Saturday, November 8, 2008

Dickie the Stick! (My first lesson in media literacy)

Last week, "the stick" was entered into the National Toy Hall of Fame. [Note: I link to the Wikipedia article rather than the NTHF's page because it has more information, presented more readily, than the NTHF's site itself, the page for inductees at which appears to be busted]. That's awesome. The stick joins the cardboard box, the kite and marbles, as well as more branded toys such as Legos, Barbie, etc.

From the Associated Press:

Curators said the stick was a special addition in the spirit of a 2005 inductee, the cardboard box. They praised its all-purpose, no-cost, recreational qualities, noting its ability to serve either as raw material or an appendage transformed in myriad ways by a child's creativity. 

"It's very open-ended, all-natural, the perfect price -- there aren't any rules or instructions for its use," said Christopher Bensch, the museum's curator of collections. "It can be a Wild West horse, a medieval knight's sword, a boat on a stream or a slingshot with a rubber band. ... No snowman is complete without a couple of stick arms, and every campfire needs a stick for toasting marshmallows. 

I've known, since I was six, about the features and benefits of the stick. We camped a bunch when I was a kid, and, when you're out in the Berkshires, sticks there are a-plenty. 

At one point, while sitting around the campfire playing with sticks, my Dad took one up and began to recite -- in a wonderfully over-modulated, deep, Don Pardo-esque voice -- an impromptu commercial for...

"Dickie the Stick!"

It went something like this:

Dickie the Stick! The most amazing toy and tool you'll ever own! For just $10 (plus shipping and handling) you can own an object whose entertainment and functional properties have been lauded by pharaohs, kings, heroes, adventurers, pirates and peasants alike. Dickie the Stick! Raised above your head he becomes... a baton! Conduct the orchestras of your dreams. Suspended between two shelves, it's a towel rack! Placed just -so- against your spine... a back-scratcher! Buy two, and you can practice fencing with a friend. Jammed in the ground it transforms into a sundial! Practice your baton twirling with Dickie the Stick and then... voila! It's an extermination tool, guaranteed to kill or maim rodents, bugs, cats, parrots, small raccoons and other household vermin. Dickie the Stick! A child's friend, a handyman's partner."

You get the picture. I'm pretty sure Dad went on at greater length, as I found it hysterical at the time.

Later, in the sixth grade, we were assigned to create an ad for a product we enjoyed. I did a poster and radio ad for Dickie the Stick. Much hilarity ensued.

What is funny about the ad for a stick is, of course, not that it's absurd, but that it is a media parody of other absurdities. It's funny because it pokes fun at commercials that greatly overemphasize their benefits or appeal. Sham-wow comes to mind.

My son and I have been, for at least three years, deconstructing ads. I believe two things about media and the Hollywood / Madison Avenue Axis (a term also from my Dad). One -- they are inescapable parts of our environment and, as such, must be understood in order to live and thrive in modern society. Two -- the better you understand them, the more fun you can have.

I love toys. I love gadgets. I love TV (mostly). I love ads (sometimes). I love the *ideas* behind good toys, gadgets, TV and advertising. This love comes, in many cases, from a relationship born of the same respect with which I hold fire. Very handy stuff, fire... but it can burn and kill as well as make smores.

We watch Nick and Disney and the Cartoon Network together, my son and I. And we mock the ads. They alternate between shouting ads (for boys toys) and singing ads (girls toys). We discuss them. Not in a "I'm teaching you something important" manner, but to pick apart their shortcomings or, in some few cases, cool stuff.

Recently, Acura launched a series of ads where various things (karate fist, diver, etc.) transmogrify into an Acura. The bullet version is pretty cool looking.

When my son saw it, he said, "That looks cool. But it's a dumb ad for a car."

"Why?" I asked.

"It's just dumb. A bullet isn't a car. You wouldn't want your car to only go straight. Bullets are dangerous on purpose. Car's are supposed to be safe."

I nodded in agreement. Cool ad. Dumb ad. Not necessarily mutually exclusive. He's getting there.

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