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Wednesday, August 25, 2004

I'm a guy, okay? Deal with it.

If there's a record for such things, I think Esquire magazine holds
the title for the longest-running assault on masculinity. Don't get
me wrong, I love a lot about Esquire. Their annual "Dubious
Achievement Awards" is a must and let's face it, a year's worth of
sexy women and inside guy jokes are worth the seven bucks a year.

Esquire is a brand that has sort of fluttered around the concept of
"man at his best" since the early 1930's. Back then, being a man
meant being a heterosexual male, white and preferably of east coast
extraction. Even their little logo guy, "Esky", had a patrician look
to him. When you're short and swarthy, bespectacled and willowy
makes a nice unattainable goal. It lets you know that no matter how
hard you try, there's simply no place for you at the top of the
American heap.

Over the years, Esquire morphed from the patrician man's magazine to the edge of Playboy territory. Where Playboy drew the line at pubic hair, Esquire drew the lines of public policy, dictating what class was and was not. Through it all, though, Esquire did manage to maintain its sense of humor.

Well, that's not entirely true. There was a dismal period in the
1990's when the magazine's penis fell off in a frenzy of sudden,
feministic political correctness.

Soon after, however, Esquire regained its equilibrium and was back
leveling smart cracks at just about anything and anyone. By the new
millennium, it was indeed good to be a man again, which served to
puzzle me even further. Because throughout its illustrious history,
Esquire has run an unbroken string of issues featuring the one thing
that definitely does not define man at his best:

Advertising filled with hermaphrodites.

For the life of me, I can't figure out why fashionable clothing has to be draped around humans I can only assume are male, although they would more reasonably pass for angular women. Even the models with facial hair look like runway models with hormone imbalances. And what's with the messy hair do's? With Esquire, there is no middle ground: you're either slicked back and stuck down or whipped into a rat's nest.

This is man at his best? Hey, nothing wrong with being a little gay,
I suppose, but the majority of us guys aren't in this for the men.
We want to look at women. We want to read about women. We want
women. What we don't want is page after page of androgynous
caricatures. They look like dopes. I mean, seriously, nobody wears
striped suits any more unless it's Halloween. As for the
photography, nothing shouts "Get me outta here" louder than those
fake, blurry black and white photos that scream "We're having the
time of our lives being gay at this party," where everyone is
laughing and icily handing off some skinny supermodels as if they had
the plague.

Here's a newsflash: that's not quite the image to which most
American males aspire. All that Thin White Duke stuff is over. Even
if we were foolish enough to buy those clothes at retail, none of us
would be caught dead walking down the street like that. It's
embarrassing.

So if anyone at Esquire is reading this, do a few million guys a
favor and knock off this homo-erectus thing and get back to sprucing
up the Neanderthals, would ya? For most of us, it's man at his worst.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The Angry American

Every once in a while, a book or movie bops along and without meaning
to, drops a phrase on society that sticks. This happened a few
decades ago, when Chicago columnist Bob Greene inadvertently coined
the acronym "yuppie" (Young Urban Professional) to describe young
people as they migrated from youthful idealism into overpowering
materialism. What the hippie was to the sixties, the yuppie was to
the eighties.

Before Greene, however, there was a more powerful epithet that fell
out of a novel, and later a movie called, "The Ugly American."
Essentially, the Ugly American is the butt of European jokes today,
with roots reaching far back into post-World War Two reconstruction.
In those days, the world lay in shambles. Much of what hadn't been
completely destroyed in Europe lay in ruins -- and that only
describes the real estate.

The lives and economies of much of the planet were derailed by the
ravages of war. Let's face it, people don't just pick up their
briefcases and go back to the office the day after an armistice is
signed. So it was with no great pleasure that American tourists,
spending their dollars in post-war Europe were as much reviled as
they were welcomed. "Yes," the Europeans seemed to say, "we welcome
your money, but next time just stay home and send us the check."

The Ugly American talks too loud. Wears white patent leather shoes.
He can't figure out why the locals don't speak English and assumes if
he yells louder, they might understand him. He flaunts his wealth in
front of the less fortunate. He overtips the locals for making them
look ridiculous. He's bigger and louder with an attitude that
demands tolerance because, after all, if it weren't for America,
"everyone here would be speaking German."

Nomenclature like that doesn't stick unless there's a ring of truth
to it. The Ugly American has stuck around for over half a century.
But now there's a new character on the scene that roams the streets
at home, right here in the USA. The media doesn't see it yet, but
they will. Soon.

Every day, our senses are assaulted by the media, trumpeting the
stories and images that remind everyday Americans of how good they
can't be. Every year, our faces are pushed into special issues of
magazines devoted to the most Beautiful People we can never hope to
escape. I guess it wouldn't bother me quite so much if the faces
changed every once in a while. But each year, it seems as if the
same 100 faces, lifestyles and fortunes are shoved in front of our
televisions and magazine racks.

I, for one, am tired of reading how much money other people have.
The perfect bodies and flawless faces, none of which are even
achievable by the Beautiful People without the digital artistry of
twenty-something retouchers who don't know any better. I have no
sympathy for the endless tragic stories celebrities of whose lives of
privilege fall into quagmires of drugs and depression. Too freaking
bad for them, I say. Too freaking bad for them.

Meet the Angry American.

I'm not alone in this, you know. There are lots of Angry Americans
out there. Millions of have-nots who eye the rich and famous with
nothing more than contempt. They turn on their televisions and
radios every day, only to be bombarded with constant reminders that
what they do isn't good enough and what they have isn't quite enough.

Remember when America held up the promise of opportunity? When
anyone could aspire to a higher standard of success and even achieve
that success? Forget it. Where it used to be a challenge to see how
good you could be, now it's simply a restatement of how hopeless you
are. You need to be thinner. You need to look younger. You need to
buy more, have more, drive more and exercise more. You need to work
less and party more. Just like the movie stars and rock bands in
People magazine.

The anthem of the Angry American was penned in the early 1980's, when
Dire Straits issued their call to arms with "Money for Nothing,"
which succinctly describes Americans' frustrations with having the
Beautiful Peoples' lives of self-absorbed, easy glamor thrust in the
faces of the working class:

"We've got to move these microwave ovens.
Custom kitchen delivery.
We got to move these refrigerators.
Money for nothing and your chicks for free."

And later:

"I should have learned to play the guitar.
I should have learned to play them drums.
Maybe get blister on your finger,
Maybe get a blister on your thumb...."

If you think for a moment that's the bouncy jingle of a happy camper,
you're sadly mistaken. That's the dark, brooding anger boiling just
below the surface of good-hearted people who are becoming
increasingly angry by the constant assaults on their moral and
ethical values.

And they're right.

They're right to be angry and they're right about the message.
Raising good kids isn't easy. In fact, making the world a better
place is no joy ride, but that's what decent people do on a daily
basis out there. And what angers them most is that the Beautiful
People do nothing to help even though they could. Sure, you'll hear
about a rock star donating -- extremely publicly -- to one cause or
another. But I'm willing to bet that a much higher percentage of
charitable donations -- in both time and money -- come from Angry
Americans than from the Beautiful People. You wouldn't know it,
though, because Angry Americans don't have press agents who organize
photo opps for "Us" magazine or "Inside Edition."

Americans have a lot to be angry about, including the promotion of
completely negative ethics and values that are part and parcel of rap
music. How's a well-meaning parent supposed to compete when the
glorification of the gangster life is beamed at her kid on a 24/7
basis? For that matter, how's a person with no kids supposed to fend
off those kinds of ubiquitous mixed messages? The Angry American
asks, "How am I supposed to make the world better when all you
surround me with are messages about how I'm never good enough"? It's
a reasonable question.

Forget what they told you in grad school: you can turn off the TV,
but you can't turn off its influences.

Enrico Caruso, Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley and the Beatles never had
to divulge their sex lives on the front pages of a tell-all book.
They sang their music and made their money. Can you really say the
same for Britney Spears or Madonna? Does anyone really care if Mick
Jagger ever slept with David Bowie? Then why do we have to hear
about it? Just shut up until it's time to sing. Then get off the
stage.

Americans can handle a lot of things. We pay tax dollars that are
sent to countries we've never heard of, at the expense of our own
needy and infirm. We tolerate the senseless marketing of
unattainable status on a daily basis. We even put up with the
constant denigration of our basic human values on every billboard and
magazine rack we pass.

But for how long?

Sooner or later, everyone reaches a breaking point. The Angry
Americans are out there. I suspect they've had just about enough.





Thursday, August 12, 2004

MTV is the Root of All Evil

One of the most commonly asked questions I get is, "Why is
advertising is so stupid?" It's a reasonable question, but not a
totally accurate one. A better question might be, "What the hell was
that last 30 second spot about?" It's true that most advertising
today is, at best oblique. More often, it's downright
indecipherable. We look, we watch, we sit through presentations that
leave us scratching our heads, no more informed than when we started.

Come to think of it, I suppose you can say the same thing about
politicians' speeches. I've sat through dozens of them, sponsored by
every political party. It doesn't matter whom you believe or what
they're saying: few speakers are capable of putting thoughts
together with any coherency.

The fact is that almost nobody out there can get a clear thought
across to anyone else. There's more than one reason why, but
there's no reason greater than the most sinister demon of them all:
MTV.

There was a time, you know, when people actually could communicate
fairly well with each other. In fact, you couldn't get out of high
school without the ability to write a cogent letter. As late as the
1960's, there were politicians and social activists whose oratories
rivaled the likes of the classics. John F. Kennedy, for whatever you
may think of him, knew how to deliver a speech. You didn't have to
be a Rhodes scholar to understand him, which is the first sign of a
really great communicator. People from all walks of life could
listen to John Kennedy, understand him and actually get inspired by
him.

Of course, that was also the last time motion pictures averaged two
hours plus in length. Television commercials were 60 seconds, not 30
seconds. And the fastest way you could get written information
across the country was by telegram. In those days, people understood
each other better because they took the time to understand each other
better. They had to. There was no other choice.

Eventually, fax machines, e-mail, pagers and cell phones invaded our
lives and sped everything up exponentially. Self-appointed gurus
will tell you that technology fostered the polarization and gradual
chilling of human social interaction. They propose that technology
allowed humans to hide behind their digital interfaces, preventing
them from real world human contact and thus destroying the art of
communication.

But that's bullshit. MTV is the real culprit. They've robbed two
generations of one of the most enduring and endearing human
qualities: patience

MTV is the medium that introduced the ultra-fast cut music video.
Three minutes of sound and images, finely diced into 500 scenes,
usually featuring sexy girls and guitar-wailing guys. Rare was the
scene that lasted more than a second, which had the effect of
creating a video mosaic: bits and pieces of unformed information
that had no value of their own, but together left the viewer with a
vague feeling of pleasure.

After watching MTV, you feel like you've been hit by a bus: you know
something has happened, but you're left dazed, unaware of how much
time has passed.

An entire generation has grown up with MTV. The same generation that
suffers unprecedented rates of ADHD and other mental processing
disorders. Is it any wonder? When a whole slice of society has
grown up not taking the time to analyze anything, or worse, not even
wanting to, the lack of analytical ability doesn't stop at
television. People who won't take the time to understand things very
soon see no point in considering any other viewpoint than their own.
It's no coincidence that special interest groups have risen up to
overtake national politics: the populace has real trouble following
more than one issue at a time.

Lack of analytical skills and the patience to use them knocks out the
underpinnings of a capable life. If you don't take time to
understand anything, it's highly probably you can't learn anything.
If you expect everything to happen in an instant without knowing why
it happens, you can't possibly expect to gain knowledge. You become
dependent on a service economy. Helpless.

Because so many have been raised without analytical skills, they're
at a loss to communicate their own needs and wants. When people
can't articulate their thoughts, you have a serious problem, because
the minute people can't clearly verbalize their positions, they get
frustrated. And the more frustrated they get, the more prone to
violence they become.

The rise of impatience doesn't stop in the business or the political
world. Because they lack easy answers and are frustrated by their
inability to analyze, more parents have shorter fuses with their
kids. The kids, not knowing any better, model themselves after their
parents and the cycle continues, while all the while the TV is on and
tuned to - you guessed it - MTV. Today, the average movie is 100
minutes or less, because people's attention spans can't handle more
than that. McDonald's promises your order in 30 seconds. Quack
clinics promote new hair or larger breasts in just one visit. And
nobody stops to analyze why or how.

You want to know why so much advertising is so stupid? Because it
spends so much time saying something and meaning nothing. The people
who write those commercials have no idea how to articulate a concept.
The people watching those commercials have no idea how to analyze the
quick-cut, scattered images blasted at them. If you want to really
understand advertising, it actually is possible to decipher.

The only problem is that it takes so damn long to figure it out.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The Simple Answer to the War in Iraq

I'm a branding guy. I have no political ambitions. My beat is
mainly figuring out why people do the things they do. The way I see
it, if I can piece together what motivates one person to buy whatever
another person is selling, I'm doing my job.

That's what branding is about, you know. I'm famous for saying that
it's not about getting your prospects to choose you over the
competition, but about getting them to see you as the only solution
to their problem. To do that, you have to be really good at stepping
out of your sneakers and walking a few miles in theirs.

So it's with great wonder that I sit amongst my more dogmatic buddies
who pride themselves on their J.D and M.B.A degrees, listening to
them go on about why America finds itself hip deep in a war halfway
around the world.

The popular notion among these geniuses - many of whom who have
attended the finest universities in the land, if you can believe it -
is that George W. Bush is finishing what his father started back in
the 1990's. One talking head on FOX News insists that Bush II is
trying to curry his father's favor, by following in his ass-kicking
footsteps. Another completely contradicts that notion by speculating
Bush II's actions are Oedipal in nature: Bush II is actually trying
to show up the old man by doing the job his father couldn't do.

I've given these notions a lot of thought and come to the conclusion
that all of these people are really, really stupid. In fact, I find
it frightening that people this clueless are allowed to be walk
public streets unsupervised. Yet I can hardly blame these simpletons
and their one-cell brain farts, given the media-driven world in which
we live.

Let me explain:

First of all, there is never, ever one single reason for going to
war. War doesn't happen because one man decides it would be fun,
popular or garner his dad's approval. The reason why it doesn't
happen like that is because war - especially here in the United
States - is declared by consensus. You have to get a lot of people
to agree with you that it's worth sacrificing young lives and
taxpayers' money to push your agenda. The agenda is rarely
single-focused and never personal. You couldn't get anyone to buy
into it if it were.

Have you ever taken a long, hard look at any bill passed by Congress?
It's not pretty. You have to dig mighty deep, through all the
amendments and tacked-on nonsense, before you get to the meat.
Senators argue, Representatives compromise and if you're lucky, the
President signs off on what can only be described as a
committee-driven mess.

Even if you've never looked at a congressional bill, try watching a
chamber session and see if you can spot anyone acting rationally or
even in the spirit of cooperation. It amazes me how simpletons try
to dismiss this war as a single cause-driven action, when those same
fools bleat about Congress's inability to rise above partisanship on
every other matter set before them.

The next trick these dopes try is the old character assassination
scam. They call Bush a liar. But that doesn't hold up, either, when
you go back to the consensus model. If Bush really were a liar,
misled by whatever information the Keystone Kops at the CIA were
feeding him, it was good enough to fool everyone else who had to vote
"yea" on war authorization. How come nobody is dumping on them? Or
are all these morons convinced that Bush could really line up 532
members of Congress and convince them to help him invade Iraq for
kicks?

It gets curiouser and curiouser.

As I've said before, I'm no Bush fan. And if I could sell John
Ashcroft and Dick Cheney into white slavery, I wouldn't dicker with
the buyer. But time again, the same simpletons who dismiss Bush as a
single-minded dope are the very same people who rely on
overly-simplistic arguments to attack him.

There's more than one reason why the United States is involved in
Iraq. Now, you may not buy any of those reasons. You may not be
able to think of any more, either, and that's fine with me. But that
doesn't mean they don't exist. As long as you consider all the
reasons -- along with the possibility that you may not know those
others -- it makes no sense to simply dismiss such a weighty decision
as if it were deciding which shoes goes best with that dress. Anyone
who sends people to their deaths or disfigurements has to live with
his decision. That's not as easy as it sounds. And if it sounds
easy to you, it's likely because you've never had to make those kinds
of decisions.

It's just that simple.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Kerry, Bush and the Branding Problems

If you're wondering why the last two American presidential elections
have been such fiascoes, you really don't have to look too far. It
doesn't matter if your name is Bush, Kerry or Gore, the problems are
all the same:

America's national pastime isn't baseball any more. It's whining.

In a scenario that could only have sprung from the fiction of Ayn
Rand, we've become a nation of finger-pointers, where nobody is
accountable and everyone's ready to place blame. Of course, this is
nothing new. But it is something very dangerous. And it is very
much, as you may not have expected, nothing more than a branding
issue.

It's a branding issue once you accept the notion that a brand's job
is to lead, rather than follow. A real brand doesn't pander to the
whims of the populace; it drives a stake into the ground and
proclaims, "This is the way to greater glory." It explains why its
way is the chosen path. And then it does something that nobody in
America seems to do anymore:

It actually moves down that path.

That's something that's become all too uncommon in latter-day America,
where lawyers and committees base their decisions less on "what needs
to be done" rather than "what will offend the least number of
people." Yet that's exactly how American boardrooms -- and political
campaigns -- are run.

If people can't articulate why they want something, they have no way
of evangelizing it. It's as true for political candidates as it is
for laundry detergent. If you look at the elections of 2000 and 2004,
both have the disturbing degree of genericism. Two opposing
candidates, sharply jabbing at one another, yet nobody in the country
can articulate their differences. The reason why Kerry and Bush are
running neck and neck is due precisely to this factor. Neither has a
clear brand message.

But it gets worse.

When neither has a clear brand message, their campaigns deteriorate
into a series of mindless, whining tactics, driven by no rational
motivation. For the last year, John Kerry has managed to get himself
nominated to the highest office in the land -- yet nobody knows why.
For the last year, Kerry has squandered his chances to promote any
constructive ideas of his own, preferring to lob volleys of broad,
sweeping whines about how bad the other guy is. Scarier still is the
fact that his very first specific utterance was an attack on George
W. Bush that had no substance at all. Kerry, aping Michael Moore's
film, descended on Bush for not acting quicker than seven minutes
when Bush was told of the second tower attack while reading to school
children.

If Kerry were really a man with leadership potential, he wouldn't act
the way he has. First, no mature leader worth his salt would ever
take a cheap shot requiring 20/20 hindsight. Seven minutes is not
seven hours or seven days. Second, no mature leader would ever allow
someone else to put words in his mouth. By quoting Moore's film,
Kerry has damaged his brand, further displaying an unwillingness to
state his own views in his own words. Third, Kerry's comment about
"the seven minutes" -- to me, at least -- suggests that he has long
since forgotten how a grown, responsible man handles himself in front
of children. If Bush had jumped up, or even excused himself in any
other way than he had, he risked causing undue panic. His actions
were a balance of deliberation and consideration. He acted the way a
mature father would have. At least that's something that some people
can relate to.

The funny thing is that by not having a brand strategy and resorting
to mere tactics, things have a funny way of backfiring. And John
Kerry, the great war hero, may have shot himself in the foot with
this one.

Look, I'm no fan of Bush. And Kerry might be a good man. But the
lack of either side to step forward and make their case makes it
difficult to value either. When the market (or in this case, the
nation), is left to vote according to who's least worse, instead of
who's best, there can be only one reason why:

Nobody out there has a real brand, because nobody out there really
wants to take the lead.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

"Fusion" and Other Mindless Marketing

Over the last couple of weeks, I've had more than one reporter call
me about the term"fusion" that so many advertisers are using these
days. What does this "fusion" thing mean?

Nothing, actually, other than confirming the dearth of talent and
marketing ability in the advertising business.

The unfortunate demise of the advertising industry actually began in
the late 1970's, when everyone began suing everyone else, and those
left standing did whatever they could to escape any kind of
liability. Instead of leading the public, advertising and marketing
executives hid out in the shadows, quivering with fear until they
could find someone or something to blame so that their own ideas
couldn't get them fired.

They ended up hiring hack companies like Yankelovich and Faith
Popcorn, tweaks and geeks who purportedly gather data on values,
attitudes, lifestyles and trends. By the early 1980's, all
initiative was drained out of marketing departments. There were no
ideas, no inspiration, no leaders. Just "trends" on which spineless
managers pinned their hopes. Nobody could lose their job for bad
decisions anymore -- they just blamed everything on bad data.

Couple a complete lack of leadership with a bankruptcy of strategic
and creative ability, and you end up with what you get: TV spots and
print ads that leave you scratching your head and asking yourself,
"What the hell was THAT about?"

The "fusion" thing is clearly the latest advertising gimmick. Ad
agencies and clients alike are hopping on the bandwagon, the same way
they've been tagging everything aimed at 13 year old boys with the
word "xtreme". It's an old ruse, where the agency essentially
invents or exhumes some obscure term in order to add news value to a
product or service.

"Fusion" is to 21st century food what "natural" was in the 1970's.
Fact is that all food begins as natural. The public at that time had
no differentiation of what was UNNATURAL. Today, the claim of
"natural" has been so abused and overused that the Federal government
has had to step in and issue definitive guidelines - and you'd be
shocked to see what slips through as "natural" food.

I guess that while most of the marketing and advertising industry
lemmings continue to plummet over the cliff into the abyss, the
recent rise (and soon, the fall) of "fusion" products confirms one
long-standing notion that's as strong as ever"

If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.

So keep at it, fellas. The clients are still buying it.