Friday, September 02, 2011

Meet some of the products from Meet Mr. Product

In Meet Mr. Product: The Art of the Advertising Character (Chronicle Books; 2003), Warren Dotz and Masud Husain introduce the title character via parade—over the course of the book’s 270-pages, they march out hundreds of images of anthropomorphic animals, foods, widgets and bizarre half-human hybrids, along with the occasional magical character, cartoon human being or outrageous stereotype.

Each of these were created at some point in the 20th century in order to better sell something to someone.

The book includes a short, 20-page introduction tracing the history of the rise of the advertising characters and noting the major leaps forward in their creation, like the one-time prevalence and prominence of magazines, the post-World War II American affluence, the dawn of television and the relative cheapness of animated commercials, and so on.

While many familiar names and faces are mentioned, many of them are mysterious and intriguing, coming as they do from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, decades before I came into existence, and even many of the characters I personally know—Froot Loops pitchbird Toucan Sam, or Frosted Flakes spokestiger Tony The Tiger, for example—look quite different than their ‘80s iterations I used to see during cartoon commercial breaks.

Some of the ideas expressed are similarly intriguing, like those in this paragraph:
Like folks tales, [advertising characters and their story lines] are a source of entertainment, and like myths, they can typify a culture’s valued qualities such as strength and excellence. One must keep in mind however that most advertising, unlike folklore and mythology, is created not to help us understand the universe or even make us better people but to sell products and move merchandise. In fact, advertisements use various clich├ęs and familiar parables whose relationship to a product’s benefits, evaluated objectively, is tenuous at best.
That probably sounds rather obvious, but it comes after a brief discussion of the Minnesota Valley Canning Company’s Green Giant, who looks and acts like some sort of “modern-day harvest god.”

There is certainly some interesting psychology going on in the relationship between such characters as the Jolly Green Giant, how he’s depicted, what those who employ him want to communicate and how those who encounter him in ads or on labels receive that communication—much of it probably almost completely unconscious (Particularly in the early 20th century, decades before the rise of the focus group).

As a child, I was fascinated by characters like these, in large part because as pictures they were something that could engage me before I could read, little bits of coal to fire my then raging imagination. Also, because so many of them were presented as drawings or cartoons, they seemed like they were made for me, since cartoons and illustrations were for kids, while grown-ups consumed media with photographs or, worse, no pictures at all of any kind.

As a grown up, I’m still pretty curious about them, especially given my interest in art, visual/verbal communication and certain popular culture characters as for-profit corporations have created, maintained and constantly re-invented them over the decades.

Dotz and Husain don’t get too deep into any of this, because of the book’s priority on volume. This is, as the title says, an introduction to Mr. (and Ms) Product, and the pair of authors essentially walk the reader through a huge party of them, introducing us to them just long enough for us to get a good luck, catch their name, and then move on to the next.

The book is broken into eight chapters, each focusing on a different category of advertising character—Food, Drinks, Kid’s Stuff, etc—and then assembling dozens of characters culled from ads, labels, promotion items and so on.

Would you like to take a look?

Let’s take a look.

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First up, here's my favorite character, Campy: I noticed this crazy-looking spokes-creature when looking at a pack of Campfire-brand marshmallows in the grocery story earlier this summer. They've replaced Campy, seen above, with a more normal looking anthropomorphic marshmallow man (essentially a marshmallow with a face, arms, legs dressed in shorts, a t-shirt and backpack), but there was a tiny image of Campy as depicted above elsewhere on package.

I really like the outre nature of Campy as a physical being. His feet are two wooden logs, his body and arms are pure fire and his head a big, never-melting marshmallow, with a fixed expressionless stare and disturbing grin. Half-elemental, it's a creature that defies the physics of the universe as we understand them, the sort of being that H.P. Lovecraft might have breathlessly described, or that might appear in a crude black and white drawing in an old-school Dungeons & Dragons monster guide.

Therefore, Campy is the best.

It's a well-known advertising maxim that sex sells, but there are surprisingly few Mr. or Ms. Products in here that are strikingly attractive. In fact, I didn't notice any super-hot advertising character dudes, and only two hot advertising ladies, White Rock-brand soda's depiction of Psyche from 1947, and the Chicken of the Sea Mermaid from 1951:
For more on White Rock's Psyche, check out their site, which I linked to above. There's a little info about how they landed on Psyche as a mascot (The company's owners saw a painting of Psyche At Nature's Mirror at the 1893 World's Fair, and adopted her as their Goddess of Purity), a place to vote on your favorite of a dozen different versions of the often-topless Psyche from 1893 to 2004, and a place where you can submit your own version of Psyche. I'd also recommend this article on White Rock's Psyche from Leif Peng's blog Today's Inspiration, which takes a close look at the rather comics-like 1940s ad campaign featuring "White Rock's Topless Tinkerbell."

For more on the mermaid, there's a paragraph here, and a little slideshow that plays featuring various designs through the years (the 1950s one is the hottest, though)

I doubt it will surprise anyone to hear that there wasn't a whole lot of racial or ethnic sensitivity governing what was on and off-limits in terms of racial and ethnic stereotypes for various advertising products: There are several Native American characters of different levels of caricature, the eskimo Eskimo Kid selling Eskimo pies, a slant-eyed Chinese cook selling chinese food, coffee beans in sombreros and a few human Mexican cartoons, and there's a whole gaggle of turban-wearing, baggy pants and curly-toed shoe-wearing genies of crypto-ethnicity selling everything from salad dressing to natural gas.

Here's one of my favorite of the "exotics," from a promotional postcard for the unfortunately named restaurant Sambo's: I like how the guy on the tiger's back is eyeing that tiger with an evil glint in his eye, as if he plans to use that fork and knife to devour the living tiger out from underneath him.

Anyway, here's Rastus, the Cream of Wheat Guy, and Aunt Jemima— —two famous and/or notorious African American advertising characters who have been controversial at later points in their fictional careers, but if they are troublingly servile in their presentation.

Compared to some other advertising characters of African descent though, Rastus and Aunt Jemima are the picture of dignity: That's the clearly labeled Sarotti Moor from 1946 and "Golly," selling Robertson's Golden Shred marmalade...in 1965! That seems of fairly recent vintage for that sort of image, but maybe I was giving the mid-sixties too much credit for racial sensitivity.

There are also a surprising number of characters who are downright disturbing-looking, like Boss Moss of Freakies cereal or a round pink monster calling itself "the Nauga", whose belly says that Naugahyde vinyl coated fabric is made out of its hide (which is kind of like a cartoon pig selling pork).

This is the one that scared me the most, though: The size of that peanut man, made crystal clear by including a full-sized human man there for scale, and his elfin wardrobe and, most of all, the weird smirk on his face-brrr!

Wait, this one kind of disturbed me as well: They used to have orange flavored Ding Dongs? And I never got to try one? That sucks.

Bring back orang-flavored Ding Dongs, Hostess! (Also, Chocodiles).

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What's that?

What does any of this have to do with comics, you say?

Well, obviously not much directly, although parallels can certainly be made between, say The Green Giant and Mr. Peanut and Superman and Captain America, in terms of corporate mascot characters that have ingrained themselves in American and/or world culture.

Little Lulu appears as a Kleenex tissue mascot, and cartoonist Richard Outcault’s Buster Brown and Tige helped sell shoes for the Brown Shoe Company.

The thought occurred to me about halfway through the book that almost any random character in here has the outrageous physical deformity and/or appearance to be a Batman villain, and those that are too crazy looking for Batman’s rogues gallery would certainly fit in among Dick Tracy’s.

Oh, and some of the more obscure characters to appear in Brendan Douglas Jones’ Breakfast of the Gods webcomic (which I discussed at some length here) appear.

Oh, and also Elektro from the 1939's World's Fair appears in this book; he was the basis for the robotic butler Gernsback that lived with the All-Star Squadron in DC's All-Star Squadron comic (as well as the likely inspiration for the Spider-Man villain Electro's name).

But mostly I just thought it was a cool little book, and had fun flipping through it. It appealed to almost all of the same parts of my brain that enjoy certain aspects of comic books, particularly superhero comics and various kid-focused comics of the medium’s first 20 years or so.

5 comments:

JRC, the OWL Says Who said...

I enjoy ephemera like this, thanks for the overview of the book

simon h b said...

The Robertson's Golly is worse than you might think - that example might be from 1965, but when I was kid in the 1970s & 1980s you could still collect golly tokens from the jars to send for "golly badges".

The company only got rid of the character in 2002. Yes, he made it into the 21st Century.

The worst part of the legacy is that people who want to justify this or that type of casual racism as being "only a bit of fun" will invoke the dropping of the golly as some sort of sign that hating racism is really just killjoyism dressed up as liberalism.

SallyP said...

This looks like a fun book. What is really disturbing, is that I can remember the advertising song, with Buster Brown and Tige. God, I'm old.

Anthony Strand said...

That sounds very much like something I'd like to read.

A similar - but far less substantive - book I'd recommend is "Krazy Kids Food" by Dan Goodsell, which consists almost entirely of images of packaging. It's a quick read, but it's fascinating.

http://www.amazon.com/Krazy-Kids-Food-Dan-Goodsell/dp/382282237X

jheaton said...

Well, Sambo did eat the tiger, or at least caused it to be turne into something that could be eaten. As I recall the story, he tricked the tiger into chasing its own tail, and finally it ran so fast for so long it turned into melted butter, as will happen.