When it comes to commercials, does placement matter anymore? That was the first thing I thought of at a key moment during the last episode of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” when a series of grisly, gory and grotesquely noisy shots of several walkers hungrily and sloppily feasting on the entrails of an unfortunate hermit was followed by an instant cut to the title card for the show, over which an announcer’s voice said, “Brought to you by KFC.” At that point the card faded into a bright red graphic featuring a bucket full of Kentucky Fried Chicken and the iconic Colonel Sanders, his smiling face on a plate (or a circular design of some kind) with the words “freshly” and “prepared” around it. “Come in today and taste why fresh is better,” the announcer happily suggested.
This couldn’t have been accidental, could it? Urp!
The somewhat jarring transition from content to sponsor tag was immediately followed by an actual KFC spot with a cheerful holiday flavor. It ended with another bright red graphic featuring the Colonel and the words “Today Tastes So Good.” All I could think was, those zombies certainly thought so
What really struck me was the nauseating intensity of the sequence in which the zombies were engulfing the hermit’s guts; at times the camera zoomed in so close to the viscera that it practically filled the screen. As this was an outdoor scene, taking place in full daylight, all that blood and all those entrails looked to be a brilliant red in the sun. And then there were the sounds of zombies grunting and growling and slurping as if the hermit were their last dinner.
“The Walking Dead” can be worth watching simply for its exceedingly graphic special effects, most of them spectacularly gory. Every episode delivers something deliciously disgusting. But even by the show's own shocking standards, this particular zombie feast was a grotesque gut-churner -- certainly not a traditional set-up for a food commercial.
I may be giving the entire presentation more credit than is due, but the more I think about this the more I believe it was very carefully thought out ahead of time, with the details and placement of the KFC spot specifically calculated to defy DVR viewing, which often marginalizes commercials or renders them completely ineffective. The visuals alone support this: An exceedingly red sequence (featuring multiple close-ups of the hermit’s bloody guts being torn asunder) cuts to a dark title treatment and then on to another great big splash of red (the first KFC graphic). Another big burst of red appears a few seconds later after a full KFC commercial.
I happened to be watching this episode on a DVR with friends and neighbors. We’re all used to the sickening surprises that “The Walking Dead” is known to deliver by the bucket load, and yet we all reacted audibly to the presentation of the hermit’s guts, especially the way the camera seemed to dip in and out of the bloody action, as if threatening to plunge right into the poor man’s ripped belly. It was such a transfixing moment that the commercial pod that followed had already begun before I reached for the remote. In the time it took to pick it up, the show’s title card had come and gone and the first big red KFC splash was onscreen – and my friends were already remarking on the cut from grisly zombie feast to proud KFC pitch.
The end result: We actually watched the spot rather than blow right by it. And then we scanned back and watched it again. And we’re still talking about it. I can’t say it prompted any of us to head for the nearest KFC, but it isn’t that much of a stretch to assume that a percentage of the burgeoning young audience that has propelled “The Walking Dead” this season to the top of the 18-49 demographic later had an urge to enjoy the Colonel’s special recipe.
In hindsight, the commercial might have easily been missed (or scanned over) had it simply been floating in the midst of an ordinary pod. But the graphics themselves would likely have popped, if only for a second, simply because of their dominant red color, which also happens to be one of the colors of the “Walking Dead” season. So an impression, however brief, would have been made.
It doesn’t matter if the details surrounding that KFC spot were coincidental or calculated. Ever-increasing DVR usage is but one of many challenges that advertisers must face in the new media landscape. There is much to be learned, whether by accident or otherwise.