Monday, November 30, 2009

My father gets a gift from Mae Clarke.

video

One day when I was about 14 my father decided he needed to tell me a story about Mae Clarke’s pubic hair. According to my father, I was 14 and coming of age, and stories like this were important for me. They were part of becoming a man. So my father piled me into his 1949 Studebaker—a car he kept not because he liked it but because my mother didn’t and we went for a ride.

My father’s drives were a lot like my father’s moods—they were impulsive, almost autistic in their focus. He decided he wanted something, or wanted to do something and that was his complete focus until he got that thing.

Once it was salt-water taffy from the boardwalk in Atlantic City. It would start simply enough. “When I was a kid,” my father might say, “me, Herbie and Peacock used to hitchhike to Atlantic City and try to meet girls.” (This was the Atlantic City of the early 1940s—a lower middle class beach resort about an hour’s drive from Philadelphia where my father lived.) Twenty minutes later my father might say, “Damn, I loved the salt-water taffy they used to sell in those little shops along the boardwalk.” At dinner that night, after finishing his meal, he might belch, “You know what would cap off a meal like this one? Salt-water taffy.”

Then, the next morning he was still at it. “You know,” he might say “the salt-water taffy they sell around here is terrible. No flavor.” An hour later, he might turn to me and say, “I bet you never even had real Atlantic City salt-water taffy. Never had real salt-water taffy.” An hour after that he might utter, “Store-bought salt-water taffy is just like plastic. Not the real thing.” A little while after that it was, “It’s a tragedy, not having real salt-water taffy." Before long we’d wind up in his Studebaker, heading down to Atlantic City at 80 mph for salt-water taffy.

With him it was never a yen or a hankering. It was an obsession. Which of course brings me to my father and Mae Clarke’s pubic hair.

Clarke was a 1930s vamp, a putative film actress, the poor man’s “it” girl. Her most famous role was in “Public Enemy,” when she’s shacked up with Jimmy Cagney and Cagney violently pushes a half-grapefruit in her face. But even in that role, Clarke was uncredited. I guess you could say that even though the grapefruit scene made her somewhat iconic, Clarke never really crashed the big time.

By the time Clarke reached her 30s, she still got work, but bit parts and no film credits. Toward the end of her career she had a small part in the TV show “F Troop.” I guess that qualifies as bottoming out.

Like my father, Clarke was born in Philadelphia. Her real name was Violet Mary Klotz and I guess you can safely say she never really transcended her Klotzness. Despite looking pretty good in a tight sateen flapper-style gown and having had some critical success, she was really never anything but two-bit. She never became the star she wanted to be.

By the time my father started cavorting with women—say when he was around 18, Clarke was already crowding 40 and the bloom was off her rose. She had already been married and divorced three times and was spending less time in Hollywood as Mae Clarke and more time back in Philadelphia as the former Violet Mary Klotz.

My father starting dating Clarke around then. It wasn’t really dating to hear him tell it, because all they really did was schtup. That was the word my father used, schtup. “We’d schtup for hours,” he’d tell me, “have breakfast in bed the next morning, then schtup some more. Then I’d run off to school or to work and maybe not see her again for a month or so.”

There aren’t many 18 year olds who can be discreet when they’re schtupping anyone—much less a woman who used to be something of a film siren. My father couldn’t help but brag to all his friends that he was Mae Clarke’s gigolo. “Mae who?” they would ask, and my father would reply, “The blonde with Jimmy Cagney and the grapefruit in Public Enemy.” He’d then, to hear him tell it, break into his purported dead-on Cagney, “You know, I wish you was a wishing well. So I could tie a bucket to youse and sink ya.” And then he’d pantomime the smash.

At this point in my father’s story his Studebaker had just about reached the corner of Broad and Walnut in Center City Philadelphia. The Bellevue-Stratford stood there, still a few years before it became notorious for something called “legionnaire’s disease.”

“The last time Violet and I were together was right here. This was a grand place, a palace,” my father told me. “She said to me, I want you should always remember me and she gave me a sealed small blue envelope. It was too small for money—which I wouldn’t have taken anyway. I stuffed it in the inside pocket of my jacket and ran off to school without even opening it. I was late for class, and was more worried about getting there on time than the envelope. I always figured I’d see her again.”

My father pulled his Studebaker to a stop in front of the old hotel. Next to all the newer cars it looked old, beaten. “You know back in the 30s, the sex goddess of her day, Jean Harlow died suddenly when she was still in her twenties. Kidney failure or something. She was the original platinum blonde. More than anything else, Violet wanted to be Jean Harlow—Jean was the star in “Public Enemy.” The one Jimmy Cagney dumped her for.

“Now there were always rumors about Jean, gossip I guess. How she put ice cubes on her nipples before she’d shoot a scene. Or how she never wore panties. Or how she dyed her pubic hair platinum. Some pretty nasty ones about the number of lovers she had. And after she died, how she had given one of her lover's, some gangster, a lock of her pubic hair. That’s what Violet had given me. A lock of her pubic hair tied up with a violet grosgrain ribbon.”

We drove in silence pretty much the rest of the way home. My father was talked out. Me afraid to say anything.

When we reached our block it was already late. My father shut off the engine of the Studebaker to “let her coast home.” “Your mother,” he told me “found Mae’s gift in my wallet about fifteen years ago. She never said anything to me. Never asked about it. She just threw it out.”

He got out of the car, slammed shut the door and went up the walk. I sat there for a good twenty minutes in the dark.

Breasts.



There's a full page ad in The New York Times today that struck my eye. Mainly because it seems like someone interpolated an oddly-shaped mammary and pasted it (nipple-less) on the woman in the ad.

There's a lot I don't understand about the world and the science of marketing, I suppose, and this, somewhat unfortunately adds a new chapter. I can only imagine the discussions among the MBAs that promote Kristina Train.

"My research says her album will see more if we add a breast."
"Right, CB, but diamond shaped breasts pull best."
"That's right, especially if we tack it onto her clavicle."
"Middle-aged Jewish men love clavicle-breasts."
"It's settled then. Kristina Train gets a new frontal caboose."

And so it goes.

I expect over the next few months we'll see more and more companies hiring breast consultants.

Which can only lead to one eventuality.

Chief Tit Officer.

--
Actually, I just heard from the president of PETT (People for the Ethical Treatment of Teat) and she claims they are looking into this affront.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Hale Smith.


I just read an obituary in The New York Times of a composer who "mixed classical and jazz," a man called Hale Smith who played, arranged and composed for Chico Hamilton, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/28/arts/music/28smith.html?ref=obituaries

Mr. Smith called himself "one of America's most famous unknown composers." As you might have guessed, I couldn't find much of his music online, but I did find one composition, a 12-minute piece performed by the Chicago Sinfonietta called "Ritual and Incantation." It's well-worth the download.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

You have to make something.


I finished Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" last night and one of the last stories, "The Canon's Yeoman's Tale" concerns alchemy--the pseudo-science of turning base metal into gold.

As I read this wonderful story I couldn't help but think of Goldman Sachs and the like. They are modern-day alchemists who turn nothing into great amounts of wealth then disappear before anyone figures out they are perpetrating a flim-flam. As long as there are people who are buying what they are selling the scam goes on. Once greed is suspended, even for a second, there is collapse.

Now, there is a report on the radio about the collapse of Dubai--the indoor ski slopes, the skyscrapers half a kilometer high. It appears people might stop buying what Dubai is selling. Then, of course, I started thinking about advertising agency holding companies. Have they any reason for being? Do we really need the Chief Risk Officers they provide?

My question for all of these sort of entities is: "What do you make?" What value do you bring?

Today I went to see Vermeer's "The Milkmaid" at the Met. It's quite a painting. A living breathing thing that seems almost luminous. It is only 18 inches tall, and probably about 14 inches wide. But I could see what Vermeer actually created and in my own simplistic way, I could understand its value.

Goldman's CEO Leonard Blankfein claimed that bankers do "God's work." I suppose Blankfein would say the same of advertising holding companies. After all, a few people have gotten quite rich by them.

But neither have left behind anything like a Vermeer.

Friday, November 27, 2009

More on story-telling.

video

We hear a lot about story-telling in the business and most of it seems to me to be so much blather. People--that is, clients, don't really want stories, they want brand litanies--copy points--masquerading as stories.

I think a lot about stories. About the essential elements that make up good stories whether they were written five thousand years ago like "Gilgamesh," seven hundred years ago like "The Canterbury Tales," or even a story I've just watched "Bang the Drum Slowly," which was written nearly sixty years ago.

Criterion (criterion.com)are film archivists who do a great job of preserving and propagating great stories. They have just released and I have just begun watching a box set called "The Golden Age of Television." This three-disc set includes "Bang the Drum Slowly," "Marty," "Days of Wine and Roses," "Requiem for a Heavyweight," and others and looks to be fabulous.

"Bang the Drum Slowly," stars a 31-year-old Paul Newman and is the story of a young ballplayer dieing of an incurable disease. It was shot as a stage play in the early days of television and on the cheap. There are about four sets. No special effects except lights turning on an off. And a lot of looking at the camera and talking to viewers directly.

Paul Newman wept at the end as he performed his lines. I've read the book a dozen times, seen the DeNiro version a few times and this version a few times as well. I teared-up anyway.

It is a great story.

Now, come on.

For the last time,
It's not Black Friday,
It's
"African-American Friday."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Still thinking of Billy Wilder.

video
Lest we think focus groups are a recent affliction, Billy Wilder told a story about audience reactions to a film he wrote with Charles Brackett,"Ninotchka" which was directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

Wilder, Brackett and Lubitsch are sitting in the back of Lubitsch's limo and are reading the review cards from an audience nearby Hollywood. Wilder decided this was ridiculous and unbeknownst to Lubitsch decided to write his own cards.

The story goes that Wilder wrote a lot of cards, but the funniest was probably this: “This movie was hilarious. I laughed so hard I peed into my girlfriend's hand.”

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Special. How to artificially inseminate a female turkey.


Probably a bit late for this year's feast.

Quotation of the day.

I adapted this from Bruce Mau.

"Cool is fear dressed in black."

How will the world end?

Fire and Ice
by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

There's a thoughtful movie review in today's New York Times of two movies that portray the end of the world, "2012" and "The Road."

It starts this way: "Bang or whimper? Fire or ice? Happily, holiday moviegoers interested in pondering the end of the world can select scenarios far more elaborate than those simple, traditional choices."

The review praises "The Road," based on Cormac McCarthy's grim novel but chides the movie for being sentimental when it could be more real or chilling. The movie review ends this way: “The Road” is engrossing and at times impressive, a pretty good movie that is disappointing to the extent that it could have been great. Is this the way the world ends? With polite applause?"

It's the last two sentences that get me vis-a-vis the advertising industry. So often it seems to me we pull back from the genuine and visceral (so as not to offend) and we wind up with the communications equivalent of a processed cheese-food product. It might look like something but it tastes like nothing and has no nutritional value. You know, the type of work that gets polite applause, a gentle chuckle and touches, moves and motivates no one.

Lincoln: "Four score and seven years ago...
Focus group: "Too complicated.
Lincoln: "87 years ago...
Focus group: "That sounds, like, so old...
Lincoln: "A long while ago...
Focus group: Still old...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thinking about Billy Wilder.


I know most of my references date from at least a few decades ago but that's who I am so, as my teenage daughter reminds me just about every thirty-seven seconds, get over it.

In any event, I've been on a bit of a screed of late because I am working on a financial services account and half the people in the agency are trying their damndest (and their lamest) to make the brand cool. The last thing the world needs right now is a hip financial company. Honest. Stalwart. Even old-fashioned may be more appropriate. But these youngsters--or unsophisticates were weaned on the rancid mother's milk of solipsistic award shows (when I get really angry I roll out my vocabulary) and know one thing about advertising: they know what wins awards.

So, they attempt to do work with that heavily practiced and artificial insouciance, that da da da stoner surfer attitude that seems to carry the day when the golden calves of ad idolatry are doled out.

They know one attitude. One set of cliches. One kind of joke.

Of course, this makes me think of Billy Wilder.

Wilder won a total of seven Oscars, including one for lifetime achievement. He was nominated for 15 more. He wrote great comedies. Great love stories. Great noir dramas. Great war stories. Great social dramas. Even a great comedy involving suicide. In short, he was versatile.

My guess is that if agencies and holding companies were really serious about "optimizing new business practices and modalities," they'd get rid of the one-trick ponies and bring in some Billy Wilders. Then again, maybe not. Doing so probably wouldn't test well.

Horror, terror and Christmas.

OK.

I get the message.

Jesus Christ put on a red suit trimmed with small white animal fur, was nailed to a cross, was freed by a red-nosed flying reindeer, came down a chimney and was met by singing chipmunks in a manger with his virgin mother, Mhyrr.

I get the point. I'll buy a ton of shit I don't really need for people I don't really like.

Just shut off the fucking music already, willya.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A couple more things that drive me crazy.

I've written before about some of this but like most things I say, it bears repeating. (Not because what I say is important, but because no one listens.)

One is the phrase "Meteroic Rise" as in so-and-so enjoyed a meteoric rise in state politics. Well, the simple fact is this: METEORS DON'T RISE, THEY FALL. Plain, simply and indisputably. There is no such thing as a meteoric rise,

Second is the phrase "bi-polar." What is something that is polar if not "bi." There is a North Pole and a South Pole. Two poles. There are never more than two poles. So, if one's personality wavers between two poles, why are they considered "bi-polar," not merely "polar"?

The final one (for today) is Republicans who call, for whatever reason, the Democratic Party the Democrat Party. That's just asinine.

The world as explained by coffee.

I had breakfast with a young acolyte of mine (if you're looking for a talented and hard-working young writer, let me know) at a mid-town coffee shop this morning. It wasn't one of those Starbuck's-like places--it was one of the last of the real Greek coffee shops, with a menu as compendious as the Mumbai phone book and a Babel of waiters and waitresses.

As we sat there catching up and figuring out where my friend might potentially find a decent job in the industry, every thirty seconds--literally, someone came over and asked to fill our coffee cups.

It occurred to me that this was yet another example of the polarization of America. You see this all the time in The New York Times. Headlines about poverty and looming mass starvation on the front pages, followed by ads for $17,000 ear-rings and 6.54 million-dollar apartments a few pages in.

The world we live in now can be further divided between the "precious-ites" (those who pay $4.75 for a cup of coffee) and the "utilitarians" (those who drink their coffee without needing to add cream, sugar and bullshit to it.)

There's nothing wrong with savoring a cup of Joe. But what smugness prevents the precious-ites from recognizing is that there is a relationship between raw materials and final costs. They prefer to pay for attitude and purported elan. They think nothing of spending $1K or more for a vinyl handbag or $600 for a pair of ordinary shoes. In other words, the precious-ites buy into the subject-object split--cool is the measure of all things.

In short, the precious-ites are responsible for the abject collapse of our world. For a world of $72 canvas sneakers made by Coolie-labor for 37-cents. A world of $225 blue jeans, $68 t-shirts. A world where everything has a logo and logos are the measure of a man.

Oh, lighten up, George.

Yeah, I will in second. But let me just say this, I like good-old Greek diners. I miss being able to see a ball-game for less than the price of a mortgage payment. And I wish there were still Army-Navy stores. (Though the Army and the Navy I could live without.)

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Elaine Idoni on Advertising.

As this hideous decade draws to its ravaging conclusion, a decade of wars, of stolen elections, of terror, of high-school, collegiate and fast-food-restaurant gun slaughter, of dying cities, of environmental meltdowns and havoc, as this decade is ending, Adweek is running a poll on a variety of purported topics. Among those topics is voting for Agency of the Decade and Creative Director of the Decade.

Poll Daddy, the service who are running this poll allows you to vote as many times as you wish for your favorite whatever. Right now, as I type this, Euro RSCG is leading as Agency of the Decade and their Creative Director, David Jones, is leading as well.

Apparently, management at Euro RSCG sent a memo out to their employees urging them to vote for themselves. I have nothing against Euro RSCG, though they're hardly whom I would have chosen. What I am peeved about is that a purportedly reputable advertising organ like Adweek will name an agency "Agency of the Decade" and a Creative Director "Creative Director of the Decade" with all the journalistic scruple of Pravda. The winners of those titles will puff out their chests, put those accolades on their email signatures, use them in new business and more. It's all bullshit.

This is a popularity contest plain and simple and it reminds me of Elaine Idoni. When I was ten or 11, Elaine Idoni was by far the prettiest girl in my school. Every year when we had elections for class president, Elaine Idoni's name would invariably be tossed into the ring and after some not-so-heated debate, she would win the election for no other reason than she was pretty.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

This just in.

Do you know the difference between a hamster and a gerbil?


There's more dark meat on a hamster. video

Friday, November 20, 2009

Testimonials.


There are times in the industry when forces conspire and you find yourself having to do customer testimonials. If and when this happens to you try to at least put words in the mouths of the people who are testimoning that sound realistic and natural.

This Dell monstrosity has just one thing going for it. The ad unit I saw was small. So while it's shit at least it's shit confined to a tiny space.

Thank you for the wisdom of your inexperience.

Something has happened in the world and I suppose I’m somewhat responsible since it probably started with my generation. Growing up in “The Era When Everything Changed,” my generation rejected everything that came before it. In the classroom, we clamored only for things that we deemed “relevant.” I remember a wood-paneled seminar room at Columbia University when one of my fellow graduate students said this about Shakespeare to a distinguished professor of English: “Me and Billy boy don’t jive.” No, I am not making it up. I am using it as an extreme example of the wholesale expurgation of all things hallowed as meaningless, dated and therefore somehow irrelevant.

This attitude pervades the advertising industry today. You might be working for a financial services company that (like most businesses) caters to the affluent. Invariably a bunch of “body-art-acolytes” will burn thirty-two thousand hours talking about twitter and how to make something that should be thoughtful, intelligent and deep shallow, irrelevant and cool.

Cool is not a strategy. Often times it's not even in the ballpark.

As I said in a previous post, I am re-reading Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” right now. I guarantee that 99 44/100s of the people in the world would think I’m reading something esoteric and irrelevant as opposed to something essential and important. Not because they have read it and rejected it but because it was written before 2007 and doesn't involve vampires.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Stop me if you've heard this one.

That’s not what the client asked for. We know more than the client about the consumer. (That’s why we’re agents, not vendors.) It’s more important to meet the needs of the consumer than meeting what are sometimes the internal political demands of the client.

It’s due ASAP. Is it really? Or is it due because you’ve scheduled a client meeting prematurely? When will the work run? Can we have an interim meeting to show them what we’re thinking without spilling the beans?

They want last year’s work re-skinned.
I suppose that’s ok, since nothing in the world, or nothing their competition is doing has changed since last year.

You didn’t hit every point on the brief.
The brief was a client agenda—a negotiation, not a communication. This is too much information for our audience to take in.

We have to show it to low-level clients first.
We show work to people who can both approve and disapprove. Not to people who only disapprove or people who try to improve.

Use stock photography.
So we will stand out in the same way everyone else does. Do you go to a restaurant and ask for canned and frozen ingredients?

It’s only online content. You have one brand. Not an online brand and an offline brand. The same principles and integrity you demand from your traditional agency must be applied to content. Is the work on brand? Does it impart useful information? Is it brilliantly executed? Is it interesting, watchable?

The health-care debate.


My guess is that the people most against health-care reform are the people most likely to die earlier.

This map shows life expectancy in the US. The darker the color, the longer the life expectancy.

Wonderful. And from The New York Times.



There's a blog on The New York Times called "Abstract City" that has some wonderful images, about eight in all, of which I've pasted two here. Check it out here http://niemann.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/17/bio-diversity/

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Faux Pas.


Right now I am working with a coterie of heavily tattooed people. It is my nature to read whatever is in front of me, so I spend a few minutes a day deciphering the words and glyphs indelibly marked on these people. One guy I'm working with has tattooed his knuckles like Robert Mitchum in "Night of the Hunter." (see above.)

On his knuckles are the letters: TC [Lightning bolt] B.

Me: What does that stand for "The country's best yogurt?"
Him: Douche bag. Taking care of business in a flash.

Notes from a misanthrope.


I got this from a book review in today's New York Times. You can read the entire review of "The Gift of Thanks" by Margaret Visser here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/18/books/18book.html?hpw

Here are some parts of the review I found particularly stirring: “It is a fact of life that people give dinner parties, and when they invite you, you have to turn around and invite them back. Often they retaliate by inviting you again, and you must then extend another invitation. Back and forth you go, like Ping-Pong balls, and what you end up with is called social life.”

..."the word 'host' is related through Indo-European roots to the words 'hostile' and 'hostage.'"

"English speakers are obsessed with the terms 'thanks' or 'thank you.' We often say these words more than 100 times a day, in a flurry that many other cultures find baffling."

I'm not against gratitude or anything. I just generally hate everyone.

Chain store advertising.

The neighborhood in which I live is as off the beaten track as things get in Manhattan. It's a little too far east, too far from the subway and defiantly un-hip. That's ok by me.

Nevertheless despite its out-of-the-wayness, over the past twenty years or so a seismic change has occurred. Most of the neighborhood businesses, "The Ideal Coffee Shop," or half-a-dozen Hungarian or German restaurants like "Csarda" have been shuttered and been replaced by stores like "The Vitamin Shoppe," "Starbucks," or "GNC."

Last night I got off the subway at 7:30 and decided I needed hamburger rolls for the dinner I was putting together. The only bakery left in the neighborhood was part of the barkery-industrial-complex, a mini-chain with the unfortunate name of "Hot & Crusty."

I asked for hamburger rolls. "We don't got none." I asked for three kaiser rolls. The kid doesn't ask if I want poppy seeds or sesame seeds on them, he picks up the first three he sees and stuffs them in a bag big enough for two-and-a-half kaiser rolls and gives the bag to me to bring it to the cash register. The cashier says three dollars. I not so unreasonably ask for a bag. Rather than putting my rolls in a bag, she slides over a crumpled plastic bag with a smiley face on it. I leave disgusted.

This entire experience made me think about the advertising industry. Like the state of retail in my neighborhood and much of the world, the little guy is no longer. Independent shops where they know your name, know their product and know how to sell are all but gone. Same with agencies.

Service is surly, unresponsive and completely lacking in a cosmic sense of quid pro quo. They really couldn't give a rat's ass if you leave the store disgusted and never come back. The workers make low wages and can probably get a low-wage job elsewhere. It doesn't much matter if it's a bakery or a place that does quick oil changes. There is, from the employees, no passion for what they do.

Basically, now that we all pretty much work for one of four agencies, we are essentially working for advertising chain stores. Think about a typical chain store experience. You usually can't find help. You usually can't find what you want. When you do find help they usually suck. And when you get home with what you bought you are usually dissatisfied, often you feel like you paid too much considering.

No personality, no accountability, no loyalty, specious cost-efficiencies. This is our chain-store, holding company world.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

We hate talent.


There is an article in The Economist this week http://www.economist.com/businessfinance/management/displaystory.cfm?story_id=14301649 about talent. Its subhead is "Talent is not patient, and it is not faithful." The article then goes on and speaks about how companies are fighting for talent "essential to their future success."

This might be true if you work for an engineering firm or a retailer but my experience over the past twenty-five years or so is that companies hate talent. Because, often, talent and lack of conformity are often bed-fellows. And agencies hate oddity. They hate manic behavior. They hate impatience and lack of tolerance for mediocrity.

Much as salaries are now relegated to acceptable "bands" by level, personalities are relegated to bands too. Volatility, passion, anger, pain-in-the-ass-ness, even brains are all excoriated. We have built a system where we welcome everyone regardless of their skills as long as they don't have too many of them. We run on a thesis of the greatest good for the greatest number. Which might be fine for a democracy and a bureaucracy. But not for a creative business.

We love "team players." "Active collaborators." "Bridge Builders." And so on. We disparage and dismiss iconoclasts, independents and radicals.

There, in a nutshell, why most everything sucks.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Wet roadway.


There's a road sign I noticed last night on my way back from Kennedy Airport. I've ridden this route a thousand times but I never noticed the sign before. The sign says "Wet Roadway".

It occurred to me last night that wetness on a roadway is usually a transitory condition not an on-going one. It's weird to put up a sign that says Wet Roadway unless there is something leaking somewhere. After all, the sign isn't put up when it rains and taken down when it's not raining. Therefore I conclude that rather than fixing a problem involving a leak somewhere, the highway department just stuck up a sign.

Somehow this got me thinking of advertising. Rather than create work that is compelling, we often throw up signs that telegraph what's about to happen. We follow a formula--ok, here's the product demo, here's the joke at the end, here's the button.

In other words, rather than doing something creative, we put up a sign that says "Creative" and hope for the best.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Lines from California.

I am in California now for a Bar and Grill Mitzvah.

A mile of the highway leading to Oakland where the Bar Mitzvah is is adopted by Black Wing Tattoo and Piercing. The party is held in O'Connell Dodge, the former showroom of a Dodge dealership. Something weird about a Bar Mitzvah in a defunct autodealer. I sneak around to the back. There is a door with a sign on it that reads "Employee Pool and Sauna." Now there are no more employees.

Friday, November 13, 2009

From a friend of mine.


A wise and witty friend sent me this quotation from a fella called
Stephin Tobin. Makes sense to me.

"Business people are like bricks.

Creative people are like wine glasses.

When the brick and the wine glass collide, the brick always wins.
But remember this; you can’t drink wine out of a brick."

Billy Wilder had something like this as well.
He defined an associate producer as the only person
who would associate with a producer.

(He was talking about movie producers, who are often money men.
Not agency ones, who are often creative.)

Meet Geoffrey Chaucer.


For the past few years the shibboleth of the pundits and pontificators has been "story-telling." Every time I hear the word I cringe because I always wonder how many of the people who use it have ever actually read a story.

Last night, I picked up a new translation of one of the oldest stories of all. Peter Akcroyd's superb prose translation of Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales." I haven't read Chaucer since college--I'll admit, he was always my favorite, way moreso than Shakespeare, who everyone takes too seriously.

It's all there. It's as filthy as "Gossip Girl." As wise as a good therapist. And full of strength, humor, battles, intrigues and more. In short, it's pretty damn close to an apotheosis.

Yeah, it's a bear of a book. But, man, it's a beautiful thing.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Once again, the importance of hyphens.

I just came across this headline in The New York Times: "Gene D. Cohen, Geriatric Psychiatrist, Dies at 65". My first reaction when I saw this was that it was unfair to call a man who is 65 a geriatric. Then I realized that Cohen was a psychiatrist for geriatrics not a geriatric psychiatrist. I'm no grammarian but I think the headline should have called him a "Geriatric-Psychiatrist."

MBA = MBA.


For years we unannointed have assumed that the initials MBA stand for Master’s of Business Administration. The more I see the state of business today, the more I contend MBA really stands for Master’s of Bullshit Administration.

Yesterday evening on my way home from work I decided I needed a new pair of jeans, so I headed over to the Gap. To me the Gap seems under the dangerous influence of MBAs. It is all about retail best practices and not at all about the customer.

The Mens' department in my local Gap is downstairs. The MBAs have decided on some sales to square foot ratio that there are no salespeople. There is a counter with three or four cash-registers with people folding clothing behind them. Can I pay here, I ask? No. Upstairs.

I head upstairs. The line is four or five deep and there is only one cashier. The line is piling up because the one customer paying has about ten items (everything in the store is at least 25% off.)

The store itself is as messy as Oscar Madison's closet. Again, no staff. Finally another cashier opens her register. She shouts "Can I help the next guest please?"

That's the line that set me off. Guest. Some MBA read somewhere that they should treat customers like guests. But since that costs money, we'll just call them guests. That's good enough and...it's marvelously cost efficient.

Finally, I'm the next guest. I say to the cashier, if I'm a guest the pants should be free. Otherwise I'm a customer. She looks at me blankly. Her brain registers a gap. Somehow I avoid a Larry David moment.

In a few years or sooner, the Gap will announce it is closing 400 stores or something. We will read about it nearing Chapter 11 and people will rend their cheap Chinese-made garments over it. A CMO will be fired, as will an ad agency or two.

Not a single MBA in their employ will say, our product is the same as any other store; luck in forecasting merchandising trends comes and goes, let's differentiate on service.

Nope. They're Masters of Brain Atrophy.

Reporting on advertising.

Last weekend, uncharacteristically, I watched a bit of football. While watching it occurred to me if we covered either of the two wars we are fight as well as we covered sports, public sentiment would be aware we are fighting them and would be aware of their horror and would likely be against those wars. Likewise, if any of the 35,000 maimed American boys received anything like the coverage we are getting out of Fort Hood, there would be outrage about "Mission Accomplished" and the dupefication we allowed ourselves to be subject to.

It seems to me that the advertising press (such as it is) is similarly feckless and pusillanimous. I have read articles--small ones--about layoffs, but I've yet to read anything about the seismic changes going on in our industry. Usually ad columns talk about "The Hartford's" advertising and the return of antlers on TV. Or some such.

As scions of Madison Avenue have become Detroit-ized, their number of employees dropping by 1/3 or 1/2 (unlike Parker, I won't name names) as the very efficacy of holding companies becomes more and more dubious, our trade press talks about Twitter or a new Christmas campaign from Sofa City.

I know advertising is a pimple on the ass of the news but the larger issue here is the absence of investigation. Truth is to be avoided at all costs. Reporting is something we can't afford.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The lizard that ate the West Village.


In a window looking out on the smallest street in Manhattan, Weehawken St.

The fake boobs of advertising.

video
A couple of weeks ago the spot posted above made the rounds on the masturbatory advertising "creativity" sites. It's creative. It's beautiful. It's epic.

It's also phony.

Last night, while the TV was on, I saw the "for public consumption" version of this commercial. Horror of horrors, it had copy, supers, a demo. It was commerce not art.
Take a look at the real spot below:

video

Fake. Real.

Boys and girls, as much as I'm loathe to admit it, commerce is what we do. Seriously, how much do you need to think about the mechanics of skin moisturizing?

I have been banging this drum for a while. Like our society is run by the military-industrial-pharmaceutical-financial complex, our industry is obeisant to the award-show-industrial complex. Agencies, the profit-making awards shows and proto-journalism like Adweek, Adage, Archive and the like are complicit.

If it hasn't run and it won't, it shouldn't be lauded. It's that simple.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Technocrats.

In our corporate state, you can divide the world into two parts.
Lovers and Ledgers.

The lovers are usually people who start businesses.
They and their success are driven by passion.
By doing something that makes them famous.
By doing things they love.

Sooner or later, the lovers sell out to the ledgers.

Ledgers are people who try to build a process around a lover's passion.
They watch timesheets to make sure the passion-people don't go overboard.
They make sure there is optimal profit.
They count everything.

Very seldom can lovers and ledgers co-exist.
Usually the ledgers win.
They have the money.

The skin game.

I do not wish to stop and stare
While you display your underwear.
OK Uncles? OK Aunties?
I have no wish to see your panties.

Please get a belt, and hike your slacks,
Your cosmology, discretion lacks.
And do not let it come to pass,
That your jeans fall down below your ass.

Put away your breasts. This ain't the beach,
Keep them safe and out of reach.
You have two choices when it comes to skin,
Let it out or keep it in.
It would make me happy and so much gladder,
If you would kindly choose the latter.

Karaoke Kreative.

Last night I went to see Berlioz's "Faust" at the Metropolitan Opera. Here, hell, heaven, life, death, temptation were re-created with innovative staging and soaring music. I've seen dozens of operas and their bar is set pretty high. The last thing a producer or director of an opera does is produce something like you've seen before.

This seems in direct contrast to the creativity found in our industry. Now, we have "The Office" rip-off spots. The "eye-brow raiser" spots (boring boring boring joke, raised eyebrow reaction). The ersatz Apple spots (see Blackberry). And so it goes. In fact, I think most creative starts with a statement like, "this will be a lot like ____________."

Of course, this way of working makes everyone comfortable. Clients can say, "I'm getting something like an Apple spot." And they feel good about that. Same for creatives. Some years ago, I created a presentation for an agency I worked at called "Karaoke Kreative," a process on how to assure that you'll create work that's easy to create, sell and produce.












Monday, November 9, 2009

Banality.

video

There's a new ad campaign for a company called HTC that reminds me a lot of an old ad campaign for a company called HP. But, I guess that's besides the point.

When I stumble across a line like this: "You Don't Need to Get a Phone. You Need a Phone That Gets You" I want to plotz.

Maybe it's my New York, Jewish, aging baby-boomer egocentricity, but my wife and therapist hardly get me, how the heck will a phone.

And what does it mean that a phone gets me, anyway? It blocks calls from my mother? It calls for a well-done meatball pie when I'm hungry.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

New York morning, 5:02.

For me there's nothing like the clarity of morning. Morning in LaGuardia. Perpetually dirty LaGuardia. With perpetually dull and deadened and surly employees. Lit with the dim light of depression.

Rubber gloved Transportation Security workers watching but never seeing. Flat panel TVs blaring the news of our latest mass-murders. The super graphics calling people heroes. Not recognizing the difference between heroes and heroism.

The Times reports 17.5 unemployed using a "broader measure." That's more than 1 in 6. 20 pages further in the paper another article talks of a Citibank bonus plan which will distribute millions of shares of stock options to retain its bankers.

It's mourning again in America.

Friday, November 6, 2009

My father and the Indians.


When I was a kid, just about four or five years old, kids played cowboys and Indians. I’m not saying I was an Albert Schweitzer born with a sensitive social-consciousness but I always wanted to be an Indian. I guess that was the result, not of listening to old records from leftist folk-singers like the Weavers or Pete Seeger, but from being only a year and a couple of months younger than my brother and only one grade apart.

Even when something was rightfully mine, he was bigger and older and stronger and had no scruple about taking it from me. As a younger brother, I empathized with the Indians and I couldn’t fathom why people rooted for cowboys in the old Westerns. The Indians were here first. The Indians were the cosmological younger brother. What right did the cowboys have to kick then off their land?

Back in those days there was a father-son group in the area I grew up in called Indian Scouts. I suppose they had some lofty mission statement about fathers and sons bonding and learning about Indian culture. I’m sure mothers liked the idea as well. It gave them a chance to have an evening without the chaos of their kids around and in an era where a lot of women didn't work outside of the house, a lot of mothers grabbed for any quiet they could get.

Indian Scout meetings were fairly simple. We’d all meet at someone’s house, go to the basement, drink Pepsi or orange soda or something, eat pretzel sticks and do a project. The projects were things like making an Indian tom-tom drum. We’d soak a piece of rawhide in water until it was pliable, then stretch it over a cylinder and tack it in place. The next week, when the drum was dry, we’d make drum-sticks with painter’s stirrers and rags wrapped in a ball around the top. Then we'd beat out some old Indian rhythms. Or maybe each of the kids would be given a small balsa-wood totem pole to paint. While the kids painted, I guess the fathers talked about sports or their wives or work. Or maybe some dad would read to us while we worked:

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

I can’t say I know for sure but even at the outset of Indian Scouts, I had the distinct feeling that this was something my father never really wanted to do. For one thing, it meant he had to leave work early and he never liked leaving work if he was in the middle of something. It also meant that he had to socialize with the other fathers and he wasn’t much for that either.

Even worse, I don’t think my brother and I really even enjoyed Indian Scouts. When I heard the name, I thought we would be doing things like hunting with bows and arrows or building teepees, killing buffalo or canoeing on the Big-Sea-Water. All we really did was sit around and watch our father’s struggle to make a drum. As a consequence, every week there was a lot of tension around getting us over to wherever Indian Scouts was. My mother wanted us out of the house of course. But nobody else really wanted to go. So it was a bit of a forced march, I suppose. A pre-adolescent version of the Cherokee’s Trail of Tears.

For one of our Indian Scout nights each of the kids was given the task of coming up with their Indian name. Moving forward we would all have to use only our Indian names. My brother was good at things like that and quickly came up with a name which, to my young ears, quickly captured what it meant to be a brave and intrepid warrior. I think it was “Running Deer” or “Red Cloud.” Something strong, yet poetic.

I could come up with nothing suitable for myself. Because I didn’t just want an Indian name, I wanted to become an Indian. The right name would help me get there. I was stymied and could think of nothing. My father was furious with my inability.

“Why not be Howling Wolf? Dancing Bear? Charging Buffalo?” he would ask. None of those were good enough for me and for the next two Indian Scouts meetings I went, to the mortification and disgust of my father, nameless.

Fortunately, early one weekend morning there was a Western on TV that featured the exact Indian I wanted to be. Strong, fearless, undaunted. His name was Cochise and he almost single-handedly defeated the land-grabbing soldiers with his war whoops and his flaming arrows. I would be Cochise. That was the name for me.

That week at Indian Scouts I presented my name to the other boys. Once it was accepted by the other boys (the tribal council) I would be Cochise for life.

But then, after I was named Cochise, after Indian Scouts ended and on the car ride home, my brother had this idea. He would call me, not Cochise, but Cold Cheese. This was more horrible even than the white man spreading small pox to the Indians through diseased blankets, because once my brother knew something annoyed me, he would never stop.

Being called Cold Cheese was more than I could bear. And the prospect of Cold Cheese being my Indian name for the rest of my life was torturous. I just had to change my name. So I told my father I just had to go before the tribal council and request permission to do so.

Again, my father was furious. Nevertheless, I went before the tribal council at the next Indian Scouts meeting and changed my name from Cochise. But for whatever reason, that Indian Scouts meeting was the last meeting we all attended.

I don't understand.



I thought the whole idea behind extermination was not to select.

E Pluribus Unum.


A while ago, I forget where, I saw some work some designers did to redesign American currency so it would look more contemporary. It's just occurred to me that like so many design projects, this one might have benefited had a copywriter been involved.

I think the problem with our currency isn't the way it looks. But what it says.

No more should it say E Pluribus Unum, or In God We Trust, or anything else. It should say something like this.

WE HAVE GONE

_______DAYS

WITHOUT A MAJOR

MASS MURDER.


When Malcolm X said 45 years ago that America's (violent) chickens would come home to roost, he was excoriated. It appears he was right.

As they used to do on "Dragnet."


Dum de dum dum.

Stuffed into my paper New York Times this morning was a catalogue from Saks 5th Avenue department store that was beautiful and impactful. Except for the gigantic headline on the cover which read: "Better than fruitcake." (Despite the fact that Saks actually had a fruitcake for sale in the catalogue, tucked away on page 63.)

Here's the deal. The fruitcake joke? Done. Done. Done. Done. Done to death.

I know there are only so many places you can go when you have a Christmas theme to deal with. "Even Scrooge would approve." Something with Mrs. Claus for a change. Snowflakes! A reindeer joke.

But this catalogue is so defiantly uncreative it would put me off shopping at Saks even if I were in the market for a $22,000 watch.

46 years ago, George Lois did something different for a Christmas cover. He put heavyweight champion Sonny Liston as Santa on Esquire's cover. Esquire gained what today we would call huge WOM (word of mouth) and sold a shit-load of magazines. It was daring, controversial, unique, notorious, memorable and enduring.

Looking at the Saks catalogue makes me think that our entire world has been "beiged" to death.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Nobel Prize is so last year.


Sorry, but I'm still outraged over the Nobel Prizes awarded over the past couple of months. Not Obama's peace prize, not the particular exigencies of any particular award, what upsets me is how the awards themselves were decided. Panel of experts? Professionals? Social scientists? Bosh!

Charles K. Kao isgroundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication.

14772 people like this.
Melinda Jones became a fan.

Jonas Salk is
eradicating polio,
2334945745 people like this.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Don't ask.

video

Dumb ad of the day.

There are two full-page ads from the health-profiteer Merck in today's New York Times that have a subhead that is stunning in its banality.

"At Merck," (oh, I thought we were at Cincinnati airport) "we believe the most important condition is the human one."

Wow.

I've written Merck's CEO with this sublime revise: "At Merck, we believe breathing is as important as the breaths we take."

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The wisdom of crowds.

video

Recently I came across an experiment conducted by University of Illinois psychology professor Daniel J. Simons. Here are the rudiments of the experiment. There are two teams, a white one and a black one. The teams pass basketballs only to team-members and you, the viewer, are asked to count how many passes the white team completes.

Despite watching the video acutely for its full 25-second length, most people--a large majority of people fail to see what's really occurred during that time period.

This experiment is an example of "sustained inattentional blindness." That means, in English, that when we sometimes focus on the tiny, we lose sight of the larger picture.

I think this is what happens in so much advertising research. Respondents are led to look at little things and miss what might really be happening. Which is why so much is absolute crap.

My father dispenses advice.

If I had to come up with a single word or phrase to describe the tilted little house I grew up in, it would be tight-lipped. It was like a house of Shakers. Of Grant Woods gothics. It was grudging and austere. It was lugubrious and dark. It was like a detention room in a strict high school. The loudest sound the buzz of fluorescence. It’s not that there wasn’t talking, it’s that any sort of noise, and human contact was discouraged.

My father was the only one who could break this mood but only if it suited him. If he was feeling rich and expansive, the lights were on and jazz was playing on his old RCA Victrola hi-fi. Living there was I think what it might be like to be soda in a shaken-up bottle. Once in a while you could burst out, but most of the time the cap was on and you were trapped, seething. You were closed inside the walls and even when you were out in the world, your sense of freedom was inhibited because you knew that re-incarceration would quickly follow.

When I was 11, my parents decided that I should go to summer camp in New Hampshire. I should get out of our decaying Yonkers neighborhood and play ball and swim in a real lake with other kids. I had never been away from home before and knew no one else who was going off to this camp. The night before I was to head over to the Adventurer’s Restaurant, a big, sprawling neon hamburger place in the Cross County Shopping Center just about a mile or so from my parents’ house and get the chartered bus to camp, my father came into the room I shared with my older brother. He sat down on my brothers’ bed, the lower bunk.

In those days, a kids’ knowledge of girls and sex was much more limited than it is today. This is before the airwaves and the internet and even retail stores were inundated with sexuality. Language also was less liberal than today. I had never heard my parents curse, even when they fought, and though I had a working cursing lexicon, I was far from fluent.

“Listen,” he said, “you’re going away tomorrow. Don’t be wild, ok?”

Years later, I realized this was my father’s sex talk with me. He had reduced the stuff of so many sitcoms, of so many fatherly chats, in a brilliance of economy, to just four words. Don’t be wild, ok?

As a consequence of this quiet din, I learned to handle issues in my life above my shoulders. That is, when I was troubled I would shut down my mouth, make blind my eyes and deafen my ears and draw upon the experiences I never had to solve, or attempt to solve what was bothering me. Doing so I found was better than the alternative.

Somehow, when I was just 14, for instance, I had made my high school’s varsity baseball team and was named, as a freshman, starting third baseman. This was a team full of cagey Hispanic kids who were lithe and fast and it consistently finished as one of the top squads in the county. After I played one or two rotten games at the start of the season, I was sure I was going to be relegated to the bench. I don’t know what came over me, I guess a nostalgia for something I never knew, but I told my father about it. He thought for a moment and then quoted Shakespeare, "Henry IV" to be exact. “Uneasy,” he said, “lies the head that wears a crown.” “Thanks, Dad,” I said. And I left the room.

Now it was a couple years later and I was going to my first high school dance. I left the house in a hurry. I wanted no advice, Shakespearean or otherwise, no matter how much I needed and I didn’t want anyone to catch me and give me some. Of course, I left the house nervous as well. There were two girls I liked and I wasn’t sure if they liked me back. It was my first dance and every bit as daunting as your first parachute jump into enemy territory.

I don’t remember much about the dance. I suppose I had a moderately lousy time, like pretty much everyone else did. There’s a type of kid who has a good time at dances, a good time at parties and I wasn’t one of them and never would be.

When I got home that evening my father was still awake. He wasn’t waiting up for me. He just hadn’t gone to sleep as yet. Maybe the ballgame had gone into extra innings or something. I sat down on the ottoman that went with his chair. He slid his bare feet over for me.

“How was the dance,” he asked me.
“It was ok.”
“Did you get drunk?”
“No.”
“Did you get laid?”
“No.”
“Then what the fuck did you go for?”

Shakespearean.

Sometimes there's nothing to say.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Advertising news at its very second best.


If you grew up in New York, if you were a kid and a sports fan in the 50s and 60s, you grew up with Marty Glickman announcing the Knicks. The Knicks games at the time were sponsored by a chain of restaurants called Nedick's. And Glickman would say after a Knicks bucket "Good! Like Nedicks." This was a phrase you still heard when I was a kid in the 70s, especially if you hung around with some older kids. Often Glickman's phrase would be shortened to "Nedicks!" So if you were playing basketball and one of these older guys hit a basket, there was a good chance he would exclaim "Nedicks!"

Earlier today I read in Stuart Elliot's ad column in The New York Times that owing to our rotten economy, marketers are engaged in "broth wars." People are eating more soup and marketers are spending ad dollars going after a larger "share of bowl" or some such. Even Manischewitz is getting into the act. And in the process they are using once again their iconic slogan "Man-O-Manischewitz." A phrase that came in handy in the days before you were allowed to curse publicly or in front of your parents.

Then, of course, there were the radio ads that used to play on WQXR in New York that featured Allan Swift as the "beloved herring maven." Often those commercials would end with this fractured rhyme "“Make your life a little bit brighter, eat a little herring by Vita."

Man-O-Manischewitz.

This headline was not crowd-sourced.


There are things that burst on the national political scene and dominate the "national debate" that are usually so trivial and unimportant but somehow they are picked up by the networks and they overwhelm things like wars and global warming.

We've had focus over the past few elections on such major issues as American-flag lapel pins, flag burning, french fries, haircuts, pants suits and shooting wolves from small aircraft. I would argue that none of these topics deserves any attention whatsoever. But I suppose because they have a certain accessibility they become symbols for larger issues.

The advertising trade press is currently all agog about the notion of crowd-sourcing. There's now a Crispin spin off that bases its entire offering on it. There are crowd-sourcing conferences and crowd-sourcing experts.

To my mind, our industry has almost always been infected by crowd sourcing. Focus groups, who likely approved the design of the Pontiac Aztec, above, seem to me to be an example. A bunch of people who individually know nothing when they're bunched together know more than people who have years of experience. Likewise, think of all the clients who ask their wives, or the janitor or show an ad around the office. This too, is crowd sourcing.

Fiddling with asinine topics like crowd sourcing amid the tectonic changes going on in our industry is like arguing about what kind of screen doors to put on a submarine.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Outside my window this morning and Iraq.



I opened a living-room window this morning to let a little air into the apartment after an unseasonably warm and humid yesterday and I saw the fragment of a halloween costume strewn on York Avenue. It was a pair of enormous naked plastic breasts with distended nipples.

I always wonder what goes on in the heads of the Chinese who manufacture such stupidity in their factories. What they must think of us and our values. They producing fake costume breasts cheaply so we can get drunk on an artificial holiday and then throw the petro-by-product costume away in the gutter where the trash man will pick it up and send it back to China as toxic landfill.

But today I also thought about other body parts. I am reading Pulitzer-winner David Finkel's new book "The Good Soldiers" on the war that makes no news that we are fighting in Iraq. Finkel brings you there. He brings you the filth, the corruption, the false promises, the lies, the stink, the fear, and most horrifying, the death and the amputations. He puts you in the turret of the under-armored Humvees where roadside bombs sever the limbs of American teenagers. They come home as stumps and we never see them.

We are watching Dancing With Stars or Brain-Damage-Ball (football) on a fascist-run network that propagated this war in blind allegiance to an un-elected military junta we called the Bush administration.

Imagine a pile of the limbs of the 30,000 American soldiers wounded and the almost 5,000 killed. Not to mention the millions or so affected Iraqis.

We have been taught by war movies that bullets and bombs leave little red holes in bodies. We don't see or read about arms flying through the air or heads being severed by shrapnel.

We're more concerned with fake boobs.