In October last year, WA-based roast chicken franchise Chicken Treat pulled a social media stunt that provoked guffaws from some and backlash from others. The star of the stunt was Betty – a young privately-owned backyard chook, selected by some unknown lottery in a bid to win a Guinness World Record title on behalf of the franchise. Placed in a cosy outdoor pen strewn with seeds and hay, her task was to peck out a five-letter English-language word from a Mac keyboard by the end of November. She was encouraged to tweet “whatever was on her mind”. All efforts were posted live to the @ChickenTreat account under #chickentweet.
Betty failed. By the end of her run – and amongst offerings such as “1q3we bd 8i gvy b gvbhi ,,,,,, p //////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////// ` 66” and “NYO L O” (which clearly meant: “No. You only live once”) – she had only managed to tweet one intelligible three-letter word.
It was “bum”.
“Keep things clean Betty!” the company sneered with jovial embarrassment.
There is a complex layering of connotation behind Betty’s “bum”. Ultimately however, it seems to express something of a chicken’s juvenile yet courageous sense of humour, even when subjected under morbid and gratuitous trial.
I was frankly let down that she didn’t manage ‘KFC’, personally.
But that’s just me anthropomorphising the affair further. And it is precisely this impulse to dress up animals in human characteristics that’s at the errant heart of this and so many other animal product campaigns. It’s a fatuous re-perception – replicated and reinforced across 80% of internet memes – which systematically obscures the treatment of animals by food industries, such that grotesque and violent realities are packaged up as cute and unproblematic clickbait.
Let me just get this out first though, because it’s bothering me. As a phonetic animal noise, chickens do not ‘tweet’. They may cluck, coo, cackle, warble, chatter, squawk and bagawk – but they definitely do not ‘tweet’.
Name illogics are just a minor quibble to the bigger quarrel though. Whilst the October-November stunt did have RSPCA approval, that doesn’t make it any less Orwellian in its conception. Dig just one inspecting fingernail beneath the pun-heavy headlines, and you’ll find an experiment which is choked up with its own wrongness. Betty is a family pet hired out for her services, so her fate probably doesn’t look like a bundle of greasy bones at the bottom of a black bin bag. But she has been recruited as an icon and representative, with the aim and fruit of her labours ultimately to send more of her brethren to the slaughter so that higher quantities can be turned into Sunday night dinners for dads insecure about their own pot roasts.
What’s more – and what has been left out of much focus of coverage – Betty was in fact a layer hen (i.e. farmed to produce eggs, not meat). As the RSPCA notes in a statement obtained directly by Pelican Magazine, “while meat chickens aren’t kept in cages, their living conditions can vary greatly on farms.”
So, and anyway, Betty failed. But Chicken Treat most certainly did not. Despite a no-mention in the World Book (which was always more campaign justifier than goal), #chickentweet was an enormous success. The story was taken up by state-wide and major global news outlets, from WA today to TIME to Huffington Post. Animal-rights group PETA even jumped in, hijacking the hashtag to ‘translate’ Betty’s coded messages to call out the less-than-savoury aspects of industry farming. For example, “xz,, z q12“““`zz`1` gho ui ` 93“““`ja“““““““““ 9 1Q““““““““““J” was purportedly Betty’s attempt to say “Male chicks are thrown into grinders after being born because they’re deemed ‘useless’”. And “0 j5cq0 OOOP 43 0 / g 2” became “All my friends will be cramped into hot metal sheds with barely enough space to move.”
PETA is perhaps yet to realize that all publicity is good publicity. “Just PETA being PETA” responded the company, presumably rolling their eyes.
In fact, the value Betty added to the Chicken Treat brand is staggering. From a Pre-Betty statistic of 300, the company’s Twitter account now has 35,000 followers. Its sales also got a growth injection, jumping 8% within a week. In a follow-up interview with Australian Financial Review, Chicken Treat’s Chief Executive Mimma Battista expressed the company’s new objectives to increase by 36 stores over the next three years, getting the chain back up to 100 outlets. Ultimately, the white chicken will strut east to set down its haunches at greasy outposts in the Northern Territory and Queensland.
Although news reportage on the stunt dried up in late October, the #chickentweet account is still eerily active. Betty’s final post was on November 18 (“uuuu ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,”). Following that, instead of being filled with nonsensical gobbledychook, the page’s feed has become commandeered by – from the looks of it – some awful meme-engorged intern with a YouTube tutorial knowledge of Photoshop. Now the brand’s face of Twitter, Betty has been spliced into various images as a way to respond to cultural events and topics. Image posts range from the Star Wars reboot (“Welcome Back Princess Layer”), to the Australian Open, to the Golden Globes. There was also an incredibly disturbing, culturally-insensitive yet somehow popular 12 Days of Christmas serial post. Occasionally, a KFC tweet by some oblivious secret spices-fan pops up under the same hashtag.
At 39-years-old, Chicken Treat is by now a middle-aged bird. Whilst it has more outlets than even McDonalds in WA, it’s always had it tough competing against the lardier chip-bagging leviathans. Operating mainly out of regional towns, it is entirely absent from the CBD. The closest store within a radius is Inglewood’s.
To distinguish itself in a competitive market, the company has had to start strategically acting out. With no doubt the top marketing whizkids yelling excitedly and playing ‘pass the egg’ at the ideas board, all kinds of gimmicky, bizarre and rebellious ploys have been rustled up to nab consumer’s attention. Similar to the new Vaporwave Mr. Rental (although nowhere near as confounding), it’s re-defining itself as a “challenger brand” – a corporate consolidated version of a Rick and Morty Mr Meeseeks – inherently wrong, irritating, yet nonetheless mind-jacking.
About a month prior to Betty, Chicken Treat pulled another “what are we like? EDGY! WEIRD! Whaaaat?” move by introducing the August ChiCow burger– a beef and poultry patty-smash of the Frankenstein Food order. Their “loaded chips” are another menu eccentricity of gross appeal, which offers fries drizzled in a kind of off-yellow Twisties-flavoured gunk.
Perhaps what is most disturbing in terms of in-store experience however, is the design of the Chicken Treat serving box. Bright yellow with a single pair of red chicken legs, the diner gets the impression that their chicken merely stood inside the cardboard trench and, of its own self-effacing accord, disintegrated into oily smithereens.
On the back of several nauseating documentaries and horror-filled Four Corners reports into the realities of industry farming – tied in perhaps with the rise of the vegan hipster profile – the Animal Welfare movement has taken strides in the last decade in Australia. Globally too, fast food chains have been under significant pressure from stakeholders and activists to reform their practices and policies. Vast amounts of dollars have been invested into an ethical “scrubbing up” of their image, like McDonald’s 2013 ‘Our Food, Your Questions’ campaign, which supposedly reassured us through infographics and videos that McNuggets aren’t made up of chicken feet mulch and pig snot. That said, most companies’ so-called ‘reform’ rarely goes beyond loudly announcing non-binding ‘commitments’ they aren’t legally obliged to make good on.
In surprising and unsettling contrast, information on how Chicken Treat Treats its Chickens virtually non-existent. There is no mention of their practices on their website, and efforts have been unavailing on the wider web as well. The company may be the local ‘little guy’; but this is no excuse for its lack of upfront honesty with an increasingly food ethics-conscious public.
KFC at least meets the consumer halfway on transparency, listing at the top of the FAQ’s page “Are your chickens well looked after”. Don’t take them at their word, but they declare themselves here adherents to the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals, Domestic Poultry, and that their chickens are not raised in cages, but “large barns that are typically bedded with wood shavings or rice hulls”. (Note “typically”).
In their written response to Pelican’s questions, the RSPCA urged that “Chicken Treat make a real commitment to animal welfare by switching to humanely farmed chicken, such as RSPCA Approved. If Chicken Treat also uses eggs in their business, switching to cage-free eggs is also the way to go. The RSPCA welcomes the chance to discuss these ideas further with Chicken Treat, so their business can deliver better animal welfare outcomesu and give consumers what they want. Now that would be a story worth ‘Tweeting’.”
Irrespective of whether you are in the Herzog camp, repulsed by the “enormity of their flat brains” or rigorously check all your eggbox labelling because of Chicken Run, as living, feeling, sentient creatures, chickens deserve an existence which is as comfortable and stress-free as possible. If Chicken Treat isn’t going to provide me easy access to information about the ethics of their farming practices, well, they won’t be getting my coin anytime soon. (Disclaimer: I’ve been once in my life. Makes the commitment a bit less grand, really).
I started this follow-up investigation on a months-old story because I was curious to know what happened to Betty – initially having supposed she was some random chook plucked from a Chicken Treat farm. In other words, I cared. Which, aside from the whole ‘give a thing a name and you’ve already bonded’ rule, is telling – because I rarely stop to care or even think about the millions of other animals which may be suffering appallingly for my finger-lickin’ benefit. I’m not a vegetarian, and whilst I respect those who choose that lifestyle, don’t see myself becoming one any time soon. So yeah – I do want animals to die for me. True. But I don’t want them to live in pain for me. There’s that distinction.
I’m not going to let Betty have the last word, or even spin some pun out of ‘fowl play’. Because ultimately, Betty is just a dumb chook exploited for the amusement of a species that coddles the animals it owns, and plays amnesiac with animals it doesn’t. We can do better.
Pelican sought comment from Chicken Treat HQ in response to the issues taken up in this article. After being bounced between several Perth office phone lines and administrative levels,we at last reached the company in charge of Chicken Treat marketing, GT Media. Despite initial assurances our questions – which ranged from “do you now consider Betty your company mascot?” to “would you be willing to be more transparent about consumer information on your website?” – would be addressed, an email was later sent stating that the company had chosen to”decline to comment on this occasion”.
Words by Kate Prendergast
If you’re looking for a way to find ethical eating spots near you, Choose Wisely is a RSPCA-led initiative which “makes it easy to find cafés and restaurants that are putting humane food on the menu.” You can visit the site at choosewisely.org.au