You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘1970’s’ tag.

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Today we present a seasonally appropriate earthtone blast from the past–a color which was once everywhere and is now nowhere at all.  I am talking about the go-to kitchen appliance color of the 1970s, “harvest gold” a sort of warm brownish golden ochre.  I remember seeing so many refrigerators, ovens, sinks, and toilets that were this color when I was a child that I sort of thought it was some fundamental feature of home fixtures.  Of course, harvest gold, wasn’t just in the kitchen and then the bathroom, all sorts of other items of fundamental importance to society came in this same shade–turtlenecks, shag carpet, macrame, Dodge Darts, hotpants…you name it (this is to say nothing of things which were, are, and always will be this deep yellow like dead corn fields, lions, broken urinals, used cigarette filters, and mustard, mustard, MUSTARD!).  More than rust brown, tangerine orange, or even avocado, this was the trademark color of the seventies.

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Now, if you had asked me about this color in the 80s, 90s, 00s, or even the early teens, I would have unhesitatingly responded that it is a hideous afront to civilized ideals of beauty and then made some rude remarks about malaise, mustard, and moustaches.  But is that really true?

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Like all earth hues, this dark yellow suffers because there are lots of earthy things which have the same color, but, likewise there are many beautiful living things that are harvest gold (maybe you noticed lions hiding in the comic list in the first paragraph).  There are famously beautiful people who have hair this color. Maize and wheat are both this color (it’s called harvest gold for a reason) as is the element gold which is known to have a certain cachet.

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So if there was nothing inherent to the seventies or harvest gold which brought the two together, what happened? What forces caused this color to become so famous for a decade and then so infamous for decades?  I would argue that it was marketers trying to sell things to people that made it famous.  It was people copying other people that made the color super famous and then it was everyone overreacting to that overreaction which made the color infamous and toxic.  This is a troubling cycle because it doesn’t just apply to harvest gold, it kind of applies to everything that people get really involved with.  It makes you wonder which of the things that are everywhere around us right now are harvest gold.  Where will they be in 40 years?

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"Happy" the Happy Meal (a fully owned, fully licensed creation of McDonald's)

“Happy” the Happy Meal (a fully owned, fully licensed creation of McDonald’s)

Today Ferrebeekeeper abjectly drops all discussion of space exploration, art, literature, zoology, and history in order to concentrate on the biggest trending topic of the day–a disquieting animated character who takes the form of a weird toothy box. What’s the story here? Well, it turns out that, McDonald’s, the globe-spanning fast-food eatery has introduced a new mascot, “Happy” a happy meal box who wants kids to eat their vegetables and yogurt. The internet is awash in jokes about Happy’s lurid color, ambiguous motivations, and his oh-so-human (and oh-so-large) teeth. Mascots have been a subject of great interest to me ever since the black-and-white TV introduced me to the McDonaldland gang when I was a bright nervous child so I feel like we can do better for Happy (well, better than Gawker’s boilerplate jokes at least) and unpackage some of his history.

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McDonald’s is an American restaurant (actually considering its name & its obsession with cheap beef and potatoes, maybe it’s Irish-American) which began in 1940 in California as a barbecue joint. After the Second World War it changed into a hamburger restaurant and then spread its wings to become the most successful chain restaurant in history. One of the important steps of its evolution into an international corporate hegemon was developing a colorful crew of mascot characters to sell burgers, fries, and, above all, “the McDonald’s brand” to impressionable children (like me!).

The McDonaldland Gang (from a 1973 book cover)

The McDonaldland Gang (from a 1973 book cover)

In the early 1970s, an advertising agency introduced a whole team of mascots collectively known as McDonaldland to the world. The concept was based on the drugged-up fantasy landscape of H.R. Pufnstuf (a surreal puppet show which has cast long delirious shadows over children’s programming ever since it aired). True to the source material, the original cast was a disquieting mélange of weird beings: Mayor McCheese, a corrupt bureaucrat whose head is made of a cheeseburger; Hamburglar, a muttering lunatic thief; and, of course, Ronald McDonald, the dangerous-looking clown prince of the anthropomorphized fast-food landscape.

Grimace

Grimace

Some of the characters were quickly revised. Grimace was originally a villainous purple octopus with a monomaniacal love for milkshakes. Unfortunately early consumer tests determined that children were terrified of the multi-armed abomination. Flummoxed ad-executives were prepared to rework the entire concept, when one perspicacious adman came up with a brainstorm characteristic of the industry. “Let’s just rip his arms off!” he said. So Grimace–whom many people doubtless think of as a mitochondria or a rhizome—is actually an octopus whose arms were amputated by drunken 1970s admen.

"Good-Bye to All That"

“Good-Bye to All That”

The McDonaldland gang hit their heyday in the 1980s, when they were everywhere. Figures were abruptly retired (like poor Captain Cook) or changed, while new ones such as Birdie the breakfast bird made sudden appearances. Yet times change, and contemporary McDonald’s is trying to put McDonaldland behind them. Ronald McDonald has kept his position as a figurehead (much like Mickey Mouse) and the other characters sometimes appear in weathered murals or old playground equipment, but today’s advertising concentrates on pseudo-healthy communities of friends eating together and “lovin’ it”.

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The happy meal, however, continues to attract children with its colorful bag and complimentary toy. It also continues to attract regulators and litigation, so McDonald’s swung into action and created Happy. The animated box started out in the minors—France and Latin America–where he (it?) attained sufficient success to leap to the American market this month.

These forms of Happy never made it out of France: McDonald's does not need two mascot controversies at once

These forms of Happy never made it out of France: McDonald’s does not need two mascot controversies at once

With his loopy eyes, boxy form, and infinite hungry maw, Happy seems like he could almost be a throwback to the McDonaldland era. Yet he is patently a computer animation rather than a human-inhabited puppet. Additionally his putative raison d’être is to convince kids to pursue healthier eating habits. According to McDonald’s own press release:

McDonald’s today introduced “Happy,” a new animated Happy Meal character that brings fun and excitement to kids’ meals while also serving as an ambassador for balanced and wholesome eating. Happy will be introduced nationwide May 23, and will encourage kids to enjoy fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy and wholesome beverages such as water or juice.

That certainly sounds admirable, but adults take one look at Happy and shudder. Moreover his true purpose is obvious to us (after all we have spent a lifetime eating under the golden arches): he is obviously meant to sell McDonald’s products to kids. It’s easy to be cynical about him—but I now look back at the strained look on my parents’ faces as they endured the burglars, killer clowns, evil octopi, and pirates of my youth with new understanding. Corporate mascots are friendly monsters who entice children to buy sundry unnecessary goods and services. Kids should get used to brushing them off as soon as possible. It is fine preparation for adult life when the corporate monsters take off their googly eyes and apply their coercion more directly.

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If you are looking for poison control center and have arrived here by some dreadful search engine mistake you should call 1-800-222-1222 (presuming you are in the United States).  If you are not in the United States here is the World Health Organization’s interactive map of worldwide poison control centers.  Quick! Don’t wait around here!

OK, now that they’re getting the help they need, we can delve into today’s post which concerns the ambiguity of iconography–more specifically this is the history of poison control mascot, Mr. Yuk, an icon of Generation X childhood.

Since at least the nineteenth century, chemical manufacturers have used skulls, skeletons, and crossbones to label poisonous compounds.  In fact for a while toxic substances were sold in cobalt blue glass skulls (which you can probably still find at an antique shop).  By the twentieth century, the skull and crossbones was almost universally known as the symbol for poison—and it still is—well, except in Pittsburgh.  Pittsburgh had a problem: their famously up-and-down professional baseball team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, were inextricably linked to the Jolly Roger an age-old symbol of pirates.  The Jolly Roger is basically a poison label, but it was plastered all over all sorts of Pirates merchandise.

Dr. Richard Moriarty, a Pittsburgh pediatrician and poison center pioneer, saw the skull and bones everywhere in Pittsburgh and was worried that children would be confused.  Even beyond Pittsburg, the world is filled with pirate themed Halloween candy and Long John Silver’s marketing and thoughtless graphic art.  Moriarty proposed a new poison label which would speak more directly to children.

The art for Mr. Yuk was created by Wendy (Courtney) Brown, a grade school student who won a drawing contest.  Wendy’ original conception was altered somewhat to make the character more vivid–the stick figure body was chopped off and only a grimacing head remains.  The poison control team chose acid-green as the color for their mascot by finding which color least appealed to children.  One young study participant described the overall effect as “Yucky” and the name stuck.

Today “Mr. Yuk” is the exclusive intellectual property of Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital, but they no longer release sheets of stickers (which were omnipresent back in my childhood).  Times change, and a new crop of market researchers have shown that kids are drawn towards Mr. Yuk stickers simply because they are stickers.  Plus a few restless generations of toymakers and marketers have demystified the green color and the sour face.  Even Mr. Yuk’s name conveys less force in a multi-cultural world—maybe he’s just Tibetan or something.  Of course the skull and crossbones still has problems too.  Since the 1970’s there are even more pirate teams running around (to say nothing of the computer pirates and Disney pirate-theme franchises which have burgeoned since then).  It’s a real problem: what should the personification of poison be.  How does a toxic mascot stay toxic as our symbols and color change meanings?

Um, Don’t eat this poisonous sword-flag?

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