Trix is for kids

Going the social media rounds, this joke, an ostentatiously playful allusion (OPA) to a bit of popular culture, presented as a texty — a cartoon that’s primarily a printed text, though texties often come with a visual backdrop, which sometimes contributes crucially to an understanding of the joke, as here:

(#1) A texty that lives in two worlds: American political culture of recent years (a reference conveyed visually, through the photo of Paul Ryan); and an ad campaign for an American breakfast cereal marketed to children (a reference conveyed verbally, by the ostentatious play on the ad slogan “Silly rabbit / Trix is for kids!”)

(Hat tip to Mike Pope.)

(Background on texties. There’s a Page on this blog on ecards and other texty creations. From the postings listed there, from 2/1/16, “Only YOU”:

[#1 in that posting is] a composition that resembles a cartoon, but in which the text (rather than the image) is central. What I called, in a 5/30/14 posting, “What are they?”, texty creations (or texties for short): art works in which texts are central (Jenny Holzer, Ed Ruscha); ecards; illustrated or decoratively framed quotations; words-only cartoons, or ”slogans presented as cartoons”; captioning of existing images; webcomics that can be seen as very long captions for minimal images; Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts (in which the images are largely irrelevant).)

(Note on sources. The texty above has been passed around on Twitter and Facebook — and, no doubt, other sites as well — without attribution. I’d hoped that the credit to, in the lower left corner of #1, would lead to an actual source, but the CHEEZburger site reported that, an assemblage of political memes, was closing on 11/30 (of some year not specified, but maybe 2016); its domain name is now, in 2019, up for sale. None of the sites offering collections of memes seem to cite sources for their examples; the examples are the net counterparts of jokes passed around by word of mouth and then assembled into jokebooks.)

The formal part: the OPA. Distilled here, with the allusive example on the top line, the (formulaic) model for it on the bottom line:

(#2) The allusion substitutes a nominal for the head (A) of the vocative silly rabbit in the model; substitutes a one-word sg. NP subject (B) for the subject of the sentence Trix is for kids in the model; and substitutes a one-word pl. NP for the object NP (C) in the PP predicative for kids in that sentence of the model

The content part: the allusion, with Paul Ryan. From Wikipedia, with the crucial passage boldfaced:

Paul Davis Ryan (born January 29, 1970) is an American politician who served as the 54th Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from October 2015 to January 2019. He was also the 2012 vice presidential nominee of the Republican Party, running unsuccessfully alongside Mitt Romney.

… Ryan subscribes to supply-side economics and supports tax cuts including eliminating the capital gains tax, the corporate income tax, the estate tax, and the Alternative Minimum Tax. Ryan supports deregulation, including the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act of 1999, which repealed some financial regulation of banks from the Glass–Steagall Act of 1933. During the economic recovery from the Great Recession of the late 2000s, Ryan supported the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), which authorized the Treasury to purchase toxic assets from banks and other financial institutions, and the auto industry bailout

The point being that Ryan supported help for banks (and tax cuts benefiting the rich), but did not support programs benefiting the poor. If you don’t recognize Paul Ryan in a photo and don’t know his political positions at least in vague outline, you can’t understand the OPA in #1.

The content part: the model, with the fruity shapes of Trix. Obviously, to understand the OPA in #1, you need to know what Trix is. See my 11/1/18 posting “Sweet stuff” on classic Trix, an extremely sweet breakfast cereal marketed to children, which comes in “fruity shapes”.

Beyond that, you need to know about the years of advertising the cereal by means of the Trix rabbit and the catchphrase “Silly rabbit, Trix is for kids!”.

(#3) A 1970s “silly rabbit” tv commercial, with the rabbit disguised as a milkman

(#4) A print ad from the period, with the rabbit as a miner

On the history of the ads, from Wikipedia:

By 1955, just one year after Trix’s market debut, General Mills was experimenting with a rabbit puppet as a potential Trix mascot. However, it was Joe Harris, a copywriter and illustrator at the Dancer Fitzgerald Sample advertising agency, who created the trademark animated Trix rabbit, who debuted in a 1959 television commercial. Harris also wrote the iconic Trix tagline, “Silly rabbit! Trix are for kids”, which is still used in General Mills’ commercial campaigns.

Chet Stover, the creative director of Dancer Fitzgerald Sample’s Trix account, fully credited Harris with the creation of the Trix rabbit after viewing the new character in its 1959 television commercial. In an internal memo to Dancer Fitzgerald Sample employees, Stover wrote, “In a business where the only thing we have to sell are ideas, it is of first importance the credit is given where credit belongs — and Joe gets all the credit for this one.”

Tricks, the Trix Rabbit — voiced by Mort Marshall, and later by Bret Iwan — an anthropomorphic cartoon rabbit who finds children and wants to trick the children into giving him a bowl of cereal. He would burst with enthusiasm but he would be discovered every time; and the kids would always reprimand him with the signature phrase “Silly rabbit! Trix are for kids!”.

… In commercials from 1967, the 70s and 80s as well as today, the rabbit was known to disguise himself to get the cereal, employing costumes as diverse as a balloon vendor, a painter and a Native American.

The world of playful allusions. Let’s start with formulas.

A formula is any bit of language that’s fixed in form and understood significantly via memory rather than by composition from its parts, including: idioms (including those with open parts), small constructions, conversational routines (politeness formulas, greetings and leave-takings, etc.), clichés, striking quotations, proverbs, sayings, adages, catchphrases, slogans, memorable proper names, titles (of books, songs, poems, artwork, whatever), and more.

We hold in our memories vast amounts of material that’s, speaking strictly, knowledge of language: individual lexical items, larger idioms, the patterns of constructions. But also vast amounts of knowledge about the roles that bits of language play in cultural practices. All this material is available as possible models for language play of many kinds — language play that then alludes to the models, evokes them.

Such allusions are themselves a cultural practice, which can be employed for many purposes: playfulness (specifically, joking for entertainment, demonstration of linguistic prowess, cultural criticism), poetic indirection, giving advice, communicating a subtext, polite deflection, establishing and maintaining a common group identity. In some of these deployments, allusions are ostentatious, meant to stand out and be appreciated; in many deployments, they are subtle.

In my earlier postings on playful allusions (especially in stories in the Economist), I made a lot of the ostentatious vs. subtle distinction, as OPAs vs. EEQs (Easter egg quotations); see my 5/18/19 posting “Ostentatiously playful allusions”, where I go on to distinguish among playful allusions on two other dimensions: the formal relationship between allusion and model, and the content relationship between the two.

— formal relationships between allusion and model. In the simplest cases, we have a substitution of an expression X′ for some expression X in the model. In the simplest type of such substitutions, X′ and X are homophones; they are phonologically identical. So, from the Economist of 5/25/19, this head for a story (p. 41):

Full of beans: In a nation [China] of tea-drinkers, coffee is talking over

This turns on a perfect pun based on the idiom full of beans (‘informal lively; in high spirits’ (NOAD)), punning on bean as in coffee bean).

Quite often, the pun is imperfect (with varying degrees of phonological distance between allusion and model). From the same issue of the Economist, p. 41:

Aporkalypse now: African swine fever hits the home of half the world’s pigs [China again]

The allusion has pork /pɔrk/ (referring to meat from pigs) substituted for the poc /pak/ of Apocalypse — phonologically similar, but not identical.

In somewhat more complex allusions, there are substitutions in two or more positions. So, in this wonderful joke allusion (from A.M. Zwicky & E.D. Zwicky, “Imperfect puns, markedness, and phonological similarity” (Folia Linguistica 20, 1989)):

With fronds like these, who needs anemones?

(an allusion to the model formula With friends like these, who needs enemies?), there are imperfect-pun substitutions at two positions.

But then, the substitution of X′ for X need not involve expressions that are at all phonologically related. From my 5/18/19 OPA posting, this allusion:

Do tapirs defecate in the woods?

to the formulaic

Does a bear shit in the woods?

with substitutions at two positions — tapirs for a bear, and defecate for shit — neither of them phonologically motivated at all. (Instead, they are semantically motivated.)

Similarly, in general for transposition (or exchange, or Spooneristic) allusions, as in this allusive quip, attributed to Oscar Wilde (probably correctly, according to the Quote Investigator site):

Work is the curse of the drinking class

as a variant of the quotation:

Drink is the curse of the working class

(widely attributed to Karl Marx, though I haven’t seen this verified). The relationship between drink and work is semantic, not phonological.

So it is with the allusive substitutions in the texty in #1, outlined in detail in #2: poor people for rabbit in position A, help for Trix in position B, and banks for kids in position C. All without phonological motivation.

— content relationships between allusion and model. In my 5/18/19 OPA posting, examples from the Economist varied along this dimension as well as on the dimension of phonological relationship. At one end, there was an allusion to the knock, knock joke formula that involved a perfect pun (on the family name Nock), but had no relationship whatsoever to the topic of the article it was in. At the other end, there was the tapir story, with no phonological relationship involved, but a considerable content relationship: it was actually important to the story that tapirs do in fact defecate in the woods.

For the Economist‘s Aporkalypse now allusion, there’s clear content relevance (as well as a phonological relationship): the model for the allusion is the title Apocalypse Now, for an epic Francis Ford Coppola film about the Vietnam War, loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, about colonial war in the 19th-century Congo. The Chinese swine fever epidemic is in fact an apocalypse, in the sense ‘an event involving destruction or damage on an awesome or catastrophic scale’ (NOAD) — just like the Vietnam War in Coppola’s view, and like the colonial intrusions in the Congo in Conrad’s view.

Finally, in the case of Paul Ryan (involving poor people, government assistance, and banks) in relationship to Trix (involving the Trix rabbit, the fruity cereal, and kids), the allusion in #1 is intended as a political critique framed as a close analogy to the ad’s model: just as the rabbit is denied the cereal, which is instead for kids, so poor people are denied government assistance, which is instead for banks. No phonological relationship, high content relationship. (Similar to the Economist tapir example, but with even more moving parts.)

Pragmatic note. An important piece in understanding #1 comes in appreciating that Trix is for kids conveys (but does not entail) that Trix is only for kids, so is not for rabbits (or adults). And, analogically, that Help is for banks similarly conveys (but does not entail) that help is only for banks, so is not for poor people.

To see that Trix is for kids does not actually entail that Trix is only for kids and not for rabbits (or adults) it’s enough to note that there’s nothing contradictory in proclaiming:

Trix is for kids, for adults, and for hungry animals too; Trix is for everyone.

The effect of restricting Trix to kids only is a matter of (conversational) implicature: in the context — where the rabbit is derided (Silly rabbit!) for supposing he could have some Trix, and where the Trix is forcibly taken from him — the kids are laying exclusive claim to the cereal. (Their claim is reinforced by a focal accent on (for) kids in the tv commercials.)


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