Colonel Curmudgeon and KFC’s Mascot Problem

Colonel Sanders thought the quality of his chicken had “slipped mightily” and the whole culture of fast food appeared to disgust him

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Colonel Sanders was a real guy, an unemployed one who was forced out of his highway-side restaurant at the age of 65. He started selling the rights to make his pressure-cooker fried chicken, with a secret blend of 11 herbs and spices, from the back seat of a white Oldsmobile. He originally wore a black suit rather than a white one, and his pressure cooker was as much a part of the pitch as his proprietary spice blend.

By 1975, Sanders had sold the franchise, Kentucky Fried Chicken, to a liquor and food conglomerate. He stayed on as a goodwill brand ambassador, raking in an annual salary of $70,000 a year. He put on a white linen suit every morning and rode around in a company-chauffeured Cadillac, visiting the company’s white-columned headquarters. But the colonel was bitter: The quality of his chicken had “slipped mightily” and the whole culture of fast food appeared to disgust him.

“Drive out of any town now and everyone is selling his piece of chicken or hamburger up and down the highway,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “You can’t get a decent meal anymore.”

So the Colonel did what he did best: He started a new restaurant and called it the Colonel’s Lady Dinner House. It had fewer frills and was intended to resemble the average dinner table. Then Sanders launched a vocal campaign against the new owners of Kentucky Fried Chicken. As the Los Angeles Times wrote:

He said he has been disappointed and that the conglomerate has treated him like “the saloon bums they’re used to dealing with rather than a sophisticated Southern businessman.”

In the past, he has insulted KFC’s gravy, called the men he first sold out to in 1964 “the biggest bunch of sharpies you ever saw” and labeled Heblein executive a “bunch of booze hounds.”

Company executives have long ignored such comments. Realizing that the colonel is one the nation’s best known trade names, they’ve handled him with kid gloves.

“He has been doing this forever,” said John Cox, the firm’s vice president for franchising and public affairs. “It comes and goes. The colonel is just a very independent minded individual.”

But there is a more serious issue involved in the current dispute: who controls the use of Sander’s familiar face and Southern gentlemen image.

Sanders is anxious to settle the case. “I only want to find how much of my body and soul they own.”

Once the colonel and the company settled, for a reported $1 million, Sanders promised not to attack the company. “He started to do so practically before the ink was dry on the agreement,” Josh Ozersky writes in the new book Colonel Sanders and the American Dream. Unlike the malleable Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben and Ronald McDonald—advertising characters concocted in corporate boardrooms—Kentucky Fried Chicken had a real live spokesman, who stood his ground as a corporation reduced his recipes to poor imitations of their former selves.

Ozersky believes the company’s closely guarded “Original Recipe” was probably not the one invented by Sanders. Take this quote he unearths from 1970: A company executive says, “Let’s face it the Colonel’s gravy was fantastic but you had to be a Rhodes Scholar to cook it.” The superhuman grandiosity that gave birth to the colonel’s image, meant to conjure up the magnolia-scented myth of the Deep South, proved to be a double bind. As Ozersky writes, “Oh to have a nice fictional mascot instead!”

Book cover design by Derek George/Colonel Sanders and the American Dream/Courtesy of University of Texas Press.

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