Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Groucho Recommends

Lending one’s name and reputation to a commercial product was an everyday and lucrative transaction for Hollywood stars. There were several who attained prodigious levels of promiscuity – Arthur Godfrey, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Rita Hayworth to name but a few – and there was the inspirational example of Constance Talmadge who endorsed no less than 11 different products in a single issue of Liberty magazine in October 1927. Her indiscriminate approach may have been driven by the impending arrival of sound recording which brought her silent movie career to an abrupt end just two years later. These arrangements were negotiated via agents – it’s difficult to imagine the adman ushered into the presence of the illustrious star to extol the virtues of the very latest twin-tub, carpet-beating, cocktail shaker – and some were obviously more zealous than others in marketing the services of their clients.
Decisions about which products to favour and which to pass on are lost in the past and the evidence in the form of advertising offers few clues as to the process. What is clear is that for many there was no conflict between protecting their image as a star and associating with some very banal and unsophisticated products. Laxatives and toilet tissue were universally avoided but almost anything else was acceptable. As a master of verbal wit and cynicism, Groucho Marx was certainly fully aware of the idiocy of endorsement but unwilling to reject such a well rewarded proposition. Any damage to his reputation for denouncing human folly was more than compensated for in cash. The famous painted eyebrows and moustache were put to good use on behalf of a wide range of advertisers including General Electric, Rheingold Beer, Teachers Whisky and Skippy Peanut Butter. There was even a little jousting with Tony the Tiger for a serving of Sugar Frosted Flakes. These three examples need little further comment except to observe that the demonic gleam in Groucho’s eye as he inspects his Amana Home Freezer suggests it may be full of deep frozen body parts.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Lucky People

The American Tobacco Company (manufacturers of the Lucky Strike cigarette brand), unhappy at trailing Camel cigarettes in public popularity turned to Edward Bernays (nephew of Sigmund Freud and the father of the public relations industry) to revitalise their product and encourage female smoking. Bernays pursued his target with two strategies. The first was to overcome the female inhibition about smoking outdoors by breeding the confidence to light up anytime and anywhere on equal terms with men. In 1929 Bernays hired a small army of glamour models to march in the New York City Easter Parade flagrantly and imperiously smoking Lucky Strikes in full view of the assembled public. The subsequent press coverage of this transgressive event was a classic instance of the publicity that money cannot buy.

The second strategy was to promote cigarette smoking on the cinema screen by circulating directors and producers with handy guides to the wide range of dramatic possibilities that can be enhanced by the imaginative deployment of a cigarette in the hands or mouths of the cast. Bernays understood that cinema audiences could be depended on to imitate what they saw on screen and obediently smoke their way through moments of emotional stress and tension. Bernays called this process, engineering consent. This was the era of the green Lucky Strike pack and one of Bernays’s greatest concerns was that the female smoker, endowed by nature with a superior sense of colour relationships, might be put off by the shade of green, finding it clashing with their favoured choice of tones and shades. Much energy was expended on a campaign to persuade the couture industry of the wondrous potential of green as a high fashion colour to little effect. The green neurosis persisted until 1941 when Raymond Loewy designed the white pack with the famous target on both front and back. The advertisers congratulated themselves on having doubled the publicity potential of the pack without spending an additional cent.

The services of Hollywood stars were always available if the price was right and copywriters carefully crafted the form of words that would help seal the deal with smokers. The comforting fiction that nationally recognised figures from the movies, with their enormous disposable incomes could find nothing better than Lucky Strike placed them, for an instant, on an equal footing with their audience. Every actor had a similar story to tell – without Lucky Strike they could never have survived their punishing work schedule or maintained the expressive tones of their all-important voices. Most participants cultivated a frosty air of hauteur – only a few deigned to look with favour on their admirers but they all agreed that nothing eased throat irritation more effectively than a cigarette.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Past and Present No. 8: Marseille

I always travel with a small selection of faded vintage postcards in the hope that it might be possible to pair them with some contemporary views. Marseille proved to be intractable – economic forces and the Nazi occupation having obliterated all but the most securely rooted landmarks. The Vieux Port and the docks at la Joliette have been abandoned by maritime commerce in favour of leisure, culture and urban motorways. When I found a potential match I was often at a disadvantage – early postcard photographers being adept in the art of talking their way into neighbouring buildings to obtain an elevated viewpoint. In the absence of a personal drone or cherry-picker these are the best. Most frustrating was the trip to the corniche where I could see an almost perfect match if I had the power to hover in space some 4 metres from the seaward side of the path on which I was standing. It was pleasing to see that a bus passed the exact location of the tram in the postcard as the photo was taken.