Meet Mr. Product

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It’s easy to look at these cheery little characters and condescend. “Oh look!” we say, from the sophisticated remove of the 21st century, “How droll! A talking carrot! A happy carburetor! A devilish thingamabob! Ho ho!” we chortle as we check-in on our smart phones and post the latest uselessness about our last five minutes, “what simple, easily-entertained, rapscallions our ancestors were!”

But Warren Dotz and Masud Husain make the case that there’s more going on here than one would think. And while there’s reason enough to look into this book because of the beautiful line art and illustration, there are questions and issues of strategy raised that are worth considering for any marketer – be they artistically inclined or not.

And chief among those is: why? A talking carrot? A happy carburetor? Really? Why did brands feel a need to anthropomorphize their products, their identities, their very selves? For it is this fundamental strategy, this essential need, that seems so alien to us. Who among us can imagine a client asking us to save their company, to raise sales, to defeat the competition – by turning their product into a cartoon character? Who can imagine Steve Jobs asking that of Lee Clow? Phil Knight demanding that of Dan Weiden, or Johnson & Johnson CEO James Burke turning to his ad agency during the famous Tylenol poisoning of 1982 and saying: “You know what I think Tylenol needs? I think it needs arms and legs.”

And yet, that alienation that we experience when looking at these illustrations is, in its way, at the very heart of what drove these works. Early in the book, Husain writes:

“Advertising spokes-characters such as this have the effect of bringing larger companies down to human scale. In a time of public uprootedness and migration, these early smiling and gesturing ‘Mr. Products’ served as a reassuring presence, a comforting substitute for the familiar face of a local merchant.”

Let’s think about the psychology of that for a second. The proliferation of these characters is a direct result of the mass mobility and migration of Americans in the 1950s and 60s. When either the comfort of a trusted merchant – or the nostalgia for one that we grew up with – became palpable. Never mind that often that local merchant we were suddenly pining for wasn’t everything we remembered it to be. That it provided a profoundly restricted access to an otherwise vast array of products available – for that too was part of the nostalgia. That limitation was part of a dream of the simpler time that we hungered for, a time when there was one beer, one bank, one department store, one way of doing things that we all could agree upon. A way of life that we all relied upon, that we all knew our place within, and that was as far from the uncertain demands of the 1950s and 60s as those golden decades are from us today.

You know, the way adults always view their childhoods. Which is probably why these characters all look like cartoons – because they’re actually trying to appeal to the child in us.

And yet, one of the things that is striking about the images collected here is the real variety of styles – not only assembled under the umbrella of “spokes-characters” but also that were more or less existent concurrently. Take a look at the “Bubble Up King” and “Miss Dairylea” which share page 86. While they’re both from 1958, Miss Dairylea, with the detail of her bonnet, petticoats and rosy cheeks, looks like she just stepped out of the 1930s; while the Bubble Up King, with his simplified geometric forms and flat style looks like he might have maintained a level of currency beyond Woodstock.

And you say, Of course! They were speaking to different consumers! One’s a soft drink, one’s a dairy. Different consumers require different messaging – that’s Marketing 101!

But I think there’s more to it than that. I think it reveals a fact that is more important for the current generation of marketers than it has been for any other.

These illustrations aren’t just speaking to different consumers; they’re speaking to different pasts in reaction to different presents and fears of different futures. That in addition to competition and geography and consumer and economy being contextual, time itself is too.

For some, this may not be news. Faulkner, of course, reminded us that the past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past, and William Gibson that, “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

That such an insight should be so artfully represented in a book as simple as Meet Mr. Product is to its authors never-ending credit

Meet Mr. Product by Warren Dotz & Masud Husain was published by Chronicle on 02/01/03 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).