Howdy Doody’s Lesson For Hillary Clinton
Back in the day, my wife’s uncle Harold was a lawyer in New York’s theater district. He even represented a few Broadway icons like Ethel Merman and Mary Martin. (Straight folks, ask your gay male friends, I’m an anomaly.) Anyway, Harold’s been gone for a long time now but I remember him once telling me about a case he argued that he was particularly proud of. And it had to do with a truth so obvious that it gets forgotten all the time. A simple truth that hides in plain sight: you can’t divorce the emblem of a thing from the thing itself.
Here’s what it was about. There was a popular kids television show character, a puppet named Howdy Doody. Howdy Doody had been created by the show’s creator Bob Smith who had originally been a radio personality and Howdy Doody started out as just a voice on Smith’s radio show. It was never in dispute that Bob Smith came up with the name “Howdy Doody”. But when the character had to transition to television, a puppet maker working on the new show named Frank Paris was asked to create a visual identity for the character that Bob Smith had created.
You can read the Wikipedia account of Frank Paris’s shenanigans - he actually absconded with the puppet for time, leaving the show without its star - but the upshot was that Paris felt that, as the creator of Howdy’s visual identity, he was entitled to a piece of the revenues resulting from his work - money coming in from the advertising sponsors of the show and also royalties paid by the makers of the merchandise that was being marketed to kids using Howdy Doody’s image as the hook.
Uncle Harold argued it this way. He argued that just as when a tenant in an apartment in Manhattan, let’s say, brings in a workman to create a set of shelves that are attached to one of the walls of the apartment, the law says that the tenant has, in doing so, created a permanent addition to the apartment which the tenant is not free to remove from the wall when the tenant moves out. The law considers the tenant’s shelves and the landlord’s walls fused together as one thing and it’s now the landlord’s call, not the tenant’s, whether it should be removed or not for the next tenant. And that being the case, Harold argued that the same principle should apply to the character of Howdy Doody. Once the name was transferred, by usage on the the TV show, to the puppet created by Frank Paris, the name and the puppet became fused into one thing and if the creators of the Howdy Doody Show had not negotiated the rights from Paris up front, he was entitled to a piece of the sales action.
Harold played it smart, I think. He tied the argument to the law for real property, a subject that any judge in any court could easily understand because it’s law school 101 stuff. Harold did win the case and Paris got the money.
What’s all this got to do with Hillary Clinton? Simply this: there was a lot of analysis of the Hillary Clinton branding scheme for election 2016 when it was first unveiled. It was created by Pentagram under the aegis of Michael Beirut.
Here it is, one more time:
The simple fact is that as a candidate or a product or a puppet goes, so goes the logo. Hitler’s swastika may be an extreme example but it’s worth pondering, I think. The swastika IS Hitler. It brings to mind what he stood for, the crimes he committed, the whole ugliness of the man’s role on the world stage. The swastika will be reviled (or revered) for as long as humanity knows who Hitler was and what he did and what he stood for. Hitler and his logo have been fused into one thing. And I think the judge in the case Harold argued ruled correctly.
Okay, so what’s all this got to do with Hillary?
Well, the Hillary logo is a great case in point. It can only be as “good” as Hillary herself. There was an excellent article on Medium just recently titled Bernie, Hillary, and the Authenticity Gap: A Case Study in Campaign Branding by Lindsay Ballant that compared the slick ‘Madison Avenue’ Hillary effort with the Pro/Am efforts of Bernie’s supporters. As a component for visual mash-ups; as raw material for graphic artists to incorporate into new variations, even as any kind of inspiration for such, the Hillary logo falls way short. Did anybody at Pentagram give thought to that at all? (I am available as a consultant, by the way.)
Any Dead fans reading this?
Lastly, on a light note, my old Stuyvesant HS mate, Paul Tainsch, pointed out to me that the arrow in Hillary’s logo points to the right. I liked Paul’s joke. But because I work with typefaces all the time I immediately thought that if Hillary was running in Israel or Egypt, it would need to point left.
The curse of knowledge sucks sometimes.