February 26, 2006
'Interactive' TV Commercials?

Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC)'s advertising agency Foote Cone & Belding tries to circumvent ad-skipping technology not by resorting to legal measures or technology but by utilizing 'interactivity' in its latest TV commercial. The idea is very simple and, in terms of film history, age-old - a secret message is planted in a few frames of the commercial and is supposed to be 'decoded' by recording and re-playing the commercial frame-by-frame.
Interestingly enough, the technique was originally 'invented' by and used in horror films like 'The Excorcist', which insert single frames of grotesque faces or other disturbing imagery which, however, is often at least noticeable because it contrasts with the background in color, contrast or shape.
'Decoding' the secret message earns you a coupon for a 99c new KFC sandwich which should create just enough appeal for people to actually play along - except for the fact that the 'secret' message will probably soon appear on websites all over the net (which again is probably an intended side-effect for KFC).
In a way, the commercial seems to pursue the same strategy like the online banner ads where you have to 'hit a monkey', 'throw a dart' or perform all other kinds of minimalist one-button or mouse+button tasks (and basically click on that ad!), i.e. the urge to interact which still appears to be a powerful tool to override the built-in ad-sensitivity modern media users acquired over time. It probably also fits with the 'collective intelligence' paradigm of contemporary media usage. IMO, the original frame narrative of the technique in horror films, the conspiracy topos of the cold war time, does not hold any longer and does not provide enough incentive for individual viewers to actually record and 'decipher' the commercial. As a general, rather 'soft' strategy of countering the DVR threat, however, it appear to be a step in the right direction.