Science fiction has contended with the ethical problems of self-aware technology for at least a century. What we as a society must now contend with are the ethical problems of self-aware corporate brands. Advertising is inherently manipulative: the whole point of a marketing campaign is to convince people to buy your product and, perhaps more importantly, to trust your brand. Witness the rise of corporate Twitter accounts that use Internet speak and weird humor to endear themselves to consumers.
Moon Pie, for example, is a master of this endearingly bizarre form of anti-marketing. They use nonsequiturs and strange jokes to sell their product often without even mentioning the product at all. They interact with other Twitter users as if they, Moon Pie, were just another poor schmuck going about their daily life. Though their social media manager may in fact be just another poor schmuck, the person behind the account isn’t tweeting under their real name. They’re tweeting as Moon Pie, thus attempting to position this corporation, this baked good that a large company wishes to sell us all, as our friend. It’s dystopian as hell, but we all let it happen because Moon Pie makes us laugh.
The KFC/Lifetime collaboration A RECIPE FOR SEDUCTION is, ironically, a seductive new wrinkle in this evolution of advertising. Though it’s tempting to write off a collaboration between a famously soapy movie network and a fried chicken franchise as just another symptom of 2020 being strange and frightening, the environment that allowed A RECIPE FOR SEDUCTION to happen has been brewing for quite some time, particularly in the Twitter feeds of the Moon Pies and Burger Kings of the world. Product placement has existed on television since the first TV set landed in a family’s living room, but this is something different. This is something more sinister, a far more brazen hybrid of marketing and entertainment that weaponizes camp and irony in order to anthropomorphize a multi-billion dollar corporation in the form of a disturbingly sexy mascot who winks at the audience to let them know he’s in on the joke.
The mini-movie opens with a lavish holiday dinner party featuring enough close-ups of fried chicken to make Hannibal blush. Billy (Chad Doreck), the smug boyfriend straight out of Lifetime Central Casting, compliments his girlfriend’s mother Bunny (Tessa Munro) on her delicious cooking. She demurs, crediting her talented new chef for what Billy calls “the perfect meal for the perfect evening.” Since the movie is in on the joke, with its arch performances and self-aware melodrama, viewers giggle right along with it rather than rolling their eyes at the blatant ad copy masquerading as dialogue.
The plot follows the standard soapy Lifetime thriller formula: money-hungry Bunny wants her daughter Jessica (Justene Alpert) to marry the wealthy Billy, but Jessica falls in love with the hunky new chef (Mario Lopez as a disconcertingly handsome Harland Sanders). Bunny and Billy conspire to ruin Colonel Sanders (I refuse to call him Harland). After hearing about his “secret recipe that’s gonna change the world” — a line repeated several times throughout the 16-minute runtime — Billy steals it and finds a hilariously vague recipe card filled with notes like “Too Much Too Little?” and drawings of chicken legs. Despite several betrayals and moments of campy violence, Colonel Sanders gets the girl and wins the day…or does he? The mini-movie ends on a cliffhanger, ensuring that viewers (myself included) will come back for the inevitable sequel.
It cannot be overstated how unsettling this incarnation of Colonel Sanders is. The genial-looking, elderly corporate mascot is now a confusing sex symbol. Lopez’s hair and wardrobe make for a bizarre combination of agèd and youthful: he sports the signature black glasses along with a grey mustache and goatee, but he pairs his jaunty black ascot with a tight white shirt with rolled-up sleeves to show off his swole biceps. “Sex sells” is a cliché for a reason, and attractive mascots or spokesmodels are nothing new. But part of the fun of romantic melodramas like Lifetime movies is the wish-fulfillment aspect of the story: for two hours, viewers can live like naughty rich people or murder cheating husbands or fall in love with talented new chicken chefs. By positioning their corporate mascot as the center of this wish-fulfillment fantasy, KFC obliterates the line between art and commerce with grease-stained fingers.
And they do it very well. This is a highly entertaining and well-executed Lifetime movie-slash-fast food commercial. Alpert and Lopez wisely play it straight, giving their love story as much earnestness as they can, while the rest of the cast is deliciously over the top. The camerawork sells the suspense, as jittery handheld and low angle shots manage to make country club dork Billy seem menacing and dangerous. The costuming, production design, and score are perfectly calibrated for this self-aware romantic thriller, adding gleeful dashes of humor without overdoing it. You don’t have to work too hard to make people laugh at Sexy Colonel Sanders and the Case of the Rich Kidnappers.
A RECIPE FOR SEDUCTION knows exactly what kind of movie it is. Unfortunately, it also knows exactly what kind of people we are. That’s what makes it so sinister: it is a slick, well-made movie that appeals to our appetite for camp, irony, and weirdness. It is also a commercial for fried chicken. The fact that they’re in on the joke, that they know how sublimely ridiculous it all is? That is the problem. If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that corporations will keep hoarding wealth no matter what’s going on in the world. We can’t let them convince us that they’re our friends while they’re doing it.
You can watch the full TV Short below and experience the horror right along with us.