Sea Monkeys And The Backs Of Comic Books

Recently I was reminded of the backs of comic books — and therefore of sea monkeys, which always seemed to be on display on that crucial advertising venue focused, with laserlike precision, on a very precise demographic group.

I’m speaking, of course, of nerdy boys who like to lounge, and read comic books, and dream a bit. That demographic group was highly credulous bunch. After all, we were reading about superheroes, and the unlikely romantic exploits of ever-youthful students at Riverdale High School, and even importance pieces of literature boiled down to Classic comics form. Of course we were gullible and ready to believe just about anything that we saw on the last page of those comic books, even if all of the ads seem to have been mysteriously frozen in time around 1949.

Hey . . . could those tantalizingly displayed X-ray Specs actually work? Gee, I really could use that device that lets you throw your voice into a box the next time I play a prank on my sister Cath! How would I look with a “van dyke” beard?

The most evocative of all, though, were Sea Monkeys. There they were, lounging in front of an undersea castle, improbably wearing crowns and smiling for the illustration. Okay, they probably didn’t wear crowns, but what were those things? If you bought sea monkeys, what would you get?

Then one of your friends made the plunge, saved money from his newspaper route, and sent in for the sea monkeys. When he got them you and friends went over to take a look . . . and it was just brine shrimp in a fishbowl. No castle, no crowns, no happy smiling scaled creatures.

When you realized what sea monkeys were, and that you couldn’t trust everything you read on the back of a comic book, everything changed a bit.

The Lure Of Random, Smiling Faces

If you look at any advertising flier you get in the mail, chances are you’ll see an array of happy faces, a business name, and not much else.  It doesn’t really make any difference what the ad is for — a bank, a grocery store, or any other consumer service business — the focus is on smiling human faces.

There will be random photos of people of every demographic group, looking directly at the camera with wide grins.  There will be carefully staged, faux candid shots of a boy being carried on his father’s shoulders, or an older woman gardening in a wide straw hat, or three teenage girls laughing.  None of the photos will have any logical connection to the business that is sending the ad.  Instead, these people apparently are just thrilled to be alive and enjoying existence to the fullest, thanks to their credit card, their haircut, or their choice of cell phone service provider.

Compare these ads to the ads of long ago, where the focus was always on the cost, quality, and capabilities of the product being sold.  Back then, ad agencies thought consumers would make rational judgments about what they were buying — even if it was avoiding dreaded yellow wax build-up or ring around the collar — not pure impulse decisions based on generic, content-free, feel-good faces.

It’s hard for me to believe that anybody responds to these fliers — or thinks that people could ever be that delighted by their choice of a bank — but the smiling face ads must work, because they are everywhere.   How do the people who fall for them feel when they eventually come to realize that the people they are dealing with aren’t the crinkly-eyed, carefree types on the ad, but instead a sullen call center worker who is making minimum wage at a job she despises?

An Odd Airport Ad

Normally I pay little attention to the ads on the walls of airport terminals.  On Tuesday, however, an ad in the Philadelphia airport stopped me in my tracks.

It was for LA Boxing Gym, and it featured a guy readying the hands of a trim blonde woman for some boxing.  She’s giving him a curious look.  The text says:  “Do your customers look this good?  They would if you owned an LA Boxing Gym.”

Needless to say, this ad raised some questions.

Is it supposed to appeal to men who want to meet attractive women, don’t know how to do so, and have enough money to invest in starting up a franchise boxing operation to do so?  If so, that seems like a pretty small target population to me.  And are there really legions of attractive female boxers out there, looking for a gym?  Most male boxers aren’t exactly paragons of classical Greek beauty — getting punched repeatedly in the face will do that for you — so how many gorgeous female boxers can there be?  If you were a wealthy but lonely guy who wanted to start a business that would help you meet fit young women, wouldn’t you open a yoga clinic or pilates studio?

And if you were a female boxer looking for a gym, would this ad make you want to go to an LA Boxing Gym?  Do female boxers want a real trainer at a real gym, or some desperate guy who started a business just so he could try to hang out with attractive women customers?  Or, do most women boxers secretly hope to attract the romantic attention of their trainers?

And finally, why the Philadelphia airport?  I’ve never seen this ad anywhere else.  Is it some kind of special mecca for potential boxing gym owners?  I guess Rocky Balboa would be proud.

The Golden Age of Magazines

For some reason we have an original LIFE magazine from 1948 — October 11, 1948, to be precise.  I’m not certain how we received it, although I think it was picked up as a promotion for a website, called http://www.originallifemagazines.com, that sells the magazines as keepsakes to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays.

It’s a fascinating historical document for its glimpse of an America long since gone.  144 pages long, 12 x 18 in size, and filled with pages of  ads, news coverage, and sections on “Industry,” “Fashion” (this particular week, the focus was on “stoles”), “Music,” “Science,” and “Television,” among others.  This was during an era when people subscribed to multiple magazines and spent their idle hours leafing through the pages, looking at the black-and-white photos of faraway lands and Hollywood stars and examining the products that were so alluringly depicted on the large, glossy pages.

The ads, of course, are the most intriguing part of the magazine to a modern reader because they give a glimpse of the high-powered consumer culture that was to come.  After all, this was only three years after the end of World War II and therefore the end of the Great Depression; consumerism was still aborning.  But you can see the signs of what was to come in the ads — sterling silver for “the happiest brides,” the new Columbia long playing (“LP”) microgroove record, that “plays up to 45 minutes!”, Bufferin, that acts “twice as fast as aspirin,” du Pont nylon and rayon, the new Eureka automatic vacuum cleaner, Bromo Seltzer, the new General Electric adjustable toaster, Vaseline hair tonic to avoid the dreaded “dry scalp,” “self-polishing” Simoniz for floors — and many others.  All of these products could be glimpsed in the background in the I Love Lucy, Leave It To Beaver, and Ozzie and Harriet sitcoms of the ’50s. 

And, of course, the magazine reflects the culture of the 1940s, where smoking and drinking were accepted parts of life.  The back page is a full-page ad for Camels, featuring an endorsement from Harold Alzana, a tightrope walker, and the statement that, according to a nationwide survey of 113,597 doctors, “more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.”

The woman on the cover, incidentally, was actress Rita Colton, whom I had never heard of.  Colton was a 20-year-old New York actress who memorably seduced a college professor in an ABC-TV show called Hollywood Screen Test and was promptly signed to a Hollywood contract.