In KFC’s China Ads, Nuggets Are Served With Patriotism

HONG KONG — China began an audacious experiment four decades ago to inject free-market thinking into its rigid, Communist-controlled political system, beginning a process that would lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and create the world’s second-largest economy.

And what better way to celebrate this accomplishment than with a bucket of fried chicken?

Last week, KFC introduced an advertising campaign in mainland China celebrating 40 years of “reform and opening up,” the catchphrase that defined the era. A two-minute TV spot that aired on state television showed two Chinese celebrities traveling back in time by railway, seeing streets filled with bicycles and bamboo scaffolding.

The actors are then jolted back into the present on a high-speed bullet train to sporting events that evoke the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and to young people using smartphones and cheering at pop music concerts. As the ad continues, it shows people carrying boxes and buckets of KFC, with one group of twentysomethings clinking chicken nuggets together as if toasting with champagne.

“Who would have thought that the past 40 years would bring so much change?” one of the stars, the 44-year-old actor Huang Bo, says to Lu Han, a 28-year-old Chinese heartthrob. The TV spot concludes with a voice-over “saluting” China’s 40th anniversary of economic reform and a cheer of “Go, China!”

Then it touts KFC’s seasonal meal deals. They include a bucket proclaiming “40 years of reform and opening up” that contains three chicken nuggets, three drinks, two wings, two meat pastries, two burgers and a box of popcorn chicken. Price: about $14.80.

Foreign companies in China rarely venture into the political realm in their advertising, but the ad comes at a potentially difficult time. The mounting trade war between the United States and China, a major market for American consumer brands, has strained the two countries’ commercial ties.

So far there are no signs of a Chinese consumer boycott, which could damage the local economy as much as American companies. Still, the prospect makes it important for American brands to maintain a positive image. The ad was made with China Central Television, the state-run broadcaster and a pillar of China’s propaganda machine.

“KFC can potentially capitalize on CCTV’s prestige and benefit in the Chinese market at the critical moment when there are increasing tensions between the U.S. and China,” said Hongmei Li, an associate professor of strategic communication at Miami University in Ohio and the author of the book “Advertising and Consumer Culture in China.”

The ad has been greeted with a mix of amusement and cynicism in China, where consumers are increasingly marketing-savvy.

“It makes me feel nostalgic,” Guo Yuhong, a 51-year-old retiree, said of the part of the advertisement set decades ago. “You know it used to be very luxurious to eat KFC in the past?”

Others were less impressed.

“Look at the bright red color,” Wang Xuejing, a Beijing customer, said as she scrolled through a KFC banner ad tailored for WeChat, a popular Chinese social media platform. “It’s so plain, not modern at all.”

“Very tacky,” said her companion, Zheng Boyi, pointing to the gold lettering on the bucket they had shared.

“It’s China red,” Yang Donghe, a 17-year-old model, said with some hesitation about the campaign’s red-and-gold color scheme. “Not bad.”

It isn’t as if patriotic advertising is unique to China. KFC has previously adopted American symbolism — complete with George Washington sculpted from mashed potatoes — to celebrate the Fourth of July.

KFC also appeals to patriotism in other countries.

But in China, American brands in particular have to be careful to avoid offending local sensibilities. KFC has been the subject of protests there in the past, especially during times of political tension with the United States. Public pressure forced Starbucks a decade ago to close an outlet in Beijing’s Forbidden City.

Few foreign companies have aligned themselves with overtly political events in China as KFC has done, but many of them emphasize Chinese values and traditions. Coca-Cola stressed the importance of family reunions during Chinese New Year, while companies like Adidas, Nike and Pepsi jumped to highlight Chinese pride during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. McDonald’s made its Olympic jingle more specific: “I’m lovin’ it when China wins.

Arriving in 1987, KFC was an early entrant among consumer brands after China opened up to foreign investment, and it won broad appeal in part by tailoring its menu to local tastes. Breakfast combos of fried dough sticks and soy milk are a hit, and meal deals also offer rice. Its fried chicken comes in local flavors, encrusted with salted egg yolk or Sichuan spices.

KFC now has more locations in China than in the United States, with more than 5,000 restaurants in more than 1,000 cities.

The brand has slipped in popularity in recent years, facing competition from higher-end foreign brands like Pizza Express, a British chain, as well as cheaper local upstarts like Zhen Gongfu, or Real Kung Fu in Chinese. Yum Brands, which owns the KFC brand in the United States, spun off its Yum China operation two years ago, and it is now a separate company.

Representatives of Yum China, which owns KFC stores in China, did not respond to requests for comment.

It is unclear whether the new ad campaign will gin up business for the restaurant chain, but some Chinese diners doubt it.

“I don’t really care about the ad,” said Yu Peng, a 28-year-old customer. “It won’t affect my decision of eating KFC or not, though. I care more about the price and quality.”

Tiffany May reported from Hong Kong, and Zoe Mou from Beijing.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page B3 of the New York edition with the headline: KFC’s China Ad Campaign Puts Patriotism on Menu. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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