My favorite Bizarro comic of recent days involves Mr. Peanut — that dapper mascot of Planter’s nuts — in a scenario that makes plain the inherent contradiction of advertisements that employ cartoon mascots to represent the very same products they sell.
What IS the appeal of these imaginary spokespeanuts and mascots and similar characters in mass advertising that embody the very same product that their companies would have us consume? How does our brain respond to the cognitive dissonance of a cartoon tunafish selling us tunafish to eat? How does the child’s brain process the implied relationship between, say, the character of Mayor McCheese in the Playland and the Quarter Pounder available at the nearby counter at the local McDonald’s restaurant? How do we disavow the “unnatural” and “disturbing” undercurrent to advertising mascots, as expressed by this surprisingly frank commercial for M&M candies from the early 2000s?
I find this advertisement — featuring Patrick Warburton (Seinfeld’s “Putty”) vastly interesting. Beyond the “unnatural” situation — which I’ll focus on in a moment — the setting of this exchange is very telling. It is located in a convenience store that seems a nostalgic throwback to the general “candy stores” of an unidentifiable past. Why does this matter? For one, it situates the story of the ad in the context of economic exchange, but one where no exchange is really happening, save for the actor’s parental scolding and taking away of the candy. The commentary feels realistic in its dark commentary, but the story is still situated in a fantasyland, and it is one which is aligned — dreamily, hazily — with the past for the viewer. The Ms are like “kids in a candyshop” and Warburton plays the adult parent who comes into the shop to scold them.
It matters quite a bit, I think, that the proprietor behind the register is not minding the store, has his back turned when Warburton walks in, and disappears quickly from the image. This allows a situation to transpire that is odd, because normally the clerk would be the one chiding the candy to stop eating the goods he is trying to sell. Instead, we have candy doing nothing at all but hungrily eating more candy, implying a scenario where “the cat is away, so the mice must play” but also providing a parody of the consumer who merely induges his desire to consume without much thought. The M&M characters are not just cannibalistically, but hedonistically indulging themselves in the store, but doing so in a way that is represented as juvenile and childish, allowing the shopper (Warburton) to take on the role of both consumer and parental authority figure, who speaks, ironically, with the voice of reason. It is as though his consumption is valid, but there’s is not an acceptable display of it. The world without consumerism — the theater of the store prior to Warburton’s arrival — is uncivilized, or as animalistic and bestial as it is cannibalistic. The consumer’s exchange — Warburton’s chiding — employs a civilizing effect on the scenario, with the “natural law” (“you don’t eat your own kind…it’s unnatural”) being applied by the consumer’s authority.
This is not the book of Deuteronomy; this is an M&Ms commercial. Commerce is the operative word. The M&M’s try to swap their “colors” but this mutual exchange is not acceptable to the consumer, because it is not a “real” exchange with any symbolic gain. There needs to be some semblance of gain: thus, the consumer takes the candy bags away — getting it all to himself in the process. The popping of an M&M on the way out the door is a symbolic reward, but it also suggests quite clearly: you don’t eat your own kind, but a superior being is free to eat the lower forms…like the juvenile, animalistic, cannibalistic, uncivilized candy. In other words, a hierarchy between parent/child and consumer/product is reaffirmed here and that is the key lesson of the commercial’s “story”: you are not free to gobble up the goods of capitalism — you need to pay for the privilege, and paying makes consumption of ANOTHER KIND perfectly okay.
In other words, it rationalizes the exploitation of the other, in a very self-congratulatory and superior way.
Perhaps I am over-analyzing what amounts to a darkly comedic joke, but often such jokes do relate to unconscious desires, and one of the lessons of the Uncanny is that laughter is just as much a response to the return of the repressed as is a scream. As this commercial and the Bizarro comic up above make clear, there is a cannibalistic undercurrent to the funny and comedic world where animated icons and product spokesmen are normalized. Why else does the Pillsbury Doughboy giggle when we put his brethren children in the oven? Why else does the Michelin Man smile when he asks us to drive on the very rubber flesh that constructs him?
Advertisers employ the literary conceit of personification and the technologies of animation (or costuming) to lend their product an aura of “life” — this, preposterously, gives these icons the implied power “beyond nature” that comes with their status. But it is not so much the living-dead commodities that are embued with this power. It is the manufacturer — the magic machinery of the dough factory, the tire factory — that are attributed with some “secret” power in the process. This is what is meant by “commodity fetishism”; we begin to treat the products of the factory as if they were created by a god or a token of a higher being, instead of something created by the hands of man. Advertising, as Raymond Williams has put it, is a magic system that perpetuates this fetishism of commodities. This may sound like a lot of weight to put onto the back of Mr. Peanut or an M&M candy, but one of the lessons of studying the popular uncanny is that the more unnecessary and empty a consumer good, the more the supernatural is drawn into its marketing and advertising to sell us on its value. If one colored bag of candy is the same as any other, then perhaps the claim that “you don’t eat your own kind” is really betraying a secret fear that this economic system really is a form of self-cannibalism, after all, by trying to disavow it through an imaginary alternative universe, where what we eat is not us, and is not ours, but something magically Other altogether.