August 5, 2016 by T. Gregory Argall
I may be late to the party on this one, but it’s been bothering me for a while and I just sort of kept it to myself. I have to ask… How lost, confused, and substance-dependant is the marketing department at KFC?
Last year they ran a series of television commercials with Darrell Hammond playing the role of Colonel Harland Sanders. After a few months Hammond was replaced by Norm MacDonald, who was eventually replaced earlier this year by Jim Gaffigan. The rotating-door nature of the casting has only reinforced my initial impression of this campaign; namely that the KFC Board of Directors are collectively urinating on the grave of the actual Harland Sanders.
Yes, he was a real person.
Colonel Harland David Sanders was a real living actual person who did stuff, like spending years perfecting a chicken recipe, and more years building a chain of franchised restaurants. He was also a lawyer for a while. He served in the military (although “Colonel” was an honorary title given to him by the Governor of Kentucky). He had a mistress, whom he later married after divorcing his first wife. He was once involved in a gunfight with a rival restaurant owner. No, really. A real-life, crouch-behind-cars gunfight. He didn’t start it but he got caught in the middle of it. The 1930’s were a crazy time. Matt Stewart, the other guy, was convicted of murder following the death of a Shell Oil Company official who was with Sanders when he was attacked.
Harland Sanders lived a bit of a wild and adventurous life, as restauranteurs go.
In 1964, at the age of 73, he sold the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain in the United States and took on the position of “Brand Ambassador” for the new owners. He retained ownership of the Canadian chain and moved to Mississauga. (He and the Mrs. had a nice bungalow near Dixie Road and the Queensway. Longtimes locals still remember seeing him walking the neighbourhood.) He appeared as himself in several television commercial and was the face of Kentucky Fried Chicken for years.
He was also very protective of the legacy he represented. In 1973 he sued the then-owners of the restaurant chain because they were using the phrase “The Colonel’s own…” in reference to menu items that he hadn’t actually developed. When a corporate decision was made to change the gravy to a less expensive recipe that was easier to mass produce, he made a regular habit of calling them out on it. He’d show up at KFC restaurants, taste the gravy, then throw it on the floor, declaring it to be wallpaper paste and an insult to customers. He also lamented the loss of nutritional value in the Kentucky Fried Chicken brand since he sold the company.
For years he was a living symbol and advocate of the quality his chicken once had.
And now he’s a slapstick caricature character in a series of drunkenly-written ads that aspire to the artistic heights of a recurring SNL sketch.
Yes, other actual people have been portrayed in film and television and it hasn’t always been flattering. I get that. And from one perspective this is simply a case of actors getting a job. I fully support actors working, taking any job that’s offered. Many of my friends are actors and I wish they could get more work. I don’t blame Hammond or MacDonald or Gaffigan for this. Or the next guy. (More on that in a moment.)
I blame the corporate heads of KFC who probably hadn’t even grown much past diapers when the Colonel died at the age of ninety, so they have no direct frame of reference for the legacy they are squandering.
Appearing in commercials throughout the late 1960s and into the 70s Colonel Sanders represented Kentucky Fried Chicken’s main traits of quality, value and nutrition. If the recent exhumation of the Colonel is anything to judge by, the company now wants to be represented as shallow, hollowly-stereotyped, interchangeable, and worthy of mocking.
And they are not done yet. They recently announced another addition to their collection of fake Colonels: George Hamilton.
I am not making this up.
Jim Gaffigan will continue to play “Original Recipe Colonel” while tanning advocate and human beef jerky George Hamilton will play “Extra Crispy Colonel.”
Because the potential for skin cancer is a severely under-used marketing tool.
None of this is making me want to buy their chicken.
Try to be nice to each other.