Appreciating Brand "X" America

By Bill Griffith

ROADSIDE MAGAZINE, issue #32 (2001)

I love to drive America's rural highways and backroads, out beyond the
reach of Chuck E. Cheese. I love to escape the big city streets and the
oppressive suburban grid, with its strip-malls and identical chain
restaurants, on the alert for a random big duck, a giant bowling pin or
a mammoth hot dog. But here's a warning for other thrill seekers: plan
your road trip soon, because these idiosyncratic American icons are
fading fast, replaced at a rapid rate in the wake of the disease-like
spread of Starbucks, McDonalds, and Gap outlets. Like screwy sentinels,
they stand proudly amid the encroaching Burger Kings and Taco Bells,
waiting to revive our jaded, cynical eyes, a wacky army of towering
Muffler Men, enormous donuts, massive chickens and goofy dinosaurs.
What is it about these eccentric advertising figures, these outdoor
"Giant Beings" that is so compelling?

First, they work on the viewer in the same way all sculpture does- as
art does. The intent of these humongous hucksters is no mystery. And
they're much easier to understand than most modern "public sculpture"
which rarely makes any attempt to connect on an easily relatable level
with its audience. Giant Beings are there for a clear purpose, a
quintessentially American purpose. They want to sell us something. But
because they are unique images, and not hammered over and over into our
collective optic nerve like the Colonel's ubiquitous visage, we
experience them context-free, devoid of association through print ads
and endless TV commercials. Many fall into the "naïve art" category,
their commercial message all but overwhelmed by their oddball
strangeness. They have a real sense of place, an individuality, a
weirdness. Appearing suddenly and unexpectedly, they rivet our
attention, often taking on a surreal, dreamy quality and beckoning us to
enter their other-worldly reality. They communicate their sales pitch in
a kind of pre-literate way, like the street signs of a much earlier
time, when a huge tooth might advertise a dentist's office, or a
gigantic hammer might dangle before the neighborhood hardware store.

Giant Beings don't try to assure us that we're all part of some big, happy consumer family through the use of focus group-tested "happy faces" or instantly identifiable logos. The "World's Largest Catsup Bottle" would look grotesquely out of place in Disneyworld. When we stand before Long Island's Big Duck or the baleful Doggie Diner dachshund atop a pole near San Francisco's Ocean Beach, we invest them with qualities derived from our own imagination. They don't insist on who they are or what they mean; the "selling" they do is secondary to the aura they create. Recently, on a country road not too far from my home in Connecticut, I came upon a huge weiner on wheels, resting in a gigantic bun, complete with mustard and relish, all made out of molded plastic. It was the "Top Dog" mobile hot dog stand, calling out to me by the roadside. I thought, " Claes Oldenburg, eat your heart out"! Not only was it a humorous statement about scale and juxtaposition, but it served the best Chili Dog in New England. Art, surrealism and fine dining, all in one parking lot!

Landmark status? Historical designation? Why not? American culture, after all, is pop culture. In Athens, they preserve the Parthenon for posterity; here we save "Lucy", a seaside hotel in the shape of a six-story elephant so that our own cultural "wonders" are there for generations of gawkers yet to come. Standing right beside American know-how is American eccentricity. Surely, it deserves equal respect and acknowledgement.