Category: Uncategorized

Putting Out the Fire with Gasoline

I got into it with an old friend the other day for re-posting a story about some vile politician in a Southern state who supposedly said something reprehensible about certain people. In a comment on top of the re-post my friend had said, “I don’t know if this is true…”

What we got into (on a side conversation, not publicly on his FB page) was whether it was appropriate to re-post a story about despicable behavior. His argument was that by doing it, he helped cast a spotlight on this terrible person to embarrass him. But my counter-argument was that it was not only unproductive, it actually gave the bigoted politician in question more publicity online, and it served to fan the flames of rancor that is plaguing our country right now.

“Putting out the fire with gasoline,” as Bowie would put it. (Am I dating myself?)

It’s not called “viral” because it’s your friend.

Here’s how it works: The more people re-post a Tweet or any social media post, the more visible it becomes in a search query. That’s what makes it viral, a metaphor for digital contagion. It’s the way SEO (Search Engine Optimizaton) works. You’ve all noticed this: As you start to type your key search words, the most posted pages with those words come up before you’ve even finished typing. It’s kind of infuriating actually, like a spouse who constantly finishes your sentences for you…wrongly.

Search engines are morally and politically neutral (unless you’re in Communist China, of course). They don’t distinguish between good and bad. They just keep track of what’s popular. So the more an inflammatory post is shared, the higher its Page Rank (named after Google co-founder Larry Page, not “page” as in search page). While you may want to humiliate a bad actor by exposing his odious behavior or statements, you also make him come up first on the searches by like-minded creeps. And they all get together online to pat each other on the back and goad each other into even more reprehensible behavior. “I didn’t know there were others who felt like me!” You help in their recruiting drive.


The other reason this re-posting of shocking things hurts is that it has become a cyberweapon used by totalitarian countries who wish democracies, especially the American democracy, would come crashing down.  The Mueller Report detailed the tactics that Russian intelligence used in using social media to get us to fly at each others’ throats. As described in the report, Russian operatives, masquerading as concerned Americans, would post some flagrantly offensive thing on Twitter or FaceBook or YouTube and within minutes they would go viral as outraged real Americans re-posted them ad infinitum. The next thing you know, a post gets millions of views and a Page Rank of 1. And we’re all that much angrier at each other (not at the Russians).

False propaganda is an old military tactic: Cause dissension within your enemy’s ranks. I don’t know if Sun Tzu  or Machiavelli listed it, but it is very, very old. And now it’s being used in technology that Machiavelli wouldn’t even have dreamed about.

My friend prefaced his re-post of the story with “I don’t know if this is true…” Which means he didn’t stop to think if it wasn’t a seed planted by a Russian troll to get us to hate each other. He went with his gut. Normally a very thoughtful person, the story so outraged him (as it would any decent human), that he let his emotions knock his reason aside and take the wheel. And he re-posted it. That the story later turned out to be verified by a number of mainstream news organizations doesn’t matter; it was the shoot-first -and-ask-questions-later action that does the damage. It didn’t help.

So when you re-post something that makes you angry about your compatriots, and you’re not sure of its source, you actually help the enemies of democracy, turning the machine gun on your own people. Don’t do it.

This is a very destructive form of marketing. But it’s still marketing.




So THAT’S how ad agencies work!

Badda-book, badda-boom? Really? This fingernails-on-a-blackboard tagline has been interrupting shows, games, movies, and news broadcasts for a couple of years now. Could it be the worst ad campaign of the decade?

One mark of a bad ad is that you can’t recall the advertiser. With this one, though I’ve seen these spots hundreds of times,  I had to look up its name before I started writing this blog because I still couldn’t remember the sponsor. I had just assumed it was one more of those innumerable online travel booking engines (like Orbitz, Expedia, Priceline,, etc.). No, it’s a Maryland-based hospitality holding corporation representing a portfolio of hotel chains. I’m not going to tell you the name or the names of the chains it owns. That’s the ad campaign’s job. At which it fails miserably.

Indeed, the latest iteration of the campaign, called “Glow,” features yet another meeting of the ad agency and the client.  What an engaging concept! The spot begins as two account executives brag about the success of last year’s ad campaign and present a commercial to “take it up a notch,” letting us know right away that this is an ad about advertising.  The commercial-within-a-commercial (an inframercial?) shows a glow around two slo-mo walking customers after they’ve checked into the hotel. These radioactive customers block the logo behind them, teasingly, so we can’t see the brand. The presenter says he assumes that viewers would think they too would glow when they checked in. Then the campaign’s spokesman, who, we gather, is supposed to be the CEO of the company (a white male, naturally) says, “Who glows? Just say ‘Badda-book. Badda-boom.'” Whereupon his sycophant, who is in most of these spots, smirks and says, “Nobody glows!” The CEO gestures at him approvingly, “He gets it” and throws him a treat. (This last part I made up, but the whole thing is just sickening.)

The real-world ad agency that came up with this campaign (McCann Erickson NY) seems to think their job is to inform the public how they come up with these clever ideas, and to make the ad all about how brilliant their tagline is. That comes through loud and clear, unlike any product benefit. Or the name of the brand.

But the tagline they are so proud of is meaningless. It’s a flaccid riff on a mid-20th century rolling gag (bada-bing, bada-boom) made popular on the 1950s Jackie Gleason Show and by generations of gangster movies and TV series ever since.  From what I can understand, the tagline is supposed to remind us that travel (or, at least hotel reservations) is easy to book online. Just like every other hotel or online travel booking service. Whaaaaa!? You mean I can make reservations on this new thing called “The Interwebs” now? I’m sorry, I’ve been trapped in a mine for the past forty years, living on blind cave-crickets, and didn’t know that. What a brave, new world we live in. What’s next? Microwavable popcorn?

Ad Narcissism

Watching this campaign, I get the impression that the people at McCann are mighty pleased with themselves. So much so that they have to keep feeding us these spots that advertise the advertising.  So it’s meta-advertising. And now in this year’s campaign,  with straw-man spots nested within the spots, as if to ask, “Aren’t you glad we didn’t make you watch these dull concepts?” they’re meta-meta-advertising. Like a matryoshka doll of inanity.

To be fair, by itself, badda-book-etc. is not the worst tagline ever written. In fact, if it were paired with clever scripts, it could be an effective tail. But the tail is wagging this dog. All of the spots are just about it and how perfect it is. They are ads for the tagline, not for the hotel…or whatever it is. Which makes it advertising narcissism. Ad nauseam.

The campaign, in spot after spot, breaks a cardinal rule of advertising. It hides the customer benefit. In this and previous spots, if you stay in your seat long enough to wait for the logo and the final line, they do mention something about the chain having the lowest prices (itself a very weak and unsubstantiated position, but at least a customer benefit), but that comes out of nowhere and has nothing to do with the badda-book slogan. If they were going to seed that position in our awareness, they would have generated concepts reinforcing cheapness. But they didn’t, because badda-book badda-boom is just so cheek-pinchingly adorable. So let’s make the whole campaign about that. Jackie Gleason is beaming from the grave.

The other cardinal rule the campaign breaks is: Don’t talk about yourself, talk about what you can do for the viewer. The audience doesn’t care what you think of yourself, what JD Power Awards you’ve won, how great you think you are, what your passion is. If they’re going to stick around at all, tell them what you can do for them. But this campaign breaks that rule in spades, because it not only doesn’t talk about what it can do for the customer, it doesn’t even talk about the client; it talks about how great the tagline is  That’s badda-dumb.






Marketing Mars

Mars from Curiosity Rover
Just look at this place! Who would ever want to live here?

Ever since I was a teenager reading Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter of Mars” series (the latter mostly because I had the hots for Dejah Thoris, Princess of Mars, who walked around naked all the time), I’ve fantasized about going to Mars. Indeed, by 1969, when we first landed on the moon, I was certain that we’d not only have colonies on the moon, but on Mars by 2001 (A Space Odyssey).

Yeah, right. It’s 2018 and we’re still talking about moving to Mars… some day. We even dropped just colonizing the moon quite a while ago.

And we don’t even have flying cars yet.

We’ve sent a few robot SUVs to Mars and have found out a lot that we didn’t know when my adolescent self was curled up reading about John Carter getting busy with Dejah Thoris. We’ve found out there’s no water there (or not enough to do anything with, like growing plants and drinking). There’s virtually no atmosphere. With an average temperature of -67 degrees (in the summer!), it’s about as balmy as an Antarctic winter.  There’s no life, or the suggestion that there ever once was life.  The planet is perpetually cooking in a wind of lethal, solar radiation because Mars has no magnetic field. Why is that? Because it’s such a feeble would-be planet that it couldn’t even keep its iron core molten to generate a magnetic field. Living there would be like setting up camp inside of a giant microwave oven.

And it goes without saying that there are no canals, ancient  glass cities, flying ships, lush valleys, or naked princesses. In fact, the feasibility of colonizing Mars is infinitely less likely than turning Antarctica into a Sandals Resort. Have the time of your life; all remaining 2.7 minutes of it.

And, yet, we’re still flogging that idea of not only putting a human on Mars, but of living there. Countless movies (The Martian, Red Planet, Mission to Mars, Total Recall, John Carter, Mars Needs Moms), cable TV series (Mars),  and sci-fi books (Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles”, Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Mars” trilogy, “The Case for Mars”), have fanned that ardent desire, and kept Congress and successive administrations funding it. But does anyone really think it’s ever going to happen? Or is it just a marketing campaign run amok?

Science will solve everything.

Of course, I don’t know what I’m talking about. When I point out some of the not-so-small problems of colonizing Mars, like–oh, I don’t know–NO MAGNETIC FIELD, I’m told by people (who also don’t know what they’re talking about) that “science will solve all problems.” They love to bring out that old trope about the craziness of man flying, and yet along come Wilbur and Orville. Or about this thing called the Internet. Or the human genome. Or a phone in your pocket. Or shirts that look good untucked. Things we couldn’t even dream about a few years ago because we didn’t know they were possible. But what we have been dreaming about since before Wilbur and Orville is living on Mars. Still not possible.

These “science can solve everything” optimists love to talk about the resourceful, indomitable, human spirit. They make false comparisons about how the New World was inhospitable before Europeans colonized it. But no it wasn’t, it was already freakin’ paradise and home to hundreds of millions of people who were perfectly happy there before white men showed up with their guns and smallpox. It was no Mars. (I guess one advantage to colonizing Mars is that we won’t have to commit genocide on the indigenous Martians.)

The whole argument behind the marketing of Mars is the promise to solve problems that can’t be solved. Like that lack of a magnetic field. That’s something we can’t do anything about, unless the colonists want to live deep underground. And then, what’s the point of that? We can do that here.

But let’s say science does figure out a way to throw a protective magnetic field around Mars,  generate a breathable atmosphere that won’t evaporate from Mars’s weak gravitational field or sublimate into space under the relentless solar wind,  squeeze water out of rocks, grow stuff we can eat, and build stuff we can live in from the stuff lying around the planet. How much will that cost? Will it cost less than just stabilizing our own planet so it’s more livable? I mean, we already know this planet right here is comfortable for our species: We evolved for it. Many parts of Earth are breathtakingly beautiful. We just need to be a little more responsible, keep our population in check, and clean it up a bit. That would surely seem to me to be an easier marketing problem to get behind than colonizing Mars.

Not that I’m against sending some people to Mars. If I can choose the people. You know, just to test to see how many minutes a human being could live there.

Berry’s Laws of the Universe

I’m sure it’s perfectly safe.

After a lifetime of careful thought and exhaustive study, I have derived a number of irrefutable Laws of the Universe. Live by these and your life will be perfect.

Law #1:  Nothing will ever go wrong. Ever.

Law #2:  If something is carried to an extreme, there will never ever be a backlash. Ever.

Law #3:  If someone disagrees with you, just keep repeating the same argument over and over until they agree with you. This always works.

Law #4:  Nobody ever got sick from eating under-cooked chicken. Or eggs. Or pork.

Law #5:  If there is black ice on the pavement, that’s the best time to go for a walk.

Law #7:  There is no Law #6

Law #8:  It is better to get a good night’s sleep before a test than to study for it.

Law #9:  Nothing bad can possibly happen if robots are in charge of everything.

Law #10:   If you’re driving a train toward a curve at high speed, don’t slow down; centrifugal force will keep you on the track. (or maybe it’s centripetal force…I always mix those up).

Law #11:  I’m sure it’s perfectly safe.

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.

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

Execution Of Marie Antoinette, 1793 Photograph by Science Source
What would you say; is that guillotine 3 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.





Was Herman Cain Right?

SimCity1One of my many vices is an addiction to the old Maxis game, SimCity. I play SimCity 4, which I think is about twelve years old, but I love it for its elegant game engine

As games can be instructive, SimCity is very much so. I think it should be used in high school curricula to teach civics, and economics, and tax policy. And would that more candidates for public office played it. They might not blurt out so many inane sound bytes at state fairs.

Also the music is so cool. I often just let it run in the background and not play the game.

Now this probably brands me as a policy wonk–let me amend that; it definitely brands me as a policy wonk–but I have fun noodling with all the various tax rates the game lets you play with. They have rates for high income residents, middle income residents, low income people. Also rates for commercial activities, farming, heavy (high polluting) industries, light manufacturing, and high tech (low polluting). This is fun to jiggle with to see how it affects growth and the environment.  For instance, if you give a tax holiday to high tech industries and tax high polluters back to the swamps from which they crawled, you can raise jobs and revenue and keep the air and water quality clean (and the Sims happy and healthy and approving of your job as a Mayor). But you also need a lot of schools in your city to attract those high-tech industries.

The game comes with all of these rates defaulted at 9%, which is where Herman Cain got his “9-9-9” tax plan when he was trying to win the Republican primary back in 2011. I’m sure he just played the game without changing any of those rates, and also probably grooved to the cool music as I do. But the fun is applying your own economic theories to the game as an experiment to see what happens to your balance of payments and economic growth. Of course, the game algorithm was originally conceived by Will Wright, who must be a Keynesian, because the outcomes definitely favor a more actively managed fiscal policy. If you cut all the taxes to zero and let the Free Market frolic, your city soon comes to resemble the scene of a post apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy novel. And cannibalism will reign.

The other thing I like to do is lay out my city with all the dream services you’d expect in a socialist paradise: a rich infrastructure, lavishly funded schools, universities, sanitation, big hospitals, public transportation, police and fire services, recycling centers, clean power (wind turbines mostly), parks , public pools, playgrounds, cool beaches (a shoreline is helpful), museums, libraries, seaports, airports, and theaters. I put all these in place before I start the city. (No stadiums, they’re just a money drain. Put them down. I don’t care what “The Citizens demand.”) All this cost a fortune in Simoleons and will probably drain your starting budget to zero, but wait…

Enter the Cheat

Then, before you turn your city on to let it grow, you do one more important thing; you activate a cheat.

The cheat for Windows is Alt-X “weaknesspays” Enter (I don’t know what it is on a Mac, look it up). Applying it repeatedly magically floods your budget with money from nowhere. Frankly, I don’t know why this is a “cheat” and not a tool in the game because, when you think about it, this is exactly what the Fed does in real life. It’s what the IMF and the European Central Bank does for countries in default like Greece; making capital out of nothing, allowing for sovereign default, bailing out. It’s also the same as when a country or a municipality issues bonds, or, hell,  just runs deficit spending.  Nothing bad ever happens except more growth, on and on, just like in SimCity. The only time anything bad ever happens is when somebody decides, based on the Bible or something, that deficits are bad and a country can’t just print money whenever it needs more. Can’t it? The 14th Amendment to the Constitution says it can (look it up).

A popular sophistry is that a country like the United States should balance its budget like a family does; not spending more than it takes in. But doing that would never allow for growth, or jobs, or prosperity. And if your tax rate is zero (as is also popular with the same people who like the country-as-a-family-budget analogy) you get nuthin’. No roads, no Internet, no airports, no power grid, no jobs, no hospitals, no public transportation, no police and fire, no schools, no water filtration plants. Just desolation, with zombies roaming the streets moaning for “Brains!”

Also, families don’t get to print their own money like countries can. They can’t use an Alt-X cheat. But the government can.

What’s this got to do with the Unbreakable Rules? Nothing. (Unless I can invoke the catch-all Rule #9: Everything is Marketing.) I just wanted to write about it. I am addicted to SimCity, as I’ve said. And tax policy.


Moderate to Severe Pharma Advertising

Woman, jogging on the beach: “I’m a moderate to severe brain cloud sufferer. I’ve been living with the heartbreak of brain cloud symptoms for years. If you’re like me, you know that heartbreak.

“But now there’s Enteraxol, a new medical breakthrough in managing the symptoms of moderate to severe brain cloudism. And it’s made all the difference in my life.

Montage of patient enjoying an afternoon of tiger petting at the zoo with her grandchildren, jitterbugging with her second husband, laughing at nothing with friends, and other non-sequitur lifestyle shots…we don’t care…you don’t care…you’ve already gone to the bathroom to manage your moderate to severe whatever.

Announcer VO: “Enteraxol has been shown to cause massive organ failure in some patients.

“Do not take Enteraxol if you are taking any medications for anything else, have heart disease, occasional indigestion, constipation, are menstruating, are in a committed relationship, live alone, live with anyone else, are sexually active, are sexually inactive, have diabetes or glaucoma.

“Do not use Enteraxol near pets or children.

“Do not expose Enteraxol to an open flame.

“In rare cases, Enteraxol may increase the likelihood of some epidermal liquefaction.

“If blindness or unprovoked murderous rages continue after taking Enteraxol for more than four hours, consult a doctor.

“If slight eyeball melting occurs, such as illustrated in the climatic scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark when all the Nazis had their eyeballs melted by looking into the open Ark of the Covenant, discontinue taking Enteraxol.

“If pterodactylism occurs, such as the sudden growth of webbing between the fingers and extremities, discontinue use of Enteraxol.

“Enteraxol may interact negatively with certain foods, like animal protein, carbohydrates, some nuts, fruits, vegetables and most pudding. Do not take Enterax with alcohol or hot chocolate.

“Do not attempt to operate any machinery more complex than a pencil while taking Enteraxol.

“It is inadvisable to write a blog or interact on social media while taking Enteraxol.

“If a head of state, do not sign any nuclear non-proliferation treaties if you have taken Enteraxol within 24 hours.

“Store Enteraxol in a cool place out of the reach of children, animals and ants.

“Some zombieism as well as seeing the world overrun by zombies has been associated with prolonged use of Enteraxol.

“Enteraxol can lead to cessation of all life functions. And in rare cases, death.

“The effectiveness of Enteraxol in the treatment of brain cloudism has yet to be proven.

“Enteraxol may be illegal in some states and the rest of the civilized world.

Back to Woman walking in the park: “Enteraxol has made it possible for me to enjoy my life again. Ask your doctor if Enteraxol is right for you. If he or she does not immediately prescribe Entaxerol, look for a doctor who will listen to you. It’s time someone did.”


Why do drug companies even bother to advertise at all? Because when people are suffering, they don’t listen to what could go wrong.




Think Small Yourself, Julian Koenig

The greatest ad of the last century. A dirty lie?

In his waning years, advertising legend Julian Koenig, whose claims to fame included what has been ranked by Ad Age as the greatest ad of the last century, the 1959 “Think Small” campaign for Volkswagen, gave an interview in which he discounted his enviable career in advertising by saying he was ashamed of having devoted his god-given talent to spreading lies. He concluded that all advertising is a lie. Then he died.

Okay. Maybe the disillusioned rantings of a cranky nonagenarian. But I say, speak for yourself, Julian.

At this stage of my own career, which has been now as long as Koenig’s was when he was active, I can categorically state that I have never lied in an ad I’ve written, art directed, creative directed or had any part of. I may not be the legend that he was. But I’ve been pretty proud of my campaigns, some of which have won international awards, some of which have hung in the Smithsonian, some of which have even been phenomenally successful in terms of increasing sales, many of which have been just as funny. But all of them the truth.

Koenig, too, spent way too much of his later life in a personal feud over who really came up with the Volkswagen campaign, he and art-director Helmut Krone, or notorious self-aggrandizer, George Lois. These names would only mean something to deep advertising geeks. Old advertising geeks. But Koenig wouldn’t let it drop. His own daughter, This American Life producer Sarah Koenig, did a show on how obsessed her father became with his vendetta about credit, long after the world acknowledged that he was right and George Lois was a poseur. But who cares?

Get over it.

I myself (in fact, probably most people who’ve made a living as a creative professional) have known people claiming credit for my work.  It happens. The world is full of pilot fish pretending to be sharks. But it’s just advertising. It isn’t like James Watson getting the Nobel Prize for “discovering” the double-helix structure of DNA when he caught a lecture on the subject by the real discoverer, Rosalind Franklin. (Don’t get me started.)

But getting back to the claim that all advertising is a lie. That’s a lie itself. It has long been a meme circulated by smug cynics. And when one of the greatest practitioners of the craft, like Koenig, sputters it in an interview at the end of his life, those cynics loved to jump on it and say, “See? We told you!”

But saying that is like saying that all music is the same crap. Or all surgery is butchery. Or all plumbers are crooks. Or all politicians are corrupt. Or that everything the government does turns bad. It’s too easy. And it’s especially easy for people who aren’t copywriters or composers or surgeons or plumbers or politicians or government employees. I want to ask those critics, “What is it you do for a living? You know, to rip people off?”

I myself felt that Koenig was full of crap in “admitting” that advertising is based on a lie. He may have felt guilty himself about knowingly writing a lie at some incident in his career. But that’s his problem. It’s not something I’ve ever been tempted to do. Telling lies is not only not required of good advertising, it’s actively policed by the industry. Good advertising–great advertising–not only tells the truth, it tells it elegantly, a truth that touches at the core of people’s lives. People are really good at smelling bullshit. But they’re also really good at knowing what’s true.

Most people anyway. The ones I party with.