All I Really Need to Know I Learned From Snack Cake Advertising

13 Lessons for Succeeding in the Business World, as Revealed By a Thorough Examination of Classic Superhero Hostess Ads 

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1. Stay focused.
Ah, superhero Hostess ads — those delightful mini-adventures that ran in finer funny books during the ’70s and early ’80s. Those of us who grew up reading comics during that innocent era saw many ads in which the day was saved by the judicious application of prepackaged dessert pastries to any number of sticky situations, from averting an invasion of outer-space hillbillies to restoring the Hulk’s spirits after a particularly bad thrashing. But what management theorists are only now discovering is that these one-page snippets of auctorial insanity were also teaching future business leaders many valuable lessons for surviving in the corporate world. Most obvious among these is the importance of staying focused on the task at hand. Time and again, the villains in these ads would have victory within their grasp, only to fail miserably because they were momentarily distracted by a Hostess product tossed in their general direction. Jet-Set Jessie, for instance, would still be out stealing jewels if she hadn’t succumbed to the allure of Batgirl’s Twinkies. Similarly, June Jitsui, a martial arts expert who happens to attack Spider-Man in a park whilst he heads home from the deli, takes time out from kicking Spidey’s butt to chow down on some Hostess treats — and ends up hanging from a tree as a result. The lesson here: stay focused on a task until it’s accomplished. Also: carbo-load before every battle.

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2. Learn what motivates your employees and use it.

In “Fury Unleashed!”, the Trapster would appear to have all the essential elements of a super-villain lair firmly in place: metal walls and floors with visible rivets, no discernible defences, a steel door that can be easily punched off its hinges, a single bald henchman who seems to have trouble holding Fury’s attention even while strangling him. But something else the Trapster probably should have considered during the design phase was the addition of a few vending machines. That way, his big, bald and (apparently) hungry henchman wouldn’t have been so easily distracted from his important job of strangling Nick Fury when Captain America flings a shield full of Fruit Pies in his  direction. The little things like free coffee or snacks may cost you in the short term, but weigh that against the costs of decreased productivity, absenteeism or the hassle of constantly finding new employees, and the choice is clear. Or as Mr. Burns would say, “Let them have their tar-tar sauce!”

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3. Assess every situation before running in.  

Okay, let’s analyze the flow of events in “The Deciding Factor!”: (1) Captain America discovers aliens walking down a city street and, without any attempt at starting a dialogue, starts pummeling them. (2) Nick Fury, the head of a super-secret spy agency who’s apparently also just out for a stroll, comes across the four-on-one melee and decides he can’t just barge in to help his friend. (3) Hostess Fruit Pies are produced. (4) The aliens stop fighting and announce they must tell their world about this unique power the humans possess in the form of pies. While you could take issue with Fury’s decision to throw fruit pies at the aliens instead of, say, using his clearly visible sidearm to shoot them, it’s clear that Fury’s decision to weigh all options before “just pilin’ on” is what saves the day here. Let that be a lesson to all of us, then: even when it’s clear which side you should take in an argument, nothing is gained by running in without some kind of plan.

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4. An idea is only as good as what you plan to do with it.

One of the (many) mind-boggling aspects of the Hostess ads is how so many of the featured villains seem to have no idea what to do with the amazing inventions they come up with. Market research exists for a reason, people! The Bureauc-Rat, for instance, invents an amazing gun that shoots endless streams of red tape, and the best he can think to do with it is ensnare city traffic until the authorities give in to his demands. Similarly, the mad scientist Absent-Minded Mac uses a special net to induce mass forgetfulness at a local university, but there’s no indication of what he actually plans to do with several thousand amnesia victims at his mercy (or, for that matter, how he managed to cover a university’s entire airspace with a fine mesh net without attracting attention). A bright idea is great, but it will only take you so far without a solid plan for marketing it. Think of all the philandering spouses and Bush-era Republicans who would pay top dollar for a no-hassle way to make large groups of people forget things, and then ask yourself if inducing amnesia in college students (most of whom are probably halfway to stoned anyway) sounds like the way to go.

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5. Don’t sweat the small stuff.

In “Superman Saves the Earth,” a delegate at the Interstellar Council argues in favor of blowing up Earth on the grounds that our planet has never come up with anything good (unlike his planet, which has clearly cornered the galactic market for groovin’ hairstyling products). Superman, godlike and munificent being that he is, manages to stave off humanity’s imminent annihilation by introducing the aliens to Hostess Cupcakes, which they eagerly accept as proof that Earthlings are worthy of continued existence. But just as Superman has finished saving the entire freaking planet, along comes Stingy McWhitecoat, Ace Grocery Manager, to demand who’s going to pay for a whole 12 boxes of cupcakes. (“Send the bill to my friend Clark Kent,” Superman enthuses, rather than committing the more understandable action of melting the man’s face off with his heat vision before he can finish his money-grubbing sentence.) In every business transaction, you have to give a little to get a little something in return, so find that fine line between giving away the shop and giving away a couple of cupcakes.

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6. Think about the long-term consequences of your actions.
Hey, we’ve all been there. You had a bad day, you’re taking one down, sing a sad song just to turn it around, etc. In those low moments, it can be tempting to just lash out at the world (or, in a pinch, your employees-slash-co-workers) and do things that might make you feel good in the moment, but will have disastrous consequences down the road. In “Captain Marvel vs. Professor Sneer,” the mad scientist plans to use his “sun killer” spaceship to extinguish the sun and make everything nice and frigid, ha ha. Rather than beat him senseless or appeal to the man’s sense of reason (“my God, man, where will you buy your green ties and orange shirts if Earth is gone?”), Captain Marvel deduces that Sneer is the way he is because no one has ever done a nice thing for him, so he rectifies that by sharing his Twinkies with the desperately lonely man. Think of that image the next time you’re tempted to take out your anger on someone next to you — that same person could be the one who comes up with the ultimate in sun-killing technology, and wouldn’t you feel like a putz for sending him down that self-destructive road?

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7. Technology helps, but have a backup plan just in case.
It’s been a long time since I stopped trying to figure out how Batman and Robin were always able to have the right tool within reach for every occasion; I think it was around the time I saw them produce the anti-shark repellent that I learned to just go with the flow. But Robin, I have to say this: if you plan to carry a “special mummy ray gun” around with you for just such an occasion, make sure it actually works on freakin’ mummies. Never fear, though: Batman races back to the Batmobile’s trunk, produces a box of Hostess Twinkies, and distracts the monster long enough to rescue the hostages who defiled the mummy’s tomb and caused his rampage in the first place (I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: stupid, stupid archaeologists). It’s hard to imagine a 2,000-year-old ambulatory corpse’s dietary needs sated by hydrogenated shortening and monoglycerides, but that’s not really important here. What is important is that the Dynamic Duo had a Plan B when their technology failed, and that’s what saved the day. Blackouts, equipment failure, uncooperative legions of the undead — no matter what potential crises you face running your own business, it’s a lesson to keep in mind.

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8. Don’t let emotions guide your decisions.  

In “Sparks Fly,” we learn the Human Torch is getting framed for a series of fires thanks to a bunch of copycat human torch thugs led by… damn, we never do learn her name, do we? It’s probably something like Ignitia or Enflamia — you know, something to do with fire. At any rate, “that woman” is motivated to frame the Human Torch for arson because he wouldn’t be her man, which seems awfully petty when you think about it — or maybe she’s counting on an incarcerated Human Torch being more open to conjugal visits. (And I don’t get how her henchmen are contained by the Torch’s ring of fire. I mean, they can fly, right? And even though we don’t learn how they mastered the Torch’s powers, can’t we assume they have at least mastered some method of not getting burned?) Obviously, her plan fails because Twinkies are just too good to resist, which is the second time in this short strip her emotions have led her down an ill-advised path.

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9. Negotiate from a position of strength.

But of course, if you’re ever going to mount a nationwide revolution, the local post office just has to be your first stop. Take over television and radio stations? Blow up a bank or two? Kidnap the president? Please. Only when those L.L. Bean catalogues and Learning Annex flyers stop flowing will the people truly be brought to their knees. Their questionable tactics aside, the Phoomie Goonies (seriously?) seem to have the situation under control for all of ten seconds when the Hulk bear-hugs all three of them and threatens to stuff them in an envelope — that is, until a young urchin suggests he feed them Hostess Fruit Pies instead. “We surrender for fruit pies!” yells one of the gunman in response. Um, no, bitch — when you’re getting crushed by the Hulk, you surrender for free. Or else. In other words: learn the difference between being in a position to negotiate your terms and being in a place where you’re better off to just accept the inevitable.

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10. The devil really is in the details.
In “An Unbeatable Power,” the alien being known as Big Dome (like, real sensitive there, Super-Dick) is anything but, as his Kryptonite ray machine apparently requires the operator to keep one hand on the “on” switch at all times… making it all too easy for the children to distract him with some Twinkies long enough for Superman to escape his evil clutches. (And let’s not even discuss the inherent design flaws in making the machine too large to be portable — how exactly did he lure Superman into his living room? — or operating it near a window with an apparently high level of foot traffic outside.) Clearly, Big Dome was on to something with his big idea (hey, not every D-list villain can claim to have stopped Superman in his tracks), but in the end it was the little details that tripped him up. Whether it’s your own kryptonite death ray machine or something else equally important, don’t let a lack of attention to detail be the cause of your own downfall.

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11. Timing is everything.

In “The Muse,” Batman and Robin investigate the mysterious disappearance of three solo rock stars during the middle of their shows. If the Muse’s M.O. is true to form, then it doesn’t say much about the Dynamic Duo’s deductive abilities, since the man sucks musicians into his piano right there on stage in front of thousands of people. It’s not entirely clear how distracting the Muse with Hostess Cupcakes causes the missing musicians to come back (and I don’t even wanna get into just how creepy it is that Batman is able to hold on to a half-sucked-into-a-piano band member), but his arrest is a good opportunity to note that even people brilliant enough to create a machine capable of sucking people into it can forget the importance of timing — namely, that the best time to vaporize The Three Bottles might not be during a live show. Like so many other things in life, sucking people into your piano isn’t something you can do whenever you feel like it, especially if you want to keep sucking people for a long time to come, so learn when the time is right to get the best suck. (Wait, that didn’t come out right.)

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12. Whatever you choose to do, be the best at what you do.
Okay, so the Chocolate Baron is a little eccentric — we figured that much out from the throne room, the armored security personnel, and the 19th-century Vienna opera house wardrobe. Then there’s also his love of chocolate, which is so all-consuming it compels him to “monopolize everything chocolate he can control.” This of course leads Wonder Woman to bust up his “nefarious enterprise” with the help of a few well-aimed Hostess Cupcakes that… materialized out of thin air (seriously, please don’t start thinking about where she keeps those things). Personally, I’d love to sit on the Baron’s defence team, since it doesn’t seem as if he’s broken any specific laws in his mad quest to corner the chocolate market (“Your honor, if loving chocolate is wrong, I don’t want to be right!”); if anything, Wonder Woman should be facing charges for trespassing, assault, forcible confinement and whatever health codes were violated by the improper storage of those cupcakes (stop thinking, I said!). At any rate, the Baron should serve as a fine example to us all: either go big or go home, ’cause there ain’t no point doing anything halfway.

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13. If you’re the owner of a clothing sweatshop and you don’t want to get hassled by The Man in the form of a window-smashing passerby in patriotic tights, then don’t turn disgruntled employees into living, screaming paper patterns with your magic tailor’s chalk right before his eyes.

I mean, that’s just common sense.

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One response to “All I Really Need to Know I Learned From Snack Cake Advertising

  1. Maybe those promotional comics are the reason for Hostess’s bankruptcy.

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