August 31, 2012
Considering what passed for children’s fashion in the 1970s when I started elementary school—patterned polyester pants with coordinating turtlenecks—it’s no surprise that picking out new clothes was not my favorite part of back-to-school shopping. Instead, I considered my most important September decision to be choosing the right lunch box. It had to last all year, if not longer, and it was a personal billboard, much like the concert T-shirt was to older kids, that would tell my classmates what I was into. The message I hoped to get across was: “Hey, I dig Snoopy. Wanna be friends?”
An added bonus of my Peanuts lunch box was that it was covered in comic strips, so just in case the lunch box failed to provide a conversation starter, I always had something to read as I ate my cheese and crackers, apple, and alphabet soup from the coordinating Thermos that fit neatly inside the metal box. (I guess my mom didn’t get the memo about Quiche Lorraine, which was a popular lunch item in the 1970s, according to a fun series of food history posts, called What’s In Your Lunch Box?, that Smithsonian intern Ashley Luthern wrote for the blog).
Sadly, the metal lunch box has mostly gone the way of the overhead projector. Today’s kids often tote their lunches in soft insulated polyester versions that fit easily into backpacks, just the latest development in the long and distinguished history of midday-meal transporting devices.
The seemingly inactive Whole Pop Magazine Online has an illustrated history of the lunch box—cutely named Paileontology—that traces the origins to the 19th century. Back then working men protected their lunches from the perils of the job site (just imagine what a coal mine or a quarry could do to a guy’s sandwich) with heavy-duty metal pails.
Around the 1880s, school children who wanted to emulate their daddies fashioned similar caddies out of empty cookie or tobacco tins. According to the timeline, the first commercial lunch boxes, which resembled metal picnic baskets decorated with scenes of playing children, came out in 1902.
Mickey Mouse was the first popular character to grace the front of a lunch box, in 1935. But the lunch box as personal statement really took off in the 1950s, along with television. According to Whole Pop, executives at a Nashville company called Aladdin realized they could sell more of their relatively indestructible lunch boxes if they decorated them with the fleeting icons of popular culture; even if that Hopalong Cassidy lunch box was barely scratched, the kid whose newest fancy was the Lone Ranger would want to trade in his pail for the latest model.
Cheap vinyl lunch boxes made a brief appearance in the 1960s, but metal continued to dominate the lunch box scene until the 1980s, when molded plastic—which was less expensive to manufacture—took over. Aladdin stopped making lunch boxes altogether in 1998, though Thermos continues to make them.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has a sampling of images online from its lunch box collection, which includes some cool-looking miner’s pails and popular models from the 1950s and 60s, many of which are in this post.
What kind of lunch box did you carry?
April 10, 2012
What ever happened to really great advertising characters? This question popped into my head the minute I saw the Sriracha Flamethrowing Grizzly. The character, designed by The Oatmeal’s author/artist Matthew Inman, is a sheer flight of fancy and is not—at least not yet—the official figurehead for the hot sauce. With the manic look in his eye, the waggling tongue and his strange ability to deftly wield an incendiary device, I would readily send in proofs of purchase for the plush equivalent of this creature. As twisted as the image might be, you have to admit the guy’s got a terrific amount of personality.
Advertisers employ characters to set their goods apart from everyone else’s, giving consumers someone—or something—to readily identify with. Characters can assign gender, class and ethos to otherwise inanimate objects in addition to reflecting the culture at large. (General Mills released their Monster-themed cereals like Count Chocula in response to hit TV shows like “The Addams Family” and “The Munsters,” and while those programs were cancelled decades ago, the foods they inspired remain on store shelves.) The use of characters began to decline in the 1970s as photography became increasingly preferred over illustration to sell goods. Also, the target audience got smarter and required more sophisticated ploys. The naive cartoon characters from the primitive days of television would be hard pressed to sell the same products to a generation of people who have spent their entire lives exposed to televised advertising. Nevertheless, some characters are ingrained in our culture, including the following:
Aunt Jemima: Ethnic stereotyping is an embarrassing and regrettable theme in advertising history. If you can lay your hands on the book The Label Made Me Buy It, there is an entire section devoted to insensitive depictions of ethnic groups, including the Irish, American Indians, Pacific Islanders and African Americans. The Aunt Jemima brand of pancake mix was introduced in 1889, inspired by a minstrel performance that featured the song “Old Aunt Jemima.” For decades, the character represented a romanticized view of slavery, and what part of makes her fascinating—and infuriating—is how she came to have such a pervasive presence. In addition to print ads and the use of her image on boxes of pancake mix, local promotions hired local actresses to portray the character, and even Disneyland had an Aunt Jemima-themed restaurant that perpetuated the image of the happy southern mammy at least until 1970. The NAACP began protesting this mascot in the early 1960s, although it wasn’t until 1986 that she finally shed the headscarf and received a complete makeover. Despite a modernized image—she now sports pearl earrings—some consumers don’t believe the character can shed her intensely racist origins and say that it’s time for Aunt Jemima to retire.
Charlie the Tuna: In the course of conversation, have you ever said—or heard someone say—”Sorry, Charlie”? Even if there isn’t a Charles, Charlie, or Chuck in the room? This particular turn of phrase has its roots in StarKist canned tuna. The company’s signature spokesfish first appeared in animated ads in 1961 and the slogan we associate with him came about the following year. Originally voiced by stage and screen actor Herschel Bernardi, Charlie strives to be a cultured fish with consummate taste—but apparently he himself does not taste good enough to be used in StarKist products. Every time he pursues a StarKist fishing hook, he finds it speared with a simple rejection letter: “Sorry, Charlie.” Seems the tuna company won’t settle for fish with good taste in lieu of fish that taste good.
Mr. Peanut: Anyone who has seen Sunset Boulevard ought to remember has-been silent screen actress Norma Desmond snarling, “We didn’t need dialog. We had faces!” Mr. Peanut seems to share those sentiments—although he ended up having the better career. The mascot of Planters peanuts since 1916, he didn’t get a voice until a 2010 ad campaign set about revitalizing the character for a younger generation. (Iron Man actor Robert Downey, Jr. supplied the voice, and you can even get updates from Mr. Peanut on Facebook.) Although other monocled and behatted goobers predate the Planters character, it is Mr. Peanut who has enjoyed serious staying power, appearing on Planters products—not to mention a horde of spinoff merchandise—and becoming one of the most recognizable advertising characters in existence.
The Jolly Green Giant: The Jolly Green Giant always seems like such a personable guy, but would you ever expect him to be nice enough to get someone out of a legal bind? When the Minnesota Valley Canning Company wanted to start canning a variety of especially large peas under the name “green giant,” it tried to trademark the title but couldn’t because it was merely descriptive of the product. But they could conjure up an image—a character even—with which to stake a legally binding claim on the name of their goods. The Green Giant was born in 1928—although in his initial incarnation, he was Neanderthal-looking and strangely non-green in appearance. With a little redesigning by Leo Burnett, he became a jolly, verdant fellow by the mid-1930s and by the 1950s he became so popular that the Minnesota Valley Canning Company re-dubbed itself Green Giant.
Spongmonkeys, the Quizno’s Rodents: I would not lump the Spongmonkeys in the same class as the other characters mentioned above, but if nothing else they show how advertising reflects trends in current popular culture. The creatures are animals—maybe tarsiers, perhaps marmosets—that have been photoshopped to have human mouths and bulging eyes. They also have a fondness for hats. The brainchild of Joel Veitch, who created a video with the spongmonkeys hovering in front of a hydrangea bush singing about how much they love the moon. It’s over-the-top bizarre. And perhaps that was the quality Quizno’s was looking for when the sandwich chain used this work of internet video art as the basis for a national ad campaign. Some people loved the spongmonkeys, others weren’t quite sure what to do with them—but at the very least, people were talking about Quizno’s. And isn’t that the mark of a successful piece of advertising?
March 26, 2012
Now that I’ve got your attention, I’d like to explore a quintessential sound of summer climbing in your window, snatching up your sanity: the incessant chiming of ice cream trucks everywhere.
The tune you’re hearing—“Mister Softee (Jingle and Chimes)”—was written by Les Waas, who had been working for Grey Advertising, a small Philadelphia ad agency, in the late 1950s. He worked as a kind of one-man band of an adman. One day, his boss asked for a jingle for Kissling’s sauerkraut. Waas came up with one (“It’s fresh and clean, without a doubt. In transparent Pliofilm bags, it’s sold. Kissling’s Sauerkraut, hot or cold.”) The jingle played on kids’ TV shows and eventually got him in trouble, he says, when sauerkraut sales outpaced production and the company pulled its ad. Anyway, in 1960 (or thereabouts, he’s not so sure, it could have been as early as 1956), he wrote the lyrics for a regional ice cream company called Mister Softee:
Here comes Mister Softee
The soft ice cream man.
The creamiest, dreamiest soft ice cream,
You get from Mister Softee.
For a refreshing delight supreme
Look for Mister Softee…
S-O-F-T double E, Mister Softee.
The company gave him a 12-inch bell, which he took to New York to record an infectious three-minute earworm of an ad—with an original melody, recorded in one take. Some years later, again the date is unclear, company employees took the jingle’s melody and made a 30-second loop to put on their trucks. Waas says he received a telegram from Mister Softee saying it would have been only a tiny company with two or three trucks in South Jersey if it weren’t for the indelible sonic branding.
Now, for a quick refresher: Ice cream’s immense popularity in America dates to the 19th century, in the wake of the Civil War, when street vendors hawked a scoop of ice cream, or frozen milk, for a penny. Some wheeled carts; others employed goats. They sold their wares with catchy nonsense phrases: “I scream, Ice cream” and “Hokey pokey, sweet and cold; for a penny, new or old.” (Hokey pokey appears to have derived from a children’s jump-rope chant, including one derisively directed at kids who didn’t have a penny for ice cream.) As Hillel Schwartz writes in Making Noise, “Street vendors stretched their call into loud, long, and progressively unintelligible wails.” In the Babel of Manhattan, the cries were an “audible sign of availability.”
“If these cries were not enough to attract attention, many hokey pokey men also rang bells,” Anne Cooper Funderburg writes in Chocolate, Strawberry, and Vanilla: A History of American Ice Cream. Perhaps the ding! ding! in Waas’ proprietary jingle became a cultural icon because the bells conjured up the hokey pokey street vendors jingling about their ice creams.
What’s strangest about this story of the adman and his sprightly little jingle that endured: Waas claims that he has only heard it played on ice cream truck once. He was out at a Phillies baseball game with his son and went up to a truck. Waas again: “I said, ‘We both want a popsicle, but we’ll buy it only if you play the jingle.’ The guy says, ‘I can’t. I’m on private property.’ So we start to walk away and the guy stops us and says, ‘What the hell.’ And then he plays it. That was the only time I heard it and, of course, it was only the melody.”
This is the first in a series on sound and food. Stay tuned for more bells and whistling melodies.
March 22, 2012
Douglas Gayeton, the author of Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town, has been exploring the principles of sustainability through photography, taking abstract concepts and turning them into annotated infographics—or “information art.” It’s part an ongoing series called The Lexicon of Sustainability.
The images convey invisible or purposely obfuscated ideas related to food, and the concepts are explained by the experts themselves, like Elaine Ingham (above) translating soil science and microbiology for the masses. Paul Stamens (in the photo below) explains the concept of myco-remediation. I talked with Gayeton about the project from his home in Petaluma, California.
How did you come up with the concept and what do you hope these images will convey?
Images often leave you asking more questions than providing answers. When I see a photo, what I want to know is not always explained. So, I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could include an image and then include all the things that you’d want to know if you were looking at the image?” I began to make images and have people talk about them, essentially describing what’s happening. I really wanted to demystify the language of sustainability.
The process—information art—takes complicated ideas and makes them simple to understand. The Lexicon Project started with food and farming and now it’s looking at climate change and water. We’re starting to get into technical exploration of ideas. It’s almost a formula—in much the same the way in physics that you create a formula to describe an activity or an action in the physical world. That formulaic approach your see—used in physics or math—is the same type of construction that I use for the images. More than a construction actually, these images are a deconstruction of ideas, reducing them to their essence, then trying to find a way to graphically represent them. Somebody once wrote that one of the interesting thing about the work is that it works the way a mind works: If I were to simply give you a piece of paper with a lot of writing on it, you might skim over it; but if I were to take a bunch of ideas and place them on an image, then you are suddenly active in the idea. You’re active in the appreciation of the idea. That activity creates a narrative and makes it easier to retain information. You have more of a deeper connection…. It’s not a passive experience. The active experience of turning the reading of something into it’s almost a game-like quality, I think it allows people to connect more intimately with the ideas and images.
Douglas Gayeton is planning 500 pop-up shows this summer, and anyone can be apply to be curator here.
March 13, 2012
Have you ever considered video games to be works of art? A show called The Art of Video Games, opening Friday at the American Art Museum, moves beyond looking at games simply as a form of entertainment and draws our attention to how games are a design and storytelling medium—perhaps the art medium of the 21st century.
By the same token, have you ever stopped to think about how food figures into video games? Pac Man chows down on power pellets, Mario is a hardcore mushroom-monger, Donkey Kong a banana connoisseur. There have been games devoted to food fights or hamburger chefs being chased by manic pickles and sausages. Furthermore, ever since the video game boom of the late 1970s, games have been used as a means to advertise products—including edibles. While “advergaming” may be a recent piece of Internet age jargon to describe web-based games created to market a branded product, the concept has been kicking around since the dawn of video games. Here are a five notable games that were created to promote familiar foodstuffs.
Tapper (1983): Let’s start with arcade-era gaming. The premise of this one was simple: You are a bartender whose goal is to keep sliding beers down the bar to quench your customers’ thirst. This cabinet is noteworthy for its clever physical design: Bar-style beer taps are used to control your character and places to rest your drink. Players will also notice that the Budweiser logo is shown front-and-center and on the bar’s back wall. Although the game was initially meant to be installed in bars, it was re-tooled and re-christened Root Beer Tapper as a kid-appropriate game for arcades and home video gaming platforms.
Kool-Aid Man (1983): What’s notable about this game is how the marketers and the computer programmers behind the game clashed. Marketing wanted a single game that could be adapted to the variety of gaming systems then on the market, whereas programmers wanted to create multiple versions of the game, each one able to take advantage of each platform’s technical strengths. For those who bought the Atari 2600 version of the game, you played the Kool-Aid Man who had to thwart little round creatures called Thirsties who drank from a pool of water—if the water was depleted, the game ended. The Intellivision version was drastically different, with players controlling two children trapped in a haunted house being terrorized by Thirsties. If you collected the ingredients needed to make Kool-Aid, the Kool-Aid man characteristically busted through a wall to thwart the Thirsties.
The California Raisins (1988): The late 1980s and early 1990s were a great era for clay-animated television ads hawking food, and the chief ad mascots were the California Raisins. This Motown-esque group of singing raisins was featured in several television ads, a Christmas special and a Saturday morning cartoon show. The raisins released several albums and even inspired two video games. The first was a PC game in which you played a raisin whose friends were trapped in a cereal factory and it’s your job to rescue them.The second is the stuff of gaming apocrypha. Developed for the Nintendo Entertainment System and slated for release in 1991, it was cancelled at the last minute, perhaps in part due to the raisins’ waning popularity. I still think that’s doing pretty well for something as simple as dried fruit. (On a side note, the raisins’ claymation counterpart, the Dominos Noid, also graced PC screens.)
Chex Quest (1997): For a kid, finding a prize at the bottom of the cereal box is the ultimate payoff for eating breakfast every day. (Aside from all the associated health benefits.) While small toys are par for the course, the cereal box can also be a source for home gaming entertainment. The first video game packaged in a box of cereal also happened to have a food theme. Chex Quest was based on the then-popular Doom series of games, which was notorious for its extreme violence. Chex Quest, on the other hand, was totally kid friendly. You played as an anthropomorphized piece of Chex tasked with saving the planet from an invasion of slimy, green creatures—but instead of killing them, you zapped them with your gun and teleported them to another dimension.
Darkened Skye (2002): Released on the Nintendo Game Cube platform in 2002, you play Skye, a shepherdess charged with fighting the forces of darkness with your wits, weapons and… magic Skittles. Yes, you read that right. Turns out there are Skittle-laden rainbows that bring color and life to Skye’s world, and she unleashes the magic of said Skittles in her mission. What an epic extension of the “taste the rainbow” ad campaign!
All that said, perhaps the most perfect marriage of video games and the culinary world is the Super Nintoaster—the product of a gaming fan who gutted a toaster and replaced the heating elements with all the requisite circuitry and jacks to make a perfectly functional gaming system. Pac Man shrimp dumplings, served at Red Farm restaurant in New York City, come in at a very close second.
The Art of Video Games will be at at the American Art Museum through September 30.