Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What's in a Name?

So say you've got this great new computer backup service....what would you call it? Oh, look! Here's one now!

Hmmm....Carbonite. That sounds familiar. Where have I heard that before? Oh yeah. Here:

At the end of The Empire Stikes Back, the Empire freezes Han Solo in carbonite and gives him to Boba Fett to deliver to Jaba. There's a product association you want, "Used by tyrants and criminals throughout the Universe!"

Of course, Carbonite isn't just from some long ago, far away galaxy. It exists here on Earth, as an explosive. When early coal miners needed to blow stuff up, Carbonite is what they used. I don't know about you, but when I want to keep my data safe, explosions aren't the first things that come to mind.

Sure, it's a cute, geeky name. But when the images it conjures up are things being delivered to an morbidly-obese criminal overlord, or massive destruction, it makes the tedious process of backing things up to DVD seem like a reasonable alternative.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 4

That Punk would one day be the object of nostalgia would have been anathema to the sweaty, blood-spattered denizens of a late 1970's slam pit. Punk was about irreverence and irrelevance, in direct opposition to two of the core tenets of nostalgia. Still, with two new movies on punk icons hitting the screen, it's hard to deny there is some fond reminiscing going on.

The first, the documentary Let Fury Have the Hour, just reeks of nostalgia. As Bill Green, at make the logo bigger notes, it seems to miss the point that there was no point. It runs the risk of seeing meaning that simply wasn't there. Punk was never about changing the world, it was about changing your world.

The new Ian Dury biopic, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll seems to be more in the spirit of the times.

For a genre intent on breaking the rules, could there be a better front man than a 35-year-old cripple? Is there a better disguise for bitterness than humor? The brilliance of Dury's subversion is that most of it was subliminal. You had to listen between the lines.

I hope to see both films. I really want to like both, but suspect the Dury pic will do a better job of capturing the moment. The danger in looking back at popular culture is that you'll over analyze it. You risk seeing things in a context that did not exist at the time. Let Fury Have the Hour promises a lot of people saying what punk meant to them. The problem is, if you look at put and come away with any deep meaning, you're totally missing the point.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Step One

Just saw the new Domino's spot, and damn. Damn. When most companies say they want to change the brand they change the logo, or the slogan--usually both. For once, a company gets it. If you need to fix the brand, fix the brand.

When was the last time a big company sacked up and admitted the obvious? That the product isn't that good, and you really don't like it? Not only do they admit it, the build their new campaign around it. Damn.

Unfortunately, the web effort that goes along with the campaign is less than inspiring. That's okay. The first step is admitting you have a problem.

Monday, December 14, 2009

List Mania

This is the time of year when we are inundated with lists, and this being the end of the decade, it's worse than usual. It's easy to understand why editors and writers resort to making these lists. The holiday season is usually a low spot in the news cycle, so there is a dearth of content. You have to work harder to fill the blank space that stands between you and the door at the end of the day. To make it worse, your mind is elsewhere--holiday shopping, travel arrangements and all the other stuff you'd rather be doing. So you do what writers and editors always do when the demand for content far outstrips the supply. You make shit up. Or, as in the case of lists of the biggest/best of the year/decade lists, you repurpose what you've already done.

While all these lists are great for the writers and editors, they're pretty much crap for the reader or listener. At best they might spur some interesting conversation. At worst, they remind you of what you already know. Either way, at the end you know about as much as you did at the beginning.

By coincidence, there is one list just wrapping up this week that is paying attention to. At irregular intervals, over a year in the making, CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition host Michael Enright and Robert Harris identify 20 Pieces of Music that Changed the World. To their credit, they don't claim the list to be the best, the most important or all inclusive. What it is, unlike all the other lists you'll see this time of the year, is worth your while. It's well considered, well researched, thoughtfully presented and carefully crafted. Some of the music there I love. Some of the music there I really don't care for at all. For each piece, whether I liked it or not, I came away with a new appreciation and respect for the music.

Of all this lists you'll come across between now and January 2nd, this is the one worth paying attention to.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Down the Time Hole

While on tour way back in 2004, They Might Be Giants wrote and recorded a song for every venue they played. The resulting songs were released as Venue Songs, and later updated and made into the Venue Songs DVD. Recently, TMBG posted some of the tracks to their YouTube channel. So far they're gotten a ridiculously small number of views. Be the first on your block.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Brand Creep

I remember a long time ago sitting mesmerized by Twyla Tharp's The Catherine Wheel, set to the music of David Byrne. Almost as interesting as what I was seeing was how I was seeing it. On television. On the Bravo channel. At one time there was slim chance of seeing such a performance outside New York City, but thanks to networks like Bravo and A&E, that had all changed. In the early years of Bravo and A&E it was not uncommon to see dance of all types, jazz and classical music, and stage productions from drama to opera.

These days, the closest you'll get to Don Giovanni, is a mafia Don in The Sopranos. The Sopranos is as close as you're going to get to art these days on A&E. Shows like Dog the Bounty Hunter, Gene Simmons Family Jewels and Steven Seagal: Lawman are typical of a schedule devoid of art, and offering little in the way of entertainment. Inside the Actor's Studio must feel a bit lonely in Bravo's line up. The word bravo is the Italian form of brave. There is scant brave to Bravo's schedule, cluttered with "me too" train wreck shows like The Real Housewives of Atlanta and Orange County. I may love Top Chef, if only for Padma Lakshmi, but art or brave it ain't. Two networks with names they no longer have any connection to. Maybe A&E could drop the Arts and just go with E....but wait....there's already an E!, Entertainment Televison, so that's out. Come to think of it, there's nothing entertaining on E! Damn! This getting the right name for a network might be harder than it seems.

How about MTV? Music Television abandoned music years ago in favor of reality shows and soap operas. When enough people complained, Viacom launched MTV2 with the promise of playing nothing but music videos. Then they stopped playing music videos on MTV2 as well. Recently--and probably due to the soft ad market--the MTVs added a few token hours of music in the small hours of the morning. Hey, unlike all that other programming, it's free! Rest assured, when they can go back to selling that time, they'll be back to their old ways. The last thing they want on Music Television is music.

Most of what you can learn on The Learning Channel isn't worth knowing. Watching shows like Jon & Kate Plus 8, Toddlers & Tiaras and I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant you can feel yourself actually getting dumber. Maybe they should call it The Unlearning Channel.

Now, it's the Weather Channel. I know there should be some embarrassment and shame associated with being the sort of sad geek who watches the Weather Channel. Yet, I freely admit to watching the Weather Channel all the time. No shame. No guilt. Yes, it's a sad existence. Lately it's gotten just a little sadder. Lately, there has been less and less weather on the Weather Channel. It started in April, when they added Wake Up With Al. For a couple hours weekday mornings the viewer is treated to a range of weather-related segments about why Vanessa Williams uses Botox and why Miley Cyrus thinks being young, beautiful and filthy rich is fun. Oh, and David Beckham really likes to snuggle. Stick around long enough and Al's friend Jim Cramer might come by to show he knows as little about the economy as Al does about the weather. It's excruciatingly bad. But wait, things have gotten worse.

Starting tonight, the Weather Channel Presents will be showing a movie every Friday night. A movie. Oh, wait! They assure us that in every movie, the weather will play a pivotal role. Sure enough, in the first movie, The Perfect Storm, the weather played a major role. Next up? The March of the Penguins. A wonderful movie to be sure, and it sure looks cold, but really, how does the weather play a pivotal role here? The penguins do this every year, no matter what the weather. They live there and have adapted. Saying March of the Penguins is about the weather is like saying My Dinner with Andre is about food. What's next? Misery? Please....the blizzard is mostly over before the opening credits finish, and after seven minutes in the weather has nothing to do with the movie. After that, it's Deep Blue Sea, about mutant, genetically engineered mako sharks in a secret floating lab and....shit, I can't even finish that sentence. Deep Blue Sea might be about something, but it sure isn't the weather.

Why not come right out and admit it? Pathetic geeks like me, who love weather, are a small and probably not very desirable demographic. Go ahead, it won't hurt our feelings. In the course of admitting it, why not avoid the mistake that has plagued so many other cable channels? Why not change the name to something that reflects the new programming? Given the strange hodgepodge of programs, and what changes undoubtedly lie ahead, the Weather Channel should change its name to the Whatever Channel.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

"You can see why...."

While wing-nut crowd celebrates Chicago's failure to become the host city for the 2016 Olympic Games as some massive world-wide repudiation of Barack Obama, it's worth taking a moment to consider what really happened. The marketing sucked. Check out the presentation (sorry about the poor quality and the commercial).

If you made it much past the point of Anita DeFrantz saying, "You can see why that setting will create an extraordinary experience," you did better than me. No, Anita, I can't see why. When you're bidding to host one of the premier events on the world stage, you should really put more effort into it than slapping some new text over the same presentation the Tourism and Convention Bureau uses to attract conventions of accountants or proctologists. Before an Obama took to the microphone, the members of the IOC had to suffer through thirty minutes of the most heartless, thoughtless dreck imaginable. By that time, poor old Juan Antonio Samaranch had fallen asleep, face down in his copy of Mein Kampf.

The failure? Chicago didn't tell anybody anything that made the city seem in any way different than any other city. If Chicago can't get excited about its self, why should anyone else? The sad thing is, Chicago IS a great city. They would have done far better to have Sarah Vowell come read her essay on the Michigan Avenue Bridge from Take the Cannoli. Hell, just play them Ferris Bueller's Day Off--even just the Twist and Shout scene would do the trick.

It wouldn't have been that difficult. Some cities have real image problems. It's difficult to think of Rio and not be reminded of its crippling poverty and massive, oppressive slums, but that's balanced out by the images of natural beauty, fabulous beaches and, of course, Carnival. Chicago's image problem is that for the last couple decades, it really doesn't have an image. When much of the world thinks of Chicago, the first thing they think of is Oprah. Let's compare those two images:

Which city do you want to go to? Hell, even this guy gets it:

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

It seems pretty basic, but....

In case you didn't notice, Michael Moore is at it again. His new documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story seems to be following the template of most of his other offerings: opening to enthusiastic, adoring crowds at film festivals, and heaped with scorn and derision from those who will never make the effort to see it. In the rush to decry Moore as a communist and unpatriotic, many will miss a rich little bit of irony: Michael Moore is pretty good at Capitalism. Moore has a business sense that is sadly lacking in many of the captains of industry and finance. Take, for instance, his comments on the newspaper business, from the Toronto International Film Festival:

Those comments echo David Simon's testimony before the Senate.

There is some very basic business sense from both Moore and Simon. A newspaper with no circulation is useless to advertisers. A newspaper that sees its stockholders more important than its readers does a service to neither. It seems that Moore gets what a lot of businessmen don't: you've got to put the customer first. While most Old Media types are busy blaming the New Media, and turning to the government for assistance, it's the anti-capitlist Moore who makes the argument for the market-based solution of more customers and higher sales. How basic is that?

It's funny how, twenty years after Roger and Me Michael Moore is still viewed as anti-business. The point of Roger and Me wasn't that GM was, by nature, a bad company. The point was that it was a badly-run company. GM management was a bloated, out-of-touch bureaucracy, that made poorly conceived and built cars that no one wanted to buy. Rather than building better cars, GM focused on cost structure, cutting jobs and moving plants out of the country. After two decades that ended in GM's bankruptcy, and tens of billions of dollars of a very un-capitalistic government bailout, it seems perhaps Moore had a better grasp on some basic business principals that Roger Smith did. Moore knew that you've got to have customers, and you've got to keep them happy.

Moore's anti-capitalist film will make him a lot of money. It will make lots of others lots of money as well. I suspect that will be but one of the many points that will be beyond the comprehension of those who will label him a communist.
One of the most ironic things about capitalism is that the capitalist will sell you the rope to hang himself with. Actually they will give you the money to make a movie that makes them look bad, if they believe they can make money off it.--Michael Moore
Moore's argument isn't as much about Capitalism as it is about stupid, short-sighted greed and arrogance. That we can't seem to have one without the other has little to do with our economics, and everything to do with our philosophy.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I don't want my MTV

I haven't paid attention to MTV in years. When they stopped playing music videos, I stopped watching. I've never watched MTV's Video Music Awards, or remotely cared who won what, and had pretty much forgotten about it. Kanye West's much-publicized recent meltdown was a reminder the show and the awards still exist. Beyond the irony of a network that no longer plays music videos still finds them worth rewarding, it struck me that I'd never seen either the Beyonce or Taylor Swift videos at the center of it all. So, it's off to YouTube to see what all the fuss is all about...., they're both nice, slickly produced videos. The problem is, watching them you kind of understand why MTV stopped playing music videos in the first place. With the exception of the occasional rare gem, like Outkast's Roses, most videos are pretty dreadful. Despite the big budgets and top-shelf production values, Swift and Beyonce's videos are as bland and instantly forgettable as the songs they're built around.

Rather than videos MTV didn't play, but gave awards to, I prefer some that they didn't award, but gave actual airplay. And I'll bet the first two cost less to make than this Beyonce or Swift's videos spent on craft services.

Monday, September 07, 2009

No Shit.....

Usually I hate the commercials for Kohler. Usually their spots are as impractical and pretentious as the products they sell. Plumbing as a fetish object just doesn't work. Still, I just saw this spot, and it's clever and effective. I want that toilet.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

"Deserve's got nothing to do with it....."

If you happened to be out in West Conshohocken, at the Calvary Cemetery on Thursday, you might have had a chance to see Jeff Lurie and Roger Goodell get together and piss all over Bert Bell's grave. Okay....not literally, but they may as well have. While it's always folly to pretend to speak for a dead man, it's hard to imagine Bell--founder of the Eagles and the former NFL Commisioner who, in 1946, enacted a strict player conduct code--feeling anything but shock and dismay over the hiring of Michael Vick, and what the NFL has become.

The thing I find most irritating is the recurrent meme that he has done his time, and "deserves a second chance." In the words of William Munny in the great Unforgiven, and later, Snoop in The Wire, "Deserve's got nothing to do with it."

Down on the east side of Newport News lots of poor kids see athletics as their only way out. Like Vick, many of them will go through the Boys and Girls Club football program, then go on to play high school ball at Warwick. Though many, if not most, of them will work and practice and play just as hard as Vick did, most of their athletic careers will end right there. The handful good enough to go onto play college ball will work and practice and play just as hard as Vick, but only a tiny percentage of them will ever play a day as a pro. In the NFL everyone works hard. They study hard. You don't get to that level unless you give it your best every day. Even at that level, most don't achieve the superstar status of guys like Vick, T.O. and the Mannings. There is a reason for that--it's called genetics. As noted exercise physiologist Dr Andrew Coggan is fond of saying, the first prerequisite for success as an elite athlete is, "Pick your parents wisely." The biggest factor in Vick's success is something he did nothing to deserve--it was a gift of genetics.

All those kids in all those shitty neighborhoods who worked and studied just as hard and devoted the same amount of time, sweat and tears in hopes of achieving something greater never got the chance Vick got. Didn't they deserve that chance? But, by luck of emerging from the wrong womb, they never had the shot at fame and fortune Vick did. And what did he do with that gift he did nothing to deserve? He threw it away.

It's not like there weren't people who reached out to him along the way. Dan Reeves tried to get through to him. Andrew Young reached out to him. Vick rebuked all efforts. He chose to turn his back on every chance he's ad so far, and given no reason to believe he won't piss this one away as well.

It all begs the question, how many chances do you get before it stops being a second chance?

Saturday, August 08, 2009

NBC=Next Big Cutback?

The news that NBC O&O's are gutting their in-house promotions departments should come as no surprise. They're already cut back their news departments so much there's hardly anything worth promoting anymore.

From my perspective of having been laid-off in the past year, this sucks for those getting the ax, and my heart goes out to them.

From a marketing perspective, this could make sense. As an ever-growing number of viewers use TiVo and other DDRs, the traditional model of television promotion simply does not work. Tuesday night's, "....tonight at 11" promo is useless for those watching the show Thursday morning. The way people watch television has changed, and the vast majority of promotions departments haven't adapted. They still focus primarily on short-term topical promotion. New media, and social media are either unused, or an afterthought. To make matters worse, most in-house Creative departments have scarce experience with image and branding. Local television needs a new model, and if done correctly, this could be a good start. But, if you think this is going to be done correctly, think again. Here's why:
"In the new organization, creative services executives at each station will determine their local market branding campaigns and promotion strategies...."
There you have the problem in a nutshell. The prevalent notion in broadcasting is that branding is something you do with campaigns, logos and music. They don't get that a brand isn't something created in a campaign, but the overall experience. The best marketing can't sell a bad product for long, and right now the product is the problem.

Local television news has always been pretty dreadful, but the recent mass layoffs and buyouts have had a devastating effect. Forget lack of talent and experience, stations today are lacking in the warm bodies needed to function at a subsistence level. All the best marketing can do is bring customers through the door--once they're there, the product has to deliver or those customers won't come back. Right now there is nothing at any of the networks O&Os, or most other stations that are remotely watchable.

If NBC stations want to fix the brand, they have to start by fixing the product. If, instead of simply reducing head count and improving the bottom line, they replace the lost promotions positions with more people in the newsroom, this could be a good thing. It would be a good step toward putting a watchable newscast on the air. Sadly, I don't see that happening.

For years, NBC and all the rest have taken the customer for granted. You can only do that for so long before they all go away. Too bad they still haven't figured that out. Right now, the networks still have the mindset of R.J. Fletcher from UHF's Channel 8.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Just Don't

I tried. I really did. But I just couldn't make it past the first few minutes of Nike SB's latest video, Debacle, even if it was free.

The skating is not the problem. Paul Rodriguez and the rest do a competent job with the skateboard action. The problems start when the skating stops. The set ups for the gags are obvious, and they are poorly executed. The opening gimmick with the car is badly telegraphed, and the second angle destroys any remaining illusion of spontaneity. I've never made it past the confrontation scene. You can see the setup coming from up the block, and the execution is so forced and hammy that it is unwatchable.

Perhaps more perplexing than the general crappiness of the non-skating content, is why it's there at all. It wasn't that long ago Nike was pushing this message:

So what is it? Skaters are just like every other athlete? Or they're a bunch of confrontational, destructive punks? Or, maybe Nike really doesn't know.

The problem is that as much as skating is a sport, it's a subculture, and Nike doesn't get that. When they look at skaters, they see a market, and a potential market share. What they don't see is a community--a community they're not part of, and can't just buy their way into.

Skating has been around for long enough that it's gone though several cycles of boom and bust. After the credits rolled on Dogtown and Z-Boys, skating sort of died off. Then, it reinvented itself before dying off again. After another reinvention, here we are, and skating is more popular than ever before.

In addition to Steve Rocco, guys like Element's Johnny Schillereff were building skating at a grassroots level, and built their brands around visionaries like Stevie Williams, Ray Barbee and Bam Margera. Element's new video, Make It Count doesn't suffer the same problem that plagues Nike SB's Debacle.

While Debacle awkwardly fumbles for some sort of narrative to make it seem relevant, Element's Make It Count simply has to tell the company's story. Element's founder was thrown out of his house at 17 because of his skating. Schillereff was virtually homeless until he finished high school before going on to found the company in 1992. When that's your story, you don't have to make silly shit up. Nike finds itself in the unenviable situation of fighting for a position in a market it's competitors created. That's a hard sale to make.

Oddly, Nike has been in this position before. Way back in the late 1990's when Lance Armstrong started winning Tours and topping the bestseller lists, Nike decided to get into cycling in a big way. Like skateboarding, cycling's popularity has been cyclical. Like the skateboard, the bike is more often viewed as a toy than a sporting good. Still, like skaters, cyclists maintained a fairly consistent core community, and over time something of an outsider culture has formed around the sport. When Nike entered the market it had (by comparison) a huge marketing budget, and the biggest star of the sport for a spokesman. Sure, there were many well-established brands with a history of involvement in the cycling community, respect for the tradition and a knowledge of the sport you can't just suddenly acquire, but marketing can make up for all that, right? Maybe, but after less than a decade, Nike quietly dropped out of the cycling business in 2007. Let's hope history repeats itself.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Are you better off now? Part 2

It was 30 years ago, today. Jimmy Carter's Crisis of Confidence speech. More commonly known at The Malaise Speech (though the word malaise was never used), Dick Polman rightly cites it as the beginning of the end for Carter. Sadly, that says as much about America as it did about Carter. Read that speech today, and see how little has changed, how it still has the ring of truth. Thirty years later, it still is relevant. Somehow, I think we're still not ready to listen.