Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Occupy Direct Mail

Return to Senda. Whoever she is.
This isn't an original idea. But I think, in the spirit of the Occupy Christmas Season, it's time to revive it.

Now, I know you're going to think this is hypocritical, given my profession as an advertising practitioner, but I hate direct mail. Hate it. Hate it. Hate it. Don't like to get it. Don't like to design it. Don't like to be involved in any part of it. I'm sure I'm all alone in this. Most people love their junk mail. They love winnowing out the tons of flyers, envelopes cleverly disguised as  government checks, packets of coupons wrapped in plastic (so you have to open the plastic in order to toss them into the recycle bin), holiday catalogs, and political/religious material. But I'm different. Direct mail irritates me. I'm weird that way.

But if any of you are like me, I have a solution...or at least a way to fight back. This has been suggested before, but it's time to revive the tactic...in the spirit of Black Friday. You'll probably think it's so immature.

Ring the Doorbell and Run
If any of these direct mail pieces you get contain a pre-paid, self-addressed return envelope or card (a BRM or BRC in trade lingo), send it back...empty. This way, the people who fill up your mailbox with pulp will be required to double their postal costs; the postage to send you the "very important open immediately" message and the postage to get it back. Not only will this make the cost-per-sale twice as much (which, for direct marketing, is already some of the most expensive media in advertising), it will return the irritation to its place of origin. As they open up the envelope, their hearts all aflutter with the anticipation of a sale, their hopes will be dashed when they see the envelope is empty. It's like ringing a doorbell and running. Hee, hee, hee!

It Adds Up
Okay, it's only 42 cents (assuming machinable commercial BRM rates). But, if the mailer has been sent to you First Class, that's 84 cents they'll have wasted. And if all of us do this, it will double the CPMs (cost per mille) of their entire DM operation. Not to mention give a needed shot-in-the arm to the failing U.S.Postal Service (so it would be a patriotic act, as well). Say somebody sends out 100,000 mailings. That's $84,000 alone in postage costs right there. Given the average response rate of  only 1.38% for the average DM campaign (according to DMA, 2010), that means it would cost nearly $61 for each reply in postage alone, not including the cost of the lists, the creative and production costs of the piece, the fulfillment costs, and the margin for the DM company.

An empty return envelope is a fun gesture by itself (and so easy). But if you really want to get back at whoever sent you something, you can fill that reply envelope not with a blank order form, but with a polite, anonymous, but terse note to the effect that you've decided to buy from their competitor instead, or vote for the other guy. You can be creative with this: For instance tell them you had been thinking about supporting their cause or going to their sale, but on reading their "very important announcement," you changed your mind.

Or, even more fun, mix up the order blanks and reply envelopes. Put somebody else's form in another company's return envelope. It's important that you leave no trace of who is sending this back to them so they can't track who's the crank in their system. So be ninja.

Occupy Electronically
If you're retired and haven't yet identified a hobby to fill your time until you die, might I suggest fun with the 800 number? Engage their call center in rambling conversation about your kids, their kids, what TV shows they like, what they think this boil on your butt means. Ask lots of questions about the product or offer, ask about the employee's personal life, about the weather over there in Bangalore, anything to keep them on the phone and grind down the efficiency of their operation. Even though the call is free to you (if it's an 800 number), it works like a return envelope: It's on their nickel. And they have to hire more and more people to handle all of us high-maintenance customers (I mean "customers"). So it's good for the overall employment picture.

You can enjoy this hobby digitally, too. Go to the website and request more information. Give them squat in return. They'll capture your e-mail address but you can always automatically bounce that back to them as spam. If enough people do this, it will screw with their Google Page Ranks, clog up their servers, increase ISP costs, and make them feel the same irritation you do when you go to open your e-mail every morning. It's reverse spamming. Share the love.

The point is, we want to throw sand into the entire direct marketing machine.  We want to get less junk mail and if enough of us pretend to respond, we'll increase their response rates but also greatly increase the costs per sale.

Of course, DM has its uses. If you sign up to get newsletters or specific information, then obviously you still want to get those things. Or if the list is highly specific to interested, likely customers, that's fine, too. If we're interested in it, it's not junk, is it? But for the most part...well, what do you think?

So try this. Today, when you clear out your mailbox, instead of just tossing most of it into the recycle bin, look for the pre-stamped reply envelopes and put them back in the mailbox, sealed but empty. All it's going to take is an extra minute and tiny bit of saliva.

Do it for the kids.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Jesus Christ is MY Personal Savior, Not Yours

He's mine, I tell you, mine!
I've decided to accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior. So back off, Jack. What part of  "personal" don't you understand? Get your own personal savior. This one's taken.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Netflix Takes My Advice

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings
"Oops, my bad! Jeff,
The Beloved Leader
was right, as usual."

I'm so glad to see that Netflix took my advice and withdrew the Einsteinian plan to spin off their DVD mail program (Qwikster). However, they still managed to keep following the Piss Off Your Customers Rule by letting stand the 100% fee increase on their customers. Way to go Netflix! Very subtle way to slip in the gouge. That's the way to keep customers: Don't improve service but charge everybody twice as much for it.

Since it evidently doesn't take anybody with great intelligence to run a multi-billion dollar company. I've gone onto the Netflix corporate site and applied for the job of CEO under "Jobs at Netflix". I think I'm more than qualified. I should be a shoe-in since the board is obviously going to be looking for another CEO soon. I hear they're whip smart. Or maybe it was just "whipped." I don't have the facts to back this up.

I also applied to for the job as CEO of Bank of America quite some time ago. But for some reason I haven't heard back from them. Dicks.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Marketing Rule: Don't Forget to Piss Off Your Customers

Somebody's gotta pay
for this BofA Tower.
And it ain't gonna
be the shareholders.

So we're all wondering what is going on at Bank of America, Netflix, and Name-on-Request Airlines. Lately it seems like big, successful companies have come across the little known marketing rule: Make sure you really piss off your customers.

Bank of America, in announcing that it's going to start charging its customers to use their debit cards to withdraw their own money from their accounts, has probably congratulated itself on finding the glaring loophole in the dreaded Dodd-Frank Act that restricts usurious bank fees on merchants who offer debit payment to their own customers. The drafters of Frank-Dodd, being the unholy hybrid of Congressional watering-down that it was, probably didn't expect the big banks to blatantly say, "Okay, well somebody's gonna pay our usurious fees and it's gonna be our own customers." I guess we customers are just supposed to get angry at Congress for forcing them to do it. Right? How could we possibly get mad at our bank? Especially the same bank who was caught (but not  yet punished) for widespread foreclosure fraud. The same bank that was bailed out with our tax money and handed Merrill Lynch as its chew toy. The same bank convicted of municipal bonds fraud in 2010. It isn't their fault. It's Congress! Write your Congressbeing and tell him/her to get off your bank's back.

But come on! Do the marketing idiot savants (minus the "savant" part) at BofA think that their customers won't just pull their deposits out and go to the hundreds of little banks and credit unions in their hometowns? I've noticed that some of those more astute little banks and credit unions are already running ads announcing that they have no intention of charging their customers to access their own money.What a concept!

It's all part of the proven marketing principle of making sure your customers storm out, really angry.

Or take Netflix's recent bonehead move to infuriate their own customers by spitting their service into two monthly bills (one for downloading movies and one for the traditional DVD-by-mail service). Did anybody there think this through? Or that they just handed struggling Blockbuster an early Christmas gift? Wouldn't you have loved to have been a fly on the wall of that meeting where they came up with that brilliant idea? And naming their new spinoff Qwikster? Really? You mean like Napster or Friendster or one of those other Disasters? They must have spent all afternoon coming up with that stupid name.

I certainly hope Blockbuster sent them a nice thank you note (with an Amazon gift card).

This trend of pissing off your customers started with the airlines, of course, who decided a few years ago to start charging their own regular customers for things like water, pillows, and privy privileges. Suddenly, loyal business customers started looking for airlines that didn't nickel-n-dime them. And the unforeseen consequences of charging for baggage? More fights over the overhead bins in the cabin. Couldn't have seen that coming.

Of course, we know that airlines are struggling financially--what with the speculator-driven price of fuel and the costs of maintaining aging aircraft (thank you FAA!). But instead of simply burying those added costs into the ticket, which they inflated anyway, the airlines decided to add insult to injury by charging for baggage, pillows, and water. Pissing everybody off. It's bad enough that you have to pay extra to have your knees in your chin, or that you have to bring your own bag lunch on board. It's bad enough that ticket pricing is so chaotic and--dare I say it--deregulated. But to make me pay for a flattened pillow that somebody else drooled on? Brilliant. I think I'll drive to LA. At least it's cheaper. And I can bring my own pillow, thank you.

But Bank of America (and soon Wells Fargo, Chase, and the other too-big-to-bail banks) takes the cake for idiotic marketing decisions. They probably figured that nobody would notice. Also, according to BofA, because they aren't allowed to gouge merchants quite so much (thanks to that socialistic Dodd-Frank law), those same merchants will, out of the goodness of their hearts, pass their savings on and lower their own prices. They will. Just you watch.We'll see that little $5.00 fee deducted from our checking account every month and we'll think, at least I'm saving big at the retail level.

Also, I'm sure Bank of America customers are all getting letters that begin with the sincere phrase, "As a loyal Bank of America customer, you're important to us..." That ought to take care of damage control.

Besides, the debit card charge is legal. Dodd-Frank doesn't say the banks can't. This is what you get for shoddy legislation.

And what are you gonna do? Take your business to a little bank that doesn't charge you to withdraw your own money? Yeah, right! Have you seen their quaint headquarters? It doesn't even come up as high as BofA's lobby.

Monday, July 18, 2011

World Cup Mad...(yawn)...ness

I want to start right off by admitting that I'm not a soccer fanatic. I'm not even remotely soccer literate. I watched the last game of the last World Cup in South Africa, and the last game of the last Women's World Cup in Germany between the US and Japan. I have a few friends who qualify as soccer (or "futbol" to them) fanatics and know the nuances of the game enough to scream obscenities at the officials. Also I stood around in the rain on the sidelines of my daughter's games (I mean "matches") when she was in middle school...mostly not paying attention. So I want to get it straight before I go off with authority on this rant about how hypnotically dull and pointless soccer is; I don't know what I'm talking about.

Oops, I tipped my prejudice.

 I, American patriot and  loyal friend to my soccer aficionados that I am, watched every grueling second of the interminable final match between the women's US team and Japan on Sunday in the FIFA World Cup. I wanted to participate in my friends' critique of the game--er--match. I wanted to be able to make sage points about the effervescent playing style of Lauren Cheney versus the relentless attacks of Abby Wambach.

But even I could see that the American team were playing rings around the Japanese, in every way; ball handling, play finesse, aggressiveness, discipline, stamina. But they just couldn't score. Though the US team spent most of their time threatening the Japanese goal, the quirks of chaos theory just kept deflecting all of their shots from the net, never once being touched by the Japanese goalie, who might as well not have been there. It was like there was a force field around the goal. And it got to be very frustrating, almost ridiculous.

The dull thing about soccer is that, regardless of the skill of either team, goals are so rare that it is, as the saying goes, like watching grass grow. Literally. When goals are made, they seem to be entirely weird; not a solid crack of the bat signaling a home run, not a relentless and unmistakable drive to a touchdown, not that satisfying swish of the basketball net--just a strange happenstance of bounce in which the ball happens to ricochet off of someone's head and just happens to sneak into the corner--instead of an inch to the outside. It's as if the whole point of soccer were for each side to keep flipping a coin and a score happens when the coin lands on edge.

So rare are goals in soccer, and so unexpected, that it's no wonder announcers sound like squealing 12-year-old girls whenever somebody makes one. "GOAL!!!! GOALGOALGOALGOAL!!!" (be sure to roll your "l's" when you scream this.) It's soooo exciting.  But about as exciting as watching a piece of ground for a lightning strike. On a sunny day.

For this particular game (or match), even though the Americans, for whatever reasons, were technically outplaying the Japanese, each side made two of these quirky goals and after a tedious extra thirty minutes of overtime play were still tied. Can't have that. So, instead of playing forever until one side definitely wears the other one down (as they do in tennis, baseball, and war), the whole thing devolves upon a mindless ritual called a penalty kick shootout, or something. Each side gets a chance to take five shots at the net from about twenty feet.  The goalie has to decide, "What's she gonna do? Go right or go left?" This is the game theory equivalent of Rock Paper Scissors. It's really unsatisfying and you get the feeling you were gypped. The whole thing is about as thrilling as watching someone chuck a softball to dunk a clown in a church carnival. The commentators were saying that if the two teams were still tied after this little exercise, that they'd move on to an even more inane tie-breaker, the "sudden death" penalty kick, in which the first one to make a goal wins.

And if this didn't work, I'm sure that the clever minds at FIFA had an even more foolproof method of determining the winner; "I'm thinking of a number between one and two." Or possibly the dreaded staring contest.

But it worked. The Japanese got in more free kicks than the Americans, proving that they were the best soccer team in the world. Glad that was cleared up.

Much debate has gone on about why soccer has trouble catching on in the US. I don't know why. It has to be the dullest game ever thought up. The reason it's so popular around the rest of the world must be because you don't need much to play it. Any bunch of kids can wrap a wad of rags together into a soccer ball and start kicking it around the street, or minefield. You don't need special equipment. You don't need a net or a backstop or ice or helmets or skates or bats or mitts or even shoes. But cheapness doesn't make it good. Rock Paper Scissors is cheap, too.

Another reason soccer may have trouble catching on in the US is the nature of its play. There aren't time outs, downs, or innings. The clock keeps ticking even when the ball goes out of bounds. So, consequently, you better have gone to the bathroom before the game (or match) starts. And, even more consequently, there are no places for commercial breaks. What advertiser is going to want to buy a spot on either side of a game? Or in the middle? It's just not commercially viable. The brilliant design of American sports is that they are just made for commerce, with built-in advertising breaks. Soccer was designed by socialist regimes who see no need for advertising...or bathroom breaks (just go in your pants, like we do).

As I said, I don't know what I'm talking about. I come from a generation that only played soccer in gym in high school (when it had the same status as dodge ball). But watching last Sunday's World Cup, I kept thinking that this was a metaphor for something. I couldn't think of what. So I decided to go the easy route and whine about the game. Or match.

Monday, June 20, 2011


SEO Priests, beware!
Google knows where you live.
For some nerdy reason (and I think it was Jean Jacques Rousseau who said--in French, of course--that nerds have reasons that reason knows not of), I've been following a lot of online discussion in the SEO (search engine optimization) community about the new Google search algorithm called Panda. They hate it. For one thing, it attempts to undermine all of their little search engine gaming tricks, like links to lots of other sites, repetitive keywords, meta-tag subterfuge, and some really arcane things that none of us lowly carbon-based lifeforms can fathom. Panda's a revolution. And if you you believe these Old World Chicken Littles, it is upsetting everything the orange-fingered clergy of SEO know about how to make a website turn up at the front of the line, regardless of whether it's what you were were actually looking for.

Now I'm not going to even pretend to understand this debate. I'm a writer, a branding guy, not a programmer. All I know is that for the past several years I've been having to suppress everything I know about good writing and persuasion in the interests of making sure my "content" has enough buzzwords to make a search engine salivate--mostly at the cost of fun--or interest. But from what I can understand, what Google has done is to finally make an algorithm that comes closer to how actual human beings would prefer to browse for something, instead of how a robot would. The implications are, for me, wonderful. It means that the search engine is looking for interesting, original, cool content. It gives greater weight to well-known brands and trusted sites. It ignores sites with lots of ads and stupid links to nowhere. It requires that the content be relevant and well-written.Yippee! Or maybe, Yahoo!

One SEO blogger lamented that Panda is unfair because it means that big, well-known brands will have an advantage over small, start-up companies. So? An old colleague of mine, Amanda Mailey, used  to say, "The best keyword is a strong brand name." That's the way it should be. And Panda, by its quirky mathematics, looks to make that true again. It means that there are no wise-guy, programming shortcuts to racing to the top of a search list; you're going to have to do it the old fashioned way, by building a strong, well-known brand. And do it creatively.

What Panda promises is that we are getting closer to a time when the web is more human. A website will be more visible because a lot of people find it interesting or entertaining, not because it's been "gamed" to make it pop up at the front of a search query. And for those of us who long for the days when creativity and entertainment ruled branding, Panda is our friend. Anything that overthrows the Lords of SEO is our friend.

At least that's what this Luddite thinks. I probably don't understand it at all.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Bad Science

1.2% Prefer Death by Eels
I've been following all of these marketing blogs and news feeds because, well, I don't know, I guess I think I'm supposed to because I'm in advertising? I really don't know. But one yesterday caught my eye because of its provocative headline: "Study Reveals Why Consumers Fan Facebook Pages," followed by the confusing subhead, "Nearly 40% of Consumers 'Like' Companies on Facebook to Publicly Display Their Brand Affiliation to Friends." After I tried to decipher the ambiguous sentence construction of the latter (which is always fun in headlines), I read the article in hopes of finding out the Why that was promised in the banner heading. I was disappointed. There was no why, it merely stated that, of all the ways consumers are hit by branding messages, 40% said in a survey that they prefer it when there are promotions attached and that 39% of those say they would be inclined to "fan" that promotion to friends on their network. There was no Why. And it didn't say they did actually fan their friends when there was a promotion, they just answered that they would be inclined to do so. They were probably thinking, "Yeah, sure, why not?"

You've participated in these mindless surveys. When you are sucker enough to start, you'd like to think that there is a mechanism in there to complain about something, but the questions are always so patently skewed to support the biased hypothesis that there is no real study; it's just trying to push a conclusion so they can push whatever it is they're trying to sell. It's bad science. Here's an example:

Q: Of the following forms of dying, which method would you prefer?
  1. Decapitation by a dull, rusty saw
  2. Sliding down a fifty foot razor blade into a pool of alcohol
  3. Being slowly lowered into a cauldron of bubbling lava
  4. Eaten alive by ravenous eels
  5. Peacefully in your sleep
The results? 96% choose #5
Therefore, this study shows that most people would like to die in their sleep. 

"That's why 96% of your friends recommend Go-Ezy, the sleep aid that takes you to paradise." 

But, as you take the test, you search in vain for #6 "Wait minute, nobody said anything about dying!"

It's the same with these loaded surveys that ask which method of social media advertising you'd prefer to see, or whether you'd fan somebody about a promotion. There is never the choice: "I'd prefer not to be bothered by advertising on Facebook, thank you."  But be honest, given a choice about being hectored by constant e-mails alerting you to a new promotion based on your "likes," or not having to empty your inbox 60 times a day, how pathetically lonely are you to pick the former? You need to get some sunshine.

I do worry about the 1.2% who selected death by eels. Are we sure they were taking the survey seriously?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Why I Unlike facebook

The f -bomb
Have you ever noticed that it's not possible to be negative about anything on Facebook? The only structural choice you have is to "like" something. You can "unlike" it (an unword if there ever was one), i.e. change your mind and take the little thumbs-up icon off. But you don't have the option of sticking a thumbs-down icon on anything. I think this is insidious. It reminds me of the part of Orwell's 1984 where the Ministry of Information is in the process of devolving English so that it is impossible to have certain ideas, like freedom or justice, for instance, because there are no longer words for them.

Ironically, this sunny lack of negative editorial options on Facebook doesn't prevent vicious little adolescent snots from tormenting one of their peers to suicide. They figured out how to do that without an icon. This is the second reason I'm not so ready to stick my thumb up for Facebook. It can be lethal. Instead of promoting human interaction, as was Mark Zuckerberg's noble, original goal, it has been perverted by some as a convenient power tool of sadism. There may not be a convenient "hate" button to click, but bullies find a way to slip the shiv into their victims anyway. I guess it's the social network equivalent of nuclear power, it can be used for good or evil. But mostly evil.

An Online Insane Asylum
The third thing that fails to plus me about the Big Little f (aside from the fact that you're supposed to render it in self-consciously pretentious lower case) is that it seems to encourage banality. People, especially people born after 1985, tend to share every eruption of a bodily function with everybody. The net result, even if you don't have that many people on your "wall," is a large, digital dumpster full of inane comments, pictures, and "likes."  Like who cares? I know it feels good to announce to the world that you like Lady Gaga, and that it feels like you're famous for a microsecond because your post goes up there on that ever scrolling ticker-tape of important announcements, but it's just an illusion. Nobody cares. Everybody's talking at once and nobody's listening. That's not human connection. It's the Social Room at the Sunny Valley Mental Hospital.

That's not exactly true that nobody cares. Prospective employers care, of course, looking for embarrassing pictures of you with your top off at a party, so they can send you a "thank you for your interest in our company" letter. And you don't even have to post those pictures onto your FB page; your friends (so-called) will do that on their pages and tag your name, so it shows up on your page anyway.

Meanwhile, for those people who would actually use their wall to inform family members and friends about important events in their life--say a wedding or death or a sex change--those messages get buried in with all the other junk about who's now friends with whom.

Where's the Love Button?
A more famous curmudgeon than me, Jonathan Franzen, in a piece in the NYT, says that Facebook is insidious for another reason; that it commoditizes human love, reducing it to a commercial relationship on the same order as your "like" of a brand soft drink. To love someone, he says, is a dangerous, lifelong undertaking. To merely "like" something lets you off the hook. You can "like" something or "unlike" something with the click of a mouse. There's no commitment. At least not like there is when love is involved. You can love someone, he reminds us, without necessarily having to like them all the time. That's real life; sticky, risky, painful, but also euphoric, transcendent, fulfilling, and fun. Of course, Facebook doesn't pretend to be a substitute for the sticky, risky, painful, euphoric, transcendent, fulfilling, and fun. But it does tend to keep you on the couch instead of going outside to play. Sort of like writing blogs.

The daughter of a friend of mine was--momentarily--my hero because she went off grid. She called her mother and said she was getting off Facebook because it was a waste of time. I was inspired to follow her lead. But another trusted friend talked me off that ledge by saying, "Yeah, do it if you want to commit professional suicide." (Of course, I think it's far too late for that; I committed professional suicide when I started a career in advertising.) And then my friend's daughter got back on Facebook after all. You really can't live without Facebook, anymore than you could live without GPS. Or clip-on mosquito repellent.

So I stay on Facebook. I check it every once in a while (as well as my Linked-In account, Twitter, my four e-mail accounts, my voice messages, a dozen blogs, my post office box, and my jeans pockets). Besides, if I didn't, I wouldn't get all this material to make trite observations about the banality of humanity, so I can feel superior--for a microsecond.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Talk Is Cheap

Smart as a Cloud
Rule: Just because you use the word "just" in front of a request, doesn't make the request any easier. Or cheaper.

Example 1: I just want a new website.

Example 2: Just eat this car.

Example 3: Just bring the troops home.

People seem to have a lot of unfounded faith in the magic of words, as if they are incantations to insure success (more on this later). Saying that you just want to be rich doesn't make you rich, any more than saying you just want to go to the moon will get you to the moon, much as the word "just" seems to shrink the scale of the task.

There are a lot of useless, magic words like this. Putting the adjective "creative" in front of something, doesn't make it creative. It just comes across as wishful thinking. In fact to use the word "creative" at all betrays the opposite, especially if you're using it to describe your own creation. If it's creative, it will be obvious--at least to people who know what creativity is. Garnishing it with the adjective doesn't do it.

Nor does the word "strategic" in front of a noun make it strategic. People in marketing love this word "strategic." It sounds so grown up and important and has that militarized, metaphorical feel to it (like "target" or "campaign"). But I've found that hardly anybody in marketing would know a strategy if it were chewing on their finger. If you define your role in a company as having responsibility for "strategy" it might mean you have no idea why they hired you and are wondering when they're going to catch on.

Another Talk-Is-Cheap example is the overuse of the word "success." Merely using the word "success" in speeches and on your website won't make you successful. In fact, without saying what you mean by the word "success" you only look like a fool to say it. How often, when poring over the brochures or sites of schools, do you come across the promise, "Our mission: to help your child achieve success." Notice how they never guarantee it--they only "help"--a defensible hedge. And notice they don't specify what they mean by "success." It's an old marketing gimmick to keep the promises vague. Success is when your tuition checks don't bounce.

Then there's that other overused word in marketing: "Smart."  Smart seems to apply as the amorphous quality of anything that essentially has no qualities. It's the Styrofoam of virtues. There's a very expensive, effects-heavy spot for IBM running now with good looking people saying that your computers are now "smart" because they can use Cloud Computing. They don't say why this is smart. They just use the word over and over and you're supposed to buy it. To tell you the truth, the whole idea of Cloud Computing in this environment of crummy WiFi, bad cellular networks, crashing servers, and cyber-hacking doesn't sound particularly smart at all. It sounds pretty reckless. And dumb.

That's all I wanted to say. I'll probably say it again, mostly because I like to rant, it's my blog, and talk is cheap.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

We're All in Heaven Now

Is it just me, or is it kind of boring here?
Just wanted to inform you all that I was taken up directly into Heaven yesterday at precisely 6:00 PDT. If you are reading this, that means that you, too, were taken into Heaven. Congratulations! Big hugs all around! We made it! I always knew we would.

Heaven seems a lot like earth, though, doesn't it? And the WiFi's sucky.We'll see.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Defense of Job Killing

Job Killing cluster bombs
over the Capitol
Here's some political advice from a professional ad guy: If you want fanatical support for any repeal legislation you want to ram through Congress, just stick the phrase "Job Killing" on the front of the name of your bill and you'll have your frothy lipped constituents plastering their bumpers with stickers and heckling their representatives mercilessly with e-petitions. For example, "Repealing  the Job Killing Health Care Act."  This phrase is gold and works on anything: "Repeal of the Job Killing Medicare Act," "Repeal of the Job Killing Geneva Convention," "Repeal of the Job Killing 19th Amendment," "Repeal of Job Killing Graduated Tax Laws for Rich People Act," "Repeal of the Job Killing Sherman Anti-Trust Act," "Repeal of the Job Killing Emancipation Proclamation." This would be good because people like jobs. And they don't like so-called Acts that kill them. And are probably unconstitutional, to boot.

Likewise, if you have some radical, oppressive legislation you want to pass, stick the phrase "Defense of" in front of it and it's bound to get a tidal wave of support from The American People (I mean the Real American People, not the people you know). "Defense of Our Nation's Borders Act," "Defense of Head of the Family Rights Act," "Defense of Rich People's Rights to a Tax Free Gated Community Act," "Defense against Job Killing Cute Furry Puppies Act," This would also be good because people feel bad when defenseless things need defending. So we should have lots of Defense Acts. Defense Acts are never bad. There are never any unintended consequences from a Defense of Anything Act. And anybody who wants to think them through before they are voted on is just a Job Killer.

Just some political advice.  I'm accepting calls from Congressional offices.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Details Kill

"I'll take responsibility."
How many times in a sci-fi movie or geopolitical thriller do you watch  the commander of the starship or a secret government operation, on the verge of making an incredibly bonehead move that will result in horrible death and disfigurement for millions, focus his steely gaze on the radar screen and, to the objections of his professional staff, intones in a manly voice, "I'll take responsibility."? Really, Captain Kirk? Oh, good, because the only thing I and the rest of us here on the bridge were worried about is who was going to get blamed if this one-in-a-million-chance scheme of yours goes wrong and we and the whole planet are incinerated. Oh, and wait, what do you mean you'll "take responsibility?"  You already have responsibility; you're the captain, remember?

Of course, the thing that these other nervous nellies in all these movies are not meant to know, but which we and the wiley Captain Kirk all know, is that a one-in-a-million chance in movie terms means certainty. If there's a one-in-a-million-chance it will work, you'd be a fool not to take it. And movies are just for escape, after all, especially sci-fi thrillers. How much fun would it be if the boneheaded scheme for which Captain Kirk so nobly accepted responsibility actually failed, as its astronomical improbability suggested it would, and humanity perished? Not exactly great for subsequent DVD sales.Or the whole Star Trek franchise.

But that's not my point of this post. The point is exactly about taking responsibility for the details. If you're writing a science fiction screenplay, for instance, we'll buy faster-than-light speed, time travel, floating mountains, teleportation, even shape-shifting monsters with telekinetic powers, but we won't buy lazy, sloppy writing. If your characters are military officers, don't have them salute excessively (actors do love to salute, don't they?), don't turn them into two-dimensional caricatures of closed-minded martinets, and never have them say things that they never would in real life, like, "I'll take responsibility," "I'm in command here," "I outrank you." or the worst, "I have my orders." Take responsibility for researching your subject. Those are your orders.

"Why didn't they just...?"

Case in point, since I was already alluding to the most recent Star Trek movie: There's a scene toward the climax when young cadet, James T. Kirk, assumes command of the Enterprise by citing some Star Fleet Directive Number bladdabink-dash-wangabork to relieve the acting captain, Cdr. Spock of command. This is not exactly a Caine Mutiny introspective moment about the nuances of hundreds of years of Naval legal precedent becoming relevant in matters of duress. No, it's a cheap narrative device designed to move the plot bluntly forward. Kirk just cites the obscure directive and, shazaam, Spock meekly relinquishes command to this impulsive adolescent. Well, okay, you might say, they had to get Kirk in command in time for the big fistfight on the alien ship (a requisite of all Star Trek movies; in spite of unimaginable technology, everything is resolved by a manly fistfight), and this isn't The Caine Mutiny--a movie that was acute in its attention to accurate detail, in fact. But it is the filmmakers themselves who bring up the detail of the obscure Star Fleet Directive, reminding us that here is a highly organized institution, presumably founded on centuries of prior Naval law and tradition. So that leads us to wonder why, with all of the hundred other more senior, more qualified line officers in precedence readily available for relieving an unfit commander on the Enterprise, everyone just assumes the most inexperienced but cutest midshipman (we're not even sure, because of a prior detail omission, if he's actually been commissioned yet) should be the next in line for command. But there's that fistfight on the alien ship to get to. Nobody'll notice the detail. Move on.

What this expedient move-it-along-for-the-sake-of-the-story sloppiness does is momentarily wake us up from our trance of acceptance, making us realize that we are just watching a movie and, ironically, taking some of the fun out of it. Equally ironically, even in sci-fi and  fantasy movies, you have to be attentive to details because your audience demands it.You teach them to pay attention to the new rules of the fictional world, but that means, as the creators of the world, you have to be fanatical about following the rules yourself. You start slipping on the details, you start eliciting cries of "Wait a minute, didn't they just...?" from the audience (quietly, only to their irritated dates, of course), and you've lost them.

But this fault of sloppiness extends to advertising, too.

If you're writing ads for a client, research your client's product before you start typing away marketing cliches. Know your client's customers. Imagine what it would be like to be them, reading your copy. For one thing, assume they are probably much smarter than you...or at least, smarter than you give them credit for being. They can smell sloppiness. When you yourself are reading or watching an ad about a subject you happen to know something about, you can instinctively tell when the person writing it had no clue about his subject. He'll patronize you, for instance, about how hard it is to run a small business, clearly never having had to run a small business himself. He hasn't got the details right. And your eyes glaze over. He's lost you before he's even arrived at the main selling point.

One bug ruins the whole salad

The responsibility is in sweating the details. Who cares, you might think, if a detail is off? It's the bigger message that's important. A noble sentiment, to be sure; keep your eyes on the bigger goal. But the sad fact is that if you are fast and loose with the details, you undercut the validity of the bigger message. The details are the proof. One tiny little bug in the salad ruins the whole salad.

This is why proofreading is so important. A misspelled word, a syntax error, a grammatical mistake can each become a red flag to your customer of the quality of your product, or of how well you take care of your customers. If you can't do something as basic as spell correctly, what's supposed to make them think you're going to sell them a product that won't blow up in their faces? Likewise, the wrong tone, the wrong phrase, too many buzz words, each make the whole, bigger message hollow. A sloppiness in the craft of a company's ad betrays a sloppiness in the craft of the entire company.

(I realize, of course, that having thrown a spotlight on this that you will be hawk-eyed for the slightest typo and grammatical error in this blog. But it's just a blog. I'm not trying to sell you anything. You have to go to my company's website for that. Typos aplenty there.)

It's the details that kill. It was the details of those disturbing pictures from Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq that undercut our nation's entire international credibility as a beacon for freedom and democracy, doing more harm to our country than Al Qaeda could have ever dreamed of inflicting. Of course, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, at the time, dismissively pointed out that these were just a few bad apples and didn't represent us or our fine men and women in uniform. He was right there, but it was too late; the impression had been made to the world and his glib response to the world, shrugging it off, confirmed it. They were his bad apples. He set the tone of leadership. He was the one bravely looking into the radar screen while his staff admonished him to reconsider this wild scheme of invading Iraq without a plan of occupation and said, "I'll take responsibility." But we know he didn't take responsibility, and the wild scheme didn't work (as they rarely do, by definition), and the only people who took responsibility were a few enlisted personnel in the lower decks--oh, and of course, the rest of us.

Again, the details, whether a bug in the salad or a few bad apples running a military prison or a misspelling in an ad, are the indicators of rot in the whole enterprise. They are warning lights for the credibility of the entire, bigger message. People are smarter than you think. You can't get away with dismissive phrases like, "Democracy is messy," or "A few bad apples," or "I'll take responsibility," and think nobody will notice. They'll notice.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Somebody kill the electric car. Please.

Can you get it without the
self-satisfied little graphic?
There's something I'm not understanding here. I just got through reading Jerry Garrett's review of the new Nissan Leaf in the NYT.  Maybe it's my math. Maybe it's that I'm missing a fundamental point. But why is this, the first (if you believe Nissan's press releases and ignore the existence of the Tesla) all electric car in America, supposed to be the answer to our global warming prayers?

In the first place, it's ugly. That seems like a shallow place to start. And it's only my opinion. But it's the nicest thing I can think of to say about this beast, and my leadership coach in college said you should always start off with a positive thing. And that's the best I can do.

In the second place, the max range that Nissan promises for this go-cart is 100 miles on a full charge. We all know that the little MPG sign taped to the back right rear windows of cars in the show room is a lie. So according to Garrett, he was getting between 66 and 88 miles max range on an overnight charge. Since it takes, according to the owner's manual, 21 hours to fully charge the thing, that sort of rules out using it to drive to work every day. Unless you live really close to work, in which case, why not take the bus? It also rules out taking it on any long trips...unless you're willing to make the same kind of progress our Conestoga-driving ancestors made as they approached the Donner Pass. Nissan sells a Fast-Charge, 220 V package for a mere $2,200 more that lets you zip charge the thing in only 8 hours. Only. But this comes with a warning that the lithium ion battery life is shortened charging it this way. Don't be in such a hurry!

Fuel costs are somewhat cheaper. Figuring my current utility rates, it would cost only about $3 to "fill up" the Leaf. It currently costs about $35 to fill up my hybrid Camry, but at 36 mpg I get about 420 miles per tank. I'd have to recharge the Leaf 5 times to get that many miles out of it (at a total of over 105 hours of plug time), or $15. Okay, still a lot cheaper than my hybrid. But I have a friend with a Prius who swears she gets 50 mpg so that equivalent fuel cost on the Leaf would go up to about $21 against the Prius.

If I decided to trade in my Camry for a Leaf, I'd have to crunch the numbers some more. I've been driving my car about 500-800 miles per month (depending on how many trips I make down to see my daughter in college). That means about 6-9 full charge cycles a month (126-189 hours plugged in). Of course, I wouldn't be going to see my daughter since I wouldn't have enough to get home on. And there's no backup gas engine as there is on a hybrid. You run out of juice, you either get towed home or find some kind stranger to let you plug into his outlet for a day and a night (there isn't a nationwide network of charging stations in place yet). A whole new modern life worry.

Garrett also pointed out in his review that the "Charge-Remaining" meter on his Leaf is highly approximate. So it may say you have another 20 miles left, but that could mean 40 miles, or 1 mile. Do you feel lucky? Huh, punk? To tell the truth, in all the excitement I forgot to count.

Here's something else that bothers me about this car. All of the promotional photos of it have a graphic on its side panel that smugly states "Zero Emissions". My first question is, can I get one of these without that please-kick-me sign? Or do they all come with it? My second question is, how do you figure zero emissions, Nissan? Just because something isn't coming out the tail pipe doesn't mean megatons of coal aren't being burned, spewing carbon out of a smoke stack somewhere. I recently read the incredible statistic that 69% of American's electrical generation still comes from fossil-fuels. So when I plug in my Leaf (6-9 times a month), consuming an additional 144 - 216 Kw hours a month I wasn't burning before, increasing my average monthly electric bill by 25%, how is that zero emissions? It seems like I'm just buying another three refrigerators, a couple of dishwashers,and a 50 inch flat screen and adding them to the grid. This isn't green at all. This is just another out-of-sight-out-of-mind shammy green marketing gimmick. I'm saving the planet by driving a Leaf! Get out of my way, you bicycling feeble-would-be tree-hugger!

Nissans says it expects to sell a million of these this year. To whom?

My leadership coach also said it was good to end your review with a positive bit of criticism. Did I already say it's ugly?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Welcome to the year 13,747,629,108

I've often wondered, being of that frame of mind, why we arbitrarily assume that there is something significant in numbers. Take the date 1/1/11. Ooooo. Why didn't the world end then? Or on 1/11/11. Perhaps it will end this November 11th. Or something wonderful will happen on that most positive of binary days.

For that matter, why didn't the world end on November 11th, 1111 AD? An even more auspicious day. Or maybe something wonderful did happen, like the Rapture, and left the rest of us sinners back down on this imperfect earth. And we were none the wiser for it.

My dog, Bob, was born on that auspicious day, 9/9/99, as foretold in prophecy. The Expected Puppy. He is a particularly good dog, very affable, smart, affectionate, loyal. Everyone who sees him runs up to pet him, like he's running for mayor. Perhaps his auspicious birthday was significant and perhaps he is The Dog both humanity and caninity has been waiting for.

I've been thinking about this because of the shocking news (to those of us who don't follow astrology) that the zodiac has recently been changed. In fact, they've added a 13th sign (would hate to be born under that number), Ophiochus, The Snake Handler (make of that one what you will). Now, this shouldn't bother me because I never held much truck with that stuff in the first place. It was all I could do to remember my own sign as Capricorn. I'm told, since I was born before the year 2000, that I can keep that (just keep it to myself). And I understand that as the Solar System makes its way around the perimeter of the Milky Way, that constellations are bound, over time, to shift in relation to the Sun and other planets as we move at 841,446 mph around the galactic center--or something. I get all that. What I don't get is why these things are supposed to be significant.

The date 11/11/11, for instance isn't a significant number. In fact, that day is just that by arbitrary coincidence. Our entire Gregorian calendar is arbitrary, hooked to some speculative birthday of Jesus (who, it turns out may have been born as much as four years plus or minus that).  And since most of mankind doesn't believe in Jesus as their Lord and Savior, it becomes even more arbitrary, not to mention imperialistic, and not to mention base-10-centric.

In the Hebrew Calendar, based on the Biblical date of creation (at least more logical if wrong), the date is the seemingly meaningless 14/8/5772. I'm sure, though, that if you are of the cabalistic bent, you could make something meaningful out of this, too. It does seem like a familiar phone number.

In the Mayan calendar, the one that's supposed to predict the end of the world sometime in 2012, the auspicious date of 11/11/11 translates to'Eb.0.Keh.G6, which just happens to be the unlock code for my Adobe CS5 program.  Ooooooo. What does it MEEEEEAN?

Even this computer I'm writing on is based on a Julian Calendar, which was thrown over for the supposedly more solar-centric Gregorian on the auspicious date of 2/24/1582 (though Wikipedia doesn't say, significantly, whether that date was Julian or Gregorian). So we can't even agree on that. But if you're a programmer, you need to start somewhere as zero, and Gregorian dates, with their fractional days, are just inconvenient in a digital world.

If we were to be logical (at least like most cultures, basing their start date on the presumed beginning of the world), why wouldn't we set a Year Zero as the scientifically derived estimate for the formation of the earth? Making this the year 4,519,345,611 more or less. But that would be both imprecise and earth chauvinistic. At what precise instant did the earth transform from being an increasingly dense aggregate of interstellar dust to a planet you could stand on? Now? No? Now? No? Now? At some point it must have been not much smaller than Pluto, which, sadly, never did make it to planetdom.

Or why not from the Big Bang? They've figured out to a remarkable degree of precision, using minute analysis of Microwave Cosmic Background Radiation, etc., that the Universe is 13.75 billion years old, plus or minus 130 million. So why not start the calendar there; the creation of not just space, but time?

Of course that's all so arbitrary, too, since time is relative (as Einstein proved) and the unit "year" is based on a rotational period of a minor rocky planet orbiting just one of some 300 sextillion stars in the universe, which itself is changing over time.

So, aside from aesthetic appeal, the secret codes or coincidence in dates is just random.  An amusing way to pass the time. Like crossword puzzles. And this blog.

But I know why we call it 2011 instead of 13,747,629,108. No room on a check.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from the consequences of our speech.