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Chia Obama's hairy question: Is it racist scorn or sincere tribute?

November 10, 2009|DAN NEIL

The scene: A vast crowd at a political rally raises a tumult of adulation. Triumphal music rises. Graphics of President Obama's image slide across the scene as we hear the now-familiar voice say, "Change has come to America. . . . Our moment is now. . . . Yes we can!" The crowd chants. Slow pullback on the image of the White House. Announcer: "To commemorate the inauguration of our 44th president with a well-known American icon, introducing. . . ." Jingle: Chi-chi-chi Chia! Announcer: "Chia Obama!"

The next few seconds are some of the weirdest in the history of lese-majeste, as we see a terra cotta bust of Obama sprout a big green afro, one that happens to be rich in omega-3. Announcer: "Chia Obama makes the statement, 'I'm proud to be an American.' "

Yes, I'm proud to live in a country where anyone can grow up to be president, even an oompa-loompa. Is this a gag, a commercial spoof from "Saturday Night Live" that escaped into regular rotation? Maybe an attack ad from the Republican National Committee mocking Obama's green politics? It does sort of beautifully lampoon the hope-addled, starry-eyed adoration of Obama Nation. If RNC Chairman Michael Steele doesn't have one of these in his den, I'll eat Rush Limbaugh's shorts.

The staggering truth: Chia Obama is a real product, and its creator -- 77-year-old San Francisco ad man and Chia Pet magnate Joseph Pedott, a lifelong Republican -- means it to be a sincere tribute to Obama, who he says has inherited "the biggest can of worms ever put on a president."

"I remember the Great Depression," Pedott says. "It wasn't very nice." In November, after the election, Pedott was deeply worried about Obama, the first Democrat Pedott had ever voted for. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the banking crisis, unemployment and more, says Pedott, "it's almost inhuman to put all that on a president."

Pedott has made a tidy living off the Chia Pet, a business he bought in the 1960s. If not an American "icon," they are certainly familiar: little terra cotta sculptures (turtles, sheep, etc.) onto which you spread handfuls of moistened chia seeds. In a few days, the Chia Pet blooms in a nimbus of bright-green leaves, kind of like alfalfa sprouts.

It was the Chia Obama's "bushiness" that got Pedott into trouble, but more on that in a moment.

Pedott awoke one winter night with a thought. "Is it possible to take a brand that nobody thinks seriously about and do something good for the country?" And -- veteran adman that he is -- he started to think about how to sell it. "Can I create a commercial that will help Obama do the things that I want done? To give Americans something to hope for, hold on to."

These may seem unduly noble aspirations for a man who sells mossy clay figurines, but for Pedott, the Chia is no joke. "It's the biggest asset I have," he says.

The short version of events is as follows: Pedott commissioned several prototypes -- a three-president series (Washington, Lincoln, Obama), a smiling Obama and the determined Obama, and even an Obama-and-Hillary set. In March, the Chia Obama -- "It's not a 'pet,' " notes Pedott -- was test-marketed at Walgreens in Chicago and Tampa and was almost immediately pulled from shelves after the stores received complaints that the Chia Obama was racist (the big green 'fro, don't you know). Pedott was stunned and disheartened.

"All I tried to do was something positive," he says. "I never even thought about the hair."

The Chia Obama has subsequently been endorsed by such arbiters of political correctness as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and in May, Pedott personally gave the president a Chia Obama. "I've got green hair!" Obama laughed.

"He's as warm as he can be," says Pedott. "I was so damn impressed."

Even so, the Chia Obama has stayed off the shelves of major retailers, with the exception of Fred Meyer stores. Pedott found himself sitting on "truckloads" of Chia Obamas.

Which brings us to the direct-to-consumer ad.

"I've written thousands of spots," says Pedott. "I've never worked as hard on anything, going over every word I don't know how many times. I was obsessed."

Pedott says he simply wanted to create an inspirational spot that would transcend partisanship.

"It's all very positive, very nonpolitical," he says. "I even got a newscaster to do the voice-over!" (Pedott says this as if a newscaster is some guarantor of impartiality, which is a quaint notion.)

There's something terribly winning about Pedott, a man too decent and sincere to see the ridiculousness of the ad, the product. You can't grow sprouts on the head of a Nobel Prize winner and not be accused of backhanded ridicule. You might as well carve an equestrian statue of Ronald Reagan out of Hormel ham.

Something winning also about his unwillingness to market the Obama Chia as patriotic kitsch -- which is to say, to sell the product as a joke. Pedott seems incapable of that kind of cynicism.

"You can accuse me of naivete," says Pedott. "If people want to laugh at it, fine, as long as they recognize it's positive."

--

dan.neil@latimes.com

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