Friday, December 21, 2012

The Secret to Good Customer Service: Be a Good Customer

Here's that spit you ordered, sir.
Want the secret to getting good customer service? Be a good customer. You'd think this would just be common sense, along the same lines as the attracting-more-flies-with-honey-than-vinegar variety. But I've witnessed so many people think that they are somehow entitled to good customer service, even when they are being cranky and nasty.

Think about it, though; the people delivering the service are, after all, just people. And when customers are rude to them, they, being just people, tend to react badly. You can't blame them.

Say you get bumped from a flight and you are one of the many frustrated passengers in line trying to deal with the poor, harassed, ticket agents at the airline desk. They are frazzled themselves, and the delays or cancelled flights aren't their fault; yet they get all the vitriol sprayed at them. They also have a tremendous amount of power over your immediate fate. So why would you want to make their day any worse than it already is? Do you think they're going to bend over backwards for the jerk ahead of you abusing  them? By contrast, when it's finally your turn, and you've had the good luck to be behind an irate jerk, try being nice and understanding. You'll be amazed at how much they're willing to help you. That's just human nature.

In crime TV shows, where they use the good-cop-bad-cop interrogation technique on the felons, who gets the cooperation? The good cop. Be the good cop.

Can I Have it on the Side?

Years ago, I used to work with a young copywriter who was nice to me but nasty to waitresses, clerks, bank tellers, and all service people. He was a sanctimonious bully, thinking he was entitled to good customer service because he was, well, the customer, as if that alone were a sacred status bestowed by God Almighty Himself. As I said, he was always nice enough to me, but it would get to me how he'd treat people whose job it was to serve him.

One day we were are at lunch and he was being particularly sarcastic and nasty to our waitress taking our order. He made some remark about how he expected her to screw up his order because they always did at this restaurant, but he'd make sure it was reflected in her tip (he was always a bad tipper anyway).

I couldn't stand it any longer. After she had gone back to the kitchen to deliver our order, I said to him, "Mike, you do know they spit in your salad when you're nasty to them?"

"What?!" he said, his face going ashen, "How do you know?"

"I don't know that for certain," I said, "but I would, if you talked to me like that."

"But that's against the law!" he said indignantly.

"So? Who's to know? Why would you provoke somebody who prepares your food outside of your sight?"

I think this must have gotten to him. He just kept reiterating that it was against the law. When the waitress brought our meals, he bluntly asked her if she'd spit in it. She just turned abruptly and left--before she said something she'd lose her job over. He was silent throughout the rest of the lunch, which he didn't touch, evidently calculating the gallons of other-people's saliva he'd ingested over the years. I myself tried to be extremely respectful and polite to the waitress, just so I wouldn't get spit by association.

I found out later that my hunch about waitresses spitting in your salad was not far off. Some friends who had had waiting jobs at some point in their lives confessed that they had actually witnessed it. Though they had never done it themselves. Nossir. It's against the law. (Isn't it?)

Be Nice. Get Nice.

This same principle applies to all customer service. If you want good service, be as nice as possible to the people delivering it to you. It's just a job to them. And they may not, out of fear of losing it, be outright rude to you. But they have a considerable amount of say in the level of service they do give you. They might be able to get you on the next flight out, or upgrade your hotel room, or find you a good table, or make sure your meal is hygienic.

As with the good fortune of being behind a cranky passenger at the airline counter, look for opportunities to contrast your own civilized, empathetic behavior with a rude customer. As an angry customer is ranting, make eye contact with the harassed sales person, signalling you are on her side. When it comes your turn, you'll be amazed at how helpful she is to you. You're not only a relief, you have indicated you are already friends by that knowing, sympathetic look. It's diabolic how well this works.

They Have a Name Tag. Use It.

Also most service employees wear name badges. Use them. Address a person by their name. This establishes an immediate, if temporary, bond with them. It also shows respect; that you recognize them as a fellow person. In a restaurant that makes its waitstaff introduce themselves at the beginning of the meal, try to remember their name and use it to thank them whenever they come by to refill your water or ask you if you need anything. This will also enhance the service you get from them. Most service jobs are hard, grueling and thankless. So anything you can do to make it pleasant for them will help give them a little more enthusiasm in serving you. It really works.

Another trick my daughter uses is to compliment them on something; their earrings, their nail polish, their haircut. My daughter does it sincerely because she is a naturally congenial, empathetic person, but it also seems to bring her exemplary service. A compliment will usually spark a short conversation that creates a bond. People with a bond want to do nice things for each other. Men can't do this as easily as women, but then women have always been more adept at getting good service. A man, however, can still be nice and find something to talk about, any little thing that establishes a tiny human connection.

This is the flip side of one of the fundamental rules of marketing I write about in our book (shameless plug alert) The Unbreakable Rules of Marketing. Rule 6: Give Love to Get Love. This might also be a rule of life and not just marketing. But since so much of life involves marketing to each other, it makes sense. When you're a merchant, give your customers love, certainly. But when you're a customer, love the people who provide you service.You'll get much more from them.

Unless you like spit in your salad.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Let Them Eat Misquotes

Misquoting is all great fun
until someone loses a head.

Pop Quiz: Who said, "Let them eat cake." ?

Take your time.

If you said Marie Antoinette, you'd be wrong. Oh, she's reputed to have said it at the beginning of the French Revolution as a dismissive, patronizing quip about the plight of the starving poor. But she never said it. Probably never said anything even remotely close to it. She was personally involved in several charities and both she and her husband, Louis XVI, were both sympathetic to the sufferings of their subjects and the social reforms of the Enlightenment. It just wasn't her.

No, the person who said it was a yellow journalist, possibly an 18th century Sean Hannity, plagiarizing Jean Jacques Rousseau from 25 years before (who himself was quoting some unnamed Austrian monarch before him) and then attributed it to Marie Antoinette to inflame the populace about the callousness of the monarchy. So she never said it. Never thought it. But was beheaded for it just the same.

Yellow Journalism

This yellow journalism in the service of politics hasn't changed in two centuries. Last year, during the early days of the interminable primary, Mitt Romney was quoted with the now-infamous phrase, "Corporations are people, my friend." The left wing part of the media and the Obama campaign glommed onto that sentence and ran like bats out of hell with it. The actual quote in its entirety (you can see the entire exchange he had with a rude heckler at the Iowa State Fair) went on to explain that the profits of corporations flow out to shareholders and executives and employees--in short, people. What he was trying to say, in his admittedly awkward way, was that corporations, like any organization, are composed of people. True enough. But in the wake of the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, it was perhaps a tone deaf thing to say, and certainly easily misunderstood or perverted to have him saying something he didn't intend. He is seen, in the video, trying to have a respectful exchange with someone in the audience,--someone only there to shout him down, not have a respectful exchange. He lays out his case, and invites people to disagree with him. But the yellow journalists Antoinetted him and picked up only the juicy five words at the beginning of that exchange. The "my friend" part was the cherry on top.

Of course, Romney, bless his heart, isn't the most suave public speaker. And not a week goes by when he isn't quoted out of context by the left, or the Daily Show, with some delicious sound byte. As Jon Stewart said of him, "He's a comedy gold mine." (That, too, is a misquote; he was actually saying it of The Donald). It's been said that in today's 24/7 Internet environment, no politician has a chance. But they didn't have the Internet in 1789, and no politician (or sitting head of state) had a chance then either.

Everybody Does It, So Why Shouldn't We?

Both sides are guilty of this Antoinetting. Today there is a quote circulating among the right wing part of the media that Obama said the outrageous thing, "...if you have a business, you didn't build that."  They are getting great mileage out of it to demonstrate his sinister socialist agenda  and Marie Antoinette callousness to hard-workin' entrepreneurs. Blustering billboards are popping up next to Interstates (ironically) all over the redder parts of the country, virtually sputtering with indignant typography, "I did, too, build my business!"

But though Obama did literally say it, it was, like Romney's quote, taken out of context and carefully Xacto-bladed out of a full sentence, changing the meaning entirely. The "if" in his statement is not the beginning of that sentence (beware of ellipses); it's definitely lowercase and follows a comma. And the "that" is clearly in reference to the collectively built infrastructure referenced before the comma, not the business.

What the complete sentence said was, "Somebody else invested in roads and bridges, if you've got a business, you didn't build that, somebody else did." I.e., "that" being the "roads and bridges" you've posted your indignant billboard alongside. Admittedly, the sentence is as awkwardly put as the "my friend" in Romney's quote and he should have been more attentive to pronoun-antecedent agreement ("those" instead of "that")--something that happens when you wing it without a teleprompter. But if you watch the actual video of the speech (which, thanks to the Internet, yet another part of the government-built infrastructure, you can do easily), you see that he is making a broad gesture with his arm about all those other things--the Internet, the roads and highways and bridges, the laws, the energy grid, educational assistance, low-interest loans. But the yellow journalists, in the interests of rousing a rabble, just leapt on that sentence fragment like cats on a couch and tore it to ribbons. They made of it something that wasn't there. Or even remotely intended. Like Marie Antoinette reputedly dissing the poor.

Wait, Wait, Wait! You're Misquoting!

We may think we're seeing this more and more in politics. But it's always been there (even from before the French Revolution). If a candidate says "Good morning" to some guy in a doughnut shop, the punditocracy immediately jumps on it with "What's he got against the afternoon?" And then, the fiery, animated title at the bottom of the screen, "So-in-so's War on the Post Meridian". When the First Lady makes some innocuous and well-intentioned remark about how we ought to encourage our kids to eat more healthy foods, the other side turns this deceptively wholesome advice into a sinister plot to control what we eat. Next thing you know, they'll be outlawing Big Gulps in New York City...oh, that slippery slope! If some candidate fails to mention the word "freedom" in his speech, he's against freedom. If they don't say "Merry Christmas" in their holiday greeting card, they're making War on Christmas. It's all great fun, though.

Imagine doing that to the Bible, in order to make it say what you want it to say. Didn't Jesus say, for instance, that it's easy for a rich man to get into heaven? Didn't he egg on the rabble to cast the first stone on that adulteress? Didn't he tell us to make the little children suffer? Didn't he tell us to pay more taxes ("Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's")? I can easily find (with some deft, Xacto-blade editing) precisely those quotes in the Bible and post them on my website. In fact, I just did.

Now you would protest, rightly, "Wait, wait, wait! You're taking it all out of context! That's not what he said at all!" But I'd say right back to you that you're just an apologist for Jesus. You hear what you want to hear and nothing more. You make up your mind, and then look for confirmation in quote fragments or downright misquotes. And anyone who sees or hears it differently, well, they're unbelievers.

Of course, I'll go to hell for misquoting the Lord & Savior. So I take it back. I really don't know what he actually said, I wasn't there. I only read it from a second-hand source who also wasn't there, translated from Aramaic into Greek into King James English. So maybe everybody along the line misquoted.

Friday, August 3, 2012

The 9th Rule, Not the 1st Amendment

Maybe you should Super Size that.
You know, for God.

Okay, I'm not going to weigh in on the already weighing-too-much Chick-fil-A slap-fest. People who know me know where I stand. Or think they do. But that's not the point of this post.

Because this isn't Russia, or China, you can say almost anything you want without going to prison for it (if it doesn't disclose a danger to National Security). That's guaranteed by the frequently misunderstood but too-often-cited First Amendment. And CfA President Dan Cathy's (as ironic a character name in this tempest about LGBT rights if there ever was one) venting his inner biases on a nationally syndicated talk show is not a matter of freedom of speech. He can, obviously, say whatever he wants. Just as any of us can. Just as I can in this blog.

But I want to talk about marketing blunders, not human rights violations.

The Clock's Always Running

The Ninth Unbreakable Rule of Marketing states that everything you do is marketing. There is no off-season, no time out. The clock is always running. So though Dan Cathy can claim he was only speaking as a private citizen, exercising his rights of free speech, he wasn't just a private citizen. He was the head of a very large and successful (so far) company. He was speaking as Chick-fil-A, the restaurant chain. The game was on. And therefore he was a bowl of either honey or vinegar to the flies he wanted to attract or chase away from his business.

Mike Huckabee, the Fox News personality and weight-loss poster boy (the ironies never stop) jumped in with the bowl of honey and decided to help Cathy's marketing by calling for a national day of support for CfA. The response was a record breaking day of sales as coreligionist Evangelicals flocked to take years off their life-expectancies at Chick-fil-A's across the country. Great promotion. People just lined up around the block to pack away those saturated fats for the cause. Headlines proclaimed record sales for Chick-fil-A (oh, how spelling out that brand name is so tedious).

On the other hand, Cathy, in alienating the majority of Americans (according to the most recent national polls) who support same sex marriage and LGBT rights, probably lost a lot of business, too. For good. We'll see how his business does in the future without them. And after the food-fight settles down, we'll see if his loyal following are enough to sustain the chain's momentary bump in traffic.

I'm not questioning Cathy's sincerity, or his self-image as a Good Christian. That's also his First Amendment right. I'm just questioning his marketing judgment. CfA is a private company, so he doesn't have shareholders or a board to answer to (unlike that other fast-foodeur, Carl's Jr's ill-fated Carl Karcher,did when he decided to vent his anti-gay opinions in public back in the 80s). But he does have customers. And I'm not sure that it was all that smart to alienate all those customers gratuitously. It's bad enough that they can't get that delicious, deep-fried, avian protein on Sunday.

If you're a gay person, or even a person who believes that gay people should have the same rights as everybody else, from now on you're going to associate the brand Chick-fil-A with an anti-gay agenda. It's not that they would be openly mean to gay customers, or even gay employees. It's that you would think that a portion of the money you give them for that bucket o' nuggets would go to support legislation that would be mean to you and your gay friends and family. That bad taste would last for a long time.

And Cathy can't unring that bell. Or whine about his First Amendment rights. Marketing doesn't care about your puny rights, Earthman.

There is No Real Freedom of Speech in Marketing

Mark Twain, in 1905, made an astute observation about the myth of the freedom of speech:

“The living man is not really without this privilege—strictly speaking—but as he possesses it merely as an empty formality, and knows better than to make use of it, it cannot be seriously regarded as an actual possession. As an active privilege, it ranks with the privilege of committing murder: we may exercise it if we are willing to take the consequences.” 

Freedom of speech--and action--work both ways. You're always free to say what you want. But you're not free from the consequences of speech. Because people can say whatever they want in response. Or do whatever they want. Including stop doing business with you.

People won't eat your chicken, or go see your movies, or buy your gas, or download your latest album, or shop at your stores if they think, by doing so, they're supporting causes that offend them. That's just the way people are. It isn't fair. But the Ninth Rule isn't fair. It's just unbreakable.

So, before you go out and speak as a private citizen, count to ten. Think about how everything you do is marketing. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Mixed Company

Don't talk about
politics, religion, or sex.
I think we need to start applying old manners of decorum to our social media posts. Unless all of our friends on Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, Google+, Manta, Naymz, etc. (I really need to get off some of those) are like-minded to the point of identify, it's probably not a good idea to impulsively put up every little thought that pops into our feverish brains.

Back in the old days--and I mean really old days--there was a rule of thumb that if you were in mixed company you didn't bring up three topics: politics, religion, and sex. Most people with a reasonably developed forebrain understood this instinctively. The chances were pretty good, for instance, that if you were at a family gathering, some of your relatives would have differing and strongly held views of these three topics. And so you'd leave it alone and talk about something less inflammatory, say, recipes for rhubarb, or your irritable bowel syndrome.

But you'd know your audience. You'd know, for instance, that your uncle was a hyper-gunslinging-every-man-for-himself-cold-dead-fingers conservative and your aunt was a hyper-tree-hugging-war-never-solved-anything-militant-vegan liberal. So you'd know not to bring up certain subjects, at least for the duration of the meal.

Why doesn't this social common sense seem to apply to our social media then? Is it because we can't see the people around the table when we shoot off our mouths?

When most people post something on Facebook, it goes to all of their friends and family, even Aunt Treehug and Uncle Chainsaw. You may be incensed about what the Supreme Court just ruled on, or about what fatwa was just issued by some religious body, but consider your audience before you fire off that diatribe.  I understand Google+ has created a way for you to hermetically seal off various constituencies of your friends by assigning them to "circles". But how many of your friends and family are that easily circled? People aren't jelly beans.

It's better to just think before you speak (or post).

Don't Antagonize, Persuade

That's not to say that you can't have a spirited debate online. But your goal in any debate should be to persuade, not to alienate. It doesn't help your argument, for instance, to start off saying, "That socialist in the White House..." or "That idiot running for president..." Going ad hominem early rarely persuades. It just alerts your audience that you are closed minded and have already run out of cogent points. So it closes their minds to anything further you have to say. It may feel good to spew an insult (and Lord knows, I enjoy a good one from time to time) but you win nobody over.

Of course, if your object is to merely get amens from the choir, then ad-hominem away. Or if you want to flush out the heretics from you friends and get them to unfriend you, by all means, keep insulting them. But that's not persuasion either. That's just walling yourself in with the True Believers.

Ask yourself, has anyone ever won you over to their side by insulting you, or insulting your beliefs? Well, believe it or not, most people are like you; they aren't persuaded either. So if you are going to bring up politics or religion, keep it civil. And respectful. (You probably should still avoid bringing up sex, though.)

Speaking of Religion

If you're religious, good for you. But realize that many people, including people quite close to you and listed as "friends" on your Facebook page, may not be. Or they have very different beliefs. You may wring your hands in anguish at their damned souls, but you'll have zero chance of saving them by chasing them away. Again, think about persuasion. And think about the sixth Unbreakable Rule of Marketing: Give Love to Get Love. (Uh oh, shameless plug alert!) If you want people to love you, and therefore listen carefully to what you're saying, then don't piss them using the phrase "piss them off".

Saint Paul talked about this marketing principle two thousand years ago. If my old catechism memory serves, he went around telling people to lighten up, to not condemn people because they weren't Christians yet, but to respect them, respect their peculiar idiosyncrasies, and respect their quaint beliefs. He rediscovered the old (even then) principle that if you give love, if you live your own life in a loving way, if people see you in a state of grace, you'll have a much better chance of winning them over than if you stone and crucify them.

It's funny how many Christians during the last two thousand years have ignored that simple marketing principle. But fortunately, enough of them have believed in it to keep the enterprise going for a couple of millennia. Because it works.

Of course, I probably misremember that catechism lesson. He might have said, "Kill 'em all. Let God sort 'em out." It was a long time ago. And it was in mixed company.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Cloud: What Could Posiblay Go Wrung?

The Cloud.
Looks so serene from up here.
Everywhere you read and hear lately, the whole world is moving to Cloud Computing. Hard drives, CD-ROMs, DVDs, paper, client-based computing, local data storage; all will be a thing of the past, as obsolete as food. This is where the world is going, so you might as well embrace it and join the 21st century.

Really, it makes so much sense: Instead of that quaint old custom of storing your data locally, and backing it up remotely, why not just forget the local part altogether? What's so special about your precious hard drive anyway? All you need is a reliable, secure WiFi connection to the Internet with ultra-fast throughput. Who doesn't always have that? (Well, I don't, but I don't count.)

And doesn't it make so much more sense, instead of being able to run your own version of whatever program you need, installed on your own computer, to be able to access the latest version (provided it's still supported) from a centralized server somewhere in a big building in Akron, Ohio? All of your data, all of your computing in one, lightly guarded warehouse on one machine that will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever crash. And all of it owned by a company that will never, ever, ever, ever go out of business. Makes me feel cozy all over.

The other no-need-to-worry thing about the concept of Cloud-Only Computing is that someone else has access to your data. And they've promised that they won't let anybody else look at it. Like Linked-In or E-Harmony or Google. They promised, too. Just read their privacy policies (there's a link somewhere on their sites).So we can all rest assured that whatever sensitive files you've stored on that server in Akron, nobody else will ever be able to get at them...ever, ever, ever, ever.

As Usual, I Don't Know What I'm Talking About

Of course, I've been told I don't know what I'm talking about--by people who do know what they're talking about. And they're right, I don't. I'm a digital Luddite. I'm just an ad writer. But as one of the billions of "targeted" users of The Cloud, my itchiness about it follows Unbreakable Rule of Marketing #2: Perception is Reality. My perception's not good. And my reality is; I can't trust The Cloud.

We've all also experienced the phenomenon of People-Who-Know-What-They're-Talking-About getting it completely wrong. Allow me to jog your memory. There was the BP oil spill in the Gulf in 2010 and the Three Stooges attempts to cap it. There was the sub-prime-contaminated credit-default-swap debacle of 2006-8, where economic experts assured us nothing could go wrong, and then the worst bank collapse since 1929 happened. There was the nuclear reactor meltdown at Fukushima in 2011, where the plant was built to withstand a 7.3 magnitude earthquake--and what are the odds of a 9.0 earthquake? (Really, let's get serious.) It's gotten so whenever I hear experts reassuring us that nothing bad could happen, I hang on to something.

So in spite of exhortations that The Cloud is where the future of computing is going, I'm hanging on to my old-fashioned, client-based computing and my steam-powered, external hard-drive backup, as well as storing data on a remote server. As any engineer will tell you, in building any system, the more redundancy the better. And if the Internet does go down--which could never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever happen, of course--I'll still at least be able to get some work done. Even on a cloudless day.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Facebook's IPO

Oooo! Nice suit, Mark!
There's already been a ton of press and opinion about the Fail du Jour, Facebook's IPO. So I thought, why stand snootily aloof? I've got my own opinions. Of course, I know almost nothing about Wall Street and high finance. And I'd be the last person on earth to give advice about investing. I don't want to go there.There are already way too many people, all far more savvy than me, giving out bad investment advice.

But I do know a little about brand marketing, and Facebook made some big boo boos when it came to that.

To put it pointedly, the Brobdingnagian minds that put the Facebook IPO together ignored four of the nine Unbreakable Rules of Marketing (yes, another shameless plug for our book), and it is already coming home to haunt them.

Rule #1 Ignored: Consistency Beats Ability

This rule states that in marketing anybody who sticks with a good message is going to beat anybody else who keeps changing the message for a different one.

Facebook's message has been, from the beginning, all about sharing. It was a place you could share your pictures, your thoughts, your feelings, your favorites, your likes, your whole life with all of the world--or at least, all of your friends. In spite of the confusion and controversy surrounding FB's ever-changing privacy settings (in fact, a current joke going around is that FB had to go public because even they couldn't figure out their privacy settings), it has generally erred more on the side of openness. Sharing is the Zuckerberg mantra. Until it came to its IPO.

For some reason, Mark Zuckerberg and Morgan Stanley (the company that underwrote the IPO) decided to share only certain information about the company's revenue projections with a select, privileged class of investors. In fact, they put together a two-tiered structure of investors, one tier for Mr. Z and a select group, the other for the rest of us, the hoi polloi...or, to put it in terms we hoi polloi might better understand, suckers. Some of the former group even started selling off their shares quietly before the IPO, knowing what the rest of us didn't know; that the initial price was highly inflated. Of course, the SEC is looking into this to see if there were any insider trading violations (duh!), but aside from that, it was a colossal departure from FB's consistent brand position of sharing. They didn't.

Zuckerberg went further with this stinginess by reserving for himself 57% of the voting shares in the company, so basically nobody who had invested in the company had any right to share in how it was to be run. We (both the first tier investors and the sucker-class) were just supposed to pay our money and shut up.

Obviously these actions worked against the consistent Facebook brand message of sharing. Facebook didn't want to share certain, potentially damaging information with all of its investors, and Zuckerberg didn't want to share power with anybody. It was his company. And it was to be public in name only. Go found your own social media company. This one's mine.

Rule #2 Ignored: Perception is Reality

By ignoring the Consistency Rule and departing from its "let's all share" brand position, Facebook also ignored the second Unbreakable Rule of Marketing, "Perception is Reality." They lost control of the story. People were now starting to think that all the generous, open, we're-all-one-big-happy-human-family narrative was a cynical sham. That's going to cause irreparable damage to Facebook's brand in the future

Zuckerberg hasn't helped the perception.  Since the IPO did its belly flop, by refusing to give interviews or address the embarrassing slide of the stock, he and Facebook have just let the press and comedians take the story and have their hairy way with it. Maybe he was advised by PR counsel to lay low until this all blows over and the share price stabilizes (it is as of this posting at $25.87 and still falling daily from its initial price of $38). Or maybe the perception is right; Facebook doesn't really like to share...unless it's your private data with third parties.

The CEO also didn't help his brand perception by continuing to show up at board meetings in his signature hoodie. While an adorable, iconoclastic statement when Facebook was a brash, young start-up, Zuckerberg's slacker wardrobe hasn't exactly shored up the weak brand perception. His style has now just become an affectation. If FB had risen 32% in value instead of lost that much, perhaps the hoodie image might have played well to the New Generation of Leader brand. As it was, it just reinforced the perception that the company was run by Doogie Howser (who at least wore ties).

Rule #6 Ignored: Give Love to Get Love

Facebook's violation of this rule gets back to the conditions of secrecy and stinginess that characterized the IPO in the first place. The rule states that, in order to be loved, you have to love first. You have to really love your customers, your shareholders, your employees, the whole world. And you have to mean it.

Facebook's dual-structured IPO seemed designed to piss off the maximum number of people. Zuckerberg himself made out like a bandit; literally. But he showed no love for his investors, or his board, or his customers. He came across as a greedy kid, unwilling to share either information, power, or money. Now there's nothing wrong with making a lot of money. That's great. But if you do it in such a way that a whole lot of people feel ripped off, then that same whole lot of people aren't going to love you for it. Or love your company.

My daughter, now in college, tells me anecdotally that a lot of her friends are dropping off of Facebook. I've also known a few of my own friends to have dropped off. I don't know if FB is experiencing a falloff in membership (nor do I expect them now to share that information if they do), but if the share price is any index of lovability of a company, Facebook isn't much liked right now. It may be the 500 lb social media gorilla at the moment, but it's made itself vulnerable to the next upstart who can demonstrate more respect-- and love--for its customers.

Rule #9 Ignored: Everything is Marketing

Everything has a direct affect on a company's brand, even in the complicated structuring of a public offering.  Neither Facebook nor Morgan Stanley, in their cleverness of lighting the exploding-cigar of their IPO, seemed to appreciate the damage they were going to do to the brand of Facebook itself. The way an IPO is presented is the same as a brand campaign.It's a marketing message.

It even comes down to little things. And not just the hoodie.

The fact that Zuckerberg chose to have his wedding on the day after the IPO was itself a marketing message; a bad one. Like his hoodie, it showed the millions who had considered investing in his company that he didn't respect their apprehension. They're watching their life savings evaporate before their eyes, and this kid is getting married. To some of the nonplussed public it even looked like a cynical move to protect his sudden new wealth ($20 billion) from being included as a joint asset in his marriage. California, where he got married, is a community property state, and so any assets (like stock) owned by one of the spouses prior to the wedding are not considered joint property.

I'm sure this was the furthest thing from Mark's mind. He probably was feeling jubilant at suddenly being among the richest men in the world and wanted to spontaneously celebrate by marrying his longtime girlfriend. That would be perfectly natural. Hell, I'd want to get married if I suddenly came into $20 billion. And I wish them both a long and happy marriage.

But the timing of it was brand-deaf. If, as with the continuation of the hoodie look, the IPO had seen FB stock take off instead of tank, the public reaction to the wedding might have been "Awwwwww! That's so cute!" instead of "Hmmmm...that's odd." So even something as personal as a wedding, to a public figure anyway, is a marketing message.

I did notice he wore a suit to his wedding, though. An ill-fitting one. He looked like a kid on his prom date. And I'll bet one of his shirttails was hanging out the back.

Yeah, you're right; that would be marketing, too.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Spend or We Resort to Human Sacrifice

We could try sacrificing some
virgins to appease an
Angry Economy.

I hate to admit this. But I happen to agree with George W. Bush's advice after 9/11, that the most helpful thing we can do right now is to go shopping. Sounded shallow and insensitive at the time. But he was right. About that anyway. He wasn't right about going shopping for WMDs in Iraq. But he was right about going to the mall.

Okay. Okay. But let me finish:  In my book, The Unbreakable Rules of Marketing, and in past blogs, I have repeatedly urged companies to spend more on marketing during economic recessions, not less. Unfortunately, the first impulse of so-called prudent CEOs has been to ease off on marketing spending during tough times--not pour it on--as if it were a luxury not a necessity. But that is the worst thing they can possibly do. It's equivalent to the medieval doctor's practice of bleeding the patient when they're sick (and if they get sicker; well, bleed them some more). Or it's like jettisoning the wings to make the plane lighter. Pick your simile. It's just bad, bad, bad to stop spending during a recession. During fat times is when you can (and probably should) slow down. But when the economy itself slows down, that's the time to spend. I shall explain.

Yes, I Base My Economic Theories on a Cartoon

I recently saw a four-year-old rerun of a South Park episode (Margaritaville) in which the town's chronically silly adults decide that The Economy is angry at us for spending so much and decree that everyone should stop spending in order to appease The Economy, so it will smile at us if The Economy were some pagan god. So they impose a regime of austerity on the town and anyone caught spending anything is "dealt with" as a heretic.

Guess what happens? (In case you haven't seen this episode). Yup, the town's economy gets worse. Nobody is buying, nobody is shopping, nobody is working, and the economy (as opposed to The Economy) gets worse. That's because it isn't some supernatural deity, it's the very act of everybody spending, working, buying, making, selling, consuming, living, and keeping goods and services and MONEY flowing.

The economy is flow. If you stop the flow, there's no economy. It turns into a stagnant that eventually dries up (the metaphors never stop).

At the end of the episode, Stan, in a heroic act of self-sacrifice... But that would be spoiling. Suffice it to say that it involves spending.

As old as this satire is, it seems to apply even more today, almost four years later, with The Economy still angry at us. Though it has been manifestly proven, beyond a shadow of a rational observer's doubt, that austerity policies have been worse for the economy than spending, the blind faith in these "belt-tightening" measures seems stronger than ever (see my previous blog post on irrational beliefs). Economist and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman describes this as belief in "The Confidence Fairy," another mythical being whose magical powers get an economy moving again because austerity policies somehow create "confidence" in investors. But even though we've been savagely slashing public and private spending for four years now, The Confidence Fairy still hasn't delivered.

Maybe we just need to bleed the patient more. Or we need human sacrifice.

The Maxwell Equations and the Economy

Don't worry, there's no math, and just a tiny bit of physics.

An old and astute friend of mine, William Glenn, once told me of his theory of the economy (get ready for another metaphor...I've got a million). He said that money was like light; it has to be moving to exist. A photon doesn't exist at rest, since its mass is zero (here's where the Maxwell Equations on the propagation of electromagnetic energy come in). It can slow down, but never stop, because when it stops, its mass goes to zero and, poof, it disappears. It's no longer a photon. It's gone.

(Don't believe me? Do this experiment this at home: Take a photon and put it in the freezer until it slows to a stop. When you open the freezer, it'll be gone. Try it.)

A dollar bill, by analogy, is like a photon. At rest it's just a piece of paper, representing the potential of what a dollar can buy, but it's essentially worthless until it starts moving; that is, until you spend it. The economy, according to Glenn, is the aggregate flow (or current, in Maxwellian terms) of all dollars (and euros and yen  and schlobotniks) in motion. When those dollars get stashed in mattresses, cash funds and freezers, they stop moving, and the current of the economy drops to zero. All that saved money becomes worthless, just paper. Photons at rest.

Spend Like the Wind

So while saving money might be considered virtuous--in moderation--it can be unhealthy in excess, and downright disastrous in an unhealthy economy. Every dollar you or your company saves, is a dollar that is not being spent. And the size of the economy shrinks and shrinks. So you end up with, as the genie in Aladdin says (I do love cartoon wisdom), "Unlimited power! Itty bitty living space."

That's why it's important to spend, not just on marketing (if you're a business), but on goods and services, on employees, on making things to sell, on all of that. Spend, spend, spend. Shop, shop, shop.

We're all part of the same super-organism that's the world economy, and unless we keep the blood flowing (can I pile on the metaphors, or what?) we'll all die. Of course, it's important not to be profligate, and to spend prudently, but in slow economic times, I'm afraid Bush was right (and you don't know how it galls me to admit that); go out and shop. You're keeping businesses in business, employees employed, and The Economy appeased. So it will stop being angry with us.

Or we could try human sacrifice. I live near a volcano.

Friday, May 18, 2012

False Problems

Has this ever happened to you?
So I'm sure many of you (of the nine who follow this blog) have seen the energy drink commercial that shows the "security camera"  video of the woman who walks out of the coffee shop into a closed door and spills her coffee all over herself. The announcer asks the rhetorical question, "Has this ever happened to you?" Then he proceeds to tout the solution to this universal problem of walking into closed doors with your coffee: Chug back your caffeine in one shot, using the 1.93 oz energy drink.

But I was thinking, my problem with drinking caffeine the conventional way has never been a tendency to walk into closed doors. Rather it's been burning my tongue (which is why I prefer iced coffee). The caffeine shot is a solution to a false problem. And besides, in the video, she was texting while walking. That was the problem. And slamming back caffeine shots wasn't the solution to that.

Marketers use the false problem all the time to hawk spurious features.  When I first met my then-future-ex-wife, she was a copywriter at another ad agency, working on an ad for some new Sony wireless speakers. The idea behind this transitory technology was that you didn't need old-fashioned wires to hook up your speakers to your entertainment system; they'd connect via radio signal. The client insisted that the true benefit of this new technology was not that you didn't have to crawl behind your furniture to hook up your entertainment system, it was that the  propagation of the signal from the amplifier to the speaker was imperceptibly faster via radio signals (the speed of light, 186,000 miles per second) than by electrons moving down a copper wire (oh, a little slower than the speed of light). So, following the creative brief, Cheryl offered the headline:

"Tired of waiting for your sound?"

This is how I fell in love with her (well, that and her Cajun meatloaf). The client loved this, too. It expressed the product benefit exactly. People were tired of waiting for their sound. "Where was that sound? I turned this thing on nanoseconds ago and my sound still isn't here!" And it followed the principle of advertising that you always solve the customer's problem. Even if it isn't a problem.

Politicians are masters of generating the false problem. Currently the false problem in this election is budget deficits. And everybody's trying to fiscally out-austere each other. Of course we've had budget deficits since the founding of this country. Every sovereign nation with its own currency has. That's how the economy grows. It's like buying your house with a mortgage. If everybody had to wait until they saved enough to pay cash for a house, nobody would.

But suddenly deficits are a problem. A false problem. And politicians are making everyone as agitated about them as if they had just downed six 5-Hour Energy shots. So we have to slash spending; fire millions of government workers; make people suffer. And other people's suffering will give investors confidence. Somehow. Don't worry about the details; they're technical. Just trust me. I'm a pundit.

Before that the false problem was voter fraud, even though the bona fide incidents of actual voter fraud in the entire history of record keeping have been countable on one hand. So state legislatures have been hysterically enacting voter-fraud prevention measures whose draconian solutions will be worse for millions of legitimate citizens than the false problem.

False problems are generated by lazy minds. In marketing (and all elections are marketing campaigns, too) the false problem is kicked into a brainstorming session by somebody who's tired and just wants to go home (see my post on Brainstorming). So they write it up on a white board and everybody, who haven't had their 5-Hour Energy blast in eight hours, looks wearily at it and says, "Yeah, that looks good. Let's go with that."

See how easy marketing is?

Now buy our book! The Unbreakable Rules of Marketing. It will cure that problem you've had with the urge to stick your tongue to a frozen pipe.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Our Book is Born!

After 18 months of gestation, Cathey Armillas and I have delivered forth a book. Weighing it at about 1 lb 2 oz, we've named this little bundle of joy The Unbreakable Rules of Marketing: 9 1/2 Ways to Get People to Love You.

It would be mere marketing hype to say that this slim, easy-to-read, no-big-words volume would change your life. So I'll say it. It will change your life. Not like The Secret was supposed to change your life. But it will make clients seek you out even if you're on page 17 of a Google search. It will make customers line up at your store before you open. It will make objects of your affection fall in love with you, registered voters vote for you, adversaries bow down to you, people you barely know invite you to parties, and your dog lick your shoes. (Your dog probably licks your shoes anyway, but no matter; he will like you all the more if you read this book.)

Who's it written for? Everybody. Not just marketing professionals. In fact they are probably the least likely audience, because you'd think they'd already know all of these unbreakable rules. They are so fundamental that they've undoubtedly forgotten them. And, come to think of it, given the state of marketing lately, a lot of them have.

But it's also for businesses who need to become smarter about their own marketing. It's for parents who want to know how to not only get their kids to love them, but to clean up their rooms. It's for married couples who want to stay married, or singles who want to be half of a married couple. It's for people looking for a job, or just wanting to have a few more friends. It's for everybody.

Okay, okay, so what are the 9 Unbreakable Rules of Marketing?

  1. Consistency Beats Ability
  2. Perception is Reality
  3. Be Creative or Die
  4. The Medium is Not the Message
  5. Work Hard to Keep it Simple
  6. Give Love to Get Love
  7. Emotions Rule the World
  8. Go Big or Go Home
  9. Everything is Marketing

What do these mean? Read the book.

You may purchase it either on Amazon's or Barnes & Noble's fine online establishments. Now.

Did I mention it's supposed to be funny?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Where is the Love?

Look into his eyes.
Does this guy love you?

Have you noticed how bad marketing has become in recent years? It's so desperate, so pathetic, so tiresome, so data-focused, so intrusive, so immediate-ROI driven, that it's hard to go through a day without having some slimy salesbot getting in your face while you are trying to read an article, enjoy a show, compose an e-mail, or watch an amusing video of an adorable cat playing with a laser pointer. Marketing now is like an annoying girlfriend who is constantly trying to shove food into your mouth.

What happened?

Like that annoying girlfriend, I think what happened is that there's no love any more. There's no love of the art of advertising, or of the products being advertised. There's no love of the customer; namely, you. You get the feeling that you're just a mark, a john, a datum waiting to be mined.

It used to be (and I'm dating myself sadly here) that marketing was entertaining and inventive. Marketing used to recognize that it was talking to squishy human beings, not datasets. Commercials tried to entertain you, as if apologizing for interrupting you. They begged your pardon with a joke. They didn't end with a Call-To-Action or an Ask-For-the-Sale. They charmed. They tried to get you to like their company, to want to do business with them. They demonstrated that they, in turn, liked you, as a person, not just a target market. They didn't have to ask for the sale. That was implicit in the fact that they were running an ad.

Marketers forgot to love. Now, like some boorish drunk in a bar, they dispense with the charm and just go directly for the sale, interrupting your deep conversation with a friend to belch into your face,"Tired of paying too much for car insurance?" No. Not particularly. Can you please leave us alone?

The norm in marketing in the 21st century is not to show love, not to entertain or be creative, but to go right for the data, the target market. That's what you are to them, a target. And they've got a gun aimed right between your eyes. Data-driven marketers act like they really know you because, in an unguarded moment of boredom, you happened to search for something silly and they captured that. So Amazon starts telling you that people who bought what you bought also bought this other dumb title, rubbing your face in an embarrassing purchase decision which you'd just as soon forget and lumping you in with every other adolescent who "likes" Transformers movies. Facebook has to tell everybody what song you're listening to, or alert the world every time you "like" something. Nothing is private. Even while composing this rant, Google keeps interrupting me to ask for feedback, or to advise me about exciting new features. Exciting to them. (Do you sometimes get the sneaking suspicion that these people have a very low bar for excitement?)

This is not love. It is the opposite. Marketers no longer love you, they love your debit card. You're just a datum to be mined.You're a predictable consumer, expected to do your part to fulfill their revenue expectations; like a cow who needs to be milked. Or harvested. Makes you feel warm all over, doesn't it?

Fortunately, this is not a universal thing. There is still a cadre of marketers who get that love is the essence. I went to a Starbucks this morning and ordered a vente iced coffee. They apologized when they realized they had run out of iced coffee and asked me if I'd wait five minutes while they brewed a fresh supply. I said, no, that's okay, I'd have iced tea instead. When I handed the barista my card, she pushed it away said that it was on her, and apologized again for disappointing me. This is love. This is marketing. This is brilliant. This is why, in spite of the disdain many coffee-puristas have for the mega-chain that is Starbucks, I remain loyal. They have my undying love because, again and again, Starbucks shows me (through their very human employees) that they love me, not because I'm just another customer, but because I'm another human being. Starbucks treats me like a person, not a datum.

That little gesture of generosity cost Starbucks $2.95. But it made them thousands in continued loyalty from me, wanting to return the love. But for all the thousands of other marketers who just need my credit card number, I have no love to give.

Here's a secret and an Unbreakable Rule of Marketing: If you get that marketing is all about love (and not sales or data), you'll subjugate all mankind.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Sweet Boy, But Not Too Bright

Which one's the dumbest?

Just before another Easter, when I was seven, my dad decided it was time to level with me about the Easter Bunny. He was a psychologist and a responsible parent, after all, and thought I was old enough to know the truth, since I was evidently not figuring it out on my own. So he told me the truth, "Jeff, there is no Easter Bunny. I wish with all my heart that there was, but there isn't."

I was devastated. "But who colors and hides all those eggs?" I wailed.

My dad was a little worried about my density, "Well, obviously, it's your mom and me."

To make it up to me, for lying to me and shattering my childhood, he did suggest that he and I make it a tradition from then on to color and hide the eggs for my little sister (then 2). That assuaged me. And the prospect of being in on a conspiracy to pull a fast one on my sister (and set her up for a colossal trauma in a few years herself) was too much to resist.

I felt better after our man-to-man talk and said, "Well, at least there's still Santa Claus."

My dad thought (he later told me), "He's a sweet boy, but not too bright."

I wasn't. Or, at least, I was so self-deluding that I had the deft ability to wall off areas of illogic in my brain in order to hang on to beliefs that were vital to my sense of order in the world. It was, in fact, another two Christmasses before I could not escape the inevitable conclusion that if the Easter Bunny was my parents, so must Santa Claus be, too.

Me So Dumb

But think about it; giving up the Easter Bunny was easy. I mean just a bunch of colored, hard boiled eggs--and I didn't even like hard boiled eggs. But Santa meant loot. That was a much bigger delusional investment. Also, there was the forced realization that there wasn't really magic in the world, which is a shocking discovery for a seven year old. So I hung on to every last dumb belief, fighting to the last delusion.

And even after I finally admitted to myself that Santa was also my parents (to my dad's credit, he didn't feel it was necessary to have to have another man-to-man talk), I still hung on to the notion that  at least God was  real. God couldn't be my parents, right? That was just too dizzying a concept to cross that ontological chasm.

But that lasted only another thirty years or so--at least the notion of a God as described in religion, a kind of Santa in the Sky who causes football teams to win or lose bowl games, but has "His mysterious ways" when it comes to letting genocides happen. That God went the way of the Easter Bunny for me.

And then came my disillusion and eventual categorical rejection of my faith in the Republican Party. That just turned out to be my parents, too.

One by one, all of my childhood belief systems have fallen to the chain saw of logic--and facts.

Perception is Reality

This is an unbreakable rule of marketing (soon to be elaborated on in Cathey Armillas' and my forthcoming book, The Unbreakable Rules of Marketing: 9 1/2 Ways to Get People to Love You). Even when faced with incontrovertible facts, people--even people smarter than me--are bound by their preconceived beliefs. This extends right down to their commercial choices.

If they believe their Mac superior to any PC, even when it crashes a dozen times a day, that's a fact; it is superior to any PC. If they believe that tax holidays for the wealthy result in greater prosperity for all, that's a fact; even when the economy is in the toilet after ten years of tax holidays for the wealthy. And if they believe that taking their reusable shopping bags to the supermarket is saving the planet, that, too, is a fact. Planet saved.

It takes a Magnitude 9 Logic Quake to shake the foundations of those beliefs. Our walls are thick and high. So bring on the facts; make your best shot.

I don't think I'm as dumb today as I was at seven (though there are many who would weigh in on this), but I think even someone as astute and cynical as me is vulnerable to something as blatantly maudlin as a Pixar movie. I love those movies because they bring back for me the comforting feeling that magic is real, that the Easter Bunny comes in the night to hide colored eggs,  and that Santa magically comes on Christmas Eve to bring presents, and that God is up there listening to me and caring about me.

But I'm not too bright.

Friday, March 23, 2012

No, It Doesn't Help.

Come on!  It's just a little cockroach!
I was listening to a very painful episode of This American Life the other day in which they were re-interviewing someone they had done a show on earlier in the year, someone who had lied to them. The someone was Mike Daisy, a performance artist who has been doing a one-man show in New York about his experiences "investigating" the appalling working conditions at Apple's manufacturing plants in China. I remember that previous episode and remembered how outraged I felt that I was listening to it streaming from my iPhone, which had itself been assembled at the very factory where underaged slave laborers were worked to death, where suicides were rampant, where workers were suffering from all sorts of work and environmental-related illnesses. I felt betrayed by Apple and my rage knew no bounds.

But it was a lie. Maybe not all a lie, but enough of a lie to cause you to distrust any further stories you heard from Mike Daisy, and possibly any further stories about working conditions in offshore factories. Ira Glass, TAL's host, was holding Daisy's feet to the fire and asking him point-blank why he betrayed him, why he lied. Long seconds of excruciating silence followed each question (usually death for a radio program) as Daisy tried to screw up the courage to admit he had lied, or to say why he had done it. You felt for the guy. Sort of.

But after those long silences, what followed was not a contrite, considered confession, but a rationalization. He was a performance artist, he whined, not a journalist, and he had done it for the art, "to get to the greater truth."  He claimed that it was "some of the best work I'd ever done." He said that in dramatizing a "truth" he believed in, it was necessary to make stuff up. Stuff he couldn't prove. And he believed that in order to get people to be aware of the problem, it was acceptable to invent the details. That's what art is. And I thought, what a sanctimonious dunderhead!

A week previous, we had all been regaled with another example of someone, Jason Russell, making stuff up to get to the greater "truth" about the fugitive war-criminal, Joseph Kony, in his beautifully produced "documentary" Kony 2012. His video went viral in a huge way. It was moving. Even my own daughter called me from college to urge me to see it and sign whatever petition was attached to it. But, as a little time went by, it was also revealed that the facts in Kony 2012 were kind of fast and loose.

Okay, Kony is  a bad man. And should be tracked down and stopped. Got it. But what Russell did was use "art" to dramatize something that didn't need dramatizing, and ended up doing more damage than help by sullying the veracity of the story.

But wait! There's Moore!
And then there's Michael Moore, a documentarian with whom I happen to agree on most things, but who can't leave well enough alone by simply presenting the bald facts about gun violence (Bowling For Columbine), the Bush administration's manipulation of terrorism (Fahrenheit 911), and health care in the U.S. (Sicko). No, he has to exaggerate and go just a little too far to make a point, making you question the whole premise.

And may I bring up another social crusader/entertainer, Morgan Spurlock, who, in Super Size Me, his 2004 expose of the fast food industry (the shocking revelation that it was not health food), conducted an experiment in which he left several samples of french fries from a variety of establishments and watched all but the McDonald's fries go bad and moldy over time. Hm, he suggested, there must be something sinister about the ingredients in the McDonald's fries. Yes, Morgan, that sinister ingredient is salt, a preservative known for thousands of years. But the way he presented it was to make it seem as if this evil corporation was up to no good. Okay, so he had to cheat a little to get to the bigger truth.

What these noble social motivators don't get is that when you do that, when you stretch the point, when you fudge the data, you knock the legs out of your whole argument. One little lie is too much. It's like just a little cockroach discovered in your salad. It ruins the whole salad. The size of the cockroach is not the issue.

But, they say (and Mike Daisy said), isn't it better to tell a little lie to get people to move? NO! Because if the people you're trying to move discover you've lied to them, they don't trust anything you say. Ever. Moreover, they tend not to trust anything that's said about that subject coming from anyone, even legitimate, truthful journalists. So the whole truth gets trampled on by your little cockroach of a lie. When you lie, you betray the entire cause.

So, the next time somebody like Mike Daisy, or Jason Russell, or Michael Moore, or Morgan Spurlock feels like helping The Cause, my advice to them is: Shut up. That would be a big help.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Brainstorming Doesn't Work

Love it! Can we go to lunch now?
I was delighted the other day to read a piece in the New York Times by Susan Cain, entitled The Rise of the New Groupthink, in which she slams the myth of creative brainstorming. This notion, that great ideas come out of groups, is something that's been around in advertising agencies for decades. And I thought I was alone in my prejudice against them, but apparently I haven't been. Apparently there is ample scientific evidence to back up this prejudice.

Really, after I sent this article around to a bunch of my friends in advertising, I found that the disdain for brainstorming sessions, rather than being the mark of an antisocial crank, is almost universally held. There are, at least among professional creative people, legions of us anti-brainstormers.

We all recognize the mandatory, post-lunch (or worse, trans-lunch) all-department meeting whose mandate is to come up with The Big Idea for some new campaign, or new pitch. Nothing ever comes out of these meetings except a high from sniffing the dry-erase markers. The meetings are usually called by the least creative person in the organization, some dip who is full of enthusiasm and loves to be "part of the creative process". And this moderator--let's call him Nancy--always starts by laying down the ground rules (as he sees them) for the brainstorming session, "There are no bad ideas. Everything is on the table."  Evidently, Nancy believes that this is the way we, the ones who are actually paid to come up with the ideas, do it; that when we hole up in our cubicles with our muse, we just write down every bland idea that comes into our heads and give each one serious weight. At the end of the afternoon, with the whiteboard filled with banalities and all of us drowsy from the hydrocarbon fumes, Nancy always says, "I think we've accomplished a lot today!" He always has his assistant take a picture of the whiteboard, too--you know, in case the rest of us want to refer to it later.

But as a fellow antisocial crank of mine says of these sessions, "All you think is, 'Shit! I've just lost three hours and will have to work late tonight to come up with the real idea!'"

At the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing (who? me?), I can categorically state, without exception, that not one big concept that I've ever had a part in has ever come as a result of a brainstorming session. Ever. That's a categorical statement because it's categorically true. Brainstorming sessions are there for people who can't come up with ideas alone, and who have no clue how they come in the first place. They either saw it done that way in a TV sitcom, or took a Creative Management course as part of their MBA curriculum. But however they came by their belief in the "creative process", they seem to exist to throw sand in the machine of real creativity.

And the results are displayed in advertising every day. Try to sit through an entire TV show, in which more than fifty percent of the broadcast is taken up with deadly dull advertising, and you can see the influence of creative brainstorming. Every ad that begins "Tired of paying too much for...," you know came right out of a brainstorm. But whenever you do happen to notice a clever or entertaining spot, you can be sure that just one or two people thought of it, wrote it, designed it--usually late at night after the brainstormtroopers went home to congratulate themselves on what a good day's work they put in. That's how it really works. A few people do the thinking. Everyone else is taking pictures of whiteboards.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Your Defenses Are Useless!

"We're safe as long as no Ewok
throws a rock at us."
One of the things that always gets me, whenever I watch either a historical or fantasy movie involving fights among people (or orcs) in armor, is how useless the armor seems to be. The hero charges around, usually without armor himself (and with unlimited reserves of stamina),  the bad guys shooting at him with unbelievably bad aim, and the whole while he's blithely dispatching them in droves, despite the fact that they are all wearing armor. Arrows, swords, and spears are shown penetrating thick breast plates like styrofoam, or ray guns burn right through them. So many people in these movies seem to be killed while wearing armor that it begs the question: why are they bothering to do it at all? Armor's expensive, heavy, hot, and restrictive. If it's not even going to stop an arrow, why would you wear it? In historical reality (for those movies set in ancient or quasi-medieval times) armor used to be so restrictive, in fact, that it would have severely limited the ability of the person wearing it to move around, much less fight (or see). So they wouldn't have worn it just because it made them look cool. And it was so expensive that only the richest elite could afford it at all; most soldiers used to wear no armor or, at most, carry only leather shields...the better to fight (or run away).

And, in a science fiction or fantasy setting, what must be the budget for armor for the Galactic Empire? Does the Armor Manufacturer's Lobby in the Imperial Senate have disproportionate sway? I demand a bipartisan commission to investigate plutocratic corruption!

So why don't the makers of movies think about this "armor problem"? Of course, the teenage boys, who love this kind of mayhem in their historical/fantasy/sci-fi movies and games, don't care about reality. Obviously: They're teenagers. Their favorite kind of armor is the armored bra protecting the thong-clad warrior princess's nipples--but not her vulnerable abdomen or cranium. She depends on the incredibly bad marksmanship of the enemy soldiers (unable to see out of their heavy helmets) to protect those.

But I do worry about it. I feel sorry for the poor sonofabitch orc who was forced to march a hundred miles in stifling weather with a hundred pounds of armor on his back, only to find it completely useless when shot by a Clairol-coifed Orlando Bloom, not even bothering to aim his bow as he snowboards down a staircase (something you couldn't do in armor). As the orc lay dying with an arrow in his armor-clad chest, he probably thought, "What the f*** was I lugging all this around for?" You know that the Imperial Storm Trooper was thinking the same thing as he lay dying from an unbelievable pistol shot made by a rope-swinging Luke Skywalker, "If I hadn't been wearing all this armor, I might have been able to duck in time." Why do they wear that armor, by the way? Because the art director thinks it looks wicked? Or because Chancellor Palpatine has an equity position in body-armor futures?

Why Do Cars Always Explode?
And it's not just useless armor that irritates me in movies. It's also explosions. Why, in action movies and TV shows, when cars roll down a hill, do they often explode with the force of a Mk-85 500 lb bomb? Or even when they just hit another car? How often have you seen that in real life? Why do we even drive cars at all if that's the risk? Cars don't just explode. And when a helicopter crashes in real life, it usually doesn't blow up like it does in movies--unless it has a live napalm bomb on-board ("I told you to leave that behind! But nooooo, you had to take it with us!"). This is lazy screen-writing.

Here's another beef I have with sloppy film-making: withheld information. So often in movies and TV shows, a character who has in his possession some vital information that could clear all this up, just doesn't bother to share it with the key-decision makers so they might not push that button that would end in the destruction of civilization (or a costly divorce). There's usually no reason this character decides to withhold that little bit of knowledge; he just does--you know--to move the plot forward. This is also sloppy writing. And it makes you flush your sympathy for the characters. I hate that. Mostly because I don't have a real life.

I know, I know, it's just a movie. But while I'm immersed in a movie, I want to stay in the universe that is the movie for that hour-and-half; I don't want to be reminded that it's just a movie. When a character gets killed and then miraculously comes back to life, I tend to think, well, I don't have to worry about his being in danger; he can be just "scripted" back alive again. And when he's wearing armor, I want to believe that it will do a half-assed job of protecting him from a stray arrow...unless he's an orc or Imperial Storm Trooper, of course.

And when a character actually does have some important information, I like to see he be given a chance to bring it up--even if it doesn't keep us out of an unnecessary 10-year war in Iraq.