This week, KFC introduced the brand-new Colonel Sanders dating simulator you never knew you needed. In this choose-your-own-adventure dating game, your favorite peddler of fried chicken gets a sleek silver fox makeover. The game, called “I Love You, Colonel Sanders! A Finger Lickin’ Good Dating Simulator,” will launch on Steam on September 24th with the following enticing proposition: “Do you have what it takes to survive culinary school? Will Colonel Sanders choose you to be his business partner? Or maybe even so much more?”
The implication here, that fried chicken fans secretly want to seduce Colonel Sanders, is almost certainly a hilarious joke. (Though if you do, no judgement, the dude looks good for his 129 years.) But the overall forces at work are evidence of something much bigger going on in the world of branding.
Long before Colonel Sanders debuted those sharp cheekbones, advertisers have been trying to get you horny for their product. “Sex sells” is the oldest truism in advertising, existing since late 19th-century tobacco companies distributed collectible “trading” cards adorned with sexy ladies. One of the most iconic early examples of selling sex comes from a Woodbury’s Facial Soap ad, which boasts a couple embracing alongside the tagline “A Skin You Love to Touch.” Though tame by today’s standards, this was considered pretty erotic for the time.
Things escalated quickly though, and in 1936, Woodbury published an ad with a fully-nude model.
Of course, these ads were the exception, not the rule. Up until the late 1920s, products were typically sold based on actual merit, marketed with information-heavy advertisements that spoke to the functional qualities of the product, in what would likely read as a veritable snooze-fest to our Instagram-addled brains.
That all changed thanks to Edward Bernays, who was tasked in 1928 with the challenge of marketing cigarettes, then traditionally a masculine indulgence, to women. Rather than convincing women about the superior taste, soothing nature, or supposed bad-assery of cigarette smoking, Bernays set out to change the way women felt about smoking — specifically, to vanquish the then-prevalent taboo against women smoking. Because cigarettes had been previously seen as “phallic,” they were exclusively a hobby of dudes. Bernays harnessed the ideas of his favorite uncle, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, and decided to try to target women’s “penis envy,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of selling sexual attraction, he was selling the promise of sexual power.
He did all this by dubbing cigarettes “torches of freedom,” symbols of women’s equality at a time when the women’s suffrage movement was just hitting its stride. He had suffragettes light up their trusty cancer sticks in carefully-planned publicity stunts that postured cigarettes as essential to the burgeoning women’s movement. Though the product stayed the same, its symbolic connotations and the way women emotionally responded to it had fundamentally changed.
As ads became increasingly emotionally-charged, so too did they become even more sexually-charged. Erotic ads proliferated over the decades as a reliable way to provoke its audiences, including the very reliable bout of scandalized headlines. In the decades since Bernays changed the sales game forever, brands and advertisers have been pushing the envelope of acceptability, featuring all sorts of semi-undressed gals, greased-up gents, and even uncomfortably sexualized children.
But all this imagery has a point. In his 2003 book, The Erotic History of Advertising, professor Tom Reichert concludes that “sex in advertising has frequently, but not always, increased consumer interest and often aided in the selling of products and building strong brand identities.” From American Apparel to Budweiser, certain brands have been strongly defined by their tendency to use scantily-clad humans in their ads.
Sexy advertising hardly claims to espouse the virtues of any individual product. Rather, it’s become almost entirely about stimulating the consumer’s subconscious desires and forging a relationship with them. For author and brand advisor Daryl Travis, this relationship is quite literal. He writes, “A transaction is like a one-night stand, and it is never going to be as satisfying or rewarding as falling in love. A transaction makes the cash register ring once. A relationship makes it ring again and again.”
One of the easiest ways to forge an actual relationship between you and your customer is to create a brand avatar — that is, a mascot. This is called anthropomorphism, which means the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman entities, and it has been a major function of human creativity since the Neolithic era, back when we first started carving human figurines out of stones. As authors Warren Dotz and Masud Husain put it in their book Meet Mr. Product, “Undoubtedly, mascots serve to imbue their brands with the human characteristics of emotion, thought and personality. By bringing them to life, brands transcend being mere objects of consumption.” Mascots coalesce all of the qualities of a brand, giving it a corporal form. Multiple scholars on the topic have noted that it is logical to assume that consumers are capable of becoming emotionally engaged with a mascot, and that the resultant feelings said mascot conjures up could affect the consumer’s brand relationship and consumption preferences. If you’re skeptical, you’ve clearly never met a true Hello Kitty fan.
Turning your brand into a person isn’t new. One of the earliest examples is the Quaker Oats man, who was trademarked in 1877. However, back then, mascots existed only in print drawings. As radio and TV proliferated, mascots were given voices, mobility, and more vibrant, colorful appearances. With the advent of the internet, and, particularly, social media, brands were suddenly able to create interactive relationships between their branded mascots and their consumers. Unsurprisingly, this has correlated with the increased use of anthropomorphism in contemporary marketing. We’re seeing brands express a potpourri of human emotions on Twitter and Instagram, creating fleshed-out characters with ups, downs, clap-backs, and even depression. Often, these are expressed while using the “I” pronoun, giving further believability to these brand’s performative humanity, as when Sunny Delight forgot to take its meds:
In this way, the KFC dating simulator is the natural meeting point of brand anthropomorphism, interactive marketing, and sexy advertising, and it all adds up to this fact: KFC wants you to semi-ironically want to bang Colonel Sanders in hopes of making you consume more fried chicken. And by letting you connect emotionally to the Colonel on a more intimate level vis-à-vis a branded dating simulator, it is probably, despite your cynicism, going to change the way you feel about that bucket of fried chicken.