Anthropomorphism in US Popular Culture: Kermit the Frog
in the "Got Milk" Advertising Campaign

Olivier J. TchouaffÚ


In Amusing Ourselves to death, Neil Postman observes "Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumble puppy... In 1984... People are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that we love will ruin us." (1985, VII-VIII)

This paper attempts to examine the transformation of a well-beloved American popular culture character, Kermit the Frog, into an advertising icon that differs from earlier incarnations as an educational figure addressed particularly to children of the African American community. We will examine the "commodification" of the Sesame Street protagonist, or to be more precise, the co-opting and re-packaging of Kermit the Frog by the advertising industry, such that his partnership with the interests of market forces prejudices what made him famous in the first place: teaching mainstream English to disadvantaged children. I contend that by representing commercially-biased opinions from interested parties in the marketplace, Kermit becomes a distraction of a sort that is in fact counterproductive to the original literacy project, insofar as it blurs distinctions between appearance and substance, and employs a non- literate, iconographical representation as its renewed message.

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The first part of the paper will be consecrated to the native context of Sesame Street and the emergence of Kermit the Frog as a national and international icon.

In the second part, I will employ the tools of semiotics, cultural studies and critical theory to attempt study and analyze the construction and impact of Kermit the Frog's iconography. Semiologists argue that culture is essentially a signifying system mediated through a set of signifying practices of a society, from language through the arts, philosophy, media, fashion, and advertising. R. Williams (1981. P.11). Moreover, Castoriadis argues:

Every society up to now has attempted to give an answer to a few fundamental questions: who are we as a collectivity? What are we for one another? Where and in what are we? What do we want; what do we desire; what are we lacking? Without "answer" to these "questions" there can be no human world, no society, no culture-for everything would be an undifferentiated chaos. The role of imaginary significations is to provide an answer to these questions, an answer that, obviously, neither "reality" nor "rationality" can provide. (1987. P.146-147)

The critique of consumerism in cultural studies has been heavily influenced by the work of the Frankfurt School Critical theorists such as Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse. They bring forth the notion of incorporation to argue that the poor and the working classes are seduced by the superficial attractions of the culture of capitalism into supporting the capitalism system through false consciousness. Thus, culture itself is a tool of the capitalists and the media are a vehicle for corporate marketing, audience manipulation with purpose to hook people up into mindless and excessive consumption. As Herbert Schiller argues:

"The apparent saturation through every medium of the advertising message has been to create audiences whose loyalties are tied to brand named products and whose understanding of social reality is mediated through a scale of commodity satisfaction". (1979, P.23). In conclusion, this paper, we will try to argue that all these concepts precisely account for the commodification of Kermit the Frog and that this can be shown to counteract the literacy project.

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An international star of five feature films, including "Muppet Treasure Island," Kermit the Frog began his climb to the top of the amphibian elite from Mississippi southern swamp. As of today, he is an accomplished musician, he owns a platinum song "It's not easy being green", he has authored one book, "One Frog Can Make a Difference: Kermit's Guide to Life in the '90s," guest-hosted "Larry King Live," and served as the Grand Marshall of the Tournament of Roses Parade. Besides Sesame Street, he has been involved with the ABC primetime series, "Muppets Tonight."

As for Kermit's academic credentials, in May of 1996 he received a Doctor of Amphibious Letters from Long Island University. So remember, that's Dr. Kermit the Frog.

His television success began in Washington, D.C., with Henson's "Sam and Friends", and eventually "Sesame Street". In 1967, Joan Ganz Cooney, a television producer hired by the Carnegie Corporation, developed an idea for a show "to promote the intellectual and cultural growth of preschoolers, particularly disadvantaged preschoolers. Sesame Street was born in the heated political atmosphere of the 1960s. Urban riots and early civil rights legislation had kindled a feeling of urgency about poor children's lagging school achievement. These concerns coalesced with child experts' growing belief that the cognitive abilities of all young children had been underestimated and underserved. Grammar school was too late to start repairing the deficits of childhood disadvantage such as black children. "Sesame Street's" intention from the outset was to help erasing the characteristics that distinguish African-American English from standard American English and which include the pronunciation of consonant clusters at the ends of words ("desks" and "tests" become "desses" and "tesses," for example), the elimination of some third-person singular verb inflections ("He throw the ball." "She write the book." "He vote for the candidate."); and certain distinctive uses of the verb "to be." Among the latter, perhaps the most emblematic is the frequently misunderstood construction that linguists refer to as the "habitual be." When speakers of standard American English hear the statement "He be reading," they generally take it to mean "He is reading." But that's not what it means to a speaker of Black English, for whom "He is reading" refers to what the reader is doing at this moment. "He be reading" refers to what he does habitually, whether or not he's doing it right now. Early childhood programs aimed at the poor■Head Start, most notably■suddenly seemed the best route to improving inner-city children's academic chances and breaking the cycle of poverty. "Sesame Street" was aimed at repairing these problems early enough because children are known as avid and capable learners. In fact, cognitive expert such as Benjamin Bloom states in Stability and Change in Human Characteristics, that half of all learning was actually completed by age four. Alert to all of these trends was Joan Ganz Cooney, the woman whom Carnegie Corporation president Lloyd Morrisett had hired to explore the potential of television for teaching children. Cooney had produced a documentary about a Harlem preschool and had won an Emmy for another educational television effort, "Poverty, Anti-Poverty, and the Poor."

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It would be hard to think of another modern institution that has touched as many children as Sesame Street. In Television-land, where shows have a shelf life as brief as that of a carton of eggs, this one is still going strong after a quarter-century. During that time it has been broadcast to more than 120 million children in 130 nations from Israel to Cameroon, making it■according to the Children's Television Workshop, the show's producer■"the largest single teacher of young children in the world." In the United States, Sesame Street's popularity is staggering; 77 percent of American preschool children from all areas, ethnic groups, and income levels watch the show once a week or more. In many locales they can take their pick of three or more broadcasts a day. With that kind of credential, one can argue that Sesame Street is like the British Empire, a place where the sun will never set. Sesame Street is the winner of 58 Emmys, two Peabody Awards, and four Parents' Choice Awards, subject of retrospectives at the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Modern Art, Sesame Street is as revered as it is popular.

Kermit the Frog and the Got Milk Campaign

This advertising campaign could be described as having been highly successful at communicating with people, as its slogan "Got Milk" has become a part of the vernacular in a certain generation in America. "Everyone" knows what those two words stand for, as Tannen points out, the "Got Milk" utterance has become a special element in our "shared universe of discourse" (1987: 584). Also, the famous "milk moustache" has become commonplace for most people. Each ad is used in a different magazine in order to specifically communicate with the reader.

Before I take up a semiotic analysis of Kermit the Frog's involvement in the "Got Milk" campaign, I need to try to put it into context. The "Got Milk" campaign began in the 1990 in California, where it was created for the state's milk industry by Goodby, Silverstein &Partners, and a unit of the Omnicon Group. Outside of California, it was then taken up-with the addition of milk mustache-as part of the so-called national Got Milk Mustache campaign by Bozell on behalf of two national umbrella groups: Dairy Management Inc., which represents dairy farmers, and the Milk Processor Education Program, which is made up of milk processor. Together, they are responsible for national milk advertising. Kermit the Frog is an appealing candidate for the "Got Milk" campaign because of their effort to raise children consumption of milk. As a popular children icon, Kermit brings in massive star power appeal. Thus, as a sign itself Kermit "got Milk" unique photograph can be divided into "three more subtle types of signs" which are the iconic sign as one resembles the signified; the symbolic sign, as one depending on individual connotation; indexical sign, as one having associations with inherent connection. Thus, a sign is always polysemic meaning that it covers a whole range of significations. To understand these significations, one uses the "concept of codes" Dyer 1986, p131 which are the rules that both the transmitter and the receiver are using when they attach an interpretation of the "meaning or content to a certain sign". Codes are derived from social and cultural knowledge that allow us to organize "our understanding of the world in terms of dominant meaning patterns" (Dyer, 1986: 135).

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The power of photography lies in its effectiveness in incarnating a presence, give it some immediacy, and facticity, the likeness of something which is the ability to annex and mime what it represents while in the process masks the power of its own arbitrariness, its own potential of distortion and simulacrum. Photography has the power to normalize strangeness, make it familiar. However, the making of an ad is a costly and complex business. Thus, to be effective those involved in their production have to select ways to persuade their target audience through the image, highlighting, typography, focus, camera angles etc■to achieved their desired message. In the case of Kermit the Frog, the use of color, the captions, the layout, typography, body language, code of addresses are a very particulars blend of alchemy with the purpose of representing a specific an univocal theme: to make Kermit the personification of milk and money. The clothes worn by Kermit are indexical of his well to do upper middle social class. He lives in a land of milk and money.

The presence of the screen behind him, the poles, the battery, and the case upon which he puts his feet suggests somebody involved in media business. It also brings forth the "Brechtian" side of that enterprise in its parody and reflexivity. The fact that he is photographed in an apparently photo studio must marks if there is anything the relations between art and the process of photography today and the tension that revolves around it. Photographers hide the basic discord between art and photography by not showing the process itself. Kermit is secure enough because he does not live with nor feels the need to elaborate on this tension - nor does he admits its existence in case the critic "notices" it. That tension is imposed is not Kermit's tension. As far as he is concerned he is the personification of craft and art itself.

His silhouette features in a wide angle shot occupies the center of the frame does suggest somebody in position of authority. However, it is more complex than that. Kermit the frog is made to appeal to women as well as children. He symbolizes the perfect man compare to all the strong athletes such as Carl Lewis used in the past by the got milk campaign, Kermit signals a shift. He is little and none threatening to women and children; instead he is often subject to Miss Piggy constant forcefulness. Miss Piggy herself was invented during the 1970s when the philosophy of Feminism was taking root in American media and culture in general. As the product of the 60s and the 70s, Kermit and his wife Ms Piggy also reject the past social conventions of the 50s. Its creates a climate where family and cultural norms of prior generations were suspect. The old conventions proved untrustworthy because they masked the endemic racial injustice of the culture, and the previous generation's blind obedience to existing authority had produced an irrational war. So, the generation of the '60's, the "Counter-Culture Generation," began to define itself as much by what it opposed as by anything it stood for. The lack of a norm, except the norm of rejection of the past, created a climate where new ideas and behaviors were valued precisely because they seemed "unconventional." In fact, that generation delighted in challenging and defying social expectations. So, anything that was new and unusual in pop culture served to validate the generation's desire to redefine itself. If the "new" also was an affront to past convention, so much the better. Thus, the relationship of Kermit and Miss Piggy is frowned with ambiguity. It went far as being rumored that his marriage to Miss Piggy was a sham and that Kermit is actually gay which extends his appeal outside the heterosexual mainstream. Such a strategy is typical in the advertisement industry, for their advertisements often attract controversy, at times for always targeting young people. In these ads, teenagers and young adults have been targeted because these groups have an enormous amount of collective disposable income and also they willingly adopted the nineties' world view that ambiguity is inherent to today' secular society.

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In all of the advertisements, the audience is drawn to the ad by several magnets. The most obvious is the milk mustache. Isn't this and especially unsophisticated thing for Kermit to be doing? Isn't he sophisticated enough to wipe his mouth after drinking that wonderfully nutritious beverage? In all of the ads, this mustache represents the innocence of childhood. It keeps us feeling young and full of life. With this milk mustache we have not denied our inner child and our childhood surfaces for just a moment while we drink our milk.

It also indoctrinates the notion that we need to be drinking more milk so that we can stay healthy. As a young, successful frog who is concerned about keeping his bones strong, he doesn't need to worry about staying healthy, preventing osteoporosis, and maintaining strong bones because he drinks milk on a regular basis. By instilling these notions into the minds of his audience, the milk industry is hoping to create awareness for the audience, and how they need to be responsible for taking care of their bodies. Thus, the three main caption: one close to his right hand shoulder "Milk isn't just for tadpoles" and two others underneath his right foot "Did you know 3 out of 4 adults don't get enough calcium? It takes at least 3 glasses of milk a day. I always keep some at my pad." And then the big caption "Got Milk?" There are all highlighted in white for us not only to see the commercial point but to bring coherence to a set of meaning health, success, masculinity. Here Kermit is being associated with health, sophistication, discernment, strength, gentleness, and cool. Even though milk is used in the mundane chore of daily life, is through a set of connotation and indexation that it is made desirable: drinking milk is cool.

On the other hand, the study of Kermit the Frog's "Got Milk", the mixing of the quote "Milk isn't just for tadpoles" is to signify that the poster is not only bracketed in the world of the "seeing" but it also falls in that of the speaking. Thus, it is itself a mode of speech, a mode of narrating, of representing reality but also a form of persuasion. Here, we have not only a manner of speaking of the world but a way to inhabit it. The context in which this activity of working with signs is taking place is in the present. Thus, doing semiology is not only studying signs, its also studying "the social production of meaning by sign systems" (Branston& Stafford, 1996, P.5). Thus according to Dyer, 1986, P.123 assessing the power of a photograph through semiotic analysis is getting one involved in the relation to their structure and their structural relationships with other signs because a sign can be anything which "stands for something else", and it "not only means in and for itself but also through its place in other signifying systems".

What Are the Problems With the "Got Milk" Campaign?

According to Walter Benjamin, "mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses toward the art" (583). Advertising has placed demands on art which have forced it to become mechanical; thus, the aura is changed. The aura loses its significance, because it has become separate from its religious background, and the base of its meaning. By losing its meaning; consequently, it loses its authenticity. Authenticity is changed through technical reproduction. Thus, behind that coolness, the Got milk campaigns is the desacralisation of some "natural" cultural practices ranging from animal treatment, bottle feeding against breast-feeding, and obsession with bones and youthfulness. The "Got Milk campaign" distorts the treatment of animals and Using Kermit is a cynical way of neutralizing that problem.

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PETA (1) is on board with their "Got Beer" campaign not only to show the hypocrisy at the foundation of the Got Milk campaign. PETA's main "beef" is, of course, about the treatment of the mother cows and their calves on factory farms. Today's dairy cow is treated like nothing more than a milk machine■chained by her neck in a concrete stall for months, her udders genetically modified to produce so much extra milk that they sometimes drag on the feces- and urine-covered cement. She is kept pregnant by artificial insemination to keep milk production high; her male calves are traumatically taken away from her at 1 to 2 days old and chained inside cramped dark crates to be killed for veal. The milk that is meant for them ends up on our supermarket shelves. There are no retirement homes for dairy cows. When their usefulness to dairy farmers is over, they get shoved into a truck and sent off to slaughter.

The health benefits of milk may be exaggerated (see references). A nutritional comparison of beer and milk reveals that: Compared to Beer, milk is loaded with fat while beer has none. Beer has zero cholesterol; milk contains 20 mg of cholesterol in every 8-oz. serving. Beer doesn't contain hormones or antibiotics, while milk contains an ever-increasing variety of the pesticides and antibiotics fed to cows, including rBGH, the notorious growth hormone that can stimulate the growth of breasts among males. Beer has half a gram of fiber in every cup; milk has no fiber whatsoever. Beer has only 12 mg of sodium per cup. Milk is sky-high in the stuff. Beer has 3 grams of complex carbohydrates in a 12-oz. glass; milk has no complex carbohydrates. The high animal protein content of milk actually leaches calcium from the bones. In the U.S., Norway, and Sweden■where people consume the most dairy products■women have the highest rates of osteoporosis in the world. Regions of the world where dairy products are not part of the culture, such as China and Japan, are virtually osteoporosis-free. Many studies have shown a strong correlation between animal product consumption (including dairy products) and breast cancer. Unless you drink the stuff on your way up Mount Everest, beer won't give you a stroke. However, dairy products contribute to almost every disease except carpal tunnel syndrome, including stroke; iron-deficiency; allergies; cancers of the prostate, breast, colon, and ovaries; asthma; heart disease; and even the common cold (milk helps promote the production of mucus).

Youthful figures like Kermit are also appealing to women trying to bust the high ceiling of corporation and other workplaces because he relieved them from the practice of breastfeeding. He pushes the consumption of artificial milk and makes it okay. However, a recent article in the May 8, 2002 issue of JAMA argues that, How long a baby is breastfed may be associated with the child's intelligence level later in life, Dr Mortensen and all argues in that paper that breastfeeding and cognitive development are positively linked because:

*Breast milk may contain nutrients not found in cow's milk or formula that stimulate brain development;

*The physical and psychological contact between mother and child during

*Unidentified factors that correlate with both infant feeding methods and development of cognitive and intellectual ability, or relevant and identified factors that cannot be fully controlled in statistical analyses.

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In conclusion, the authors state that their findings "indicate that breastfeeding may have long-term positive effects on cognitive and intellectual development."

On the other hand, in Kevin Smith's "Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back" 2001, the character, Shake Luther King, played by Chris Rock complains about having created a show called "NWP: Niggaz with Puppets" only see it stolen by the white men and renamed "Sesame Street". Literally, Rock's complaint might be meant to be a joke but a deeper analysis reveal two main concerns. First, it brings forth the concept of "imagined community" and the fact that each generation sees its culture as that with which it grew up. Thus, Rock's complaint highlights the folk status that Sesame Street has gained not only with his generation but also the entire black community. Thus, Sesame Street has been so incorporated into black cultural practices to the point that Kermit is considered to be one of their own. Second, it brings forth the issue of "crossover" which is the "whitening" of minority. It is the compromise that minorities have to make to be acceptable in the mainstream society meaning white society. It can take many forms such as dubbing Pat Boone and Little Richard, Tutti Frutti, the movie Carmen Jones (1954) where the voices of the blacks were dubbed by white musicians because they were not mainstream enough. By crossing over, Kermit seems to stop pushing the concerns of young black kids. He becomes partner with the middle and upper class educated people and espouses a philosophy of life that promote consumerism and consumption as the driving force in life. His spiel is that our best features are our bones because we need them to stay strong. In this ad, she wants to be looked at because she has beautiful "bones," and by drinking milk she will maintain her beauty. With the Got Milk campaign, Kermit becomes the spokesfrog of a society that is obsessed with aging, and will go to any extreme to stay at that youthful age of innocence, when we didn't know any better than to neglect to wipe our mouths. Instead of some new anti-aging crème, the industry has given us something worth saving from past generations, and I think it just might work but that is a far cry from where Kermit started!

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