Monday, December 5, 2011

The Making of the PEZident

It was brought to my attention that PEZ has issued the first in a series of dispensers depicting the Presidents of the United States. Volume 1, which came out last month, begins with the first five “PEZidents”: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.

It took me a minute to find the corresponding link on the PEZ website because, much to my shock and dismay, it was somehow not featured on the main “News & Media” section of their homepage. Instead, I found pieces about similar collectable sets depicting the Lord of the Rings cast and Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as well as the launching of two new PEZ flavors: Strawberry-vanilla and raspberry-lemon.

Now, maybe it’s because I boycotted Lord of the Rings series (I was turned off by the trailers for the first movie, which seemed to pitch it like, “Yes, this WILL be the greatest movie-going experience you will ever have, and you’re welcome…”), find most Snow White-related material lovely but uninteresting (take THAT, two Hollywood movies in post-production plus that TV show with the chick from Big Love playing a Snow White who doesn’t know she’s Snow White even though there is someone in the world who somehow does know she is Snow White…I think it’s called “Snow White, But Snow Wrong”), or the fact that all PEZ flavors I’ve ever had taste the same (sorta like a cross between toothpaste and children’s chewable Tylenol), but I thought it was a travesty that the PEZ people weren’t pushing their new PEZident series harder.

In fact, in order to find a proper mention of it, I had to go from PEZ’s “Products” page to the “Gift/Collector Sets” page, and then to the “PEZ Education Series” page, where, lo and behold, one lonely set of the first five PEZidents was the only item displayed on this otherwise blank page. Clearly, the education crisis has found its way to PEZ candy dispensers. Meanwhile, alongside the so-called “PEZ Education Series” are other collector series deemed worthy enough to merit their own eponymous product lines – namely, Thomas the Tank, Hello Kitty, and, yes, the Lord of the Rings series.

Has the image of America sunken to such a point that when an internationally-renowned candy corporation unveils a wholly unprecedented series of dispensers based on the men who risked life and limb to secure their country’s liberty, the company doesn’t even think to feature it prominently on their own website?

About thirty-five years ago, PEZ unveiled a smaller series of great Americans to celebrate the country’s bicentennial. This was a cruder era of candy-dispenser design, so all of the dispensers shared the same generic face with different hairstyles and headpieces to differentiate between them. Three specific individuals were given their own dispensers, for accomplishments based on myth as much as reality: Daniel Boone (who had legitimate historical achievements), Paul Revere (who had over-exaggerated historical achievements), and Betsy Ross (who had entirely fabricated historical achievements). Tellingly, the rest of the dispensers in the series were generic people who matched the line’s generic face: “Pilgrim,” “Indian Maiden,” “Wounded Soldier,” and “Uncle Sam.”

Now, the PEZident series is a vast improvement over the bicentennial one – each president has his own sculpted and recognizable face. It would be impossible to imagine doing the set otherwise. As Joseph Ellis has pointed out in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Founding Brothers, when Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the rest had their portraits painted, they were consciously striking a stoic pose because they knew that the eyes of the future would be looking back upon them. They wanted to look good.

And, as with most things, the founders proved prosaic. As a result of their hard work and sacrifice, American freedom grew – first within the nation’s borders through statehood and emancipation, and then outside of the nation’s borders through a free-trade capitalist world economy. Perhaps it is no coincidence that in 1945, the same year that America established itself as the dominant postwar power by dropping the atomic bomb, the Austrian-based PEZ candy company introduced its first dispenser.

The original PEZ dispensers were just plain dispensers – no head, no fun. But shortly after PEZ franchised its first American branch in 1952, plastic heads were added to the dispensers to better market them for children. American consumerism and novelty plastic heads proved to be a match made in heaven. Even though PEZ was still an international operation, some of the earliest dispenser heads screamed American industry: Mickey Mouse, Santa Claus, Popeye, a sci-fi robot, a space gun.

Whether or not anyone realized it at the time, PEZ was the perfect product for America’s new postwar economy. It was cheap, attractive to the newly-realized youth demographic, and essentially useless – a market focused around consuming product that you didn’t really need as based on the whims of flash and novelty. I mean, whenever a PEZ dispenser ran out of candy, who just bought the candy refills? Isn’t it more exciting to get a newer, better dispenser that was never available before? A collector’s industry was born, soon to join the classy ranks of vintage cereal boxes and back issues of TV Guide.

The PEZ people know that they have created an in-house demographic, one that is usually wealthier than the kids they used to market to, and so they are now issuing deluxe, multiple PEZ dispenser series, which brings us back to the PEZidents.

The PEZidents could be the candy company’s ultimate statement: The brave, bold men of yesteryear sculpted in plastic on top of a stack of cheap candy. What could be more American than that? Such an artifact would bring America’s story full-circle, from the stoic, singular national portraits marveled at from afar to the mass-produced, interchangeable, and internationally-marketed plastic busts that fit in your pocket.

Plus, I’d like to think that underneath it all, the founding fathers would get a kick out of seeing themselves in PEZ dispenser form. Well, maybe not Washington or Jefferson. But I have a feeling that it would make John Adams laugh like hell.

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