Thursday, 17 January 2013

Deadly diseases - gotta catch 'em all

Modern parents live in a constant state of asymmetric warfare with the well-resourced, resourceful people who make money from punting tat to kids. We missed the height of the Pokémon ("gotta catch 'em all") craze, but are now fighting a losing battle with Michael Acton Smith, the evil genius who spawned Moshi Monsters.

On line-time spent in the world of Moshi Monsters isn't currently our problem - we've (accidentally, but conveniently) forgotten the password we created when we created The Boy's account in a moment of weakness. It's the real-world incarnation of the characters as collectible/collectable plastic figurines that we're struggling with. According to the definitive publication of record (Moshi Monsters - The Official Collectable Figures Guide, bought with £6.50 worth of Christmas money, but treasured by its owner far above rubies), there are 'over 950 characters!' Nine hundred and bloody fifty.

Having previously experienced the pester power potential unleashed when the owners of the Thomas the Tank Engine franchise decided to multiply the number of branded characters to include a host of additional trains and ancillary vehicles which made only the briefest of appearances in the stories, but immediately became must-have items for every avid junior Thomas fan, we are not amused. That particular fad has long since run its course, but we're still trying to dispose of engine-shedloads of obscure and now unwanted rolling stock on Ebay.

Marketeers, busy moulding the next generation of consumers - don't you just love 'em? Still, at least all Michael Acton Smith has discovered is a way of indirectly parting parents from relatively small increments of disposable income. If he was in the junk food biz, he'd be adding the injuries of premature mortality and avoidable morbidity to the insult of pester power. If ... no, when Moshi Monster-branded fizzy drinks, sugar laden-cereals and salt, saturated fat and poly phosphate-rich mechanically-recovered meat products appear in the supermarkets, I hope Acton Smith loses some sleep over these abominations.

Mind you, if you think any of this is new, or worse than what used to happen, take a look at this collectible item, and think again:
This is what my dad was collecting when he wasn't much older than my son is now. It's Denis Compton from his Player's Cigarettes 1938 collection of trading cards depicting famous cricketers of the day (I still have the complete collection, lovingly stuck into their album - he did catch 'em all). It wasn't just cricketers. Courtesy of Imperial Tobacco (owners of Player's Cigarettes), he also collected and swapped cards depicting 'Hints on Association Football', 'Cycling 1839-1939', speedway riders and railway engines (already popular before the Reverend Awdry unleashed the first of a host of anthropomorphic engines on the world), along with various other themed collections issued by the other big tobacco companies.

Memories of a more innocent, wholesome time when the manufacturers of  'the deadliest artefact in the history of human civilisation' a product that 'killed about 100 million people in the 20th Century' issued trading cards to small children to promote their brands. Hard to believe in an age when cigarette packets are plastered with graphic health warning images and hidden from the impressionable sight of children.

How many people died as an indirect result of learning to "like" cigarette brands as small children? This spring, all being well, I'll be fifty. Dad died of a heart attack before reaching his half century. Whether this was wholly or partly due to growing up in a society where heavily-marketed tobacco products were familiar childhood friends, I'll never know. He was a fairly moderate smoker, fond of a pipe, or occasionally one of those rank little Hamlet cigars (presumably, like Bill Clinton, he didn't inhale - and no bloody wonder, they smelled vile) but he'd more or less given up tobacco in ciggie form before he died, so the jury's out in his case.

By the time I was growing up, I think they must have stopped directly tempting kids with tobacco-related collectibles - at least I don't remember cigarette cards as such. There were still trading cards, of course, but as I recall, they were mostly associated with less questionable products like Brooke Bond or Ty-Phoo tea. Kids hadn't completely kicked the cigarette card habit, though. Although I don't remember actual cigarette cards, I do remember sweet shops still stocking "sweet cigarettes" -sugary white cylinders with a red tip, packaged up like a a pack of real ciggies and generally featuring cigarette card-style trading cards. I also remember coming across chocolate versions, made from the sort of low-grade, tasteless, gritty chocolate generally used for cheap chocolate Christmas novelties.

I didn't collect many cards from sweet cigarette packets - the few surviving collections of aeroplane, dinosaur and space travel trading cards I still have, were issued by tea companies. I do remember collecting a few of these bizarre early '70s "Krazy Kreatures From Outer Space" cards, issued by the Primrose Confectionery Company of Slough (I'm pretty sure they were issued with sweet cigarettes, which Primrose did manufacture, although my old memories aren't 100% reliable and there's an outside chance that they actually came with bubble gum packs):
I never caught 'em all, possibly due to what I thought was subtle parental disapproval (of the subject matter rather than the fact that they came with packets of unwholesome things like sweet cigarettes and/or bubblegum). As an aspirational lower-middle class family there always seemed to be an unspoken pressure steering me in the direction of solid, educational Ladybird / Blue Peter / Look and Learn-style material, as opposed to frivolous stuff like The Beano, Dandy and psychedelic pictures of space monsters painted, no doubt, by drug-crazed hippies. As a thoroughly square kid with swotty aspirations, I capitulated to this perceived pressure without resistance, (although not without a guilty yearning for the wackier world(s) of Krazy Kreatures From Outer Space). If you want to indulge this particular guilty pleasure, there are higher-res reproductions of the Krazy Kreatures on the Monster Brains blog (some of them are very strange) and a reproduction of one the "Astronaut's Guides" from the back of the cards on this Gerry Anderson fan site.

I don't know when sweet cigarettes became less common, but judging from the Space 1999-branded packets, they must have been going up to the end of the 1970s, when Dad's heart finally gave out, possibly due to thirty-odd years of ingesting low levels of tobacco products.

According to Mr Wikipedia, sweet cigarettes have been around since the early 1900s. For all I know, they may have had as little to do with the tobacco industry as liquorice bootlaces have to do with the makers of real shoelaces, but given Big Tobacco's relentless pursuit of every marketing opportunity on earth, I suspect some collusion somewhere down the line. Whether or not they were part of Big Tobacco's conspiracy to recruit new smokers, it's highly likely that they were a bad thing. I say 'were' - they apparently still exist, albeit marketed under the disingenuously innocent-sounding name of "candy sticks".

For whatever reason, sweet ciggies weren't my gateway drug to the real thing and their only legacy to date has been rather too many fillings (I didn't even particularly like them, but having bought the damn things for the trading cards, you had to eat them, obviously). Mind you, maybe my fillings have less to do with sweet consumption than the perverse incentives that used to be given to NHS dentists, whose remuneration used to be directly related to the number of treatments they gave. The temptation to do a bit of not-entirely-necessary drilling to top up the holiday fund must have been huge.

There's no big message to take away from all of this except, perhaps, that marketing is powerful stuff and it will beat up public heath and steal its lunch money, given half a chance. You don't have to be a historian familar with the 1860 Food Adulteration Act to see the harm done by laissez-faire - it's there in living memory. Also, any politician who pops up and bleats about the virtues of "self-regulation" for Big Tobacco, or the the processed food and drinks industry is clearly the lobbyists' bitch, rather than the citizens' friend.

And finally, maybe Moshi Monsters aren't that bad, after all (at least until they get drafted to push junk food to kids). Especially this one:
A child's toy in the form of a masonic/Illuminati/dollar bill-style pyramid, complete with all-seeing eye? And it glows in the dark! Never mind The Boy, that's so cool that I want one. If anybody's wondering what to get me for my 50th birthday, I'll happily settle for a Moshi Monsters Series 1 Halloween Glow In The Dark - Cleo Ultra Rare Orange Moshling Figure. A happy birthday and a novus ordo seclorum to me!