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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

One Size Fits All

Cereal was one of the highlights of my childhood. Not only did each box contain a toy premium, or a box top that could be mailed in with a dime for an even better prize, but they were advertised on television with brilliant commercials specifically aimed at kids. The best of these were created by Jay Ward – the genius who gave us Rocky and Bullwinkle, Fractured Fairy Tales, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, George of the Jungle, Hoppity Hooper, and Crusader Rabbit. Ward’s cereal commercials included Cap’n Crunch, Quisp, and Quake.

Ward's cartoons and commercial made copious use of clever puns, the painful kind that you remember your entire life, such as when Bullwinkle discovered the “Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayyam” on the shores of Veronica Lake (The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám is the title Edward FitzGerald gave his translation of Omar Khayyám's Persian poetry and Veronica Lake was a famous American actress).

Ward’s Quaker Oats cereal commercials featured comedy, adventures (often continued into future commercials), and puns, all in 30-second installments. My favorites were Quisp and Quake. Quisp was a pink alien with a propeller head from Planet Q and Quake was a hefty miner who wore a helmet with a light. (Years later, Quake was overhauled and became a slimmed down Australian cowboy with a “Quangaroo” sidekick).

What was unique and brilliant about Ward’s commercials was the marketing. Quake would always make a cameo appearance in a Quisp cereal commercial, and Quisp would interrupt Quake during his commercials. Quisp and Quake not only had their own eponymous cereals but a fierce rivalry, as well. Kids, like myself, were encouraged to choose sides: you were either on Team Quisp or Team Quake. We rose to the challenge, stocking our larders with boxes of either (but certainly not both) Quisp or Quake.

And therein lay the genius of Jay Ward and Quaker Oats. For you see, Quaker Oats manufactured both Quisp and Quake cereals. Whichever team you supported, no matter how loyal you were to one, or how much you loathed the rival cereal, Quaker Oats won. They created a false rivalry between two fictional entities, marketed the rivalry, and had millions of us fighting over what was essentially the same cereal marketed in different boxes by one company pulling the strings. More and more, I think about Quisp and Quake whenever I view American politics. It seems I have one box emblazoned with a donkey and the other with an elephant but the content of both boxes is fungible and not terribly healthy for me, and I wonder if perhaps the choice before me is a false dichotomy. What if they are both controlled by the same corporate powers?

What if both political parties offer the illusion of choice to distract the electorate from realizing they both answer to the same master— be it a corporate oligarchy, the ultra-wealthy one percent, or the Illuminati? Was Jay Ward a modern Machiavelli, whose satire formed the foundation of our current political state?

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