In The New York Times Magazine: Fail Whale

An unlikely social-media icon

This week in Consumed, how a service-interruption image got a fan base — as if a song heard mostly as hold music hit the Billboard charts.

As with many Web-popularity stories, there’s a lot of flukiness to Fail Whale’s rise. For starters, Lu had never heard of Twitter when she created the image (which she called Lifting Up a Dreamer) as an electronic birthday card for a friend overseas while she was still finishing her visual communications degree at the University of Technology, Sydney. In July 2007, she uploaded a number of her illustrations, including that one, to a service called iStockphoto. That’s where, almost a year later, it came to the attention of Biz Stone, a Twitter founder….

It probably took two specific factors to create the accidental icon. First, it’s a lesson in the power of raw repetition — the “mere exposure effect” identified by psychology studies that suggests we like things more simply by seeing them more often. Second, Twitter enthusiasts are almost alarmingly zealous….

Read the column in the February 15, 2009, issue of The New York Times Magazine, or here.

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Murakami’s subject: “Our pervasive culture of branding”

From the L.A. Times writeup on the Murakami show at MOCA:

Murakami has spoken about the kudzu-like proliferation of ultra-cute imagery in Japanese culture — Hello Kitty, say — as a colossal index of repressed confidence in the wake of a militaristic nation’s humiliating battlefield defeat 62 years ago. Even death now seems infantilized, as in his remarkable paintings of a skeleton whose mushroom-cloud shape is horribly adorable.

The conceptual debt to Andy Warhol, here and everywhere in the show, is obvious. But the squeamishness induced by Murakami’s distinctive brand of Pop Art is entirely different.

And I emphasize brand. Murakami is the first major artist, Eastern or Western, to make our pervasive culture of branding a primary subject, rather than simply exploiting it.

Worth a read. I would love to see this show, but I doubt it’s in the cards. At least Bobby Hundreds has posted a bunch of images here.

Bonus Update: Eric Nakamura (Giant Robot) blogs about the gala and the goodie-merch.


The Washington Post‘s Linton Weeks offers an entertainingly cranky piece on “cutility.” Examples: “Everyday tools and objects are receiving total makeovers. Orvis sells a tool kit that includes flower-patterned pliers, scissors and utility knife. Target offers a toilet brush holder shaped like a black bear.” Needless to say, cutility is a theme of many Consumeds, and I wish I’d thought of the word. It’s got phad written all over it! Anyway, Weeks writes:

Alan Andreasen, a marketing guru at Georgetown University, says the trend toward cutility is “an attempt by lots of people to individualize both themselves and their possessions.”

He equates the cuting-up of the commonplace with “tattoos, customized cellphones and ringtones as a way to step away from mass commoditization.”

Credit, he says, goes to the clever marketers who have found ways to breathe life into mundane commodity categories. “Sure,” he says, some “people have lots more discretionary money to spend on these things, but I think it’s more about the idea of trying to be your own person.”

Hello Kitschy

In Consumed: Domo: How Internet jokes helped a Japanese ad mascot make its way into American malls.

This fall, the cable channel Nicktoons Network will begin showing a series of two-minute stop-motion animation shorts featuring a brown, squarish creature with arms and legs and a mouth permanently thrown wide open to reveal sharp white teeth. Like any other cute character on a kid-friendly TV show, this little fellow, whose name is Domo, is perfect for the crossover into licensed merchandise. What’s unusual about Domo, however, is that he arrived in the U.S. retail marketplace well ahead of his debut on American television. He’s on T-shirts and accessories at Hot Topic, greeting cards at many Barnes & Noble locations and grocery stores and is expected to be sold as a plush doll at F.Y.E. stores. Then again, Domo is a merchandisable star not so much because he has a TV show in the works but because of his track record in what is arguably the most potent entertainment form of our time: clowning around on the Internet….

Continue reading at the NYT site, or at the Boston Globe site.
Additional links: Domo Nation site, includes the original Domo films; Domo on Flickr; Domo on DeviantArt; Domo at Hot Topic; Domo/kitten image referenced in column.

Cute geopolitics

Given my interest in all things cute, I was of course drawn in by this news:

As Japan sheds its postwar pacifism and gears up to take a higher military profile in the world, it is enlisting cadres of cute characters and adorable mascots to put a gentle, harmless sheen to its deployments.

”Prince Pickles is our image character because he’s very endearing, which is what Japan’s military stands for,” said Defense Agency official Shotaro Yanagi. “He’s our mascot and appears in our pamphlets and stationary.”

That’s right, Prince Pickles (“saucer-round eyes, big dimples and tiny, boot-clad feet”) is the “image character,” for the Japanese military. Because endearingess is what the Japanese military is really all about.

According to this story, Foreign Minister Taro Aso, addressing art students at “Tokyo’s Digital Hollywood University,” said: “The more positive images pop into a person’s mind, the easier it becomes for Japan to get its views across ….. You are the people . . . involved with bringing Japanese culture to the world.”

The next cute thing?

Somewhere or other I read that this character above, Mashimoro, is supposed to be Korea’s answer to Hello Kitty. Here is a series of Flash movies meant to establish Mashimor’s cutness, for leveraging on a range of fine products.

Cute enough to take on Hello Kitty? I checked in with the world’s reigning expert on these matters: Kyewt.

“Mashimaro is okkkkkkk…..,” Kyewt says. “He’s cute, but he’s no Kitty. It’s like, a different breed of cute. Koreans give it a good go, with Pucca too, but for me it’s too narrative or something. Plus, the merch is usually of lesser quality.

“Knocking it out the box though, is San-X. I like them even better than Sanrio (don’t tell Kitty). Their merchandise is great…the range is huge since it’s a longtime manufacturer of ‘fancy’ goods (tchotchke!). The brand has lots of characters and they get cuter and cuter. My sister’s favorite are the Mamegoma (tiny seals who eat soybeans and fit in the palm of your hand).

I am usually split between Rillakumun (“Relax Bear”) who is always sleeping and loves tissues and pancakes, and Nyan Nyan Nyanko, the cat who morphs into foods.

“With San-X and Sanrio, the characters have identifying personality features and maybe anecdotes (like Sanrio’s Cinnamaroll, the orphan pastry who had good fortune enough to land in a bakery where he is now surrounded by friends) but it’s so Japanese-y in its weirdness and sparseness…

“Whereas, like, Mashimoro uses bathroom humor. WTF? NOOOO. That’s a little bit on the NOT CUTE side of things.”

I expected a lot of Kyewt, but this is way beyond anything I’d imagined. It’s an avalanche of cute.

Unfortunately, the interesting-sounding San-X does not seem to have made much in the way of inroads to the U.S./English-speaking world. I gather that some of its products are available through some retailers here, but the brand doesn’t seem to have an English-language site. Kyewt is a jet-setter and, thus has access to the Japanese marketplace — not helplful to those of who don’t get out much!

Still, a round of applause to Kyewt for this outstanding overview.

Oh, and one last note specific to cuteness and Japan: Apparently, SpongeBob is catching on there. According to the L.A. Times:

SpongeBob SquarePants attracts nearly 1.9 million Japanese households to his TV show daily and is raking in a growing share of the $5 billion in annual retail sales for Nickelodeon, the Viacom Inc. unit behind the show.

And he’s doing it by capturing the hearts of Japan’s young women — not children, his most loyal fans in the U.S.

“I started collecting Bob because I think he’s cute and he stands out,” said Mayu Takahashi, a 21-year-old student who was shopping in Tokyo’s fashionable Harajuku district holding a SpongeBob tote bag. “Some of my friends say he’s a creepy kind of cute.”


Vulture Droppings declares: “Cute is the new cocaine.”

And in fact: “The main use for the internet is for downloading cute pictures, mostly of kittens. people do this like it is a drug.”


At Murketing HQ we’ve been into the whole cute thing for ages. And I don’t mean the “kawaii” version of cuteness, tarted up with vague allusions to cosmpolitanism. I mean pure, uncut, cute shit: kittens, dogs wearing costumes, and, of course, pandas. This is the stuff that keeps us coming back to Yahoo’s most-emailed page day after day, looking for what’s cute now.

Editorial note: Vulture Droppings links to several YouTube kitten videos, which I assume are cute, but which I didn’t bother to watch. Not bothering to watch YouTube videos is, of course, well on its way to being the new cuteness.