Saturday, 12 January 2013

Funny Papers – the People’s Choice

There was a time when it was widely believed inside the American advertising industry that they were in the business of engaging the higher faculties of their audience. A lofty dialogue between elevated intellects of equal esteem. These pretensions died a lingering death as the extended passages of purple prose favoured by old school copywriters surrendered to snappy one-liners and vulgar sloganeering. When it was revealed in 1931 via a Gallup survey that almost twice as many newspaper readers preferred the comic section to the news pages in their weekend papers, advertisers abandoned any attempt at educating the consumer and embraced the visual conventions and linear narratives of the comic strip to grab the attention of the public. Mini-dramas expressed in picture sequences with speech balloons were easily digested especially when the services of much loved cartoon characters were engaged. Placing these ads in the pages of the comic sections made for some useful confusion between editorial matter and paid-for publicity. Anxieties about body odour, constipation, bad breath, dandruff, weight problems, insomnia and lifeless hair were dramatised and relieved, courtesy of the astounding virtues of the product. An idle reader was easily deceived into thinking that the special pleading of the advertiser was objective fact. This was taken a stage further when some agencies produced ads that stylistically mimicked reportage to further confuse the public. 

Shifting mountains of unsold breakfast cereal in the direction of young mouths became much easier when producers could address the junior consumer in the medium of their choice. Sales of Grape Nuts were the first to benefit from the comic strip approach, encouraging competitors such as Kellogs (with Mutt and Jeff on board), Cream of Wheat (with the vacuous Li’l Abner) and Ralston (aided and abetted by Dumb Dora) to follow suit. They don’t bear much close examination. The dialogues race along in the conventional manner only to stumble over wordy explanations of the wondrous merits of the foodstuff. The aim of the exercise was not to convince via rational debate but, less ambitiously but more importantly, to associate the product with entertainment values. 

It wasn’t uncommon for dialogues to descend into astonishing inanity, bordering on self-parody. When Pabst brewers employed a comic format, the cartoon characters were lumbered with speech bubbles that in the real world would have lead to a lifetime of incarceration on mental health grounds. But the casual reader would skip the explication and be left with the generalised sense of slightly manic bonhomie communicated through the drawings and hopefully remember Pabst on the next trip to the liquor store. The hero of the Bostitch stapler strip has repackaged his entire existence with the aid of a stapler by the time he staggers into the final frame for a delirious summing-up speech. Elsewhere Scotch tape gets our heroine’s love life back on track by repairing a broken fingernail and mending a torn skirt. It would be callous to be unmoved by the key role of the donut in winning wars as explained here by the apostles of deep-fried cakes, the Donuteers. In another post we will look at how British advertising, visually timid and class-obsessed, slowly took the comic strip on board. 

Reading List:

Roland Marchand     Advertising the American Dream (Berkeley, 1985)
Charles Goodrum     Advertising in America (New York, 1990)
Rick Marschall          Drawing Power (Seattle, 2011)

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