On Politics, Religion, Sex & Shutting Up Already

Blitz Magazine, November 2003

Remember the rule of the dinner party? ‘In polite conversation, one does not discuss politics, religion and/or sex.’

Who canceled that rule? When? And why? Because now, we not only discuss the above-mentioned, but everybody evidently feels compelled to beat each other over the head with their politics, religion and sexuality.

straight1In BC, magazines and newspapers are PST-exempt. We don’t collect it, and we don’t pay it. If we happen to pay it in the course of producing our publications, we get it back. And the BC Liberal government was hired, by the people of BC, to dig the province out of a desperate financial situation created by the left-wing New Democratic Party. And part of that administration’s duty is to efficiently collect taxes owing to the people of BC.

The Georgia Straight is a 36 year-old Vancouver newspaper. It’s unbound, on newsprint, available free at public outlets, and serves as an advertising vehicle for Vancouver retailers. It consists of pages of stacked ads, and a little editorial. Presumably, someone at the tax office saw this and said ‘Hey! The Georgia Straight is not a newspaper or magazine, because it has more advertising than editorial. So it’s not exempt.’

The tax office told the newspaper to pay $1 million in un-remitted Provincial Sales Tax.

Although it lists itself in Canadian Advertising Rates & Data’s community newspaper section, the Straight’s masthead says it’s ‘Vancouver’s News & Entertainment Magazine’. Either way, it claims that it has enough editorial to qualify as a magazine, because it prints free events listings, which its publisher says is “one of the ways in which the Straight serves the community.”

The tax guys claim that those listings are advertising.

I pick up the October 9th edition. It is 108 pages, including 21 pages of editorial and 7 of events listings. But the cover is a letter from Straight publisher Dan McLeod, in which he complains of the tax request, calling it “harassment, a “threat”, a “bizarre misuse of power”, and a “witch-hunt”.

MacLeod would have us believe that, because the Straight is left-wing, it is a target—that Liberals gathered one day and someone said: ‘OK, how can we shut down this paper!’ After evoking Richard Nixon (?!?!), MacLeod calls the tax request a “direct attack on all the arts and cultural and business life of the city,” [sic] and urges members of these groups to swear out affidavits in support of the Straight.

(Actually, money is what arts and cultural groups need, and they’d get more from the government if profitable businesses paid their taxes.)

I digress. Inside this issue, there is a 2/3-page editorial headed ‘Q&A About the BC Liberals’ Plan to Terminate the Straight.’ There is a cartoon of Premier Gordon Campbell with a screw emanating from his groin. There’s no by-line, so I assume that MacLeod wrote it. He refers to his paper as being threatened by politics and, believe it or not, mentions the Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms, announces a conspiracy between the BC Liberals and CanWest Global, and erroneously (way) claims that the Straight is the only independent journalistic enterprise in Vancouver.

What irks me is that MacLeod is saving his own political flag in our faces. He might as well be saying “I’m a Socialist and you have to join me in my fight against a government that is not Socialist so I can get out of paying my taxes!’

MacLeod runs a profitable enterprise. His paper sometimes covers issues that other papers might not, but it is, in fact, more of a lucrative business than a tool for social support, and people don’t need to hear about his politics or his conspiracy theories. He repeatedly mentions the Straight’s journalism awards, and refers to its ‘journalistic duty’ to fight the government, but appealing to left-wingers’ sensibilities in order to avoid paying taxes is journalistic abuse.

Also this week, a representative of the Catholic Church, irate about same-sex marriage, used the media to tell the Canadian Prime Minister that he ‘will burn in hell’. Who does he think he is? After what the Catholic Church has to answer for concerning the sexual practices of its representatives, condemnation of anyone’s sexual behaviour is hardly appropriate.

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Then I’m watching the ball game and the doorbell rings. A man stands at my door, clutching a copy of the Watch Tower. I don’t answer. Back to the game. A week earlier, I’d noticed that almost every member of the Florida Marlins crossed himself when he stepped up to the plate or makes a play. Now, the Sox are doing it. And the Cubs. They hit the ball and point to the sky. They make it to base and pull garish gold crosses out of their jerseys to kiss and flash. After one guy hits a game-saving home run, he tells a reporter: “I didn’t hit the ball. Our Lord Jesus Christ hit the ball.” (No, millionaire moron, you hit the ball.)

So now we have to tolerate spiritual exhibitionism in baseball? Didn’t Jesus purportedly say that we should keep our religious beliefs to ourselves and that proselytizing is a bad thing?

In the southern US states, there are Christian groups claiming to be planning to take over Israel and kill the Jews. There are Muslim nuts who want to kill all non-Muslims. American television is saturated with programming where members of the Religious Right tell people how to live their lives—and that if they don’t it right, in all senses of the word, they’ll be damned.

All of a sudden, people just have to go public with their beliefs. Why do they assume that others care what they believe? Or that we should care? Or that they have the right to insist that we care? In spite of all of our education and worldliness, and our knowledge of history, we’ve degenerated into a culture of spouters of the worst kind of rhetoric, all of which boils down to: ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us.’ ‘If you don’t practice what we practice, you’re on the wrong side.’ ‘If you don’t love correctly, we will oppress you.’ ‘If you don’t believe what we believe, we will kill you.’

Religion is about intangibility. Belief in the intangible requires that faith trump reality. Government is about facts, figures and stark reality. Ergo religion has nothing to do with governing. When people claim otherwise, I remind them of what happens when religion permeates government—Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Israel, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland and, increasingly, the USA. Religion is for the faithful only. It has no place in the practical reality of everyday life and it has no business trying to foist itself on society at large.

This same-sex marriage thing also puzzles me. I’ve been surprised at my friends—even the most liberal are appalled at the idea. As one friend put it: ‘Marriage is taken. Let them have their civil contracts.’ But, in this country, not allowing ‘them’ to marry has been deemed discrimination. And the law is the law—in a perfect example of the beauty of Separation of Church and State.

straight5I admit that watching two men or women making out can be off-putting—maybe gays and lesbians feel squeamish when they see heterosexual couples kissing. I don’t know. And I don’t care. I don’t care who consenting adults sleep with and I’m sick of hearing about it. From gays, from lesbians, or from anyone else.

Pierre Trudeau said that the State has no place in the bedrooms of the nation. But that goes further. The Church also has no place in the bedrooms of any nation, or in the government of any nation. And publishers are not supposed to use their products to launch groundless accusations of conspiracy against governments who want them to pay their taxes. The same Charter of Rights & Freedoms that MacLeod leans on also allows gays and lesbians to marry and religions to freely operate.

Conversation and debate are healthy, and essential, to a free society. Trying to appeal to the worst elements of human nature, and trying to drag an agenda through a situation in hopes that people’s ignorance will stick to it, is extremely unhelpful. In a time of mass communication, it’s also dangerous.

I wish people would go back to the etiquette books. Practice their religions. Practice their politics. Practice their sexuality. Run their businesses. Live their lives. But quit using the media, and mendacious and intimidating tactics, to frighten others into joining their teams.

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On Stupid Rules

Blitz Magazine, June 2008

stupid1The other day, I was sitting on the patio of a Vancouver restaurant and a pair of Mexican tourists sat down across from me. After their drinks arrived, they asked if I minded if they smoked. I said no. I almost said: “Uh, it’s against the law to smoke on a restaurant patio in Vancouver,” but I didn’t. Because it would have sounded unfriendly. And stupid.

It is stupid. In Vancouver, smokers can no longer smoke near the entrances of buildings. So they go into the lanes and walk around on the sidewalks. Since there are no ash trays anywhere, they drop their butts wherever they happen to be. So the streets and sidewalks are heavily-littered with cigarette butts. This mess is the basis for the latest move on the part of the anti-smoking Nazis, who want to ban smoking on beaches.

If they succeed, you will be able to drive an exhaust-spewing vehicle, be morbidly obese, raise diabetic children, live on food from McDonald’s and furnish your home with lead-laced, Chinese-made junk from Wal-Mart, but you won’t be able to sit on a beach and watch the sun go down while enjoying a cigar. While I’m sure that special-interest groups will soon form to lobby against all of the former, the latter remains strange but true.

The West End of Vancouver is home to one of the largest gay communities in North America. It’s a place where people can be proud of their sexuality. In the heart of the West End is the ironically-named Olympic restaurant. Its owner recently refused service to a heterosexual couple. Why? They were kissing. The owner, while refusing to make eye contact with the woman, told the man: “We don’t tolerate that kind of thing in here.”

I recently pulled into a parking lot, just a few blocks from that restaurant, and was in the process of straightening out the car when an officious little man walked up to my window. He informed me that there is a law against idling one’s car and that if I didn’t turn the car off, he’d call the police.

stupidA couple of months ago, I went into a downtown hotel in search of lunch. Only the hotel’s lounge was open (the ‘lounge’ being an empty room separated from the restaurant by a movable screen). I was refused service, because I had a friend’s son with me—a minor. I told Mr. Rules that he could hardly expect the Liquor Control Board to pull the hotel’s license, pointing out that the minor in question was 53 weeks old and firmly teetotal. We got the boot anyway.

Ahhhh Vancouver. One of the most beautiful cities in the world. Where a West Side housewife waged a two-year campaign to bring down the tree house of the little kids next door. Where, while community festivals shut down for lack of funding, millions are spent on ‘traffic-calming devices’ (piles of cement that jut out into the road and cause accidents and vehicle damage). Where there is a sign at Third Beach reading ‘No Ball Playing’.

Tourism Vancouver has a $14 million budget to market its city as a travel destination. It does a terrific job; 9 million people visited the city last year. Marketing materials show dazzling images and speak of all of the things there are to do here. And now millions more will be spent on bringing people here for the 2010 Olympics. I’m thinking, though, that its executives are going to have to lean on the plods at City Hall. Because if you’re spending millions of dollars communicating to the world that your product is the best choice and it turns out that it is not, why bother? If you tell people that Vancouver is the best place for their honeymoon, but public displays of affection are punished, why bother? If you tell people that Vancouver is kid-friendly and families are refused service in hotels, why bother? And who gets to tell South American, Asian and European tourists that they can’t smoke while standing on the street?

The last word goes to a British tourist who was brought here by successful marketing. Last week, the man told a friend: “This is a fabulous city, but I could never live here. You people are just too up-tight.”

On Communicators Needing to Think Things Through

Blitz Magazine, November 2007

thinking2I was watching Leno last night. He did his regular Headlines bit. It’s funny because it contains ads which are hilarious by virtue of careless errors, ignorance, laziness, and that old bane of writers: the do-it-yourself mentality of those who refuse to hire people who can actually write.

Lately, it has occurred to me that, when communicating with the public, more and more professionals are just not thinking things through.

Last summer, the White Spot restaurant chain ran a TV spot (ad nauseam) in which the gag was that the chef was left to clean up after a team of chefs worked all day to come up with new menu items. But, in the final shot showing the messy kitchen, every pot, pan and utensil was spotlessly clean. ‘Little problem with the props and art direction budget, I guess.

In October, I was one a judge on the Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario’s Design at Work show. I was judging the publications section and saw some beautiful work. But, being me, I had to read the pieces. And found that there were typos in some and grammatical errors in others. Well, if you’re producing a high-end publication, doesn’t it follow that you should hire a writer who, you know, can actually write? And who might stoop to proof the final before it goes to press?

It broke my heart to have to discard an absolutely stunning catalogue. Well, the first part was stunning. Then I got to the copy, and found that the designer had used silver type on a white background. Well, when you put silver type on a white background, you can’t read the type. And if you can’t read the type in a publication, the publication ceases to be a publication and it becomes a waste of paper.

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‘Same thing with web designers who slap 8-point type against a black background. What’s the point in putting words in view when there’s no hope of those words being read? This is why there’s now an entire mini-industry of Usability Experts—people who spend their lives teaching people to think things through.

A current TV spot for Maltesers shows two lovers cuddling on the couch. The guy is feeding the gal the balls of candy with the help of a straw. Which would be fine (sort of), except that the guy is 17 and the gal looks to be in her mid-40s. It’s actually pretty creepy. It’s as if the creative director wanted to appeal to that massive ‘high-school-kid-sleeping-with-his-teacher’ market.

President’s Choice has a new campaign, in which the tag line is ‘Worth Changing Supermarkets For.’ That’s kinda’ catchy. Or would be, if Canadians used the (American) term ‘supermarket’.

Then there’s the ‘Christmas’ v ‘Holiday’ thing. Here’s a case where communicators are really failing to think things through. ‘Christmas’ is a Christian holiday, celebrating the birth of a man named Jesus Christ. It is a very old holiday containing all kinds of rites that have been practiced for a very long time. And, even in today’s cynical world, a lot of people take it very seriously. To millions, it’s not just a retail bonanza.

But marketers say: “Well, we don’t want to insult Muslims and Jews!” And they point to some survey they did, in the course of which maybe 100 carefully-selected people who happened to answer their phones skewed in a certain direction and that was extrapolated to the population at large. Lame lame lame.

In the first place, I’ve yet to hear a Jew or a Muslim complain about feeling excluded from Christmas festivities. And I’ve yet to hear a Christian complain about feeling excluded from Hanukkah or Ramadan celebrations. Every religion has its own stuff; how hypocritical to praise multi-culturalism and diversity and pluralism and then lump the observances of three religions into a muddy term called ‘The Holidays’.

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Secondly, if non-Christian religious groups are so important marketers, why aren’t large advertising dollars spent on advertising specifically to them? Crafting advertising that is clearly trying to sell ‘Christmas’, while failing to tip-toe around two other religious holidays is not only nonsensical, but arrogant, disrespectful and insulting. To everyone.

Third, marketers are not getting it right. They use the term ‘For the Holidays’, but their stores are decorated with all of the accoutrements of Christmas. At the moment, in most malls and shops, all you can hear are Christmas carols. Why not play the Dreidel Song? It’s still All Christmas All the Time—it’s just that no one wants to say that word.

This is very weird. It’s taking political correctness to a foolish extreme. Marketers say it’s ‘good business’. It’s not. It’s just silly.

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.

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.

Public Relations ‘Professionals’ : The Damage Done

Blitz Magazine, January 2004

pr

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.

 

On Toronto Not Being the Centre of the Universe

Blitz Magazine, September 2002

torontoWhen I started this magazine five years ago, I got a lot of comments and advice from people, but one particular set of comments still sticks in my mind. It came from an agency guy in Toronto, who said: “What? You’re going to start a national B2B magazine from Vancouver? Are you nuts? Even with national distribution, you’ll have a helluva time getting the national advertisers in. Nobody wants to advertise B2B to western Canada. No one in Toronto gives a shit about western Canada.”

Blitz doesn’t just go to western Canada, of course. It goes to 5,000 in the east, 5,000 in the west. This guy’s point, though, was that, to national advertisers, the latter 5,000 doesn’t matter.

I thought he was being silly—just another sufferer of Toronto-is-the-Centre-of-the-Universe Syndrome. The spread of the disease, however, continues apace. Just the other day, a national publisher told me that he had met a young man who was an excellent writer, but whose career was certainly going to go nowhere because he’d never been anywhere but Toronto—and, worse, had no interest in leaving Toronto, or in anything not related to Toronto.

I recently spoke with the creative director of a Toronto advertising agency who said that he was having difficulty figuring out how to tweak his client’s creative for a particular BC demographic. When I suggested that he consult with a Vancouver agency (duh), the line went quiet—I think he may have temporarily blacked out. (Then he asked me to send him a list of agencies.)

Magazine editors aren’t supposed to sell advertising. But I’m also the publisher and have to do it. Unfortunately, a lot of people forget that I’m likely to write about what I hear and learn, so they drop things into conversations which they may not otherwise say to a journalist. Things that make me feel a little sick.

The media buyer for Microsoft actually silenced me with the idiocy of this remark: “Microsoft doesn’t advertise in business publications which have a large BC circulation. At the B2B level, Microsoft is only interested in advertising to companies with more than 400 employees. BC doesn’t have any companies that large.”

This comment: “We’re not interested in Blitz because it has editorial relating to western Canada,” came from the marketing director of the Canadian Press.

The media buyers—indeed, the marketing people, for ‘Canada’s national newspaper’, the Globe & Mail, don’t bother returning calls. How often does the National Post advertise to western media buyers and marketers? What about the CBC? Never and never.

I could go on for an hour, naming company after company which, rather than advertising to the media communications community in all of the Canada, prefer to spend large sums of money on advertising to the same people in Toronto, over and over, year after year.  Reminder advertising is necessary but, in this case, it’s at the expense of untold amounts of potential new business.

While it’s true that the size of this country has always made it hard for Canadians to achieve the sense of ‘oneness’ which binds other nations, none of this makes any sense. Vancouver is Canada’s second-largest market. ‘Neglect of the West’ has been a political/economic complaint since Confederation, but it never occurred to me that corporate Canada could be so incredibly short-sighted as to think that businesses in BC (and Alberta) don’t need to be advertised to—that they somehow suffer from inferior spending habits, or aren’t savvy marketers, or don’t know how to compete.

It is a conundrum. A psychological puzzle that needs to be solved. If anyone out there has any solutions, ideas, explanations, I’m sure that all of those Canadians who live outside of Ontario’s borders would love to hear them.