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Campaign for Church's Uses Working Class Humor to Sell Chicken

CLIFF FREEMAN & PARTNERS -- known for offbeat commercials like "Where's the Beef?" for Wendy's International and "Pizza! Pizza!" for Little Caesars Pizza -- is now serving up a television campaign for Church's Fried Chicken that comically depicts the gritty dinner hour of working-class families, with a sarcastic twist.

The new commercials center on working families who are about to eat supper when a family member does something outrageous to avoid having to eat the family meal. In one spot, the grandfather of the house shows up naked, while in another a little boy lights up a cigarette so he will be sent away from the table. The commercials typically show close-ups of the family's dinner -- a slab of meat, some kind of overcooked canned vegetable and lumpy potatoes or noodles -- followed by the words "Maybe it's your cooking" on the screen.

The Cliff Freeman campaign is a departure in advertising because it tries to depict working families as real and not as they usually appear in advertising: great-looking and in settings that the average working family doesn't live in and can't afford. Instead, these are obviously tired-looking people often living in cramped Archie Bunker-quality housing. The spots are also made to look real by appearing at first to be a film clip, rather than a commercial. The spots are devoid of music or other commercial techniques, save for a delicious-looking product shot at the end and a voice-over that says "Church's, it's what made from scratch should taste like."

"The thought was that it would be refreshing to make it almost like a clip from a movie without a lot of the usual commercial cues," said Cliff Freeman, the ad agency's chairman and chief creative officer. "In our researching, we found that it works, people are sucked in to this almost slice-of-life drama, and then surprised and have a laugh." Mr. Freeman said using an element of surprise is in vogue right now, as witnessed by the success of movies like "American Beauty."

"People have a real yearning for the unexpected right now," he said, "because there's so much done in a genre and the unexpected is tremendously rewarding for people. That's what's at work here."

In the spot called "Bad Son" a tired-looking mother who is badly in need of hair styling drops some kind of lumpy noodle concoction onto each family member's plate, as she instructs the children to eat their peas. When the son lights up a cigarette, she is stunned and asks her pock-marked and unshaven husband, who chases him away from the table, "What's wrong with him?" right before the punch line.

Another spot shows an obviously beleaguered middle-aged man who comes home in the pouring rain to a cramped house where the couches, table and even the lamp shade are encased in plastic. His prim, aging overwrought wife sobs that she slaved over his meal -- which a close-up reveals to be overcooked meat loaf and canned vegetables -- and then asks if he is having an affair with his new secretary. She learns that her cooking is at fault when her husband bluntly replies: "I don't have a secretary."

The advertising, Mr. Freeman said, is intended to help relieve any guilt about buying prepared food to bring home. Research showed Church's that its customers are the kind of people who still view a home-cooked meal as a big daily responsibility. Church's customers tend to be working- and lower-middle-income white, black and Latino consumers who mostly live in urban areas. Church's, a unit of Atlanta-based AFC Enterprises Inc., has 1,178 outlets in 30 states, with a heavy concentration in the South. Its menu offerings include what it calls comfort foods, like fried chicken, okra and biscuits.

Of course, the spots may be so true to life as to be uncomfortable, said Barbara Lippert, advertising critic for Adweek, an industry trade publication. She noted that sitcoms and cartoons often depict the working class in less than ideal ways, but the lower-middle-class population is not used to being depicted in commercials in such a graphic way. She said the approach might be risky.

"I used to make fun of those obviously aspirational spots for being overly glossy and phony," she said. "But maybe sometimes that is necessary. Reality can be pretty bleak, but maybe that's my own elitism."

Brad Haley, Church's chief marketing officer, said the spots tested well during consumer focus groups. Church's franchisees -- about 60 percent of the restaurant units are franchised -- applauded the spots at a recent meeting, he noted.

The ads also have a strategic imperative: to gain notice in an industry that is overshadowed by KFC, which has more than half the fast-food chicken market. KFC, a unit of Tricon Global Restaurants Inc., had 1999 sales of $4.4 billion, compared with fifth-ranked Church's, with $655 million in sales last year, according to the Nation's Restaurant News, an industry publication.

Mr. Haley said that with just a $15 million budget, Church's doesn't have the luxury to do the kind of feel-good image advertising that is so popular in the fast-food business.

"These ads are very different, and we believe very engrossing, very real and even gritty in feel, and that's very absorbing," Mr. Haley said. "In our focus groups, people laughed even more when the bubble is burst and they realize all this family drama is about cooking."

Mr. Haley is also known for taking calculated risks. He was an executive at Jack in the Box when the company brought back its Jack character with the happy face head on a real man's body. The campaign was a hit and is still running.

Mr. Haley said his company deliberately chose Cliff Freeman because of the agency's reputation for creating advertising that is noticed. He pointed to the attention the agency got for its famous Wendy's "Where's the beef?" commercials with Clara Peller, in the face of giants like McDonald's and Burger King. More recently, Freeman has won attention for its campaigns for Staples and for the Budget Rent a Car Corporation.

The campaign also fits Church's trailblazing and successful strategy of reclaiming locations in urban working-class neighborhoods, said Richard L. Papiernik, financial editor of Nation's Restaurant News. He said a generation ago, many fast food outlets, including Church's, left urban neighborhoods, and they were replaced by Chinese restaurants. Church's has been returning to those markets over the last five years.

"Church's is building an urban market and has been one of the real leaders in that whole field," Mr. Papiernik said.

Indeed, the campaign is part of a broader re-imaging of Church's brand, which includes some new products, a new logo and a contemporary redesign of the restaurants, Mr. Haley said. The campaign is now on the air around the country on networks like UPN and Fox, and in Spanish-language television. And what of the people who might shudder at the characters in Church's campaign as not exactly people with whom you want to go out to dinner?

"A really upscale target doesn't consume mass food in general very much and fried chicken to an even lesser degree, so we're not overly concerned," Mr. Haley said. "We showed the advertising to our target audience and they responded very favorably, and that's our primary concern."


PATRICIA WINTERS LAURO, May 2, 2000, The New York Times

Copyright © 2000 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.