On Communicators Needing to Think Things Through

Blitz Magazine, November 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On Citizen Journalism

Blitz Magazine, January 2008

Late-night host Craig Ferguson regularly stabs at tabloid stories when he says (wink) “If it’s written down, it must be true.” Which is funny, until you realize that millions of people actually do think that everything they read—just because it has been published somewhere—must have some factual basis. That’s not at all funny.

citizenIn my particular pocket of the world, the majority of people are supposed to be well-educated. But at the check-out counter at the local grocery store, I notice that the racks for the National Enquirer and the News of the World are either depleted or empty. Publications such as these have long made millions by printing doctored images and ridiculous fiction about real people. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s always asked: ‘Who reads this stuff?’, ‘Why do people read this stuff?’ and ‘How is it that these publications haven’t been sued into bankruptcy?’

The answer to the first two questions are, in my mind, that those who buy tabloid junk are either intellectually-challenged or find some escapist value in reading dreck. The answer to the third question is unknowable—perhaps the victims think that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, or they don’t want to give credence to junk by responding to it. The main reason could be that defamation suits are difficult, time-consuming and expensive.

All of this is now made much worse by the Internet, which has spawned blogs and vlogs and this new creature called ‘Citizen Journalism’. Now anyone, anywhere can say literally anything about anybody, with impunity. Anyone with an axe to grind can broadcast any fiction to millions of people, and the victims of any misinformation, slander or defamation will not be able to do anything about it—if they even know about it. Between language barriers and the vast size of the Web, it is impossible for corporations, governments and individuals to monitor what is being said about them.

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A recent example of the damage this can do popped up when a disgruntled ex-employee of Tommy Hilfiger used the Net to spread the notion that the company actively discourages black customers. By the time the company learned about it, millions of emails on the subject had been sent out—I got one from a friend, who believed it because she got it from her sister, who (egads) is in senior management at a Crown corporation, and she believed it because, it was ‘in print’. Hilfiger had the resources to fight back, and duly did the talk-show rounds to set the record straight. Only his accountants can say how much damage was caused by this particular lie.

The downside of Internet-based misinformation does not stop at celebrities and corporations. It is now creating massive problems in academia. Thanks, in part, to Wikipedia, the online volunteer encyclopedia that we now all use. In universities everywhere, students are regularly failing important exams because they’re taking their ‘facts’ from Wikipedia entries. Professors everywhere are now are forbidding students to use anything from Wikipedia.

According to Wired Campus, “Even Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, says he wants to get the message out to students that they shouldn’t use it for class projects or serious research. Wales gets about 10 email messages a week from students who complain that Wikipedia has gotten them into academic hot water. “They say, ‘Please help me, I got an ‘F’ on my paper because I cited something I found on Wikipedia and the information turned out to be wrong.”

Citizen Journalism is terrific for the exchange of opinion and ideas, and the concept is great for fostering freedom and democracy. It can help catch criminals, of all sorts. It can educate, inform and inspire. The up-side is definitely there.

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But the down-side is more pronounced. Any charlatan can file ‘reports’ on ‘new’ medications, treatments, cures. Any idiot can say “a clinical study has proven that drinking water is bad for you,” or that “the government of Somewhere is poisoning its citizens’. Lots and lots of people are not very bright; millions will send money to support the citizens of Somewhere, believe that they should stop drinking water, and buy those concoctions.

In every corner of the globe, there are people who go on-line, see tons of fascinating information, all dressed up with pretty pictures, ‘quotes’, charts and graphs. It doesn’t occur to these people to check the sources of the information; to find out who the authors are, check their credentials. They may not understand the concept of advertorial; it may not even occur to them that the guy in the white coat is an actor. They just assume that, because it has been ‘published’, it must be true.

In the civilized world, it is still only the masthead, station call letters, or network logo that allows us to believe and trust in the information that it being given to us. When we see a reporter at the site of an incident, we can trust that that reporter has done the work and is telling what he or she believes to be the truth. When it comes to political reportage, most of us know enough to read between the lines, to recognize that a columnist or talking head has a particular political bent.

We also trust that dishonest journalists will be exposed, as they have famously been at the New York Times and the Washington Post, for example, and that the penalty for their deception is banishment from their profession and new careers as cab drivers or gas station attendants. The fact that we will never hear from them again is proof that mainstream journalistic entities are committed to providing accurate information, and the educated, fact-based insight that people need in order to properly understand their world. The measures taken to guarantee credibility are, of course, to safeguard corporate survival, but they are also taken in support of ethical positions and a professional dedication to protection of the public trust through the dissemination of fact and truth. Like it or not, professional journalistic entities are still the gate-keepers.

The trick is to define ‘professional’. An awful lot of Americans, on the under-educated side, think that the information they get from Fox News is true, thanks to the insane persuasiveness of the odious Bill O’Reilly and the network’s not-so-merry bank of bobbing vitriol-spewing heads. With the pervasiveness of religious fanaticism in the southern states, you have to wonder at how much of their local information is controlled by heavy-hitters with decidedly off-kilter agendas. (This is becoming an issue in Canada, as well.)

The one which could have the most negative effect on future societies—is with the under-30s, who are now used to getting all of their information from the ‘Net. Canadian children may be some of the world’s best-educated, but you can see them in the malls and internet cafes, surfing, reading and passing on information that, they assume, must be true. Because it’s ‘in print’. Then they get to university and discover, the hard way, that this is not at all the case.

citizen1They don’t think about where their information comes from. What the motivation was behind its collection and dissemination. Whether or not the people who created it had any journalistic training—what questions were asked, how they were asked, if facts were checked and images authenticated.

If Citizen Journalism is meant to be good for freedom and democracy, those involved in it may have to think about the larger ramifications. Because the fact that so many people will believe anything they read, without thinking about its genesis is, ultimately, seriously detrimental to everyone.

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.

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.

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.