Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Put a Lid On It

I'm always a little relieved when some fad sweeps through the culture without requiring my involvement. I might not be able to avoid the ripples that radiate in my direction, but I don't have the need or desire to get wet. It's a bit like the Macarena craze of the mid-90s; you knew it was out there somewhere but you didn't have to do a thing about it.

The Twilight saga is one such fad. With the current release of the third film in the series, it's pretty clear the latest incarnation of the stalwart vampire genre is holding on strong. But really, it's such an anemic franchise, if you'll forgive the pun, so chaste and yearning and unconsummated, that it's hard to believe the legions of Twitwards, as one blogger calls them, still find it so enthralling, especially after such prolonged teasing and foreplay. The phenomenon is comparable to the fervor ignited by generations of androgynous pop stars, from Davy Jones to David Cassidy to Justin Bieber -- they function as idols of worship for tweens because their boyish appeal is so non-threatening. And middle-aged wives aren't being unfaithful to their husbands if they're supporting an entertainment figure who looks like he should be mowing the lawn. The only difference is that the current craze reflects the particular aesthetic of our day: the latest round of unobtainable vampires and werewolves have abs you could crack walnuts on. 

I'm old enough to remember a vampire craze that now seems largely forgotten. It was a daytime occult soap opera called Dark Shadows, and its very unlikely super star was a former stage actor from Canada named Jonathan Frid, already well into his 40s at the start of the show's run in 1966. The premise involved an 18th-century vampire named Barnabas Collins who appears at the spooky seaside family estate of his extended cousins and stirs up an ongoing supernatural saga. Like the current vampire franchise it involved the search for a lost love, the loneliness of immortality, and the quest for normalcy. My best friend and I would run home from Catholic school to catch the show every week day, which, now that I think about it, may have constituted a form of blasphemy to the dour Sisters of St. Joseph who ruled us with an iron, knuckle-cracking yard stick.

We loved the show because it was set in Maine, where we lived in a small town, and because it served up a never-ending parade of werewolves, ghosts and ghouls. The series contained enough time travel and parallel universes to rival Lost, and the production values were so clumsy that you often glimpsed a technician walking through a crypt or a boom microphone dangling above Barnabas' coffin. Still, many performers who appeared on Dark Shadows went on to far greater success, such as Kate Jackson, who got her start on the program.

Yet the show became so popular that Frid became a cultural icon. His haggard, not-very-handsome face, with its trademark five-pointed bangs (decades before Bart Simpson debuted his own pointy 'do) looked out from dozens of magazines each week for years. There were even full-length feature films to syphon off more lucre from a very willing public. 

The unique conundrum of the vampire has been an enduring entertainment platform for a century now. I think that's because a story about being different will always have an audience, especially for adolescents struggling with the universal truths of growing up. For Jonathan Frid the full flush of fame eventually faded and he found himself typecast as a fanged night wanderer with a wolf's head walking stick. But ever the trouper, at 85 he still makes personal appearances and receives a steady flow of fan mail that long ago ebbed into something closer to a trickle. 
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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Necropolis Now

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Just south of San Francisco there's a town where the dead far outnumber the living. It's called Colma, and it's a necropolis -- isn't it great that such an archaic word can have a modern application? -- of about 1,600 people and more than 1.5 million corpses.

There are at least 18 cemeteries in Colma, and they serve virtually every denomination. There's a Greek Orthodox cemetery, several Chinese cemeteries, a Jewish cemetery, a Korean cemetery, and several military cemeteries where the lines of slim white markers march off endlessly into the distance. But to me the most interesting graveyard in Colma isn't for people at all. Butted up against a crowded Chinese cemetery, it's called Pet's Rest (the copywriter in me would prefer Pets' Rest), and it's reserved exclusively for animals who are lovingly immortalized by their owners. 

I find this type of graveyard interesting because of the complex span of human emotions it showcases. First of all, a tombstone is a challenging messaging vehicle. It has to communicate the significance of the person (or pet) who lies beneath, especially since everyone and everything eventually dies. It has to approximate some sense of loss and longing. And, usually, it gives testimony to the mourner's religious beliefs -- most often the hope that, through the benevolence of whatever belief system, the loved one and the one left behind will one day be reunited. 

It's both charming and a little frightening that so many people not only insist on believing in an afterlife, but also shape that belief to include the elements that give them added comfort. Like, for example, the hope that they will one day be reunited with their bunnies. I have no doubt at all that Buttercup and Nutmeg were exceptional rabbits; in fact, Buttercup managed to create an indelible impact on the Miles family in just two years. That's one impressive bunny rabbit.

But it's also fascinating that humans are not only able to maintain their religious faith, but somehow manage to project it onto their pets. Was Sheebah actually Jewish? I can't help seeing a rather intellectual house cat with a yarmelke and side curls. And am I wrong, or don't most Jews not believe in the concept of Heaven? Again, this cat must have been truly exceptional for the Schers to have bent the rules for her. But they thought enough of her to purchase and inscribe a large and expensive granite memorial, etched with not one but two Stars of David. Perhaps the fact that Sheebah went to her reward on Yom Kippur was enough to convince them of her orthodox status.

Now, as a long-time advertising marketer, I'm a big believer in customer service, which usually, whether you're an IT consultant or an insurance salesman, consists of simply protecting the customer from himself. Stone is a pretty unforgiving medium, so I would think that avoiding mistakes would be a huge part of the service stone masons and funeral memorial personnel provide. That's why I'm struggling with how this stone ever saw the light of day, since of course that "your" should be "you're." Poor little Sunshine Reimonenq, destined to an eternity of well-meaning but inexpertly applied homage.

These memorials can be incredibly evocative, though. Who wouldn't want to have known Stoney, who probably tripped over his own ears and had a deafening bark? I want to know what he did that was particularly funny. For 16 years he obviously brought a lot of quality to the lives of his family, who thought so much of him they didn't even bother to include their own names in his permanent eulogy. And the paw print design motif seems especially appropriate for this particular dog. You look at this stone and you feel the family's pain at Stoney's loss, and maybe begin to understand why they hope to see him again in the afterlife.

Pet's Rest is full of other hints about the legacy of these great, fondly remembered pets. It's impossible to tell if Puddles was a dog or a cat or a wombat, but he plied his trade with his owners for seven whole years. The orange placed on his grave suggests his owners were Chinese or Thai (I checked to make sure there wasn't an orange tree on the grounds), and when you consider that he's been dead and gone for 26 years it makes you wonder about the devotion he inspired. I imagine an elderly Chinese man slipping on his windbreaker and calling out to his wife, "Honey, I'm just going to run down and put an orange on Puddles' grave." That must have been one fine wombat. 

It's hard enough to imagine what the alien civilizations who eventually come across the smoking ruins of our world will think about our endless obsession with eternity. But perhaps when they see the devotion and care we gave to the animals that gave us warmth and comfort, they'll consider us in a slightly more positive light than as the creatures who so stupidly destroyed their own planet.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Please Don't Squeeze the Indelicate Metaphor

Creating advertising for certain intimate products isn't easy. You want to communicate the key benefits of your client's offering that can't be matched by the competition and, generally, you don't want to veer into oversharing or unpleasantness. So you focus on areas like dependability, or greater absorption, or enjoyably pleasant scents, or supreme softness. One of the most long-running and successful campaigns, Charmin bathroom tissue, carefully walked this line for decades. The spots ran from 1964 to 1985 and cast a familiar character actor named Dick Wilson as a slightly high-strung grocery manager named George Whipple. In over 500 spots, Mr. Whipple, as he was known, politely admonished customers to refrain from squeezing the Charmin. But the product was so soft and inviting that he usually couldn't hold back from squeezing it himself, much to his embarrassment. That itself was a testament to the product's quality.

During his heyday Wilson worked only 12 days a year filming the spots, netting $300,000 annually. The commercials were so successful, and became such a part of the advertising landscape, that the phrase "Please don't squeeze the Charmin" was forged as part of the American lexicon, and in the late '70s surveys placed the brand spokesman third as the most recognized man in the country (number one was Jimmy Carter). 

A brand pedigree like this might explain why I so despise the current crop of Charmin ads. They depict a family of supposedly adorable animated bears, and certain trees in their forest apparently serve as ursine latrines, since their branches function as toilet paper dispensers. It's like the entire concept hinges on the rhetorical question, "Does a bear shit in the woods?" Apparently they do, and they wipe their bottoms with what was once America's brand of choice. There's even a new spot that focuses on a shameful bruin elimination problem that's only now coming to light: the issue of toilet tissue that "leaves behind" pieces of the paper in baby bear's fur. A narrator playfully scolds that, "you'll never pass inspection that way," making me wonder exactly who is in charge of inspecting America's rear end for foreign materials. Mr. Whipple would be passed out face-first in the persimmons from horror.

Charmin's advertising legacy was so established in the firmament of 20th century successes alongside indelible characters like Mr. Clean and Josephine the Plumber that it's a sacrilege to bring their marketing efforts to the level of anal detritus, however cute the bears are. And let's not even consider the prospect of 600-pound mammals defecating in the forest and what products might need to be called into play to tidy up. Obviously Mr. Whipple couldn't have gone on squeezing the Charmin forever -- the company brought him back briefly in 1999, and Wilson died in 2007 at the age of 91 -- but a little brainstorming might have come up with a more appropriate update to the company's long-term messaging strategy.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Last Acts

The resurgence of Betty White's career is satisfying to witness. But the truth is she never stopped working or faded away. She's been a continuous presence on television since its inception, making her debut in 1949, and on radio long before that. You can watch her as a young woman in her own series Life With Elizabeth beginning in 1952, frozen forever at age 30 in the cinched dresses of the period, then chart her progress through the decade to a surprising appearance as a U.S. Senator in 1962's Advise & Consent, with a pit stop on Password, where she married the host. Then come the iconic comedic characters, the man-hungry Happy Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens, followed by her polar opposite, the dizzy simpleton Rose Nylund. and when she's not on TV, she's making films. I still remember watching her feed cows to the giant alligator in Lake Placid when I saw it in the theatre (don't ask) and how the audience gasped when she called the sheriff "Fuck Meat." It's around that time that her crusty, self-deprecating humor really blossomed and bloomed, but she's continued to test her mettle in television series like Ally McBeal and Boston Legal, right up to her recent Facebook-fueled Saturday Night Live guest host gig. And tomorrow she launches yet another series, with the let's-hope-it's-better-than-it-looks TV Land Network premier of Hot In Cleveland.

With so much exposure, I hope that she doesn't degrade her brand -- because face it, Betty White's career right now is at a defining apex that it took 70 years to reach -- the way another enjoyable actress did about 25 years ago. After a long and distinguished career as a character actress on stage and film, and even as a screenwriter, Ruth Gordon came into her own in a similar way, already well into her 60s. Riding the success of Rosemary's BabyHarold & Maude and a few other notable screen credits, she became a hot commodity. Soon everywhere you looked she was twinkling and mugging her dried apple doll pixie face across the screen, playing everything from Carlton the Doorman's mother on Rhoda to making weakly-conceived guest appearances on Newhart, Taxi, and The Love Boat. Her characters were always eccentric and manic but ultimately wise from their years of hardscrabble living; there was always a message to impart before she left you too soon, much the way her most memorable character did when she took the poison tablets, on Maude's 80th birthday.  

Betty White is nearly 89, but I hope she has many more years of triumph and success. Unlike Ms. Gordon and some others, hers might be an image so familiar and edgy and likable that it's impervious to the tarnish of overexposure. We'll see.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Let's Build Something Together

In the brand training classes that I conduct for recent hires at my company, I talk about how the best brands are aspirational. The example I've been using is Lowe's, though there are many others that manage to embody a company's unique brand personality while speaking to the bond they promise to make with the customer. In the case of Lowe's I always tell the class somewhat dramatically that, as a long-time copywriter, their tagline practically brings tears to my eyes. That's because it not only manages to reference their brand purpose (providing you with the tools, products and guidance to create something that will improve your home) but it speaks to the ongoing relationship they hope to forge with their satisfied customer. And they manage to accomplish all that with just four fairly simple words -- something that's not at all easy to do.

Another beautifully-worded brand tagline is New York Life's. It's crafted to speak to the specific nature of insurance, so the messaging is slightly more oblique -- "the company you keep" could refer to your family and its protection, or even as a slight admonishment to develop relationships with vendors or carriers that are above-board and trustworthy. And, more directly, it's a testament to the enduring customer satisfaction they'll deliver -- the service they'll bring you will make you so brand-loyal that you'll never stray to another provider. Again, all this is accomplished with just four short, punchy words.

Sometimes, though, an errant punctuation mark can derail the effectiveness -- and innate beauty -- of an entire brand promise. Take, for example, Craftsman tools. Craftsman has been wildly promiscuous when it comes to taglines, having tried on and discarded a number of them, sort of like Julia Roberts' Pretty Woman gone wild in a dress shop with Richard Gere's Titanium Card. As recently as 2007 they announced that their tagline was "There's a Craftsman in all of us," which, while being somewhat aspirational in terms of reassuring the public at large that we're all capable of being handy around the house, becomes vaguely obscene when interpreted another way. That may be why it recently changed to "Trust. In your hands." Again, four carefully-chosen words. While it definitely speaks to the integrity of the tool you're depending on to accomplish the task at hand, the double meaning that successful taglines depend on for maximum impact has been unnecessarily eliminated. I'm hugely bothered by that first period. "Trust in your hands" would still reference the quality of their products, but the line would then also serve as a prompt to believe in your own ability to become a craftsman. It brings tears to my eyes, alright, but not in a good way.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Balcony Is Empty

After last Sunday's mysterious apparition of a fully-frocked priest performing what looked like a Mass on a neighboring apartment balcony, I promised to check this week to see if it was a weekly ritual. Well, unless it took place early in the morning -- I stayed late at a friend's birthday party the night before and didn't get up until 10 -- there was no ceremony this weekend. The balcony still contained no pulpit and no hanging incense censer, though there are still some wooden church pews out there.

Perhaps the priest only ventures out on warm Sundays, like one of those figures that emerges from the little doors in a cuckoo clock when the atmospheric conditions are right. I prefer to think that he doesn't live there at all, but had been summoned to perform a one-time ritual. Perhaps the walls had started to seep blood or bulge with the trapped souls of disco-era Hustle dancers, or the building itself had been constructed over an ancient Mewok burial ground, and the priest had been contracted by the Vatican to perform a one-time exorcism -- and clean up the pea soup.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Horny Christian Singles Want To Date You

It suprises me that this late in the game 85% of Internet traffic still consists of spam email. I emptied the bulk folder of my Yahoo! account about three days ago but currently it contains more than 330 of them. 

Many of these emails are fairly innocuous solicitations for printer toner, insurance, car loans, credit cards, stock purchases (including, somewhat strangely in light of the environmental health of the Gulf of Mexico, crude oil trading), used cars, and online education, along with various products from pet food to frozen burritos. Then there are the inevitable politically-oriented ones ("Don't Vote for Mini-Meg!" reads one subject line), which always increase in number as we approach a primary election. My favorite is one I've gotten multiple times, its subject line announcing "This Is Why You're Fat!" I haven't clicked on it to find out the answer. Then there are multitudes of penis enlargement offers, along with enticements from the naughty above-mentioned Christians and their fellow Asian Mail Order Brides, Swinging Singles, and Sexy Housewives.

Probably what bothers me most about spam, aside from having to delete it or worry about the malicious codes they may contain in terms of viruses, worms and spyware, is that it violates the primary directive of modern marketing: these efforts are not targeted to consumers likely to purchase their wares. I don't have a pet, need more insurance, or eat frozen burritos. And I wouldn't touch a sexy Christian with a ten-foot pole, let alone with a medically-enhanced penis. The thinking, if you can call it that, behind these massive email blasts is that the medium is so cheap to use it allows you to carpet-bomb the Internet, ensuring a profit from the handful of people likely to respond to your promotion. And, of course, you should never send a marketing promotion to someone who hasn't chosen to "opt in" to your messaging.

Laws have been put into place that come down hard on spammers whose emails originate in the United States and certain other countries -- they can be fined $1,000 for every instance. Unfortunately, spammers operate out of unregulated countries like Brazil and Sri Lanka, and little can be done to curtail the tide.

But it's amazing that even the foreign bank account inheritance scam is still in operation -- I get about five a week. Is there anybody in the world still naive enough to transmit funds to Nigeria?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Yonda Lies The Castle of My Fodda

In his recent New Yorker review of the Jake Gyllenhaal epic Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, film critic David Denby decried the application of what he called "Oxford English" to films depicting the ancient world. 

I actually have more of a problem with the trend of video games being translated into films -- it used to be the other way around until the wildly successful Lara Croft franchise -- than with filmmakers finding a unified voice for their ancient or mythological characters. There's always going to be a lack of dimension in a universe built out of an electronic game; by definition the characters start out flattened and dull and struggle to take form within the medium of film. But perhaps that's meaningless to an audience willing to shell out ten bucks for any extension of a game that's become an integral part of their lives. I don't know -- I stopped playing video games when Millipede disappeared from bars.

But since the introduction of Talkies in the late 1920s, historical pictures have supplied their ancient Romans, Greeks and Egyptians with crisp, theatrically British accents. At least it gives us all a neutral platform from which to absorb the story. Imagine, for example, if the gladiators in the Coliseum spoke in some mishmash of modern-day Italian: "I'm-a gonna get you with-a my sword, you!" 

Worse still would be to have the actors state their lines in flat American tones or regional dialects. That actually happened in one very notable film that will forever live in infamy, the excruciatingly bad Tony Curtis vehicle from 1952, Son of Ali Baba. Rounding a bend in the road in Crusades-era Persia, the former Bernie Schwartz cried out in his unmistakably Bronx intonation, "Yonda lies the castle of my fodda!" Somehow he wasn't laughed off the screen. He even got the girl -- Janet Leigh -- and managed to remain married to her for eleven whole years.