The Ecphorizer

George Towner

Issue #52 (December 1985)

This Christmas I was reminded of something that has bothered me my whole life. To begin with, I love Christmas carols. They get me into the holiday spirit, and because I hear them only once a year they never become boring. But when I tuned into carol [quoteright]programs on the radio this year, I never seemed to find them in an unadorned state. I could find "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem" with a bossa nova beat, or a flash-dance version of "Hark the Herald Angels" or punk rock "Jingle Bells." But what had happened to the originals?

It seems to me that they had fallen victim to a class of merchandising that one might call "noveltymongering." The novelty mongers make money by selling you something familiar tricked out in a new dress, as if it were something new.

I have no objection to novelty per se. It is as essential to culture as seasoning is to cuisine. And I agree with the liberal argument that today's novelty is often tomorrow's classic. But I object when noveltymongering has either of these effects:

The novelty element adds nothing to the original, like putting catsup on chocolate ice cream. It just clutters up our culture with noise. The worst part is that this kind of novelty is usually supported by the most pervasive advertising. Soap and cigarettes are sold this way.

The novelty version displaces the original. It becomes difficult, unfashionable, and expensive to root out the real thing. At first you only bear the burden of finding a store that sells ice cream without catsup. Ultimately, however, you find that the un-catsuped form is a "special order," available only from a few mail-order boutiques.

Perhaps the most spectacular case of noveltymongering in recent times occurred in American automaking. Fins, holes in the fenders, exotic radiator grills, chrome curlicues — the gewgaw machines pushed real automobiles off the road. To get an unadorned car, you had to buy a Checker for twice the price. In the end, of course, the Germans and the Japanese gave the novelty mongers their comeuppance, with results that are even today the bane of Detroit.

What goes on in the minds of the novelty mongers? How do otherwise sober Detroit executives get so lost in fantasy-land? Part of the answer is that novelty is an easy merchandising cop-out. It is hard to sell soap as just good soap; so much easier to sell it as a secret laboratory blend of science-fiction ingredients that turn "washday" from a chore to a self-realizing experience. Similarly, the poobahs of the auto industry found it a strain to sell cars that offered only safety, economy, reliability, and comfort.

But I believe there is a more fundamental factor at work here. For the average driver, a car is an important part of life — but it is still a fractional part, something one thinks about only a few minutes a day.

For the auto executive, on the other hand, cars are almost life itself. Their design is his lifelong preoccupation. As a result, his taste loses perspective. The consumer can look at a Datsun and think "Yes, that's a pretty good car"; the automaker, looking at the same vehicle, tends to think "Who'd want to buy that dumb thing?"

Examples of this phenomenon abound. I finally abandoned my season tickets to the opera because each year the repertoire became more and more recherche. I could almost hear the repertoire committee saying, "Oh God, not another Boheme! Can't we find an obscure seventeenth century work to demonstrate how sophisticated we are?" Thus a group of people who have seen Boheme thirty times can ingenuously decide that it is too ordinary for those who have seen it only twice. At the other end of the artistic spectrum, Playboy gradually abandoned "the girl next door" in its layouts and substituted tired-looking jades who were chained in cages, slathered with butter, etc. Whoever did the selecting lost touch with his audience. The more you look, it seems, the less you see.

And this Christmas I imagined I overheard a record executive, captured in the throes of creative decision-making. "We can't put out another 'Silent Night'," he moaned, "I've heard it a thousand times. Hey, how about this year doing it with a calypso beat and a steel drum band?" 

Contributor Profile

George Towner

George Towner was born in Reno and grew up near Berkeley. As a teenager he began making gangster movies using an old 8mm camera, one of which featured a car being pushed over a cliff off State Highway 1. He has started and sold two successful technology firms, and currently works for Apple Computer, where he is the most senior in age. He lives with his wife in Sunnyvale. They have two daughters and a son.