In the sea of anecdotal writing that amounts to a history of design, designer Paul Rand’s once ubiquitous El Producto campaign, featuring a cigar decked out in a variety of sporty outfits, keeps popping up. Rand himself employs the example in Thoughts on Design, his influential design manifesto of 1946, as well as The Designer’s Art, his retrospective volume written nearly forty years later, as an example of design humor, visual punning, and the play instinct. Yet despite the advertisement’s wide re-publication and apparently paradigmatic qualities, design historians rarely attempt to analyze how the image functions or question the standard interpretation the designer puts forth in self-composed, and inevitably self-serving, accounts.
Graphic design seems to be vigorously resistant to close reading. And while designers in the forties and fifties were certainly aware of psychoanalysis, even exaggeratedly sexual representations, like the substitution of an erect cigar for a male body, somehow evade interpretation. Designers tend to view cultural readings as an attack on aesthetics; a destructive rather than liberating force that fouls the purity of formal language with the toxins of ideology.
But if we agree to put formal questions aside for a moment, the El Producto ad could easily be reconsidered as a manifestation of sublimated masculine desire in mid-century American graphic design especially evident in products and publications targeting men. We follow the trail of that elusive male sexuality evident in the work of the predominantly male professions of advertising and design, recontextualizing some typical images and revealing connections to other contemporaneous artifacts, both familiar and obscure.
This is, of course, one of many possible critical perspectives. Other positions — formalist, feminist, post-colonial, Marxist — could inform diverse historical understandings and reconsider the nature and meaning of graphic design. But as the laboriously constructed differences between graphic design and advertising become naturalized — that is, the more design appears to be rhetorically neutral, independent of persuasion, and accepted as an autonomous activity — the more it appears impervious to these kinds of critical readings. Design is read either as an aesthetic fact or as an index of the designer’s stated intent. Design critiques either reiterate designer’s anecdotes — often lifted from self-published monographs — or stick with formal analysis like this description of Rand’s work from The History of Graphic Design by Philip Meggs:
Sensual visual contrasts mark his work. Playing red against green, organic shape against geometric type, photographic tone against flat color, cut or torn edges with sharp forms and the textural pattern of type against white margins are some of the contrast in which he delights.1
While Rand, a champion of design as abstract art, employs his El Producto cigar/man as an example of the symbol and of the mystery of the creative impulse, he never lays out the terms of its signification. His contemporary George Nelson, design director for Herman Miller Company, instructed that design “can only be judged by criteria which are timeless, universal and non-ideological.”2 By claiming qualities like timelessness and universality, design is effectively severed from its cultural roots. Design is-what-it-is and any attempt to say otherwise is dismissed as heresy.
Yet rarely are things what they seem and what they seem often depends upon the perspective from which they are read. The meaning of a design cannot be deduced from the intentions of the designer, a formal analysis of its surface nor its function alone. Designed images work on a variety of levels, have multiple origins and endless interpretations. But of course this idea runs contrary to the universal-message notion of design.
Cultural products both rise from and reflect the “ever-expanding discursive apparatus” of consumerism which cultural critic Mica Nava posits “is far more than just an economic activity: it is also about dreams and consolation, communication and confrontation, image and identity. Like sexuality it consists of a multiplicity of fragmented and contradictory discourses.”3 By rereading design as a “multiplicity of fragmented and contradictory discourses,” other criteria emerge and the notion of good design is reconsidered.
Replacing the body
While images of, and directed toward, women have received intense critical scrutiny over the past decade, the male body per se is rarely addressed. Media critic Richard Dyer notes “[m]ale sexuality is a bit like air — you breath it in all the time, but you aren’t much aware of it.” Representations of the male body seem natural or self-evident, but “by seeming so obvious and inevitable, we can lose sight of the fact that what they are actually representing is a particular sense of male sexuality, with its own history and social form.”4
In this light the cigar/man becomes more than a humorous trademark for the manufacturer or a clever juxtaposition of photograph and illustration. He becomes a symbol, not only for the corporation but, more broadly, male power. Replacing the body with the product suggests a multi-layered substitution; the cigar is simultaneously the proffered commodity and the actual smoker. The metonymic replacement of the smoker’s body with the cigar, suggesting the erect penis, could be a campy joke on the phallic symbol. The penis-as-product taps into the traditionally imagined male dread of loss, inadequacy or castration. In short, inferiority, and as early as the thirties ad-man William Esty noted the inferiority complex “had come to be a valuable thing in advertising.”5
The advertisement appears within a pattern of consumerism in which “objects are not enough but must be validated, if only in fantasy, by association with social and personal meanings.”6 The cigar is made meaningful by its substitution for the male body and by association, the male position of power. Supporting that position, cigar/man wears the uniform of the White Hunter, the Bwana, the Colonist, the Plantation Master. He carries a rifle — another signifier of his power — and subjugates the lion, the king of the beasts. The White Hunter — another manifestation of this popular figure can be seen in the spread from a period Esquire magazine — carries with it connotations of control and possession: the Tamer of the Wild, the White God amongst the Natives, the Slave Owner, the Possessor. Thus the association is expanded from the cigar and sexual prowess, to a wider signification of power and possession with the collaged image of the cigar completing the empty space of the male body.
The implicit insecurity embedded in the design is underscored by the copy line: “You’ll feel self-confident with an El Producto…” The copy promises a transformation attributable to the use of the product. The contraction, “You’ll…” with its hidden future tense “will,” implies that you don’t feel self-confident now — and even if you do perhaps you are deluding yourself. The image deftly links insecurity with power in the form a product, which in turn is tied with pleasure (sex and smoking), all under the guise of humor.
A deep cultural desire is woven into the light, humorous surface and therein lies its power to persuade. The sexuality/power nexus resides in the form, the sexual innuendo tangled in the child-like naivété of the drawing. Literary critic Raymond Williams observed that innuendo evident in the conversion of products into objects of sexual and social satisfaction is indicative of “a deep and general confusion in which energy is locked.”7 It is this energy generated in the tension between the form and content of the ad that activates the image.
The product as prosthesis
The “deep and general confusion” inherent in the rapid post-war social reorganization was fertile ground for new forms of persuasion. Historian Roland Marchand notes “Products could increase their value and escape the effects of severe price competition only by offering the consumer the additional satisfaction of esthetic pleasure and enhanced social prestige.”8 This idea of the product as prosthesis, enhancement or connection informs our reading of two more well-known ads by Paul Rand; Ohrbach’s Department Store and DuBouchett Liqueur. Ohrbach’s is ostensively an ad for hats — Easter hats to be precise — but the exploding champaign bottle, the rabbit’s lascivious expression and the position of the photograph of the woman lend an odd sexual quality to the image. In each case the bottle fills the lack or emptiness in the ambiguous sexuality of the character, the rabbit or the masked figure.
The Ohrbach’s rabbit and a similar humorous drawing in the Bonwitt Teller ad by Bernard Pfriem prefigure Hugh Heffner’s adoption of the rabbit as symbol for Playboy Magazine in 1953. In the Bonwitt’s image, the male figure multiplied by the perfume bottles equals the adoration of the circle of female. The product is offered as elixir with magical properties; a love potion. In each case the rabbit, with its well-known propensity for reproduction, is represented as a leering male. In each case the open representation is gendered male, while the specific photographic image – the one designed for looking at – is always female.
This strategy employing the cartooned male figure in the world of women is especially notable in Esquire magazine, a publication often associated with notable male designers of the post-war period including Rand, Henry Wolf and George Lois. Esky, Esquire’s lecherous gentleman mascot adopted in the late thirties and utilized in one form or another through most of the magazine’s history, is a typical example of the cruising swinger that found its full popular representation in Hugh Hefner’s publicly constructed persona.
An Esquire cover art directed by Henry Wolf reveals the composition of Esky’s higher brain function with a major segment of his cerebral cortex dedicated to pin-up girls. Like Budweiser Beer spokes-dog Spuds McKenzie or the “smooth character” Joe Camel, the cartoon figure (or the bull terrier) enjoys the constant companionship of impossibly beautiful women. Their clownish, ridiculous forms allow them latitude not permissible in the real world.
Esky is always abstracted as a line drawing or figurine opposed to photographic or mimetic illustrations of Varga-esque goddesses. The cartoon form constructs Esky as open, broad and general in contrast to the specific photographic representation of the model. He is a precursor to the Benny Hill figure, pictured in a variety of familiar scenarios — with the sexy nurse in the examining room, the substitute teacher blithely unaware of her gaping bodice, the swinging stewardess leaning across the aisle with brimming teacup — constantly distracted from the task at hand by a passing bombshell. Esky symbolizes the magazine viewer, the playboy voyeur or sugar daddy that supplements his own emasculated sexuality — he’s old, scrawny and vaguely impotent — with a racy image of suave urbanity.
The Esquire mascot is libido run wild, the embodiment of natural desire that perpetually disrupts his behavior. This representation of sexual desire as overwhelming and controlling, reinforces the disconnection between the male and his sexual drive, absolving him of responsibility for his actions. Like Benny Hill, Esky is a victim of his desire, not the master of it. His eyes reflect the object of his gaze, we literally see the model through them. They in turn are his dominant feature (Rand’s logo-fied version as seen above reduces him to those eyes and mustache) quite literally popping out of his head; two firm mounds capped with bulging pupils, overshadowing his limp, flaccid, miniature body; simultaneously phallic projections and a mirror image of the conic breasts of the fifties sex-pots he covets.
Ultimately Esky is meant as a comic figure, poking fun at the aging womanizer. As in the El Producto ad, humor is the mask that softens the hard sexual message. But as Dyer notes, “Comedy may often undermine men through ridiculing their sexuality, but it always ends up asserting as natural the prevalent social definition of that sexuality.”9In addition, as Barbara Ehrenreich suggests in The Hearts of Men, the hard-sell heterosexuality of Playboy and Esquire provides cover for those magazines to address male issues in the homophobic cold war climate.
Calling the viewer to place himself in the image, to see through the eyes of the figure, to assume the role of the spectator, is a call to adopt the social reality implicit in the design. The male reader is embodied in Esky, the aging, impotent voyeur. He completes the image, gives life to the abstracted figure. This insertion of the spectator’s body into the socially constructed space opened by the design is evident in Joseph Binder’s War Office poster (above) calling the viewer to “Step into this picture,” to fill the silhouette of the soldier; in Henry Wolf’s PhotoGraphis cover (below) and other self-promotional photos; as well as in photographs from the Esquire. The masculine is represented by the synecdoche, the empty clothing, surrounded by photographic images of woman. The clothes invite the viewer to fill them, to step into this picture.
While most design history and criticism claims to be non-ideological and value-neutral, it is a fact that most design has been produced and collected into histories by men. American design emerged from an advertising industry, dominated by middle class men’s concerns. (And of all businesses, advertising was the newest; flamboyant, risky and disreputable. It was a game peopled with players, mountebanks, gamblers and slicks.) Dyer points out…
One would not and should not expect a society run in the interest of men to produce images that go against this. The visual representation of male sexuality puts woman in their place, as object of a ‘natural’ male sexual drive that may at times be ridiculous but is also insistent, inescapable and inevitable. Such representation help preserve the existing power relation of men over women by translating them into sexual relations, rendered both as biologically given and as a source of masculine pleasure.10
Despite attempts to eradicate ideology from aesthetic discussions, the two issues seem irrevocably bound. In fact the vigorous denial of the conflation may be significant in itself. As an economy of capital, commerce, identity, persuasion, and desire, design eludes easy definition. Through a re-examination of the anecdotal information surrounding familiar images, we can work towards a more complex design history. While this type of analysis does little to reveal genius, it may reposition canonical work as indices of the system that places value in them. Through careful reading we may find that the form reveals more than the designer’s skillful hand and eye.
1 Philip Meggs, A History of Graphic Design, (NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold,1983), 401
2 Nelson, George, Problems of Design, (NY: Whitney Library of Design, 1957), 9
3 Mica Nava, “Consumerism and its Contradictions,” Bibliographical information not given.
4 Richard Dyer, “Male Sexuality in the Media,” The Sexuality of Men, Metcalf and Humphries, eds., (London:Pluto, 1985), 28
5 William Esty quoted in Roland Marchand, Advertising the American Dream, (Berkeley: UCPress,1985), 13
6 Williams, Raymond, “Advertising, the Magic System,” Problems in Materialism and Culture, (London: NLB: c.1980) 185*
8 Marchand, 24
9 Dyer, 37
10 Ibid, 42
© Michael Rock