From Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben to the Jolly Green Giant and Ronald McDonald, corporate icons sell billions of dollars’ worth of products. But only one of them was ever a real person—Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken/KFC. From a 1930s roadside café in Corbin, Kentucky, Harland Sanders launched a fried chicken business that now circles the globe, serving “finger lickin’ good” chicken to more than twelve million people every day. But to get there, he had to give up control of his company and even his own image, becoming a mere symbol to people today who don’t know that Colonel Sanders was a very real human being. This book tells his story—the story of a dirt-poor striver with unlimited ambition who personified the American Dream.
Acclaimed cultural historian Josh Ozersky defines the American Dream as being able to transcend your roots and create yourself as you see fit. Harland Sanders did exactly that. Forced at age ten to go to work to help support his widowed mother and sisters, he failed at job after job until he went into business for himself as a gas station/café/motel owner and finally achieved a comfortable, middle-class life. But then the interstate bypassed his business and, at sixty-five, Sanders went broke again. Packing his car with a pressure cooker and his secret blend of eleven herbs and spices, he began peddling the recipe for “Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken” to small-town diners in exchange for a nickel for each chicken they sold. Ozersky traces the rise of Kentucky Fried Chicken from this unlikely beginning, telling the dramatic story of Sanders’ self-transformation into “The Colonel,” his truculent relationship with KFC management as their often-disregarded goodwill ambassador, and his equally turbulent afterlife as the world’s most recognizable commercial icon.
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How to Become an Icon
Kentucky Fried Chicken got some alarming news in summer 2010. A survey commissioned by the company found that less than 40 percent of Americans ages eighteen to twenty-five were able to recognize Colonel Sanders, the chain's iconic founder, as a real person. Now thirty years in the grave, the Colonel had, for a generation of KFC customers, simply ceased to exist as a human being. He was now a corporate avatar, a brand symbol like Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth, and the Morton Salt Girl. Worse still, from KFC's perspective, was the unmistakable inference to be drawn from these figures. If Colonel Sanders already seemed unreal to its customers after a single generation and in spite of the most strenuous efforts, what hope would it have of persuading future Americans to buy buckets? It was no abstract concern, a matter for the pondering of brand managers. There were a lot of chains in this country and overseas, and more all the time. They sold chicken too, and some of it was pretty good. The only thing separating KFC from them was the Colonel and whatever authority his image still conveyed.
Which was what? KFC didn't seem sure. In the thirty years since the Colonel's death, it had run headlong from his cooking methods, put an apron on him, taken it off, and even made him into a cartoon that sold Pokemon toys and did hip-hop dances. There was much talk about his "legacy," but it wasn't at all clear what that meant. The legacy of Harland Sanders was more complicated than an "original recipe" for fried chicken or the image of an old man in a white suit, albeit one so omnipresent as his. One thing everybody agreed on was that whatever else he was or represented, he was surely an icon in the truest sense of the word.
An icon, after all, doesn't mean a familiar face or symbol; Peter Frampton isn't an icon because he was hugely famous in the '70s. An icon, historically speaking, is an image that everyone can recognize, even if they can't read. Icons began as Byzantine religious figures and eventually became self-sufficient symbols that didn't require further explanation. That's why so many bars and restaurants have names like The Blue Parrot and The Spotted Pig—because they were originally named for the signs that hung over them. Later still, as applied semiotics became a cottage industry in the twentieth century, a number of imaginary persons were created who still are around today: Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben (no relation), the Jolly Green Giant, Ronald McDonald, Mr. Clean, and the rest. Created from whole cloth and wholly malleable by their authors, these commercial "mascots" do their jobs well, soldiering along on behalf of their makers, decade after decade, until they are either retrofitted or summarily dismissed from service. But none of these has the universal weight, or power, of Colonel Sanders, for the simple reason that only Colonel Sanders, among the world's great global icons, was an actual person.
And he wasn't just an actual person; this was a complicated man who lived a very long, varied, and eventful life—a life that said much about three centuries in American history. Born in the rural hinterlands in what amounted to frontier conditions, coming into adulthood in the machine age, living long enough to appear in commercials shown during Magnum, P.I.. breaks, he now exists as an image visible from space, a postmodern construct, a language all his own. Colonel Sanders was born in the nineteenth century, in a place that might as well have been the eighteenth, lived deep into the twentieth century, and continues to be a larger-than-life presence in the twenty-first. He took a food that was especially resistant to commercialization on a big scale and made it as common as hamburgers—an astounding feat, given the long backstory and cultural freight of fried chicken and the physical difficulties of the dish itself. (Forget eleven herbs and spices; just making it well at all in a restaurant still is almost impossible for reasons I will explain later.)
The Colonel, as he was universally known, was not an accidental hero, a man who fell into a moment of history and was made immortal. No, through a mixture of ambition, showmanship, and dogged endurance along with an intuitive grasp of what was then being called "mass culture," he found a way to make himself something bigger than just Harland Sanders and bigger even than a fast-food mogul. More than almost anyone in the hagiographic literature of American business, he truly lived the American Dream, as his friend and eulogist John Y. Brown Jr. rightly observed. His story paralleled the American Dream and in some way personified it. But what does the American Dream mean? Often it is used to describe hard work leading to fortune, but there is nothing especially American about that; that is the Protestant work ethic wrapped in a flag. The phrase "American Dream" was coined specifically to describe a state of egalitarian opportunity, a novus orbis where a man might transcend his roots and create himself as he saw fit. The historian James Truslow Adams, who is given credit for coining the phrase in his 1931 book The Epic of America, defined it thus:
The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement … It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
It was not, in other words, merely the chance to climb the social ladder; it was the chance to transcend who one was. Certainly, Harland Sanders came from a very low place on the social scale, although not as low as he might have; he was, after all, a white Protestant and a man, among other things. His belief in betterment as a moral calling was absolute and was underscored for him by his escape from rural poverty not once but several times. While he wasn't literally born in a log cabin, he might as well have been; late in the nineteenth century he came into the world of rural subsistence farming not much different from the one in which his pioneer forefathers lived. He embraced the gospel of business as ardently as any Babbitt and might have been portrayed as a buffoon by Sinclair Lewis or Sherwood Anderson. (To the end of his life he was an enthusiastic Rotarian, repeating the "Four Way Test" of good business and good morals.) His fortunes were made once with the rise of the railroad, once with the rise of the auto, and once again with the advent of corporate fast food and modern mass media, which took with one hand as they gave with the other. His posthumous history as the most prized asset of a great corporation tells the continuing story of that dream, too. After his death, his image was the soul of a vast global enterprise, torpid and somnolent in the '70s and then folded into the most infamously buccaneering corporations in the late '80s. In the 1990s it settled into the bosom of a vast and stable monopoly before spinning off again, this time as the vanguard of globalist expansion. Through a freak of history, Harland Sanders bridged the cultural history of three centuries of American striving; he personifies it in some special, unrepeatable way. There can never be another one like him.