Background Check

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Checks, with their varied designs, are an anthropological motherlode, claims culture prof. Robert Thompson.

Open your checkbook, and what do you see? Bugs Bunny? George Washington? Or company logos, like Budweiser's or Coke's? Whatever your checks look like, they say a lot about you, believes Robert Thompson, a TV, radio and film professor at Syracuse University and president of the International Popular Culture Association. He once began a class discussion by asking his students to whip out their checks. The different designs, Thompson says, are like decorated dorm rooms or modified tract housing - things that illustrate the ways people attempt to strut their stuff in a democratic consumer society.

"Like vanity plates, personalized checks are an example of the bizarre paradox generated by our society," posits Thompson. "Even in the places where creativity seems least likely, members of democratic societies scream out for some way to announce that we are not created equal after all."

The whole range of personalized checks available through mail-order companies like Checks in the Mail, Designer Checks, and Checks Unlimited becomes "an unbelievable anthropological catalog of various types of American individuality," Thompson believes. "It all says something about the person you are."

So who are you?

Budweiser checks: "I suppose you'd make the immediate assumption that the person was probably not the president of the PTA and wouldn't complain about swearing on HBO," Thompson surmises.

Chicken Soup for the Soul checks: "Here's someone not completely tied up in 21st-century irony. There's some kind of sincerity there, albeit prepackaged, microwaved sincerity. If I were in a car accident and the person wrote me a Budweiser check, I'd probably call the police. If it were a Chicken Soup for the Soul check, maybe I'd accept it."

Plain checks: Thompson always tries to get these. "I'm thinking I don't want to be part of all this, but my little blank checks are futile. They're just as much of a statement."

So what about the designs from a company like Art Checks, which feature the work of graphic and rock poster artists like Frank Kozik, Shag, and Derek Hess? "It's like people who carry around NPR tote bags," Thompson claims. These checks say, 'Look how tasteful I am. I'm way too educated, way too hip to have great paintings on my checkbooks. That would be too middlebrow. I'm supporting contemporary artists - that shows how much better I am.' "

Can't he cut anyone some slack? Well, when it comes to checks with the Coca Cola logo, the professor's stumped. "It's so ubiquitous that it carries little specific information. It doesn't mean rich or poor, snobby or blue collar. Coke says virtually nothing." (AD)

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