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.