Communication Gone Wrong

Blitz Magazine, July 2002

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Direct marketers always talk about how precise their methods are. About how, when they send out promotional mail, they know exactly who’s getting it. They say they can target by income level, age, children’s ages. That they know that their clients’advertising pieces are being received by potential buyers.

In the mail, I receive an expensive package from a purveyor of yacht accessories. I don’t have a yacht. I receive an elegant package from a private school, asking me to consider sending my child there. I have a poodle. Now that I’ve announced that, I’ll start receiving samples of cat food.

Trade magazines also claim to be precisely targeted. (I’m one of the few publishers who can truthfully say that, as I up-date the Blitz mailing list every day and know exactly who’s getting it.) But my mechanic receives Strategy and Reel West. He doesn’t know why, he just does. I know this because I found them on the floor of his waiting room.

Technology has allowed for marvelous developments in magazine design. With the wrong result, I believe. I glance at Maclean’s and Vancouver. Both are so over-designed as to be unreadable.

Companies that can afford to commission good creative are airing TV commercials that are cloying (Toyota), nonsensical (Suzuki, Microsoft), badly written (Nestle) and annoying (Mott’s, All Bran). Even if people can stand to watch them, or make sense of them, the ads are bad enough to turn people away from the products they’re pitching. (And how about that McDonald’s slogan: ‘There’s a Little McDonald’s In Everyone’. Think about it. Ew.)

The Internet Advertising Bureau claims that an increasing share of marketing dollars is being committed to Internet marketing. Internet marketing firms say that advertisers can be confident about spending thousands of dollars in this fashion because web advertising is now so targeted—so precise.

I am a single, heterosexual female. When I open my email, I’m offered discounts on Viagra, potions to increase the size of my husband’s penis (by 3”!!!), potions to remove the hair on my chest, and something about a virtual experience wherein I can have sex with an Asian girl.

On a per-capita basis, Canada is the world’s most wired nation. Yet 1,000,000 Canadians have closed their Internet access accounts. It was recently reported that the editor of a popular e-zine has disconnected his incoming email address. His receipts were too time-consuming, too stressful.

Broadcasters are making TV unwatchable. We have an endless stream of propaganda pieces for the US military. Laughably bad sci-fi series. Shamefully stupid sit-coms. A special on the most passionate movies in history. Anniversary specials of once-popular TV shows. Weakest Link. Reality shows. Crap.

I now use the Internet only for addresses. If an email message doesn’t immediately appear to be relevant to me, it’s gone. My recycle bin runneth over. Friends report that they own TVs for the sole purpose of watching rented movies—they now refuse to watch television.

So this is The Great Age of Communication. Communication is so easy, so quick, so efficient. Marketers are spending untold sums to communicate, and they think that their messages are reaching the right people. Methinks they’re wrong.

Worse, where the correct people are reached, they’re turned off messages by their quality. Because, more often than not, that quality is so mind-numbingly bad, so insultingly inferior, that people are rejecting both the message, and now, the medium.

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Sing it Like it Is: The Star-Spangled Banner & O Canada

Blitz Magazine, September 2001

anthem2‘Tis the season. Baseball season. And, as is the case before every game, I sit and listen to the American national anthem. And, as always, I want to throw something at the TV.

A national anthem is a song of praise. It is meant to stir the soul, to remind people of the love and pride they share for their country. And it’s a song written in such a way that all members of a country can sing it. Together. All citizens, regardless of their location or circumstances of vocal capability, should be able to sing their anthem, along with their fellow citizens.

There’s nothing wrong with the US anthem—aside from the reference to rockets and bombs. (Actually, I think they should ditch the Star-Spangled Banner and go with America the Beautiful, but if I suggested it down there, someone would probably shoot me.)

What is wrong is that Americans have let their anthem be hi-jacked. While some Americans must mind, no one complains when, instead of having the anthem led by an able-voiced person who gets up and sings it the way it was written, the performer turns the US national song into a version of gospel entertainment, complete with vocal somersaults and senseless variations, always with excruciating effect. Instead of eagerly waiting to watch the Yankees dust Tampa Bay, you’re searching for the remote so you can mute the noise.

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The reason that Americans should mind is that, whether they’re at a stadium, in a pub, or in their homes, they should be able to sing along. It’s everybody’s anthem; everyone should be able to sing it, and share it.

This hasn’t been a problem with the Canadian anthem—so far. Our problem is that we have to quickly figure out if the occasion calls for the French version, and when we’re supposed to lapse into French. We end up blurring our words a little; it’s like singing Happy Birthday to triplets.

Enter David Foster, one of the many proud Canadians who call California home. Foster, one of the most successful music producers around, intends to run for the job of Premier of British Columbia and, to that end, is studying political science and economics at Pepperdine. (He needs a tutor—he told the Vancouver Sun that explorer James Cook was BC’s second premier.)

In June, Foster held a press conference to promote his new (not-for-profit) CD. The CD is called O Canada. It contains six versions of the Canadian national anthem, a full-length version with French lyrics added by screamer-come-lately Lara Fabian, and four standard two-minute versions edited from the original. Foster told the Sun that he tried to up-date the anthem and “put, I don’t know, my flair to it.”

ocanadaWhat? Hello? Foster’s ‘flair’ might have made Whitney Houston a lot of money, but it also turned a sweet little Dolly Parton love song into “And I-EE-I-EE-I will always lHUUUUV you-who-OOOOooWAAAA, HUWAAA will always lHUUUUV youooooooo WHOAHAA.”

And he wants to re-work Canada’s national song? I don’t think so.

If I go to a Canucks game, I want to be able to stand up and sing O Canada, just as it was written, along with my fellow Canadians—not stand there watching some large-lunged kid from the local church make like Celine Dion with a tune that no one can hope to follow. If Foster’s celebrity allows him to gain in-roads in his bid to turn our anthem into entertainment, I hope Canadians, unlike Americans, will stand up, sing their anthem the way it was written and tell the ‘talent’ to shut up.

 

 

 

On Freedom of Speech

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The cocktail talk is about John Ralston Saul. Saul, an established author on, among other things, political philosophy, is married to Canada’s Governor General. And, in his latest book, he states that the western world is, in part, to blame for the events of September 11th.

Horrors! In the House of Commons, acting Reform Party leader John Reynolds rants about the fact that the Governor General’s husband could say this. Prime Minister Chretien was happy to point out that Saul is an individual who is a member of a free society and can, therefore, say anything he likes.

On October 1st, Sunera Thobani, Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of British Columbia, addressed the unfortunately-named Women’s Resistance Conference (I’m sorry I missed that shindig). In her speech, Thobani sharply criticized US foreign policy, including its policy regarding the Arab world. Kaboom! There were calls for her job, calls for her head, calls for cuts to the university’s funding—Thobani suddenly needed a security detail.

Back at the cocktail party, the guy next to me recalls how nonplussed David Letterman was after the September 11th attack. Of every pundit on his show, he asked: ‘Why would they do this? How could they hate us?’

Hello, I say. Of course the western world bears some responsibility for this attack. Of course US foreign policy has been horribly wrong. Of course many Arabs deeply resent the western world. Every federal dollar that every western government has ever sent in support of Israel, while not providing equal support to the Palestinians, has been a drop of gasoline on the inferno has resulted in 9/11. Many people—of all religions and political stripes, cannot believe that democratic leaders support a government that treats human beings the way the Israelis treat, and have long treated, the Palestinians. I note to my martini-swilling pals, that I have a Jewish friend who sees no difference between the Israelis, the IRA, Al Qaeda and the goons in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia. Yet, she tells me, she can’t express her thoughts to any member of her family, including her husband.

“Shhhh!” my friends say. “Lower your voice! Someone might hear you!”

So? What the hell is going on here? We’re all of a sudden not allowed to say what we think? We all have to toe some line of political correctness? Whose apple cart are we not supposed to upset?”

People are going to read this and say “Oooh. You shouldn’t have said that.”

Why not? Does stating my opinion mean that I’m going to be called ‘stupid’ for blasting hypocrisy? Anti-Semitic for disagreeing with Israel? Sued for injuries to someone’s sensibilities? Or attacked in the name of someone’s god?

Dubya can’t say enough about the “boys overseas” who are “fighting to preserve the freedoms we hold dear.” Well, that includes freedom of speech. In this country, in the US, in all democratic nations, we’re all allowed to say what we think. To whomever we want. Wherever and whenever we choose. We’re allowed to print opinion, broadcast opinion, shout opinion. If someone doesn’t like it, he can argue back, voice his own views, open a debate. It’s that kind of communication—free communication—that leads to resolution.

If more of us had spoken our minds all along, maybe September 11th wouldn’t have happened. Maybe billions of dollars, which are much needed elsewhere, wouldn’t be going up in smoke over Afghanistan. Maybe some of the countless people who have died over the Israel/Palestine issue in last 50 years would still be around. And if more people start saying what they think, and telling the truth regardless of public relations, party position or political fall-out, maybe we could enter 2002 with a little more optimism.

 

Blitz Magazine, January 2002

Minefield Culture: Dubya’s Re-Election Sparks a Rant

minefieldBlitz Magazine, January 2005

Shhhhhhhhh. Don’t tell anyone what you know. Don’t let anyone know what you think. Keep your opinions to yourself. Smile. Be nice. Don’t upset the apple cart. Your job depends on it. Your career depends on it. Your children’s futures depend on it. Your life depends on it.

This is the environment in which we now live. It’s nothing new in many other parts of the world but, in North America, censorship has moved from a slow creep to a full gallop and it is the responsibility of all of us to do something about it.

We now live in a culture of ignorance. Talk to people you know—see how many bother to read newspapers. It shouldn’t surprise you that a lot of them don’t bother. Why? Too much information, and few of us have the time. More importantly, most of the information is useless pap.

Most importantly, many newspapers can no longer print real stories. They can’t discuss secrets and motivations of public figures and the corporate world. Journalists can’t break a lot of important news stories. Columnists can’t express their opinions. In some cases, newspapers are knowingly printing false information. Because editors and publishers don’t want to get fired. And, if they allowed their papers to return to the days when investigative reporting was an essential service performed by real journalists, they would be fired. By the corporate interests who own their papers and only want certain things revealed, and in a certain way.

Americans are fond of calling their nation ‘The Greatest Democracy in the World’. That statement is now so far from the truth that it wears the cloak of pathos. When the Republicans very much illegitimately made off with the White House in 2000, Americans had an opportunity to fight to have a real democracy (only Colorado has taken baby steps to try to change the system of electoral college-allocated votes). Americans had a chance to force their politicians to take a look at the Canadian system that, with all its faults, is still the best in the Americas. But Americans did nothing.

In November, they had another chance to take back their democracy. Instead, half of them had to suffer the humiliation of hearing the world’s collective gasp at the re-election of a man who is, without a doubt, the worst ‘leader’ their nation has ever had, a dangerous man leading a dangerous charge.

Canadians haplessly watch all of this, with no choice but to care, and worry, because we’re physically, economically and culturally attached. Woe to us. Because now the shredded US democracy is held hostage by a massive block of ‘Evangelicals’, a group of Christians most closely associated with ‘Family Values’. These people talk of this Family Values credo like it’s something new—as if millions of family members over many centuries have not held the same values.

It’s easy to make fun of the ‘born-agains’, with their hokey ‘praise the lords!’, their never-ending fundraising antics and their cult-like obsession with the bible—all conducted while said fundraising is wrought with fraud, their church leaders are involved in sex scandals, their fellow church members run corporations that are some of the biggest tax evaders, employee abusers and environmental offenders on the planet, and their kids spend their allowance on pot, crack and bullets.

Yes, these people are dangerous. Because they choose to lead lives of ignorance, and they want the rest of us to join them. Since the election, everyone in entertainment, broadcasting and journalism openly acknowledges that the Evangelicals have to be appeased. Pleased. Placated. Pandered to.

We all shook our heads at the uproar caused by the revelation that Janet Jackson has breasts. Now it’s not funny. Now it’s ‘No Sex! But, er, Have Babies! And, uh, Up with Marriage! But Don’t Let Yer Wife Find Out About Yer Other Gal! If Yer Gay, Don’t Tell Anyone! And if Yer Gay, uh, Down With Marriage! Up with The NRA! But, uh, No Shootin’ Anything Cuz The Bible Says Thou Shalt Not Kill!’

Yes, the bible-thumpers of America now have their hands firmly around the necks of American culture and it’s going to take one heck of a Democratic candidate to undo the damage in 2008.

Meanwhile, there’s an alarming increase in the number of American schools that, in sex education classes, teach one thing: abstinence. So there’ll be millions of teen-agers battling raging hormones while learning about sex every day, and in every way, from the Internet. With no access to birth control, lots of girls will get pregnant, and they won’t have access to abortion. While gun clubs proliferate and video games become violent to extremes previously unimagined, journalists will not be able to do stories that might offend the sensibilities of local pastors. Television producers will have to stick with stupid, ‘clean’ sit-coms, and movie producers can forget about releasing certain films in certain markets. Everyone involved in any form of media communications now has to wade through a minefield of hypocrisy and political correctness the likes of which no one has seen before.

How refreshing it was to see an American soldier ask Donald Rumsfeld an intelligent, cogent question relating to the fact that American soldiers in Iraq aren’t properly outfitted for combat. Rumsfeld was horrified, and so taken aback that his hands fluttered. Why? Because he had been assured that any media member not toeing the Republican Line had been blacklisted. There’s little doubt that a barred journalist fed that question through that soldier—a hugely sad commentary on the decline of democracy and freedom of the press.

North of the Mason Dixon Line, it’s no secret that an awful lot of Americans don’t hear about US soldiers dying in Iraq, that children are learning history from texts that have been ‘cleaned up’ (read: changed). They famously know little about other countries, other economies, and other civilizations. This means that there are millions of Americans who, unless they’re savvy enough to seek out independent journalism, don’t have all of the information, and truth, they need to be productive citizens.

This is censorship. By a group of people who cling to something that may or may not be real. And who, to satisfy their lust for their beliefs, invest millions in keeping one political party up, and keeping down–way down–anything resembling illumination, revelation and truth.

History has shown us, over and over and over again, that ignorance is dangerous. Rampant ignorance among Americans is bound to have an effect on Canadians. Which means that we must be very sure to protect and support writers, independent journalists, independent producers, independent broadcasters and the increasingly-precious CBC. If we don’t establish a bulwark against this new wave of censorship, we’re going to be in as much trouble as the Americans are now.

 

 

 

Gretzky, Tylenol and the Real Spin City

gretzy1Blitz Magazine, November 1999

Watching the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease riddle Michael J. Fox as he testified before the US Congress recently, I wondered if Wayne Gretzky was also watching, and whether he felt horrified or mortified.

Gretzky, as you know, attached himself to a disease—osteoarthritis. He doesn’t have it; he’s never even been tested for it. He does have some pain, which (duh) he acknowledges as being the result of a lifetime spent playing a violent contact sport.

I don’t know how Fox’s 1998 announcement of his affliction affected Spin City’s ratings, but my theory is that it inspired a Johnson & Johnson spin doctor. That this person saw the sincere (and justified) outpouring of affection and concern for Fox and thought: ‘Hey! Gretzky’s a famous, popular, polite Canadian! A renowned athlete! He’s gotta’ be in some kind of  pain! We’ll tell the media he’s got arthritis! We’ll connect it to the non-profit sector! Sales of Tylenol will soar!’

On September 14th, this appeared, care of Canadian Press, in the Vancouver Sun: ‘The disease that affects more than four million Canadians has hit one of the country’s greats: Wayne Gretzy, recently retired hockey hero, seems to be suffering from arthritis.”

On the 15th, the item was on the front page of the Globe & Mail.

On the 16th, the TV commercials began. Interview format, Wayne Gretzky claiming to use Tylenol to treat the symptoms of a disease which he does not have.

Well, it blew up in the company’s face, with the media crying foul and Gretzky back-pedaling at slap-shot speed, telling the National Post that he often uses paying gigs to promote worthy causes, and claiming to be the victim of a newspaper war.

But Gretzky ain’t Bambi, and I doubt that it’s coincidence that the Tylenol/arthritis thing, the announcement of his new National Post column (yeah, right), the naming of an Edmonton highway after him etc., coincided with the launch of his clothing line at The Bay.

All of this got me thinking that Gretzky’s PR people forgot a crucial rule: Never make a journalist look foolish. There isn’t a journalist alive who hasn’t been duped–who’s been too busy, or too lazy, or too ambitious, or too short of time to check a fact. Who has printed information from a press release, or the newswire, without stopping to question the information. Who has then found himself with egg on his face.

‘Thing is, burned journalists have terrific memories. And the next time they receive information from that guilty PR firm, account executive or client, they will remember. And toss it aside. Or fact-check it until the subject screams for mercy.

The moral of this Gretzky story, then, is that unscrupulous, untruthful PR campaigns benefit no one, demean all involved and, in the long run, do nothing but damage.

 

On Bad Websites by the People Who Should Know Best

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Blitz Magazine, November 2006

I admit to an obsession with the Blitz mailing list. It has to be perfect and up-to-date. To achieve this, though, I have to spend endless hours surfing the Net. I’ve now visited thousands of web sites and the fact is that most are just plain awful. The surprise is that some of the worst offenders are ad agencies.

Let’s say that I’m a French manufacturer. I have decided to launch my product in Canada, and I need a Canadian agency. So I start surfing.

Site #1: The first thing I see is that this agency has the gall to greet me with the words ‘Patience Please’. This is followed by animation. Lots of it. I’m thinking:  When I want an animation company, I’ll look for one. Do I want to work with an agency that thinks nothing of wasting my time? Non.

Site #2:  No introduction. I’m right in. But, huh? Its homepage has light blue type on a yellow background. The next page has red type on a dark green background. I’d need a new prescription before I could read this stuff. Ciao.

Site #3:  Ease of access, easy to read, well organized. I read about the company’s service offerings and awards. Bon. Now I want to find out who’s running the show. After some searching, I find the name of the president. But that’s it. I can’t find the name of the creative director. The agency says it has a media department, a production department and PR expertise. But there’s no listing of names. It seems to me that this is a one-guy agency. If it is, non merci. If it isn’t, do I want to do business with someone who won’t reveal the names of his staff? Adieu.

Site #4: This is a full-service ad agency in Alberta. The site is easy to use and well-designed. I want to find out who the president is and click on ‘Who’s the Boss?’ I find this: “Our Lord Jesus is the Boss!” Mon Dieu!

Site #5: This agency’s site has a staff listing. And look! Employee pictures! But the agency couldn’t afford a professional photographer—the images are low-res and grainy. One employee didn’t bother to wash her hair that day; another is wearing a dirty shirt, another looks like he slept in his suit. One has submitted a baby picture. Sorry, but I’m looking for grown-ups who bathe regularly. Nettoyer.

Site #6: This one looks OK. I think I’ll contact this agency. Oh—in order to do that, I have to fill out a Needs Assessment Form. Fill out this.

Site #7: Oh this is nice. Looks professional. Tres bien. I will write to this agency, and send it some information on my company. But what’s this? No address! Do I want to do business with an agency that doesn’t tell people where it’s located? Non.

Site #8: This one looks good. But look at all this copy. Pages and pages of copy, all written by a PR person, who says everything and nothing and who wants to fully enlighten me on the elements of successful marketing. What’s with all this ‘outside the box’ and ‘synergy’ stuff? Au revoir.

Get the picture? If a company is in the business of supplying perfection for clients, and if said company would never dream of producing promotional material for itself that is anything less than perfect, why would it mess up what is, in this day and age, its most important marketing tool?

The same applies to other companies who should know better. The sites for many PR firms don’t include client lists. Photographers either don’t put any work on their sites, or they include every shot they’ve ever taken. Graphic designers often use so much visual gunk that you forget why you went to the site in the first place. And a lot of sites for web designers painfully illustrate that they are not, in fact, designers.

The problem, it seems to me, is that many people still haven’t wrapped their heads around what websites are for. Websites (e-comm sites excluded) are meant to put out, to a worldwide audience, the facts about a company and its activities. They are marketing tools and should, therefore, be clear, concise and easily accessible. And as I head back for another round of surfing, I’m wishing that people would quit with the bells and whistles, think about what their visitors actually want, and just get to the point already.