Woe and double woe, as William Wordsworth used to say after a hard day of daffodil worship. “The world is too much with us; late and soon,” he’d add, watching his shot glass sink into his beer mug. Mumble, mumble, mutter-mutter, then stumble home from the pub for succor from this dissembling world. Small wonder he turned away from human commerce and sought the world of nature, where things always are what they seem to be.
(Except for Angler fish, one must admit, they whose tongues look like worms to unsuspecting smaller fish; plus certain kinds of carnivorous flowers (e.g. the Venus flytrap), or camouflaged insects that sneak up on their prey, and so on. And that’s not to mention all the cases of aggressive mimicry found in nature, where a plant or creature appears – like a politician – to be some other species.)
But why quibble? Let’s grant Wordsworth his due: Nature is grand, but People are not always whom they seem to be.
A few examples. The first comes from – gosh this is so trivial, but examples must be chosen – a recent Dave Eggers New Yorker article on Hollister, California. Turns out that the town of Hollister
With each purchase comes a story that goes like this: the eponymic John M. Hollister was born around 1895, spent his summers in Maine and graduated from Yale in 1915. Rejecting the New York business world, he set sail for the Dutch East Indies, purchased a rubber plantation in 1917, fell in love with a woman named Meta, and bought a fifty-foot schooner. Hollister and Meta sailed around the South Pacific for a while but eventually settled in Los Angeles, in 1919. They opened a shop in Laguna Beach that sold goods from the South Pacific. John Jr., a surfer, added surf clothing and gear of such spirited quality that the business became a globally recognized brand. The Hollister story, Abercrombie proudly tells us, is one of “passion, youth and love of the sea,” evoking “the harmony of romance, beauty, and adventure.” Buy the product, you’re buying into the lifestyle. You’re telling the world who you are. Stand back!
Hate to tell you this if you’re wearing their gear, but none of this is true. Most of Abercrombie & Fitch’s brands—including the now defunct Gilly Hicks and Ruehl No. 925—have fictional backstories, said to have been conceived by Mike Jeffries, the company’s former C.E.O. Abercrombie & Fitch pulled the name Hollister out of thin air.
I don’t know about you, but I was heartbroken. After all, I’m just getting over learning that the wine cooler guys, Bartles and Jaymes, were phony people invented by an ad company. Those two folksy-nitwit wine merchants sometimes stood in a bog to demonstrate the elusive concept of “fresh fruit.” From 1984 to 1991 two actors portrayed these fictional underdogs who ended their pitches with the slogan, “Thank you for your support.” The underdog company that offered Bartles and Jaymes (a made-up ad name) wine coolers was E & J Gallo Winery.
There’s a long list of other fictive commercial icons. For example, Betty Crocker. Created by taking a popular woman’s first name, Betty, and combining it with the last name of the retiring Washburn-Crosby CEO William C. Crocker. Betty was introduced in 1921 as spokeswoman for Gold Medal flours.
Another example: Aunt Jemima’s pancake fame began when her name was taken from a minstrel show song back in the 1889 by a fledging pancake company. Various images of the fictive “plantation mammy” were used over the years by pancake manufacturers. In a Saturday Evening Post ad of 1920 she appears with a fictional bio that tells, among other things, a story of how she once entertained a Confederate general back in 1864 with a giant heap of fragrant pancakes. Not even remotely true, but oh so reassuring to white folks. Gosh, the ur-version of “Why can’t we all get along?”
Like Burt Shavitz, from Burt’s Bees, (another misrepresentation), Aunt Jemima appeared as a living trademark for years. Her image was updated in 1989 by the removal of her bandana and the addition of a pearl earring.
Speaking of selling things through fiction writing, consider the world of politics and the upcoming TV commercials coming our way. Each candidate will struggle for the next two years to create a persona and fable meant to tell us who to vote for. Or against. Joe McGinness’ “The Selling of the President 1968” remains the classic in this field. McGinness describes life backstage as Roger Ailes’ (now president of Fox News) “packaged” Richard Nixon, using all the tools and techniques of Madison Avenue. It was a bit shocking to read at the time, though most folks now take such maneuvering for granted.
Written for the July 22, 2015 issue of The Chestnut Hill Local