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.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Are you better off now?

After twenty years, more relevant than ever.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Thursday, July 02, 2009

"Innocent critters squashed on the highway of life."

The road trip is a time-honored motif in cinema. Perhaps it's because it's just a bit too easy....a bit too literal. When the story is about lives in transition, put the characters in motion. Have them in between here and there. When you think about it it's probably a bit of lazy storytelling. A bit too on the nose. Still, it's hard to deny that it works. Some of my favorite movies are road movies, from Fandango to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou to Crossroads--good, great or trite, I enjoy the theme.

So, when I hear that Plaid Nation is heading out on a road trip with another tour, I can't help but wonder why. After all, if you're all about social media, and trying to show what a great tool it is, why not use social media? Using a van, hundreds of gallons of gas and hours of actual face time seems to run counter to the message. I don't get it. But, then again, in the context of the movies, maybe I do. The road trip is never about the trip, but the transformation. Social media is in a nascent form. facebook and twitter are what's hot now, but I suspect in five years we will speak of them only in the past tense. People who grasp the potential of social media understand we've just hit the road, and there's a long trip ahead. Right now, it's all transition. Why not get out there, meet the people who are along for the ride, and see what you can discover together?

Even lacking some great, transformative moment....hey, it gets you the fuck out of Danbury, and that's always a good thing. Right? Okay, looking at the schedule, maybe not. I've had a beer or three in most of those cities, and wouldn't choose to revisit many of them. One date really sticks out: Branson Missouri. Branson is like Vegas, but less classy. Dear God, why? Even the guys who planned the trip don't know. "Who's in Branson that we could profile??" The only reason to ever do anything in Branson begins and ends with Roy Clark. If you're of a certain age, or are Nelson Muntz, Andy Williams puts on an enjoyable show. Other than those two, the best you can hope for in Branson is, "That wasn't as horrible as I expected." If Plaid really wants to do some good while they're in town, the should pay a visit to Shoji Tabuchi. If they can suffer through all the kitsch and dreck, they'll be treated to some truly enjoyable moments of fine musicianship. It's almost worth it. While there, maybe they can do something about Tabuchi's web site, which seems frozen in some bad design from 1997. Oh, and be sure to check out the restrooms at the Shoji Tabuchi Theater. Don't forget to vote.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Monday, June 15, 2009

Short and to the point.

Caught my attention.

Part of a series, but it's the one that really says, "We're different."

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Bye, bye....

It's a bit way too long, and a few of the verbal contortions they go through for a rhyme are excruciating, but overall, it's worth a listen.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

"Let's be bonest....."

"Let's be honest" is the marketing equivalent of "the check is in the mail" and "I won't cum in your mouth." You know what's coming next is going to be anything but honest. So what's the first thing you hear in the first GM ad since declaring Chapter 11 bankruptcy?
"Let's be completely honest...."
Better and brighter minds than me have made the point that the ad is shite. It looks like a last-minute, done-on-the-cheap made for YouTube project. More than that, it goes to show they still don't get it. "Eight different brands"? "Cost structure"? How about they built a company around expensive, big, inefficient vehicles that became toxic when gas prices went north of three bucks a gallon? In the short run the vehicles were very profitable, but given the realities of the energy market it was obvious they couldn't sustain the business for very long. Down the product line cars like the Cobalt and the Korean-built Aveo were less than inspiring. If you aren't interested in an SUV or a Cadillac STS, you are not going to be interested in GM. You can reduce the number of brands and bring the cost structure into line, but if you continue to build crap that nobody wants to buy, you're still going to go out of business.

There's a bigger problem with the spot. It's tone deaf. It's got a, "I'm going to tell you how it's going to be" feel, but it forgets who it's talking to. GM just reached into America's pockets and pulled out $60 Billion. Sixty billion works out to over $200 from every man, woman and child in the USA. The US owns 60% of GM. Canada and the United Auto Workers are major stakeholders as well. If not for us, GM would be no more, and there is nothing in the spot that acknowledges that fact. It seems General Motors doesn't get that it's not just talking to it's customers, it's talking to the owners as well. Don't forget that most of those owners are reluctant at best. We didn't want to be in this position, most of us are very unhappy about it and right now we are doubtful GM management can do anything to reverse the situation. That spot does nothing to assuage that doubt.
"The only chapter we're focused on, is Chapter One."
That last line is the most troubling. A clever turn of the phrase that says, "Chapter 11 is in the past, we're not worried about that. We're looking forward." That's not a bad position to take with consumers. It's an awful position to take with your stockholders. In exchange for $60B secured only by your toilet-paper stock, they damn well better be concerned with digging their/our asses out of Chapter 11.

This is a largely unprecedented situation. How do you position your brand when you customer is also a reluctant owner? If they were to be completely honest, the spot wouldn't start with some cliche that no one really believes. It would start with two words: "We're sorry."

Thursday, May 28, 2009

"I'm going to Disneyland!"

By now you've probably heard the bizarre story of Bonnie Sweeten. The suburban mother of three set off a region-wide manhunt with a frantic 911 call that said she and her daughter had been abducted following a traffic accident in Southampton, Bucks County. Her call was from the trunk of the late-model Cadillac that her abductors, two black men, had stuffed her and her 9 year old daughter into.

For television news, it was the trifecta--abducted blond woman, missing little girl, and black suspects. Who could ask for more? Okay, upon closer examination the story made no sense, but is that important?

Understandably, the police had to pursue every lead as if it was real, because that's their job. When life and death are in the balance it's foolish to jump to conclusions. But the initial story stunk to high heaven. A midday accident and abduction on one of the area's most heavily traveled roads with no witnesses or evidence? Off the record the police said the story didn't make any sense. The local print media covered it, but it was pretty obvious they were downplaying the story. Most of the reader comments on were hopeful but skeptical, and many on local forum with a heavy police presense--agreed that this didn't pass the smell test. And, fortunately, it turned out this story was as fake as it sounded.

So what's up with the Today show? How incompetent, desperate or totally unethical do you have to be to look at a story that raises so many red flags and still decide to give it national exposure? I understand why the locals covered it, but there was no reason to rush such a questionable story to the national stage.
One would think that some producer somewhere might have flashed back to Charles Stuart or Susan Smith, and thought maybe the story deserved another day or two at the local level. But, no....when the victim is a blond white woman, and the suspects are black, it must be true. Right?

Thankfully this story is long on bizarre and short of tragic. Because of that, I can enjoy a little moment in the Annals of Unintended Prophecy. Consider the song Dizz Knee Land, recorded by dada way back in 1992.

Dizz Knee Land

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What's Wrong with this Picture?

The great potential and strength of digital media is in its incredible ease of and speed of creation and distribution. The great weakness of digital media is in its incredible ease of and speed of creation and distribution. Consider this item from the the front page of this morning's, what's wrong with that? Writer Stephan Salisbury does a good job of explaining a fairly complex issue without getting too bogged down in the politics. That's not the problem. It's that damn picture. Ignoring the obvious question of why they would choose an AP file photo, when they have a staff of world-class photographers and extensive archives, there's something wrong with that photo. Something is missing....a couple somethings, really.

That image is at lest 3 years old, and probably more. Philadelphia's skyline has undergone a significant transformation since then.

It's understandable that someone might not notice the absence of the Residences at the Ritz-Carlton. The welcome replacement to the hulking scar of One Meridian Plaza is easy to overlook, being tucked in alongside City Hall's tower and Billy Penn. Harder to miss is the absence of the Comcast Center. At 975 feet, the building dominates the Center City skyline.
Quite a difference, don't you think? Is it a huge mistake? No, but it is the sort of thing probably never would have made it into either the Inquirer or Daily News. Before anything goes into a newspaper it gets passed before several sets of eyeballs. It's all about accuracy, clarity and quality. It's about preventing stupid mistakes like this from happening.

In most digital media outlets there is very little, and often nothing, standing between the content creator and the "Publish" button. More troubling, it seems mistakes are not taken as seriously in digital media. Even after the problem with the skyline photo was pointed out, the picture remained unchanged until the story was bumped off the front page well over an hour later.

Online, mistakes are ephemeral--update the story, and the mistake is gone. Unless someone does a screen grab of your page, or it get's cached, the gaffe is soon forgotten. That is a luxury print reporters just don't enjoy. Screw the pooch in print, and the evidence is on doorsteps and mailboxes, and someone somewhere is likely to stash away, perhaps to show up on eBay in the future. Even television isn't immune these days with the possibility of errant reporting living on in perpetuity on YouTube.

Of course, just because mistakes in digital journalism don't hang around to haunt you does not mean they are somehow less important. That's missing the point. The point of journalism is getting it right for the sole sake of getting right--even the little things. Being honest and, to the best of your ability, presenting a factual picture of the world.

In the transition to digital media there has been a tendency to throw the baby out with the bath water. To do away with whole levels of editors because the technology has made them redundant, though it can't replace their oversight. Style, usage, judgment and an eye for detail are now secondary to HTML and Photoshop skills. Getting it out there is more important than getting it right. I've come to expect that mentality from aggrerators like Drudge and Huffington Post where there is little sense of ownership to the content, so long as it supports their agenda. It's more troubling to see it cropping up around publications I trust and respect.

Yes, print media is going to have to make the transition to digital to survive, but if it leaves its core values behind when it does, what's the point?

Friday, May 15, 2009

180 Miles

The beginning of the racing season in cycling takes place in Italy in May. Milan-San Remo, the first of cycling's monuments each year, is also the longest at just about 180 miles. That makes for a long day in the saddle. The pros take about six and a half hours to cover that distance.

This year, Isle of Man native Mark Cavendish had the most left at the end outsprinted some of the fastest ment in the world.

I've never ridden 180 in a day. On a few occasions I've done a vigorous 140, and was pretty much shagged out at the end. Now, the pros are pros, and they train and ride all the time, so I get how they can do 180 miles and still have the energy to sprint it out at the end.

On the other end of the spectrum, consider the case of William Wagner. Long before Cavendish set off for the Via Roma, Mr. Wagner left his home in Havre de Grace, Maryland and set off on his own 180 mile bike ride to Scranton, Pennsylvania. Just as Wagner's destination was less glamorous than Cavendish's, neither was the purpose of his mission. Okay, cyclists ride for money and personal glory, which aren't exactly high-minded purposes....except compared to Wagner's. He rode 180 miles for sex. Sex on a baseball field in a Scranton park. Sex with a fifteen year old girl he met on MySpace.

Cavendish's ride probably secured his position on Columbia-Highroad through 2011, and his name joins the list of other MSR winners, a list that includes some of cycling's greats: Bartali, Coppi and Merckx. Wagner's ride has secured his position with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, and his name will join those on the sex offender registry.

Two rides. One hundred and eighty miles. Two very different outcomes. Remember, people, it's not how far you ride, but why, and what you do at the finish line that counts.

Monday, May 04, 2009

"Hit it like this!"

Ever since Vince had his little run in with the law, his wonderful Slap Chop spot has been conspicuously scarce. Maybe that has something to do with the likelihood of Vince and the phrase "Slap Chop" together conjuring up this image. Too bad, because between ShamWow and Slap Chop, Slap Chop was way more fun to watch. So imagine my joy when Hot Chicks with Douchebags pointed out Steve Porter's brilliant remix, Rap Chop.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Why your brand sucks.

There has been this great video of Danny MacAskill getting a ton of hits lately. I've seen it many times before, but on my last trip to Drunkcyclist, where Gnome included it in a post, I couldn't help but watch it again and again. Here it is, but you really should just watch it in high quality on YouTube.

Completely fuckin' brilliant. Almost as brilliant is, in these days when advertisers and agencies struggle to find ways to get and hold your attention for 30 seconds, millions are clicking away to watch a five-and-a-half minute commercial. A soft sell, to be sure, with only a brief glimpse of the Inspired logo early on and at the end, but most definitely a commercial.

That's nothing new. Skate companies have been promoting their products through videos of their riders for years. If you totaled up all the hits from all the numbers of times this classic Rodney Mullen clip from Globe's Opinion DVD has been posted, you would have tens of millions of views.

Opinion sold a lot on VHS, and even more on DVD, and 15 years later is still popular on YouTube. When all is said and done, it's producer, Globe, was and is all about selling shoes. Bottom line, Opinion was a commercial.

Last year, Fallen, another footwear company, premiered the feature-length Ride the Sky in theaters. Here in Philly it played in some suburban multiplex, which for a lot of kids meant a 40 minute train ride, and 20 more on the bus, then $8.00 for admission. The did all that to see what was basically a commercial for shoes.

Think about the best commercial you ever saw or made. Would you buy it on DVD? Would you spend an hour going across town, then pay to watch it? Yeah, I didn't think so. Neither would I. By the standard of would you pay to watch it the vast majority of ads fail. Most ads fail because most brands fail.

Most brands fail because of a failed assumption. While it is true the essence of a brand is the relationship between the consumer and the product, there is a failure to understand who controls that relationship. The marketing department and the agency and the creatives all operate under the illusion that the brand is something they create and control, but the reality is it is the consumer that makes the brand.

Brands like Inspired, Globe and Fallen understand the consumer, because they are the consumer. The companies are founded and run by riders and skaters. They understand that you don't buy the product for the name, or the logo, but for what it does, so they have guys like Danny MacAskill, Rodney Mullen and Jamie Thomas (Fallen's owner) show you what is possible. They make you want to do something spectacular, incomprehensible or just plan stupid fun. The brand isn't in the bike or the board or the shoes, it's in the ride.

Whenever a big, stupid brand like Pepsi or Gatorade responds to flagging market shares with a new logo, name or slogan, it shows how badly they don't get it. It's not the packing consumers are turning away from, it's what's inside the package. It's the experience. A new logo won't fix that. That they don't get it suggests they haven't spoken to a real consumer, or used their own products for a very long time.

You can't really rebrand your product. Only your customers can do that. All you can do is make them want to try it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

For those of you keeping score at home.

There has been damn little joy in Mudville these past few days. Until Monday, I'd been enjoying the nascent baseball season. The Phillies were off to an only okay start, but they usually start slow, so they actually were ahead of the curve. More surprisingly, the Detroit Tigers, the official team of my childhood, were not already stinking up the basement of the AL Central Division. They didn't get off to a great start, but after going 0-7 last year, this was a plesant turn of events. At 160 games, the baseball season is long. A slow start is no guarantee of a bad season, nor is starting fast an indicator of where a team will be in October. Winter was over, the season had started, and that was good enough.

Monday afternoon, when the word came down that Harry Kalas passed away at 73, it was sad, but not a shock. In recent years it was obvious he was slowing down, though that was easy to forget when listening to him call last year's World Series, or watching him throw out this year's first pitch. Kalas, the voice of the Phillies for 38 years, collapsed in the broadcast booth, preparing to call the series opener with the Washington Nationals.

In the days since, much has been said about how we have lost a great voice. It's all true--Harry Kalas was blessed with a magnificent voice. After the Legendary John Facenda's death, Kalas was NFL Film's choice as The Voice of God. Kalas was to sport what Don LaFontaine was to movie trailers.

While I will miss hearing how he used that voice, ironically, it is perhaps how he didn't use it I will miss most. More than any other broadcaster, Kalas knew when not to talk. Baseball has it's own special rhythm. It ebbs and flows. Tension builds slowly, and releases quickly. Sometimes you have to shut up and listen to appreciate that. Harry got that. He knew when to talk, and when not to. He wasn't afraid of what so many would confuse for dead air. Harry could tell you more about a game with a few well chosen seconds of silence than most can with a lifetime of clever cliches.

Here in Philadelphia the passing of Kalas had such impact, the death of another baseball great almost went unnoticed.

In stark contrast to the long career of Kalas, Mark Fidrych's tenure in Major League Baseball was over almost as soon as it began. After a brilliant 1976, a series of injuries prevented Fidrych from ever achieving his potential. One year, but damn, what a year it was.

Coming off a abysmal 57-102 1975 season, `76 offered little hope of change for the Detroit Tigers . With a roster of aging stars the Tigers were lacking in offensive firepower. To counter the lack of run production, Detroit had only two promising starting pitchers, Dave Roberts and Joe Coleman. In a sport where hope springs eternal, and the overriding theme seems to be, "wait `til next year" it was a team totally lacking in promise. This was next year, and it started off a whole lot like last year.

Everything changed on May 15th. Fidrych wasn't scheduled to start, but got the call when the regular pitcher in the rotation came down with flu. In his debut, Fidrych threw a two hit complete game. The Tigers won 2-1. The response was phenomenal.

It wasn't the substance of Fidrych that was the attraction. Yes, he had incredible control. He gave up few walks and fewer runs. That was all good, but what attracted most fans to Fidrych was his style. He ran to the mound, which he would then meticulously groom on hands and knees. He talked to the ball. When an infielder made a good play, Flidrych would go shake his hand. Cynical opposing batters, used to head games from pitchers, came to accept these antics and respected his genunie uniqueness. The fans loved him. Typically 90% of the seats at Tiger Stadium were empty. When Fidrych pitched, it was to sellout crowds. Beyond Detroit, everywhere he pitched, attendance soared. People only remotely interested in baseball loved The Bird.

A little history is in order here. Despite being the Bicentennial Year, 1976 wasn't a happy time in these United States. Inflation, though down from previous levels, was still high. Unemployment was high, and on the rise. In the wake of 1973's oil crisis domestic auto sales were on a steep decline, and the ascendency of japanese manufacturers had begun. The wakes of Vietnam and Watergate had left America deeply divided. There were deep racial divisions as well. Though Jimmy Carter never actually used the word "malaise," it was an apt description of the mood of the US in the last half of the 1970s.

We needed a distraction. A gangly, long-haired, strage acting kid with a magic arm would provide it. More than his skill on the mound, or his on-field antics, it was the man himself we admired. Though he only made the league-minimum $16,500 while generating revenues of over a million, he never complained. He drove a compact car, lived modestly and loved his life. He loved baseball, and we loved him for it.

This wasn't the first time events at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull provided much needed distration. The World Championship run of the 1968 Tigers is widely acknowledged to be the major factor that kept Detroit from burning in the civil unrest that swept the rest of the nation that summer.

The beauty of baseball--the game Harry Kalas and Mark Fidrych loved and enriched--is that it can change in an instant. One swing of the bat, and it's a whole new ballgame. If you listen closely enough, you can hear it coming. If you can just relax and be in the moment, it can happen.

America could use a good distraction right about now. Some unexpected joy would be welcome. The Tigers are off to a good start....let's hope that's a sign.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Meet the Swinger

After years of waiting, I finally got my first "real" digital camera. Not being a pro, I just didn't shoot enough to justify the price of any digital camera that didn't leave me with that it's nice, but something is missing feeling.

Further complicating matters was the addition of a Kodak P850. Marketed as a prosumer camera, at a very consumer price point of about $200, the P850 did about 90% of what I want to do 90% of the time. All the things you want a snapshot camera to do, it did. Shooting in raw mode, you could get shots that blew up to 8X10 and looked quite nice. Since there was no film or processing to pay for, I shot more. Lots more. So much more that I was able to forget my background as a serious photojournalist, and just snap away like a fool. It had all the fun of the Polaroid Swinger, with the benefit of instant gratification.

The one only thing the new camera, a Canon EOS 40D, has in common with the Swinger is "it's more than a camera, it's almost alive." Alive, yes, but if the Swinger is a playful kitten, the 40D is a hungry tiger. Fun? Hell, yes! But it's a very, very different kind of fun.

Photography today is ubiquitous. The camera in most mobile phones is vastly superior to what you got with the Swinger. Here's a couple from my freebie Sony Ericsson.
Not bad at all. That fun niche filled by the instant camera is long gone. At this point, I suppose I should get all nostalgic abut that, but I can't. The fun of the Swinger was sharing the fun, and people are doing that now more than ever. It wasn't about the camera, but the pictures. So it is with the Canon 40D. With previous digital cameras, there was always that feeling that I could be taking a better picture with a film camera. That feeling simply isn't there with the new camera.

Undoubtedly, there will still be those with a passion for film. There will be those who enjoy that whole process. That used to be me, but not anymore.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Bland Loyalty

Ad Chick had a post that got me thinking. The idea, "Let's Level with the Consumer" was spot on, but that's not what stood out. It was something in the clip from Crazy People that struck a chord.

In the face of blatantly factual copy, the boss is incredulous. "Volvo, boxy, but good. Are you crazy? Are you out of your fucking mind?" Well, not really. While it makes for a funny moment in the movie, on a larger level it fails.

Okay, I get it....the whole crazy adman angle was just a setup to get you to the Dudley Moore/Daryl Hannah romantic comedy, but they really should have done a little homework. "Be safe instead of sexy" really wasn't crazy at all. It was pretty much the Volvo brand for years. This ad came out the year before Crazy People.

Way back in the early 1960s, when it seems every other car commercial was about looks and power, Volvo was selling durability and value.

For years, Volvo kept pressing the same three things: Safety. Durability. Value.

Even when it does get a bit immodest, as in the ad for the 164, it's a soft sell. Almost lost in the copy points on gas mileage, orthopedically designed seats, braking system and ease of parking are the modest claims of "fast enough for any civilized man," and "it looks good." For years, that "it looks good" is about as far as Volvo would go. They never really ran from their boxy image, and in some ways embraced it. So did consumers. Numerous Volvo owner forums have names like the Brick Board, Swedish Bricks and Turbo Bricks. Long before the Honda Element or Scion xB, the ubiquitous Volvo 240 pioneered boxy chic.

The Volvo demographic was perhaps best summed up in a post on one of the owners forums:
"I'm a plain person, and I like plain things."
That's actually a pretty bold statement. It says you know who you are, and you're comfortable with it. Can the guy stuck in traffic beside you in his Porsche 911 say that? What about the suburbanite who paid $65,000 for a Hummer H2 that will never be taken off road? There is image, and then there is reality. Image is easier to sell, but these days it's getting to be a luxury fewer and fewer can afford. If you have any doubt of that, check out where Jeremy Clarkson ranks the boxy, boring and decidedly unsexy Volvo V70 on Top Gear's Cool Wall.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Are you ready for some football?

Amid the controversy over the AIG retention bonuses, I couldn't help but think of another group of millionaires (and one billionaire) now benefiting from the largess of the American Taxpayer. Beyond the suburban homes in Greewich, past the summer cottages on Long Island, way across the pond in the unlikely city of Manchester, England. More specifically, in Old Trafford Stadium--charmingly known as the Theater of Dreams--home of the Manchester United Football Club.

Way back in 2006, AIG entered into a sponsorship deal with Manchester United to the tune of about twenty-five million dollars a year for four years. That's not unusual. Most top European clubs have shirt sponsorship deals. Since real football doesn't have commercial breaks during play, sponsor placement goes just about anywhere there is room for it. That's not a bad thing. Fielding a team of superstars is not cheap, and you have to pay for them somehow. That's fair....

Okay, that's all true, but in tough economic times, when people are losing their jobs and homes and health care, when retirement funds have been wiped out, and long-established business are going under, underwriting the salaries of millionaires is a bitter pill. Worse yet, we are helping defray the cost of what is, in effect, the hobby of a billionaire. Florida based billionaire Malcom Glazer finished his takeover of MUFC in 2005. Glazer also owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and further benefits from the generosity of taxpayers there who spent $200 million in a deal that built him a staduim they also pay to operate, while he gets to keep most of its revenue.

Fair or not, it sucks. But a contract is a contract, and, in the face of billions of dollars, the effort spent to recoup fifty million is probably better spent trying to fix a more important part of this economic debacle.

Still, while we are stuck in a lousy situation, we should make the best of it. Since American taxpayers own 80% of AIG, and AIG is paying to have their crappy logo on the front of Manchester United's strip, we should get something more out of the deal. How about we change the AIG's logo to something a little less bland and corporate, and more reflective of the new ownership?

Maybe something like this? Much better. Simple, clean and tasteful. I suspect some of the fans might not be thrilled, but a contract is a contract, and as long as we are holding up our end, they can deal with it. Yes, there is danger in it as well. The Royal Bank of Scotland owns Citizens Bank, which has naming rights to Citizens Bank Park, home of the World Champion Phillies. As part of their own bailout, England's taxpayers bought a 58% percent stake in RBS. If the Brits took offense to the premiere team of the Premier League flying the stars and stripes, they could retaliate. They could change the name of Citizens Bank Park to RBS Park or William Wallace Memorial Stadium. So long as the cheese steak concession on Ashburn Alley isn't replaced with a haggis stand, the fans would scarcely notice the change. We may have had our differences in the past (I remember hearing about some unpleasantness a couple hundred years ago) but we seem to have gotten beyond all that now.

One other benefit is that just maybe....just for once, we might get to see a soccer team wearing the American flag win a match that anyone really cares about. And that--even at the cost of $50 million--would be a bargin.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Put down the torch and pitchfork.

While it might be satisfying to literally skewer a few CEOs, it's not legal yet. Via Calculated Risk, Jet Blue has done the next best thing. I suspect this is a theme we will be seeing a lot more of.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

We're an American Brand

After finally taking the time to visit the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act website, I would like to say I am impressed. I'd like to, but I can't.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all about Obama, and the ARRA is a good--if somewhat tenuous--step toward the shallow end of our economic dead pool. The content there is good.

It's what's not there that bothers me.

What has always been attractive about Obama has been his balance of style and substance. Sure, he's a policy wonk--but he knows how to use the power of words and imagery to enliven his policy positions and engage the public. It's that whole brand Obama thing.

The power of the Obama brand wasn't that you believed him when he said, "Yes we can!" The power is that he made you want to believe.

The problem with the ARRA website is that it's more PowerPoint than powerful. It is as engaging as the list of possible side effects medical ads are required to include (and without the wonderful prospect of a four hour erection).

Obama's themes of Hope, Progress and Change were empowering. The subtext was a coming together, shouldering the yolk and getting America back were it needs to be. There is none of that in the "Recovery." Recovery reeks of passivity. It's what you do when you're sick...."just lay down, take your medicine, and do what the doctor says and you'll recover." At the time when citizens should be the most involved, the message seems to be the opposite.

Even the recovery logo is a bit tepid. It certainly does fulfill the design criteria of not looking too governmental, and that, I think is where it fails.

In case you haven't been paying attention, this is a government program. Why run from that fact? Why not embrace it? The very essence of the Obama message was that the government is not "them," it "us." After decades of being told government is an external thing, a bad and incompetent thing that some vague entity out there is doing to us, we are presented with a unique opportunity to rebrand what government is. It is us, working together, doing the things we want and need to accomplish.

By branding this as something other than governmental, we're just left with the nebulous Recovery. It sells the goal, not the process--and if when recovery is achieved, what then? When the goal is achieved, do we abandon the ethos and ideals that got us there?

Part of the Obama brand has been this cool, "relax, I've got this" vibe. And, for the most part, he's got this. There is no reason to panic, because we can handle this. We've been through this before. We've been through worse before. We've handled it. Obama's got this because he is following a model that has worked in the past. Remember the New Deal?

Yes, I understand why nobody wants to associate this with the New Deal. The New Deal invokes the inevitable image of, and comparison to, the Great Depression. Few politicians want to do that. But, why not? The most important thing about the Great Depression is that it's over. We got through it, and went on to thrive.

We don't need a new logo, or model to go forward. There is no greater argument than success. We did this before, and it worked. We can do it again. Along the way, we built much of what we take for granted as America.

As a connoisseur of irony, living in Oklahoma was something a treat for me. When people spoke of FDR and the New Deal, they usually decried him as a socialist who stood against everything that made Lee Greenwood's America great. All the while, there was a good chance they had gone to a school built by the WPA. The Works Progress Administration was responsible for many courthouses, armories, roads, post offices and parks throughout the state. If, upon hearing the name Roosevelt, an Okie were to spit on the ground, odds are the sidewalk he spat upon would have a WPA stamp.

When rural Americans listen to Rush Limbaugh explain how the New Deal and big government are destroying America, it is likely the electricity powering the radio station and radio receivers is at some level courtesy of the REA, TVA, or a WPA project. Before the REA, only one in ten rural homes had electricity. After the REA, only one in ten was without.

The United States that emerged from the New Deal went on to prevail in World War II, and send mankind to the moon. By embracing the names, the symbols and imagery of the New Deal and WPA, we embrace it's success. When small-minded demagogues portray recovery efforts as socialist and un-American, they argue against what has made America successful and prosperous.

Rather than avoiding a governmental look, the recovery should be wrapped in the past, and in the flag. One of the most enduring images of the New Deal was Lester Beall's poster for the REA. A smiling farm couple at a fence. Behind them, a field of blue, with red and white stripes. That's all. That's all that's needed. The message is simple. You're Americans. We're Americans. Don't worry, we've got your back. We will get through this.