Seven Swords and KFC

The English-language reports that have already appeared on this incident (see Xinhua and also The Useless Tree) gave me this feeling of having an itch that is left unscratched.  So here is the translation of the report by Hu Jinghua (胡劲华) in the Chinese-language Financial and Economic Times (财经时报), for which the Xinhua article was a summary.  The best part is the contact history by this reporter with the corporate flacks and hacks given in the last part of the article.

KFC used the image of the ascetic Taoist in the popular movie/novel Seven Swords to promote their chicken burger and this has caused strong discontent among Chinese culturati.  This is another ad from KFC right after the university gate incident that is highly controversial because of its cultural assumptions.  This has been a general problem recently as foreign brands become localized.

On July 1, KFC's new chicken burger used the creative idea behind Seven Swords for an ad shown on CCTV.  This led to a fierce debate among the culturati.  Someone wrote on the Internet that "ads such as 爽歪歪 (note: this is about children using language that may be construed to be suggestive) and cumin seed BBQ chicken burgers all have highly controversial cultural messages."

At the same time, the traffic into the neighboring McDonald's and KFC restaurants at the Beijing Caibai Shopping Mall flowed non-stop.  The customers were accompanied by the unique music and posters in those two restaurants.  Among the customers, some had been attracted by the cumin seed BBQ chicken burger ad.  Most of these are middle school students who like martial arts movies and there are even a few adults.

According to a KFC worker, in order to promote this western China flavor burger, KFC borrowed a scene under Tianshan from the movie Seven Swords in the advertising packaging.

There is a famous catchphrase in the ad: "When the Master comes down the mountain, something important must be happening under the heavens."  The Master named in the ad is a solemn-looking Taoist.  It is this image that caused the controversy about the cultural message in the ad.

Some people say that this ad was neither here nor there.  Some other people think that asking an ascetic vegetarian Taoist figure to "endorse" chicken burgers is inappropriate to the cultural nature and there is also the possibility that this is a violation of the intellectual property rights of the movie Seven Swords.

The promotional news material distributed by KFC showed that they are using Seven Swords, Tianshan and western China in the story.  Among the many descriptions, these ads are usually referred to as "KFC cumin seed BBQ chicken burger -- The Master comes down the mountain" or "KFC cumin seed BBQ chicken burger -- Coming down the mountain."

After Financial and Economic Times investigated the incident for almost a month, KFC released a Cantonese edition of "KFC cumin seed BBQ wings Seven Swords come down the mountain" ad.  On the official KFC website, they permit people to download the television ad with the description: "The seven swords are ready to come down Tianshan to stop the chaos.  While the six swords are ready to go, the youngest swordsman did not want to go.  What will make him come down the mountain? ... download now and find out immediately!" (Note: You can see the two ads here: Seven Swords Ad 1 and Seven Swords Ad 2)

As everybody knows, Seven Swords is the best known work of author Liang Yusheng (梁羽生) and it is well known to Chinese all over the world.  In Tsui Hark's movie Seven Swords, the summary is: "Expert swordsmen Fu Qingzhu, Zhang Huangyan and Wu Yuanying from the Tianshan area went to see the hermit monk Hui Ming to discuss about how to save China.  Hui Ming saw that the people were suffering under oppression of the Qing soldiers, and so he dispatched his four disciples Yang Yuancong, Xin Longzi,  Chu Zhaonan and Mu Lang.  Thus, the seven swords came down from Tianshan."

No matter in the novel or in Tsui Hark's movie, Fu Qingzhu and Hui Ming were figures of national heroes.  They promote justice and they cared about the fate of their own people as well as the fates of the various tribes in Xinjiang.  In a time of danger, they stood up to fight.  They represent the martial heroic spirit in Chinese history over thousands of years.  It is for this reason that when Seven Swords which is tied to Fu Qingzhu and Hui Ming appeared in a KFC ad, the culturati were unhappy.

Yin Cheng'an, a Taoist at the Beijing Baiyun Taoist Temple thought that "the ad was inappropriate."  With more than ten years of Taoist practice, Yin is a member of the Quanzhen sect.  He believes that since the creative idea of the ad came from Seven Swords, then it ought to be faithful to the spirit of the original work in the critical places.  These martial artists went to Tianshan to practice and refine their skills, and such people do not kill animals or eat meat.  The person referred to as the Master easily evokes the monk Hui Ming in Seven Swords.  Monks do not kill lives and they do not eat meat.  To charbroil chicken meat for the Master is a gross violation of the cultural essence.  In the ad, the old man called the Master was wearing a Taoist garb.

According to Yin Cheng'an, the Taoists are divided into the Quanzhen and Chengyi sects.  The Quanzhen sect does not kill animals or eat meat; the Chengyi sect observes vegetarianism on festive days.

Fu Qingzu in Seven Swords was a real historical figure.  He was also known as the Wugeng Taoist and the Longchi Taoist.  He was a philosopher and a painter at the end of the Ming dynasty and the start of the Qing dynasty.  He opposed the Qing order for men to shave their heads.  Fu Qingzu was a Taoist with a formidable reputation.

More importantly, Fu Qingzu was a vegetarian Quanzhen Taoist.  KFC ignored this fact and made Fu Qingzu eat chicken meat in pursuit of corporate interests.  This goes against the historical record as well as the basic cultural practice of the Chinese people.  This is really inappropriate.

According to the Chinese Taoist Association deputy secretary-general and instruction director Yuan Zhihong, the image of the master in the ad looked like a Taoist and he looked like an "ascetic" from his dress.

"When I saw it on television, I thought this was rubbish.  I immediately saw the problem.  This is an uncultured joke.  This was pure commercial hype and against certain basic objective cultural rules.  It is extremely rude to use something that could not possibly happen to promote their own product."  Yuan Zhihong was incensed.

According to information, KFC spends a lot of time in localizing their products.  Each year, they offer more than 20 new products and they create ads to promote the related images.  On the question whether the use of an ascetic vegetarian to become the image spokesperson for KFC chicken burger was deliberate or a mistake, this reporter has contacted KFC many times for an explanation, but they have ducked the issue.  On the final occasion before this report went into print, the Yum! group Chinese business division public affairs office manager Long Weili replied this way: "Cumin seed BBQ chicken burger was a limited period promotional item.  The promotion period is over, including the relevant television advertisements.  Thank you for your attention."  But the reporter was able to find these ads still available for downloading on the official KFC website.

Many experts believe that the reason why KFC was unwilling to respond in the face of public doubts was probably due to several reasons.  First, they actually knew that they were careless and an admission will mean losing face for their shallow cultural knowledge.  Second, a big company does not care what a few customers think.  Third, they actually did it deliberately for commercial reasons in order to demonstrate that the magic of KFC food is so powerful that even Chinese monks and Taoists succumb to the temptation.  This is not the first time that it has happened with KFC.  On the previous occasion, KFC suggested in the ad that students who eat KFC are more likely to get into university and that was highly controversial.  In any case, no matter what it was, this was not something that a socially responsible corporation should be doing ...

Chinese Folk Literature and Art Society vice-chairman and famous folk culture expert Zhao Shu believes that whether it is foreign companies coming into China or Chinese companies going outside of China, they ought to remember one basic rule in creating the brand culture -- respect the people of the nation.  Since KFC's target audience are young people, this creates some worry about whether traditional Chinese culture can withstand the invasion of post-colonialist culture in an era of globalization.

Also, Southwest University School of Literature professor Han Wenbo (known as the top researcher of mainland Chinese martial arts literature) believed that western culture always plays the role of the stronger culture in the exchange with Chinese culture.  Western culture also treats alien culture from the viewpoint of "angry youth" and it does not believe that Chinese culture is worthy of respect.  Compared to the problem faced by France in the past, the key of the KFC ad should be the problem of how China can protect its cultural rights.  By comparison, France did very well in protecting its own cultural rights, and this has to do with their longstanding culture of cuisine.  The French did not believe that fast food culture stands up to their goose live and red wine, so KFC was not very successful in France.  They also tried to use local French culture to market their image, but they did not do well.

International Brand Federation China region Chief Brand Officer Liang Zhongguo believes that the communication process of a brand is well understood.  He believes that the negative response to the KFC ad was that the company did not align the artistic communication of the ad with the product.  This is a common sight during the localization of many foreign brands.  He believes that the best solution is to identify the target group of the brand and find the cultural elements that resonate with this group.  Lack of resonance with other groups is not relevant.  It can be deduced that when these brands want to promote their image in China, they should consider Chinese culture and the receptivity of the target group.  If the brand has any message or creative idea, it should be found from Chinese culture, ideally using traditional Chinese culture.

After finishing the preliminary investigation in mid-June, I began to contact KFC.  On June 16, I contacted manager Zhang Jinjing.  Zhang said that he will be traveling on business and asked me to contact Cheng Ping in his department.  After many contacts with the latter, I had to send a fax on June 19.  Just in case, I also sent an outline of the interview to Cheng Ping's personal mailbox.  Then it was a long wait afterwards.  On June 23, I contacted manager Zhang Jinjing again.  Zhang Jinjing was still outside on business and he asked me to contact Cheng Ping.  I contacted Cheng again.  Finally, on June 30, I received a reply from the KFC Shanghai headquarters.  They regret to say that with respect to the interview outline from Financial and Economic Times, the Yum! group public affairs office manager Long Weili said that the interview can be scheduled at the end of this year or the beginning of next year in order to coordinate with other KFC activities.

Previously, it was very suspicious that the first question that the KFC public relations person asked this reporter was: "Who is in charge of the newspaper?  What is your circulation?"  I really don't understand what the circulation of a newspaper or the managing unit have to do with the decision to accept an interview or not.  On July 3, the reporter once again contacted manager Zhang Jinjing about an interview on the Seven Swords ad and the brand strategy.  Manager Zhang replied that, "Any interview on this subject should be handled by Ms. Long."  On July 4, I contacted Ms. Long.  I said that I wanted to understand the creative idea behind the ad and the production, as well as how KFC uses Chinese culture in its brand marketing strategies, etc.  I did not get a response.  Just before this report went into print, Yum! finally gave this answer: "Cumin seed BBQ chicken burger was a limited period promotional item.  The promotional period is over, including the relevant television advertisements.  Thank you for your attention."

I don't want to criticize why KFC and Yum! brushed me off, but they should remember that "The water can carry the boat, but it can also capsize the boat."

Here is another brand extension of KFC and Seven Swords -- Buy a computer motherboard and get a free KFC meal!

(PC Online)

(in translation)

The story of the Seven Swords Coming Down Tianshan must be familiar to everyone.  Everybody dreams about being a martial arts knight.  We imagine that we are at one with the characters in the story.  But today, we will be able to watch the Seven Swords of technology through ASRock.  As of today, ASRock will be providing free KFC coupons to purchasers of any of the seven motherboards ...