Years ago I was a crackpot with a newspaper. I was the publishers of an alternative newsweekly in Athens, GA. We grew out of the Athens music scene and the desire for a local paper that could cover and celebrate it.
Now every media outlet that generates revenue from advertising–from print to teevee to radio to Web to whatever–will have open ad space from time to time. This is usually filled by giving the space to charity/public service ads, self-promotion ads or trades for some kind of service or need. We used do all these things when we had open ad space. For example we used to trade ad space with a local recording studio so that we could gather known and unknown Athens musicians to record our annual Christmas albums. These ad trades created amazing results like a cover of White Christmas by the late great Vic Chesnutt–a deeply missed friend who passed a little over a year ago.
As the owner of the paper I was free to use this open space to promote whatever I wanted to promote and that brings me to Monkey Milk.
Monkey Milk was an experiment in the ridiculous and the old American newspaper tradition of creating a hoax to amuse, confuse and titillate your readers. Bamboozling your readers was an art form celebrated as ‘Humbug‘. It was entertainment and most folks took it that way, but there were always the gullible and humorless who did not. Some of the newspaper hoaxes were masterpieces of the form like Sawing Manhattan in Half and The Great Moon Hoax of 1835 and The Great Balloon Hoax (written by Edgar Allen Poe) as well as the endless number of hoaxes promoted by P.T. Barnum–perhaps the real Father of our modern American system of media and politics rooted in an imitation of classic humbug.
One of my brothers was working with me at the paper and he was very fond of Humbug as an art form. He liked nothing better than spinning a good yarn that sounded just real enough to be taken as fact even though it was ridiculous–especially if you stopped for even a moment to think about it. He once convinced a fellow visiting him in NYC that folks in Manhattan where buying Brazilian attack turtles to keep as pets because they did a better job of catching mice and rats than cats and traps. So one week when we had some space to fill he came up with the idea for Monkey Milk. He wrote the copy while our Graphic Designer and I came up with a logo and the ad. The copy was brilliant and for authenticity it–of course–included a footnote:
The Monkey Ranch was founded in 1981 just outside of Laitteville, PA as a research center for the educational development of monkeys and apes. ‘We have also provided the entertainment industry with many talented performers. Animal Rights Activist, Julie Labbruf, called our operation, a model of humane and friendly treatment. ..”*
In the last seven years our team of trained researchers have turned their attention to the potential use of MONKEYMILK as a food for humans. The results have been amazing!* It has long been recognized that cow’s milk, while consumed indiscriminately by the dictates of tradition, contributes to a wide range of health problems.
Goat’s milk more closely answers the needs of the human body, but what could better satisfy the needs of the human body than the milk of our nearest relative in the animal kingdom? Our research has revealed the incredible nutritional values and healing virtues of MONKEY MILK as a delicious food for man, woman and child. For more detailed nutritional information, just pick up any MONKEY MILK product at a store near you!
* See the article about MONKEY Milk in Newsweek, Dec. 12, 1991 and in Nutrition Monthly, June 1991.
We ran the ad and enjoyed the response from friends especially some who worked at some of the local health food stores. With their help we widened the believability of the product. We made hanging cards to place in store refrigerated selves saying “Sorry, the last bottle of Money Milk has been sold. A fresh shipment is on order” and using an ad trade with a local screen printer we made Monkey Milk T-shirts to put up for sale at shops around town and to pass out for folks to wear.
We started running the ad week after week, adding the names of local stores and a promise of new products to come:
Folks started asking for it at the stores only to be told that the last bottle had been sold and that another order was on the way. Folks started calling the paper trying to find out how they could get in contact with The Monkey Ranch. These calls were always routed to my brother who would explain the that ads and payment arrived from a PO Box in Atlanta and we did not know how to get in touch with The Monkey Ranch. When one irate caller got upset with his inability to give her a straight answer she yell at him “you suck” to which he replied “Jesus, Lady that’s sick. They milk em like cows–with sterilized machines.” She hung up.
A few months later my brother and I were at a local bar having a drink when the latest issue of the paper was being looked over by a group of folks at a nearby table. A women at the table suddenly went “Yuck. Monkey Milk. That’s disgusting”. We had heard that kind of reaction before, but then a fella at the table spoke up told her that he had had it before and that it wasn’t disgusting at all. In fact, he said it tasted great. As he promoted the virtues of Monkey Milk somebody else at the table jumped to his support and claimed that he too had it before and that it was OK. As the group decided that they all had to try it, we toasted each other to a job well done while trying to keep our laughter in check.
Over the years we continued to run the Monkey Milk ad from time to time. And there was a few months when a small beverage distributor actually wanted to produce and brand something called Monkey Milk, but those discussions never went anywhere–I think the idea of an actual product was just too silly. As time went by Monkey Milk just became a good story to tell.
And yet, in the wake of 2010 and as the 112th Congress comes to town Monkey Milk has been on my mind. While I like to think the the art of Humbug is just good clean fun, the truth is that the skills required to produce the humbug newspaper hoaxes of old–the one that were played for laughs and entertainment–have a dark side. They can also be used to create hoaxes with a very different goal than a shared laugh at a practical joke well played. These skills can be used to promote fear, ignorance, bigotry and smears.
When I listen to the rhetoric of the modern so-called Conservative movement, when I listen to the spin of the
Republican Confederate Party and when I listen to or read their mighty wurlitzer of propaganda on Fox, wingnut radio and the online purveyors of wingnutopia it is clear that they are just selling Monkey Milk with a far bigger budget and no sense of humor. They offer an idea of a product that does not and never will exist and they get the gullible to tell their friend that it is real. All they offer is an endless hoax and a con that is completely without humor and joy. It is Humbug employed as a dark art and the Father of our modern American system, P.T. Barnum, must be spinning in his grave.