Dream Team: Architect Arthur Erickson & Landscape Architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander

Landscape, June 1994

Among its many blessings and advantages, Vancouver has two national treasures who have steadily worked to define the first standard of Canadian landscape architecture.

arthurThe first is Arthur Erickson, now one of Canada’s most famous architects. While not a landscaper, per se, the Vancouver native knows more about it than most. When he was growing up in Vancouver, no one in his family had much of an interest in gardening but, from boyhood, roses were a hobby and he held a deep interest in botany and biology.

He decided, though, to become an engineer. After studying at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Erickson spent two years in the army. He was posted in India, Malaysia and Nepal, fell in love with travel and decided to go into the diplomatic service. Then he happened to pick up a copy of Fortune magazine. “I saw Frank Lloyd Wright’s Desert House and thought ‘If an architect can do that, I want to be an architect’.”

Erickson headed to McGill University then, after graduating in 1950, he spent three years in Europe, observing its buildings and landscaping.

In 1953, he returned to Vancouver but found that his unorthodox approach didn’t fit with that of his conservative colleagues, so he took a teaching job at the University of Oregon. In 1957, UBC offered him a position, and he spent the next seven years teaching and working on residential projects.

As a professor of architecture, Erickson didn’t specifically teach landscaping, but he always stressed its importance. “I taught that it was crucial to design the whole site. I’ll never know to what extent this concept got through to my students—many architects aren’t interested in landscape. But when I was teaching students to sketch, I would take them outside and have them draw blades of grass—that had to have some influence.”

In 1963, Erickson won the competition to design Simon Fraser University (SFU). Unable to teach and build, he gave up teaching and never looked back.

SFU covers 900 acres, but Erickson only landscaped the central quadrangle, leaving the rest for playing fields and meadow. Much thought, however, was put into the landscaping of that quadrangle.

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“I wanted the garden to keep the viewer interested by changing with each viewpoint,” he recalls. “You can’t understand it by standing in one place—you spot something different from each vantage point and have to investigate. I like to hide things for people to discover.”

erickson2From the entry of this garden, or the top of the stairs, you see a long, formal pool featuring an enormous block of Fraser River jade. Three long stepped-up hedges of Rhododendron and Pyrus partially hide a pyramid structure in which people can sit and study, and Locust trees enclose a small playground. Silver Maples provide shade, and there are Dogwood and Hawthorn trees—loose forms contrasted with thin forms. The overall design, and the use of hedges, gives the illusion of greater distance.

Erickson is particular about what goes into his landscapes. He enjoys scented gardens, walled gardens and Japanese gardens, but feels they’re inappropriate for BC. He uses lots of rock and moss and, although he loves flowers, he avoids anything fancy. “I prefer things like single roses. Gladiolus is too stiff, Dahlias are too showy, Carnations look like pompoms.”

He always uses water, but never fountains. “Water is very important—it reflects the sky and brings light to a garden on dark days. But an upward spray is awkwardly artificial.”

The garden at Erickson’s own home has become famous due to admirers’ efforts to have it declared a Heritage Site. It reflects his opinion of how a private garden should be. “I like natural, underground gardens. Over-designed landscapes feel contrived. I want everything flowing together and messed up.

erickson6“When I bought my house, the garden was all grass. By the third year, it was weeds with a few struggling flowers. So I bulldozed the lawn into one great mound. I made a pond, which I’ve never cleaned, and I planted Pine trees and grasses taken from beside the Fraser River. For colour, I use pots of flowers. The rest grows wild.

“Thirty years later, I have a meadow surrounded by forest. And it changes every year as different plants seed themselves. I now have a Persimmon tree, a new Arbutus and tropical grasses.”

Erickson also believes that one of the most important things for any landscape is for all elements to belong. His preoccupation with a connection between the nature of a site, and what is planted in it, or built on it, comes from growing up in BC.

“When you live here, you spend much time experiencing nature. The landscape becomes an influence. That explains Wright’s influence on me as an architect. His buildings interpreted landscape experiences—the edge of a cliff overlooking a valley, or a forest at the top of a mountain. I’ve always been excited by the design adventure offered by the physicality of a site.

“I also think that this is the important difference between eastern Canadian architecture and western Canadian architecture. In Ontario, you can place the same building anywhere. Here, we never have flat sites, so every structure has to be site-specific.  Perhaps that’s why I’ve never thought of architecture as being separate from the landscape, and why I study the character of a site before I do the building. The land is always part of the building.”

This approach appeals to those who wish to build homes on difficult sites and there are several prominent Erickson houses and gardens in the Vancouver area.

“I recall one site that was a former dump; there was a stream beside it. Rather than landscape the dump and put the house beside it, I put the house on the dump and tapped the stream to make a lake. In another case, the garden was seen through a low window, like in a Japanese teahouse. I concentrated on the ground plane, added dry rock and rearranged the existing plant material to allow the garden to be viewed properly.

erickson7“Another client had a huge sloping lawn that was so over-planted, the flowers were blocking enjoyment of the wonderful lawn and the view beyond. So I removed most of the fussy garden to feature the lawn. When you do things like this, you bring the home and the garden together. When you bring the home and garden together, it makes living in the home more comfortable.”

For commercial projects, Erickson prefers an orderly landscape with touches of wildness.

“Even in the city, I try to bring landscape into the building, and every one of my designs must enhance its site and fit its character.”

One of Erickson’s most difficult sites was one of his most recent, and famous, projects—the new Canadian chancery in Washington.

My instructions from the Canadian government were to express neighbourliness, openness and friendship,” recalls Erickson. “But Washington’s regulations are severe—there are 20 committees overseeing style, shape, height. I had to use those restrictions in my design.

“I studied the street and the site, which is on Pennsylvania Avenue, opposite the US National Gallery and its new I.M. Pei wing. I was captivated by the neo-Classicism of Washington’s buildings and the consistency with which that style appears in the lines and heights of these buildings. So I chose the idiom of the southern plantation house with the grand columns and large front porch. But I put the porch inside the building and kept to the Classical order of base, body and top. Then, to echo a nearby building, I made a rotunda as a means of support. The overall effect is one great sweep which, I feel, is the character of the Canadian landscape—one enormous expanse and sense of space.

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“Through the columns, and into the courtyard, the landscaping begins. It looks like the slope of a mountain, planted with white flowers, Azalea, Hawthorn, roses. I wanted Mountain Laurel, which I felt were in keeping with the north, but we couldn’t get them in the right growth patterns.”

Naturally, there is water at the embassy. “The basin of water in the courtyard also represents the Canadian landscape, and in it we placed the massive ‘Spirit of Haida Gwaii’, which is the Bill Reid sculpture of the spirit canoe in which the shaman takes initiates to find their spirit guide. This is not only very Canadian, but could remind some of the famous paintings of Washington crossing the Delaware.”

The fact that he couldn’t get the Mountain Laurel annoyed Erickson and, though he realizes he can’t plant everything, he wishes that Canadian growers would expand their selection. “Our nurseries are getting better but too often we have to outside of Canada for what we want.”

It also annoys him that people won’t leave his landscapes alone. “The meadow at SFU was supposed to remain wild, in contrast to the groomed landscape, but they keep moving it. And we had planted Canadian columnar Juniper trees at the embassy but one ambassador removed them. I have no idea why. It’s very frustrating.” erickson10

Erickson never deals directly with nurseries or gardeners. That is left to his long-time collaborator, and Canada’s premier landscape architect, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander.

“Cornelia knows how things should be done,” says Erickson. “Most landscape architects don’t take her intellectual approach or do her research. She has a wonderful knowledge of plant materials. I tell her what I want to do conceptually and she finds the plants to achieve the design.”

Cornelia Hahn was born in Germany and grew up in the U.S.  After studying history, art and botany at Smith College, she went to the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where she studied architecture, planting and landscape design, graduating as a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture.

Also at Harvard, Hahn met her Canadian architect/city planner husband, Peter Oberlander. In 1953, he accepted a professorship at UBC (where Erickson would later join him on staff).

“When we first moved to Vancouver, I saw Canada as a new country with untouched spaces and limitless potential and challenges for my profession,” recalls Oberlander whose first projects were the grounds of the UBC Faculty Club and UBC’s Rose Garden. But she was also raising three children, and became interested in playgrounds. She designed the playground for the Children’s Creative Centre at the Canadian Federal Pavilion at Montreal’s EXPO ’67. She also became a member of the National Task Force on Children’s Play, and co-founded Vancouver’s Children’s Resource Centre. In addition, she is Past-President of the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects, and its former Environmental Chairman, and she remains a Fellow of both the American and Canadian Societies of Landscape Architects.

erickson11Much of Oberlander’s work is well-known. For Vancouver’s Expo ’86, she was the landscape architect of Canada Place, the Pan-Pacific Hotel, the World Trade Centre and the Ontario Pavilion. She was awarded the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects’ National Award for her work on the Ottawa National Gallery, and she designed the grounds of the Environmental Science Building and the Ward Environmental Garden at Peterborough’s Trent University. In Vancouver, the exquisite Cathedral Place Renaissance Garden is Oberlander’s, and she worked with Bing Thom on BC’s Chan Shun Performing Arts Centre, and with Matsuzaki Wright Architects on UBC’s Institute of Asian Research.

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In 1990, Oberlander received the Order of Canada. In his citation, Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn said: “She is known for integrating her designs with the natural environment, yet always adds a unique new vision and dimension. Her expert technical knowledge is coupled with her concern for expressing cultural, social and environmental concepts in her work.”

Oberlander’s philosophy toward landscape design stems from her days at Harvard, where she enjoyed helping architects ensure that their buildings related to the landscape. To this day, her projects are always based on architects’ design concepts, but she infuses those with the result of her own studies of the social, cultural and physical features of each site.

Her trademarks are simplicity of form, sculpted earthen mounds and a ‘less is more’ palette. Her gardens consist of solid areas of flowers in pink, blue, grey or white, with lots of grasses and shrubs. She uses her mounds to screen out traffic, to provide an element of surprise and for the burial of building scrap. And she never uses anything exotic.

“Why be exotic?” she asks. “The history and ecology of each site dictates its use. It’s not appropriate to plant unnatural plants. I use common plants—what’s available, what suits the climate, the client, the budget.”

She does not do rockery, topiary or fountains, although she does use water to reflect the landscape. She prefers simplicity, makes sure that her landscapes require minimal maintenance and she has never exceeded a quote.

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Her approach is direct. She won’t take a job unless she is guaranteed supervision. She looks at the architect’s design, researches the site, quickly designs the landscape, then goes back to the architect and client and works with them to compose the palette before working out the grading and drainage. She takes time to educate the architect, contractors and maintenance people, and she stays on after each project’s completion to see that everything goes as planned.

Oberlander first worked with Arthur Erickson in 1974, when she joined the landscaping team for his famed Robson Square. They have since done three dozen projects together.

erickson5“It’s unusual for an architect and landscape architect to work so well together,” she says. “The relationship is often a struggle. Arthur and I have a very smooth relationship—we don’t even have to talk much. I know what he likes, I see his concept and I know what I have to do.

“One of the wonderful things about working with Arthur is that be believes in considering the landscape when he’s devising the building’s concept. Many architects believe that you must finish the building before the landscape can be designed. Arthur and I compose landscapes together and agree that the outdoor space should be dramatic without being fancy.

“For Robson Square, we worked out the garden before he did the drawings. Then we worked on the final drawings together, deciding on the grading and drainage—once the grading and drainage are right, the planting falls into place.

“Robson Square takes up three city blocks and we wanted to import nature into the city to create an attractive urban forest,” continues Oberlander. “Arthur changed my approach on that project. My first thought was to go with masses of evergreens. Then he said something that is so simple: ‘But there are many greens.’ I began to pay more attention to variations and now I use a wider variety of plants, especially different types of rhododendron, for a richer tapestry.”

“Cornelia wanted to keep Robson Square simple and I agreed,” recalls Erickson. “Since the design is stepped up, I suggested that we use alpine materials at the higher levels and mix Pine, Japanese maple, Magnolias and Rhododendron in planter boxes. The long rows of Memorial Roses and Laurel were her idea. But everything is there because of her exhaustive research into growing mediums.”

Another famous Erickson-Oberlander project is UBC’s Museum of Anthropology (recently featured in the film Intersection; Erickson was the model for Richard Gere’s architect).

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The purpose of the museum is to house Pacific Northwest Native artifacts, so Oberlander felt that its landscape should simulate that of the Queen Charlotte Islands, home of the Haida Nation. She showed Erickson pictures of this landscape, with the totem poles standing on mounds covered with wild grasses and surrounded by forest. With help from seed expert Angus Richardson, the concept was realized.

Erickson’s concrete and glass building sits on a promontory facing the ocean and mountains. Rocks, shells and logs accent the landscape, which consists of meadows and mounds seeded with indigenous grasses and flowers—wild roses among Scotch Broom, Hemlock over tall wild grasses, purple, pink, yellow and white Vetches, ferns amid Oregon Grape—all of the plants used in the Haida lifestyle. A grey gravel pond reflects the mountains, and grassy mounds shield the museum from traffic and create a sense of hills rolling to the ocean, as they do in the Queen Charlottes.

Erickson and Oberlander did not get their way in all design aspects of the museum. They wanted the site covered with all plants used by Pacific Northwest natives, to create an outdoor museum, but funding problems arose. Most frustratingly, Oberlander recalls, the university kept mowing the grass. “I said: ‘Native people didn’t have lawn movers, why are you cutting the grass?’”.

An even more famous Erickson-Oberlander project is the aforementioned Canadian embassy, which Oberlander calls one of the most exciting projects she’s working on. And for it, she was presented with the National Landscape Award for the Beautification of America.

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“The chancery is important as a Canadian presence in the heart of Washington, and I was able to work as I like to—from the beginning, as part of a team aiming to integrate the building and landscape. It was also a chance to show what landscaping will be like in the 21st century, when we’ll no longer have space around buildings for our designs.

“We had no room on the ground for a garden, and only 0.25% of the building’s budget was allotted for landscaping. So it had to be economical, low-maintenance, beautiful and functional. And I had to work within their building constraints. It was a challenge.”

Erickson’s U-Shaped chancery takes up two thirds of the site and there is a pool in the paved courtyard. So Oberlander had to go up; her landscape is attached to each floor’s balconies with planter boxes, giving each office its own cascading garden of Memorial roses, Gumpo White Azalea, Delaware Valley White Azalea, and Cockspur Hawthorn. “Like cascading trees growing out of Canada’s rough mountain ledges,” she explains.

Other plants used for the chancery were Scarlet Oak, Red Oak, Eastern Red Cedar and Boxleaf Holly. To allow growth in the boxes, she created a support system of a light-weight growing medium, a low-water consumption irrigation system, slow-release non-toxic fertilizers and safety devices for maintenance workers.

The Mountain Laurel issue bothered Erickson; it didn’t faze Oberlander. She’s used to it. “I often have trouble getting what I want because I don’t mix things, I use large plants, and I need huge quantities. At the moment, I’m looking for 20 Gingko trees. Last summer, I had to find 4,000 Kinnikinnick for the National Gallery ground cover. I do, however, wish that growers would realize the importance of offering native and low-maintenance plant material, rather than focusing on fancy shrubs and flowers.”

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Oberlander has just completed work on Ottawa’s Peace-Keeping Monument and is now working on the new Ottawa City Hall, plus the landscape of the new Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly building in Yellowknife, which will be landscaped with plants that are genetically true to the region.

Meanwhile, Erickson is designing a new cultural centre in Malaysia. So we don’t know when they’ll collaborate again. But we’ll be looking forward to it.

Profile: Bing Thom, the Landscaper’s Architect

Landscape, September 1993

thom5All landscapers wish that architects were more understanding of the landscaper’s job. Well, one of Canada’s leading architects feels the same way.

Bing Thom was born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver. His uncle was an engineer and when Thom was eight, he visited his uncle’s office. There, he saw architectural drawings and decided to make drawing such plans his life’s work.

At the same time, he had a feel for gardening and the landscape, a sense which he attributes to his Asian ancestry. At 17, he jumped at the chance to work as a landscaper’s helper. “I spent a summer designing gardens,’ says Thom. “Building rock walls and transplanting trees was good experience—it taught me hard work.”

In 1966, Thom graduated from the University of British Columbia (UBC) with a degree in architecture. After obtaining his Master’s in Architecture from Berkeley, he spent two years teaching at the University of Singapore, then returned to Vancouver and taught at UBC for another two years.

In 1973, famed architect Arthur Erickson asked Thom to help him on a project. “Erickson was my teacher at UBC,” explains Thom. “He, like Frank Lloyd Wright, was influenced by Oriental architecture and they shared a tendency toward the landscape. This appealed to me.”

Thom helped Erickson on the now-famous Vancouver Courthouse/Robson Square. “This project involved a lot of landscaping,” remembers Thom. “Vancouverites wanted a park. The government wanted an office building. So we put the park on top of the office building.

thom1“The courthouse was interesting—three mid-downtown blocks and we were putting a garden atop a man-made structure. The main questions were of waterproofing and finding the right soil mix. So we developed a totally new soil that is both lightweight and able to sustain nutrients.

“There were thousands of plants in that garden,” continues Thom. “We found an entire orchard of pines, magnolias and rhododendrons which we transplanted. Also, Spokane [WA] had 200 matching London Plane trees, which are used in cities all over the world. We bought those but, at planting time, the city’s chief engineer stopped us. He said they grew too fast and that the roots would interfere with sewers and water lines. So we planted 200 Sunset Maples and Victoria happily took the London Planes. Engineers don’t understand plants. They think there should be plastic everywhere.”

Thom next project was Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall which he designed in a park setting. In 1980, he again helped Erickson, this time on Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill project, which involved re-developing five mid-town blocks and adding linear parks and green space.

thom3 In 1982, Thom opened his own office and now employs a staff of 20, including nine architects and his wife, Bonnie.

It is Bonnie, not Bing, who has the green thumb. The daughter of a farmer, Bonnie is an educated landscaper and works on all of Bing’s projects.

 “I have a feel for gardening, but Bonnie has the talent. I tell her how I want to project to look and she compiles a list of the plants that will get me that look, according to their colours and textures.

 “More architects should consider the colours in the surrounding landscape. I never use red brick because only green plants match it. Instead, I keep my buildings neutral so that when plants flower, their colour takes over.”

Thom is an architect first, but he will not design a building unless he also designs the landscape. “It’s a personal thing. The building must grow from the ground, and the landscaping is the foundation. Each building must sit correctly on that setting, while relating to the landscape. So the landscape is actually more important than the building. Many architects don’t realize that landscaping is essential to architecture—that buildings and gardens are inter-related and indivisible.

“I start every design by looking at the property’s characteristics—the way the sun shines, the wind blows, the location, the view. I use plants only, never anything artificial. And I always use vegetation from the building’s locale. We must remember that we can’t fight nature. We have to work with it.”

What do Thom’s clients think about his approach?

“They appreciate it,” says Thom. “They may mind spending the extra money, but they never argue. I just remind them that’s money well-spent. Many people don’t realize thatlandscape architecture is more difficult and time-consuming than structural architecture, and that it takes more creativity to do a good landscape than it does to do a good building. I don’t have to account for growth with granite.”

Every one of Thom’s gardens also has a purpose. “I want my gardens to be places for meditation and contemplation,” he says “It’s important that people find tranquil spaces, even in the busiest of cities. That’s why we take care that my gardens are harmonious—never jarring or extreme.”

Surprisingly, Thom has no garden of his own. He and Bonnie live in a penthouse, with four balconies, and not a single plant. “I’m the barefoot shoemaker,” says Thom. “We’ve been planning a roof garden but we’ve never had the time to create it.”

This fits with a trend that Thom has seen increasing—and one that he thinks the landscape industry should be capitalizing on.

“People are living closer together and are nostalgic for gardens. I see more rockeries, solariums, and balcony and roof gardens, and there’s a demand for hobby plants, like bonsai. People want more colour in plants that take up little space.

“I advise landscapers to get into more public education. There’s a thirst for what landscapers have to offer. People are concerned about the look and health of their environment and there’s a need for professionals to go to the public with courses and lectures.”

Thom also advises the landscape industry to lobby for universities to include landscape architecture in their architecture and engineering programs.

“Most architects can’t be bothered with the extra work of landscape architecture. The problem is that no landscape courses are required to get a degree in architecture. This should change. The architect finds himself working on a project where the client wants a park or garden, and winds up in a situation where the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing.

“Universities don’t require architects to take interior design courses either. That also makes no sense. It’s like medicine, where specialists come to think of the body in parts, rather than as a whole.

“People wonder why I bother with the landscape but it’s perfectly logical. The building, the interior and the landscape are inseparable, and the same creativity has to be behind all three elements. This should be taught as part of any school’s architectural program.

“The real key, though, is to teach engineers about landscape. Engineers do the most damage to the landscape. Traffic engineers do tremendous harm. They want to keep their roads straight and will mow down any number of trees to do it. They need to learn that roads don’t always have to be straight.”

Thom, now 53, still lectures at UBC and has just completed a three-year term as Chairman of the Vancouver Public Library Committee. His most recent achievement, however, was his award-winning Canadian Pavilion at EXPO ’92 in Seville.

thom4“I wanted to build a Canadian building in Spain, but I couldn’t transplant Canadian plants, so I made a garden using hard landscaping and evocative images to get the Canadian feel.”

For the first time, Thom had to use man-made materials. He created a jagged white front which looks like a snowdrift during the day but, when lit at night, looks like the Northern Lights. Inside, the pavilion’s focal point is a wall of shimmering blue/green water—it’s actually panels covered with etched aluminum foil. People were so enthralled by the effect, they waited up to 10 hours to get in a second time.

Thom has won numerous awards but his greatest compliment is seeing people enjoying his landscapes. “It’s satisfying to see people relax in my gardens. I see them become happier, friendlier.”

Still, he is never satisfied. “I wish I could redo every garden. No matter how careful we are, gardens never grow according to plan. That’s what makes it challenging—the hope is always that the next garden will be my perfect favourite.”

High Flyers in History: Women in Aviation

Arts Alive, March 1998

aviation5Quick, name a famous female pilot. You said ‘Amelia Earhart’. Name another. Specifically, name a Canadian. Drawing a blank?

Well, Canada has a rich tradition of female aviators. A traveling exhibit from the National Museum of Aviation in Ottawa, High Flyers, illustrates the role women have played in Canada’s aviation history. The hope is that sharing this important history may spur young women to follow in these pioneers’ steps, and to look at aviation as a field that can provide many opportunities.

The exhibit celebrates this group of strong-willed pioneers and pays tribute to Canadian women in aviation from before World War II through to today.

There are numerous interesting characters introduced, and stories told. For example, in 1919, Madge Graham, who was married to Canada’s first bush pilot, Stuart Graham, served as navigator on a five-day voyage in which Madge, Graham and a mechanic flew a water-logged wooden flying boat, at tree level, from Dartmouth Nova Scotia to Grand’Mere Quebec (750 kilometres). The escapade elicited this from the American Rear Admiral Byrd, who specialized in feats of exploration: “Flying seaplanes over land is suicide, and taking a woman along is criminal!”

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Back then, female aviators were a novelty—the press called them ‘Flying Flappers’, ‘Angels’ and ‘Sweethearts of the Air’. Normally, pilots wore heavy gear as protection from fumes, noise and the elements. But when photographers were around, famous female aviators such as Amelia Earhart and Jacqueline Cochran wore blouses, scarves, make-up and tailored slacks. Their worry was that figure-veiling suits would repel non-flying women, and it was believed that if women looked fresh and glamorous after a flight, it would show other women that flying was safe and restful.

By the 1930s, women pilots were attracting more attention. In 1936, the Vancouver-based Flying Seven became Canada’ first women’s flying club. (It was this group that conducted the 1939 ‘bomphlet raid’ on Vancouver, dropping 100,000 pamphlets pleading for “dimes or dollars to buy our boys more planes”.)

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World War II should have been a boon for female aviators. Instead, the Canadian military deemed the job of pilot as inappropriate for women. One pilot, Helen Harrison, applied to the RCAF with an instructor’s license and a seaplane rating, multi-engine and -instrument endorsements, experience of flying civil and military craft in three countries, and 2,600 flying hours. She was turned away in favour of men with little more than 150 hours to their credit.

So women aviators worked to ‘back the attack’. Some taught flying and navigation—until the RCAF trained mail teachers. Five Canadian women headed to Britain and joined the Air Transport Auxiliary, a civilian organization that ferried aircraft to squadrons, factories and storage units around Britain. Women were involved in aircraft assembly lines, and Elsie MacGill was the aeronautical engineer who supervised the Canadian production of 2,000 Hawker Hurricanes. Finally, in 1941, the RCAF began to admit women, mainly as aerial photographers. And the CWAF (the RCAF’s women’s division), carried the motto: “They serve that men may fly.”

Post-war, things didn’t get any better. Marion Orr, who was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in 1981, had to go all the way to the Prime Minister’s Office for approval to open her own school and airfield. Stewardesses were in demand, but interviews involved leg and teeth inspections, and marriage meant instant dismissal. Trans-Canada Airlines, Pacific Western Airlines and Canadian Pacific Airlines told Helen Harrison that she was too weak to handle the controls. Dawn Dawson made it as far as the interview—only because the receptionist had spelled her name ‘Don’.

aviation2Gradually, things improved—after a lawsuit or two. Lorna DeBlicquy, a flying instructor, bush pilot and flight-test examiner who started flying at age 15 and had 6,000 hours to her credit, sued Air Canada after two of her male students were hired and she was denied an interview, on the basis that she was too short and would require a specially-designed uniform. In 1977, DeBlicquy became Canada’s first civil aviation inspector and, in 1995, was awarded the Order of Canada.

Finally, in 1973, Trans-Air hired Rosella Bjornson as the first and only female in a field of 2,800 pilots. Then other commercial airlines began hiring women. Today, although some still face prejudice and even hostility, increasing numbers of female pilots are working in military and civil aviation, and still more are air-traffic controllers and engineers.

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So it’s been a bumpy ride. But every female aviator believed the struggle was worthwhile. As Amelia Earhart said: “If enough of us keep trying, we’ll get someplace.”

Television & Another Summer of Discontent

Blitz Magazine, July 2003

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It’s a hot, humid night—too hot to read, and the dog won’t be walked. So, there’s TV.

The Miss Universe Pageant. This is so redundant and so insulting, it doesn’t bear discussion. But wait! Miss Canada is one of the finalists. Hoping for a Canadian victory, I keep watching. Donald Trump, owner of this ultra-passé travesty, is hunched in the front row, wearing his signature pout and cheap dye job. The co-host asks the Soap Star judge how he’s doing. The dough-head responds: “Well I’m sure glad they narrowed down the selection for us!” Oh? Who narrowed down the selection? Could it be that the judges have nothing to do with choosing the winner? That the whole thing is fixed in advance? Surely not!

My heart sinks as Miss Canada confesses to having a university degree (one of her co-finalists, Miss Montenegro, is a malnourished 18 year-old whose Interest is cats—she loves cats.) Then, Oh no! Miss Canada tells the interviewer that she’s “not into the hair-and-make-up thing”! Wrong thing to say in this crowd, baby! Bye bye!

CSI Miami. While it’s flattering to see a hit US show that’s a direct knock-off of a Canadian show (Da Vinci’s Inquest—inspired by the current Vancouver mayor’s career as a coroner and RCMP officer). Both CSI franchises are increasingly silly and far-fetched. But they’re educational. I’ve learned that, in this version of real life, er death, the police are secondary and don’t do any crime-solving. I’ve learned that, in Las Vegas and Miami, CSIs only work on high-glamour murders. I’ve learned that CSIs can have no personality whatsoever. And that, if you’re a woman who wants to be a CSI in Miami, you have to have implants, wear the tightest clothing you can find, be willing to spend hours on your hair, and wear more make-up than the local Mary Kay rep.

The unfortunate Miss Canada has, therefore, lost out on another career choice.

Click. Commercials. BC Gas has changed its name; the ad publicizing this has two grammatical errors. Tim Horton’s has the audacity to run, for a second season, what was already a seriously stupid commercial, wherein a young couple goes gaga over a strawberry tart that looks like a bloody botulism/polypropylene mutation. Then a ray of light: the VISA ‘Sing For Your Supper’ spot. Brilliant.

Next up, something called For Love or Money. There’s a group of women, all freshly botoxed and sun-bedded with bleached teeth and voices like chain-smoking Valley girls. (This awful voice seems to be the new American Girl sound—and it’s migrating north at a frightening pace.) And there’s a guy who thinks he’s supposed to fall in love with one of these creatures. He doesn’t now that they’re in it for a million dollars. At the end of the show, he has to dump some of the girls, keep others. No one on the show is in the least embarrassed by participating in this inanity. I sure am. Click.

Dog Eat Dog. Survivor.  American Junior. American Senior. American Lampshade. Surely I’m not the only one who sees the craze for tacky competition shows as degrading to participants and viewers. It’s human humiliation as entertainment. Intellectual battery as commerce. Click.

tv6Wonder of wonders, a bad Volkswagen commercial. A couple is worried about getting a goldfish home. The fish is in a large, water-filled tank. Don’t goldfish like large, water-filled tanks? And the driver needs directions to get to her own home. Then, Egads! The Dreaded Swiffer commercial. The voice they hired has managed to transmit her vocal sounds directly through her nose. Someone should ram the broom down her throat and give it a good swiff. Click.

Ah, another SARS press briefing. This is good—I’m not hearing enough about SARS. I’m wishing that someone would start a SARS Channel, so the whole world can get All SARS All The Time. A reporter from the Toronto Star asks a question. She uses the non-word ‘irregardless’. Ugh.

The Larry King Show. The usual suspects are busily trying Scott Peterson, discussing evidence, dissecting, speculating. I speculate that the only untainted jury candidates available will be those who find it intellectually taxing to watch CNN. I hear OJ chuckling.

Law & Order. Bravo! wants the hour to run to 50 minutes, and it wants to be able to pack in as many commercials as it possibly can. So it’s editing each show to fit its parameters. I know this because I’ve seen each episode so many times that I often know what characters are going to say before they say it. On Bravo!, what those characters once said is just plain missing—along with those pesky clues, confessions and revelations.

In addition, the Bravo! folks feel the need to insert a viewer warning after every single commercial break: “This program contains scenes of violence and mature subject matter. Viewer discretion is advised.’ Although, I guess this is a good thing, given that there are 4 year-olds all across Canada fighting to stay awake at 8:30 p.m. to watch the hilarious antics of Jack McCoy and Lennie Briscoe. Click.

The Mercedes Ice Cream commercial. Genius. But wait! It’s the dreaded Herbal Essence Shampoo ad! I wonder if the people behind these ads realize what kind of reaction the profoundly idiotic ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! is met with. If they know how many women are thinking ‘No! No! No! I’ll never use that product because I don’t want to become a bimbo!’ The bit was funny in When Harry Met Sally; that’s where it should stay.

Back to the CBC. More on mad cow. One sick cow and it’s the Story of the Century. A farmer finally complains about the media saturation. He should. All the coverage of slaughter, the depictions of how these animals are treated, and the facts about testing, about what cattle eat, what we end up eating…it’s back to Vegetarianville for me.

NYPD Blue. Why is this stale old show still on the air? Still with the bad lighting, the cheesy set design and the jerky camera. Does anyone know anyone who actually speaks the way these characters do? Don’t homicide detectives ever laugh? Click.

In an interview, Katie Couric asks Laci Peterson’s mother if public support has ‘booeed’ her spirits. How much does Couric earn? Maybe they need to pay her more.

Commercial: Nike is telling inner-city kids that its shoes are cool—but that it’s also cool to own snarling Pit Bulls and Rottweilers, and keep them tied to fences. I’d like to have a word with the creative director.

tv1I’m sorry to keep going back to the 9/11 thing, but I always look for the possible benefits of bad situations. I remember, just after the awful event, seeing Dubya at a meeting with Hollywood bigwigs—Lansing, Spielberg et al. At first, I found this chilling, because I figured it meant lots of propaganda. I was right—we soon saw Band of Brothers, among many other shows with the theme of Military Hero! and American Values!

But then I thought that the disaster could produce another result—that it might force the entertainment industry to get its act together. That the networks would insist on it. That viewers, and advertisers, would insist on it. I thought that it would make producers realize that there’s a huge responsibility involved in communicating with millions of people. That their audience is filled with different types of people with myriad experiences and stories and goals and fabulously rich histories. I thought that producers might get creative, and make shows that would inform, entertain and educate—in an intelligent fashion. So people could learn, laugh, appreciate other people and maybe be forced to think.

You’re thinking: “You were wrong, Dorothy.”

I certainly was. What we got was John Ritter in a tizzy over the fact that his teen-age daughter is growing up (gasp here), a mini-series on Adolph Hitler, and a guy on Will & Grace telling someone not to put his penis up someone’s bum.

I’m not asking for a steady diet of BBC-quality historical drama all the time, but come on.

tv4Yes, the lazy hazy days of summer. But is everyone on vacation at the same time? No. Is everybody partying every night of week? No. So why, I wonder for the millionth time, do network executives schedule fill the summer season with nothing but fetid, putrid, drivel-dripping crap? If it’s because they assume that no one’s watching, then shouldn’t advertisers make the same assumption and pull their ads?

I tune out altogether. I go to the bookcase, close my eyes and extract the first book I touch. It’s Ulysses. Yikes. Well, why not. I certainly can’t watch television.

Fed Up With Hypocrisy : Bad Journalism Sparks a Rant

Blitz Magazine, March 2003

sword3

Winston Churchill, a man famous for his powers of recall, remarked that a good memory was often a sorrow and an inconvenience (to him and, I presume, many others). And the only thing, I’m sure, which I have in common with Winston Churchill is a mind like a steel trap.

This is relevant because I used to be a social columnist. For three years, I covered up to 20 events a week. And not just galas and luncheons, but political events, sports events, functions involving law enforcement and military types, small parties, large parties, parties in honour of people from all walks of life and celebrating, or raising money for, an endless array of things.

This became relevant when BC Premier Gordon Campbell found himself living the nightmare of his life, after he was charged with impaired driving while on vacation in Hawaii. It was national news but, in BC, it was a feeding frenzy. The man’s mortification was gleefully compounded by everyone from journalists, to unionistas, to ‘pundits’, to people on the street. Local stations repeatedly devoted as much as 30 minutes to the story—some sent journalists to Hawaii, for Pete’s sake. I was as embarrassed by the coverage as I was for Campbell. The Hospital Employees Union is now using the incident in radio ads, and you can bet that the left is planning to dredge it all up in the next election.

So I’m watching, listening and reading the opinions of these people and the ol’ Winstonian memory is ticking like a stopwatch, and I’m thinking ‘Hey, but don’t you remember that night at the press club when you….?’ and ‘Wait a minute, what about the night you…?’ and ‘Surely you haven’t forgotten the incident at….!’ ‘And how did you get home?’

The only time I was tempted to actually speak up was when Opposition Leader Joy McPhail spoke up. Her party has (for good reason) only two seats and she is the most hypocritical, odious and opportunistic politician I’ve ever encountered. This is a woman not known for her, shall we say, demure social behaviour. ‘Lucky for her that my notebooks from those years are buried in a crammed crawl space, and that I’m too lazy to dig them out.

To those calling for Campbell’s head, and/or planning to use this incident it to fulfill their own agendas, I suggest that they search their memory banks to see if they’ve ever broken the law, whether the violation involved rolling through a stop sign, speeding through a school zone or neglecting to mention purchases at Canada Customs. They should be absolutely certain that they’ve never driven a vehicle after having too much wine, or after smoking a joint. Once they’re sure that they’re pure and innocent, they can squawk all they want. If they’re not blameless, they should shut up and let the man do his job.

sword1Journalistic free-for-alls are all-too-common these days. The rules seem to have been discarded. In the US, the FBI fabricated a story about five terrorists who had crossed the Canadian/US border to conduct a New Year’s Eve attack on New York. No journalist bothered to check the facts—one idiot working for a CBS affiliate claimed that he had shared a bus ride from BC with one of the ‘terrorists’—a man who was happily living in Lahore and had never been anywhere near Canada. The story was everywhere, Canada was blamed for everything. When it turned out that the story was false, there were no admissions of journalistic negligence.

‘Hard to believe that Pat Buchanan, one of the most dangerous men in America, has his own television show. Alas, he does and he spends a lot of time blaming Canada for America’s inability to guard its borders. He seems to forget that the US/Mexico border is one of the world’s most porous; indeed, I doubt that the US government could even hope to calculate the true populations of Florida, California and New York. (If he actually did the research, he’d know that 1% of people who illegally enter the US do so through Canada.)

And the National Review? Could there be a more precious organ for the paranoid and redneck? I can’t even stand to skim its website, never mind touch the physical product. This magazine is replete with inaccuracy and historical revisionism. To wit, a recent article which had the gall to suggest that Canada should be grateful to Americans for “all we’ve done for them”. Oh? Well, what would that be? Hmmm. I’m not really coming up with anything. Maybe the US lost a good chunk of its male population while staving off the enemy in WWI, while Canada took two years to show up? No, that’s not right—it was the other way around. And again in WWII? No, it was the Americans who were three years late…

I still feel for California politician Gary Condit who, by all accounts, was an honest and hard-working professional. Following the disappearance of one of his interns, he was quickly convicted, by the press, of murder. His career, finances and reputation were ruined. Trashed. The charge was led by Larry King and his posse of ‘crime experts’, and abetted by Vanity Fair, which allowed both Dominick Dunne and Judy Bachrach to absolutely skewer Condit. But the nail in his coffin was probably his decision to sit for what was an obscenely ridiculous interview with Connie Chung. Chung used the interview to revive a flat-lined career and was rewarded with her own show on CNN. We now know that Condit had nothing to do with the disappearance of the victim. Has anyone apologized to him?

sword2

Closer to home, there have been alarming signs of journalistic decline. CTV Vancouver, for example, recently showed post-event ‘footage’ of the scene of an incident, without bothering to tell viewers that what they were seeing was shot after the incident took place. The same station reported the urban myth that a well-wisher snuck a puppy into Vancouver General Hospital to present to the victim of a dog attack. And the Seattle networks have taken to luring viewers to their newscasts by referring to Vancouver news stories as ‘Northwest Stories’.

And all over North America, in the US in particular, what one looks like is way more important than what one is saying. Anchor make-up is thicker, hair is more helmet-like, the clothing budgets higher but, increasingly, what we’re seeing and hearing on television news is sensationalistic, maudlin and biased. Reporting the actual facts, and providing the required background, is just so secondary. That sends credibility out the window. As I’ve said before, no credibility, no viewers/readers/listeners. No audience, no advertisers. Bad journalism is bad business.

The best journalists are always, and have always been, people who couldn’t wait to get out of high school before beginning to investigate the world—if they even bothered to finish high school. And there is no doubt that ‘journalism school’ is a colossal waste of time and money. People cannot be taught how to write well. People cannot be taught to be succinctly articulate, or to simultaneously think broadly and in terms of detail. People cannot be taught to develop instinct and curiosity. They cannot be taught to acquire integrity, discretion and love for the truth. People can only be taught the rules. And it’s increasingly obvious that people cannot be taught to remember, or care about, those rules.

I Read My SPAM & Call the RCMP

Blitz Magazine, September 2003

spam2

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.

Religion on TV: It Has to be a Choice

Blitz Magazine, May 2002

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I’m watching a murder mystery on 48 Hours. Suddenly, the show is interrupted by a sickly-looking man in a grey suit telling me that I should read the Bible. Then he reads a passage from the Bible, which explains why I’m supposed to read the Bible.

I realize that I’m watching 48 Hours on NowTV, a newly-created Canadian ‘family values’ station. I check the listings and find that 48 Hours is also on the American channel. I switch to the CBS channel; same signal. The grey man is still there, telling viewers to read the Bible.

I change the channel. Get NBC. Dateline. The subject is the latest sex abuse scandal to hit the Catholic Church. I watch a woman state that, for 10 years, she complained to her diocese executives about a priest who, she knew, was abusing boys. When asked why she simply didn’t call the police, she said that the priests told her not to.

I change the channel. I get a re-run of a recent news conference held by the local Anglican archdiocese. The British Columbia government is currently conducting a referendum to allow the public to voice its opinion on how aboriginal land treaties should be settled. The Anglican Church, which has much to answer for as far as treatment of aboriginals is concerned (and knows it), has told its flock to vote ‘no’ on all of the referendum questions.

The maxim that there absolutely must be a clear separation between Church and State is as true today as it was hundreds of years ago, when it was first enshrined in democratic processes. Religions are not supposed to tell us what to do. They are based on philosophy, faith, superstition and folklore. The priests, ministers, pastors etc., are supposed to present the ideals of their religious affiliations to accepting members of their congregations, and use those mores to offer guidance, when it is requested.

Politics, while also ideological, is fact-based. It follows the laws of economics and geography, and the facts of history. It reacts to reality. It creates reality. It provides reasonably workable frameworks within which we co-exist. And the people put in office to make the decisions which form these frameworks are elected by independent, free-thinking individuals.

What politicians and clergy do share is power over society—power that is granted to them by those they serve. It is, therefore, essential that there be reportage on how their actions affect us. The two institutions should be completely open to journalistic scrutiny, but neither institution can be allowed to fill the airways with dogma. I may have been watching some mindless ‘news’ show, which will in no way enhance my intellectual or spiritual life, but that’s my business. I am allowed to watch anything I like, and at no time did I consent to be interrupted by some guy spouting scriptural samplings.

Religion has caused must distress and bloodshed over the centuries. In my lifetime, it’s been Northern Ireland, Israel/Palestine, the American Religious Right, Muslim Fanaticism. When religion ceases to offer solace and guidance and begins to dictate the thoughts and actions of its adherents, it can do tremendous damage to society as a whole. Ferocious, irrevocable harm.

I’ve always been relieved that Canadians, while being free to practice any religion of their choosing, have also always been able to keep religion in perspective. That religion has never been allowed to force its way into our homes. That if we didn’t feel like being preached at, or hit up for money in the name of God, we could just change the channel.

Religious programming has always been there, always freely available to anyone who wants it. But, much more importantly, it has always been avoidable by those who wish to conduct their spiritual practices in the privacy of their own heads. In has to stay that way.

 

Public Relations ‘Professionals’ : The Damage Done

Blitz Magazine, January 2004

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Some of the PR people out there may have noticed that I’m not returning their calls. If they want to know why, they need only look at the recent issues of their favourite magazines. They’ll notice that these publications are markedly thinner than they were two years ago, six months ago. This is what happens when magazines lose the support of those who need them. We can no longer blame 9/11; the Canadian economy is healthy. I place the blame squarely with the Public Relations industry.

There’s a company in Western Canada that provides firms with short-term marketing and advertising personnel. Blitz is the perfect advertising vehicle for this firm. Its president, an MBA and years of marketing experience, was about to sign a one-year contract with Blitz. Then he called to say that he had changed his mind, and had entrusted his entire marketing budget to a PR consultant. The PR consultant is sucking up a good portion of that budget in fees, is industriously spitting out news releases and has placed all of his client’s allocated advertising dollars into the sponsorship of golf tournaments. ‘Strange, and dumb, but true.

I start getting said releases. Aside from the fact that they’re replete with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, they’re irrelevant. Do I care that this company is sponsoring golf tournaments? No—it doesn’t fit my editorial mandate. But the consultant doesn’t know that because he didn’t do his homework. He can’t write, he’s lazy and he’s sabotaging a firm that had great potential but which, I now believe, will not be around for long.

(My favourite is the Web marketing thing. People channel their marketing dollars into developing their websites. They pay PR firms to send out endless news releases announcing their new sites. Then, instead of advertising the sites, they sit and wait for Net surfers to stumble upon them.)

There’s much talk these days about ROI, which everyone wants. Lately, the word is that advertising isn’t bringing in ROI. But, despite what people say, ROI is very difficult to measure. Media buyers look at numbers of people reached, who those people are and the costs to reach those people—they don’t demand guarantees that the advertising will work, because they know better. What advertising does is keep a company’s name and services in people’s faces. It supports all other sales and marketing efforts. It’s not the magic bullet for increasing business—it’s the gun.

Last week, a certified PR professional said to me: “We provide tangible ROI—the evidence is in the write-ups our clients get in newspapers and magazines, or radio mentions, or whatever.”

Or whatever. It’s illogical, and foolish, to assume that mentions in the media will bring increased business. There’s no guarantee that an editor will do more than glance at a news release. If a release piques interest, there’s no guarantee that the release will culminate in a positive story—it could end up sparking a career-ending expose. And so what if your company gets a positive media mention? Is that going to send consumers scrambling for your product? Of course not.

PR people are great persuaders. But those who sell PR as a solution, rather than as a small part of an overall communications strategy, are doing huge damage. They’re not bringing their clients closer to ROI nirvana. They’re wasting tons of money, they’re hurting their clients’ long-term prospects and they’re damaging the media properties that cannot stay in business without advertising dollars—plus all the designers, writers, producers etc., that rely on those media properties.

If PR ‘professionals’ continue to divert dollars into their own pockets, and away from advertising vehicles, they’re not going to have any media properties to contact. They can send out all the news releases they like, but there will be no magazine editors left to read them.

 

Jazz: It’s All That

Blitz Magazine, May 2003

Festival: n Time of festive celebration; merry-making; [periodic] series of performances.

jazz1Jazz: n Syncopated dance music, of US Negro origin, with characteristic harmony and rag-time rhythm; (slang) pretentious talk; ~ adj Discordant, loud or fantastic in colour ~ v Dance to, play, jazz; arrange (music) as jazz; arrange (pattern) in vivid or grotesque form; brighten, liven, up.

In this day and age, it’s hard to believe that our society’s cultural deep-freeze was such that jazz was something that could be enjoyed only behind closed doors. You had to be a grown-up, you had to be of a certain race or class, or you had to be slumming.

In fact, the first proper jazz festival didn’t take place until 1954. That was the famed Newport Jazz Festival, which has presented Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck and Billie Holiday, among many others, and has stirred a lot of controversy: riots in 1960, 1971 and 1972 caused the festival to move to New York; it didn’t return to Newport until 1991.

Luckily, the Newport idea caught on and, with the help of Newport Fest founder George Wein, festivals were initiated in London, Paris, Rome and Berlin. Today, there are jazz festivals all over the world—from Turkey to Australia to India. Each year, tiny Italian villages burst with festival visitors; the concept is huge in Japan. Canadians, of course, are always up for anything and the country now hosts some of the world’s top jazz festivals, most notably in Montreal and Vancouver.

jazz2 jazz3 

The Vancouver festival consistently presents one of the most culturally-diverse music celebrations in the world, gracing the city with what the Vancouver Sun has called “Ten Days of Heaven”.

All day, every day, inside and outside, jazz of all styles is presented at 40 venues, by 1700 musicians doing 400 shows, many of which are free. With 2002 attendance of 430,000, it is the largest cultural event in western Canada and one of the biggest musical events in the nation.

Festival co-founder John Orysik calls this festival—any jazz festival—‘a cultural lubricant’.

“The jazz festival engages people. It brings music to a large group of people in a short span of time, and it brings the music to everyone—people of all ages, races, socio-economic levels. It allows music to be introduced, and marketed, strategically and effectively, in the biggest context, and it has an event cachet that you don’t get with a one-off concert.”

Orysik explains what it is that makes jazz so popular in every corner of the globe. “It’s the spirit, the energy, the freedom. The music is…everything.”

Caninus Sellus : Dogs in Advertising

Blitz Magazine, January 2004

 

dogs1Dogs and children—they get us every time. Or do they? All babies may be adorable, but not all children are cute. The personalities of some are lackluster; the cuteness of others contrived.

It’s different with dogs. They don’t have to be cute, in the classic sense. But they pique our interest. Even people who don’t want dogs, or who don’t like dogs, like to look at dogs. We find them compelling.

To find out why this is, and why dogs work in advertising, Blitz spoke to University of British Columbia Professor of Psychology and renowned dog expert Stanley Coren. Dr. Coren is host of the Life Network’s Good Dog!, and the best-selling author of 17 books, including Why We Love the Dogs We Do, The Intelligence of Dogs, and How to Speak Dog.

Blitz   What is the psychological appeal of dogs in advertising?

Stanley Coren      The same thing that’s appealing about children. Dogs have been designed, by us through breeding, to appeal to us through their juvenile characteristics. They have the push nose and big eyes the way children do, and the response to that—our desire to take care of them, is wired into us.

The dogs that produce that response most strongly are those that have broad faces, long ears—as opposed to prick ears, and a ‘stop’ on the muzzle—where the muzzle takes a sharp upturn to the forehead. So the dogs that would most appeal are Beagles, retrievers, spaniels etc—not Rottweilers.

B        And the use of dogs in visual communications makes the message more appealing?

SC     There’s some scientific evidence of that. One study that looked at the acceptance value by people of products, found that introducing a visual of a dog in TV ads produced a 7% increase in acceptance of the product. It made no difference what the product was. Freud noted that the presence of dogs in his office made kids feel safe, and kept his Chow Chow in his office when he was seeing children.

B        So people instinctively respond positively to dogs, as opposed to reacting with fear.

SC     Fear is cultural or learned. And dogs are not wild animals. Man created dog. I don’t necessary agree with the DNA evidence that says that dogs have been with us for 125,000 years. But the paleontological evidence is clear—dogs have been domesticated for 14,000 years. And if you remember that we didn’t have agriculture until 10,000 years ago, that means that dogs were with us before we knew how to grow our own food. No animal has had a longer contract with human beings.

So the presence of a familiar, non-threatening dog increases everyone’s feelings of safety and security. From an advertiser’s point of view, that’s a warm feeling that will transfer to a product.

It’s the same kind of rationale that goes behind using children. In general, seeing children tends to produce a warm response.  There is a form of learning that leads to emotional responses. It’s called Classical Conditioning—you see a porcupine, you know the spines could hurt you, you feel fear and every time you see a porcupine image you’ll remember that fear. The sight of dogs or children produces the same effect, only with the warm response—whether you put their images with chain saws or perfume.

Advertisers want two things—to have their products remembered and to have positive associations attached to those products. Anything that will do that will work. Dogs do that. Cats don’t. Even though domestic cats have round faces, they still have cat faces and pricked ears. And cats are a bit more threatening.

The use of dogs and children in advertising often seems gratuitous, but it’s not. Because every time you use a kid or a dog, you increase product appeal. It’s the same logic as using beautiful women to sell clothes. Advertising is all about emotional manipulation. You need a jolt of positive association to appeal to the reader or viewer. And it’s not product-specific. Kids and dogs have been used to sell cigarettes and politicians. Some of the first animated characters in advertising were dogs—there was an ad where the dog was fetching Lucky Strikes. But it has to have cultural acceptance too.

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B        The developmental differences between dogs and children, though, make for a more interesting dynamic.

SC     The Super Dogs—Poodles, Border Collies, German Shepherds, are the dogs in the top 25% of the IQ range. They’re emotionally equivalent to 2 ½ year-old children. All other dogs are equal to 2 year-olds. But dogs have the social consciousness of 14 year-old humans. They need to be part of a group and do what the group is doing. They want three things—food, safety and social interaction. They will do anything for that and learn very quickly what they have to do to get it.

B        What about cultural considerations? Some cultures despise dogs; the Japanese love mechanical dogs.

SC     The Japanese have two issues. One is the fascination with technology. The other is space and economics—unless you’re wealthy enough to have a large space, you can’t have a dog. But the Japanese desperately love dogs.

Then you look at China and Vietnam, where dogs are seen as an efficient source of protein and are farmed for food. Fundamentalist Muslims believe that dogs are unclean. But when people come to Canada from cultures where there’s an aversion to having dogs in the home, their children and grandchildren fully accept them.

B        Would you agree that the concept of hearth and home involves pet ownership? Maybe our instincts tell us that a secure and comfortable home must include a dog.

SC     The dog is the eternal child, a non-threatening being that we can care for. It also provides unconditional positive regard. The dog will always love you and that is a great thing for psychological and physical health. And people know that—40% of Canadians have at least one dog, and 30% of Canadians would like a dog.

B        So in this increasingly hectic, stressful and unhappy society, the idea of a happy, honest and loving creature applied to a product will make consumers believe that the product could contribute to their happiness.

SC     Correct. My opinion, based on the evidence of the human response to dogs, is that putting dogs in advertising is beneficial.

Case in Point

Going to the Dogs: How Fido Bred a Brand

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There are a lot of successful branding stories to tell, but one of the more memorable might be Microcell’s launching a wireless service, calling it Fido, and inevitably, inextricably, tying its identity and communication program to dogs. How, one might wonder, did this come to pass?

“In 1996, Microcell was launching a new wireless service, but it needed a brand name,” explains Fido’s Director of Marketing, Patrick Hadsepantelis. “The name had to be consumer-friendly. At that time, in the wireless category, we had Bell, BC Tel, Telus and Cantel, and wireless was more targeted to business. Those were very corporate brands that didn’t resonate with consumers, and Microcell was launching a consumer-focused brand to democratize wireless in Canada.”

One might assume that exhaustive studies and surveys were conducted. Nope. The name was found through simple brainstorming.

“The name was chosen based on common-sense criteria,” says Raynald Petit of Montreal’s Bos Advertising. “With Microsoft, MicroTech, MicroThis and MicroThat, we know that using the Microcell name to launch a wireless service wouldn’t grab consumer attention. We needed a name that would really stand out. We looked at a lot of names—from plants, vegetables, minerals, animals. Fido became absolutely obvious. We were launching in Quebec, then in the rest of Canada, so the name had to work equally well in French and English, and have a universal cultural appeal. Fido comes from ‘fidelity’, so it means the same thing in French and English. The name had to be friendly, short and easy to remember. The word Fido made perfect sense because the phones, and the service, follow you everywhere you go. And dogs instantly conjure positive feelings, so the name resonates with people on an emotional level.”

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Once the name was settled, there was the task of developing the image materials and the advertising. “We had to ask ourselves what the role of dogs would be,” continues Petit. “At first, we said that we would use the name but no dogs. But we quickly changed our minds because the use of dogs makes it so easy to draw parallels with Fido’s services. And we decided to go with all kinds of dogs because there are all kinds of clients and client needs. The reason they choose Fido is that it can be adaptable to situations, as can dogs. If you have a mascot, it’s tough to stay with that. So the decision to use all kinds of dogs was a key turning point in our communications strategy.”

For Hadsepantelis, all advertising messages have to be in line with Fido’s promise of being honest, straightforward, simple, hip, different.

“We’ve brought a lot of innovations to wireless,” he says. “We offered free colour display and voice mail when it wasn’t available anywhere else. We introduced per-second billing, a Free Day package, and the Fido-to-Fido plan, where calls between Fido customers are free. The brand is street-smart and innovative. It’s much more than the dog imagery, but that imagery fits well with the youthful, spirited type of mindset that we appeal to.”

Any doubts about this strategy were quickly dispelled by the huge success of Fido’s first campaign—the Look-Alike campaign, where dogs were matched with people who looked like them, or vice versa.

fido3“People immediately embraced the concept,” recalls Hadsepantelis. “It was clear that we had something very powerful because, in those images, there’s a smart little promise that Fido cares about its customers. Dogs portray that friendliness. It shows that we don’t take ourselves too seriously, and that we’re accessible. The very name has warmth and humour, and that’s important. A lot of corporate brands are nowhere near as customer-focused.”

“The role of the dog depends on the evolution of the market situation and what we want to communicate,” notes Petit. “Until this summer, dogs were at the core of our communications—on TV, print, billboard, packaging, collateral. Then there was a marketing decision to come up with new plans on a regular basis, and we were looking for something new for TV. So we created the Fake President campaign to launch new offerings in a simple way. The core was not a dog, but the ‘president’ introducing new products in an absurd situation. The dog was just in the background. It worked very well.”

Hadsepantelis is quick to point out the dogs are never used as a gimmick “We use different types of dogs because we have different kinds of customers and our customers have different choices of handsets, plans and packages. But we don’t use dogs gratuitously. There has to be a role for them, relating to the product. And people know that. And, now, when they hear the name Fido, they may or may not think about dogs, but they associate it with wireless. Fido is a stand-alone name with very fast recall. We have exceeded typical norms. And every time we use the dogs in messages portraying something innovative or different, we fuel the brand.”

fido5Hadsepantelis also notes that there has been occasional talk of getting away from the dog imagery, but the decision has always been to remain canine-centred. Aside from the fact that it’s not good to fix something that ain’t broke—Fido reached the one-million-customer mark faster than any other Canadian wireless carrier—he says: “When we do campaigns with the dogs, our tracking and measuring is so positive that we don’t need to leave it. The dog icon has helped us build such great brand recognition that we need only nurture it.”

Petit agrees. “Over the last seven years, dogs have become the icon that makes Fido stand apart from its competition. That icon has been the continuity in our advertising—it’s a very important part of the Fido image and always will be.”