Late last month, the crew of a helicopter surveying a desolate stretch of the Utah desert came across an unexpected finding: a metal structure, tall and thin, gleaming among the matte-red rocks. Soon after, the object vanished. But people began finding similar ones, in California and Romania and the Netherlands—elongated prisms studding the earth, their provenance, for the most part, unknown. The public reaction to all the mystery has been, primarily, not wonder so much as weariness: Please, please, let it be aliens and not a publicity stunt.
I mention this because last week, Kentucky Fried Chicken announced the latest in its own long-running series of marketing stunts: a 15-minute-long “mini movie” starring Mario Lopez as KFC’s founder, Harland Sanders, titled A Recipe for Seduction. The trailer for the ad (yep, this ad has a trailer) promised a “steamy holiday love affair” and offered up a version of Sanders—a figure most familiar as white-haired and spectacled—retrofitted with the iconography of romance: shirt tight, sleeves short, the traditional bowtie replaced by a louchely knotted neckerchief. The Harland-meets-Harlequin premise, pulsing with irony and coupled with the fact that this mini movie has been made by a fast-food brand, inspired questions similar to those wrought by the Utah mystery monolith: How did this thing get here? Why is it here? Is it ... real, whatever that means?
In this case, the answers were refreshingly straightforward: A Recipe for Seduction may be long, as traditional ads go, and it may manifest more as branded content than direct marketing message—but it is, transparently, an ad, created by agents of Yum! Brands to generate desire for its subsidiary’s meal deals. Recipe is a joint production of Lifetime, which is selling escapism, and KFC, which is selling chicken. It aired yesterday, nestled between the holiday rom-coms The Christmas Listing (rival real-estate agents find love over the holidays) and Feliz NaviDAD (a single father, played by Mario Lopez, finds love over the holidays). I watched it. And I would like to pay it the highest compliment I know how to give to an ad: It is exactly what it claims to be—nothing less, nothing more, nothing else.
Here’s the plot: Jessica Mancera (played by Justene Alpert) is the beautiful heiress of a family whose patriarch has died, leaving both Jessica and her mother—I must specify here that her mother’s name is Bunny—facing financial ruin. Just before Christmas, Billy Garibaldi, the caddish heir to the Garibaldi fortune, proposes to Jessica. She is hesitant to accept, torn between her obligations to her family and … her obligations to her heart. Enter Harland Sanders, a chef Bunny has hired to work for the family over the holidays. The main thing to know about Harland Sanders, in this story, is that he’s very good-looking. The other thing to know about him is that he has developed a secret chicken recipe that will bring riches to him and joy to all. Jessica and Harland, after exchanging about 30 seconds’ worth of dialogue, fall in love. And Bunny and Billy, both threatened by this development—Oh! And who are also having an affair!—cook up a scheme to get rid of Harland.
Is there a kidnapping? Do the members of this cast seem to have wildly varying ideas about whether to pronounce the d in Harland’s name? Is this Christmas-themed film set in a tropical clime, thus sparing Harland, the beefcake with a dream of chicken, from the need to cover his arms with wintry outwear? Yes. And yes. And yes. (Oh, and does Jessica have a gay best friend who saves the day and steals the show? Yes, also!)
Like I said: nothing more, nothing less. This rom-comic ad-movie is campy, but not camp in the strict Sontagian sense. It’s silly, but deeply aware of its silliness. It’s escapist in a moment when distraction from the world’s realities can be a rare commodity. And it is blithely straightforward about its reason for existing: the selling of chicken. This is product placement turned upside down, a story placed within the product. The first scene of Recipe features the Mancera family dining, by candlelight and on the good china, on a feast of fried drumsticks and thighs. Harland Sanders’s “secret recipe” is mentioned approximately 5,000 times over the course of the story. At one point, viewers get a fleeting glimpse of the recipe in question—jotted on an index card scrawled with the words, yep, secret recipe. It features a doodle of a drumstick.
The jokes are in one way works of their postmodern moment. But they also have a throwback feel. The genre this ad-movie is spoofing, the soap opera, got its name from the work Procter & Gamble did to produce the daytime stories that were marketed to housewives. Lifetime’s brand integration is a new twist on the old Diet Coke ad that wrote home viewers into the scripts of the Indiana Jones franchise. There is art, in this winking homage to chicken and romance, but there is very little artifice. You could note, sure, that A Recipe for Seduction borrows from Jane Austen (“Harland claims to have some secret recipe that will make him a man of great repute!” Bunny exclaims, like a murderous Mrs. Bennet) and also from telenovelas, and Get Out, and Clue, and Wedding Crashers, and just about any pun-happy holiday frolic that is aired on basic cable at this time of year. But the allusions all come back to the same message: Buy our chicken, please. A Recipe for Seduction wears its transactions on its (short, tight) sleeve.
And that feels oddly—if sadly—refreshing. This is a moment, after all, when deceptions are in the air: when the American president and many others in positions of power are lying, shamelessly and daily, to the public. It’s a moment when the assumed manipulations of the marketer have extended into political discourse, affecting the way Americans see and treat one another. It’s exhausting to live in that uncertainty, to always be wondering whether the thing you’re being told is true or merely convenient. It’s so tiring that when random hunks of metal start popping up around the globe, it becomes easier to joke about them being the detritus of extraterrestrials than to admit what they very probably are: publicity stunts incarnate—objects made to sell more objects—orchestrated by unknown agents. The bar in all this is very low, I know. An ad is an ad. KFC is KFC. But there’s honesty, in the end, in a work of advertising that is so open about its ends. “Your secret’s out, chicken man,” Billy Garibaldi sneers at Harland Sanders in one of the worst-best lines of KFC’s dumb-savvy ad-movie. But the secret was out long before that.