Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Classic VOLVO Advertising - Mocking Planned Obsolesence Didn't Defeat It

Classic VOLVO ad - Your symbol has just lost its status

This VOLVO advertisement from the 1960s is more
relevant than ever.  Our expensive products are made
redundant and valueless at a very alarming rate.

Classic VOLVO ADS - A Gallery of Greats
- Ronald J. Jack

All of us, I think, are annoyed by the constant failure of critical components in our household appliances, bathroom fixtures, consumer electronics and so much more. When they break or wear out, we are faced with disposing of the whole unit and buying a replacement. The alternative is living in a graveyard of failed technology. I recall going through eight drip coffee-makers (in every case a heating element failure) before switching to a simple French Press.  I burned through ten desktop laser printers before finding one that could  survive 24 months of light usage (a Brother DCP) and I  suffered the existence of a dozen pole lamps (all made in China, and priced from $50 to $300) fitted with extremely shoddy dial switches, before learning my lesson. Now I simply pull the plugs from the wall and NEVER reach for the damned switches.  

Today I watched a roofing crew rip off and replace my neighbours entire roof, because of a reported leak. The roof was just two years old. They quickly carted away the incriminating evidence - a truck load of new asphalt shingles and 20 sheets of new plywood sheathing. Insane waste. A "rip off" it was.

So what if the products we buy passed a C.S.A. bench test? So many gadgets are designed to fail we take it for granted that nothing we own is permanent.  Even if it was "Warranted"  most of the time it is is easier to junk the item than search for a receipt. Last week I acquired a used product that is 51 years old, cost  60 cents when new, and shows no sign of wearing out.  It is a copy of THE WASTE MAKERS, written by social critic Vance Packard. In his time, at the beginning of the Space Age, there was plenty of debate about the growing dependence of the U.S. economy on planned obsolescence, and the "ethics" of engineers who designed products that would fail on a schedule. At the time the book was published the jury was out, discussing the overwhelming evidence of industry building products that were programmed to fail. We now know the manufacturers won the case. Consumers lost and had to pay all costs. We are still paying.

Packard has chapters on the American automotive industry, and they are of course long out-of-date. Yet one constant remains - the drive to convince us that the cars we own are less desirable than new models in dealer showrooms. It is a pretty good guess that every copy-writer in the advertising industry read Packard's book, because industry counter-measures were not long in coming.

THE WASTE MAKERS - best=selling book by Vance Packard

Truth as a Counter-Measure
For a twenty year period, from about 1966 to 1986, the Swedish automobile manufacturer VOLVO,  ridiculed "planned obsolescence" in it marketing campaigns. You sometimes encounter their ads if you riffle through the pages of old magazines, and I have collected eight of them here. I hope you enjoy them.  VOLVO still employs very effective advertising, but the theme is different.

Classic VOLVO advertisement. "This is the eleven year car."
The VOLVO ad that really started it all:
"This is the eleven year car." [1966]

Classic VOLVO ad. "If you really want to impress someone..."
A companion VOLVO ad in 1966: "If you really want to
impress someone with your car, tell him it's paid for."

The point was made, but it got more interesting. "THE PAPER CAR"  With reference to BOTH  "planned obsolescence" and the reality of a new, "throw-away society"  the wasteful consumer became an accomplice of industry.

Classic VOLVO advertising 1967  - THE PAPER CAR

This VOLVO ad was the most forceful and blatant on the subject of
planned obsolescence and wasteful consumerism. [THE PAPER CAR! 1967]

Pop culture of the 1960s and 1970s was filled with
references to "The System"and social conformity.

In  1979 the campaign matured and VOLVO could literally harvest satisfied customers. Thirteen years had elapsed  and many of those 1966 sedans were still on the road.

Classic VOLVO advertising.  "13 years ago I bought this VOLVO because"
VOLVO ad 1979 - "13 Years Ago I Bought This Volvo
Because It Was Advertised As The 11 Year Car."

Note that the customer the advertisement featured was an historian. An expert on aboriginal art and culture. "13 years ago, William Stiles, an expert in American Indian history and artifacts, discover the treasure you see here: a 1966 Volvo."  How cool was that?  Yes, there really was a William Stiles, and there is a Canadian connection.  Stiles is featured on the SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION BLOG (Here).  After scoring points by showcasing an expert on well-made artifacts, the folks who ran the VOLVO ad campaign came up with another expert - a psychiatrist.

Classic VOLVO ad, 1980 "Anyone Who's Thinking of Spending $24,000"
In 1980, ad copy that is both clever and amusing:
"Anyone Who's Thinking of Spending $24,000 For A
Luxury Car Should Talk To A Psychiatrist."

In the Ad copy the psychiatrist is quoted: "In my opinion the individual buying this car would have a strong, unsuppressed need to get his or her money's worth. He or she would probably also have a strong enough self-image not to need a blatant status symbol."  Ouch!  That still hurts, 36 years later.

Classic VOLVO advertising - 1986 For Those Whose Values Haven't Changed

And then it was 1986.  VOLVO customers had worked hard and they had prospered. Another generation of buyers was prowling the car lots,  and certainly were influenced by clever advertising.  We end our gallery with this great display ad that certainly must have struck a chord with many satisfied drivers:  "The Car For People Whose Means Have Changed But Whose Values Haven't."  You are either that sort of person, or you are not.

I have never owned or even driven a VOLVO, but there are other quality vehicles on the roads. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Hugh Glass Back From The Dead - THE REVENANT is Cinema Gold

Hugh Glass shoots an Indian in - THE REVENANT

A Response to a Cinematic Phenomenon
By Ronald J. Jack

After two weeks of 'gush',  is there anything left to say about THE REVENANT ?  Well, if you are Canadian like me, you might have something to throw in. We love this movie too, but perhaps for different reasons than our American cousins. We are starving for stories free of modern political ideologies, in which men and women also step away from our dependance on machine culture. Just two days before the movie opened in Canada, a Taiwan friend sent me a hot-link to a pirated Chinese edition, but I ignored him. I did not want to experience THE REVENANT through my iMac. We waited till the afternoon of January 8th to enjoy this impressive cinematic vision,  and I do attest that we got more than our money's worth.

In 1823 frontiersman Hugh Glass was clawed and chewed by a female grizzly, and then abandoned by his companions, who also stripped him of his prize Kentucky long-rifle and his "little fixens" (fire making tools and other essentials for survival).  Glass pulled himself from an open grave and began an epic crawl in pursuit of the thieves.  It is a much-told-tale of superhuman willpower and a man's burning determination to have his revenge.  In the movie the Glass motive for revenge is given some justification - for the murder of a half-breed son.  In addition the hate is tempered by to extreme winter conditions. In fact the weather becomes a character in THE REVENANT.  In American history, Hugh Glass was mauled in the summertime, but no matter.  No matter at all. The glory of this extraordinary film is its realism, not its devotion to reality.  No movie-goer will go home feeling cheated because Sam Peckinpah could not have delivered more violence, and Steven Spielberg could not have made the unreal more realistic.

The novel's title translated into German.


Actually when Hugh Glass was mauled in 1823, the word "revenant" did not yet exist in the English language, and it would not get any play for almost a century. In the original meaning, as coined  by French novelists in the 1820s, the word meant "one who returns after a long absence" and was even more commonly used as a synonym for "ghost".  Last summer when the trailer for THE REVENANT was web-published I looked up the meaning and it wasn't even in my dictionary. (Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary - 6th Edition). It was startling to discover that the title had already been used for a zombie movie, and was fully woven into gothic fiction decades ago. But again, no matter.

LORD GRIZZLY - a novel by Frederick Manfred,  Signet paperback
The best available historical fiction detailing the life of Hugh Glass mountain man,
is LORD GRIZZLY by Frederick Manfred.  Trust me, I've researched all the novels!

The immediate and obvious comparison to Leonardo DiCaprio's portrayal of Hugh Glass in THE REVENANT, must be the Richard Harris performance in MAN IN THE WILDERNESS (1971).  "They couldn't find the time to bury him. They should have." (Poster below)  Mr. Harris made several Westerns including MAJOR DUNDEE for Peckinpah, and the sado-masochistic A MAN CALLED HORSE, (based on a short story) that  seemed the acme of Western  hyper-realism.  MAN IN THE WILDERNESS was shot in temperate Spain, without the chill intrusion of frost or flakes.  Leonardo DiCaprio has shown a willingness to endure misery and physical pain that Richard Harris would not have contracted to simulate. 

The 1971 Richard Harris movie made a film prop, a Missouri River flat-boat
an extra character.  In THE REVENANT the weather is definitely a character.


The original screenplay of THE REVENANT, was actually written rather close to the real-life telling of the Hugh Glass story.  The Movie Director is the ultimate creative voice and it was Alejandro Inarritu who made up supporting characters in the shooting script, a pretty aboriginal wife and a wilful son.  He was quite right in deciding that a 21st Century movie audience (and politicized film critics) would reject the actual motive of Hugh Glass in 1823, to hunt down the bastards who stole his prized flint-lock rifle.  

The first attempt by a professional writer to convey the Hugh Glass story into  prose,  was made by James E. Hall in 1825, and published by his brothers in Philadelphia.  "The Missouri Trapper" was first published in THE PORT FOLIO, in the March 1825 edition, and by the summer of that year it migrated into the pages of several newspapers in the U.S., British North America, and our shared Western Frontier. The provenance is rather interesting I think.  A literary stylist, Hall made Hugh Glass a romantic hero figure,  comparing his survival skills to those of Robinson Crusoe.  His essay was re-published intact by news sellers, and one Canadian newspaper gave it prominence. THE BRITISH COLONIST of Stanstead, Lower Canada (now the Province of Quebec) regularly culled news from American papers.  The July 21, 1825 edition of the Loyalist paper not only reprinted "The Missouri Trapper"  but supported it with two other stories lifted from THE MISSOURI ADVOCATE, the St. Louis newspaper that Hugh Glass himself would have read, before using it to wipe his ass. 

A knowledgeable Canadian reading "The Fur Trade" extracted from the St. Louis, must be amused to read the complaints about "the British" stealing American pelts from "our own territories".  Though we had lost the WAR OF 1812 most of the productive fur-yielding lands were then still our territory, but of course the Americans ultimately wrested it from us.  As well the St. Louis paper included the age-old commercial moan about government interference - "The British have the advantages of introducing their goods without payment of duties."  That same paper demanded that Washington  establish a fortress at the mouth of the Columbia River to interdict the flow ("smuggling") of furs by British ships loading there for China.  Hugh Glass was a Pennsylvanian, and would have Hurrahed such expansionist jingoism.

THE BRITISH COLONIST was a Loyalist newspaper published
on the Canada-U.S. border.  In 1825 it published the Hugh Glass story as news,
accompanied by anti-British commentary lifted from the MISSOURI ADVOCATE.

After watching a particularly good film, my inclination is always to do a little research.  I anticipate some fabulous extras on the DVD, but as an historian myself, I could not sit still for three whole months waiting for the Movie DVD to be published. I craved knowing more.  There are many factual books available on Hugh Glass and the larger-than-life  figures of the American fur-trading era, and an equal number of novels.  THE REVENANT is a "revenge" story, and given the American obsession with guns, it was interesting to learn that the modern novelist Michael Punke knows so little about them. Hugh Glass himself knew plenty about firearms. He had been a boy apprentice to a Pennsylvania gunsmith and he was an armed man his entire life.  Glass valued no horse or woman as highly as his rifle.

Map of British Fur Trading outposts in 1821 - THE REVENANT
The men of the North West Company were encouraged by their employers to marry
native women and put down roots among the tribes. The Hudson's Bay Company officially
discouraged employees from marrying natives. After the business merger "mixing" continued.


The Internet is now peppered with commentary about Mr. DiCaprio's new movie, much of it neither helpful nor informed. Typical of the remarks you will encounter are those of Rebecca Onion, who is to be found on SLATE, an online magazine.  Ms. Onion is "Slate's history writer" no less, who "also runs the site's history blog".   She promises her readers "Here's what we know about the historical Glass." offering a scantier and more dubious description than the average UFO sighting.  That is an apt analogy because Ms. Onion's piece is scoffing of the Glass story altogether. I am tempted to label her a plagiarist but that would be generous. She's basically a garden variety scrape and paste artist, who injures herself by poachng from even snarkier content than her own. A good example is her repeating the standard put-down of James Hall, author of the earliest published source material on Hugh Glass - "The Missouri Trapper".  Says Ms. Onion,  "That circus started with James Hall, a lawyer and aspiring writer who moved to Illinois to harvest stories of the American west."  Ah yes, Hall the hack.   This was a man who, when war came, left his study of the Law and joined the U.S. Army. He served at the Battle of Lundy's Lane and the Siege of Fort Erie. He was later assigned officer on a U.S. warship and sailed with Decatur in the 2nd Barbary War. After completing his studies his set up a law practice in Illinois and was later made a Judge. He wrote more than a dozen books, mostly American history and biography.  In fact James Hall would be eminently qualified to serve as SLATE'S history writer and Blog compiler, had he only lived to be 220 years old.

The point is folks, Hugh Glass was an extraordinary man and THE REVENANT is an amazing movie. As written by Mark L. Smith and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the much discussed grizzly bear attack is a composite of two incidents.  Hugh Glass and Jim Bridger were both mauled by bears.  If you haven't the patience to read a good book on Mountain Men,  (try Stanley Vestal  or John Myers Myers) just buy the DiCaprio movie. It is an education in itself.

Ron Luckenbill built THE REVENANT gun used by actor Leonardo De Caprio
Ron Luckenbill built two authentic  1820s flintlocks for THE REVENANT production 
company.  The project was profiled by his local newspaper. [photo by Amanda Jones]

One truly fascinating story associated with the production of the movie, was the recreation of the weapon carried by Hugh Glass, and stolen from him by Fitzgerald.  The website of The American Rifleman (Journal of NRA members) has an interesting article on the movie that mentions how a gunsmith was chosen to build a functioning replica arm.  Ron Luckenbill is an NRA member, a retired policeman and an accomplished gunsmith. He was contracted to build two flintlocks (the signature arm plus a spare) and ship them to the producers in British Columbia, Canada.  Our border agency created so much fuss over the first shipment, delaying its delivery to the film set with needless objections and red tape, that the production company had the second Luckenbill weapon hand-carried across the border to Vancouver.  While the first firearm was still being manufactured Luckenbill was requested to cut the barrel down ten full inches. (Maybe the Director felt it made DiCaprio appear too short in stature??) Luckenbill refused to do so, but clearly the Canadian armourer employed on the production was not so squeamish.  Both Hugh Glass weapons were cut down, and DiCaprio is shown in his scenes carrying a shortened flintlock.  Below is a screen capture that illustrates what I refer to.

THE REVENANT - the gun used by De Caprio to portray Hugh Glass
The fur traders retreat to the flat-boat.  This movie still illustrates the point about 
the band-crafted flintlocks Ron Luckenbill made for THE REVENANT. After delivery
to the movie makers, the flintlock barrel-length was reduced by about ten inches.