On Automobiles, Advertising & Talking to Americans

Blitz Magazine, January 2003

suv

I’m sitting in traffic, in my Mustang. We’re not going anywhere and I have no idea why. Because I can’t see a thing. I am surrounded by SUVs. And I start to think about how gullible people are. We know that, in an accident, an SUV is 30% more likely to roll and 25% more likely to kill the other driver. We know that, by virtue of their size, SUVs increase traffic volume, thereby increasing the amount of time vehicles are on the road, thus the amount of fuel burned. We know that SUVs burn more fuel individually, and that they cost more to insure. Yet people keep buying them.

I prefer the European attitude toward automobiles. They’re mere appliances, made of steel and plastic and rubber and fibre. Their purpose is to get people from point A to point B, in a safe and efficient manner, with some speed and a little fun thrown in. If you look at any European street, it’s clear that people there don’t care about dents and scratches, or dust and mud. I have an English friend who drives an old Bentley. It makes strange sounds, smells of cigars and is usually full of damp dogs, but it’s fuel-efficient and there’s no point in fixing something that ain’t broke. Over there, people like nice cars, but cars are by no means the status symbols that they are on this side of the pond.

In North America, automobile advertising has people believing that, without an SUV, people might not be able to drive up mountains—as many of us so often have to. Worse, advertising has people believing that SUVs are safe, and that they’re essential for good parenting. That a huge van with a built-in entertainment system is a must for childhood happiness, or that the ability to reconfigure seating will keep kids from fighting. I spend $80 a month on gas, which is barely enough to get the average SUV-wielding soccer mom to and from Wal-Mart. In fact, the money that parents spend on these contraptions each year far exceeds the annual tuition at most private schools.

The other message being swallowed is speed. (I should admit here that speed has always been a problem for me. In fact, I flunked my first driving test by going over the speed limit.) But, in Vancouver as, I’m sure, in other cities, speed has become an increasingly deadly problem.

On the one hand, there’s a huge population of recent yuppies who are too busy to drive their teen-agers anywhere. It’s a lot easier just to buy them their own high-performance cars—and trust them. On the other hand, Vancouver has a huge population of Asian immigrants. These people work hard and prosper in their new county, and they want to give their kids (especially their sons) everything their hearts desire. And they’re new to the culture, so they’re finding their way through that culture’s media.

In both cases, if the family prize wants the newest, fastest car on the lot? No problem! ‘Course, he could end up blind, paralyzed, dead or in jail… Recently, in a Vancouver suburb, road-racing teens snuffed out the life of a 30 year-old RCMP officer. This week, the officer’s parents (also Asian immigrants) were on the news—he was their only child and the item was on how they’re working with local government to stop road racing. The broadcast then went to commercial—it was a spot from Subaru, about its newest, fastest car. It’s ‘rally-proven!’

So now the question is, how socially responsible will advertisers be forced to become? We can’t advertise tobacco. We can’t show anyone drinking liquor. There are strict rules governing promotion of those products and only hypocrites can support those rules while claiming that the Zoom Zoom Zoom commercials don’t contribute to dangerous behaviour.

Obesity is a huge problem among North America’s youth, with a thoroughly preventable disorder saddling millions of kids with diabetes and heart disease. What’s this going to do to the rules of advertising for McDonald’s? Coca Cola? Chips, pop, doughnuts? Candy, chocolate bars? Pizza? Or those fat-packed, salt-soaked pre-made meals people keep buying?

We know that one cause of obesity is a sedentary lifestyle. What’s going to happen to the marketing of video games? Computers? And now Canada has ratified the Kyoto Accord and we are committed to reducing greenhouse gases. What’s going to happen to that automobile advertising? I have no answers here—but I do know that the future of marketing is going to be very interesting.

The whole Kyoto storm was another amusement. There’s Alberta Premier Ralph Klein, touting the oil industry line that cutting greenhouse gases is going to cost thousands of jobs and all kinds of money. Meanwhile, the precious Alberta beef industry depends (duh) on climate. Following the worst drought in the memory of every farming community on the Canadian prairies (the ‘bread-basket of the world’), Alberta farmers were shipping their cows to slaughter and entering lotteries in which the prizes were rail car-loads of moldy hay.

BC Premier Gordon Campbell took the same position as Klein. But Vancouver and its environs are now legally committed to bidding on the 2010 Winter Olympics. I’m writing this on December 16th. Vancouver’s famed winter rain arrived last week—two months late. I have a garden full of flowers, and the local mountains have yet to see a snowflake. Let’s hope that Whistler/Blackcomb can make enough snow by the time the Olympic Selection Committee gets here.

In the US, it’s ‘Global warming? What global warming?’ Rising sea levels are causing the United States to physically, and rapidly, shrink. Inestimable damage is done every year by increasingly intense storms, and American farmers are no happier than Canadian farmers. Cross-border smog has created an epidemic of asthma among Ontario children; in summer, from the sky, Toronto is barely visible. There are pockets of Texas where up to 40% of the population suffers from respiratory ailments and cancer is rampant. Ah, yes, Texas. Home of the World’s Most Dangerous Man.

There’s little doubt that, when Jean Chretien’s communications director called George Bush a ‘moron’, it was one helluva PR gaff—even though she was telling the truth. But it made me recall a famous quote by Barbara Bush. It took place at a party celebrating Dubya’s first Texas gubernatorial election. Babs, not realizing that there was a journalist behind her, reportedly turned to her daughter and said: “Can you believe this?”

If a guy’s mother doesn’t think he should be in public office, he shouldn’t be in public office. But Babs raised Dubya to do what he’s told, and he’s doing it. Texas industry put him in power and the result if now evident there. American industry put him in national power and the damage is evident everywhere else. Two years of this guy and the world is a disaster. Last night, Al Gore announced that he won’t run in the next presidential election; I get the feeling that he thinks he might not be able to fix things. On the same broadcast of 60 Minutes, Donald Rumsfeld was shown telling Steve Croft that the war on Iraq has ‘Nothing to do with oil. Nothing whatsoever’.

He’s lying. And everyone knows he’s lying. Senior US cabinet officials are popping up all over the place, doing as many interviews as they possibly can, trying to sell a war that has no credible basis. It’s gone past the point of ridiculousness to the point of comedy. Every day, there are reports that UN weapons inspectors have found nothing, and that they have unfettered access to suspected sites. And, almost every day, the British or American PR machines come out with a ‘new’ piece of ‘evidence’. ‘Oh,’ they say, ‘We’ve had this evidence for years—we just didn’t tell anyone.’ Who do they think they’re kidding?

Anyway, what set me off on this tangent is a 60-minute re-run of Rick Mercer’s Talking to Americans. At one time one of the funniest concepts on TV, watching it became one depressing experience. As you’ll recall, Mercer would ask Americans to comment on outrageously stupid ideas. So we see Americans congratulating Canada on legalizing insulin and staplers, the completion of 800 miles of paved road, getting a second area code and becoming part of North America. ‘Hysterically funny.

Then a professor at Columbia University signs a petition against placing Canadian senior citizens adrift on ice floes. A professor at Harvard, after proudly proclaiming that he received tenure in 1965, agrees that Irish-Canadians should be allowed to vote. A professor at Boston College considers the merits of Canada’s honouring of its treaty with Chief Gordon Lightfoot and allowing an annual rhino hunt. A professor at Stanford concurs with the notion of sending ground troops into Saskatchewan. And the governor of Arkansas congratulates Canada on getting FM radio. And they’re all serious.

When these spots first aired, Bill Clinton was president of the United States. If the American media had been less obsessed with his sex life, the world may be in better shape today; he recently told David Letterman that all of ‘that’ definitely distracted his administration from the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which began in the early ‘90s.

There was never any doubt about Clinton’s intellect. The guy is probably a genius. And when someone that sharp is running the show, other types of ignorance can be funny.

Now, ignorance is as deadly as any other weapon. And the Leader of the Free World (shudder here) is a dimwit. His ignorance is a staple on Saturday Night Live. It is commonly discussed on the late night talk shows. It’s now mentioned by mainstream journalists, as if it’s OK. But it’s not OK. While one can occasionally see a dim flicker of understanding in those tiny little eyes, there’s little doubt that he’s not the one running show. He’s being handled. Who by? Who knows? PR experts certainly, but who are they and what agenda do they have?

 My thoughts return, again, to how gullible people are. Americans in particular. There should have been massive protest, even civil disobedience, when Bush was elected in the shadiest of shady elections. There wasn’t. Texans voted for the guy because he likes to talk tough—they love that ‘Don’t Mess With Texas’ mantra. Just a few months ago, Americans had a chance to reduce the number of Republicans in office, reduce Bush’s power and damage his chances for re-election. Yet barely 25% of them turned out to vote.

My conclusion is that North Americans have adopted the mentality of sheep. If it’s advertised, buy it. If a politician says it, it must be true. If it’s in the papers, it’s gotta’ be real. Perhaps this mentality is not new, but it’s never been more unhealthy, more damaging, or more dangerous. And what we all want—what we all absolutely need—is for everyone to start telling the truth.

 

Advertisements

On Being Sick of the Blood

Blitz Magazine, January 2007

bleeds

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

dogs2

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.

Journalism in America: Blues, Buffs & Buttheads

In 1836, in The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens wrote the following:

It appears, then, that the Eatanswill people, like the people of many other small towns, considered themselves of the utmost and most mighty importance, and that every man in Eatanswill, conscious of the weight that attached to his example, felt himself bound to unite, heart and soul, with one of the two great parties that divided the town-the Blues and the Buffs. Now the Blues lost no opportunity of opposing the Buffs, and the Buffs lost no opportunity of opposing the Blues; and the consequence was, that whenever the Buffs and Blues met together at public meeting, Town-Hall, fair, or market, disputes and high words arose between them. With these dissensions it is almost superfluous to say that everything in Eatanswill was made a party question. If the Buffs proposed to new sky-light the market-place [sic], the Blues got up public meetings, and denounced the proceeding; if the Blues proposed the erection of an additional pump in the High Street, the Buffs rose as one man and stood aghast at the enormity. There were Blue shops and Buff shops, Blue inns and Buff inns;–there was a Blue aisle and a Buff aisle, in the very church itself.

Of course, it was essentially and indispensably necessary that each of these powerful parties should have its chosen organ and representative; and, accordingly, there were two newspapers in the town-the Eatanswill Gazette and the Eatanswill Independent; the former advocating Blue principals, and the latter conducted on grounds decidedly Buff. ‘

This passage stuck in my mind a long time ago, but I remembered it recently when I watched the brouhaha about Barack Obama’s speech to the schoolchildren of America. The reaction to the announcement of Obama’s speech was enough to elicit, from people with brains, gasps and giggles, as American parents bought the idea that Obama was going to brainwash their children, use mass psychology to indoctrinate them, and steal into their brains and turn them into little robots. These are the same people who think that Obama is a closet Muslim, that Obama rhymes with ‘Osama’ for an actual reason, and that Obama’s a socialist who is somehow connected to Hitler and Kim Jong-il (no kidding-check out the blogs).

And it wasn’t just parents; there were teachers–people with university educations, who were reluctant to let their students watch Obama’s speech. I sat through the painfully comical interview with the painfully stupid Arizona State School Superintendent who could say little other than that allowing children to watch Obama’s speech was nothing more than ‘hero worship’. He didn’t appear to know what the term meant-he just kept saying it because, obviously, someone had told him to.

‘Course, Obama told children to persevere, work hard and stay in school. Tsc tsc tsc…bad president. I didn’t happen to watch the speech, but I assume it was more entertaining than that of Ronald Reagan, who did the same thing but spoke to America’s kids about tax breaks and Republican policy. No indoctrination there!

The Dickens passage popped into my head just a few weeks later when, horrified and disgusted, I watched the mortifying behaviour of Americans during the town meetings held to discuss Barack Obama’s healthcare reform package. This, however, was a much more serious case of one party shooting down an idea because it was the other party’s idea. Who can forget the middle-aged woman who told the Senate committee how she was nearing the end of her life because, when the lump in her breast was found, her insurer cut her off?

In America, girls are encouraged to marry doctors because, if they do, they’ll be set for life. Parents hope that their children may become doctors because, if they do, they’ll be rich. In America, medicine means profit. And in order for healthcare to be reformed in that country, Americans have to get it into their heads that, when it comes to healthcare, profit is not the foremost consideration. That’s a gargantuan leap. Those who make their living managing hospitals, marketing hospitals or managing companies which supply the healthcare industry, and the shareholders of all of those companies, do not want people to make that leap.

Of course some of the hysterical people at the town hall meetings were on the payroll of interested parties. In this age of rampant corruption, that’s to be expected. But the level of ignorance displayed in the Man-on-the-Street interviews was more shocking, as we saw that an astonishing number of people actually believe that Obama’s plan would institute ‘death panels’, which would deny care to the elderly or disabled. And that Canadians have to ask permission of bureaucrats before they can see a physician. ‘Didn’t help that the Republicans were able to rustle up a disgruntled Canadian-and I’d like to know what her pay-off was.

The question becomes one of where these people got their information. And how they became so hopelessly mired in ignorance. But it’s a question easily answered–they got it from their journalists.

journalism rush

Just as there were ‘Blue’ and ‘Buff’ journalists in Dickens’ day, there are journalists today who are so stuck to their political parties that they’ve forgotten that they are journalists-or that they’re supposed to be. Either they’re truly and hopelessly indoctrinated, or it’s a matter of the fact that they cash cheques which come from media organizations whose shareholders tell them what side they will fall on–or their advertisers tell their bosses which side they will fall on. These people aren’t really journalists; they’re simply mouth organs for political strategists, who dismiss the concept of ethical behaviour because winning is all that matters.

I don’t even want to know how many people listen to likes of Rush Limbaugh, a man who has failed at everything in life except radio; an under-educated, hate-spewing rube who has likely never fact-checked anything before spouting it as gospel. Then there’s Ann Coulter, a very clever lawyer who should know better than to say anything without fact-checking it, and who continually gets caught lying about people and statements and events, but who just keeps on raking in the dough earned by her never-ending spew of bile.

And who can ignore Bill O’Reilly, who actually does have a journalism degree, but keeps on shoveling the shit anyway, distorting and twisting everything that crosses his path and, when he’s caught, shouts down opposers? It’s amusing to me that O’Reilly is a graduate of Harvard, and that Harvard’s seal reads ‘Veritas’.

If you take a look at the website of the Society of Professional Journalists, you’ll note that it points out that ‘professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility’. Then, if you look at its Code of Ethics, you’ll see that the main points are: ‘Seek Truth and Report It’, ‘Minimize Harm’, ‘Act Independently’ and ‘Be Accountable’.

Well, that pretty much knocks out Coulter, O’Reilly and Limbaugh, as well as a huge number of North Americans who are working as journalists, but who are really nothing more than suits and haircuts being told what to do and say by special interest groups. Either they don’t think about the enormous amount of damage they do when they deliberately mis-inform people, or they don’t care.

One hopes that there are parents who are now embarrassed about listening to all of the crap about Obama’s speech and now know better. One hopes that, each time they realize how very wrong their sources were, that people will stop listening to these base sources.  One especially hopes this when it comes to those who are listening to biased sources about American healthcare reform.

When we read Dickens (who was a real journalist), we see that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Our ancestors brought this system, and that mentality, to North America, where it flourished to such an extent that, today, journalists ‘belong’ to their political parties, and blithely lie so as to support the needs and desires of their masters. In the case of healthcare reform however, this practice, and the idea that the opposition’s idea must be shot down, regardless of whether or not it is a good idea, is going to continue to cost people their very lives.

dickens

Blitz Magazine 2009

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.”

badtv

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

On the End of Tobacco Companies as Event Sponsors

Blitz Magazine, September 1998

bantobacco

A recent Goldfarb poll commissioned by Maclean’s Magazine found that 45% of Canadians reject the notion of a government ban on the sponsorship of sporting events by tobacco companies. The notion is supported by 23%, 31% don’t care.

          Another lobby which would like to end the sponsorship of sporting events by distilleries and breweries. The poll found that 52% of Canadians reject this notion, 15% support it, 32% don’t care.

          So the federal government is pandering to the minority by imposing Bill C71, which will delete tobacco money from the balance sheets of those organizations who depend on it. Motorsports in Canada will be damaged (although now that Quebec has a Formula 1 mega-star, things may not turn out as expected.) The Molson Indy Vancouver is only one of many BC events which have two years to find new money.

          Each June, the DuMaurier International Jazz Festival is attended by 350,000 people and brings $10. million in economic benefit to Vancouver. Although it is a fully viable event with the infrastructure needed to continue, it exists because of tobacco money.

          Each July, the Benson & Hedges Symphony of Fire provides four nights of world-class fireworks. Benson & Hedges spends $2. million on the event; Vancouver reaps $10. million. Two million people enjoy these fireworks, free of charge.

          We could have the Cheese Doodles Symphony of Fire, the McDonald’s International Jazz Festival, the Pepsi Indy. But then other well-funded groups who are obsessed with sanitizing society will produce ‘studies’ suggesting that Cheese Doodles, McNuggets and Pepsi cause dire consequences for The Fate of the Nation.

          Tobacco and alcohol aren’t good for us. Junk food isn’t good for us. Household cleaners aren’t good for us. But these are products which exist because members of society want them. They are legal products, governments profit from their sale and their producers have the right to advertise them.

          Events funding is a form of advertising. If corporations can’t promote their products in this way, we’re going to lose events which spin off into greater economic benefit, cultural enrichment and affordable entertainment for increasingly financially-squeezed and stressed-out Canadians. Stress isn’t good for us either.