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September 2013

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September 05, 2013

Seen Enough

1. I’ll admit it: I watch a lot of golf. If I didn’t have the Golf Channel, I’d probably drink more wine, both being pleasant forms of anesthesia. Too, I play the game, and watching people who really know how to play somehow makes me hopeful. Nevertheless, I’m sick of listening to loudmouths on the tee box screaming inane things like “youdda man” or “gettinah hole” or—go figure—“mashed potatoes.”

I’m also sick of hearing the goon squads of players Matt Kuchar and Luke Donald filling the otherwise quiet stillness of a golf course with “Koooooo” and “Loooooo.” Who are they, and when did they decide diehard golf fans would tolerate their B.S.? The players smile, but are they really thinking, “What a bunch of dumb asses”? They won’t admit it in an interview but I promise you, that’s exactly what they’re thinking.

Amazingly, network golf commentators, particularly outspoken guys like David Feherty and Johnny Miller, stay mute. I assume the PGA’s executive director, Tim Finchem, has made it clear to them that the drunken gorillas are the next generation of golf fans, their ticket to selling ads and sponsorships. Nonetheless, rather than chasing Cialis users away from golf broadcasts altogether, why wouldn’t the networks consider turning off the sound on the tee boxes so we don’t have to listen to such asinine claptrap?

2. Yes, I’m going to Turkey. Yes, I’m going up in a hot air balloon, 1,000 feet over central Turkey. Yes, I’ve read that the United States plans to bomb Syria, 300 miles from where we’ll be staying. Yes, I’ve seen the reports of two hot air balloons crashing in Turkey and Egypt. Yes, I have a fear of heights. So, why, you ask, am I going to Turkey at this time and why am I getting in a hot air balloon? Why does Goofy stand up while Pluto remains on all fours? Why do people say they slept like a baby when babies only sleep a couple of hours? Why does lemonade have artificial flavoring and dishwashing soap uses real lemons? Why do drive-up ATMs have braille? Why do they call it “rush hour” when nobody is moving? Why isn’t there a speed of dark? That’s why.

3. It was 20 years ago this month that a small band of entrepreneurial people started up the magazine Twin Cities Business and the website where this blog is intermittently found. I was seriously rapt in the creation of this enterprise, the only thing I’ve ever done in 40 years of business that almost killed me. I’m happy and thrilled that the magazine and its extended digital brand has survived and thrived. I’m infinitely more happy that I managed an epiphany way back then, re-setting my methods and my priorities, thereby surviving to write and work another day. I know so many young people who struggle with serious stress from their jobs. They’re talented, conscientious, loyal people who don’t know what else to do but keep grinding, particularly when others don’t. I wish they knew it’s less about the situation and more about how they process it.

4. I used to smoke. Stupid. Heinous. Indefensible. Smelly. Nicotine addiction is a surprisingly frightening dependency and to attach it to toxic, poisonous smoke is nothing short of evil. We have the ciggie manufacturers to thank for that. They knew long ago: Quitting is nigh on impossible for many folks.

Fortunately, today there are lots of products that make it easier. The one I cannot get used to, however, is the e-cigarette. Stephen Dorff hawks them on TV. “I’m tired of being a walking ashtray,” he says, “and I’m tired of feeling guilty every time I light up.” As I watched the commercial I wondered why he didn’t say, “and I’m tired of worrying about that inevitable lung x-ray that pretty much guarantees an unthinkably horrible death.” The grizzled Stephen looks pretty cool using, I must say, but everyone else I’ve observed looks, well, lame. Bottom line, you’re still getting the nicotine, you’re still addicted, and you look really stupid sucking vapor out of a metal pipe. Why not just suck it up and quit?

August 29, 2013

Gullible We

Over lunch a few months ago, digital marketing whiz-bang Tim Brunelle recommended that I start reading a column by Bob Lefsetz. I did; I loved. Sir Bob reminds me of another columnist I followed religiously as a young man, Rolling Stone writer and co-founder Ralph J. Gleason. He bought the farm in 1975.

Like Rick Reilly does in sports, Gleason (then) and Lefsetz (now) find the micro-story in music and transform it into a macro, urban language big-think. A recent column about her royal twerkiness Miley Cyrus left Sir Bob rightly wondering, “What’s the big deal, people!?”

Little Miley, bereft of a moral compass and, despite her physical and intellectual diminutivity, came armed with an oversized “who-gives-a-s**t” attitude and paraded in true derivative fashion around the stage of MTV’s VMAs. Sadly, her class-B mimic of Madonna, Prince, or even Christina Aguilera’s gold standard of pouty fetishness turned out to be amateur night. Yet the gawkers gawked and the press threw grenades. Her trailer-park chic, afflicted by an inexplicable tongue palsy, housed in a bra and panties ensemble straight out of Walmart’s “Horny Undies” catalog, and a mock masturbation act with a laughably clumsy “We’re #1” foam hand actually got many hot, bothered, and outraged, our cultural boundaries invaded, sacked, and pillaged.

We’re such suckers!

As P.T. Barnum said, “Clowns are the pegs on which the circus is hung.” Yet we got caught in the simplest of webs spun by tiny minds. Acts like little Miley’s are rooted in manipulating with cheap spectacle, ploys designed to absolutely move our emotional needle, get big press, and then move our needle some more. As marketers become more sophisticated and data better defines where the rubes are, surgical strikes like this happen more frequently, drone hits intensely planned and expertly orchestrated.

Consider the Tiger Woods “moment” after he won the Bridgestone. Remember when his little boy ran into his arms? For a second, kinda grabbed ya, didn’t it? Maybe all that infidelity and shabby, rough-house phone sex with whores and waitresses was all just a big misunderstanding? I can just hear girlfriend Lindsay saying to Tiger from across the sheets: “You need to soften your image a bit honey, like Phil does.” I’m referring to Phil Mickelson, of course, by all accounts a good guy, whose mongo-tressed little girls and beloved wife Amy maul him on the green after every—single—win, choreographed in a PR office, aimed at sustaining a lovable persona and piles of endorsements. The reverse works as well, where revered child stars like Hannah Montana get de-Disneyfied with outrageous makeovers that transform them into the naughty little painted tart next door. Enter crowds and publicity—lots of both.

If this sounds cynical, it is.

Manipulation dominates our external lives. It feeds cover subjects of tabloids and People magazine, threading through our daily conversations, Twitter feeds, and party talk. If you believe stars aren’t complicit, next time you get blood drawn have them check your naïve count. America slathers and salivates for access to the “real” lives of celebrities, not understanding (or perhaps understanding all too well) that these are not real people at all, but rather marionettes dangled before us on all manner of stage, their manufactured personas, dreams, and train wrecks providing theater as well as antidote to uneventful lives.

They troll, we take the worm, and they laugh all the way to their manse in Antigua.

August 22, 2013

Go Home!

According to nationwide newspaper and television reports, a local Minneapolis ad agency told their employees to go home for two months this summer. Further, they told them to do soulful things. Incredulous, their staff, as ours would, likely asked, “Is the business going under?” Or, “What, you’re laying us off?” “Is this like a furlough?” Or more directly: “WTF?”

The answer from the agency bosses, in so many words, was, “No, guys, we have some extra cash lying around, we’re in a cyclical lull, and we thought we’d give you all some hard-earned time off to pursue those things that make you whole” . . . or something like that. How Richard Branson-esque!

So the staff went home. They planted bushes, picked flowers, grew some kale, wrote in their journals, tried some yoga, walked–a lot, attempted a watercolor of their cockerdoodle, learned the ukulele, surveyed their bodies for odd moles, played with the kids, took samba lessons, plucked those pesky ear hairs, watched those yet-to-be-opened DVDs, attempted to read James Joyce, caught up with Uncle Howard, drank wine in the later afternoon, or pinged their neglected social media friends.

With 18 employees, making an average of $50,000 (probably low) annually, working 37.5 hours per week (probably low), and receiving 66 working days off, I calculated that the agency spent the equivalent of more than $200,000 on salaries and benefits—for not showing up.

“Far out,” says me the old hippie.

“Something smells,” says me the business owner.

I talked to some friends in the agency business who said they’d really never heard of a cyclical lull. Though some have Fridays off in the summer, few could imagine getting paid for taking two months off. So what gives?

I can only speculate:

1.) In these days of needing to do outrageous things to gain media attention, this was intended as a unique and creative PR ploy. The coverage they’ve received speaks for itself. If the underlying purpose was to position themselves as a real-as-the-day-is-long, authentic and transparent cultural revolutionary, it delivered. Will it result in garnering new business from like-minded clients? Remains to be seen.

2.) It’s entirely possible they literally had no existing business to fund the operation. No business to service—who needs staff? Keeping the lights turned off for two months may have saved a few bucks, but nothing close to a cool fifth-of-a-million bucks. The good news is they had enough of a treasure chest so as not to lay off 18 employees.

3.) The business partners are genuinely generous and funky business entrepreneurs who found a way to do something truly out of the box, non-traditional, and expensive, simply for the hell of it. And, God knows how, but they found a way to service their clients with the lights completely off.

4.) All of the above.

June 19, 2013

The Walking Stupid

If you ask the Urban Dictionary to define “moron,” it shows you a video of a kid getting his tongue stapled. Users of the dictionary chime in with less-than-illuminating definitions like “stupider than an imbecile.” The Dictionary, assuming that being an idiot has bragging rights, sells “moron” mugs and t-shirts.

You can worry your little head about zombies all you want; I’m more concerned with The Walking Stupid—people responsible for all manner of jaw-dropping nincompoopishness and repugnances.

Exhibit A:

1. When Thugs B Thugs: My favorite crooner, Lil Wayne, stomped on a flag in a recent video, accusing “Amerika” of “killing and letting them die.” Not sure who he’s referring to, but for a guy who’s been arrested multiple times, not a shocker that he’s inciting his brand fans to beat the horse we rode in on. Unfortunately, given the intelligence quota of most of his fan base, they’re likely to listen. Wayne elaborates, “Shootin star in my pocket, bitch sit on my rocket, I’m wired off a socket . . . I’m the missing link.” Therein lies the rub.

2. Whistle-Blowing Gone Haywire: Speaking of people not enamored with Big Brother, Edward Snowden doesn’t make me feel proud of what has become known as the courageous act of whistle-blowing. Nor did Julian Assange. As more information is released on Snowden, it becomes clear that he is indeed what Senator Dianne Feinstein labeled, a traitor, regardless of the sainthood he’s achieved among conspiracy theorists, anarchists, the disenfranchised, and compulsive CNN watchers.

3. Everything’s A-OK. In the “what is the world coming to” category, following the Elmo creator’s arrest for having sex with an underage boy, now the central story of a new Muppet character is about having a dad in jail. Sesame Street has been a mirror on society for the past 40 years, addressing issues like societal and economic diversity, racially mixed households, hunger, and crime. I suppose that because an astonishing one in 28 children have parents in jail, there would come a time when even Sesame Street would don the bright orange jumpsuit. Alex the Muppet can now be seen and heard on Sesame Street lamenting the fact that his dad is behind bars. It’s sad and pathetic and real life. As the safe haven for millions of kids, Sesame Street has seen fit to create a broader space to embrace and encourage peer sensitivities. Hopefully they can do some good without also making an alarming trend seem a routine and accepted reality.

4. Oh, The Humanity: I have to admit, though coarse, crude, and often cruel, there is a certain hair-brained intelligence behind Tosh.O. On the other hand, there is absolutely nothing redeemable about Ridiculousness, a TV show hosted by simpleton Rob Dyrdek, an old “chav” embarrassingly desperate to appear hip-hoppy. The show features really blockheaded people doing out-to-lunch things to themselves, soundtracked by their equally boneheaded friends, giddy at the sight of watching teeth fly out of mouths and heads crash into concrete. It’s the lad-as-moron version of America’s Funniest Home Videos. Dyrdek’s cast includes the predictably effervescent and dolt blonde giggling through a toothy and heavily gummed underbite, with literally nothing to say. NO.THING. MTV describes her, Chanel West Coast, as a “smokingly hot chick.” Apropos only if by “smokingly hot” they mean “complete cretin.”

5. TV For Primates: It would seem that addled television programmers have handed over the airtime reins to the biggest dimwits and ninnies on the planet. Yeah, yeah, I know, they’re laughing all the way to the bank. So it goes, an evolution in TV viewing that is literally turning television into a haven for trailer park sloths, pickup truck drivers, and toothless guys with big guts. Marketers largely determine what goes on television via their advertising choices, so for companies like Walmart or Red Bull, “testero-reality” shows like Duck Dynasty, Operation Repo, Swamp Loggers, and Pawn Stars, which reach mostly young, male braindeads, are made to order. All that’s missing is Lil Wayne's new show, Pissin’ Amerika.

June 13, 2013

Data As Fear

The National Security Agency’s Prism revelations have contributed to America’s growing ambivalence and fear around privacy and personal data. Who knows what legislation may result from it all? I know that, like many fellow citizens, I was not alarmed by our government’s data-gathering practices. I am more alarmed by what private enterprise can and may do with my data. But, for me, that’s an old saw.

Author Mitch Joel released a book, Ctrl, Alt, Delete, that attempts to establish a certain level of fear and foreboding in us by offering up some staggering statistics indicating how our world has changed, transformed by the digital revolution. It’s yet another police siren the digerati persists in blowing and I’m not sure why. We know the world is changing, for God’s sake. Rather than dish facts, how about demonstrating some traction and results?

Mr. Joel includes a long list of really compelling and surprising stats, but he leads with classic digi-style Chicken Little hyperbole:

“The World Is Changing”—except, “Is Changing” is crossed out in red, fire-engine type (naturally) and is replaced by the more severe “Has Changed.” Then comes the sucker punch . . . “There’s only one question: Do you want to be employable in the next five years?” Somehow it makes me feel like mom just threatened with, “You’d better clean up your room, buster, or you’re going to bed hungry.”

The facts that follow are indeed staggering and do indicate that our world has changed, but then our world is nothing but a morphing, twisting, grinding mass of change. The very land we stand on changes constantly. Our weather, our biological ecosystems, our brains, and our cellular structures are in a rapid state of change. Change doesn’t scare us—it’s expected. And the chaos that ensues isn’t paralyzing; it’s energizing. Change isn’t about fear; it’s about regeneration, rebirth, and transformation.

Mr. Joel might have taken a cue from the gold standard of service journalism and posited, “The World Has Changed: 10 Ways to Assure You’ll Be Employable for the Digital Epoch.” Regardless, the facts are wondrous, ridiculous, without context, and bold—and here are just a few:

1. Google’s revenue is bigger than that of the entire U.S. print industry.
2. Sixty-six percent of Apple’s revenues derive from products released within the past six years.
3. Amazon’s annual revenue is larger than the GDPs generated by half of the countries in the world.
4. In 1999, 38 million people had broadband. Today, 1.2 billion have it on their mobile phones.
5. Half of Facebook’s 150 million daily visits are done on mobile.
6. More people have mobile subscription services than have access to safe water and electricity.
7. Kickstarter raised more money for nonprofits than the National Endowment for the Arts.
8. The average tenure of a chief marketing officer is 48 months.
9. The average Facebook post on a brand page only reaches 16 percent of fans.
10. At least 200 million tablets will be sold in 2013.
11. Seventy-seven percent of smartphone users accessed local content in 2012.
12. Eighty-one percent of users trust information on Pinterest.
13. Reddit has 62 million unique visitors each month, serves 4.4 billion pageviews, and has 22 employees.
14. Only 12 percent of employees believe their companies are keeping up with the changing landscape of business.

And there you have it. So either get out the bottle of Xanax or hoist a glass to the opportunity and fun ahead!