People, please, please use a professional to do your ads

A Twin Towers Mattress Sale? Wow! What could go wrong with that?

I know, it’s so tempting to do a commercial yourself.  Why should you pay an overpriced ad agency with expensive writers and art directors and strategists and producers and planners and experience? Your daughter has more creative talent in her little finger than a whole skyscraper (oops, bad metaphor) liberal arts college full of so-called “experts”.  What could possiblay go rong? It’s just a commercial, for crying out loud!

And if something does go wrong–I don’t know–but just say somebody–I don’t know who, some tiny coven of “politically correct” wackos–could possibly be offended by an ad that was intended to be lighthearted as being tasteless; well, you can always quickly take down the ad and nobody’s the wiser. Right? Right? Sure you can.

But here’s another unbreakable rule. In the 21st century, once something is posted, it’s posted and reposted and rereposted for ever and ever. Amen. It’s even flying off out past the Oort Cloud, away from our sad little solar system at the speed of light, to entertain alien supercivilizations we can’t even imagine…in a galaxy far far away.  It’s permanent. To the end of time. (I know; that’s what “permanent” means. I am a writer, after all.)

The poor company, Miracle Mattress, in San Antonio, has announced that due to the unexpected backlash of its “Twin Towers” (of mattresses, people! MATTRESSES!) 9/11 Day Sale ad, it has not only taken the ad off the air, it is closing its doors indefinitely. I feel so sorry for the owner’s daughter, who didn’t mean any harm and acted her heart out in this innocent commercial. She’s probably crying inconsolably. Can you imagine how she must feel?

Still, use this as a cautionary tale. You may be tempted to DIY your own advertising campaign. And save big bucks. And it’s all mad fun …until someone loses an eye. Or a business. But have the professionals do it. Sure, we’re more expensive. But we don’t make business-killing mistakes like this.


There was that time when I…




What? You want to see the commercial? You sicko! I’m not going to indulge that behavior. Google it yourself.

Everything is Clueless

Xfinity Everything is Awesome Still 2
Warning! Not recommended use of mobile device

I couldn’t help spraying my ginger ale through my nose last night when I caught this spot from Comcast (or is it Xfinity? I’m confused. Are they the same company? Can’t they make up their minds what their company name is?). A riff on the Oscar-nominated song, “Everything is Awesome” from the The Lego Movie, the creators of this unintentionally ironic ad must have thought, “OOO-OOO-OOO, this song is about us! Let’s spend a fortune and buy it for our own jingle!”

“Jaylen, you’re awesome! Let’s go tell Nigel!”

(And yes, they probably really do use exclamation points to end all of their sentences.)

I hate to admit it, but they’re right. It is about them. But not in the way, I suspect, they intended. In the movie “awesome” was about the over-hyped shallowness of corporate hegemony, in which everything, however ordinary and unremarkable, is dialed up to 11. Or, as Mr. Incredible observed in that other satirical CGA movie, The Incredibles, “It’s psychotic! They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity!” So it was a satire. And that Comcast doesn’t realize that the original song was making fun of monopolistic corporations like theirs, dragging everything down into the same level of banality, makes their commercial unintentionally hilarious. Enough to spray ginger ale out your nose. I wonder what they spent on that license? The movie’s original creators must be rolling on the ground. In massive piles of treasury notes.

Chris Miller, director of The Lego Movie, Tweeted, “Everything Is Awesome used in an Xfinity ad to sell a corporate idealization of consumer culture is more meta than the movie itself, love it.”

Mark Mothersbaugh, the song’s original composer, said  it “…was supposed to be like mind control early in the film. It’s totally irritating, this kind of mindless mantra to get people up and working.”[link to interview]

And one of the song’s co-writers, Shawn Patterson, described the painful process of writing it, “I was going through a very ugly divorce when I wrote that song…There were definitely elements of darkness seeping into my lyrics — sarcasm, heavy f—ing sarcasm.”[link to“The Utterly Depressing Story Of Why Lego Movie’s ‘Everything Is Awesome’ Was Written”]

But I’m sure the Comcast creative team that had the brilliant idea of using the song had never seen the movie, or, if they had, it probably went right over their heads. “OOO-OOO-OOO that’s a catchy tune!”

And compounding the irony, their interminable commercial strings together a montage of teenagers making selfies, funny cat videos, jackass pratfalls, a ZZ-Top-look-alike imagining himself as a character in Game of Thrones, dancing chickens, and image after image of our modern idiocracy. And all the while the painfully shoehorned lyrics try to convince us that these endless banalities are, guess what? Yeah. Awesome.

I’ve already ranted on the incessant use of that tired adjective. God, how I have come to hate that word. Unless, of course, you use it to describe the super-massive black hole, Sagittarius A, with a mass of 4.31 million suns at the center of our galaxy thirty-thousand light years from us.  That, by definition, is awesome.

Oh, and so is a super funny cat video. But it has to be really super-funny. Like wearing an adorable costume.

Don’t ask.

Roman Thumbs down 2
Wanna buy a toothbrush?

Here’s a hot tip for you ad-makers: Don’t ask for the sale right off the bat.  Really good salespeople already know this. Really good marketers also know this. Normal human beings know this. But whoever’s been producing the bulk of advertising lately don’t seem to know it. They apparently think they have to start off by asking for the sale. “Looking for tires?” “Tired of paying high prices for catheters?” “If you die, have you planned enough for your funeral?” “Wanna buy a toothbrush?” (this latter isn’t an actual lead line in an ad, but a punchline in an old joke about marketing, which I think you can reconstruct yourself.) All of these may sound like perfectly innocent questions, but we all hear them as sales pitches.

It’s a well-known fact that nobody likes being sold to. Even when we’re in the actual market to buy something, we don’t like being pitched. It feels pushy. It feels like the sales person only sees us as a mark. And forces us to have to answer something unpleasant back, “No.”

And yet, generation after generation of marketers, who themselves don’t like being sold to, seem to think other people aren’t like them. They just charge right in asking a question that they know they don’t want the honest answer to. They force an answer before we have a chance to even consider their offering.

Even as I’m writing this, I just received an e-mail ad with the subject line: “We haven’t heard from you lately, what’s wrong?” Nothing’s wrong, Bucky; now go away. The first line of this e-mail put me on the spot by asking why I hadn’t clicked on any of their recent e-mails lately (or, in my case, never). “No. No. No. Go away.” I felt like shouting. Did the poor guy who is responsible for this e-mail marketing think this approach would work? That starting off defensively, negatively, would somehow win me over? It’s like a person whom you work with asking, “How come you never want to go out with me?”

Never Ask a Question

Years ago, when I was in art school taking an advertising class from one of the industry’s great copywriters, he told us a maxim: Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ask a question in an ad. Even if it’s a rhetorical question. The reason is that the person reading or hearing the question will, in their mind, automatically answer it.  And, more often than not, the answer is “no.”  He pointed out, that once they’ve said “no”, even to themselves, they’ll shut you out. “No” is the most negative of responses. And people don’t like saying no. It makes them feel negative. I even felt bad sending that e-mail I just got to the spam bin. I feel like I just cost that poor guy a commission, or his job. I’m an awful person. A monster. And I hate that guy for making me feel that way. I want him to die. And now I even feel worse about myself. I’m a seething mass of negativity. And I have to lie down now.


I’m okay now.

But I’d go further than the No Questions Maxim. I’d advise you never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ask for the sale anywhere in an ad, not even at the end. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a CTA (call-to-action) in it . It’s okay to let people know what you’d like people to do after they read the ad; go to this URL for more info, think about us next time, ask your doctor, etc. But it shouldn’t be to ask them to make a decision about whether or not they’ll buy. Leave that open. Because once you’ve forced the decision, that’s it. Once they’ve said no, heard themselves say no, they imprint that in their memory and condemn you and your low-priced catheters to the spam bin forever. So don’t ask.

Besides. They know you’re trying to sell them something. It’s an ad, for crying out loud! Just don’t sully the mood by asking them to part with money out in the open.

Why Crowd Sourcing Is a Terrible Idea

Boaty McBoatface
Toot! Toot! All aboard for the wackiest cruise this side of fun!

RRS Boaty McBoatface. That’s what you get when you ask the public what they think about naming an arctic research vessel in the U.K. This was the facetious name that won overwhelmingly in an online poll. But what did the organizers expect? Did they think the public would put their wise minds together and somehow arrive at a respectable, inspired name like RRS Borealis? Or RRS Shacketon? (Okay, an ANTarctic explorer, but a name with gravitas.) The most responsible name voted for was RRS David Attenborough but it only won 11,023 votes to RRS Boaty McBoatface‘s 124,109. The Minister for Stopping Silly Names in the U.K. just ruled that BMcB was “not suitable” for a ship’s name and cancelled the whole thing.

But now they face a problem. My dad used to say that once you ask for someone’s opinion, you’re bound by the answer. And by making such a sanctimonious deal about the democratic process of this exercise, those responsible are going to piss off a lot of people (124,109 people at least). Why ask them in the first place? (Which is probably what they thought as they voted overwhelmingly for Boaty.) But this is just one of the problems with the misguided myth of crowd-sourcing. The other is the mood of the contestants.

The Public knew what they were doing.

The Boaty public were not idiots, though Lady Poppy Smythe-Binkieton of the Ministry probably thought they were (not her actual name; there’s another contest for that). They were actually voicing their opinion of the whole trivial, pandering exercise itself. “Boaty McBoatface” actually translates as “Name it yourself, bozos. We don’t care. It’s a f***in’ boat.” It’s sort of like the ridiculous primary process in the U.S. this year ending up with the most asinine candidates. It’s not that people are idiots when they support reality show clowns for president, it’s just their way of saying to the powers that be (or thought they were), “FU. You asked us our opinion last time and ignored it. So here’s our six foot, orange, middle finger with a bad comb-over.”

Oregon plate
You can’t tell what is going on in this house salad unless you’re close enough to replace the expiration stickers.

We had a similar crowd-sourcing fiasco several years ago here in Oregon when the Department of Motor Vehicles held a state-wide contest to redesign the new license plates. They got so many thousands of entries from professional graphic designers that the three-person board assigned to review and judge them was overwhelmed and arbitrarily announced it was only going to look at the last few submitted. This insulted those thousands of people who thought they were participating in an honest competition and had gotten their entries in early. And when the panel (consisting of a state legislator, an employee of the DMV, and a state police officer) picked the winner, they so altered the design that the “winner” disavowed that it was hers. So Oregon now has one of the butt-ugliest license plates of the 50 states. (They went on to add more, equally hideous options over the years.)

Infinite Monkeys

The whole theory behind crowd sourcing, at least in creativity, is that when you chain an infinite number of monkeys to an infinite bank of keyboards, one of them is bound to write King Lear. Nice in theory. But in reality, what you’re going to get from those infinite monkeys is an infinite amount of poo-slinging.  Otherwise known as Fifty Shades of Grey.

Crowd sourcing for creative ideas doesn’t work. One reason  is that the participants think whoever is running it must be incompetent to judge, and so they have no respect for the process. You end up with disingenuous submissions at best, or outright sarcasm at worst (like Boaty McBoatface). The result is not just a committee-designed horse turned into a camel; it turns into Cthulhu.

The other reason crowd sourcing creativity doesn’t work lies in how the winners are decided. If you announce that the winner will be decided democratically, by vote, you either get the most bland name possible (as Eric Hoffer said, “When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.”) or, if they are in the mood, something shocking and silly. And then you’re bound by the outcome of the election.

If, on the other hand,  the winner of the competition is selected by the decision of a panel, even if the contestants were sincere and diligent, the judges on the receiving end most likely have no talent, credentials, or imagination themselves to competently pick the best entry.

How do we know this? Because it was their brilliant idea to crowd source the thing in the first place.

Wasp Traps: Superb Marketing

Yellow Jacket Trap
The Perfect Marketing Campaign

We’re all familiar with those chartreuse-colored wasp traps, right? Especially this time of year as we start thinking about gardening, barbecuing, al fresco dining, outdoor weddings, and Easter egg hunts. There’s nothing can ruin an outside dinner like a bunch of yellow jackets landing all over your food. And they are so pissy! You can’t just wave them away. Everything makes them mad. They come to the table mad. Have you ever had a face full of angry yellow jackets? Try it. It’s fun.

So, if you’re like me, you start hanging wasp traps around the property this time of year. And when you do, you’re doing marketing.

Here’s why: Marketing is, by definition, anything you do to get someone to do something you want them to do, even if they aren’t your species. And wasp traps are the perfect example of that.

Sorry Bees, Wasps Only
In the first place, they are elegantly designed to target only yellow jackets. They use wasp sex pheromones that drive wasps crazy with lust. They don’t hurt bees or other pollinating insects because those guys couldn’t care less; that smell does nothing for them.  It always amazes me, when I empty out the desiccated carcasses of my traps in the fall, that the only insects in there are yellow jackets. It’s like there’s a sign on the entrance that says, “RESERVED FOR VESPIDAE FAMILY PICNIC.” What big-data-driven ad agency wouldn’t love to have that kind of market efficiency?

In the second place, because the only chemical the traps use are natural (and concentrated) wasp sex pheromones, they don’t harm the environment. No ecosystem killing pesticides or genetically altered anything. My hat’s off, though, to the brave people who have to extract those sex pheromones from the yellow jackets (they must have very tiny hands).

Oh sure. They look really cute up close. But don’t be fooled; that adorable face masks a bad attitude.

In the third place, the trap designs take advantage of a peculiarity of the target market (wasps); that they are stupid. Once a wasp climbs into a trap, it just doesn’t have the neural wherewithal to turn around and climb out the way it came. I know a lot of people like this. In a way, the wasp trap follows the same design principle as the typical Las Vegas casino.

And in the fourth, and best, place, this little pheromone broadcaster also lures its target audience with their own vices; lust. I like the moral poetry of that. Prepare one of these things by squeezing in the little phial of sex juice into the cotton in the bottom, and horny insects come from hundreds of feet away, thinking they’re going to get laid. They may even see dozens of the dead carcasses of their compatriots filling the transparent cylinder, but it doesn’t matter; they can’t help themselves. They probably think all those bodies are just having a wasp orgy.  “Let me in there!” they cry, in Yellow Jacketese. It’s like a biblical lesson in the wages of sin. An insect Hooters.

Why is this marketing again?
…you’re undoubtedly asking. As I pointed out already to those of you who forget how you climbed into this post, marketing is any technique you employ to get someone to do something you want them to do. In the case of the wasp trap, the thing you want your customer to do is enter and die. A pretty tall order for a marketing campaign. But the inventors of the traps hit upon an enticement that few arthropods (or humans) can resist, the promise of sex.

And sex still sells. Even to invertebrates.

The 9 Rules of a Bad Creative Director

kingkong on empire state buildingThey say that even terrible people can serve a purpose, and that purpose, obviously, is to be the opposite of them. These people are anti-models. So I want to enumerate my rules on how to be a bad creative director, so you won’t be one yourself (should you find yourself in that office). Or, should you find yourself working for one, you’ll get out of there now. These rules should also help heads of agencies who have bad CDs working for them to recognize the symptoms and rectify it–with extreme prejudice.

But before you dive into these rules, know this: I’ve obeyed every one at some point in my life. To my shame. Just ask the broken souls who have worked for me. But I did learn. (I hope I learned.) So, see? There’s hope.

Anyway, here are the rules for being a bad creative director:

1. Fire everybody and hire your friends.

I’ve seen this breed of CD a lot.  This is the guy who, when hired from out of town to take over leadership of a creative department, proceeds to spend the next few months laying off the existing staff, one by one, like a dripping water torture, and bringing in old buddies from his last shop. This is extremely bad juju. Not only does it destroy morale of whoever is left, and therefore erodes creative productivity, it sets you up as corrupt, nepotistic jerk, a reputation that will stick to your GlassDoor profile like Crazy Glue.

Full confession: I’ve hired old friends myself. It’s hard not to, at least if they are good at their jobs and highly creative. Some great directors always use the same crew in making their movies. And that’s okay. A good team is worth preserving. But if that comes at the expense of chucking the staff of your new agency overboard,  it’s just a dick move. So only do it if you’re so busy that you have to build on an existing creative department that’s overworked.

2. Hold creative competitions.

The industry term for this is a clusterf***.  This usually happens with a new business pitch, when it’s all hands on deck and the agency is in panic mode. But since it’s never a fair competition–the “winning” idea is judged by you–it tends to drain morale. As your teams line up to your office to present you with their concepts, they feel like the biplanes trying to shoot down King Kong off of the Empire State Building. And if you’ve hired your friends (see Rule 1), all those who aren’t from your entourage feel like it’s rigged, and won’t give you their best. If you try to correct for this and award the winner to the legacy team, you’ll just piss off your friends, and you’ll worry about letting personal feelings cloud your creative judgment. Of course, you can fool yourself into thinking that that would never happen, that you’re completely objective, but–well–see Rule 5 below.

3. Have mass brainstorming sessions.

Creative meetings where everybody in the department (and the account executives too!) all hole up together to brainstorm ideas are the tell of a CD who hasn’t got a clue how creativity works. In the real world the muse comes for each art director or writer in their own way, using their own idiomatic techniques. Sitting for hours in a stuffy meeting room while an enthusiastic CD stands in front of a white board writing down ideas that are tossed up is usually on the bottom of that list of techniques. This method of idea formation works really well in Congress, but never in a creative department. (I’m being sarcastic, in case you can’t tell.)

4. Hog all the juicy assignments for yourself.

If you’re a creative director, and you work in an adequately staffed department, you have to get out of the trenches. Being a creative director is not just being a souped-up art director or writer. It’s being a leader. It is way too tempting to reserve the sexiest projects for yourself. But dole out the assignments and accounts fairly and evenly. Assuming you have hired really talented, skilled people, let them do their jobs. Trust them. And they’ll give your their best.  Hell, they’ll stay late working on their best because they’ll feel ownership in their work.

5. Convince yourself that you have creative objectivity.

Really bad CDs talk themselves into this trap all the time; believing that their judgment in creative concepts is completely objective and that it’s simply the “best” idea that will win. And yet, somehow, the same golden team just keeps winning the competition time after time, even when the rest of the department thinks their ideas are crap. When I was starting out, I worked for this guy who was committed to the whole creative competition thing, believing that competition brought out the best in people.  He had a little speech at the kickoff for each gladiatorial tournament, “This isn’t about favorites. It’s about the best idea. The best idea will stand out.” Then guess which team’s concept would always have the “best idea.” Go ahead, bet you can’t guess.

But if you’re a CD and admit to yourself that you’re human, and not objective even in your creative judgment, you’ll be able to avoid that trap. Just keep telling yourself that you have bias. Or that you like Kyle and Chad’s ideas because you guys go way back to when they worked for you at McCann.

6. Write long, rambling creative briefs with pages of irrelevant information.

Depending on the ad agency, the person whose job it is to actually write the creative brief might vary. In some agencies the creative director or creative group head does it. In others, it’s the account executive. In  more enlightened shops it’s the account planner. It doesn’t matter; bad creative directors don’t pay attention to this brief anyway. They don’t even read them. (Who’s got time to read?) But if you come on board as an agency’s new CD, one of the first things you should do is look at and fine tune whatever they’ve been using as a creative brief format.

The criteria for a good creative brief are to be found hidden in its two descriptive words, “creative” and “brief.” Make sure it’s written with information that’s useful to the creative team. And make sure it’s brief; try for one page. But you should put together a format that anyone can fill out. That’s your first job. Day one.

(For reference on what a useful creative brief format looks like, you can use one I’ve lifted for years).

7. Micromanage your staff.

This is most frequently a fault of CDs who started off their careers as art directors, or worse, graphic designers. While taste and appropriateness in art direction are certainly important, leave those calls to the art directors who are working for you. Make sure you’ve got good ones.  But don’t hold their wrists for them. Show them respect. Art direction or copywriting are not your job anymore. Unless, of course, your staff is so overworked that you need to pitch in, too. But make sure it’s “too” and not “instead.”

This is not to say that one of your jobs isn’t to mentor, or even just train young, inexperienced talent. But as a manager, you have to judge whether you have time for that, or whether you should put a neophyte under the wing of a more senior art director or writer. In doing that, you also mentor your more senior talent for their own leadership development.

8. Keep your mind closed.

Just because you can’t categorize an idea that’s presented to you, doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. I once knew a creative director who used to say, “If it’s so original, how come I’ve never seen it before?” (To be fair, he only said it once–after we all laughed.) He also used to tell us, “The best idea is never the first one.” Good warning. So we’d always keep our best concepts to show him last.

Bad creative directors are always looking for concepts that are derivative of something they’ve seen. It’s like they have no imagination. Which begs the question, how did they ever become a creative director?

I have to say that this rule is the hardest to break. It is so tempting to look for the familiar or to imitate an old concept that’s somehow due for a revival. It’s probably why King Kong has been remade so many times.

9. Keep your door closed.

If you work in one of those old fashioned agencies with offices (at least for the officers), and if you want to be a bad creative director, be sure to stay unavailable. Keep that door closed.

If, on the other hand, you want to try to be a good CD, the only time you should close your door is when you’re changing into your superhero costume. Or you’re firing someone. Otherwise make yourself available all the time. In fact, don’t wait for them to come to you; circulate, look in on what people are doing, stay accessible to your team.

That same CD I once worked for in my youth (I’m not going to tell you who, they might still be alive and possibly reading my blog) made us a speech when he came on board, telling us his door was always open. Then he walked into his corner office and shut his door. Literally. It was always closed. And he used his administrative assistant to block access.

Was he a bad creative director? I wasn’t saying that.

Guerrilla Advertising, Literally

Christmas Tree Lights in the Jungle
Imagine walking in the jungle at night and coming across this.

I was listening to an episode of the This American Life podcast called The Poetry of Propaganda and thought it so beautifully illustrated the Nine-and-a-half Unbreakable Rules of Marketing.  The first segment is about an amazingly creative campaign by a Colombian ad agency, Lowe-SSP3, and its head, José Miguel Sokoloff, aimed at getting fighters of the anti-government guerrilla army, FARC, to disband. The solutions Sokoloff and his company came up with were wholly original, unexpected, and effective.  And the goal was not to get anybody to buy anything, but to put down their arms and come home.

The first part of the campaign involved the Colombian Army going into the jungle and decorating nine gigantic trees on strategic trails known to be used by FARC guerillas with Christmas lights and a sign that said, “If Christmas can come to the jungle, then you can come home.” That campaign resulted in 331 fighters, or 5% of the estimated total FARC army, coming in to accept amnesty.

Several other equally unexpected creative treatments have followed, each aided further by the advice and collaboration of those ex-FARC guerrillas to help get into the hearts and minds of their former comrades hiding out in the jungle. Each has been so effective at eroding the rebels’ strength and resolve that, for the first time in the fifty-year insurrection, the FARC is sitting down to negotiate an end to the seemingly endless civil war. Tellingly. one of the stipulations made by the guerrillas to engage in talks was that the government stop its advertising campaign; it was more devastating than any military operation on the FARC. And yet cost zero lives.

That has to rank it as one of the most effective ad campaigns in history. Has there ever been a Nobel Peace Prize awarded to an ad agency?

What Sokoloff has given us here is an elegant demonstration of what marketing truly is. It’s not commerce. It’s the psychological art of getting people to do something you want them to do.  And, in the case of Colombia, it can be used to end war.

The Metric System: From the Wonderful Folks Who Brought Us the Guillotine

What would you say; is that 5 meters high? And what would you say Marie Antoinette’s head weighed? 3.2 kilograms?

I’m going to rant about the Metric System now. It’s something that’s been gnawing at me for years. What’s this got to do with marketing? you might well ask. Well, nothing. Or rather, adhering to the 9th Unbreakable Rule of Marketing, that everything is marketing, including the Metric System, everything. Also it just bugs me.

I could just toss this argument off with the circulating joke that says that the world is divided into two types of countries: those on the metric system and the country that walked on the moon. But that would be too glib.  Also, kiljoys would note that Myanmar and Liberia are also holdouts, and neither of them, to my knowledge, has walked on the moon.

There is actually a logical reason why the system the United States uses (as well as most of the Anglo world in everyday practice) makes more sense than the metric system. The latter, as I will show, is based on something incredibly unintuitive, nerdy, and snobby. At least in linear measurement.

The origins of the Metric System go way way back to 1799, when it originated in Republican France  just after they had sated themselves with their orgy of hacking off the heads of tens of thousands of innocent people and had just started their  program of world conquest under the new dictator, Napoleon. Napoleon, in fact, heartily endorsed the metric system because he was bad at math and liked the idea that he could use his fingers to count stuff.

Tired of so many different standards of measurement throughout Europe (not to mention the rest of the world, but they didn’t matter then), the French reasoned (and they considered themselves the paragons of reason) that a single, standard, interconnected system of base-ten measurements (since humans have ten fingers) was the most rational.   This they proceeded to impose on all the other countries they conquered–as well as the Code Napoleon,  croissants, and Jerry Lewis. The British, whom they never conquered, told them to stuff it. And the Americans didn’t care what the French were doing.

Ten hour days. That’s gonna work.

The month of Messidor (June-July) from the Girls of the Enlightenment Calendar,, hanging on the back wall of every gas station in Revolutionary France. I think this was my favorite month.


The first thing that the French Revolutionaries tried to decimalize was time. In 1793 they divided the day into 10 hours (each of a hundred minutes) and weeks into 10 days (décades–yeah, yeah, I know). Clockmakers were frantic.  But the months they left at twelve (changing the names of them to conform to more rational connotations like Thermidor and Fructidor) and each had exactly 30 days divided evenly into three ten-day “weeks”. But that left five days leftover at the end of the year. So the system was already running into problems due to  uncooperative Mother Nature.  The decimal system just didn’t apply naturally to time on this planet. The earth, vexingly, takes 365.25 days to revolve around the sun and isn’t neatly divided by 10, or even 30. The Creator was not sufficiently revolutionary, evidently. So by 1805, when Napoleon made himself Emperor, he abandoned decimal time and told everybody to go back to the old system. And Frucitidor went back to being just August.

Not so other measurements.

But what  could be more logical than the meter…or metre?

All the Enlightenment people liked the idea of a length based on some rational, decimal standard. At first the meter (or metre, to be French about it) was supposed to be one-ten millionth of the distance from the equator to the pole. Now there’s a concept everyone can feel. I mean who hasn’t walked from the Amazon to the North Pole and counted to ten million? When, sometime in the middle of the twentieth century, they found out that they didn’t have that distance as accurate as they thought, they changed the definition of the meter to the distance of  1,650,763.73 wavelengths of the orange-red emission line of the element krypton-86 in a vacuum (in honor of Superman, I imagine). Can you feel that? It’s so logical. It’s yea big.You know, a meter. Like a yard, only better.

Finally, somebody had an even more natural standard for the meter, it was the distance light traveled in a vacuum in 1/288,792,458th of a second. Yeah! That makes so much sense now! It’s so…uh…visceral. You turn on the flashlight and I’ll use my iPhone stopwatch, set to 1/288,792,458th of a second. Go!

The meter was supposed to replace the ancient and unenlightened yard, which was roughly the distance from the tip of a grown person’s nose to the tip of their outstretched fingers.The meter was supposed to be about a yard, but more scientifically derived. The yard was just not precise. Not scientific. But it was pretty easy to visualize. A meter is, by contrast, roughly the distance from your finger tips, past your nose and halfway (not quite) to somewhere between your nose and your shoulder.  Now given the wide variety of human physiques, this old measurement of a yard is mighty crude. But there is a standard yard somewhere (like in at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England, for instance). So it’s been regulated for a couple centuries.  And it’s defined to three feet or 36 inches for ease of computation. It’s a very easy measurement to work with.

The  other old measurements of length–the inch, the foot, the mile–also have origins in human physiology and experience. An inch is about the width of a grown person’s thumb, for instance. A foot, roughly the length of a man’s foot (size 11).  During the sixteenth century a village would take sixteen random men, measure their left feet, take the average,and that would be the village’s standard foot. But even that became standardized throughout the British empire.  I even miss the old cubit, yessir, the distance from your elbow to your middle fingertip. Eighteen inches (half a yard). Couldn’t have built this here ark without it.

What have the Romans ever done for us?

And a mile? This is the best one. A mile comes from the Latin,  mille passus, or 1,000 paces.  Back when most people walked everywhere, this made perfect sense. As a Roman legion went on a march, it would designate one poor sap (presumably as administrative punishment, like peeling potatoes) to count off 1,000 paces of his right foot hitting the ground. He was like a human odometer.  And since an average grown man’s pace was a little over 2.6 feet, counting for a thousand times when your right foot comes down means you’ve walked a mile, or 5,280 feet (1,760 yards).

Roman milles passus counter

I’ve actually tried this and measured it against my sophisticated, digital, geo-calibrated pedometer on hikes and found this method was 99% accurate (even though I’m slightly taller than the average Roman soldier).  Another convenient thing about the mile is that at normal walking speed, it takes just about twenty minutes to walk one, since we average 3 mph. You can’t do that with a kilometer.  You walk somewhere between 4-5 kph so, that means. it takes..well, you figure it out.

So, see? At least for distances and measures of length, the old inch-foot-yard-mile system is far more intuitive and human than the meter. Of course the American military has gone over to metric system, mostly as a concession to our sensitive allies in NATO.  Where a “klick” is military jargon for a kilometer (real Americans can’t bring themselves to say “kilometer”). And the U.S. scientific community seems to talk in meters and kilometers and nanometers; that is, until they get to really big measurements like AUs (astronomical units, the radius of the earth’s orbit), light years and parsecs. None of these are tied to the metric system.

And yet we still use the ancient Sumerian sexigesimal (base 60) system for radial and time measurement; 360° in a circle, 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in both an hour and a degree, 12 months in a year, and so on. Nobody seems to want to make that metric.

“A pint’s a pound the world around.”

Of course with measures of liquid and volumes, both systems are logical. A pint of water (or beer) weighs a pound (“A pint’s a pound the world around.”) and a liter of water (or chablis)  is a kilogram (come on, you know the mnemonic jingle, “A liter’s a kilogram in every place but the United States …and English speaking countries, Burma, and Liberia…but that’s it.”). So it’s hard to argue one over the other in terms of reason. And the volume of a liter is 1000 cubic centimeters. How convenient. Everything in a dec-chauvinist neat little package.

But I have become accustomed to how much a pound feels from enjoying a pint in a pub. A liter of beer is a little much.  I don’t know the heft of a liter pitcher. And I also think the idea of the liter is a marketing trick on the part of Europeans to make you think you’re not paying as much for gas.

My forehead’s a balmy 310° Kelvin.

When  it comes to temperature, it also seems perfectly logical that zero degrees C should be the freezing point of water (vs 32° F) and 100° for its boiling point (vs 212° F). The only trouble I have is probably that I’m just used to Fahrenheit over Celsius (or Kelvin, in which absolute zero, the most logical of all starting points, is in fact zero, not −273.15° C or −459.67° F). But I am used to my normal, non-feverish body temperature being 98.6° F, not 37° C (that just seems too cold) or 310° K (too hot). I like it just right. Like Goldi-whatsername.

But that’s just me. In fact, I’m fine with people who want to use the metric system. It’s just that Americans who do are generally such self-righteous pricks about it, wanting to force it on everybody, like gluten-free cookies. They are so committed to the intuitive feel of how far light travels in 1/288,792,458th of a second (in a vacuum) that they can’t see any other way. To which I’d say I’m committed to how far light travels in 1/315,823,432nd of a second, i.e. a yard.

So I guess  that my preference is for the natural and human scales measured by inches, feet, yards and miles.  And the pound of a pint of bitters in an English pub. However, I’ll give up rods (5.5 yards),  furlongs (220 yards or half a high school track), leagues (3 miles or how far you can walk in an hour), and toises (6 feet).

See? Didn’t you learn something? In spite of yourself?

And I didn’t bring up marketing. Well…hardly at all.


Eeeeew! The Risks of a Spokesperson

Jared Fogle pants
“Hey, you know what? I’ll bet two people could probably fit into these jeans.”

When your whole brand becomes identified with a famous personality, it’s sort of like getting married to someone with a secret STD. Case in point: Jared Fogle, Subway’s spokesbeing for the past five years. Looks like he was just sentenced to over 15 years for trafficking in child pornography and having sex with underage prostitutes, plus a stiff six-figure fine.  Oops. Apparently he had been doing this for years without Subway ever knowing it…apparently. Now, whenever you go into a Subway and watch the underage employee cheerfully assemble your sandwich, you’re going to think, “Eeeeeew!”

This is the trouble with attaching your brand to a celebrity spokesentity. Companies like Nike and Gillette have long been aware of this and yet, like addicts, continue to get hitched with athletes who end up getting caught abusing their wives, their dogs, their kids, random women, or just blurting out offensive things in public. There’s a whole industry of the law involved in bad-behavior indemnity on such endorsement contracts. I’m betting that Jell-O is internally cringing at all of those years they had Bill Cosby as their pitchman, and so relieved they retired him some time ago.

The spokesperson doesn’t even have to be an outside celebrity; they can be the boss. Companies like American Apparel, Abercrombie & Fitch, Carl’s Jr., Chik-fil-A, or Trump expose their brands to embarrassment when their self-pitching CEOs start acting like asses in public. They become boycott bait. To be fair, it’s not just male bosses; Martha Stewart and Leona Helmsley, the late hotel queen, also Titanicked their brands when they behaved badly (though Stewart has served her time, repented, and somewhat recovered her company’s brand image).

The risk is that human beings–particularly celebrities–are frail. They succumb to temptation at some point in their lives. And when they are raised onto pedestals or inflated with financial success, like Jared Fogle was, that temptation becomes too overwhelming to resist. And then they become liabilities. Euripides and Shakespeare wrote way too many plays based on that cautionary theme of hubris.

Seriously. Next time you’re tempted to sign a celebrity spokesman, watch this movie.

And when you hire somebody, like a Jared Fogle, or a Bill Cosby, or a Lamar Odom, or a Sarah Palin to flog your product, maybe hire a private dick first and look into them a little more closely. Don’t just get all googly-eyed and hand them a contract on the first meeting. Didn’t you see Frozen?

I think the lesson I’m trying to teach, in my pompous, know-it-all way, is that rather than taking the seemingly easy route and hiring a celebrity spokesperson to represent your brand, concentrate more on what your brand stands for and make that thought the symbol. Really successful brands do that.

Or, if you’re really feeling the need for a spokesman, make it an imaginary one, like Jack of Jack-in-the-Box, or Tony the Tiger, or Betty Crocker, or The Michelin Man. Then you can control him, Or her. Or it. Then if it’s a self-important, condescending jerk, like the Geico lizard, it’s your fault. At least the lizard isn’t going to get arrested for slurping Jell-O shots out of the bellybutton of an underage naked mole rat. Eeeeew!

I shall leave you with that nightmare image.





How to Kill a Great Brand

Heavy Duty Vehicle Emissions - October 2005 Environment DEC
Mmmmm. Smell the clean.

Here’s an object lesson in how to kill off a great brand.

First off, you have to lie. Not just little lies. Nooo, those aren’t lethal enough. You have to make them big lies. Super-massive-black-hole-at-the-center-of-the-galaxy-sized lies.

Take the recent Volkswagen diesel scandal. From the land that brought us Joseph Goebbels comes one of the longest, biggest lies in marketing history; that of  cleanness of diesel powered cars.

Okay, at first, the idea that a diesel engine, already known for great mileage and power, can also operate below EPA limits seems too good to be true. Diesel has long been synonymous with dirty, carcinogenic, black smoke belching out of truck stacks. I mean, it’s burning oil, for crying out loud! But for a long time now, Volkswagen, that esteemed automaker that brought us the original Beetle and its ultra-honest advertising in the 60s, has been flogging the notion that they’ve come up with a diesel car that is not only fuel-efficient, but environmentally clean, all without giving up any performance. How do they do it? German Engineering.

And…oh, yeah…lying.

Class, how many times do we have to learn the lesson of “too good to be true”?  And what is that lesson, Munchkins? Let’s all say it again: It’s not true.

It seems, according to a long investigation by our own EPA, a number of consumer groups, and the investigative agencies of several European governments, that Volkswagen had not only blatantly lied about its environment-friendly claims about their diesel cars, they deliberately built in clever software to fool the emissions testers. It goes far beyond just exaggerated advertising; it involves deceptive engineering…German deceptive engineering, though.

Let’s say you take your 2009 VW Jetta in to the appropriate facility to get it certified for registration. They hook it up to their computer and, unbeknown to anybody but Volkswagen, a secret  little program inside the car’s computer turns on the filter so that you pass. Then, when you drive out with that “passed” stamp,  and that self-satisfied feeling of having done your part to fight global warming, that little program secretly turns the filter off again and you go back to spewing as much muck into the air as a Panzer tank–as much as 40 times more than legally allowed by the EPA, in fact. (Read all about how it works  in any number of stories this week. Here’s one in the New York Times.)

Of course, the CEO of VW, Martin Winterkorn, resigned today; shocked, shocked, he tells us, that there was Schwindeleien ( German for shenanigans) going on behind his back at Volkswagen. This is a little much considering that VW  has long been famous for its highly centralized, Teutonic control culture. Central control is the leitmotif of German engineering, after all. But what do you do when you’re caught in a big lie? Double down with a bigger lie: “I had no such knowledge!”

Okay, great that Winterkorn resigned (I’m sure he had a very big parachute). And let’s see if any government agencies seek to prosecute him and any other executives at VW, putting them in orange overalls. But what about the 11 million people who shelled out a significant portion of their salaries for diesel cars they thought were legally compliant with their countries’ emission standards? How is Volkswagen ever going to make it up to them? There have as yet been no recalls. But if they are coming, what can the factory fix? They can disable the filter-disabling software, but can they make a diesel engine emission compliant and keep its fuel efficiency? Let’s see what the Magic Eight Ball says:

Magic Eight Ball


Volkswagen says they’ve put aside $7.8 billion to handle recall expenses. Does this mean they’ll buy the bullshit cars back? Well, only if each of the 11 million bilked buyers are willing to accept $709 in trade-in. If the average price of one of those diesel cars was $30k (just estimating based on advertised MSRP) VW’s going to need to set aside closer to a third of a trillion dollars to make it good with all those pissed-off customers.

A Great Brand Commits Suicide

My prediction (using my own trusty  M8B technology) is that the German Engineers at VW  have taken their respected brand and locked it in the garage with the motor running. Of course, other automakers like Ford, GM, Hyundai, Toyota, and Chrysler have all survived scandals involving exploding gas tanks, faulty air bags, unintended acceleration, and odometer tampering.  But none of those companies’ scandals were anywhere near as cynical, deliberate, pervasive, or harmful to their brands as VW’s. That company has built its reputation on reliability. From the very first “Think small” ad in 1959 to now, they’ve cultivated a brand position of being reliable-to-a-fault. And now this new generation of cynical smart-asses has just killed it. Great job, Martin. Hope you sold your stocks before you left.

Two Rules Ignored

Here is yet another example of Unbreakable Rule #9: Everything is marketing. This may have been a bad engineering decision, or a manufacturing decision, or a business decision, or an ethical decision. But ultimately it was a bad marketing decision. Because now nobody will trust Volkswagen again. Not its customers. Not its shareholders (if any stick around). Not its majority of hardworking, dedicated, honest employees. Not its dealers struggling on the narrowest of margins. Not governments charged with seeing to public safety and health. Nobody.

The other thing offensive about this story is that, once again, it feeds the belief (see Rule #2: Perception is reality) that marketing is a lie. I hate that. Marketing is not a lie. Marketing that lies is a lie. But marketing itself should always seek to tell the truth. It should find the best true thing to say about a product and portray that in as compelling a way as possible. But if you’re an marketer and you feel like you have to lie, get out of the business. Or resign the account, at the very least. And blow the whistle on the liars.