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Low-carb Message Not Popular, But Sales Are Up

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NEW YORK -- The popularity of the low-carbohydrate Atkins diet has motivated an unlikely group of food and beverage brands to find ways to tout low-carb benefits of their products or introduce low-carb versions.

Even beer and indulgent restaurant brands are trying to ride the wave of weight watching.

T.G.I. Friday's, known for its Friday's Tostado Nachos, Philly cheesesteak sandwiches and potato skins (loaded with cheddar cheese and bacon), is among the latest to join. On Friday, the company announced plans to add two pages of Atkins-diet-friendly selections to menus at its 523 domestic restaurants.

The items, created in cooperation with Atkins Nutritionals, will be in restaurants Dec. 9.

Meanwhile, beer brands are in a carb war sparked by the success of Anheuser-Busch's Michelob Ultra low-carb brew. Joining the battle have been Rolling Rock's new Green Light brand and low-carb pioneer Miller Lite, with ads reminding consumers it has always had just 3.2 grams of carbohydrates. Coors recently announced that it will roll out a low-carb beer called Aspen Edge in March.

But perhaps no marketer has dared to make as bold a low-carb pitch as fast-food chain KFC.

The Yum Brands unit launched its ''You've Gotta KFC What's Cookin' '' campaign by FCB, Chicago, with two ads squarely aimed at selling fried chicken to the carb-obsessed.

In one ad, someone asks his friend Jack what he has been doing to look so good. Jack's answer: ''Eatin' chicken.'' The announcer then says, ''The secret's out. Original Recipe chicken has 11 grams of carbohydrates and 40 grams of protein.''

In another ad, a wife slams down a bucket of chicken as the answer to ''eating better.''

Although the chicken might be a fine source of protein with relatively few carbs, health food it is not. That might be the larger message of the ads, but a small-print disclaimer notes that fried chicken is not a ''low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-sodium food.''

Marketing expert Marian Salzman thinks the ads put KFC on risky ground.

''When marketers cross the line into untrue territory, they are in a bad, bad place,'' says Salzman, chief strategy officer of New York ad agency Euro RSCG. ''I really question the intellect of where they went. Marketers need to understand that you can't ask people to believe what isn't true.''

Shortly after the ads began to air in late October, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food activist group, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission saying the ads' ''small print does not undo the deception caused by the big print.''

''These ads don't tell the truth,'' said Michael Jacobson, CSPI executive director, at the filing. ''These ads take the truth, dip it in batter and deep-fry it. Colonel Sanders himself would have a hard time swallowing this ad campaign.''

The FTC is reviewing the complaint and would not comment on it. The review is expected to take as much as three months.

KFC would not comment on the ads, which have not aired since Nov. 21. But in a statement following the CSPI filing, the company said the complaint had not prompted the company to pull them. It said the ads, which were the first installment of the ad campaign, were scheduled to stop.

Results of Ad Track, USA TODAY's weekly poll, indicate consumers won't miss them. Of those familiar with the campaign, just 8% like the ads ''a lot,'' vs. the Ad Track average of 21%. And 22% dislike the ads, vs. the Ad Track average of 13%.

Despite the reaction, the ads seem to have helped sales. Dec. 4, Yum reported a 1% increase in U.S. same-store sales for the four-week period ended Nov. 29. That was the first month of sales growth for the chain since April.

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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