Monday, May 31, 2010

The Priest on the Balcony

Every neighborhood has its mysteries. There's always the house with all the late-night traffic that might be a drug den or a bordello. The bungalow with the tattered curtains and a warning sign to solicitors. The apartment where the poodle never stops barking. Even in the small New England town where I grew up, we had strange village characters, like the woman we called the Duck Lady, who would stop every five steps on her nightly walk to check the bottom of her feet for dog poo.

My own neighborhood, high above San Francisco, is a mix of expensive single-family homes and jumbles of apartment buildings crowding the steep hillsides. There are families, singles, young people and old, straight and gay. It's relatively quiet, except when the fog sweeps over Twin Peaks and the win rattles in the metal chimneys, the way it's doing right now, at noon on Memorial Day. 

Balconies and terraces are an integral part of this vertical living; people hang their bicycles outside because their apartments are so small, or work out on them for the fresh air. There are barbecues and elaborate plantings, and children playing games in what passes for their "yard." So I was a little taken aback yesterday morning when I happened to glance out my bedroom window to a building across the street and saw what appeared to be a priest, dressed in a black cassock, saying Mass.

At first I thought it was some sort of residual Catholic vision. The street is very wide, with two lanes on my side and a steep central median thick with evergreen trees and jade, and a narrow parking lot on the other side. It took the zoom feature of my camera to get a closer inspection, which indicated a balding man in his 30s or 40s, with an actual pulpit mounted with a cross, going through the motions of the service. There was no one else in evidence, but I did notice there was what appeared to be a church pew on his balcony as well.

I have no explanation for this. Could he be a priest in training practicing for his audition with the Monsignor? Or an excommunicated one who can't let go of the Sunday morning ritual? Or is there some subset of sexual fetishes that involves priest drag? I may never know. But I'll be watching next Sunday to see if he's there again...and hopefully he won't be incorporating any altar boys into his act.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Mystery of the Tennis Ball and the Walker

You've seen them shuffling along hospital corridors and waiting in line at the drug store. Bent, elderly people leaning heavily on their walkers. And usually, for some mysterious reason, those walkers are affixed with slit, lime-green tennis balls. 

Which would lead one to assume there's something inherently flawed about the design of the walker as we know it. If they work better or are somehow safer with tennis balls jammed on their ends, why don't their manufacturers just make them with tennis ball-like fixtures at the bottoms?

Apparently it's more complicated than that. Most walkers are made with rubber grips on the back legs, making them less likely to slip on slick surfaces. But their users find them too sticky, so elderly people -- or, I'm guessing from experience, their long-suffering middle-aged children -- add the butchered tennis balls to make them slide more easily on surfaces like linoleum and tile. 

So my next question was: if walkers require this adjustment and the manufacturers of walkers aren't taking the cue to construct them differently, or at least provide features that can be swapped out to address different types of terrain, why isn't some enterprising entrepreneur stepping up to fill this marketing niche? I needn't have worried.

The Internet is alive with mutilated tennis balls just waiting to help grandma get to that quilting bee without breaking a hip. Walmart, for example, carries a product called the Drive Medical Deluxe Walker Rear Tennis Ball Glide, a set of two for just $37. But there are loads of other choices, some even displaying jubilant laughing faces because, after all, what's more fun-filled than being 80 years old and trying to maneuver yourself down a crowded city sidewalk propped up by some metal tubing and a couple of fuzzy guffawing lime-green orbs?

So, here we have a neat little case study of a product on the market that requires adaptation, and a seemingly endless number of manufacturers that have moved in to fill an obvious marketing need. I just have one more question: why do they still have to look like tennis balls?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Underwhelming World of Disney

A few years ago I worked at a small ad agency headquartered in Denver, but with creative offices here in San Francisco. Walt Disney World Resorts was one of our clients, and the challenge I faced as creative director was injecting their promotions with a level of excitement that matched the ravenous appetite for anything Disney that their executives seemed to think the public possessed.

One campaign, for example, invited visitors to vie for a chance to spend a night in Cinderella's castle. I struggled to see the appeal of this offer, or to put a spin on it attractive enough to get people to enter the contest. I could only imagine some poor soul lying awake in a sleeping bag behind the false facades and wallboard of the prop throneroom or mead hall, listening to the rustlings of mice most definitely not of the Mickey variety.

This all came to mind last night when I saw a commercial for this season's Disney promotion "Summer Nightastic!" It left me with a familiar sense of what a friend of mine used to call de ja view -- the feeling that you'd seen basically the same marketing campaign before, with little renewed effort. Nightastic -- really? That's the best the internal creative minds at Disney -- so notoriously hard to please when you're an agency hired to work with them -- could come up with? Here's how the program is described in the company's press release:

After the sun goes down, our Walt Disney World parks will light up the night with 'Summer Nightastic!'

That's pretty much what you can expect just about any night at any Disney venue: the Main Street Electrical Parade, the floats, the bobble-headed characters concealing sweaty, disillusioned actors, the anemic fireworks pulsing overhead.

You'd expect more from a company with a legacy as long and established as Disney, especially since their media arm still produces compelling entertainment content like the animated film How to Train Your Dragon.

Personally, I've never understood the appeal of the Disney theme parks, and it's not just because my friends and I were once escorted out of a tunnel beneath Anaheim's Disneyland Hotel in 1980 for smoking a joint -- early victims of video camera surveillance. In a world where even the average shopping mall is a complex blend of visual stimulation and artificial environments, I don't see the impact of a phony main street and year-round Christmas lighting. Yet I still know adults who love nothing more than a day with Goofy and Mickey -- perhaps just an attempt at reviving a happy childhood memory. To me the whole thing seems wheezy and hopelessly dated, a wholesome but impossibly bland source of distraction parents force on their children to offset the more frightening influences of modern life.

It may also be the unique nature of the theme park business that limits the robustness of the campaigns they can support. I also once worked on the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park business in an effort to increase summer membership. The challenge was that, with any theme park, membership is limited to the geographic area -- approximately a 50-mile radius -- surrounding the venue. It's a simple equation of how many people or families within driving distance are likely to attend often enough to make a membership cost-effective. Universal Studios Hollywood membership isn't cheap -- at the time of the campaign, about ten years ago, it was about $49 a person -- so I proposed cutting at least $5 off to drive up sales. The Universal executives shaved down the offer again and again, until we finally launched -- wait for it -- Free Lanyard Day. Yes, they ended up giving away those shoelace-like strings conventioneers wear around their necks to hold their badges. I tried to convince the powers that be at Universal that the target audience of lower-middle-class Hispanic families from East L.A. didn't even know what a lanyard was, let alone want one, but my cries fell on deaf ears. And so another theme park marketing effort bit the dust.

I doubt very much I'll be visiting any Disney parks this summer. But I certainly hope that, for those that do, their experience is totally Nightastic.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Pecking Order

If there's one film that manages to pry into our psycho-sexual fears and stay wedged there, it's Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.

Social critic Camille Paglia was so intrigued by the film's subtext she wrote a scene-by-scene analysis of the movie over ten years ago, so any observations I can make will probably pale in comparison with her astute and scholarly decree.

On the surface, the film's impact relies on its conceptual conceit of a normally benign denizen of nature -- the birds of the air -- suddenly turning on mankind. While that's a surprising and formidable source of terror, the complex interplay of sexually-charged elements between the human characters is what's really unsettling.

The action takes place over just one weekend, so the events seem to be unspooling in something like real time. Tippi Hedren's spoiled heiress Melanie Daniels never even has a chance to change out of her sea foam green Chanel suit. Essentially, after a flirtatious encounter in a San Francisco pet shop (one that I actually used to frequent for cat food until its recent demise) Hedren's character purchases two love birds and drives them up to Rod Taylor's ranch in Bodega Bay, as a kind of prank. She's supposed to be a smug socialite, given to nude drunken escapades in Roman fountains, so this kind of caper is in keeping with her Paris Hiltonesque persona. Her arrival in the small fishing village with the pet birds in a cage seems to have angered the avian gods, perhaps because she dared besmirch true love by carelessly gifting love birds. Birds of all types start misbehaving, and she and Taylor's attraction grows against the backdrop of increasingly ferocious attacks.

Forget the pecking and dive-bombing sea gulls and ravens. The film's real perversity lies in Taylor's relationship with all the women in his life. Acting veteran Jessica Tandy, her patrician accent sorely out of place in rural Northern California, plays his needy, fearful widowed mother, threatened by the appearance of the cool blonde Hedren. Then there's his ex-girlfriend, the school teacher Annie Hayworth, played with a sultry resignation by Suzanne Pleshette, who ends up sharing her cottage with her far more sophisticated rival -- and getting pecked to death in her own front yard. And Veronica Cartwright, who would go on to scream-queen fame in such epics as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien, and The Witches of Eastwick, plays his little sister Cathy. There's more than a vague incestuous vibe between Taylor and his mother, who seems a bit too young, and his sister, who seems more like his daughter. It's these four females who are plucking and pulling at him, and though the film was based on a novella by Daphne du Maurier with the same title, I wonder if, in naming the film, the British Hitchcock wasn't making a reference to the derisive Cockney term for women -- birds.

My favorite scene is when Tandy, terrified by the latest fatal bird attack on a neighboring farmer, urges Hedren to go to the school to collect her daughter. While she waits impatiently on a bench smoking a cigaret, the monkey bars behind her fill up ominously with crows. Talk about your problems coming home to roost.

There was Internet chatter recently that the film was going to be remade with Naomi Watts in the Hedren role, but that project seems to have stalled. While it's intriguing to consider what today's CGI technology could do visually with the story -- Hitchcock had to nix the final scene he'd planned of the Golden Gate Bridge covered in birds because it was too costly to create -- I somehow doubt the end result would approach the original's ability to get under, and stay under, the viewer's skin. I think it might even lay an egg.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Step Into My Parlor

Readers of this blog know that I have nothing against violence in films. Some of the best films ever made wallow in gore and subject matter that take us far beyond our comfort levels. The finale of Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver is incredibly impactful and unnerving 35 years after its release, and during a recent viewing I was surprised at how graphic and inappropriate the interaction between Robert de Niro and Jodie Foster's 12-year-old prostitute seems now. But that's all in context with the story of a young cab driver so revolted by the filth and immorality of 70s-era New York that he launches a one-man assault to clean it up, managing to save a pre-teen runaway who's become its most iconic victim.

That's why I'm so amazed by the current trend of torture porn perpetuated by franchises like Saw and Hostel. There's a difference between whacking a zombie in the head with a shovel and slowly eviscerating a young woman bound to a chair, or chaining a man in a basement and giving him a choice between death and sawing off his own leg. What does it say about a culture that lends its enthusiastic support to a trend that celebrates the depraved dismemberment and murder of youth and beauty? 

I first saw John Carpenter's Halloween in a London theatre in 1979 and was thrilled by the sudden, sweeping way death was dispensed to its teenaged victims. Of course back then there was still a morality equation in play; the popular kids having sex in their parents' bedrooms were the first to be impaled on the wall by a very large cleaver that seemed to emerge out of nowhere. But there wasn't this degenerate slathering over the act, this masturbatory Peeping Tom excitement celebrating the suffering and horror, no pitiful pleading to prolong the act. Just bam! and on to the next gory death. More recent film series, such as the Final Destination movies, let you savor the chain of events that lead to each character's demise -- the trail of leaking gasoline that will result in the inevitable explosion, the faulty window frame that will decapitate the unsuspecting victim going about his business -- but didn't draw out the pain and realization of what was happening. And ultimately the good girl, the Jamie Lee Curtis character who hadn't been doing a hoochie dance in her mother's bra and panties, found her inner courage and dispatched the boogie man. At least until the next sequel.

I'd even put films like Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in this same league. It's not the story of Christ's redemption that is the focus of that film but how he's made to settle his debt to humanity, and each lash of the whip or thrust of the lance is played out with an old-school Catholic frenzy.

My theory to explain the popularity of this trend is that we live in what we perceive to be a serial killer world. Children can't play alone in their own yards, or walk to school as we did. Girls disappear from coffee shop parking lots and are discovered weeks later in swamps; children are seen on video surveillance footage skipping along a street one minute and are found packed in someone's discarded luggage the next. The shift in perspective went from one end of the spectrum to the other in a new sort of empowerment dynamic. We're no longer meant to identify with the victim, we're meant to identify with the killer. By putting ourselves in the killer's position, we bestow ourselves with the killer's power. But let's ask ourselves: is that power of any value to us? 

Valuable films with R-rated content are still being made, like the incredible District 9, where monstrous amounts of gore and inhumanity are showcased, but those movies also house lessons about cultural perspective and our general humanity. But the tide has yet to turn. I'm constantly hearing about upcoming productions where the gross-out level and the inflicted torture and mutilation are being ramped up, like the abhorrent, soon-to-be-released Human Centipede film, which involves three individuals surgically sewn together, mouth to rear, for the further amusement of audiences and one extremely mad scientist. Perhaps the trend has run out of energy and has gone as far as it can, and Centipede will put a lid on the whole movement.

Commentators have wondered how sex and violence might influence viewers since the days of the Nickelodeon. That was when Indians were still falling off of horses and damsels were still being tied to railroad tracks. Now that we're capturing students and lopping off their unanesthetized body parts, I can only wonder to what degree we're truly desensitizing young audiences to mayhem and unrepentant violence, and how that reaction will next manifest itself.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Bombs Away

When an actor's film career spans six decades, he's bound to end up in a couple of bombs. But in the case of film legend John Wayne, there's one movie where that was literally the case: 1956's The Conqueror.

I'm not talking about Duke Wayne uncomfortably miscast as Ghengis Khan, though that's the film's most obvious problem. It's unlikely that the Mongolian war lord was 6'4" or spoke in a western drawl, but director Dick Powell seemed to think slapping a Fu Man Chu mustache on America's most American of performers would transform him into a 12th-century Asian warrior. No, the film was shot in Utah just downwind of the Yucca Flat atomic testing range in Nevada. At least two of the blasts detonated during filming were three- and four-times the size of the explosion that leveled Hiroshima a decade earlier. Wayne was diagnosed with cancer in the early '60s and lost a lung to it in 1963, then battled the advancing condition until his death in 1979. 

At least 50 members of the cast and crew subsequently died of one form of cancer or another, including director Powell, co-stars Agnes Moorehead and Susan Hayward, and Pedro Armendariz, who shot himself when he learned he had terminal cancer. Children of Wayne and Hayward who visited the set contracted various forms of cancer as well, as did more than 90 members of the film crew. The nearby town of St. George has seen cancer rates fly off the charts, and no one has ever assessed the damage the testing inflicted on the surrounding Native American community. 

To make matters worse, tons of sand from the site were transported back to Hollywood for sound stage filming so the soil would match the location shots, exposing even more studio technicians and workers to intolerable levels of radiation. 

The movie has become a camp classic, but as amusing as it is to watch a group of 20th Century Caucasian actors stumbling around completely recognizable Utah landmarks as though those yurts are really somewhere in outer Mongolia, it's sad to know what was happening. While the cameras were turning, America's most iconic flag-waving defender was being poisoned by the very military defense program he so staunchly supported.

Friday, May 7, 2010


Woe to the real estate agent who encounters me at a cocktail party. For years I've been decrying the now nearly universal practice of "staging" homes and condos for sale. My San Francisco neighborhood features dozens of open houses each weekend, many of which have been on the market for some time at strikingly marked-down prices. But when I walk into these houses -- some of them pretty spectacular on their own in terms of architectural detail and staggering views of the city and Bay -- I'm immediately distracted by the staging.

The Real Estate Staging Association (RESA) claims that staged homes spend 78% less time on the market. To me that speaks more to the paucity of imagination of most home buyers than the effectiveness of rented sofas and dining room place settings that stare up vacantly from elaborately decorated tables.

Few things are more aspirational than an empty house. You walk through the stillness of the rooms and think about the families that were raised there, the tragedies and triumphs witnessed by that indifferent wainscoting. And if you're really considering living there yourself, you picture your own furniture in front of that hearth, your artwork on the walls, the pieces that you'd pick up somewhere to fill the empty corners. You decide which room would be your bedroom and which alcove you'd use as an office. It's inconceivable to me that I could be moved by some settee foisted on me by a staging company, or the ugly pampas grass thrusting out of a hideous vase or the Laura Ashley fabrics draping the windows.

There's a scene at the end of the classic 1947 film Miracle On 34th Street when Maureen O'Hara, John Payne and Natalie Wood, knowing that circumstances have united them and they'll now be a complete family, look at an empty house in the suburbs. It was a reflection of what was going on at the time, when post-war prosperity and want of a better life drove millions of middle class families out of the inner cities. The characters examine the vacant rooms with hope and expectation, on the virge of a new life together. It's the emptiness of the dwelling itself that they're about to fill with their potential as a family, and I don't think a couple of couches or throw rugs would have done as well to bind them together.

People have come to expect home staging, I guess, but only because it's become the norm in urban centers. Give me a clean, empty house ringing with footsteps of potential buyers peering into closets and cupboards, all considering the better life that could be lived within those walls.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Corn Is High

Nothing is quite so fascinating as an advertising spin being applied to a product so appallingly unhealthy that it's pretty much indefensible. Cigaret manufacturers tried this approach years ago by marketing versions of the product that were supposedly less deadly -- and soon dropped the attempt. The current series of television ads aimed at untarnishing the reputation of high fructose corn syrup -- a food additive now found in everything from catsup to soft drinks that's known to cause liver scarring, and which may be single-handedly responsible for the current societal epidemic of diabetes and morbid obesity -- tries valiantly but ineffectively to defend the insidious substance.

The spots usually start in some innocuous domestic setting, like a neighborhood barbecue. The health-conscious mom watches askance as her friend pours out for her children glasses of fruit juice laced with the toxic chemical brew. "Don't you care about your family?" she ventures. When the other woman pretends not to comprehend what she's referring to, she elaborates, "Well, you know what they say about high fructose corn syrup, don't you?" Barely able to contain her hostility, the friend challenges her to elaborate on her supposed high-handed position. "Like what? That it's made of corn, which is a completely natural substance? That it's totally safe in moderation?" Take that, anal-retentive hippie mom! But all we as viewers can think is that consuming this poison "in moderation" is virtually impossible, since it's managed to find its way into nearly every processed food. The real spots are not very different from this spoof, except for the intimidating drag queen:

Then there's the creepy commercial for Crocs Lite. While I'm glad that Crocs have evolved their line beyond ugly, day-glow, hooflike footware worn only by celebrity chefs and Special Ed students, I'm not convinced this was the best way to convey the product's comfort and value. As a woman returns from a long day's work, two strangely menacing pink creatures lie in wait for her. They rush to greet her as she enters her apartment, bringing to mind the robotic toy soldiers in the futuristic thriller Bladerunner who greet their creator by announcing "Home again home again, diggety dig!" Instead of saluting and marching back out of the room, though, these round little entities seize the woman's feet and begin massaging and pummeling them. It's like she's being accosted by animated jelly beans.

Since I've scolded two different advertising efforts, it's only fair that I commend one. So: careful positioning of a product line is more important these days than ever. Marketers should always be asking themselves: what's the differentiating factor here? Why should customers with limited resources buy this product instead of a similar, less-expensive one? The series of TV spots for Pyrex gets it right. Each spot demonstrates that they've taken a time-honored, completely familiar utensil or item of kitchen ware and improved on it. So now you can get a cheese grater that measures the amount of cheese you're grating, or a whisk designed to serve as a spatula, too. Simple as it seems, they're demonstrating how they're bringing new value to customers, and that they're forward-thinking even when it comes to products that have been around so long one would assume they couldn't be modified for the better. A look at their clean, well-designed website shows that theirs is a well-integrated, multi-channel approach, and that they've introduced storage containers that not only resist staining but can safely be placed in the oven. Brilliant.

On an end note, I was half-listening to a commercial the other night that was promoting dryer sheets -- I wish the messaging had been strong enough for the brand to come across but I simply didn't notice. What I did notice, however, when the woman in the commercial whipped out the product, was that it completely resembled Towelie, the marijuana-addicted bath towel from Comedy Central's long-running South Park, horizontal stripes and all. Perhaps it would be more successful if they just called it Towelie -- and made a joke about using it when you're really wiped out.

UPDATE: I saw the spot again, and the brand is Purex.