This month I’ve been reading Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America, published in August by Kurt Andersen. According to the publisher, it’s “the epic history of how America decided that big business gets whatever it wants, only the rich get richer, and nothing should ever change.” Andersen also pinpoints a when for the everything-going-to-shit: around 1980. (Perhaps you remember who was elected president that year.) Andersen is a deft writer who makes even dense economic theory fun to read—he is, after all, one of the founding editors of Spy, the satirical magazine of the 1980s and 1990s that dubbed DJ Trump a “short-fingered vulgarian.” For me, though, the book’s most interesting insights are about nostalgia and how everything became “retro” or a “reboot”—or, in movies, a sequel or remake. Andersen says we started retreating into nostalgia in the 1970s, as an exhausted response to the “disorienting” newness of the 1960s. But we’ve never really shaken off that nostalgia-fever. The entries under “Nostalgia” in the Evil Geniuses index fill more than a column, and include these headings: “of blue-collar workers for time when they were majority,” “default to, enabled building of reproduction-old-days political economy by economic right-wingers,” “as fuel for fantastical or irrecoverable post politics,” and “‘USA! USA!’ chant.” I quoted a particularly excellent sentence from Evil Geniuses in last month’s linkfest, which you can read here.
This month’s book recommendation is The End of October, by Lawrence Wright, the New Yorker staff writer best known for his deeply researched nonfiction (The Looming Tower, about Al-Qaeda and 9/11; Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief). This new book, however, is a novel, although you’ll be forgiven for mistaking it for journalism.
It’s set in a time very much like the present (the US president is “self-conscious about his girth” and keeps a tanning bed in the White House Cosmetology Room—an actual room in the actual White House), in which a viral pandemic spreads from Indonesia to the hajj in Mecca to a submarine under the Atlantic to North America and beyond. Our hero, epidemiologist Henry Parsons, scrambles to decode the virus and prevent its spread while civilization’s institutions crumble on every continent. If the plot is a little overstuffed and the dialogue speech-y, you’re unlikely to care, because the story is so eerily prescient and timely. (Wright began writing the book in 2015 and turned in the manuscript in 2017, long before COVID-19 broke out.) Wright’s journalistic background serves him well: you’ll learn a lot—painlessly—about viral reproduction, cytokine storms, and the workings of submarines. I listened to the audiobook, which is well narrated by Mark Bramhall: it’s the audio equivalent of a page-turner.
A study of 597 logos found that “descriptive logos more favorably impact consumers’ brand perceptions than nondescriptive ones, and are more likely to improve brand performance.” (Harvard Business Review)
Old descriptive logos (left) vs. new nondescriptive logos (right).
“An examination of today’s American skull logos shows a variety of businesses exhibiting crude expressions of menace, juvenile assertions of badassedness, and more than a little fascist iconography.” (Emblemetric)
Stan Freberg, a man of myriad talents who was often called “the father of funny advertising,” died Tuesday in Santa Monica. He was 88.
Freberg was born in Pasadena and grew up in Los Angeles; he turned down scholarships to Stanford University and the University of Redlands in order to pursue a career in radio. He became a successful comedian and a voice actor in cartoons—his was the voice of the beaver in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp—but it’s as rule-breaking advertising copywriter that I choose to remember him.
According to the New York Times obituary, Freberg went into advertising “because he considered most commercials moronic.” In 1957, after the CBS Radio Network canceled “The Stan Freberg Show” after just 15 weeks, Freberg formed his own ad-production company, which he called Freberg Ltd. (but not very). His motto, according tothe Los Angeles Times obituary, was Ars gratia pecuniae: “Art for money’s sake.” He “set the standard for humor in advertising,” according to a tribute in Advertising Age: his work included campaigns for Chun King, Jeno’s Pizza, Sunsweet prunes (one of his prune ads starred Ray Bradbury, the science-fiction writer), Contadina tomato paste (“Who puts eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can? You know who. You know who. You know who”), and Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Freberg’s copy wasn’t just funny; it was subversive. He “used humor to declare war on postwar advertising,” writes the New York Times’s Douglas Martin: “Mr. Freberg even committed, eagerly, the ad industry’s greatest heresy: lampooning the deficiencies of a paying client’s own products.”
When he couldn’t get a paying client to underwrite his heresies, he went indie. His 1958 comedy single, “Green Chri$tma$” hardly seems dated today, nearly half a century later:
Deck the halls with advertising! Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la! ’Tis the time for merchandising! Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la! Profit never needs a reason! Fa-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la! Get the money, it’s the season! Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la!
Judy Protas may have been famous only within the insular world of New York advertising. But some of the ads she wrote, including the 20th-century classic “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish to Love Levy’s Real Jewish Rye,” have been been famous across the country for more than half a century.
Ms. Protas, a retired executive at New York agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, died January 7 at 91. Margalit Fox wrote the obituary for the New York Times, which I commend to you.
Here’s Fox on the Levy’s campaign:
Though its evocative tagline is often credited to William Bernbach, a founder of DDB, or to Phyllis Robinson, the agency’s chief copywriter, period newspaper accounts and contemporary archival sources make clear that the actual writing fell to Ms. Protas, who, working quietly and out of the limelight, set down those dozen durable words.
We didn’t have Levy’s in California, so this may have been the first Judy Protas ad I ever saw:
The walls of the mezzanine of the Ohrbach’s store on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles were decorated with ads like this one, which was far from current by the time I laid eyes on it. (The store, part of a New York-based chain, closed in 1987.) I remember my bemusement—a talking cat? in a fancy hat? with a cigarette holder?—and my delightthat this discount retailer valued advertisements highly enough to treat them as art. (Yes, I was an ad nerd even as a child.)
“Ohrbach’s … wanted to disabuse consumers of the notion that discount equaled déclassé,” writes Fox:
Beneath the headline — “I Found Out About Joan” — Ms. Protas’s copy went on, cattily, to describe the impecunious Joan’s pretensions to wealth before conceding, “She does dress divinely,” and concluding, “I just happened to be going her way and I saw Joan come out of Ohrbach’s!”
Protas also wrote the lyrics to the Cracker Jack jingle, “which in full (‘lip-smackin’, whip-crackin’, paddy-whackin’, knickin’-knackin’, silver-rackin’, scoundrel-whackin’, cracker-jackin’ Cracker Jack’) has the trochaic rush of a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song,” writes the inimitable Fox.
If you lived in California between the 1950s and the 1980s, there was no escaping the TV commercials of Cal Worthington, the Oklahoma-born grade-school dropout who turned a single Hudson dealership in Huntington Park (Los Angeles County) into an automotive empire. At one point, in the 1960s, Worthington was the top-selling Dodge dealer in the United States. But it was those TV ads—90 seconds long, cheesy even for their era, but impossible to forget—that made Cal Worthington a household name. Each ad featured a jingle set to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It”; the verse varied, but the relentless refrain never changed:
If you need a better car, go see Cal For the best deal by far, go see Cal If you want your payments low If you want to save some dough Go see Cal Go see Cal Go see Cal
“It ain’t Shakespeare,” the Los Angeles Times’s David Lazarus wrote yesterday in an appreciation. “But then again, Shakespeare wasn't hell-bent on moving inventory off the lot.”
Worthington died Sunday at his ranch in Orland (Glenn County), California. He was 92.
Cal Worthington “deserves to be included among the greats of TV pitchmen,” Lazarus wrote:
I’d put him right up there with Ron Popeil of Veg-O-Matic fame (“It slices! It dices!”) and Billy Mays (“That's the power of OxiClean!”).
I’d even put Worthington alongside the great Ed Valenti, the genius behind Ginsu knives and the phrases “But wait! There's more!” and “Now how much would you pay?”
Not only did Cal Worthington have the perfect pitch, he was inadvertently blessed with the perfect pitchman’s name. “Cal” suggested California—although he had dealerships in Nevada, Arizona, Texas, and Alaska, California was always Worthington’s home base. His surname suggested “get your money’s worth.” And the name of his “dog” Spot—sometimes a hippo, a lion, or gorilla, but never a dog—seems in retrospect to be a meta-reference to TV ad spots. (Worthington eventually created his own ad agency, Spot Advertising.)
Yes, Cal Worthington was his real name, shortened from Calvin Coolidge Worthington. He honored his namesake, that government-hating public servant, by being a model entrepreneur, a poster boy for bootstrapped individualism. But, as William Grimes notes in his New York Times obituary, Worthington in fact got his first real start in the working world through a government program: FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps.
True, he didn’t have the best relationship with regulators: he was sued twice by the state of California for deceptive advertising. (Both cases were settled without an admission of guilt.) But deception was, after all, his game: he always appeared to love the flim-flammery of advertising more than the actual selling of product. “I never much liked the car business,” he told an interviewer in 2007. In fact, he never owned a car.
TV ads today have shorter spans (15 seconds is the norm) and more sophisticated techniques than they did in Cal Worthington’s heyday. But for sheer memorability, you can’t beat those “Go See Cal” ads. Are they the antecedent of “Better Call Saul” on AMC’s “Breaking Bad”? I wouldn’t bet against it.
Cablevision Shutting Down OMGFAST Wireless Broadband Service
Cablevision (NYSE: CVC) said Tuesday that it is shutting down its OMGFAST wireless broadband service in Florida next month. …
“OMGFAST will be discontinuing its voice and broadband services. We are in the process of notifying existing customers so they can identify alternative services,” Cablevision told FierceCable in a statement late Tuesday. While Cablevision didn't announce a specific shutdown date for OMGFAST, a recorded message on its customer service line Tuesday said that service in Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton and 10 other cities would be discontinued on Aug. 19.
OMGPOP Team Tried to Buy Back Its Site, but Zynga Killed It Instead
OMGPOP almost got an extra life, but Zynga said ‘game over’. Zynga just finalized plans to shut down OMGPOP, the game developer of Draw My Thing it acquired for $200 million in March 2012. But multiple sources familiar with Zynga tell TechCrunch the OMGPOP team was in direct contact with Zynga leadership in an attempt to buy back the site or continue operating it, yet Zynga refused.
Cucoloris: A screen with oddly shaped holes cut through it, placed before a light source to throw diverse shadows on an otherwise uniform surface. (Source: Idiom Savant: Slang As It Is Slung.) Also spelled cucaloris, kookaloris, kukaloris, cookaloris, cucalorus, etc. Shortened to cookie, kook, or cuke. Alternate names: gobo, ulcer, dapple sheet.
Popular in the 1930s; back in style again with the movies of Steven Spielberg, who uses a kookalouris with underlighting to show faces that seem to be illuminated by reflections from pots of gold, buckets of diamonds, pools of fire, pirate maps, and radioactive kidneys.
It’s fairly well established that cucoloris, however you spell it, comes from the world of Hollywood cinematographers. Beyond that, however, the word’s origins and etymology are frustratingly unclear. In an episode that aired last year, Grant Barrett, co-host of the radio show “A Way with Words,” told listeners that he’d spent “days” researching a Double-Tongued Dictionary entry for cookie.
“Hollywood is filled with people who like to invent myth,” Barrett said. “I counted seven different origin stories for this term, and they’re fun, but they’re throwaway.” The best story he encountered is from a footnote in a 1954 issue of the Western Folklore journal, which called cucoloris “a coined word of no special philological significance or implication.” The writer did suggest, however, that cucoloris “might be related to the famed director George Cukor.”
A claimed etymology is that kukaloris is Greek for “breaking of light,” but there seems to be no evidence to support this, nor can the etymological claims in the 2001 cite below* be verified. Another claim is that it is named after its inventor, a Mr. Cucoloris; however, this, too, lacks supporting evidence.
Nor is there evidence to support the assertion in TV Tropes:
The word cukoloris is Gaelic and means “ghost charm.” How a Gaelic word became a standard term in film production is unknown.
A note about Roger Ebert: I never met or corresponded with him, but I was among his many admiring readers and Twitter followers—even when I was muttering “WTF?” about his conclusions. In 2010, I attended a program at the San Francisco International Film Festival at which he received an award; cancer had already taken away his ability to talk, but his impish wit and pointed opinions suffered not a bit from the intervention of a speech synthesizer. After answering questions from the stage of the Castro Theater, he introducedJulia, which starred Tilda Swinton – “Saint Tilda,” Ebert called her – and which Ebert assured us was a great, great film we were privileged to see. (Released in 2009, it had been largely ignored by theaters.) Now, I grant that Swinton is never less than fully committed to a role, but Julia was godawful: violent, amoral, ugly, pointless, and, at 144 minutes, seemingly interminable. About a third of the audience left before it was over. I stuck it out, but – to borrow a phrase Ebert himself made famous – I hated, hated, hated this movie. And yet I loved Ebert for championing it, and for being not just a critic but also an exuberant fan. I will miss him a lot.