Duck Duck Book

63 – meet mr. product
09.15.2009, 12:03 am
Filed under: technology

Meet Mr. Product : the art of the advertising character / Warren Dotz, Masud Husain.
San Francisco : Chronicle Books, c2003.
[MCL call number: 659.1 D725m 2003: one copy, no holds]

Those readers who know me personally do not need to be reminded of how appalled I am to see the food advertising itself.  Probably the most dramatic horrors are the signs for barbecue restaurants that feature a cute, cartoonish pig salivating, wearing a bib, and waving a knife and fork — but there are countless other examples: anthropomorphized donuts, dancing fruits and vegetables, and hot dogs that walk and talk, just to name a few.  Ironically, at the same time as these characters disgust me, I also find them fascinating and compelling, which is, I guess, part of why they make good advertisements.  They’re adorable.  They’re disturbing.  They’re improbable.  They’re funny!

I think some of my discomfort with the food advertising itself is that the adorable little pig at the barbecue stand and its colleagues are actually encouraging consumers to eat them, which seems unnatural and perverse.  Products-brought-to-life which encourage consumption of other types are not so aberrant — for example, it used to be relatively common for muffler repair shops to have a gaily painted life-sized robot-like statue made of mufflers and other auto parts out front to advertise their services.  Certainly the muffler man, who is made out of mufflers, is encouraging people to consume mufflers.  But since real mufflers are inanimate, technological products, and since we’re not actually eating them, it seems less grotesque for the muffler man to invite us in to have our cars serviced.  His plea is that we patronize his establishment, because his purpose is to quiet the exhaust of an automobile.  The pig, on the other hand, has many interests of its own, and does not grace this earth solely to provide barbecue.

But, philosophical discussion aside, it is clear that the cute cartoon pig with a bib, the muffler man, the animated hot dog are all charming and unusual and make us notice the products they promote.  Some are clever and engaging.  Others are horrifically stereotyped.  Still others are so uninspired as to be instantly forgettable, unless perhaps they survive as cautionary examples for future marketers.  Meet Mr. Product attempts to give readers a tour of a wide swathe of the world peopled by these unlikely creatures.  After a brief history of the use of imaginary characters in advertising, the book displays hundreds of examples of “spokescharacters” who have been used to hawk everything from breakfast cereal to light bulbs to natural gas utilities.  Many are personifications of the products they sell, much like the little pig at the barbecue restaurant, but others are more akin to live product spokespeople — Betty Crocker, Little Miss Coppertone, Mr. Goodwrench, Aunt Jemima.

Many, many classic favorites appear in the book, including:

  • Uniroyal’s Nauga (page 176), alerting shoppers that the object to which it is attached is genuine Naugahyde,
  • the Jolly Green Giant (page 21)
  • Bibendum, the Michelin tire man (pages 14 and 207),
  • Manny, Moe, and Jack (page 213), of the Pep Boys auto parts stores, and
  • the 1940s version of the Jantzen diving girl (page 254) in her iconic red strapless bathing suit.

And there are plenty who never achieved total nationwide household-name sort of fame:

  • the little duckling with a bib (page 151) who once graced the sign for Waddle’s diner here in Portland (“Eat Now at Waddles,” it said, though the example in the book is a little less direct),
  • Mr. Zip (page 224), a very sketchy, high-on-smack-looking postal carrier used to promote the US Postal Service’s new Zone Improvement Program in the 60s,
  • Miss Curity, the first lady of first aid (page 255), promoter of Curity bandages and tape, and
  • the dapper Wool Council lamb (page 249).

Unfortunately, there is no index, though the arrangement of the book might help readers locate the particular spokescharacter they seek — eight chapters focus on characters who advertised food, drinks, products aimed at children, restaurants, technology, car parts and automobile-related products, household goods, and personal and leisure products.


63 – look of love
09.15.2009, 12:02 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

The look of love : the art of the romance novel / by Jennifer McKnight-Trontz.
New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c2002.
[MCL call number: 741.64 M159L 2002; one copy, no holds]

Lots of people enjoy romance, but few people in our culture would easily admit to being lovers of the straight-up romance novel, unless they fit a particular profile.  Women can read them, but not feminists.  Girls can read them, but not boys.  You don’t read romances if you’re interested in “real” literature, and you don’t read them if you’re really smart and intellectual.  Romances are formulaic and hackneyed, they present a narrow view of marriage, of love, of a woman’s ability to have a mind and a heart at the same time, and so on.

But still, millions of people read romances, and enjoy them.  Part of the appeal, not surprisingly, is their evocative cover design — like their brethren in the rest of the pulp novel world, romances have long been sold on the strength of their beautiful illustrated covers.  The Look of Love presents a nice exhibit of some of the best, and some of the most typical romance covers from the 1930s to the 1980s, along with a short history of the genre and some discussion of trends in cover design over the years.  The explication is interesting and useful, but the covers are really the book’s reason d’être.

Some are so much of another era that it’s hard to see them as anything but arch and ironic:  Nurse on the Run (1965, page 93) features a beautiful young woman in a whirling, startled pose, with red hair spilling out from underneath her nurse’s cap.  Behind her are superimposed three calm, suave fellows, apparently the source of her turmoil (though none of them appear to have a care in the world).   And the very first Harlequin (1949, page 11) is illustrated with a painting of a woman in evening dress at the top of a curving staircase.  At the bottom is a man in a blue suit with a cap — he looks like a postal carrier to me, but here’s the title: The Manatee: Strange Loves of a Seaman.  So he must be a sea captain, not a mailman; I trust the woman is not actually the manatee.

Irony aside, however, there is a particular beauty about these illustrations.  Some of this is due to the vintage, nostalgic quality of the art, no doubt enhanced by the plain fact that these days it’s unusual for newly published books of any sort to have pulp-style hand-painted covers*, but I think the idea of love itself  is part of the appeal.  The cover evokes the feeling that the story promises to bring out in the reader.  The cover painting shows just a glimmer, a teensy frame out of the story — a longing glance at the unrequited beloved; a bit of labor shared by colleagues who maybe want to know one another better; the second two doomed lovers who are nonetheless magnetically attracted are just about to kiss.  All of these moments are worth looking at, worth fantasizing about, worth mention in life generally; even if the particular situation being described in the cover painting is highly improbable and stereotypical, and even though novel  itself might not be so great.

* Though there are counter-examples to this point — one I think of immediately is Hard Case Crime, which publishes both reprints and new novels in the mystery/crime genre, each with a specially commissioned painted cover.  I have found their books very much worth reading, as well as worth appreciating as lovely objects.

63 – i shot a man
09.15.2009, 12:01 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

I shot a man in Reno : a history of death by murder, suicide, fire, flood, drugs, disease, and general misadventure, as related in popular song / Graeme Thomson.
New York : Continuum, 2008.
[MCL call number: 782.42164 T483i 2008; two copies, no holds]

When I was a teenager, my mother made a mix tape labeled “Death” on one side and “Suicide” on the other.  It was for a road trip, but she had it for years and I always loved it.  Ever since I first heard this tape, I’ve been building a play list in my mind of all the other death and suicide songs I’d use, if I were to make my own tape.  I don’t think I’ll ever actually record my own version, but the songs are lodged in a special place in my brain, asserting their relatedness to me every time the subject arises.  I have other lists — songs about living through a violent revolution, songs that list lots of place names, songs appreciating difficult women, songs about sex that rely entirely on metaphor to get their nasty across, songs describing famous disasters, songs about the historical Jesus Christ, and so on — but the death and suicide songs are the most assertive, and the longest, list.

Graeme Thompson shares this interest in death songs.  I Shot a Man in Reno is his take on the history, meaning, and social significance of death songs.  He considers songs about suicide, murder, drinking yourself to death, the afterlife, mourning, and songs people want to have played at their funerals.  Overall, it’s a pretty useful tour of death songs and what they mean in a cultural context, but I can’t say I loved the book.  Really I think it’s just a question of taste — I didn’t find Thompson to be the most intriguing or well-rounded cultural or musical observer, so his critical analysis didn’t jazz me.  I’m not going to recommend him enthusiastically, but I wouldn’t tell you not to read the book either.  I’m sure it would suit other readers just fine.

However, I didn’t like it much.  The thing I really couldn’t get over is actually quite petty.

Thompson promises in his introduction that I Shot a Man in Reno will not be merely a list disguised as a book.  It is in fact a thematic history, not simply a list, but still it is true that when he gets really in the thick of his subject, Thompson tends to resort to listing songs, and it pretty much sucks.  I can hardly cry foul very loudly here — when it comes to lists-posing-as-meaningful-prose I do, as regular readers have no doubt noted, live in something of a glass house.  But really, Thompson’s listy bits seem designed specifically to invoke a mood in the reader.  It’s as if he wants you to remember the songs, hear their melodies, recall their words.  Great, if you’re familiar with them all, but kind of lame if you’re not.  And I have a hard time imagining how anyone who is not a music critic or historian could possibly know all or even most of the specific songs Thompson mentions.  It’s a pretty widely-ranging catalog.

It’s ironic, really, that this is the part that chafes — I was sort of hoping, when I picked up the book, that I would be exposed to some new songs, right along with a nice bit of analysis of death songs, a history of their roots, some stories about what they have meant to us, why they matter, and so on.  Really I was hoping to learn about songs I’d never heard of before.  And I did, but all I really learned  about the songs Thompson lists is who wrote and sang them, their titles, and a teeny tiny bit about how they relate to the subject of death.  I don’t know how popular they have been or what effect they’ve had on society, I don’t know the lyrics, and most importantly, I don’t know what they sound like.

It might be that Thompson listed lots of songs so that one or two of them would catch in the reader’s mind, and they’d be able to see the specifics of his point at that moment in the narrative.  But for me, reading the list was like the literary equivalent of a conversation with someone who knows tons and tons about something, but can’t lay off the jargon enough to be able to talk with someone uninitiated with that subject.  Perhaps I Shot a Man in Reno could benefit from a companion CD?  It is hard to imagine getting the rights for all those hopelessly copyrighted songs, but it might help solve the problem.