Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Revolution Will Not Be Teletubbied

     While rifling through my Thrdgll publication stash I happened to re-read the introduction to the Mr. Product collection, a book of antique comic strips I drew in the '90s. What struck me is that a piece of writing examining what has or hasn't become obsolete in the culture is full of references that have become obsolete since I wrote it four years ago. (Does anyone know what Farmville is anymore?) At any rate, it seemed more appropriate to post this screed condemning online media on the infotainment electrobeast itself rather than the outmoded pamphlet for which it was intended. So I've shared it below.

     But that doesn't mean you shouldn't order the book. It's print-tastic!

     It’s theorized that the reason American culture of the 1990s has no discernible flavor in the manner of previous decades is because not much has changed since then. There seem to be no tail fin or leisure suit equivalents to mark the ‘90s as a time long past, so we remain unsure of how to characterize it. We chuckle today at the beehives and CB radios of other musty old eras, but very little seems to have evolved in the mainstream since 1996 or so. Popular music has not radically changed since Smashmouth and Sugar Ray. Television is still dominated by the reality show model established by The Real World in 1992. Fashion maintains its t-shirt-and-cargo-pants standard. The internet, the great digital media revolution of the ‘90s, is both a symptom and a possible cause of this cultural inertia. While it’s true that websites have given way to blogs and social media sites, and that cell phones no longer have that little antennae (page 10), the digital realm is less notable for its cosmetic changes than for how its basic functions have altered our behavior. In short, time has stood still for The Real World, as well as the real world, as the public spends its time in Farmville.

     So, in considering what might date Mr. Product, my world-ignored comic strip feature of the ‘90s, I find there’s very little in the content here that seems obsolete. Yes, you’ll notice herein that VHS is still considered the primary format for commercial film releases (DVD was only for anal-retentive film geeks who had to have the blooper reel from Robocop 2), and tattoos were associated with only a small minority of hipster youth (today I am the only person in America under the age of 50 who doesn’t have a tattoo). But aside from a joke about the overwhelming popularity of James Cameron’s “Titanic” (still haven’t seen it – don’t tell me how it ends), what dates this collection most is the paper it’s printed on. Today, Guttenberg’s miracle is considered a relic of history, good only for milk cartons and Supercuts coupons. Print itself is one of the many aspects of our culture that is drowning in the wake of technology’s virtual speedboat. As with pop songs and TV shows, the content of print has not evolved in 20 years because the delivery system for that content is no longer considered relevant. The public now has a full day of distraction with cute cat videos and Star Trek memes with no time to worry about the advancement of moldy, outmoded forms of communication. The new Franzen novel has no comments section attached. Why would I bother with an entertainment format I can’t argue with?

     The inability to talk back to the corporate machine is surely what drove a miserable malcontent like me to create something like Mr. Product in the Analog Age. These days a link to a Burger King press release or the Monsanto website, accompanied by an outburst of sarcasm on a Facebook post, will make the anti-corporate rage subside for a brief period. And this, of course, is how the business criminals and media moguls have won – by simply absorbing the backlash into the corporate-owned utilities to which we are all now addicted. Cute cartoon characters like Mr. Product are no longer the public face of commercialism, we are. As our online activities are monitored for reception to advertising, those same online activities now spread the seeds of marketing like no billboard or TV campaign could ever dream. And naturally, this creates a great deal of ambiguity in the relationship between the consumer and the consumed. No longer are we merely passive recipients of commercial product, we are participants. We upload, we comment, we share, we interact. We create movies and music with corporate products once meant only to entertain. And god, how we tweet.

     And so, I’m left to wonder if the very anti-establishment tone of Mr. Product isn’t lost on today’s consumers. Are we all now so cozy with Big Media, thanks to all this inviting, digital interactivity that we can’t relate to Gordon’s resistance to advertising? So often I see people willingly posting their “favorite commercial” to a social media page, and wonder why they see that having a favorite commercial is akin to having a favorite serial killer (no need to pick your favorite – Bundy, Gein, and Gacy are all admirable in similar ways). And of course, Gen X’s consciously ironic embrace of corporate icons in everything from Count Chocula bobbleheads to Nike swoosh tattoos seems to have discarded the ironic part over the years. The collector character in these strips, his shelves lined with Mr. Product action figures and bubble bath, would no longer be considered a dateless, basement-dwelling anomaly. He’d be a well-respected member of the “creative class,” and his wardrobe of Mr. Product t-shirts and jammie pants would actually attract, rather than repel potential sex partners. We’re through the looking glass here, people.

     The denizens immersed in modern commerciality thus will likely find the ham-fisted soapboxing of Mr. Product a relic of Sixties radicalism. “Go back to Woodstock, Grandpa!” they’ll text between rounds of Angry Birds while queuing for Shrek 5. But I hold out hope for the future when I spy the occasional ravings of a pissy teen punk who’s just read her first Neil Postman book. I know there are still a few disenfranchised loners out there who would rather read Sartre than watch a Batman movie, and who fight to build their lives as far from Wall Street and Madison Avenue’s neighborhood watch as possible. These are the youth fed up with a lifetime of being a target demographic for the masters of mercantile.

     And to them I say Mr. Product t-shirts are now available at

Ashley Holt
May 2012

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