KFC has done lots of weird, unexpected stuff with Colonel Sanders over the past few years, thanks to the fertile imaginations at Wieden + Kennedy.
They've had an ever-evolving lineup of celebrities portray him. They turned him into an animatronic drive-through robot. They livestreamed four hours of cats crawling on him, for an audience of 700,000.
Last Friday, though, KFC received a load of backlash for its latest Colonel Sanders stunt, in which it bought a DJ slot for him at the Ultra Music Festival in Miami.
One thing a lot of people don’t know about me is that I have been a huge fan of electronic music for the last few days, and I can’t wait to show off the DJ skills I’ve developed in that time. SEE ME LIVE AT ULTRA on 3/29! pic.twitter.com/vZKBsPTB3q— KFC (@kfc) March 27, 2019
A DJ wearing a giant Harland Sanders helmet-head performed the set. He began the set by shouting, "Hello Kentucky! Sorry, where? Miami? Really?" and later added, "Say there, are y'all hungry for some beats?"
.@KFC bought Colonel Sanders a slot on the @Ultra main stage, and this happened. ??? | ?: @1001TLtv pic.twitter.com/8qZfUZ7G4K— Festive Owl (@TheFestiveOwl) March 29, 2019
The video above doesn't suggest anyone in the crowd cared too much about the Colonel's appearance one way or another—there was no audible booing, nor was there much discernible cheering. You see a parade of young people leaving at the 0:46 mark, but that's hardly evidence of a revolt.
However, some of the other performers at Ultra later expressed displeasure with the stunt in social media—as did many fans.
"This @kfc colonel sanders Djing at @ultra is lame. I can think of a lot of other artists that actually deserve to be on that stage instead," Marshmello, who headlined the festival, wrote on Twitter—though he later deleted the tweet.
"Given the platform you have as a major electronic festival, it would be nice if you used it to showcase what electronic music is about and not make it seem like a joke with corporate promotional nonsense," added Louis the Child—in a tweet that was also later deleted.
Alison Wonderland, an Australian EDM producer, DJ and singer, said on Twitter than KFC's appearance "compromised the legitimacy" of DJing and electronic music. And she rejected the notion that it was worth it for the advertising dollars.
this made me feel so awkward watching :/// wtf is this cringe. Ur right. There are some of the most amazing up and coming artists who should be seen and who deserve to be seen. Yuk.— ALISON WONDERLAND (@awonderland) March 30, 2019
Nah. It’s tacky. They could have found a better way that doesn’t cheapen what we do— ALISON WONDERLAND (@awonderland) March 30, 2019
I get they gotta make money but like .... there are so many cool ways to do it where it doesn’t compromise the legitimacy of djing and electronic music— ALISON WONDERLAND (@awonderland) March 30, 2019
Comments on the Twitter video posted above (which has almost 1.5 million plays) were pretty strongly negative, for the most part, with EDM fans expressing sadness over Ultra's corporate guest.
Likewise, the music press was largely apopletic, with Pitchfork excoriating the "bald crassness" of the "cringe-inducing" stunt, deeming the whole thing a "sorry affair."
The closest parallel to the Colonel's appearance at Ultra is probably his cameos at WWE's SummerSlam events in 2016 and 2017, organized by W+K and media agency Spark Foundry. At the 2016 event, pro wrestler Dolph Ziggler played the Colonel—and defeated a guy in a chicken suit. The following year, a group of wrestlers competed to be the Colonel.
At the time, W+K copywriter Shaine Edwards said the agency didn't want to simply co-opt fans' love for WWE—but wanted to prove to fans that KFC legitimately loves WWE as well.
"We've found, with a lot of effort, that going out of our way to remain authentic earns us goodwill from the folks we're talking to—also, it's just not a good idea to upset an arena full of wrestling fans," Edwards said in a statement. "People have to know that we love the things they love just as much as they do. Otherwise, we're just co-opting their interests. In WWE, they'd call that Cheap Heat. The Colonel wouldn't like cheap heat."
The problem at Ultra seems to have been that the performers didn't feel KFC's presence was authentic at all. They felt it co-opted the electronic music community in a cynical way—not in a loving way—and fans mostly seemed to agree.
It could also just reveal the difference between the two communities. The EDM community may be just a tougher sell than the WWE, which is, after all, based around the idea of not taking anything too seriously.
In any case, KFC tweeted that the Colonel loved performing at Ultra—though, predictably, that tweet was met with almost uniform ridicule.
Being on this stage was a wild ride. I couldn’t ask for a better crowd of folks at @ultra today! #ultra2019— KFC (@kfc) March 29, 2019
KFC did not respond to Muse's inquiries seeking comment on the Ultra stunt.