Friday, June 27, 2008

The Unbearable Lightness of Beanie

It was the late 1990s and I wanted a cheeseburger. Settling instead on a reasonable facsimile thereof, I walked into my local McDonald’s. The place was swamped – like David Hasselhoff-sighting swamped – and my prospects for scoring a meal before low blood sugar levels laid me flat on the dirty, french-fry-strewn floor looked bad.

As if to taunt me, there was plenty of food within reach – pristine, untouched hamburgers and cheeseburgers and McNuggets and full orders of fries. They were piled up in the trashcans, most with nary a bite missing.

It was the era of the Beanie Baby.

Being a surly Gen X type, I harbored the requisite disgust for this collecting craze. Yet I had to admit that I liked the name Beanie Baby. The words rolled off my tongue just so. They were literally fun to say. I would never in a million years join the herd of lemming-like Beanie Baby buyers. But my very contempt provided me with opportunities to say “Beanie Babies,” often accessorized with a carefully selected expletives.

In 1999, Beanie Baby manufacturer Ty Inc. raked in $1.25 billion from sales of these little plush toys, according to a 2004 Los Angeles Times article. Many factors contributed to this success. The company’s strategy of manufactured scarcity – the lifeblood of the collectibles market – was a major factor. Its alliance with McDonald’s helped, too, causing crazed collectors to buy food they didn't want just to score the free toy that came with it.

But, as a word person, I find it impossible to believe that the company would have had the same results had it named them “Small and Pliable Plush Animals” or “Miniature Stuffed Toys” or “Pieces of Colorful Fabric Sewn Around Stuffing and Plastic Pellets in Shapes Resembling Mammals and Sea Creatures.” Even something actually decent like “Tiny Teddy and Pals” or “Li’l Squeezes” probably couldn’t have borne the craze for these surprisingly bland little toys.

That’s my impression, anyway.

The reason I have Beanie Babies on the brain has to do with another fast food chain. Burger purveyor Jack in the Box has rolled out a line of smoothies (fun word, huh? Smoothies. Smooooothies). Commercials keep telling me they’re available in “mango, strawberry banana, and Orange Sunrise.”

Mango I get. Strawberry banana I get. Orange I get. But what’s this “Sunrise” business?

It could mean that the smoothie is not exactly orange but really a combination of orange and other citrus flavors. Or it could mean it contains a shot of tequila. I don’t know because, as a 21st-century American consumer, my expectations of words have been reduced to almost nothing. I know perfectly well that the words hurled at me every day may or may not have any meaning at all. Sometimes, marketers’ words are fired at us in the most literal sense possible, “Buy now!” Other times they’re thrown in just for sound -- the hypnotic and pleasant sensation created by combinations like "beanie" and "babies," the improved rhythm achieved by adding the word "sunrise" to the line of copy, "Mango, strawberry banana, and orange."

Either way, these words come from businesspeople more interested in impressions than meaning -- people counting on our not paying attention. And, either way, the effect is the same: Marketers drain the meaning and impact out of words.

Is this a bad thing? I don’t really know. I just worry about a system that banks on our brains being asleep. And I feel bad for the deflated little words, too. Under different circumstances, “sunrise” could convey a vivid, beautiful, meaningful image. But in my world, “sunrise” has more to do with TV commercials in which a sweaty jogger dangles his mangoes in another guy’s face. Thanks a lot, Jack.

6 comments:

Joel said...

You've got a couple of expressions here that keep dancing in my head. "Li’l Squeezes" could mean any number of fun things. Someone's got to be using that somewhere (maybe it's in the adult entertainment industry; though, again, not that that's the only possibility).

The closing definition of orange sunrise, on the other hand, is one that I keep trying to clean out. ;-D It's funny, but troubling.

It could be however, that I'm reading too much into terms that were meant more casually than I've assumed. Which can serve as my segue . . .

[begin rant]
In the face of the vacuity that is the contemporary verbal landscape, I find it helpful to go ahead and read in my own meanings. And there's a nuanced veracity to this practice. The fact is that snake oil hawkers and hack entertainers are--sometimes deliberately and sometimes just because they know it works even though they don't know why or what they're doing--tapping into powerful archetypes and freudian undercurrents with their bombardments of mostly meaningless media. Of course, they're generally not interested in evoking a complex depth of enlightenment and reflection. They just want to exploit those deep-rooted icons for visceral reaction, fuzzy affirmation, sub- or unconscious attraction.

My general approach--even sometimes with more noble artistic endeavor--is to read past the author's intent to something better. Um, that may be difficult with beanie babies. Actually . . . no, I'm not going to go there; never mind. But I've been known to launch into long philosophical/spiritual excursions based on a nice (though mostly, in its context, empty) turn of phrase or juxtaposition of images, even if it was only meant to sell something. A thirty second sound bite can turn into a day's worth of illuminating meditation; it's all up to you.

As Bono says, of "Helter Skelter," "This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We're stealin' it back."

It's our language, damn them. It's only empty if we let it be. Our brains, in other words, need not sleep, even if the piper plays a seductive lullaby. The snobs and the con men have only as much power as we allow.

"The violent take it by force."
[end rant]

June Casagrande said...

Great rant!

And very akin to how I feel about all this. My, "Hey, what the heck is 'sunrise' supposed to convey?" is my way of pinching myself to stay awake. Refusing to roll over and play brain dead. Keeping the language ours by trying to stay conscious at the switch.

Li'l Squeezes for everyone! On the house!

: )

Cathleen Mesquita said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
June Casagrande said...

That's reality TV school thing is CRAZY!

Not the most cost-effective approach, either. For $9 aspiring reality stage moms could just buy junior a six-pack of Heineken -- that'll make for some compelling sound bites.

Thanks for the laugh!

Cathleen Mesquita said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
June Casagrande said...

Now THAT's a party.

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