Television & Another Summer of Discontent

Blitz Magazine, July 2003

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It’s a hot, humid night—too hot to read, and the dog won’t be walked. So, there’s TV.

The Miss Universe Pageant. This is so redundant and so insulting, it doesn’t bear discussion. But wait! Miss Canada is one of the finalists. Hoping for a Canadian victory, I keep watching. Donald Trump, owner of this ultra-passé travesty, is hunched in the front row, wearing his signature pout and cheap dye job. The co-host asks the Soap Star judge how he’s doing. The dough-head responds: “Well I’m sure glad they narrowed down the selection for us!” Oh? Who narrowed down the selection? Could it be that the judges have nothing to do with choosing the winner? That the whole thing is fixed in advance? Surely not!

My heart sinks as Miss Canada confesses to having a university degree (one of her co-finalists, Miss Montenegro, is a malnourished 18 year-old whose Interest is cats—she loves cats.) Then, Oh no! Miss Canada tells the interviewer that she’s “not into the hair-and-make-up thing”! Wrong thing to say in this crowd, baby! Bye bye!

CSI Miami. While it’s flattering to see a hit US show that’s a direct knock-off of a Canadian show (Da Vinci’s Inquest—inspired by the current Vancouver mayor’s career as a coroner and RCMP officer). Both CSI franchises are increasingly silly and far-fetched. But they’re educational. I’ve learned that, in this version of real life, er death, the police are secondary and don’t do any crime-solving. I’ve learned that, in Las Vegas and Miami, CSIs only work on high-glamour murders. I’ve learned that CSIs can have no personality whatsoever. And that, if you’re a woman who wants to be a CSI in Miami, you have to have implants, wear the tightest clothing you can find, be willing to spend hours on your hair, and wear more make-up than the local Mary Kay rep.

The unfortunate Miss Canada has, therefore, lost out on another career choice.

Click. Commercials. BC Gas has changed its name; the ad publicizing this has two grammatical errors. Tim Horton’s has the audacity to run, for a second season, what was already a seriously stupid commercial, wherein a young couple goes gaga over a strawberry tart that looks like a bloody botulism/polypropylene mutation. Then a ray of light: the VISA ‘Sing For Your Supper’ spot. Brilliant.

Next up, something called For Love or Money. There’s a group of women, all freshly botoxed and sun-bedded with bleached teeth and voices like chain-smoking Valley girls. (This awful voice seems to be the new American Girl sound—and it’s migrating north at a frightening pace.) And there’s a guy who thinks he’s supposed to fall in love with one of these creatures. He doesn’t now that they’re in it for a million dollars. At the end of the show, he has to dump some of the girls, keep others. No one on the show is in the least embarrassed by participating in this inanity. I sure am. Click.

Dog Eat Dog. Survivor.  American Junior. American Senior. American Lampshade. Surely I’m not the only one who sees the craze for tacky competition shows as degrading to participants and viewers. It’s human humiliation as entertainment. Intellectual battery as commerce. Click.

tv6Wonder of wonders, a bad Volkswagen commercial. A couple is worried about getting a goldfish home. The fish is in a large, water-filled tank. Don’t goldfish like large, water-filled tanks? And the driver needs directions to get to her own home. Then, Egads! The Dreaded Swiffer commercial. The voice they hired has managed to transmit her vocal sounds directly through her nose. Someone should ram the broom down her throat and give it a good swiff. Click.

Ah, another SARS press briefing. This is good—I’m not hearing enough about SARS. I’m wishing that someone would start a SARS Channel, so the whole world can get All SARS All The Time. A reporter from the Toronto Star asks a question. She uses the non-word ‘irregardless’. Ugh.

The Larry King Show. The usual suspects are busily trying Scott Peterson, discussing evidence, dissecting, speculating. I speculate that the only untainted jury candidates available will be those who find it intellectually taxing to watch CNN. I hear OJ chuckling.

Law & Order. Bravo! wants the hour to run to 50 minutes, and it wants to be able to pack in as many commercials as it possibly can. So it’s editing each show to fit its parameters. I know this because I’ve seen each episode so many times that I often know what characters are going to say before they say it. On Bravo!, what those characters once said is just plain missing—along with those pesky clues, confessions and revelations.

In addition, the Bravo! folks feel the need to insert a viewer warning after every single commercial break: “This program contains scenes of violence and mature subject matter. Viewer discretion is advised.’ Although, I guess this is a good thing, given that there are 4 year-olds all across Canada fighting to stay awake at 8:30 p.m. to watch the hilarious antics of Jack McCoy and Lennie Briscoe. Click.

The Mercedes Ice Cream commercial. Genius. But wait! It’s the dreaded Herbal Essence Shampoo ad! I wonder if the people behind these ads realize what kind of reaction the profoundly idiotic ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! is met with. If they know how many women are thinking ‘No! No! No! I’ll never use that product because I don’t want to become a bimbo!’ The bit was funny in When Harry Met Sally; that’s where it should stay.

Back to the CBC. More on mad cow. One sick cow and it’s the Story of the Century. A farmer finally complains about the media saturation. He should. All the coverage of slaughter, the depictions of how these animals are treated, and the facts about testing, about what cattle eat, what we end up eating…it’s back to Vegetarianville for me.

NYPD Blue. Why is this stale old show still on the air? Still with the bad lighting, the cheesy set design and the jerky camera. Does anyone know anyone who actually speaks the way these characters do? Don’t homicide detectives ever laugh? Click.

In an interview, Katie Couric asks Laci Peterson’s mother if public support has ‘booeed’ her spirits. How much does Couric earn? Maybe they need to pay her more.

Commercial: Nike is telling inner-city kids that its shoes are cool—but that it’s also cool to own snarling Pit Bulls and Rottweilers, and keep them tied to fences. I’d like to have a word with the creative director.

tv1I’m sorry to keep going back to the 9/11 thing, but I always look for the possible benefits of bad situations. I remember, just after the awful event, seeing Dubya at a meeting with Hollywood bigwigs—Lansing, Spielberg et al. At first, I found this chilling, because I figured it meant lots of propaganda. I was right—we soon saw Band of Brothers, among many other shows with the theme of Military Hero! and American Values!

But then I thought that the disaster could produce another result—that it might force the entertainment industry to get its act together. That the networks would insist on it. That viewers, and advertisers, would insist on it. I thought that it would make producers realize that there’s a huge responsibility involved in communicating with millions of people. That their audience is filled with different types of people with myriad experiences and stories and goals and fabulously rich histories. I thought that producers might get creative, and make shows that would inform, entertain and educate—in an intelligent fashion. So people could learn, laugh, appreciate other people and maybe be forced to think.

You’re thinking: “You were wrong, Dorothy.”

I certainly was. What we got was John Ritter in a tizzy over the fact that his teen-age daughter is growing up (gasp here), a mini-series on Adolph Hitler, and a guy on Will & Grace telling someone not to put his penis up someone’s bum.

I’m not asking for a steady diet of BBC-quality historical drama all the time, but come on.

tv4Yes, the lazy hazy days of summer. But is everyone on vacation at the same time? No. Is everybody partying every night of week? No. So why, I wonder for the millionth time, do network executives schedule fill the summer season with nothing but fetid, putrid, drivel-dripping crap? If it’s because they assume that no one’s watching, then shouldn’t advertisers make the same assumption and pull their ads?

I tune out altogether. I go to the bookcase, close my eyes and extract the first book I touch. It’s Ulysses. Yikes. Well, why not. I certainly can’t watch television.

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Fed Up With Hypocrisy : Bad Journalism Sparks a Rant

Blitz Magazine, March 2003

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Winston Churchill, a man famous for his powers of recall, remarked that a good memory was often a sorrow and an inconvenience (to him and, I presume, many others). And the only thing, I’m sure, which I have in common with Winston Churchill is a mind like a steel trap.

This is relevant because I used to be a social columnist. For three years, I covered up to 20 events a week. And not just galas and luncheons, but political events, sports events, functions involving law enforcement and military types, small parties, large parties, parties in honour of people from all walks of life and celebrating, or raising money for, an endless array of things.

This became relevant when BC Premier Gordon Campbell found himself living the nightmare of his life, after he was charged with impaired driving while on vacation in Hawaii. It was national news but, in BC, it was a feeding frenzy. The man’s mortification was gleefully compounded by everyone from journalists, to unionistas, to ‘pundits’, to people on the street. Local stations repeatedly devoted as much as 30 minutes to the story—some sent journalists to Hawaii, for Pete’s sake. I was as embarrassed by the coverage as I was for Campbell. The Hospital Employees Union is now using the incident in radio ads, and you can bet that the left is planning to dredge it all up in the next election.

So I’m watching, listening and reading the opinions of these people and the ol’ Winstonian memory is ticking like a stopwatch, and I’m thinking ‘Hey, but don’t you remember that night at the press club when you….?’ and ‘Wait a minute, what about the night you…?’ and ‘Surely you haven’t forgotten the incident at….!’ ‘And how did you get home?’

The only time I was tempted to actually speak up was when Opposition Leader Joy McPhail spoke up. Her party has (for good reason) only two seats and she is the most hypocritical, odious and opportunistic politician I’ve ever encountered. This is a woman not known for her, shall we say, demure social behaviour. ‘Lucky for her that my notebooks from those years are buried in a crammed crawl space, and that I’m too lazy to dig them out.

To those calling for Campbell’s head, and/or planning to use this incident it to fulfill their own agendas, I suggest that they search their memory banks to see if they’ve ever broken the law, whether the violation involved rolling through a stop sign, speeding through a school zone or neglecting to mention purchases at Canada Customs. They should be absolutely certain that they’ve never driven a vehicle after having too much wine, or after smoking a joint. Once they’re sure that they’re pure and innocent, they can squawk all they want. If they’re not blameless, they should shut up and let the man do his job.

sword1Journalistic free-for-alls are all-too-common these days. The rules seem to have been discarded. In the US, the FBI fabricated a story about five terrorists who had crossed the Canadian/US border to conduct a New Year’s Eve attack on New York. No journalist bothered to check the facts—one idiot working for a CBS affiliate claimed that he had shared a bus ride from BC with one of the ‘terrorists’—a man who was happily living in Lahore and had never been anywhere near Canada. The story was everywhere, Canada was blamed for everything. When it turned out that the story was false, there were no admissions of journalistic negligence.

‘Hard to believe that Pat Buchanan, one of the most dangerous men in America, has his own television show. Alas, he does and he spends a lot of time blaming Canada for America’s inability to guard its borders. He seems to forget that the US/Mexico border is one of the world’s most porous; indeed, I doubt that the US government could even hope to calculate the true populations of Florida, California and New York. (If he actually did the research, he’d know that 1% of people who illegally enter the US do so through Canada.)

And the National Review? Could there be a more precious organ for the paranoid and redneck? I can’t even stand to skim its website, never mind touch the physical product. This magazine is replete with inaccuracy and historical revisionism. To wit, a recent article which had the gall to suggest that Canada should be grateful to Americans for “all we’ve done for them”. Oh? Well, what would that be? Hmmm. I’m not really coming up with anything. Maybe the US lost a good chunk of its male population while staving off the enemy in WWI, while Canada took two years to show up? No, that’s not right—it was the other way around. And again in WWII? No, it was the Americans who were three years late…

I still feel for California politician Gary Condit who, by all accounts, was an honest and hard-working professional. Following the disappearance of one of his interns, he was quickly convicted, by the press, of murder. His career, finances and reputation were ruined. Trashed. The charge was led by Larry King and his posse of ‘crime experts’, and abetted by Vanity Fair, which allowed both Dominick Dunne and Judy Bachrach to absolutely skewer Condit. But the nail in his coffin was probably his decision to sit for what was an obscenely ridiculous interview with Connie Chung. Chung used the interview to revive a flat-lined career and was rewarded with her own show on CNN. We now know that Condit had nothing to do with the disappearance of the victim. Has anyone apologized to him?

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Closer to home, there have been alarming signs of journalistic decline. CTV Vancouver, for example, recently showed post-event ‘footage’ of the scene of an incident, without bothering to tell viewers that what they were seeing was shot after the incident took place. The same station reported the urban myth that a well-wisher snuck a puppy into Vancouver General Hospital to present to the victim of a dog attack. And the Seattle networks have taken to luring viewers to their newscasts by referring to Vancouver news stories as ‘Northwest Stories’.

And all over North America, in the US in particular, what one looks like is way more important than what one is saying. Anchor make-up is thicker, hair is more helmet-like, the clothing budgets higher but, increasingly, what we’re seeing and hearing on television news is sensationalistic, maudlin and biased. Reporting the actual facts, and providing the required background, is just so secondary. That sends credibility out the window. As I’ve said before, no credibility, no viewers/readers/listeners. No audience, no advertisers. Bad journalism is bad business.

The best journalists are always, and have always been, people who couldn’t wait to get out of high school before beginning to investigate the world—if they even bothered to finish high school. And there is no doubt that ‘journalism school’ is a colossal waste of time and money. People cannot be taught how to write well. People cannot be taught to be succinctly articulate, or to simultaneously think broadly and in terms of detail. People cannot be taught to develop instinct and curiosity. They cannot be taught to acquire integrity, discretion and love for the truth. People can only be taught the rules. And it’s increasingly obvious that people cannot be taught to remember, or care about, those rules.

I Read My SPAM & Call the RCMP

Blitz Magazine, September 2003

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It’s 8:00 a.m. I turn on my computer and check my email. I have 93 messages. If you’re producing a corporate newsletter and distributing it by email, or paying someone else to do it, you should think about who’ll have time to read it. I sure don’t. I’m faced with 11 corporate newsletters and all are immediately deleted.

There are four offers of low-cost drugs. Steroids for muscles. Phentermine, Didrex and Adipex (i.e. Speed) for weight loss. Here’s a new drug that will “kill all known deadly viruses and bacteria in the body, including the common cold, flu, cancer, HIV and SARS.’ Abe Lincoln offers me a pill that promises to reduce my fat content, increase my muscle tone and energy levels, make me sleep better, improve my dexterity, memory, eyesight and sexual performance, all while dissolving my wrinkles and making me live longer. Wow!

There are six offers of cheap Viagra. I think not. People might find me downright troublesome if I was hopped up on that stuff. I wonder if (why) FedEx allows its logo to appear on these drug-pushing pages. And I wonder who’s stupid enough to buy drugs from pharmacists who can’t be seen, heard, touched or sued.

And what’s with these people who spend money on porn sites? Life is short. Why spend hours in front of a computer screen, watching other people have sex? Really. If you’re bored, there are thousands of wrongs to be righted; millions of people who need help—do some volunteer work. If you’re a closet homosexual, come on out. If you’re a lonely heterosexual, clean yourself up and get a date. If you’re married and your only sexual activity is from the Internet, get a divorce. If your thing is sex with animals or little kids—well, do us all a favour and fling yourself off a bridge.

Here’s an email from Robert De Niro. And another from Patrick Swayze. Both want me to have a bigger penis. I get dozens of these every week. A few contain before-and-after shots. Ew.

On the other hand, I don’t have a big penis. Maybe I should get one. ‘Not sure what to do with it. Could it be a chew toy for the Poodle? If not, do I keep it in the fridge or the freezer? In plastic wrap or foil? In a shoe box or a Tupperware container? Do I water it? I’ll have to ask Mr. De Niro for more info.

Next, a Russian girl wants to murry me and make me a happly mun. There’s a Dorm Porn message, complete with deed-in-action image. It bears the McDonald’s logo. What is that? Something to do with golden arches? Secret sauce? Ew again.

Oh! An email from Tom Hanks! “Good Morning! I was talking with Customer nowadays and he told me that he seen your albums at this website. Painful to believe, but Look at it! Ha ha!”

Tom evidently went to the same school as Miss Slutty, who writes: “Hey Customer! Is it correct you love dears from Argentina? 100% its factual, because we have hard to believe albums!”

spam3There’s the standard Nigerian I-need-your-money-to-get-my-money letter. And another informing me that my credit card was used fraudulently at BestBuy and that I need to immediately send the correct number. I reply to both of these, very very rudely. And it feels good.

Someone wants to give me a no-interest mortgage. Okay. Someone else wants me to pay him to get government money (he must think I live in Quebec). This guy wants to sell me a ‘Banned CD’ that lets me spy on people; another wants me to buy software that will ensure that my wife cannot track my Internet use. Kevin Costner offers me a low-cost Harvard MBA. And this guy wants me to buy marine insurance, plus ‘placement of tugs, barges and bumbershoots’. Sign me up!

The messages that burn me the most are those offering mass-emailing services. One says that a ‘New IP Messenger Will Be Blasting Your Ads to Millions!’ Another, from a site with the suffix ‘promotoday’ offers ‘emailed ads to 27 million people for $129.00!’ And here’s 24/7 Media offering 700,000 email addresses (‘permission-based’, it claims). Presumably, none of these people believe in the principal of karma.

I have some time, so I use what removal options are provided. Half don’t work, including one ostensibly provided by Norton. Some forward me to the sites of hapless URL owners who have nothing to do with the mass emails. I think, again, about getting SPAM-blocking software, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it’s more trouble than it’s worth. I send everything to my Block Senders list, which numbers in the thousands.

It’s the same thing every day. I can’t block everyone. A talented man in India sends me poetry, and I have friends who spend a lot of time reading, writing and disseminating thoughtfully-moral-maybe-uplifting-maybe-funny messages. And I have to delete messages slowly because a lot of people want to subscribe and buy advertising—and lookee here, a legitimate news release that I will actually print.

An hour later, I think: “Why cam I putting up with this? Hey! I’ll call the cops! If the Royal Canadian Mounted Police can’t help, who can?’

I speak to RCMP Sgt Bruce Imrie of the Integrated Technology Crime Unit in Vancouver. It turns out that the The Law really can’t help. Pornography isn’t illegal unless it involves minors. The porn sites aren’t making offers of participation in intercourse, as prostitutes do. If children see these emails, proof would have to be found that the sends intended for minors to see them. And this is an international matter and ages of consent vary by country.

It’s illegal to sell controlled substances without a license, and there are lots of scams that are blatantly fraudulent but, Imrie points out, there’d have to be thousands of police officers chasing the scammers. I posit the idea that bonded, freelance tekkies could be contracted to fight Internet crime; Imrie says that the same money could be spent on police officers and Canadian tax-payers probably don’t want to foot that bill. The Internet’s international nature further muddies the waters. Jurisdiction lies where the crime’s most significant elements occur. Is Vladimir Putin going to make this a priority?

Imrie agrees that these useless and offensive emails waste time, put children and seniors at risk, tie up bandwidth and are a major annoyance to business. And he says that it’s going to be a problem for a long time. There will always be new methods of blocking, and the creeps will always find ways around these methods. I tell him that I wonder why these slimebags don’t find something else to do with their lives, their time, their brains. A naive question, obviously. He points out that their goal is to make easy money and that they only need a 1% return on these Spam Scams to make a profit.

I decide to ask the Internet Advertising Bureau for its opinion. I go to its website and send an email. No response. I send another. No response. I try to reach members of its board. No response. I call the BC Pharmacy Association. I guess I’m not the first; the association has requested that its phone number be disconnected.

spam4So we all know that we have a problem. Spam is costing the corporate world millions in lost time, especially if employees are dumb enough to open attachments and follow links and pop-ups. Which leads to the welcoming of worms and viruses, which leads to lost work, lost data, more lost time and higher technical repair and maintenance costs.

The solution is this: People have to be made aware of what’s legitimate and what’s not. They have to be taught to spot scams when they see them. They have to be convinced to not participate. To not reply. To not buy.

We need advertising around this. We need ad agencies to hook up with chambers of commerce, boards of trade, professional organizations and government bodies. We need comprehensive, long-term, in-your-face campaigns to remind people to delete, delete, delete, Do Not Enter, Do Not Pass Go.

Some will say: ‘No! It’ll ruin e-commerce!’ I don’t think so. If e-commerce is legitimate, non-exploitive and engaged in offering legal goods and services to consenting adults, then professional companies have nothing to worry about. Indeed, legitimate e-commerce companies should help fund public awareness campaigns—it’s in their best interest to put an end to email abuse.

spam1Spam Scams have got to be stopped. And they can be stopped. Even though it’s the Internet, with no borders, or even laws, to stop it, every scam is a business enterprise. In the case of Scammers, remember that 1% return Imrie cited. They lose that and they’re gone.

Religion on TV: It Has to be a Choice

Blitz Magazine, May 2002

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I’m watching a murder mystery on 48 Hours. Suddenly, the show is interrupted by a sickly-looking man in a grey suit telling me that I should read the Bible. Then he reads a passage from the Bible, which explains why I’m supposed to read the Bible.

I realize that I’m watching 48 Hours on NowTV, a newly-created Canadian ‘family values’ station. I check the listings and find that 48 Hours is also on the American channel. I switch to the CBS channel; same signal. The grey man is still there, telling viewers to read the Bible.

I change the channel. Get NBC. Dateline. The subject is the latest sex abuse scandal to hit the Catholic Church. I watch a woman state that, for 10 years, she complained to her diocese executives about a priest who, she knew, was abusing boys. When asked why she simply didn’t call the police, she said that the priests told her not to.

I change the channel. I get a re-run of a recent news conference held by the local Anglican archdiocese. The British Columbia government is currently conducting a referendum to allow the public to voice its opinion on how aboriginal land treaties should be settled. The Anglican Church, which has much to answer for as far as treatment of aboriginals is concerned (and knows it), has told its flock to vote ‘no’ on all of the referendum questions.

The maxim that there absolutely must be a clear separation between Church and State is as true today as it was hundreds of years ago, when it was first enshrined in democratic processes. Religions are not supposed to tell us what to do. They are based on philosophy, faith, superstition and folklore. The priests, ministers, pastors etc., are supposed to present the ideals of their religious affiliations to accepting members of their congregations, and use those mores to offer guidance, when it is requested.

Politics, while also ideological, is fact-based. It follows the laws of economics and geography, and the facts of history. It reacts to reality. It creates reality. It provides reasonably workable frameworks within which we co-exist. And the people put in office to make the decisions which form these frameworks are elected by independent, free-thinking individuals.

What politicians and clergy do share is power over society—power that is granted to them by those they serve. It is, therefore, essential that there be reportage on how their actions affect us. The two institutions should be completely open to journalistic scrutiny, but neither institution can be allowed to fill the airways with dogma. I may have been watching some mindless ‘news’ show, which will in no way enhance my intellectual or spiritual life, but that’s my business. I am allowed to watch anything I like, and at no time did I consent to be interrupted by some guy spouting scriptural samplings.

Religion has caused must distress and bloodshed over the centuries. In my lifetime, it’s been Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestine, the American Religious Right, Muslim Fanaticism. When religion ceases to offer solace and guidance and begins to dictate the thoughts and actions of its adherents, it can do tremendous damage to society as a whole. Ferocious, irrevocable harm.

I’ve always been relieved that Canadians, while being free to practice any religion of their choosing, have also always been able to keep religion in perspective. That religion has never been allowed to force its way into our homes. That if we didn’t feel like being preached at, or hit up for money in the name of God, we could just change the channel.

Religious programming has always been there, always freely available to anyone who wants it. But, much more importantly, it has always been avoidable by those who wish to conduct their spiritual practices in the privacy of their own heads. In has to stay that way.

 

Public Relations ‘Professionals’ : The Damage Done

Blitz Magazine, January 2004

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Some of the PR people out there may have noticed that I’m not returning their calls. If they want to know why, they need only look at the recent issues of their favourite magazines. They’ll notice that these publications are markedly thinner than they were two years ago, six months ago. This is what happens when magazines lose the support of those who need them. We can no longer blame 9/11; the Canadian economy is healthy. I place the blame squarely with the Public Relations industry.

There’s a company in Western Canada that provides firms with short-term marketing and advertising personnel. Blitz is the perfect advertising vehicle for this firm. Its president, an MBA and years of marketing experience, was about to sign a one-year contract with Blitz. Then he called to say that he had changed his mind, and had entrusted his entire marketing budget to a PR consultant. The PR consultant is sucking up a good portion of that budget in fees, is industriously spitting out news releases and has placed all of his client’s allocated advertising dollars into the sponsorship of golf tournaments. ‘Strange, and dumb, but true.

I start getting said releases. Aside from the fact that they’re replete with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, they’re irrelevant. Do I care that this company is sponsoring golf tournaments? No—it doesn’t fit my editorial mandate. But the consultant doesn’t know that because he didn’t do his homework. He can’t write, he’s lazy and he’s sabotaging a firm that had great potential but which, I now believe, will not be around for long.

(My favourite is the Web marketing thing. People channel their marketing dollars into developing their websites. They pay PR firms to send out endless news releases announcing their new sites. Then, instead of advertising the sites, they sit and wait for Net surfers to stumble upon them.)

There’s much talk these days about ROI, which everyone wants. Lately, the word is that advertising isn’t bringing in ROI. But, despite what people say, ROI is very difficult to measure. Media buyers look at numbers of people reached, who those people are and the costs to reach those people—they don’t demand guarantees that the advertising will work, because they know better. What advertising does is keep a company’s name and services in people’s faces. It supports all other sales and marketing efforts. It’s not the magic bullet for increasing business—it’s the gun.

Last week, a certified PR professional said to me: “We provide tangible ROI—the evidence is in the write-ups our clients get in newspapers and magazines, or radio mentions, or whatever.”

Or whatever. It’s illogical, and foolish, to assume that mentions in the media will bring increased business. There’s no guarantee that an editor will do more than glance at a news release. If a release piques interest, there’s no guarantee that the release will culminate in a positive story—it could end up sparking a career-ending expose. And so what if your company gets a positive media mention? Is that going to send consumers scrambling for your product? Of course not.

PR people are great persuaders. But those who sell PR as a solution, rather than as a small part of an overall communications strategy, are doing huge damage. They’re not bringing their clients closer to ROI nirvana. They’re wasting tons of money, they’re hurting their clients’ long-term prospects and they’re damaging the media properties that cannot stay in business without advertising dollars—plus all the designers, writers, producers etc., that rely on those media properties.

If PR ‘professionals’ continue to divert dollars into their own pockets, and away from advertising vehicles, they’re not going to have any media properties to contact. They can send out all the news releases they like, but there will be no magazine editors left to read them.

 

Jazz: It’s All That

Blitz Magazine, May 2003

Festival: n Time of festive celebration; merry-making; [periodic] series of performances.

jazz1Jazz: n Syncopated dance music, of US Negro origin, with characteristic harmony and rag-time rhythm; (slang) pretentious talk; ~ adj Discordant, loud or fantastic in colour ~ v Dance to, play, jazz; arrange (music) as jazz; arrange (pattern) in vivid or grotesque form; brighten, liven, up.

In this day and age, it’s hard to believe that our society’s cultural deep-freeze was such that jazz was something that could be enjoyed only behind closed doors. You had to be a grown-up, you had to be of a certain race or class, or you had to be slumming.

In fact, the first proper jazz festival didn’t take place until 1954. That was the famed Newport Jazz Festival, which has presented Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck and Billie Holiday, among many others, and has stirred a lot of controversy: riots in 1960, 1971 and 1972 caused the festival to move to New York; it didn’t return to Newport until 1991.

Luckily, the Newport idea caught on and, with the help of Newport Fest founder George Wein, festivals were initiated in London, Paris, Rome and Berlin. Today, there are jazz festivals all over the world—from Turkey to Australia to India. Each year, tiny Italian villages burst with festival visitors; the concept is huge in Japan. Canadians, of course, are always up for anything and the country now hosts some of the world’s top jazz festivals, most notably in Montreal and Vancouver.

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The Vancouver festival consistently presents one of the most culturally-diverse music celebrations in the world, gracing the city with what the Vancouver Sun has called “Ten Days of Heaven”.

All day, every day, inside and outside, jazz of all styles is presented at 40 venues, by 1700 musicians doing 400 shows, many of which are free. With 2002 attendance of 430,000, it is the largest cultural event in western Canada and one of the biggest musical events in the nation.

Festival co-founder John Orysik calls this festival—any jazz festival—‘a cultural lubricant’.

“The jazz festival engages people. It brings music to a large group of people in a short span of time, and it brings the music to everyone—people of all ages, races, socio-economic levels. It allows music to be introduced, and marketed, strategically and effectively, in the biggest context, and it has an event cachet that you don’t get with a one-off concert.”

Orysik explains what it is that makes jazz so popular in every corner of the globe. “It’s the spirit, the energy, the freedom. The music is…everything.”

Caninus Sellus : Dogs in Advertising

Blitz Magazine, January 2004

 

dogs1Dogs and children—they get us every time. Or do they? All babies may be adorable, but not all children are cute. The personalities of some are lackluster; the cuteness of others contrived.

It’s different with dogs. They don’t have to be cute, in the classic sense. But they pique our interest. Even people who don’t want dogs, or who don’t like dogs, like to look at dogs. We find them compelling.

To find out why this is, and why dogs work in advertising, Blitz spoke to University of British Columbia Professor of Psychology and renowned dog expert Stanley Coren. Dr. Coren is host of the Life Network’s Good Dog!, and the best-selling author of 17 books, including Why We Love the Dogs We Do, The Intelligence of Dogs, and How to Speak Dog.

Blitz   What is the psychological appeal of dogs in advertising?

Stanley Coren      The same thing that’s appealing about children. Dogs have been designed, by us through breeding, to appeal to us through their juvenile characteristics. They have the push nose and big eyes the way children do, and the response to that—our desire to take care of them, is wired into us.

The dogs that produce that response most strongly are those that have broad faces, long ears—as opposed to prick ears, and a ‘stop’ on the muzzle—where the muzzle takes a sharp upturn to the forehead. So the dogs that would most appeal are Beagles, retrievers, spaniels etc—not Rottweilers.

B        And the use of dogs in visual communications makes the message more appealing?

SC     There’s some scientific evidence of that. One study that looked at the acceptance value by people of products, found that introducing a visual of a dog in TV ads produced a 7% increase in acceptance of the product. It made no difference what the product was. Freud noted that the presence of dogs in his office made kids feel safe, and kept his Chow Chow in his office when he was seeing children.

B        So people instinctively respond positively to dogs, as opposed to reacting with fear.

SC     Fear is cultural or learned. And dogs are not wild animals. Man created dog. I don’t necessary agree with the DNA evidence that says that dogs have been with us for 125,000 years. But the paleontological evidence is clear—dogs have been domesticated for 14,000 years. And if you remember that we didn’t have agriculture until 10,000 years ago, that means that dogs were with us before we knew how to grow our own food. No animal has had a longer contract with human beings.

So the presence of a familiar, non-threatening dog increases everyone’s feelings of safety and security. From an advertiser’s point of view, that’s a warm feeling that will transfer to a product.

It’s the same kind of rationale that goes behind using children. In general, seeing children tends to produce a warm response.  There is a form of learning that leads to emotional responses. It’s called Classical Conditioning—you see a porcupine, you know the spines could hurt you, you feel fear and every time you see a porcupine image you’ll remember that fear. The sight of dogs or children produces the same effect, only with the warm response—whether you put their images with chain saws or perfume.

Advertisers want two things—to have their products remembered and to have positive associations attached to those products. Anything that will do that will work. Dogs do that. Cats don’t. Even though domestic cats have round faces, they still have cat faces and pricked ears. And cats are a bit more threatening.

The use of dogs and children in advertising often seems gratuitous, but it’s not. Because every time you use a kid or a dog, you increase product appeal. It’s the same logic as using beautiful women to sell clothes. Advertising is all about emotional manipulation. You need a jolt of positive association to appeal to the reader or viewer. And it’s not product-specific. Kids and dogs have been used to sell cigarettes and politicians. Some of the first animated characters in advertising were dogs—there was an ad where the dog was fetching Lucky Strikes. But it has to have cultural acceptance too.

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B        The developmental differences between dogs and children, though, make for a more interesting dynamic.

SC     The Super Dogs—Poodles, Border Collies, German Shepherds, are the dogs in the top 25% of the IQ range. They’re emotionally equivalent to 2 ½ year-old children. All other dogs are equal to 2 year-olds. But dogs have the social consciousness of 14 year-old humans. They need to be part of a group and do what the group is doing. They want three things—food, safety and social interaction. They will do anything for that and learn very quickly what they have to do to get it.

B        What about cultural considerations? Some cultures despise dogs; the Japanese love mechanical dogs.

SC     The Japanese have two issues. One is the fascination with technology. The other is space and economics—unless you’re wealthy enough to have a large space, you can’t have a dog. But the Japanese desperately love dogs.

Then you look at China and Vietnam, where dogs are seen as an efficient source of protein and are farmed for food. Fundamentalist Muslims believe that dogs are unclean. But when people come to Canada from cultures where there’s an aversion to having dogs in the home, their children and grandchildren fully accept them.

B        Would you agree that the concept of hearth and home involves pet ownership? Maybe our instincts tell us that a secure and comfortable home must include a dog.

SC     The dog is the eternal child, a non-threatening being that we can care for. It also provides unconditional positive regard. The dog will always love you and that is a great thing for psychological and physical health. And people know that—40% of Canadians have at least one dog, and 30% of Canadians would like a dog.

B        So in this increasingly hectic, stressful and unhappy society, the idea of a happy, honest and loving creature applied to a product will make consumers believe that the product could contribute to their happiness.

SC     Correct. My opinion, based on the evidence of the human response to dogs, is that putting dogs in advertising is beneficial.

Case in Point

Going to the Dogs: How Fido Bred a Brand

fido2

There are a lot of successful branding stories to tell, but one of the more memorable might be Microcell’s launching a wireless service, calling it Fido, and inevitably, inextricably, tying its identity and communication program to dogs. How, one might wonder, did this come to pass?

“In 1996, Microcell was launching a new wireless service, but it needed a brand name,” explains Fido’s Director of Marketing, Patrick Hadsepantelis. “The name had to be consumer-friendly. At that time, in the wireless category, we had Bell, BC Tel, Telus and Cantel, and wireless was more targeted to business. Those were very corporate brands that didn’t resonate with consumers, and Microcell was launching a consumer-focused brand to democratize wireless in Canada.”

One might assume that exhaustive studies and surveys were conducted. Nope. The name was found through simple brainstorming.

“The name was chosen based on common-sense criteria,” says Raynald Petit of Montreal’s Bos Advertising. “With Microsoft, MicroTech, MicroThis and MicroThat, we know that using the Microcell name to launch a wireless service wouldn’t grab consumer attention. We needed a name that would really stand out. We looked at a lot of names—from plants, vegetables, minerals, animals. Fido became absolutely obvious. We were launching in Quebec, then in the rest of Canada, so the name had to work equally well in French and English, and have a universal cultural appeal. Fido comes from ‘fidelity’, so it means the same thing in French and English. The name had to be friendly, short and easy to remember. The word Fido made perfect sense because the phones, and the service, follow you everywhere you go. And dogs instantly conjure positive feelings, so the name resonates with people on an emotional level.”

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Once the name was settled, there was the task of developing the image materials and the advertising. “We had to ask ourselves what the role of dogs would be,” continues Petit. “At first, we said that we would use the name but no dogs. But we quickly changed our minds because the use of dogs makes it so easy to draw parallels with Fido’s services. And we decided to go with all kinds of dogs because there are all kinds of clients and client needs. The reason they choose Fido is that it can be adaptable to situations, as can dogs. If you have a mascot, it’s tough to stay with that. So the decision to use all kinds of dogs was a key turning point in our communications strategy.”

For Hadsepantelis, all advertising messages have to be in line with Fido’s promise of being honest, straightforward, simple, hip, different.

“We’ve brought a lot of innovations to wireless,” he says. “We offered free colour display and voice mail when it wasn’t available anywhere else. We introduced per-second billing, a Free Day package, and the Fido-to-Fido plan, where calls between Fido customers are free. The brand is street-smart and innovative. It’s much more than the dog imagery, but that imagery fits well with the youthful, spirited type of mindset that we appeal to.”

Any doubts about this strategy were quickly dispelled by the huge success of Fido’s first campaign—the Look-Alike campaign, where dogs were matched with people who looked like them, or vice versa.

fido3“People immediately embraced the concept,” recalls Hadsepantelis. “It was clear that we had something very powerful because, in those images, there’s a smart little promise that Fido cares about its customers. Dogs portray that friendliness. It shows that we don’t take ourselves too seriously, and that we’re accessible. The very name has warmth and humour, and that’s important. A lot of corporate brands are nowhere near as customer-focused.”

“The role of the dog depends on the evolution of the market situation and what we want to communicate,” notes Petit. “Until this summer, dogs were at the core of our communications—on TV, print, billboard, packaging, collateral. Then there was a marketing decision to come up with new plans on a regular basis, and we were looking for something new for TV. So we created the Fake President campaign to launch new offerings in a simple way. The core was not a dog, but the ‘president’ introducing new products in an absurd situation. The dog was just in the background. It worked very well.”

Hadsepantelis is quick to point out the dogs are never used as a gimmick “We use different types of dogs because we have different kinds of customers and our customers have different choices of handsets, plans and packages. But we don’t use dogs gratuitously. There has to be a role for them, relating to the product. And people know that. And, now, when they hear the name Fido, they may or may not think about dogs, but they associate it with wireless. Fido is a stand-alone name with very fast recall. We have exceeded typical norms. And every time we use the dogs in messages portraying something innovative or different, we fuel the brand.”

fido5Hadsepantelis also notes that there has been occasional talk of getting away from the dog imagery, but the decision has always been to remain canine-centred. Aside from the fact that it’s not good to fix something that ain’t broke—Fido reached the one-million-customer mark faster than any other Canadian wireless carrier—he says: “When we do campaigns with the dogs, our tracking and measuring is so positive that we don’t need to leave it. The dog icon has helped us build such great brand recognition that we need only nurture it.”

Petit agrees. “Over the last seven years, dogs have become the icon that makes Fido stand apart from its competition. That icon has been the continuity in our advertising—it’s a very important part of the Fido image and always will be.”