Putting the Pop In "Popiel" | Program Notes
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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Putting the Pop In "Popiel"

Posted By on Sat, Nov 15, 2008 at 4:15 PM

I'll be honest: I approached the Warhol Museum's 1958 exhibit -- especially its display of Popiel Brothers "as seen on TV" wares -- with a jaundiced eye. I have a recurring nightmare in which some future tribe of humans, wandering the post-apocalyptic landscape, digs through the detritus of our once-mighty civilization and finds, like, a "Hang in there!" cat poster. Or, say, the Popiel Veg-O-Matic itself, a device that chops fruit and vegetables in just a fraction of the time. As the ragtag survivors pull these relics from the smoldering ruin, the whole of existence -- ours and theirs -- will reveal itself to have been a sad, sick cosmic joke.

So for me, putting this stuff in a museum seems a bit like choosing your casket -- and deciding to line it with polyester.

But I'll say this much: The exhibit makes a pretty convincing case that the "Popiel Pitch" -- the hard sell of a thousand "how-much-would-you-pay-don't-answer-yet" ads -- dovetails nicely with Warhol's own beliefs about fame and success. (To wit: Utter shamelessness almost always pays off.)

And the display obviously gives curator Tom Sokolowski a chance to indulge his taste for fun. Many of the wall plaques consciously echo the Popiel sales pitch, talking about the items as breathlessly as the TV ads themselves. (Sometimes, in fact, Sokolowski out-popeils the Popeils. The text describing one item -- a combination trash-compactor and kitchen stool -- extols the virtues of harnessing the "ever-expanding power of the human backside.")

Of course, the first thing that strikes you about this stuff is what an awful pile of shit it is. It's the kind of cheap-looking lurid plastic you can imagine in a landfill even before it comes out of the box. The fact that the Warhol heremetically seals many items inside glass vitrine, as if they were artifacts from ancient Egypt, does nothing to change this.

But as I watched the old Popiel ads on a TV mounted in the 7th-floor gallery, I'll confess to feeling some nostalgia. I grew up when many of these ads were on the air. Immortal lines like "Hey good-looking! We'll be back to pick you up later!" -- spoken by a Willie Ames-knockoff wielding a "Mr. Microphone" from the back of a car -- hit me in the solar plexus, like finding a childhood toy you forgot about decades ago.

And there's a kind of innocence, or at least ingenuousness, to the Popiels' merchandising. The ads were so crass that it's hard not to be charmed by their brashness. It's kind of a relief to watch a marketing campaign in which, for once, you feel smarter than the marketers.

Take the spot for the Popiel automatic toothbrush, which shows a kid brushing from side to side with a conventional brush. "If you're brushing your teeth this way," the announcer informs us, "you're doing it WRONG!" No marketer today would ever suggest a customer was anything less than perfect.

And once you scrape away the styrene from these products, there is something oddly intimate about them.

I've always associated the Popiel Pitch with the phrase "batteries not included." But many Popiel products -- the blenders and choppers and pocket-sized fishing poles, for example -- were hand-powered. When weighed against the gadget-inundated lifestyle of today, these things are about as modern as Technicolor butter-churners. There's almost something rustic about them, despite (and because of) their claims to be labor-savers that "work like magic."

Hell, some of the Popiel products -- like the glass-cutter that allows you to convert empty bottles into vases and drinking glasses -- could have been used to furnish some of wares I was looking at during last weekend's "Handmade Arcade."

Is it too much to say that 1970s "as seen on TV" housewares  lend themselves to a pomo DIY ethic? Probably so ... even if many of these products WOULD work just as well (or as badly) if you were living off the grid. But it's not like the shlock we buy today is any better: It's just more alien to us, jam-packed as it is with microchips whose inner workings are utterly inscrutable. (Whereas with a Popiel Hav-A-Maid, you can tell exactly how shitty the product actually is.)

According to Marx, a key characteristic of industrial society is that  workers become alienated from the things their work produces. Looking at the Popiel product line, it occurred to me that in post-industrial society, we've become progressively more aliented from what we consume.

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