Case Study: 1-800-GOT-JUNK? Becomes a Successfully Crappy Brand

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Blitz Magazine, March 2000

A freak storm hits. As you watch hail bounce off your Jaguar, you wish you had a garage.

Oh, wait. You remember that you do, in fact, have a garage. It’s just full of. Of…you can’t remember what it’s full of.

Determined to reclaim your garage, you call a charity, which says it’ll send a truck Monday, between 8:00 and 5:00. You spend your week-end sorting through mounds of old furniture, sports gear and broken gardening equipment. On Monday morning, you lug it all down to the bottom of your driveway and head to work, thoroughly pleased with yourself.

But when you get home from work, the heap is still there. You leave a message for the charity. No one calls back.

‘Next morning, you look in the phone book under ‘Trash Removal Services’. You call Guy With Truck, who says he’ll be there Saturday at 10:00 a.m. He can’t quote a price until he sees what needs to be removed. Your junk sits and waits; the city garbage men come on Wednesday, but ignore the silent plea for help.

Saturday, 4:00 p.m., Guy With Truck appears. His truck is filthy and so is he. He has one arm and one eye. Your neighbours call their dogs inside and lock their doors.

You have neglected to hide your Jag in your now-empty garage. Guy With Truck sees the Jag, sizes up your house and quotes you $600. You don’t care; you want your junk gone. You write him a cheque and watch him take two hours to load the stuff before chugging off in a cloud of exhaust.

This is not an exaggerated scenario. It happens all the time. But Vancouver entrepreneur Brian Scudamore has taken this unhappy situation and turned it into a multi-million-dollar enterprise.

In 1989, the 18 year-old Scudamore was working toward a commerce degree. At the end of his first year, he needed a summer job but couldn’t find one. Then he spotted Guy With Truck and thought ‘Hey…’.

He paid $700 for an old truck; $100 to have fliers and business cards printed. He didn’t want people to think he was a one-man operation, so he called himself ‘The Rubbish Boys’, and came up with the slogan ‘We’ll Stash Your Trash in a Flash!”. While his little brother stuffed mailboxes with fliers, Scudamore drove the lanes of the city’s west side. When he found an over-flowing garage, he knocked on the door and offered to remove the junk. By the time he returned to school, he’d made a $1700 profit.

Scudamore kept working at the business. By 1993, it was so successful, he decided to make junk removal his life. He incorporated, hired student drivers and invested in more trucks, all bearing the slogan and ‘Rubbish Boys: 738-JUNK.’ Between word of mouth and these mobile billboards, business took off. By 1995, revenues were $100,000.

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This success had much to do with how Scudamore differentiated himself from Guy With Truck. He offered same-day service and promised to remove everything except toxic substances. Rather than charging a rate based on his perception of a client’s income, he provided a printed, pre-set pricing structure (from $35 for a mattress, to $339 for a full truckload).

Not only did the Rubbish Boys not show up late, they called 30 minutes before to confirm the appointment. Their trucks were spotless. They were clean-cut, polite university students wearing snappy blue and green uniforms. They cheerfully removed your junk, and then cleaned up after themselves, sweeping garages and driveways and/or raking the grass. They provided proper receipts and, a few days later, called to make sure you were happy with your service.

junk6By 1997, Rubbish Boys had 16 trucks, 45 high-season employees and revenues of $1 million. Scudamore was nominated Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young and the Business Development Bank of Canada. He was one of 11 BC firms to make Profit Magazine’s list of 100 Fastest-Growing Companies in Canada—its five-year growth rate of 1,169% put it at #74.

There were contributing factors to this success. In Greater Vancouver, residents are allowed just two bags of garbage per week. And practically every city block hosts renovating yuppies, most of whom don’t know where the nearest dump is, let alone have the requisite vehicle.

Another factor is that charities are increasingly selective about what they take. They get way too much junk and don’t get a break from the dump—some charities spend $20,000 a year on dumping fees. You may think you’re doing someone a favour when you give an old couch to the Salvation Army, but if it’s torn or broken or water-damaged, it’s going to the dump at a pricey $65/ton (the average truckload weighs 1.1 ton).

In addition, Vancouver has many commercials and residential buildings belonging to absentee owners. These buildings are operated by property management firms—professional organizations that don’t want Guy With Truck anywhere near their clients’ properties. Also, while dumpster rental is cheaper than Scudamore’s service, construction companies often find it more efficient to hire him. Now, half of his business is residential, half commercial.

Then there’s the staffing aspect. Junk removal is an April to October business—that’s when everyone cleans up. With commercial contracts, Scudamore still has work in the off-season, but his business is largely seasonal. Seasonal business can’t afford to hire guys who need salaries; they need to be staffed by people who want to work only from June to September.

“For the first three years, Rubbish Boys was a student-run operation—you had to be a student to be hired,” recalls Scudamore. “But by 1998, I realized that, while students were professional, clean-cut and polite, they had no business experience. We were growing and we needed people who knew about building a business.”

junk5Not wanting to abandon his students, Scudamore instituted STEP, the Student Training in Entrepreneurship Program. He recruited students, and then helped them create mini-franchises. They were fronted the requisite cash and provided with a partner, a truck and a route. They received a base wage and a share of the profits; they had to do their own sales and media relations. The most profitable students in each territory received scholarships of $500 to $1000. To date, 180 students have participated.

There was more method to this: Scudamore wanted proof that his operating system could be franchised. Rubbish Boys’ 1998 earnings were $1.3 million; Scudamore saw that there was no barrier to his company’s becoming the Federal Express of junk removal. He had built his brand, it was time to franchise.

The company name became 1-800-Got-Junk? (inspired by the ‘Got Milk?’ campaign). The owner of the 1-800-Got-Junk? telephone number was persuaded to relinquish it. A $30,000, 12-line call centre was installed. Scudamore invested $500,000 in consultants and technology, and perfected a franchise system that easily allowed expansion. Information packages were produced, ads were placed in franchising magazines, the word spread, people started to call. Now there are franchises in Seattle, Portland, Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto. Scudamore’s goal is to have franchises in 30 North American markets by 2003.

junk3The 1-800-Got-Junk? system is simple. Scudamore selects two or three candidates per territory, depending on its size. Successful candidates have to know their markets and have strong sales skills. They must pay $20,000 to the company then invest another $30,000 on leasing, staffing and out-fitting an office; and on acquiring, painting, insuring and staffing trucks. Scudamore does not want franchise owners driving their own trucks.

“We want people working on the business, not in it,” he says. “These franchises are about starting from scratch and using our system to build the business. As people see the trucks and get to know about the brand, they’ll call. In the meantime, we want our franchisees knocking on doors, making presentations to property management companies and staying focused on growth.”

In addition to training, promotional materials and business plans, franchisees receive their phone systems as part of the package.

Regardless of where customers are, when they dial 1-800-Got-Junk?, they get the Vancouver call centre. The centre takes all bookings, organizes drivers’ routes and e-mails the orders to the appropriate franchisee, who re-confirms pick-ups and takes it from there.

junk4Franchise owners also receive the company’s proprietary management system—Junkware, a software package that handles all areas of operations, from scheduling to accounting to marketing.

“All of this is done on our server, but we’re not playing Big Brother,” points out Scudamore. “Junkware is a coaching tool—we want our people to succeed.”

Franchisees pay an 8% royalty, plus another 7% for call centre services. Their gross profit should be 40%, their net 20%. Fixed costs vary by market but, for a $50,000 investment, franchisees enjoy minimal risk in a lucrative, seasonal cash business. And it’s worth it. The Toronto franchisee became the largest junk removal service in that megalopolis after four months of operation. His 1999 sales were $250,000 with two trucks; this year, he has six trucks, 20 employees and sales should exceed $1 million.

 All of this without anything resembling a sophisticated marketing or media program. While Scudamore plans to actively advertise one day, he has always preferred the inexpensive, face-to-face approach.

“Paid advertising has never given us the same return as the face-to-face sales,” he explains. “We’ve tried radio—it wasn’t worth it. We had a little more success with newspaper advertising, but it’s too expensive. We do decals and t-shirts; we’ll take part in home and garden trade shows, construction and renovation trade shows. We just stay out there and keep reaffirming the brand. For us, the most effective way of communicating is via our trucks, our fliers, word-of-mouth and media attention.”

Scudamore has received loads of media attention. He coaches franchisees on how to garner it, and he gets involved in community events. For example, when the community of White Rock was devastated by rain and mud last year, Scudamore’s staff went there to clean up. Scudamore also invented a program called PRIDE: People Removing I-Sores Dumped Everywhere, through which 1-800-Got-Junk? works with community volunteers to clean up littered areas.

Last year, the company posted a website (www.1800gotjunk.com or www.rubbishboys.com). The site gets about 1,000 hits a week, but few people book on-line, preferring to call.

The slogan ‘We’ll Stash Your Trash in a Flash!” slogan is long gone. Now, trucks carry the new phone number and the website address. Liberal distribution of bright, die-cut fliers and $10 or $20 TrashCash coupons remain a mainstay, as does old-fashioned cold-calling.

So Scudamore has taken the most simple of businesses and given it an efficient franchising system and an easily-remembered call-to-action phone number. To date, he and his staff have delivered 15 million pounds of junk to dumps and recycling depots. He has 20 full-time employees and 75 seasonal employees. Sales for 2000 should hit $4 million. And he has no competition. Or….?

“I do have competition,” he says. “The guy with the truck.”

 

Jimmy Does Whistler: GMC Moves Up in the World

            Some people call them Environmental Assault Vehicles. Others can’t live without them. For General Motors Canada and Whistler/Blackcomb Resorts, they’re the perfect promotional vehicles.

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            They’re Sport Utility Vehicles, or SUVs. People love to complain about them–they block visibility, guzzle gas, take up two parking spaces. But British Columbians are active people. And in Vancouver, where people do golf and ski in the same day and kamikaze soccer moms run rampant, SUVs are must-haves.

            SUVs are the vehicles of the moment. Their 4×4 capability allows owners to go off-road (5% actually do; the rest go to the mall). They can handle different road and weather conditions, they’re flexible. SUVs are not cars–they’re trucks with car characteristics. And, in Vancouver, the sport utility market is 45% of the truck business; much higher than in other markets.

            Ten years ago, the sport utility vehicle market consisted pretty much of Range Rovers and Land Rovers, which were exclusive to the wealthy. Then there were the trucks and boxy 4x4s driven, in the main, by the blue collar crowd. Those who wanted more space drove station wagons. Then people tired of wagons and went to mini-vans. There’s nothing remotely cool about mini-vans; SUVs were the next logical step.

            The industry-wide transition–from van to SUV, from blue collar to white collar–began in 1993. It coincided with a rise in disposable income, an increase in the number of people having children and, in the case of BC, an increase in the number of vacations taken at home. At the same time, SUVs became more rounded and elegant in appearance. They were sold with embroidered or leather seats, state-of-the-art stereo systems, sun roofs, air conditioning, heated power windows, power steering, power brakes. They became large luxury cars.

            Despite ever-increasing awareness about environmental issues, sales of SUVs are booming–Ford now sells more trucks than cars. The small car market is still almost half the total car market and vans account for 30% of the truck market, but SUVs are taking over.

            However, by 1996, while everyone else’s SUVs were flying out of showrooms, sales of the GMC Jimmy had declined. It had an image problem.

            “At that time, the Jimmy design had been around for 18 months, which is a long time in a market that’s changing so rapidly,” explains Michelle Whelan, Account Supervisor at MacLaren McCann, General Motors’ long-time agency. “Maybe it was the design, maybe it was the blue collar image–for whatever reason, people didn’t see this truck as being what they wanted to buy. We wanted the Jimmy to be perceived as a high-end vehicle, increase awareness of its attributes and make it an aspirational brand.”

            So the Jimmy’s image needed a socioeconomic up-grade. What better way to achieve that than by tying it in with one of the world’s most socioeconomically exclusive activities–and one of BC’s most popular activities–skiing? Skiing, specifically, at Whistler/Blackcomb, North America’s top ski resort. To which, for the past ten years, GM has had the exclusive car manufacturer’s product placement rights.

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            The solution was stunningly simple. Beginning in September 1997, the ‘97 GMC Jimmy became available in a Whistler edition and a Blackcomb edition. Vehicle badging was created. The truck was outfitted with running boards, leather interiors, CD players and Thule ski racks. People who purchased the Jimmy received fleece jackets or vests with the Whistler/Blackcomb logo, as well as the Whistler/Blackcomb Express Card (for direct-lift, lower-cost skiing on a debit basis). As promotions go, it was not terrifically complicated, either to understand or execute, but it was a tremendous success.

            “It was very straightforward,” continues Whelan. “The SUV market is growing very quickly in BC, more so than in the rest of the country. The need was already there; it was just a matter of getting consumer attention and communicating the Jimmy’s benefits.”

            With a budget of $300,000., MacLaren conducted a province-wide newspaper campaign. In the Lower Mainland only, the promotion was advertised on radio and TV, plus on billboards and through traffic report sponsorship on Mountain FM. In addition, the agency obtained the Whistler/Blackcomb data base and a direct mail piece was sent to all Express Card and season ticket holders. The target market was the 30-50 age group with earnings of $35,000.-$40,000. And while this was going on, there were Jimmys parked at the base of Blackcomb and in Whistler village; every time someone walked by and triggered it, an automated tape touted the vehicle’s benefits.

            The promotion’s effectiveness was quickly apparent–sales of the Jimmy went up 38%, or just under two market share points. So last year, the promotion was repeated. But GM has other vehicles serving this market segment–the Yukon and the Suburban. So last September, the promo included the three vehicles and used the same strategy. Jimmy sales went up 40% in September, 69% in October, 43% in November and 149% in December. Yukon sales went up 15.3%, Suburban sales 47%; with respective share climbs of 3 and 4.8 points. The whole GMC target group has changed; the blue collar image is gone.

            Which is not to say that an entire market segment has been shut out. It’s true that SUVs are expensive and if you have to worry about the cost of fuel you can’t afford one. The hottest category of SUVs is the mid-size–the GMC Jimmy, Ford Explorer, Chrysler Grand Cherokee, Toyota 4Runner and the Nissan Pathfinder. Those run in the $44,000. range. The large size SUV is increasingly lucrative; this is where you find the GMC Yukon and Ford Expedition ($48,000.) and the GMC Suburban and GMC Tahoe ($52,000.). However, with $4,300. down, you can lease a Jimmy for $338. a month which, obviously, was a figure which appealed to British Columbians in various income groups. And the benefits of the Jimmy were communicated in such a way that it increased the purchase intent of those who, in a market already favourably disposed toward an SUV, were thinking of buying one.

            The decision to buy a vehicle involves a six-month purchase funnel. When a consumer decides to buy a new car, he will spend two months looking at different makes and deciding what type of vehicle he wants–a mid-sized car, an SUV etc. Over the next two months, he’ll narrow his choices; he knows what type of car he wants, now he has a short list. In the fifth month, he will further narrow his choices and decide on the style he needs; in the sixth, he makes his final decision based on price and options.

            For manufacturers, image advertising–particularly in print and television–captures the attention of the purchaser in the first five months of the funnel. It’s the promotions, packaging and pricing which catch the buyer in the last month–this is how the manufacturer moves up on the buyer’s list and affects purchase intent.

            The creative strategy for the Jimmy promotion was simply to create an aspirational vehicle image and move that image higher up on the purchase funnel. Experience and focus group testing showed that the best approach was the straightforward one–no dancing girls, no silly humour.

            “We just showed the vehicle in the mountain setting,” says Whelan. “The image told people that this vehicle offered a way to have the freedom to get out of the city on week-ends. It showed the truck in the mountain environment and created the outdoor connection in people’s minds. The copy provided the straight facts.”

            “We want our creative to be tasteful,” says Brian Webber, Zone Marketing Manager for GM BC. “We want to communicate specific information and we don’t want clutter. People who buy these vehicles are sophisticated; they know what they want and they want you to cut to the chase–state the features and benefits, the price, the lease payment, the down payment.

            “In our campaigns, we use outdoor extensively to show the look of the vehicle. Print advertising is the primary source of information–what it is, how much it is, where to go and get it. At the point where this promotion appeals to the consumer, he’s already going to buy an SUV and you just have to tell him why he should buy yours. He’s done his homework, you make him an offer.”

            The success of this promotion is clearly indicated by the fact that people are still asking for the Whistler and Blackcomb editions, even though last season’s advertising stopped in January. Not all Jimmys have the badging, but that hasn’t hurt sales. The attributes and image of the GM vehicles, and their association with the glamour and excitement of Whistler, have made such an impression on people that they’re buying them anyway.

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            “The image of Whistler/Blackcomb means different things to different people,” says Mark Woodburn, General Manager of Business Development for Whistler/Blackcomb Mountain Resorts. “People in BC are proud that the leading ski resort on the continent is in their back yards. Some feel a sense of ownership. Others want to communicate that they’re alpine enthusiasts and part of mountain culture. In some people’s minds, there’s a certain stature associated with that. That’s part of our brand equity and GM’s use of that equity altered how their vehicle was perceived. It helped stimulate test drives and sales, significantly affect its market share and exceed sales targets. We’re glad that we helped a partner and enhanced our own brand awareness at the same time.”

            Woodburn couldn’t be happier with the GM promotion–for the price of the give-away merchandise, Whistler/Blackcomb has been able to expand its relationship with GM outside of the resort and, in the process, advertise itself.

            “It’s always a struggle for us, as we go through the winter, to remind people in the Lower Mainland that Whistler/Blackcomb does not suffer the same rainfall that the Lower Mainland does. We need to get in people’s faces as often as we can and this way a great way to do that. The fact that our logo was on the back of a high-quality 4×4 vehicle communicates the nature of Whistler and continues with the culture that people enjoy here. The displays in show rooms, the direct mail campaigns, the advertising–it all helped us. But the greatest value to us was having the logo on the back of the vehicles. Someone’s sitting at a red light staring at our logo on the vehicle in front of him, he thinks of his experience here, it elicits fond memories and stimulates another visit.

            “This was a unique opportunity because it’s not very often that you get to put your name on a product manufactured by someone else–especially one with such a high profile. GM used our brand to strengthen its business, we used its vehicles to strengthen our brand. It’s a classic example of partners borrowing equity from each other. And its simplicity is the reason for its success. Obviously, GM makes great vehicles and they’re attractive to anybody looking for something in that category. But being able to tie the vehicles’ connection with this place and its activities, and to the emotional connection that British Columbians have with Whistler, gives GM an edge which its competitors don’t have. It is a win-win situation all around.”

Blitz Magazine, September 1999

Not Worried, Being Happy: Happy Planet Foods Makes a Splash in the Beverage Business

hp6Blitz Magazine, November 2000

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could produce and sell the world’s best juice while promoting sustainable farming and environmental responsibility?”

“Actually, we can.”

This, one imagines, is the conversation that took place in 1994, between Randal Ius and Gregor Robertson. The two shared a deep concern for the environment, a passion for food and a knack for sales. And Robertson owned an organic farm. Happy Planet Foods was born; Ius and Robertson started selling carrot juice.

‘Sounds a little out there, but first-year sales hit $400,000. Today, Happy Planet is the fastest-growing company in BC, with 50% annual growth and 1999 sales of $3.5 million. It produces 18 beverages, introduces new flavours each year and is known as the innovator in the super-premium juice and smoothie category. Its products are sold at 550 locations, including Starbucks, Safeway and Save-On Foods, plus just about any store serving the ‘alternative’ market in Vancouver, Victoria, Whistler, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Seattle and San Francisco.

The organic food movement has grown steadily since the ‘60s, fueled by an ever-increasing horror of chemicals and a more health-conscious society. It used to be, though, that organic foods weren’t very appealing. And they commanded no respect. Happy Planet (HP) has changed that, at least in the beverage category.

Most of HP’s products fall under the category of New Age beverages knows as ‘functionals’ or ‘nutraceuticals’, a segment which is growing faster than any food category in North America, and which accounted for $350 million in sales in the US last year.

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Functionals have something useful and/or beneficial added to them—minerals, vitamins, herbs etc. Happy Planet has five such beverages: Extreme Green (passion fruit, green micro-nutrients), Abundant C (strawberry, guava, Vitamin C), Spirulina Soul Food (pineapple, coconut, spirulina), Thinkgo (raspberry, mango, ginkgo biloba) and Dot.calm (papaya, pear, St. John’s Wort).

It then has ‘Organics’, which are beverages certified to contain at least 95% organic ingredients, and which may or may not be functionals. In Happy Planet’s case, they are. There is Green One (mango, plum, green micro-nutrients), Essential Echinacea (guava, strawberry, Echinacea), Power Plant (banana, strawberry, soy protein). These are just general descriptions—if you look at the full ingredient list of Radical Response, it says Apple, Plum, Apricot, Guava, Banana, Grape Seed, BetaCarotine, Citrus Bioflavinoids, Milk Thistle, Chlorophyll, Zinc, Manganese and Selenium.

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Then there are the ‘Naturals’, which are strictly thirst-quenchers and include Lost Lagoon Mango, Sunset Beach Strawberry, Righteous Raspberry, Lemon Made and O Cranada. These are the lowest-priced Happy Planet products; organics are the highest-priced.

“Naturals are the entry-level products,” explains George Noroian, HP’s President & CEO. “But people want organic and they’re prepared to pay for it. And there has been an explosion of interest in functional beverages, so our more expensive products are our biggest sellers. People don’t mind paying more if they’re getting more. Not only do we have functional ingredients but, unlike SoBe or V-8, which have 10% juice and 90% water, we offer the actual fruit—we don’t add any water. Each 16 oz. bottle contains five whole fruits, so one bottle meets Health Canada’s recommended daily intake of fruit and vegetables. Our beverages are heartier and healthier than anything else available.”

What Happy Planet adds to its juice is closely regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Health Canada, which set guidelines for what additives are allowable, and at what levels. (Americans are more lax—Odwalla adds far more vitamin C to its products than Health Canada would allow.) As we now know, too much of a good thing can be dangerous, so Happy Planet has to constantly consult with Health Canada, as well as herbalists and naturopaths, and it has a microbiologist on staff. For in-depth information, consumers can find product literature wherever HP juices are sold, and 10,000 people consult HP’s cheerfully uncomplicated web site (www.happyplanet.com) each month.

Happy Planet uses no concentrates, preservatives, additives or genetically-modified organisms. Two-thirds of ingredients come from Canadian farms and all ingredients come from sources known to use fair trade practices. The company claims to not use any paper from old-growth forests and says it gives 10% of its net profits to environmental and humanitarian causes.

But staying with the organic thing proved to be harder than at first thought. “All-organic is not possible due to availability and price,” says  Noroian. “Organic farming is much more expensive. Pesticides cost far less than natural controls and, where in conventional farming you pick a field twice, in organic you have to pick it four or five times. That means more labour and a substantial price differential—organic bananas cost twice as much as conventionally-grown bananas. If all of our products were 100% organic, they’d be out of the acceptable price range.

“So we take a pragmatic approach. As much as possible, we deal directly with farmers to guarantee quality at the most reasonable price. And as our purchasing power and the demand for organic ingredients increases, we transition ingredients to organic—now, all of our plums and mangoes are organic, as are most of our oranges. Between 40% and 60% of our ingredients are organically grown and as the economics work more in our favour, we’re able to make an even better product at an acceptable price.”

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Happy Planet’s production takes place in 13,000 square feet of space on Vancouver’s east side. Bottles are of high-density polyethylene (which is more environmentally-responsible than glass). All apples are BC-grown and processed in Vancouver; other fruits arrive in the form of purees from trusted sources in places like Fiji, Ecuador and Hawaii. As Noroian explains, the logistics can be nightmarish.

“When you’re dealing with organic fruit, the quality changes from year to year. So there’s a much bigger effort involved in sourcing ingredients, and we have to do a lot of taste-testing and keep buffer stocks on hand. We try to maintain consistency, but sometimes we have to change recipes to accommodate changes in ingredients. Consumers notice if there’s a change in quality. They want their juice a certain way and demand consistency. Our on-going challenge is to keep our ingredients within an acceptable specification, to minimize variation in the final product, and to reflect the reality of variability of organic ingredients.”

Distribution is also a challenge. Because these juices have to be kept cold.

“Our products are fast-pasteurized. The process kills the worst bacteria but it doesn’t totally degrade the enzymes and the goodness in the fruit,” says Noroian. “So the juice is still a live product. If it’s allowed to warm up it will begin to ferment after one day.”

The HP juice has a shelf life of 21 days, and much effort goes into making sure it’s kept cold. There are refrigerated Happy Trucks and, if need be, HP will provide retailers with refrigerators. Noroian says it’s worth the cost. “We sell a unique product and no one benefits if it’s not kept cold. Besides, the fridges, because of their size, get prominent store placement. They’re great billboards.”

The Starbucks approach to selling Happy Planet is even better—Starbucks keeps the bottles in ice-filled baskets beside the cash register. On the other hand, the freshness aspect has backfired. Some grocery stores stock it, not with beverages—where people looking for something to drink will gobut in the produce department, alongside the bags of salad.

Noroian notes that the freshness aspect has also retarded expansion somewhat.

“Our current focus is to expand our geographic reach, to where we’re well-established in the 15 main Canadian markets, and more established in California. But because our products have to be kept at a certain temperature and have to be rotated, we have to take a more hands-on approach to distribution. We have people in New York who want to carry our juice, but we aren’t there yet.

“Our growth it also closely tied to demographics. These juices are expensive to make, expensive to buy and are not considered staples. They appeal to a specific type of consumer. So we look carefully at the demographic and psychographic profiles of every location we’re in. It would be problematic to engage a chain like 7-11 when our product is only suitable for certain of its locations. Our experience with Safeway has been very positive because Safeway knows its customers, understands our product and knows where it will and will not sell.”

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Noroian says that HP’s placement in Starbucks two years ago was an important turning point.

“Starbucks is a credible company and its seal of approval gave us credibility. It was excellent from the marketing perspective as well—people saw us in Safeway, then in Starbucks. We already had the neo-hippy, alternative affiliation; Starbucks gave us the mainstream cross-over. Now, our customer base is broader—it’s people with more disposable income, people who are physically-active and health-conscious, families, and everyone who insists on exceptional quality.”

Unfortunately, squeezing out a marketing budget has always been a problem for Happy Planet. “Our products are expensive to make and deliver,” explains Noroian. “There’s not a lot of money left for traditional marketing. So there’s always been an emphasis on the guerrilla element, just to get the juice in people’s faces. We build awareness and maintain our retailer relationships by doing a lot of store sampling, couponing and specials. We run print ads in holistic lifestyle magazines like Shared Vision and trade magazines such as Grocer Today. Will we ever buy billboards? That would be a stretch. For us, the most potent way to market is to spread the word and get other people to spread the word.”

Happy Planet spends about $40,000 a year on advertising. But, believe it or not, the company has eliminated its marketing director position. Instead, it has taken the PR route.

“Our PR firm helps with strategizing and program implementation, developing stories about the company when we do product launches and reaching people who may want to do articles on the juice or health food industry,” explains Noroian. “PR is a relatively inexpensive way of getting exposure. There’s no guarantee that you’re going to get ink, and you have no control over it, but we think you still get more bang for your buck.”

When he joined the company two years ago, HP’s former marketing director, Steve Everitt, found that his first order of business was to revamp the company’s visuals. 

“We had our juices sitting at the Starbucks tills,” he recalls. “If you asked 100 people if they’d seen the juice, they’d say yes. If you asked them what the name of the juice was, few would be able to tell you. The globe logo wasn’t working. So we brought the name off the logo and created a new wordmark. And we simplified the image by choosing popular colour schemes and a clean font as our headline. Also, previously, the materials carried images of all kinds of fruit, and leaves. We changed that to feature individual pieces of fruit. And we saw a great increase in name recognition. The wordmark is much more powerful because of its simplicity, cleanliness and legibility.”

Everitt joined Happy Planet just as Starbucks started carrying the HP line. This began a year of significant growth, when HP juices increasingly turned up in locations more concerned with branding and style. There was no direct competition; sales were increasing weekly. Then, in 1999, SoBe and Snapple’s ‘natural’ brand extensions appeared.

“All of a sudden, we had direct competitors,” says Everitt. “None of them were 100% juice with herbal ingredients—they were vaguely similar, but thinner and cheaper. SoBe, for example, has herbal ingredients but only 10% pure juice. It won on price—it was SoBe’s 20 oz bottle for $2.19 vs. our 12-oz bottle at $2.99. Our sales went up, our retailer numbers rose, but our growth leveled out. Without lots of cash, it’s hard to combat that competition. We had to just stay the course.”

Where Odwalla would spend between 4%-7% on marketing, Happy Planet allocates 1.8%-2.2% of gross revenue. Everitt stretched this budget by gang-printing vast quantities of p.o.p. materials (posters, brochures, shelf talkers, stickers). Product launches were creative and inexpensive—when O Cranada was launched, 150 media members received buckets filled with ice, cranberries, juice and the relevant literature. Dot.calm was launched with images on CD-Rom, literature printed to fit the CD case and juice packed in ice-filled Tupperware containers. The kits looked expensive, but cost only $5 each.

Everitt also maximized exposure by managing an exhaustive contra program. “You always have to make more juice than you could sell; every week, I would end up with anywhere from 500 to 2,000 bottles of juice to work with. So I would give juice to Greenpeace, the David Suzuki Foundation, the Evergreen Foundation. They’d serve the juice at their events and meetings; we’d get space in their publications. In two years, I negotiated 400 contra arrangements with 200,000 bottles of juice given out in exchange for ad and advertorial space. Vancouver’s a prime market for this type of approach. And when you don’t have lots of cash, it’s a great way to get the product into people’s hands.”

While Happy Planet gives generously to food banks, Everitt also worked, or was involved in, 75 events a year—the Children’s Festival, the Folk Festival, the Carnival of Souls etc. “We used any relevant occasion to reach consumers. We’d see a slight increase in sales following these events but the impact of events is hard to measure. People would see us everywhere but whether or not that translated into increased sales is unknown.”

Everitt was able to conduct some focus groups. “The focus groups were very useful—and produced surprising results. It reinforced what we knew; that our primary market was the health-conscious female age 25-39. What was surprising was that we thought our secondary audience was the age group of 40-55. In fact, our second strongest following is males 17-25.”

That became particularly apparent when Happy Planet was confronted by a large adversary in the form of Coca Cola. For obvious reasons, Whistler is one of HP’s biggest markets. Every store carries it and HP sponsors many sporting events there. But last winter, Coca Cola had Happy Planet bounced off the mountain.

“Coca Cola takes a very wide view when considering its competition,” says Everitt. “Some of its executives were up from Atlanta during the snowboard championships, they’d put a lot of money into Intrawest, they saw our fridges on the hill—next day, we were gone. Then they tried to have us removed from the University of British Columbia campus. The students found out, put pressure on the administration and we prevailed.

“That’s one occasion where the philosophy of the company came into play. For the most part, people don’t care about a company. They care about the product. The only time the philosophy comes into play is when consumers are faced with competing products. If the taste and price are equal, they’ll look down the line for reasons to choose and they’ll choose the company that’s committed to positive things. Happy Planet has that in spades. It will hopefully be a long time before the corporate philosophy has to win out again. In the meantime, Happy Planet has to focus on the fact that it’s not selling a company or an idea, it’s selling juice.

“We’d run into trouble trying to sell the fact that HP juice is the best in Canada and part of a healthy lifestyle—while also telling people about the company message of sustainability and commitment to the earth. That company message clouds the marketing message—the consumer wants to know that the product tastes good and is good and is worth the price. We had three or four totally unique types of users. Some were attracted by the health aspect, some by the organic aspect, some by the meal replacement aspect, some by the corporate ethic. It was always difficult to hammer home all the real benefits to everyone.

“I felt that we had the largest growth potential in the mainstream grocery business, considering that the natural food business is 10% of the market in Canada. And if you want to go mainstream, you have to do consumer advertising. And Happy Planet is still a small company with a small marketing budget and distribution covering a large geographic area.”

For his part, Noroian is undaunted. “So far, we’ve been experimenting and developing the brand. Now we’ll focus on more robust growth, availability and new markets. In the more distant future, we’ll expand into products like baby food, nutritional bars, soup. For now, we’re committed to being the best at what we’re doing.”

 

Getting to Know Grappa

Firewater… paint remover… anesthetic… *(@%^+)&!!!

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It has been called a lot of names over the years. And, sometimes, justifiably. But in recent years, it has quietly experienced its own small revolution and, in some circles, it is now usurping the place of cognac as ‘the’ after-dinner drink of choice. It is grappa.

Vancouver’s resident grappa expert is Giorgio Castiglioni, Area Manager of Focus Wines & Spirits, who agrees that grappa drinking was once only for those with iron-clad taste buds.

“Up until about twenty years ago, drinking grappa was often a bad experience. Fifteen years ago, you would never see an elegant woman leaving a liquor store with a bottle of grappa–a certain class of people simply wouldn’t touch it. But since then, distillers have been experimenting and improving their methods. Now, grappa is a much more rounded, pleasurable drink. It is a first-class alternative to cognac and its international popularity has seen incredible growth.”

Grappa is a spirit distilled from the skin and the grasp of the grape. And while the grappa-making process is quick and easy, creating a top-quality grappa takes great care.

The process begins when newly-harvested grapes are placed in a de-grasper, which separates the fruit from the grasp. The fruit is pressed, either with a horizontal (or soft) press, which removes only the best juice; or with a vertical press, which removes all of the juice. After pressing, the remaining solids–the ‘vinacce’–go on to become grappa.

 The distinction between best-quality grappa and lesser grappa lies with the vinacce. While the less discriminating grappa producer will use all post-pressing materials (including twigs), those distillers most concerned with quality will seek out the best grapes, then use only the very wet skin from soft-pressed grapes.

After pressing, the grappa-maker has two styles from which to choose: continuous-cycle distilling, or discontinuous (artigiano) cycle. And both involve a grappa-making machine, or ‘alambiccho’, a complex, custom-made copper contraption of ancient origin.

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The continuous-cycle process uses the conveyor-belt system, wherein the solids automatically roll into the alambiccho and the grappa comes out the other end. With this method, up to 300,000 kg of vinacce may be processed daily. With the discontinuous-cycle method, small amounts of vinacce are placed manually in the alambiccho, the vinacce is distilled, the receptacles are emptied and cleaned and the alambiccho is filled again.

With either method, the solids are processed via direct flame, boiling or steaming. But the discontinuous-cycle method is more selective, only 10,000 kg of vinacce is processed in one day, and the product is a much better grappa.

The grappa-distilling process begins with the moist, spongy vinacce. As it is heated, the steam rises into a plated column, then into a filter, into a cooling system, and into another series of filters before being expelled as a liquid. The liquid then passes through a valve to remove the ‘head and tail’ deposits. As the alcohol is released at 78C, the resulting fresh grappa appears at 70% alcohol, so it is cut with distilled water to achieve the 40-43% drinking level. After that, nothing is added. The grappa is bottled and corked.

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As mentioned, the big difference between ‘industrial’ grappa and best-quality grappa is that the industrial-style distillers use any kind of vinacce–they don’t care where the grapes come from or how many grape varietals are involved. But in making best-quality grappa, distillers are very particular. They look for specific varietals of a specific quality.

“The more particular distillers, such as Poli, pay more for best quality vinacce,” explains Castiglioni. “Best-quality grappa is made from no more than two varietals. Monovitigno Grappa is made from one type of grape, Grappa Aromatica is made from aromatic grapes such as Muscato and Traminer, and Sarpa is a blend of Cabernet and Merlot grapes.”

The best grappa is that which is bottled early. Young grappa, or Grappa Giovane (Pinot, Sarpa and Vespaiolo), is white and offers the strong primary aroma and flavour of the vinacce. Grappa Affinata is aged for six to twelve months in wooden barrels and has a slightly woody flavour. The grappa Invecchiata, Stravecchia and Riserva are aged for a minimum of one year in barrels of different types of wood. These have more substance and a stronger,  woody flavour and, after having absorbed the wood’s colour, turn yellow. They’re still good quality, but real grappa fans tend to go for the Grappa Giovane.

The word ‘grappa’ comes from the Latin ‘grappolus’, meaning ‘bunch of grapes’, and the beverage is distinctly Italian. All Italian regions produce grappa, but those best-known for their quality grappa are Veneto, Friuli, Piemonte, Emilia Romagna and Sicily. Grappa may not be a household term here but, in Italy, it has its own town and its own museum–the Museo Della Grappa in the Vicenza (Veneto) town of Bassano Del Grappa.

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Grappa came into existence in Medieval times, when the lords owned all of the land and, after the harvest, took the wine and left the peasants with the otherwise-wasted mush. It occurred to someone that the mush could be distilled. The alambiccho was invented, and enterprising grappa-makers began traveling from village to village with the portable alambiccho, distilling each family’s vinacce. More than a few people died in alambiccho explosions and the result was indeed fire water–almost 80% alcohol with, probably, a horrible flavour. ‘Course in those days, its main use was as a cure for stomach problems, as a disinfectant for cuts, and as dental anesthetic.

Gradually, the quality of grappa improved with advances in technology but, up until the late 1960s, it was still a cheap local drink. Then grappa-makers started to experiment with new methods. They discovered, for example, that the vinacce must be fresh and wet–that you can’t just leave it to dry out in a barn until you get around to distilling it. Grappa is best when made on the day of the pressing, or the vinacce has to be refrigerated until the grappa can be made.

“This is one of the reasons for the higher cost of grappa,” says Castiglioni. “To keep the vinacce fresh, it must be transported and stored in refrigerated compartments. Also, the quality distillers spend a lot of time in the fields during the harvest, carefully scrutinizing the quality of their vinacce to make sure that it is moist and wet. Then there’s the alambiccho–the modern alambiccho is an expensive custom-made piece of equipment with a very high hygiene factor.

“That is why Grappa can be very expensive,” continues Castiglioni. “Today, the aficionado could spend up to $500.00 for a bottle, and many people happily spend that. But if someone is just starting to try grappa, I tell them to look for something in the $30.00 to $60.00 range.”

Pricing is one area where grappa is in the same category as other fine distilled beverages. The other area, says Castiglioni, is in its evolution. “Scotch, cognac and aquavit have roughly the same history. They’ve undergone the same process of experimentation–it’s just taken grappa longer to catch up.”

But one doesn’t consume grappa the way one would drink other spirits. Because of its strength and weight, grappa is usually consumed in the winter months. It is served at room temperature, or slightly chilled, and is appreciated as a digestive–often with coffee, always after a full meal.

“Grappa cleans out the mouth and washes away the fats,” says Castiglioni, who also notes that the effects of grappa remain true to their reputation. “You have to be careful with it. It is a very strong alcoholic beverage and, usually, one is enough. The amount you should drink depends on how much you’ve eaten, how much wine you had with dinner and how much alcohol you can handle. And if you’re serving it at a dinner party, you should know that, once your guests have had grappa, you can’t give them any more alcohol. Grappa fills the senses completely.”

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Grappa is also used liberally in Italian kitchens, as a spirited addition to roast lamb, veal scaloppini, pork tenderloin and sautéed prawns. It can be used in pasta sauces, in fish sauces, and to flambé fruit. And while it experiences its renaissance, it follows that the best Italian kitchens would be in on the grappa revolution.

With a selection of 40 brands of grappa, Vancouver’s top Italian restaurant, Quattro on Fourth, has by far the city’s largest grappa selection. Quattro’s sommelier, Patrick Corsi, is enjoying the changing perception, and the ever-increasing popularity, of grappa.

“Italian restaurants here traditionally don’t encourage their customers to try grappa and, until recently, the BC Liquor Distribution Branch only offered a selection of three. There was also the perception that customers weren’t interested in grappa–and it’s true that it had a bad reputation. Grappa is an acquired taste. But fine dining is all about education.”

At Quattro, and at other fine Italian restaurants, grappa sales are way up.  Many grappa brands are now privately imported and, due to growing demand, the BCLDB now offers 13 brands.

“It’s becoming a very popular after-dinner drink, especially among sophisticated wine drinkers,” continues Corsi. “At the moment, about 90% of our grappa enthusiasts are men, but more women are trying it and, once they’ve tried it and experimented a little, they order it again and again. So we’ll keep encouraging it. If a restaurant wants to present the whole Italian culinary experience, it can’t exclude grappa–it’s a big part of the Italian culture.”

Promotional, 1994

Frederick Varley: Visions of Paradise

varley

Group of Seven founding member Frederick Horsman Varley, who lived in Vancouver from 1926 to 1936, saw British Columbia as Paradise on Earth.

In BC, the Post-Impressionist was inspired to apply colour, composition and Buddhist theory to landscapes and individuals in new, wondrous forms. BC was Varley’s muse; once he left, he never again experienced such exciting and sustained creativity.

Varley was a romantic and sensualist who loved the ideal of the freedom found in nature, and the spiritual and physical beauty of women. Though not a devotee of any one religious or philosophical code, a curiosity in mysticism and Asian philosophies evolved from his anxiety toward modern life—he regarded Eastern notions as an antidote to the Western focus on mechanization and moral conservatism. During his time in Vancouver, he believed that objects and individuals emanated an aura and he developed a theory attributing specific psychological means to each colour, casting his paintings around one or two specific hues.

An Englishman who emigrated to Canada in 1912, Varley began his career in Toronto as a commercial designer, working with most of his future Group colleagues. After completing his commission as a war artist, he returned to the Group and, upon its triumph, became known as one of Canada’s leading portrait and landscape artists. But his restless nature, and his desire to escape debtors and crossed friendships, prevailed. He moved to Vancouver in search of a new life and fresh ideas.

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He became a teacher at the Vancouver School of Decorative and Applied Art (now Emily Carr University), where he was adored by his students. But when the Depression hit, he received the highest pay cut. He indignantly resigned and, with Jock Macdonald, opened the BC College of Arts, taking half the student body with him.

Although the school was regarded as being at the forefront of progressive art and his creativity was prodigious, Varley was forever in debt. His family had been twice evicted; they had no furniture, no food. Varley, who had fallen in love with one of his students, left his wife and four children and moved to North Vancouver’s Lynn Valley. Then the school went out of business, it was time to get outa’ Dodge and he moved to Ottawa.

SUN0418 HEFFEL

When he died near Toronto in 1969, Varley left behind 500 oils, watercolours and sketches—a stunning body of work, and now a cherished part of Canada’s national heritage.

Blitz Magazine, November 1999

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.

 

On Being Sick of the Blood

Blitz Magazine, January 2007

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

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

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

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

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