The Tories' 'chicken Corbyn' meme is a fowl mess but are we missing the point?

From a creative standpoint, it's very easy to tear apart the Conservative Party's meme depicting Jeremy Corbyn as a chicken. So let's start with that.

Criticism of the image, which was released Friday and seeks to portray the Labour leader as weak for not backing Boris Johnson's call for a general election, has been fierce.

The main (chicken) bones of contention include:

  • The text in the tweet doesn't make sense because KFC is not, itself, a chicken
  • The words "Totally Spineless Chicken" on the image are confusing; shouldn't it be TSC?
  • The use of JFC is also confusing. Does that stand for Jeremy Fried Chicken? Jeremy [something] Corbyn? His middle name is Bernard, so should it be JBC?
  • It opens the Conservatives up for attack from one of the most tweet-savvy and wittily biting brands there is. KFC UK & Ireland responded in typical fashion:
  • It's an open goal for critics of hard Brexit to discuss food supply shortages in the event of exiting the EU without a deal. The fact KFC's own high-profile supply crisis from early 2018 still lingers in the memory doesn't help in this regard
  • It also brings to the mind chlorinated chicken, which some fear could be heading to the UK under a post-Brexit trade deal with the US
  • The theme presents an opportunity for critics to use a play on words with "coop" and "coup" in reference to Johnson's proroguing of parliament:
  • The meme was accompanied by a delivery of some nasty-looking chicken to lobby journalists, which also met with a backlash:

Despite the campaign's huge shortcomings, I fear some critics are in danger of missing the bigger picture.

The Johnson government has had a monumentally abysmal week.

It lost three votes on Brexit and became a minority administration after expelling 21 Tory 'rebels'. This met with severe and public criticism from high-profile Conservatives including Nicholas Soames, the PM's own brother Jo, and the now-former work & pensions secretary Amber Rudd.

Chief Constable John Robins of West Yorkshire Police slammed Johnson for using officers as a backdrop to a speech that veered off the agreed topic of police recruitment.

Meanwhile, the image of Jacob Rees-Mogg slouching during a parliamentary debate went viral for the wrong reasons, casting the Leader of the House of Commons as uncaring, disinterested and rude. The strident Brexiteer was also forced to apologise for comparing a consultant who helped draw up no-deal medical plans to a disgraced anti-vaccination campaigner.

And yet, opinion polls this weekend suggest the Conservative Party's lead has not declined. In fact, a YouGov poll for the Sunday Times conducted on 5 and 6 September shows the Tories have increased their lead against Labour by four points compared to a poll three days earlier.

Messaging

When a complicated and multi-faceted news story is moving so fast, often it's the simple messages that stick.

Many eyebrows were raised when The Sun and The Daily Mail went with the 'Corbyn is a chicken' line last week.

It was a gift to the Conservative Party, which was clearly keen to reiterate the message at the end of the week using a hastily assembled and crude online meme.

However much Labour would dispute this reading of events, casting Johnson as the 'tough guy' prepared to fight for Brexit while his main rival cowers appears to have had some success.

There are also SEO benefits. A google news search for "Government" and "chicken" lists the meme row as the top item, dislodging last month's disastrous launch of its anti-knife crime initiative targeting chicken shop customers. Would a slicker, less controversial approach have achieved this?

It's an example of critics being more focused on outputs - ie: the creatively flawed meme - than outcomes. Anti-Brexit campaigners are in danger of being distracted by issues that matter little to the public, while losing focus on clear messages that resonate widely.

Yes, the chicken meme was a creative mess. But whether Johnson's opponents have truly grasped how to respond to it is the big question.

John Harrington is deputy editor of PRWeek UK

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