Thursday, 20 June 2019

The World's Most Horrifying Advertising Animals #15: Aflac and HSA (A Tale of Ducky and Bunny)

The humble anas platyrhynchos may be the most beloved of all farmyard fowl (judging by the high proportion of cartoon characters that are anatines), yet there's something about the common duck that registers as oddly incongruous. Ostensibly, ducks are the clowns of the poultry kingdom - observe them waddling along on their flat, oversized feet and they look comical as hell. And yet when a duck gets vocal, its repeated quacking sounds eerily like laughter, and laughter of a particularly mocking and derisive sort at that. Suddenly, the duck becomes less of a clown than a leering voyeur. He comes across as knowing something that you don't. Cartoonist Gary Larson, creator of dark humor comic Far Side, understood this when he coined the term, Anatidaephobia, denoting the fear that somewhere, somehow a duck is watching you. But what of the fear that a duck is following you and looking to embed the names of insurance providers within your impressionable skull? This disturbing conceit formed the basis for a series of ads that began in 1999 and held surprising longevity for the American Family Life Assurance Company (aka Aflac). These involved an increasingly exasperated Pekin duck with a strange knack for showing up wherever unwitting humans were discussing all matters health insurance, with the intention of ensuring that everyone far and wide knew the brand name "Aflac". The ads were created by New York based agency Kaplan Thaler Group, who found their inspiration in the epiphany that saying "Aflac" rapidly and repeatedly has the uncanny effect of making you sound like a duck.

Like the titular bird from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven", the Aflac duck possesses an extremely limited vocabulary, the name of an insurance company being apparently his only stock and store. Also like Poe's raven, his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming, and his raison d'etre is to drive humans to distraction with his ostensibly witless utterances. The twist being that hardly anybody seems to notice him, no matter how loud and obnoxious he is, save a perpetually nonplussed character played by Earl Billings who shows up in a number of ads and alone seems aware of the ubiquitous fowl. The duck acts as the avenging spirit of the unsung insurance firm, targeting those who are indebted to Aflac but haven't done the company the honor of memorizing their brand name.

The duck's abrasive, imposing disposition would undoubtedly have made him more of an irritant, if not for how genuinely unnerving he is in his omnipresence. In one particularly unsettling ad, we see him closing in on a couple in their bedroom as they innocently discuss the prospect of starting a family, oblivious as to what kind of menace is creeping through their private refuge in the dead of night and eying them up as they prepare to get down to the reproductive process. Although the final implication is that they end up adopting the voyeuristic duck as their figurative child; the closing shot shows the three of them lying together in a state of familial bliss. The Aflac duck ends up becoming the symbol of fertility, having facilitated peace of mind for the next generation.

I draw attention to this ad, which has the duck trailing a couple of flight attendants at an airport, because nestled somewhere within my mental storage space is the surreal imagery of a duck tapping frantically at an airplane window during take-off, only I'm fairly certain that it comes from Babe: Pig In The City (1998), and not the Aflac campaign. Someone confirm that I didn't just imagine a scene in which Babe is stalked by Ferdinand from the outside of a plane? I'm positive that the Aflac duck does indeed owe a debt to Ferdinand.

The Aflac duck was originally voiced by comedian Gilbert Gottfried, who had previously carved out a memorable pop culture niche for himself voicing another loud-mouthed avian, Iago the parrot, in Disney's Aladdin (1992) and its assorted spin-offs. Gottfried actually appeared in person, with the duck, in one commercial, in which he tried to return his featured counterpart to a pet store on the grounds that its repeated cries were uneasy on the ears, and wound up trading it in, appropriately, for a more verbose parrot. Aflac later parted ways with Gottfried in 2011, following some insensitive remarks he made in the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami on his Twitter account (which is the go-to method of career suicide in this day and age), after which Gottfried was replaced by Daniel McKeague.

The duck campaign was successfully transferred to Japan, where Aflac also operates. However, in the UK, where the brand name "Aflac" is basically meaningless, the web-footed wonder never had the chance to shine, although he did have a lesser-known counterpart for a short period - the early 00s, UK healthcare company HSA tried their hand at replicating the success of Aflac's campaign with their own variation on the concept. Hence, UK viewers were baffled with a string of ads in which unsuspecting humans were stalked by a white rabbit who could talk, but apparently only the letters "H, S, A", and only in that order. Why a rabbit? Your guess is as good as mine. The original pun, of the brand name sounding like a duck's quack, obviously had to be sacrificed in translation, but a whole new pun was substituted in its place, in that the rabbit sounded as if he was saying, "Hey, just say", in response to the questions raised by his unwitting targets. Like his anatine counterpart, the luckless leporine was invariably ignored and often wound up on the receiving end of some misfortune. Although initially portrayed by a puppet, later ads had him as a slightly dodgy-looking CGI creation.

While nowhere near as aggressive as the Aflac duck, the HSA rabbit was still a strange beast. Unlike American audiences, however, Brits really didn't go for the joke. Compared to the duck, the HSA rabbit had a fairly short-lived run of it, and his career was marred by controversy when over 80 complaints were made by the public regarding one of the ads, which showed a woman putting the rabbit into a washing machine - a sequence which we all know, in real life, would result in a variation of that scene from Fatal Attraction. Some years ago, I recall reading through an online Ofcom archive (which now looks to have been vaporised) indicating that Ofcom upheld the complaints made against the ad on the grounds that it was shown at a time when it could have been seen by impressionable children.

I can't find the controversial spin commercial, so you'll have to make do with this ad in which the bunny (in his vaguely disturbing CGI rendering) discovers that golfing really isn't his sport.

As I say, the HSA rabbit is long gone. Either he fell back down a hole to Wonderland or had a fatal run-in with another Glenn Close type. The Aflac duck, on the other hand, is still kicking it, and still as loud and abrasive as ever in 2019. So to the policy-conscious, watch your backs, for there may be a Pekin peeking into your privacy. That Gary Larson knew what he was on about.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Old Money (aka Modern-Day Saint, Rich Nut or Both? Only Time Will Tell)

If there's one facet of the human experience that The Simpsons has steadfastly refused to romanticise right from the start, it's old age. The series has always been entirely unapologetic in its insistence that there is no joy or dignity to be found in growing old. Make no mistake, the instant you're past your prime and exhibiting your first signs of dependency upon the younger generation to help you through the day, the world absolutely will not hesitate to have you whisked out of sight, so that you can wither away your remaining years in a place where it does not have to acknowledge you, much less deal with anything that could be construed as an imposition. To avoid such a fate, it seems that your best bet is either to be fabulously wealthy, like Mr Burns (in which case you may still require an extraordinarily dedicated right-hand man to literally keep you upright), or to have subjugated your offspring to the point where they would seriously struggle to survive outside of your shadow, a la Agnes Skinner. The situation in Springfield isn't quite Logan's Run, but it's still pretty dire.

The Simpsons' relationship with their own grizzled patriarch, Abraham Simpson, is a fraught one, the family being so negligent and so unwilling even to feign enthusiasm during their perfunctory social calls that it would be extremely easy, in lesser hands, to have them coming off as entirely unsympathetic. Here, though, it's a complicated situation, compounded by the fact that Abe is neither a kindly old gent nor an inexhaustible fountain of wisdom - rather, he's a resentful coot who is at best a mindless bore and at worst, a really, really mean and unpleasant individual. But then there's an awful lot in Abe's life to be resentful about. Society's treatment of himself, and of his fellow seniors, is beyond appalling. The ironically-named Springfield Retirement Castle (in reality, a derelict dive) purports to be a place "where the elderly can hide from the inevitable", and yet its actual modus operandi appears to be the exact reverse - it's a place that conceals the inevitable from the outside world, which really doesn't care to face up to either the responsibility of caring for the infirm or to the inevitability of its own mortality. On a personal level, however, there's no denying that Abe set the precedent for non-caring with his own incredibly rotten behaviour toward his children. Had he nurtured and cherished his sons as they were growing up, then he might have found them better inclined to take care of him in his old age. Instead, he psychologically damaged one son and completely abandoned the other, so there is an extent to which he's merely reaping the seeds that he sowed. And yet, any insinuation that Abe's plight is nothing less than karmic justice for his own lifetime of negligence would in itself be seriously misguided. "Old Money" (7F17) of Season 2 opens with Homer experiencing the horrifying epiphany that, in enabling the cycle to continue, he may be effectively setting the stage for himself to wind up in Abe's position one day, having imprinted the message on Bart, Lisa and Maggie that this is how you treat the aged. It's a cycle that is not going to end until somebody has the moral courage to give an unconditional fuck.

"Old Money", a tale of love, loss, loneliness and discount lions, was the first Simpsons episode to focus extensively on Abe, and to attempt to draw up a more sympathetic side to his character - this was very much-needed, as the last episode in which he'd appeared, "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?", really does make him out to be the most despicable son of a bitch in all of Springfield. There, we learn about Herb and how Abe has this other son out there for whom he apparently feels no concern or compassion; that is, until he learns that Herb is now a millionaire, at which point he legs it to Herb's base in Detroit as quickly as possible, only to give up on him the instant he gets wind of the fact that he's not in the money any more (he also rejects Homer's offer of a ride back home, damning both of his sons in one fell swoop). Given that "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "Old Money" occur almost back-to-back in the running order of Season 2, if you marathon the episodes then it becomes somewhat difficult to cast off the irony that the world's general treatment of Abe in this episode is not altogether dissimilar from Abe's own treatment of Herb - specifically, his eagerness to sweep his little unwanted love child under the rug, shirking all responsibility for his upbringing and dumping him in the hands of some institution, a tune he swiftly changes when he hears word of all the money to be harvested from this disowned whizkid. Another irony that does not escape me throughout "Old Money" is that the narrative, which sees Abe come into a small fortune of his own after a painfully truncated romance with winsome fellow retiree Beatrice Simmons (voice of Audrey Meadows), ultimately goes in the direction of Abe wanting to use his money to help others but not knowing which needy souls are most warranting, and resolving to give everybody in Springfield a chance to plead their case. That's great and noble of Abe and all, but while all of this is happening, I can't help but think that he has a son living in really extreme poverty whom he could be helping to get back on his feet with just a fraction of that money. Does Herb cross Abe's mind at any point throughout this adventure? There is a slight inconsistency on that - early on, when Bea asks Abe to summarise his life story, he gives this succinct response: "Widower. One son. One working kidney. You?" Wow Abe, you just lied to Bea twice there (possibly thrice - we don't even know if that kidney story checks out), although I suppose we can overlook the discrepancy with Mona given that, as far as everyone, production staff included, was concerned at this point, she WAS dead. However, at the end of the episode, when Homer prevents Abe from blowing is entire fortune on a game of roulette, he tells Homer, "For the first time in my life, I'm glad I had children." Children. Plural. So he's referring to both Homer and Herb. Hmm. I'm pointing this out because, while I do think that "Old Money" is a fantastic episode on its own terms, the very knowledge of Herb's being casts a long and inadvertent shadow over it, made all the more salient in having the two episodes fall so close together.

(Actually, I think it is possible to account for Abe's cherry-picked personal history from a continuity standpoint, even retroactively. Obviously, he doesn't want to have to explain to Bea the circumstances under which Mona left him, or in which he sired Herb and subsequently ditched him. Neither story makes him look particularly attractive, after all.*)

I say that "Old Money" is a fantastic episode, but it's also one that I find difficult to rewatch incessantly, chiefly because it's so downbeat for its near entirety, with heavy focus on the characters' suffering and isolation - mostly Abe's, but Homer also takes things very hard when his father disowns him for the middle portion of the episode. "Old Money" explores Abe's troubled relationship with Homer in greater depth than any preceding episode, although it's not really at the forefront of the narrative. Rather, it deals with a broader need of Abe's to reconnect with a world that discarded him as expired goods long ago. At the start of the episode, we see that Abe's life has disintegrated into a miserable rut of monthly outings with his family that neither party much looks forward to, in between which he's forced to stagnate within the decrepit walls of the Retirement Castle. His blossoming romance with Bea gives him a fleeting sense of renewed purpose, but this is snatched from him before even the second act - and in a cruel twist of fate, Bea's death occurs while Abe is held up in a particularly disastrous family outing, meaning that he misses out on Bea's birthday celebration and what would have been the final evening of her life (hence his disowning of Homer in retaliation). Bea doesn't get a lot of screen time before tragedy inevitably strikes, but from the short montage that she and Abe have, it's clear they've formed a very close and sincere connection, and when we hear news of Bea's demise, it's genuinely painful, a reminder of just how fragile and precarious life can be at any stage, but for those in their twilight years especially. In fact, I believe that this was the first time that the series had dealt so explicitly with the subject of death ("One Fish, Two Fish, Blow Fish, Blue Fish" sees Homer having to look his own mortality in the face, but in terms of a character actually dying and us getting to witness the emotional impact, I think the closest we'd come prior was in Marge's reference to the untimely demise of the original Snowball). There's that mordant and absolutely devastating line from Abe: "They may say she died of a burst ventricle but I know she died of a broken heart." A burst ventricle would of course be a broken heart, in literal terms. But then Abe isn't talking in literal terms here.

Not that the episode doesn't have its share of alleviating moments. There's that borderline surreal sequence in which the family takes a wrong turn at the world's most frugal safari park and are besieged by a pride of lions (I'm not sure, but I think this might even be a nod to the baboon attack from The Omen**), and of course, that wonderful sequence in the third act in which the entire town turns out to Abe's room at the Retirement Castle in an effort to get their hands on the old man's riches. Once the loneliest of social pariahs, Abe suddenly finds his attentions are very in demand indeed. When I say the entire town shows up...pretty much everyone who'd been introduced at this point in the series is there (although Bob's not present for obvious reasons, and I guess that Karl's too altruistic to want to deprive an old gent of his money). Have fun picking out all of the familiar faces.

The most striking visual gag of the episode, however, occurs shortly before the climax, as Abe, moved by Lisa's suggestion that the neediest of people are out there on the streets (like his own first-born???), takes a wander through a particularly poverty-ridden district of Springfield and gets a first-hand glimpse of the suffering not far from his doorstep. It's a short, wonderfully atmospheric sequence that concludes with what was most assuredly one of the slickest cultural references accomplished by the series at this point, as Abe is seen sipping coffee at the counter of a diner immediately recognisable as that from Edward Hopper's iconic 1942 painting Nighthawks. Nighthawks was also evoked in the Season 8 episode "Homer vs. The Eighteenth Amendment", in which a very similar diner provides the setting for what isn't a very happy birthday for Rex Banner. "Old Money", however, boasts the far more faithful recreation of Hoppers painting, to the point that Abe has effectively wandered in and assumed his place among Hopper's own small gathering of insomnious drifters. In narrative terms, the purpose of this entire sequence is to convince Abe that the problems Lisa describes are far greater than his own meagre fortune can redress, inspiring him to head to a casino soon after in the hopes of increasing his wealth. But it's a singularly haunting moment that perfectly encapsulates the entire theme of "Old Money".

In his book Staying Up Much Too Late: Edward Hopper's Nighthawks and the Dark Side of the American Psyche, Gordon Theisen argues that the appeal of Hopper's painting, in all its dingy desolation, lies in its evocation of the all-American diner as a kind of sanctuary in a dimly-lit, aggressively urbanised world. In a manner that recalls George Ritzer's model of McDonaldization, Theisen argues that the precise refuge offered by the diner is in allowing those who walk within its walls and take their place on one of its stools to momentarily cast off the burden of being an individual: "Because they are so standardized, so predictable, with a menu that varies surprisingly little from one to another from across the country, they are almost universally allows the customers, whatever their lives may be like outside the diner, however troubled or troubling, simply to be someone at the counter, like so many others throughout the city and across the country." (p.84-85) The paradox of this unifying experience is that it does not, by its nature, offer unity. A consequence of this code of anonymity is that everybody is perpetually a stranger, with no sense of connection or affinity to anyone else within the diner. "The customers, the servers, ourselves - were we to enter - are not together, but are people who only happen to be in this particular diner at this particular time." (p.87) People effectively become ghosts (although not the literal sort that Bea manifests as), mere shadows of the lives they've momentarily abandoned as they sit there struggling to forget, or perhaps struggling to recall, exactly has led them to this moment in time. This is important, as Abe spends much of the episode as such a ghost, a husk of the man he formerly was, drifting through a society that's already consigned him to the figurative grave, all the while making a desperate bid to become somebody and finding himself being no one in particular.

Above: Abe Simpson experiences a reflective moment amid the Springfield nightlife.
Below: The original Nighthawks painting by Edward Hopper.

Abe's aspirations are likewise suggested by the bizarre piece of headgear he dons for the latter half of the episode. Having inherited Bea's fortune, the first thing Abe does to exercise his newfound wealth is to head over to the military antiques store and purchase a garish red fez attached to a dubious $400 price tag and an equally dubious story about it once having belonged, briefly, to Napoleon Bonaparte. As an aside, "Old Money" is one of only two episodes to depict a friendship between Abe and crooked antique dealer Herman (the other being "Bart The General" of Season 1), a relationship which was thereafter entirely abandoned, with Jasper replacing Herman as Abe's closest friend in the world and Herman being pushed to the very sidelines of Springfieldian existence (bar "The Springfield Connection" of Season 6, in which he was featured as the villain, and "22 Short Films About Springfield" of Season 7, which showed a very disturbing side to his character indeed). I'll take the opportunity now to go on record as saying that I think Herman's an interesting character and I regret that the series didn't care to delve any deeper into his rapport with Abe; he offers a very different kind of dynamic to that of Jasper, being a military mind of a younger generation and a social link outside of the Retirement Castle. From the sounds of it, Abe doesn't actually buy Herman's cock and bull story about the hat belonging to Napoleon and figures that it can be worth no more than $5, but as soon as he has the funding he doggedly decides he's going to have it regardless, almost as a point of principle after being denied it earlier in the episode. In a curious visual motif, Abe continues to wear the hat for the remainder of the episode, implying that it carries deeper significance than as a frivolous token of Abe throwing his monetary weight around. Rather, the hat becomes a symbol of Abe's desire to transcend his current identity and assume a new one, symbolism that is further enforced in his leaving his old hat upon the counter, enabling Herman to offer it up for sale as the hat McKinley was shot in. Abe literally hopes that he can enter the store as one person and leave as another but, much like Herman's dubious sales pitches, finds that he's just an anonymous vessel drifting through an assortment of adopted guises, each as disposable as the last.

Theisen understands this need for liberation from the self, as it offers the opportunity for a personal rebirth: "That we might be anyone suggests that we might become anyone, leave ourselves behind for someone new and better." (p.96) This is something that Abe spends the entirety of "Old Money" attempting to accomplish; to transcend his degrading entrapment inside the body of a maligned senior citizen and become something else entirely. The really pressing urge driving Abe throughout "Old Money" is the grim reality that his life, as it is, is not very fulfilling. Having been discarded by a society that figures he's used up all of his functionality, Abe's living environment offers him no greater impetus than to run out his retirement clock by his lonesome. The very process of being anchored to a retirement home that serves primarily to keep the elderly segregated from younger society has resulted in the erosion of his identity. We saw evidence of this earlier in a Season 1 episode, "Bart The General", in which Bart goes to the Retirement Castle and asks to see "Grampa", only to discover that half of the residents there answer to that moniker (and are all equally desperate for acknowledgement from the outside world). As far as society is concerned, Abe is a nobody, with no further role that he can offer. His tenure as a husband came to an early close when Mona left the picture. His prospective new identity as Bea's suitor has also been cut short and, in severing ties with Homer, he has willfully surrendered his identity as a family man. Having come into money and claimed the fez as his own, Abe hopes that he's on his way to the start of something more gratifying, a lifestyle imbued with the full-on thrills of mud-wrestling clubs and imitation Disneylands. And yet he drifts through his new life of non-stop adrenaline-baiting just as impassively, failing to connect with any of the sights, sounds or people around him. He finds every bit as much fulfillment as a rich old gent as he did a poor one, to the extent that even Bea is compelled to put in a posthumous appearance and prompt him to rethink the path he's choosing. Incidentally, I'm not quite sure what to make of that sequence in which Bea manifests in spectral form to Abe; it softens the blow of her untimely demise, for better or for worse, but I don't know how at ease I am with the whole notion of a character talking to another from beyond the grave outside of a Halloween episode. Fond though I am of "Round Springfield" of Season 6, I sometimes wonder if the ending, in which the spirit of Bleeding Gums Murphy literally manifests in the clouds for one final saxophone jam with Lisa, is perhaps a little too much for those very reasons, but if ever I'm tempted to dismiss it as symptomatic of the looser realism of Season 6, I have to remind myself that it does technically does have a precedent right here in the more grounded Season 2. Having said that, I can see how their exchange functions on a symbolic level. As I say, Abe has effectively become a ghost himself at this point, a man floating from locale to locale with no robust emotional anchor to anything. He's entered a whole other plane of existence, and it seems oddly fitting that it would take an encounter with a literal ghost to bring him back down to Earth.

After consulting with the ghost of Bea (literally or figuratively) Abe decides instead to reach out to the community, use his wealth to help others and assume a whole new identity as either a modern-day saint, a rich nut or both. This works to the extent that Abe is no longer a nobody as far as society is concerned - to the contrary, he is hailed as a local celebrity - but it does little to alleviate his lingering sense of purposelessness and isolation. For although Abe gets to converse with a vast array of Springfieldians, as they shuffle in and air their frivolous and occasionally malevolent proposals in a drawn-out succession, he experiences no sense of genuine permanency or connection in their interactions - that is, aside from a threat issued by Mr Burns, who assures Abe that he's made a very powerful enemy in rebuffing him. They do not pretend to be interested in anything other than Abe's money and Abe, for the most part, isn't willing to humour any of these avaricious hopefuls for a second that they're in with a chance. When Abe decides to escape his latest entrapment and takes his place among the characters in the Nighthawks painting, what he experiences is a momentary reprieve from the burdens of being Abraham Simpson, whatever that might mean. He finds himself connecting with similarly lost souls by not connecting at all, as he stands at the crossroads, pondering exactly what kind of person he should aspire to be next, in a world that's so much more broken and despairing than he'd ever imagined.

The excursion instills Abe with a sense of purpose - having realised that there are more needy people out there than he has the means to help, he aspires to take action that will increase his money, and thus his ability to help - but his resolution, to take a day trip to a casino in the hopes of multiplying his funds, borders on a kind of self-destructive savior complex. It nearly ends in disaster, with Abe coming dangerously close to losing his every penny on a game of roulette, but he is prevented from placing that fatal bet through the intervention of Homer. The hardest lesson Abe has to learn is that he is not Superman. He cannot fix the fundamental failings of the world at large. Instead, Abe's final revelation comes from the acknowledgement that he is in fact mortal. At the end of the episode, he observes his fellow seniors boarding the bus back to Springfield and then studies his own withered hands, as if contemplating for the first time in ages that he is indeed one of them. Abe ends up making the connection he sought by looking inward at the damning hellhole he's spent the episode trying to transcend, and realising that the neediest souls, and the ones that he's best equipped to help, are the ones he's been impassively rubbing shoulders with this entire time. The Retirement Castle may be a place where the elderly go to be depersonalised, but Abe figures he can redress that by transforming it from a drab dumping ground into a livable community. As such, Abe finds fulfillment in wholeheartedly accepting his status as a senior citizen and reminding his peers that they matter as much as anyone else. Hence his final line, one renovated retirement home and newly-installed Beatrice Simmons Memorial Dining Hall later: "Dignity's on me, friends." Abe is still wearing the ridiculous fez he bought from Herman as he says this, but it doesn't look quite so ridiculous now that he has the bow-tie and dinner jacket to back it up. Abe truly has transcended himself and become a better person. He promises dignity, and he exudes it.

EXCEPT ABE, YOU HAVE THIS DESTITUTE SON SLEEPING IN A GARBAGE DUMP, USING RATS AS A PILLOW AND EATING CHEESE OUT OF DISCARDED PIZZA BOXES. HOW ARE YOU SLEEPING AT NIGHT? HOW IS THIS NOT TEARING YOU APART??? Sorry to keep on flogging this horse, and not to undermine the beautiful gesture that Abe makes to his fellow seniors, but I figure that Herb's impoverished existence should still be acknowledged. I'm sure that Abe could have sent a bit of cash his way and still given Bea her commemorative dining hall.

In his review of the episode on The AV Club, Nathan Rabin accuses "Old Money" of concluding on a "semi-sappy note". The final sequence, which shows the residents of the Castle adjusting to their greatly improved living conditions, is played entirely straight, bereft of a closing punchline or some subversive last minute gags thrown in, but then there aren't enough words in the English language to describe how little I care about that after the sheer emotional purgatory this episode has already put me through. All told, "Old Money" is a rigorously woebegone episode, albeit an intelligent one with a lot of heart and just enough humor to keep it from descending into total cheerlessness, and I think its final uplift is both earned and entirely necessary. Growing old is not something that we as a culture tend to look forward to, and The Simpsons gives us absolutely no reason to. But then the only alternative is dying young. "Old Money" suggests that, with a little respect and regard for our fellow humans, we can do our bit to make even the bleakest of situations more tolerable.

* Although I think the more brutal explanation is that, while Abe may be aware that biologically he has more than one kid, he does not, in practice, recognise Herb as his son because he never had that relationship with him.
** Implying that one of the family is the Anti-Christ. Care to guess which one? 

Saturday, 8 June 2019

Drink It Up with Negativland (R.I.P. Five Alive)

So what's fashionable in 2019? New Coke, apparently. Seriously now, if something as universally scorned and derided as New Coke can be reborn as a hot nostalgic property, thanks to its association with a popular Netflix show, then I guess that's proof that a stopped clock is right twice a day. Or else a testament to the redemptive (some would say deceptive) power of nostalgia. Sooner or later everything looks better, the further away from you it gets.

The New Coke fiasco of '85 was but one chapter in the long-running rivalry between Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, popularly known as the "Cola Wars", in which the purveyors of two suspiciously similar products vie for our devotions using whatever hollow gimmickry they can mastermind. In New Coke's case, Coca-Cola apparently felt that the new generation had a sweeter tooth than they presently catered to and adjusted their formula accordingly. While I suspect that the majority of consumers were more indifferent to the reformulation than anecdotal history lets on, there's no denying that a large number of people took the change awfully hard and that it didn't take long (less than three months) for Coca-Cola to make a much-publicised u-turn. When the original formula was reintroduced, under the moniker "Coca-Cola Classic", consumers rushed out and bought it with such fervor that Coca-Cola suddenly rocketed massively ahead in the Cola Wars, giving rise to the popular conspiracy theory that New Coke's legendary failure was part of Coca-Cola's plan all along. Snopes tells us that it wasn't and I know we're supposed to trust Snopes, but I do have to admit, after that one Coca-Cola marketing officer came out and informed us that Tab Clear was purposely conceived as a kamikaze product (ie: one designed to go down and take Crystal Pepsi along with it), I've been somewhat inclined to re-open that particular case file. It's not, as Snopes suggests, that I'd like to think that The Coca-Cola Company is infallible (I'm not sure who out there would actually "like" to think that), but that I think we underestimate these corporate bigwigs at our own peril. For they are fat like a cat, and not that dumb and not that smart like a fox.

This enmity between two brands of enamel-rotting soft drinks has proven so tectonic-splitting that Californian plunderphonics band Negativland were inspired to devote an entire concept album to lampooning the sheer inanity of it all. In 1997 they released their eighth studio album, DisPepsi, mixing deadpan tunes and plundered sound collages to take a critical look at the almost Orwellian magnitude with which corporate advertising invades and pervades our daily lives, and at the colder banalities brewing beneath the capitalistic hoopla. As is stated within the album's sleeve notes, "both brands continue to spend millions every year to make and place their ads and commercials everywhere all the time. The actual value of doing this is now questionable at best since everyone has already tried these drinks and everyone knows everything about them that they will ever need to know." Topics covered range from the dubious psychology behind the Pepsi Challenge to the aforementioned speculation that the New Coke debacle was all but an ingeniously-engineered marketing stunt, and of course the odious use of celebrities to shill their products (one track, "Happy Hero", is a particularly searing attack on the shallow and potentially dangerous nature of celebrity worship, with thinly-veiled digs at Michael Jackson and OJ Simpson, among others, and the most hilariously ineffective use of a bleep censor in history). The stand-out track, however, would be "Drink It Up", a bone dry ditty confronting brand loyalty from the perspective of a stupefied consumer whose overwhelming thirst can only be satisfied by Pepsi. The real appeal of the track lies in the clever wordplay he uses to dismiss a wide array of rival brands and products - here's a run-down of what's name-checked and the accompanying puns:

"When 7-Up has got me down..."
7-Up, a brand of carbonated lemon-lime flavoured soft drink owned by Keurig Dr Pepper in the Us and PepsiCo elsewhere. The product's most famous marketing campaign involved a character named Fido Dido, created in 1985 by Joanna Ferrone and future Pepper Ann creator Sue Rose, although in the 1950s they had a series of commercials produced by Disney featuring a hyperactive rooster named Fresh-Up Freddie.

"When Hi-C gets me low..."

Hi-C, a brand of fruit juice manufactured by Minute Maid.

"My Labatt's Blue ain't blue, it's brown..."

Labatt's, a Canadian beer brand. The product name "Blue" refers to the colour of the label, not the beverage itself, which is a standard beer colour.

"My Nestlé's Quik just makes me slow..."

Nestlé's Quik, a brand of drinking chocolate mix from Swiss company Nestlé. In Europe it was marketed under the alternate name Nesquik, which became the brand name worldwide as of 1999. Their advertising mascot is Quicky Bunny.

"When my sparkling cider's lost its shine..."

No brand name specified. Pun self-explanatory.

"My can of Sharp's is dull..."

Sharp's, a British beer brand.

"Hawaiian Punch has knocked me cold..."

Hawaiian Punch, a brand of fruit drink owned by Keurig Dr Pepper. 5% real fruit juice, 95% vomit inducement.

"A feeling hits my skull.
And my mind just turns to Pepsi
And I couldn't tell you why...

Smart drinks lead me to forget..."

This was a 90s thing, I think. Smart drinks, also known as nootropic drinks, were a popular alternative to alcoholic drinks at underground raves, enabling venues to forgo the need for an alcohol sales permit. They were purported to enhance mental performance, although the jury is still out on their effectiveness.

"And Coke won't get me high..."

Coca-Cola, as noted, is Pepsi's biggest marketing rival. The phrase "Coke won't get me high" calls to mind the brand's more notorious namesake, and its historical role in the Coca-Cola manufacturing process, extract of fresh coca leaf being one of the key "medicinal" ingredients in the drink's original recipe (although the exact level of cocaine used is debatable). Can't beat the Real Thing.

"When Constant Comment won't shut up..."

Constant Comment, a brand of tea manufactured by Bigelow Tea Company.

"I'll sit right down and fill my cup
With Pepsi
Drink it up!

When Diet Rite to me is wrong..."

Diet Rite, a brand of sugar-free cola.

"My Country Time's expired..."

Country Time, a brand of powdered lemonade mix. I know this one because that Shelbyvillian kid was hawking it in that episode of The Simpsons. "There's never been anything close to a lemon in it!"

"My Minute Maid's an hour long..."

Minute Maid, the fruitier branch of the Cola-Cola family tree.

"My Maxwell House won't get me wired..."

Maxwell House, a brand of coffee. "Wired", in this context, means to be under the influence of caffeine.

"When my Pet milk turns on me..."

Pet, Inc, a manufacturer of evaporated milk. "Turns on me" has a double meaning, referring to the milk going sour and here being suggestive of a domesticated animal displaying aggression toward its owner.

"And my Five Alive is dead..."

Five Alive, a brand of fruit juice manufactured by Minute Maid, so-called because each variant is created from a combination of five different juices. The original Five Alive consisted of orange, lemon, grapefruit, tangerine and lime.

"When my Royal Crown's been overthrown..."

Royal Crown Cola, popularly known as RC Cola. Another, slightly less formidable contender to the cola throne.

"An impulse hits my head.
And my mind just turns to Pepsi
And I think of it a lot.

My Swiss Miss just wasn't pure..."

Swiss Miss, a brand of cocoa powder. For now I'll have to draw a blank as to whether there's any kind of pun going on here.

"And Kool-Aid isn't hot..."

Kool-Aid, a brand of powdered drink mix manufactured by Kraft Foods. It has particular notoriety for its role in the Jonestown Massacre of 1978, in which over 900 members of the religious cult People's Temple died in a murder-suicide pact after drinking from a vat of poisoned Kool-Aid (although there is some contention as to whether  the beverage they drank was Kool-Aid or a cheaper knock-off Flavor Aid; Kraft, who are obviously tired of the negative associations, are eager to push the latter argument). The incident gave rise to the expression "Drinking The Kool-Aid", denoting servitude to a cause or ideology to a dangerous or self-destructive degree.

"When Odwalla smoothies rough me up..."

Odwalla, a manufacturer of smoothies and fruit juices. I initially assumed that "rough me up" was a cheeky reference to the unfortunate side-effects of excessive smoothie consumption on the guts, but there may be a darker meaning. In 1996, Odwalla suffered some seriously negative publicity when an outbreak of E.Coli occurred due to their unsafe processing methods (although the tainted product in question was a batch of apple juice, not a smoothie), resulting in over 60 casualties and one fatality.

"I'll turn to a bigger cup of Pepsi
Drink it up!

When Samuel Adams makes me ail..."

Samuel Adams, a Boston beer brand. This pun plays on the fact that "ail" and "ale" are homophones, implying that the product makes him sick. 

"Dr. Pepper's not around..."

Dr. Pepper, a carbonated soft drink. The origins of the product's moniker are something of a mystery and, as with Coca-Cola, the formula is a trade secret, so no one really knows what they're putting into their bodies with this one. But then, what's the worst that could happen?

"When Sweet Success has let me fail..."

Sweet Success, a brand of diet milkshake manufactured by Nestlé.

"I crave a flavor most profound.
And my mind just turns to Pepsi
When I look, I see, I buy

My Crystal Light has just burned out..."

Another of those dubious powdered beverages manufactured by Kraft, this one boasting a low-calorie content.

"And Canada's gone Dry..."

Canada Dry, a brand of ginger ale.

"My Yoo-Hoo will not call to me..."

Yoo-Hoo, a chocolate-flavoured beverage. Also a common expression when trying to grab a distrait person's attention.

"I am a loyal endorsee of Pepsi
Drink it up!"

We then hear the following audio extract, in which a kid describes his personal fascination with a TV commercial for Pepsi:

"It's just a funny's just a funny thing, that Pepsi commercial where there's the sun setting on this barn, but you hear this sort of "reee rrrrh," "reee rrrrh," and you don't know what it is, then you see in the back of the barn there's a, a soda machine, and this guy has a dollar bill, going "reee rrrh," "reezh rrrh," and then it takes it. There's, "yes! yes!"

I couldn't pinpoint the source of this audio, but I have found the commercial that the kid in question is talking about. It was part of the "Nothing Else Is A Pepsi" campaign of the mid-90s, and is pretty much exactly as the kid describes it:

I can see why Negativland would choose to compliment their sardonic ode to brand loyalty with a callback to this particular advertisement. It's so bleak. For one thing, there's a lot of emphasis on the solitude of the protagonist. He whiles away the hours at an apparently abandoned gas station, locked in a Sisyphean struggle with a Pepsi vending machine that will not take his crumpled dollar bill, all set to the background noise of "Lonesome Town" by Ricky Nelson. There is a sense of the world still turning - the sun rises and sets as a rooster and coyote make their respective calls to mark the diurnal cycles - but as far as we know this man could well be the last on Earth. Even the slogan, "Nothing Else Is A Pepsi", sounds thoroughly dystopian, hinting that the world beyond the vending machine is an empty abyss offering no sweetness or reward. We have a hero whose only aspiration is to feed his last remaining dollar to a corporate machine, continuously reinserting the note with the monotonous desperation of a rat inside a Skinner Box hitting a lever in the hopes of receiving a food pellet (although I suspect that a rat would realise the futility and give up a lot more quickly). The ad's darkest moment arrives when the machine appears to have finally engulfed his dollar after umpteen failed attempts, and our protagonist celebrates his apparent victory over the mindless machine that's now a whole dollar richer than him. The final twist being that the machine is merely toying with him - it regurgitates his dollar, prompting the Sisyphean struggle to begin all over again. Obviously, the man's devotion to getting that infernal Pepsi is intended as a testament to the product's delicious, habit-forming taste, but it comes off as more of a commentary on the sheer callousness with which the corporate machinery encourages emotional dependency upon its brands and exploits our cravings to get us surrendering our money in exchange for its sugary, additive-laden concoctions.

What the...? The 1990s really were the decade of commercial crass, weren't they?

The sad thing is that, for all of the mockery heaped upon the notion of brand loyalty in Negativland's "Drink It Up", the song itself is ultimately proof that it works. In that listening to it does become something of a challenge in keeping your own Pavlovian urges in check while the various product names are reeled off. When I first heard the song back in April, I was not oblivious to the darker implications, and yet the thought that really dominated my mindset in the aftermath was, "Hmm, you know what I haven't had in years? A Five Alive." The result being that I went to three different supermarkets in an attempt to get my hands on the five-part concoction but every time my search came up fruitless. Does the product even exist any more? Is Five Alive officially dead? If so, then I don't suppose anyone has an unopened carton sitting around in a cupboard somewhere they'd be willing to send me? I have cravings to be satisfied.

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Twilight Zone '85: The Elevator (aka Why Does Ross Not Simply Eat The Other Five?)

 Very well.

There's a general consensus among TV viewers that the mid-1980s revival of The Twilight Zone, though it came nowhere close to capturing the magic and intrigue of Rod Serling's original series, was an enjoyable show in its own right and yielded its fair share of legitimate classics -  "A Little Peace and Quiet", "Nightcrawlers" and "The Shadow Man" being commonly-cited candidates in round-ups of the series' strongest contributions to television culture (myself, I'm fond of the oft-overlooked "Wordplay"). One installment that you're less likely to encounter in such lists is an eleven-minute curiosity piece entitled "The Elevator", which is so poorly regarded among the show's viewership that many are shocked to discover that it was written by none other than horror/science fiction master Ray Bradbury. On a Twilight Zone forum I frequented some years back, I encountered very little praise for this segment, one criticism that particularly stood out coming from a user who attributed their intense dislike of "The Elevator" to the fact that it put them so strongly in mind of that devilishly inane Night Gallery installment, "The Nature of The Enemy". Being one of that segment's few really ardent supporters, my immediate response would be to query why that's necessarily a bad thing. But I can see the logic in the comparison. Both stories involve humans being menaced by gigantic versions of ordinarily tiny creatures in unexpected places. Both have to do with humankind's underestimation of the natural world, but whereas Serling's story was a cautionary jab at man's hubristic assumptions that his technological advancements have enabled him to transcend the rest of the natural kingdom, Bradbury's story is more concerned with mankind's attempts to interfere with and modify nature to his own ends, and potentially to his own detriment. The off-screen scientist who plays an crucial role in the events of "The Elevator" has perfectly noble intentions for doing what he does, but in the end that may not matter. For nature is entirely indifferent to such things.

"The Elevator" follows two young brothers, Will (Stephen Geoffreys) and Roger (Robert Prescott), who arrive at a derelict old factory after dark in the hopes of locating their father, an eccentric scientist who has been conducting illicit experiments with the goal of manufacturing a nutritious and inexpensive foodstuff that will eradicate world hunger. Will and Roger break into the building and, noticing their father's footprints in the dusty factory floor, deduce that he has been there tonight and is likely still in the vicinity. As the brothers make their way through the darkened factory, they stumble across the carcasses of several freakishly large rats, each one bigger than the last. They then find the body of a monstrously large house cat, followed by the body of an even bigger dog. Continuing their search, they find the supply of foodstuff that their father was developing - long, icky strands of concentrated protein. The brothers deduce that the animals became huge after gorging on the protein-rich foodstuff, and that the dog and the cat might have killed the rats, but what in turn killed both of them? Obviously, no sensible person would want to stick around and find out, but the brothers, being evident dimwits, decide to keep venturing ever deeper into the building, until they reach the elevator at the back and manage to get it working again. The elevator doors open up to reveal...a humongous spider, which proceeds to drag the screaming brothers upwards while mauling them into bloody pulps -  although I only realised that the creature in question was a spider because one of the brothers is considerate enough to shout out "My god, it's a spider!" right before it kills him. The spider is represented largely as an obscure shadowy shape with a multitude of legs, which is fairly unconvincing and leads us into one of the obvious shortcomings of "The Elevator" - that is, the visual effects in general are hilariously ropy. This is as true for the various dead animals seen throughout as the climactic arachnid; the giant rats look like plush toys, the giant "house cat" is blatantly a moth-eaten stuffed cougar plucked from the back of someone's attic, and we don't even get a semi-decent look at the giant dog.

Anyway, that's the end. The fate of the boys' father is never explicitly revealed, but it can be assumed that he also fell victim to the giant spider that predated everything else.

The first time I saw "The Elevator" I really didn't take to it, in part because I was absolutely flabbergasted by the perceived cheapness of its ending. I didn't get why Bradbury had chosen to sacrifice such a macabre, skin-crawling and devilishly disgusting scenario on something as moronic and out of left field as a giant spider. The whole thing actually reminded me a lot of the opening sequence to Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) with Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd, in that it's an enjoyable segment that looks as if it's building up toward something worthwhile, only to close suddenly and randomly on a crude shock moment that emerges seemingly from nowhere. Say what you will about the ending to "The Nature of The Enemy", but it is an actual punchline. You might not think that it's a particularly good punchline or that the joke in question works, but the segment has clearly been laying the ground for it from the start. The conclusion to the Brooks/Aykroyd opener, on the other hand, feels less like a punchline than a straight-up non-sequitur and, initially, that's how I felt about "The Elevator" too - in fact, "The Elevator" went a step further, in playing like an anti-narrative, deliberately short-circuiting just when you think it's about to get started. Such was my frustration with "The Elevator" that I wound up giving it a lot more thought than I did a great many stronger installments from the series. The more I kept turning it over and over in my mind, the more I began to wonder if I had perhaps misjudged the segment; that the spider element wasn't quite as moronic or out of left field as I'd initially assumed. And before I knew it I had convinced myself that, to the contrary, it was total genius. Well-played, Bradbury, well-played.

I'm still not saying that "The Elevator" is a great segment, mind. There's an awful lot that doesn't work about it. But its failures rest largely with the execution - the inferior visual effects, the flatness of the final spider reveal, the hamminess of some of the dialogue delivery (for an example of that, see Geoffreys' reaction when he sees the dead cat). It all adds up to produce a short which, superficially, seems shoddily put-together (although the eerie atmosphere at the factory is well-sustained throughout). But Bradbury did his bit and delivered a fun and macabre story with a meaningful sting in the tail.

Marisou, covering "The Elevator" on TZ review blog Postcards From The Zone, observes that, "this episode probably lost a lot of its punch outside the original airing slot - if you watched this when it aired, you probably expected the brothers to climb to the second floor first and got pleasantly shocked...watching on DVD, the timer feature tells you clearly something is gonna happen as they call the elevator mere seconds before the episode ends." I agree that Bradbury's sleight of hand, in manipulating and subverting our narrative expectations, is integral to the success of the story, but I think it amounts to more than a simple "gotcha!" moment that swings in marginally sooner than we expect it. The key to that, I'd say, is to consider the array of dead animals we'd encountered up until that point. The order of discovery goes rats, cat, dog. Notice a pattern there? Of course you do. It's a food chain. And what sits higher than a dog on the ladder of consumption? Certainly not a spider. Obviously, when that monstrous arachnid appears we know that something's gone very badly wrong here (the first hint of food chain subversion occurs earlier on, when Roger remarks that perhaps their father was looking to breed giant rats in order to get back at the cats). At first, the spider seems like a baffling non-sequitur, since it completely defies the logical progress we'd been making with our furry foodies, but I'd say that's precisely the point. The food chain is severely out of whack and, thanks to the reckless (albeit well-intentioned) experimentation of that unseen crackpot, that unassuming spider has managed to rocket its way right to the top. You might even say that it was elevated, no? Sure, the literal elevator had its part to play, but the real elevator to which the title alludes was the modified foodstuff that enabled the spider to get well ahead of the assorted mammalians in whose shadows it had previously dwelled.

The spider represents a sharp disturbance to our narrative and logical assumptions, prompting the question as to what exactly we did expect the brothers to find on the second, or even third floor? Again, what comes after dog in the natural progression? Obviously, there's man. Were we supposed to assume that the boys' father had been sampling his own foodstuff and was mutating beyond recognition? I don't recall if I expected the father to actually be the final monster encountered, but I certainly expected him to play a more direct role in the story's conclusion, and for there to be some exploration of the implications of feeding his modified foodstuff to humans. In the end, though, that particular story thread is rendered entirely irrelevant, as our place atop the natural order is usurped by that eight-legged freak.

Curiously, while researching for this piece I came across multiple online synopses for "The Elevator" claiming that our protagonists break into their father's factory with the intention of stealing his anti-famine foodstuff and selling it for profit. Even the official DVD synopsis states that "two brothers stealing their father's growth serum developed to ensure a plentiful food supply may have bitten off more than they can chew." Really now, I will not allow Will and Roger's names to be sullied, because there's nothing in the segment itself to indicate that they have any intention of stealing their father's work and selling it for their own gain. As far as I can tell, they're just there to find their father - one of the brothers, Roger, doesn't even believe that his dad's experimentation is of any value. I can only assume that some viewers feel uneasy about the gruesome end these characters meet and need to factor in some sense of karmic justice, as to reassure themselves that the brothers got what they deserved because they were avaricious little shits. "The Elevator" does well to avoid such on-the-nose moralising; it's a cautionary tale, for sure, but a good part of that caution comes from its rude reminders that nature doesn't actually give a damn about human morality - the innocent taste as good as the guilty to a hungry predator, and that the boys' father may have had the purest of intentions ultimately doesn't alter the fact that his hubristic attempts to fiddle around with nature spelled disaster for both himself and his sons. It's fair to say that, if nothing else, Will and Roger pay the price for their stupidity - the cat and dog, if alive, were certainly large enough to have killed them, so I'm not sure why they suppose they'd have any chance against whatever killed the cat and dog - and yet I get the sense that that stupidity is intended to translate into a naivety emblematic of humankind's general complacency in assuming that it has the inherent privilege of sitting atop the natural order come what may. One tip too far in that delicate balance, and we might discover that we're as fair game as anything else. When Roger runs his hand across the grotesque mutated proteins his father has been spawning, he remarks that, "It's like raw's food, for them," gesturing toward the multitude of dead creatures. Plainly, it never occurs to him that he himself is composed of raw meat, and therefore food for something.

In the end, I cannot claim to like "The Elevator" half as much as I do "The Nature of The Enemy", but then I suppose my personal biases are leaking through (since rat horror happens to be my specialty). And for all my criticisms regarding the execution of "The Elevator", I would be lying if I said that it didn't disturb me on some raw, fundamental level. There's something about the entire notion of a giant spider that taps into a very visceral fear of mine, and trust me when I say that I'm no arachnophobe. I'm certainly not one of one of those people who freaks out every time I see a spider hanging from my lampshade. And yet, of all the members of the animal kingdom, a giant spider is one that my gut instincts tell me I least want to be killed by. I need to trust my gut on that.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Night Gallery: The Nature of The Enemy (aka Those Wretched Omnivorous Murids!)

The Night Gallery segment "The Nature of The Enemy" is another of those media specimens that you won't hear a positive word about, except on these pages. The general consensus among Night Gallery fans is that "The Nature of The Enemy" is the kind of witless tosh that gave the series, Rod Serling's attempt at a follow-up to his game-changing hit The Twilight Zone, its reputation as an ersatz paranormal anthology. Although widely regarded as one of Serling's lesser brainchildren, Night Gallery can claim some historical significance, in that on of the stories featured in the pilot episode, "Eyes", provided Stephen Spielberg with his first directorial gig and Joan Crawford with one of her final acting roles. And it should be noted that, despite its lowlier status in the television hierarchy, Night Gallery is still a reasonably iconic series, being referenced in both The Simpsons episode, "Treehouse of Horror IV" and the Tiny Toon Adventures episode, "Night Ghoulery". Having said that, it seems that people are more enchanted by the series set-up (that is, Serling wandering around a deserted art gallery and delivering characteristically ominous introductions) than any of the individual stories. You seldom hear much discussion on the Night Gallery tales themselves as you do with The Twilight Zone, and while twist endings abound across both series, Night Gallery never had a twist that stuck in the public consciousness with anywhere near the same vigor as "It's a cook book!" or "I'm a mannequin!" But if any Night Gallery episode deserves to be remembered for its twist ending, it's "The Nature of The Enemy". Trust me, an ending this unashamedly, mind-bogglingly absurd is one to be cherished for the ages.

But then, I've mentioned previously just how enamored I am with rat horror, and "The Nature of The Enemy" offers a pretty unique entry into the rat horror canon. Once again, we find ourselves in the vicinity of Das Teufel Nagetier, only instead of attacking yuppies in their pristine suburban homes, this one lives on the moon and has a taste for NASA scientists. That's the twist, anyway. We're not supposed to know that this source of lunar terror is an oversized rat until the very end of the segment, so let's back up and take a look first at how we arrive at this confounding predicament.

"The Nature of The Enemy" first aired on December 23rd 1970 as part of the second installment of the show's first season. It was the final segment of the episode, following on from "Room with a View" (of which I struggle to recall the details) and "The Little Black Bag" (which has a fairly traditional plot in the Twilight Zone mold, but tonally there's something very off about it - the mean-spiritedness of its ending is matched only by the heavy-handedness of its moralising). It ran for a paltry ten minutes, making it one of the series' briefer offerings. The segment centres on a dialogue between NASA mission control leader Simms (Joseph Campanella) and an astronaut exploring the surface of the moon (Richard Van Vleet) as they attempt to uncover what became of two previous missions with whom contact has been inexplicably lost, although one of the two first managed to send out a distress call indicating that they were under attack. In between communications with the astronaut, Simms also must contend with a barrage of reporters (led by James B. Sikking and Jason Wingreen) demanding to know if the Russians or the Chinese are the most probable saboteurs. But of course they're thinking too small. The true identity of the assailant is hinted, wittily, in the segment's title, for the enemy is not concerned with any kind of national or political affinity but is in fact good old Mother Nature reminding mankind that, no matter how far he ascends up the technological ladder, there is to be no elevating of himself above her. By the end of the segment, it seems that Van Vleet's astronaut too has fallen victim to the mysterious attacker, but not before uncovering an equally baffling metallic artifact which was apparently assembled by the missing astronauts; mission control are left scratching their heads back on Earth...until a transmission enables Simms to get a clear glimpse of what they're up against. As it turns out, the astronauts were predated by a giant rat who resides on the moon, whom they unsuccessfully tried to bring down by constructing a giant mousetrap. The segment ends with Simms exclaiming in disbelief, "The enemy...that's the enemy!", as the rat rears upwards on its hind legs, becoming taller than the NASA-built contraption, almost as if taunting its terrestrial onlookers with its prepotency.

As noted, a large number of viewers revile this ending, and while I'll profess to having a great amount of affection for the segment, I can understand perfectly where its detractors are coming from. Tonally, "The Nature of The Enemy" is a bizarrely unbalanced piece, one which starts out with the promise of heading to darker and more sobering territory than it ultimately does. In his introduction, Serling describes the episode as "suggestive perhaps of some of the question marks that await us in the stars, and perhaps pointing up the moment when we’ll collect something other than moon rocks." And it has to be said that "The Nature of The Enemy" does appear to be taking itself completely seriously until the point that Van Vleet stumbles across that giant mousetrap; Campanella, certainly, plays his role with an entirely straight face throughout. With that in mind, I think a lot of viewers are disappointed to discover that this intriguing set-up amounts to such a hokey punchline. Even with the segment's brief running time, they feel cheated. There's the added issue that "The Nature of The Enemy" was written by Serling himself, and viewers generally have a lot of trust in his vision (after all, he penned the script to Planet of The Apes, a much more thoughtful and affecting examination of man's anthropocentric assumptions about the universe and what the age of space exploration could potentially mean for that). David Juhl, in his online review of the segment, complains that it "harkens back to the many cheap-o sci fi movies from the 1950s", although I would actually go a step further and assert that the sight of that giant mousetrap on the moon pushes it into the iconography of Tom and Jerry cartoons. And to my mind, that's a jolly good thing. Sure, it's inane, but there's a likeable kind of character to its inanity, a bemusing mix of the darkly ominous and the cartoonishly surreal.

Juhl also states that "The sight of [a] giant mouse terrorizing the human colonists of the moon is an unintentionally hilarious one and ruins what had to that point been an intriguing enough story with a certain amount of tension over what the rescue mission would find on the moon." I have to disagree with Juhl on the "unintentionally hilarious" point, as I suspect that the undeniable humour of the ending was indeed all-too intentional. It's far too ludicrous and off-the-wall not to be. Having studied this segment ample times, I'm not convinced that it wasn't Serling's intention all along to bait the viewer with an ostensibly po-faced scenario, only to pull the rug out from under them at the end with this unexpectedly daffy conclusion. In other words, it was Serling's idea of a practical joke, a little light dessert to follow on from the longer, heavier (and far less digestible) "The Little Black Box". He may have misjudged just how effectively this would work in practice, however. Also, I note that Juhl misidentifies the animal we see at the end as a mouse. Rookie mistake. Alas, if you come away with the impression that those NASA astronauts were mauled by a mouse then you miss out on a subtle bit of wordplay from earlier on in the segment, when Simms assures the reporters that the communication from the missing team merely sounded like "we're under attack" but that they were never able to verify that final word. The script exploits the fact that "attack" and "a rat" have the same number of syllables and identical vowel sounds. So the real message, implied by the ending, was "we're under a rat"! In retrospect, the segment begins laying the ground for its daft conclusion well in advance of that giant lunar mousetrap.

Still, I suspect what ultimately disappoints viewers about "The Nature of The Enemy" is that, for all the solemnity of Serling's introduction, it fades out with apparently nothing very much serious to say. It's a baleful science fiction short that willfully mutates into a particularly twisted Merry Melodies cartoon and comes to an abrupt halt, prompting the question as to whether there's any deeper meaning to be harvested beyond Serling's flippant sleight of hand. While I very much doubt that Serling considered predation by giant moon rats a potential hazard for humans venturing into outer space, in the early days of space exploration, "The Nature of The Enemy" might have tapped into the uncertainty as to what humankind might discover out there, and the possibility that, in leaving our world and venturing into the vast unknown, we risked forfeiting our status as the dominant species. The surface of the moon becomes the new wilderness, eerily barren and yet tinged with the uneasy sensation that there's something else out there lurking among those moon rocks. But even then, Serling appears to jokingly subvert this by taking the very familiar, domestic scenario of rodent control and planting it within the strange and alien context of lunar exploration. I think that, again, the title provides clues as to how we are to interpret this story, in prompting us to consider just what kind of enemy we are dealing with. We know from the start that all this talk of the Russians and the Chinese intercepting the mission will turn out to be a gigantic red herring and that the characters, too busy looking inward to comprehend the bigger picture, will swiftly discover that such earthly divisions are meaningless when weighted against the indifference of a wider universe. Ultimately, though, the point it appears to be making has to do with man's hubristic assumptions that he can disconnect himself from the rest of nature (I think the final shot of the rat standing taller than the trap is really key in this regard). I've seen it suggested that the significance of having a large murid roaming across the moon should be viewed as nothing more substantial than as a play on that old cliche about the moon being made of cheese, but I would contend that the ending goes a whisker deeper than that, in linking the conflict to man's age-old enmity with the creature that's long insisted on following him on his journey from wilderness to urban domesticity, and is reputed to never be more than six feet away from him. The other rat race, in other words. That these NASA astronauts meet their match in such a familiar household pest (as opposed to something genuinely alien) is basically the point - that hulking rat is there to remind them that Nature is still the more powerful force and that, by turning his attention to the stars, man is not transcending Nature so much as gearing up to continue their contention in a whole other setting.

In the end, it's probably futile for me to keep on banging my drum on "The Nature of The Enemy". Fact is, I love this segment for precisely the reasons that other people scorn it. It's about a giant man-eating rat that lives on the moon, and if you don't already see the charm in that, then I certainly can't help you.

Note: The 1980s Twilight Zone revival boasts a short segment entitled "The Elevator" which follows a similar structure to "The Nature of The Enemy", and gets about as much respect from that show's viewership. It was written by...Ray Bradbury, of all people. The story also involves giant rats, only these ones are all fresh out of the taxidermist shop and and are only "giant" in the sense that they're meant to be the size of house cats. Although I don't harbour anywhere near the same kind of fondness for "The Elevator" as I do "The Nature of The Enemy" - in part because stories centred on giant [redacted] don't appeal to me nearly as much as stories centered on giant rats - I'll say that the twist, while very shoddily executed, is actually a lot cleverer than people give it credit for. I can't claim that I lose any reverence for Bradbury watching it, because the script definitely has the makings of a simple but smart story. The meaning of the segment is again implicit in the title - a literal elevator does feature prominently in the segment, but for the purposes of this particular macabre tale it's also a metaphor.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

The World's Most Horrifying Advertising Animals #14: Bacardi Breezer Tomcat (aka The Secret Life of Monty The Mouth)

Spuds MacKenzie might have been the self-proclaimed "Original Party Animal" (the fact that his shtick was pilfered from an earlier beer-shilling canine, Alex of Stroh's, notwithstanding), but his cheerful brand of carousing antics couldn't help but seem hopelessly declawed and domesticated when compared to the feline counterpart who would later hustle in and mark his territory all over the clubbing scene. In the age-old war between dogs and cats, the cats played their hand fairly late in the game this particular round - the boozing pooches had long had their day and Spuds was little more than a dwindled pop cultural memory by the time the world was introduced to Tom, a hedonistic tabby cat who loved the nightlife and enjoyed a two-year tenure as the advocate for Bacardi Breezer alcopops in the early 00s. In concocting the alcohol-endorsing mascot with a better idea of how to live fast and leave a beautiful legacy, I'd say the cats can claim an easy victory here. Were the four-legged Lotharios ever to face off in a partying showdown, you just know that Tom would scratch Spuds' eyes out and serve them as cocktail olives.

What has to be said about Spuds MacKenzie is that I never bought him as even half the party animal his ads purported him to be, in that he never exhibited a huge amount of personality, period. A bull terrier dressed in shades and a Hawaiian shirt and with bunch of human groupies trailing him around will get you a few chintzy images but does not in itself a charismatic mascot make. If not for the weird zoophilic undertones that pervaded his ads through those legions of adoring Spudettes, I doubt that the Spuds campaign would have had much in the way of character at all. Tom, on the other hand, truly was a creature of the night - he was wild, mean and a little bit cutthroat. And goddamn, that feline could dance.

The "Tomcat" campaign, which got its start in 2001, incorporated many of the same elements of Bud Light's Spuds campaign (in that both were housepets whose insatiable lust for the high life made them immensely popular with the ladies) but in a manner that seemed like a dark mirror image of the bull terrier's bright and luxurious world. Whereas with Spuds, the central joke pivoted on the fact that nobody within the ads ever acknowledged that the object of their admirations was just a dog dolled up in people clothing (it was kind of like Animaniacs' Chicken Boo in that regard), "Tomcat" embraced the animalistic nature of its star and, instead of dragging the cat into the human world, attempted to play his human cohorts as an extension of that. Louis Creed, the protagonist of Stephen King's Pet Sematary, made the observation that, "Cats were the gangsters of the animal world, living outside the law and often dying there," and that's something you certainly get a flavour of in Bacardi Breezer's campaign, with its dark, sleazy and slightly dangerous milieu. Tom had a bit of a narrative going, living a prosaic life as the docile companion to a benign old lady during the diurnal hours, but come the night and he was transformed into a raving beast. Classic cat duality, only in place of butchering garden wildlife and leaving their innards sprawled across his owner's doorstep, Tom went out in pursuit of an altogether different kind of thrill.

The campaign offered a witty immersion into the Jekyll and Hyde-isms of not merely our feline friends, but also the human nightcrawlers who allow their ferociousness to hang out in full force in the wee hours, suggesting, in a manner not too dissimilar to the original Clive the Schweppes Leopard commercial, that the real wilderness is to be located right there upon the sticky barroom floor. Tom's world felt alive and exhilarating but distinctively off-kilter, as if the exuberance could give way to savagery at any moment. Various installments featuring Tom's nocturnal adventures trickled out across the following two years, including one ad spoofing the infamous music video to "Smack My Bitch Up" by UK rave group The Prodigy, and another containing the obligatory (for the time) parody of The Matrix. Tom was very much the alpha male of his nightly territory, and it wasn't wise to challenge him, as one opportunistic dog lover learned the hard way when Tom dunked a live goldfish in his tonic water. But despite being such a partying pro, Tom was not entirely invincible and the ads would also give us intermittent glimpses into the consequences of his crapulent lifestyle. The original ad concludes with Tom stumbling through the catflap at dawn in a visibly hungover state, while another has his owner calling in a vet to examine Tom's dancefloor-induced lethargy. Each of these closed with a punchline delivered by Tom's nonplussed owner, who unwittingly alluded to the cat's philandering nature when she asked him if he'd been out chasing birds, or if the love mark on his paw had been left by a fox ("bird" and "fox" both being notable slang terms), followed by a nightmare-fueling close-up shot of Tom making some kind of lurid facial expression at the camera.

If Tom strikes you as eerily familiar-looking, then odds are that you know him as Monty The Mouth, the garrulous, Steve Zahn-voiced chum of Snowbell the Persian in the Stuart Little films. Tom was portrayed by a threesome of felines, Merlin, Magoo and Murphy, at least two of whom also played Monty in the 2002 sequel Stuart Little 2 (this Guardian article implies that all three cats shared acting duties in Stuart Little 2, although this American Humane Association commentary only mentions Merlin and Magoo). Regrettably, I have not uncovered any confirmation that any of these cats portrayed Monty in the original Stuart Little film from 1999.

Tom's campaign was weird and intense, but reasonably short-lived (albeit no more so than Spuds MacKenzie's), with Tom receiving his last hurrah in 2003. The final ad took an unexpectedly harrowing turn, in having Tom cross the road to get to his nightly hang-out, only to walk directly into the path of an oncoming vehicle. Was Tom, who had lived outside the law for so long, about to meet the kind of unceremonious fate prophesied by Louis Creed? It looked awfully grim for a few terrifying moments, as Tom's entire life flashed before his eyes, including several replays of clips from previous installments. Thankfully, the car managed to stop mere inches from Tom, and and the cat lived to wriggle his tush for yet another boogie night. The ad ended with him assuming the car's passenger seat and riding off triumphantly into the twilight. Except that it's 2019, and odds are that Merlin, Magoo and Murphy have by now all gone the way of Sassy The Hang In There Baby Kitten. That's kind of a downer.

Although I've compared Spuds MacKenzie unfavourably to Tom at several points throughout this piece, what also has to be said about Spuds is that enough people do still remember him. The vapidity of his campaign notwithstanding, he nestled his way into the cozy bosom of nostalgia, meaning that you'll get the occasional nod in popular culture or official throwback ad. Tom I can't say I've heard much mention of since his own campaign wrapped. He partied hard but left little trace outside of the wonderful body of ads that are currently up for scavenging on online media sites. But then Spuds' a dog and Tom's a cat, and perhaps it's only fitting that the latter should have exited our lives as furtively he wandered in, an elusive spirit who had his fun and then slunk off into the night as soon as he was done. Whatever became of Tom? Who knows; he was never our beast to tether down.

Sunday, 19 May 2019

The World's Most Horrifying Advertising Animals #13: The Tiger In Your Chicken Coop (Guinness)

In the late 1990s, Irish draught stout Guinness continued their "Not Everything in Black and White Makes Sense"  campaign with an ad lampooning our susceptibility for a neatly-packaged statistic that at the same time found ways to unnerve us with more bizarre imagery featuring freakishly misplaced animals. Of all the ads in the "Black and White" campaign, "Statistics" stands out to me as, if not the strangest of the lot (that particular honor was bagged by "Fishing is Madness"), then the one which held the greatest emotional resonance for me. It's as baffling and nightmarish as you'd come to expect from Guinness (or a good proportion of 90s advertising) at this stage, but there's something disarmingly poignant about this one too. In part, I put this down to the stirring background music, taken from "The First Big Weekend", a 1996 single for Scottish indie duo Arab Strap, in which vocalist Aidan Moffat describes a memorable weekend of sleeping on European cup matches and watching Simpsons clip shows charting the characters' various failed romances. Here we have actor Enn Reitel reeling off a series of statistics in a manner designed to evoke Moffat's deadpan, matter-of-fact narration. Reitel's voiceover is beguiling enough that it's tempting to take his statements at face value. As with "Fishing", though, the ad climaxes with a quotation that seems intended to flip everything we've just seen upon its head - in this case, the wry observations of comedian Vic Reeves, who warns us that, "88.2% of statistics are made up on the spot." In other words, if you actually did swallow any of these nuggets as concrete truths then you were a grade A sucker. So, the question the ad ultimately poses would be why such an unlikely collection of figures (which, somewhere in the back of our brains, we all intuitively sense are perhaps a bit suspect) should prove so alluring to our credulous brains.

Some of these statistics do have the ring of credibility (we all know that cows are tremendously gassy animals, and I'm not sure about 98%, but given Manchester United's global popularity, it wouldn't surprise me if the percentage of fans who've never visited Old Trafford was in the high zone). Others seem less probable (88% of clowns never fall in love? Nope, not buying that one - when the make-up's off, clowns are just the same as anyone else). I'd say that the appeal of the ad lies broadly in how it evokes the various uncanny connections that enable individuals from seemingly divergent walks of life to intersect, some of which seem hilariously ironic (the convent-educated strippers), while others have darker implications (the Ku Klux Klan one). The Manchester United sequence offers the most heartening example of the lot, in illustrating the extent to which humans the world over can be allied by a common affinity.

The real curiosity of the ad, though, would be the portion that occurs at about thirty-six seconds in, when we're treated to the unnerving imagery of a tiger prowling through a darkened neighbourhood, terrorising a coop of resident chickens as Reitel informs us that, "Every year over 300 animals escape from zoos and circuses." The tiger, a lone, shadowy beast, stands in ominous contrast to the flock of brightly-coloured chickens who, boxed in behind a wall of wire mesh, signify a kind of orderly, prosaic domesticity. The climax of the sequence, which sees predator and prey each losing their cool and letting loose tumultuous cries is hair-raising stuff; indeed, it was a showdown that proved almost too intense for me as a kid, and I was well-accustomed to feeling a tight knot in my stomach every time that eerily unlit street loomed into view (of course, it's all down to the tautness of the editing, since the tiger and the chickens never appear within the same frame and were blatantly nowhere near one another in real life). And yet I have to admit that my empathy was always with the fugitive tiger. He might be approaching those unfortunate chickens in the manner of a slasher villain closing in on a prospective target, and the sight of the burly striped cat rubbing shoulders with a couple of nondescript trash cans seems almost gut-wrenchingly surreal, but at the same time there's a loud and irrepressible part of me that can't help but rejoice that this magnificent beast has made a bid for freedom and now has the world at his paws. Still, this isn't the kind of wilderness that a tiger hopes to uncover when fleeing his captors, and our feline interloper, despite his threatening presence, comes off as the really vulnerable one in this scenario, in that he's visibly out of his element within the neatly-trimmed gardens of modern development. A loose circus animal trampling around your dustbins in the dead of night is a nightmare image for sure, but there's the sense that the tiger, far from being an intruder in these urban environs, is simply a stranger in a strange land, a wild beast attempting to reconnect with a wilderness that's been warped beyond all recognition.

Does the sequence have any significance regarding the ad's broader theme of uncanny and ironic connections? Yes, insofar as suggesting that not everything can be so easily boxed in and compartmentalised. Elsewhere in the ad, there's a lot of emphasis upon the nature of identity, partly in its exploration of the assumptions made by a society that's forever seeking to pigeonhole according to superficial preconceptions (odds are that most don't think too deeply about a stripper's education or a clown's love life, and that old "men think about sex every six seconds" cliche is one heck of a dumb stereotype), but also the masks and labels we willfully assume in assimilating our personal identities into the ideologies of a wider body, be it something as benign as a sports team's global fanbase (although even that has the potential to turn ugly) or a group with a far more abhorrent agenda. Perhaps that lonesome liberated tiger, and his ability to ruffle the feathers of a flock of homogeneous chickens, stands as a call to walk on the wild side, stay true to one's independent spirit and defy classification.

I can't ascribe any deeper significance to that cow statistic, however.

Incidentally, I think there may have been a variation on this ad that included another statistic about the percentile of women who find men with beards and mustaches sexually attractive. All accompanied by a queasy close-up shot of a mustached man downing spoonfuls yogurt and getting tiny flecks of it in his whiskers. It was enough to put you off yogurt (and mustaches) for life.