Wednesday, December 31, 2008

I Wear My Sunglasses in Ads

Back in my undergrad years, I saw this PBS Frontline documentary called "The Merchants of Cool" in one of my assorted media studies classes. It was an interesting look at how advertisers and marketers were distorting and manipulating 21st century youth culture through massive commercialization. Exploiting the unprecedented profitability of the largest, richest generation of teenagers in American history, these so-called Madison Ave "merchants of cool" would intensively study and analyze emerging trends among them; then co-opt it, process it, repackage it, and sell it right back. The documentary argued that this effectively destroyed the ability of today's youth to develop an authentic youth culture of their own, but rather have their notions of what is "cool" dictated by ad wizards and market profilers.

The documentary was made around 2001 so it is a bit dated by now; however the message is still highly relevant. In fact, with the rise of the Internet and concepts like viral marketing and social networking, advertising's effect on contemporary youth culture is probably exponentially both more powerful and subtle at the same time. I guess if you're one of those anti-commercialism, Naomi Klein's "No Logo", types this may all send a shudder down your spine. As for me, mass commercialization and junk culture are the concepts that pay me (it's Victor Sells Out after all). More TV shows made from commercials and soft drinks challenging rock stars, please!

In stark contrast to these complicated times, if you were an ad executive in the 80's to early 90's, it seems that all you had to do to co-opt this prized, abstract concept known as "cool" was to slap some shades on your brand's mascot. Thinking back to all the advertising icons I can remember from around that period, every character that wanted to exhibit some sort of coolness or modernity had a pair of dark shades on. In retrospect it was a cheap, hollow gesture, but it sure fooled the me as a pre-adolescent. Looking back, nearly all my doodles of figures had the trademark dark sunglasses in inject them with instant coolness and relieve me of the burden of drawing complicated eyes. It's like the scene in the Simpsons episode with Poochie, where the show executives are evaluating the drawing of the hip new, "Itchy and Scratchy" character Poochie and feel that there is something missing until the animator gives him dark sunglasses. They later parody the joke when the Simpsons introduce hip, new, Roy (one of the greatest one shot Simpson characters ever):
Some other real life "cool" mascots of the 80's-early 90's:

Cool Spot
Say what you may about his 1993 video game being a hollow piece of product placement, it's actually a halfway decent game in both looks and game play. It was definitely superior to that crappy "Yo! Noid" NES game.

The Energizer Bunny
A one gimmick character that has been going and going and going for almost two decades now. It's the shades that give the bunny that extra bit of chic, quiet arrogance that's made it such a lasting icon. Notice the contrast between that and the manic, emotionally shallow, hard sell persona of Energizer's less successful mascot: "Jacko".

Spuds MacKenzie
There's a reason why you can find plenty of pictures and youtube clips of "Spuds Mackenzie" commercials and little to no Internet information on his then-rival beer party dog "Alex the Dog" (aka "Alex from Stroh's" from Tone Loc's "Funky Cold Medina"); Alex never rocked the Ray-bans like Spuds.

California Raisins
In my opinion one of the worst, insidiously awful advertising mascots ever created. While they may have been bafflingly popular in the 80s (ubiquitous commercials, merchandise, toys, shirts, an NES game, FOUR studio albums, etc.) I can't imagine that they convinced a single person to buy actual raisins from California; the whole purpose behind the commercials.

Chester Cheetah
There is no way that the uniformly inferior Frito-Lay Cheetos could have maintained their competitive market position over the mascot-less Wise's Cheez Doodles had it not been for the flashy, style over substance attitude of everyone's favorite cheese puff addict.

Joe Camel
No advertising figure epitomized sunglasses wearing advertising cool like smooth Joe Camel. No wonder parents' groups shut him down; look how awesome he made smoking! Personally, if I were a children's advocate, I would have attacked his obscene, obviously penis shaped face as well.

Mac Tonight
Still the stuff of nightmares.


  1. Hey Victor!

    That was awesome!

    How do you think the concept of "cool" from the 80s/90s relates to today? Kinda got an idea of your opinion in your post... but would love to hear your thoughts!


  2. Good God, I never realized before just now that Joe Camel is black.

  3. Haha! Camel is back with sunglasses on.