A new campaign that takes a bucketful of creative licence is ruffling feathers across America.

From those clues, even Dr Watson could have surmised the controversial campaign in question is for the KFC fast-food chain owned by Yum Brands.

The campaign, under attack for suggesting fried chicken can be a healthy meal, is the first work from KFC's new US creative agency, Foote, Cone & Belding, which snatched away the assignment from the incumbent of three years, BBDO Worldwide.

Yes, you read that right, Foote, Cone swiped a creative client from BBDO, primarily on the strength of the work it produces for Taco Bell, another fast feeder under the Yum tree. It's tough deciding which is more fanciful: Foote, Cone besting BBDO in a creative shoot-out, as it did for KFC in September, or KFC's mainstay menu items being peddled as part of a healthy diet.

Remember, KFC's the chain that had to shorten its brand name to downplay the F-word - "fried", that is. Now, thanks to Foote, Cone, it's clambering aboard the bandwagon already crowded with competitors such as Burger King, McDonald's, Subway and Wendy's, which are scrambling to reposition themselves as purveyors of at least some products that will not prematurely end your usefulness to them as a living consumer.

The campaign is getting under way with two commercials centred on chats about healthier lifestyles. In one, a wife, coming home with dinner, tells her husband that "eating better" begins now, with a bucket of KFC. In the other, a man tells his buddy that "eatin' chicken" is how he got to "look fantastic".

The claims are artfully hedged. The phrase "Not a low-fat, low-sodium, low-cholesterol food" appears as an onscreen disclaimer, albeit in tiny type. KFC is matched in fat-and-calorie counts against Burger King's Whopper, notorious as one of the most belly-busting fast foods.

There's even a prompt to "go skinless for just three grams of fat per piece", though eating KFC that way is like washing off a Big Mac to remove the "special sauce".

It's no wonder the campaign has been the target of some of the most vituperative castigation Madison Avenue has suffered in years. Not only did the ad critic of Advertising Age attack the ads as a "big, fat bucket of nonsense", but the editorial page unleashed a rare assault on a specific campaign, deriding it as "as laughable, and damaging, as any we can imagine or recall" and demanding "it should be pulled off the air immediately" because it "damages the credibility not just of KFC but of the entire marketing industry".

Wow. Never mind the strapline: "You've gotta KFC what's cookin'." It's more like: "So what were they smokin' at Foote, Cone when they came up with this?"

Funny you should ask. The campaign could be construed as a cleverly updated version of a strategy pursued by the cigarette maker Lorillard during the 60s, when the link between smoking and cancer was starting to be stressed.

"You'll feel better about smoking with the taste of Kent," the company's perky jingle proclaimed reassuringly to core customers.

Or as Scott Bergren, KFC's executive vice-president for marketing and food innovation, declared last month: "Consumers should no longer feel guilty about eating fried chicken."

Talk about coming in on a wing and a prayer.

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