Monday, December 20, 2010

Don't worry, I have a plan.

When my daughter was seven I was teaching her to play chess--you know, like my own dad taught me. The real reason dads do this is because it's so easy to beat a seven-year-old at chess. And I used to beat her regularly, just like my dad beat me. At chess, I mean.

Anyway, during one game she made a very ill-advised move and I (since I was trying to teach her) said, "Honey, are you sure you want to do that?"

"I have a plan," she said, smiling the sinister smile.

So she made the move and I promptly put her in check, taking her Queen in the process.

"Actually..." she said with perfect comedic timing, "...I don't have a plan."

But I do. And it's foolproof. And here it is:

I've been thinking about how to get rich in a sure-fire way. And not the praying real hard to Jesus kind-of-way, either. This plan is based on the real world, thank you very much. I'm not stupid.

But first a little background; an obvious fact that, until now, no one seems to have noticed but me. It seems that certain executives at certain financial institutions (there's only six left, I believe) regularly make salaries of several millions a year. Moreover, they get regular, annual, guaranteed bonuses of several Billion every year, regardless of how well or poorly they do. They don't do any work for it, either.

So, armed with this little-known secret, I've decided to apply for one of those jobs. I'm more than qualified. And they'd have to hire me because I want it so much. And I deserve it just as much as any of them. And I could really use a few billion dollars just about now, especially at Christmas time.

Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret, says all you have to do to achieve your dream is to want it bad enough. And she's just about the smartest person in the world, certainly much smarter than  Also, about six million high school coaches have all said that in order to win your dream--whether it's a new bike or the State Championship--you just have to want it bad enough. It's like they all read Rhonda Byrne's book years before she had written it. If you lose, well, they guess you just didn't want it bad enough. This is the secret of The Secret.

This is how I know I'm going to get one of those twelve-figure CEO jobs: Because nobody wants it more than me...I.  When I wish for it I squeeze my eyes really extra super tight and say "really" many times in front of my prayer, so whoever it is responsible for bestowing winning lottery tickets in the universe will know how much I want it--and make it so.

That's my plan. It's beautiful in its simplicity. And it's foolproof. 

My ex-wife asked me what my backup plan was and I told her, "You never like anything I do." The irrefutable argument. That shut her up.

Then, another so-called friend also asked me if I had a backup plan (what? do these people conspire on Facebook to drag me down?). I was more patient with this friend. "To have a backup plan," I explained, "is to admit the possibility of failure. If failure is not an option, then you don't need a backup plan. And when you have a foolproof plan, such as mine, nothing can get in your way."

Her "Oh" said it all.

So, what do you want for Christmas?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Harvest these words...with extreme prejudice.

In other words; $1,000
From time to time I feel the need of all curmudgeons (or, as a friend of mine more colorfully describes persons of my persuasion, coots) to rant about certain phrases that kill our spirit and make us wonder if everyone's not insane or if it's just us (who're not insane). They are words that need to be harvested; that is to say, killed. And, to start my cootish rant, I might as well start there:

"Harvest"  when the word is used as a euphemism for killing a defenseless animal, as if the animal had no feelings, as if it were just corn. It's also used to surreptitiously finagle personal information about you, your buying habits, the websites you frequent, your sexual orientation and that of your friends, your net worth, and your immortal soul.  Data harvesting they call it. Data with your head in the hopper.

"$99.99" I have always, since I first learned arithmetic, hated this transparently manipulative insult to my computational intelligence; that the thing is somehow under $100, or $10, or $1.  So the tax break for the rich will only cost $699,999,999,999.99, not $700 billion as some Cassandras would have you believe. And getting back a penny in change just adds to the insult and makes me have to stow the penny somewhere--because its exchange rate, depending on complex market dynamics, is the same as lint. Also, when you live in one of the benighted 45 states that charge sales tax, $99.99 actually means $108.49.

"In this economy..."  which precedes a statement about why somebody doesn't want to act decisively (or pay you what they owe you). Replaced "Since 19/11..." as the limp excuse for inaction or bad behavior.

"I'll have to get back to you on that."
  Translation: "I have no clue." Alternate Translation: "I'll never get back to you on that because I have no intention of taking the effort to look into it. Furthermore, it's a stupid question and who let you in here, anyway?" (see "No problem" below).

"Can I be honest?"
  You mean, in contrast with how you usually are? Do you need my permission to break with tradition? Also I suspect that people who congratulate themselves on their honesty are really only giving themselves license to indulge in being blunt, rude, callous, and thoughtless.  The corollary to this phrase is "At least I'm being honest," which is the only virtue they can lay claim to at the moment, the telling word being "least".

"This is what I'm gonna need you to do."  This is a phrase that customer service or call center people use; like you called them to satisfy their needs. I don't care what they need me to do. Recently a Customer Service Associate at Office Depot used this expression on me when I tried to return a broken Bluetooth headset for which I had actually paid (in a moment of lunacy) for a product support plan. The terms of the plan stated clearly that if the product failed, take it back to Office Depot and the product would be replaced with a new one. No questions. Didn't say anything about me needing to do anything for them.

"Associate" A bogus title designed to give empty dignity to someone working for minimum wage and who doesn't have enough hours a week to qualify for the company benefits plan, which would cost less than the blue vest and embossed name tag, "Kyle, Customer Satisfaction Associate" he has to wear.

"Are you a member of our rewards program?"  No. I'm an outsider. A non-member. A nobody. So I guess I'm not eligible for the discounts you give every other sub-sentient, carbon-based life-form on the planet.

"Are you a registered voter?"  Precedes a solicitation to sign a petition and donate money to a cause with a wholesome-sounding name like Defense of Sleepy Puppies or Americans for Fairness, cloaking a sinister social agenda.

"Family values"
  This phrase is an old pet peeve. Nobody ever defined what those "values" mean in concrete terms. And over the decades "family values" seem to be associated with dictatorship, oppression, child abuse, restriction of women's rights, ignorance, and bigotry. Also in marketing, we all know that the very word, "value" means the opposite. If some over-priced product is touted as a "real value" we instinctively know it's worthless.

"Use only as directed"  Okay--he said, trying, without his glasses, to read the 4 point type on the back of the bottle --where are the directions, then?

"Affordable"  when used as an adjective in advertising. How do they know what I can afford? And of course they're going to say it's affordable: they're trying to get me to buy it and they don't have to make the payments on it.

"Passed" as a euphemism for dying. This has always been a milquetoast expression, betraying a cowardly  avoidance of reality. They didn't "pass" anywhere. They died. They're dead. You pass gas.

"The jury's still out."  No, it's not. The evidence is all in and all the experts have weighed in and are 99.99% unanimous. Guilty.

"Stakeholders"  as opposed to "shareholders."  This is a vague term for people who have no skin in the game but, for some cockamamie reason, are given veto power over any good idea so management or Congress has an excuse to take no action (see "In this economy" above).

"Issues" as a euphemism for complaints.

"Concerns" as a euphemism for issues. This word also means a categorical, non-negotiable rejection, especially when it's preceded by "a few..." It's frequently used by people who are too unsure of themselves to come outright and say, "Nope, I don't like it." Because then you might have "a few concerns" about them. And that would cause some issues.

"Okay?" When the word is used like a verbal snowplow at the end of every sentence, okay? Because the speaker is so doubtful of the validity of his position that he needs immediate assent from you before he proceeds, okay? But he doesn't give you time to object because he shuts down debate by saying "okay?" --giving you exactly 1.72 nanoseconds to register any such objection in the proper forum, okay? You had your chance, okay?

"No problem."  As a hipper alternative to "You're welcome." But what's wrong with "You're welcome." ?  When it's "no problem" (when you over-think it--as I do everything) it can mean that you are of so little concern to the bestower of the boon that they didn't have to discompose themselves one bit to do whatever it was you thanked them for. "No problem" is what you say to someone who apologizes for inconveniencing you. If I thank someone and they say it was no problem does that mean I can relax, they're not going to take me to court?

"Literally"  to mean "really" or "figuratively,"  as in, "I was literally beside myself."  (Unless, of course, as in my case, I was.)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Wear Safety Goggles at Your Desk

The other evening, as my daughter was up late studying in her college dorm room, the light bulb in her desk lamp suddenly exploded. (I know, things don't ever "gradually" explode...but I'm trying to make a melodramatic point.) Fortunately, aside from some tiny scratches in her face, she wasn't injured or blinded. But that was lucky.
After ascertaining that she wasn't hurt (the paramedics actually came to her room to examine her), I immediately went to work on the web to investigate the possible reasons for this bizarre accident. Because, after all, I'm a guy, and that's what we do. Moms are there to comfort; dads figure out what happened.

So, one possible explanation offered was that cold liquid might have come in contact with the hot light bulb, say, when my daughter involuntarily sprayed out her Juicy Squeeze in response to some hilarious comment her roommate said. But no, she assured me, while a laugh riot, her roommate had made no spray-inducing witticisms. There was no liquid anywhere near the lamp, involuntarily aerosoled or otherwise.

Another could have been that the bulb was a higher wattage than the rating of the lamp. But my daughter's not dumb; she said it was a 45W bulb in a lamp that was rated for 60W. So that couldn't have been it.

Still another idea could have been a power surge from her dorm, built, I'm pretty sure, prior to any safety regulation enacted by our current Nanny State. But she said the lamp had been plugged into a surge protector. And besides, she correctly pointed out, wouldn't the surge have effected all electrical appliances and lights? So it wasn't that.

Finally, it could have been faulty wiring in the lamp itself. But it was a brand new lamp, purchased just weeks before from a reputable purveyor of lamps, Target...for $5.00.  Ah, there was a clue. I asked her to look under the base and see where the lamp was made. Yup; China.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Do you expect me to suspect that something as simple as a lamp, when made in China, could have less than the UL seal of approval?" You're thinking, "Are we supposed to think that QA standards in Chinese factories employing teenage girls for pennies a day without health care or benefits, forced to work long hours under appalling conditions, are less than standard?"

No, I'm not suggesting that at all. I'm just saying that, Wow! $5.00 for a desk lamp is really a good price.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Passing it Backward

I was at the grocery store yesterday, a big chain (not important which), standing in line behind an elderly woman. When they rang her up they asked he if she'd like to donate to the Thanksgiving food drive they were running. The woman said, "No, I'm having enough trouble affording to feed myself."

So it occurred to me how backward this supposed promotion was. Here was a huge corporation hitting up their customers for donations to needy people, when some of their own customers might be those very people. I don't know whether this company donates some of their own profits to these charities, or if they just look on it as a self-funding way to get PR credit. 

But it backfires. "Why," someone behind me asked, "doesn't Albertsons just donate themselves instead of asking us to do it?"

Ooops, I revealed the chain. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Marketing Messages of Doom

Don't you hate it when someone  e-mails you and cryptically says, "There's something I want to talk to you about. When's a good time?"?

"Well, now, of course...or never."

Of course, your first thought is doom: They want to fire you. They want to break up with you. They're pregnant. You're pregnant.  They have cancer. You have cancer. They've lost their job and they and their four cats are going to move in with you. They have to tell you about their personal relationship with Jesus Christ. You're adopted.

No conversation should ever be preambled this way. Just come out with it. Dammit.

And if the "something" was insignificant, like wanting to know if they can catch a ride to work with you next week, you are doubly pissed, especially if you've endured a sleepless night with your febrile imagination having its hairy way with you: What if I am adopted?

So, the other day, my own car did that to me. It told me I was adopted. No, it just got me all excited for no reason.

I'm heading back up to Portland after a road trip to LA and stuck in rush hour traffic on I-5. Suddenly, crawling along at 1 mph, the "Message Center" on my dashboard lights up, "MAINT REQ" accompanied by an ominous little exclamation point in a red triangle, the kind of symbol that notifies you the nuclear core's going to melt down in sixty seconds.

It's never done this before. I can't exactly pull out the owner's manual in the middle of accordion LA traffic and flip through it to find out what MAINT REQ means. The red triangle doesn't look like something good. Does it mean I need to pull over right away (across six lanes of hostile traffic)? I push the emergency "find" button on my GPS and it directs me to the closest Toyota Dealer--in that Heart of Darkness, South Central LA. My car is evidently trying to kill me. I can't go there, not at this time of night. So, fighting panic, I call an old friend in San Marino and slowly make my way to the safety of her house, my senses on edge for other warning lights and telltale smells coming out of the vents.

The car seems to be running fine, though. In half-an-hour I make it uneventfully to my friend's house and finally pull out the owner's manual. It says "MAINT REQ" simply means to take your car in for service as soon as possible. Thanks. Not helpful.

While I'm in my friend's kitchen, her son comes home and I tell him what's happened. He has a Toyota as well and says, "Oh, that happened to me.  Just means it's time for an oil change or something. They program it in there to get you to come in for regular checkups, where only they know how to turn it off."

In other words; it's a marketing gimmick. A trick to get me all excited about scheduling an appointment so they can keep their service department in business, but a trick that had the unintended consequence of wondering if I was going to die another senseless death in Quentin Tarantinoville Compton.

This is where marketing really gets irritating. Bad enough that it clogs your inbox and mailbox. Bad enough that it interrupts your TV show. Bad enough that it pops up on your monitor with the false alarm that your computer is infected with a virus that only the originator of this pop-up can take care of. It also has to panic you into doing something stupid, like driving six miles into South Central LA in the middle of the night to find an Authorized Toyota Dealer...who isn't open anyway.

But, you have to admit, it's brilliant.

I drove home instead, all 960 miles. The red triangle light is still blaring and I'm still being told that maint continues to be req. I'll take care of it next week. If I can brave driving into the Heart of Darkness that is Beaverton.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Mad-Libs from Hell

Years ago, when I was studying advertising design at Art Center in Pasadena, a charismatic teacher of mine said something I've always remembered. He said, "All advertising is an interruption. So you'd better make it good."

It goes without saying that advertising has gotten worse and worse in recent years. It's generally dull, desperate and apparently created by an infinite number of chimpanzees. But it has certainly gotten more interrupting. Mankind has devised very clever techniques and technologies to thrust messages at us--everything from pop-ups on Websites to those irritating little, superimposed animations at the bottom of a TV screen. But, at the same time, almost in inverse proportion, we've become mentally challenged with devising clever messages themselves.

Last night I was watching a college football game (UO vs ASU, but that doesn't matter) and I was noticing that my view of the action on the field kept being blocked by these obnoxious animations at the bottom of the screen, promoting some stupid show. Once I missed a game-changing fumble because it was hidden behind a dancing graphic. It was like having a person get up in a theater and climb past you just as the first, critical plot point is revealed. "Luke, I am your...." "Excuse me, excuse me, gotta get to the snack bar."

The interruptions are everywhere. Recently, wrapping around the cover of a local newspaper, I noticed the unfortunate juxtaposition illustrated above. A very tragic story of a missing little boy, non-sequitured with a very clever media buy in which the paper runs an ad in a false half-cover--fooling you into thinking it's part of the editorial. Hi-jinks ensue. Of course, even a funny or creative ad in that place would have been inappropriate--probably even more so, like Mad-Libs from Hell.

Advertising breaks on television now last longer than the shows segments themselves. I timed one channel the other day and found that the commercial breaks ran an average of 8 minutes while the actual programming ran for only 5 between them. So what we had was like a Home Shopping Channel interrupted by entertainment.

It used to be that advertising itself was more entertaining that the programming. Brilliant writers and art directors, attracted to the industry by high salaries, glamor, and the promise of seeing their ideas come to life, produced some of the funniest, most creative work in the history of advertising. People had a reason not to go to the bathroom during a break (they now have time to paint the bathroom), because they might miss something truly entertaining. Smart advertisers knew this and kept it coming; a funny ad had a direct lever on  their profits,while dull ads drove people away.

But those days seem to be gone. The only tactic advertisers seem to know is to just get up in your face. Yell at people. Poke them in the eye. Interrupt them. Use exclamation points liberally!!! Bore them. And creative people are reduced to headlines like "Boatloads of Fun." I think the creator of the above ad may have resisted using an exclamation point as a form of passive-aggressive protest. But I may be giving him too much credit.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Would "The Hours" have been a better movie in 3D?

No. I don't think anything could have saved that movie. But it might have been fun to see Nicole Kidman's prosthetic schnoz comin' atcha. Woah! Girl, watch out where you point that thing!

Technology's not helping.

Back in the 80s there was a new technology called "colorization" that allowed studios to "paint" old black and white movies (like Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Psycho, and the first ten minutes of The Wizard of Oz) in vivid colors, as if the original filmmakers would've shot them that way if they'd had a choice. Colorization turned out to be the cinematic equivalent of painting marble statues "realistic" colors; something the ancient Romans apparently did.  Nobody accused the ancient Romans of good taste, or the ancient colorizers of the 1980s.  And many people, including me, thought the colorization of some classic films was an atrocity. But if a movie is a turd, painting it in bright colors doesn't cover up the smell.

Now, of course, the new visual technology is 3D, something they've been trying to poke at us for decades. Naturally it's supposed to be much better than the last time they tried this, back in the 70s, and before that, in the 50s. But it seems about the same to me; gives me the same headaches and eye-strain. And sitting there for almost three hours, like I had to do with Avatar, trying to fool my optic nerve that this was really 3D and not some moving pop-up-book, was just too much for my brain to swallow. I had flashes and "floaters" for a couple of days after. And, like colorization, 3D still didn't help the awful dialog.

But I have read that lately it's hard to get a movie produced unless it's in 3D--or about vampires.

So if 3D finally comes into its own, and all movies need to be shot in it; you know what's next. We've seen this before. Now comes the inevitable battle of format (remember Beta vs VHS?), and the inevitable throwing out of your own huge video library again to start anew (hopefully in the winning format), and the inevitable purchase of $10,000 TVs that can display 3D (for the single 3D movie that you own), and the inevitable choking of landfills with old 2D flat-panels and all of their toxic components. The whole prospect makes me tired.

Then there's HD. Not Hyperactivity Disorder, of course; High Definition. About the only use I can see for HD is watching sports. At least, then, you have a chance to see who actually has the ball and can read the numbers on the jerseys. But for everything else it's just TMI. Everybody looks awful in HD; much worse, somehow, than they do in real life. It seems to accentuate every blemish, rosaceal bloom, and ingrown hair. It's particularly unflattering to older actresses who would otherwise still look beautiful. Also HD just does something weird to the eyes. They're--I don't know--sparkly, villainous.

And here's another bit of visual technology that, while clever, is dumb: being able to watch a movie on your SmartPhone (or SmartFone or MeFone or Dwoid). Does anybody do this? Is it actually fun to watch a movie on a 3" screen and hear it through tinny earbuds? But just in case it is, you now can. You just can't watch it in 3D, yet. Or rely on your phone not to drop your calls.

The whole thing makes me bitter, of course, because while the entertainment and ad industry are spending heavily on new, dubious technologies, they aren't spending spit on writing.

Which means, on me.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Important Information

Have you ever noticed when you're feverishly opening the box containing your brand new XRS 2900 PS5-Pro Game System and a booklet falls out entitled "Important Information," you tend to immediately chuck it away with the rest of the superfluous packaging?  You already know what's in there; cautions about not taking the XRS 2900 PS5-Pro into the bathtub with you, warnings about the dangers of eye-wrist-neck-kidney-and-elbow strain, and all sorts of legal weasels about how the manufacturer won't be held responsible for any misadventure that should befall you should you disregard any of the aforesaid caveats, or anything whatever that happens to you whether you disregarded aforesaid caveats or not. It's all just designed to paper over their butts in case you feel litigious after you electrocute yourself in the bathtub.

But beyond that, there's something stultifying about the words "Important Information" themselves, regardless of whether they appear on the cover of a booklet or a junk mail envelope or at the beginning of a DVD. They are right up there with other lies. It's never important. And it's barely information. So overused are these words that they have actually conditioned our eyes to glaze over whenever we see them--or hear them.

Like when you're watching TV and a commercial begins with the hairy-voiced announcer intoning, "Important Information about your life insurance..." Click.

Of course the advertisers think it's important--or at least their lawyers do. It's the same as when they brag about their commitment to excellence, or their customer service, or their quality you can depend on; it's just them saying so. And what else would they say? That they have indifferent customer service you can depend on? Or "dull blather that won't make any difference to your enjoyment of our product"?

The scary thing is that if there were ever an announcement of an event that were, indeed, important information--say the impending impact of the moon into the Pacific--we wouldn't pay attention, because we'd assume it was just another non-important announcement about not taking your XRS 2900 PS5-Pro into the bath with you, or that you may be paying too much for life insurance.

I think that if the manufacturers really wanted you to read the cautionary manual they'd entitle it something like:

Grisly Death & Hideous Disfigurement

Details within.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Millions of Ways...No, Billions of Ways

There are a million ways to say anything. Almost any idea can be expressed in an uncountable array of styles. To utter an idea one day is to merely restate the same idea from the day before. There are a million and one ways to say anything. If you don't like the way I said it, let me say it another way. Sentences come in a myriad of flavors. It's all been said before. Words are all alike; they taste like chicken. There are a billion ways to...

What I'm trying to say here is, the right words are important, but you can polish the ideas right off of them if you edit them too much. For God's sake, don't end up like Proust.

Or me.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Boredom is the force that will save us all

Yesterday I had lunch with a wise colleague, Michael Reardon of Fieldtrip Design, and, inevitably, we got to talking about the economy and our respective businesses. In spite of the fact that private sector jobs have been steadily growing since early 2009, that domestic manufacturing has been growing, that the Stimulus Package seemed to be working up to the point that it ran out, people are still not spending, and so our own businesses--advertising and design--are languishing. It's a Catch 22. The overriding ethic driving our economy is for everybody to do nothing.  Though "parking our economy" would be a more apt metaphor than "driving".

But Reardon said something that made me go hmmm. He said he was optimistic because people will just get bored with being depressed and want to move on at some point. And so they'll go back to the stores, buy new cars, new computers, new hip replacements, new shoes,  just like they did before. All out of boredom.

It's said that the economy is more influenced by emotion than any other factor. The stock market alone seems to be governed by sixteen-year-old girls. And boredom is certainly an emotion. If emotion is taken literally, by its root "motion," then the boredom with the bad economy should move us right out of our funk sooner or later.  There will be a tipping point where, collectively, everyone will just get up off their whiny butts and go do something --preferably shop.

I should know this. Berry's Law of Persuasion states that the emotional is to the rational as three-to-one (yes, that's my law, and yes, that ratio is made up, but it's still quotable). This is something I've preaching to my clients for years; that when people decide to buy a new thing, they make up their minds emotionally first and then cobble together a list of good "reasons" to justify it. In other words, they want it before they need it.  This is the whole point of advertising to begin with; to get the "want" started, to push those emotional buttons. And this is what is going to get our economy moving again. It won't be a collective rationalization that the matrix of economic indicators warrant prudent investment in a new pair of shoes. It will be, "I'm feeling bored. I need shoes." 

So I left the lunch feeling everything's going to be fine. People will just get tired of listening to phrases like "in this economy," or "The Great Recession" and start shopping again to make themselves feel better. Then, retailers will have to stock shelves and hire help. And manufacturers will have to crank up the plant to fill those shelves, and also hire help. And we'll all be fine again; saved by boredom.

This post is boring me. Wanna go shopping?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Where did all these people come from?

When I was in the 4th grade, back in the late fifties, it was a big deal to learn that the world population had, for the first time, popped the 3 billion mark. Everybody seemed upset that the world was getting too crowded, that we'd eat ourselves out of house and home and heat up the planet.  They were actually thinking this would happen. Nuts.

Next year we'll pass the 7 billion mark. Good job everybody. Keep on doing what you're doing.

Monday, August 23, 2010

American Idle

Get it? "Change" ?
I just had an idea for a new reality contest show.

I'm at my usual Brand-Name-on-Request Coffee Shop this morning when I notice a gigantic SUV pull into the parking lot. The thing is so massive that it has to sprawl diagonally across two spaces, and even then its back end is thrusting way out into the lane behind it, making it difficult for other cars to get around. The thing is festooned with American flag decals and bumper stickers, some of which read "I'll keep my money and my guns & you can keep the CHANGE" or "Pray for Obama | Psalm 109" (I'm able to check this particular scripture on an app on my iDevice and find that 109 is a ranty prayer for God to kill the entire family and descendants of descendants of someone who had evidently dissed the author--King David, presumably). The Bible is such a useful resource for hate-speech.

So, having observed the obnoxious Land Deathstar take up most of the available remaining space of the parking lot,  I can't wait to see what cloaked fiend emerges from the cockpit.

But when he comes out I'm disappointed at how predictable and pedestrian he is; no Stygian black cape, no Mexican wrestler mask, no claw for a left hand. He's just a 50ish white man, looking to be in about in his third trimester of pregnancy, polo shirt tenting his belly and providing an awning over his white tennis shorts and skinny legs. And, of course, those regulation white tube socks and sandals.

But then comes the connoisseur's touch of true assholery. It's not the white socks and sandals that make one  an everyday villain, it's the gestures. As Captain Psalm 109 slams the car door to walk into the coffee shop, he leaves his engine running! Why? To keep the air conditioning on so the cabin stays cool on such a hot day? Excellent touch. Once inside he lingers for at least ten minutes, chatting with his coven of fellow roly-poly Tea Partiers, apparently heedless that his vehicle is idling away in the parking lot the whole time, carbon monoxide filling the air, burning about a gallon of precious Terrorist-Supporting-Regime-Brand fossil fuels a minute. It's like a live-action rendition of that animated movie, Despicable Me. Only that character gave into common decency to turn off his engine when he parked. Not Captain 109.

I'm not exaggerating or making any of this up. Really.

But here's what sparked this idea of a reality contest show about everyday villains. In the current generation of such shows, the contestants all have some degree of baroqueness; either too fat, too shallow, too obnoxious, too dumb, too spikey, too clueless--anything that furthers the Freak Show theme of American broadcast entertainment. The key thing about all of them is that each of these contestants seems to be in on the fact that he or she is grotesque and goes as far as he or she can to exaggerate that effect. That's what draws the ratings. Snooki isn't popular because she's nice and wholesome. She's popular because she's a cartoon villain come to life.

So why not a reality contest show about villainy? Not the epic villainy resulting in genocide and terrorism, but the common, ordinary, household variety resulting in nothing more sinister than pugnacious people taking up two parking places and leaving their engines running while they just run in to buy a few things; they won't be a second. It could be called (to extend a franchise) America's Got Dick, or So You Think You Can Get Away With That?  or Oh, No You Didin'! or The Biggest Loser (...wait...that might be already taken).

And the show wouldn't just have to focus on right-wing villains. I would want to be completely ecumenical here. Last week I saw a left-wing equivalent to Captain 109 ordering coffee in the same Big-Name-Brand Coffee Shop. He was a ropey ginger who rode up on his bike; baggy painter pants; Boy-Scout-surplus backpack; industrial-sized gauges in his herniated earlobes; sparse orange chin hairs (about 16 total, held together with a bead); wall-to-wall freckles; and a red pony tail made from some sort of dreadlocked substance (orangutan fur, maybe?) that came down to mid-calf, suspended not from the back of his head (that would be far too conventional) but from the side--a nice touch of extra irritation. This was all topped by a red-green-black-yellow knit hat thing that hung town the back of his head like a snood.

But wait, there's more.

So, in his own lefty expression of everyday villainy, Mr. Ginger did the personal-space equivalent of taking up two parking spaces with his SUV by sort of just kind of, you know, spre-e-e-ading out in front of the condiments stand to prep his soy-pumpkin-latte. It wasn't exactly that he was deliberately blocking other people from accessing  the half-n-half, but how he just took up about 11.7 square feet of space at a critical choke point. And what our Rasta-ginger took up in space, he took up equally in time, making Einstein proud. How long does it take to dispense honey in a cup of coffee and stir it until it's dissolved completely? Let's see...

It made me think of the way some grocery store customers always manage to park their carts across the entrance to an aisle while they reconnoiter ahead, or, worse,  stop smack next to another parked cart midway down an aisle so you can't get by without "aheming" them. Everyday villains are everywhere, every day. They're all around us, looking for opportunities to piss us off, trying to recruit us into doing villainous acts ourselves in retaliation, and so increase their numbers.

So these contestants, from all political and religious persuasions, could square off against each other, trying to impress a panel of expert judges. Dick Cheney's not busy, or Michael Moore, or Tiger Woods, or Mel Gibson. And, hell, whatever happened to Ann Coulter?

Wouldn't that be a great show?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

E-Consumer Anarchists

When the sci-fi thriller Minority Report came out a few years ago, the scariest thing to most people wasn't the implications of being accused of crimes you hadn't committed yet by supposedly clairvoyant hippies soaking in hot-tubs. The scariest thing was the depiction of a world in which advertisers could track you and sell you stuff non-stop based on what they thought they knew about you. In one scene, Tom Cruise walks into a store and the eye-scanning technology thinks it recognizes him (even though he's wearing somebody else's eyes--but that's another story)  and starts up with the pre-recorded sales patter to see if he wants to buy more of the same clothes "he" bought last time. If you think about it, it's just an idiotic notion; like Tom Cruise would say to the robo-sales-associate, "Oh, yeah, I want to buy six more tank tops exactly the same color."

This scene horrified everyone. Mostly because they're experiencing the nightmare right now--not the eye-scan recognition, or even the eye-transplants, but the buying-behavior tracking. Every time you log on to your Facebook page, or to Amazon, or iTunes, or nearly any other commercial site, you are peppered with ads for things that seem uncannily familiar. Search for info on new hybrid cars, and suddenly you start seeing ads for hybrid cars everywhere.  LIKE SOMEBODY'S WATCHING YOU AND THEY'RE IN YOUR HEAD RIGHT NOW! It's enough to make anyone start wearing a foil hat.

But the most disturbing thing to me isn't how uncanny this tracking technology is. It's how stupid it is. It behaves as though it knows what you are in the mood to buy and then starts haranguing you like a pushy salesman. But it's presumptuous. It doesn't take into account that you may have changed your mind, that you already bought that thing, that you weren't serious, or that you're a dick. It just thinks it can read your mind because you're so pathetically predictable.

For instance, I often buy Christmas presents on Amazon and have them shipped directly to people. Because I'm lazy. Then, because Amazon thinks it knows my tastes, its artificial intelligence assumes that since I bought some book on knitting last year (not knowing it was a gift), I must love knitting myself and keeps offering up new knitting titles. Or it suggests that "other people who bought this title also bought these titles" and presents a list, crudely trying to upsell me. All this does is make me resent them for presuming I'm like these other yahoos. Nobody likes to be lumped.

But you can have fun with this. On my Facebook page, before I went in and fluffed up my "interests" fields, all it knew about me was that I was A) Male B) Middle Aged C) Single.  Therefore it assumed that I must have libido problems and liked compliant Russian girlfriends (over 50, of course). So those were the ads I was fed. But after I listed some music, movies, books, and interests, I started getting ads for specifically those things and those artists. Not exactly the most sophisticated sales strategy.

But let's do something about it. Let's be E-Consumer Anarchists. It'll be fun.

If we all banded together we could really mess up this trend by entering wrong stuff about ourselves. And then we could change the info frequently.  We could do things like flip our sex daily, or our marital status, or our ages. We can perversely surf on sites for things we aren't interested in (like knitting or crab taxonomy), performing Google searches for non-sequiturs and leaving misleading trails of interest. In short, we can pop out chaff to throw off their radar homing beacons, like a jet fighter jinking and weaving through a heavily defended airspace. 

I like to hit a few stores online and add stuff to my basket without buying anything. This way they think I'm actually interested. But it really messes up their profiling algorithms, like trying on a bunch of clothes in a Gap and leaving them all in the dressing room. Then I start seeing ads pop up wherever I go online for those same things. "Oh, you're shopping for tires, we see." So I click on those banners to go to the next site and put more things in my basket...and leave. It costs them money because they have to pay per click on the ad, even when the click doesn't result in a sale. And I feel like the closet anarchist my mom always suspected I was (which is probably why I still keep getting those Russian girlfriend ads).

And if enough of us did this, their prediction models would be worthless and they'd have to start communicating with us like we're intelligent beings again, and maybe even come up with entertaining ads. If more of us did this, we could really screw up the Brave New World couldn't we?

But it would be wrong.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Why isn't blue advertising bluer?

Has anyone else noticed the irony that the plethora (and, yes, I do know the meaning of that word, El Jefe) of EDS drug commercials are all, without exception, eye-glazingly dull? Here is a product associated with something that should be considered one of the most fun activities any lifeform could engage in, sex, made to seem about as exciting as denture cement. It's like having your mom or dad counsel you about the facts of life just before you get married. (I have to tread carefully here because my daughter reads this blog.)

These ads actually sabotage themselves by making you not want to have sex at all, especially with the prim, wholesome women they usually cast to play the supposed beneficiaries of these miracle molecules. You watch these commercials and think, "Well, there's his problem right there! Just look at her! She's a saint!" You imagine her litany of constructive little criticisms, "Do you really need to watch another basketball game?" "Do we really need any more DVDs?" "Don't you already have enough power tools?" "Were you talking to your ex-wife just now?" and "When are you going to stop playing Halo and come to bed?" And why are these paragons of mature feminine dignity always dressed in loose sweaters?

In short, to the average healthy male watching these commercials, there doesn't seem to be any need for the little blue pill at all.

In every one of these, too--in order, I imagine, to demonstrate the ability to have "spontaneous" nookie--the woman approaches the man "playfully" and whispers something in his ear, usually while he's busy doing something else, like looking for a job online because their retirement savings have been decimated. These little mimes reduce the fun of sex to something in the same order as personal hygiene: Okay, time to go save the marriage again. "Be right there, dear!"

When I used to teach advertising, my students had a grand old time thinking up creative ways to promote things that, at the time, rarely got advertised--you  know, like condoms, aphrodisiacs, erotic bakeries, or marital aid stores; imaginary clients for whom my class could really show off their creative libidos in a safe, academic environment. It was fun to think of ads for things that would never get on the air or in print.

Now, years later, with that same generation of former students given the opportunity to create real ads for these formerly blue products, all we get are commercials showing people in loose sweaters consulting with their doctors (the ubiquitous stethoscope draped over the show he's a doctor), or, at their most frisky, holding hands on a beach in twin bathtubs--sweaters off, of course. Whoa, to this last porno image! I may need to take a cold shower (more irony here, and sarcasm, in case you missed it).

And this always bothers me, too: What are bathtubs doing on the beach? Why is that supposed to be erotic? Or even romantic? Where's the plumbing? Who fills them up? And why are these people each in their own tub? And after they get out of the tubs to do the thing he took the little blue pill to do, won't their feet just get all encrusted with sand?  People just don't think these things through.

That's my real point.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

Everybody knows about the famous Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, even if they don't understand exactly--in terms of quantum physics--what it actually means. There was even a recent Coen Brothers' movie (A Serious Man) about it. At least I think that's what it was about. I'm not certain.

In a layman's nutshell  the Uncertainty Principle states that you can't know both the velocity and the position of a particle at the same time because the act of measuring one affects the other.

There's an old joke that illustrates this: Werner Heisenberg is pulled over by a cop who asks him, "Dr Heisenberg, do you know how fast you were going?"  And Heisenberg says, "No, officer, but I do know where I am."  Get it?

And another one: Heisenberg doesn't like to drive himself because every time he glances at his speedometer he gets lost.

I'm sure there are a million of them. (Actually, I'm not sure.)

What I like about the UP is it seems to absolve us from claiming to know anything. Whew! If you're asked a tough question, all you have to say is, "Well, we can't know for certain." Bing! you're excused. (It's important, too, to put everything in the first person plural; further distancing yourself from personal responsibility for the material.) Of course, this dodge only works at very small scales, where the relative size of things like, oh,  protons are as big as Jupiter. At the normal scales at which most of us eat lunch, it's not going to let you off the hook.

But I was a psychology major as an undergrad (I must admit, I groaned through physics in college).  And, happily for me, there's an analog to the UP in social psychology that is relevant at bigger scales. It's called the Hawthorne Effect,  named after a work-efficiency study done at The Hawthorne Works, a General Electric plant outside of Chicago in the 1920s, in which the workers at the factory did a lot better when they knew they were being observed  than afterward, when the study was over. Anyway, this psychological version of the Heisenberg UP states that the mere act of observing behavior changes that behavior--with apologies to those theoretical physicists, to whom I say, "Get a life."

Also known as the Observer-Expectancy Effect, this bugaboo of psychology grad students has screwed up thousands of behavioral experiments for decades. Sadly, too, for the multi-billion dollar market research industry (I have no idea what the actual size of this industry is, there is no way of knowing precisely--see how many ways you can use the UP?), the Hawthorne Effect pollutes most studies.

Say you've been invited to participate in a focus group. It doesn't matter what the subject is. Sitting behind your handwritten name card, with your bottled water and little paper plate of trail mix, you're suddenly aware that you're not yourself. You're not the real you, slouching on your couch in an orthopedically inadvisable posture, TiVoing through the commercials, just trying to muster the energy to get up and see what's in the fridge. Poof! You're now an "expert" on whatever it is you've been invited to render an opinion on.You're sitting up straight and alert, keenly aware of unseen others scribbling down everything you say like you're Jesus on the Mount.

You're shown a storyboard for a TV commercial and asked what you like or don't like about it. Even though you've never had to write or design an ad in your life, or even know what a storyboard is, your opinion (as well as those of the other 7-11 targeted subjects behind their own name cards) will have a bearing on whether the commercial airs. You're more important than you've ever been in your life. You're aware that the invisible suits (nervously eating their own trail mix behind the one-way glass) are hanging on your every word; that millions are riding on your sage and honest answer.

But it isn't an honest answer. Because you are aware that you're "on," your own self-image is at stake. You don't care whether the ad will work or not (speaking as you do for millions), you only care that people regard you as an intelligent, plain-speaking, honest, insightful person. You're an actor. And not a very good one.

And yet the fate of untold numbers (once again, we have no way of actually knowing the precise numbers) of advertising campaigns, products, policies, and life-altering decisions is held in the raisin-sticky hands of these few bad actors every year.  The enthralled executives behind the one-way glass nod in grave resignation that the funny commercial they claimed to have liked (at least to the touchy creatives who dreamed it up) is suddenly dead. The "experts" have spoken. You can't argue with science.

But it's all a sham. Because of the Hawthorne Effect. Because of Werner Heisenberg.

Now, don't get me wrong. (You have, after all, no real way of knowing where I really stand on this issue.) Looking at it another way, I have worked with a rare class of brilliant account planners (the industry's technical name for market research experts) who were very aware of the Hawthorne Effect and how to manipulate it to draw out the very answers they wanted  from each focus group. These marketing Heisenbergs have techniques of neutralizing the observer effect in focus groups and questionnaires. They can deftly pull out true reactions without the reactors even knowing it. They also have brilliant ways of isolating the "bell cow," the loud-mouth in every focus group who tries to sway the opinions of the rest of the herd. And their post-focus-group analysis can draw insightful conclusions about what really went on behind those name cards.  Devious, indeed.

Until now, frustrated creatives had no way of voicing their objections to what felt like a sand-bagging by focus groups spouting their opinions about whether their ads were "working" or not. Now they have science on their side, too. They can mash down the "wrong answer" buzzer and cry "Uh, excuse me? Hawthorne Effect!"And sound very snooty in doing it.

Of course, that won't change the outcome. The ad will still be dead. Nobody listens to creatives. Smart asses.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

I'm eating Cheezits right now! :-)

Of course, the new hotness in media is Facebook. Every advertiser seems to want to abandon all their other channels of message delivery (TV, radio, print, outdoor, web, sky-writing, sandwich boards, branded T-shirts, complimentary pens with their logos on them) for Facebook. Facebook will change civilization as we know it. There's even a pompous new movie coming out about the birth of Facebook, The Social Network, marking it as the greatest invention since...well...ever. People just didn't know how to connect with each other until Mark Zuckerberg showed us the way.

But I'm old enough to remember the advent of the last medium that was supposed to change everything; e-mail. And the medium before that, cell phones. Hell, I was even alive (barely) during the early days of TV when it was supposed to replace print and radio and movies, but did none of those things. I even remember two cycles of 3D movies before this one, when 3D-ness was supposed to change everything. None of those revolutions were that long ago.

And yet nothing that much changed or replaced anything. Print is still here (in fact there are more magazines being published now than before the Internet). TV's still here. Radio's still here, and booming. Direct mail, which seems more voluminous now than ever.They're all still here. Even e-mail. The geological strata of communications technologies just keeping piling on.

But there is one critical piece of communications technology that doesn't seem to change, though. It's not man-made; it's biological. It's the human brain. This old hunk of protein hasn't changed much since the last Ice Age. And by noticing the content of Reality TV shows, one could argue that it's actually devolved.

The brain is still a highly sophisticated processor of information, and only dimly understood.

Unfortunately for all the nifty new ways to transmit information, the receiver is still operating the way it has for the last 35,000 years...give or take 3 million. From the invention of being able to use the mouth to talk face-to-face to each other, all the way to the invention of technologies where we can "talk face-to-face" to millions of people all over the planet, the same receiver is doing the same processing work it did back when mile-high glaciers were grinding over New York. The inexorable advance of transmission technology doesn't seem to make much difference.

And what have we found out? That basically, human beings, given the power to broadcast their thoughts to the world, aren't very interesting. Like some Neanderthal grunting  "Food goooood," we see that people are still telling us they're eating food right now, or staring out the window, or getting ready to go to a party, or drinking a Machiato Misto. It's depressing that people aren't any more profound, by and large, than my dog, Bob; another highly sophisticated transmitter-receiver.

If Bob had a Facebook account (which is not beyond the realm of imagination since many dogs do--though I suspect they are ghost-written by humans), he would tell us several times a day that "I'm eating right now :-)," "Chewing on a rawhide :-)," "Scratching my back on the rug :-)," or "Squirrel!!!!! :-( "   It would, in other words, be indistinguishable from 99.99% of all the other Facebook posts. Only he doesn't need Facebook to tell the people he cares about of these profound observations. He has highly efficient software to do that; it's always on, never has to search for a WiFi connection, and never needs booting (well, rarely needs booting).

So here's the point (there always has to be one, doesn't there?): It doesn't matter what the transmission technology is--Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, TV, sky-writing, cave-paintings--if the message is dull, it's not going to get through. Look at those cave paintings, for instance. We ooo and aah over the human connection we share with people 35,000 years ago--people not so different from us--and realize that, like us, all they were really concerned with was eating. In their case, eating red meat on the hoof.

Big deal.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Elevator Genie

Here's an old advertising joke. Forgive me, all you other old farts who remember this, but I feel obligated to keep it in circulation. You know, for the sake of the children.

Three people enter an elevator, an art director, a copywriter, and an account executive. On the way up a genie appears to them. "I'm the Elevator Genie," he says, "And I'm here to grant each of you your life's wish."

The copywriter says, "Oh, well, I've always wanted to retire to a little bucolic cottage in Scotland and write my novel, taking long walks with my dog oe'r the heath in the Highlands."

"Granted!" says the Elevator Genie and, "poof," the copywriter disappears to a little bucolic cottage in Scotland.

The art director says, "I've always admired the way Gaugin dropped out of the bourgeois world and went to Tahiti to paint half-naked Polynesian girls. He did his best work in Tahiti. I've wanted to do something like that."

"Granted!" says the Elevator Genie and, "poof," the art director is whisked away to Tahiti to paint half-naked Polynesian girls like Gaugin did.

The Elevator Genie finally turns to the account executive and asks, "And what is your life's wish?"

The account executive says, "We're on our way up to a client presentation in five minutes, and I want those two jerkoffs back here right now!"

Monday, July 26, 2010

That's Mighty Small of You

Today, as I was procrastinating on an elliptical trainer, I happened to hear an old This American Life segment on NPR about a dispute between two ancient advertising legends; Julian Koenig and George Lois...both of early Doyle Dane Bernbach fame. Apparently George Lois (decidedly more famous among us history-of-advertising nerds than Koenig) has been taking credit for coming up with campaigns and even famous headlines he had nothing to do with. This just in. Lois has always been known for that. His primary reputation is for having an ego with it's own gravitational field.

But Julian Koenig, a one-time creative partner of Lois, has been fighting a  running feud with his Voldemort for years. Everyone who knows industry history knows it was Koenig and Helmut Krone who originally conceived the famous "Think Small"  ad for Volkswagen in the early 60s--an ad rated by Ad Age as the best ad ever created. But George Lois has been claiming credit for it to this day; in interviews, in his books, and in documentaries about The Early Days of the Advertising Revolution (which Don Draper is currently not getting on Mad Men).

And it's not just this one ad Lois has been claiming authorship of, according to Koenig and several other eye-witnesses to the contrary, it's the whole subsequent Volkswagen campaign, the "We Try Harder" Avis campaign, and virtually every other idea that Koenig, Krone, and a whole host of other creative genii thought of. Several people are trying to prove that Lois is actually the Shakespeare of the advertising world; i.e. he didn't write any of it.

Think Small, indeed, you're probably thinking. Who cares? It's only advertising. It's not as if Lois was claiming to have written Martin Luther King's speeches, or discovered the Double Helix, or anything truly meaningful in the last half century. It's just a bunch of cute headlines in ads and a bold use of white space. That's all. But it does matter because back then, some truly momentous things were happening in the industry, and it was people like Koenig, and Krone, and Bill Bernbach, and even George Lois who were discovering the principle that creativity could actually sell stuff. What matters is truth. Truth in history.

Lies in history can get us in big trouble. As we've only seen recently; they can start wars; they can kill us.

And I can understand Koenig's indignation, and his lifelong urge to set the record straight. I've had credit stolen from me; learning that campaigns I had conceived and produced were later claimed by people who were nowhere near it. I even once experienced an acutely uncomfortable moment when I was showing my portfolio to a creative director at a respected ad agency in L.A. and he remarked that he had seen the very same work in another copywriter's book a week before, a freelance writer who had evidently helped himself to the morgue at my former agency and presented the pilfered tearsheets as his own work. My work. It wasn't just the flush of anger that someone had claimed credit for something I had done, it was that my own integrity and professional reputation were now called into question...just his word against mine.

But I'm not lily white, either.  I've also acted like George Lois. In my own little career, I've taken credit for coming up with a locally famous campaign called "Seize the Weekend" for a now-defunct sports equipment retailer, G.I.Joe's.  But the actual phrase, "Seize the Weekend" was first uttered by my wife in our living room as we were brainstorming about it. She said it first, I have to admit. I merely yelled, "That's it!" And subsequently took all the credit for it when it was enormously successful. I want to go on record right here for giving her conception credit for those three words. Take that, George Lois.

I know, who cares?

Still, who knows what really happened 50 years ago on Madison Avenue (when ad agencies in New York really were on Madison Avenue)? Maybe it's Julian Koenig who misremembers what really happened (and a host of other people). I doubt it. But it's possible.

At least he got credit for naming "Earth Day."

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Never fails

I think there must be a circulating online class called  "How to Interview an Ad Agency." The reason I say this is that during the past three RFPs, I've had potential clients challenge me with the same question: "Can you tell me about a campaign you did that failed?" 

I have to think.      Hard.        Long silence for effect.

"No, I can't."

They've all worked; some better than others, but all advertising ended up bringing my clients more business than they had before they advertised.  This isn't to be egotistical, because, quite frankly, any advertising, even dull advertising, has more of an impact than none at all. There is plenty of experience over the past couple of hundred years to support this. Business schools have even done studies to verify what we all know instinctively; advertising--any advertising--always works. Sometimes there are unintended consequences; sometimes the response isn't a tidal wave of enthusiasm, but word gets out more than if you had done nothing.

That's not to say that asking an interviewee to be reflective about his or her failings isn't a good technique. For one thing, you can tell if they're blowing smoke or being defensive. All good interviewees know to keep a stock story in their pocket for just such a question. And then they make sure that the story of failure is  relative--mine is that my only regret was that I didn't stop the Vietnam War earlier than I did.

But I guess, for advertising, failure would be the difference between a 2% sales increase vs a 20%. Or that the total increase in sales amounted to less than the cost of the advertising.  But in my experience, I've never encountered that. I'm that good. Or that cheap.

And that is egotistical.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Fighting Gerunds of the South Pacific

I've said this before, people: Stop using gerunds as though they were verbs.

If there's anything that makes my teeth itch (besides chewing poison ivy) it's a headline that begins like this:


In the first place, it's not a complete sentence. There's no predicate. "Introducing" (or any "" word) is not a verb; in this case it's part of a noun-phrase which would serve in the office of subject in the subsequent sentence, which would want an actual verb to make it whole; e.g. "Introducing the all new iPhone makes us excited."

In the second place, it's as passive as a cow. Any gerund is passive. It betrays a lack of commitment to what you're saying, like the verbal equivalent of looking down at the ground when you speak, like it's not really you saying it, and, anyway, you could take it back if they don't seem interested...oh, never mind, I'll just walk away; pretend I was never here.

In the third place, since you're being so passive and disinterested, why would anyone else care? Show a little enthusiasm for your own product. And don't think you can just fix it by sticking a bang on the end, either! Put that exclamation mark down right now and step away from it.

In the fourth place, nobody talking like that in actual conversation. Not unless they're trying to mimic a bad Russian accent. Are you a bad Russian? Then no talking like that.

In the fifth place, copywriters who write headlines starting with gerunds are lazy hacks. They give actual, hardworking, creative copywriters a bad name. They make it seem as if anybody could type out a headline if that's all there is to it. So why should they pay us?

Ahh, getting that off my chest.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Not the capo d'astro bar again!

The only reason I'm writing about this tired old subject, the legendary Capo d'Astro Bar story--an object lesson in advertising from the days when Pangaea was the only continent--is that I was brainstorming yesterday with a colleague about an impending pitch, trying to figure out what, if anything, we could say about the product, and I mentioned, "We need a capo d'astro bar."

"A wha...?" he said. I thought he was kidding. I thought everybody in advertising above a certain age knew about the capo d'astro bar story, and knew what the phrase meant in the context of advertising. But, as talented and skilled as he is, I realized he was below that certain age. And then I realized that this tired old fable might die and lose its industrial utility if Poloniuses (Polonii?) like me don't keep the lesson alive. It's my duty to advertising history. Think of the children!

So for the half of my readership who is sick to death of this story, go ahead, roll your eyes and go back to figuring out how Medicare works. And for the other half (Dave), here it is:

Back in the Glorious Days of the Sixties' Creative Revolution (Mad Men, to give you all who were nowhere when Kennedy was shot an historical context), a young, smart-ass copywriter named Bud Robbins was supposed to write an ad for his agency's client, Aeolian Pianos. These were very expensive pianos and seemed to be the choice of many great musicians.  But nobody could tell Robbins why they were so good.  He didn't know why they would be better than any other expensive grand piano, like Steinway or Baldwin. They must have had some secret ingredient that distinguished them from all the others. He asked to visit the factory.

After enduring the usual account executive derision for his need for information (they were busy doing what account executives do on Mad Men--their secretaries, and, of course, smoking too much--and couldn't be bothered with irritating "creatives"), he was sent off to St. Louis for a begrudged tour of the Aeolian Piano factory.

In spite of spending two days at the plant, nobody seemed to be able to tell Robbins the difference between Aeolian and the competition. On getting ready to leave to catch his flight, Robbins asked his guide to wrack his brain one more time and think of any difference, however insignificant.  The sales manager scratched his head and said, "Well,  our pianos are a little heavier; that's why they cost more to ship."

"Why is that?"

"Well, because of the capo d'astro bar." (Here it comes, at last!).

The man invited Robbins to crawl under one of their pianos to look at a heavy, cast-iron bar strapped across the higher octave strings. He pointed out that it was there for the piano to keep its tune after the wood frame started to fifty years. Fifty years. And the only reason an Aeolian Piano was heavier than a Baldwin or a Steinway was this patented hunk of metal. Here was a little technological gizmo, completely invisible, that wouldn't even start working for half-a-century, but would let their pianos outlast any of their competition. Robbins had found his secret ingredient.

This was the reason the director of the Metropolitan Opera said that the only thing they were taking with them from their old home to their new digs at Lincoln Center was their venerable Aeolian Grand Piano--with its 50-year-old capo d'astro bar.

So Robbins started writing and created a legendary ad campaign around the capo d'asto bar, this secret ingredient that made the Aeolian Grand the greatest piano in the world. Steinway and Baldwin would, of course, take issue.

The point isn't one about pianos, or what's better. I have no idea. I can't even play Guitar Hero. The point is that this story became well-known among an entire generation of art directors and writers going to ad school in the seventies and eighties. And the phrase "capo d'astro bar" stood for any unique selling proposition (USP) that a product or service had. It was the one quality that had to be teased out of the client, something they usually took for granted and often didn't even think was that big a deal.  So whenever a creative team would be assigned a new client, they were trained to start looking for the "capo d'astro bar."

Sadly, few people seem to have that discipline any more--or even curiosity about their clients' products. They'll be happy just making vague assertions about quality, selection, value, and passion for excellence, and worry more about including keywords for search engines than whether the thing they're advertising has any special juice. It's good because we say it is, okay? Now just buy it.

But if more advertising professionals remembered the capo d'astro bar--and Bud Robbins--maybe advertising would start to get creative--and good--again. And maybe, just maybe, people wouldn't TiVo past it. Or might even click on it. And when they searched online, they'd search for the brand and not the commodity.

I can dream, can't I?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Digital Schmidgital

Heard a disturbing story on NPR this morning about how Stanford's engineering school is reducing the paper titles in its library by 85% in order to move to digital and online resources. This is a trend that hi-tech corporations like Apple, Google, Sony, etc. have been pushing--as much as broadcast corporations in the 1950s pushed that other hot technology, television, with the idea that we won't need any other media choices but one...the one they coincidentally happen to be invested in.  Books? Who needs books any more when you have an iPad or a Kindle or whatever? Print is dead (which I think Marshall McLuhan might have said over fifty years ago, but I might be mistaken; he also said "I don't necessarily believe everything I say.").

So what's wrong with getting rid of paper books? They weigh a lot. They take up space. It's a pain to find what you need in them. Only one person can check them out of the library at a time. They become obsolete almost immediately (especially in science and engineering).

The Internet should be to information technology what the printing press was five hundred years ago, or the invention of writing five thousand years ago. There were reactionary complaints about those technological revolutions, too. I recall, for instance, reading a rant of a 4th  millennium Egyptian Luddite (yes, I'm that old) that these kids these days have become so lazy; they don't have to memorize wisdom any more, they just have to look it up when they need it thanks to this new-fangled invention of writing...on paper, no less! Feh! It will be the end of civilization, mark my words, sonny!

Of course, that guy's a mummy now, walking the earth eating souls and spewing locusts out of his mouth...oh, wait, that was a movie (shot digitally).

At the risk of sounding like a five-thousand year-old mummy, I want to make the case for paper books. And paper magazines. And paper newspapers. And the case is choice. I don't like the fact that the only way I can read something is by reading it off of a screen. I love the Internet and digital media, don't get me wrong. But I love books, too. I like having the choice of curling up with a book or a magazine and not a laptop or a pad of any brand. And gauging by the deteriorating WiFi performance of the world lately, a book is far more reliable. A book never needs to be booted up, doesn't crash, doesn't shut down when the battery drains, doesn't require power at all, in fact, doesn't get viruses, and doesn't burn your stomach when you doze off in your hammock.

With books, if you're doing research, you can spread the relevant volumes open on your desk...a "virtual screen" (irony intended) several feet wide. You don't get a headache or eye-strain reading a book. And books don't interrupt your concentration with annoying pop-up characters that chirp, "You seem to be reading a book! Need help?"

Another cool thing about a physical book is that you have tactile feedback of progress while you're reading it. It's so good to feel the heft of the left-hand side of an open book, contemplating with satisfaction how much you've accomplished...or feeling the thickness on the right-hand side of how much more you have to enjoy. With a digital book you really have no idea (except for some abstract, disconnected little bar) where you are in the book. It may be about to end, or it may stretch on to the end of time. And we all know that the little progress bars on computers lie.

I'm old enough to remember the transition from VHS to DVD to Blu-Ray. And old enough to remember the transition from vinyl LPs to CDs to MP3. I still have hundreds of old LPs in my Mummy's Tomb, in fact, waiting for some future archaeologist to unearth. But I've also noticed that there's lately and illogically been a resurgence of vinyl. A whole new generation are rediscovering it. Aficionados assert that the quality of sound from an LP is far better than from the digital "compromise" of MP3. Whatever. As long as they bring them pleasure and they have a choice.

Just as TV did not make movies go away, and radio did not make newspapers go away, and writing did not make wisdom go away, digital media won't make anything before it go away. It will just add to the choices. Unless those choices are taken away from us.

So there, Stanford.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


"Rien" ("Nothing") is supposedly what Louis XVI wrote in his diary on 14 July 1789.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Going off Half-Cocked

"Half-cocked" is an expression that goes back to the days of flintlock muskets (ahhh...good times, good times). Its origin has to do with a technical glitch in which the flint fails to strike the priming pan with sufficient force to ignite the charge and...oh, who cares? What it means nowadays is to do something lamely...with insufficient resolve. And usually prematurely.

So here's how it relates to the subject of this blog, which (I'm beginning to regret) has to have some relevance to advertising, or marketing, or commerce:

An ad campaign that goes off half-cocked is one that has insufficient resolve in its execution. Very often an advertiser, particularly one who hasn't advertised before, will just try out a single, small-space ad in the cheapest medium and "see how it goes." They'll run a spot on cable after midnight. Or a tiny banner on a website nobody goes to, something cheap. And lo and behold, they don't get the response they hoped for. It's as if they bought one lottery ticket at a 7-11 and, oh pooh, came up with squat.

Okay, bad simile. I'll stick with the flintlock allusion.

The advertiser then looks at the weak response from the tentative little ad and concludes, "Advertising doesn't work."

It is true that a campaign that has entertaining creative will do better against one that's dry as powder (come o-o-o-o-on, metaphor!). But there has to be a critical mass of impressions for it to make a spark at all. Much less hit its target.

That's enough musketry. You get my point.

Monday, July 5, 2010

What are you, a comedian?

Everyone who has ever grown up as the class clown, has heard this from some teacher, usually in middle school. And as, a matter of fact, Mr. Feezer, yes, I am a comedian. Thanks for asking.

Since I sucked at sports. And since I was only moderately attractive to the opposite sex (my orientive preference), I found that honing my comedic skills earned me admiration from all my peers, even the jocks, even the opposite sex.

This is what I found out. When you're funny, people are more likely to like you. You make them laugh. Which makes them feel good. Which is a little gift you give them. In turn, they want to give you something not beating you up.

This is an old principle. Homer knew it twenty-eight centuries ago when he "wrote" the Odyssey (though some contend he didn't actually write it, that it was Shakespeare). In a memorable scene, when the anthropophagic Cyclops, Polyphemus, is amused by Odysseus' wit, he bellows "Ho! Ho! Ho! No-Man, you make Polyphemus laugh! Polyphemus like you. He eat you last." (For those of you unfamiliar with the epic, Odysseus used a pseudonym, "No-Man," which unfolds with hilarious consequences later in the story.)

So humor is good. It is very powerful. It can save lives. It can keep you from being eaten. It can also make big bucks.

Humor has been scientifically proven to work six times better in advertising than dry approaches. This is not a joke. I didn't just make this up to make a point. Several years ago I remember reading an article in AdWeek that a study by the London School of Economics found that ads with humorous content did something like 600% better at drawing response than ads that were merely informative. Somebody actually wrote a grant proposal to get money to run this study. That was funny just by itself. But when I read it, suddenly, my entire life and career were justified, and not merely because I had fun doing it. There was capitalist rationale for it.

Funny ads tend to do better than unfunny ads. For one thing, they tend to make you like the advertiser. They've given you something for free; a laugh. That makes the company seem more human. In turn, you tend to want to give them something back, like buying their product (usually beer). It's a quid pro quo. I make you laugh: You buy my product, and you won't eat me (...unless my product is a hamburger).

So, this is why I went into advertising. I am too shy to have been a stand-up comedian outright (sorry, Mr. Feezer, I knew you were counting on me). So I decided to turn it to more indirect, but commercial uses. Writing a blog..., I meant advertising, of course, silly.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

How's not advertising working for you?

Here's a business plan to experiment with. I pulled it off of the Name-On-Request School of Business website:

Step 1. Build a better product, one that the world needs.
Step 2. Keep it quiet.

Would one of you try this out and get back to me how it works?

Better still, I have a pertinent advertising anecdote (and believe me, I've got a million where this came from). Years ago I was working at an ad agency that was trying to help a regional Mexican fast-food chain increase their brand preference. There was a key member on the franchise advertising committee who, ironically, thought advertising was a waste of money. "We did a commercial once," he said, "Didn't work." We were tasked to persuade him.

So we drove out to one of his restaurants in Downtown Metropolitan Gresham to see if we could have a heart-to-heart with the guy. As we entered his store--which, I have to point out, was empty at lunch time--he jumped on us (not literally), "You're here to get me to vote for more advertising. Well, you're wasting your time. People don't need advertising to tell them we have better food than Taco Bell. It's just a fact."

He sneered at Taco Bell's empty and "cute" advertising campaign and complained that they didn't even use real meat in their tacos. He may have been right about the relative quality of his food, but nobody was ever going to know about it. "Because advertising doesn't work."

I couldn't resist pointing out the window to an actual Taco Bell that just happened to be across the street--and so crowded that cars were lined up to pull into the parking lot. "How's that working for you?"

(How often are you gifted with such vivid illustrative opportunities?)

Needless to say, the meeting did not go well. I drew two valuable lessons from it: 1) You have to advertise and you have to do it all out. There's no getting around it. 2) Don't be a smart ass with a client.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, if you're going to advertise (and you should if you're serious about growing or even staying in business), then do it big. Don't run one small space ad in a monthly trade one time and then act disappointed if you're not up there with Taco Bell in brand preference. Do it like you mean it.

Or maybe what I'm really trying to say is, there is no Name-On-Request School of Business website. That was a joke.

It was Harvard.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Customer Service Redux

To continue on this customer service vein, I now want to rant about what I think is a great model for it. I want to praise that other evil corporate giant, Starbucks. I love Starbucks as much as I love the evil Borders. I go there almost every day. And I notice how genuinely happy all the baristas seem to be. They all seem to like each other. And they seem to like everybody who comes in. I patronize a half dozen Starbucks around the city regularly, always order the same thing and they always remember what my order is and usually remember my name. I realize this speaks much more about the pathetic dullness of my life, but now I almost feel bad about ordering something different than my quotidian "vente iced coffee, unsweetened with room," particularly when I see them start to make it as they see me walk through the door.

Here's another reason: I recently went into one of my favorites and they had been talking among themselves and asked if I was, indeed, Tim Robbins. They had been taking bets. Not wanting to diminish the quality of my service, I lied and said, yes, I was Tim Robbins. Then, before I left, and worried they'd start taking me to task for breaking up with Susan Sarandon, I admitted that I wasn't Tim Robbins. But they still treat me like I was.

There are, of course, brand partisans who insist that Starbucks makes crappy coffee. I've heard them called "bean burners" by connoisseurs who really know good coffee from bad. That's not me. I can sort-of tell fresh from old coffee, but that's about it. And since I drink it iced, it doesn't seem to matter anyway. What matters is how I feel when I go into a Starbucks.

Now, of course this is all contrived. It's part of the Starbucks brand. And as such, the behavior of the staff is an ad for Starbucks. In their literal ads I've never seen them talk about their great customer service, they just do it; it's part of their corporate culture. And they know it's not something you can define. If they did try to define it and quantify it, you wouldn't believe it anyway because nobody likes listening to somebody talk about what a great person they are.

Years ago, when I was working on the McDonald's account, they tried to define customer service by launching a 60 second promo. Here's how it went: If you didn't get your order within 60 seconds, it was free. Great idea. Very vivid proof of what service means. But it backfired. Suddenly people were conscious of the clock (they had put up big stop clocks at each register, no small expense in itself), and the staff were under even more stress than before. It was so disruptive of McDonald's finely-tuned operations, and cost so much money in refunds, that they didn't want to talk about it again. Later they tried the same thing with promising a smile and a "thank you" or your meal is free. But now customers knew the smiles and "thank yous" were forced by an oppressive regime, and didn't believe them.

I've had many clients who have insisted that their primary difference, their Unique Selling Proposition in adspeak, is their customer service. They usually do have good service, too. But I've always discouraged them from talking about it in their ads. Because no one likes a braggart. Also there's the reactive thing at work, too: As soon as someone says they are committed to great customer service, you become suspicious, and you start looking for chinks in that promise. Same thing with promising quality. Of course, you're committed to quality. Who isn't? But when you brag about it, it sounds like you're trying to convince yourself.

So, getting around to the theme of this rant...I forgot what it was...

Oh, I know: Actions speak louder than words. That's it.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Can I help you?

I want to say a word about customer service and how it relates to marketing. Every retailer knows that customer service is king. That's true (unless you're in Europe, then you can pound sand). But in this country, the company that gives good customer service will rule from on high, like...well...a king. Metaphorically, of course; we're still a republic.

But there's such a thing as too much customer service. The kind that actually drives customers away.

This is what I mean: I went into a Borders Books the other day just to browse. I love books. I love Borders. My idea of a great lunch hour is to spend it in a Borders. I've been a loyal customer both online and in the flesh for years. I know, I know: they're a giant, blood-sucking corporation dedicated to driving little booksellers and their families into the wilderness. But I've liked them. They always had helpful, friendly customer service. And in a bookstore that means a light touch, standing back and letting you linger.

But this time I was hit up by several clerks wanting to know if they could help me find something. This was new. This was irritating. I told each of them, in turn, that I was just browsing--which, come on, is what you do in a bookstore. But they kept hovering. Watching me. Sometimes a new one would accost me, offering to help me find something. (Did they think I was a shoplifter? In a bookstore?) But it put me off and I ended up leaving, not buying anything. Or shoplifting anything, either.

This hovering, overly helpful experience repeated itself over several visits, so I knew there was a new least in that store. The policy seemed to be: Jump on the customer, stay with them until they buy something, and get them out. But all it did was the latter; get me out.

I don't mean to pick on Borders. I've noticed this trend of hovering, pushy floor staff in many stores lately. It's like the Interrupting Waiter Syndrome applied to retail. Smacks of desperation. It makes you feel like the only reason your presence is tolerated in the store is if you're going to buy something--and either buy something or get out. It makes you think, depressingly, that the store manager has got to get his numbers up or he's out. There's sulfur in the air. And your pleasant lunch hour is ruined because now lives are suddenly at stake.

So my advice to marketers, after years of being a marketer myself, and even more years of being a marketee, is to relax. Hang back. Be pleasant. Be ready to help. Be visible. But be in the background. Don't push your customers. And, more to the point, don't push your sales staff. It doesn't help.