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Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010 07:54 am

Selling a city’s soul — for chicken scratch

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Fire hydrants deserve more respect. They are utilitarian and ubiquitous icons of America’s urban landscape, yet they’re rarely noticed by anyone but dogs — who give them no respect whatsoever. Now, though, a brand-name corporation has noticed that these pieces of our public infrastructure are everywhere, and, like a dog, it wants to lift its leg on them!

KFC, the fast-food chicken chain owned by a global conglomerate named Yum Brands, is in search of fire hydrants it can use to “mark its territory.” In particular, the corporation wants to spray hydrants in various cities with its logo.
Welcome to the latest reach by commercial hucksters to cover every square inch of America the Beautiful with ads.

Indianapolis is the first city to allow KFC to whiz on its hydrants. The company has plastered the city’s stumpy water taps with the KFC logo, plus a smiling photo of corporate founder Colonel Sanders and a slogan promoting the chain’s new “fiery” grilled chicken wings.

Get it? “Fiery” and hydrant. It’s symbolism, see? Advert-types are nothing if not clever.

Of course, there’s another symbolic connection that the clever ad concocters hope the public doesn’t make. As noted in a blog called FirefighterNation.com: “The biggest killer of firefighters today is heart disease and heart attacks. Great idea to advertise fast food on fire equipment.”

Well, picky-picky, say KFC honchos, who are certain that this promotion will be a big plus for them. Indeed, they insist that the company’s graffiti is not just another act of crass commercialism, or an unseemly usurpation of public property, but — get this — a philanthropic contribution to the community! Corporate executives assured the Indianapolis mayor and other officials that the company is so concerned about fire safety in the city during these days of budget stress that they decided to step up as fine corporate citizens and do their part.

Pay more taxes, perhaps? Good grief, no — get out of here!

Rather, they magnanimously offered to “contribute” some money to help pay for new fire hydrants. In exchange, the grateful city officials would need to do nothing — just allow the corporation to use the hydrants as its own little billboards around town. “Helping communities,” explains a KFC vice president, is our goal. In turn, he adds, the gesture will “help us in terms of creating goodwill with consumers.”

Really? Do these executives actually believe that spraying people’s fire hydrants with self-serving ads will make local folks feel good about a chicken chain?

That delusion aside, let’s probe the terms of the deal. Exactly how magnanimous was KFC in its philanthropic gesture to help provide fire safety for Indy citizens? Get ready to be astounded: $5,000.

That’s it! KFC reaps a PR bonanza (not only getting promotional use of the hydrants, but also a photo op featuring the mayor and fire chief meeting with an actor dressed up as Colonel Sanders). All this for what amounts to chicken feed. This is a city with a $1.2 billion annual operating budget — what’s a measly $5K going to do? Well, retorted a spokeswoman for the mayor, “it’s offsetting some of our budget costs.”

Question: How many fire hydrants will $5,000 buy? Answer: Two.

In fact, rather than blowing KFC’s paltry bit of philanthropy on a couple of hydrants, officials bought 33 fire extinguishers for recreation centers in city parks. And, yes, KFC got its logo and “fiery” wings promo on each of those extinguishers.

Lest you snicker at how easy it was for KFC to roll Indianapolis officials, be warned that the chicken purveyor is now waving $5,000 at your mayor, too. In a nationwide email to mayors, KFC is seeking three more cities that will do the same deal with their fire hydrants.

I realize that cities everywhere are financially squeezed, and it must be tempting for mayors to grab at any sort of quick fix. But, come on — if you’re going to sell your city’s soul to corporate hucksters, sell it for more than a nickel.

Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, columnist and author.

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