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.


On Being Sick of the Blood

Blitz Magazine, January 2007

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The year of BC news-viewers’ discontent has begun, and in the most appalling fashion. It was yesterday that the first trial of alleged serial killer Robert Pickton began. We had been duly warned: Global began to advertise its up-coming coverage a week ago. Now, it has become clear that the news-viewing public will be forced to watch the media engage in the agonizing process of sucking every ounce of blood from this already-bloody story.

Pickton, as you know, is accused of killing 26 women, whom he lured from the Vancouver’s skid row to his suburban pig farm. He is now on trial for six of those murders. A cursory view of CTV showed that its coverage was in pretty good taste. Global was a different animal altogether, with anchor Deb Hope using her nauseating ‘there, there’ voice to repeatedly warn squeamish viewers to use their discretion, following which no fewer than five reporters filed from the courthouse.

Every available family member was tagged for comment, a diagram of the courthouse was shown and explained, the judge was profiled, the Crown prosecutor and lead defense lawyer were profiled, the victims were profiled. The biggest guffaw was elicited by an interview with a child psychologist who advised how to counsel parents on how to help their children deal with this coverage—although I noted that he did not advise turning the TV off.

We all know about the ‘if-it-bleeds-it-leads’ mantra. We’re used to it, which is why we’re all so desensitized to the carnage we watch on the news every day. But so much has been said about ‘thinking outside the box’, that one would think that news organizations might pick up on that. They haven’t. No news organization seems to want to dare to step outside of said box and make changes so that their news delivery is more dignified and professional. Instead of wanting to simply inform and enlighten, they want to continue to pile it on, feeding the most base and prurient thoughts to be mined from the minds of viewers.

Does this help society in any way? Not a whit. In fact, I would suggest that it contributes to stress, anxiety, negativity, fear, callousness, even crime. Not everyone watching these stories is rational, intelligent and strong enough to listen to this crap without being influenced by it. Indeed, perhaps Robert Pickton is one of those people.

 

On the Dog Park & Self-Expression

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Blitz Magazine, November 2008

I’m very fortunate to live in a community which has an off-leash dog park—a 13-acre dog park, complete with five running fields, two beaches and endless supplies of plastic bags (biodegradable, of course). Given that Vancouver is a very doggy city, this park is extremely popular; hundreds of people pass through there every day. It is a microcosm of society, in that it is used by people from all walks of life and socio-economic levels, of all ages, ethnicities and nationalities. And I’ve been observing what choices and styles of dog ownership say about their owners.

For example, I get talking to a guy with a very large, unusual-looking dog. I asked him about it and he proudly stated: “This is an Argentinean pit-bull. It is the largest  pit-bull you can buy!” What he thought he was communicating was: “I’m a tough, strong man who fears nothing!” But I looked at the baby in the stroller he was pushing and noted that what he was really communicating was: “I’m extraordinarily stupid.”

A girl appears in the parking lot. She has a Chihuahua. In her purse. She finally frees the poor thing and I notice that she’s about 16. And pregnant. I’m not sure what she is trying to communicate. Perhaps: “I’m just a girl who can’t say no.” Or, “I’m so into accessories that I just have to have a baby.” Or “My parents are extraordinarily stupid.”

A woman appears with a tiny fluffy dog. The dog is wearing a faux fur coat and a bejeweled collar and has a ribbon pinned to his head. I look at the woman and see that she’s had major work done. No matter what she does, her breasts will never jiggle. And if her diction isn’t perfect, her forehead will split open. So what is she trying to communicate? “I believe that we should use medical technology to achieve perfection?” “My sense of self-worth is based solely on my appearance?” Or just “I believe that my dog should look as silly as I?”

I see a big hulking macho man with an 8-lb miniature Daschund. Another with six big ol’ Heinz 57s who are missing eyes, ears, legs. A woman who says: “I don’t know what his breed is, I love him anyway.” These people aren’t trying to communicate anything through their dogs. But they are saying much about themselves. And it’s all good.

Then I start thinking about how, for many people, everything they own is a form of communication. There are pimp or hood wannabes who drive around in gleaming sports cars (check it–black only) with hip-hop music playing so loudly that it blows pedestrians’ eardrums. They’re trying to communicate that they’re cool. Not.

I drop in HomeNonSense and find a woman making a big noisy show of purchasing four five-foot ‘crystal’ lamps topped with hot-pink sateen shades trimmed in gold and festooned with plastic beads. She wants everyone around her to know that she has good taste. Uh….

There are people who use their children to communicate how unique they are. They name them after cities, states, countries, obscure biblical characters, plants and fruit. (Lately, my favourite is McKenzie which, loosely translated, means ‘Kenneth’s son’. So if the child’s father’s name is Richard, the kid could, one day, ask ‘Who the heck is Kenneth?’)

There’s a guy up the hill from me who’s building a 40,000 square-foot home. Oh, and a 2,000 square-foot guest cottage. He has one wife and two teen-agers. Why is he doing this? To tell everyone that he has money? (Note to Mr. Nouveau Riche: Money is supposed to be ‘quiet’.) There are people who wear their political opinions on their cars, or display it on t-shirts, jackets, houses and front lawns. And people who plaster their vehicles with signs and stickers reading ‘Jesus Lives’ and ‘Jesus is Your Saviour’ and Jesus is this and that and blah blah. Note to Thumpers: it was Jesus who said you’re supposed to keep your religion to yourself.

SUVs have magically disappeared from many neighbourhoods. I suspect that his has less to do with the price of fuel, and more to do with drivers wanting others to know that they’re ‘Green’. At the beach, I see tattoo-covered bodies. At the gym, women in full make-up, matching clothes and jewelry. Everywhere, people zoned out while they play with electronic toys. And YouTube’s slogan is ‘Broadcast Yourself.’

Not only has communication gone wonky, but it has taken on a sort of desperation. People are falling over themselves to tell others about who they are. I think it’s because face-to-face conversation is becoming a thing of the past.

I have close friends whose faces I may see once a year. I haven’t seen the art director of this magazine in two years. Email, texting and the telephone take care of everyone’s communication needs. We hear that marriages crumble because couples aren’t home at the same time and, when they are, they’re too busy to talk. I spoke to a prostitute last year, who told me that many of her clients don’t want sex at all: they want to talk. In business, employees so resent having to constantly waste time in meetings that they make jokes about management’s insistence on face-time and buzz them around the Internet. At the social level, raves provide a place where the music is so loud that conversation is out of the question. Teen-agers deface buildings with their art. How often do you host a dinner party, or get invited to one? Where do you hear new music? On the ‘Net. Do you have to attend a school every day to get a degree? Nope—you can do much of it on the ‘Net.

dogs1

For all the good it’s done, for business, education and networking, I worry that the Internet is turning into a pernicious force, sucking us all into a world of silence. Where, if you want to say something, you have to type it. If you want to meet Mister or Miss or Mizz Right, you have to post a static image and write your feelings. But humans are animals. Social animals. We need body language. We need to speak to each other, and watch each other’s faces for reaction. We need the back-and-forth, the thrust and parry, and the quick wit that goes with conversation. We need to hear guffaws, exclamations and laughter.

I think we need more dog parks. It’s the dogs that necessitate attendance and then teach us how to play nice. That what we look like or wear or drive is irrelevant to who we are (and, often, communicates the wrong thing). That spontaneous interaction is essential to our well-being. That it’s easy to go to someplace that’s busy and crowded and just talk to people.

On Being Fed Up With Crap Television News

When you read the Letters section in this issue, you may be one of the many who will empathize with Robert Fripp, the former Fifth Estate producer who says that he hasn’t watched television news or current affairs programs for over 10 years because “The steady drip-feed of Shock-Horror, negativity, finger-pointing and a press-room compass eternally pointed towards noire, is no more conducive to good mental health than is television.”

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I can remember a time when I would have been mortified if I’d been caught not being informed; if, during cocktail conversation, I was found guilty of not knowing about the latest gaff of some politician, or what kind of reviews a certain movie received. Now, I don’t care. Neither do a lot of people. Because the trend seems to be that we’re backing away from the media. No one is embarrassed to say so any more. I have friends who no longer own television sets. People have made the decision because anything to do with mainstream media these days is maudlin crap, slanted reporting, That Blowed Up Real Good!, or Oh The Humanity! It’s stressful and depressing.

When I first heard about the Tsunami in December, I thought ‘Oh, poor people.” Then I thought ‘I bet newsroom journalists all over North America are just jumping for joy.’ I was right. There was a palpable giddiness in the reportage of the event’s aftermath, as if producers were shouting ‘We’ve got enough Human Interest for last for months!’ Reporters flocked to the region to report on sick orphans and starving people. Global News BC sent a native of the region, along with a reporter and cameraman, for that ‘first-hand, personal’ touch while, at home, its reporters were doing remotes from coffee shops whose owners were smart enough to see a great promotional opportunity when it arose.

When the Tsunami story started to cool, the same news organization invented its own story. A Thai princess came to Vancouver to settle legal and insurance matters relating to a property she owns here, and that almost burned down last year. Global reported on that fire at the time, and likely knew exactly what she was doing here. Instead, it reported that she came here to ski, swarmed her at the airport, demanded an interview with her representative here, and did ‘people on the street’ interviews.

Man oh man oh man….

While North American news organizations were squeezing every last sad drop out of the tsunami story, and many of us were hoping for some other disaster so the subject could be changed, the temperature plummeted to a (Vancouver) record of -7. I’m schlepping winter clothes to the Salvation Army and thinking “Hmmm…we’re sending millions and millions and millions overseas but, uh, doesn’t charity begin at home?” That same day, Nelson Mandela’s son died of AIDS. In South Africa alone, 600 people die of AIDS every single day—that’s 219,000 every year. While recording artists in every country are organizing concerts for those affected by the Tsunami, I’m thinking: “Whatever happened to Bob Geldof’s push for famine relief in Africa?, and “Why aren’t more people fundraising for HIV meds there?”

I used to be a fundraiser—I organized my first event at 14 and hung up the ball gowns about 10 years ago. I know how easily good causes can fall out of favour, or lose their cachet. There’s a status attached, or not, to each one. But once the media sees the opportunity to show the Blood & Guts, and countless images of suffering and pain and loss and damage, our response is to jump on! Do something now! Buy an Armani t-shirt (made in Mexico—I checked), send little kids on door-to-door collection excursions. That’s great, but then the cause in question seems to become obscene to us. After a very short period of time, people turn away, repulsed, or bored. It’s March now, and few of us think of the tsunami disaster; by the summer, most people will have pretty much forgotten about it. (The answer of course is for everyone to give a monthly sum to a broad-reaching charity.)

I digress. I turned on the news today. Services for the slain RCMP officers—an event that has grieved and disgusted the entire nation. Paul Martin’s ongoing support from his party. The US border’s closure to our cows. This is good—this is news that is relevant and meaningful to Canadians. But I’m watching the CBC. At 6:00, I will turn to one of the local channels—Global, CTV or CHUM. I will hear about the latest car accidents, house fires, some out-of-bounds skier being rescued. In ‘international’ news, it will likely be news of a landslide in California, a bad car accident in Holland, or a flood in Wales—anything gut-wrenching to fill the time.

We need to write to news directors and ask: ‘Why are you doing this to us? Why can’t we have fresh stories, discovered and developed by Canadian reporters, about things that actually mean something to us? Why is it that, when we are finished watching the news and there was an important issue mentioned, we’re left asking questions about it? Why give reporters 2 minutes, when they need at least 6 to lay out the facts? Why is all of our news coming from the wire services? Have you forgotten that there is, or used to be, something called ‘investigative journalism’? Are you appealing only to those who use TV as a dinnertime opiate? Or are you trying to frustrate us all and force us into blissful ignorance?’

That may be the route I’m taking. In fact, it is. I used to spend time writing essays about ‘Big Important Issues’. Now, I’m writing children’s books. My new main sources of news are the New Yorker and Vanity Fair. I’m tired of being depressed by every news show. I’m tired of listening to junk no one cares about. I’m turning over a new leaf. I have a new ‘tude: Don’t ask me nuthin’ because I won’t know nuthin’.

Blitz Magazine, 2006

Gun Violence, Music & Advertising: Enough is Enough

Blitz Magazine, January 2006

gunad

I, like all Canadians, am proud of how we’ve been able continue our various cultural traditions, grow our own superb artists and successful industries, and maintain a distinct Canadian identity (no one can quite describe it, but it’s there). We’ve done this in spite of our proximity to the United States, whose culture has permeated that of every nation on the planet.

I, like all Canadians, am also proud of how we’ve been able to keep out the worst of the US—especially the war mongering and the obsession with guns. The proliferation of handguns, long the scourge of that nation, has been kept at bay. Rather, had been kept at bay.

Since last January, Canadian cities have been seen a shocking increase in gun-related violence. Edmonton has just clocked its 37th murder, while Toronto experienced a veritable bloodbath, losing 50 of its citizens to bullets. A couple of weeks ago, a promising young artist was shot dead on a Vancouver street by a complete stranger with no apparent motive.

You want creepy? Visit http://www.nra.org. As I look at it, it’s headlines are: ‘NRA to File Lawsuit Challenging San Francisco Gun Ban’, ‘Historic Victory for NRA as President Bush Signs Protection of Lawful Commerce In Arms Act’, and ‘American Rifleman Wins Folio: Gold Ozzie Design Award’. Yee haw.

The NRA exists for no other reason than to ‘protect the right of Americans to own guns’. (In fact, the US Constitution does not specifically grant that right.) Given that the only purpose of guns is to take life, you have to shake your head at the mentality of people who fight tooth and nail to own lethal weapons and endanger the lives of their fellow citizens. In Florida, Jeb Bush—who is obviously as dim and malleable as his brother—has enacted a law that justifies homicide if the killer (read: shooter) feels threatened by the, uh, dead person.

What has this to do with media communications?

Last week, I get home from a party. I flick on the TV, to CNN. But I’ve pressed the wrong buttons and I get MuchMusic.

It’s 3:00 a.m. and I’m watching a ‘music’ video (there’s no actual music in evidence). In it, a scantily-clad young woman is ordered onto all fours, then a man puts his foot on her back and pushes her to the ground. She gracefully submits. I stand there and watch a couple of these videos, one by a band named ‘Pitbull’, sandwiched between ads by Coca Cola, Cadbury and Maybelline. All of the videos feature thug wannabes yacking about who-knows-what and surrounded by half-naked, writhing women and I’m thinking: “Please tell me that these losers aren’t the role models of Canadian teen-agers!”

The ‘musicians’ in all of these bands are black. And they’re twisting themselves into knots trying to show their ‘Street Cred’ and their ‘Hood Gangsta membership, making themselves look very foolish in the process. It’s not only boring, it’s sad. This is not what people should be led to believe of black culture. Black culture is not about crime and rape and abuse and drugs and guns. Millions of people are working to get away from this garbage, and it helps no one to see it glorified and to have these stupid and shameful stereotypes perpetuated.

In the US, the latest media darling is rapper 50 Cent (aka Curtis Jackson). He recently made a movie: Get Rich or Die Trying, and has had great success with songs like How to Rob, Ready to Die and No Mercy, No Fear. His parents (murdered long ago) were well-known drug dealers, he has a very long rap sheet and has survived being shot nine times. “Well, good for him,” everyone says. “He got out of the ‘hood and has become a success.” (The media rarely mentions black teachers and doctors who rose from the ‘hood—too boring. It’s violence that sells.)

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Jackson has already faced censorship in Canada—a planned concert was barred from taking place. But I’m loathe to encourage censorship. It can’t be the role of government to control what people read, see and hear. Parents have to do it. And many of them are doing a lousy job, thinking it’s better if their teen-agers play blood-soaked video games and watch the aforementioned crap at home, rather than hanging out at malls.

Advertisers also have to take some responsibility. Marketers have to look at what their ads are supporting—it’s their money and their choice. Does Maybelline, for example, want its customers to think that it’s OK for women to submit to abusive acts by men? No? Then it has to be careful about what it’s advertising around.

Paul Martin was slammed (by the Conservatives) for promising a handgun ban at the launch of his election campaign. People called it “opportunistic”. Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan had to do some fast talking in her home province, telling an Edmonton reporter: “The handgun ban doesn’t apply in Alberta. It’s a provincial opt-in.” Her Tory riding opponent, Laurie Hawn, took the tried-and-true NRA route, calling it an “excuse to target law-abiding citizens.” Well, law-abiding citizens don’t own handguns. Handguns are not an effective means of protection: they’re used for crime and, when kept in the home, are often used by children—to shoot other children (anyone remember Columbine?).

As far as I’m concerned, if Martin enacts a handgun ownership ban and makes possession a heavily-punished crime, he’s a hero. The bloodshed and violence and fear associated with handguns is one part of American culture that we do not want, and the Canadian media and advertising industries should not be encouraging it by seeking to profit from it.

 

Oh Shut Up: Bad Music & Noisy Advertising

Blitz Magazine, November 2004

radio‘Might just be me, but it seems like communication with the public is getting noisier—it’s not a question of sound, but of noise. Aggressive, cloying unnecessary, inappropriate noise.

In BC, the Savings & Credit Unions of BC campaign is torturing us with the grating belting out of You Are the Only One—it’s supposed to give us the warm fuzzies but it ain’t workin’. The Art Institute of Vancouver and the Culinary Institute of Vancouver are using voice-overs recorded by a girl who sounds like an ailing American street kid and is unable to enunciate the letter ‘t’. This is noise.

Vancouver rock ‘n roll fans used to religiously listen to 101 CFMI, the big daddy of the FM band. Then it switched its programming to heavy metal and a lot of us switched to Victoria’s 100.3 The Q, which used to have the perfect play list—good classic rock ‘n roll and lots of new music. Now, The Q has gone after the mullet crowd, delivering a steady stream of Heart, Kiss, ACDC and Van Halen. Ugh.

Back in Vancouver, CFMI now claims to be the home of classic rock. So its play list is Led Zeppelin, Rush, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd (but only the tired standards from Dark Side of the Moon), more Zeppelin, more Rush, ACDC, Led Zeppelin and Rush. The Rolling Stones, The Police, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith etc. are largely excluded. I like Zeppelin as much as the next rocker chick, but when I’m driving way too fast in the honey-bright Vancouver sunshine, I just don’t want to hear Stairway to Heaven. Bad radio is just plain noisy. And, for this market, this station’s music is inappropriate.

On the larger stage, why is Cadillac using Led Zeppelin to sell its cars?  This is also an example of how a trend can go wrong (and, hopefully, die off). The use of good rock ‘n roll music to sell cars began years and years ago. Chiat/Day mastered the technique, for Nissan. It came back and gained steam in the last five years. Now, agencies all over North America use it to sell everything, regardless of whether or not it’s appropriate. Right now, 2000 Flushes is using R&B music (and women in blue sequin ball gowns). Air Canada is using Celine Dion—presumably to prove that it’s still a champion over-spender and to instill some kind of national pride. When was the last time a Canadian told you that he loved listening to Celine Dion? I think most Canadians wish the girl would just go away.

Back in BC, the long-time formula for Telus has been to show animals, play music and hope that, somehow, consumers will want Telus’ products and services. Aside from the fact that using non-canine or –feline animals in commercials is hopelessly old-fashioned (and, often, cruel and unethical), the animals are irrelevant to what Telus wants to sell, and the music is unnecessary.

Do you remember the days when radio people chose the right music for their markets? Remember the days when agencies commissioned original music for their clients? Perfect, appropriately-crafted music. An example has just arisen with the new Ford commercials, with Kiefer Sutherland’s dulcet tones and elegant, ear-catching music. Hopefully, this is a new trend—it would be such a relief.

It’s true that the best way to get someone’s attention is to whisper. The most compelling TV commercials are those that are quiet—they force people to look at the screen. In radio, the opposite is true, but if the music is so bad that listeners change stations, no one’s going to hear those ads.

Maybe the problem is that creative directors are too young—because it is the twenty-somethings that grew up with noise, addicted to ear phones, video games and head-banging rock. The 30-60 demographic was raised on sounds that were appropriate to the culture at the time. Bringing back those sounds, turning up the volume and slapping them on product ads may get people’s attention, but not necessarily the desired reaction. For the 30-60 set, it’s more likely to make us tune out. And we’re still the ones with the big spending power.

On Unhelpful Journalism

Blitz Magazine, September 2004

As anyone who’s ever organized an event knows, there’s nothing more crushing than low turnout. You put your heart and all of your energy into organizing something, you do your best with limited marketing and promotion dollars, you keep your volunteers hyped and hope your committee members do their jobs. Then, on event day, only half of the expected numbers appear, and you feel absolutely sick.

unhelpfulThis is, I’m sure, how the organizers of the Athens Olympics feel right now. As I write this, the Olympics are half over and there have been very few events at which the seats were more than 50% filled. In fact, in most cases, it appears that no more than a relative smattering of people bought tickets for events. Watching the world’s finest athletes competing in echo chambers adds a sense of real Greek tragedy to the games.

Why has this happened? The media, of course. August in Athens can be pretty uncomfortable, but reportage focusing on the heat and the city’s problems with traffic congestion and pollution was unhelpful. It’s true that all businesspeople try to extract as much profit as they can from a world-class event, but the news of hoteliers and restaurateurs being slapped with huge fines for gouging tourists? Unhelpful. The Greeks are known for being a bit laid-back when it comes to scheduling, but having the ‘Unreadiness of Athens’ become a staple for late-night comedians? Unhelpful. News reports of the ease with which terrorists could infiltrate the games? Unhelpful. And wrong—none of the media’s almost gleefully-dire predictions have come true.

The same thing happened with the recent Canadian federal election. Every single poll proved to be completely inaccurate. Every analyst had to backtrack. Every pundit was dead wrong. The Liberals were not voted out, the Conservatives did not win, or even make their projected gains. Yet all of this advance speculation and ‘educated’ opinion clouded the decision-making process for millions of voters. Why do the networks commission polls? Polls are useless, because the samplings are so small. The only way to get an accurate measurement of public opinion is, hello, an election.

In the US, Scott Peterson is on trial for the murder of his wife. How an untainted jury pool was found for this trial is beyond me. Because, from the moment Laci Peterson disappeared, nearly two years ago, every detail that could be dug up was announced to the public. It appears that even law enforcement officials held nothing back; indeed, the Modesto Police Department has a website devoted to this case, including file details, timelines, news releases etc. And from the beginning, there was the media—the already smarmy, and the ‘legits’ on their road to smarminess, predicting, predicting. There was Larry King and his panel of experts telling the public what would happen to Scott, how long he’d get, what would happen at his trial—and this was long before the guy was arrested.

One has to wonder how the media became so thoroughly obsessed with reporting on events that have yet to transpire. Why do reporters persist in analyzing possible scenarios and then projecting them to the public as probable outcomes? Why are we subjected to facts not in evidence, groundless statistics, baseless innuendo—all negative, of course.

Because, I guess, the news had just become another sideshow. Another form of entertainment. Reporters no longer dig and dig to find their own stories; they use their imaginations. The networks and newspaper owners no longer what to find the news—why pay for staff to go out and do actual research, when they can get some polling firm to come up with something they can do a story on? Is it about economics? Lethargy? A loss of ethics? A combination, I suspect. And it’s all really unhelpful.