Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Cultural Reference Points Will Set You Free

A large retailer recently faced controversy when it included among its online catalog what was supposed to be a motivational poster featuring German wording over a gate that translates to "Work Will Set You Free" ("Arbeit marcht frei"). The problem was that the gate was the entrance to Auschwitz, the notorious German Nazi concentration camp where hundreds of thousands of Jews were exterminated during World War II. 

It's an inexcusable mistake, but my guess is that it happened because most people today under the age of 40 lack a sense of cultural reference points -- they have no sense of, or interest in, events that have shaped the world they live in. (Which is ironic, considering the vast encyclopedia of information instantly available at their fingertips.) 

So probably, some young graphic designer was asked to create a motivational poster about the uplifting benefits of hard work. Then he or she googled related images, saw a photo of the gate that was unrelated to any content linking it to the source of one of history's most shocking atrocities, and that was that. Then someone else at the retail site with an equally serious deficiency in cultural history thought nothing about adding it to their online shelves. It's more than just a matter of forgetting about the Holocaust -- it's having no sense of important events taking place in the relatively recent past. 

Which brings me to an item the fashion retailer Zara recently pulled from its shelves. It's difficult to believe that the design of this children's shirt didn't set off alarm bells for its resemblance to the striped uniforms issued at concentration camps. Yes, the stripes are horizontal rather than vertical and yes, it says "Sheriff" inside the yellow six-pointed star -- but when did an old West sheriff ever wear a striped jersey? It's another flagrant example of chillingly obtuse historical ignorance -- and a cautionary tale about the importance of staying aware of the past so as not to repeat it.  

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Actually, God Loves Fags

The world is full of graphic examples of how religious extremism foments violence and unrest, but one of the most puzzling is the Westboro Baptist Church.

The Topeka, Kansas congregation, if you can call its 40 ragtag members that, announced most recently that it planned to stage a protest at comedian Robin Williams' funeral here in San Francisco. But what exactly is there to protest about the unexpected death of one of the most gentle, beloved and generous entertainers of the last thirty-five years?

The church, which is in no way affiliated with the actual Baptist Church, also doesn't bother to affiliate itself with reason. Since 1991, they've protested the funerals of author Randy Shilts, who documented the early days of the AIDS crisis in And the Band Played On, along with those of soldiers who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even celebrated the violent deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11. They even threatened to protest at the funerals of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings and the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Church members, most of whom are extended family members of its now -- thankfully -- dead leader Fred Phelps, post hate videos on Youtube and Vines on Twitter with the sort of smirking confidence exhibited only by people with unshakably misguided world views of superiority. The Washington Post pointed out that when they tweeted a threat to protest Steve Jobs' funeral in 2011, they did it using one of his iPhones. Who do they think isn't going to hell?

I can only think that they choose to interpret these tragic events as targeted harbingers of God's wrath, striking down sinners or smoting those who don't live to the now-irrelevant letter of the ancient biblical texts. But it's still hard to believe that anyone, for whatever wrong-headed reason, would deliberately add to the sadness and despair of families in mourning. Shouldn't you go to hell for that?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Leak No More

With the aging of the baby boomer population, I suppose it was inevitable. But it wasn't until someone actually brought the product to my attention that I learned there was enough of a public outcry against anal leakage to market a tampon to staunch the problem. There's even a handy acronym to discreetly refer to the condition: ABL, or Accidental Bowel Leakage. As opposed to Deliberate Bowel Leakage. 

I love the predictable track the ad agency followed to address this issue: 1) assign the product a gentle, nature-inspired name like Butterfly. 2) Show not-too-decrepit middle-aged people so pleased to be vouching for the product that they're actually smiling about it, and 3) house the whole messaging effort in an inoffensive, carefully-worded "everybody does it eventually" format. 

I'm reminded of a campaign I worked on years ago for a potato chip that contained a chemical called Olestra. While the chip promised a lower level of cholesterol, Olestra was a synthetic that the human body just couldn't retain. I remember writing the fine print for the packaging that warned the consumer of inevitable "anal leakage." If only we'd been able to sell the chips in a value bundle that included Butterfly butt plugs. 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Anybody Got a Match?

The death, yesterday, of the legendary actress Lauren Bacall was overshadowed by Robin Williams' suicide and the national dialog it triggered about depression and the innate, embedded sadness of comic performers. 

But Bacall's seven-decade career warranted more attention than she's getting. It's hard to think of an actress from Hollywood's golden age who remains with us -- only Olivia de Havilland, 98 and residing in Paris, comes immediately to mind, and she represents an even earlier era. 

Permanently linked in the public's mind with her first husband, Humphrey Bogart, she spent the next 57 years forging a career that leveraged her coolness and slim sartorial style in equal measures until it evolved into worldly old broad roles that included playing Barbra Streisand's mother in The Mirror Has Two Faces. Along the way she made a lot of memorable films, including How to Marry A Millionaire with Marilyn Monroe and The Shootist, in a subdued performance that managed to humanize late-career John Wayne. Eventually she mastered the stage and won two Tonys. 

I met her just once, in London, in 1979. She was appearing at Harrods department store to sign copies of her autobiography By Myself. I was a 22-year-old exchange student in love with the movies, and as I approached the store entrance I saw her through a storefront window that faced out onto the Brompton Road. She'd been placed at an elegant desk with her back to the street, and I was fascinated by how expertly coiffed she was, her shoulder-length hair a shiny study of blond and honey-colored hues.  

When the line snaking through the store finally brought me to the great lady herself, I told her that I couldn't actually afford her book. She laughed that deep, throaty laugh and said how poor she and her mother had been before she'd been discovered by Howard Hawks' wife. She signed some pamphlet or scrap of paper for me, asked where I was from in the states, and then was on to the next person. 

I long ago lost whatever it was she autographed, but I never forgot that voice. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Have an Ego, Mr. Goldstone

It's a foregone conclusion that actors have massive egos. And if you've been famous for more than five decades, like Barbra Streisand, it's been a long time indeed since someone tried to steer you away from a vanity project that hinges on improbable casting. 

But the news that Babs is finally set to star in and direct a new version of Gypsy, the biopic treatment of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee's life and rise to fame, strikes me as a bit desperate. Streisand is 72, after all, and at the start of the story the part requires her to play the mother of a child under the age of ten. Rosalind Russell was about 55 when she croaked and brayed her way through the Mama Rose songbook in the 1962 version, but she only got that part because she was married to the producer. At least Bette Midler was a more reasonable 48 in the 1993 version. 

Granted, Streisand did pull off playing a young girl pretending to be a young male Talmudic student in Yentl, 31 years ago at the age of 41. And I'm pretty sure her first Instagram post this week, showing her looking, er, refreshed, was intended to address critics like me who might call her out for being too long in the tooth for the part. I don't doubt for a minute that she can still sing the hell out of the role. But should she? 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Size Doesn't Matter

There's no question that the story of King Kong is enduring. That's why it's been remade twice since the 1933 original (including the 1976 version that has Kong tumbling off the World Trade Center, making it a bit hard to watch today), and spawned dozens of cultural spin-offs. 

But in every version, there's always been the uncomfortable question -- the big gorilla in the room, if you will -- sure, Kong loves Ann Darrow (well-played in the latest version by Naomi Watts). But what exactly is he supposed to do with her?

The Peter Jackson reimagining, which I watched again late one night recently, tries to answer that question. When Kong breaks out of his chains at the theater and lopes through Manhattan smashing cabs and movie marquees, he's looking for Ann, grabbing every blond he sees and tossing them away in disgust when he sees they're imposters. Suddenly his obsession appears to him on the street, walking toward him through the chaos of crowds fleeing in horror. 

While every frame in the film has a painterly sheen and the CGI recreation of Depression-era New York is exquisitely detailed, the reunion of the two star-crossed "lovers" is moving. And to celebrate it, Kong and his girl enjoy a charming skating session on a frozen pond in Central Park, twirling and spinning on the ice before their revelry is shattered by cruel gunfire. 

So now we know: love conquers all, and size doesn't matter. 

Word wizards

If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's to never second-guess one's creative instincts. 

About a six weeks ago, I was reviewing a campaign one of my copywriters had written for a summer Outdoor Living promotion. It featured patio furniture meant to transform the customer's outdoor spaces into pleasant warm-weather entertainment areas.

"Can't we have a little more fun with this headline?" I asked, looking at the rather flat line she'd written.

"The truth is these chairs are not all that special," she answered. "We don't want to over-promise anything."

Believing that retail should always be aspirational, I thought for a second. "I know, what if we did a short, punchy headline that was a play on words. Something like 'Lounge wizards.' Because they're simple, affordable ways of making your patio or deck into a nice place to hang out."

"I don't know," she said, "Will people get that it's a play on 'lounge lizards'? Maybe that's too archaic a term."

If there's a way to get me to back down on a creative concept, it's to call out that my personal demographic may not be in touch with a modern mindset. I let her run with the more literal headline she'd chosen and forgot about it until I was having lunch at a Japanese noodle house in Vancouver about a week later. I opened the local newspaper to the Home Decorating section and saw this headline anchoring the section on patio furniture.

Lesson learned: listen to your instincts. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Dodging a Solar Bullet

In just the last 20 or so years, we've become so technology-dependent that it's hard to imagine life without WiFi hot spots, GPS and smartphones that shape and inform our every action and interaction. What would happen if someone pulled the plug?

In July 2012, we almost got a chance to find out. A massive coronal ejection surged up from the surface of the sun, shooting a pulse of plasma straight into earth's path. Luckily, it was an indirect hit, because it would have knocked our entire satellite grid out of commission for months or years and fried every transformer on that side of the earth. In a world where people can't disengage from their phones long enough to eat dinner or drive to the corner, it would have been the equivalent of an electronics nuclear winter. 

We only have to look to the Carrington Event, a solar storm in 1859 that may not even have been as strong, to see how close we came to disaster. Throughout North America and Europe telegraphs, the nascent telecommunications system of the day, failed spectacularly, in some cases giving operators severe electric shocks and throwing sparks from pylons. Aurorae lit skies the world over to such an extent that gold miners in the Rockies, believing it was dawn, started making breakfast in the middle of the night. People in the northeastern U.S. were said to read newspapers by the Northern Lights, which dropped as far south as Hawaii and Cuba. Our atmosphere was so charged that even telegraphs that were unplugged from their power source continued to send and receive messages.

It's hard to even imagine the chaos and disruption an event of this magnitude inflict on our modern world. But why am I a little disappointed that it didn't actually happen?