Corporations and the Food Movement: The Case of the KFC Double Down

In the June 10 edition of the New York Review of Books, Michael Pollan writes that while the diverse interest groups of the American food movement are starting to pull together, “It’s a big, lumpy tent, and sometimes the various factions beneath it work at cross-purposes.”

Under this tent, Pollan includes those people interested in:

school lunch reform; the campaign for animal rights and welfare; the campaign against genetically modified crops; the rise of organic and locally produced food; efforts to combat obesity and type 2 diabetes; “food sovereignty” (the principle that nations should be allowed to decide their agricultural policies rather than submit to free trade regimes); farm bill reform; food safety regulation; farmland preservation; student organizing around food issues on campus; efforts to promote urban agriculture and ensure that communities have access to healthy food; initiatives to create gardens and cooking classes in schools; farm worker rights; nutrition labeling; feedlot pollution; and the various efforts to regulate food ingredients and marketing, especially to kids.

 

This article explores what a new and much-discussed sandwich from KFC, the Double Down, can tell us about ways that corporations might try to use the lumpiness of the food movement tent to their advantage. KFC introduced the Double Down on April 12th, describing it as a “one-of-a-kind sandwich” that “features two thick and juicy boneless white meat chicken filets, two pieces of bacon, two melted slices of Monterey Jack and pepper jack cheese and Colonel’s Sauce.” KFC gushed, “This product is so meaty, there’s no room for a bun!” Advertisements for the sandwich sparked a lively debate on the Internet and beyond. This response has translated into sales, and while initially the sandwich was to be offered for just a few weeks, KFC recently announced that its availability would be extended through the summer and perhaps for as long as demand remains high.

At first, commentators repeatedly noted the blow to health that the Double Down appeared to pose for anyone who consumed it. As a reporter for the Baltimore Sun quipped, “I’d call it murder on a bun, except there is no bun.” But others argued that KFC was not alone in promoting unhealthy fare. Pop culture analyst Greg Beato wrote, “Positioning KFC as a culinary terrorist that coerces chicken-hearted consumers into eating against their best interests makes for a savory sound bite, but it’s based on faulty intelligence.”

As it turns out, the Double Down’s 540 calories, 32 grams of fat, and 1,380 milligrams of salt make for a pretty average nutritional profile as compared with that of other fast food items. The Double Down is considerably less unhealthy, for instance, than Wendy’s Triple Baconator (1,350 calories, 90 grams of fat, and 2780 mg of salt) or Burger King’s Triple Whopper (1160 calories, 76 grams of fat, and 1170 mg of salt). According to one of the more sophisticated analyses, even Burger King’s regular Whopper with cheese is slightly nutritionally worse than a Double Down. And the Double Down appears almost light next to items from restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory and California Pizza Kitchen, whose products were recently featured in the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Xtreme Eating 2010 report.

So, miraculously, the notion of the Double Down as a nutrition disaster is morphing into an understanding of it as fast food business as usual. In their efforts to target young men, KFC has joined Hardee’s, Burger King, and Jack in the Box in launching marketing campaigns designed to increase product recognition, brand loyalty, and sales to a population characterized by rapid increases in obesity and escalating cardiovascular risk.

In conjunction with these nutritional concerns, it is interesting to note that KFC has engaged a somewhat surprising branch of the food movement—hunger activists and food banks—in its promotion of the sandwich. In their online newsroom, the corporation has written,

When introducing a bunless sandwich, the obvious question is: what happens to all the buns? To celebrate the launch of the Double Down, KFC will do some good by donating the “unneeded” sandwich buns to feed the hungry. The brand will donate both buns and funds to food banks across the country, starting with the Dare to Care Food Bank in KFC’s hometown of Louisville, Ky.

Some, like NYU Professor Marion Nestle, have wondered what purpose this aspect of the Double Down marketing serves. Nestle speculates that perhaps it is merely desperation on the part of KFC, which saw its market share fall precipitously in the latter half of the 2000s. However, even desperate acts are driven by strategy. Might bun donation have functioned as a preemptive offering to one branch of the food movement—in this case, hunger activists—to quell the anticipated outrage of other branches, like those concerned with obesity and nutrition?

Though the complex tensions between hunger and obesity are at the heart of the food movement, the mobilization around food is not just political. As Pollan puts it,

What is attracting so many people to the movement today (and young people in particular) is a much less conventional kind of politics, one that is about something more than food. The food movement is also about community, identity, pleasure, and, most notably, about carving out a new social and economic space removed from the influence of big corporations on the one side and government on the other.

Except for this last clause about corporations and government, Pollan might well be describing the soaring interest in popular food culture, through which many people now identify as “foodies” or “chowhounds.” Foodies are people who take a collector-like interest in food and restaurants. Not all foodies care about where food comes from and how it’s produced, but many do, especially those who have followed renowned and socially-minded chefs like Alice Waters and Bill Telepan into the food movement.

Chowhounds represent what some regard as the more adventurous, less high-brow end of the foodie spectrum. The name stems from an online message board started by Jim Leff and Bob Okumura in 1996. As Leff described in an interview in 2005, a chowhound is:

Someone who seeks out deliciousness in any situation and loves to discover new culinary treasures. The one who, on the way to work each morning, walks blocks out of the way to try a different muffin and isn’t satisfied until the most delectable one is found. They are people who hate to settle. In a world where titanic engines of marketing influence people’s opinions and taste, there are the guys who opt out and make their own decisions. You know how there’s adventure travel? Well, we’re adventure eaters. Which doesn’t mean that we won’t go to the obvious places if they’re great. If McDonald’s made great hamburgers, I would be there every day.

Leff’s last sentence highlights the idea that when a movement is, as Pollan writes, about “community, identity, and pleasure,” there are many possible forms that communities can take, and many (possibly conflicting) values that these communities can hold. Like the food movement, the foodie movement has gained its steam online as much as anywhere else, and many of the related communities are online ones. This is relevant to the Double Down’s success, which has been fueled by online interest. At the end of April, KFC’s spokesperson Richard Maynard was quoted as saying, “For the demographic it is intended for, primarily young males, [the Double Down] has received an unprecedented response following launch. […] We’ve never seen so many people post YouTube videos and social-media reviews of one of our products.”

However, the response to the Double Down is not limited to young men posting YouTube videos. According to KFC’s post-test marketing research, the Double Down has received high scores for “uniqueness,” precisely one of the food characteristics that chowhounds and many other foodies seek. And sure enough, many chowhounds couldn’t resist a jaunt to KFC to try the Double Down. Posts about the Double Down on chow.com (the current incarnation of the chowhound message board) have received more than 100 replies (an examplehere), often weighing in with first-hand knowledge of the sandwich.

Further evidence of the curiosity that the Double Down has produced among studied eaters and those outside of the usual fast food target audience is apparent in the unprecedented reviews (examples herehere, and here) of the fast food item, not only by numerous food and other blogs, but also by the dining sections of several major newspapers. Mina Kimes of CNNmoney.com writes that the Double Down is a “turning point for the fast food industry as a whole–proof that customers will now flock to product innovation, not just pricing promotions.”

While Pollan notes that the food movement’s diverse subgroups are beginning to converge, KFC seems to see another path. Using its awareness of tensions in the movement, KFC hopes to fuel sales of what appears to be a very successful product. The marketing of the Double Down should provoke us to ask two basic questions. First, how can a food movement resist corporate efforts to undermine people’s capacity to make healthier food choices? And second, what roles can foodies play in the food movement and what interests do they share with other reformers?

By Emma Tsui, Postdoctoral Fellow at the City University of New York School of Public Health at Hunter College and editor at Corporations and Health Watch.

 

Photo Credit:

carnesaurus