Eating Dog Food, Thinking It's Steak

One of the first times parody advertisements were used in film was in Elia Kazan’s Face in the Crowd, starring Andy Griffith (of Mayberry RFD fame) as Lonesome Rhodes, a TV spokesman for Vitajex, a phony snake-oil dietary supplement made from aspirin, caffeine, and sugar. Through bravado and ego, he convinces the sponsor to change the dull white tablets to yellow—”the color of sunshine!”—and immediately dumbs down the message to infiltrate his mass audience. Rhodes’s huckstering exploits the gullibility of the American public through the power of his  “voice of the people” persona.

Advertising has changed since 1957 when Face was released. But audiences are still susceptible to manipulated misinformation from news/entertainment organizations. “Truth in media” is a nice sentiment but ultimately a hollow term. Or as Lonesome said, “I can make ’em eat dog food and they’ll think its steak.”

(Are there too many tote bags in the world today? See Saturday’s DH here.)

6 thoughts on “Eating Dog Food, Thinking It's Steak

  1. RWordplay

    Dear Steve,
    Thank you for your thoughts. I am familiar with the “Putney Swope,” My father was with Y&R in the 60s, and I’m something of an battered adman myself .

    As for the uses of satire and parody, I welcome the distinction you make between the two. Yes, the Vitajex spot is certainly a parody and the audience of the film will recognize it as such—as is also the case of the spots in “PS.” (Thank you for the links.)

    This use of parody to advance the satire reveals both Kazan’s a sophistication and understanding of rhetoric. I appreciate your pointing out to me although parody is the lower of the two forms, it can work beautifully to intensify the ferocity of the satire .

    Have a lovely day,

  2. Steven Heller Post author

    To RWordplay: Allow me a semantic nitpick. You are correct. “Face in the Crowd” is indeed satire. But the commercial for Viatjex is parody. I refer you to Robert Downey Sr’s 1969 “Putney Swope,” an hilarious satire on the hypocrisy of the advertising industry. Yet the TV commercials sprinkled throughout the film are parodies. The distinctions are critical, I agree.

    To Michael: You’re right, “Mayberry, RFD” was a spin off of “The Andy Griffith Show.” And I agree that Andy’s role was over the top. But look at Glenn Beck. I think there are some similarities.

  3. RWordplay

    Thank you for the thoughts on “Eating Dog Food….” Wonderful to be reminded of the fine film FACE IN THE CROWD, but I’m compelled to correct you in your use of the word “parody.” Kazan’s purpose and method was not parody but satire. Satire, in it true and most effective, which is to say, subversive expression. To parody is to make fun of a person/thing or activity but not to repudiate it. Satire attacks its subject with the intent to cause it a mortal wound.

    While there’s a great deal of of parody in popular culture, including advertising that parodies other advertising, there too little satire. There’s a reason that authoritarian and totalitarian regimes suppress and punish and often murder satirists, they realize that it is a direct challenge to their legitimacy. Kazan’s prescient film employed satire to warn of the dangers inherent when mass media, politics and celebrities collide. (See Bill Clinton or Sara Palin.)

    It’s important to understand these distinctions. Our culture’s inability to create satire, or worse, confuse parody for it, robs us of an important tool when challenging authorities or punishing it for over-reaching.

  4. Michael Chrisner

    I thoroughly enjoy my daily dose of design via Mr. Heller, and today’s glimpse into advertising’s checkered (however parodied) past is no exception. However, I challenge you to sit through this entire movie without cringing or giving up entirely. After hearing so much about it’s “classic” movie status over the years, I had to see for myself…and it does not hold up! Andy Griffith’s charm was evident later in The Andy Griffith Show (not Ken Berry’s Mayberry RFD, sorry SH) but his over-acting in this film is incessant and intolerable. Granted, an audience made to feel uneasy is necessary in good drama—a nod toward awkward realism, perhaps—but his King Kong-like interpretation of even the most basic of emotions was more like channeling an unreal and embarrassing Donkey Kong. Valuable artful design references aside—young movie buffs: I dare you; rent it, download it, whatever, but endure the painful antics from beginning to end; then, try to defend it here.