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It Takes a Tough Man to Make a Tender Chicken

Soon after the Berlin wall crashed down on November 9, 1989, Pepsi Cola ran a television ad celebrating the wall’s fall — an ad, I believe, showing celebrants at the wall drinking Pepsi.  I recall that some American pundits were horrified, asking — rhetorically, in their minds — if eastern Europeans wanted freedom merely to drink Pepsi.  (I can find no link to this ad, but this interview mentions it.)

My reaction to this question was and remains "Well, yes, in large part.  People want freedom not just to do great and momentous things.  Mostly, they want freedom to pursue their everyday pleasures and dreams and interests as they wish without interference from others.  Access to more and better soft-drinks, in itself, is a small thing — but it’s certainly part of the reason why people want to be free.  And celebrating these quotidian freedoms, even in a Pepsi commercial, is appropriate."

For some reason I recalled that Pepsi-commericial brouhaha today when I read in today’s New York Times Magazine this interesting recollection of Frank Perdue, the Marylander who became wealthy growing, slaughtering, and selling chickens.

Too many people — such as those who were offended by Pepsi-Cola, Inc., associating freedom with joyously drinking soft-drinks — disdain everyday freedoms as well as everyday commercial and industrial activities made possible by these freedoms and that, in turn, make these freedoms more valuable to each of us.

I hope I’m wrong (I really do), but I fear that too many people who read the following about Frank Perdue will regard such efforts as contemptible, low, mean, almost comical, unworthy of being ranked as great.  In fact, such efforts are precisely the sort that makes our prosperity so vast and deep.

But what was its [a Perdue chicken’s] unique selling proposition? To hear Perdue himself
tell it, his chickens were just plain better than anybody else’s. His
son, Jim, says that when his father decided in the late 1960’s to cut
out the middleman and sell his chickens directly to grocery stores, he
spent six months on the road, talking to butchers about what qualities
they liked to see in their chickens. "He identified 25 items on a
chicken that they cared about," Jim Perdue said. They wanted yellow
chickens, so Frank Perdue fed his poultry grain that gave the meat a
golden hue. They didn’t like little hairs left over on the wings after
plucking, so Perdue had his engineers develop a torch that would singe
the hairs off. They wanted more white meat, so he mated a
meaty-breasted Cornish male with a White Plymouth Rock female to create
the Perdue pedigree. They didn’t want bruised meat, so Perdue set
strict protocols for handling live chickens. He was obsessive about
knowing everything there was to know about chickens – and about
maintaining what heviewed as the superior quality of Perdue Farms’

Looking at a reel of old Perdue ads, this obsession is striking.

the earliest commercial, he talks about how well his chickens are fed –
including "pure well water to drink." In another, he complains that his
competitors freeze their meat. To drive the point home, he hammers a
nail into a piece of wood with a frozen chicken. He talks about how he
had to develop his own breed because no other chicken in the world was
good enough for Perdue Farms. And he constantly needles the federal
government, claiming he inspects chickens better than it does.

Ain’t it great that someone — someone who is a stranger to almost all of America’s chicken eaters — spent his valuable time traveling around asking butchers what features make a good chicken?  Ain’t it great that Frank Perdue cared about the water his chickens drank?  Ain’t it great that he bred a new breed of chicken?  Sure, he did all this to make money for himself.  But so what?  His means of making money inspired him to care deeply about what the typical chicken eater likes and dislikes about chicken.

Why is it that so many people admire the likes of FDR and LBJ who uttered fine phrases but whose ideas of helping people never went beyond stealing from some, showering part of the booty on others, and bureaucratically regulating everyone?

Frank Perdue alone has contributed more to our quality of life than has any politician you care to name.

This claim of mine will strike many as over the top.  But I mean it literally.  Perdue persuaded people to buy his chickens.  Politicians force people to do their bidding.  Those in the force business are inherently less likely to care deeply about people — about real, flesh-and-blood people in all of our diversity — than are those, like Frank Perdue, whose success depends critically upon persuading millions of people to buy, and keep buying, their products.

Update: Muck and Mystery gently plucks my feathers by arguing that (1) there’s nothing really special about Frank Perdue, for the production and distribution practices that Perdue followed are standard practice in the poultry industry, so (2) Perdue’s real genius lay in advertising to promote himself and his firm, and (3) that insofar as Perdue and other poultry producers do contribute to our well-being, it’s the system that encourages such wealth-creating efforts.

I’m happy, although not suprised, to learn that Perdue’s best-practices are industry standard.  My point was not so much to praise Frank Perdue personally (although I do regard him as praiseworthy).  My point was to celebrate the fact that we have an economic system that prompts Perdue, and Tyson’s, and you-name-the-entrepreneur each to spend enormous amounts of creativity and effort doing things that we consumers never become consciously aware of — but things that we nevertheless value and benefit from.  So, indeed, the system is of paramount importance — but this fact doesn’t mean that we can’t admire the many instances of creative human productive efforts that it unleashes.

On the merits of advertising, I’ll just recommend one of my favorite books on the topic.