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.

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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.

 

 

 

In Memoriam: The Art of Insult

Wherefore stinging wit? The spontaneous, searing slam?

After observing these last elections (American and Canadian), I fear that the art of insult may have died with the masters.

Have all talking heads lost their nerve? Is everyone reading from a script? Are all public figures slaves to their PR people? In this inarticulate age, and compared to past politicians, today’s guys are egregiously limp.

If you recall, the best insult summoned by Al Gore was “snippy”. Dubya responded with “sore loser”.

Uh, ouch?

In Canada, Joe Clark likened Stockwell Day to a game show host, and Jean Chretien said that Day’s party represents the dark side of human nature.

Oooh. The blisters.

What about the crushing quip? Such as this, from Pierre Elliot Trudeau: “The Honourable Member disagrees; I can hear him shaking his head.”

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Or, from Winston Churchill, “You are a modest man, with much to be modest about.”

Benjamin Disraeli was a talent. He once turned to an MP and noted: “Your smile is like the fittings on a coffin.” When asked to explain the difference between calamity and misfortune, he replied: “If Gladstone fell into the Thames, it would be a misfortune. If someone pulled him out, it would be a calamity.”

My favourite nasty political exchange was between the Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes.

Sandwich: “I don’t know whether you’ll die on the gallows or of the pox.”

Wilkes: “That depends on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.”

Schwing!

Mark Twain was good at skewering politicians: “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

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Oliver Wendell Holmes: “He may have genius. The contrary is, of course, probable.”

Harold Ickes noted: “Dewey has thrown his diaper into the ring.”

From John Sparrow: “If he’d wash his neck, I’d wring it.”

Bernard Shaw once sent a note to Churchill, inviting him to the opening of his play. At the bottom, he wrote: “Bring a friend. If you have one.”

Churchill wrote in reply, saying that he couldn’t make the opening, and then added: “But we’d like to attend the second performance. If there is one.”

This brings me to Dubya. Who has the same presidential qualifications as my poodle. Neither one can read and both like to run outside. The difference is that my poodle is capable of producing original thought. While Dubya bends over for all oilmen, chemical companies, religious nuts, ‘lectric-char-luvin rednecks and Republican rustlers, my poodle does not always do as he’s told. And my poodle has better manners.

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As I write this, we still don’t know who will be the next US president, but the smell of a Bush placement grows stronger. In a way, it’s a good thing. A Dubya administration, disastrous as it will undoubtedly be, will provide more grist for the comedy mill than five Quayle terms could ever have.

The fact that Dubya is where he is in the first place brings me to this remark, belatedly directed at another George by the novelist Edmund Clerihew Bentley:

“George the Third

Ought never to have occurred

One can only wonder

At so grotesque a blunder.”

Blitz Magazine, January 2001

Co-Opted: Culture Makes Off With a Masterpiece

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You’ve seen it. Everywhere. You’ve been seeing it everywhere since you were born.

And it’s probably safe to assume that, when Edvard Munch (1863-1944) painted The Scream, it never occurred to him that his image would become the universal, multi-purpose symbol of terror.

It also likely never occurred to him that, in the 1960s, his painting would cross the line from artwork to icon. That it would go from being a respected object of contemplation to a piece of exploitable public property—standard stock for cartoonists, art directors and advertisers. That it would illustrate editorial in magazines such as M.A.D., Ms., and Forbes. That an American bank would print it on its cheques (er, checks). That the U.S. Department of Transportation would use it to indicate hazardous materials.

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Munch could not possibly have dreamt that his image would make the career of a child actor (Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone). That it would become the name of a Hollywood franchise (the Scream films). That it would appear on greeting cards, shopping bags, coasters and neck ties. Beer labels, clock faces, spoon rests. T-Shirts, balloons, key chains. Gas pain medicine and toilet paper. And whoopee cushions.

scream2Munch published two different versions of his inspiration for The Scream; that he thought of it when he viewed a mummified body in a jar at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, and that the image came to him in the midst of a blood-red sunset. Whichever one is true, given the life he led, the idea would wouldn’t have been much of a leap.

He was the son of an Oslo doctor and the grandson of a priest (yeah, we won’t go there). His father was obsessively religious—to the point of mania, and insanity ran right through the clan. The family was perpetually immersed in grinding poverty and Edvard, a sickly child, spent endless hours lying in his little bed while his father read to him. Which would have been fine if the material of choice hadn’t been the tales of Edgar Allan Poe.

Munch made it to adulthood, but his best friend was a chap called Hans Jaeger, a nihilist who lived by the code “a passion to destroy is also a creative passion”, and who advocated suicide as the ultimate way to freedom. These two knee-slappers became devoted Bohemians which, for them, meant endless binge-drinking and brawling. (No sex for Edvard—the idea of it turned him off.)

But he was able to paint and, in 1892, landed a one-man show at an art gallery. In Berlin. Where his work was found to be ‘too troubling’ for happy-go-lucky Germans, and the show was shut down after one week—much to Munch’s amusement. (He did, however, become a major influence of the 20th-century German Expressionists.)

Eventually, of course, he had a nervous breakdown. But then he rallied, quit drinking and started painting portraits. He died in 1944, in Nazi-occupied Norway. By then, the Nazis had confiscated all of this work—and then they orchestrated his funeral, giving the impression that he was a Nazi sympathizer. He wasn’t, but he would have appreciated the irony.

The Scream exists in four versions: two pastels (1893 and 1895) and two paintings (1893 and 1910) (there are also several lithographs). You can see it in the exhibit Edvard Munch’s The Scream and Popular Culture, which also includes other, less-famous, pieces: The Sick Child, Death in the Sickroom, Two People (The Lonely One), Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm, Anxiety, The Vampire and Into the Woods.

But you’ll see a print; all originals are firmly locked away because they are the subject of constant attempts at theft (most recently, the piece in Norway’s National Gallery was kidnapped and held for ransom during the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer). Munch, no doubt, would appreciate the irony of that, too.

munch1 munch2 Edvard Munch, Ashes 1925 munch3

Blitz Magazine, March 1998

A Demand for Wit in Advertising

badadsBlitz Magazine, January 2000

You spend 10 minutes at a party listening to a guy describe his passion for actuarial tables. By the time he’s finished, you’ve forgotten his name and have developed an aversion to all things actuarial.

On TV, you see a loud, obnoxious commercial. I can’t cite an example because I would have immediately developed an aversion to its product and forgotten it.

When communicating a message, the most effective method of having it remembered is by delivering it with Wit. Intelligent Humour.

We remember the Special K commercial showing an incredibly unattractive man preparing for a day on the beach. The Alta Vista commercial in which, thanks to Alta Vista, a geek has earned the devotion of, and a night with, Pamela Anderson (by rescuing her). The Pets.com commercial in which a guy sleeps happily on the floor while his dogs snore on the bed. Intelligent humour.

You’re in advertising—it’s your life’s work—and you’re reading this, thinking: “Why is she telling me this? I already know this.” Well, if everyone in advertising knows this, why are so many TV commercials so abysmally, depressingly bad?

Why are we fed a steady diet of Yuppies-With-Happy-Children driving SUVs to meet their Warm Best Friend/Smart Financial Advisor and invest their sizeable cash reserves so they’ll have plenty of money on which to retire and spend on their Adorable Grandchildren? Ugh. The warm fuzzies are anything but—they’re insultingly divorced from reality. And they’re not funny.

The only financial planning commercials I remember are those from Schwab, in which professional athletes explain the intricacies of investing. They’re funny. The car commercials I remember are from Nissan (Border Collie herds man sleeping in chair through city streets to Nissan showroom), those from Audi (because they’re beautiful and witty) and the innumerable witty Volkswagen spots.

Each year, when NABS Vancouver hosts the Cannes International Advertising Festival Winners’ Reel, the event sells out in hours. Because it’s entertaining. Those commercials are, for the most part, funny, intelligent, witty. They’re deemed the world’s best commercials, because they’re memorable and so are their products–no matter how obscure they seem. We remember the dancing penis commercial from an Australian Gay & Lesbian radio station, the chef-abuse spot for an Argentinean English school. Does anyone remember those that weren’t witty?

I would like to see a change in sensibility. I would like to see an end to this smug, dreadfully earnest, demographic-research-based celebration of presumed success. I couldn’t care less what Lindsay Wagner or Candace Bergen want me to buy. I want to see ‘real’ people in intelligent, mirth-inducing commercials. I want to not have to watch television with a book in my left hand and my right thumb glued to the mute button. I would like to see the bullshit obliterated, the noise turned down, the wit turned way, way up.

 

On Dicks & Democracy

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Blitz Magazine, May 2001

I used to spend a lot of time with a political strategist. I’ll call him Dick. I can’t say I knew him well, because it was his goal to not be known well. Once, he had too much to drink and let slip his mother’s name. The only time I got a direct answer from him was when I asked the time.

I thought of Dick while watching the ‘debate’ during the run-up to the recent provincial election. There were four candidates, facing four seasoned journalists. The journalists asked questions. Their questions were not answered, not even indirectly. The robots spouted scripted statements vaguely relating to the subject. No one was challenged; there was no debate of any kind. Later, the media discussed who won.

There were only three notable things about the session: the incumbent’s response to every question was a tired deflection against Gordon Campbell; Campbell’s constant repetition of the words ‘British Columbia’, as if to remind himself what province we’re in. And Green Party leader Adrienne Carr’s statement that she “truly believes” that private sector businesses would “find a way”, on their own, to establish wage parity. Sure. Have another joint.

I’ve had several conversations with Premier-Elect Campbell over the years. Ordinary, interactive conversations. But for this election, he’d clearly put himself thoroughly in the hands of a Dick. So had the others. I could hear the conversation, applicable to any one of them.

“You said we weren’t supposed to speak to the public.”

“Correct.”

“Then why am I doing this debate?”

“Just recite one of the responses you’ve memorized.”

“What if the response doesn’t match the question?”

“Immaterial.”

“What if the journalists notice?”

“They’ll be drunk.”

“And later, when journalists gather around me to scram-”

“Scrum. Say nothing. Be in a hurry.”

“But what about democratic principles? What about my obligation to be open, honest, forthwith—”

“Forthright.”

“That too.”

“Forget democratic principles. This is an election.”

BC politics has always been unusual. But this election was extraordinary. I’ve never seen an election, anywhere, where the Dicks so obviously orchestrated everything. No attempt was made to hide that fact that Dicks had total control. Over every movement, every syllable spoken. No one got a direct response to any question, from any candidate, at any time. No citizen was able to spontaneously communicate with any candidate: when a candidate arrived somewhere, the grassroots members that everyone’s always gushing about were unable to get near him without literally muscling through the pre-arranged barrier of placard-waving supporters.

Thomas Paine is often misquoted. He didn’t say that ‘power corrupts’. He said that ‘authority corrupts’. The difference is evident here. Those who have attained power ceded the authority to acquire that power to highly-paid Dicks, Who are faceless, invisible, simultaneously paid by many differing interests, accountable to no one.

Who loses? Any pre-existing good intentions on the part of prospective politicians are smothered, which must make politics torture for the well-meaning. Governments vanish behind a fog that we can’t rely on journalists to dispel, because centralized media ownership dictates their positions. And the man on the street? What man on the street?

When Dicks run the show, we lose, Dicks win. The Dicks gotta’ go.