A Mascot for India

The first mascot I ever knew was Mischa the Bear. It was 1980 and our love affair with the Soviet Union was riding high on a cloud of propaganda. Basking in pride borrowed from our powerful and preening brother in arms, I fell for the insidious charm of the warm, fuzzy and, yes, sensitive Russian, with no idea of the icy boycott facing the friendly games he was trying to promote. I was 7.

Further indoctrination into the powerful and symbolic world of mascots came via Appu the Elephant, who made an dramatic entry into our psyche with the New Delhi Asian Games two years later. Although he was more rudimentary than his global peers, Appu was the first local icon I embraced. He had several advantages over the more humble characters of Amar Chitra Katha and Tinkle: he was real, he’d met Indira Gandhi, he even had his own amusement park. And he was a robust display of our march into modernity – a new New Delhi! displayed in glorious colour television broadcasts! – patriotic conceit no doubt was a large contributor to Appu’s immense local popularity.

But, in 1984, I allowed the LA Olympics’ Sam the Eagle to fly right past me without so much as ‘howdy’. This was weird, considering the we now had a TV at home and I had full access to the animated wonder of this latest creation [from Disney, no less]. Four years hence, Hodori, the amicable Tiger from the Seoul Olympics failed to whip up any emotion with his S+M hat [add LINK]. I really couldn’t have been bothered if Cobi the Catalan Sheepdog from Barcelona 1992 had been faithfully rendered in the style of Picasso or Miro. And the only reason I took any interest in Izzy the Whatizit from Atlanta 1996 was to determine how he could have survived – as the myth makers informed us – inside the Olympic flame.

Certainly, the lack of relevance [no medals for India] and immediacy [the confusing time difference] of these international events, the unavailability of the merchandise and our slowly expanding access to the wider global cultural universe had something to do with my waning interest. I had, by now, perhaps no more than a handful of ‘foreign’ toys, some from the dominant popular culture of the time, but I had built a complex and complete world around these. In true Indian style – I did not want what I could not have.

This psychology changed as our access to stuff [and the marketing behind it] proliferated. Today, my son’s attention span is vast but it lasts just about as long as the time a toy is available in the McDonald’s Happy Meal giveaway [~1 week]. And it seems as if there were an IP sweatshop running double shift pumping out new fantasy creatures daily – cartoon characters, video game avatars, product mascots, celebrity action figures and action figure celebrities, etc. – all accompanied by a rash of trinkets rendered valueless by their mass-produced Chinese provenance. We’re almost at a tipping point where the parallel economy in the collection and resale of cultural artifacts on ebay looks set to collapse under the sheer weight of available stuff.

Combine this with the merciless staccato of incoming visual stimuli, and the shelf life of a sporting mascot cannot be expected to last far beyond the opening ceremony. Point in fact: my above mentioned son got his Beijing Olympic mascots from McDonald’s [in a cruel marketing move, there were five separate mascots, released over a five week attendance-enforced Happy Meal pilgrimage] and he forgot about them as soon as the new Madagascar film had released. It took me several months to work off the calories gained eating those extra McAloo Tikkis.
[PICTURE: happiness is a cousin with a mcd franchise]

[SLUG: MASCOT CRISIS]

Given the level of investment and interest behind the launch and marketing of international sporting events, you’ve got to question what needs to be done to get mascots to deliver greater traction. What is it that renders them particularly irrelevant? Are psychoses other than the ADD caused by a rapid replacement cycle [with regular major tournaments for each sport] at work here? Is it possible that cynical marketing has destroyed the appeal of the ‘spirit of the games’?

[SLUG: MODERN/PRIMITIVE]
[PICTURE: Waldi in jersey]
When Otl Aicher gave the world its first Olympic mascot in 1972 for the Munich games, he was working off a charged emotional and political mandate. The previous games held in Germany had been the Berlin Summer Olympics of 1936, under the Nazi administration. Aicher’s creation, Waldi the Dachshund became a symbol of pride for [West] Germans, who hoped to show the world a new, non-violent nation. These meaningful cues reflected not only in the exclusion of red and black [the Nazi colours] from the Olympic palette on Waldi’s jersey, but also on the choice of a Dachshund, as opposed to the militaristic [and patently German] Doberman and Alsatian breeds.

The tragic violence which occurred at these Olympics threatened to overshadow the message of ‘the happy games’ but it was trumped by the bold resumption of events and Jewish swimmer Mark Spitz’s world-record-setting seven medal haul. If you experienced those games, chances are you’d still be holding on to your Waldi souvenirs.

Contrast this with the similarly fraught climate surrounding the Beijing Games in 2008 – centered around protests over China’s reputation for human rights abuse, allegations of mass censorship and actual environmental manipulation [LINK]. Credible rumours speak of committee-based madness surrounding the selection of the Beijing Olympic Fuwa, the creator of which was apparently forced to draw over 1000 iterations before the government made up its mind on the final five. The hapless 72-year-old designer eventually suffered two heart attacks during the process and became so frustrated with the project he has since refused to accept credit for them.

Although these games gave us the breathtaking Bird’s Nest stadium and the achievements of Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, the Chinese government’s hamfisted whitewash and belligerent bullying of the press were the overwhelming impressions left over from the country’s great coming out party. The robotic insincerity on display didn’t allow the world audience to connect emotionally with event. True to form, there was even this amusing story of blatant, government mandated fakery. And, just to be safe, I’ve packed away my son’s Fuwas to protect him from potential lead paint poisoning.

If you balk at China’s bogus experience, you can imagine the real pain of the mega-bureaucratic consensus games being played in host countries which don’t have command-and-control structures. The annals of modern mascot design are littered with insipid compromises that end up pleasing no one. In an age where we are clinically sensitive to individuality, God bless those who job it is to seek a common acceptable public identity which is representative of an entire nation group. In fact, God grant them their own mascot for luck.

[PICTURE:The Dislike Button]

Thanks to the the opinionated nature and immense popularity of social media, we are all suddenly part of the ready Mob of Online Complainers, itching to dissect and criticize any new creation that might emerge into the zeitgeist. I’m doing it now by nit-picking someone else’s hard work. You’re obviously doing it too while evaluating this piece, egged on by the feedback tools so helpfully provided by the editors of this site.

While it is amusing to note that Facebook, the original community for commendation/condemnation is routinely both the vehicle and victim [LINK to story about fb redesign backlash] of this fury, design products in general occupy the front row of this carnival shooting gallery. Design reboots [mascots can be included in this category] are particularly easy targets as they provide a useful arsenal of often false nostalgia.

[PICTURE: DIESEL Smart critiques, Stupid creates ad. CAPTION: A new motto for a new India]

Indians are not new to the game of criticism – our social timidity often bars us from exploring our own creative potential and the ensuing frustration converts into a fierce temerity when we have the opportunity to pass judgement on the work of others. We prefer, of course to do this in private, unless there’s a mob to join and hide behind. This is clearly apparent in the recent CWG roast which exponentially grew into an all consuming five alarm fire once it was clear everyone was going to join the firing squad. But while we have trained our guns solely at the sad sack visage of Suresh Kalmadi, I believe there’s another mascot of failure we have ignored in the general din and I’d like to pick up the slack.

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