Will the real Colonel Sanders please stand up?

Darrell Hammond (left) and Norm Macdonald.
Darrell Hammond (left) and Norm Macdonald.

With a "rotating roster of personalities," Kentucky Fried Chicken is finding a fresh way to portray its departed founder

How do you resurrect a beloved corporate-founder-turned-brand ambassador? Kentucky Fried Chicken has cooked up a new twist on the challenge: Serve up a series of actors to portray Colonel Harland Sanders with all the trimmings.

KFC in May launched a series of ads created by Wieden + Kennedy Portland featuring comedian Darrell Hammond as the return of Colonel Sanders. In a performance that toed the line between tribute and mockery, Hammond mimicked the accent and the trademark giggle of the chain’s founder, who passed away in 1980 at the age of 90.

Explaining that "I've been gone for a while — and boy howdy, have things changed!" Hammond’s Sanders mused about cultural innovations during his absence (including the International Space Station, double-sided tape and cargo pants) while pointing out the core values of KFC that remain consistent.

This week, KFC  (a subsidiary of Yum Brands) took the impersonation to a new level with a fresh raft of ads from W+K Portland that feature "Saturday Night Live" veteran Norm Macdonald assuming the role — and dismissing his predecessor as an imposter. "The Real Colonel Sanders" campaign includes Macdonald  watching Hammond’s impression and exclaiming, "Hey! That’s not the real Colonel Sanders. I’m the real Colonel Sanders."

KFC makes no bones about the transparency of its comedic impersonators. "Other than not quite looking like him, his voice being different, and his inability to cook the world’s best chicken, we thought Norm was the perfect choice to play the Real Colonel," said KFC US CMO Kevin Hochman in a statement. "I think the fans will agree."

By making the impersonations part of the act, KFC has managed to avoid pitfalls that may beset posthumous  appearances by company spokespeople. (Consider the 2007 commercial from ConAgra and Crispin Porter & Bogusky that used computer mapping to superimpose the late Orville Redenbacher’s face onto an actor’s body. The resulting simulacrum was promptly dubbed "Orville Deadenbacher" by popcorn fans.)

KFC said the "rotating roster" of Colonels will continue to be a feature of the campaign. "We’re looking to play the multiple facets of the Colonel’s personality," a company spokeswoman said. CEO Mukesh Pant "felt that Colonel Sanders had so many dimensions to his personality, one person couldn’t play it."

"We wanted to get back to our roots, she said. "When we were at our best, the Colonel was at the helm."

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