Saturday, 5 April 2008

Children Of The 70's and 80's - Have The Childhoods Of Contemporary Illustrators Come Back To Haunt Them?

We are the generation of fun and games, the logical product of an era that revolved around pop icons and big-screen heroes, that then went on to create the mass consumer culture that we know today. We are born out of Star Wars, Transformers and Pac Man, all of which remain in todays society, as popular and collectable as ever. And why is this the case? Is it pure nostalgia? Is it because they remain as well-marketed to the younger generations as before? Or is it rather that the generation that it all began with have refused to grow up? The evidence is all around us, illustration has become a child-like dream world, character design remains quirky and cartoonish, advertising pays homage to the toy giants of yesteryear. Realism, and all the harsh realities of the very adult present that go with it, are now a thing of the past.

In this essay I intend to explore the current nostalgic trends and themes in the work of contemporary illustrators and, hopefully, find out what it was about their childhoods that inspired them so much. I also intend to explore the rise of consumer culture and how the marketing tactics employed towards the youth of the 1970’s and 1980’s has affected what is being directed towards the same generation today. Why are we still so attached to toys, games, cute characters and gimmicky products, and what was it about these that attracted us in the first place?

As this is a topic very close to my heart I shall try to avoid turning things into a geek confessional and instead focus on the wide range of collectors, 30 year old skaters and self-confessed “kidults” that make up todays illustrative masterminds.



From the rise of the games console to the boom in consumerism, the past 40 years have been a breeding ground for a new type of adult, loosely described as “Kidults”. According to Wikipedia, a Kidult is

“a "grown-up" person who enjoys being a part of youth culture and doing things that are usually thought as more suitable for children”

In other words, it’s the ever-increasing number of 21 - 40 year olds who still play computer games, collect toys and spend their Friday nights in dingy venues watching bands. Proof that this is becoming the “norm” is particularly evident in contemporary advertising, design and illustration; a large number of “grown-up” products are being marketed using cute characters, childish tag lines (the perfect example being the recent campaign for the Vauxhall Corsa featuring “The C’Mons, a fictional puppet band created by advertising agency Delaney Lund Knox Warren) and gimmicky incentives. The similarities between this and the marketing strategies directed at the same demographic in their youth cannot be pure coincidence. As children we would spend hours browsing the cereal aisles in supermarkets looking for the product with the best toy, television shows and films directed at the youth market were seemingly high-budget advertising campaigns to get us to buy the range of merchandise associated with it. Just look at Star Wars, and the enormous franchise that it spawned. This marked the first instance of the “entertainment supersystem” (a phrase coined by Marsha Kinder, Professor of Cinema at the University of Southern California), a network of films, books, comics, action figures and other merchandise that all spawn from the same idea. This gives instant appeal to children (and less appeal to their parents wallets), creating mass hype around a film and the characters within. As children, we wanted nothing more than a real Stormtrooper costume, to show off to our mates in the playground. Incredibly, even 30 years on, this is still the case.
The children that swarmed around cinemas in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and spent hundreds of their parents hard-earned pounds on merchandise, are now grown-up, and have real disposable income of their own. And instead of spending this on seemingly important things like homes, cars and smart suits we just can’t seem to drop the toy bug. Of course now we call ourselves “collectors” and keep everything in mint condition instead of testing its resistance to mud. In 2007, over 125,000 people flocked to the San Diego Comic-Con, an annual 4-day convention that attracts fans and enthusiasts of comic books, science fiction, fantasy, film, television and all things pop culture. And nestled in between all these are the finest illustrators on offer today, doing wonderful things with PVC, making designer toys and selling them as little works of art. And it’s not difficult to see how they fit in so well.
Designer toys (otherwise known as Urban Vinyl) are one of the most recent gimmicky advertising trends to take the art and design world by storm. A more freakish version of the toys we loved as children (and created with a much more cynical adult perspective), illustrators across the globe are making these highly collectible figures in their millions, and they seem to have created a huge cult following. Many large businesses seem to have picked up on this trend and are using them as an advertising medium, recently we have seen Kidrobot release a version of their hugely popular Dunny emblazoned with the Starbucks logo, and Play Imaginative have dedicated a series of their Trexi figures to Coca-Cola, all of which have been snapped up by us Kidults. It could almost be considered a fresh new marketing tactic, if it wasn’t strangely reminiscent of another familiar childhood institution...
The Happy Meal was first launched in 1979 and was the brainchild of Dick Brams, an advertising manager in St Louis, Missouri. Originally intended to bring more families into McDonalds restaurants, it wasn’t much different from what we have now and included the all-important free toy. These originally featured the companies own characters, then with the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in December 1979 it began to join forces with Hollywood to promote current movie releases. This was an extremely powerful combination and went on to make McDonalds the largest toy retailer in the world. Similar tactics were used by Kelloggs, who would give out free toys in their cereal in an attempt to boost sales and stave off competitors. This set off a boom in gimmicky marketing tactics, with everything from confectionery to comics offering little plastic incentives to buy their product. As they were cheap and easy to manufacture and there was no end to the amount of films, television programs and cartoon characters they could be linked to, they were an excellent medium for any business wanting to appeal to a younger market.

During the 1970’s and 80’s it wasn’t just cinema that was a big advert, children’s television became the bible for adolescent cool. By 1987, four out of five children's TV programs had deals with toy companies, and between 1980 and 1988 toy sales in America doubled from $7 billion to $14 billion. It is no wonder that now we’re all grown-up advertisers are still trying to reach us using cartoon characters and vinyl toys. A recent ad campaign by Virgin Atlantic featured the popular Mr Men characters, something we all remember from our formative years and would logically still respond to. These books were how we learnt, with real character traits that we could relate to, and in our adult lives there is no shortage of girls professing to be “Little Miss Naughty” (hence the vast range of merchandise available, including deals with lingerie retailer La Senza).

The recent “unlimited” campaign by mobile phone giant Orange is another example of a mature product being marketed towards big kids. It featured a seemingly endless web page full of games, dancing characters and other interactive content and if you searched hard enough there was a chance of winning SIM cards, chargers and even mobile phones. The design was bright, colourful and childish, awash with rainbows and bees, certainly not the professional image of the big-shot telecommunication retailers of yesteryear. Also by adding the element of play this takes us straight back to our youth, a happier time when buying mature things like mobile phones didn’t seem such a priority. A clever scheme, perhaps when hiding behind childish nostalgia we don’t feel quite so bad about parting with our cash?

Interactive advertising is extremely prolific at the moment, especially since the birth of the internet and, in particular, viral marketing. Thanks to e-mail and social networking sites like Facebook, images, videos and websites can be passed around instantly, making it an extremely effective method of advertising for anyone that has a clever enough idea. Perhaps the best example of this would be fast-food chain Burger Kings Subservient Chicken, a website that features an actor in a chicken costume who would do your bidding by recognising words typed in to a command field. He can riverdance, cartwheel or watch television and, when asked to do anything risque, he shakes his finger at the camera in disapproval. While on face value this seems little more than an excellent way to waste time in the office, its interactive nature ensures that both the chicken and the brand associated with it are not forgotten. When coupled with the television and print campaigns that go with it we can see how playtime has become a remarkably effective means of attracting customers attentions. This is evident in the increasing number of “Advergames” (games made specifically to advertise a brand) that are available on company websites. A good example of this is Fanta who have recently launched a new campaign featuring a take on social networking. This campaign lets us into the lives of Todd, Merv, Tristan, Winnie and Marco, a group of cartoon friends with their own “profile pages” (accessible from Fantas home-page) and a wide range of games and videos to support their persona. This appeals to our inner child, everything on the website we associate with fun and the characters themselves are cute and cartoon-like.

Character design itself is becoming a noticeable trend, with thousands of companies using them as friendly mascots to sell their products. We have seemingly gone from worshiping at the shrine of Ronald McDonald to the cult of Mobli, the animated mobile phone that advertises Carphone Warehouse. We even have adult cartoons, programs like The Simpsons and South Park are certainly no longer aimed at a younger audience, if they ever were, and instead opt to influence the social and political views of the 16-40 year old. An incredible range of merchandise connected with these shows is available in the form of adult-specific products, from bottle openers to shot glasses. There really is very little difference between this and the hysteria we experienced as children over He-Man action figures.

It is fair to say that, as a generation, we have been spoilt. Our parents were the products of the post-war baby boom, they lived through real austerity and when it came to them setting up a family our economy was improving. They were able to spend money on us, and shower us with all the toys and playthings our little hearts desired. As such we seem to have grown up with a real love of “things”, and with the power of real disposable income behind us this creates a huge market for useless but desirable nicknacks. We also find ourselves with considerably more leisure time than previous generations; it is logical that this has allowed us to pursue our childish hobbies in our adult lives without the guilt that it may be encroaching on our responsibilities. As children we had a great deal of collectibles marketed towards us (trading cards, comics, action figures, Pogs...the list is endless) and, as we can see from how many people attended the San Diego Comic-Con last year, this is still something we’re very fond of. Toy manufacturers and retailers are no longer limited to just targeting the youth market, companies such as Kidrobot are championing the Urban Vinyl scene. Their most popular release to date is the Dunny figure, originally designed as a do-it-yourself blank canvas in the shape of a rabbit. After noting its success they invited hundreds of designers and illustrators from across the globe to decorate them as they saw fit, including such giants as Jamie Hewlett (of Tank Girl and Gorillaz fame) and Ed Templeton from skate company Toy Machine.

Of course, their range is not just limited to their own releases, there are a wide range of dolls, plush toys and even clothing available from the biggest names in art and design today. The figures they sell, while bright and colourful, are much more macabre versions of the toys we loved in our youth, and presented with a considerably more cynical view of the world. Luke Chuehs recent Possessed figure (released by Munky King, which sold out within a few days of being released) features a bears struggle with the devil, using a childhood favourite (the teddy bear) as a representative for real adult problems. Perhaps using familiar imagery from a time when life was simpler makes dealing with all the traumas of being a grown-up easier? We have been plucked from our cosy worlds of Action Man and thrown into full-time jobs, mortgages and parenting, none of which are attractive prospects for a true kidult, and instead must seem incredibly boring.

Illustration is riddled with childhood imagery and nostalgia, with artists like Joe Ledbetter and Thomas Han adopting a more cartoon-like style in their work. Bright colours and bold lines are all present, but are coupled with much darker themes and imagery. Gary Baseman, whose work resembles a slightly more depressing Ren and Stimpy, admits that ”No one influenced me more as a child than 1930’s-40’s Warner Brothers cartoons, especially Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Sniffles”. So great was their impact on the young Baseman that they feature heavily in his adult work, alongside other childhood favourites such as Felix The Cat and Charlie Brown. Of course, from looking at his work it is evident that all the innocence of youth has now gone, and instead of these characters being carefree they are now presented to us as harrowed, tortured souls. Perhaps growing older allows for greater perversion; these characters are still our role-models, but now we can see them as adults we relate to their suffering instead of merely laughing at it.

Another substantial chunk of our young lives was taken up with the video game. The release of Atari’s Pong in 1972 was a huge commercial success and caused other companies to develop similar systems, thus creating the video game industry. The next 30 years saw this explode into what we have today; it is estimated that in 2007 the industry made around $9.5 billion in America alone, and the Kidults grew up in the middle of this colossal empires development. Aside from the aforementioned implications in modern advertising, famous icons from the video gamers world, such as Mario, Sonic The Hedgehog et al, appear frequently in contemporary illustration. In 2005, Gallery 1988 in Los Angeles held their famous “I Am 8-Bit” exhibition, featuring retro game inspired art from the finest illustrators and low-brow artists around today. The exhibition was such a success it was repeated in 2006, and indeed every year since. Looking at the work on show, it is evident that video games have had an enormous impact on pop culture and the way artists interpret the iconic imagery of their youth. As the American writer and psychologist Dr. Timothy Leary said, video games allowed children to actually control and manipulate what was on television, something their parents never could do. A remarkably profound point, this kind of revolutionary experience is bound to mark the beginning of a new way of thinking. Reading through the I Am 8-Bit book (released as a companion to the show, for those of us not lucky enough to get to L.A.), we can see these artists talk with real passion about their pixel heroes. They were our refuge from the tough world of homework, and they remain our comfort in the even tougher world of adulthood.

Modern society is a bleak place for the Kidult. While we are free to enjoy our childish hobbies, we are constantly reminded of the more pressing matters that come with adult responsibility, and it is very possible that by clinging to our past we are only making matters worse for ourselves. While advertising appears to be pandering to our nostalgic obsessions, the pressure is still on. Cartoons are now telling us we need the latest mobile phone rather than the new Action Man (with real moving eyes!). Video games now feature incredibly detailed animation rather than pixels, and some businesses are even using them to “motivate” their employees. Even Transformers have been used to sell us family cars. All our heroes have been exploited as media-driven commodities in front of our very eyes. Of course, this was always the case, but now that it’s our own money they’re after, and for mature products, it seems different, and altogether a very scary concept. This is reflected in the cynical eyes of our designers and illustrators; they use our childhood heroes to reflect their own emotion, keeping them personal and sacred, yet they still exploit them as a release for their personal adult struggles.

While we hide away behind our toys and video games, the world continues to progress in a blur of mass-media and consumer culture. While we may be using the things we cared so deeply about as children as commodities in a money-driven adult world, it seems to make things feel safer, and more familiar. Less daunting for the big kids who aren’t ready to face the prospects of growing up. And if it helps, long may it continue. Long live the Kidult.

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