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What a Character!: 20th Century American Advertising Icons

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Most of these rakish cartoons — talking animals and singing vegetables — are so unthreatening that we hapless, charmed consumers, exactly as intended, forget that they’re developed in boardrooms by calculating, brand-loyalty-seeking execs. But the basic primer What a Character!: 20th Century American Advertising Icons doesn’t needle us overmuch with that irritating point. It looks at the genre’s aesthetic patterns and racial stereotypes, with photos of familiar faces (Tony the Tiger) alongside ”Oh, yeah” acquaintances (Twinkie the Kid) and out-and-out nostalgia trips (remember Reddy Kilowatt?). The book’s shortcoming is that the characters are served up as museum pieces: It’s a little sad seeing things that have danced for us on TV frozen into careworn enamel and plastic. And many of the text’s conclusions are touchingly facile: ”The Trix Rabbit…knows what he wants. He does not lack self-confidence, yet he still cannot win.” Silly rabbit. B+