Archive for Sunday, November 2, 2008

Consumer beware

Wacky Packages’ showcases early age of irony

November 2, 2008


When it comes to creating parody in the post-ironic world, the tools available to us are plentiful and democratic. Spend a half hour with Photoshop and your throwaway burst of creativity can convincingly skewer American brand identities that have been decades in the making.

Today, when anything without a wink or a nudge is either suspect for its naivete or genius for its retro sensibility, it is difficult to imagine a world in which satirizing the country's most established advertising icons was subversive.

But there was such a time: the early 1970s, at the dawn of the age of irony. The product was called Wacky Packages.

For the uninitiated, Wacky Packages ("Wacky Packs" to their Gen-X fans) were sticker cards introduced by Topps Chewing Gum, most renowned for its status as the standard bearer of American baseball cards since the early 1950s. Effectively one-panel comic books for your back pocket, they came in wax-paper packs with a brittle slab of pink bubble gum just like sports cards once did.

But while the baseball and football cards were pure American pastoral, Wacky Packages seemed more of a burnout sibling. They were a gross, exuberant gallery of familiar American consumer products bastardized in the name of Mad Magazine-style humor and lovingly committed to full-color stickers.

It seems like heresy to collect such images into a gift book printed on thick, shiny stock, but that's what we do with childhood memories these days. And the eponymous "Wacky Packages," which includes an interview with Art Spiegelman, master of the highbrow-lowbrow balancing act, pulls it off - right down to the waxy cover that captures the feel of buying the stickers in a corner drug store when you were 7 or 8.

Graphic impact

Remember, this was the Watergate Era, right after the 1960s. All manner of authority was being questioned and scorned, and that meant not just the government but the very building blocks of American culture and its attendant materialism. Andy Warhol had dragged the soup can into the edgy discourse of pop art a half-decade earlier, and Mad magazine had been fomenting revolution against the retail establishment for more than a decade before that.

So while targeting brands such as Mr. Clean, Old Spice, Jiffy Pop, Skippy Peanut Butter and Star-Kist tuna as objects of commentary wasn't exactly new, aiming it at brand-saturated preteens - male ones in particular - was a sure hit. The blending of gross-out graphics and vaguely anti-authoritarian fake ad copy didn't hurt, either.

So Land O' Lakes became "Land O' Quakes" ("Butter Churned by Earthquakes"). Tang became "Fang" ("Breakfast Drink for Vampires"). Kool cigarettes became "Kook" ("Menthol Cigarettes for Mental Cases"). And, in the more forced examples, Wish-Bone became "Fish-Bone" ("that's what it smells like") and Heinz Baked Beans became, inexplicably, "Hurtz Baked Bears."

Occasionally, political commentary lurked behind the silliness. As the Vietnam War waned, A.1. Steak Sauce became "1.A. Sauce -for draft dodgers." Comet cleanser became "Commie cleanser," which "gets rid of Reds, Pinkos, Hippies, Yippies & Flippies." And, in 1973, in the middle of the push for the Equal Rights Amendment, Chef Boy-ar-dee canned pasta became "Chef Girl-ar-dee Feminist Spaghetti," complete with an angry woman on the can.

Mostly, however, the ad copy was pure juvenilia. Often, though, the words didn't matter.

For this newly visual generation, the real power came in the graphics. After all, who among us then could imagine having the power to make fun of the load-bearing walls of consumer society such as Procter & Gamble, Lever Bros. and Heinz? Wacky Packages turned the supermarket into a potential buffet of obnoxious jokes, bad puns and skeevy illustrations.

Targeting Madison Ave.

Tune in to the show "Mad Men" today and see just how far American advertising has come. Set in the early 1960s, before the fabled Warhol soup can - and before Dealey Plaza, the 1968 Democratic Convention, Kent State and Watergate - it is almost melancholy in its characters' optimism about consumerism. Wacky Packs may seem frothy and silly from our savvier perch in 2008, but to the admen of Sterling Cooper in "Mad Men," they would have been revolutionary and deeply unsettling.

Just listen to no less a comics authority than Spiegelman, who worked for Topps before becoming a Pulitzer Prize-winning artist and author. "Wackies," he writes in the foreword, "were a young child's first exposure to subverting adult consumer culture. Now, 35 years later, that generation has matured into adults who can afford to nostalgically consume a deluxe volume brimming with that subversion."

How fitting. We built the consumer castle with the hope of Boomer optimism in the 1950s, then began to tear it down with the wrecking ball of ascendant Gen-X irony in the 1970s. Now, nostalgic for an earlier flavor of irony that we left behind three decades ago, we long for the halcyon first days of the end of innocence as if it were innocence itself.


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