Advertising and Satirical Culture in the Romantic Period (Cambridge UP, 2007), Northumbria University English professor John Strachan repeatedly reminds us that the term "puff" was once (and to some extent still is) regularly used to describe not a type of delectable, creamy pastry or profiterole, but an advertising technique. In 1836, for example, the English poet and novelist Horace Smith described "puffing" as "a species of cozenage and trickery much resorted to by the vendors of quack medicines, [shoe] blacking, novels, and other trash, for the purpose of gulling the public and cajoling them into a purchase of their wares." Quack medicines, blacking, novels, and other trash, right?
Gerald Griffin imagined it coming to life as Puff, not a magic dragon but the Spirit of Advertising itself. Of "The Prayer of Dullness" (taken from that 1843 classic The Works of Gerald Griffin), Strachan writes, Griffin "envisages the goddess of [Alexander Pope's] The Dunciad revisiting London, only to find, much to her horror, that the age of dunces has been superseded by a literary golden age: towering poets (Byron, [Thomas] Moore and [Thomas] Campbell) have supplanted her poetasters and Walter Scott has displaced her hack novelists.... Dullness prays for 'Some ally in my hour of care' to restore the empire of 'bad taste on earth.' Salvation arrives in the malign form of Puff, the personification of advertising, who blows 'a thrilling blast' on his 'brazen trumpet.'" Consider Puff's entrance:
My name is Puff—the guardian sprite,
And patron of the dull and shameless,
Things born in shades, I bring to light,
And give a high fame to the nameless.
Me modest merit shuns to meet,
His timid footsteps backward tracking,
The worthless all my influence greet,
From —'s books—to Turner's blacking.
Thomas Moore referenced by Griffin and pictured here got in on the act, penning "Thoughts on Patrons, Puffs and Other Matters" from which the following comment on authorial puffery is taken:
Instead of bartering, in this age,
Our praise for pence and patronage,
We authors, now, more prosperous,
Have learn'd to patronize ourselves;
And since all-potent Puffing's made
The life of song, the soul of trade,
More frugal of our praises grown,
We puff no merits but our own.
Partially as a result of its long connection to the practice of advertising, "puff" has acquired a whole set of undesirable connotations that the Oxford English Dictionary can track for you: the empty or idle boast, a person or thing regarded as insubstantial, a person puffed up with pride or vanity, something inflated or swollen, a type of journalism (the puff piece), and even a sexual personality. Putting the profits in the profiterole (one might say), puffery is thus all about air—hot air, we might typically think, but air nonetheless.
Friskies Crispies Cheese Flavor Puffs and the three-stanza verse "Fun Is In The Air" printed in an appropriately airy white text on the back of the 2.1-oz. package of cat treats pictured here. Hard to read but guaranteeing good taste for your favorite feline (instead of the "empire of 'bad taste on earth'" that Griffin imagined Puff helping to restore in "The Prayer of Dullness"), "Fun Is In The Air" reads as follows:
Friskies Crispies are crispy!
They're fluffy with air.
They're irresistibly puffy.
It's a new love affair.
Not crunchy. Not tender.
Not expected. Not boring.
Airy is merry!
A new treat worth exploring.
So tasty! So cheese-y!
Every bite's a delight.
Crisp it up anytime.
Perfect morning, noon and night.
Embodying its central conceit in that wonderful sonic slippage between "love affair" and "love of air," Purina's poem is a sort of attempt to reclaim puffiness from its history of negative connotations. But in order to do that, "Fun Is In The Air" must embrace (and sell) the very excess (too much insubstantial airiness) that led the character of Andrugio in J. Marston's Elizabethan play The History of Antonio and Mellida (c. 1599) to describe how "blown up" an imprudent king might get "with the flattering puffs / Of spongy sycophants." Purina's bard of cat-tasting (rather than poetasting) therefore not only embeds the sound of "air" in "love affair" and "merry," but then embarks on the task of convincing the consumer that it's the very insubstantiality of air that's responsible for its opposite: its substantial crispiness. In other words, "Fun Is In The Air" identifies as the product's special, key ingredient the very thing that makes puffery puff, that inflates the zip-lock package of cat treats, and that, like the "darkness" of Robert Creeley's "I Know a Man," surrounds all of us. "Fun Is In The Air" doesn't have as its only goal making modestly inflated claims for Crispies' crunchiness or tenderness, but audaciously inflated claims for the very source of inflation, as well, and even the act of inflation itself!
N.B. P&PC made several attempts to contact Purina about the poem on this package of cat treats, but neither our emails nor phone messages were returned.