The Birth of the “Chicken Offset”

The battle over gay rights and the Southern fast food chain Chick-fil-A has dominated the news in the last couple of weeks. 

Kiss-ins, boycotts, and counterprotests have all ensued. But maybe the most clever response to the anti-gay marriage comments is the “chicken offset,” the brainchild of  a lawyer, political operative, and all-around character named Ted Frank (disclosure: one of us – Sprigman – went to law school with Ted).

These build on the existing idea of “carbon offsets,” which started out as a way to bring market flexibility to CO2 emissions caps. If a polluter exceeds a cap, it can purchase an offset. The money that the polluter pays for the offsets supports projects that reduce CO2 emissions – say, the construction of a wind farm. The new, green projects “offset” the bad emissions. 

Today, firms like Brighter Planet offer offsets that consumers can voluntarily purchase to balance out the carbon output of their flying, their houses, their weddings, and even their pets (did you know that the average housecat has a carbon pawprint of over 0.5 ton – mostly from production and transport of cat food?).

Ted’s stroke of inspiration was to tweak the concept of the offset and apply it to chicken sandwiches.  As he explains on his new website, chickenoffsets.com, he loves Chick-fil-A sandwiches, but doesn’t want his love to come at the expense of his gay friends.  And so every time you give in to that chicken sandwich jones, Ted will sell you an offset for $1.  He promises that he’ll give at least 90% of that dollar to pro-gay rights groups. Which is much more than anti-gay groups are going to make on your lunch at Chick-fil-A. And you get a certificate to prove to anyone who spies you at a Chick-fil-A that you’ve already taken steps to undo any damage. 

 The chicken offset is a great and funny idea.  And, quickly,  another Chick-fil-A offset competitor has appeared. Ted’s site went live last Saturday. By Monday morning, chickfilaconfessional.com was up.  Chickfilaconfessional adds a few neat twists to Ted’s concept.  You tell the website exactly what you had to eat at Chick-fil-A.  Based on your input, it calculates an appropriate penance and directs you to pro-gay rights organizations who will be happy to accept your donation.

When we asked Ted if he was annoyed by his new competitor, he waved off the question.  He’s not even sure they copied him – the idea, he said, was “in the air.”  Soon after the Chick-fil-A controversy broke, he remembers someone making a joke about “chicken offsets” on Twitter. 

We don’t know for sure whether chickfilaconfessional.com copied  chickenoffsets.com. It may be that both arrived at the same idea independently, or perhaps that both were inspired by the same Twitter joke. But like a lot of new products and services, the chicken offset competition shows how essential tweaking is to the innovative process.

The chicken offset tweaks the personal carbon offset. The personal carbon offset, in turn, tweaks the offset systems built into climate change regulations like those operating now in Europe. And the EU’s offset program tweaks the Environmental Protection Agency’s pioneering “cap and trade” acid rain program in the Clean Air Act of 1990. And that in turn drew on academic work going back to economist Ronald Coase’s famous 1960 article, The Problem of Social Cost.

Is there nothing new on the sun? No. Until a couple of weeks ago, there was no chicken offset. But like a lot of terrific ideas, the chicken offset didn’t come out of nowhere. Inventing it required some building blocks. And this kind of incremental innovation—refining, rejiggering, and rethinking existing ideas—requires the freedom to copy. That is one reason we think copying is such an important part of the creative process.


cjc

There Is No Great Stagnation.

Chris

This is a great idea, if you are morally & logically OK with the concept of offsets.

The problem is that this is too narrow - it applies to Chick-fil-A only, and that business is not unique despite being the news story du jour. I wonder if there are similar sites for mosque attendance or (for example) the local hardware store? Ideally those would be linked from a primary website where you can look up the LGBT viewpoints for any business, so that you can either punish them by withholding your spending, or offset your purchases..

Ken Arromdee

I can't believe people are reacting to this seriously.

Carbon offsets, whether good or bad, are at least a coherent concept, because it is not possible for you to just pay some money and reduce the carbon usage of the world by some amount, without an infrastructure to combine payments, negotiate with companies that reduce carbon, etc. On the other hand, there's nothing keeping you from donating $1 to a gay rights group yourself without working through any intermediaries.

All that "chicken offsets" actually accomplish is demonstrate that people don't mean what they say. It would be easy to calculate how many cents of each chicken sandwich goes towards anti-gay activities and pay a corresponding amount to a pro-gay group yourself. People don't do that because they don't seriously think that the effect of buying the chicken sandwich is enough to matter. Complaining about it is just a way to feel self-righteous.

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Nosybear

In Medieval times they were called indulgences and the Church sold them. It's not a new idea, and the deed is still a sin, you just telegraph your sin and pay for it to go away before committing it.

Nathan

Indulgences?

TexCIS

Where can I buy offsets to support Free Speech? Since the governments in Boston and Chicago want to ban the restaurant because of the speech of the son of the founder, it's only a matter of time until no Christian can own or operate a store and speak their beliefs. Perhaps we should wear stars on our sleeves, or be tattooed with a number and herded into a ghetto. Then the offending chicken restaurants could only cater to the outcasts.

However, the mayor of Chicago loves the anti-semitic, anti-gay Luis Farrakhan. What is the Muslim stance on gay rights? What is their stance on women's rights?

When you get rid of the Christians, get ready for Sharia.

Fred

You correctly point out the Left's inconsistency on the Chick-fil-A issue. They attack free speech that is offensive to them; but the only speech that needs to be protected is that which offensive. Meanwhile they are mute in attacking perhaps the largest anti-gay bloc in the U.S. - Islam. There may be a strong anti-gay contingent within the Christian church, but there is wide division about acceptance/tolerance vs opposition. This division does not exist widely in Islam, at least publicly (in my awareness).

lee

a little biased reporting, huh? i'd love to point out that chickfilaconfessional.com launched last friday on national same sex kiss day.

with such a culturally relevant topic keeping it's place at the top of all of our news feeds, it seems only natural that many smart, creative people would imagine ways to be a part of the conversation.

Andreas Moser

I never thought we had any moral right to eat chicken anyway: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/bird-flu-is-not-that-bad/

Eric M. Jones.

The average first-world baby contributes over one-million kilograms of CO2 throughout its lifetime. There should be some market for this. The money that the polluter pays for the offsets supports projects that reduce CO2 emissions – say, birth control...

Mike.Gayner

Are Americans really so obsessed with fast food chicken that they'll go out of their way to devise schemes to convince themselves they're not supporting companies they consider evil? The obvious answer is yes.

Tim

Did he come up with the idea after watching the Daily Show skit or did they get it from him? From July 30th show: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-july-30-2012/cock-blockers
(my apologies for the link name)

Will

Errr genius :]

Conor

Here is an even better idea, buy fried chicken from another restaurant that does not oppose your values, and purchase an offset anyway. This way you are sure that none of your money is going towards anti-gay causes, and you are directly contributing to causes of which you are not morally opposed. Every time you make a purchase at Chick-fil-a you are still contributing money towards their agenda.

Dave

If you like the regular Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich, then try McDonald's Southern Style Chicken Sandwich... it's about the same.

matt

I'm going to open up a fast food restaurant and call it gay-burger. It will have gay chicken sandwiches and everything and we will serve food to everyone except eskimos. Eskimo's are not allowed!

Voice of Reason

This makes no sense. Somebody should point out that when it comes to selling consumer products with many competitors for a largely similar product, it's better to be loved than not hated. With this issue, it may quell some for being patrons, but it will also put their name out their and fire up potential customers. Chick Fil A doesn't need to have 100% of the fast food market, even 10% would be more than enough to keep them happy and fill their pockets with cash. In this country, we're split 50/50 between GOP and Democrats. Even assuming that some GOP have liberal leanings on social policy, you can still assume that at least 35% would be happy with the CEO supporting their views, that the publicity would put the brand in the news, and that many would feel bad for the company and feel like they're being bullied. That's obviously more than enough to offset the slight bad will and boycott's that it's getting.

My main point is that this is a "any publicity is good publicity" kind of thing. And that, if anything the protestors would be better off sitting on their hands, as anything they do will benefit the company, with the assumption that all they need is 10% of the market share to be in good shape. In contrast, if this was a utilities company, or some kind of industry where they needed 70-100% of the market share to exist, image would be everything, and they would need to pander to the majority.

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