Stumbled across these toys by Ron English the other day, and was impressed with how he’s using the medium of toys to comment on consumer culture.
Each of these three toys (Mc Supersized, Captain Cornstarch, and Fat Tony) is a version of a character used to advertise unhealthy food to kids. English makes two leaps here that are pretty great.
First, he portrays them as obese, revealing the body you will actually have if you consume massive quantities of McDonald’s, Frosted Flakes, or Captain Crunch. (Is that pegleg on Cap’n Cornstarch an amputation from adult-onset diabetes?)
Secondly, he chooses toys as his medium. Only since the beginning of the Designer Toy movement in the early 2000′s have their been character toys aimed directly at adults. That means over 50 years of cultural conditioning that toy characters of this sort are meant for kids. There’s a thinly veiled rage in these toys, directed at the companies who don’t think twice about using cartoon characters to sell kids food that is anything but good for them.
These characters are the inheritors of a storied tradition of brand spokesmanship. Ellen Lupton writes in her book Design Writing Research about how brand spokesmen began: When the industrial revolution dramatically increased the production of grains, the cereal industry was born. In an effort to overcome consumer reluctance to buy machine milled cereal, companies began to put pictures of people on the boxes, like the quaker on Quaker Oats.
This was meant to harken back to the general store tradition, in which a shopkeeper you knew and trusted would personally hand scoop your oats for you. When the industrial age cut him out, they felt the need to bring him back, if only in the form of an image on a cereal box.
When and where this practice extended to children and the use of cartoon characters I don’t know, but I’d love to find out. (Note to self: google later). For now, my hat’s off to Mr. English for his use of toys in communicating a surprising and powerful message.