Autumn 1992

This is not a cigar

Graphic design has always resisted analysis, but new critical approaches show there is more to understanding the medium than first meets the eye

In the sea of historical and anecdotal writing that makes up our history of design, Paul Rand’s El Producto advertisement, featuring a cigar wearing a safari hat with a leashed lion in tow, keeps popping up. Rand himself uses the example in both Thoughts on Design, his influential modern manifesto of 1946, and The Designer’s Art, his retrospective volume written nearly 40 years later. The simple drawing with collaged photograph is typical of Rand’s work and is held up as a shining example of humour, the visual pun, the play instinct. Yet nowhere in all the appearances of this famous artifact does an author – or the designer for that matter – attempt to analyse how the design functions or the ways in which it can be read.

It is a trait peculiar to graphic design that the work is vigorously resistant to close reading or analysis. Many designers seem to view cultural readings as an attack on aesthetics; a destructive rather than liberating act that fouls the purity of an abstract, formal activity with the toxins of ideology. While designers in the 1940s and 1950s were certainly aware of psychoanalysis, even such exaggerated examples as the substitution of an erect cigar for the male body, somehow evaded (and continue to evade) being read as projected fantasy. Rand’s El Producto advertisement may, however, be reconsidered as a manifestation of sublimated masculine desire in mid-century American graphic design especially evident in products and publications that targeted men. Unlike images of women, which have received intense critical scrutiny over the past decade, representations of the male body are rarely addressed. As social critic Richard Dyer notes in his essay ‘Male Sexuality and the Media’ (in The Sexuality of Men, 1985), ‘Male sexuality is a bit like air – you breathe it in all the time, but you aren’t much aware of it…by seeming so obvious and inevitable, we can lose sight of the fact that what [these images] are actually representing is a particular sense of male sexuality, with its own history and social form.’

Image and identity

This is only one of many possible critical perspectives. Other positions – formalist, feminist, post-colonial, Marxist – could provide different historical readings and reconsiderations of the meaning of graphic design. But as the laboriously constructed differences between graphic design and advertising become more naturalised – that is, the more design appears to be rhetorically neutral, independent of persuasion, an autonomous activity – the more it seems impervious to such readings. Design is read either as an aesthetic fact or as an index of a designer’s stated intent. Design texts either reiterate designers’ anecdotes or confine themselves to formal analysis like this description of Rand’s work from The History of Graphic Design (1983) 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 contrasts in which he delights.’

While Rand, an early champion of design as abstract art, cites his El Producto cigar/ man as an example of the symbol and 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’ (Problems of Design, 1957). 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.

But things are rarely what they seem, and even what they seem often depends on the perspective from which they are read. The meaning of a design cannot be deduced from the intentions of the designer, or from a formal analysis of its surface or function. Designed images work on a variety of levels, have multiple origins and are open to endless interpretations. This runs contrary to the universal message notion of design.

Cultural products both rise from and reflect the changing face of consumerism, which is more than just an economic activity, as cultural critic Mica Nava attests in her essay ‘Consumerism and its Contradictions’, but ‘is also about dreams and consolation, communication and confrontation, image and identity. Like sexuality it consists of a multiplicity of fragmented and contradictory discourses.’ By rereading design in this way, the notion of ‘good design’ is reconsidered.

The body in the cigar

Viewed in this light, the cigar/man becomes more than a humorous trademark or a clever juxtaposition of photograph and illustration. He becomes a symbol, no only for El Producto, but for male sexuality as power. Replacing the body with the product suggests a multi-layered substitution: the cigar is simultaneously the proffered commodity and the actual smoker. The replacement of the smoker’s body with the cigar, suggesting an erect penis, could be a camp joke on the notion of ‘phallic symbol’. The penis-as-product taps into the traditionally imagined male dread of loss, inadequacy and castration. In short, inferiority – and by the 1950s, ‘the inferiority complex had come to be a valuable thing in advertising’, as ad-man Willliam Este once remarked.

Advertisements appear within a pattern of consumerism in which ‘objects must be validated, if only in fantasy, by association with social and personal meanings’ (Raymond Williams, ‘Advertising, the Magic System’). The cigar is made meaningful by its substitution for the male body and, by association, for 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 image carries with it connotations of control and possession: the Tamer of the Wild, the White God among the Natives, the Slave Owner. Thus the association is expanded from the cigar and sexual prowess to power and possession.

The sense of insecurity implicit in the image is underscored by the copy line: ‘You’ll feel self-confident with 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 to power in the form of a commodity which in turn is linked with pleasure (sex and smoking), all under the guise of humour.

Woven into the humorous surface is a deep cultural desire – and therein lies the advertisement’s power to persuade. The sexuality / power nexus resides in the form, the sexual innuendo tangled in the childlike naivety of the drawing. Raymond Williams has observed that the use of innuendo 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.’ It is this energy, generating in the tension between the form and content of the advertisement, that activates the image.

New forms of persuasion

The ‘deep and general confusion’ engendered by 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’ (Advertising, the American Dream, 1985). This idea of the product as prosthesis, enhancement or connection informs our reading of two well-known advertisements by Paul Rand: for Ohrbach’s Department Store and DuBouchett Liqueur. Ohrbach’s is ostensibly an advertisement for hats – Easter hats to be precise – but the exploding champagne bottle, the lascivious expression of the rabbit and the position of the photograph of the woman lend a sexual quality for the image. In both ads, the bottle fills the lack or emptiness in the ambiguous sexuality of the character, whether the rabbit or the masked figure of DuBouchett Liqueur.

The Ohrbach’s rabbit and a similar humorous drawing in a Bonwit Teller advertisement by Bernard Pfriem prefigure Hugh Hefner’s adoption of the rabbit as symbol for Playboy magazine in 1953. In the Bonwit’s image, the male figure multiplied by the perfume bottles equals the adoration of the circle of females. The product is offered as an elixir with magical properties, a love potion. In each case the rabbit, with its well-known propensity for reproduction, is represented as a randy, leering male. The rabbit in the Ohrbach’s advertisement stares at the image of the woman in his lap; the Bonwit’s rabbit is surrounded by females.

Men looking at women

Esky, Esquire’s lecherous gentleman mascot adopted in the late 1930s and used in one form or another through most of the magazine’s history, is an example of the representation of men looking at women. He is always abstracted as a line drawing or puppet as 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. Esky symbolizes the magazine viewer, the voyeur who supplements his own emasculated sexuality – he’s old, scrawny and vaguely impotent – with a racy image.

Esky is libido run wild, the embodiment of a ‘natural’ desire which perpetually disrupts his behavior. (In this, he is like a precursor to comedian Benny Hill, also pictured in a variety of stereotypical scenarios – with the sexy nurse, the substitute teacher, the swinging stewardess – and constantly distracted from the task at hand by a passing bombshell.) 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. Esky’s eyes reflect the object of his gaze, we literally see the woman through his eyes. They, in turn, are his dominant feature, literally popping out of his head: two firm, erect mounds capped with bulging pupils, overshadowing his limp, flaccid, miniature body. In fact, Esky’s eyes are simultaneously phallic projections and a mirror image of the conic breasts of the 1950s sexpots he covets.

A later Esquire cover by Henry Wolf reveals the composition of Esky’s brain, with a major segment dedicated to pin-up girls. Like the Budweiser beer spokes-dog Spuds McKenzie or the ‘smooth character’ Joe Camel used to promote the cigarettes, the cartoon figure enjoys the constant companionship of impossibly beautiful women. The characters’ clownish, ridiculous forms allow them a latitude not permissible in the ‘real’ world.

Ultimately Esky is meant as a comic figure, poking fun at the aging womaniser: again, it is humour that masks and softens the hard sexual message. But as Richard 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.’

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 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 requested explicitly in Joseph Binder’s war office poster, which calls the viewer to ‘Step into this picture’, to fill the silhouette of the soldier; in Henry Wolf’s Photographis cover; and in Ben Somoroff’s photographs for the July 1959 issue of Esquire. The masculine is represented by the empty clothing, surrounded by photographic images of women. The photographs are underwritten with a caption that begins, ‘Though limp, there’s still life in that vacationing backbone of yours…’

A more complex history

While most design history and criticism claims to be non-ideological and value neutral, it is a fact that design has been controlled and produced by men. American design emerged from an advertising industry dominated by men’s concerns. (And of all businesses, advertising was the newest: flamboyant, risky and disreputable. It was a ‘game’ peopled by players, mountebanks, gamblers and slicks.) As 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 women 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 representations help preserve the existing power relation of men over women by translating them into sexual relations, rendering both as biologically given and as a source of masculine pleasure.’

So design cannot be reduced to simple matters of aesthetic analysis. It is an economy of capital, commerce, identity, persuasion and desire, eluding easy definition. The point of rereading design is to work towards a more complex design history. This type of criticism does little to reveal the formal genius of designers, but rather redefines the work we collect as a manifestation of the critical position under which it was collected and not of some overriding universal value.

Then again, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

By Michael Rock and Susan Sellers, founders of 2 x 4, New York

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