Lick Your Fingers. Bite Your Nails. Now How’s That Appetite?

You’ll really feel like you’re in a KFC when those 11 herbs and spices waft up your nostrils on a wave of ethyl acetate.

So far for this column, I have actually consumed all the products I have discussed. This month I’m foregoing the tasting and skipping right to the ideas. Sometimes Marshall McLuhan has a point: the medium is the message. Or in our modern parlance, BuzzFeed says, “KFC just won the internet.” (See video at the end of this article.)

Yes, let’s talk about the nail polish. KFC Hong Kong launched two flavors of nail polish last month, “original” and “hot and spicy”. I briefly considered asking a Chinese pen pal to send me some, but then I realized that is just crazy. Flavored nail polish is not a product that can be evaluated based on the merits of its consumption. This product is an object so self-evidently loaded with ideology that it briefly trended as number one on Twitter.

As a kid, I regularly bit my nails down to the quick. It drove my grandma nuts, so she tried bribing me with all kinds of things to get me to stop. When positive reinforcement and incentives failed, she went negative and bought a bottle of some clear nail polish that tasted disgusting. It was bitter, and every time I stuck a finger in my mouth it grossed me out.

Didn’t ultimately deter me, just slowed me down and made me resentful. These no-bite polishes have been around a long while, so while the idea of putting flavor into a polish is not new, the market isn’t exactly flooding with delicious options.

Nor do we have any reason to believe that KFC is positioning itself as first to market among fast food chains offering cosmetics. KFC has asked Hong Kong customers to vote on whether they’d prefer to see “original” or “hot and spicy” go mainstream across the world. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that mass production isn’t going to happen. Just like it didn’t happen for Burger King’s Flame-Grilled Fragrance last year in Japan. Because this is a thing that companies do; they hire firms to create viral campaigns focused on exciting fringe products that remind people to go buy the actual food. But can the product be reviewed seriously?

What colors are the two polishes? “Original” is in the nude family while “hot and spicy” is more of a reddish orange. People who want to enjoy the freaky adventure of this product probably don’t want beige nail color. Then again, the spicy color doesn’t really go with anything. If this is for teenagers interested in trendy stuff, maybe not having clothes to match isn’t a concern. But a professional woman who spends most of her daytime life in navy and black suiting won’t want to put on this ridiculously clashing shade.

This begs the essential question: who is the target audience? I do want to give mad bonus points to the advertiser for including one hip man with painted nails in a commercial spot otherwise filled with women. If this is really about selling flavored nail polish, consider the fact that it’s in limited edition for Hong Kong only, and thereby also consider whether these two shades of polish flatter the dominant skin tones of most people of any gender who live in China.

The colors are questionable. But then color has to work together with scent and flavor to produce something literally palatable. Nail polish is paint, and it smells like paint. Even after it’s dry, the scent of it is pretty unmistakable. Can chicken or seasoning smells overcome the chemical odor of the polish itself? Then again, I suppose I’ve eaten in many a fast food joint that reeked of lemon-scented industrial cleaning fluids, so maybe the polish’s natural scent gives this product a little unexpected kick of authenticity. You’ll really feel like you’re in a KFC when those 11 herbs and spices waft up your nostrils on a wave of ethyl acetate.

The scent is questionable and the flavor is under similar suspicion. But even granting best case scenario and evaluating the merits of the intended flavor profile alone, what is the virtue of these flavors? Personally, in the matter of actual chicken, I would never for any reason order original recipe when I can get spicy instead. When I’m finished eating, I’m not super psyched that my hands smell like meat. Umami flavoring is an odd thing. Some people just perceive its scent along the lines of body odor, comforting in its familiarity but ultimately not pleasing. That was part of the ick factor for Burger King’s cologne trial balloon.

But the fact is, many people — perhaps the majority, or most, or even all of us — do lick our fingers after we eat some type of food that gets all over them. Think about the satisfaction of getting down to the end of a bag of chips or cheese puffs or movie theater buttered popcorn. Emily Post probably doesn’t approve, but licking fingers after eating is something that people do. That’s a large part of the power of KFC’s “Finger Lickin’ Good” slogan and the cornerstone of the joke in manufacturing a lickable nail polish. Burger King has no obvious connection to cologne, but KFC does appear to associate with fingers and by extension, fingernails. So… we don’t want to smell flame-grilled, but we do want to taste like chicken?

I looked through every bit of promotional material I could find on this nail polish, and there’s not one image either moving or still of somebody actually licking the polish. I saw very many fingertips poised on lips. But what then? Either the model is going to stick her tongue out to reach her fingernail, or that fingertip is going into her mouth. Either way, that’s a pretty sexy suggestion for the family-friendly Kentucky brand.

They’re aiming for something more, well, tasteful than Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, whose television promotions frequently feature bikini-clad blonds making orgasm noises while basically fellating a dripping cheeseburger. I find most models in promotional material to be more daring and exciting than us average civilians. But if they don’t show some finger-licking in the marketing campaign, how am I supposed to feel comfortable doing it out there in my real life?

KFC most likely does not care whatsoever whether you lick and enjoy the nail polish. In fact, I would venture to guess that KFC doesn’t even care if anyone buys the nail polish. Just forward any link whatsoever about it to your pals on social media. Gosh, KFC has such a clever sense of humor. When was the last time I actually went to a KFC? Maybe they are more hip than I thought. Maybe I should go there and give it another shot. I should spend a few dollars at KFC. Chicken is chicken, right? Can I forsake my beloved Popeye’s just this once and get some side action from KFC?

KFC is a franchise, which means there are probably 60 owners in Hong Kong who think the whole nail polish thing is great. Their actual chicken sales are no doubt skyrocketing when people come in to scope out the nail polish. But meanwhile, the rest of us are once again thinking about KFC and most of us have a local store reasonably nearby. This is not about selling nail polish. The nail polish is disgusting. You hate it and you love to hate it because it’s an intelligent abomination that is not meant to have practical use.

It’s so impractical that you’re supposed to ingest it within five minutes of opening it and it can’t be reused once the bottle has been opened. Because it’s actually more like a sauce you drip on your fingertips and not so much made of the stuff they use to make proper nail polish. Maybe it should be marked as “refrigerate after opening”. In Japanese culture, there is this word: chindogu. It means “unusual tool”. It’s an everyday object that can be classified as “unuseless”, meaning it’s such a pain or causes so many new problems that it’s not worth using to successfully do whatever it was designed to do.

In American culture, we call this a Rube Goldberg machine, like in the board game of Mouse Trap or the Acme inventions with which Wile E. Coyote tries to catch the Road Runner. In British culture, it’s a Heath Robinson contraption.

Chindogu are often hilarious, but they are not built with satirical intention. They frequently have the side effect of giving off chilly vibes toward easy consumerism. Why would anyone want a toaster that is also a fax machine, or a self-operating napkin? Only an idiot would buy those things.

In this case, the KFC nail polish is exemplary of the opposite effect. It’s a chindogu that actually screams consumerism. It wants you to know that KFC is no longer tired and stuffy. It wants you to digitally share that idea with your friends. The nail polish was developed to highlight the modernity of the KFC brand through humor and fashion, thereby increasing positive brand recognition and directly resulting in greater global sales.

Since the mid-’90s, KFC’s Asia Pacific division has accounted for almost a quarter of total sales revenue. In the late ’90s, PepsiCo’s entire restaurant division was tanking, from Taco Bell to Pizza Hut, so it spun the chain off to Tricon Global Restaurants, which was eventually rebranded as Yum! Brands in 2002. Since 2002, Yum! Brands has suffered a deluge of negative publicity from Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, PETA’s Kentucky Fried Cruelty campaign, Spurlock’s Super Size Me. Yet KFC continued to hold steady with the world’s second highest volume of sales, behind McDonald’s, in large part because they were crushing it in China.

In Hong Kong alone, there are more than 60 KFC franchises that serve over 1.5 million customers per month. A few years ago, an antibiotic scare and then panic over avian flu put a serious dent in regional sales growth due to food safety concerns. Growth became stagnation became loss, and Yum! Brands announced that it will be ditching out by spinning off its China division at the end of this year.

The nail polish is about plugging a hole in a sinking ship. It may be sticky enough to do just that, as all thus unuseless object needs to do is exist on the internet. You don’t see anybody reviewing the reality of it at all. Adweek was first to cover the story, immediately recognizing that the primary value was not the product but the campaign that the product generates. The New York Times buried it in the Asia Pacific section, and the only person quoted in the article is the marketing and communication director for the campaign. Want to guess how many bottles of the limited edition nail polish were made available? Between 300-500. Even with the cost of the campaign, this entire concept couldn’t have been very expensive to produce. Want to guess how many clicks and shares the promotional campaign got?