Step Right Up
It was no less (or greater) a figure then Bill Cosby who once suggested that: "The very first law in advertising is to avoid the concrete promise and cultivate the delightfully vague."1 Mark Twain would, I'm sure, have agreed…and probably wished that he'd said it first himself. Still, he had a juicy enough pop at the 'admen' in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court: "Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising." 2
In terms of the 'making large' of small things, and the cultivation of delightful vagueness, you'd be hard pressed to top the mendacity of the 'ads' I remember from childhood encounters with American comic books.
It was probably the late 70s when my sister and I first experienced the giddy joy such publications could induce. For reasons I've never fully never fathomed, a small newsagent in Lahinch, Co. Clare seemed to have a unique (and extensive) collection of titles published by Harvey Comics. As a result, we both have fond memories of summer afternoons spent poring over the pages of Richie Rich, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Hot Stuff the Little Devil, Wendy the Good Little Witch etc. It was during these comic-reading sessions that I first became acquainted with the exotic, and slightly otherworldly, realm of American advertising.
The 'ads' featured in (the more familiar) British comics were pretty prosaic and sober affairs (Toy Soldiers, Subbuteo etc), and seem to have been bound by some notion of honesty and fair trade description. The products featured in Harvey Comics (and DC, Marvel etc) however, gave an emphatic heave-ho to any pretensions to realism…offering miracles that would have shamed P.T. Barnum!
Though there were many items that I would have (foolishly) given my right arm for, two products stood out from the crowd as true wonders: Sea Monkeys and X-Ray Specs.
The evocative images of the Sea Monkeys suggested both an idealised suburban domesticity (Dad, Mom, 2 Kids), and a Jules Verne-esque world of 'deep sea' magic and mystery. They played, they picnicked, they watched TV (a somewhat dangerous pursuit underwater), and generally suggested that the world of land lubbers paled in comparison to their watery utopia.
Even as a child, however, I found the whole Sea Monkey 'miracle' a bit hard to swallow. As an adult, a quick Google search of the subject reveals a truth slightly less colourful than the one implied by the above image:
Sea Monkeys are a type of brine shrimp, and a member of the animal family Crustacea, which also includes crabs and lobsters. [They] can manufacture their own trehalose, a substance they use to coat their eggs to keep them safe from extreme temperatures and lack of water. Once coated, these eggs are now called cysts and they can live many years in this state. But once the conditions are just right and you add the water to the eggs, they come back to life.3
And just to deflate the bubble of illusion even further, here is a distinctly non-sexy picture of the real thing (the females don't even wear lipstick!):
With X-Ray Specs the deception was somewhat subtler, appealing less to young boys' sense of awe and wonder, and more to their rampaging hormones. While it seemed slightly odd that such 'futuristic', scientific devices would be sold (mail order) for $1.00 a piece, the average young male reader would have happily set aside his incredulity to get his mitts on such a prize.
Though the advertising suggested that the best use for the specs involved looking at the bones of one's own hand, the tantalising inclusion of an impressed (and pretty) girl hinted at the true, and darker, uses that young fellas would put the technology to…
Sadly, it appears that it was all done 'with feathers'…
I'll take that as my lead to sign off where we came in: "Advertising is an underwater castle built of feathers" (fústar, 2005). I'm sure the boys and girls of quotationspage.com will be listing that particular chestnut very soon indeed. Watch this space…
- www.quotationspage.com [back]
- Mark Twain A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (University of California Press, 1983) pgs. 210-211. [back]
- Sea Monkey Science Information [back]
November 20, 2005