I hate Colonel Sanders. More than that, I hate KFC’s newfound obsession with its founder.
On Wednesday, the brand released yet another commercial starring Colonel Sanders. The ad highlights KFC’s limited-time offer of Nashville Hot Chicken (which I like) and the rotating cast of Colonels (which I despise).
The company’s Colonel Sanders kick started last May, when KFC launched its first ad featuring Colonel Sanders after a 21-year hiatus.
The commercial stars comedian Darrell Hammond, cackling as he wheezes, “I’m Colonel Sanders, and I’m back America!”
I hated it. First, I found it eerie for a brand to resurrect its dead founder, who acted as the spokesperson for KFC for many years. Second, I found Hammond’s portrayal of the Colonel grating, with his kitschy, old-school Southern affectations.
However, I thought that, like many fast-food marketing pushes, this annoyance would be a limited-time offering.
If only I knew then how wrong I was.
“So far the response has been about 80% positive, 20% hate it,” Greg Creed, the CEO of KFC parent company Yum! Brands said at a conference in late May. “And I am actually quite happy that 20% hate it, because now they at least have an opinion. They’re actually talking about KFC, and you can market to love and hate; you cannot market to indifference.”
So, thanks in part to my and others’ hatred for the new commercial, KFC decided to go all in on Colonel Sanders.
KFC replaced Hammond with fellow-Saturday Night alum Norm Macdonald in August, and replaced Macdonald with comedian Jim Gaffigan in February. For the last year, versions of the Colonel have dominated TV commercials and social media. KFC is even created a comic book starring Sanders, and is currently remodeling restaurants to put Colonel Sanders at the forefront.
As the Colonel’s presence grew, my anti-Sanders feelings also blossomed. Today, my grievances against the Colonel are two-fold, opposing both the portrayal of the founder and the man himself.
KFC has been eager to celebrate some of the cheesier aspects of the Colonel’s identity, with a website that explores aspects of Sanders’ life. Highlights include Sanders dropping out of school in sixth grade, taking a steamboat ferry operator gig, and shooting a business competitor.
However, portraying the Colonel as a quirky, old-school mascot means glossing over some of the more complex aspects of his character.
Sanders was notoriously licentious in a way that would not be tolerated from most modern spokespeople. He was known for cheating on his first wife, with his second wife’s nephew saying he “found what he needed to find in other places,” according to ‘Colonel Sanders and the American Dream.’ A 1970 ‘New Yorker’ article quotes him observing a crowd of housewives saying: “Umm, that gal’s let herself go… Look at the size of that one… I don’t know when I’ve seen so many fat ones… Lord, look at ’em waddle.”
Also ignored in KFC’s portrayal of the Colonel is Sanders’ beef with KFC. The Colonel once tried to sue KFC for $122 million after he sold the chicken concept. The lawsuit was sparked by KFC’s refusal to allow Sanders to open an antebellum-themed restaurant selling Original Recipe Chicken.
The case was settled out of court for $1 million, and a promise that the Colonel would stop embarrassing the company — a promise that he did not keep. Till the end of his life, he complained that KFC had moved away from his recipes, telling the New Yorker that the company’s new gravy recipe “aint’ fit for my dogs.”
Knowing that Harland Sanders was a probable sexist who had a complicated relationship with the brand that uses him to sell chicken made it even easier to dislike Colonel-centric marketing. Yet, I still believe I could have forgiven that if the Colonel was portrayed differently.
KFC’s constantly-changing Colonel cast is basically interchangeable, in part because the brand uses such an exact formula: white, middle-aged comedian with a semi-recognisable name.
I inwardly cheered when David Alan Grier hinted he may be the next Colonel, just for a slight variation — even though he completely fits the formula, except for his race. He even appeared on ‘Saturday Night Live’ at the same time as Macdonald and Hammond!
The three comedians all do a similar, over-the-top imitations of a crazed Southern chef. However, if anything, the ads have gotten worse over time.
Hammond’s Colonel had an annoying chuckle, but Macdonald’s bizarre, semi-manic Colonel is baffling and Gaffigan’s overly enthusiastic Colonel is exhausting. When I watch KFC’s commercials starring the Colonel, I’m left either confused or furious that my time has been wasted.
The worst part is that the Colonel Sanders strategy seems to be working, so I won’t get a respite from the Colonel any time soon.
KFC sales increased 7% in 2015, with a 3% growth in same-store sales.
“If you looked at social media over Halloween, there were zillions of Colonel Sanders costumes — not just kids, but adults,” Kevin Hochman, KFC’s chief marketing officer, said at an event debuting Nashville hot chicken in New York City in January.
So, it looks like Sanders is sticking around. Ultimately, I only have myself to blame. As the Yum! Brands CEO said back in 2015, the brand would rather have customers hate the Colonel than feel neutral — and I certainly am bringing the hate.
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