PRINT September 1990


American Myths

JUST LIKE THAT rascally J. R. Ewing to disappear now that we need him. Last spring, when the full dimensions of the savings-and-loan crisis were beginning to be known, the American telecommunity tuned away from the chicanery of the greedy superrich. Now, we were beguiled by the antics of the wacky middle class—America’s Funniest Home Videos, Twin Peaks. The Simpsons in particular made the marketplace quiver. This cynical animated sitcom was more than a new TV show: an estimated 90 percent of the world’s licensed goods are based on images originating in the United States, and The Simpsons represented a whole new dimension of licensed ancillary merchandise. (Unlicensed too: the appropriation of bad boy Bart Simpson as T-shirt logo and nationalist hero “Block Bart” demonstrates the universal appeal of a hot icon.)

The magic of trademarks has never been more potent, nor has brand-name loyalty ever seemed so important. Even the American logo needs special protection. With communism “dead” and American pols immobilized by rapid developments in Europe and East Asia, elected officials justify their salaries with the search for new enemies—performance artists, rap singers, flag burners, Roseanne Barr. Despite Congress’s refusal to punish them, it’s the last category that provokes the most universal fury among the general public. America’s trademark has long been so ubiquitous as to be nearly invisible. (“When I first came to New York,” a Japanese student of mine wrote, “I saw American flags hung everywhere and I wondered ’What day is today. Is it a national holiday?’”) Although the current obsession with Old Glory may be traced back to the semiotic-crazed 1988 election, the unsettled world order and a new wave of immigration have stimulated a wave of defensive flag worship. Are we Americans number one or what? Burning the flag is like putting cyanide in the Tylenol—a malicious assault on consumer faith.

Everyone knows that the brand names of products like Kraft cheese and Marlboro cigarettes are their manufacturers’ most valuable assets—far more so than secret recipes, factories, or real estate (let alone employees). A good trademark is forever, or nearly. A study made a few years back found that of 30 brands that ruled their respective categories in 1930, 27 were still number one: Ivory soap, Campbell’s soup, Gold Medal flour. . . .What’s more, considering the number of products that might spin off a single trademark, most American brands were until recently “underleveraged”—particularly in the realm of junk food. In the early ’80s, the venerable Heath bar received a new life thanks to its incorporation in Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Now, Coca-Cola Classic coexists with the “new” Coke (as well as the diet and caffeine-free options). Jell-O, a product once shilled by Kewpie dolls, has reinvented itself as a pudding, Ritz crackers have fragmented into various denominations of Ritz bits, and Oreo cookies reintroduce themselves as ice-cream sandwiches.

In the same way, our national trademark may prove to be underleveraged—particularly in Latin America. Underutilized too are such once-human brand names as Judy Garland, James Dean, and John Wayne. Colorization is only the first feeble attempt at releveraging this particular treasure trove. Perhaps before the century is out we will see media conglomerates using computer graphics and state-of-the-art special effects to remake A Streetcar Named Desire as a vehicle for Elvis and Marilyn, or (as anticipated by The Magic Christian, 1970) to insert a few steamy sex scenes into The Maltese Falcon. The mass audience isn’t even necessary: such films might be made to order for wealthy art-collectors grown bored with post-Impressionism.

The search for an undervalued brand name underscores the Disney empire’s recent exploitation of that venerable mass culture artifact Dick Tracy. Despite a gaseous piece by New York Times art critic John Russell declaring Chester Gould’s comic strip “a dassless, timeless, ageless phenomenon with universal appeal,” the pre-Disney Dick Tracy was unknown to kids and only vaguely remembered by everyone else. (This trademark atrophy was recapitulated, after a fashion, by that of the 53-year-old Warren Beatty, who had only appeared in two films over the past decade, the unrevivable Reds and the underrated but commercially disastrous Ishtar.) In the best tradition of consumer democracy, Dick Tracy tried to mean everything to everybody—licensing products from paper plates to Burberry trench coats, establishing tie-ins with McDonalds and Bloomingdale’s. Still, on the eve of Tracy’s release, a spokesman for K-Mart (America’s largest retailer) told Variety (America’s show biz bible) that “we can’t get a read on who the target audience is.”

Since then, Disney has succeeded in having the comic-strip Tracy remodeled to resemble Warren Beatty—the equivalent of the “improvement”-oriented time-traveling pioneered by Back to the Future. Grossing $22.5 million over its first weekend (with $1.5 million coming from the sale of 100,000 trademark T-shirts that ensured their wearers’ admittance to the movie’s premiere screenings), Tracy enjoyed the largest opening in Disney history. Still, come Monday, the company’s stock plunged $4.62 a share. After all, Tracy had failed to top the $25.5 million box office established the previous weekend by Total Recall, a movie launched with a single magic brand name: “Schwarzenegger.” Meanwhile, the big question per Variety: “Will the summer stifle ‘Simpsons’ sizzle?”

J. Hoberman contributes this column regularly to Artforum. On leave as film columnist for The Village Voice, New York, he is working on a book on American movies and politics.