By Grace Olson
Rhetoric, the capacity to see the available means of persuasion, is at work everywhere. While this Aristotelian definition of rhetoric is contestable, it's important for our purposes because it can be learned: you can learn to see better. From television ads to political campaigns, food packaging to clothing, rhetoric’s many forms can teach us valuable lessons about ourselves and about creation. You’ll find that even seemingly-absurd instances of rhetoric—like those found in a fried chicken commercial—can teach us about our spiritual longings.
Theologians and secular philosophers alike articulate that human beings long for something greater than themselves. In his 10th century treatise and literary criticism, On the Sublime, rhetorician Longinus claims that we’re all spiritual beings who desire the sublime: the “force by which our souls are naturally uplifted” (Longinus 10). He believes that this elevating force can be caught in glimpses on Earth, through great works of art and literature, but that these are mere shadows of “that which is more divine than ourselves,” towards which we feel an “invincible love” (47). Longinus views humanity through a nonreligious lens yet comes to the conclusion that we all long for something otherworldly. Within the framework of Christian belief, this otherworldly longing points to the existence of God. In his work, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains that, if you find within yourself a desire that “no experience in the world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that [you were] made for another world” (Lewis 119). To Lewis, Earthly things don't satisfy spiritual longings because you aren’t a citizen of Earth, you’re a citizen of Heaven. Whether you ascribe to Lewis’ spin on Longinus’ argument or not, this much is clear: we all long for something greater than this world can offer.
Unfortunately, this longing can be used against us: it can be hijacked by the rhetoric of advertisers, who claim they can fulfil our lives with their products. We can better understand how, exactly, this hijacking occurs by looking at a ridiculous commercial from Kentucky Fried Chicken, France, through two “lenses” in rhetorical theory: identification and sublimity. In his commercial, La Legend, L’homme, Le Poulet, Colonel Sanders offers French audiences a shiny (greasy?) alternative to God, persuading them to find fulfilment in his fried chicken.
Before Sanders’ can convince his audience to find fulfilment in his fried chicken, he needs them to identify—at a base level—with who he is and what he’s selling. As rhetorician Kenneth Burke once said, “you persuade a man only insofar as you speak his language, [...] identifying your ways with his” (Burke 55). Essentially, if you want to persuade someone, the other person or group that you’re persuading has to perceive common ground, and they have to agree, to some extent, to pursue your shared interests together. In the case of the KFC commercial, Sanders identifies with his French audience by embodying pervasive stereotypes about American culture. For example, at one point in the commercial, Sanders is shown lassoing alligators on the Florida bayou. Later, he launches himself through a flaming hoop on a red, white and blue motorcycle and emerges unscathed. In the distance, a bald eagle soars above amber waves of grain. Sanders goes to great lengths to portray himself as ‘Murica incarnate—but he does so in a satirical way. He’s self-aware, embodying stereotypes so that he can break those stereotypes down, disassembling the barriers that would prevent French audiences from identifying with him. Ultimately, Sanders’ audience identifies not only with him but with his interests; they’re persuaded to spend their cold hard cash on KFC.
Sanders not only persuades his audience to buy KFC, ultimately, he persuades them to find fulfillment in KFC. Drawing on Longinus’ understanding of the sublime, Sanders literally equates his chicken with the sublime—something that can uplift his audiences’ souls. For instance, he depicts himself as an overbearing God, romping across the surface of the Earth and through the cosmos. He says, “God created the world in 7 days? If He had taken 14,800 more, He would have made the best chicken in the world.” In Sanders opinion, even the creator of the universe couldn’t have made fried chicken as good as KFC, which, to quote him again, “gave his life meaning.” I’ll give Sanders the benefit of the doubt and say he doesn’t actually think he’s a better creator than God. Nevertheless, the image is powerful: by claiming, while in a position of divine authority, that KFC gave his life meaning, Sanders insinuates to his audience that KFC can fulfil their lives, too. He offers his fried chicken a stand in for God—something to satiate their inner longings for something indescribably, immeasurably good. By marketing his chicken as sublime, Sanders leads his audience’ souls to find satisfaction in his fried chicken—it would seem that fried chicken can be thought of as soul food in more ways than one.
Though it seems ridiculous at first, Sanders’ commercial for KFC, France, has the capacity to teach us about our otherworldly longings—and how advertisers try to persuade us to satisfy them with Earthly things. Thankfully, rhetorical theories like Burke’s and Longinus’ can help us peel back the layers of advertisements and help us see how we’re being persuaded. Thus, our job as consumers in an advertisement-driven world is to think critically about what we truly
long for and whether fried chicken—or anything else on Earth—can satisfy. .
Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1969. Lewis, C.S., Mere Christianity. New York, MacMillan Publishing Company, 1952. Longinus. On Great Writing (On the Sublime). G.M.A. Grube, Hackett, 1991.