Saturday, March 5, 2011

How to Read Toucan Sam

(cross-posted from DKos)

I really shouldn't think too much about these things. I mean, I really, really shouldn't.

But I do.

My wife enjoys watching the new animated series Transformers Prime and some of the other afternoon shows run on the Hub channel. (She likes Starscream. What can I say? And Ratchet too, she reminds me) And so the the rotation of ads played during that time block have become burned upon my consciousness. (Even now a McDonald's jingle is playing through my head. You know the one. And now it's in your head too.)

The one that's stuck in my brain, though, is the one for Froot Loops.

It starts out with Toucan Sam and his nephews Hughie, Louie and Dewey, (or was it Pipeye, Peepeye and Poopeye?) climbing to the top of an Aztec pyramid somewhere in the jungle. They see a large stone chest overflowing with Froot Loops cereal. (What, you were expecting Aztec gold? Get real!) "It's the Greedy Witch Doctor's Fruity Fortune!" Toucan Sam says.

"Woah! Colorriffic!" the kids exclaim and rush to the hoard to scoop up pre-sweetened cereal goodness in their feathery fingers.

Just then, the Witch Doctor appears, (Wearing a headdress, by the way, which looks much like a toucan's beak. Not sure what that means). "Give me back my Froot Loops cereal or I'll use my Magic Sprinkles on you!" he snarls angrily. (He does not mention that Froot Loops are a Good Part of This Balanced Breakfast at this time). With a wave of his hands, multi-colored sprinkles appear in the air taking the shape of scary, scary faces. Ooo.

The Toucans edge away from the scary, scary sprinkles, but one resourceful nephew takes a feather and tickles the Witch Doctor's foot, He loses his balance and topples off the pyramid, giggling all the way down; and as he does so, the sprinkles land on the cereal, making them Magically Delicious. Wait. No, that's a different cereal. Everyone gathers up the sprinkle-garnished loops in bowls and has a good breakfast.

It was about the third or fourth time I saw this ad that I made a weird connection with a book I once came across in college: How to Read Donald Duck.

I stumbled across the book in the library while browsing through it's collection of comics-related material. I paged through it and skimmed over some of the pages, then put it back. It was an earnest and angry diatrabe about how Donald Duck comics were a tool of the Imperialists to disseminate Colonialist Propaganda.

At the time I dismissed the book. My familiarity with Donald Duck came chiefly from the animated shorts I'd seen on TV, which had nothing to do with colonialism, imperialism, or anything remotely capitalist. I had read very few of the Donald Duck comic books, which often dealt with Super-Capitalist Scrooge McDuck travelling to exotic Third World locations to amass even more gold.

Some years later, Disney put out a TV series called Duck Tales, which adapted many of those classic Carl Barks stories, and I realized that the earnest author of How to Read Donald Duck did have a point. I still disagreed with him, but could see his point.

But seeing the Witch Doctor commercial got me thinking. Wasn't the Witch Doctor entitled to protect his treasure against thieves? And isn't Toucan Sam and his ill-defined relations here merely white colonialists seizing the resources of the native population? (I know, Toucan Sam isn't white, he's multi-colored. But he talks with a British accent). And why does he call the Witch Doctor "Greedy"? Is this a rationaliztion that makes it okay to steal the poor guy's breakfast?

I really ought to cut the ad some slack. It's not easy to cram a narrative into a thirty-second spot and tout the virtues of your product at the same time. I know; I've been drawing a promotional comic strip for local business and it's tough coming up with ideas that sell the product and also entertain. Ads for kid's cereal generally fall into two formulistic plots: Character tries to steal someone's breakfast and fails: ( "Silly Rabbit! Trix are for Kids!" ); or character tries to steal someone's breakfast and succeeds: ( "Barney! You ate my Pebbles!" )

In recent years, Froot Loops has been going with an Indiana Jones vibe for it's TV ads; and I now realize, borrowing heavily from Scrooge McDuck. As Carl Barks borrowed from earlier adventure tales when he wrote the classic Scrooge McDuck comics. But somehow, tropes that never bothered me in the context of a duck story seem to annoy my Inner Marxist when they appear in an ad for breakfast food.

And I didn't know I even had an Inner Marxist.

1 comment:

nilskidoo said...

This reminds me of a conversation I had some years back regarding the Lara Croft games, and her right to such adventures, as "Tomb Raider" is absolutely synonymous with Grave Robber.

And I love Starscream too.