Feature

For and against: The Home Office's #knifefree chicken shop campaign

A recent government-backed campaign that involved anti-knife crime slogans being placed on chicken shop packaging faced criticism from members of the public and MPs, who accused it of propagating racist tropes. In the aftermath, The Drum hears from two people in the industry about their opinions on the packaging takeover and whether it was misjudged or a potentially effective campaign.

"It's a brilliant piece of media placement, but will it be effective?"

The case for – David Felton is a freelance creative copywriter based in London

As a junior social media manager at the now defunct Weapon7 agency, I learned this lesson firsthand in 2014 when we tweeted as Bacardi that ‘mojito’ came from “mojo - meaning ‘little spell’ in an African language”.

Factually, it was correct but tonally we missed the mark - it was as if we’d said “bonjour means hello in a European language”. While we got over 100 likes, one person weighed in to tell us we were being ‘moronically ignorant’. Before long this single comment had escalated up the chain all the way to the Bacardi brands marketing manager and we were having a crisis meeting to decide how we were going to deal with it.

It was on that day that I realised – especially when it comes to brands on social media – people were going to look for offence in anything and everything. Had we been perhaps a little naive? Yes. But the internet was going to always be watching and waiting, eager for us to slip up again. A single misguided tweet can be the pebble that starts the avalanche with everyone piling on to stick the knife in.

This leads me neatly on to the Home Office’s ‘#KnifeFree’ campaign – which has recently been creating a buzz due to accusations of it being racist and tone-deaf. The campaign consists of true stories printed on fast food cardboard boxes and distributed across cheap chicken shops around major cities. So, as advertisers we have to legitimately ask ourselves "is this racist? Did we mess up?"

Well no, obviously not, unless we somehow adopt the racist stereotype that only one demographic eats at Chicken Cottage and the like. This is quite measurably untrue – the patronage of chicken shops reflects the ethnographic build-up of their surrounding area. In fact, I headed to my favourite local chicken joint – Cha Cha’s Chicken (yes, really) to ask a few questions of my own.

They told me that the vast majority of their customers were local teenagers, young people hanging out after school. When I asked them why, they told me it was because teens don’t have anywhere else to hang out and socialise together. They’re too young to be drinking in a pub, too cheap to be in Nando’s and it’s too rainy to be on the streets or in a local park. And so the chicken shop becomes a meeting ground for the youth community. Where else can you get three wings, fries, a drink, and a big handful of change for a fiver?

In terms of media placement, this is a brilliant move. It’s getting a positive message right where it needs to be – into the hands of teenagers. It’s Morleys and morals, sauce and stories.

The real question we should be asking ourselves is not "is this racist?" but "will this be effective?"

There’s a tendency to disparage campaigns like this because they seem to only be scratching the surface, hinting at the complexities of the situation. What are the root causes of knife crime? Can you, yourself, imagine yourself in a situation where the only seemingly rational option was to carry a knife?

Turf wars, gang violence, a mistrust of a system that has let you down, lack of hope, lack of options. Nowhere to turn. No social mobility, no vision of anything other than a dead-end future. And all the while, the very real threat of violence hanging overhead. All brewed up in the mind of a stressed-out teenager with a prefrontal cortex that hasn’t even developed yet, causing poor impulse control.

If we want to see a reduction in knife crime, we need to tackle the causes – and that’s complicated, expensive, and will take years. But it can be done. Work like this draws attention to the problem, with a tiny media budget and a huge footprint. It’s got London talking and debating. This can only be a good thing.

We live in an age of social media outrage where we’re eager, keen to be offended. Keen to call people racist and sexist until those words lose their potency and become meaningless. Let’s not degrade them into empty signifiers. Criticising effective work like this, shows our own racial biases, and not the facts on the ground. Facts readily apparent to any youth munching on a three piece box meal, if we’d just care to ask.

"It was well-intentioned but missed the mark"

The case against – Timothy Armoo is the chief executive officer of Fanbytes

In the last few days, I’ve been inundated with WhatsApp and text messages talking about the latest Knife Free campaign – many were from friends, asking for my thoughts on the issue both as a marketer as well as someone who could have well been part of the audience.

Having grown up as a young black boy on a council estate in South London and finding my way to now leading a fast growing marketing agency working with the world's largest brands at 24 – I have the unique advantage of both being part of the audience that the campaign was targeting and being a marketer.

Less than a decade ago I was that black kid going to “link up” with my friends after school at the local chicken shop. While it has been deemed by many as “racist", "cynical” and “badly targeted” – I have tried to assess the campaign as objectively as possible using my vantage point as both a marketer and someone who was firmly part of the culture.

The role of chicken shops

It's impossible to not notice that after schools shut their doors for the day, local chicken shops have become somewhat a community centre. A place for young teens to hang out with their friends and enjoy a relatively tasty meal at dirt cheap prices.

The downside to this is that it has led to the chicken spots in some instances becoming recruiting grounds for older criminals to recruit younger vulnerable teens of school age. This has contributed to the increase in violent incidents within the capital. There have been many victims including a 15-year-old boy who was stabbed outside of Morley's Bellingham branch late last year. A lot of people may not realise that the owner of that Morleys approached the media agency to ask what could be done to educate the young boys.

The campaign was rolled out first in 15 Morley's stores early this year with the announcement last Thursday stating it would be rolled out to a further 210 stores. This announcement led to an incredible amount of backlash from the general public, local community activists and MPs Diane Abbot and David Lammy.

The importance of cultural relevance

Firstly, I believe the campaign team's intentions were honest in wanting to reach audiences exactly where they are. Chicken shops are indeed a recruiting ground for criminals that target vulnerable teens and young adults. Getting a message in front of them, where they are, is key to a successful campaign.

The main criticism being made is that an individual doesn't read a story on a chicken box and instantly put down the knife. As a consequence the campaign could be seen as patronising. Youth programmes and community outreach, undeniably, are key to solving this endemic.

However, I also want to share my views on how we as marketers can execute culturally sensitive awareness campaigns that reach the core targeted group.

When working on culturally sensitive campaigns it is crucial that target audience insights are a prominent feature within the campaign. British youth culture in recent years has taken on a life of its own. To run a campaign that resonates, I would partner with influential voices who are culturally embedded and thus are better able to navigate nuisances without playing into negative stereotypes.

There are pre-existing concepts that celebrate London's youth cultures connections to chicken shops such as journalist Amelia Dimoldenberg's Chicken Shop Dates whereby she interviews British rappers in various chicken establishments using an awkward date format. Or, viral sensation Elijah Quashie, also known as 'the chicken connoisseur', who amassed popularity reviewing chicken shops on his YouTube series The Pengest Munch.

For example, there could have been a series of Chicken Shop episodes where Amelia spoke with local rappers at the Morleys where the boy was fatally stabbed. This themed discussion would haved portrayed knife-free messaging while also allowing the government to speak to its audience using voices and formats they are familiar with.

Alternatively, getting content creators and influencers actually from the community to have a roundtable within a chicken shop would have acknowleged the role that chicken shops play in youth culture. Combining both approaches – using the context of the location and the audience psychographics of the influencers – would have been a good combination.

These ideas take the notion of the chicken shop and turn it into something led by the voices of those who already organically reach the audience, amplifying their voices to promote the #Knifefree message.

In a world where people make judgements in a snapshot, it’s important that marketers consider the longevity of their campaign and how it might look. The Knife Free campaign was a well intentioned effort at reaching an audience where they spend their time and was based on empirical insights. The missing ingredient – as can be the case when trying to engage a hard to reach audience – was the use of credible voices to deliver the message.

This is a lesson we all, as marketers, can learn.

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