Monday, July 2, 2012

Thoughts on Purina, Puffery, and Other Matters, Such as the Poetics of Inflation and the Advertising Poetry of Friskies Crispies Cheese Flavor Puffs

In 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?

The "puff" as a sort of exaggerated or over-inflated product claim had such currency in nineteenth-century Englnd, in fact, that the Irish poet 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of [Alexander Pope's] The Dunciad revisiting London, only to find, much to her horror, that the age of dunces has been superseded by a literary golden age: towering poets (Byron, [Thomas] Moore and [Thomas] Campbell) have supplanted her poetasters and Walter Scott has displaced her hack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.

Even the 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.

All of this allows us to better understand the history and poetics informing Purina's 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!

This poetics of inflation structures the rest of the packaging too: the individual cat treats soar up into the sky and off of the plastic pouch like helium balloons, and those images themselves are inflated in size compared to the actual treats, as the admission "Treats Shown Are Not Actual Size" on the reverse informs us. If that isn't enough, a magnified "blow up" of a single Crispie pictured on the back and captioned "there's air in there!" inflates that Crispie even more, as if putting it under a microscope lens. The rhetoric of the poem and surrounding language is equally inflated, puffed up with redundancy and contradiction that embrace the "emptiness," "inflation of style," and "showy adornment" that the OED uses in one of its definitions of "puff." The first lines of the poem, for example, needlessly tell us that "Crispies are" (wait for it) "crispy" and that "They're fluffy with" (of all things) "air." Making liberal use of exclamation marks to puff things up still more, the poem moves to stanza two, which begins not by making additional claims for the product itself, but claims for what it isn't (it's not crunchy, not tender, etc.); essentially, as with the hype it gives the product's key ingredient that we can't see and that Purina doesn't make (air), the poem also makes claims for Crispies based on qualities that the product doesn't have.

If stanza one pursues a poetics of inflation via redundancy (Crispies are crispy) and stanza two via negativity (what Crispies are not, rather than what they are), then the poem's final stanza does so via hyperbole, telling us in the last two lines to "Crisp it up anytime. / Perfect morning, noon and night"—advice that other verbiage about "Feeding Instructions" on the package tells us we should not in fact take: "Feed as a treat to your adult cat. This product is a treat and is not intended to be fed as a meal. The caloric intake from treats should not exceed 10% of a cat's daily caloric requirement. If treats are given, the amount of food should be reduced accordingly..." In other words, you really shouldn't crisp it up anytime, as there are lots of times when Crispies aren't perfect. Among other things, what we learn from this mixed message and clash of discursive registers is that, when it comes to the language of truth and statistics and Fluffy's real-life health and dietary concerns, Purina goes to prose, and when it comes to making (and getting consumer permission to make) artificial claims (i.e., puffery), it goes to poetry. In other words, truth-in-advertising equals prose, while false or misleading information equals poetry.

But maybe this prose=realism/ poetry=puffery logic isn't entirely bad—just the victim of an unfortunate contrast and set of mass cultural associations about the power of poetry marshaled here. If you think that Friskies Crispies makes poetry seem showy, unreliable, ill-suited for practical matters, bombastic, inflated, and empty (like the holes in the crisps that we're asked to buy for their air), then wouldja just let your capitalist self take a look at that loveable cat on the packaging? He reaches up toward the sky not for the solid realness of the Crispies, but for the air inside of them, the air that surrounds us, the air that we can never fully grasp or see but on which our lives depend. When we want to reach for the stars (check out how little white starbursts in an otherwise daytime sky on the product's packaging rhyme with the sun toward which the hand reaches in the picture here), or when we leap as Friskies' Fluffy does for the Platonic ideal of the Crispie floating across the heavens, our chief resource isn't prose, it's poetry—even puffery. That is, when "the darkness surrounds us," as Creeley writes in "I Know a Man," we don't write expository paragraphs; instead, we "buy a goddamn big car" and start plunging ahead via the poetics of inflation—redundancy ("because I am always talking"), hyperbole (goddamn big car), and contradiction (telling ourselves at one moment to "drive" and the next to "look / out where yr going"). If Puff, Griffin's Spirit of Advertising, is the patron of the dull and shameless that brings overshadowed things to light and that gives fame to the nameless, well, then maybe that's just the thing we should do against the powers of darkness.

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.