We all have our weird hobbies, or even just predilections. For many years, I’ve been interested in art brut or outsider art—that is, any artistic expression in which the creator is largely untrained, self-taught, or taught outside of an academic setting. Such an aesthetic position may seem synonymous with folk art or naïve art—the former of which has a Smithsonian collection, while the latter has a museum devoted to the subject in Zagreb—but folk and naïve art typically achieve broader cultural acceptance (or at least strive for it); outsider art is usually exclusively outside both the accepted cultural norms within its milieu as well as the expected counterculture. Outsider art in general—and outsider music is what I appreciate the most—might reflect an unusual psychological obsession (even a pathology), an unconventional view of the world, a fantastic notion, an eccentric philosophy, a psychosis, or merely the sincerest of commitment combined with a good old fashioned lack of talent. (The best introduction/immersion to outsider music is Irwin Chisud’s Songs in the Key of Z, which also offers two affiliated “soundtracks”.) Another fascination of mine are the opening credits to old sitcoms—particularly the obscure, mostly forgotten ones from the 70s through 90s that the network cancelled after less than one full season. These forgotten relics seem to manifest an even more revelatory pop cultural thumbprint than M*A*S*H or Cheers or Frasier because, as evident flops, they aimed and failed to earn mainstream acceptance. And they’re much more abundant than the examples like Friends. Lastly, I have always loved advertising strategies—particularly visual and print advertising, which is no surprise, since I come from a family who was part of the industry for most of my childhood. I even learned to read through common logos. Among my first words were “Visa”, “MasterCard”, “American Express”. Just like any other red-blooded American.
But, in all fairness, I digress. Only the last of these three predilections has really achieved much cogency in this blog. I love logos. My obsession with the vestiges of the once-mighty chain Quiznos is broadly visible here on the site. And, try as I might to avoid it, I keep getting roped in by creative supermarket displays—the colorful strategies for unloading a few specific items from a grocery store’s inventory, usually tied to a holiday or some other special event. I’ve covered the topic on multiple occasions. And I have good reason to believe it’s an unusual fixation, because when I dwell on the subject, rarely does it return more than a comment or two. Usually none. But I can’t help myself.
Supermarkets are but a subset within the broader retail culture, and virtually any reasonable establishment recognized the effectiveness of a good window or entry display to entice customers. In 2021, the broader socioeconomic and public health conditions essentially force us to focus on supermarkets, because precious few other options are operating at normal capacity. Many are continuing the great implosion that was well underway prior to the pandemic. Who would have guessed in 2005 that luxury clothier Neiman Marcus would have filed Chapter 11, especially on the heels of a generally surging economy over the previous five years? Yet, to the best of my knowledge, even as online food delivery operations have surged, supermarkets are generally doing just fine. After all, they’re the first and best repository for hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and bleach. And we need food to live, even if that food is canned soup. So grocery stores are still pulling out all the stops when it comes to those entry displays, like this one in a mega-chain in Alexandria, Virginia, where I routinely shop:
Needless to say, this isn’t a photograph that I snapped months ago, then sat on until I wrote this article. It’s from only hours ago. This very seasonal display has the month of March written all over it: bedecked in green clovers and leprechaun hats for St. Patrick’s Day, the food underneath those Mylar balloons is as Irish-derived as one can expect in a grocery store for normies. In other words, Guinness. Lots of it. If Alexandria were a place where St. Patrick’s Day parades were a bigger deal (like it is in Savannah or Boston or Chicago or New Orleans), this particular supermarket might feature other quintessential St. Patrick’s Day comestibles: potatoes, carrots, or even tins of corned beef and steel-cut oatmeal. (es, they do toss potatoes and cabbages at St. Patrick’s Day parades, at least in New Orleans:
Instead, perhaps because they’re obviously less perishable than cabbages or potatoes, we get St. Patrick’s Day themed plates and napkins, then bags of pistachios on the lefthand side of the display. Are pistachios a treat that the Irish associate with St. Patrick? Not that I’m aware of. But inside the shells, they’re green. So really, this is a display with little cultural fidelity; it’s more of a broad sweep across the aisles to see what comes up. Or, more importantly, it’s an excuse to push certain products to the public in the austere month of March. Let’s take another look.
Atop all those pistachios is a basketball backboard in green. What does that have to do with St. Patrick’s Day? Nothing, of course, but ’tis the season for the NCAA basketball tournament, with March Madness culminating in my home city of Indianapolis—and some surrounding fieldhouses in Bloomington and West Lafayette—in just a few weeks. No doubt pistachios make a fun munchie while watching all those games.
So there’s the clincher: St. Patrick’s Day is an excuse to engage the customer base with a sale. As is just about any holiday. In fact, commercial culture has elevated otherwise minor holidays by generating a hullaballoo to help drive attention, interest, and to bring bodies into those doors to buy more of the marked-down inventory. Do people celebrate Presidents Day besides its function as a federal holiday? What about Flag Day? Was there ever any cultural prerogative to Christmas in July? And back-to-school sales are a great way to stimulate activity in the otherwise holiday-free month of August. And the party-heavy holidays—New Year’s Eve, Halloween, Cinco de Mayo (which wasn’t a thing when I was growing up), and of course St. Patrick’s Day—all are great opportunities to boost sales in booze. Then of course there are major sporting events, like March Madness and the World Series, or of course the one-day Super Bowl, which I have previously cited is a supermarket’s golden opportunity to cell mass quantities of avocados, tomatoes, and cilantro—the prime ingredients for guacamole, which has become the de facto snack at Super Bowl parties.
It remains to be seen if most of the country will be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day amidst parades, street festivals, and canals dyed green this year. Last year was an almost total bust. But one thing’s for certain: for better or worse, thanks to sales like these, they’ll have easy access to their Guinness. My Guinness. My goodness.