Nowadays, you can find romance novels that feature all kinds of bizarre lovers: pirates, mermaids, T. rex aficionados, and shape-shifting hipsters. But none of these books are as strange as Tender Wings of Desire, a romance novel starring Colonel Sanders, founder and (technically dead) mascot of the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant empire.
Tender Wings of Desire is more than just a romance novel. It’s a tale of missed opportunity for KFC. Indeed, it might be the biggest mistake the company’s ever made.
Despite the quirky cover, Tender Wings of Desire is not satire, fast food fan fiction, or subversive mascot erotica by Chuck Tingle. It was published by KFC as a promotional stunt for Mother’s Day 2017. A date that shall live in infamy. According to KFC’s official statement on the matter, “Mother’s Day is KFC’s best-selling day of the year. So this year, KFC is giving moms the ultimate gift with its first romance novella, Tender Wings of Desire, featuring Harland Sanders as the love interest.”
The idea was, you’d pick up twenty dollars’ worth of fried chicken and this dubious 96-page book, plop both down in front of your mother/the mother of your children, and peace out so that she “can finally get what she wants this year — a family meal she doesn’t have to cook, and some alone time with a captivating novella,” per the poets of the KFC public relations department.
The cover — and the extensive marketing campaign — promised a fun, breezy novel that danced on the edge of satire. Groaner puns about “breasts” and “thighs” (just chicken, of course!) were expected. It was supposed to be a silly romance novel that didn’t take itself too seriously, with the KFC brand deep fried into the plot.
And that’s where KFC dropped the ball. Tender Wings of Desire met none of these expectations.
The plot of Tender Wings of Desire is simple enough. Our story takes place — no, not in Kentucky! — in Merry Olde England. Why, you wonder? Don’t ask; you will remain unsatisfied (a condition you can expect to experience throughout your reading of this “book”).
At the outset of the tale, poor little rich girl Madeline is all set to marry a member of the British aristocracy and fulfill her parents’ ambitions. We spend an inordinate amount of time in the pre-call-to-action stage with Madeline, whose incompetence at aristocrating is detailed with loving care by the author. It’s supposed to make her relatable and endear her to the reader (it does not). Things she can’t/won’t do include:
Be charming at a ball
Make nice with her fiancé
So, what’s a girl betrothed to a duke to do? Why, run away in the middle of the night, of course! Before her wedding day, young (How young? We are never told.) Madeline takes off on horseback for parts unknown. She arrives in a seaside town, becomes a barmaid, and finally, around the book’s halfway point, meets a bespectacled sailor who abruptly sweeps her off her feet. It happens just when we’ve given up all hope of encountering Colonel Sanders; he’s in England, working as a sailor, for some reason. He’s nowhere near his Old Kentucky Home. And he has nothing at all to say about the wonders of fried chicken. Not one word.
Off-screen, the two engage in some tame, 1950s-style petting, then decide to get married following a half-assed conflict that arises when Madeline learns her love interest is actually rich (the horror).
Worth noting: When confronted with the equally attractive options of a) leaving his lady-love behind to return to slinging fried poultry in the exotic paradise of “crystal meth by the pound” Kentucky, or b) getting out of the restaurant game gracefully via marriage to a rich girl, Colonel Sanders eagerly offers to commit arson. “I would burn everything to the ground if it meant that you would still love me as much as you did when you thought I was a simple sailor,” he proposes.
He would burn everything to the ground.
Colonel Sanders would burn his restaurant to the ground.
Colonel Harland Sanders, founder and spokesperson for a multinational restaurant franchise, would burn his fried chicken empire to the ground for a girl he met a couple weeks ago, and this is presented as a good thing for the KFC brand.
The proposal isn’t framed metaphorically in the novel; the writing is too amateurish for such a sophisticated trope. It’s quite simply bad writing in a bad romance novel. Not surprisingly, Tender Wings of Desire is no longer available on Amazon.
Why did KFC produce this thing? Wouldn’t the usual Mother’s Day card have sufficed?
My initial theory, as one who has toiled in the marketing departments of many a corporate entity over the course of my career as a writer, was that the Mother’s Day giveaway novel idea was an extremely last-minute demand made by a senior vice-president. It’s the kind of thing a senior vice-president would do. And corporate marketing department directors — the only ones who could refuse such a ludicrous order — are a notoriously spineless breed of yea-sayers.
“Great, yes! Social media public relations cross-promotional opportunities! Key consumer demographic outreach! Synergy!” they would have been heard to bleat in feeble, falsely enthusiastic tones in the monthly North American franchise promotion strategy meeting. Then fearsome reality set in.
Picture the desperate scramble — it’s mere weeks until Mother’s Day. To edit and layout a book, upload it to Amazon, and execute massive coordinated PR and ad campaigns in such a short timeframe would be madness for any book publisher. But this is a fried chicken company we’re talking about. What do they know about book publishing? And they don’t even have a book, period.
Meetings are called. A funny title is settled on. Some junior-level graphic designer is conscripted to create the cover, with zero information about the plot of the still nonexistent romance novel.
Hiring a professional romance novelist via corporate America’s usual source for writers (high-priced ad agency, y’all!) would be tricky, since ad agencies aren’t exactly churning out romance novels on the regular. And even an ad agency has its limits when it comes to insane deadlines.
So, what I think happened is one of the marketing directors (the one with slightly more spine and heaps more gumption than the others) probably sent out a frantic internal email to all KFC corporate staff asking if anyone — ANYONE — had an unpublished romance novel kicking around. And lo and behold, some mousy administrative assistant or girlfriend of a friend of the cousin of the social media manager coughed up this thing. Possibly it was a fan fiction. A swift find and replace of the hero’s name was executed, turning it into Tender Wings of Desire.
“Make no mistake, Katherine,” I said to myself, as I concocted this theory. “This thing is clearly a Kentucky Fried Find and Replace.”
Which begged the question: If they were finding and replacing already, why not change the British setting to Kentucky?
The only way to answer that was to consider the real-life biography of the novel’s hero, KFC founder Colonel Sanders.
Harland Sanders was born in 1890 in Indiana. He dropped out of school in the seventh grade to work and eventually moved to Kentucky, where he opened a restaurant in 1929 that operated out of a gas station. By 1939, he had his 11 herbs and spices “finger lickin’ good” chicken recipe down. He started selling restaurant franchises around the country. By the time he died in 1980, there were nearly 6,000 KFCs in 55 countries around the world.
Between cooking birds, appearing in manic post-hippie-era TV commercials, and keeping his snow-white plantation owner suit neatly pressed, how did he find the time to rise up the ranks of the U.S. Army and become a colonel, you ask?
Answer: He didn’t. But he was a real colonel. Sort of.
In 1935, at the age of 45, Sanders was given the title “Kentucky colonel” by Governor Ruby Laffoon in honor of his ability to fry up chickens real nice, a talent that was impressive in Kentucky at the time, apparently. A Kentucky colonel is a strange thing — it’s a bit like the modern British knighthood, being the highest honor that can be bestowed on a person by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. You have to be noteworthy to be a Kentucky colonel. But you don’t necessarily have to have much, or even anything, to do with Kentucky, oddly enough. Fred Astaire was a Kentucky colonel. So was Ronald Reagan, and Winston Churchill, of all people.
Governor Laffoon was a good ol’ boy who handed out Kentucky colonel honors like most governors hand out campaign buttons — the guy spawned 2,368 colonels before his term was up. Hell, I could probably have finagled one out of him, and I’m not an honorable gentleman living in the 1930s. Nowadays, the Kentucky colonels are still going strong. If you’d care to nominate me, go right ahead.
Which brings us to the biggest mystery of Tender Wings of Desire. Exactly what time period is it supposed to take place in? Clues from the setting and dialogue could convince the discerning reader that it could be any era between the Regency and shortly before World War I. It’s only the prevalence of horseback travel and the utter absence of cars that prevent the reader from assuming it might be as late as the 1950s. Meanwhile, the cover — the only good thing about this buggy/train/car wreck of a book — pushes the action all the way to 2017.
Overall, it feels like 1842. I’m not sure why.
Let’s just say it’s 1842.
The next question on your mind — why wasn’t the story set in Kentucky, if it’s about Kentucky Fried Chicken, a product of Kentucky? — is a question that asks and answers itself. If the story takes place in 1842, then in the immortal words of Conspiracy Theory Brother, “Slaves cooked that chicken!”
Better for our Kentucky Fried Hero to pitch woo in England. Perhaps that’s why he goes on the lam as a common sailor, in fact. The British, for their part, had abolished slavery by 1842. America still had decades to go. It’s finger lickin’ shameful!
Are you Kentucky Fried Sick of this novel yet?
So, in conclusion, that was my grand theory of the genesis of Tender Wings of Desire.
I was pretty satisfied with it.
Until I read an article in Adweek about the book, that is.
“Created with Wieden + Kennedy Portland … the book’s writing is credited to ‘outsourced author’ Catherine Kovach, a former Bustle.com feature writer,” wrote David Griner. “For better or worse, this is no winking satire peppered with fried chicken or finger licking … Wieden + Kennedy continues to take the Colonel in odd directions.”
An ad agency was involved. The story wasn’t a find and replace by an amateur. A professional writer was hired to put it together. It wasn’t a mad scramble. Much thought and piles of money were devoted to the project. The novel was written in this off-brand, off-putting way on purpose!
I have no words.
To cleanse our palates, let’s end with a brief survey of all the missed opportunities to promote Kentucky Fried Products in Tender Wings of Desire.
References to food KFC does not sell:
References to fried chicken:
References to symptoms of love that sound suspiciously like symptoms of food poisoning:
“Her stomach dropped.”
“The pit in Madeline’s stomach grew wider and wider.”
“Burning, icy butterflies began to move in her stomach once again.”
“She could not help but feel a slow burn deep in her belly, and she wondered what it might mean.”
“Madeline thought she might throw up.”
Just get mom a card this year.