Does every advertising agency in Canada have a copy of Mondo Canuck yet? Forget Boom, Bust & Echo or Sex in the Snow. Anybody involved in the creation of advertising in this country must immerse themselves in Mondo Canuck.
The book, a surprise hit for Prentice Hall Canada Inc. when it was published late last year, is subtitled “A Canadian pop culture odyssey.” In it, authors Geoff Pevere and Greig Dymond catalogue and dissect commercial CanCon from A (Bryan Adams) to Z (Moses Znaimer). If you don’t have a copy yet, rest assured that if you grew up in this country its entire contents are in your skull already. Some of the things in these pages may be so deeply ingrained, so seamlessly wormed into every fiber of your being you don’t notice them any more, but they’re there. You may have a different take on the “meaning” of The Forest Rangers or The Trouble With Tracy. Your list of the best SCTV moments ever may differ from that of authors. But trust me, you already know what’s in this book.
As Dymond and Pevere — a pair of post-boomer broadcasters who cut their teeth on CBC Radio’s now-defunct nightly pop-cult show Prime Time in the early ‘90s — explain in their opening pages, one of the paradoxically identifying features of Canadians is that we spend inordinate amounts of time ruminating about what constitutes “Canadianness.” The next phase of that operation — if a working definition can be agreed on — is to mull over what it means to be Canadian. Without those topics, they contend, Canadians would have a lot less to talk about.
And they’re right. Can you imagine the French, the British, the Americans, the Irish or any other national group on the planet spending as much time and public money defining and debating the essence of the national character? Well, okay, Belgians and Danes. But who else?
After that opening statement, of course, Dymond and Pevere manage to produce a recognizable composite of a typical Canadian; the portrait’s sketchy, but it’s you and me, no question. Using bits and pieces of our popular flotsam and jetsam — both domestic and exported — they fill 232 pages with sharp, incisive, cheeky, provocative and amusing takes on everything from the culinary — and cultural — significance of donuts to the baffling fact that while Canadians are among the best practitioners of sketch comedy on the continent, we make sitcoms about as well as lemurs write sonnets.
From this perspective, the book has one glaring omission: there’s next to nothing about advertising anywhere in it. On page 85, there’s the storyboard for Maurice “Rocket” Richard’s Grecian Formula commercial of 20 years ago. (All together now: “Hey, Richard — two minutes for looking so good!”) But that’s it.
If you’re going to discuss popular culture, advertising makes up a pretty big chunk of it. It’s certainly another aspect of the culture that unites us as Canucks. Just talking about this loosed a flood of remembered taglines: “Durn thing gets stuck in the dad-gum snow,” “How do you like your coffee? Crisp.” “Where’s Herbert now? We’re not sure.” And I now find two tunes stuck in my head: “Why do more Canadians shop at Dominion?/ It’s mainly because of the meat” has been alternating — maddeningly — with “We drink Carling Red Cap/We are drinkers true,” with the second clinging to the tune of “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”
The authors may well have decided that TV commercials weren’t within the purview of this volume. They could have elected not to include them for reasons of relative commerciality (although drawing lines between what’s commercial and what’s not when you’re talking about pop culture can get pretty tricky). Or perhaps they’re at work on a compendium dealing with nothing but Canadian TV commercials.
In any event, advertising is a big part of the Canadian cultural landscape. How would our actors and comedians pay the rent and buy groceries while honing their craft domestically without TV spots? How would they raise the money to relocate to Los Angeles or New York?
But we didn’t launch this rant to muse on why “two minutes for looking so good” seems to be the only commercial catchphrase that belongs in the collective subconscious. In true Canadian fashion, we’re trembling at the prospect of North Americanization obliterating the few pathetic shreds of distinct identity we maintain north of the 49th parallel. It’s not a matter of life and death. Canadians are pretty adaptable, and not above using our lack of discernible national character to our advantage when it suits us.
But if advertising is supposed to be about eliciting emotions and using those emotions to stimulate purchase decisions, you could do worse than playing to aspects of collective experience that people know in their bones, either to mock them good-naturedly or to make people’s eyes well with tears involuntarily. Hey, it’s working for Molson.
And with this book as a source and creative stimulant, I would love to see what Canadian advertising wizards can do with — and to — the culture that made them. To paraphrase Abbie Hoffman, steal from this book.