What’s In Colonel Sanders’ “Secret Recipe”?: Wonderfully Strange KFC TV Ads

By on September 9, 2015

These wonderfully strange TV commercials, part of an ad campaign that ran in the U.S. circa 1967, show Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel Sanders — born Harland Sanders on September 9, 1890; he died on December 16, 1980 — strapped to a chair and hooked up to a lie detector, explaining that his secret blend of 11 herbs and spices includes, among other things, “four ounces of grandfather’s overcoat,” adding, with a maniacal laugh, “finally, I add three shoelaces and a hubcap!”

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Fried chicken eaters have been guessing for literally decades what Colonel Sanders had been using in his so-called “secret recipe,” and the Colonel had kept ‘em guessing since July 1940, when he is said to have finalized his concept for cooking chicken which also included using a pressure fryer, which cooked the chicken faster than an old-fashioned frying pan did. It was said that the recipe was locked in a vault at the company’s headquarters, and it’s said that the ingredients are made and processed by separate manufacturers who are unaware of what the others are producing in order to prevent the mysterious concoction from ever being revealed.

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Sanders wasn’t a real colonel — Governor Ruby Laffoon made him a Kentucky Colonel in 1935 in recognition of his contributions to the state’s cuisine — and the name “Kentucky Fried Chicken” wasn’t his idea, originally: it came from a sign painter named Don Anderson, who had been hired by the first franchisee to use the recipe and sell the Colonel’s chicken. Kentucky Fried Chicken was so successful, it was one of the first fast food chains to expand internationally, opening outlets in Canada and later in England, Mexico and Jamaica by the mid-1960s. But, the company’s rapid expansion to more than 600 locations became overwhelming for the aging Colonel, and in 1964, he sold the Kentucky Fried Chicken corporation for $2 million to a partnership of Kentucky businessmen investors, including John Y. Brown Jr. (who later became governor of Kentucky).

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Sanders remained the company’s marketing face, though, traveling 200,000 miles a year and filming many TV commercials and appearances. He kept an eye on how his image was being used too sell the chicken, and in 1973, he sued Heublein Inc. then parent company of Kentucky Fried Chicken, over the alleged misuse of his image in promoting products he had not helped develop.

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He also was pretty outspoken about the quality of the product that bore his likeness, and in 1975, Heublein Inc. unsuccessfully sued Sanders for libel after he told New York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton that KFC’s gravy was “wallpaper paste” to which “sludge” was added. The lawsuit was dismissed. Sanders bad-mouthed the company’s modifications to his original menu. To him, Extra Crispy chicken was “a ball of fried dough.”

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For his book “Big Secrets,” William Poundstone took a batch of the Colonel’s chicken to a lab for testing. According to Poundstone (via LiveScience), “The sample of coating mix was found to contain four and only four ingredients: flour, salt, monosodium glutamate, and black pepper. There were no eleven herbs and spices—no herbs at all in fact.” So much for there being 11 herbs and spices. We couldn’t find out much about the rest of these KFC TV commercials, which feature Lady Godiva, Cleopatra, Paul Revere, and housewives escaping from the imprisonment of their kitchens and enjoying Kentucky Fried Chicken. They’re not quite as strange as seeing the Colonel himself, rigged up to lie about that “secret recipe,” but they’re pretty far out.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • http://uglyradio.wordpress.com/ Richard Vachel Lindsay

    What a great post!
    The only regrettable thing about Mad Men ending was that there was never an epic Kentucky Fried Chicken story arc.