Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sticker Fever – A Secret History of Stickers

First posted on May 25th, 2011 on The Retroist Retro Blog and Podcast - CW post link

          We all know the prominent roll that stickers have played in our history, but how many of us have ever asked ourselves where they came from? It seems a strange thing to know so little about something that did so much to change the landscape of our country. Most of you probably know the story I’m about to tell, but if this article helps just a few more people to better understand this very important subject, then I will have done my job.

          The year was 1981 and America was just coming out of a recession. By banning the newly created Beta-Max technology, President Jimmy Carter had sent the nation into a state of chaos and near financial ruin. Wall Street tried to offer its own solution, but yuppie stockbrokers were not the answer. The world desperately needed hope, and was thirsty for something to lift its spirits. By sheer coincidence, there were events going on miles from New York that would change everything.

          In Columbus, Ohio an adhesive researcher named John Keaton was struggling in his home office to create a permanent adhesive. The adhesive was intended to help apply rock concert posters to the walls of alleys in dangerous downtown areas. It was hoped that it would make the posters easier to replace when they were inevitably vandalized by punk rock gang members with boomboxes on their shoulders. Unfortunately, no matter how hard Keaton tried, the results always seemed to be the same. Weak adhesive that would never stand up to constant fights, spray paint and crashing metal trashcans. Making Keaton’s frustration even worse was the energetic presence of his son Alex. The young boy, not knowing that his father’s job was in danger was treating the day like any other and was trying desperately to show his dad his latest drawings. Alex prided himself on being quite a good artist and enjoyed filling a sheet of paper with tiny, evenly spaced pictures of cartoon characters, food, animals etc. He had just finished an especially good page full of posed Heathcliffs and Heathcliff accessories. As John’s son tried relentlessly to get the attention of his distracted father, he grew more and more impatient and eventually thrust the drawings into his father’s face. In a sudden loss of temper, John Keaton snatched the art from his son’s hand and tossed it aside. As fate would have it, the drawing landed face up in the latest vat of his new adhesive. He quickly removed it and placed it on a piece of wax paper to dry. Once they had set, Keaton found that because of the nature of the adhesive, the pictures could be cut out individually and removed from the wax paper and applied easily to any surface. John Keaton knew he had stumbled upon something incredible. This invention could mean that folders and mirrors would never have to go undecorated. More importantly, photo albums could finally be used for something other than photos!

          After patenting his creation, Keaton left the adhesive firm and started a company called Peel Here Industries. His staff of 12 began to work day and night to develop and market his new creation. He decided to call his invention “Stickers” and together, this core group would bring about a marketing revolution. While each of them played a vital roll in the birth of stickers, one man in particular is considered the most influential in bringing “sticker fever” to the nation. I am very proud to say that I have been granted a one-on-one meeting with this giant of pop culture history and it is my sincere pleasure to present my experience to you.

          I arrived at 9:00 in the morning at his sprawling estate somewhere in Georgia and was greeted at the door by a butler. It was like something out of a movie. After introducing myself and presenting my credentials, he contacted his boss and guided me up the stairs. I was then lead down an enormous hall to a dark mahogany door, which the butler opened. And there he was, the man who’s life had become synonymous with stickers themselves. The man who took the sticker art form from a great idea in Ohio, to one of the most powerful industries in the world. There seated behind a large desk was Shawn Robare. I was immediately star-struck, Robare was imposing not only in stature but in manner. Even at the ripe old age of 95, Shawn seemed as powerful as ever. I looked around the room and it felt as though I was in a museum, so many artifacts of pop culture past, most prominent of all, of course being the stickers. And then I spotted it, and its significance hit me immediately. On the wall behind Robare was an enormous portrait of the Incredible Hulk. And finally the silence was broken by his voice, which was as impressive as the man himself. “Yes there it is, the largest sticker ever created.” His voice was course and he spoke with a heavy Polish accent. An accent that was strangely absent from the many recordings I had heard of the younger Shawn Robare. “There are men that would kill for this and, it has never been peeled! Not once! Look at it young man, this is the kind of sticker that dreams are made of.” I stared at the picture in amazement. “But, you haven’t even heard the best part yet, it’s actually scratch and sniff! It smells exactly like Lou Ferrigno. I always did love strong scents! I haven’t had a sense of smell for years now but I remember. Ah yes, my boy, I remember.” He then instructed his butler (Rogare) to serve us drinks. Which he prepared from Mr. Robare’s private Slurpee machine. We were served our bright frozen refreshments and our discussion began.

          I started by asking him how it felt to have played such a big part in a major cultural phenomenon. “People often give me credit for the popularity of stickers but in reality I was only a mouthpiece, only a voice. There were some real creative geniuses behind the scenes who were giving stickers real life. I have loved the sticker art form from the moment I saw it, so “selling” them to the world always came so easy to me. Back in my day, stickers were really stickers…they meant something! Not like Pogs, I mean what are Pogs? You can’t even stick them to anything. It doesn’t make any sense! So many people these days don’t know anything about stickers and they certainly don’t understand the value of history. I remember Retro when it was new! At that time the world seemed so new to all of us at Peel Here. It was like an explosion of creativity, every day was another leap forward in sticker technology. I can still remember the night that Jerrica Benton invented the hologram sticker. We celebrated into the early hours of the morning, it was truly outrageous!”

          “I suppose our brightest stars were these two boys in R&D by the names of Stinky and Tim. Everything they touched became an almost instant hit! They created puffies, they created scratch and sniff. These two invented scratch and sniff puffies! The possibilities were endless! One day, Tim brought a new prototype to my office. He had a strange look in his eyes and I knew this was going to be something special. I can still remember the hushed voice as he said “Shawn, we call this Lenticular.” And he presented the page to me with a single sticker. It was the image of Cy-Kill, but not just a picture. On this sticker the transformer transformed! He changed from motorcycle to robot right there on the sticker. I don’t have to tell you I was mesmerized! I mean it was like I was watching an incredibly short scene from a movie. I must have tilted the thing back and forth for two hours trying to figure out how it worked. My friend, it was marvelous.

          Once the popularity of stickers took off, they really took off! And our business quadrupled overnight. We were selling stickers to school teachers, retailers, even the clothing and food industries! When Chiquita made the decision to start putting stickers on bananas, it transformed them almost immediately from a mistrusted foreign fruit into a mainstream snack for the lunchboxes of kids everywhere. Speaking of the kids, they absolutely could not get enough of stickers. Everyone wanted to trade them, and no one went anywhere without a sticker book. There were even these books with numbered blank squares and the kids would buy packs of stickers and try to fill every square in the book. After all these years I still don’t understand it. Did you know, that there was a period of two months in 1985, when stickers were traded at such a high volume that they actually became a currency?“ He laughs “The government didn’t know what to make of it! It nearly ruined the US financial system…now that is a powerful hobby! Stickers changed the world! They helped make movie and cartoon franchises what they were…I mean who would have even heard of Ghostbusters if there weren’t Ghostbusters Stickers? Once teachers started including them on graded papers, national test grades went through the roof. Everyone wanted stickers on their products or their creations on stickers. It seemed like Lisa Frank would not leave us alone until we finally started putting her art onto stickers.”

          My ears perk up as he mentioned the famous trapper keeper artist and he noticed, waving his hand dismissively.

          “I know what you’re going to ask but the rumors of Lisa and I being romantically entangled were never true. It was never a romance…nothing that meaningful. It was a different time, a freer time. It was” …he pauses…“sticker time.”

          There is another less cheerful subject I need to ask about as well. In the fall of 1988 sticker mania hit its darkest hour. A semi-truck hauling a load of Smurfs stickers crashed in downtown Philadelphia, dumping its entire load out onto the city street. The city erupted into chaos with people racing and even fighting to gather as many of the cartoon stickers as they could. It took dozens of police officers to finally break up the insanity, but only after thousands of dollars in damage. People still talk about the Smurf-Wreck riots in Philly to this very day. I ask Mr. Robare about its impact.

          “After that fateful day, we began to realize that stickers had become like a drug and we had to slow it all down. We brought production nearly to a stand-still only meeting the bare minimum of our requests. People were outraged at first but eventually the demands slowed down and finally faded away altogether. Before we knew it, the public seemed to forget about sticker madness completely. It was a bittersweet end to all of it, but I suppose it had to be done. Still, we had a good run and there are some people, like you, who do remember and even pay tribute to those wonderful days.”

          “I really admire the fact that people still care about retro pop culture in this day and age, what with the cable and the TMZ and what have you. It’s very comforting to know that people still care and there are journalists like you, getting the word out there. I will certainly be on the lookout for your newspaper when it comes out!”

          I explained once again to Mr. Robare again that our work is “published” on the Internet, and that I work for a blog…and suddenly his friendly demeanor became full of disgust… “A blog! A blog on the…the internet? You worthless bottom feeder! Get the hell out of my office! GET OUT!!!” I backed slowly out of the room as he became overwhelmed by a terrible coughing fit. Rogare rushed over to pat his back and freshen his Slurpee. While the scene played out, I began to “show myself to the door.” All the while I looked at my surroundings in total awe. How often does one get to meet a living legend…to actually walk through his home, to walk down the halls and look at the photos of a lifetime of memories. To hold in your hands priceless items from a collection that holds as much of a nostalgic value as it does a monetary one, and to meet his armed guards who tell you to put Mr. Robare’s things down and get out of his mansion.

          And as I was forced from the premises, I continued to let my thoughts wander. Would there ever be another fad as powerful as stickers? One that was so simple, yet so amazing? It may have just been a matter of the right place at the right time, but I do really hope that we as a nation can recapture that magic. To go back to a more innocent time that we all desperately need today. I also hope that Shawn Robare never misses any of those things I stole from his house.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Banished Advertising Villains Reunite For Revenge

First posted on May 9th, 2011 on The Retroist Retro Blog and Podcast - CW post link

          In a world where classic advertising icons are vilified for being a “bad influence ” we sometimes forget that there are truly menacing things out there. As we begin to faze out the heroes of our commercials, we also abandon the only defense we had against the wolves that they always kept at bay. These villains are patiently waiting in the shadows. Ready to swipe our snacks, ready to ruin our breakfast. And maybe, just maybe, ready to rule our world…

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Tragic Tale of Battle Zone

First posted on May 4th, 2011 on The Retroist Retro Blog and Podcast - CW post link

          Sometimes it seems like pop culture greatness is a difficult thing to achieve. With changing tastes and advances in technology there can be a fine line between being popular and circling the drain. Even “Retro” movements can have an influence on modern entertainment. But is pop culture destined to always get better? Maybe not. Perhaps there are events powerful enough to change it’s course forever. I bring you the tragic tale of Battle Zone.

          The year was 1980 and the place was Vector, New Mexico. Members of the US Military’s elite, Imagination Corps had embarked on a groundbreaking program of war games known as BattleZone. The US Military purchased 200 acres of land in the vast Rotberg Desert in the shadows of the Atari Mountains. Highly trained technicians designed an elaborate and massive obstacle course to train soldiers in the operation of the new 2600 Tank series. Large generic geometric objects were placed at regular and awkward intervals throughout the grounds.

          This training ground thrived for years. The research and training at the battle zone facility led to advances in warfare, sweet action television shows, real weapons and toy weapons. Pretty much everything except video games. Unfortunately over time, regulations began to relax and the battle grounds began to transform from a source of innovation, into a place where soldiers could work out aggression and do some damage with no real consequence. The trainees turned tank training into a game with a point system for “tagging” the tanks of the other team. The destruction of “enemy” helicopters gave tank pilots an even larger amount of points.

          At that same time, an alien race sped across the universe, on a mission of mercy to our world. They recognized the crossroads that earth had found itself at. At that time we were at the height of our creative potential. Never before had people created such amazing cartoons, action figures, or of course senior citizen themed sci-fi movies. While we seemed invincible, we were in fact at a tipping point. In one direction. it meant that we could build upon the greatness that we had only begun to realize. The other direction took us to a dark place, a future of reality shows, hollow pop singers, and children show hosts that couldn’t even SPELL Mr. Rogers. This is what the brave captains of those alien vessels had hoped to prevent. Little did any of us know that they were on a collision course with destiny.

          There were transmissions announcing the arrival of these emissaries. They were transmissions that would ultimately arrive too late. The captains of the space crafts unknowingly made one fatal mistake. They attempted to land at the secret castle hidden within the Battle Zone Volcano. The soldiers, not knowing what they were dealing with, were stunned by the arrival of flying saucers. And while they could have taken the time to communicate, to be patient and find out the purpose of these visitors; they instead choose to expand the rules of their war games to include the alien ships and award “bonus points” to the soldiers who shot them out of the sky. The alien visitors clearly posed no threat and never once fired on the tanks, yet still they were targeted. A second saucer was sent and met with the same fate. Finally after a third craft was attacked the leaders of the planet Oddidore had had enough. There was a brief moment when the Mothership was almost sent to retaliate for the number of saucers destroyed but it was eventually decided to just abandon all attempt to deliver the gifts of art and culture to a planet that clearly did not deserve it. As we had sealed our own fate, no further punishment would be needed.

          In a heartbreaking revelation after the tragedy we finally received the messages from our would-be heroes. And what they revealed was shocking. We were given a glimpse, not only into our future but into TWO possible futures. The first was so amazing, few of us could begin to imagine. In this earth, we had begun to produce programs of such high quality, that people felt nostalgic for show while they were still being produced! We had abandoned the shallow concept of trying to please a mass audience and in doing so had refined all forms of art to near perfection. This was a world where the music industry had been taken by storm by the elegant genius of a man simply named Peachy. A world where the television show Serenity was entering into its 11th season. Where horror films had continued to get better and better, in the honored tradition of classics like Nightmare on Elm Street and Hellraiser. Movies so great that no remakes were ever made.

          The second future was a grim one indeed, full of too many horrors to name in my limited time. This was a place where people like Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers, had somehow become pop stars. A world where mankind was interested in the latest exploits of a “lady” named Gaga who constantly paraded in costumes made of whatever stuffed toys or grocery items she happened to find. There were channels called Music Television, and Cartoon network, that had turned their backs on Music and Cartoons. Worst of all, the people of this future had opened their arms to embrace the unthinkable…They embraced people from New Jersey. These “celebrities” starred in a television program that was so horrible, I refuse to even attempt to describe it.

          After the contents of the alien transmissions were leaked to the public, all nations slipped into a state of despair. Blame quickly fell not only on the tank pilots, but the entire Imagination Corps. Some people even claimed that we should have never created the Corps in the first place. Even going so far as to say that we should have just stuck with normal military branches, not one based on creating and defending pop culture.

          In a last ditch effort to sway the opinion of the public General Bradley T. Trayner released an official and heartbreaking statement:

          “We, hardened soldiers of the Imagination Corps, have been through a lot. We remember when GI Joe was a giant doll, and not the awesome articulated action figures they are today. We remember the dark days before Reagan once again allowed advertisers to create thirty minute long commercials for their new toy lines. And what totally boss commercials they were. There have never been greater fans of such pure works of art as the Go-Bots and Rubik the Amazing Cube, than your fighting men and women. If it means that there will be a time when we can’t drive down the street listening to the latest hit by Flock of Seagulls or Devo. If it means that one day we as a nation will be subjected to the music of Ni….(he pauses here, visibly trying to hold back a flood of emotion, to stay strong.) the music of Nickleback, then I cannot say how personally sorry I am. We have always pledged to keep this country free to make newer, better, less Boe focused episodes of She-Ra Princess of Power. And it is our hope that we can bounce back from this mistake. However dark it may seem, I believe that we can come back. I believe that joy will once again return to our nation. In the words of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, “Na na na, we are going to have a good time!”

          The Generals powerful words began to ever slightly, lift the spirits of the nation. Despite the crushing setback, perhaps Earth could move forward to a brighter future on its own. The human spirit is a powerful thing. As I do not exist within your reality,, there is no way for me to be sure as to which path you chose. All I can say is that I hope this communication finds you well. It is my fondest hope that you have arrived in the bright future I witnessed and never have to suffer the horrors of Zack and Cody, or the Jersey Shore. Wherever you happen to be, I hope a lesson has been learned. We should always assume that the sudden arrival of spacecraft from another would will bring nothing but peace, hope and a better tomorrow. If we ever again destroy what we don’t understand, we could doom ourselves even more than we already have.

          Bonus points? Sure. But at what cost. At what cost.