More than 321,000 chicken boxes featuring the #knifefree campaign branding have been distributed to more than 210 outlets in England and Wales, including those owned by large chains Morley’s, Chicken Cottage and Dixy Chicken.
Inside the boxes are inscribed real-life stories of young people who decided to stop carrying knives and focus on positive alternative activities, such as basketball or acting.
The Home Office said the campaign "aims to reduce knife crime by changing the attitudes and behaviours of young people aged between 10 to 21, highlighting positive alternatives to carrying a knife and challenging the perception that knife-carrying is widespread and makes you safer".
This is the latest iteration of the Home Office's #knifefree campaign against knife crime, which has existed for a couple of years.
The overall campaign is handled by FCB Inferno. However, PRWeek understands the chicken shop iteration is from creative agency All City Media Solutions. The original idea was for Morley's and it has now been rolled out further with Home Office support.
The chicken shop campaign met with a backlash after its launch yesterday, with prominent Labour MP David Lammy criticising its use of an "age old trope" of linking black people and fried chicken.
The Home Office is using taxpayers’ money to sponsor an age old trope. This ridiculous stunt is either embarrassingly lazy or, at best, unfathomably stupid. https://t.co/f6wmK1AOHV— David Lammy (@DavidLammy) August 14, 2019
PR professionals have also expressed their criticism. Julian Obubo, brand strategy director at Manifest, said: "The reaction to the Home Office's 'chicken box' campaign proves that the maxim 'the messenger is the message' is often true.
"The Home Office has a significant trust deficit in the communities that are blighted by knife crime, and it's disappointing, but not surprising, that the agency involved in creating this campaign did not factor this in their research. When the target communities see a campaign to tackle knife crime in the form of notes on a chicken box, what they see is a government with disordered priorities. What they see is a Home Office that demonstrated callous indifference to the Windrush generation now patronising its descendants and people who look like them with marketing instead of policy.
"Had this campaign been devised and activated by a community-based charity for example, I don't think we would have seen as strong a reaction on Twitter. But the Government is not a charity; its role is to create policy that brings about substantial change. For years, experts have called for the Government to treat London's knife crime as a public health issue. We know this has worked in Glasgow, for example, which once used to be the 'murder capital of Europe'. Instead, what we've got is a cynical campaign, more concerned with aesthetics than actual change, and seemingly solely founded on the racist notion that chicken is the best way to communicate with black folks.
"The Home Office will continue to be a defective messenger on knife crime until we see them actualise research-based policies that have been shown to work. Finally, agencies who chose to work with the Government would do well to provide thorough, unbiased advice in the early stages.
"It's tempting to work on a campaign with the full might of the Government behind it, but an ill-thought-out strategy comes with the risk of a reputational hit."
Ronke Lawal, PR and communications consultant at Ariatu Public Relations, said: "Knife crime is an incredibly serious and important issue to tackle, all steps and measures that are taken to address this are welcome.
"However, it would appear that this campaign not only overlooks the feedback from grassroots campaigners and activists but to some reinforces racist stereotypes.
"Chicken shops are a gathering place for young people and though some segments of the target demographic do frequent chicken shops, it is highly unlikely that this campaign will be effective. If those who were in involved in the design and planning of this campaign were to truly pay attention they would know that this type of campaign would have very little impact.
"An on-the-nose campaign like this simply distracts us from the issues at hand. The execution of the PR and comms around this was clunky, condescending and inauthentic; I say inauthentic as it would appear that the advertising and marketing companies who designed it are not very diverse.
"From a PR perspective I can see why this was met with such disdain. PR is supposed to build trust and credibility. I wonder if the teams involved had the foresight to consider the impact this type of messaging would have and how people would react to it, given that people in grassroots organisations and communities have a mistrust of the government."
Other PR professionals have expressed their views on social media:
It's lazy & patronising campaign development, & you can almost hear the misguided Cannes Lions dreams of its creators crumbling into ash this morning. Ultimately it's all distraction - they'd rather you looked at their weird Knife Free Chicken stunt than their draconian policies.— bethia (@bethiargh) August 15, 2019
Whether you think the campaign has racist undertones or not - it does IMHO - SOMEONE at the Home Office or at their consultants/agencies should have spotted how this could easily be construed to be built around an awful racial stereotype.— Lee Benecke (@leebenecke) August 15, 2019
Some marketers still seem to think you can simply shout at your audience. PR understands that you're going to have a conversation because people have the means to talk back. Opening a dialogue by insulting your audience is unlikely to yield a particularly positive response— James MacIntosh (@jamesmacintosh) August 15, 2019
Racist undertones or not, good communication is obsessed with outcome. I struggle to imagine anyone reading a chicken box and suddenly thinking ‘that 6-inch blade I’ve got with me, those spicy wings have convinced me to ditch it.’— Gabe Winn (@gabewinn) August 15, 2019
Or, ya know, you could stop with these unnecessary dogwhistle campaigns and actually start engaging with community leaders and funding social programmes? https://t.co/lPjHTRyERS— David Parke (@dparke) August 14, 2019
Every single creative idea starts with an insight - an the insight here is clearly steeping in racial stereotypes. Not only is assumptions and tone deaf, but it is lazy. It doesn’t take any steps to create a meaningful conversation. You don’t make change by preaching at people.— ?????????????? (@vassrbex) August 15, 2019
PRWeek noticed one PR professional who would stand up for the campaign, however:
The BAME owners of Morley's have better insight into their customers' behaviour/racism than a load of white, middle-class creatives (Hi me!), so I'm not willing to call it racist.— Greg Double (@Dubstep1988) August 15, 2019
My issue with this idea is effectiveness. Would you notice it? Would a paragraph stop a knife?
PRWeek asked the Home Office for a response to the criticism but had not received a response at the time of publication.
This article was updated on Thursday afternoon to include more details about the origins of the campaign and the agencies involved.