Political Chickens

Feb 03, 2012

Last week, this video emerged on the Internet of Boris Johnson being chased outside City Hall by a man in a chicken suit:

As it turns out this chicken isn't even chasing the actual Boris, giving us a man wearing a chicken suit chasing a man dressed a man with a fake blonde wig, being filmed with a shaky camera for authenticity. It's a strange world we live in, but stranger still is that following politicians while wearing chicken-suits has a long and proud history.  As far as I can tell, it started in America when Gerald Ford addressed the chicken mascot of a local radio station while on campaign - a New York Times reporter then promptly bought the costume off the station and showed up to a press event in it as a prank (video here).

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The chicken then went dormant for a while, reappearing in 1992 working for Clinton (great illustration in that article) as 'Chicken George', but this time around the chicken had a political objective. The job of this chicken was hound George H. W. Bush for stonewalling debate negotiations and this has been a recurring use of chicken suits since. This version of the chicken I'm assuming is the inspiration for events in season six of the West Wing where Josh Lyman similarly deploys volunteers in chicken suits to hound opponents who wouldn't debate his candidate.

The Chicken crossed the Atlantic for the 1997 election, giving us the 'Tory Chicken', who followed Tony Blair to highlight that he had declined to debate John Major. For some reason this triggered a previously unknown British capacity for animal-suit politics, spawning a fox to chase the chicken off and a rhinoceros opposed to the idea of animal suits entirely:

The chicken was to follow the Labour leader, who was campaigning in the marginal Tory seat held by Michael Forsyth, the Scottish Secretary. However, his efforts to henpeck Mr Blair were hampered by a man from the Scottish Daily Mirror dressed as Freddy the Fox, who blocked his path during a 15-minute walkabout.

As Mr Blair approached, the chicken was seen to stumble and was pushed to the back of the crowd surrounding the Labour leader, where it waved a placard before skulking off. A jubilant Freddy observed: "I had him for dinner. I stopped him getting anywhere near Tony. Tony shook my hand and thanked me for it."

However, Mr Blair's guardian refused to identify himself, saying: "The whole thing is embarrassing enough as it is." The incident came at the end of a traumatic day for the Tory chicken. Earlier, he got into a nasty fight with a rival chicken with a detachable head, sent by the Mirror newspaper, as he strutted across College Green in Westminster. He was also pursued across London by another fox, two teddy bears and a plastic rhinoceros.

That whole article is worth a read if only for the full description of the Chicken's fight with the Mirror Chicken (the Mirror would go on to send another chicken after CameronClegg and probably others in the 2010 election). Daniel Finkelstein has a good story about having to keep the Chicken motivated during the campaign, but it's sadly now lost behind the Times paywall. In happier news, here's the story of its visit to Edinburgh.

Chickens have also popped up in Canadian provincial elections so there's a fair chance I've missed several chicken sightings but the idea of using chickens to draw attention to lack of debates (and assign blame) seem to be a recurring thing here. Given this back story, what do we make of this latest chicken?  That the real Boris doesn't even appear in Ken's chicken's videos so far (and that it's not explained in video why there's a chicken) is interesting as the chicken usually tries to muscle in on it's target's event and steal the focus. Is chasing fake Boris a sign of laziness or a sign that the media landscape is changing and our use of chicken suits with it?  Do we now understanding a chicken suit as short-hand for dodging debates? Or does the lack of context of the clip reflect the changing face of media, that it's now better to get a short and intriguing video on the internet and draw people to your site than to try and worm in at your opponent's own media events?

For entirely unrelated reasons, you can't vote in a chicken-suit in Nevada.

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