."
Not sure what the meaning of that is, or whether we will see the automated ol' fella any time again soon. But it's seems obvious that KFC's ad team thought they had a hit on their hands when they built this campaign. For instance, the brand's U.S. Advertising Director George Felix said in a news release about the promo, "We suspect drive-thru designers are heralding the H.A.R.L.A.N.D. technology as the greatest industry advancement since the addition of two-way communication itself. Not only do we have a real person as our historic brand icon, but now we have the ability to bring that real person back as a real robot. The future is now."
It is, indeed, and also apparently, at least to fried chicken customers, a little frightening. But this is one diner who kind of likes the stoic little fellow.
S.A. Whitehead Award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist, Shelly Whitehead, has spent most of the last 30 years reporting for TV and newspapers, including the former Kentucky and Cincinnati Post and a number of network news affiliates nationally. She brings her cumulative experience as a multimedia storyteller and video producer to the web-based pages of Pizzamarketplace.com and QSRweb.com after a lifelong “love affair” with reporting the stories behind the businesses that make our world go ‘round. Ms. Whitehead is driven to find and share news of the many professional passions people take to work with them every day in the pizza and quick-service restaurant industry. She is particularly interested in the growing role of sustainable agriculture and nutrition in food service worldwide and is always ready to move on great story ideas and news tips.