Write an essay of 1000 words on an image of your choice.
An effective apology: Does tone matter?
The image in question is the 2018 KFC advert ‘FCK’. It shows an empty KFC chicken bucket appearing as though it has fallen onto a dirty red floor. The main text makes the explicit apology, ‘We’re sorry’ and in the accompanying text reiterates the apology, thanking its various stakeholders for their assistance. The full-page advert ran for one day in The Sun and Metro newspapers, reaching an anticipated audience of 6 million readers (Brownsell, 2018).
Using the Rowland Barthes’ semiotics model described in ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ (Barthes and Heath, 1990) this essay will deconstruct the advert to show how the linguistic and iconic messages successfully complemented each other to create a successful, award-winning, response to its 2018 corporate crisis. This essay will further attempt to establish whether KFC’s use of tone contributed to the effectiveness of its apology.
Background to the image
On 14 February 2018, the UK fast-food chain KFC changed its raw materials logistics contract from Bidvest to DHL, thereby rationalising a six-depot logistics solution to a single depot (Priday, 2018). At 01:40 on 14 February, a fatal accident closed the M6 near the DHL warehouse in Rugby. With lorries becoming stuck in traffic, and with no other locations now available to backfill the supply chain, the chicken shortages began. By 16 February KFC outlets started to close, and by 18 February few of the 900 restaurants remained open.
While operational matters quickly improved, the restaurant closures represented a significant reputational crisis. As KFC itself said ‘A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It’s not ideal’. Faced with this crisis, KFC settled upon two communication objectives: to publicly apologise for the inconvenience caused and to explain that a resolution was in hand.
The Linguistic Messages
In this image, the linguistic message comprises both an anchor and a relay. The anchor, the simple phrase ‘We’re sorry’ makes clear to the viewer that the purpose of the advert is to convey an apology. Its candid, unequivocal nature speaks with sincerity and humility.
The main text block serves as a relay sitting alongside the image reciprocally assisting its understanding. It offers further apologies and thanks to team members and franchise partners for their help in resolving the situation. The candid message communicates with humility and honesty in a self-mocking fashion. The mention of hell ties in with the red floor.
The Iconic messages
The main subject of the image is a modified KFC chicken bucket, illuminated from above to highlight its emptiness. The empty chicken bucket being the signifier. What is being signified is that there is no chicken available. Together these are a clear sign, in candid terms, that KFC has failed. Furthermore, to reinforce the message, the usual KFC logo (an anagram of ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’) is modified to the attention-grabbing acronym FCK. Being the widely known social media abbreviation of the swearword ‘fuck’. Positioned just above the anchor, it reads ‘Fuck. We’re sorry’. An apology in the most basic everyday terms.
The positioning of the bucket, with spilt crumbs of chicken coating on the floor, is an important signifier. It signifies that the bucket has fallen. A candid sign that KFC has dropped the ball. The fallen bucket – on the floor rather than, perhaps, a table – signifies that KFC has reached its lowest point. A message to say, in humble and honest terms, that things will only get better.
There are two further connoted iconic messages relating to the bucket. The first is the symbol ® adjacent to the FCK, suggesting that KFC has trademarked the term FCK. In the UK, it is impossible to trademark a swear word (GOV.UK, n.d.). However, its use here signifies that this is an official communication and that the company is taking matters seriously. The Colonel Sanders image on the bucket, a fundamental part of KFC branding, shows a serious, dependable and trustworthy figure. It is saying ‘trust us we can fix this’.
The image background depicts a dirty, scratched red floor. The dirty floor, culturally unacceptable from a UK consumer’s viewpoint, signifies poor standards, thereby visually acknowledging KFC’s failure. The connoted iconic message given by the scratched floor is perhaps a more subtle sign. It signifies cost-cutting or a lack of investment. The message is an honest acknowledgement that by focusing on cost savings standards fell to unacceptable levels. The red floor signifies hell (as mentioned in the relay) indicating that this was a disastrous week for KFC and others involved.
The objectives of this essay were to deconstruct the famous FCK advert using Roland Barthes’ model of semiotics contained in his essay ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ and to establish whether KFC’s use of tone contributed to the primary objective of the advert: namely to apologise for running out of chicken.
The consistent tone throughout the image, both in terms of the linguistic and connoted or cultural iconic messages is one of humility, candour, and humbleness. The image communicates an apology with honesty, authority and self-mocking humour using down-to-earth, everyday language.
At the height of the crisis, KFC was facing a reputational catastrophe. Its response, appearing in just two UK newspapers, generated more than 700 press articles and TV discussions. Together with the ensuing social media exposure, estimated viewings of the campaign exceeded one billion.
So to conclude, by the tone used in the advert, both linguistically and visually, KFC successfully apologised. So successfully, that the Brand Impression Score rose to a point higher than the pre-crisis level (Brownsell, 2018).
Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1990). Image, music, text. London: Fontana, pp.32-51.
Brownsell, A. (2018). KFC: A very fcking clever campaign. [online] Campaignlive.co.uk. Available at: https://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/kfc-fcking-clever-campaign/1498912 [Accessed 14 Dec. 2019].
GOV.UK. (n.d.). Apply to register a trade mark. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/how-to-register-a-trade-mark/what-you-can-and-cant-register [Accessed 11 Jan. 2020].
Priday, R. (2018). The inside story of the great KFC chicken shortage of 2018. [online] Wired.co.uk. Available at: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/kfc-chicken-crisis-shortage-supply-chain-logistics-experts [Accessed 14 Dec. 2019].