This is from the June 7, 1943, edition of the Altoona Tribune (Pennsylvania).07 Jun 1943, Mon Altoona Tribune (Altoona, Pennsylvania) Newspapers.com
Every time I see an insidious new form of advertising invading daily life, I think, “That’s bad. No placement could top that.” I thought that more than six years ago when I went to the bathroom at a good Thai restaurant in downtown Chicago and found myself confronted by a giant poster on the back of the stall door touting what I think was an unmentionable woman’s product (you see, I’ve tried to forget). In the men’s room, my English visitor found an ad for Men’s Health magazine. Then and there I thought, “Surely no one in advertising can get lower, er, more creative than this.”
With so much “information overload,” as they call it, overwhelming potential customers, advertisers are openly desperate to get noticed. It’s not enough that every bus and taxi is a motorized billboard; the next obvious step was to come up with vehicles whose sole purpose was to serve as mobile advertisements. I have no doubt that some organizations that tout their environmental and conservation responsibility and awareness use these “moving billboards” use these gas-guzzling carbon spewers in the hope that someone will see and remember them.
So, when I saw the little screens attached to the escalators at the San Antonio International Airport, I should not have been surprised. Yet I was. My first thought was, “Is there anything surface left to which advertising clutter can’t be attached?” Bathroom stalls, the tops of escalators, human skin — what next? Ads strapped onto dogs walking in the park?
Later, the real absurdity of it occurred to me. First, almost everyone in an airport is in a hurry. Nearly everyone who’s not an employee is a passenger trying to get to a flight on time. The only people with time to spare are those whose flights are delayed, and they are usually stuck at the gate. People leaving the airport usually want to pick up their checked baggage as quickly as possible and meet their parties or get to their transportation. So who is going to stop, stand at the head of an escalator, and assimilate a commercial that is probably irrelevant to their needs? We don’t even watch commercials on TV at home, where we’re not in a rush to be somewhere else. Why would we stare at an escalator when the more logical choice is to get on it — and move away from the ad? I suppose some people passing by might stop for a moment, perhaps for the novelty, but I doubt anyone is going to watch anything less compelling than a scene from a hit movie, TV show, or video, and then only for a few seconds.
In my imagination, however, I can picture how the agency sold this concept to the client: “Thousands of people pass through airports every day! That’s XX million a year! And they’re a captive audience because they have to be at the airport — they can’t help but see your message!” The client, a desperate marketing person under pressure to generate leads and sales, succumbs to the presentation because the chances are good that print, television, radio, and other traditional media are declining in effectiveness, and anything that offers access to millions of potential impressions could be worth a shot.
At this point, I thought escalator commercials would fill my quota of bizarre placements for at least a few months. I was wrong. Thursday night I stopped at Walgreens, where, splayed over the security scanners at the entrance/exit, are cardboard sandwich boards touting a teeth-whitening product. Aha! What better way to get attention than with a five-foot ad for an impulse purchase product, an ad that assails customers both on the way in and on the way out — two points in time at which I can be made to feel shame over my aging, yellowing teeth.
But the evening was still young. Next, I went to the grocery store, where the floor tiles sport ads. If you drop your shopping list or bend down to check on your small child, you’ll see a colorful reminder of which brand of baked beans is best. These ads don’t bother me, perhaps they are an opportunity to walk all over advertising.
I was absorbed in looking for something in particular when I heard a voice. Obviously, a voice in a store isn’t unusual; customers talk on their mobile phones; customers and employees chat with one another; and announcements are made over the public address system (“Will the owner of a blue Ford SUV move the vehicle from the fire lane?”). This voice, however, was different. It was small, it was tinny, and it was talking at me. I turned around, and there it was — a tiny screen with a woman promoting the benefits of a brand found in that aisle.
I don’t know what advertisers will do next to top themselves. I don’t want to know, but I’m sure to find out. I can say this, though; the insides of my eyelids are not for sale, and that’s what I prefer to look at when you try too hard to get my attention.
And thank goodness for earplugs.
Did you know that Marshmallow Peeps are a “fat-free food”? You would if you had looked at them during the recent Easter season. There it is, proudly proclaimed on each package of the cute confections — “a fat-free food.” That should satisfy both fad dieters and those whose doctors have the annoying habit of nagging them about “bad” cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, and heart disease.
Don’t look under “Nutrition Information,” because you may learn that (1) there is no nutrition in Marshmallow Peeps and (2) there is sugar in them. Lots of sugar. Enough sugar to sweeten an ocean of coffee and tea.
Well, no one eats Marshmallow Peeps for nutrition, anyway; it’s not clear how many of us eat Marshmallow Peeps at all. Made from the connective tissues of deceased bovines, et al, Marshmallow Peeps are designed to look achingly cute in your children’s baskets on Easter morning, then to harden into an inedible stale solid suitable for beaning playmates or for using in various science experiments.
Sausage party bites are, however, made for eating, or at least indulging in at social gatherings that involve large quantities of cheap American beer, preferably served directly from the keg. If you are South Beach dieting or have health concerns, do not be concerned — at least one brand of these delicacies declares that they have “NO CARBS!” Sure, there is enough fat to keep Jenny Craig, Richard Simmons, and a few dozen Bowflex machines occupied for generations, and enough salt to make a ghost of the Dead Sea, but for the carb-conscious consumer there are “NO CARBS!” Never fear, though; if you insist, you can get them from the beer.
Finally, for now, there is the dairy whose milk cartons carry the happy announcement that there are “NO TRANS FATS!” The cynical among us might note that one doesn’t expect to find partially hydrogenated fats, or any of the more typical sources of trans fats, in their dairy cow excretions and that, while whole milk is still a good source of delicious fats and calories, it’s not really intended to be a good source of mutant molecules like trans fats.
Clearly, the folks who package and market these food products, who are not to be confused with those who produce them, have the best interests of the dieter and the health-conscious, overweight, or obese consumer at heart. So enjoy some savory sausage bites, top them off with some sweet Marshmallow Peeps, and wash them down with some cold milk. No carbs, no fats, no trans fats, no worries. Why, you just might live forever.
Or until that first massive coronary.
“I want it all . . . now.” This darling quote is from a commercial for a video game. A sleazy-looking young man postures in front of endangered cat skins and brags about his “ladies” while fondling them and then going on to mention how he’s “all hot” — all in a very odd, very girlish voice. Captions of “unlimited mansions,” “unlimited cars,” “unlimited money,” etc., roll by. “I want it all . . . now. Right, Eugene?” he says to an equally sleazy-looking young man with a mindless babe hanging off him. Eugene answers in the affirmative in an equally weird, equally girlish voice.
And this game so charmingly advertised is deemed “appropriate” for “10 years old and up.” Apparently, as long as there’s no violence, greed and utter lack of scruples are okay for young children.
So if you’ve got a 10-year-old who’s “all hot” to the ladies and who “wants it all now,” legal or not, moral or not, ethical or not, and if you want to feed his worst impulses, then you’ll want to get this game for him. But don’t be surprised if, in five years, you get a late-night call about bail money.
Or in 20 years he wins his first election.
I dislike mass advertising, and I especially loathe the use of music that once had some political or social meaning, or tried to, to market commodities like candy bars and cars, or services like insurance. Even I have to admit, however, that the Burger King Texas Double Whopper TV commercial is attention getting, clever, and timely.
The long version starts with a young man and his date in a pricey restaurant as a server places before them a salad consisting of a couple of leaves and garnishes. The man stands up and marches out, singing, “I am man” to the tune of Helen Reddy’s feminist standard, “I Am Woman” (“I am woman/Hear me roar/In numbers too big to ignore/And I know too much to go back and pretend/’cause I’ve heard it all before/And I’ve been down there on the floor/
No one’s ever gonna keep me down again”). As he walks along asserting his manliness and need for real food, he is joined by men of all ages, races, and occupations, who add their voices to his. The mob pushes an SUV off an overpass onto a truck that a sweaty, red-faced, bald strong man is pulling — with a Texas Double Whopper as his “carrot.” The effect of the music, the men, and their enthusiasm for food is both funny and exhilarating.
The irony is, of course, that the song that declared female power and wisdom in the 1970s has been twisted to assert male emancipation from female ideas of diet inspired by the male desire for slender females. And to sell burgers so high in fat and carbohydrates that they are bound to contribute to a heart attack or two.
All that irony makes me hungry.
There’s an organization for children that collects Christmas gifts for their charges. The organization provides the name, age, and gender of each child as a paper tree ornament; participants select their ornaments and buy two gifts for each child — one practical (hat, glove) and one fun (toy). There’s no official spending limit, but participants are supposed to use common sense so one child doesn’t receive something extravagant like a Game Boy in front of children who may have received stuffed animals, trucks, and dolls.
The person managing this program showed me a toy that, to me, could not be more appalling (and which she in good conscience chose not to send along with the rest). It was a doll named “Dana” from the “Bratzpack.” “Bratz” comes in all ethnicities, but interestingly they all look exactly alike (clearly cast from the same mold); only the hair, eyes, skin tone, and makeup tints change to indicate ethnicity. So far, “Dana” sounds no worse than a cheap doll. But there’s more.
“Dana” is, in fact, a cheap whore. Her makeup is the first clue, but it’s the outfit that seals the deal. The halter top and platform shoes are just the beginning; they merely top off a skirt so mini that, were “Dana” anatomically correct (they do have navels), would reveal pubic hair. On the back of the box, her quote is: “Hey! My name is Dana! My friends call me ‘Sugar Shoes’ because when I step out I do it sweet!” Clearly, she’s dressed to “step out.”
Yes, “Dana” is decked out exactly like the working girls in certain districts, who lean into stopped cars to negotiate rates with the drivers.
This “doll,” which had been donated for a 5-year-old, is recommended for 6-year-olds and up. I imagine that’s based solely on parts small enough to swallow, not on appropriateness.
If you gave this trash to my (theoretical) 6-year-old, you’d never see her or me again.
While we were discussing the utter inappropriateness of “Dana,” a third person came along who said “Bratz” dolls are hot (in the sales sense) and that some are programmed to talk — including to talk back to their mothers. “And mothers actually buy these things for their kids,” she concluded.
I visited the “Bratz” Web site (I’ll spare you the link) and noticed that there are even “Bratz” babies — which look exactly like the other dolls, just with shorter torsos and legs.
So people are buying their small children dolls that overtly represent urban prostitutes and sleazy second-rate rock stars and that are rude and smart-mouthed to boot? Who are these parents? Can we provide them with the latest in free and effective birth control before they breed again?
And who are the greedy bastards who developed and proposed marketing this garbage? What discussions went on during those meetings? “No, wait, the skirt’s not short enough . . .” “The girls on the corner of X and Y do the black outline lipstick . . .” “That’s it! The perfect slut for my little Ashley to cuddle with. We’ll be rich!”
Not being a parent and not having friends with children nearby, I have no idea what kids are playing with these days, other than the obvious — computer games. My 44-year-old mind is in a time warp, where Barbies were the raciest toys we had, which we tortured by tearing off their heads and limbs, or by pushing them face down into the dirt. We had dolls that looked like babies or toddlers and that talked, cried, and even wet their diapers. I had one that was about my height, but she still looked like a child. We had Matchbox cars. We had trucks and model trains. We played tag, freeze tag, and redlight/greenlight. We slept with stuffed animals. The most realistic movie we’d ever seen was Charlotte’s Web, which made us cry (but not give up ham or pork). When I see things like the “Bratz,” I wonder how much the world has changed and why, whether it’s for the better, and how much has passed me by.
What happened to giving wide-eyed innocent 5- or 6-year-old girls sweet, soft, comforting dolls like Raggedy Ann and Andy or little stuffed animals?
As for “Dana,” I felt relieved that she was encased in plastic. Given her makeup, dress, and demeanor, who knows where that ridiculous mouth has been?
Afterthought: I looked up the correct spelling of Game Boy and clicked on a site where the first ad was for a “Bratz” Game Boy game. The world is officially over the top and beyond all hope.
Michigan at Adams across from Millennium Park.Ad for the Art Institute of Chicago
The Art Institute of Chicago was founded in 1879 and has been located at Michigan and Adams since 1893. It’s a little hard to miss; even if you didn’t notice the massive lions standing guard (and sporting wreaths during the holidays or athletic gear if a local team is in the playoffs), or the crowds of people on the steps, or the huge building that extends over the railroad tracks, still, it’s right there, the only building at Michigan and Adams on the east, the only building that looks like a museum, like an Art Institute. And it’s been there since 1893.
You’d think the Art Institute might take pride in that, but apparently not. In CTA advertising, for an exhibit, they promote their location as “Michigan at Adams, across from Millennium Park.”
The Art Institute seems to have succumbed to Millennium Park hype. For those of you who don’t know what Millennium Park is, it’s an enormously expensive “park” in downtown Chicago developed with public and private monies that features dining, music, ice skating, the Cloud Gate sculpture (aka the “Bean”), and an unappealing fountain weirdly designed to minimize the view of the water (isn’t that the point of a fountain? To spew water visibly?). Since it is a public “park” (you see that I use the term loosely), there are a few rare patches of grass that are carefully protected from the public by officious security guards who seem to have their life on the line to keep people off it.
There was a time when the overblown, over-hyped Millennium Park was up the street from the Art Institute. Now it’s the other way around.
Which institution will be the more enduring? Time will tell.
(I prefer Navy Pier. No grass to have to avoid.)
Update, 10 January 2019: People love the Bean.
Does your 401k look more like a 201k?Citibank window ad
I get it — the implication is that your 401(k) may be performing (approximately) half as well for you as it could. More accurately, the slogan should be, “Does your 401(k) growth fund look like it’s on a diet?” — well, something like that.
“401(k)” is the section of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) that permits and regulates pre-tax employee contribution plans. There may be a section 201(k) of the code — I’m not going to bother looking it up — but it would have nothing to do with 401(k), let alone performing (approximately) half as well. In other words, the ad is a prime example of a non sequitur. I wonder if the person at Citibank who approved it realises how silly it really is.
Presumably, Citibank is not talking about your plan itself but about its administration and investment choices. I wonder who this ad is meant to appeal to — you, the powerless plan participant? Is the idea that you’re going to march into the office of the head of human resources and demand that they change the administrator and funds? Or is this ad geared toward the handful of human resources decision makers who might see it in the expectation that they’ll clap their hands to their foreheads in the sudden realization that, “My company’s plan is underperforming!” and rush to Citibank to find out how it could do better?
In the real world, what actually happens is that HR and an executive committee would track the performance of the administrator and funds, as well as determine the appropriateness of the plan’s provisions. If they’re poor or faltering, HR would research alternatives, probably based on the recommendations of people in their network, the size of the company, and the goals of the plan, then develop a request for proposal (RFP). They’ll choose the administrator that best aligns with their business goals, needs, and budget.
Be sure to remind your HR department that Citibank should be in the running. After all you wouldn’t want your 401k to look like a 201k. Whatever that is.
More on advertising . . .
An advertising series on CTA buses is intended to reinforce ComEd’s commitment to customer service. The ad in the series that stands out to me shows the reddened face of a fat, bearded, frost-covered man in hard hat and coveralls. The accompanying quote is:
I work outside in the cold so you can stay inside where it’s nice and warm.CTA transit ad
There’s an obvious problem here — where or how he works has nothing to do with whether I can stay inside. This is a copywriter trying to come up with a cadence that sounds good and uses “outside” and “inside” but failing to make sense. This is one of those shortcomings that brilliant people in advertising are prone to: sacrificing sense to cleverness.
Next, there’s the photo — the very stereotype of a Caucasian working-class man. He’s fat. He’s bearded. He has beady eyes. He looks like the last grade he passed was in single digits. All he’s missing is a loud mouth (it’s a print ad, after all) and chewed-up cigarette dangling from it (no one but Hollywood shows smoking any more).
Finally, the overt message — there is nothing subtle about it — is not one of customer service, but of class. This stereotypical working guy represents a class of workers whose comforts, even safety, are secondary to yours. Aren’t you lucky there are people like him around to keep the electricity humming and that people like you never have to experience what it’s like to be people like him?
Somebody Shut Off His Pituitary! Visit the Tallest Man in the World, Robert Wadlow. Alton, Illinois.CTA transit ad
Given the nature of the copy and the accompanying vintage sideshow cartoon, this advertisement might have dated from the turn of the twentieth century. But this ad, found on CTA bus shelters, includes the distinctly modern www.enjoyillinois.com and the tagline, “Illinois. Mile after magnificent mile.”
Intrigued by the apparent tastelessness of this Illinois Bureau of Tourism ad, I looked up Robert Wadlow online. According to Roadside America and other sites, Robert Pershing Wadlow was born in Alton, Illinois in 1918 and, due to a tumor in his pituitary gland, grew to a height of 8’11.1″ (a record that still stands). Although he toured with the Ringling Brothers Circus in 1936 and as a spokesman for the International Shoe Company, he never became the sideshow “freak” that so many victims of nature and disease did. He even attended college with the intention of studying law. The Alton Museum site says:
Robert Wadlow holds a special place in Alton’s history. He is remembered as a quiet young man who overcame a unique handicap, and who was an inspiration to all of those that knew him.Alton Museum
Not surprisingly, Wadlow died young, in 1940 at age 22. The braces need to support his legs and weight gave him a blister that became infected.
Back to the Illinois Bureau of Tourism ad: It’s trying to entice you to visit Alton, where Wadlow was born and lived and died, and where a life-size bronze statue was erected to commemorate the man and his stature. He may be long gone, but kids can still compare their size (and shoe size) to that of the unfortunate giant.
Now, it’s true that Illinois doesn’t offer much in the way of great attractions, natural or otherwise. Of course, there are gems like Volo Bog (north), Starved Rock and numerous state parks, and the Shawnee National Forest and Shawnee Hills Wine Trail (south), along with the usual lures of a major urban center like Chicago (museums, theatre, shopping, dining, architecture, etc.). Springfield boasts the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum because, after all, Illinois is the “Land of Lincoln” — at least that’s what’s on all the license plates.
Unless you’re interested in studying suburban sprawl (north), checking out cornfields (central), or fishing among the cypress (south), there’s not much unusual or grand to bring tourists to Illinois. There’s no Grand Canyon, no Yosemite, no redwoods, no petrified forest, no Niagara Falls, no Old Faithful, no herds of elk or caribou, no — well, you name it. Ask Chicagoans where they go for a weekend of recreation, and they’re likely to tell you Door County in Wisconsin, Indiana Dunes, or Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Anywhere but Illinois.
Apparently, the Illinois Bureau of Tourism decided to focus on what Illinois does have — small attractions and roadside oddities. According to Roadside America, Illinois has about 66 roadside attractions, ranging from cars on a spike (Berwyn) to the hometown of Superman (Metropolis). (For some reason, they even include Medieval Times in Schaumburg, which is part of a national chain, and a few other mainstream goodies.)
These include, of course, Robert Wadlow, dead since 1940. I don’t have any problems with the promotion of his bronze statue or the chair that was made for him. The Illinois Bureau of Tourism has to work with what it has. But where did the sideshow-style poster originate? Is it truly vintage, or is it a modern rendition of a vintage look? If it is the former, the real McCoy, the Bureau should have considered a few changes that would have made it less of a repulsive reminder of a time that is, thankfully, past — for example, changing the wording, “Somebody Shut Off His Pituitary!” And giving Robert Wadlow a head and a face. As it is, he’s represented as a cartoon torso with long legs and huge hands and feet. In the best (worst?) sideshow tradition, the Bureau has turned a man with an incurable medical condition into an object to be gawked at.
There’s also a bit of false advertising here. I’d never heard of Robert Wadlow, so when I saw this poster I thought that it was still possible to “visit” Wadlow — not to look at a statue of him or sit in his chair.
The other Bureau ads are equally simple — large graphics, minimal copy. It’s not just the Bureau, either; most bus shelter advertisers go straight for the visual, probably to catch the weary eye of hurrying pedestrians who have no intention of riding the CTA. To me this seems a rather odd approach, given the medium; where else but a CTA bus stop do people have 5–20 minutes to read? The problem is that once you read about Robert Wadlow on, say, www.enjoyillinois.com, it’s unlikely you’re going to spend hours driving to Alton to stand next to a statue and sit in a chair for five minutes for a photo op. Door County or Alton? The Indiana Dunes or Alton? The Upper Peninsula or Alton? You decide.
In the meantime, thanks to the Illinois Bureau of Tourism, the headless, faceless Robert Pershing Wadlow can be exploited in death, in the 21st century, as he may have been in life, in the 20th, 70 years ago.
Enjoy Illinois, the Land of Sideshows, er, Lincoln.