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The Crazy Conspiracy Theory Behind the Viral KFC Painting Is Total BS

When Mike Edgette uncovered a secret baked into KFC's Twitter account last month and unwittingly fell down a viral rabbit hole, he never expected to wind up a target of the internet's frothing hive mind. But for Edgette, who KFC rewarded with a grandiose oil portrait for pointing out that the company only follows "11 herbs and spices" on Twitter, the price of fame has come with serious accusations against his credibility. 

On Wednesday, a Reddit thread suggesting Edgette's story was nothing but a craven PR stunt started to gather steam. Redditors alleged that Edgette's job as a social media manager for the public relations firm TallGrass, combined with his affinity for tweeting about Taco Bell and KFC, indicated that his find was staged to earn easy praise online. Since KFC and Taco Bell are both owned by the parent company Yum Brands, conspiracists asserted Edgette's prior tweets were a smoking gun, more or less proving his guilt as something of a sleeper agent for the fast food giant. 

But the Sioux Falls, South Dakota resident tells Thrillist that he's never worked for KFC or Yum Brands and that the whole thing transpired organically. "I understand where people see my job title and where I work and how that may raise a question, but if you do any kind of research at all you can see that KFC has their own PR firm," he said. 

For his part, Edgette is right. KFC partners with the public relations juggernaut Edelman to handle its promotions. TallGrass, which is headquartered in Sioux Falls with satellite offices in Los Angeles and New York, has a variety of clients, none of which happen to be KFC, however.  

Despite the minimal legwork it takes to debunk some of his accusers' claims, there are still some wrinkles in Edgette's story. For one, many people have pointed out other Twitter users who uncovered KFC's social media secret long before Edgette ever did. While this is undoubtedly true, none of the other accounts came within remote touching distance of Edgette's 323,000 retweets and 716,000 likes: 

Regarding the prior tweets that failed to garner the same attention, Edgette says there's some mystery there.

“I fully acknowledge I’m not the first person to tweet about it," he said. "Why mine got picked up and their’s didn’t, I don’t know. You can’t manufacture a viral tweet, even if you try.”

Further supporting his claims of non-collusion, a story in Adweek surfaced last month, detailing the the birth of KFC's silly social media strategy. The decision to follow 11 herbs and spices as an homage to the company's original recipe lore was a stunt coordinated by the advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy -- not by TallGrass PR and Mike Edgette.

Freddie Powell, the agency's creative director, told Adweek: “We planted this on Twitter over a month ago. Frankly, we weren’t sure if anybody was going to find it. Sometimes you just have to put stuff out into the universe and cross your fingers that the internet will work its magic."

That magic has been a double-edged sword for Edgette, who's been fending off a cascade of vitriol online. But despite his detractors, and the flurry of tweets crowding his mentions calling him a liar, Edgette still plans to hang his KFC oil portrait in his living room, even with the misgivings of his wife, who thinks it's an eyesore. 

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Sam Blum is a News Staff Writer for Thrillist. He's also a martial arts and music nerd who appreciates a fine sandwich and cute dogs. Find his clips in The Guardian, Rolling Stone, The A.V. Club and Esquire. He's on Twitter @Blumnessmonster.