Business Archives

August 27, 2012

Next deadly campaign in Iraq: American food

Iraq fast food

The US military may have ended its war on Iraq, but US pizza is just getting started. In the most promising indicator that Iraqis are ready to end their chapter of violence and conflict, Baghdad residents have embraced the kind of high-calorie, artery-busting fatty fast food that Americans have shoved into their gaping pieholes for decades. As the leader of a local private equity firm opening new restaurants says, "Iraq is a virgin market."

The restaurants serving this food have created some delightful new names to market the previously unknown levels of gluttony that Iraqis can now enjoy while they slowly destroy their health. The AP reports:

Among the latest additions is a sit-down restaurant called Chili House. Its glossy menu touts Caesar salads and hot wing appetizers along with all-American entrees like three-way chili, Philly cheesesteaks and a nearly half-pound "Big Mouth Chizzila" burger.

"We're fed up with traditional food," said government employee Osama al-Ani as he munched on pizza at one of the packed new restaurants last week. "We want to try something different."

The traditional Arabic restaurants long popular here now find themselves competing against foreign-sounding rivals such as Mr. Potato, Pizza Boat, and Burger Friends.

And my favorite Baghdad restaurant, which demonstrates the durability and ingenuity of American branding: Florida Fried Chicken.

A doctor at a Baghdad hospital warns of the downside of the fast food craze, probably after watching the Americans occupying his country stuff their faces with crap for the last 10 years: "The opening of these American-style restaurants ... will make Iraqis, especially children, fatter."

Welcome to the first world, Iraq! Manufacturers of hypertension medication and elastic-waist pants share your enthusiasm for Western culture.

January 9, 2012

Tweens and Axe: Girls edition

Axe Anarchy

I'm fascinated by the boundless popularity of Axe body spray, sold by Unilever and the subject of years of goofy fantasy ads featuring lust-crazed women driven to the point of sexual combustion when they get a whiff of Axe. The two secrets about Axe body spray that are in no way detectable by the ad campaigns are: 1) it's just cheap perfume that retails for $5.49 at CVS, and 2) its most dedicated users seem to be middle school boys.

Though its customers might be 12 year-olds who don't have a remote, or legal, hope of bagging any of the hot women in the ads, Axe understands its appeal is aspirational. In an article in the Times from a couple of years ago about Axe's youthful devotees, the company wisely claims its target market is 18-24 year old men, because "nothing would make an older teenager run from a product faster than for its manufacturers to acknowledge that it's a must-have among the sixth-grade set."

Today's news is that Axe is developing a body spray FOR WOMEN. Their latest product, "Anarchy", will be marketed with different versions for men and women. A short ad is online, featuring a male shoplifter being chased by a female cop. Both of them gradually disrobe as they tear through the streets, until they stop, face each other, recognize their mutual hotness, and embrace in an explosion of panting, sexy Axeness. The actors are adults in their 20's; the intended audience is, I guess, tweens. More unisex ads, like the still shot above, are coming soon.

An advertising creative director says the new Axe for girls is about gender equality: "Before, an Axe commercial was always about a guy spraying himself and a girl being attracted, and Axe giving him an edge in the mating game, whereas now women also have something to spray on themselves, and consequently there's more of an equilibrium between the sexes."

And that's exactly why Axe for women is going to go nowhere, according to David Vinjamuri, author of Accidental Branding and marketing professor at NYU. For Axe to stay successful, it has to remember who its customers are. "If you’re a teenaged boy and you looked at the advertising, you saw the girl that you want and the guy that you are. When you start talking to someone who's not your core audience, you lose credibility with your core audience. The moment you start talking to girls, you lose credibility with teenage boys."

He's saying that boys want Axe because Axe is for them, and not for girls. The narrative is this: boys get their moms to buy them some Axe, they envelope bodies in an irresistibly sexy fog of body spray, they go to school, the girls in Language Arts go crazy for them. If this equation suddenly included regular girls wanting to be sexy, using Axe, and boys then becoming helpless with unbridled desire, then boys will, I suppose, sense Unilever's corporate mission drift, become sullen and withdrawn, and go back to playing Call of Duty.

Another reason Axe might not catch on with girls is that evidence suggests they think it's gross. As 14 year-old Allison Testamark told the Washington Post, "Someone by my locker uses it, but he uses so much that you can taste it in your mouth," she said, scrunching up her nose in disgust.

Girls might just have to let the boys keep their Axe and be content with all the gender-specific products out there created just for them, such as Walmart's line of makeup for 8 to 12-year olds or KMart's "I ♥ Rich Boys" girls' thong.

October 13, 2011

Farmers, Cowboys, and Karen O

Karen O

I thought about using the photo above of Karen O, singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and legendary hellion of live performer, as a Who'dat?™ last week, because I never would have recognized her with that new, New York Times-photo-shoot-appropriate haircut and sensible makeup, and without beer poured all over herself.

But now she's back in the news: she recorded a cover of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson's "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys", a song I really love. Her minimalist version is sort of atmospheric and spooky with that cracking voice of hers, and it's good.

The odd thing is that she recorded it for Chipotle, which uses it in a video connected to its new foundation, Chipotle Cultivate Foundation, that's going to give money to sustainable agriculture and healthy eating organizations and The Nature Conservancy and groups like that. Which is nice enough, I guess.

They released a beautifully shot video to go with the Karen O song, about three kids who break into an old abandoned farm house at night and walk around tearing stuff up and jumping on the beds before it dawns on them that this used to be somebody's home, and family farms are closing, industrial agriculture is bad for America, maybe we should read more of Mark Bittman's columns even when they involve confusing dissections of the Farm Bill, etc. It was made by David Altobelli, who also made some good videos for School of Seven Bells and M83.

Here's the video:

Does anyone else see a problem here? Using a song about cowboys to support farmers? Do the people at Chipotle not possess even a passing familiarity with the Great American Songbook, or at least popular high school musicals? As is clearly described in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends" from Oklahoma!, farmers and cowboys hate each other's guts [video]! During this number in the musical, a huge dance-fight breaks out between farmers and cowboys that stops only when Aunt Eller fires a gun in the air and then forces each warring Oklahoman faction to sing cordially to each other at gunpoint.

Farmers and Cowmen in Oklahoma!

Despite the Oklahoma! indiscretion, the Karen O song is nice, and if you go to Chipotle in costume on Halloween you can get $2 burritos and make a contribution to Farm Aid.

June 16, 2011

Laundry horror

Woolite ad by Rob Zombie

The Times has a funny story about a recent ad campaigns that use elements of horror and action movies to sell laundry detergent--a nice departure from the usual earnest white-bread Mom vexed by dingy whites.

The best one is a new TV ad for Woolite, featuring a Leatherface-like maniac hauling a load of laundry through a barren, muddy field to the yard outside a ramshackle old house. Surrounded by classic horror movie props (abandoned dressmaking mannequin, scarecrow) he proceeds to "torture" some preppy women's garments, including an argyle sweater and a pink t-shirt (featured in my favorite shot, above.) He stretches, fades, and shrinks the clothes with rusted hooks and a scary looking medieval rack.

Here's the video:

The reason it's so simultaneously classic and campy is that it's directed by prolific musician, horror director, and vegetarian Rob Zombie. The best quote in the article is from Zombie about his relatively tame ad: "It's not like it's scary." The central character is "like Uncle Fester, not like some child killer out in the woods."

The other, less good ad campaign, for Era, is basically a rip-off of the sometimes funny Chuck Norris Facts that were making the rounds a few years ago. The print ads and Facebook posts just adapt the online Facts and claim Era is Chuck Norris Approved. (Yawn.) Hope he got a fat paycheck out of it.

April 19, 2011

Oil spill victims

Victims of the BP oil spill in Mathews, LA

This is my favorite photo related to the BP oil spill. It was taken at a meeting about compensation claims. I love these guys. All the anger, desperation, and weary determination that people in the Gulf Coast have been experiencing for the last year is all over their faces.

The photo is part of an article about the anger people in the region have for Ken Feinberg and the shoddy treatment they're getting in the compensation claims process. By many accounts, the process has been inconsistent, opaque, slow, and generally ineffective in helping people affected by the spill. Feinberg's law firm has been running the victims' fund since July, and in that time have given out less than 20% of the total fund. And they recently got a raise from BP. It seems like whatever hatred people had for BP when it all started a year ago has now been transferred to Feinberg.

In response to complaints that the claims system doesn't work, the article says that Feinberg admitted "there may be inconsistencies. But I think those inconsistencies are relatively rare."

I'd like to see him stand in front of these guys from Mathews, Louisiana and say that to their faces.

There's a really good series of short articles about different people affected by the oil spill in the Times, including a restaurant owner, a shrimper, and a Vietnamese shipyard worker.

March 29, 2011

John Roberts: women's rights crusader?

John Roberts wearing his NOW pin

The Supreme Court heard arguments today for the Wal-Mart class-action gender discrimination suit. Some of the justices were questioning whether the women in the suit, Wal-Mart employees who say they've been underpaid and passed over for promotions in favor of their male co-workers, have enough in common with each other to all be part of the same suit. It's a reasonable question: there are many thousands of women in the suit, a few hundred of whom are the store managers who would have made the decision to underpay their female employees.

Whatever the Supreme Court decides, the case shines a light on the recalcitrant issue of equal pay for equal work, a central issue in women's organizations and labor groups for many decades.

But at today's hearing, a surprise supporter of pay equality may have stepped into the spotlight: Chief Justice John Roberts.

In looking at statistics about men's and women's pay at Wal-Mart, and men's and women's pay nationwide, Roberts asked, "Is it true that the Wal-Mart pay disparity across the company is less than in the nation?"

The lawyer for the plaintiffs replied that comparing Wal-Mart pay statistics to national statistics wasn't relevant, which I think is code for "Wal-Mart's pay gap is actually smallerthan the rest of the country's."

But did you see what Justice Roberts did there? By asking that question, he might have made the case for the Wal-Mart employees just a little bit harder, but he's really saying this: "Hey, look, people, the real question here isn't why is Wal-Mart, the world's largest employer, underpaying its female workers. It's this: why are women EVERYWHERE making 77 cents on the male dollar? Why do men get paid more than women even within female-dominated occupations? Equality now, my sisters! Bring the justice!"

Senator Hillary Clinton re-introduced the Paycheck Fairness Act in 2007; it's been brought up year after year with no success. Going after Wal-Mart and other discriminatory employers is important, but it's going to be a lot easier to do that when the laws are better.

March 9, 2011

NPR and our screwed up news industry

Vivian Schiller from NPR, on Fox News

If I don't think about it too hard, I can almost understand today's ouster of Vivian Schiller, the CEO of NPR. Even if she wasn't the one who got suckered by a team of fake donors and made negative comments about the Tea Party, Republicans, and, awkwardly, the Jewish-controlled media, (though there's "not too much Jewish influence at NPR",) and even if the person who did make those comments made it clear that he was voicing his own opinions and not those of NPR, she's still the boss, so she's ultimately responsible for how NPR is perceived.

But at the same time, it makes me want to bang my head against a wall. This is in part because I personally agree with some of what Ron Schiller said while he was secretly recorded by con artists--the Republican party really has been hijacked by some extremists, and a lot of those extremists really do seem to be xenophobic.

It's also because members of the right-wing media loudly announce their irrational negative beliefs about Democrats and the left all the time. Roger Ailes can say that NPR is run by Nazis, and hosts of Fox News programs can call the Wisconsin pro-union demonstrators "union thugs" spewing "vitriol and violent rhetoric".

What makes Vivian Schiller's ouster sort of understandable is that NPR gets public funding, and Fox doesn't. OK. But that funding is only 1% of NPR's budget, and 9% of member stations' budgets. And the guy who made the questionable statements isn't a journalist or involved in news in any way; he's a fundraiser who's on his way out to his next job, and, frankly, he's probably already sort of mentally checked out.

In my opinion, NPR does real, thoughtful, high-quality reporting, without any identifiable political agenda. In my opinion, Fox News often falls far short of that. But Fox also seems to understand that there really isn't any such thing as pure, unbiased reporting. There never has been. The wealthy classes have always controlled major media in this country, and business interests are always central to news agency operations. I sometimes admire that outlets like Fox can so wholeheartedly embrace this, and not even try to pretend they're impartial.

But NPR and other public news services seem to strive for a noble, if ultimately illusory, concept of neutrality in reporting. I guess that's why Schiller had to resign: any evidence of bias in reporting lessens your credibility, if you believe that reporting can ever be free from bias.

What I really wish had happened is this: if all that separates Fox News and NPR and the standards we apply in the personal opinions their staff are allowed to voice is the little bit of public funding that NPR gets, I wish Vivian Schiller had stepped up and said that NPR was returning all the public funding it's received this year, and would no longer accept public funds. Let the public funds go only to local nonprofit stations, not to NPR itself. Yeah, it would be financially difficult, member stations would suffer, and her board would hate it. But if that financial freedom allows NPR to do its good work without getting harassed by a Congress that doesn't see the value of real reporting, it's worth it.

February 14, 2011

Good Hair

Like everyone else, I grew up watching the Vidal Sassoon ads of the 80's, like the one above, dreaming of swishing around my long, lustrous, shiny hair. Unfortunately, I had curly hair that never did anything like swishing or swinging, and would just explode into a frizzed-out disaster if I brushed it too much. Products like mousse and volumizing shampoo, which were really desirable in the ads, were clearly made for those who weren't embroiled in a never-ending battle against volume.

So when I went to a Vidal Sassoon salon while living in London as a student in 1994, I was ready to see if the famous "If you don't look good, we don't look good" slogan held up. I volunteered to have one of the stylists cut my hair as part of a demonstration for Japanese hairdressing students. They could do whatever they wanted to my hair, and I got a free Vidal Sassoon cut.

That 1994 haircut was transformative. My stylist was a man named Henrich. He had a shaved head and wore a skirt. He cut my hair dry, which was immediately obviously the best way to cut curly hair, yet no one had ever done it before. He gave me a really cool haircut that made my curls look fantastic -- like they were meant to be there, instead of a genetic accident that I had failed to correct. The Japanese hairdressing students all took pictures of my head.

So when a new documentary about Vidal Sassoon, the man, came out this weekend, with the title Vidal Sassoon: How One Man Changed the World With a Pair of Scissors, that subtitle struck me as a perfectly reasonable assessment of his impact on hair, and the world. In the NY Times review, Stephen Holden writes that statements like "It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of Vidal Sassoon" are "all too much". I totally disagree.

Though I didn't realize it in 1994, Vidal Sassoon essentially liberated women from the weekly beauty parlor visits that were the norm in the mid-20th century. By focusing on the cut as the primary means of styling hair, he made the weekly ritual of curling/straightening, setting, processing, and ironing your hair or sleeping in curlers unnecessary. As described in a Time Out interview with Sassoon, his goal was to "create looks that were tailor-made to a person's features, beautiful shapes that were as eye-catching as they were unique--and, most of all, easy to maintain."

Sassoon's own transformation from a poor Jewish boy raised in a London orphanage to the world's most famous hairdresser is pretty compelling, too. He's still alive, and in his 80's. Here's the trailer.

There's one giant asterisk, here: the Vidal Sassoon architectural method mostly applied to white women, or women with non-kinky hair. Almost all the women swinging their glossy hair around in those 80's ads (or hair products ads today) have swishy white-lady hair.

Which brings us to Chris Rock's 2009 documentary, Good Hair, which is without a doubt the most eye-opening documentary I have ever seen. Post-Sassoon, many black women follow the same kind of weekly hair regimen that white women abandoned in the 60's. Chris Rock made this movie out of concern for the future of processing, straightening, and weaving that probably awaits his own daughters. He interviews dozens of black women who have straightened hair, weaves, and a few with natural hair, and the men who love them (and Al Sharpton!) There's lots of interesting stuff about cultural expectations, economics, racism, and the realities of what women go through when natural hair doesn't fit within the social mainstream.

Once Vidal Sassoon is out on video, that movie and Good Hair would make a great double feature.

January 31, 2011

Women and Wikipedia

Women pay gap

Wikipedia has determined that only 13% of its contributors are women. The site's usefulness depends on all kinds of people sharing knowledge about subjects they're interested in. Everybody benefits when the knowledge of a vast number of individual people is centralized in one place, and Wikipedia has done a fantastic job at collecting individual knowledge -- of guys in their mid-20's.

The Times article about the low contribution rates of women includes surprised speculation from people in media and computer studies about why this might be. I don't want to be cynical, but do these people live in the same world I live in?

Let's look at some major areas of public life:

Sensing a trend?

Of course there's a big difference between becoming a Senator or a CEO of a big company and contributing to a Wikipedia article. ANYONE can write something on Wikipedia. You still don't have to register with the site to add some verifiable facts to an existing article, and there's a help page for new contributors.

Since women's knowledge is so radically underrepresented in Wikipedia, we're all losing out. I don't know about you, but I probably look something up on Wikipedia every day. I don't want to only find what dudes are interested in up there.

Two examples in the Times article: "Is a category with five Mexican feminist writers impressive, or embarrassing when compared with the 45 articles on characters in The Simpsons?" "The entry on Sex and the City includes only a brief summary of every episode, sometimes two or three sentences; the one on The Sopranos includes lengthy, detailed articles on each episode."

Sure, it's just pop culture, but this is part of what happens when women are in so few visible leadership positions. As Catherine Orenstein, founder of The OpEd Project says in the Times piece, "When you are a minority voice, you begin to doubt your own competencies." Fewer women in media, business, and government seems to also mean fewer women and girls sharing a bit of knowledge in an online article about TV shows, authors, historical figures, cities, bands, or artists they like and know something about.

Contributing to Wikipedia doesn't require leadership or ambition, but it does require women and girls to think, "I have something to say", and with few exceptions, that's not happening. Boys and men obviously think they have plenty to say, and they're already saying it awfully loudly and in painstaking detail. Ladies: please speak up, I can't hear you.

In thinking about the small numbers of women in leadership positions in business, I realized that at every single job I've had since college, the person at the top has been a woman. This now seems incredibly statistically improbable, and I feel really lucky.

[Note: a reader points out that Wikipedia is intended to be a repository of known facts, not personal analysis or research, as described in the No Original Research entry. My point remains that contributors reflect their own personal interests by adding facts to an entry, making the whole of Wikipedia a sum total of the interests of its contributors, so if those contributors are 87% dudes, well, you get a lot of stuff about Matchbox cars and Civil War Reenactments.]

November 16, 2010

Silent movies, Woody Allen


Crimes and Misdemeanors

Turner Classic Movies is doing a fantastic 7-part series on the early days of Hollywood and the American movie business called "Moguls and Movie Stars". It's on every Monday at 8:00, and Part 3 was on last night; it was all about the 1920's, and included the rise of huge movie stars like Clara Bow, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Greta Garbo, and the incredibly huge wealth created by the studio heads.

In this week's installation, we see east coast investors and government agencies slowly becoming aware of that crazy bunch of hedonist reprobates out in LA, drinking illegal booze, having orgies, and making money hand over fist. Hollywood attracted the attention of investors like Joseph Kennedy, who poured money into the movie industry and created RKO, and also had an affair with Gloria Swanson (the Kennedy men loved their movie stars.) Before the federal government could regulate the increasingly salacious output, the industry stepped in and created the self-censoring Hays Office, so that was the end of on-screen nudity and unpunished adultery for the next few decades.

We also learned about the created of the Academy and the first Oscar awards. The first Best Picture awards were given to two movies, Wings and Sunrise, both silent films. TCM aired Sunrise right after the series--a really incredibly good movie. It's the first Hollywood movie by F.W. Murnau, maybe better known for doing Nosferatu with alleged pretend vampire Max Schreck.

The storyline of 1927's Sunrise has been used over and over again in more recent movies -- I can think of at least 6 Woody Allen movies that use its ideas. Crimes and Misdemeanors (above), Husbands and Wives, Hannah and Her Sisters and a bunch of others all involve a bored married man who goes crazy for a sexy single woman, then things go wrong and he eventually comes to his senses and goes back to his wife. He might even try to kill someone along the way. If Sunrise were remade today, the husband would maybe be Adam Sandler or Paul Schneider (big-budget/low-budget), the wife would be Emily Mortimer or Drew Barrymore (the actress in the original looks just like her), the hot young temptress would be Kirsten Dunst or Mila Kunis.

I never realized it before, but this story we've seen a hundred times is taken straight from our silent classics. Just like in Sunrise, Woody allows his guys to run around with their young girlfriends, then come back home to their comely wives with basically no consequences--with the notable exception of Anthony Hopkins in his latest movie, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, maybe the only time it doesn't work out for him.

The Hays Code put a temporary end to scenes in Sunrise like the young single girl lounging in her filmy underwear and rolling around in a swamp with the married dude -- it's always a little bit of a surprise to see the stuff audiences were watching in pre-Code 1920's movie theaters. There's a reason we went from zero theaters to 21,000 theaters by 1916. To put that in context, there are 5,800 theaters and 39,000 screens today, and 3 times more people in the country.

November 10, 2010

The way NYC does business

Cathie Black, new NYC Chancellor

Yesterday when we heard that Joel Klein was resigning as Chancellor of New York City schools, I thought for one brief moment that maybe he was ousted so that controversial reformer superstar Michelle Rhee, who just resigned from the same job in DC, could come in. Michelle Rhee didn't make a lot of friends during her time in Washington, but she started the ball rolling in fixing one of the most horrifically mismanaged and unsuccessful public school systems in the country.

That didn't happen. Joel Klein is happily returning to the milky teat of corporate America at News Corp, which makes me totally re-evaluate everything I ever thought about that guy. Can I retract all the positive things I've said about him now? And Michelle Rhee is still floating around in the ether, writing about Klein's departure on her blog, and might one day wind up at some prominent rabble-rousing advocacy organization or become a full-time documentary film star.

We also found out about NYC's new Chancellor: Cathie "don't call me Cathy" Black. She just landed one of the hardest government jobs on the planet. Here's what we know about her:

  • She's a media executive who's never worked in education or for any kind of youth or public service organization.
  • She also has never attended a public school.
  • Her children go to private schools in Connecticut.
  • She's married to a major Republican donor.
  • And she gets pissed off when people misspell her name, although she herself changed it so that no one would spell it right.


But she's one fantastic corporate manager! I guess I should be used to this by now, but it's getting a little tiring seeing people who have been successful in the corporate world believe that they know how to solve the world's problems, and assume that running a company is the same as managing a gigantic public service system. Bloomberg believes that management is management, and has obvious biases favoring corporate experience over nonprofit or public sector experience.

He didn't have any governing experience when he ran for mayor, either, and he's had some pretty successful terms. But this overriding belief that the only people who know how to get things done are corporate executives, and that selling magazines is essentially the same as educating kids, really reeks of hubris.

In an interview in the Daily News about Black's new position, they asked her old boss at USA Today about her qualifications to be Chancellor: "Asked if not having a background in education might hinder her, Nueharth punted. 'I'm not qualified to make that judgment,' he said. 'I really don't know what the chancellor does.' "

I wonder if she does, either.

July 29, 2010

Heroin branding

Now and Laters, candy version

The Daily News reports that a big heroin and crack ring operating in a Bronx housing project just got busted. After a year of investigation cops arrested 6 dealers yesterday, but haven't gotten the leader of the operation yet.

There are a few colorful details about one of the dealers they picked up, Tyrell Blue, who liked to post pictures of himself holding a wad of cash with a "$100 billion" wrapper around it on his MySpace page (which sadly looks like it's been deleted.) The article includes another shot of Tyrell with his arms around two girls who look like they're 14 and whose moms might like them to put on a different shirt.

Anyway, the article also mentions some of the brand names the guys used for their products, a form of marketing that I never get tired of hearing about. These guys sold heroin named after a luxury clothing line: Gucci. A classic brand of Mexican motorcycles: Carabela. A generic tough-sounding name: Power. And a leading brand of taffy: Now and Later. Love that one.

A month ago, the Times did a story on an art exhibit called "Heroin Stamp Project", in which members of the Social Art Collective gathered empty heroin packets from all over the city and displayed 150 of them.

Some of the brands are standard bad-ass sounding names with an aura of danger, like the names you might come up with if you had to name a new men's perfume: White Fang, Notorious, Last Temptation. One sort of inexplicable brand is Daily News, that also used an image of a camera like the paper's logo. And some are surprisingly blunt about the deadly nature of the product inside the packet: Last Shot, Game Over, No Exit. One called Shooters, with two guns facing each other John Woo standoff style, is apparently intended as both a reference to shooting up and as a threat to another dealer who was trying to sell on his block.

A thread on drug site Bluelight has tons of crazy heroin brands from the last 20 years. Some highlights: G.I. Joe, Marlboro, Tuna, Nestle, FDR, Dog Food, EZ-Pass, Adult Content, and my favorite, Fleetwood Mac. More threads here--people can talk about this forever.

June 15, 2010

Shinnecock tribe promises new world of casinos and cheap cigarettes

Smoking at the slot machines

Today the Bureau of Indian Affairs formally created a new tribe: the Shinnecock, who live on the east end of Long Island on a small reservation, but hadn't yet been federally recognized. An exciting day for native people! Tribal trustee Lance Gumbs said in an AP interview, "This is the most historic moment in Shinnecock history. Any discussion of a casino is a secondary thought."

Obviously, the rest of the article, and all the other press I've seen, is about a casino. Look, New York, it's the dawning of a brand new day! With a shiny new casino and as many tax-free cigarettes as you can cram into your car!

The Shinnecock people wanted to build a casino on their reservation right in the middle of the Hamptons in 2003. It was the resulting uproar from local rich people, not keen on the idea of the Hamptons being turned into a giant parking lot for the unwashed gambling addicts of Long Island, that led the tribe to seek federal recognition.

Now that they've got it, it seems that they're authorized to fill up their land with video slots, but they can't open a casino with table games. New York State and the federal government have to agree to the larger kind of casino, but if they do, the tribe could open it on any public trust land, not necessarily on their own reservation. Apparently they're considering Belmont Park, Nassau Coliseum, or maybe if we're extra lucky, somewhere within the 5 boroughs of New York City!

Let's build a casino in the middle of Gramercy Park.

May 3, 2010

Music videos are back

Lady Gage Poison TV

Back in the early days of shows like "Friday Night Videos", music videos were a fun, goofy diversion. They usually looked like they cost about $25 to make and served as a novel way to experience the songs you heard on the radio, and as a new resource for looking at girls and guys in sexy outfits. Examples: Olivia Newton-John's "Physical", Steve Miller Band's "Abracadabra".

Then videos became both big business and sometimes actual art. You've got every video from "Thriller", a-ha's "Take On Me", and Tom Petty's "Don't Come Around Here No More". People often cared more about the video than the song, and videos became the perfect marketing device: ads that people wanted to watch. Pretty soon David Fincher is directing Paula Abdul's best videos and Madonna's "Express Yourself", Michael Jackson makes "Scream" for $7 million, and Aerosmith does an Alicia Silverstone video trilogy ("Cryin'", "Crazy", and the one I always forget, "Amazing".)

I'd love to see a graph comparing the declining number of videos aired per day on MTV and shrinking record sales. Maybe downloading had already taken hold, so MTV decided to stop running video-ads for singles and albums that no one was buying anymore. Or maybe MTV's lack of interest in videos and growing devotion to reality shows actually contributed in some small way to the crash of the music industry. Either way, record companies don't have the marketing budgets that they used to, and the last five years or so have been terrible for the music video.

In New York magazine, there's a great article called "Internet Killed the MTV Star", which says that even if they're not on TV anymore, videos are back. There's nothing in this piece that comes as much of a surprise, but it nicely articulates a few things that you've probably been noticing over the past few years:

  • Videos are popular again because of YouTube
  • YouTube has slowly shifted focus from accidentally popular amateur videos to intentionally popular music videos
  • Lady Gaga is the biggest thing to happen to music videos since MTV, Madonna, and Tawny Kitaen.

Gaga's videos have over 1 billion views, and she's one of few current artists to have truly massive album sales ("The Fame" hit 10 million in February), so it seems that people do still actually want to buy a record when they like the videos.

Gaga's videos are also money makers in themselves, through a little bit of revenue from internet ads, and from far more lucrative product placement, which glaringly saturates the "Telephone" video. The CEO of video service Vevo (which is owned by Sony and Universal) says, "There was a time when music videos were purely promotional, and that was fine when people were buying music. Now they're no longer promotional. We sell advertising in and around them at a premium. Instead of being a marketing expense, videos can be a profit center."

One of the best things about the resurgence of music videos as something record companies will actually invest in again is that the most exciting directors that really know how to make great videos can get back into it. The director of Gaga's current trilogy, Jonas Akerlund, did a lot of Roxette videos and that notorious Prodigy one for "Smack My Bitch Up". Spike Jonze has just done a new one for LCD Soundsystem's "Drunk Girls". Michel Gondry, who did tons of great videos for Bjork and the White Stripes, but hasn't been doing much lately, says, "now I feel like it's coming back to early MTV, before the big-budget cranes, when it was creative and fun."

Videos might be creative and fun again because we're going to see a whole lot of Virgin Mobile ads in them, but on the whole, it's probably a better experience than watching MTV circa 1999 when you pretty much just saw the same Smash Mouth and Limp Bizkit videos every day.

[Thanks, That Fuzzy Bastarrd!]

April 29, 2010

Tanning is a bigger deal than I thought

Kardashian with tanlines

When the healthcare reform bill finally passed, one of the odd things to get thrown in at the last minute was a 10% tax on tanning salon sessions. In an earlier version of the bill, it was only a 5% tax on tanning, with another 5% tax on cosmetic surgery. But in the end, they kept facelifts tax-free and doubled the tanning tax for an estimated 30 million people per year.

This decision made more sense today after I read about a recent, crazy study that Sloan-Kettering did on tanning, which suggests that something like 20% of college students surveyed are actually addicted to tanning. Over half of the kids surveyed have done indoor tanning. Even if you look only at the ones who have tanned, 40% of them are out-of-control tanners.

Somehow I'd never noticed this, but tanning is hugely popular. So clearly, this 10% tax was a wise legislative move. If you tax the hell out of cigarettes and alcohol, and we all keep paying higher and higher prices for them, why not tax something else people are powerless to resist?

Salon owners in the $6 billion industry aren't happy about the tax, of course. Sessions only cost about $7 on average, and I can't see a hardcore tanning addict fussing over 70 cents.

Rick Kueber, founder of Indiana salon Sun Tan City, explains why he thinks the tax is unfair because of its disproportionate effect on one segment of the population: white ladies. "Let's call this what it is. It's a tax on working, white women," he says. He points out that wealthy people enjoy their plastic surgery tax-free, and I think is also strangely implying that those lucky Americans with naturally non-pasty skin are getting a free ride through some sort of melanin tax shelter.

I don't understand tanning at all, but apparently there are other studies out there that suggest the UV rays give tanners an endorphin boost, so maybe the appeal is more psychological than aesthetic. I used to work with a woman who displayed a weird tanning obsession, calling furtively to book sessions whenever she was having a bad day, and she really loved tanning even though her 26 year-old skin had all the suppleness of a Slim Jim.

February 17, 2010

Will we hate Duane Reade any less now that it's Walgreens?

Duane Reade and Walgreens

Today's news that Walgreens is buying Duane Reade for a billion dollars is sure to bring a lot of derision from a city of people forced to shop at Duane Reade, often on a daily basis, in spite of high prices, poor service, ridiculously convoluted store layouts, and their recent totally inflammatory decision to stop stocking Seventh Generation toilet paper.

But if Walgreens is going to be successful in its attempt to "harmonize" the cultures of the two chains, it had better learn about the realities of urban retail real estate, an area in which Duane Reade is the uncontested champion. Duane Reade is currently owned by a private equity firm who made the new logo and presumably launched the lucrative Delish™ snack line in an effort to spruce up the stores, but I believe that the most important strength Duane Reade has is its ability to locate its stores with such expert precision that most New Yorkers are actually physically unable to not shop there.

A few years ago, New York magazine had a surprisingly long and well-researched feature about Duane Reade's ability to turn the ugliest, worst-designed hole in the wall into successful retail space. It all comes down to one thing: foot traffic. Figure out where people walk on their routes to and from work, then put your store smack in the middle of it.

Then you can charge whatever you want, staff no more than two registers regardless of how busy it is, and place the saline solution in the back corner of the basement level, and people will still shop there. Let CVS have the nice expensive corner location with no aggravating second floor where the Cold-Eeze™ is. If it's on the wrong side of the block, you won't shop there, because New Yorkers will do anything to avoid crossing the street.

One other area of concern: while 85% of Duane Reade locations sell beer, exactly zero Walgreens stores do. Clearly another core competency that Walgreens might learn from its new acquisition.

February 9, 2010

Hands off the eggplant!

Bt Brinjal eggplant protesters

In an impressive display of grassroots politics, legions of passionate Indian food activists successfully prevented genetically-modified eggplant from contaminating countless delicious servings of baingan bhartha. I'm a big eggplant fan, too (a friend once observed that if any given menu has a dish that involves an eggplant, that's the one I'll order) so I'm psyched.

An Indian seed company, Mahyco, had developed the world's first pesticide-resistant eggplant seed called Bt Brinjal, though as you might guess, our old plant-patenting ghouls over at Monsanto are also involved--they own 26% of the Indian seed company and the patented Frankeggplant gene came from them. Earlier today, the Indian Environment Minister decided to keep his nation's eggplants engineering-free.

Anyway, the protests involved the usual rallies and street marches, with many opportunities to dress up like giant eggplants.

Bt Brinjal protesters

To remind everyone what they were fighting for, Greenpeace organized a World's Biggest Baingan Bhartha campaign, making the tasty roasted dish with one eggplant for every signature they collected--so far they're at 20,000 eggplants. That's my kind of politics.

February 8, 2010

Watch the game, hate your life

FloTV Super Bowl ad

I noticed a theme in some of last night's Super Bowl ads: in addition to the usual inscrutably unfunny Doritos ads and unoriginal but instantly recognizable Go Daddy ads (those people really understand brand consistency) there was an undercurrent of male misery. It's standard for ads to make the viewer feel uncomfortable or insecure, then offer the product as a solution to your self-esteem problem, but a couple of these ads suggested that the problem in your life is not really your athlete's foot--it's your girlfriend.

The Dodge ad was an especially bitter girl-hating ad, which is odd, considering that it's basically one long whiny bitch fest (with a few pissy little jokes thrown in.) It features lots of guys looking directly into the camera, with a voiceover listing all the indignities they suffer as part of living with a woman, such as being forced to separate the recycling. Life for a man, according to this ad, is an endless series of irritations piled on by that bitch you married (or who's pressuring you for a ring, probably) and the only recourse is to drive a Dodge, the one thing in this world she can't take away from you.

Geez, guys, if it's really that horrific to pick up your underwear, you could find a lady with less stringent household tidiness expectations. Or support Chrysler by suffering in silence and driving a shitbox car.

Then there's the poor doofus who let his girlfriend drag him along underwear shopping (above) instead of letting him watch basketball. Another hapless fellow whose simple yearning for happiness has been denied by his selfish cow girlfriend who needs a new bra. Poor, poor widdle man!

The long-suffering man ad that I did like was the one for Dove Men, which is admittedly an absurdly tough product to try to sell during the Super Bowl. Anyway, the Dove Men approach is to depict one man's life, from fetus to adulthood, and the many challenges he has faced and overcome along the way. Living with a lady in this ad can also be a trial, but these difficulties are shown as small victories to be proud of rather than opportunities to complain about how much women suck. And it's funny. A decent ad.

Actually, the Dove Men ad is probably targeted exclusively to women. How many guys out there are going to purchase Dove Men bodywash at the supermarket? They could at least rebrand this line to something like Falcon or, to continue the political metaphor, Hawk. This ad probably presents a less toxically bitter attitude toward women because they're the buyers. (Though I see that Dove got last night's MVP Drew Brees to appear on the website, lathering up a very masculine and non-drying foam in the shower.)

My favorites were the Kia ad about toys going out on the town (particularly the shot of the robot and a human in a Vegas club, both doing the robot) and the Audi ad using Cheap Trick's "Dream Police" as a soundtrack for scenes of an army of draconian eco-fascists handcuffing people for using styrofoam cups. I love it.

You can watch all the ads on Hulu, though you have to watch a few seconds of a Coke ad before you watch each of the other ads, which seems unjustifiably cheap.

February 1, 2010

Tweens and Axe

Tween boy loves his Axe

In the Styles section, the NY Times ran an article about tween boys and their devotion to Axe body spray that's basically the exact same piece that the Washington Post ran almost 4 years earlier. Both articles are great reads and very funny, but the story has hardly changed over the past few years: boys are becoming self-conscious at younger ages, and 11 year-olds are dousing themselves in $6 bottles of spray perfume in an attempt to copy the older kids and get girls.

A few interesting things both articles point out:

  • The companies that produce these popular products insist that their target markets are 18 to 24 year-old men, despite the evidence that a lot of their customers haven't reached puberty yet. The Post suggests that this is because their marketing is so direct in its claims that using Axe (or whatever) will make you irresistible to women, and no one wants to think about a 12 year-old boy getting busy. The Times says Axe marketers are reluctant to talk about their younger fan base publicly because "nothing would make older teenager run from a product faster than for its manufacturers to acknowledge that it's a must-have among the sixth-grade set."
  • Young boys appear to interpret Axe's obviously jokey ads, in which guys wearing body spray are swarmed with lust-crazed girls, pretty much literally. A 12 year-old at a suburban Maryland middle school said, "I was watching the commercial, and there was this guy and he was mobbed by a bunch of girls, and I thought, 'Wow, that's tight! ' So I went to CVS and bought it."
  • Everybody apart from middle school boys seems to hate it, because boys tend to use it too liberally or as a substitute for bathing: "It's not necessarily a hygiene thing," said Paul Begley, a physical education teacher at Messalonskee Middle School in Oakland, ME. "If they've been sweating, they'll use it as a mask instead of a shower."

    And my favorite quote of these articles, from 14 year-old Allison Testamark: "Someone by my locker uses it, but he uses so much that you can taste it in your mouth," she said, scrunching up her nose in disgust.

Also, the author of Queen Bees and Wannabes, Rosalind Wiseman (who has things to say about 12 year-old boys highlighting their hair), has a new book out called Boys, Girls, and Other Hazardous Materials. Tina Fey, who adapted her earlier book for Mean Girls says, "You can't put this book down... or it will talk about you while you're out of the room."

January 11, 2010

Farmers use the wrong agricultural metaphor

40 Acres and a Mule t-shirt

Industrial farmers have been getting more scrutiny lately, now that anyone concerned about animal welfare, pollution, climate change, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or their own health has started looking at factory farms as the cause of a lot of big problems. Some states are considering new laws regulating things like the size of cages animals are kept in and other agricultural operations in order to protect animals and the people who eat them.

Which, of course, farmers don't like one bit. At this year's meeting of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the president, Bob Stallman, said in a speech yesterday denouncing their perceived opponents, "A line must be drawn between our polite and respectful engagement with consumers and how we must aggressively respond to extremists who want to drag agriculture back to the day of 40 acres and a mule."

Um, oops. I think what Bob Stallman was trying to say is that we're no longer living in an age of small farms, and large-scale corporate factories that produce massive volumes of food must resist efforts to treat their industry as if it's made up of independent, pastoral family farmers with their livestock eating clover out in the pasture (even though that's exactly the image food producers use in their marketing.)

But "40 acres and a mule" is a reference with a very specific meaning that isn't really about agriculture. For a brief period after the Civil War, under Special Field Order No. 15 from General Sherman, former slave families were to be given 40 acres and a mule, in order to start their own farms. According to the Wikipedia entry, about 10,000 former slaves were settled on 400,000 acres of land in GA and SC, but after Lincoln's assassination, the policy was revoked, and the land was given back to the former white landowners.

"40 acres and a mule" has become shorthand for the need for reparations for slavery in an effort to reconcile the incalculable advantages that the beneficiaries of a few centuries of slavery had and continue to have. During his anti-agricultural legislation speech, the American Farm Bureau president accidentally (I hope) equated proposed farming regulations with making reparations for slavery, which he later referred to as an "elitist power grab." Need to get your metaphors straight, there. Unless he's trying to make some ill-founded connection between beleaguered factory farmers and slaves, which I really hope is not the case.

Wikipedia has a list of pop culture references to 40 acres and a mule, the best known being Spike Lee's film production company. My favorite on the list is some lines from Nelly's "Nellyville": "40 acres and a mule, fuck that, Nellyville, 40 acres and a pool."

The Yippies' website outlines their own 40 acres and a mule demand as follows: "Since it is illegal to grow pot in the United States the YOUTH INTERNATIONAL PARTY demands 40 acres of prime pot growing land in Northern Mexico for every former Prisoner of Weed (POW) and a mule to bring it back into the States."

I really hope Spike Lee never sees that.

October 5, 2009

Ulrich sues Axl

Axl Rose and Ulrich Schnauss

The Chinese Democracy curse lives: Axl Rose and Geffen are getting sued by the record company that puts out Ulrich Schnauss's albums. They say that two of Schnauss's songs are used in Chinese Democracy's "Riad N' the Bedouins."

As the Daily News reports, "The suit is the latest chapter in the troubled history of the album, which took nearly two decades and millions of dollars to complete."

Here's a Rock Band video of some guys doing the Gn'R song and kicking ass.

Here are the Ulrich Schnauss songs, "Wherever You Are" and "A Strangely Isolated Place", with its videogame VisionQuest video.

September 17, 2009

Store Fronts

Phil's Stationery

Yesterday I was out looking to buy some airmail stationery, which if you're like me, is something you haven't thought about since the time in your life when friends were studying abroad in college and you hadn't quite started using email as the sole means of communication with everyone you know. These days it's not so easy to find.

So I went into Phil's Stationery on East 47th, right smack in the middle of midtown and standing between a Chinese noodle shop and a nail salon, offering office supplies and "Zerox copies", according to the sign. It looks like the kind of place that would have functional, cheap, non-wedding-invitation-oriented stationery that hardly anyone has been interested in buying for at least ten years.

They did! The employee who helped me walked past a small display of day planners and toner cartridges and randomly piled stacks of paper, dug around among the dusty boxes, then rummaged through a huge, falling-over pile of stuff on a back shelf. He pulled out a crumpled pad of airmail stationery with the price $1.89 printed right on the front sheet, and a package of airmail envelopes (the kind with a red and blue pattern along the edges) that had already been opened and half used and was yellowing with age. An unseen manager in the basement shouted back and forth with the employee through an old dumbwaiter shaft that opened onto the sales floor, and they decided on a price of $1.50. "Perfect!," I said, and bought both from a seriously elderly woman with an impressively thick (Polish?) accent.

The whole process reminded me of a great exhibit I saw the other day at the Clic Gallery on Centre Street in Soho. The exhibit is a collection of photographs by James and Karla Murray called "Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York", and features lots of oldtime store fronts from all over the city for bakeries, discount stores, record stores, diners, and barber shops, all from before the era of printed awnings that identify most street-level businesses today. There are lots of places I see all the time in there, like the Film Center Cafe, Smith's Bar & Restaurant, and Clover Delicatessen, and some that are dearly missed, like McHale's. The show is up through this weekend, and there's a book available.

The artists mention in the intro of the book that almost 1/3 of the stores have closed since they photographed them. I'd be surprised if Phil's is still hanging on this time next year.

August 25, 2009

Surprise returns


  • MTV has bought the rights to remake British teen TV show "Skins". The original series was pretty great--you can watch it on BBC America and on YouTube.

    Fans are worried the MTV version will be watered down, meaning there won't be as much drugs, drinking, smoking, swearing, nudity, sex, binging, purging, and suicide attempts, all of which were well-represented on the original. They'll probably pull off casting unknown actors, since they're used to doing that already. It sounds like the original producer and one of the co-creators are coming over for the new series -- the producer says his goal is to make sure the new show is "the absolute opposite of 'Gossip Girl'."

  • I would never in a million years have guessed who has the #1 album this week. It's Third Eye Blind. Huh?
  • Spout is putting out a book based on their blog, probably my favorite of the movie blogs out there.
  • A long piece on Wired about Craigslist is titled "Why Craigslist is Such a Mess", but is really more about the mystery of why Craigslist is so incredibly successful when it doesn't follow any usual business or organizational rules at all:

    Craigslist gets more traffic than either eBay or eBay has more than 16,000 employees. Amazon has more than 20,000. Craigslist has 30. Craigslist may have little to teach us about how to make decisions, but that's not the aspect of democracy that concerns [Craig] Newmark most. He cares about the details, about executing all the little obvious things we'd like government to do. "I'm not interested in politics, I'm interested in governance," he says. "Customer service is public service."

August 21, 2009

"Let's get one of Bambi holding the gun"

waitress with a rifle

  • Some cops in Midland, TX got in trouble for taking this week's best picture, above. Someone called the cops after seeing this young waitress holding a big rifle and hanging out in the parking lot outside a restaurant. When they arrived, it turned out the guys she was hanging out with were other cops, who had been in the restaurant when they invited the waitress out for a little photo shoot. Her name tag, The Smoking Gun points out, reads "Bambi". I love that she still has on her apron with straws and pens in it.
  • New study: "the typical adult video game player is overweight, introverted and may be a little bit depressed."
  • Tuesday night's wild storm knocked down 500 trees in Manhattan.
  • A lot of the big movie star vehicles this year haven't done so well, and studios are trying to compensate, in part by paying stars less. Land of the Lost, Pelham 1 2 3, Duplicity, Funny People all had big stars and did worse than expected. The movies that did well are Harry Potter, Transformers, and Up, none of which were really popular because of their stars.

    And don't forget about that relatively small budget South African movie with zero stars where half the dialogue is subtitled. District 9 was mostly pretty good (except for some terrible dialogue toward the end,) but what I especially like about it is that studios will notice, again, that when a movie is well made (and well marketed) it doesn't need a huge budget, a famous director, big actors, or a dumb plot that's spoon-fed to the audience to make money. I love when people turn out for good, atypical movies and make them hits.

August 18, 2009

Video scratch

Mike Relm, scratcher

  • This is from a week or so ago: Wired has a short video interview with Mike Relm, one of my favorite mashup guys, talking about his live sets where he scratches music and video simultaneously. With stuff like Battle Royale, Pee Wee, Led Zeppelin concert footage, and amateur YouTube videos. It's cool.
  • I like Nicole Holofcener's movies, which center on women and their relationships but are better than most other movies about women and their relationships, and always star Catherine Keener. But here's her next movie: I'm With Cancer, starring James McAvoy and produced by Seth Rogen (who co-stars) and Evan Goldberg. It's about a young guy with cancer.

    I can't decide if I'm annoyed that one of the few successful women writer/directors who makes good movies about women has been absorbed by the Seth Rogen juggernaut, or if I'm hopeful that the next Rogen/Goldberg movie might be a lot better than Pineapple Express.

  • A New York judge ruled that Google has to reveal the identity of a blogger whose site, Skanks in NYC (it's been taken down), exists only to diss model Liskula Cohen, who wants to sue the blogger for defamation. (She's also the one who a crazy guy hit in the face with a bottle at a club.) The blogger's lawyer said this case could lead to indiscriminate lawsuits against internet trash talkers, which means the floodgates might have just been opened.
  • The Times says that there are almost twice as many Dunkin Donuts as Duane Reades in the city, which I can't see how that is possible.

August 17, 2009

London Fog, then and now

London Fog ads

  • Last night's season premiere of "Mad Men" featured a storyline about a campaign for London Fog. Above are two real London Fog ads--the first appeared in an copy of Playboy from the early 60s, and features a tearful woman using her man's raincoat as a Kleenex. You can read the text of the ad in a blog post about using deep zoom with Playboy's online archives (for the articles, of course) which touts the coat's imperviousness to "emotional outbursts or sudden cloudbursts". The second ad is a not-so-pregnant-looking Gisele from a few weeks ago.

    Don Draper's new campaign, which he briefly described last night, involves a woman wearing a London Fog raincoat flashing a man on the subway--which sounds a lot more like the 2009 ad than the actual ad from back then.

    And of course, the whole storyline was a big product placement (so was the Stoli reference.) London Fog probably got to request that their ad on the show feature a naked lady to keep their branding consistent.

    (Also, pretty good episode, but Sal and Joan were both great. I bet this season will be good because of the supporting cast, and not so much the stars.)

  • "Reno 911!" got canceled. It ran for SIX SEASONS. If "30 Rock" gets canceled this year, I'm gonna riot.
  • Brad Pitt is allegedly going to be in the Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey, Jr/Jude Law Sherlock Holmes movie as Professor Moriarty. He wouldn't be my first choice for Holmes's menacing nemesis, but maybe Eddie Izzard isn't available (wouldn't he be good?)
  • Mike Nichols is going to direct an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel Deep Water. The book is about an unhappy couple who agree that the wife can see other people. She does. Then her other people start dying off. Mike Nichols is better at quiet personal dramas than thrillers, but it still sounds cool.
  • And here's a great Times article about Al Bell, former owner of the late, great Stax Records in Memphis. He's trying to bring Memphis back as a musical capital, through the Memphis Music Foundation and one of the greatest museums I've ever been to, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.

August 10, 2009

Def Leppard and iTunes

Def Leppard from back in the day

As anyone who grew up liking metal (or hard rock, or hair metal, or Top 40) probably knows, Def Leppard is one of the last remaining major iTunes holdouts. Sure, you can get their 2008 album, Songs From the Sparkle Lounge, on iTunes, but since there is probably zero chance that you looked up Def Leppard on iTunes to find that album, they may as well not be up there at all. Also, is that title a joke?

The band has licensed a few of their classic tracks to video games--you can download live versions of "Rock of Ages" and "Photograph" through Guitar Hero III.

Today we heard that "Rock of Ages" is also going to appear in a new metal-themed video game Brütal Legend. This is the one with Jack Black as a roadie running around and fighting evil, with a soundtrack of over 100 metal songs from a vast array of sub-genres (including "hair, black, thrash, British, new wave, goth, industrial and death, just to name a few".) The game's creator, Tim Shafer, says that of all the songs they wanted, "Rock of Ages" was the single hardest one to get. Those guys sure are cautious.

"It came down to the wire," he said. "We were really close to not getting that one. We built an entire mission around that song. It's really appropriate because there's these guys mining through rocks. It was the perfect song to use, so we're really happy to get that in there."

AC/DC, The Beatles and Garth Brooks are also not on iTunes--and these are all bands with insane album sales and really dedicated fans. Maybe at one time, Def Leppard could claim the same kind of power over the music marketplace, but they seem to realize that their fans are probably only willing to forego downloads and buy physical CDs of their old stuff. Which is pretty easy to do--I got a used copy of Pyromania for like 7 bucks a few months ago, though sadly the band won't see a penny of it.

So maybe with the new video game, they were holding out for more money. Or maybe the band has realized that they can demand a lot higher royalties from sales of video games than they can from iTunes downloads, so they wait for those offers instead of settling for their 9 cents per download or whatever. The band has gone on record with their love of Apple, and singer Joe Elliott, guitarist Phil Collen, and new-guy guitarist Vivian Campbell all claim they love their iPods and are Mac guys. I bet they have no problem with iTunes, but their accountants do.

Here's the 80's-Arthurian "Rock of Ages" video.

July 24, 2009

Friday reading

The Orphan

A few movie links:

  • I don't know why Manohla Dargis keeps putting herself through screening every single awful rom-com that comes out when they all offend her sensibilities and give her more opportunity to incinerate Hollywood studios for presenting single women as spineless imbeciles in push-up bras who live in desolate agony until they land a man. Actually, I guess that's the reason right there.

    This week's version of her perennial pissed-off review is for The Ugly Truth. Apparently she'll never lose her appetite for these movies, as long as she can call each one "a cynical, clumsy, aptly titled attempt to cross the female-oriented romantic comedy with the male-oriented gross-out comedy that is interesting on several levels, none having to do with cinema," as she does in this version.

  • Adoption advocates are worried that Orphan will make people believe that kids in foster care are evil Russian demons who will kill you and your family
  • .
  • And here's the Times review of Orphan. The little girl who plays the title character, the adorable 11 year-old Isabelle Fuhrman, sounds like the best part: Manohla calls her "very self-possessed" playing her role "with an exotic accent and predatory habits that suggest she worked for SPECTRE back in the motherland before landing in America as an undercover devil doll." AP says she more than rises to the challenge of some "gnarly stuff" she does onscreen.

And in other news: AP looked into the 911 systems improvement tax that you pay through your cellphone bill, and found out that money has been used for lots of unrelated stuff. In New York state, only 15% of the $1.20 monthly tax was used for 911 improvements--the rest was used for things like police uniforms and general state budget shortfalls.

July 23, 2009

Wheaties Fuel™: what a man eats

Wheaties Fuel

Wheaties may be the breakfast of champions, but sales are down this year, so General Mills is rebranding. Soon they'll be launching a new product extension that is even tougher and more manly than regular Wheaties -- Wheaties Fuel™.

The Times has a great article on the company's plan to make a cereal that has always been focused on fitness to specifically target men. Men who want their breakfast to make them feel like athletes. Here's the process:

  • First they got a panel of male pro athletes to test different prototypes of Wheaties Fuel™, which the website calls "performance nutrition", and rate them.
  • Next, they reduced girly ingredients like folic acid, which is a nutrient that everyone needs, but it's associated with being pregnant.
  • Then, they added a more masculine ingredient: sugar! Wheaties Fuel™ will have 50% more calories than the original, and is made of 25% sugar, compared to 15% for the original. Two of the three prototypes that the athlete panel is testing also have sugary additions, like "clusters that have a cinnamon-roll-like flavor."

The company is advertising with Men's Health, and readers of the magazine will get to pick the final formula. A nice bit of product-placement there, though the Men's Health publisher says that a new Wheaties product is news-worthy enough that they would have covered it anyway.

But what I find especially interesting is that marketing a breakfast cereal to men is apparently a new concept in the cereal market. Wheaties has always promoted a masculine image--although, wait, has it?

Remember those goofy Wheaties ads from the 80's in which professional athletes sang a verse of a song that went like, "Before I swing for the bleacher seat-ies, I get the eaties for my Wheaties"? Not an especially tough image! Now that I look back on those ads, they were definitely targeted at women, who traditionally did the cereal-buying in their households and wanted to buy something appropriate for their menfolk's breakfast.

A rep from the ad firm that's doing the new Wheaties branding says that times are changing: "A lot of data out there shows that men are taking over a lot more of the shopping occasions. And as that happens, men are not just following a list but are much more focused on making decisions themselves."

Hm. Rebranding a gender-neutral product to encourage a recently empowered gender to buy a special version of that product for themselves. Sound familiar? It's the same approach marketers have used for decades, but targeting women. Need a razor? Buy a pink one with flowers on it! Need a phone? Buy a pink one with sparkles on it! Deodorant? Buy one that says it's pH-balanced for a woman! An energy bar? Buy one with dancing ladies on it!

The only other product I can think of that was historically aimed at women but is repackaged for male shoppers is hair dye--"just for men".

That quote about men making their own decisions in the store reminds me of a great scene from The Hurt Locker, in which the man's-man bomb defuser main character, home from Iraq, is out shopping with his wife. She asks him to go get some cereal. When faced with an entire aisle of hundreds of cereals, he's overwhelmed, so scans the rows, then grabs a box at random and stomps off.

Now there's a Wheaties Fuel™ man.

Stepping in for the Linky

Tony Hsieh at Zappos

Since the Robot Linky on the right has been down for a while now (system problems, hopefully resolved soon) I thought I'd put some interesting links up here through the day.

  • Amazon is acquiring Zappos. Nice move, as long as they keep everything exactly the same: Zappos is everything you could want in online shopping. The head, Tony Hsieh (above) will still be in charge.
  • Times has a good article on the young woman with a $23,148,855,308,184,500 negative balance on her Visa debit card this month. 12,000 other customers had similar crazy charges that rivaled the gross world product.
  • Manhattanites respond to news that they live in the state's thinnest county. The Times interviews representatives of the borough's "disparate subcultures of the skinny," (i.e. if you're well-off, you're probably thin) with everyone's height and weight included. Pretty fascinating, especially that 42% of the Manhattan population being overweight or obese now means that we're "skinny". All relative, I guess.
  • Maybe the Cambridge cop who arrested Henry Louis Gates, Jr. can claim that he's not racist just because he investigated a break-in call, but he cannot claim he's not racist because he once performed mouth-to-mouth on a black Celtic, in 1993.
  • It's now legal in Tennessee and Arizona (and 14 other states) to bring your concealed gun into a bar, though you're not supposed to drink if you're armed. Bar owners are complaining that they'll be responsible for refusing to serve "designated shooters." Times article includes a clip from Colbert.

July 22, 2009

The unleakable Jay-Z

Jay-Z is unleakable

Jay-Z says he's going to hand deliver The Blueprint 3 to the London office of his current label, Atlantic, as part of his efforts to stymie leaks in advance of the official release in September.

And this is going to prevent leaking how, exactly? Is he also going to hand-upload the album on iTunes, hand press the CDs, and hand deliver them to stores and distributors and reviewers and ad agencies and movie studios and the billion other people that will get promotional copies?

A guy like Jay-Z can't believe that physically shepherding his album to the label will have any impact on whether it gets leaked or not, so why would he tell everyone about this strategy? To throw down the gauntlet to would-be leakers--steal this, bitches! Or maybe this way, when and if tracks are leaked, he can lay all the blame on the label. Or most likely, announcing he's hand delivering the album makes it seem more desirable and precious and therefore worth the low low price of $14.99 at the record store Amazon.

As he said when explaining his change of labels, he's an entrepreneur. Which some might say is a word that better describes a band that self-releases their albums or makes their music more freely available online, rather than an artist who futilely attempts to keep the inevitable digital dissemination of his album from happening so that it can only be purchased from a gigantic media corporation. Incidentally, Atlantic now sells more than half of its music digitally, like through iTunes and ringtones which, along with Auto-Tune, get no love from J.

Even if Jay-Z is sleeping with the new album under his pillow every night, he's going to release a second track this Friday: "Run This Town", with a 100% Auto-Tune-free Kanye and Rihanna. Also, the album will be released on September 11, like the first Blueprint album was, even though that's a Friday. I guess 9/11 is his lucky day.

July 13, 2009

Not the business you'd expect to be booming

Redbox video

You know those video rental kiosk box things you see every so often inside a Circle K or a ShopRite? And you probably think: Huh? Now that Kim's Video is gone, your local video store has started offering two-for-one Monday through Thursday out of sheer desperation, and even your parents do Netflix, someone had the bright idea of opening a line of DVD vending machines?

But Redbox, the company that runs those machines, is doing pretty well and is actually growing--15,000 locations, and 7.5 million rentals every week. Not too bad compared to Netflix's 10 million per week.

The Times did a feature on Redbox that suggests some advantages the company has going for it, which also tell you a thing or two about the kind of customer they likely have. Rentals go for only $1 a day, you don't have to use a computer or create an account to rent, and when you're already at a McDonald's and see Taken or Meatballs through the kiosk window (they've got 'em) that's an impulse rental that a lot of people are very ready to make.

The main reason that I still use my local video store (other than the fact that its collection is exceptionally good) is that when I want to watch The Bourne Identity or Rock 'n' Roll High School, I usually want to watch them right now. Sure, if I decide I need to catch up on all the French new wave stuff I didn't see in college or make my way through everything Barbara Stanwyck ever did, I'm happy to wait for a Netflix delivery. But on those rare occasions when you need to watch Almost Famous and it's not airing on VH1 or streaming on Netflix, you need a fail-safe option for immediate viewing.

The Redbox selection is, of course, not remotely comparable to the Netflix selection, with each kiosk only stocking about 200 titles, but even this could be pitched as a selling point. The president of the company, who worked at Netflix for 6 years before defecting, says the typical Redbox customer "doesn't want to wade through titles they won't be interested in." Their top rental title ever is Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Netflix's top title is Crash.

In other words, for the Redbox customer, you can keep your precious non-linear social commentary on race and class that you add to your schmancy online queue. I'll pick up Step Brothers and Starship Troopers along with some Crunch 'n Munch at Walgreens.

There are more and more ways to get access to movies, and increasingly they don't involve leaving your home. So it's interesting that people are still willing to go out into the world to pick up a physical disc, as long as it's easy, really cheap, and they can do it while they're somewhere they have to go anyway.

So good for you, Redbox and your $1 rentals. I looked up my closest kiosk location on the website (on the "Find a Redbox" page that uses, of course!, Mapquest) so I'm heading there tomorrow to get a hyper-affordable mainstream DVD and wage some movie rental class warfare.

UPDATE: So I went to my local Redbox machine in a Walgreen's, scrolled around the movies they had, and ended up abandoning my mainstream vision by renting I've Loved You So Long, that French movie from last year with Kristen Scott Thomas. This movie might not be in the highest demand for Redbox customers, but it was great. And $1.08, including tax!

I may not go out of my way to rent from Redbox, but the interface is super easy and intuitive and the whole rental process took less than 3 minutes (in part because they don't have all that many movies to scroll through.) For times when you want to see a particular movie and want to be watching the opening credits in less than 15 minutes, it's a good option.

May 13, 2009

Aerosmith knows its audience

Aerosmith Guitar Hero

In a brilliant piece of cross-marketing, Aerosmith just made a deal with a gaming company to make a series of lottery games named after Aerosmith songs with pictures of the band on them. The company says they already have two dozen card designs based on different songs.

Now that is a band that truly understands its fan base. People love Aerosmith, people love scratch cards. Now they can buy their $2 "Sweet Emotion" lottery ticket at the same time they're picking up some grape soda and a thing of Cheetos at the 7-Eleven. It's beautiful.

Ross Dalton, the head of licensed content for GTECH, the lottery company, said they noticed that Aerosmith fans overlapped with the traditional lottery audience, which is male, middle-aged and lower middle class. "You could probably count on one hand the number of bands that would be both palatable in government-sponsored gaming and recognizable to a broad demographic. That’s why we got very excited about Aerosmith."

I see what he means. Who's gonna buy a Coldplay scratch ticket?

Winners will win things like backstage passes, concert tickets, and, of course, more Aerosmith branded merchandise.

Now that Aerosmith has cornered the markets for band-branded video games with Guitar Hero and band-branded lottery tickets, you could probably guess that they've also branched into merchandise that appeals to more affluent demographics, such as stainless steel water bottles, onesies, and fancy pen sets. Thankfully, a girl can still get an Aerosmith belly ring too.

April 10, 2009

Recession roundup

Abolish Money photo

[from NY Times Picturing the Recession series]

Here's a brief list of things people are doing right now as a result of the recession, besides the usual cutting back on expenses and getting canned:

March 30, 2009

So that's why my friends in advertising are getting laid off

Empty billboards in Times Square

This austere, zen-like photo of empty billboards in the middle of Times Square is from Slate's Shoot the Recession series. This one is especially recognizable as I've been noticing the empty storefronts and dark signs around midtown lately. Could this signal the demise of the cleaned-up, corporate New Times Square? The last 42nd St peep show, Peep-O-Rama, closed in 2002; we could be due for a porny backslide.

The entire photostream is on Flickr, which includes some good shots of a boarded-up Bank of America window, a 50% Off sale at a liquor store (don't see that every day) and an Always Open store with both "Closed" and "For Lease" signs in the windows.

The Times now has a similar online photo submission thing called Picturing the Recession, so you can share your own financial desperation with the world.

December 10, 2008

New crackpot investment opportunity!

The Producers

Now that investors have been scared off from stocks, real estate, and the financial institutions that used to be the foundation of our economy, we need new and innovative investment products to help us incinerate our money.

Here's Cantor Fitzgerald, an investment firm whose primary credential seems to be that they haven't gone bankrupt yet, with a financial service I can actually sort of relate to: movie futures. Here's how this new scheme works. Six months before a new movie comes out, you place bets on how well you think it's going to do. If you think a movie will do better than the odds say (determined by the market) you buy a one-millionth share. Then if it does well, you get some cash! And if it doesn't do so well, you owe your bookie, Cantor Fitzgerald, more money.

This is great news for producers of really terrible movies that people have unreasonably high expectations for, because it will get lots of casual investors and movie fans to give them advance money for their box office bomb. A year ago, I would have definitely bet that Run Fatboy Run would have done really well, like it did in the UK. But it only did $6 million in the US, so I would have lost big. One the other side you've got Mamma Mia!, which might not have had the greatest expectations, but has made $560 million globally so far.

Apparently Cantor Fitzgerald first talked about creating a movie market 7 years ago, right before the company got almost completely wiped out on September 11. Better luck this time. They also own a virtual movie market, the Hollywood Stock Exchange, which for people like me is probably as good as the real thing.

Of course the first thing this scheme brings to mind is good old Bialystock and Bloom and their realization that you could make more money with a flop than a hit. "If he were certain the show would fail, a man could make a fortune!" Some unscrupulous movie producer out there could announce a movie that attracts tons of futures investors, then make sure it bombs. And someone will create some sort of alternative fund so contrary investors can bet against the market. If I could get into one of those, I'd go all in against the next movie Nicole Kidman makes.

Hopefully People and Variety will start running live odds.

October 29, 2008

Guess what kind of alcoholic beverage this is

USB port wine

Just like French champagne and Neapolitan pizza, the EU protects Portuguese port by requiring that all wines labeled as "port" be from Portugal. Two years ago, the US signed a "wine accord" with the EU, stating that American wineries couldn't label any new wines with geographic names like port, champagne, or chablis.

So one clever winery from California decided to target the segment of the geek market that also likes deliciously heavy fortified wines by naming their new non-Portuguese port USB.

The Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau approved the label, after much deliberation. Note the binary code forming the tree, and the USB-symbol roots.

We should make sure no European wineries are marketing their lighter, sweeter, screw-cap wines with American geographical names. Like Boone's Farm.

September 10, 2008

Sex, Drugs, Oil, and Toby Keith

Big Oil is sexy!

Poster by Finnigan Productions

Today's ethics scandal is all about the corrupt government agency that oversees our nation's oil and gas reserves. Great timing, right?

As Sarah Palin said in her acceptance speech, "We Americans need to produce more of our own oil and gas. We've got lots of both!" And, as it turns out, we've also gotten lots of bribes, sex, and drugs in return for for selling it to oil companies.

A Times covers a report from the Department of the Interior that busts the officials responsible for selling our country's gas and oil. Turns out our government is literally in bed with big oil. The report characterizes the department as "a dysfunctional organization that has been riddled with conflicts of interest, unprofessional behavior and a free-for-all atmosphere for much of the Bush administration’s watch."

A few of the best findings:

  • Bribery: oil companies gave government employees drinks, tickets to a Toby Keith concert, football and baseball games, and highly illicit paintball outings
  • Sex: two employees had "brief sexual relationships" with their oil industry reps
  • Defrauding taxpayers: the department let oil companies pay less than their contracted price for the oil they bought
  • And while this doesn't strictly count as government corruption, one guy who directed sales of our oil regularly bought cocaine from his secretary, who he also had sex with! Even though he was buying coke from her boyfriend, too. Nice.

Here's the official Royalty-in-Kind website, which is the department where most of the shenanigans went down. It's part of the larger Minerals Management Service, which brings in $10 billion in revenue a year (not counting all the weed they smoked with oil reps on their free ski trips.)

July 30, 2008

Casual dining goes belly up

Bennigans closes

Continuing the downward trend of the "casual dining" industry, pretend-Irish chain restaurant Bennigan's has declared bankruptcy and is closing. So is a chain called Steak and Ale (these don't exist around here. I think I saw one in Atlanta once?) which is owned by the same parent company, Metromedia Restaurant Group.

The NY Times reported that the whole industry was in trouble last fall, due to rising costs, shrinking family budgets, and Americans realizing that paying $18 for mass-produced microwaved entrées is idiotic. Restaurants like this going out of business helps restore my faith in America.

Bennigan's hasn't had a presence in NYC for a few years now. Sometime in 2005, one opened on the corner of 8th Ave and 47th St, replacing an independent casual family restaurant that had been struggling there for years. It lasted about 10 months, then closed. Now the space is (you guessed it) a Duane Reade. In a troubled retail real estate market, all roads lead to Duane Reade.

Besides having a business model that asks customers to pay inflated prices for cheap food, the problem with the casual dining industry is that it's an outdated trend that has finally started to fall out of favor. Restaurant consultant Bob Goldin says, "All these bar and grill concepts are very, very similar. They have the same kind of menu, décor, appeal." Another restaurant consultant in Chicago says, "The stores got old and the concept got tired."

The Simpsons made its episode about chain restaurants back in 1995 (back when the show was still a cultural barometer) when Moe opened his short-lived family restaurant Uncle Moe's Family Feedbag in "Bart Sells His Soul."

Here's the clip. It's still funny. Especially Marge's wonder at the décor: "An alligator wearing sunglasses?! Now I've seen everything!"

Uncle Moe's Family Feedbag

July 22, 2008

American food trends: desserts vs. vegetables

Bite-size desserts vs. vegetable garden

dessert photo by pam3la

Local food, it's all the rage. It tastes better and it's better for the environment, so the thinking goes. The Times has an article today on growing demand for locally grown food, which has become so important to overworked rich people that they are having vegetable gardens installed in their urban backyards so that someone else can come over to grow and harvest food for them. Sort of like being a gentleman farmer in San Francisco. Those of more modest means are ordering locally-grown food online to have it delivered to their cubicles.

But even as grocery stores are putting big LOCAL stickers on the milk that has always been locally sourced, the local trend might not have that radical an impact on what regular people buy and eat. Organic food has been widely available for years, but still represents only 3% of total food sales.

Also, the Times reports that a recent survey of chain restaurant and big food company chefs found that locally grown produce is now the second biggest food trend in America.

Number one is bite-size desserts.

Hm. As food trends go, it looks like the Treats Truck is going to crush community supported agriculture every time.

July 21, 2008

Viva Viagra?


I don't usually watch ads on TV, but I happened to be watching baseball tonight (TV for older men?) and caught this Viagra ad, which apparently has been playing for some time:


It features a bunch of dudes sitting around singing Viva Viagra to the tune of Viva Las Vegas. These are the manly lyrics:

Got me a honey gonna set my soul, gonna set my soul on fire!
At the end of the day, I'm not a guy to stray
because she's my heart desire.

Now this lonesome toad is sick of the road
I can't wait

CHORUS; Can't wait!

I can't wait to go home.

CHORUS: Viva Viagra! Viva, Viva, VIVA VIAGRA!

Apparently some people are worried that the Viva Viagra terminology encourages the use of Viagra as a party drug. I'm more concerned that the ad might make people think that Viagra will turn them into Elvis (the Pelvis).

Also, you may want to check out this before and after chart from Pfizer, celebrating ten years of Viagra.

July 9, 2008

Ice cream + booze

Whiskey ice cream

Governor Patterson signed a whole slew of bills into law today, which will bring a few changes to New York state: there will be a new casino in the Catskills, wine tastings can start at 10:00 AM on Sundays, and the same penalties for using brass knuckles now apply to plastic knuckles, too.

He also allowed wine-flavored ice cream to be made and sold in the state, to people over 21 who are interested in eating a gross-sounding dessert.

Wine ice cream is already being made by Mercer's and Glacé de Vino in flavors, or, excuse me, "varietals", like Peach White Zinfandel and Cherry Merlot.

But really, dairy plus wine? Ew. If you're going to add a frozen dessert to wine, I think sherbet would be better.

I have no problem with other kinds of booze in ice cream, though, like whiskey. I guess now is the time to trademark my signature dessert-drink college cafeteria recipe: the Frosty Wah™.

The Frosty Wah™ is made by sneaking a bottle of whiskey into a college cafeteria, or any setting in which you have access to a soft-serve ice cream dispenser, filling a glass about 2/3 of the way with vanilla soft-serve, then adding a bunch of whiskey. Stir and drink.

Actually, this is probably one of those disgusting drinks that you would only ever consider drinking if you are actually under 21. Like wine coolers.

But at least with the Frosty Wah™ you've got a reasonably high alcohol content. With this wine ice cream, you would need to eat two whole gallons of it to equal one glass of actual wine, according to Gothamist.

Some enterprising folks over at Ice Cream Ireland have developed a recipe for chocolate whiskey ice cream that sounds very delicious, though there's only a touch of whiskey per serving. Though if you use too much whiskey in ice cream it would probably mess up the freezing process.

So the next logical step is beer ice cream: here's a recipe for Guinness ice cream, and a NY Times article about a guy in Brooklyn who makes beer-infused ice cream, though it doesn't sound like it's literally ice cream made from beer. I'm happy with the traditional and delicious Guinness float.

June 23, 2008

WMD or single malt?

Whisky distillery

Ever wonder what secret WMD plants look like? They look like whiskey distilleries. Wired has a funny story today about our intelligence agencies and how they gather information about the chemical weapon development around the world.

Bruichladdich, a small whiskey producer on Islay in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, got an email one day from the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency (part of DoD), asking why their distillery webcam had recently gone offline.

Yikes. The folks at the whiskey company had a quiet heart attack, cleared out their bank accounts, smuggled their families out of the country, then nonchalantly emailed back asking why the DoD was interested in their non-threatening little distillery.

Someone in the Chemical Weapons department said they had been using the distillery's webcam as part of staff training because chemical weapon processes look very similar to the distilling process.

The distillery posted the story on their site, with emails from the DTRA agent who contacted them. Explaining her employer's interest in the distillery, the agent wrote a very friendly, non-Rumsfeldian email explaining the similarities between making whiskey and making WMDs:

"As part of a training class we went to a brewery for familiarization with reactors, batch processors, evaporators, etc. before going in the field. It just goes to show how "tweaks" to the process flow, equipment, etc., can create something very pleasant (whiskey) or deadly (chemical weapons)."

So, of course, Bruichladdich started producing "WMD 1 - The Weapons Inspectors" whiskey, and created a graphic to help the casual webcam surveiller distinguish between the two different kinds of WMDs:

Whisky of Mass Destruction

[click to enlarge]

[I just learned this story is several years old. Rats.]

June 17, 2008

In honor of OTB


Last weekend our city saw a dramatic, last-minute state takeover of New York's Off-Track Betting industry, which saved it from getting shut down. Thank you, Governor!

In honor of city's 68 betting outlets and 1,500 employees, I decided to exercise my hard-won wagering liberties and head to my local OTB to play some ponies.

The short version: it was pretty fun. The other people there were helpful and friendly, if not exactly interested in making small-talk. I made a bunch of bets and came out ahead by $5.25, and the OTB was overall not as depressing a place to spend a half-hour as you might think.

Having no idea how betting on horse races works, I completely relied on the guidance and patience of the staff at the OTB near my office. I learned a couple things from the very nice woman who got me set up: it's easiest to just tell the staff person at a betting window what races and horses you want to bet on rather than fill out a complicated lottery-ticket style card. You can bet on as many horses as you want in any given race, right up until about a minute before the race starts. There are television screens around the room that post details and odds for all the upcoming races at each of about 10 tracks.

screens at the OTB

About the atmosphere: I was the only woman in there, apart from 1 or 2 staff people. The rest of the 50 or 60 patrons represented a cross-section of male New Yorkers: all ages, races, nationalities, a few different languages, guys in baseball caps and jeans and guys in expensive-looking suits. Some were in and out in 10 minutes, some made themselves at home.

Between races, there was a lot of milling around, scrutiny of the Daily News racing charts, and conversations that went like this:

"I hate Delaware Park, it's just an awful track. I play that track, and if I had played the triple, I would have won $400. Instead I pick favorites who don't pay. Am I right?"

"Of course you're right. You're always right."

"Delaware sucks. It's a terrible track."

A nice Danny Glover look-alike who I sat next to compared picks with me, and we both won a bunch of cash on a horse non-ironically named Price of Freedom. He said he comes in there pretty regularly, but is also "trying to keep my marriage", so has to be careful. I asked him if he was glad the state kept all the parlors from closing, and he said he would have been relieved to see them close. No matter what had happened, you would still be able to bet online, he said, or call in bets, but the OTB outlets make it almost too easy to play too much.

Other guys were more openly enthusiastic that the outlets are still open, and one dude loudly thanked a teller at a window for making it through the negotiations and staying in business.

The OTB website has a lot of information about how to bet, how odds work (I have no idea what the mathematical basis is for this stuff, but if you're going to go to an OTB, just print out the odds page and bring it with you for reference) and the daily race schedules.

Betting on horses at an OTB reminded me a lot of playing craps at a casino: you can either figure out how to play the complicated way, like some of the serious players in there are doing, or just do it the simple way. You can make bets on sequences of horses or across a series of races, or you can play the easy way and just bet on a horse or two to win, then make some cash, then go to the nearest bar and feel secure in your fiscal responsibility because you are essentially drinking for free. Perfect!

UPDATE: It looks like the Daily News was at my local OTB yesterday, too. They interviewed a diverse bunch of players (including a retired Navy vet, a guy known as "Johnny Mac", and a preacher) who were generally not too excited about the 21% of their winnings that the state collects. I contributed $1 yesterday, part of the estimated additional $9 million the state will collect every year.

June 13, 2008

The mental world of children's merchandising

Here's what Strawberry Shortcake looked like in olden times of the 1980's:

Strawberry Shortcake, 1980's

Here's what she's looked like in recent years:

Strawberry Shortcake, 2000's

And here's her new look, unveiled earlier this week:

Strawberry Shortcake, 2008

The changing look of Strawberry makes me wonder--how do companies market toys and merchandise to small children who can't always verbalize their preferences as consumers? Do 6 year-old girls really want to own more Strawberry Shortcake stickers and sleeping bags if she looks like a skinny-armed anime character with swishy white-girl hair?

It seems like the dessert-themed Strawberry Shortcake series of dolls, which all had candy-scented plastic heads, would be an easy sell to any generation of kids, as long as they love candy. But in the interest of relaunching the brand with a whole new line of toys, clothes, and movies, the Times describes how American Greetings updated Strawberry Shortcake, which demonstrates that marketers don't even try to understand young minds. Here's how to rebrand a popular line of toys:

First, make up a nonsensical marketing concept phrase to describe the desired new image, which in this case downplays the candy-fixation of the old toys: "fruit-forward". (The Times writer manages to work the magnificently absurd "fruit-forward" into the article twice without a single smirky aside.)

Then, get together a group of product licensees and ask them to pick the new design they like best.

That's it.

Most of the old Strawberry Shortcake characters are still around for the relaunch, though Huckleberry Pie, the only boy in the group of friends, has been transformed from a goofy overall-wearing hayseed to a cool skater.

The head designer of the new line of toys notes that some characters "who didn’t immediately shout out fruit" have been phased out. One casualty of the fruit-forward revolution is Mint "rhymes with julep" Tulip, whose scented plastic doll head smelled like Jim Beam.

A few other attempts at rebranding children's toys that didn't work out: Loonatics, which were Bugs Bunny and crew restyled for the 21st century to be menacing and scary, and Earring Magic Ken, who wore a mesh T-shirt, purple leather vest, and one earring. The Times recalls, "The character drew howls from consumers, who did not see him as a realistic boyfriend for Barbie."

[tx T-Rock]

May 16, 2008

State motto bastardization

Williamsburg Edge NH state motto rip-off

This ad for a new luxury high-rise in Williamsburg has been floating around the local press for a while. This week it's in the Onion. It's the most egregious rip-off of New Hampshire's aggressively libertarian state motto I've ever seen, and it definitely makes me want to withhold my tax dollars that are probably subsidizing this steel and glass hunk of hideousness.

In an attempt to discourage the Williamsburg Edge developers from taking a hard-core, no-bullshit motto like "Live Free or Die" and using it as some kind of nonsensical hyperbole to promote their latest yuppie compound, might I suggest a few other state mottos they might use instead:

Paraphrase Ohio's motto: With Trust Funds, All Things Are Possible.

Or update the New Jersey state motto: Liberty and Prosperity (thanks, Dad!)

Better yet, use the original motto of the Republic of Texas: Remember Galapagos!

April 30, 2008

Disney and underage girls

It's been interesting watching the Disney reaction to the flap over Vanity Fair's tamely sexualized photograph of Disney star Miley Cyrus. Even though Miley willingly removed her shirt while posing for magazine pictures, she says she's "embarrassed" to have those pictures out there in the world for everybody on the planet to see. Who knows, maybe she reconsidered and really is embarrassed. Or maybe the producers of her show are trying (in vain) to maintain her squeaky-clean image.

Whatever change of heart Miley may or may not have had, Disney's response to the photos is totally clear: they blame Vanity Fair for exploiting their young star. Spokesperson Patti McTeague said, "A situation was created to deliberately manipulate a 15-year-old in order to sell magazines."

It's like Disney is just begging for someone to track down an instance of the company using sexualized images of young girls to promote their own products.

Slate contributor Daniel Brook is happy to oblige.

Brook dug out a photograph he took a few months ago in Beijing of a billboard ad for, of all things, a Disney bra-and-panties set intended for 12 year-olds. I have discreetly covered the potentially shocking areas of the ad with an emblem of unblemished virginal intactness (though the scaffolding in front of the billboard adds a disturbing, girl-in-cage kind of aspect) but you can click on the pic for the original version.

Disney bra and panties


Asked about how this ad manipulates a pre-teen girl in order to sell Mickey-themed underwear, another Disney spokesperson has been trying to rationalize. Yes, they approved the image, which was created by a Chinese licensee of their brand. And in Disney's defense, the spokesperson says that in China these kinds of images are "not unusual at all" (like they are over here...?)

March 18, 2008

Who's eating Cheetos™?

Bathtub full of Cheetos

Seth Stevenson over at Slate has done a good analysis of the new Cheetos ads that feature a newly sinister Chester the Cheetah, voiced by someone who sounds just like Peter O'Toole, urging Cheetos snackers to use their food as mischief implements.

Some of them are funny, especially the cubicle menacer one, and those shots of Chester massaging the languid flight attendant's shoulders are really hilarious.

But here's something strange: what inspired Cheetos to launch this new adult-oriented ad campaign on cable channels is that they found out, to their surprise, that 60% of Cheetos eaters are adults. They had always assumed that kids eat more Cheetos, hence the cartoony Chester character and the elementary-level design of their website.

I'm surprised it's not MORE than 60%. Frito-Lay, who makes Cheetos, apparently forgot that most of the world is made up of adults, and we love our orange snack foods, too. Kids are more likely to focus on candy in their gas station shopping trips, I think, leaving us adults to make up most of the Cheeto, Combo, and Cheez-It salty/cheesy snack market.

A partner at the ad agency that created the ads says that adults who eat Cheetos are somehow transgressive: "You're supposed to be eating arugula dip, but you have a nonconforming desire" to eat junk food. Huh? Has he looked at the size of the butts populating America lately? Eating bags of Cheetos looks pretty mainstream to me. Also, "arugula dip"? Maybe he meant artichoke dip. Either way, Frito-Lay has been missing their primary demographic all along: grown-ups wallowing in extended adolescence, stoners, and Jared Leto.

Stevenson says that the ads are memorable enough to make him more likely to buy Cheetos in the future, "next time I'm drunk and in a convenience store."

March 4, 2008

Putting the "Hell" in Hell's Kitchen

Bourbon Street bar in Hell's Kitchen

From the late '90's until about 2005, Hell's Kitchen was the up-and-coming neighborhood that had a bunch of good local restaurants, some ancient and appealingly crumbling bars, and the barber shop, wholesale greengrocer, and shoe repair shop that had been there since the LaGuardia administration.

Now, it seems like it's segued directly from up-and-coming to a horrific combination of yuppie-fied wine bars and mass-produced tourist garbage, with an overpriced baby clothes store or two thrown in.

For example: What's that new construction going up on West 46th?

Bourbon Street bar

It's Bourbon Street Bar and Grille, which looks like it's part of a college-town nightlife franchise that already has branches in places like Flint, Michigan and Schenectady.

There's already something called Bourbon St NYC on the UWS that looks pretty bad (though I can't entirely reject 50 cent Coors Light), but the logo is different, so I guess this is some other, pre-theater-oriented Bourbon Street.

The bright side: maybe Bourbon Street will bring a critical mass of recent grads to puke up turquoise fishbowls all over the Restaurant Row sidewalk, which will halt the flow of tourists that's been trickling farther west to 9th Avenue.

January 25, 2008

Hey Palestine, let's go shopping!

Palestinians shop!

Life's been tough in Gaza lately. The people are ruled by a militant regime, there's at least 50% unemployment, and even if you have some money it's hard to buy food, medicine, gas, appliances, and pretty much everything else you would want.

Which is why it's been nice to see the tens of thousands of Palestinians flooding across the breached border into Egypt yesterday and today in an unbridled frenzy of consumerism. An economic analyst quoted by AP estimates that Gazans have spent $130 million in Egypt since Wednesday.

Egypt is moving toward controlling the shoppers eager to buy anything local vendors have to offer, but news reports suggest that until tonight, no one was doing much to stop them from coming in, and Hamas isn't taxing any goods they bring back. One Egyptian official estimates that 120,000 Palestinians are in Egypt, buying all the TVs, cigarettes, goats, generators, and potato chips (with special inflated prices) they can carry from the Egyptian border town they're temporarily being allowed into.

But of course, some resourceful Palestinians are taking this opportunity to experience other aspects of urban life they don't usually have access to. The Times interviewed Muhammad al-Hirakly, 22, while he was in line to ride the bumper cars at an amusement park. He and his friends were going to try to get all the way to Cairo, "to see the big city and our family there, and also the girls," he said. "It's the most fun we've had in years."

An older visitor took a more philosophical view of his moment of freedom:

Adel al-Mighraky, 54, was returning to Rafah... "We were like birds in a cage," he said. Once the door is open, he said, "birds will fly away as fast as they can — this is what we did. But what kind of bird has to go back to its cage after it was freed?"

Olmert and Abbas are meeting this weekend, and there are rumors that Israel might let the Palestinians take control of the Gaza borders, which have been pretty much totally closed since June. After seeing how happy a brief, overpriced shopping spree can make residents of Gaza, I hope the Israelis can recognize that despite our differences, we're all consumers at heart.

January 23, 2008

A Hell's Kitchen Economics lesson

 Olde English 800

Today the Times covered Eliot Spitzer's proposal for increasing NY state revenues for the coming year, which is a strange blend of encouraging some problem behaviors for residents (thousands of video gambling machines installed at the racetracks) while trying to discourage other problems (raising taxes on malt liquor and, weirdly enough, illegal drugs.)

But the political is personal, and the Times is at its best when it captures the reactions of regular New Yorkers to otherwise dull legislative proposals.

So they went into businesses along 10th Avenue in Hell's Kitchen, a neighborhood where people love their 40s, which nobody knows better than bodega workers.

"It's bad for the people," said Niff Alaradem 29, a clerk at Clinton Gourmet Market, at 46th Street and 10th Avenue. "You see so many alcoholic people, it's all they drink, Colt 45, Olde English, everything. They take one of these big bottles and it's dinner."

The Times asked some local residents what they thought about Spitzer's plan--specifically, his proposal to raise the tax on malt liquor from 11 cents to $2.54 per gallon. The responses they got perfectly illustrate a number of key economic concepts:

Regressive Tax: "It's messed up, it's wrong!" said Darryl, who looked as though he was in his 50s and was bundled up against the cold. "You got mostly poor people like me buying malt liquor."

Inelastic Demand: Roman Isre, 28, a barber at Erik’s Barber Shop on 10th Avenue, said he bought malt liquor once or twice a week. "That's bad!" Mr. Isre said when told about Mr. Spitzer’s proposals. Would he buy less malt liquor? Mr. Isre smiled. "Nah. You got to do what you got to do," he said. "It’s like gas. You drive the same mileage for $2 a gallon or $3.50 a gallon."

Cost-Benefit Analysis: A and A Market and Deli, at 45th Street and 10th Avenue, used to sell as many as 40 cases of malt liquor a week, but it became too bothersome to stock. "We have arguments here, very loud arguments," said Mustafa Saleh, 27, the deli’s manager. "They don't want to pay." When customers did pay, it was annoying, he said. "They paid in change," he said, "$2.50 in nickels, dimes and pennies; that’s the kind of money they have."

You can argue that raising the price of a 40 through taxes will encourage people to stop drinking so many of them, but my guess is that this population isn't likely to respond to higher prices by quitting drinking. If anything, they'll just switch to beer, which will continue to be taxed at a lower rate due to its lower alcohol content.

But they won't be happy about it! Darryl, the bundled-up 50 year-old, was asked why he bought malt liquor rather than beer: "Darryl looked quizzically at a reporter and replied, 'You get twice as much, and it’s got a bigger kick to it.'" Smart shopper.

January 9, 2008

Patton Oswalt eats a KFC Famous Bowl™

Someone over at the A.V. Club had the brilliant idea of getting Patton Oswalt to actually eat a KFC Famous Bowl™, the fast food metaphor for a world that has totally given up: "America has spoken - pile my food in a fucking bowl."

This is akin to getting TLC to go on a date with a scrub, or having Amy Winehouse spend a week in rehab.

So he wrote about it, and it's funny.

First, some photographic documentation. KFC's assertion as to what its Famous Bowl™ looks like:

KFC Famous Bowl

Patton Oswalt's actual Famous Bowl™:

Patton Oswalt's KFC Famous Bowl

And a few descriptions of his experience eating it:

The gravy, which I remembered as being tangy and delicious in my youth, tasted like the idea of blandness, but burned and then salted to cover the horrid taste. The mashed potatoes defiantly stood their ground against the gravy, as if they'd read The Artist's Way and said, "I'm going to be boring and forgetful in my own potato-y way!" The corn tasted like it had been dunked in fake-corn-flavored ointment, and the popcorn chicken, breaded to the point of parody, was like chewing a cotton sleeve that someone had used to wipe chicken grease off their chin.

If you haven't ever seen his KFC Famous Bowl™ bit, you can watch it here:

Patton Oswalt doing standup

December 19, 2007

The future of music, according to David Byrne and Thom Yorke

David Byrne and Thom Yorke hanging out

The good folks at Wired completely understand what people like me want in this world: they got David Byrne to interview Thom Yorke about the digital release of the Radiohead album, the future of music, and pretty much everything that's strange, wrong and/or interesting about the music industry.

It's not too long, worth reading. There are also lots of audio snippets of their conversation. But here are a few highlights:

  • Radiohead made about $3 million from download sales of the "In Rainbows" album, which is more than they have ever made from all digital sales of their earlier albums combined.
  • This is probably because EMI, their former label, gave them exactly $0 for digital sales of their music. Wow.
  • David Byrne makes most of his money from licensing. Radiohead make most of theirs from touring. Albums sales hardly enter into it.
  • In spite of everything, both guys still think releasing albums, rather than a song here and there, makes sense. Yorke: "Songs can amplify each other if you put them in the right order." He says it would have been snobby not to release an actual CD of their album.
  • This is probably already obvious to everyone, but Thom Yorke explains it well: The old system where labels sent advance copies of CDs to the media so the albums could be reviewed in the press pre-release was all for the goal of making albums chart high in the first week they were released, which nobody really cares about besides labels--bands or fans sure don't. And this very practice is what allowed (and encouraged) people to leak and download music pre-release, which has largely brought about the nosedive in CD sales over the past few years. You manipulate the fans, they bite you in the ass.
  • Best part of the interview: both guys realizing that record labels are spending all their time worrying about distribution and DRM and licensing and suing people if they think they're getting ripped off-- which is all just "the delivery system". They have forgotten why people buy music in the first place. Byrne says, "people will still pay to have that experience"--connecting with music they love. Yes, yes, yes.

Great stuff.

In related news, MTV calls 2007 The Year The Industry Broke, with a blow-by-blow recap of all the events signaling the end of the music industry as we know it. There are a lot.

December 11, 2007

Networks are screwed

30 Rock Judah Friedlander

The WGA strike has been going on for over a month now, and nothing's going on with negotiations to suggest we'll get our TV back any time soon. The Daily News gave a rundown today of how many episodes are left for a bunch of shows.

It's mostly looking pretty bad. For shows that you might actually watch, we've got "30 Rock" with 2 remaining shows, ""Ugly Betty" has 3, "My Name Is Earl" has 1, and "The Office" and "Heroes" are already out. "Scrubs" has 5. Shows that I can hardly believe are still on the air, like "Smallville" (7 episodes) and "Las Vegas" (8!) seem to be doing OK. And two new shows that I don't believe anybody in America has ever watched, "Cavemen" and "Carpoolers", are both good through February with 8 episodes left each, but I think we can assume that once those run out they'll be gone forever.

"Lost" has 8 episodes done, so when the next season finally starts we'll all have plenty of time to start watching, get into it for a week or two, become disillusioned when it inevitably starts sucking again, vow to stop watching, and then maybe grudgingly catch the last episode before it goes off the air again. Just like last year. The website doesn't list a season premiere date, but suggests it might be sometime in February.

Meanwhile, advertising is tanking. Maybe the viewing public has already given up on the networks and is devoting all its time to watching the Superbad DVD and trying to sit through that terrible "Tin Man" miniseries on SciFi. Poor beleaguered NBC has had to pay its advertisers back $500,000 for each show that failed to make ratings, which I think is pretty much all the shows it has. The only show they have that makes the Top 20 is "Law & Order: SVU", and they only have 4 episodes left of that one.

Reality shows are still going full speed ahead, since those writers aren't in the union. But surprisingly enough, a TV marketing exec tells Reuters "too much reality just doesn't play well with advertisers," so NBC can make all the "Celebrity Apprentice" episodes it wants and still not bring in much money.

Some good TV news: "The Wire" will be back on HBO in January, and CBS is going to air a new miniseries in January called "Comanche Moon". It's based on a Larry McMurtry novel, the prequel to "Lonesome Dove", and stars Steve Zahn and Karl Urban as the two rapscallion Texas Rangers Gus and Woodrow. It's by the same director as the "Lonesome Dove" miniseries from 1989, and should be pretty great.

November 19, 2007

This motherfucking, motherfucking, motherfucking strike

Alec and Jerry

As ever, Alec Baldwin is a mad genius. On his latest Huffington Post entry , about Ryan Gosling's brilliance, how much he hates George Bush, and various other disconnected topics, he says:
I miss my make-up artist, Stacey Panepinto. I miss my hairstylist, Richard Esposito. I miss all of the 30 ROCK cast and crew, who I don't see anymore because of this motherfucking, motherfucking, motherfucking strike.

October 29, 2007

Where Gap Kids clothes come from

Gap Product Red campaign

Gap just can't seem to shake its problem with child labor. The UK's Observer reported over the weekend that an Indian subcontractor producing Gap's line of clothing for children was using children, purchased as slaves, to make the clothes. What a coincidence!

Children as young as little Abigail Breslin, Gap model, were found working at a sweatshop in New Delhi making girls' embroidered tops. And: they weren't getting paid. From AP: "The Observer quoted one boy identified only as Jivaj as saying that child employees who cried or did not work hard enough were hit with a rubber pipe or had oily cloths stuffed into their mouths."

Rather than claim this as part of an innovative approach to developing new markets for its children's products, Gap said it has no idea, finds the allegations "deeply upsetting", and is investigating.

The Observer also reports that India is the child labor capital of the world: "According to one estimate, more than 20 per cent of India's economy is dependent on children, the equivalent of 55 million youngsters under 14."

Even though they've been through the ringer over unscrupulous labor practices before, Gap keeps manufacturing its clothes in India when it knows that child labor is a common occurrence there. It's this kind of indifference to human rights that makes the company's attempt at social responsibility via its (PRODUCT) RED campaign so transparent and phony. [note: clothes for the RED campaign are made in Africa, not India. That doesn't let them off the hook. It's the principle of the thing.]

Can one kid change the world? Sure, but not by manufacturing an embroidered blouse, and sure as hell not by buying a red t-shirt.

October 25, 2007

Eat at Applebee's or Wanda Sykes will yell at you

Applebee's apple ad

The Times reports today that the casual dining industry is suffering this year, possibly because of shrinking discretionary budgets and better, healthier options available at cheaper places like McDonald's. Or maybe Americans have finally realized that paying $16.49 for a microwaved plate of soggy chicken cutlet topped with salsa from a jar and a blend of "American and Mexican cheeses" (aka Friday's "Sizzling Chicken & Cheese" entree) is a rip-off.

Time for a new ad campaign! Restaurants like Applebee's, Chili's, IHOP, and Outback Steakhouse have all hired new agencies, and a new Applebee's campaign launches this Sunday.

The new Applebee's ads feature Wanda Sykes as a sassy-talking apple that bitches at people eating alone at their desks to get their asses over to Applebee's with their friends. Sounds like a great formula for people who love getting told what to do by bossy black women! The Times had a great article last year about the probably offensive caricature of feisty, overweight black women being overused in ads, so maybe Applebee's wanted to recast the feisty black woman as an apple as a new, fresh expression of a tired old stereotype.

And, even better--Lori Senecal, the general manager of the ad agency, says, "We’re going to be the advocate for people 'togetherizing.'" The Times points out that this is "a made-up word".

October 10, 2007

Watch your back, Six Flags!

Visit NYC

Today Bloomberg's global tourism campaign, This is New York City, launched its new ad [video]. As far as making New York look like a fun, safe, clean, non-snobby place for regular Americans to visit, it's a great ad. I love the Ella Fitzgerald soundtrack (a remix, but still) and the plug for "Avenue Q". And as a friend who watched it commented, on video you can't smell the urine! [NY Times on the launch].

But selfishly, I can't stand the way it makes New York look like an amusement park. All the animated versions of real-life icons (like the Flatiron building turned, mysteriously, into an animated wedge of cake, or the Bobblehead Yankees pitcher) seem to downplay New York as a big (potentially scary) city where real people actually live and go about their daily lives, and turn it into a cartoon.

And the posters that go along with the video (above)? "Just another day" in New York isn't daily life at all--it's Disney World!

I completely understand this campaign. If New York is going to attract 5 million more tourists every year by 2015, which is what Bloomberg wants to do, we're competing with Disney World and Busch Gardens. We have to make the city look appealing in the same way those places are appealing. These ads do a great job of that.

But for those of us who live and work here, it just means millions more tourists who wander around five-across on 7th Avenue at 5:45 PM, randomly stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to fuss with their cameras or say "Do we want Sbarro's or Olive Garden?" to each other. When tourists are successfully sold on New York as a tourist attraction just like Disney World, I think it subtly encourages them to treat sidewalks and subway entrances the same way they would treat the food court area at Six Flags, with little awareness that New York is a real city with regular people in it, not just other tourists.

If I decided to hang out with my friends in a cluster or set up my hot dog cart in the middle of some suburban person's driveway at 8:30 AM, blocking their car when they were trying to go to work, I don't think they'd like it.

OK. It's a good-looking video. And as my friend Trashrock, who lives in Washington, DC, points out, it's a whole lot better than the DC tourism promotion video.

Check this out [video]. It is ridiculous. Senators shaking hands? Laura Bush singing? Trent Lott? Oh my god. Did John McCain direct this thing? Thank you, Mayor Bloomberg, I love our Disney video now.

October 1, 2007

Radiohead is their own music industry

Radiohead In Rainbows

The big music news today is that, after a week of mysterious messages on a cryptic website, Radiohead has announced that their new album, In Rainbows, will be available October 10.

But here's the interesting stuff: they're not signed to a record label anymore, so they're releasing it themselves. And they're releasing it as an mp3 download (DRM-free, thank you very much!) Later this year, you'll also be able to buy an $80+ package that includes an album CD, a whole CD of extra tracks, the album on vinyl, the download of the album, and a lot of cool-looking artwork that you will probably love if you're a really serious fan.

But if you just want the album, you can purchase the download from their website... for whatever price you want. You can pre-order it now.

Few other bands could pull this off. Radiohead has enough fans that they don't need a label to promote them, and letting people name their own price for mp3's will probably only make the world love them more. And by letting listeners have a high-quality, DRM-free copy of the album for basically making a donation, they've done one of the only things a band can do to seriously dissuade people from leaking and downloading illegal copies of the album. The die-hards will shell out for the fancy CD/vinyl/mp3 package, and a whole lot of other people will give a few bucks (or whatever) directly to the band. Pretty easy to feel good about that, isn't it?

If you'd rather have the CD, you can wait until early next year and buy it, presumably for regular price.

It's another blow for the music industry. And what are they going to do about it, not include Radiohead's newest album on the charts? Who cares? Radiohead should go on tour with Prince and throw bricks through Capitol Records' windows.

It would be an interesting study of the economics of fandom to see the range of prices people choose to pay for the album. If no one will ever find out what a cheap bastard you are, would you just pay 10 cents? If you love Radiohead and support their campaign to further dismantle the record industry, but don't have to pay full iTunes-scale price for the download, would you still pay $10 for it? [Note: there is a transaction fee for downloading the album of 45p, about $1.]

OK, time to participate in some rockonomics market research!

How much did you pay for the Radiohead album?

Answer in the comments. Be honest!

September 6, 2007

Now you can be a patriot AND an elitist

Made in USA

Remember when campaigns trying to get people to Buy American were mostly Wal-Mart territory and made you think of eagle-emblazoned sweatshirts and visors with flags on them?

Today, the NY Times tells us that the fashionable liberal elite has embraced Made in USA products. The local food movement, the high carbon footprint generated by buying European bottled water, and toxic Chinese toys have all inspired the urban cognoscenti to start supporting some domestic companies, particularly when their products are more expensive than foreign ones.

Price seems to be the determining factor when wealthy people decide it's cool to buy American; as the Times says, "It is hard to imagine, say, that people who tote reusable cotton bags to Whole Foods will ditch their beloved Saabs for an American-made Chevrolet Cobalt." But $1,250 custom-made bikes, designer t-shirts with flags on the tags, or top of the line New Balance sneakers with big USA logos? Sold! Conspicuous consumers are suddenly turning into a bunch of flag-waving patriots.

But this is still a pretty recent demographic shift for the Buy American market. Many products that proudly display their Americanness might be a little too patriotic for those who are really just "people wanting to have guilt-free affluence,” as Alex Steffen, editor of a sustainability website, calls them.

Yes, the less prestigious side of "Made in USA" is still with us--it's not all hand-painted sustainably-harvested wooden toy trucks. You can still be outrageously tacky while spending an assload of money on showing the world that your purchases are not just more mass-market knockoffs from China:

Hyper-patriotic car:

Flag gown:

Flag iPod case:

Flag jewels:

America, fuck yeah!

August 31, 2007

Niche dating

Yesterday we noticed that the usual JDate billboard on the corner of Broadway and 47th had been replaced by a new ad for


JDate billboard


Black Singles billboard

Hm! Did JDate's lease on the space run out, and another dating service, eager to attract the attention of single tourists waiting in line at the Olive Garden who have some very culturally-specific dating preferences, snapped it up?

Or could the same company operate both services?

Yep, it's Spark Networks, a provider of online personals for, as they put it, "likeminded" singles to connect. Now that and Craig's List have been totally overrun by hookers and phone sex lines, this company covers the spectrum of identity politics in dating.

They've got religiously oriented sites, like JDate, Catholic Mingle, Christian Mingle, Baptist Singles Connection, Adventist Singles Connection and both the Mormon MySpace-y LDS Mingle and the somewhat more cut-to-the-chase LDS Singles.

You can screen your future sexual partners by race and ethnicity with sites for people of Asian, Greek, Italian, and Latino descent, and the all-American Interracial Singles. Some sites make some culture assumptions about the purpose of dating, like the Indian site called Indian Matrimonial Network which "facilitates Indian dating and marriage". There are sites for deaf people, college students, military personnel, old people, single parents, and people who want to get busy within the next 15 minutes. And of course, a site for people who admire big beautiful women (BBW Personals Plus).

With one company representing all these different kinds of people, how culturally sensitive can each site really be? It seems like they've tried in most cases to use language on each site that will appeal to each niche, with the Catholic dating service sort of confusingly described as "clean, safe, and fun" but not surprisingly with nothing in there about God, while Christian Mingle offers the chance to meet "singles that share your values and love for God in Christ." And the College Luv site's tagline-- "Sign up, Look up, Hook up!"-- shows an intimate understanding of its target demographic.

What about sites for gay people? This is interesting. There is no gay dating site on Spark Networks, and almost all the sites only include searches for heterosexual dating. The exceptions are College Luv (young people aren't as uptight maybe?), Hurry Date (because people who want to get laid ASAP are of all persuasions), American Singles (for people who are so bland they don't have any niche identity), and JDate! Good old non-homophobic JDate. The gay Christians out there can stick to the Minneapolis airport men's room, I guess.

August 23, 2007

NY Daily News: Plan B a big success among tramps, jerks

Plan B ad

Barr Pharmaceuticals announced that one year after making their morning-after contraception pill Plan B available over the counter, sales have doubled, reaching $80 million! Judging from their predictions last year, this is better than they expected, but still isn't exactly a blockbuster drug (Viagra's at about $800 million.)

Doubling sales of emergency contraception is sort of a murky cause for celebration, though. It's great than more women have access to Plan B (unless, of course, they're under 18 or don't have any ID) and can prevent unwanted pregnancies, which is what NARAL and Planned Parenthood are stressing. But Plan B still has a lot of enemies among anti-contraception people and some pro-lifers, and they're looking for data that suggests that making Plan B easier to get encourages irresponsible sex.

"Over-the-counter access has not increased or encouraged sexual activity," says Traci Perry of Planned Parenthood of New York City. She stresses that emergency contraception is a method of backup protection such as when a condom breaks.

OK sure, but how do women use Plan B in real life? The Daily News has an article on Plan B's one year anniversary, which seems intentionally written to destroy the argument that access to contraception doesn't encourage risky behavior. It begins with this personal anecdote:

"When I started dating this dude, it was a hassle to get an appointment with the gynecologist, so I used it weekly for about a month," confesses Kendra, a 24-year-old New Yorker. "I'd have unprotected sex, then go and blow $60 on EC [emergency contraception]."

Whoa, Kendra, a whole month of emergencies! You or your dude ever hear about condoms? I can just see the Family Research Council's press office carefully clipping this article to add to their "Promiscuous Liberals" binder.

Later on in their article, the Daily News reminds us that even if Plan B is available to most women without a prescription, you still have to ask a surly pharmacist to hand it to you from behind the counter:

Phoebe, 25, recently asked for Plan B at her local suburban pharmacy. "A male pharmacist gave me the look down, then asked me how old I was. He was overtly unfriendly," she says. "Usually, they put it in a bag to respect the purchaser's privacy. He just handed it to me in front of a long line. It felt intrusive and embarrassing."

Yuck. What is going on, Daily News? Last year they published an editorial complaining that Plan B was "being held hostage to politics" while the FDA took forever to approve OTC sales, and now they make it sound like a humiliating drug for sluts. Can we get some Plan B pride, or at least one "I am so stoked not to be pregnant!" story?

August 21, 2007

MTV and Rhapsody: taking digital music a few steps back

MTV and Rhapsody

MTV announced today that they're scrapping Urge and teaming up with an online music service you've probably never heard of called Rhapsody to offer digital music to its viewers. Membership plans under the new partnership haven't been announced yet, but of all the online music download services I've ever seen, Rhapsody's looks like the worst. The service is part of Real Networks, the people who brought you the worst media player of all time, RealPlayer.

Here's the offer: you pay $12.99 a month, and can listen to all the music you want on your computer. But no downloading or anything. If you want to download music, it costs $14.99 per month, and you can then download your music onto a Rhapsody-compatible MP3 player, which does not includes iPods.

And if you want to download a song onto your computer, it costs another 89 cents per track! After you've already paid 15 bucks a month just to put music on your cruddy-looking SansaRhapsody MP3 player, you have to pay again if you want to be able to burn a song onto a CD! You can also download your songs onto your cellphone, but only if you have a contract with Verizon.

And of course it goes without saying that even these purchased tracks come with DRM that limits copying to 5 computers (with the exception of Universal, who are offering their songs without restrictions starting today.)

What kind of deal is that? Considering that the other big news today in online music is that Wal-Mart is offering DRM-free downloads for a mere 94 cents each, MTV/Rhapsody isn't looking so tempting. A year ago Rhapsody had only 4% of the online music market share, so they've got a lot of work to do.

MTV is assuming that people are going to keep buying bigger and better combined phones and MP3 players. Wired bets that the next big iPhone-related announcement from Apple will be that iTunes tracks can be downloaded wirelessly with an iPhone, since that seems to be the main thing iTunes can't do yet.

July 23, 2007

McDonald's introduces the Hugo

Hurley, aka Hugo, aka McDonald's drink size

After some well-publicized flirtation with healthy food options, McDonald's has returned to doing what it does best, which the New York Times describes as "making people fat." After phasing out its Supersize menu in 2004, they have now started offering basically the exact same insulin-busting drink size of 42 oz., and they're calling it "Hugo".

A brilliant marketing strategy. Hugo, aka Hurley, is one of Lost's most lovable characters, maybe the most appealing morbidly obese person on television. OK, drinking a lot of Hugo-sized sodas (410 calories each! Before you even eat a single fry!) will definitely make you fat, but you'll be an adorable, funny, cuddly, Hugo kind of fat.

Now McDonald's can rebrand their ranch dressing--no more of that lame 170 calorie Newman's Own crap! And since we're all just giving up on salads and apple dippers, they might as well start selling candy bars, too.

June 18, 2007

This ad is too sexy

Trojan pig ad

Trojan, which already has a whopping 75% of the condom market, has developed a new ad campaign featuring a bunch of pigs trying unsuccessfully to hit on women in a bar, and one handsome man with a condom in his pocket who looks like he might get lucky. This is a picture of the print ad (the version that will run in women's magazines), and you can watch the TV ad at the Trojan site.

It's a cute ad, maybe a little hard on unprepared guys while not expecting that women should carry condoms of their own, but it's hardly salacious. CBS and Fox, however, both thought it was unsuitable for their viewing audiences. CBS said it was inappropriate even for late-night audiences, and Fox's prim little policy for condom ads is this: "Contraceptive advertising must stress health-related uses rather than the prevention of pregnancy."

This is so funny, and so insane. If only there were some way to prevent the spread of HIV and other diseases without violating the precious culture of life so sacred to Fox viewers! The VP of Marketing for LifeStyles says, in a NY Times article about the ad, "We always find it funny that you can use sex to sell jewelry and cars, but you can’t use sex to sell condoms." Fox had no problem with Paris Hilton selling burgers by washing/fucking a car in heels in the goofy-sexy ad that they aired during "The O.C." [video].

For the benefit of CBS and Fox's delicate audiences, let's keep promotion of condom usage on the same public health PSA level as having your cholesterol checked or getting a flu shot. Sex is for making babies, right? Just look at shows such as CBS' "Two and a Half Men" (Parents Television Council's Worst Show of the Week for a genuinely offensive episode last year.)

May 17, 2007

NYT Styles section: if you're a woman, your life sucks

Miserable women in the NYT

Here are some articles featured in today's woman-hating Styles section in the New York Times:

"Mr. Right, It Turns Out, Does Not Take Classes"
This piece examines single women in New York who want to find a man, but are unable to, because no matter how many interests they develop or classes they take or in any other way try to "get out there", there aren't any men to meet. "Where are they?" asked Wendy Hill, who has taken architecture classes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and has joined singles groups and getaways. "Where do they go?"

"After Baby, Boss Comes Calling"
In this article, professional, upper-middle class women who have quit their jobs when they have children struggle to find meaningful work when they decide to start working again. This is by Lisa Belkin, who wrote "The Opt-Out Revolution" a few years ago as part of the Times' trend in covering the plight of wealthy women who can actually decide whether they feel like having a job or not. Anyway, aside from the glaring class issues that articles like this persist in ignoring, the piece points out that more employers are making modest allowances for their workers to have flexible schedules or work part-time, which is good for working mothers and everybody else, too.

The problem I have with this article is the Note to Readers: "Life’s Work, a column about workplace trends and office culture, which has run most recently in Sunday Business, today moves to Thursday Styles." Yes, workplace issues, as they relate to women, are better suited to the goddamn Styles section.

"Secret Ingredient: Their Husbands"
Here we find an article about women who actually are successful entrepreneurs (written about, again, in the Styles section) but the only reason they seem to be getting any ink about their businesses is that their husbands are celebrities. We learn about Mrs. Dustin Hoffman, Mrs. Ron Wood, Mrs. Patrick Dempsey, and Mrs. Prince, and their lines of beauty products and decorative candles that, with the help of inexhaustible personal capital investment and built-in publicity, have been remarkably successful. "The husband’s participation in the promotion is not expected, but if it happens, it’s very nice," says a SVP at Bergdorf Goodman, which stocks many of these wives' products. "There’s no denying the public’s appetite for association with celebrity."

So let's see what today's Styles section tells women about the reality of their lives:

1) if you're single in NYC, you'll sign up for Olympic-distance Triathlon training classes out of your desperation to get a man, but forget it, because you'll never get one;

2) if you're lucky enough to get married and you stop working to have kids, it will be really hard for you to find good work again, and while you're trying to get a job, people will take the challenges you face about as seriously as they take everything else that gets written up in the Styles section;

3) if you do actually establish a successful business for yourself, it's probably because you're married to someone who is rich and famous, and some significant portion of your success will be attributable to his name recognition.

Yeah! You've come a long way, baby!

March 20, 2007

Coors Light asks, why wait till 5:00 to start drinking?

It's 4:53! Start drinking!

In a brilliant advertising campaign combining interactive online media and a slack work ethic, Coors is planning to introduce its new Silver Bullet Express Beer Train to Happy Hour. Which now starts at 4:53.

In creating these ads, Coors noticed that their target consumers, men ages 21-34, do almost all of their online reading at work, and between 3 and 6. Since these guys have already indicated their feelings on the relative importance of doing their jobs late in the workday and, say, reading, the strategy for selling beer to them pretty much designs itself. Regular readers are practically begging Coors Light to launch a speeding beer train across their screens at 4:53 PM local time, signalling that it really is OK for them to have completely given up on productivity for the day, because it's already happy hour!

Avenue A/Razorfish, the agency that designed the 4:53 online beer train, says the ads will also include a Happy Hour Countdown clock. The train and clock will presumably trigger a Pavlovian response in industrious drinker-workers, and give them enough time to get out of the office, down to a bar, and actually be pouring a Coors Light down their gullets by 5:00.

"It’s getting back to the roots, back to a brand promise of cold refreshment," says a VP at Draft FCB, the agency that designed the TV ads that will tie-in with the 4:53 train. Solid American roots of cold refreshment and a 7-minute shorter workday.

March 14, 2007

FDA backs Patrick Kennedy: sleeping pills can make you sleep-drive

Patrick Kennedy after car crash

The FDA announced today that all prescription sleeping pills can, in rare instances, cause those who take them to engage in "complex sleep-related behaviors" including driving. This supports Patrick Kennedy, who crashed his car in Washington, DC last spring after taking Ambien, Phenergan (not a sleeping pill), and, according to the staff at Capital Hill bar the Hawk & Dove, maybe a few drinks.

Only about a dozen reports of sleep-driving while on insomnia medication have made it to the FDA, but they think it's happening a lot more, which is probably true. Other sleep activity that these pills can cause include less dangerous but significantly more bizarre activities, like making phone calls, fixing and eating food, and having sex while still asleep (I'd bet these kinds of things happen a lot more often than sleep-driving, but there is no way people are going to tell their doctor about it.) Drug manufacturers will now have to put warnings of potential dangerous side effects on these "sedative-hypnotics".

So even though you're not supposed to drink while taking Ambien, it sounds like Kennedy was telling the truth when he said that he had no memory of driving or crashing his car that night. His claim to the police at the scene of the accident that he was "headed to the Capital to make a vote" at 3:00 AM is weird enough to make me believe that he was having some episode of sleepwalking, and wasn't just really drunk and incoherent as many people assumed.

He was also prescribed both of those drugs, though maybe now doctors will be more careful about recommending mixing two drugs that both act as sedatives.

Given this new FDA statement, it may not have been appropriate for Kennedy to plead guilty to driving under the influence of drugs that he was prescribed, or to have gotten a year's probation. This incident did also prompt him to go to rehab for a month for a supposed addiction to pain medication (who knows how/if that figures into the car crash), and he has an admittedly long history of addiction problems, but the car crash itself doesn't look like a crime.

Related: NYT article featuring many totally crazy stories of Ambien-related somnulent behavior (from before the Kennedy incident);
Ambien makes you compusively sleep-eat

March 13, 2007

Most irritating restaurant in NYC closed for health code violations

Coffee Shop closed

In what is surely the best unintended consequence of the KFC/Taco Bell rats video, Union Square restaurant Coffee Shop, that even the New York Times is savvy enough to call "once-hip", has been closed for scoring 120 points in Health Department violations.

The restaurant, where you've probably seen the outside seating area infested with vermin incredibly snotty looking scenester-types every time the temperature rises above 45 degrees, got closed last Wednesday, failed a follow-up inspection on Friday, and as of yesterday, was still closed. Heh.

And check out these quotes from the Times article. The writer obviously hates this restaurant as much as I do:

"People are pretty shocked," said Nicole Watts, who stood outside the restaurant yesterday afternoon wearing large sunglasses, a wool shawl and cowboy boots. She had made plans to meet a makeup artist there at 3 p.m. "It’s a meeting about the video we’re shooting for my jewelry line," she said.

"I’ve seen a lot of people walk up and read the signs in the window," Ms. Watts added. "People are pretty shocked."

Sean Thomas, tall, blond and ruddy, and wearing a colorful scarf tied jauntily around his neck, said he had gone to the Coffee Shop each time he visited from London, where he owns a clothing company called White Stuff (slogan: "Lovely Clothes for Lovely People"). "To be honest, I’ve had some good food here and I’ve had some bad food," he said. "I’ve had great margaritas here. It’s just a fun, stylish, sort of buzzy place."

[This next part is just genius] Mr. Thomas turned on his heel and left with his two female companions in search of another place to have lunch. Mike Bael, a squat man with frizzy hair in a ponytail, was standing nearby and said: "I’ve always found it to be an incredibly snobbish place. If you look like that guy, you get served fine. My wife and I always get stuck in the back near a bunch of loud families and have to wait forever to get our order taken. The food’s O.K. One time we looked around and all the people with scarves and British accents were in the front."

The health violations were all for improper refrigeration of food; no sign of rodent infestation. Just far too many tall, blond people with scarves and British accents.

February 27, 2007

YouTube ruins it for everyone

no more Twisted Sister

Great post on Fimoculous yesterday about YouTube and the death of video culture. Remember when YouTube was still an exciting new resource that totally changed the way people thought about once obscure material, music videos, clips from tv shows and movies? When you could think, hey, I wonder if the song by Frazzle and the Frazzletones from Sesame Street that I loved so much when I was 4 is up there, and it was?

Well, not anymore, it's not. The best demonstration of YouTube's recent decline is Fimoculous' methodical revisiting of a wonderful Pitchfork feature from last June, 100 Awesome Videos. I was pretty excited about this video collection myself. It was article that took a lot of work, and now it's mostly useless, because fewer than half of the 100 videos that used to be freely available on YouTube are still available there. The rest of them have been replaced by the "This video is no longer available" notice of doom.

No more Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It", no more ODB's "Got Your Money" [note: the Pitchfork links don't work anymore, and though right now you can search for and find new posts of these videos on YouTube, it's only a matter of time here]. I understand about intellectual property and artists getting their due, but this seems like a poorly-conceived knee-jerk restrictive approach to all video media that only aggravates fans and prevents the public from learning about new things. How is this helping anybody? And I'm not just saying that because we got banned.

Rex says, "I try not to be polemic about these matters on this blog, but I find it hard to believe this is good for anyone -- artist, label, critic, fan, and, especially, the marketplace of ideas."

February 21, 2007

Mag crew exploitation

Mag Crews

The latest article in a series that the NY Times seems to be doing about really horrible exploitation of vulnerable kids is today's piece on traveling magazine sales crews, who go around the country trying to get people to buy magazine subscriptions, often while being abused by their employers. The article is long and incredibly thorough, but might make you throw up or decide that the whole world sucks.

Even though this industry was investigated by Congress decades ago (article includes links to coverage of the hearings), it seems like no changes have been made. Here are just a few excerpts:

Two days after graduating from high school last June, Jonathan Pope left his home in Miamisburg, Ohio, to join a traveling magazine sales crew, thinking he would get to "talk to people, party at night and see the country." Over the next six months, he and about 20 other crew members crossed 10 states, peddling subscriptions door to door, 10 to 14 hours a day, six days a week. Sleeping three to a room in cheap motels, lowest seller on the floor, they survived some days on less than $10 in food money while their earnings were kept "on the books" for later payment.

By then, Mr. Pope said, he had seen several friends severely beaten by managers, he and several other crew members were regularly smoking methamphetamine with prostitutes living down the motel hallway, and there were warrants out for his arrest in five states for selling subscriptions without a permit.

"You’re involved in bad stuff, you’re seeing bad stuff and they tell you, 'No negativity,' " said Jennifer Steele, 23.

In September 2004, Ms. Steele said, she was drugged and raped by two men who were partying with crew members at a motel in Memphis, where her crew was staying. When her manager told her to go back to work the next day, she said she "threw a fit." But she did as she was told, and worked part of the day before filing a police report and having a rape kit performed. She stayed with the crew for another seven months before quitting.

Asked if they ever went overboard, two enforcers [employed by magazine companies to keep sellers in line] recalled an incident in November 2005 involving an 18-year-old recruit from Dayton, Ohio, named Rudy. "All we were told was that Rudy had shoved and disrespected the manager." For 10 uninterrupted minutes in a motel stairwell in San Francisco, Mr. Simpson, Mr. McClinton and four other enforcers beat Rudy unconscious, Mr. Simpson and Mr. McClinton said. One held his mouth shut. Two others pinned down his arms and legs. Tearing off his shirt, they pressed a flaming lighter into his back. Mr. Simpson kicked him in the face and body. "I stopped because I ran out of breath," Mr. Simpson said.

Ugh. It's sadly reminiscent of Kurt Eichenwald's now-legendary articles about solicitation and exploitation of kids in internet chat rooms, and how child abusers encourage each other online.

February 4, 2007

G.M.'s Very Bizarre Superbowl Ad

This year's Super Bowl commercials had the usual winners and losers, but the strangest had to be G.M.'s spot highlighting the company's 100,000 mile warranty.

You can watch the spot above, but in brief: a robot on the G.M. assembly line drops a bolt, to the horror of everyone, and is escorted out of the factory. With no direction, no prospects, and presumably no union representation, he engages in self-destructive behavior, works various minimum wage jobs, and finally throws himself off a bridge. But suddenly - he wakes up! It was all a dream, brought on by the fear of not meeting G.M.'s high quality standards. The commercial ends with a voiceover: "The G.M. 100,000 mile warranty - it's got everyone at G.M. obsessed with quality."

No shit. Even putting aside the crappy quality of G.M.'s products, the company is in a lot of trouble. Like the rest of the domestic auto industry, G.M. has been hemorrhaging money and jobs for the past ten years. The company lost more than $10 billion in 2005 alone. In January, the trade publication Automotive News officially stopped using "The Big Three" as shorthand for G.M., Ford and Chrysler and is instead referring to them as "The Detroit Three." (Since Toyota is now the third largest company in domestic auto sales, the editors didn't want to cause confusion.) And last week, the company announced that it will be reducing production over the next two years on the heels of reports that January 2007 sales were down 17%.

G.M. is the largest private purchaser of health care coverage in the country, and its benefits have always been considered the "Cadillac" of employer-sponsored plans. But in addition to lay-offs, last spring G.M. started offering buyouts to more than 100,000 of its workers - as long as they agreed to give up their right to the continued health benefits that they had earned. According to the New York Times, the response was similar in many ways to our robot friend's: "The prospect of losing General Motors health coverage can be terrifying for workers who went straight from high school into factory jobs and have few good prospects for employment beyond the assembly line."

I'd say it's not just the robots at G.M. who are pretty worried right now.

Update: Apparently, I'm not the only one who had this reaction. According to Reuters, a UCLA study of viewers' brain scans while watching Super Bowl ads showed:

"Among the top anxiety-producing ads...was one for General Motors aimed at drawing attention to the automaker's 100,000 mile warranty. The ad features a robot working on the line at an assembly plant until he drops a screw forcing the line to shut down. Angry workers kick the robot off the line, rendering the robot jobless...'That one got people's attention. But they did not feel good about the message. It produced big spikes of anxiety and perhaps ... feelings of economic insecurity,' [researcher Dr. Josh] Freedman said."

[tx ADM]

January 11, 2007

In-flight movies


If you've been on a lot of long flights, you've probably seen some interesting choices in in-flight movies. Most likely, they were edited like crazy (what is the point of showing The Crying Game if you're going to cut the infamous shot?) and sometimes not in the way you would expect. Some Air New Zealand travelers were surprised at in-flight screenings of The Queen and The Departed, in which the word "God" was edited out, but everybody could hear Matt Damon say that "the guys in the fi-uh depahtment are a buncha facking quee-uhs."

Virgin, on the other hand, is one of the few airlines to screen unedited movies. And the story is that on their first flight, they cheekily showed Airplane!.

But there are movies out there that even Virgin might decide not to show on their flights. Air Force One, Red Eye, Flightplan--movies whose post-theatrical sales were never intended to include airlines.

Or, I guess, why the hell not? A friend of mine recently flew to Australia on Quantas--check out the movies that were actually shown in-flight:

1) Snakes on a Plane (OK, it's a spoof, still surprising)
2) The Aristocrats (8 year-olds could sit there on the plane and watch Bob Saget talk about skull rape?!)

and you are never going to believe this one:

3) UNITED 93

Yes, really.

January 9, 2007

CES vs. Macworld

The latest products from Apple were just announced at Macworld, and they're as sleek and gorgeous as you would expect. And functional! The iPhone combines phone, iPod, and PDA, and appears to automatically switch functions when you want it to by reading your mind.

Take a look at the new hotly anticipated iPhone, which as ADM says, looks like something out of Minority Report.


Lots more pictures.

Meanwhile, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, the rest of the world is unveiling some nice new stuff, and also some clunky, unstylish pieces of crap. A photo of the VenMill Industries "Skip-Away", courtesy of Wired.

Skip-Away, unbelievably hideous

The "Skip-Away" is apparently supposed to fix your CDs so they don't skip, but the title also serves as a warning of what you should do to get away from this hideous thing "quickly, or the ugly may rub off on you," as one commenter puts it.

Perhaps inspired by my favorite of the John Hodgman Get A Mac commercials ("I have some very cool apps. Yeah, calculator. Clock.") non-Apple electronics companies displayed bold new innovations such as a CD player and a clock radio at CES.

Way to go, guys! How about getting a reel-to-reel tape deck into next year's show?

December 22, 2006

Rebranding Christmas

Xmas logos

As embedded in American tradition as Christmas is, it isn't exactly the hippest thing going in our cultural landscape. Saying Christmas is your favorite holiday if you're not 8 years old is obvious and white-bread, and nowhere near as cool as saying Halloween or Chinese New Year.

Time for rebranding! Just because Christmas is inherently associated with small children and tacky commercialism and your extended family is no reason why its tired image can't be made into something sleek and modern by a multinational design firm, who are clearly kidding, but got the attention of the New York Times anyway.

In conjunction with Studio 360*, the NPR show produced by WNYC and Public Radio International, a design firm came up with some ideas for Christmas 2.0. The group that formed for this project was “kind of like the Iraq Study Group,” according to Kurt Anderson, who hosts Studio 360. “It sounds shocking and overcommercial and ludicrous,” conceded Michael Bierut, a partner at design firm Pentagram (are they devil worshippers trying to kill Christmas with their diabolical trendiness?! Clearly they are) “but we actually see this as a way to take the commercialization, which is inevitable and irreversible, and turn it to good.”

It's mostly a joke, and some of it isn't especially good, but they have a few funny ideas too. They want to create a new domain ".mas", as in "x.mas", and let stores buy new websites to promote holiday shopping for their crap. And my favorite: "In the place of red and green would be various almost-indistinguishable shades of x.mas white, like Yule Neutral, Shopping Frosted and Dawkins Blank (named for Richard Dawkins, the biologist and outspoken atheist)."

As far as the marginal religious significance that Christmas still holds in our culture, or the affection that people have for the traditional red and green holly jolly Christmas images, the designers don't want to get involved. “We weren’t hired as theologians or social engineers,” Beirut said, before tilting his head and adding, “Actually, come to think of it, we weren’t hired at all.”

* ADM notes that we now have an NPR show called Studio 360, Studio 60 on Sunset Strip, and Anderson Cooper 360. Enough already.

December 20, 2006

Drink Pom, live forever. On the toilet.

Pom Wonderful kills animals?

Activists Animal Rights Militia have alerted east coast supermarkets that they've contaminated bottles of Pom Wonderful will some nasty bug that will make those who drink it suffer "diarrhea, vomiting and headaches." Pom allegedly kills mice and rabbits in trials that test some of its health benefits claims.

Friends of Animals claims that Pom Wonderful has supported tests of its juice on brain injuries in mice, and, even better, on erectile dysfunction in rabbits. Those poor rabbits, being force-fed that refreshingly not-too-sweet pomegranate juice and then hippity-hopping it up with some sexy bunny slut-clinicians? Doesn't quite pull the heartstrings like the toilet bowl cleaner in the eye animal testing stories, does it?

Health officials think the contimination threat is a hoax, of the kind Animal Rights Militia has done many times before, but Food Emporium says they're checking their bottles of Pom. If you're concerned about animal testing, the erotic lives of rabbits, or getting butt-sick, you might want to avoid drinking it.

December 14, 2006

You are no longer responsible for getting speeding tickets: it's your sign's fault

speeding ticket

In a new study comparing drviers' records with their astrological sign, a Canadian (of course) insurance quote company has found, incredibly, that your star sign is a better predictor of how many tickets and accidents you will get than your age or what postal code you live in.

"I was absolutely shocked by the results," said company president Lee Romanov. "I wasn't believing in it before, but I would think twice before getting into a car with an Aries."

The report surveyed the records of 100,000 North American drivers over 6 years. It's called Car Carma, and identifies Pisces as the worst sign for tickets, and Libra the worst for accidents (Romanov says this is because they are too busy being "indecisive" and "seeking driver approval" to watch where they're going), with Geminis and Leos the best, respectively (Leos have to be the best, she says, because of their "huge egos").

Now hold the phone, lady. Amy's Robot may be a very small sample size, but the incidence of tickets and accidents from this contributor (Libra) as compared to that of other contributors (both Leos)--well, there's just no contest. A certain Leo I know had to make a trip to the impound lot in Greenpoint not so long ago to pick up the car that was seized due to an abundance of unpaid tickets (see illustration above), while this Libra has gotten only one (1) speeding ticket in her entire life, and that was only because the New Hampshire highway system had sneakily changed speed limits while she was away at college. There's a similar gap in each sign's accident records, too.

I urge my fellow Libras to follow my lead in combatting our astrological predisposition toward getting busted for speeding, or for getting into terrible, life-altering accidents, like Libras Mark Hamill and Montgomery Clift both did: don't own a car, and mooch rides off your Leo friends. You know, the ones with huge egos.

November 14, 2006

Who'Dat?™: You look so pretty when you smile

Today's edition of Who'Dat?™ involves a recent celebrity who you may not know much about, but we're willing to bet you've seen a lot of in the past few months. Though this might be the first time you've seen him looking like a person that you would not want to punch in the face.

To play the game, try to figure out who this person is, then click on the picture to see if you are right.


More on this celebrity after the break.

Continue reading "Who'Dat?™: You look so pretty when you smile" »

October 17, 2006

Mail order brides stalled by anti-commercial-romance legislation

Russian mail order brides

The NY Times today has a pretty standard piece on men who buy wives for themselves through internet "don't call it mail-order" dating/marriage sites. As if not being able to get anyone in your own country to marry you weren't bad enough, these guys are suffering through some added inconveniences at the hands of their own government.

Congress created the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act, or Imbra, in March. The legislation "is intended to give foreign women and the American government more information about the men who seek so-called mail-order brides." In other words, Congress recognized an alarmingly fast rise in reports of abuse from women who came to the US to marry guys they met online. So they made a law that gives these women more information about the criminal record and marital history of their future husbands before they pack their bags and become legally bound to a man who has gone out of his way to find a wife who has no way of knowing any objective information about him. Men must now also provide this information to the government when applying for a fiancée visa. Sounds like a great idea, right?

Not so, according to the buyers. The customer is always right, and that should extend to spousal transactions, say purchasers of foreign brides. “We should have the right to correspond with, date and marry the person of our choosing,” said David Root, who has been involved with many women from the former Soviet Union in the past decade but has not married any of them. “The government shouldn’t interfere in this.”

He may have a point--Americans can indeed marry whomever they please. And it's not like they're forcing these women to leave their homes for a lifetime of marriage to a man who is often, let's face it, a total stranger. The man that the NY Times story follows, Adam Weaver, sounds like a nice enough person who was seeking an "old-fashioned girl", and now just wants to marry his Colombian fiancée (she's 17 years younger than he is, does that mean she qualifies as a "girl"?) without a lot of delays.

But some men who get into foreign marriage services clearly are delusional: there's a hilarious example in Sam Smith, who owns a company called I Love Latins, based in Houston [site not really safe for work]. In explaining the appeal of his service, he says, “It all started with women’s lib. Guys are sick and tired of the North American me, me, me attitude.”

"Me, me, me", huh? And what kind of attitude is it that compels a wealthy American man to search for another human being on a shopping site using criteria like age, weight, height, religion, and command of English, and then pay thousands of dollars for this probably low-income person from a poor country with few or zero opportunities for a stable life to leave their home and enter into a legally-binding contract with them that allows that person to live legally in the US only if they remain married? That's altruism! Right, Sam Smith?

September 14, 2006

In Memoriam: Ann Richards

Ann Richards on a motorcycle

One of the more colorful politicians of all time, Ann Richards, died on Wednesday. In honor of her and her status as onetime leader of progressive Texan politics (sounds crazy, doesn't it?) and all-around hellraising sass machine, we bring you one of her finest moments: the Doritos™ commercial she did with Mario Cuomo, after they were both defeated by their Republican opponents in the 1994 elections, aka the Republican Revolution.

The New York Times provided a narration of the ad.

"THE AD CAMPAIGN; The Taste of Defeat: Got Any Salsa?" By Kevin Sack, Published: January 27, 1995


Mario M. Cuomo and Ann Richards

With the mournful strains of Auld Lang Syne as background music, the scene opens with Mr. Cuomo helping Ms. Richards pack up her gubernatorial office. As she tosses file folders into a cardboard box, they begin to philosophize about the nature of change. When it becomes clear that the change they are discussing is packaging - of tortilla chips, not candidates - Ms. Richards pulls out a newly designed bag of Doritos and Mr. Cuomo begins to munch on a few.

Ms. Richards: "Mario, I haven't seen a change like this since I was knee high to a June bug."

Mr. Cuomo: "Ann, I was as surprised as you are."

A.R.: "Well, I should have seen it coming."

M.C.: "Maybe so, but now I think we ought to accept this change, embrace it, be positive about it, because change can be very exciting."

A.R.: "You're probably right, Mario. I guess I'll get used to Doritos' new bag."

M.C.: "There you go."

Announcer: "This year's big change is Doritos. More great taste, brand-new bag."

M.C.: "Too bad about the Cowboys, Ann."

A.R.: "They always won when I was Governor."

I couldn't find a video of this ad, but if anyone can locate it, please notify us in the comments.

August 28, 2006

Plan B ad campaign

Last week the FDA announced that Plan B emergency contraceptive will now be available over the counter to women 18 and over. Great news!

However, I was surprised to learn that Barr, the company that produces the drug, doesn't expect to turn much of a profit on Plan B sales, which it expects will be around $60 million per year after it goes OTC.

In an effort to make Plan B as lucative as possible for Barr, I've designed an ad to promote the benefits of Plan B. If Barr is really going to rake in the cash with this product, they've got to target those people who engage in less than 100% responsible sex. So for everyone who likes to just jump right in and keep their fingers crossed: Plan B is for you!

Plan B ad campaign

[Thanks Cushie]

August 9, 2006

Redevelopment for the Masses

world leaders on governors island

Ever since Governors Island re-opened, I keep meaning to go out there some weekend and look around. But since only a small portion of the island is even open to the public, and it's conveniently open um, almost never, I just haven't gotten around to it.

But it's one thing to go look at historic military buildings - and quite another to visit the Nickelodeon Family Suites themed resort complex!

When New York state bought the island from the federal government for $1 in 2003, they agreed that 40 acres would remain parkland, 20 acres would be used for education and 30 acres would be used for public benefit. Now the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corp. is determining how those areas will be redeveloped. Nickelodeon is one of 10 finalists whose proposals to redevelop the education/public part of the island are under consideration - but please. You really think the GIPEC is going to go with CUNY's lame "CUNY University Village" and "Leadership Park" or a camp for teenage substance abusers?

That's what I thought. And since the feds expressly forbid building casinos on the island - I'll see you on the Historic Jimmy Neutron NickToons Blast!

August 8, 2006

Iraq, cellphones, and black humor

Iraqis love their cellphones

The New York Times explores new depths of dark humor in today's article about the popularity of cellphones in Iraq, and the new and inventive ways Iraqis use them to avoid being killed, or to try to cope with the horror of their daily lives. Giving different phone models nicknames like the Allawi, the Apache, or the Humvee, many kids and adults trade in their old phones for a newer model every few months. As the article says, "It is the relentless violence — which now claims dozens of Iraqis every day — that seems to have fertilized the industry’s growth."

But the tone of the article is so dark it's hard to tell if it's meant to be funny, or just wry commentary on how precarious life in Iraq is today. This stuff is insane:

Jabar Satar Salaum, 50, the owner of a cellphone store on a busy street in the middle-class Shiite area of Karada, said he used his phone mostly to tell his wife that he was safe. On the ride to and from work across Baghdad, he said he called every few minutes.

His sons, Amjad, 17, and Muhammad, 15, said that cellphones were desirable not just because they were cool but also because they provided one of the country’s only safe forms of teenage self-expression. In May, a tennis coach and two of his players were shot to death in Baghdad because they were wearing shorts. Cellphones, in contrast, have attracted little religious outrage.

That teenage self-expression often takes the form of death-oriented jokes:

One of the most popular text messages making the rounds appears onscreen with the image of a skeleton. It says, “Your call cannot be completed because the subscriber has been bombed or kidnapped.”

Iraqis also use their phones to record torture and attacks, or to make jokes about torture and attacks:

Omar al-Jabouri, who heads the human rights office for the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, said he often received pictures of men tortured or killed by death squads, many of them taken with the cellphones of witnesses or the victims’ relatives. At bombings, Iraqis are often seen recording the carnage in pictures or short videos...

...A popular video captures young men trying to decapitate a victim with a fake, dull knife and failing.

In case readers don't get these hilarious jokes, an Iraqi teenager helpfully explains the irony for us.

Everyone seems to enjoy laughing at Mr. Hussein. His propaganda has literally become a joke: a 2003 broadcast from Iraq’s state-run station, just before the war, shows a gaggle of soldiers with machine guns dancing and singing along with Khasim al-Sultan, an Iraqi pop star. “If you want the stars, we will reach out for the stars,” the men sing. “We will wipe America from the map!”

Firas al-Taie, 19, after showing the clip, laughed and tried to explain why Iraqis find the segment entertaining. “It’s not matching the reality,” he said, in halting English. “They said this thing and then something else happened.”

Hahaha! They said they would wipe America from the map, and now they're the ones being wiped from the map!

As a sociologist at Baghdad University says, “In Iraq, there is such an accumulation of frustration. If an Iraqi does not embrace humor in his life, he’s finished.”

Sadly, a lot of Iraqis with great senses of humor are finished, too.

May 31, 2006

Sweet Cherry: the immovable object of strip clubs

Sweet Cherry topless bar

The NY Times has an unbelievably extensive article today on a Brooklyn strip club, Sweet Cherry, that has been under attack by city council, local residents, and state politicians for years, yet refuses to close. Back in the '90's with the introduction of Giuliani's new "zoning laws" (aka rampage of sanitized Disneyfication,) a lot of strip clubs, topless bars, and porn shops closed down. Apart from a stretch of 8th Avenue in the 40's, most of the city's smut has been banished to industrial areas like 11th Avenue, and Long Island City in Queens.

But the intrepid Sweet Cherry just won't quit, despite an impressive criminal history. The Times says,

Sweet Cherry is a great champion, brazen and near untouchable. The authorities have documented an in-house narcotics trade, pronounced the club a brothel and charged the manager with rape. (He has pleaded not guilty.) Once, patrons repeatedly stabbed an off-duty police officer, who lost partial use of his right hand. Once, a manager of bouncers for Sweet Cherry was shot dead in his apartment.

But despite two civil actions by the Police Department, voluminous criminal charges and neighborhood protests, the club has been closed for a total of just six days this year. Eleven days after its latest reopening, two dancers were charged with breaking a beer bottle over somebody's head.

The bar is in compliance with zoning laws, so the city has tried to go after it for all its other, very plentiful violations. And failed every time. Now that some small-scale industry and more families are moving into the area, they're stepping up their consistently ineffective efforts.

The article is a great read, with exhaustive details on the many drug busts that have happened at the bar, the employment and possible harrassment of underage dancers, the off-duty cop who mowed down three people after leaving another strip club on the same street, and the dancers such as "Diamond, whose real name was Jennifer, and Chastity, whose real name was Chastity."

There's also an interesting map of the still-standing strip clubs, topless bars, and peep shows in the city that have also resisted closure. Still a few hanging on in Times Square/Hell's Kitchen. My favorites are Wiggles and Goldfingers in Queens.

May 22, 2006

Healthy food: a new low in consumer self-delusion

From an article on the struggles many Americans face when trying to lose weight:

On a mission to whip herself into shape, Kate Kowalczyk tossed out the junk food and stocked up on her idea of good-for-you staples like yogurt and low-fat cookies. Despite her persistence, the 35 pounds she was trying to shake wouldn't budge.

It turns out those "healthy" foods were just as fattening as the chips and soda they replaced: The yogurt was filled with Reese's Pieces and the low-fat cookies were brimming with sugar that kept her hunger on razor's edge.

Her healthy yogurt had Reese's Pieces in it?! Why, that's candy! How ever did that candy get into her healthy yogurt?

Some consumer product research suggests that the yogurt that Ms. Kowalczyk selected as one of her "good-for-you" purchases was this:

Yogurt with Reese's

which as you can see has a big REESE'S logo right smack on the front of the packaging. "It's all in the advertising — you see this bright packaging that says it's good for you," said Kowalczyk, 34.

That's where I have to disagree with you, Kate. That bright packaging doesn't say it's good for you, it says CANDY. Plus you can totally see the Reese's Pieces right there in the lid of the yogurt.

Dieticians say that people will pretend that all kinds of ridiculous things are a good to eat while trying to lose weight: "Some weight watchers manage to convince themselves blueberry pie has its place in a diet — simply because it features a fruit, said Marlene Clark, a registered dietitian at Cedars Sinai in Los Angeles. 'Just because the basic thing is healthy doesn't mean it's a healthy dish,' Clark said."

The article then goes on to point out that just because a snack food item may be organic or all-natural, it may still have the same number of calories as the regular variety (example: an ounce of Pringles potato chips: 160 calories, an ounce of Barbara's Bakery chips: 150 calories.) It's no secret that food companies work hard to maintain an illusion of healthiness in many of their products, but people, please. That defense only goes so far. Deciphering deceptive packaging and obsessively comparing fat content can be tedious, so let me make it really simple.

If you want to lose weight, don't eat chips. Or candy. Or cookies. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but Kraft and Snackwell are a bunch of liars. Tough love!

April 22, 2006

Thank Heaven

Since I consider myself something of a snack specialist, I thought that the best place to learn about cutting-edge snack innovations would be at the recent snack food manufacturers' trade show, SNAXPO™.

I was wrong. Screw conferences. You want to study snacks? Wait until a 7-Eleven opens on your street.

Now, I grew up with a choice between Store 24 and Cumberland Farms, in an area where convenience stores could only be successful by a) selling gasoline or b) supplying a parking lot for teenagers to hang out in and pay homeless men to buy wine coolers for them. So when the 7-Eleven opened on 42nd Street, I thought, how could a store that gives away free coffee with every breakfast sandwich possibly succeed in an enormous retail space in one of the highest-rent areas in Manhattan?

After I returned from SNAXPO™, still unable to bend my fingers due to salt consumption, I decided to investigate for myself. And that is when I realized that 7-Eleven is SNACK NIRVANA. For one thing, not only does the store stock the most creative brand extensions around, it also employs some of New York's most knowledgeable and aggressive salespeople.

Emily: What is this....some new kind of Tic-Tac? Tic-Tac BOLD™?
Clerk: Yes! They're very good!
Emily: Hm...they look neat - but I don't really like Tic-Tacs.
Clerk: Oh, these are much better than regular Tic-Tac.
Emily: Really?
Clerk: Oh yes! Much better! But we still have the old kind, too.
Emily: Ok, I'll take one of each. And those Chile Picante Corn Nuts.

Besides Tic-Tac BOLD™, which comes in a pleasing squeezable container updated for the 21st century, my 7-Eleven is currently featuring:

Seven flavors and shapes of Cheez-its™, including Fiesta Cheddar Nacho™ and Twisterz Cheddar and More Cheddar™ (don't bother; they're really just regular Cheez-its™ with a coating of Kraft Mac and Cheese powder)

so many cheezits

A wide assortment of my favorite candy ever, Laffy Taffy™, in bold flavors such as "Sparkle Jerry Cherry", which is not only approximately two feet long, but ALSO has a sparkly sugar coating

so much laffy taffy

and Heineken Mini-Kegs for $19.99.

the bounty of 7-Eleven

But 7-Eleven's boldest, most daring product - I dare say, even more creative than Burger King's Chicken Fries, which are designed to fit in your car's cupholder - is almost too much to comprehend.

"Why waste all this space on our hot dog roller grill," 7-Eleven marketing executives must have said to themselves, "When we could appeal to people who want hot, cylindrical foods other than hot dogs? And what do Americans love more than hot dogs? Pizza!"

And so, the 7-Eleven Twista™ was born. (Not, of course, to be confused with the Cheez-it Twisterz™ mentioned above)

the greatest snack food in the universe

While the Twista™ and its roller-grill companion snack the Taquito still appear to be in the pilot phase, I applaud 7-Eleven's ingenuity. I can only hope that these are but the first of many snack foods, like the Chicken Fry, that are tailored with our unique American cultural tastes* and habits** in mind.

*By which I mean, salt and fat
**By which I mean, laziness and gluttony

April 6, 2006

The state of the news in America

Katie Couric announces move to CBS

It's been a big week for American TV journalism. The biggest story is Katie Couric's move from NBC News (because "Today" technically counts as a news show. I know, don't get me started) to CBS where she will anchor the Evening News.

Now today, the Center for Media and Democracy issued a report called "Fake TV News: Widespread and Undisclosed" (NY Times coverage). They report that 77 news departments in TV stations across the country have used corporate video news releases as part of their news segments, without telling viewers that they were watching commercially produced advertisements. Sometimes they just air the entire unedited corporate video. They've shown publicists on-air and credited them as being reporters. Their anchors have read scripts provided by corporate publicists as though they were doing their own objective reporting.

The FCC will probably take notice of this report, because they started investigating this kind of use of promotional video in news reports last year, specifically chastising stations for airing government-produced videos without saying where the material came from.

Slate ran an article at the beginning of the week about the death of objectivity in news. Since many news outlets don't even pretend to be objective anymore, should viewers still expect it, or just select news sources according to their overt agendas? Old media like newspapers and network nightly news shows used to at least try to be objective, but they're declining in popularity. Should they just abandon their old values and deal in the opinion journalism of blogs and cable news? Intercut with segments filed by "reporters" from Capital One and Intel?

It looks like the answers to many of these questions are up to the latest leader of American journalism, Katie Couric. Katie did an unmatchable job for 15 years of steering the content of "Today"'s stories back to herself and her own life, and also providing a forum for corporations to advertise their products live on an NBC News show. But if network news gets even less objective and even more commercial with the arrival of the newest cast member this September, we can't just blame Katie. These shows are already letting publicists stand in for journalists and showing us ads and telling us it's news.

April 3, 2006

The Axe Effect (on 11 year-olds)

Axe Effect

Some of the most pervasive and eye-catching ad campaigns in recent years have been those for Unilever's Axe body spray and related male grooming products. The fridge full of cans of whipped cream, the women humping their apartment building's water drainage pipe, the woman with the image of a coat hanger imprinted on her back (I have to admit, I still don't 100% get that one.) They're all sort of clever, and they all have an unmistakable message: this shit will get you so laid.

Convincing American men to use body spray (a product I had always associated with "when a man you've never met suddenly gives you flowers, that's Impulse!") may have been an uphill battle, but somehow Axe has managed to associate itself in our minds, as a Slate reporter wrote a while back, with getting "crazy, spontaneous monkeysex."

That same Slate writer predicted that, although Axe was the top-selling men's body spray on the market in 2004, it wouldn't be for long. The problem is, he wrote, "when you promise spontaneous monkeysex, you run into a couple of problems. 1) You won't deliver on that promise. This leaves the customer disappointed and sours him on the brand. 2) Your image gets linked with the guy who is desperate to get laid and who needs some sort of magic potion to help him. Which is not a great image."

But apparently the middle schoolers of suburban Washington, DC don't have a problem with 1) or 2), probably because at age 11, they don't have much hope of getting any monkeysex anyway. The Washington Post has a piece today on the overwhelming popularity of Axe among pre-pubescent boys, who have whole-heartedly bought into the Axe marketing strategy.

"I was watching the commercial, and there was this guy and he was mobbed by a bunch of girls, and I thought, 'Wow, that's tight! ' " said Asean Townsend, 12. "So I went to CVS and bought it."

The article includes many other wonderful testimonials from middle-school boys about their allegiance to Axe, and some concerns from gym teachers that boys may be using it as a convenient replacement for showering. Some boys have already been using Axe for so long (the $5 retail price encourages brand loyalty) that they've moved onto other more grown-up fragrances offered by Axe:

"Eighth-grader Klima Arrola started wearing Axe when he was 11 after seeing a TV commercial in a which a good-looking guy was mobbed by a bunch of even better-looking women. He found the ad appealing, he said. Now 14, he prefers Axe's Orion fragrance, described as an 'aromatic citrus/fruity fragrance with a transparent watery top note composed of minty accents, orange flower, geranium, citrus and musk.' But to Klima, who doesn't have a girlfriend, 'It just smells good.'"

And what about the girls? Do they find their musky, Axey classmates appealing?

"Someone by my locker uses it, but he uses so much that you can taste it in your mouth," said Allison Testamark, 14, scrunching up her nose in disgust.

Remember, boys: girls do appreciate personal grooming, but in achieving the Axe Effect, less is more.

March 20, 2006

Thank you for smoking tax-free cigarettes

Aaron Eckhart in Thank You for Smoking

In a lawsuit that would bring a smile to Nick Naylor's face, supermarket chain Gristedes is suing the Unkechaug Poospatuck Tribe and the Shinnecock Indian Nation in Long Island for what they think is unfair cigarette sales. Indian reservations currently don't have to pay state or local taxes on products they sell, and Gristedes says this is cutting into their profits.

The suit states that Gristedes has "lost in excess of $20 million in cigarette sales revenue and lost ancillary sales", all because consumers prefer to buy their cigarettes tax-free (taxes are up to $3 per pack in NYC.) I just saw Thank You for Smoking over the weekend (it was great, really hilarious--Aaron Eckhart and Maria Bello are both fantastic) and I'm sure that tobacco lobbyists out there are pleased to see so much fighting among retailers over who gets to sell cigarettes in the most advantageous and profitable way.

Tobacco lobbyists are probably also big supporters of Gov. Pataki, who has delayed enforcing for another year the state law that requires reservations to start collecting state sales tax on the cigarettes they sell, because it gives consumers a way to get around those taxes that were partially designed to discourage cigarette sales.

New Yorkers also support Pataki in this 2-to-1, which I'm pleased to see. There is something called economic sovereignty for reservations. And continuing to add more and more taxes to cigarettes just makes the incentive to buy them on a reservation that much greater. It's ugly to see organizations fighting each other to sell us cigarettes, but I sure do hope Gristedes gets this suit thrown in its face.

It's also pretty rich that a big supermarket chain like Gristedes expects to get any sympathy for losing some revenue to Indian reservations. Sorry guys, but I think those people also have something to say about unfair loss.

February 7, 2006

Google News censorship in action

Wu Xianghu, a Chinese newspaper editor, has died from his injuries after Chinese traffic police "beat him up for an expose about exorbitant electric bicycle licence fees."

Google News has lots to say about it:

google news

What about Google News at Well, not so much:

google news china

Keep up the good work, Google! We thank you on behalf of the billion+ Chinese people who have no idea this is even an issue.

[Thanks to computerbytesman's side-by-side comparison tool that made this easier.]

January 30, 2006

Expect More. Pay Less. Fight Crime.™

Target fights crime

Target does a good job promoting its charitable work in education, arts, and community service, but the Washington Post has a great profile of Target's extensive contributions to law enforcement and forensics. Get this: Target's HQ in Minneapolis has one of the top forensic labs in the world, and its investigators now spend 45% of their time doing pro bono work helping law enforcement all over the country solve violent crimes.

A lot of big department stores coordinate their security efforts with local police departments to deal with shoplifting and property damage, but Target takes the smarter approach of working with law enforcement to prevent crime in the entire community. In Minneapolis, they helped the city and state coordinate their databases of criminals using the same technology that Target uses to track inventory, and now the federal government is considering adapting it to a national database.

Treating repeat offenders like they're retail inventory obviously doesn't address the underlying causes of violent crime, but Target is taking a much broader and more interesting approach to corporate philanthropy than the more typical company's disease-oriented walk-a-thon. But I can't find any clear mention of this stuff on the corporate philanthropy and local giving pages on their website.

Another point to consider is the murky nature of a close alliance between a giant corporation and local government. In one sort of creepy public/private venture, the Target Foundation pays for a lawyer in the Minneapolis prosecutor's office through a grant, and measures the grant's success by number of convictions the lawyer gets.

Many American consumers trust and like Target (including me) even though it has many of the same questionable business practices as the much-loathed Wal-Mart. But do we want big corporations doing law enforcement? A company contributing to the security of its community is all well and good, as long as its role is strictly supporting the work of local government and police, and not turning itself into CSI: Minneapolis. One anecdote at the end of the Post article illustrates the point.

"Such close cooperation sometimes has Target employees working as de facto law enforcement officials. Chris W. Nelson, director of assets protection for the retailer, recalled one case in which he worked with federal agents for two years to break up a crime ring. He questioned informants, got to know some of the suspects and was there as a federal SWAT team surrounded one of the ringleaders on a speedboat on a lake in Minnesota. The suspect stopped short as he spotted Nelson in the crowd and shouted, 'What the fuck is Target doing here?!' "

Good question.

January 9, 2006

Robot-on-the-Spot: Robots in Brooklyn!

If you're walking down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn - look out! You may see some robots on the loose.

Robots in brooklyn
More robots in brooklyn

The robots are part of a display by Bennett Robot Works (aka artist Gordon Bennett) called "40 Robots" - a collection crafted from found industrial materials like used car parts, cameras, radios, and fire alarms. It looks like they've been up there since October, but I just noticed them a few weeks ago.

At first I was intrigued, then charmed. Now I stop and visit with my robot friends every time I walk past. My favorite is Detecto, but I am also partial to Captain.

The best thing about these robots is that they are for sale, and I imagine they make excellent gifts! In fact, you probably wouldn't even have to wait until someone's birthday. You could probably get one for me them right now, and they would be totally happy, I bet.

October 19, 2005

Urban planners vs. FEMA

The New York Times reports today on the results of a hardcore 6 days that a group of 200 urban planners and architects just spent to create plans and designs for rebuilding the entire coast of Mississippi that was destroyed by Katrina. In 6 days, they came up with some great-sounding new designs for cities, a "retrofitting of suburbia," that include more walkable streets, a denser layout of residential and downtown areas, and less sprawl. They want to redesign port areas of Gulfport and Biloxi with better use of harbors, and the team has detailed new plans for waterfront, historic areas, casinos, and low-income neighborhoods. They also designed these cool submersible houses for Biloxi that will be able to withstand floods.

FEMA plans to release guidelines for redevelopment projects that planners will need to make sure their designs can receive government funding. But clear guidelines don't yet exist. The leader of the planning project, Andres Duany, called the current FEMA rules ambiguous, complicated and tentative. FEMA is unsure when final rules for rebuilding will be available. "They say the rules will not be ready for 18 months," Duany said. "That's half of World War II. Forget it - you can't wait that long."

A representative of FEMA's Atlanta regional office said about the promised but non-existent guidelines, "We didn't know there was this urgent need to produce these things. They said, 'Can you pull a rabbit out of your hat?' We did the best we could."

Yeah, FEMA is doing its best! How were they supposed to know that city planners would need them to come up with some rules for rebuilding the Gulf coast? This is not the time to play the blame game, people.

September 26, 2005

Finally, a Company I Can Support

I'm delighted to report that after getting the runaround from candymakers across the land, I have at last achieved the impossible from the strangely cold and impersonal world of corporate candy - a friendly, personalized response. Even more touchingly, it came in the form of a thoughtful answer to an unbelievably moronic complaint.

It's no wonder that it came from Tootsie Roll Industries, which remains one of the country's only successful independent candy companies in the face of the Hershey/Mars juggernaut. This response came only moments after I sent the initial email, and was followed by an envelope of coupons in the mail.

To: Tootsie Consumer Service
From: Emily

Dear Tootsie Roll Industries:

First of all, I would like to thank you for the whole Tootsie Roll™ family of candies. I love candy of all kind, but Tootsie Roll is definitely on a delicious level all its own. However, today while enjoying a tasty Tootsie Pop™, I found my chin and shirt suddenly covered in a cherry-flavored drool! I realized that this Pop had an almost indetectable hole in the candy coating around the stick, which created a powerful suction and rendered the candy impossible to eat without staining oneself, or biting off the whole thing (sadly, my bite is not quite large enough to accommodate such an action). I checked the remaining Pops in the bag and found two others with the same issue. The lot number on this bag is E055116 12:21, and it was purchased in New York City.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. As I said, I do love all Tootsie products and will certainly continue to eat them - but I know as a company committed to high quality, you would want to know about this flaw.

To: Emily

Emily, thank you for contacting us. There are plant inspectors, as well as quality control inspectors to check for and remove any damaged, poorly formed, unwrapped products or empty wrappers before they reach the packaging areas. We make millions of treats each day, and we make every effort to package only top quality products. Unfortunately, mistakes do happen and we apologize for any oversights.

We regret any undue concern this matter may have caused you, and we appreciate your having taken the time to alert us to a situation which you felt was not in keeping with the high standards of quality which we set for our products.

August 26, 2005

Bad Summer for Customer Service

So, first it was the couple at a New Jersey restaurant who found the words "Jew Couple" written on their check. A few days later, LaChania Govan received a Comcast cable bill addressed to "Bitch Dog," and a People's Energy customer found bills for "Jeffery Scrotum Bag Barnes" in his mailbox.

Then, this week, grocery store owner Sami Habbas received a credit card solicitation which began, "Dear Palestinian Bomber..." Even worse, when Habbas, a naturalized U.S. citizen, called JP Morgan Chase to complain: "The operators always said, 'Yes, Mr. Palestinian Bomber, how can we help you?' "

People, I know it's been a long, hot summer, but what is going on here? Maybe it's time to take stock and stop cutting corners on staff. It looks to me like the cost-effectiveness of hiring disgruntled part-timers to do data entry for minimum wage plus outsourcing your call centers overseas is undermined by the media attention and disgruntled customers that it causes.

August 17, 2005

I Think They Call This a Vicious Circle: Continuation of the Quest for Almond Joy

Dear readers, after months of struggle, I have to admit defeat. It looks like there is just no fighting the corporate machine.

To: Hershey Consumer Relations
From: Emily

Dear Hershey representative,

In September, I contacted the Hershey company in regards to the
Limited Edition Dark Chocolate Almond Joy™. I had heard of this product from several sources, but was not able to locate it in my area (New York City). A representative told me that the limited editions are made to test new flavors of products, and may become regular offerings if there is enough interest.

Since then, I have seen several new variations on the Almond Joy, each
worse than the last! This weekend when I ran into the Key Lime and
Passionfruit Almond Joys
, that was really the limit.

I understand that candy companies are investing most heavily in fruit
flavors now, but they really have no place in a chocolate candy.

I know that all ideas sent to Hershey are considered the property of
the company, and I assure you I don't want any credit for this idea.
All I want is a permanent Dark Chocolate Almond Joy. Currently, I am
forced to buy Mounds, which is a delicious candy but would be much
more so if only it had almonds! It would also be much more cost
effective for the Hershey company than developing new complicated flavors, since you already make all the components.

I have nothing but respect for Milton Hershey and his legacy. But I'm
afraid that if you continue to create new and increasingly complex
Almond Joy permutations while the needs of dark chocolate lovers go
unmet, I will have no choice but to begin writing Mars instead to
create an Almond Bounty Dark.

Thank you for your attention.

Dark Chocolate Loyalist

Click below for the official corporate response.

Continue reading "I Think They Call This a Vicious Circle: Continuation of the Quest for Almond Joy" »

August 8, 2005

Smackfest smackdown

As a part of his ongoing bust-up of the corrupt music industry, Eliot Spitzer has today reached a settlement with NY radio station Hot 97 , in which the radio station has agreed to stop its "Smackfest" promotion, in which female listeners competitively slapped each other and were awarded prizes. Hot 97 will also pay a fine of $240,000. Attorney General's office press release is here.

The payola case against Sony BMG and other big record companies was perhaps a clearer crime than the Smackfest, because the Smackfest participants were willing adults who voluntarily agreed to slap and be slapped so that they might have a chance to win up to $5,000 or score some Usher tickets. But NY State has laws against promoting combative sports (pretty much any sport where people beat the crap out of each other other than boxing and martial arts,) and City Council member John C. Liu said that Hot 97 had "broken the public trust by profiting from hate and violence."

So now the station has to promote anti-domestic violence campaigns and give a part of its settlement to Safe Horizon, much like Sony BMG has to give its $10 million settlement to music education nonprofits.

Of course, Hot 97 has gotten in trouble lately for other hijinks, such as their infamous ode to poor taste, "Tsunami Song" that used the tune of "We Are the World" and a lot of cruel racial slurs to jeer at the people killed in December's tsunami.

Sure, it's nice to see morning-show radio hosts, generally some of the more vulgar and offensive people in media, get the shaft, and pay-to-play policies in the music industry are unfair. But these days Spitzer's office seems awfully bent on going after the big splashy cases that regular people (i.e. voters) will respond to. Almost seems like it's all a part of somebody's election campaign or something.

July 26, 2005

Spitzer takes down Sony+

Eliot Spitzer, the enthusiastic New York State Attorney General who makes all your big-business-busting dreams come true, has won the first settlement against the music industry for paying radio stations to play their songs. Sony BMG Music Entertainment is paying the state $10 million, and there are three other big companies that have also been under investigation who have yet to reach agreements. The money is going to be given away to New York State music education nonprofits.

Radio programmers sure were raking in the payola. Many of those "listener contests" you hear about on stations were shams that existed only to provide cover for expensive trips and electronic merchandise that were given to programmers and radio staff. And, of course, programmers were just bribed outright. The best part of the story is the inclusion of entertaining payola-engineering emails among record execs in the Attorney General's Office press release. Some examples:

"Two weeks ago, it cost us over 4000.00 to get Franz [Ferdinand] on WKSE. That is what the four trips to Miami and hotel cost . . . At the end of the day, [David] Universal added GC [Good Charlotte] and Gretchen Wilson and hit Alex up for another grand and they settled for $750.00. So almost $5000.00 in two weeks for overnight airplay. He told me that Tommy really wanted him to do it so he cut the deal."

"WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO TO GET AUDIOSLAVE ON WKSS THIS WEEK?!!? Whatever you can dream up, I can make it happen." [Maybe try getting them to release a decent single. -Amy]


Looks like a lot of "independent music promoters" out there are going to start having to buy their own iPods. Sorry fellas.

Of course, this kind of case is technically supposed to be handled by the FCC, but since the L.A. Times reports that the FCC has "imposed only one fine in a payola case in the last decade"--of $8,000--I'm happy to leave it to our boy Spitzer. - Amy

But honestly - doesn't it make you feel a little better about the world to know that listeners aren't actually requesting Good Charlotte? - Emily

July 5, 2005

Benevolent Rock Stars

jon bon jovi live 8

This weekend, rock stars across the globe made entertainment and philanthropic history by picking up sweet gift bags, hugging famine victims, and protesting the economic policies keeping Africans in poverty.

Of course, for some activists this is just one stop on the summer political awareness tour. Why, just three weeks ago Jon Bon Jovi was making philanthropic history by supporting the economic policies keeping Americans in poverty at the Wal-Mart Annual Meeting.

Luckily, the set lists were different.

Live 8:
Bad Medicine
Dead or Alive
Social Disease
I'll be There for You

Livin' on a Prayer

[tx Cushie]

June 27, 2005

Hollywood skews right

Weird piece in the Times today about the growing efforts of the political right to get their movies made in Hollywood. These filmmakers, and the article that profiles them, continue to conflate "right-wing" and "Christian." A lot of stereotypes about liberals running the media get thrown around among these guys, who say being a Christian in Hollywood is a "political liability" and make it sound like they are an embattled people who have to lurk around in the shadows of L.A. and eat lunch in unfashionable restaurants because of their persecuted viewpoints.

Since The Passion of The Christ made over $600 million worldwide, and since the actual political and legislative powers in this country are totally dominated by the right, I'm not so sympathetic of their perceived marginalization in Hollywood. Especially when you look at some of the names dropped in this article as those who form some loose coalition of the right: the producer of X-Men, Clint Eastwood, Ron Silver, Mel Gibson, Gary Oldman (who is described as a "conservative libertarian." ??!!) and people behind projects like the upcoming The Chronicles of Narnia and the ever-growing Left Behind series. It looks like the Christian right is already established in Hollywood, and its influence is growing.

However, there is one obstacle facing right-wing filmmakers that no one has yet figured out how to solve: whether they will be able to make movies that appeal to typical American audiences, who tend to like a steady diet of movies featuring exploding planes, sexy naked people, savage murders, organized crime, poop jokes, and generally anything involving a whole lot of sex and death. The Passion of The Christ was a big hit, but how many people are going to pay $10.75 to see a Catholic-themed documentary on cloning, which one of The Passion's producers is now making?

One conservative producer says, "We have the money, we have the ideas. What we don't have - and what the left has in spades - are great filmmakers."

June 9, 2005

Tween girls: saturated. Next market: tween boys

Riot for tweens

Inspired by the gajillion dollars generated through sales of products related to the Olsen twins, their former lawyer and business manager Robert Thorne (who is often referred to in conjunction with the word "Svengali") has moved on to the next untapped source of disposable cash: tween boys. Thorne has recently partnered with new tween boy brand Riot Media to "develop, manage and implement licensing, marketing and sales initiatives aimed at 8- to 13-year-old boys."

Being a savvy marketer, Thorne understands what kind of marketing outreach strategies will get pre-teen boys to commit their allowances to purchasing lots of tacky garbage: a website with poop jokes. Riot's website mixes humor with the "scary and gross" elements that marketing research indicates will turn tween boys into loyal customers. The website features games such as "Monkey Pee, Monkey Do", with its tagline, "Think Tacos Give You Gas?" And interactive programs like MuSick, in which players can "sample a fart, backbeat a burp, get a rhythmic retch."

Some original tween-boy-friendly programming content (about chimps, Riot's theme animal) is also in progress: "Plans already are under way to develop a video game and television programing for the brand that features a back story about an evil circus and a heroic chimp named Riot."

And check out all the products these lucky tweens will soon get to enjoy! "Riot will launch Riot magazine and the Riot comic book in late summer, along with Riot trading cards, posters and stickers. Wireless ringtones and wallpaper are rolling out this month, followed by cell-phone games in the fall. An apparel line will be available this month, and additional branded products including a collectible card game, books, toys, electronic games, backpacks and back-to-school items are slated for release next year."

If they were really clever, Riot would also establish partnerships with the kinds of organizations that will be interested in winning these boys' loyalties once they reach their teen years, such as Maxim magazine and U.S. Army Recruiting.

June 8, 2005

OTB goes upscale

OTB goes upscale

The lowest rung on the ladder of gambling, at least in New York, is without a doubt the OTB. Anyone who has one in their neighborhood is familiar with the haggard old guys who hang out in there, the empty bottles of Wild Irish Rose on the sidewalk outside, and the sad traffic between the OTBs and the check cashing places that are often, conveniently, right next door (a great example of synergy in local business!)

But now the OTB has decided its image needs some work. We need a new, glamorous, sexy OTB! An OTB for sophisticated, urbane New Yorkers! An OTB that can attract those paragons of reputability, women! Gambling is still gambling, no matter where you do it, but OTB wants to keep its traditional, toothless patrons and its newer, beautiful, wealthier patrons very much apart.

The Daily News reports that last night the gaming agency held a fashion show in Chelsea, invited a lot of sleek pretty people, and tried to reinvent itself in anticipation of the Belmont Stakes and other high-profile gambling events. There are now 13 restaurants that are OTB locations, and presumably they will not smell like urine and whiskey.

However, shaking the traditional image might be difficult for OTB, even with the new push. Sal Zaffarese, who played the ponies yesterday while enjoying a beer and a plate of fried calamari at a restaurant that offers betting services, was interviewed by the Daily News.

"Women might not know that this is a nice place, a safe place," he said. "It's not like the parlors, with the $2 bums hanging out all day."

So, I guess gambling is nice and safe as long as you bet high.

June 2, 2005

New Yorkers Will Do Anything to Avoid Crossing the Street

This week's New York magazine examines the curious success of Duane Reade drugstores. Despite the chain's surly staff, alarmingly high prices, and low-rent atmosphere, over 300,000 gullible New Yorkers purchase something at a Duane Reade (most likely birth control) every week.

As it turns out, that low-rent part is the genius of Duane Reade's business strategy. The company focuses solely on foot traffic when considering locations, and not on the physical layout of the space. The model is based on the assumption that New Yorkers, much like ants, will do anything to avoid straying from their pre-set commuting routes. In fact, Duane Reade's research shows that a store can be made or broken simply by locating it on the wrong side of an apartment building.

As someone who has waited in line behind 30 tourists buying Empire State Building-shaped pens at the 34th Street Duane Reade rather than walking a block further for my Sunkist Fruit Gems™, I must sadly admit that this assumption is correct.

By leasing "odd, unlovable, but well-located holes" in high-traffic areas, Duane Reade is able to pay significantly below-market rates for real estate that no one else wants. Since 200 of the stores have leases through 2008, those rates fall even lower below-market every day. And since the company contains costs by paying minimum wage to a largely part-time staff, Duane Reade could sublet their retail spaces and make a killing even if no one ever bought another tampon there again.

As fascinating and devious as this is, I must point out one glaring factual error:

"The one thing [New Yorkers] are sensitive to is long lines, so Duane Reade doesn’t starve its stores of employees. To keep rushed shoppers moving, most stores have six cashiers at the front, compared with three at suburban stores."

Are you kidding me? Six cash registers, maybe - but six cashiers? I challenge any of our readers to tell me when they've seen more than two cashiers actually working at the same Duane Reade store at the same time. Please note, standing around looking sullen while not actually ringing up customers does not count.

May 31, 2005

Man as Machine

One of my least favorite columnists in the New York Times, John Tierney, has been writing lately about why men still more or less run the world when women today have unprecedented access to education, networking, and positions of power. His op-ed from last week concluded that women have the capability and opportunity to reach top positions in their fields of work, but many of them choose not to, deciding instead to have some semblance of a normal life outside of work. Men, on the other hand, are likely to see their jobs as a winner-takes-all tournament, so they are more likely to sacrifice everything to get to the top. And he says they like competition more than women do.

Today's op-ed looks at Scrabble tournaments rather than the corporate world. Tierney notices that, while women outnumber men in Scrabble clubs, the winners and top 50 players are almost exclusively men. Are women just not as good at anagrams as men are?

No, he suggests, men are just more willing to commit themselves totally to being the best Scrabble players in the world. They want to be Scrabble machines. "You need more than intelligence and a good vocabulary to become champion. You have to spend hours a day learning words like 'khat,' doing computerized drills and memorizing long lists of letter combinations, called alphagrams, that can form high-scoring seven-letter words." Women seem to be less willing to do this extra time-consuming work to edge up another ranking or two in the Scrabble champion hierarchy.

Tierney's suggestion for why men will sacrifice everything to reach the top is the same old tired evolutionary explanation we've heard a million times: successful men do better with the ladies. Men at the top will be more likely to attract both long-term partners and women for quick flings, so they pass on their genes more, so many of us are descended from these Scrabble champs who supposedly get laid a lot. Men stand to gain or lose more in an evolutionary sense by whether or not they win the Scrabble tournament, while women will probably still find someone regardless.

Nothing new here. Related to Tierney's ideas, I have some theories of my own about the male drive for expertise (for example, why men are more likely than women to have extensive record collections of '70's German art rock, all on vinyl, or have enclyclopedic knowledge of Swedish new wave films,) which I will admit I developed mostly while reading White Noise in a college English class. But what I find really interesting is the similarly single-minded, machine-like attitude that men seem to take to arenas of life that are in no way competitive in nature, and that are relatively new areas of participation for men, such as spa treatments.

Another Times article today says that more and more men are going to spas, especially as part of business trips, and they aren't going to relax. No way. One businessman goes to a fancy spa in Miami on his way home from business trips, and describes his treatments like this: "I go in there for a lube job and oil change. I don't go to relax; I go to get rehabilitated."

Spas that cater to men have made a few changes to make men feel more comfortable in territory that is traditionally as female as it gets, by installing TVs in the locker rooms so the naked men could have something to look at besides other naked men, but it seems that as long as the treatments sound like automotive services, men love them. A 50 year-old vice president of a mortgage company in Illinois had the "golf performance treatment" at a hotel while there recently with about 20 colleagues, mostly male, and their spouses. "I'd say everyone of them got some type of spa treatment," he said, and some, including himself, had multiple visits. "I don't mean to sound like a chick," he said. "It just feels so good."

Maybe the male striving for perfection in professional competition, intellectual capacity, and reduced pore size all come down to the quest for reproductive advantage, I don't know. But it would be nice if the corporate world was structured so that talented and ambitious women were encouraged to achieve their full potential without the pointless winner-takes-all mentality that encourages us to spend our weekends memorizing alphagrams. Then maybe we could achieve the mythical work/life balance, and rich businessmen would feel more comforable getting a facial without talking about it like it's a car tune-up.

May 12, 2005

Unintended Consequences of Body Modification

An article in the Styles section of today's Times highlights an ironic trend in women's fashion that shows just how warped our culture's concept of a regular female body has become. Now women who buy designer clothing, which we all know is usually cut to fit more slender women, are having to get their clothes altered so that they can accomodate their gigantic fake boobs. Yes, wealthy women who can lead the lifestyle that allows them to maintain a size 2 or 4 are having to buy dresses in size 10 (gasp!) because of their breast enlargements.

I think we can safely assume that the average dress size for women who shop at Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills is likely well under a size 12, but it seems more and more women in this neighborhood now need to buy larger sizes, at least for some regions of their bodies. And it's not because they've gained weight: "With many plastic surgeons saying that Los Angeles is the country's implant capital, the Beverly Hills branch of Neiman Marcus sells more dresses in Size 12 than any other, while Sizes 8 and 10 are the most popular for designer evening wear at other Neiman branches, said a buyer for the chain, who linked the phenomenon to customers who had surgically increased their busts." From 1997 (when enlargement surgery rates were relatively low after silicone implants went off the market) to today, enlargement surgery rates have gone up by 257%.

When you consider that there are likely a number of women who have this fashion problem who went through some other form of body modification, like liposuction or stomach stapling, in order to get the rest of their bodies down to a size 2, who are then surgically changing their bodies again to reach another non-proportional and unnatural dimension, well, the layers of crazy really start to pile up.

Thin women are also starting to realize the limitations of some women's clothing for the bustier among us. A clothing merchandiser in New York who had breast enlargement surgery says, "I gave up my wardrobe to show off my breasts. Your options are so much better, but it's funny: I used to wear button-down shirts, and now they don't fit. I might have to go up a size on the top if it's too tight around the chest, but then it does not fit in the shoulders or the arms."

Maybe that's because clothes are still, quaintly, being designed to fit actual human bodies that adhere to some concept of proportionality. Women have long complained that designers make their clothes to fit only women on the smaller end of the spectrum, but at least those clothes fit bodies that naturally exist. Now more and more women want clothes to fit fake bodies that pretty much never occur without surgery. As one designer says of his industry's rigid adherence to the laws of nature, "You can't design a collection around a customer with a large chest, because it throws the proportion off. It's not realistic. When someone is a size D cup and a 2 waist, it's really a challenge."

Ladies of Southern California: maybe it would be a lot simpler, and cheaper, to just leave your tits alone and be able to shop off the rack without paying the cost of your clothes all over again for alterations. Unless you're a stripper, in which case you probably buy most of your clothes as separate tops and bottoms, anyway.

May 5, 2005

New York Businesses Defiant in the Face of Explosion

How are New Yorkers coping with the aftermath of this morning's "novelty grenade"* explosion on Third Avenue?

It's business as usual for our brave working men and women. Amy's Robot's Midtown East Correspondent sends in this memo she received when she was finally able to enter her office building:

As you are aware, xxx Third Avenue and [Company] is open for business. Please note the following:

Until determined otherwise all arrivals/departures need to go thru the 52nd street entrance of our building (between Lex and 3rd Avenue).

ID (building or DCI) is required.

There continues to be an on-going Police/FBI investigation in our immediate area which will include investigators searching the building's window surfaces for evidence. Please do not be alarmed if you see men on scaffolding outside your windows.

Please continue to check the NY emergency hotline for updates. We ask that you follow the instructions provided in these messages.

Pizza is being provided at 1p

* Seriously, doesn't this sound like something one would buy at Spencer Gifts?

April 28, 2005

Alternative radio finally dies

You may remember that time in the early 1990's when suddenly a totally new style of music magically came into existence: "alternative". Even though bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction had been around for years, fans had been suffering in silence without a marketing term to describe the music they liked. Once Nirvana got really big and formerly underground music became fashionable, many radio stations jumped on the trend, and changed their formats from regular/classic rock to "alternative," a name that was instantly made meaningless when the music it described ceased to be an actual alternative to anything.

Anyway, at long last, those days are over: the Times reports that the alternative format is dead dead dead. Formerly big stations in big urban markets are changing their formats from "alternative" (it's even harder to imagine what kind of music that means anymore, especially since downloading has erased the boundaries between mainstream and indepedent music) to formats like R&B, '80's, or talk radio.

Radio listenership among young rock fans has also dropped lately. The article says, "The share of the 18-to-34 age group that is tuning in to alternative stations has shrunk by more than 20 percent in the last five years, according to Arbitron, while stations playing rap and R&B or Spanish-language formats have enjoyed an expanding audience."

Another potential reason for decline in listeners is rock stations' decision to stop even trying to appeal to women. A former radio programmer and current VP at MTV describes how this marketing decision seemed to make sense at the time for stations that play rock music, but ultimately hurt them: "When you listen to alternative stations do their 90's flashback weekends, you can hear something as meaningful as Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden to something as silly and quirky as Harvey Danger and Presidents of the United States of America. When [your listeners] become 65-75 percent guys, you're leaving a huge audience on the table." I'm not sure what the implication is here about what kind of music women like, but I can say from personal experience that it is not Harvey Danger.

Of course, another obvious explanation is that young people who are into new music aren't listening to traditional radio anymore; they're either listening to free internet radio or their iPods.

But I'd like to think that Americans have stopped believing that listening to Nine Inch Nails or Beck is a tribute to underground music, or a rebellion against mainstream music produced by entertainment multinationals. The word "alternative" stopped meaning anything as soon as it was used to describe Pearl Jam, whose first album sold 11 million copies and saturated radio and MTV. There have always been and always will be loads of bands that are genuinely underground, but I doubt any radio stations are going to start adding them to their playlists any time soon.

A few stations that have avoided the whole "alternative" trend by continuing to play truly alternative music all along: WFMU in Jersey City, and pretty much any college radio station (WZBC and WUNH being good examples.)

April 27, 2005

Where's Jim McGreevey now? He's gone to Xanadu! +

McGreevey in Xanadu

We were proud of ex-Governor of New Jersey Jim McGreevey when he declared himself a gay American. At least, we were for about 8 minutes before the real reasons for his resignation, um, came out: political corruption, putting his boyfriend on the state payroll, and unethical fundraising.

But we still wonder what ever happened to McGreevey, now that he's divorced and out of a job and his boyfriend presumably still won't talk to him. Turns out he's working for a law firm on a deal to build Xanadu, which is being touted as a "the ultimate sports, leisure, family entertainment and shopping complex in the United States" but is basically a really big, ugly mall in North Jersey with indoor skiing and chocolate waterfalls and tacky crap like that in it.

Not surprisingly, Xanadu is a controversial plan. They recently got sued to halt construction by the Sierra Club because the developers aren't addressing the environmental damage to the Meadowlands the complex will cause, or dealing with the traffic problems it will likely create. McGreevey is apparently working on some of these community service promises that the developer made in order to secure the deal, which so far haven't been held up very well.

If he runs into any trouble with this new project, he can always turn to his strategist friends to help him get his opponents to be more cooperative.

UPDATE: McGreevey just resigned from the law firm, citing conflict of interest. He hired the development company for Xanadu when he was Governor.

April 21, 2005

Important Alternative Soda

This is not actually news, but is part of our ongoing effort to raise awareness of exciting and delicious snack items.

Many Americans may have never tried Kola Champagne Soda, which seems to be a popular flavor in Jamaica, and possibly also Puerto Rico. I had never heard of it, but I've long been interested in regional sodas, and last night I bought a can of Good O Kola Champagne Soda at a bodega on the corner of 105th and 2nd, and it is an exceptionally fine drink.

It tastes like cream soda mixed with Moxie. Also, the can design is simple and very pleasing. No production information on the can, but it is distrubuted through Good O Beverages in the Bronx.

Good O Kola Champagne Soda

[click on photo for larger image]

You can order it from a store called Georgia Harvest--a 2 liter bottle of it for $1.09.

In searching for more information about this soda, I came upon a very impressive online store in Texas that sells over a hundred interesting sodas. The Kentucky Nip Cherry Julep Soda sounds especially delightful, and does apparently taste like mint!

Of course, my all-time favorite regional soda is produced by Squamscot Beverages in New Hampshire, and is called Yup, which I first purchased at Marelli's Fruit and Real Estate convenience store in Newmarket.

April 19, 2005

The latest on Wal-Mart in NYC

unions hate Wal-Mart

After Wal-Mart's plans to open a store in Queens got shut down by caterwauling unions, residents, and city officials, the company has set its sights on the next logical market: Staten Island. Staten Island occupies cultural territory more closely aligned with New Jersey than with the other four boroughs of New York, so I can see how this might make sense. A developer is considering two locations in Staten Island: Richmond Valley and Mariners Harbor.

However, they're still encountering some resistance. The United Food and Commercial Workers are fighting the proposed store, and designed a billboard in protest. The billboard was to feature a giant fire-breathing Godzilla next to the Verrazano Bridge, with a caption reading "The Wal-Monster will destroy Staten Island businesses and devastate our quality of life."

Of course, that billboard is never going to see the light of day, because guess who owns the billboard the union has already contracted to rent? Clear Channel! Those champions of free expression. It's no big surprise that Clear Channel would be on the side of Wal-Mart in this case, but it's their rationale for not allowing the union's billboard that will make you crazy. They somehow found a way to co-opt 9/11 as an excuse to censor a billboard. Says a executive from Clear Channel Outdoor, "Are we perhaps oversensitive on this? Maybe. When it comes to images of violence in New York City after 9/11, we feel we have to be very careful."

So the union dropped some of the more violent language from the tagline, changing it to "The Wal-Monster will diminish Staten Island businesses and impede our quality of life." Clear Channel still rejected it.

With big-media friends like Clear Channel, Wal-Mart doesn't even have to get directly involved with those dirty protesters and unions. It's probably only a matter of time before they open their first NYC store.

April 15, 2005

The Pharmaceutical Revolution - no, sorry, not that one.

typical prescription bottles

29-year old Deborah Adler is about to be a gajillionaire.

According to this NY Magazine piece, Adler decided to update the standard prescription pill bottle after her grandmother accidentally took the wrong medication. Realizing that current drug packaging "is not just unattractive - it's actually dangerous," Adler created a revolutionary new pill bottle for her thesis project at the School of Visual Arts. A creative director for Target saw it, loved it, and now ClearRx is available in Target pharmacies across the land. Here are her updates: ClearRx solution

  • New "D" shaped container offers a flat surface to read the full label
  • Name of the drug is printed on the top of the bottle, so you can identify it if it's stored in a drawer
  • Separate color-coded rings identify which family member the medication is for
  • Usage info can be tucked behind the label, instead of stapled onto the paper bag you throw away when you get home
  • The word "daily" is used instead of "Once", which may be confused for the Spanish word for "eleven"

This is exactly the kind of industrial design story I love. Like Sam Farber, who created Good Grips™ kitchen tools for his arthritic wife, Adler saw a simple need that hadn't occured to anyone else and addressed it.

This is another example of Target's move towards cornering the market on speedy and efficient health care. The company is also opening "MinuteClinics" in many stores, which are staffed with physician's assistants and nurses who can dispense basic medications, kind of like a drive-through doctor's office.

Anyway, read the whole article. It's neat. Now, if she can just find some way for us to afford prescription medications.

April 7, 2005

The metaphysical properties of Chapstick

chapstick of the spirit world

Fans of movie trailers for psychological thrillers, especially those that completely fail to portray these thrillers as the taut edge-of-your-seaters that they wish they were, certainly remember the best and funniest non-scary, non-taut trailer ever: the one for The Mothman Prophecies. [Watch the trailer here.]

This movie featured Richard Gere driving around in the dark on country roads, terrorized by some disembodied mothman/evil force/whatever that was somehow connected to the death of his wife. The trailer goes along OK, until one snippet of Richard Gere on the phone with this mothman thing, which whispers to him in a creepy, hissy voice that it was watching him. "What's in my hand, then?" Richard Gere asks, opening his hand to reveal a tube of Chapstick to the camera.

"Chaaaaapstiiick," the mothman thing hisses through the phone.

Richard Gere recoils in horror.

Calling people up on the phone and hissing "Chaaaapstiiick" at them became my favorite new game. Trying to imbue a tube of Chapstick with other-worldly menace is just a bad idea for a movie, and a ridiculous idea for a trailer.

Anyway, the good old Daily News today brings us a story about Steve Jacobs, who works in a Brooklyn nursing home, who says his life was saved by a blessed tube of Chapstick. Two guys with guns (actually one of the guns was a BB gun, for reasons the article does not explain) were shooting each other outside the nursing home, and a bullet flew threw a window and would have blasted right into poor Steve, had he not at that very moment bent over to pick up his Chapstick from the ground.

"I was very fortunate," the doctor's assistant said. "God was with me, no question."

It appears that both God and evil disembodied mothman phantoms can work in many mysterious ways, but both seem to prefer using Chapstick as their vehicle for earthly intercessions.

March 9, 2005

Whole Foods reaches new level of posh indulgence+

If one sign of a society in decline is outrageous and overbearing decadence, then the new Whole Foods grocery store in Austin, Texas is a bad sign for the future of America. Here are some of the features at the new 80,000 square foot store:

  • 14 pastry chefs making custom orders
  • a seafood counter with staff people throwing fish around, a la Pike Place Market in Seattle
  • an on-site playground
  • an on-site massage therapist
  • an all-organic clothing section with dressing rooms
  • a walk-in beer cooler with 800 varieties
  • and a flowing fountain of chocolate

This new, manic apotheosis of yuppie excess might be all a little overwhelming for the shopper who maybe just wants to buy some milk and a newspaper. Whole Foods' all-organic policy for the products they sell also seems to serve as psychological forgiveness for customers who spend wads of money on overpriced luxury foods. "Whole Foods offers a psychological absolution of our excesses," says Jerald Jellison, psychology professor at University of Southern California. "After filling your cart with sinful wine, beer, cheese and breads, you rationalize it's healthy, so that cancels out the negatives."

I find the defensiveness of Whole Foods' senior staff a little unnerving, too. "We're not Holy Foods," explains co-President Walter Robb, "We're Whole Foods." "We're not a religion. We're not a cult," company founder John Mackey says. I wish one of these guys had said, "We're not an emblem of overindulgence and hyper-consumerism whose large profits* are made by getting wannabe-yuppies to overspend on fashionable groceries that are not really that different from what you can get at Safeway," but I don't think they're that cavalier.

Also, for all their self-righteous goody-goody posturing, Whole Foods are a bunch of union-busters. More on this shortly from Emily. - Amy

Whole Foods has built a wildly successful business model by going in the exact opposite direction from Wal-Mart. While Wal-Mart essentially forced the supermarket workers' strike in California by undercutting those chains' prices, Whole Foods appeals to the bright-eyed liberals who would never dream of crossing a picket line - even if it means paying twice as much for a quart of milk. Whole Foods doesn't sell organic produce; they sell a lifestyle. In this terrific Fortune article about the manifest destiny of Whole Foods, founder Mackey is right on target when he defines his shoppers as people who "want to make a statement about who they are by where they shop."

But the company does share some alarming similarities with Wal-Mart. They've branched out their product line to ensure that even if you're just coming in for organic asparagus, well, you might as well grab your coffee and cereal and some toilet bowl cleaner too. The average size of a Whole Foods store is now 35,000 square feet; they own many of their distributors (such as a fish supplier in Mass.); and they sure hate unions. In fact, Mackey not only calls unions "highly unethical and self-interested," he also compares them to herpes: "It doesn't kill you, but it's unpleasant and inconvenient and it stops a lot of people from becoming your lover." That sure is a good attitude to have if you're planning on yearly revenues over $10 billion by 2010!

People - I'm sorry to tell you this, but even Ben & Jerry sold out to Unilever. No money-making corporations are really out there to serve the greater good. Businesses are businesses, and the community benefits, smiling employees, and free playgrounds are just pleasant side effects. Does that mean Whole Foods doesn't have delicious lime-marinated tofu? Of course not! But buying it doesn't make you a better person, and don't be fooled into thinking it does.

I'm particularly interested to see how Whole Foods' New York City stores do in the next few years. So far, the company has only opened stores in areas relatively underserved by grocery chains. This spring, a store will open up across the street from the bustling Union Square farmers market. Will customers choose pricey packaged organic foods over buying the same goods cheaper, and straight from the source? Whole Foods is also planning to build a Brooklyn store in the next few years, in a community that has not only an active farmers market, but the nation's largest food co-op (and easily the most fanatical co-op member base.)

I also might add, even though folks are lining up at the 14-man pastry station, it may not be the best time to invest in Whole Foods. New accounting regulations will require the company to deduct the stock options it loves to give "team members" as compensation from earnings. The answer? Start limiting employee stock options, which will also limit employee compensation. Mackey calls the rules "stupid" and claims that the company is growing so fast that investors won't even notice, but that remains to be seen. - Emily

* a typical supermarket sells south of $400 per square foot; a Whole Foods store exceeds $800

March 2, 2005

If you live in a 6th floor walk-up, be sure to tip extra

It's hardly a new trend, but the Times today has a good piece on the cultural phenomenon that truly sets New York apart from just about anywhere else in the country: the ubiquity of delivery. In order to stay competitive, just about every restaurant and deli in the entire city has to offer free neighborhood delivery. This includes Chinese food and pizza, like it does in any town, but here it also includes the vast spectrum of every different international cuisine you can think of, an increasing number of upscale restaurants, McDonald's, many liquor stores, corner delis, and of course personal services like laundries. Delis that offer delivery are especially specific to New York: if you want a cup of coffee and a pack of cigarettes, you don't have to walk down to one of the several bodegas on your block; they'll come right to your door. Unfortunately, the article does not go anywhere near the other sector of this industry especially common in New York: the drug delivery service.

The article states that take-out food is a growing trend nationwide, but look: when you have to get in your car, drive a few miles, find a parking space, and go into the Applebee's to pick up your bag of shitty fries and microwaved deep-fried gristle with anemic tomatoes as garnish, it's just not in the same category as the magnificence of fast delivery of real food to one's very doorstep. I maintain that there is a fundamental cultural difference between the two, but even if you lump take-out and delivery together, in 2004 "about 49 percent of restaurant meals sold in the New York area were takeout, as opposed to 38 percent in other places."

One theory about the growth of delivery and take-out is that more women working outside the home means fewer people with the time to cook dinner for themselves. Perhaps. Disgraceful laziness, paranoid aversion to interacting with the outside world, and the addictive luxurious joy derived from getting other people to do relatively simple tasks that normal adults are capable of doing for themselves are my personal theories/excuses. But I'll speak only for myself.

The Times also offers some general observations on the foods that travel well (eggplant parmesan, which I can personally vouch for, and standard Middle Eastern spreads) and those that don't (fries, grilled cheese, anything involving melted cheese.) Also a neighborhood guide to some of the best delivery to be had, which we bring you as a helpful resource for people who live here, and as a source of envy for those who don't.

February 25, 2005

TiVo: the new monkey on your back +

antennae or devil horns?

New York may still be the city that never sleeps (thank you Bloomberg for rejecting that bullshit 1 am nightlife closing time proposal) but lately, New Yorkers who stay up all night are alone in their tiny little apartments, watching TV. Yes, TiVo and other DVRs have turned a city of energetic go-getters into drooling sloths. Or rather, they've been turned into guilt-ridden freaks who feel bad about not spending even more of their time watching TV. The Post profiles these once active New Yorkers who lately vacillate between catching up on their shows in 8-hour viewing marathons and stressing over all the TV they're still not able to watch.

There has been a glut of articles written on the phenomenon of Too Much Media these days--there are more books, magazines, movies, TV shows, advertisements, cultural trends, websites, albums, news programs and celebrity scandals than anyone could possibly digest. And despite our best efforts to keep track of it all, say by buying a TiVo to record all those worthwhile shows you miss every week, we end up feeling even more behind when we still can't keep up with the onslaught with technological help.

The Post article says, "People who thought [their DVR] would give them more free time are struggling to watch every show on their lists - so they can delete them and start piling up new ones." One stressed-out guy says of his huge list of recorded shows, "The list is like a set of tasks I have to complete, or I feel like a failure. I spend all day making lists, just to go home to another list!" Considering the TiVo taglines like "You've got a life. TiVo gets it" and "Do More. Miss Nothing", the increased sense of obligation and stress that its customers are experiencing results from a misjudgement of the product; in order to miss nothing, TiVo users have to basically do nothing but watch TV.

In our desire to watch TV more efficiently, we end up watching so much we have time for little else. One sad DVR owner describes how he and his girlfriend spent their nights: "We used to come home from work, and she'd have her shows programmed, and I'd have mine, so we'd take turns watching each others' shows, and eventually one of us would get tired and go to bed." The couple has since split up. "It's crazy, because I don't watch much TV normally," he said.

Since 2/3 of Amy's Robot uses DVRs (and would probably have written better posts about this issue than the 1/3 who doesn't own one,) and because a rep from Time Warner Cable says their DVRs are still "flying out the door," we can expect to see more and more New Yorkers engaging in the TV marathons that some of us have experienced first hand. TV stations' fondness for programming back-to-back reruns of shows like Law & Order, Melrose Place, and, oddly, The Munsters only enables TiVo owners to spend even more time plowing through the hours of shows lovingly recorded for them. We've known people to have over 90 episodes of Law & Order on their TiVo hard drive at once.

Of course, even before the days of the DVR, some of us still engaged in guilt-driven accumulation of media that we knew we would probably never get to. I recently renewed my subscription to Harper's magazine for a foolishly optimistic two more years, even though I have a growing stack of unread issues already, and have yet to read more than one issue from 2004. I think we all collectively, as a culture, have to put some effort into letting some of this stuff go, and easing up on all this obsessive media collecting.

It's OK. You can just delete those Malcolm in the Middle episodes. The new ones aren't as funny, anyway. -Amy

In my experience, the feeling of failure that accompanies not watching all your shows goes away after a while, as does the desire to record stuff just for the sake of recording it. On the other hand, if you really like your shows -- be it Malcolm in the Middle (which is hilarious by the way...who knew?) or The Munsters -- then happiness is a full Tivo (or, nearly full, anyway). Tivo enables me to give shows a try without thinking about it or putting effort (heh) into it, shows that I would have never though to sit down and actually watch at a pre-determined time and so would never have seen without it.

These "I feel like a failure b/c I can't keep up with Tivo" stories have been coming out for a while now, and there's always a fresh set of despair-filled consumers who are a couple of months into their new DVR-driven life, always with a ready-made quote. Eventually, though, these people will enter the second stage of their relationship with Tivo, the guilt-free one, and will forget the stresses of the early days. -ADM

February 18, 2005

Sucking the Fun out of Childhood: Part 2

bugs bunny update loonatics

Our friends at the WB are set to debut a new X-treme™ Looney Tunes show, "Loonatics," on Saturday mornings, with familiar characters like Bugs Bunny updated for the year 2772. It's television from the future!

“We all flipped for it,” David Janollari, president of the Kids’ WB, said this week. “We just said, ‘Wow, what a great way to take the classic Looney Tunes franchise that has been stale for years and use it to siphon more money out of parents' pockets.”’

Haha, I'm kidding, of course. He really said: “Wow, what a great way to take the classic Looney Tunes franchise that has been huge with audiences for decades and bring it into the new millennium.”

But we know what you mean, David. Just like those guys revamping Trolls.

February 11, 2005

United Farm Workers, Morons +

Nonprofit direct marketers are living a nightmare. A number of direct mail solicitations went out to potential donors that were addressed like this: "Herbert Kaiser, Jewish." Some of them even included those free personalized address labels with the same religious identification on them. The organizations that sent out these mail pieces are exactly the kind that would sooner torture an enemy combatant than promote stereotyping or profiling, including the ACLU, Amnesty International, and Drug Policy Alliance. Some other mail recipients had tags like "Catholic" or "Hindu" after their names.

Turns out the tainted names originally came from United Farm Workers, who apparently had asked a list broker they hired to add demographic information about donors to their address records. Anyone who has worked in marketing knows that a lot of market research information and potential donor screening is based on making assumptions, like that someone is Jewish based on their last name. Two of the people who reported receiving mail designating them as Jewish are not, in fact, Jewish.

As once private information becomes more and more accessible, easier to manipulate, and available to anyone willing to pay for it, it's hardly a surprise that organizations start segmenting and targeting their customers or donors. Even the ACLU. But when this typically invisible process gets printed right on an address label, it sure looks ugly. A Stanford Law professor commenting about the enormous income nonprofit groups make from renting their donor lists says, "If you talk to people doing marketing for nonprofits, you hear them saying that this is all publicly available information that is being passed around, so what's the problem? The problem is that what's publicly available has changed dramatically because of technology, and it can be easily manipulated to produce unforeseen outcomes, some of which can be terrible."

The ACLU is telling people who call them to ask why their assumed religious affiliation was printed on a solicitation, "We do not collect or store religious information on our members." But the fact that they buy their name lists from a company that does store this kind of information, and sells its valuable segmented lists at a premium, makes them complicit in this kind of privacy breach.

Comments from the Official List Broker of Amy's Robot (via Emily):
What happened in this case is, the UFW farmed out the job to a large, well-known list broker in California, Triplex, who left the coding in the file. The broker was at fault, and they knew better. It’s really complete stupidity on their part, to not have two people checking the list, but many people who are employed to do data entry just don’t notice or don’t care, and mistakes like this really end up hurting all the charitable people who rent lists. But even through non-profits make such a huge amount of money by selling their lists, it’s not all profit. Many people may stop giving you money, or drop out of your organization if their name is used too often. For example, I subscribe to The Nation, and was furious when they sold my name to the Communist Party of America. It's particularly bad when you rent lists to politicians, because the letter the politician sends for approval can be completely different from what they end up sending to your list. Organizations that are very cautious will do the mailing themselves, rather than give out their own list. This way, they still make a profit without releasing any confidential information.

"Public Enemy Number 1" Comes to New York

Wal-Mart happy face
Oh ho! It looks like the working man's friend, Wal-Mart, is looking into opening its first New York City location in 2008. And New Yorkers couldn't be more enthusiastic:

Wal-Mart builds communities!
Says Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner, "Wal-Mart has blazed a path of economic and social destruction in towns throughout the U.S."

Wal-Mart creates jobs!
Brian McLaughlin, president of the New York City Central Labor Council, adds that "Wal-Mart has come to represent the lowest common denominator in the treatment of working people."

Wal-Mart brings people together!
Richard Lipsky, spokesman for the Neighborhood Retail Alliance, says, "There will never be a more diverse and comprehensive coalition than this effort against Wal-Mart...It will include small-business people, labor people, environmental groups, women's groups, immigrant groups and community groups."

Interestingly, this news comes just after Wal-Mart announced it will close a Canadian store close to unionizing, citing "unreasonable demands" from labor organizers that would make the store unprofitable to operate. And I'm sure it would. As this interesting* New Yorker piece points out, Wal-Mart is stuck: its own business model makes it impossible to pay fair wages, because the low pricing allows such a small profit margin (according to the article, an average of 4 cents on every dollar of sales).

But here's another curious thing. Why are the same New Yorkers who courted Target so vehemently opposing Wal-Mart? After all, they're both big-box stores that sell products at discount prices, affecting local retailers in their communities. Target might have a hipper ad campaign and cooler opening parties, but are the differences betwen the two real or perceived? Sure, Target promotes corporate giving, but Wal-Mart also operates community programs, just as Target also employs a staff of largely part-time, non-union workers. Can we really be won over so easily by cheap designer clothing? Will labor and community leaders** look the other way, as long as it means access to cute kitchen accessories?

* Interesting, but ultimately incorrect: Surowiecki concludes that as big-box stores and manufacturers like Proctor & Gamble/Gillette continue to grow, economic power lies with the consumer - which is a theory I can't subscribe to.
**Disclaimer: I'm as guilty as anyone on this, I love me some Target.

February 3, 2005

Oh my god, the service industry is sooo hard!

The Times profiles a disturbing trend in confessional-style web forums: bitching waiters. Another recent article in Time Out about all the horrible tortures that restaurant patrons inflict on the waitstaff also suggests that waiters are reaching a breaking point. I certainly agree that any job in the service industry involves special challenges and a lot of frustration with rude, impatient, and ungrateful customers, and I think that good waiters should be very well-paid.

However. The tone of the Time Out piece was basically this: You people who come into our restaurants are so thoughtless and uncivilized that you should be thankful that we even deign to bring you your goddamned herb-crusted tilapia, so here are some things you should do to make our lives as waiters easier and less stressful. Then they include some suggestions like "Don't ask for substitutions on menu items" and my personal favorite, "Don't make a reservation and then not show up." Yeah, maybe if the time of one's reservation bore any relation to the time at which one actually gets seated at many Manhattan restaurants, patrons might take them more seriously.

A chef who likes to complain about his job on one of these complaining waiter sites says, "I don't think civilians really have any idea how the staff really feels: namely, that they just can't wait to turn the table, get their tip and see the back of you. Let's be honest."

OK look, bitching waitstaff: first of all, the only reason that waiter jobs and the restaurant industry exist in the first place is that people are willing to pay $15 for a plate of penne with pesto, as long as somebody else makes it and brings it to them and does the dishes afterwards. When people are paying you to serve them, then you more or less have to do what they want--it's the nature of the industry. Some customers are rude and surly, but if you're a waiter, you still have to serve them. Sorry. It's your job. (Though customers should think carefully about being rude to people who have access to their food. As one waiter says, customers generally forget how vulnerable they are to the good will of servers. "I can never understand why anyone would be even the slightest bit rude to someone who is about to touch your food.")

One of the bitchy waiter sites that I do admire, however, is, which features a list exposing really bad tippers. The waiter-patron social contract centers on waiters serving patrons, and patrons paying for service. Waiters don't have much of an excuse to complain about the nature of their jobs, but if you want to be a stingy jerk, make your own dinner.

January 14, 2005

Anti-Americanism in consumers

Since we all know how much the whole world freaking hates the US these days, a clever market research firm recently polled 1,000 consumers in the UK, Canada, France, and Germany to find out how much this anti-Americanism spills over into their buying habits. A nice chart plots the selection of brands on two axes, one showing their perception of the "American-ness" of their product, and the other showing how strongly they say they will avoid buying the brand.

The results have inspired us to generate this guide for American companies who want to market their products to foreigners, who appear to be irrationally averse to certain goods that they perceive as being somehow more American than others.

  • If the name of your company sounds vaguely foreign or European, especially French, you have nothing to worry about. Brands such as Estee Lauder, Ralph Lauren, and Gillette are all perceived as not particularly American, and consumers don't plan to avoid buying their products. National Geographic apparently has enough of an international focus to be untainted by Americanism.
  • Brands that specifically align themselves with images of America, or that are defining elements of American culture, don't fare as well. Disney, Marlboro, McDonald's, Coke and Pepsi (though Coke is seen as more American) are all shunned by foreign buyers.
  • If you have the word "American" in your company name, forget it. American Express, American Airlines, and United Airlines are all thought of as extremely American, while Northwest Airlines is not. Consumers say they wish to avoid all three of the airlines, however.
  • If your brand produces the gold standard of whatever product you produce, it doesn't matter if you're perceived as American or not--everyone in the world will still want to buy your stuff. Levi's is perceived as very American, but few of the consumers polled say they plan to avoid buying Levi's jeans.
  • But when it comes right down to it, no consumers really make any sense. Jack Daniel's, about as American a brand and image as you can get, is perceived as being less American and more desirable than is Budweiser (despite there being a Czech beer by the same name) or Starbucks. As the article's author notes, "Some of the other results make me think that the people polled are just dumb. Chrysler, which polls in the danger zone as very American and unlikable, is owned by a European company!"

January 5, 2005

Sucking the Fun out of Childhood

Hey, remember these?

hair trolls

I bet you never thought those bug-eyed, fuzzy-headed creatures that once decorated the pencil ends of schoolchildren everywhere would one day become these:

updated trolls

That’s right, in an effort to suck the spontaneity out of fads and replace it with cold-blooded, calculating youth marketing, entertainment company DIC is reimagining the trolls of your youth as Trollz!™ (note use of “Xtreme” new spelling).

Although the rights to the original troll image was purchased for an “undisclosed sum,” DIC is clearly throwing assloads of money at this project. Fittingly, a former stylist for Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears was hired to transform the once homely, pot-bellied creatures into pre-teen sex kittens, and a full writing team has developed such pithy catchphrases as, “Friends are even more important than hair gel." The resulting troll for the twenty-first century is described as a head-scratching combination of “Phoebe from "Friends", a dash of Summer from "The O.C.," as well as pinches of Eeyore from "Winnie the Pooh" and Carrie Bradshaw from "Sex and the City. ” It’s a far cry from the dumpy woodland creature we know and love, which was allegedly modeled after a particularly ugly local butcher.

In what the DIC brass charmingly refer to as “carpet bombing”, a Trollz™ website, dolls, books and DVDs will debut in the spring, to be followed by a Trollz™ animated series and, one can only assume, a breakfast cereal and an appearance at the Nickelodeon Kids Choice awards. The message is clear: Resistance is useless! You are defenseless against the media juggernaut that is Trollz™!

How disappointing. The joy of the original troll was its completely baffling appeal. For some reason, a cheap, ugly, piece of plastic struck a chord with people all over the world. As marketing "experts" further break down consumers into target demographics, there's no room left for kids to embrace something as totally inexplicable and bizarre as a troll. In this brave new world, fads are created and marketed directly to them.

The truly depressing thing about this extensively planned, budgeted, campaigned and focus-grouped new product is that it isn't even new. Instead, it melts down elements of existing fads (trolls, pop music, teen idols) to create a watery, bogus, new one that will probably succeed just because kids can't get away from it. How revolutionary would it be if this kind of energy went into developing genuinely innovative new brands, instead of rehashing old ones?

December 30, 2004

Robot-on-the-Spot: This Bud's For You

Amy's Robot operatives have discovered an intriguing new development in the Bud vs. Miller controversy.

miller happy hour

We won't identify this bar, lest their Miller distributor shuts them down.

December 8, 2004

What in the heck is up with Budweiser?

Budweiser ad

Something weird is going on over at Anheuser-Busch. It struck me this morning as I was sitting across from one of the Budweiser “Fresh Beer Tastes Better” posters currently plastering every single New York City subway car.

This campaign, launched last fall, has a curious logic behind it based on Anheuser-Busch’s own success (the company’s current market share is around 50%). It goes like this: beer tastes better if consumed less than 35 days after brewing – which is how long Bud generally sits on your retailer’s shelf. Other beers (such as, say, Miller) can spend up to twice as long in the store. Therefore, one should buy and consume Bud, both because it is fresher than other beers, and because by clearing the shelf you ensure a continuous, fresh supply of new beer. Tricky.

But then there was the King of Beers' bizarre “Unleash the Dawgs” campaign earlier this year responding to Miller’s “President of Beers” ads. Using third-grade tactics, Bud “unleashed the dawgs” by allegedly having distributors slap stickers on Miller Lite products saying “Queen of Carbs” and "Owned by South African Breweries" and running ads with similar messages. The campaign was pulled when Miller sued. [Both campaigns are fully documented here]

Simultaneously, Budweiser undermined their own position by anxiously reassuring carb-counting consumers that “all light beers are low in carbs – choose on taste.”

And now – now, there’s B-to-the-E™, or B(e) for short.

B to the E

Just what is B(e)? Why, it’s a beer-based product infused with caffeine, guarana and ginseng, a direct response to the popularity of energy drinks like Red Bull (and an embarassing attempt to use youth language). If you’re looking for something lighter, Anheuser-Busch has also added Bacardi Silver Low Carb Green Apple to its Bacardi Silver family of brands. A pretty bold move for a company that just spent a tidy sum calling their competitor girly.

I think two things happened here. First, the Bud loyalists are getting older, and Anheuser-Busch began to envision a bleak future of dilettantes who jump from product to product, caring only about fads like carbs and caffeine. Then someone at Anheuser-Busch noticed that Miller’s global net profits more than doubled this year. And then everyone started freaking the heck out.

Bud is not my beer of choice, but I’ve always been impressed by the brand loyalty it inspires. Good or bad, you know exactly what you’re getting when you crack one open. I know plenty of people who would never consider drinking anything else. But the fastest way to destroy a strong brand is to start fiddling with it. Consumers can smell fear, and as soon as a product looks vulnerable, they’re gone. As Slate pointed out, a competitor as successful as Budweiser should have ignored the Miller ads. By responding, they looked fearful – and it seems pretty clear that they are.

Here's my advice, Bud, and you can have it for free. Drop DDB Worldwide, for starters. Let Red Bull and Miller Lite have their niches. Stick with what you do well. You don’t need to follow everyone else off the brand extension cliff.

But, sorry, I'm still not going to drink your beer.

December 7, 2004

Emotional shopping

If you're interested in the social dynamics of our consumer culture, you should take a look at the NY Times special section on shopping in today's paper. There's a great piece on the retail stores (like, not delis) that are open all night or very late in NYC, and the people who shop there; and one on the difficulties and underlying motivations that are involved with gift-giving. This being the Times, there is also a pointless article that reveals that some people do a lot of shopping online! And some women actually enjoy shopping - as a recreational activity!

The most interesting article is one about a neurological study that was done recently on some Japanese women, which examines the physical brain response related to brand loyalty. What they found is that for women who feel the strongest sense of loyalty to a particular store, their neurological activity when they think about that store is centered in areas of the brain that deal with visual memory and emotion. Particularly the amygdala, described as the "sensory gateway to the emotions." I'd be interested to see if men's brains indicate the same things about the source of their brand loyalty.

Marketers, of course, want to develop as many of these passionately loyal customers as possible, because these are the people who will go way out of their way to get to their preferred brand or store, they will tell their friends about it, and they will be very forgiving of any service lapses or product problems. I know that if everyone felt the way I do about ShiKai shower gel, you would be able to buy that stuff as easily as you can get a bottle of Coke: at supermarkets, gas stations, delis, and vending machines across the globe. The problem is that people develop this fanatical loyalty based on emotional response, not as a result of things that marketers can control, like advertising, or even exceptionally high quality products. It turns out that the best customers are irrational in their consumer behavior, so there's no clear way to manipulate their decision-making. It's hard to build a bigger base of loyal customers when their behavior makes no sense.

But focus groups are probably going to involve a lot more brain scanners in the years to come.

December 2, 2004

The Season for Giving

coldwater creek catalogue

We consumers all know the true meaning of the Christmas season - it's holiday catalogue time! There's nothing more joyful than wading through that knee-high pile of glossy catalogues blocking your front door, especially when thoughtful merchants like L.L. Bean send you three or four, just in case.

But there are some magical years when a new offering distinguishes itself from the others in the recycling bin. And the easiest way for companies to grab an overwhelmed consumer's attention is by creating a catalogue that is totally and completely mental.

I'm speaking of course about Idaho-based retailer Coldwater Creek, which sells a variety of velvet dresses, animal-shaped jewelry, generic art, and outdoor thermometers with pictures of wolves on them. In the finest tradition of J. Peterman (both real and fictional), the beauty is in the lyrical copywriting. In fact, I was so inspired by it, I was moved to compile:

The First Annual Amy's Robot Holiday Gift Guide™
(courtesy of the Coldwater Creek Holiday 2004 catalogue. Full descriptions are in flash.)

For that special young lady:

Moose on the Loose Earrings

Antlers aweigh! There’s a double moose sighting just east and west of your smile. The handsome pair – all aglow in polished nickel silver – look jubilant silhouetted against goldtone backdrops, dangling to and fro from their sterling French wires with matte beads. $24 pr.

or perhaps:

Dancin’ and Prancin’ Brooch

Santa’s reindeer have nothing on this jazzy loose-limbed moose. He’ll merrily perk up winter sweaters and jackets with his high-flying leaps and bounds. Hand made from sterling silver and brass with four dangling hooves on sterling chains, this delightful pin’s a dazzler and accomplished hoofer, to boot! $39.

For Mom:

A gift for flexibility

Already the sleigh was piled high with beautiful silk big-shirts. Worried, the reindeer crew asked: Were other, more casual styles still to come? No need, said Nick pulling out the red plaid. “The missus tells me she can dress this up or down. Skirts, pants, jeans – everything!” $69

For the transvestite in your life:

Taking it’s styling cues from the Victor/Victoria school of evening dress, our velvet jacket sports the satin labels of the finest tux. And the princess seamed, open front silhouette only a femme fatale could pull off! Fully lined in polyestyer. $99

And sure to turn up under the Christmas tree of every person I know:

Games Cats Play Wool Vest (pictured)

Object of this feline frolic: chase the pompoms. And with each tug of the fluffy zipper pulls on this cheery red vest you’ll smile, imagining perhaps the leaps and lunges of the appliquéd cats. Of soft boiled wool, capped handsomely with a collar. Dry-clean. $79

Note: There has been some speculation that I wrote or embellished this ad copy. Let me assure you each example is 100%, word-for-word directly from the catalogue. Feel free to browse it for yourself.

November 23, 2004

Welcome to Marlboro Country


Ever since the class action suits against big tobacco companies in 1998, companies like Philip Morris have had to change the way they promote their cigarettes in this country. This, along with an enormous potential population of smokers overseas, has prompted many companies to target most of their biggest campaigns at foreigners. The LA Times has a great piece (login req'd) on the creepy and secretive 2004 Adventure Team, a 12-day outdoor tour of Utah's Moab Desert for a group of 42 people, ages 22-24, all from countries in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. If they are selected from the application process (which requires all kinds of revelation of personal consumer habits) they get a free trip to the US, ride around in jeeps, hike, wear western hats, and pretend to be cowboys. All the while associating all that freedom and natural beauty with Marlboro cigarettes.

Americans are less likely to respond to all that "Come to where the flavor is" marketing stuff, ever since some of the original Marlboro cowboys came forward with lung cancer in the 1990's. Many people from other countries still love fake cowboys and images of the old west of America (as evidenced by the social clubs of Germans who dress up as Native Americans.) They seem to have a great time on their vacation celebrating American values, like smoking.

An American value that Philip Morris and the Adventurers seem to value less is freedom of the press. The LA Times article is structured around the efforts of the reporter and photographer to gain access to members of the group and the guides, which are mostly rebuffed. They are told to go away by the field guides, the owner of some of the private land used during the Adventure, and by some of the foreign participants themselves. One woman shouts at them, "Why are you bothering us? This is not American." It appears that Philip Morris used to allow some American journalists on the annual tour, but recently decided against allowing any American participants at all. One executive says, "We want the winners to experience the freedom of America. And we find this is easiest when Americans are not part of the event."

So Philip Morris are shilling for a mostly non-existent vision of America to young people from other countries, in an effort to associate their brand of cigarettes with freedom, beauty, and unspoiled nature. But in their execution of this supposed celebration of American values, they actually reveal what have become some of the most pervasive values in corporate America: wilfull manipulation of imagery, corporate secrecy, intimidation and control of media, and marketing campaigns that intrude into consumers' personal lives.

Be sure to read to the end of the article, in which one of the participants offers to the reporter the she actually isn't a smoker. A German rep from Philip Morris overhears this, and freaks out all over the reporter, yelling that he is rude and ordering him to leave, saying, "We never ask these rude questions in Europe!" So much for American freedoms.

AFP Effectively Combines Sight Gag, Understatement

Bush in a poncho

"World leaders, visibly uneasy, donned brightly colored blanket-style ponchos instead of sober suits in an annual 'fashion show' for an Asia-Pacific summit in Chile."(AFP/Tim Sloan)

November 22, 2004

Why the rest of the world thinks New Yorkers are nuts

People who live in New York often enjoy traveling to other parts of the world, going into bars or local businesses, and squealing with delight over how cheap everything is. Yes, there are many parts of our nation in which it is considered normal for a beer to cost well under $6. It is possible to live in this city and be thrifty, but sometimes it feels like our hyper-inflated economy coupled with a lot of alarmingly self-indulgent people are eroding our ability to distinguish a fair price from an absurd joke.

The case that best illustrates this point is the phenomenon of the overpriced New York haircut. Few other industries offer such radically varying prices for, ultimately, the same service. Having grown up getting my hair cut by my mother as I sat on a stool in the bathtub, I can tell you that the first time I considered paying more for a haircut than I would for a nice meal was a minor trauma. I still feel a twinge of guilt about what I agree to pay every 3-4 months for a service that many people competently do for themselves at home. However, the Sunday Times tells us that some women are so thoroughly complicit with nonsensical pricing theory that they actually believe that if they pay ten times more than what most normal people would consider to be an already high price for a haircut, that they will in fact look ten times better.

Which brings us to The $800 Haircut. The hairdressers that charge this kind of price who were interviewed for the article go through some impressive rationalizations for their fees, usually by comparing their prices favorably to the price of designer shoes. Some old-fashioned types suggest that there just might be an element of the hairdressers' egos reflected in their prices, and call the over-$500 guys "pretentious." (So what do they call hairdressers who charge only $350? "Refreshingly down-to-earth"? "Folksy"? "Communist"?)

There are some people within this world of expensive barbers who see through the insanity. One relatively sensible stylist who works at Bergdorf Goodman, although he also calls his $400 price "bargain basement", recognizes that regular, non-famous people who eagerly seek out these high-priced hairdressers and wait patiently for appointments with them are probably trying to attain some celebrity contact high. They're seeking the "magic thing" of fame and wealth, he says. "And I don't think what they are looking for can be found in a pair of scissors." Wise words.

November 18, 2004

Who's Laffing Now?

Laffy Taffy

Today I want to bring your attention to a scandal involving my favorite candy of all time, Willy Wonka™ brand Laffy Taffy™. For those of you unfamiliar with the product, Laffy Taffy is a unique blend of slightly tart, chewy taffy and packaging printed with wildly unfunny jokes allegedly submitted by candy-hungry children across the nation.

I've had my doubts about the Laffy Taffy joke submission process for some time, but have never seen a reason to take up the issue with the Wonka company. After all, sometimes you do come across a gem like:

Laffy Taffy joke

Laffy Taffy answer

But every consumer has her limit. And that would be when she's waiting for the elevator, calmly munching a little piece of candy, and she smooths out the wrapper to find THIS!

Laffy Taffy joke

Laffy Taffy answer

Obviously, I called the Wonka toll-free number immediately, where I spoke to a very helpful customer service representative (perhaps an Oompa Loompa?).

Emily: I have a question about the Wonka Laffy Taffy packaging. Some of the jokes seem – well, let me be frank. They're pretty stupid. How are they submitted? How do you decide what to print?
Willy Wonka Rep: Children submit jokes through our website, they’re reviewed to make sure they’re appropriate, and then printed on the wrappers.
Emily: Reviewed for content?
WW: Yes, to make sure they’re appropriate.
Emily: So - what does that mean – you weed out dirty jokes?
WW: Yes, sure.
Emily: But not jokes that don’t make sense.
WW: Well...children are funny. A joke that might make someone my age scratch their head, you show it to a kid and they’ll be rolling on the floor.
Emily: No, I understand that. So, your policy is to print any joke that’s submitted, as long as it’s not dirty?
WW: Appropriate, yes.
Emily: Ok. Well, I have a question about this particular joke (I read her the joke, she chuckles a little). You're telling me a child submitted this joke? It doesn't make sense on any level! It's not even a pun!
WW: haha - very true.
Emily: I mean, this is a reference to Flash Gordon, right?
WW: haha....
Emily: Look, I'm serious here and - logic aside - doesn’t it seem odd that a child would submit a joke referencing a cult movie that’s 25 years old?
WW: um...
Emily: I mean, it just struck me as odd.
WW: Well, all the jokes are submitted by children.
Emily: But - Flash Gordon? I mean, come on.
WW: All the jokes are submitted by children on our website.

Unsatisfied, I sent an email regarding my issues with this "joke submission policy" to the Wonka mothership, Nestle USA, and received the following answer:

Thank you for inquiring about Wonka Laffy Taffy. We appreciate your kind and thoughtful comments. Children submit the jokes on the Laffy Taffy wrappers. They are accepted only on the website.

Once again, thank you for your interest in our products and we hope you'll visit our website often for the latest information on Nestlé products and promotions.

Consumer Response Representative

Clearly, this line of inquiry has gone as far as the Nestle/Wonka corporate machine will allow. Of course, I'd swallow this party line more willingly if jokes could actually be submitted on the website. However, if you go to you'll find nothing but a store, a few flash games, and an "Ask Willy" section where children can submit burning questions such as, "Do you snore at night?"

Don't try to fool me, Mr. Wonka. You may want to give the impression of a kinder, gentler candy company, but this customer finds it a little more likely that some stoner in the Wonka design department has been watching the Sci-Fi channel at 3 a.m.

November 8, 2004

New York has a manufacturing industry too+


The vast majority of the Northeast's manufacturing industries that moved our nation out of an agrarian-based economy and into a factory-and-pollution-based economy have long since been lost to the Midwest and the South. In the early 20th century, it just became cheaper to run a factory in Mississippi than in Lowell, Mass. (Though these same regions that once benefited from northern manufacturing job losses are now bitching and moaning about their jobs being sent to China. Crybaby sons of mill workers!) Anyway, you might be interested to know that manufacturing is still listed as the fourth largest economic sector in Brooklyn. One of the companies providing manufacturing jobs is surely one of the very best places to work in the world: Joyva, our nation's largest producer of unfathomably delicious halvah. The company also makes other sesame-based foods like tahini and crunchy candy.

Richard Radutzky, a third-generation member of the company's founding family, who came over from Ukraine, expounds on the love that New Yorkers have for halvah and his company's importance to the city: "There seem to be transplanted Brooklynites all over the world," he said. "And when they see halvah, there is a sense of familiarity and of coming home and of nostalgia and tradition that's not just talk. It's something tangible." I'll say it is. Keep our manufacturing industry strong, Joyva!

And don't forget New York's other favorite exports - Streit's Matzo, Brooklyn Brewery beer, Rheingold, and Neighborhoodies.

November 4, 2004

America is Still a Great Country

stand n stuff taco

Does France have a flat-bottomed taco shell that stands upright while you fill it?

I don't think so.

October 29, 2004

October Surprise

SNL producer marci klein

Here's a helpful tip from Amy's Robot: If you're going to behave like a jackass on Saturday Night Live, please make sure that someone like....oh, I don't know, say Lesley Stahl of "60 Minutes", isn't there filming a special report.

This glorious backstage footage [6mb] of the entire Ashlee Simpson debacle airs on CBS this Sunday, my friends. Happy Halloween!

Above: SNL Producer Marci Klein officially losing her shit.

October 21, 2004

More Trick than Treat

halloween kit kat

Dear Amy's Robot Readers:

I must warn you of an offensive holiday fraud being perpetrated by none other than our friends at Hershey’s. That's right, the same chocolate empire that taunted me and then denied me the Dark Chocolate Almond Joy!

During this Halloween season, you are most likely surrounded by delicious snack-sized candies. Readers, under no circumstances should you eat the widely-available Halloween Kit Kat. Oh sure, the packaging claims "these fun Halloween colored KIT KAT Wafer Bars will be a hit with all the little ghosts and goblins!" But do you know what "Halloween colored" means?

It means white chocolate.

Hershey’s, please. Why do you insist on ignoring me? White chocolate isn’t even real chocolate! It’s just sugar and butter, and all it will give you is a headache and an upset stomach. Nobody likes it, yet your aging, melty white chocolate Kit Kats and Pina Colada Almond Joys are taking up valuable candy aisle real estate across the country. Just admit you were wrong on this one and pull that shit out of stores already!

A gentleman of my acquaintance once participated in a focus group for Nestle. The company was trying to reinvent the delicious Chunky (chocolate with nuts and raisins) by compromising its signature square shape and making it into an ordinary bar. The focus group unanimously agreed that the block shape was the most satisfying part of the Chunky. Nestle responded by changing the shape anyway -- and then changing it back shortly after when nobody bought the new one. Rumor has it that Chunky has now been discontinued.

Similarly, Hershey’s thinks if they trick us into buying white chocolate under the guise of a holiday theme, it will catch on. But it won't! We don't want your "Halloween" Kit Kat or your equally vile "Scary White Chocolate Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup". And you people better start listening to your consumers, or you'll wake up one day to find they're all eating M&Ms.

October 20, 2004

Race and Consumerism

We young urban people are a popular crowd these days, at least among magazine publishers. Radar (remember that, ADM?) is relaunching with funding from new backers (as mentioned on the Link Factory,) and yesterday I received a mailer detailing how Complex magazine can benefit me, or the "young, urban man" that the enclosed letter assumed I am. While Radar sticks to the same kind of sassy celebrity and pop culture "news" that is pretty much the same territory as Us Weekly or Star, Complex is, as its name suggests, more complex. You see, Complex was founded by Marc Ecko, the white guy from New Jersey who has built a hugely successful street clothing and hip-hop-related brand. The really innovative thing about his magazine is that it combines pop culture news and hip-hop feature articles with, get this, a shopping guide! We all know that men are no longer immune from hyper-consumerism, as evidenced by Cargo and Vitals, so where exactly is the innovation in Complex, except that they think I am a man?

It appears that Marc Ecko, in developing his magazine, figured that if he's white, and he likes hip hop, and lots of black men like his clothes, then there must be a lot more white guys out there like him. Guys that want to read about Eve and Mos Def and Beyonce, and also buy jetskis and underwater cameras. Right? AND, he also figured that since a lot of black guys buy his clothes and like his style, they might also want to read about Franz Ferdinand, Zach Braff, and Sheryl Crow, and also buy watches. [See back issues here for more eclectic cover stars]

OK, Sheryl Crow might have been a bad example because nobody is actually interested in reading about her, but still, my point is that I don't think that these black-kids-into-white-culture and white-kids-into-black-culture exist in the numbers that Ecko seems to think they do. Or if they do, it is exclusively in terms of consumerism. The half-lifestyle, half-shopping guide format of the magazine indicates that Ecko is at least somewhat aware of this limitation. Black guys who like hip-hop and and are somewhat into white culture might want read about some of these products, but probably don't really care about The Beta Band. Likewise, tons of white guys listen to rap and wear sneakers and other athletic gear, but are they going to want to read an interview with Kelis? And is anyone who reads a magazine like this actually in the market to buy a Bentley, as featured in the "Ten Best Whips of '04" feature?

People who are interested in the pop-cultural trappings of another race are probably only interested in just that--the trappings, which is why a magazine that integrates the consumer needs of black and white readers will probably do fairly well. Creating a single magazine that brings together the more general interests of white and black young urban men is an admirable goal, but I'm not sure that cultural interests cross racial lines for the typical American man as much as Ecko thinks they do, unless you're only talking about cool sneakers. And of course, that other universal point of interest, pictures of hot girls making out. It's only $6 for a six-issue subscription, so if you're all about multiculturalism and shopping, this may be the magazine for you. As one Amazon reviewer writes, "I like how they do the flip thing, one side is called the 'magazine' and flip it over and it's the 'guide' which gives you some info (prices, websites, where you can buy it, etc.) on a couple hundred products. I think it's worth the price; especially if you're a big-spender like myself." Hey, big spender, I'm surprised you can even tell the difference between the two sides of the magazine. But that's the whole point, isn't it?

October 13, 2004

Just put it on my chip, Bartender!


At last, at last! Today the FDA finally approved the implantable microchip VeriChip™ for medical use. VeriChip™ is already in use to keep your pets from getting lost (and similar radio frequency identification, or RFID, tags are used in everything from library books and ID badges), but the approval of the chip for medical information will open up a whole new world of possibilities. With VeriChip™, you will never again have to call your mom to ask your blood type. Instead, your doctor can simply scan the chip in your bicep, and the chip's serial number will link to all that information you can never remember.

"Whatever," I hear you say. "Why should I get The Chip for something so boring?" But wait! What if, like in the Mexico attorney general's office, you could implant The Chip in your employees to give them security clearance? What if, like Spanish clubgoers, you could use your chip to buy drinks at the bar? (This strikes me as both the most brilliant idea ever and also the most dangerous, kind of like using your credit card in the slot machines.) And the best part? Your VeriChip™ will last 20 years!

It's curious that VeriChip™'s parent company Applied Digital Solutions touts itself as specializing in "security". Security for who? I'm constantly amazed at how consumers in our surveillance culture giddily give up their personal information without any comprehension of who is using it, and how.

Here is one BBC correspondent's story of his night on the town with his chip.

Wikipedia on RFID tags and the controversy on their usage.

Or pre-register for your personal VeriChip™ here.

Chintzy 9/11 Profiteering

Maybe you've been as horrified as I was over the past couple of months to see TV ads on some of your lesser cable channels for "Freedom Tower" commemorative silver "dollars" with "real silver" from Ground Zero. The actual ad copy reads, “Today, history is being made. For the first time ever, a legally authorized government issue silver dollar has been struck to commemorate the World Trade Center and the new Freedom Tower being erected in its place ... Most importantly, each coin has been created using .999 pure silver recovered from ground zero!” Puke.

Well, good old Eliot Spitzer is pretty pissed off too. He's gotten a court order to stop sales of these "dollars," which are actually pretend currency authorized by the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory in the North Pacific. The court order will be in effect pending a civil suit he has brought against the company. Besides being skeptical about the authenticity of the silver that was allegedly recovered from Ground Zero, Spitzer is also appalled at the company's "shameless attempt to profit from a national tragedy." These ads also made me lose just a tiny little bit more of my faith in humanity, but I'm glad we have people like Eliot Spitzer to stop people from displaying their bad taste with such recklessness by spending money on this kind of crap, or even on another commemorative "silver eagle dollar" that features "an aerial view of the devastation suffered on 9/11 with the legend 'We will never forget'". Now they'll have to settle for a NY State "A-Rod" Quarter for $9.95.

October 8, 2004

That's Entertainment!

Perhaps the most certain proof that Martha Stewart's star is falling is that her incarceration today is the top Yahoo! story - in the Entertainment section. Her name doesn't even appear on the Business page.

martha stewart yahoo

Sorry, Martha. I guess serving time in a prison referred to as "Camp Cupcake" officially means you can't be taken seriously as a businesswoman anymore.

Creative remote dating tactics

We all know how hard it is to meet that special someone these days. Some people use interest-specific internet dating sites to narrow down the field (such as, or the Judeo-Christian values based that we profiled yesterday), and some people take the opposite approach: posting your name and phone number in a photograph in the 2004 Crate & Barrel fall catalog. Marc Horowitz is a freelance photo assistant, performance artist, and master of self-promotion in San Francisco who embedded a straight-to-the-point mini-personals ad in a photo of an armoire: "Dinner w/ Marc" and his number. Close-up photo here. He's received over 500 phone calls from people (I gather mostly women) interested in meeting him. "It's kind of like speed dating on a whole new level," he says. Marc's many other interactive projects are documented on his extensive website.

Well Marc, good for you. It's encouraging to know that single women today will call the number of a total stranger written in a catalog and actually be genuinely interested in going on a date with him. Is it the medium that created such interest and, I have to say it, gullability? Would Marc have gotten 500 responses if he had posted a conventional profile to an actual dating service? Let's look at one of the women who is interested in Marc: 28 year-old Brooklynite Kelly Chilton, an associate art director with "O" Magazine, had just split with a longtime boyfriend. "It was just so intriguing and I wasn't sure it was real, but when I called the number, it was like, 'Wow!'" It should be an interesting dinner for Kelly.

Horowitz plans to document his three-month cross-country dating tour on his website Despite the obvious potential to get a whole lot of action from the kinds of women who would respond to the adult version of a number written on a bathroom wall, "Horowitz insists his three-month trip, which he hopes to videotape for a possible documentary, absolutely is not about trying to have a coast-to-coast sex marathon." This seems legitimate--he is scheduled to have dinner with men, women, and groups of people. He has also done a similar random-dinners project before, which was also documented on his website and in the press.

October 6, 2004

I'm a little smug today+

Hey, remember when I predicted that Howard Stern would change the face of radio by going over to satellite?

Well, Stern just signed a 5-year, multi-million dollar deal with SIRIUS (that's the one not tied to his archenemy Clear Channel), starting in 2006:

"It has been my dream to have the top-rated show in radio since I was five years old," said Stern. "SIRIUS -- the future of radio -- will take this dream to a whole new level as I bring my fans my show my way. It will be the best radio they will ever hear."

Says SIRIUS CEO Joseph Clayton: "When you look at his enormous existing fan base, all we need is for Howard to bring in a small fraction of his weekly audience for this agreement to pay for itself."

That's right, Clear Channel bitches! Let's see how smug your corporate asses are come 2006!

Update: Let's check in and see how our friends at SIRIUS (blue) and Stern's current employer Viacom (red) are doing today, shall we? Ouch! Good news for some...not so good for others.

Sirius Viacom stock quotes

The NY Times also points out today that Stern will most likely take his advertisers with him over to satellite radio. That's right - although SIRIUS loves to brag about being COMMERCIAL FREE, that's just the music stations; talk shows have about 5 minutes of advertising each hour. However, Sirius hasn't decided how much advertising time they'll allow Stern. My prediction: a lot, especially considering his grip on the deeply coveted 18 - 26 year old male population.

Let's just hope his regular sponsors take the plunge, because frankly, a morning without waking up to Howard singing the Car Cash jingle is a morning you might as well not wake up.

October 5, 2004

Insidious "Entertainment"

What's a multinational media and retail empire to do when suddenly, nobody wants to come to your stores?

If you're Disney, you take a look around at where your money is coming from - and at the successful retail operations of companies such as, say, American Girl dolls. Then you sell off the majority of your retail stores and shift control of your New York flagship store to your company's theme park division.

That is the legend of Disney's Princess Court in the World of Disney store, which opened last night. For only $75, little princesses from Montauk and their doting parents can put on white lace gloves to learn the four Princess Principles: intelligence, grace, thoughtfulness and honesty.

This is fascinating on many levels. The most obvious is gender. The New York Times quotes Camille Paglia as saying the store “is a reaction to the hypersexualized environment where young women are expected to dress like strippers or whores. That should not be the standard for a 10-year-old girl."

Well, sure, but what standards do 10-year-old girls learn from wearing tiaras and spending all their money on jewelry? Take, for example, the stepmother of 6-year-old Princess-in-training Katarina, who has her Halloween costume planned: "I already have a crown at home and a dress," said Dona, 31, with a giggle. "I'm going to be Cinderella."

But the more important and devious issue is that like any major media company, Disney doesn't actually give a crap about the self-image of little girls. They're just interested in the bottom line. Little girls like to dress up, and if princess training (taught in the context of Disney movies available for sale at the store, such as “princesses shouldn't lie like Aladdin did to Jasmine") will get them in the door to spend $26 on a tiara, and $6 - $8 on additional jewelry, then Disney's all for princess training. And even better if mothers like Dona can be convinced to buy a cashmere sweater for $340 or even book a Disneyworld vacation while their daughters are busy learning the Princess Principles.

Is it entertainment? Is it retail? Once the money starts pouring in, does it really matter?

September 29, 2004

A Challenge to Amy's Robot Readers

The upcoming presidential debate has made me think a great deal about the vital foundation that our country is built on. Is it democracy? Hard work? Ingenuity? Integrity?

Of course not. It's rampant consumerism.

As Americans, we not only demand the greatest volume of products, we also demand the greatest variety. Take, for instance, the glorious Manifest Destiny of Chex™ (or Manichex Destiny™, if you will). Only in a great land like ours could General Mills, not content with providing five types of Chex breakfast cereal, repackage their product as a snack mix and release an additional eight products (Traditional, Hot 'n Spicy, Peanut Lovers', Cheddar, Bold Party Blend, Sweet'n Salty Honey Nut, Sweet'n Salty Trail Mix, and Sweet'n Salty Caramel Crunch). Then, in a brand extension coup never before seen, General Mills created Chex Morning Mix™ – a cereal repackaged as a snack and then repackaged yet again as a cereal. General Mills, I salute you!

This is a country with nine varieties of Twizzlers. With five variations on the Reese's Peanut Butter cup in flavor only - add another six if you include different sizes and shapes. So in all this time, why has Hershey's never combined two of its leading candies to give us the Dark Chocolate Almond Joy? If you recall, the popular Almond Joy/Mounds ad campaign focuses on the "sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t" distinction, barely addressing the more important issue that the Almond Joy is coconut covered in milk chocolate, while almondless brother Mounds has a dark chocolate coating. And where does that leave us consumers who a) love almonds and b) hate milk chocolate? Fucked, that's where.

Last month, when it came to my attention that a Dark Chocolate Almond Joy had been sighted in Long Island, I immediately put in a call to the Hershey's consumer relations department. A pleasant young woman informed me that the Dark Chocolate Almond Joy was indeed a reality. "But," I sputtered in outrage. "Why isn't it on the website? You only list the white chocolate Pina Colada and the Chocolate Chocolate flavors, which both sound totally gross!"

She patiently explained that the Dark Chocolate Almond Joy is a Limited Edition, meaning that the candy is distributed to retailers once, but then cannot be reordered when supplies run out. (You may be familiar with the Limited Edition concept from last year's sudden appearance of white and dark chocolate Kit Kat.)

I've now spent the better part of a month looking far and wide for the elusive Limited Edition Dark Chocolate Almond Joy™ without success. Now, dear readers, it is your turn. If you have seen a retailer in the New York metropolitan area selling the Limited Edition Dark Chocolate Almond Joy™, email us and let us know. Anyone who provides information leading to the purchase and consumption of a Limited Edition Dark Chocolate Almond Joy™ will receive a special Amy's Robot Gift Package. And yes, I know there are cases for sale on eBay, but I'm not a bodega owner and I don't need 36 of the damn things.

If you don't have information, but would like to make the world a better place for lovers of dark chocolate and almonds, please contact Hershey's at their toll-free number and tell them the people demand Dark Chocolate Almond Joy! [Note: Don't be alarmed when they ask your race. I'm sure it's purely for demographic reasons. Right?] Then tell us about it. If Hershey's makes it a regular product offering, each of you will receive a special Amy's Robot Gift Package.

This is a totally serious contest. I want that candy.

Why should we be slaves to the corporate giants of Big Chocolate? Speak up, America! Tell Hershey's to make the candy you want and deserve, and help make one woman's dream a reality.

September 27, 2004

Political Contributions, sorted by address

The Post offers analysis of the gigantic heaps of cash that Americans are pouring into political parties and candidates' campaigns this year. According to, Manhattan alone has contributed $36 million, which is three times more than any other U.S. city, and that's just one borough.

The most interesting stuff is the breakdown of contributions by street address. Some notables include the residents of 146 Central Park West, better knows as the San Remo apartments. Steven Spielberg, Steve Martin, Demi Moore, and Bono (who bought Steve Jobs' old apartment) all live there. They all contributed over $230,000 to Democratic organizations. Just behind them are the tenants of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, who gave $212,000 to Democratic causes, and a mere $68,000 to the Republicans. This is the building in which in 1934 Diego Rivera famously painted a mural which was later destroyed by his unsatisfied patron, Nelson Rockefeller. Currently housed in the building are NBC, the financiers and philanthropists at Lazard, Freres & Co. (Managing Director Felix Rohatyn's foundation gives generously to many social and educational causes), as well as the Rockefeller family members' offices--they've also been known to give away a lot of money over the years.

The address that gave the most to Republican organizations is 767 Fifth Avenue, giving a total of $113,000. This building is called the General Motors Building, and used to be the home of FAO Schwartz before it went out of business. Working in this building are some investors, some lawyers, fancy makeup producers (though the Lauder family all seem to give to Democrats,) and one super-rich Republican corporate raider. As often happens, it's the big money at the top who throw off the rest of the building's contributors, who gave a larger number of smaller contributions to Democrats.

August 27, 2004

The Final Frontier

I believe I read once in a marketing class that the average American is exposed to 1.6 bazillion marketing impressions every single day. Advertisers have already taken over magazines - I flip through about 90 ad pages in every 100-page US Weekly . They're in the movie theater, with their 20 minutes of pre-movie commercials followed by 90 or so minutes of product placement. They even run banner ads about toenail fungus when I'm just trying to watch Fresh Prince of Bel-Air at the gym. It's enough to make me bang my fists against the television, weeping, "Please, god, just for one minute, don't try to sell me anything!"

But imagine you're not me, and instead a company that spends millions of dollars a year on advertising. It must be maddening to not be able to measure success, to have no idea if customers even notice the images you send out into the world. And it must be doubly maddening to know that there is one final medium, used with aching frequency by your target audience, that you have not been able to advertise on - the cell phone.

Well, Jane magazine is trying to solve that problem for you. Jane's ad sales have been down this past year, so in an attempt to boost revenue the magazine is challenging readers to enter a contest by sending in photographs of the magazine's ad pages. That's right - to win a prize, you must prove that you read the ads by taking pictures of them, with your cameraphone. See how it all fits together? Jane's argument is that readers already exchange cameraphone pictures of clothes and makeup they like, and since magazines are "interactive" (???) anyway, it just takes that interaction one step further.

Jane, I don't pretend to know the mind of teenage girls like you do, but all I can say is, the day I flip open my cell phone and see an ad about toenail fungus I'm coming looking for you.

August 22, 2004

Robot-on-the-Spot: Meow Mix Cafe

The good thing about carrying your digital camera around is that if you should happen to pass by the newly-opened Meow Mix Cafe, you can get your picture taken with Mr. Meow.

Now, I'll admit, when I heard about this new restaurant where doting cat owners can bring their feline friends to dine (but only if the cats are on leashes, a helpful staffer informed me), my first thought was, "That's the lamest thing I've ever heard."

It turns out my first impression was not entirely correct. The cafe isn't just an opportunity for cat-fetishists to dress their pets in bonnets and take them out for kitty tea parties. It's actually just a temporary store selling Meow Mix products with a few tables in the back. Lunch for you and your cat requires only a $2 donation, and all those proceeds are donated to the ASPCA.

Meow Mix always comes through with a good marketing gimmick, from their soul-destroying trademark jingle to the premiere of Meow TV on the Oxygen network last year to, most delightfully, CEO Richard Thompson's stunt in the Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village apartment complex this past February. The complex's owner, MetLife, had offered a $150 reward to any employee who turned in illegal cat owners in an effort to boot rent-controlled tenants out and convert their homes into luxury housing. Thompson responded by parking the Meow-Mix Mobile(tm) in Stuyvesant Oval, giving away free cat food, and offering $160 to workers who refused to give up cat owners.

So Meow Mix, you go open your kitty cafes wherever you wish. I'm a sucker for a socially responsible business.

August 19, 2004

The World Falls in Love With Tits All Over Again

A lengthy feature article in the Daily News today covering the swelling popularity of cleavage over the last 10 years that started with one pivotal event: the launch of Sara Lee's Wonderbra™ in the U.S. Gone are the days when women made do with what they had; even Kate Moss claims the Wonderbra gave her cleavage. Retailers claim that push-up bras offer a bustier look for women who don't want surgery. However, over the same period that the Wonderbra has reinvigorated breast fetishism without implants, a whole lot of women have opted for the boob job: "according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the number of breast augmentation surgeries has jumped 657% - from 32,607 procedures in 1992 to 254,140 in 2003." My guess is that the rise of the internet porn industry lead to a sudden increased demand for busty models, but clearly, Americans are just relentlessly fixated on tits. Women are now spending $4.7 billion a year on bras, which is equal to the operating budget for the state of New Hampshire. As they seem to do whenever they examine trends in consumer spending, business analysts say that women's self-confidence and the desire to be in charge of how they look is the source of their buying. A VP of Tobe Report, a fashion industry publication, says about the origens of the push-up bra buying frenzy, "There was a more comfortable attitude toward bodies. It was, 'I want to feel better, I'm me, I deserve it, I should have it.'"

This reminds me of the copy in makeup ads that suggests that you can take charge of your life (Revlon's "don't lie about your age, defy it!") and express yourself more fully through buying expensive products that, in reality, make you look more generic. Suggesting that this is an expression of self-confidence rather than insecurity is such an absurd and counter-intuitive strategy that, of course, it has been wildly successful. Women spend billions every year on makeup (not to mention cleavage-enhancing bras, diet products, colored contacts, hair dye, etc. etc.) that make them look more like a prescribed norm. (And now men are spending $4 billion a year too!) We have discussed this creepy homogenizing effect in earlier posts.

This week the UK's Sun features a helpful Cleavage Week series, though be careful about which pages you open if you're at work. (While the U.S. daily papers still do not include actual photos of topless women, the English have no such prudish restrictions.) Today's feature article celebrates some new statistics: British breasts are busting out all over. The average bra size has bloomed from 34B to 36C over the last 10 years. They do not speculate as to what might be the cause of England's heaving, though my guess is an increasingly overweight population and the aforementioned rise in breast enlargement surgery are at the nub of it.

August 10, 2004

New Hot Disease Accessory

yellow bracelet

I guess it's time we made a statement about this growing cultural trend, and so, prompted by Cushie, I would like to declare:

Yellow Cancer Bracelets Are The New AIDS Ribbons™

There's tons of media coverage over the widespread popularity of the yellow cancer Live Strong bracelets: they have been adopted by both Bush and Kerry, tons of celebrities, and millions of non-famous people. It has once again become easy to display your solidarity with people suffering from a horrible disease through a relatively meaningless symbolic gesture.

The main difference between the AIDS ribbons and these new things is that you have to purchase them from Nike instead of just making one yourself out of a piece of red ribbon. So this way, you can support cancer patients AND child labor and sweatshops all in one purchase!

Take note, fashion-conscious cancer patient supporters: cyclists are already wondering when the bracelets will transition from In to Out, which pretty much means it has already happened.

August 9, 2004

Americans demand more pools


The Times offered an article this weekend that is pleasantly synchronous with my own life: Americans are building more pools. The pool industry has grown 5-6% per year since 1998; people want pools for non joint-stressing exercise, to increase the value of their homes, or because they're sick of taking care of their lawns. As you might expect, most of the homeowners and industry people featured in the article live in places like San Diego, Houston, and Miami, but one quote about the popularity of pools comes from the president of a pool company in Norwalk, Connecticut. Even in frosty New England, people love their pools--in fact, this weekend I noticed more backyard pools than ever during a visit to suburban CT. In these kinds of regions, where the price of land is incredibly high, the summers are short, and you can get to the ocean in a 10 minute drive, why would so many people want their own pool? Sure, everybody in L.A. has a pool, but in the suburbs of New Haven? Are pools mainly an emblem of middle-class success, even more meaningful in regions where they can only be used for a quarter of the year?

I don't know, but there are other things about suburban New England that I also don't understand, like when white Republican businessmen wear FUBU bathing trunks while swimming in their above-ground status-symbol pools.

August 5, 2004

Shame on you, realtors.

Is it any wonder, that when urban renters are consistently subjected to publicity like this:

“Can a regular middle-class human ever afford a window on the confluence of sea and sky, the dance of light on a lake, or a river winding through the woods?… there is a current listing in Sea Bright [New Jersey] for a condo on three levels in the Waterways complex, one block from the Atlantic Ocean, overlooking the Shrewsbury River. The list price is $635,000. The condo, three steps from a new riverside walkway, has the all-vacation all-the-time ambience that comes with floor-to-ceiling windows on a view that would inspire a poet.”

That it results in things like this?

“An eight-month study released yesterday by Pennsylvania officials confirms what many residents of the Pocono Mountains have long suspected: foreclosures have reached stunning levels, especially among homebuyers new to the area, many of whom paid more than market value for their homes....many of the homebuyers were former renters lured by slick marketing from Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx to a cluster of gated communities 100 miles from Manhattan...

..."I think a lot of these people were first-time homebuyers who believed in the American dream, but they probably got in over their heads," said Mr. Goldstein, the director of policy for the Reinvestment Fund. "Many of them are already gone, but there are plenty of people who are here doing everything they can to make outrageous payments, and they're always on the brink of foreclosure."

August 3, 2004

Misguided Marketing

As an unapologetic slave to marketing, I get royally pissed off when a company spends a hunk of marketing dollars to get something completely wrong. Such is the trouble with the new Citigroup “Thank you” ad campaign, the subject of the most recent Ad Report Card on Slate.

In case you haven’t seen them, the Citigroup ads feature someone in a mortifying situation (A man’s girlfriend demands to know why he hasn’t proposed, a woman in a grocery store asks a fat woman when the baby is due) who gets out of it by blurting “Thank you!” The moral: you don’t have to care about other people. Just throw them a bone once in a while, and they can’t stay mad.

“It confirms our worst suspicions: that companies like Citigroup really don't care about us at all—they just pretend to,” Slate notes. “We at Citi are going to flat-out ignore you (like the squirming boyfriend), or even insult you (by calling you pregnant, when you're just fat). But we're certain that you won't mind at all. Why? Because we'll say, "Thank you!"—in the form of "points" you can redeem for schlock”

Citigroup isn’t the only company confused about the line between kicky and offensive. Since Cingular’s advertising kickoff during the 2001 Superbowl, the company has prided itself on creating an “emotional bond” with customers. Unfortunately, their current misguided subway campaign misses the mark at every level. These print ads aim to convince New Yorkers that folks who are always looking for a deal should keep their unused wireless minutes. But by confusing “frugal” and “cheap” the campaign instead undercuts Cingular’s own product. (Despite repeated attempts, I haven’t been able to photograph the ads, so I’m forced to paraphrase them here):

Ad 1: To keep a rent-controlled apartment, you put up with a roommate who leaves his half-eaten burritos in the living room and his stinky socks on the coffee table. So, why would you give up your unused minutes?

Translation: You’ll put up with a lot of lousy shit to save money.

Ad 2: You rent a car from Newark airport, even though you’re not flying anywhere. So what if it’s an hour in the wrong direction? It’s much cheaper than renting a car from the city.

Translation: Cingular service is totally inconvenient, but it sure is cheap.

Ad 3: The guy at the produce store asks you “inside or outside”? Of course you say “outside”, and besides, the fruit isn’t rotten, it’s just very, very, ripe.

Translation: Cingular service is rotten, but cheap.

Sure, these ads are memorable – but am I busily applying for my Citicard, or signing a Cingular contract? Not likely.

Marketing professionals, don’t talk down to us. We may be frugal, but we’re not cheap.

July 21, 2004

Robot-On-The-Spot: Brooklyn Target Opening

All of New York's hipsterati, including Amy's Robot, turned out last night for the star-studded opening of the long-awaited Brooklyn Target. Those living outside the city may not think this a newsworthy event, but when you have limited access to stores where one can buy a cute top, an economy sized box of cereal, and stylish trashcans all at one time (and for under $10 total) -- well, let's just say New Yorkers are pretty damn excited. We've already heard of people planning pre-shopping Target Brunches for this Sunday, when the store officially opens.

But on to the party! Besides luminaries from the 'bot, who was there?

  • Isaac Mizrahi
  • Chloe Sevigny (whose brother, Paul, was the dj)
  • A presumably intoxicated Sandra Bernhardt [pic]
  • Freaks from Coney Island
  • and just to prove how high profile this event was:
    Lizzie Grubman [pic]

I've already written in this space about my love for Target's advertising, and the efffective way the company delivers what their audience wants. Drinking beer from Brooklyn Brewery and eating nachos while shopping with our fellow New Yorkers (at a 10% discount, no less!) - well, it doesn't get much better than that.

That is, until the DSW opens across the mall.

July 16, 2004

Robot-on-the-Spot: Bacanovic Sentencing

bacanovic sentencing
We were too sleepy to make it down to the federal courthouse for Martha's sentencing this morning, but due to some serendipity, we were around (with a camera) when her broker Peter Bacanovic made his post-sentencing perp walk. Unlike Martha, he didn't hold a "presser" on the courthouse steps to explain himself and urge people to buy his magazine. Instead, he walked swiftly to the maroon SUV parked in the red zone and sped off.

Here are our photos of the event. (Including the money shot.)

Bacanovic, by the way, received roughly the same sentence as Martha, but with a smaller fine.

July 1, 2004

There痴 No Such Thing as a Free Book

Today痴 print edition of the New York Times carried a very exciting full-page advertisement for the 敵reat Summer Read� Program. Starting July 12, the Times will serialize a book a week for four weeks as an in-paper giveaway: The Great Gatsby, Breakfast at Tiffany痴, Like Water for Chocolate, and The Color of Water.

展hat better way to bring our diverse city together than by offering readers the opportunity to 'gather' around a great book," said Alyse Myers, Times vice president of marketing services. "As a newspaper, we are a natural advocate for fostering literacy and a passion for reading. To advance these causes, we decided to revive the old tradition of serializing books and to offer them free, with the daily newspaper -- for the whole city to enjoy."

Free books! It sounds too good to be true! Well, that's kind of because it is. Only the first chapter of each novel will be available online; otherwise the insert is available only to those who buy the print edition. And, since the serial runs seven consecutive days, folks who may perhaps have a weekday-only subscription (ahem) will need to shell out for both weekend papers to find out who comes to Gatsby痴 funeral.

Altruism? Community service? It seems more to me like the circulation department finally realized that people are reading the Sunday magazine on their monitors instead of curled up on the couch. Now, I love reading my hard copy during the week, but a girl on a budget can稚 be expected to pay those Sunday prices week after week. By the time you buy seven issues, you致e spent around $10 on a book you could pick up used for $1 on any street corner.

While I知 at it, let me get my two cents in about these book selections. Overall, I applaud the idea of serializing classics both old and new, but�

People. I'm with you on three out of four, but if you wanted a novel by a Latina, why didn稚 you just ask me? Like Water for Chocolate is a lovely book, but the other three all deal with different lives in different periods of New York's history. How about How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents? Or When I was Puerto Rican? Or Dreaming in Cuban? Or if you just needed a woman of color, what about Breath, Eyes, Memory? New York's literary community is as rich and diverse as the city itself, and although I would never argue the appeal and greatness of a Gatsby or a Tiffany痴, why not use this opportunity to showcase some more diverse talents?

Now, I don't want to sound entirely down on this project, because I'm all for getting people to read more. And the Times will also be sponsoring readings and panels through the summer as part of a larger initiative. But seriously, New York Times Community Affairs Department, give me a call next time you're going to plan something like this. I知 right around the corner and my consulting fees are very reasonable.

June 28, 2004

The Seamy Underbelly of the RNC

The thought of a whole swarming mass of sweaty, lumbering, prisoner abuse-endorsing, horny old Republican degates showing up in New York ready to stuff some damp fives into the PVC thong of some blank 28 year-old Russian girl who was probably lured to the U.S. with promises of a good admin assistant job really makes my skin crawl. But to madams, strip club owners, and people who purchase Guatemalan teenage girls from their families for $50, it sounds like "Ka-ching!"

In preparation for the Republican National Convention, all the big names in anonymous commodity-based sex are getting their best girls together to prepare for the high demand. Scores expects that they will be "full every night," and have conveniently recently opened a new branch just blocks away from Madison Square Garden, where the convention will be held. Escort services are encouraging their priciest hookers to make sure they're available August 30-September 2. And while the Daily News doesn't report quotes from the lower-end, un-enlightened, non-working-their-way-through-law-school kinds of prostitutes, I can bet that the pimps at their brothels are also greedily rubbing their hands together, and ordering fresh shipments of Thai teenagers.

But if the RNCers really want to promote their wholesome, family values image, and re-nominate dry-drunk born-again Bush as their candidate, I would like to make a suggestion to them. Instead of organizing trips of twerpy young dorks to wheeze over the bored and potentially Democrat girls at the Penthouse Executive Club, why not put together an evening of Adult Republican Male entertainment at a more respectable and traditional venue, The Women's National Republican Club? This venerable ladies' establishment is located right in midtown, features a sexy Who's Who of great Republican wives as its Honorary Members, and I just bet that Club Presdient Mrs. Peter J. Unger would be more than willing to let her passionate Republican spirit run wild, if you know what I mean. And who knows what those ladies get up to in the sumptuous and pink Pratt Lounge? We know the GOP can appreciate the patriotism of a little girl-on-girl action. It would be an evening of entertainment even your mother would be proud of.

June 24, 2004

The Secret to Affordable Real Estate

When you池e young, you have dreams: a good job, a home of your own that doesn稚 jeopardize your financial future, maybe even a little cabin on a lake to spend lazy summer weekends.

Then you grow up, and your dreams are crushed.

Now I, for one, am sick of people bitching and moaning about never being able to buy homes when there is affordable real estate right here in the New York metro area. All you need is an open mind and a little ingenuity.

Take this listing, for example, conveniently located on Riverside Drive overlooking the beautiful Hudson river:

Trinity Church Cemetery & Mausoleums - Pair of adjoining Crypts [Spaces E-20 & F-20] located at Riverside Drive & 153rd Street. Beautiful Audubon Garden of Trinity Church Cemetery. Convenient to public transportation. Asking price $2,500.00 each or $4,000.00/pair. Originally purchased for $7000. -- THIS IS A STEAL!

Not to your liking? Well, that痴 just the beginning! How about a 電esirable mausoleum for 2 near eye-level�, for a mere $9,800? Or �an inground plot for two�Fountain just a few feet away?�

But why limit yourself to the city? Say goodbye to harsh winters with one of these beauties in Florida:

Chapel of Palms, Section CC Level 5, Spaces 14 and 14D inside. Two Crypts. It is a beautiful site at Hillsboro Memorial Gardens, Brandon, FL�next to Brandon Mall.

Perfect if shopping is your thing! Or for the true bargain-hunter:

MYRTLE Hill Memorial Park, section 23, lot 415, spaces 4 & 5. $1800 includes 2 vaults & granite base. No reasonable offer will be refused. Need to sell in order to settle divorce.

$1800! Why, you can find that in your couch cushions! And it never hurts to profit a little bit from someone else痴 pain. After all, real estate brokers have been doing it for years.

Remember, my children: don稚 give up your dreams. With a little flexibility and some long term planning, anything is possible. Even my fantasy home:

Mililani Memorial Park - Why not "retire" to the beautiful island of Oahu? Have 2 plots, side by side; will consider selling individually. Asking price - $2,500.00. Owner lives out of state. For serious inquires, please email Sandra.

Creative Marketing

Nobody loves clever ad campaigns like this girl, so I was happy to see guerilla marketing get a nod in this article. It’s nice to see advertisers turning away from traditional billboards and getting more creative. In one ploy that sounds not entirely legal, a street team for New York Health & Racquet Club will show their undies to passersby to drum up interest in a new fitness class called “Booty Call”.

Target is also getting in on the action with their “Deliver the Shiver” truck, which sold 5,000 BTU air conditioners in Herald Square today for $75, along with a handy cart to bring them home. (If you missed it, they’ll be at the Second Avenue Festival this Saturday, too).

The great thing about Deliver the Shiver is that the company clearly (ahem) targets their audience with a deal that people want, will remember, and promotes the brand. Now folks will not only think Target = friendly and fun, but also Target = cheap appliances!

My most memorable misguided street team encounter occurred last fall on Hudson Street. Just as I was being soaked through by monsoon level winds and rain, a couple of kids with artificially “windblown” hair stepped between me and the closest awning.

Kids: Hey there, free flashlight pen from the Weather Channel?
Me: No. Don’t you have umbrellas?
Kids: …
Me: It’s the Weather Channel, right?
Kids: uh…...we just have flashlight pens.

Like I said, know your audience.

June 18, 2004

The Terminator Cycle

Here’s a rather inspiring story from a few days ago that caught my eye. One of the major issues with Wal-Mart and similar gigantic chains is their slash-and-burn business model of clearing out an area to build a superstore, then building a supermegagigantastore down the road a few years later and closing the first one down, leaving vacant “big box” buildings sitting on enormous empty lots. In the Dallas/Ft. Worth area alone, that accounts for 4.5 million square feet of abandoned retail space, mostly in chunks of 30,000 square feet or more.

Some of this space can be rented out to discount chains such as TJ Maxx or Marshalls, and in other cases a Home Depot will just demolish the building and start from the ground up. But what happens to the vacant buildings in undesirable (meaning, lower-income or ethnic) neighborhoods?

Community organizer Carlos Quintanilla’s solution was to take over Wal-Mart’s lease on a vacant store outside of Dallas. Paying only $2.50 per square foot, Quintanilla rented out sections of the building to various merchants, turning it into a Mexican-style market with over 110 vendors, restaurants, and an event space. His next project is to take over an abandoned Sam’s Club in another Dallas suburb, and he hopes to create similar spaces in Hispanic areas in Las Vegas and Chicago.

It’s just like Terminator! Humanity greedily creates massive superchains, they destroy themselves – and the community-based businesses rise again.

June 17, 2004

Jamba: Drink the Juice, Join the Cult +

All I've been hearing about from friends, people at work, and random young women on the street or waiting in line at Tasti D-Lite is the new Jamba Juice stores that have opened in a few midtown locations. If you're still among the unenlightened, Jamba Juice is a huge chain based in San Francisco. My native west coast colleagues say that out there it's "everywhere, like Starbucks." The comparison appears to be accurate, based on the enormous list of California stores on the website.

The new New York flagship store at 47th St and Broadway had its official Grand Opening yesterday, after being open for a week to work out all the bugs. I stopped by at 5:30, and enjoyed the in-store DJ spinning No Doubt remixes on his set of fancy Pioneer CD turntable mixing decks, the live bongo player, the live snare drum player, and the troupe of 9 people dressed in banana suits dancing half-heartedly on a stage set up outside on Broadway. I could understand the boredom of the dancers--they had probably been there since 8:30 that morning when Agent 0019 took this photo of them. Some of them looked young and spry in their fishnet tights, and they juggled and kicked with some enthusiasm, while the guy who looked like an aging, haggard Joshua Jackson mostly stood around and talked to the other bananas, oblivious to the crowd of juice-sippers watching the show.

The juice was pretty good, and I sucked it down in about 6 minutes. I had the Caribbean Passion smoothie with a free "Femme Boost" supplement that apparently will help "let my girl power prevail," even though most of the "femme"-oriented nutrients in the boost, like folic acid, calcium, and soy, are really only needed specifically for women when one is either pregnant or menopausal. I encourage as many men as possible to order a Femme Boost with their Jamba Juice.

There were a few design flaws. The counter area that you first see when you enter the store from either entrance (on Broadway or on 7th Avenue) is the place where drinks are picked up. Every single person who entered the store while I was in there first joined the crowd of people waiting to pick up their drinks, looked around confusedly, then eventually realized they had to order their drink from the counter area in the middle of the store. Not the most intuitive layout.

Whole Foods grocery stores have a licensing agreement with Jamba Juice, and many of their stores have Jamba Juice stands in them. However, due to Whole Foods' commitment to selling only products made from natural ingredients, they do not offer the low-calorie "Enlightened Smoothies" in their stores. These drinks are made with Splenda™, a sweetener that is some kind of creepy synthesized form of sugar that contains no calories. Jamba Juice goes out of its way to state that Splenda is natural and non-carcinogenic, but apparently it still does not conform to the Whole Foods philosophy. [tx Emily]

15 more stores are planned for New York over the next year or two. I doubt that New Yorkers will become as entranced by this chain as west coasters are, but who knows? Maybe one day our most beloved frivolous specialty snack shop Rice To Riches will open an L.A. branch. - Amy

Actually, Amy, both men and women only consume about half the calcium they need, and your folate can be depleted through excessive drinking. It's never too early to start protecting your bone density, people - so take that free Femme boost!

The sadder thing about Jamba Juice is that a company based on providing a natural, healthful snack/beverage is forced by the market to introduce artificially-flavored drinks and defend the fact that its product contains carbs. But it seems to be working - there were at least 20 people in front of me in line at the Columbus Circle branch a few weeks ago, and the line at the 42nd street store was out the door yesterday afternoon. Damn, that Berry Fulfilling is some good shit. - Emily

June 9, 2004

Everyone Hates the Cable Company +

Looks like I知 not the only person in America who痴 currently pissed off at their cable provider. The American Customer Service Index (a project of the University of Michigan Business School) reports that cable television providers rank lower in customer satisfaction than any other group in the public or private sector, including the IRS.

How can companies with such a disgraceful attitude toward customer service survive? Professor Claes Fornell hits the nail on the head:

展hen buyers have meaningful choice alternatives, this level of customer (dis)satisfaction is neither competitive nor sustainable�Under normal competitive conditions, there would be mass customer defections. The reason this is not the case for the cable industry is due to local monopoly power, which means that in most markets, the dissatisfied customer has nowhere to go.�

Is this the reason that while most people I speak to are filled with mouth-foaming rage over their cable service, only 14 complaints against Time Warner have been filed with the Better Business Bureau in the past three years? Are we just writing checks out every month for sub-par service because there痴 nowhere else to go?

People, we don稚 have to take this lying down. Just because your cable company is the only game in town doesn稚 mean you池e powerless. If you池e pissed off, if your problem isn稚 being resolved, take action. File a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. File a complaint with the Attorney General痴 office. Leave a paper trail. The Consumer痴 Union is supporting a bill that will allow you more choices in your cable programming - email your Representatives about it! Don稚 stand for crappy service just because it痴 all that you know.

And Professor Fornell has a message for all you cable-minded entrepreneurs: 典he weak ACSI for the cable industry suggests that its customer base may well become vulnerable to new competition.� No shit. Listen to me, business people: Offer me comparable services to Time Warner, prioritize customer satisfaction, and I値l cancel my account today. -Emily

Em, don't forget that you can just get satellite service and get hundreds of channels, including the local affiliates. It's still hundreds of channels of crap, but it's crap from space. -ADM

June 2, 2004

The Future of Radio

Howard Stern has spent the past few days waxing poetic on the great debt he owes his boss, Viacom President and COO Mel Karmazin. With yesterday's formal announcement that Karmazin is leaving Viacom, Stern has pretty much promised that he will leave Infinity Broadcasting when his contract is up. Stern has openly dumped on corporate radio since his FCC fracas earlier this year, so much so that his website even has a countdown to the second his contract expires.

Love him or hate him, the power of Stern is undeniable. If, as he has hinted, Howard takes his show to satellite radio, millions of listeners will follow. Stern is at a point now where he could single-handedly change the future of radio.

While Clear Channel's stock prices have sunk lower and lower, the subscriber base for both XM and Sirius satellite radio is steadily growing. Although XM is currently the larger of the two, its ties to Clear Channel (which owns 3% of the company) may not help in the future. Stern's vendetta against Clear Channel makes it more likely that he will go to Sirius if he makes the leap.

Stern's listeners are more than loyal, they're fanatical. Will they pay $10 - $13 a month to hear about Chynna Phillips? lesbian experiments? Hell yes, they will. And at the same time, they'll have access to a new kind of broadcasting: commercial-free (in Sirius' case), wide-ranging, and uncensored.

Surprise! Drug companies knew anti-depressants are bad for kids+

To continue the thread on the growing international awareness of the dangers of prescribing anti-depressants to young people: our local hero Eliot Spitzer has filed suit against GlaxoSmithKline, claiming the drug company withheld information about the negative effects of Paxil on children. As British drug regulatory bodies stated months ago, anti-depressants do not show conclusive positive effects on young people, and they can increase suicidal thoughts and behaviors in some. The lawsuit says that Glaxo suppressed four studies that demonstrate these results, and also includes an internal memo circulated within the company that says they intended to "manage the dissemination of data in order to minimize any potential negative commercial impact." That negative impact might have reduced the $55 million in revenues that Glaxo made in 2002 from prescriptions of Paxil to children and teens.

Glaxo claims that they made all of their studies available to the FDA. Which leads to the question: if U.S. companies got results like this in their drug tests, why didn't the FDA take action similar to the UK's regulatory agencies and ban the prescription of anti-depressants (besides Prozac) for young people? The article contains this seemingly contradictory sentence: "Paxil is not approved for use in children, but doctors can prescribe drugs as they see fit and routinely recommend antidepressants for children suffering from depression and other psychological disorders." The FDA's website answers some questions about Paxil and children; they say that the FDA has "not approved" the use of Paxil for depressed children, but that physicians can prescribe whatever they want for whomever they want. Way to throw your weight around, FDA. - Amy

Interestingly, this news comes out on the same day the NYT reports on a government-funded study that shows Prozac is more effective than talk therapy for suicidal teenagers. The study appears legitimate, since it is not overtly funded by a drug company (although some people, by which I mean me, would argue that our government is the biggest and most profitable drug company of all).

One doctor not involved in the study echoes the concerns of many bad parents, noting that the findings are a relief "because it's hard to get people into cognitive therapy anymore. They just don't want to take the time.'' - Emily

Say Cheese!

June is finally here, and we all know what that means – it’s Dairy Month! We can’t all be lucky enough to live in Barron County, Wisconsin, where residents celebrate by starting the day with cheese and ice cream sundaes at 6 am, but that doesn’t mean we should neglect this most magical of holidays.

In case you need extra encouragement, the American Dairy Association has provided this helpful Snackulator™ to assist you in finding just the right cheese for any event.

May 26, 2004

The Low-Carb Apocalypse, Part II

In response to plummeting sales, Krispy Kreme will introduce a line of low-carb doughnuts. The company will also expand further into less carb-conscious overseas markets, mainly Asia.

The Krispy Kreme brass are naturally most concerned for the ramifications of a low-carb diet on their customers' health. CEO Scott Livengood notes hopefully, "I think there is always a real possibility that people are going to decide a balanced lifestyle is appropriate for them and the dynamics will change."

A balanced lifestyle that includes massive doughnuts, of course.

(via ChrisF)

May 24, 2004

The American Dream

The low-carb lifestyle can get so tiring. Sometimes, after eating my fill of eggs and steak, I don’t even want to sit down in front of the tv with that crustless cheesecake flavored with Splenda™.

Luckily, the altruistic food producers of our great country want us all to succeed on our weight loss journeys. Coca-Cola has announced the launch of a lightly-carbohydrated beverage, and it looks like soon you'll have to go to Canada to buy a danish made with white flour. Here are just a few other low-carb products available at your local store:

Fiber supplements (an essential tool for the low-carb dieter, if you know what I mean)
Subway sandwiches
Margarita mix
Entenmann’s cakes and cookies
Hamburger Helper

Eat up, America! You may end up in the hospital or the poorhouse, but with all these low-carb, calorie-dense, fat- and sodium- laden processed foods you can finally live the dream of losing weight without ever eating a vegetable again.

The New Generation of Avon Ladies

In a new effort to win committed customers from an early age (like at puberty,) Avon has launched a new brand, the trendily non-capitalized "mark", and a fleet of new Avon Ladies who will sell you makeup from the comfort of your own home. Ads for mark in teen magazines have catch-phrases like "Mark helped me pay for college, and thickened my lashes!" As part of their market positioning among young teenagers, mark marketing staff is spending a lot of time with 15 year-old girls, taking them out for pizza, and even accompanying them to the prom.

Sales "ladies" for mark are as young as 16, suggesting that Avon is fully aware of the profitability of peer pressure as a marketing tool. The online application to be a mark salesgirl offers "flip burgers" and "babysitting" as other, less lucrative options for employment, and the drop-down menu in which applicants indicate their age includes the 13-15 range. Avon ladies, or in this case Avon underage girls, have always targeted their friends as customers, and how obvious a strategy to use trend-setters in high schools to put the hard sell on less cool followers? Other grown-up Avon ladies who sell mark have day jobs, including internal investigators for the Department of Homeland Security. But no matter how important they may be in their professional lives, Avon ladies know that what women like to talk about in their personal lives is makeup: "We knew that women had always connected through beauty products and beauty rituals." Great, girls! Pass the blackberry plum tea Electro-Lites lip gloss! We're never too young to develop feelings of inadequacy about our bodies, and bond over mark's Butt Fixing Cream!

May 19, 2004

Local Music Sales

As major label-produced CDs become less and less viable methods of reaching new audiences, or of turning a profit, local musicians in New York are recording and producing their albums themselves, and putting them up for sale in neighborhood bodegas for $6 a piece. The company that burns the discs and distributes them to the bodegas is Urban Box Office, and they decided to bring their albums straight to the places where young people hang out--the local market. Artists also receive $1.50-2.50 per album sold, more than most major labels can offer. In-store visits are part of the marketing plan, just like at Tower: a girl group from Sunset Park, Gemz, visited a bodega where their album is sold and performed some songs, to the delight of a local fan: "They were here singing! They were outside the bodega and I was talking to them." Urban Box Office also remembers that not everybody has a computer to download music from iTunes. (special tidbit: the founder of Urban Box Office, now dead, was also the producer of New Jack City.)

In a city like New York, kids know there is a lot more out there than what they hear on corporate radio. Giving them access to local music at an affordable price will help keep the power of the music industry in the hands of musicians and music fans, and not in multinational communications companies. Plus we get to hear bands with names like Nemesis Yankee, who have one of Urban Box Office's most popular releases, "Mi Bandera."

May 10, 2004

Fat Kills!

This AP story (via MSNBC) caught my eye because it’s such a prime example of the fear mongering I mentioned in an earlier post. The article brings out the often-mentioned and not actually true declaration that “Obesity is fast becoming one of the world’s leading reasons why people die”.

Of course if you read long enough (over halfway through), you eventually see that “Simply being fat won’t necessarily kill you outright. And it’s not weight alone that determines your risk from several diseases.”

The “fat kills you dead” articles tend to be structured this way, starting out with a misleading statement that is gradually qualified with some “obesity is linked to…” or “diseases associated with obesity…..” phrasing.

Obesity does not kill people; heart disease, strokes, and complications from diabetes do. The reality is that thin people who eat crap and sit in front of the television are equally at risk for these diseases as the fat, lazy slobs that the press loves to be horrified about. Fat is not the enemy. Lifestyle is.

Continue reading "Fat Kills!" »

May 6, 2004

Is No News Good News?

New York City commuters may have noticed that navigating the streets during rush hour became twice as hard yesterday. In addition to dodging amNew York promoters you値l now need to avoid another newspaper nobody wants, Metro. Metro already exists in three dozen cities worldwide, including Boston and Philadelphia, and this week it enters the New York City market.

The two papers claim not to be competitive with each other, although Metro痴 managing editor, Henry Scott, snips that 菟eople he saw reading amNew York on the subway appeared to be older than those the paper (and its advertisers) are seeking.�

That痴 very interesting, considering this enthusiastic reader testimonial in today痴 Metro:

的 like the small size, it痴 not one of those big papers you have to pull open,� said Chris, a 36-year-old federal government worker who declined to give his last name. [Metro痴 demographic is 18 � 34]

This reporter also noticed that amNew York heavily staffs the Times Square and Union Square subway stations (younger commuters), while Metro has promoters camped out at every entrance to the Port Authority Bus Terminal (older, suburban commuters). I took an informal count on my own morning commute of how many folks were reading either paper (0) versus how many copies of each publication were littering the ground around the station entrances (amNew York, 4621, Metro, 2586).

Scott claims in a fit of wild hubris that Metro痴 real competitors are the Daily News and the Post, without realizing that those two publications have something the free dailies don稚: content.

Neither company seems to realize the fundamental flaw in their business plan � they are offering a service that no one wants. The 18 � 34 demographic are getting their regurgitated AP stories from Yahoo! News, reading legitimate news sources online, and using that valuable subway ride to knit kicky hats or play with their iPods.

May 5, 2004

Eliot Spitzer, My Hero

What痴 not to love about New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer? When he痴 not getting your money back for that damaged sofabed, he痴 making record companies pay outstanding royalties to their artists. David Bowie and Elton John may not need that money so badly, but the smaller folks like 86-year old pianist Marian McPartland can probably use it.

的t痴 not like it痴 hard to find [recording artists]� Spitzer says in today痴 New York Times. 添ou could go to a concert and throw the check at them on stage.�

Oh, Eliot Spitzer. You just want to keep our money safe, make sure we have affordable health care, and protect our elderly. Please run for governor in 2006!

May 3, 2004

Deceptive Foods ++

(This post has been greatly expanded from the original.)

Remember when South Central LA decided that it would fix all its problems of urban blight, poverty, crime, and hopelessness by just changing the name? Well, now Kentucky Fried Chicken is following suit. They first changed their name and branding to "KFC." Last year they tried to market fried chicken as health food. Now they've suggested that KFC actually stands for something else: "kitchen fresh chicken." Admittedly, that name sounds a whole lot less artery-clogging without the word "fried," but what does this mean for other food companies? Can they all start just changing their names to imply that the food they produce has somehow improved, without any actual changes being made?

The most glaring related example of this is, of course, the recent downgrading of yogurt from a "meal" to a "snack" that both Dannon and Stonyfield have bought into. They reduced their yogurt cup size from 8 oz. to 6 oz., leaving many customers outraged. Emily may have more to add on this, given that she has launched a personal crusade against the participating yogurt companies. Note that Colombo is now advertising its yogurt as "8 oz. since 1929" (see bottom of page.) -Amy

Well, the real question is, what does the "KFC = Kitchen Fresh Chicken" formula mean for all of NYC's second-tier fried chicken mini-chains whose name-wars are built into the landscape of the city, particularly in the Bronx.

Most New Yorkers have driven past the tasty-by-association (and legally sound) "Kennedy Fried Chicken," but may have missed its progeny: the brilliantly dubbed (and also legally unassailable) "JFK Chicken," a name which at once recalls Kennedy Fried Chicken, Kentucky Fried Chicken's rebirth as KFC, and -- let's face it -- JFK himself. After the advent of JFK, and proving once again that nothing succeeds like success, "Canada Fried Chicken" also surfaced, which someone must have figured sounded close enough, and which of course spawned "US Fried Chicken" and "American Fried Chicken." Only Crown Fried Chicken, perhaps the largest of the outer-borough chains, has steered clear of this mental-association game and is reputed to have the tastiest chicken of them all.

So does this mean that "Kennedy Fresh Chicken" is available? By asserting that KFC now stands for "Kitchen Fresh Chicken," will KFC ironically lose its claim to its original moniker, "Kentucky Fried Chicken"? Wow: This could lead to the kind of onomastic battle not seen since the days of Ray's Pizza vs. Famous Original Ray's Pizza vs. Ray Bari Pizza -ADM

It's no coincidence that both Dannon and Stonyfield Farm reduced their cup size around the same time; both are owned by the French company Groupe Danone. Although Stonyfield�s party line is that they are just some humble cow-owning folk from the backwoods of New Hampshire, the company has taken an alarming turn since Groupe Danone�s acquisition in 2003.

In my ongoing quest to expose Big Yogurt, I've uncovered some serious examples of corporate deception:

1) You Asked for Less, You Got Less �In an independent research survey on Trends in Yogurt Consumption, 73% of all yogurt eaters viewed yogurt as a snack rather than a meal,� Stonyfield PR cheerily announces. �So in addition to the colorful graphics change, we reduced the size of our fat free cups to a 6oz. size that's more appropriate for snacking.

People, please. It seems disingenuous, at best, to suggest that these �snacking� consumers are pushing back from their desks, groaning �I�m so full! And now I have to throw away these two leftover ounces��*

Dannon resorts to the more Orwellian �room in every cup for your favorite mix-ins� on the back of the already 6-ounce container, encouraging the consumer to �create your own yogurt experience!�

2) More Money, Less Yogurt Worried about paying the same amount for less yogurt? Don�t worry, because �all of the ingredient savings from the size reduction have been passed on in our new pricing. Though the actual product size was reduced by 25%, most stores will price the new size at a 15%-20% decrease.�

Well, unless you buy your yogurt in the Greater New York metro area, where you will actually pay exactly as much as before.

I contacted Stonyfield Farm via email about these issues, mentioning that, as a former New Hampshire resident, I wanted to support a local company producing a quality product. 6 ounces, I said, is not a sufficient snack size and leaves me hungry and unsatisfied. Furthermore, I noted, none of my local retailers seemed to be passing along this price savings to me.

I received an email along the lines of the website explanation, and a week later, some coupons came in the mail. How far will those two free yogurts get me? Assuming I buy 6 yogurts a week at $1 each, those two coupons will exactly cover the 12 phantom ounces I�m paying for on my next trip to the Key Food. But what happens after that?

Despite all of this, I still buy Stonyfield Farm yogurt. Why? It tastes good, and I honestly do want to support a company that began as a local, environmentally sound business.

What these corporate changes are really saying to me is that healthy food just isn�t that profitable. For the most part, Americans don�t give a crap about their health � they just want to lose weight. Subway jumped right on that � first with Jared�s astonishing weight loss, and now with their line of low carb sandwiches.

You don�t need to look further than Stonyfield�s introduction of eXtreme!!!!!! flavors such as Screamin' Strawberry & BaNilla Blast to realize that Big Yogurt is in trouble. But is the solution to nickel and dime the consumers that choose to support them?

*They probably will have to throw it away, because in an effort to save the environment from the dire threat of plastic yogurt lids, Stonyfield Farm also now only covers their 6 oz containers with foil. You can request extra lids from their headquarters, but they won�t send you more than 2 or 3 at a time. Trust me, I�ve tried. -Emily

February 26, 2004

White Hollywood +

As we approach this year's Oscars ceremony, we recall the awards from two years ago, aka The Year Hollywood Pretended It Wasn't Racist. How are things looking this year for multiculturalism? Not great. There's the odd Iranian and Japanese man and West African among the supporting actor nominees, but these are people from other countries, not Americans whose race is not white. The Times has a piece on the role of black people in Hollywood, which points out: "In the history of the movie studios no African-American has ever had the power to green-light a film." Hollywood still seems to believe that movies about black people might be successfully here in the U.S., but won't do well internationally. But movies like Barbershop have had such massive domestic success that overseas box office doesn't matter. Whether this will result in a shift in power remains to be seen. -Amy
At this point, I would almost settle for someone telling me why Wesley Snipes appears to be the only black movie star who is allowed to kiss white women on screen -- and even he isn't allowed to do it all the time. One of a thousand examples: Did you ever see The Siege? If any white actor had that role, Denzel and Annette Bening would have made out furiously. Instead, they just sit their with their hands folded and harmlessly flirt with each other. This trend is brilliantly spoofed at the end of Steven Soderbergh's under-rated Full Frontal. As Blair Underwood and Julia Roberts fly off into the sunset together, they face each other for what should be the film-ending kiss. Instead, Soderbergh has them face the camera and grin, cheek to cheek, in a final bit of anti-miscegenistic Platonic warmth.

Why are Wesley, Denzel, Eddie Murphy, Will Smith, and Morgan Freeman practically the only black men Hollywood allows to headline major films? And why are nearly all of these men always in action films or comedies? Probably because the film industry presumes its white audience's racism, a presumption which leads to actual institutional racism in Hollywood. But as hard as it is to come up with the names of more than maybe five African-American lead actors, it's even more difficult to identify that many black actresses who are given a chance. Take a look at the careers of Andre Braugher, Courtney Vance, Angela Bassett (Courtney's wife, by the way), Mekhi Phifer, Don Cheadle, and Isaiah Washington and see if you can come up with any decent explanation -- besides race -- for why they have not had the number of quality roles given to lesser white actors. Most of the overlooked stars I mention above have been acting since their twenties but are now pushing into their late thirties or beyond, and their potential as leads has been purposely overlooked throughout their careers. I'm not sure to what degree audiences can or will demand more ethnic diversity, but maybe the successes of films like Barbershop, Soul Food, Orginal Kings of Comedy, etc., will get Hollywood to put money behind someone other than the same "bankable" five guys it's been using for the last 10 years. I suppose one way things could change is if as as younger, more open-minded directors and producers start getting authority, they begin insisting on more diverse casting, establishing beyond doubt that audiences will pay to see multi-racially cast films. Interestingly, the force of hip-hop in the record industry has begun to translate into a greater African-American presence in films, as Ice Cube, Ice-T, Latifah, and others (Mos Def, soon?) have successfully crossed over, and it's worth noting that Laurence Fishburne, Samuel Jackson, Ving Rhames, and a few other actors have had good success lately diversifying supporting roles but, again, those are supporting roles, and that's not enough.

It's easy to be dismissive of words like "pioneer" when they get thrown around to describe, say, Halle Berry, but I think it's important to remember that Hollywood is so dominated by white people that for any black person to achieve what she's achieved (even if you don't think she's a great actress) is, by its nature, pioneering and, in a sense, radical. -ADM

January 9, 2004

Nerds Love Chicks

This isn't the kind of thing we usually talk about here, but it's pretty ridiculous so I figure somebody should mention it.

My friend Vinny pointed out these auction listings on eBay from this guy who has a "mature" blonde model posing with the action figures and Dungeons & Dragons rule books he's selling.

dungeons and dragons

Some of those things she's doing with Captain Kirk look pretty close to illegal. He's got like 30 of these auctions up, with 4 or 5 similarly SEXY SEXY SEXY pictures per auction.

How did this girl get this gig? However it happened, it's depressing. Is she the guy's girlfriend or grudging ex-wife? Did she answer an ad in the local paper ("WANTED: fading beauty to hawk aging nerd memorabilia")? Is she the part-time cashier at the guy's hobby shop? Unfortunately, it looks like she's in the denoument of her modeling career. Particularly depressing is her "Playboy" branded underwear, as if the giant block letters are going to convince potential buyers of her sensuality. I don't think that will work any better than the "Hottie" t-shirt I routinely wear on first dates. But, then again, maybe it will.

This whole thing reminds me of this guy I* knew in high school who used to wear a t-shirt with a giant hamburger on it, figuring that girls would displace their desire for the hamburger onto him, and find him that much more appealing.

*and by "I," I mean the professor in college who told me this story.

December 22, 2003

Workplace deaths and OSHA inaction

Very long but worthwhile piece in the NY Times about deaths in the workplace due to companies' willful failure to make working conditions safe. OSHA, who would theoretically be responsible for investigating these cases and referring them to prosecutors, seems to have a "culture of reluctance" when it comes to prosecution, preferring instead to just investigate and fine the companies responsible for the deaths of their employees. Only 7% of cases of workplace death investigated by OSHA since 1982 have resulted in prosecution. OSHA's reluctance seems to stem from fear that they will fail to convict companies in key cases, and the whole agency will lose its credibility. However, most cases never ever get sent to a prosecutor at all, so the legal system doesn't get a chance to go after corporate criminals. Federal prosecutors say they would be happy to take more workplace death cases, even though -- get this -- if an employer willfully violates a safety law, and a worker dies as a result, the crime is only a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of 6 months. Seems that protecting its own reputation, and keeping companies clear of criminal charges is OSHA's top priority. -amy

At least the familes of workplace victims can subpoena OSHA's records and pursue civil cases. Still, OSHA shouldn't be so gun shy. Maybe they should start watching Law & Order for motivation and inspiration: Jack McCoy once successfully prosecuted an HMO's CEO for manslaughter because his company failed to give a patient a psychiatric referral and the patient ended up killing somebody on the subway. -adm

September 19, 2003

Richie from the Block

Clyde Haberman at the NYT talks to people from the Elmhurst, Queens school where Richard Grasso went to high school. Turns out they weren't too impressed with him back then, or since his rise to power, either.

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