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Plucking my nerves: Oprah and KFC



It's official: Oprah Winfrey is getting on my nerves.

Before you start drafting the hate mail, hear me out. I think she is fabulous, and I am extremely proud of her civic and professional accomplishments. She has made billions by taking what started out as a very average talk show and turning it into a phenomenon through hard work, determination and a clear focus. By increasing the quality and purpose of her show, she has been able to go where no talk show host has gone before -- wherever she damn-well pleases. Her handprint is squarely on the media with a magazine, her own channel on satellite radio, a TV network and a studio.

It was cool watching her professional success correlate with her personal success on her meteoric path to becoming "The Queen of All Media." As she became more of a "whole" person (her words, not mine), so did her show, transforming and growing with her.

Having said that, I think Oprah is on that stuff.

The constant bellowing during every show (MAD TV's Debra Wilson does a great impression), giving platforms to OctoMom and the pregnant man/woman and now partnering with KFC to give away free grilled chicken. Really.

I think the KFC campaign was the final straw for me. When I read about that, I almost fainted. I could not believe that Oprah, who is obviously one of the most well-read and intelligent folks in entertainment, agreed to such a partnership ... and with KFC no less.

My first issue was the chicken. I was completely mortified. Why in the hell would she buy chicken, of all things? That is a stereotype that black folks have been fighting forever. While I don't think you should be held hostage by stereotypes, I do think you should be mindful of reinforcing them, especially when you don't have to do it. She is Lady O.

I mean really -- sitting on national television, chowing down with Gayle? Just make the commercial and call it. Don't try to couch what is clearly an endorsement of KFC by pretending to help feed Americans healthy food during a recession. That can be accomplished in a number of ways. Partnering with a company that has helped clog more arteries than contribute to world health over the decades smacks of being inauthentic, which leads me to my next issue -- Kentucky Fried Chicken. According to U.S. News and World Report, KFC sources its chicken from Tyson, which uses concentrated animal feeding operations -- dark and tightly-packed coops where the chickens are often unable to stand up or move.

Depending on how big of a fan you are, you may know that Oprah did a special last year on the hazards of factory farming. She also received the "Person of the Year" award from PETA, largely due to her work on behalf of animal rights. PETA has made no bones about KFC's mistreatment of animals, launching a public relations assault, titled Kentucky Fried Cruelty, on them a few years ago.

PETA alleged that KFC suppliers crammed birds into huge waste-filled factories, bred and drugged them to grow so large that they couldn't even walk, and often broke their wings and legs. At slaughter, the birds' throats were slit and then they were dropped into tanks of scalding-hot water -- often while still conscious. Pamela Anderson, Sir Paul McCartney, the Dalai Lama and Rev. Al Sharpton got in on the campaign, vowing not to eat KFC until they agreed to change their treatment of animals.

In 2003, PETA sued KFC and parent company Yum! Brands, accusing them of "lying to the public about their animal welfare policies." KFC initially refuted the claims, but eventually agreed to allow PETA to "approve" the language used in how they treat animals. PETA called it a victory, but some activists disagreed because it did not change the way that the animals were treated. Oprah's partnership with KFC is highly problematic for that reason alone.

Oprah has been instrumental in promoting animal rights. Of all companies, why partner with KFC? And of all foods, why chicken? Why not fresh produce from American farmers? Don't worry, it has not been lost on me that many people may not have had a meal were it not for this campaign. I get that, and it is noble -- but at what cost?

With this campaign, Oprah reinforces stereotypes about black folks and our love affair with chicken. If you don't know what I'm talking about, check out Dave Chappelle's classic comedy routine about chicken on YouTube.

While no one is perfect, this whole campaign stinks to high heaven. Which leads me back to my original point -- Lady O is "plucking" my nerves, pun intended. Stop trying to be everything to everybody. It's impossible, and there's no real reason for it. You rock. Period. Just be fabulous and don't get roped into some foolishness, like this KFC campaign. This partnership was self-serving, hypocritical and makes me wonder: "What in the world was she thinking?"

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of communications and media studies at Goucher College and editorial director for

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