When you are travelling American highways, you will eventually pass one: a huge roadside billboard with two fiberglass black-and-white Holstein dairy cows on the side, one with a brush sitting on top of the other, just finished scribbling “EAT MOR CHIKIN” or “CHIKIN: PART OF A BALANSED DIET”.
The fast food chain Chick-fil-A has run this widely circulated advertising campaign for over twenty years, which helped turn the regional chicken joint into the 8th-largest U.S. restaurant chain with more than $6 billion in sales in 2015 and over 2000 locations in 43 states and Washington, D.C.
Jim and Hall Goode of the Goode Brothers Poultry Company of Atlanta, had been asked to provide boneless, skinless chicken breasts for airline meals, but at the end of their process, the chicken did not meet airline requirements and could not be used. At the time, Samuel Truett Cathy and his brother Ben had opened a small restaurant called the Dwarf Grill in Hapeville, Georgia. The Cathy’s agreed to accept the shipment of chicken from the Goode’s and began developing a way to make it work for their restaurant’s menu. The “secret” recipe the brothers arrived at – pressure cooking the seasoned chicken meat in peanut oil, then adding two pickles – has, according to the company, not changed over the past 50 years, and is locked away in a vault at their headquarters. They called the result a chicken fillet, which became chick fillet, which became Chick-fil-A. The “original chicken sandwich” was born. The capital “A” in the name is supposed to suggest that the food the restaurant serves is of the best quality… then remember that it all started with a shipment of rejected chicken meat…
Chick-fil-A launched under that name in 1967 in Atlanta’s Greenbriar Mall, offering counter service with space for six stools.
By 1995, it was selling breaded chicken sandwiches in 30 states, bringing in about $502 million in sales. At the time about 80% of its 655 outlets were in malls, but the shift to establishing more standalone locations had started. At the same time Chick-A-fil teamed up with Dallas-based advertisers Richards Group. The addition of freestanding restaurants had changed the company’s advertising needs. There wasn’t enough money to do TV or radio, so that meant billboards.
Richards Group art director David Ring came up with a sketch of two survival-minded cows with paintbrushes. The rest is history; the cows started out on billboards in 1995 and then migrated to calendars (cowlenders), to toys in kids’ meals, to TV and the internet. Both companies credit the cows with helping to spur their growth.
Dallas News reported in 2010 that restaurant sales and ad agency billings had at least doubled after the first 15 years and that the agency’s annual retainer fee from Chick-fil-A had increased “more than six fold”. New York-based Kantar Media estimated annual media spending had grown to $22.5 million in 2010.
Chick-fil-A dropped Richards Group after 22 years in 2016, but the cows remained part of the company’s marketing.
Why have these cows become so popular?
It sure came unexpected; Dan Cathy, president of Chick-fil-A, son of founder Truett Cathy and infamous homophobe, said: “We had no idea it would become the icon of our brand that it has today, [but] [w]e’re going to milk it till the cows come home.”
Advertising teams in the business of ‘selling’ animal corpses usually come up with ways to market a product of cruelty by producing anthropomorphosized, cute, happy animals enjoying their exploitation and death – la vache qui rit.
In this case however chicken meat is promoted by “enlisting renegade cows who, in enlightened self-interest, are advising people to eat more chicken,” Stan Richards, head of the advertising firm, explained. In Chick-fil-A’s advertising strategies, cows have united in an effort to reduce the amount of beef being eaten. They want the American public to refrain from eating beef burgers, the main items on the menu at Chick-fil-A competitors like McDonalds or Burger King.
The premise is that if cows could write, they would urge consumers not to eat them. The campaign insinuates the cows’ fear of the slaughterhouse and their strong desire to live and thereby carries in it the characteristics of an animal rights appeal.
On Twitter the companies ‘Eat Mor Chikin Cowz’ – almost 40.000 followers – even use the word “rights”, misspelled as “rites”:
“we R an inDpendint organization existing 4 the advancemint ov cow rites. Sumtimez refurred 2 as “Chick-fil-A Cows,” our mishun iz 2 git peeple 2 EAT MOR CHIKIN.”
On the site there are tweets like: “Dekorate yer plate with chikin“ and “Theer iz snow reazon 2 not eat chikin all winter.”
In their own section on the company’s website it is called a grassroots movement:
“It was 1995 the year a grassroots movement led by herds of black and white cows first hit the national scene. Unified in their message, the organized Holsteins have spent the last two decades asking Americans to put down their burgers. Whether it’s mowing down pastures -removing grass one clod at a time – to spell out their plea, parachuting onto football fields, or lighting up office buildings, the cows’ misspelled mission is simple and clear: “Eat Mor Chikin.””
In the TV commercials the cows sometimes resort to direct action. One Chick-fil-A commercial featured a cow jumping on top of a passing minivan and stealing the occupants’ bag of beef burgers. A 2006 TV ad had cows parachuting onto a football field during a college football game – trailing “EAT MOR CHIKIN” banners – and attacking the hamburger vendor.
The company regularly refers to them as “rebel cows”, “heroic Holsteins” and “boisterous bovines”.
“From billboards to water towers, TV to radio, there’s no place that’s off limits for the renegade cows’ self-preservation message.“
“Taking it a step further, they’ve inspired thousands of Americans to head to their local Chick-fil-A restaurants every July, clad as the famous cows to celebrate what is now Cow Appreciation Day”.
On that day, customers who dress up as cows receive a free entree at Chick-fil-A’s restaurants nationwide.
Declaring a ‘Cow Appreciation Day’ to give away chicken bodies perpetuates the idea that some lives are more valuable than other lives and that deadly violence against other living beings is OK to produce a snack.
Of course the cows are right to not want to trade places with the ‘CHIKIN’. Broiler chickens bred for meat are genetically ‘designed’ to grow obese so quickly that many of them become crippled under their own weight. Immobilized, many die of dehydration when they can’t reach water. Others die from obesity-related causes like heart attack or organ failure. High levels of ammonia in the filthy factory farming conditions lead to external and internal irritations, blindness and deadly respiratory problems.
A November 2014 Mercy For Animals undercover investigation at multiple Chick‑fil‑A suppliers reported on baby birds being violently slammed into transport crates, having their legs and wings broken before being electrocuted and then scalded alive. The org released undercover footage recorded at a Chattanooga, Tennessee slaughterhouse run by Chick-fil-A supplier Koch Foods, in which staff is seen throwing chickens violently by their legs and necks into cages; some of the birds having their heads crushed in the cage doors.
We can safely say that chickens dread the slaughterhouse as much as the Chick-fil-A cows.
Of course, the advertiser and fast-food chain never gave the lives and interests of cows anymore thought than those of the chickens. These people represent the dominant ideology that animals are food; that animals exist to be exploited by us. They likely just thought it was a witty idea to have cows campaign for humans to eat more chicken; witty & cute to have them scribble & spell like little children.
This mindset of species-superiority that led to factory farming practices and fast-food joints also produced the patronizing advertising campaigns.
Funny images & acts of cute animals behaving like humans are used to blind us for the inherently cruel practices of the meat and dairy industry. Chick-fil-A exploits and kills chickens as a profitable commodity – for junk-food – and exploits and instrumentalizes cows to sell the murder victims. ‘Humorous’ anthropomorphism is deployed to remove our moral concern for farmed animals and to eliminate our awareness of the needless suffering of innocent lives.
Exploiting animals – real or animated, anthropomorphized or not – in commercials to sell the murdered corpses of other animals, does not only hide the cruel reality of the meat industry from consumers – whether they care or not, whether they prefer it this way or not – but is first and foremost an insult to the victims; a crime perpetrated against our fellow earthlings.