ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Candy Colored Promises —

While I’m a person who despises intrusive and unwarranted advertising in previously clean and ad-free spaces (a concept best typified by urinal ads), that doesn’t necessarily mean I hate every single last aspect of marketing. Just most of it.

Specifically, when a company or entity designs a product or service and, instead of just shoving it out in a working state, goes to a marketing or design firm, the results can actually be quite beautiful. In fact, the resultant imagery can go so far as to become a treasured part of one’s life at the given time.

It might seem bizzare now, but as a child, I used to pick up magazines like Compute! and Creative Computing, circle every last number on the back of the “Reader Service Cards” in the back, and then sit back and wait as dozens and dozens of 4-color mailings would show up at my house. I’d gather them all up, take them to my room, and open them like presents. Many of them were dreary photocopies of some lifeless text, but many of them were fantastic little pieces of fiction, describing computer programs for the Commodore 64 and Atari as the most realistic, mind-blowing experience you could hope for. At the very least, their advertisements promised this. And really, who needs comic books when a candy-colored mailing tells you about all the incredible features of a new video game?

To this day, I still have all those mailings! In fact, I started a project some time ago to grow a slave-race of digitizers in the Boston area to take all these little nuggets of history and get them online; the project has gone nowhere since I’ve been so focused on my documentary. When it’s done, maybe something will come of it. Until then, you can glance at the aforementioned box of leaflets and letters and see how much there is.

Buried among these different works, there were artists whose work still has an effect on me. For example, I immediately connected with the work of Scott Ross, specifically with his work on “Preppie!” and “Preppie! 2” for Adventure International, but also for all his other computer game covers, which I coveted by cutting them out wholecloth from the computer magazines I owned. Just the existence of his stylish “Ross” signature on a piece of art got my attention. While I couldn’t afford many of the programs his artwork appeared on, in the case of Preppie! for the Atari 800 I saved up the money (literally, nickles and dimes) to take the bag down to the local computer store and buy the game. On a data tape. Which took 20 minutes to load. What mattered to me was that I could take this incredible program home, with the Ross artwork on it; the fact the game turned out to be really decent was a bonus. How backwards a kid could be about a product!

(There’s a solid interview with Scott Ross here.)

The box art for a slew of Atari Cartridges had the same effect on me. They ranged in quality, sure, but for the best of the best, you were looking at some wonderful paintings, portraying events that were peripherally attached to the experience within the box. One only has to look at the artwork for a game like Othello for the Atari 2600 and see a master at work. Compare that artwork to the actual game; the difference between the program and the artwork… it nears galactic levels. And for whatever reason, this doesn’t anger me in the least.

As adults we become cynical, tied to the idea that whatever is being offered to you, it sucks, it doesn’t work, and there’s something that actually works and is cheaper just 10 feet away. We inherently do not trust ourselves and the people around us, because enough negative experiences have occured that it’s safer to just shut down the hatches and walk away from things because you won’t be hurt, killed, or ripped off. As a child, you don’t have these defense mechanisms, and while perhaps that sets you up as a potential statistic or sad story on the 6 o’clock news, it also means that you’re ripe for the ultimate headrush: a fantastic yet believable promise. That first time you see a cartoon mascot promise you that the sugar-coated cereal you eat will send you into an amazing jungle or kingdom, or the first time a game box cries out to you and claims that once you buy it you will be inside an amazing world where everything is fun for the rest of your life, you are delighted. Until the toy reveals itself to be a little less than your wild imagination assumed it would be, you are absolutely excited and tingly and plotting in your mind how you will scope out and explore this new world. That feeling is so strong, so powerful, that it only comes in small portions in later life. I know I feel something like it when an exciting programming setup like Graham Nelson’s Inform shows itself, or when I find a semi-obscure cache of neat photographs on the internet, waiting for me to pore over them. For you, you might have something else that gets the juice flowing, but probably never like that first time, totally buying in, so beyond gullible you have achieved a sort of personal holiness, floating gracefully over the world with your dreams.

The fact is, all well-done presentational art could be construed as a lie. Maybe it’s not a lie in the formal sense of a direct statement advocating a mistruth like “This can of poison will not kill you”. But it grabs the eye, portraying an uplifting and possibly life-changing experience, and then leaves you with a handful of dots on a screen to remember your money by. This is, make no mistake, a subtle bait-and-switch scam. But at the core of it, it is a masterfully-crafted lie, and the world is so full of uninspired meanderings and poor-quality creations, that even well-made falsehood must be admired for the effort it contains. Lies, it seems, are inevitable: a fact of modern existence that both eschews privacy for convenience and dismisses difficult questions in return for pat answers. But at the very least, we can relish the human effort in constructing a breathtaking falsehood for implied (but self-serving) good.

This article, for example, is a lie. One gentleman’s perception of the world around him presented as factual and true, when it is riddled with opinion and recounted personal experience in place of hard information. But if I write well enough, the reader considers this understandable and takes what I say as that; editorial opinion, preferably one whose opinion coincides with theirs. Is someone really reading a weblog entry about nostalgic memories of marketing and having their opinion changed?

All these gerrymandering statements aside, I did recently run into a concrete fulfillment of a dream, and I suppose it was inevitable it would come from Apple, that never-ending fountain of implied dreams and tasty presentation.

While visiting a friend recently, he let me try out his iPod. As I was admiring its lines, it occurred to me how many dreams converged in it. Storage, Durability, Cool… many of these were implied in computer products for a very long time. And here was a small machine, with gigabytes of disk space (gigabytes!), feeling like plastic that was as tough as metal.. no obvious moving parts, just a hint of controls on the front, interfacing with other machines seamlessly. Unbelievably expensive, true, but real, and in my hand.

I couldn’t help but feel that, at least in some small way and with the proper application of a good amount of your discretionary cash, the promise of 20 years ago was finally being kept. Here’s hoping the world can keep more.

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