Tabloids and Snake Oil

Yesterday I went with M and my friends Alice and Kate to the Wellcome Museum. It was one of those museum-going experiences that lives up to its name– startling and beautiful enough to be a muse of sorts. It is no surprise the museum’s collections have inspired anthologies of fiction in The Phantom Museum, as well as a Quay Brothers film of the same name.

Glaxo Wellcome, the company behind the trust which funds the museum, manufactures the anti-AIDs drug Retrovir (AZT), and has also come under fire for charging an inhumane price for it. This company also makes Ventolin, an inhaler that has dramatically increased my quality of life and no doubt the lives of countless other asthmatics.

sm_wellcome.jpgHenry Wellcome was, among other things, a collector. An American expatriate from the mid-west, this is where our commonality ends. He was a door-to-door drug salesman turned Sir, immersed in men’s clubs and colonial and capitalist pursuits. The summary of his life reads like a book I would avoid, yet I am completely compelled by him, and not just because of the impressive moustache. It is, I confess, his Sadean magpie tendencies, only barely visible in the public collection, that threaten to obsess me.

Henry Wellcome dressed as a Monk

In 1913 he opened a museum of medical history to display objects he had acquired on his travels, but one had to petition in writing to enter the museum, as he did not want “stragglers” in attendance. The museum closed in 1932 and his collection remained in storage for many years. Now a portion of the collection is displayed artfully in the new Wellcome Museum which is free to the public. The small selection of objects are arranged thematically in the Medicine Man gallery in a Freudian triad of birth, sex and death.

The sensation upon entering is that of a straggler walking into a slick, Scandinavian Design wunderkammer. The walls are paneled with a warm wood and the collection displayed within them is almost without text– curation optional. Explanation is secreted away: one must open small doors in the walls in order to read acompanying text, or slide out a drawer to hear an audio commentary. The visitor is left with all the mystery and emotional complexity of the objects themselves.

Death in a medical museum is obvious. Increasingly we encounter death in a clinical setting, and death itself has been pathologized. But sex and medicine is something rarely talked about. Immediately one notices Wellcome’s two portraits, both with a bold moustache. In one he sports a headress adorned with vulvic shells and his eyes sparkle with a singlemindedness, the charismatic maddess of a Rasputin. He is teh hotness. (This other image of Wellcome dressed as a monk is from the Wellcome Library Archives)

To cure one must also seduce. All my life I have been a patient, a sickly girl. Before a man ever touched me with love, doctors had their way with me. (I survived what could be called molestation at the hands of a doctor, but that is actually not what I am getting at here.) I have had a crush on a doctor who was young and attentive and seemed at the time to cure me.

Many of the amulets and tools on display are sexual devices– a tortoise shell dildo or tiny sexual positions diagrammed inside ceramic fruit. But many of the non-erotic items seem to argue the erotic power of the ameliorative object: an elegant artificial hand, more beautiful than the one it replaces; a web of satin ribbons for repositioning the ears, an ebony-handled saw.

The patient’s faith and trust can’t be coaxed or bribed or threatened into being. Perhaps this is why Wellcome gathered not only countless forcepts and knives but also phallic amulets and tera cotta offerings like vulvic cakes– some of the most moving objects in the collection. The smoothed, triangular shape of the vulvas look like huge tablets–“tabloids”– the form which Wellcome invented. Wellcome’s interest in drug marketing must have lead him to remote places in search of such faith-loaded objects, but this can only be a partial explanation of his collection. (It is no surprise that until 1995 the logo for the company was a unicorn, the elusive animal who would only show itself to the pure and faithful.)

But perhaps most marvelous and strange are the torture implements Wellcome collected– a scold’s bridle– an iron mask meant to be worn by women, often accused witches, on their way to burning. Also a chair of blades which is displayed keenly next to a birthing chair and a 19th century dentist’s chair. One notices on the Victorian chair the wooden lions’ heads decorating the armrests have had their manes worried down to smooth, shining masses by the pain-grip of numerous patients, and the footrest contains a bar to brace the feet. Also amongst these torture implements are little spiked rings– male anti-masturbating devices, displayed next to a bog-standard iron and velvet chastity belt, said to be medieval but probably a 19th century fetish object.

One could argue that the fascination with these objects is morbid and voyeuristic, but I am more intrested in Wellcome’s reason for obtaining them. Could it have been a leap of compassion on his part? An attempt to present in material form the more abject and complex condition the sick face in the hands of an always inadequate medical establishment? That brutal and demeaning control of the body, the many uses of pain– what patient of a chronic and near-fatal illness could forget it? Not I.

Donuts, is there anything they can’t do?


If we needed more proof that some pagans are humorless, we now have it. The temporary chalk Homer on the hilside next to the Cerne Abbas giant has some pagans claiming they will do a rain ritual to erase this bit of advertising for the upcoming Simpsons movie.

As someone who spends most of her free time hiking to neolithic sites and researching them with a great deal of reverence, why does this not bug me? I’m not really a big Simpsons fan. I usually hate advertising’s pirating of public space. So what is it?

Maybe it’s so funny to me it actually transcends its function as an ad. It becomes almost Banksy-esque in its irreverence (think of the port-o-let Stonehenge at Glastonbury this year). Maybe it’s because to me the Cerne Abbas giant is not a sacred site. There are no records of this site before the 17th century, and it is more akin to some public toilet graffiti than a symbol of the divine. When I visited it, I found it muddy, macho and underwhelming. Unlike the chalk figure of the prehistoric Uffington horse which rises up, ghost-like and fragmented from the dramatic landscape, constantly obscured, increasingly fragmented as one draws closer, adding to its mystery. It’s set for the eyes of a God, not some human chest beating exercise. Had homer raised his yonic donut to the white horse, well, it wouldn’t be funny, just odd.

That Homer has appeared overnight in his y-fronts like a crop circle– if we pagans can’t laugh at that, we don’t really deserve our cakes and ale.

To quote Homer, “God bless those pagans.”

Ye Shall Know Them By Their Hucksters

Recently I’ve become fascinated by the Shoreditch ad agency responsible for the Orange ads that feature before films, the ITV sock monkey ad, and the Supernoodle “noodle mine” ad. The agency goes by the Orwellian name of “Mother”.

Speaking of Orwell– In his Defense of British Cooking he argues that there are wonderful British dishes, but they must be home made. Wither British cuisine in the brave new world of the ready meal? It’s frustrating to admit the truth of stereotypes but since moving here I have been struck by many Brits’ complacency with really mediocre grub. This ad seems to capitalize on the “proud shite” food attitude– the love of kebabs and chips over anything green and leafy.

Granted, this ad is funny. One of the creative partners of Mother discusses the ad in an Independent article:

“Take Supernoodles. For years it was good mums, twirly forks, fun in the kitchen, and all that crap. Our strategic insight was that the brand truth lay not in mums giving it to kids but with guys who were too drunk, too stoned, too lazy or too stupid to eat anything else.” He goes on to say, “We couldn’t have done it without the strategic insight that the product was actually a 49p sack of crap…”

The sad thing is this ad echoes some British ideas about food. “Salad” is the sad piece of lettuce you peel off a boxed sandwich. Brown rice is hard to find in the grocery store, impossible in restaurants. I could go on… I was vegan when I moved to the UK, but after a year I realized that unless I cooked everything myself or decided I hated food, it would be near impossible.

The Mother agency is also responsible for the Egg credit card ads, of which Theft is Good reminded me. The Egg ads feature guinea pig consumers who are being observed by lab coated technicians. At the end of a recent ad, the animals visit a gallery where a miniature Barbara Kruger canvas extolls the virtues of the credit card. You can see the ad if you visit the Theft is Good blog. Barbara Kruger was once famous for her propaganda-like billboards subverting rampant consumerism with ironic slogans like “I shop therefore I am”

Theft is Good also called my attention to the Barbara Kruger installation for the Selfridges Department Store. In art school I attended a seminar with Barbara Kruger and was amazed by her contrary and cynical pose. It’s really no surprise that she would undermine the very content of her superficial work, with the help of Mother, by doing an installation for the equally cynical Selfridges department store. I need not bring up the Selfridges’ “Future Punk” installation last year at the Oxford Street store, where they had a bouncer and a velvet rope at the door. The suited Aryan’s shtick was to first deny you entrance to the space and then tell you if you came in you could look but not shop. I remember wondering at the time if I was indeed expected to shop as the ultimate FU punk-rock gesture. Rock and Roll Swindle indeed.

It’s also no surprise that Kruger would be cozy with the cynics at Mother, who often depict the consumers of their featured product as idiots. For instance:

Pimms “Holiday Camp”– where a toffee-nosed twit is too clueless to figure out he’s actually in a prison. But perhaps the “real” humor here is the idea of the unwashed prisoners drinking Pimms, which is considered in Britain to be a “posh” summer cocktail. When I was in a Hammersmith Hospital 20 bed ward, the guy in the bed across from mine was a prisoner from Wormwood Scrubs, the neighboring prison. He was in chains, shackled to two guards who kept alternate watch over him. When they brought us tea and a small cellophane wrapped muffin he looked over at me in my backless hospital gown , winked at his minders and said, “I am a lucky boy, hain’t I?”

Yeah, it would have been more amusing had they brought us all Pimms.

The funniest and most troubling of the Mother ads I have seen is the Pot Noodle “Fuel of Britain, Isn’t It?” campaign. The recent history of mining in the UK is full of strife and woe. Thatcher brutally broke the unions, calling them “The Enemy Within.” She closed mines across the country and there were battles between miners and the police. Miners families were starving and grass-roots food schemes fed them. No surprise the boys at Mother would then co-opt this history to sell nutrient-free grub. The men in the ad are workers at the Pot Noodle plant in Crumlin, Whales. The Crumlin mine was closed in 1967. The miners in the ad say things like : “You learn a lot about yourself in a noodle mine. Deep below the ground the noodle miners must carve through sheer Welsh rock to extract the delicate noodle.” and “For the noodles, golden noodles, in the land of my fathers…” This is funny only until you realize that many mining communities were quite proud and the history of mining in the UK is one of radical resistance.

When I taught writing in America, the critical thinking unit was most difficult. I would bring in fake ads from Adbusters and usually the students would not get them. They could not decipher the real ads from the satires. They had no distance from the ads at all, and could not separate themselves from the products represented. Often their identities were intimately tied to them. I may be a cassandra but I find this deeply disturbing. These product-mongers have marked our age, and without artists and writers countering them, they will define it.

Some people have commented that I take ads too seriously, that they are merely entertaining jokes intending to sell us something. But are ads not crowding out public space? Are they not infringing on cultural production, buying integrity, stealing authenticity from others who have labored to earn the right to their own dreams, free of commodification?

When ad agencies and transnational corporations are buying off artists, thinkers and those of us who should know better, Billy Bragg’s union anthem “Which Side Are you On” carries with it a new kind of meaning.

And now I leave you with something completely different– Martin Shakeshaft’s documentation of the Miner’s strike of 1984.

Eat it, Read it, Spray it, Drive it

In a scene from that inane 80’s movie, Splash, the mermaid learns English by watching tee vee. Often in England I feel like a fish out of water, and sometimes I watch the telly hoping for some similiar assimilation miracle. This has its own problems. Primarily, I can’t get my head around the particular version of “sex sells” in British advertising. The misogyny is in your face, and the sexual metaphors are shamelessly explicit.

Here I give you a brief tour of what passes for sexy, according to British ad writers:

Is this not highly cringeworthy? Who thought this was a good idea, anyway? Do ad people really think women will go for this self-satisfied, smarmy chocolate pedant? The chocolate-eater is American, but the other narrator patronizing us with “you got your hunk” is British. As if pandering to our supposed sexuality is some kind of favor, and a British gigolo is out of the question.

Where do I even start? Did Peter Jackson make this ad? What’s with this weird Mayan/Aztec/African land where white women in headdresses genuflect to a giant, dark, lolly god?

Women’s sexuality has always been “bought off” with chocolate. I’m sure there are ancient reasons for this, and maybe even biological ones. But why must it be so obvious? My guess is it’s easier to talk about the caloric transgression of eating chocolates than it is to talk about our real sexual desires, on our own terms. When I had that office job, women would eat stuff like this and then say how “naughty” they were being– with the same giggly relish as a school girl bragging to her mates about oral sex in the back of a car.

Women’s sexuality is reduced to “cheeky sweets”, which very different from the way men’s sexuality is addressed in other ads I’ve seen here:

This ad is closest to the kind of daily sexism I’ve encountered in the UK. It sums up the flabby machismo of many British men and their weird ideas of inept women. The other Nuts ad features a woman getting sprayed by faulty plumbing as she struggles with a wrench. lovely.

And it hurts to mention the Lynx “Spray More Get More” and “Bom Chicka Wah Wah” campaigns. The later is obviously attempting give the onomatopoeia of the 70’s porn wah-wah pedal catch-phrase status:

Whatever these women were paid, it was not enough. So, the black woman shakes her booty in the supermarket, and the white woman spreads her mouth open and then looks demurely up at the dentist wearing drugstore perfume. But where is Muslim woman tearing off her hijab? Come on Lynx, get behind this new British inclusivity! Why should only haram British women have all the fun?

But in seriousness, fundamentalist Muslims have used the “decadent Western female” as foil in a defense of the veil, and I can only think they are referring to ads like this which they believe represent actual non-Muslim women. Fundamentalist Muslims conflate these displays with feminist ideas of sexual equality. It does my head in.

This next one is more disturbing. An army of starved women with breast implants desperately swimming to shore, running over hills? Maybe they are looking for the giant, ethnic ice cream bar:

But this one is also comforting in that it reminds me that my fat saves me from never having to run bikini clad in someone else’s perverse fantasy of a nypho army. Yay fat.

This one is probably the worst of the lot:

It just makes me tired, looking at it. There’s a sinister genius to this ad which compiles a great deal of real heartache and discomfort into a 28 second slot. Tit stares. Solipsistic disregard. Cheating. Shitty sex. It’s all so hilarious! Is this how most men really want women to behave? As simpy, selfless, lying push-overs?

Don’t answer that.