Using comic strips to sell the suburbs to millennials

A suburb south of Chicago has a new marketing campaign intended to attract millennial residents:

“Think Homewood” ads, which debuted this month and will run through May, feature three comic strips that focus on affordability, schools, parks, community and creativity. The village, which is about 25 miles south of downtown Chicago, is spending $20,000 on the campaign focused on appealing to millennials…

In those comic panels, two moms stress over registering their kids for schools and park district activities. “I have an alarm set on my phone,” one mom cries when discussing her anxiety about plans to register for a gymnastics class. “If I’m late 30 seconds and miss the window to get a space, I’m so screwed.”

In the other Chicago strip, a dad driving from the grocery store with his wife and toddler shouts, “Frak!” after forgetting avocados for dinner. The couple decide they lack the fortitude to fight traffic and find a parking spot for a return trip to the store. “Goodbye, Taco Night,” an exasperated dad laments.

Those are contrasted with the relatively idyllic “Somewhere in Homewood” strips, where a return to the store for avocados is easy, and the park district has room for another kid in gymnastics even though classes start the next day.

Here is the first strip from

The comic strip seems to hit the right notes regarding one big reason many Americans head for the suburbs: they want a good place to raise a family. Emphasizing safety, lots of green space, good schools, and interesting activities fits into this category.

The strips also highlight a new dimension of suburbs: their growing popularity as cultural and entertainment centers in their own right. While a smaller suburb cannot compete with the restaurant or theater or sports scene in a major city, it can have more cultural amenities. These suburban pockets of fun help move communities past decades-old images of bedroom suburbs where everyone is inside by dinner and nightlife is non-existent. (Of course, most areas in suburbs are relatively quiet places and not every suburb can easily develop a thriving downtown like in Naperville.)

On the downside: many communities have such marketing campaigns. Do they really work? The article goes on to discuss several other Chicago suburbs that have mounted campaigns and the evidence seems thin about whether marketing really attracts people. It is difficult for a smaller suburb to stand out within a region like the Chicago area where there are hundreds of places to live. Would a comic strip be enough to convince people to look in Homewood rather than in dozens of other places?

Finally: do millennials read comic strips like this?

Comic strip about development, architecture, and urban life

Check out this overview of Ben Katchor’s comic strips about urban design and life:

In a comic strip he’s authored for Metropolis magazine since the late 1990s and in several compilation books, Katchor looks at design and at the development of homes and neighborhoods. His strips are usually one page long and place characters at the helm of strange or unsettling experiences.

During a recent phone interview, Katchor, a winner of the MacArthur Genius Grant and professor at Parsons, described his work as a part of the “American, Yiddish, socialist” tradition and “a form of social activism. You could blow things up too,” he said, referring to the radical arms of environmental groups, “but I don’t really relish the thought of being in prison. I’d rather make comic strips.”…

Katchor leads his readers from simple to complex ideas in the space of one page. For example, in “A River View,” two contractors try to profit on a large set of glass windows that have been recently replaced in a high-rise: the removed windows have the imprint of the skyline that has been baked into the glass over time. By the time they find the recycling yard where the windows have been taken, they’re told that, “a European art dealer took the whole lot sight unseen.” The final frame of the strip shows a group of people overseas looking at one pane when it is displayed like a work of fine art. Everyone involved is looking to profit.

From Katchor’s perspective, profit motivates much of recent development. Though he doesn’t believe new design is worse compared to earlier periods, mentioning that there were dull buildings in the past, he thinks today’s wealth replicates itself, with a push to “maximize profits” in many fields. Like the panes in “A River View,” Katchor sees replication: “Rather than spinning off the money into other things, giving it to other people,” design suffers from the “failure of imagination of corporate interests.”

The sample strips here are pretty interesting. A few thoughts:

1. Providing commentary through comic strips has a good history. Yet, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it applied to urban development. Perhaps it is too abstract an idea (beyond the immediate experiences of characters) for most strips to address?

2. The argument that profits drive developments sounds like the political economy view in urban sociology which emphasizes the actions of powerful people, politicians or business leaders, to make money.

3. I wonder if such humor really has a market these days. These comic strips are relatively long, have lots of text, and address complex topics that go beyond one-liners.

Lampooning modern life: “Pottery Barn Catalogue Descriptions Written by an Aspiring Crime Novelist” and 20th Century History in Linkbait Headlines

Taking some time to laugh at our modern times is a necessary part of survival. So, two recent examples:

1. xkcd rewrites some major moments in the 20th century in the style of today’s Internet headlines. An example from 1912: “6 Titanic Survivors Who Should Have Died.” One of my first thoughts on reading these headlines: how long until we get history textbooks that follow this style?

2. McSweeney’s rewrites descriptions from a Pottery Barn catalog in the style of an aspiring crime novelist. An example:

The door to the Farmhouse Armoire stands slightly ajar, revealing room for a 60-inch television and something more sinister. Look closely at the Morgan Cachepot across the room, and you will see reflected in its gentle curves the silhouette of an escaped maniac hiding inside the wardrobe. Quick thinking and a rustic iron latch will hold the madman until the police arrive. The solid pine doors can withstand the pounding fists of a captive lunatic, but not ammonia-based cleansers.

This would make the Pottery Barn catalog a lot more interesting.

This is one redeeming quality of the Internet: the ability to harness and make accessible lots of examples of wit. If the Internet can’t rally to save Wikipedia or we can’t stop ourselves from obsessively interacting with smartphones and social media, at least we can chuckle a bit along the way. At the same time, it is odd that I came upon this humor through a chain of websites and others who selected it as worthy of their reader’s attention (or clicks). Why bother making light of my own circumstances when I can rely on others to provide a quick laugh?

Sociological findings of Academically Adrift in Doonesbury

The findings of Academically Adrift stirred up a lot of discussion. (See an earlier post here.) Eight months after the book was released, its findings made it way to the Sunday comics (August 14) as Doonesbury picked up on the information.

Neither colleges or emerging adults look too good here.

It would be interesting to hear Gary Trudeau talk about how he discovered this information and what he wanted to say in this particular comic strip.

Cathy coming to an end

Cathy, the long-running comic strip, is coming to end in early October, as its creator, Cathy Guisewite wants to spend more time with her family. I’ll admit to often skipping this comic as I read the comic page in the Chicago Tribune – it often seemed too whiny and stereotypically feminine with a lot of talk about food, weight, and swimsuits.

But as I read the story about the close of the comic strip, I was reminded that Cathy is still a relative oddity on the comics page. There are still very few comics about female characters or strips drawn by females. While I would read these two strips, “For Better or For Worse” is retired and “Sally Forth” is not terribly popular (and not carried by the Tribune). Broom-Hilda doesn’t cut it (not really any content here) nor does Brenda Starr (a serialized strip that features an attractive star). ”

Cathy at least has a perspective about women that seems more real:

Critics have called “Cathy” anti-feminist, and while Guisewite didn’t reject that claim, she said certain stereotypes about women are the most fun to write about.

“The subjects like weight and style and look are these microcosms of all the extra expectations that are placed on women,” Guisewite said. “As women have become more powerful and stronger, it has become a lot more complicated for women to feel good about themselves. I like to think that ‘Cathy’ is the voice for women who can’t say, ‘I feel stupid about something silly, but it still really ruined my day.'”

Another commentator added:

Said John Glynn, 42, vice president of rights and acquisitions at Universal Uclick: “Cathy really broke a lot of ground in the ’70s. … She was talking about what a real woman goes through and the real-life concerns of women, and that I think was something very different for the comics section.”

So where are the comic strips by women or about women? A Zits-type strip about a teenage girl would have a lot of material to mine. Another comic strip about an adult woman, married or unmarried, could cover a lot of ground. Or are typical comic readers not interested in female leads?