Pale Blue Eyes: The Creepiest Ad of 2020

This little boy looks nothing like a serial killer.

Just saw one of the creepiest ads of a soon-to-be-over (hopefully) surreal year. I know it’s supposed to be a satirical take on the assumed monotony of our lockdown. But…wellllll…

Did food delivery service, SnackCrate, hire Jordan Peele (Get-Out, Us) to direct this? It features zombie-like, ultra-white characters with blonde hair and dead, pale, pale blue eyes, smiling vacantly as if they were cyborgs programmed to vaguely mimic human expressions. I couldn’t believe the creators were serious. Or, I guess more to the point, comedic.

After some vignettes of the pale family’s soulless life,  SnackCrate delivers a box to a mixed-race family across the street from the ultra-white replicants of this surreal, homogenous suburban neighborhood (reminiscent of Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands). The little blonde child walks across the street like a badly programmed robot (I swear, he looks like a Jeffrey Dahmer as a child–or me). The friendly Black neighbor girl opens the box and a golden light emits from it, illuminating the boy’s face. His creepy smile broadens, yet his eyes remain dead, like a doll’s.  I know it’s not his fault; he was directed to look like this. He’s probably delightfully warm in real life. And funny.

Okay, okay, I get it. The “concept” was to portray the everyday, life-sucking sameness of everyone’s lives during the lockdown. (Yeah, those creatives really nailed that one.)(Oh, that was sarcastic, in case you didn’t get my tone.) And SnackCrate is somehow the answer. Of course they never show you what the product is. I assume it’s food. Or munchies for weed. But it could also be a mind-altering drug, for all we know– the one all of these blank-staring zombies are on. Or some sort of alien-generated, mind-control weapon. Or a lightbulb. Maybe they figured the name of the company, SnackCrate, would give away that it’s some sort of food. Like Soylent Green. But I get that it’s supposed to be satirical, i.e. funny.

You’d have to be on a mind-control substance yourself to think this was funny. It feels like it was humor generated by AI, who thought it had a bead on what humans think is comedy.

Predator eyes

An aside about blue eyed models and actors.

What’s this thing I see so often lately with models, actors, and characters with ultra-pale blue eyes? I’ve seen that more than in the past in fashion ads and even in general consumer ads. Not just blue eyes, but eyes that seem unnaturally pale. They look like predators. Or Hitler Youth. Or alien vampires.  I mean I don’t have anything against blue eyes (I have blue eyes…though I prefer to described them as “steel grey”–and blonde hair–or had–it’s also steel grey now). Some of my best friends…yada yada.  But I’ve even seen them on non-white models and actors, many of whom, I know, are born with blue eyes themselves (see this interesting story about how prehistoric Britons probably had dark skin and blue eyes). But the point isn’t who owns blue eyes genetically, it’s a conscious casting decision. And the photography and its post-manipulation seem to emphasize the paleness of the iris. When the expression “Blue-Eyed Devils” has long stood for historic, exploitive European colonialism to most of the world (who don’t have blue eyes), this doesn’t seem like the most engaging look.




Not only blue eyes.  The pinpoint pupils look distinctly like a predator honing in on its prey.  The paleness of the iris maximizes this. It’s definitely a horror-movie, non-human look. The photographers, art directors, and Photoshoppers are evidently trying to emphasize the light blue iris by reducing the size of the pupils. Ethologically, wide -open pupils signal relaxation, friendliness, not-a-threat. Narrow pupils signal aggression, hunger, threat. As we have evolved from prey species ourselves, we have a primeval fear of predator species with narrowed pupils (oh, like leopards, for instance). I myself remember that reflexive, Australopithecine surge of gut-panic that swept over me years ago when I was an art director at a commercial shoot using a supposedly tame tiger. We were all encouraged to stand next to the tiger for a group, publicity shot. When the trainer raised a morsel of meat on a long stick to get the tiger to sit up, I saw at once its pupils snap to pinpoints as it saw the meat and started salivating, showing its five-inch fangs. Couldn’t wait for the photographer to hurry up and take the goddam picture already. Admittedly, the tiger didn’t have blue eyes–they were a golden color–but the contrast really emphasized the pinpoint pupil, which meant one thing, “I’m going to eat you.”

Where was I?

Oh yes. Getting back to my crit of this SnackCrate spot: Though I may be alone in this, like Will Smith’s lonely character in I Am Legend, but I did feel distinctly unsettled after I saw this ad. Which is ironic because the mission statement on SnackCrate’s website says the whole point is to bring all the world’s cultures together by sharing their local snacks.  You know; by getting people in Mexico City to love Sydney’s love of Vegemite….or something., or people on the West Coast to love Chicago-style “pizza”.  Not a bad marketing message in itself. Maybe that was the point of having the blue-eyed, blonde family relate to their multi-racial neighbors. But now that we’ve been conditioned to be suspicious of pale white people, (even pale white people have become suspicious of each other), I think the way they executed this idea backfires. My expectation (from Jordan Peele’s example in Get Out) was that the creepy little boy was going to first eat the snack offered him, and then eat his neighbors.

The ad communicated nothing about SnackCrate’s noble goal. Or even about food. There was no appetite appeal. No message of bringing people together. Just an assumption about our bleak, colorless (except for the blue eyes) lives and how our salvation from zombietopia is SnackCrate. Whatever that is. Okay! Sign me up.

Watching the ad, I also couldn’t help but flash back to a sci-fi horror movie I saw as a kid, Village of the Damned, in which the monsters were beautiful alien children with ash blonde hair and pale, pale eyes that glowed to hypnotize people into killing themselves. So it’s a personal thing with me. Pale eyes freak me out.

It’s only me. I know. I shouldn’t watch any more post-apocalyptic movies about the last human on Earth, or blonde alien invaders. I should get over it.

Beware blonde children with pale eyes.


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.



Want good customer service? Be a good customer.

Would it kill you to smile?

Some years ago–and I’m not saying how many—none of your business—I was having lunch with a colleague and he was being his usual dick-self to our server, dangling the promise of a tip if she didn’t screw up his order this time—like she always did—and laying on so many special caveats (dressing on the side, light on the salt, substituting, asking about the organic provenance) that it seemed like a skit from Portlandia. I had witnessed this too many times during the course of our work together and it always made me cringe. Embarrassed, I exchanged a sympathetic glance with the server, who kept smiling because she was powerless. When she left with our order I asked him, “Doug, I’m just curious, but why would you antagonize someone who prepares your food out of your sight?”

“What do you mean?” he asked, pretending he didn’t know what “antagonize” meant. He was one of these people who believed that the only way to get good customer service was to demand it, and threaten retaliation if he didn’t get it.

“I mean, you do know they spit in your salad when you’re nasty to them.” I made this up on the spur. I had no idea if that happened. But I’d do it if I was working in the kitchen and there was a dick mistreating me. (Which is why I’d be terrible at that job.)

His face went ashen, as if that possibility had never occurred to him. I imagined him adding up all the gallons of strangers’ saliva he’d ingested over the years.  “They couldn’t,” he said, “I’d sue them.”

“How would you know?” I said, “Or how could you prove it?”

Hopefully, I put a stop to his abusive behavior, at least in restaurants. He did leave a tip that time. And he only picked at his food.

But my point is that it isn’t enough not to be abusive to people who serve you. We should be nice to everybody. We all serve somebody. We’re all in this together. And it’s not just a golden rule, it’s good business.

It doesn’t hurt.

If you want good customer service, try being a good customer. People are people, and if you make them feel valued, they’ll usually try to be their best. And you’ll get much better service for it.

For instance, if they have a nametag or a nameplate on their workstation, use their name. It doesn’t take anything to thank them when they hand you your receipt, and it takes nothing to add their name and say, “Thanks, Jamelle.”  (Particularly if their name is Jamelle.) You’d be surprised how much better service you get, and how much just simple recognition that they are a person—with a name—can brighten their day.  I didn’t invent this. I’m pretty introvert and I first noticed this effect when I was first dating my wife and noticed how she’d call people by their name,  ask them about their day, or make some joke to make them laugh and I noted the positive effect it had. So I started emulating it. And noticed how much better the service got.

You can do this anywhere. I used this technique at the DMV the other day and got wonderful and helpful service. The DMV, for crying out loud!

We’ve all witnessed jerks abusing service people. Everybody in line hates these foul-tempered people. But there’s another trick I’ve learned about getting good service. You can actually draft on their bad mojo, like how NASA slingshots its spacecraft with the gravity of other planets. If someone ahead of you has been nasty, and if you are nice, and if you can convey that you are on the server’s side (without being explicit), you often get much better service than the jerks do. The contrast can not only be stark, but it can help that person serving you get through their own day. It also makes you feel pretty smug about what a saint you are yourself.

But what if…?

But what if you have a legitimate complaint? What if there’s lipstick on your glass? Or you have to return something that doesn’t work? Or you’ve been on hold for twenty minutes listening to a robot tell you how important your business is ? Can’t you be cranky then?

No. There’s never a good time to be cranky. Remember, your goal is to get good customer service. You want them to bend over backwards to rectify the problem. And if you are understanding and nice about it; if you are sympathetic to them; if you act like a friendly person; they will bend over backwards. Usually.

I know it’s really tempting to give in to your frustration when something goes wrong, but we’re adults, okay? Our goal is to get what we want, spending as little energy as possible. We want the thing fixed. And adding sand to the gears isn’t going to achieve that, now, is it?

I’m not saying it’s a guarantee that if you are the nicest, most accommodating customer you will get good service in return. But you certainly will increase the odds of that happening than if you’re a dick. And in a quantum mechanical universe where everything is probabilistic and nothing is absolute, you want to increase those odds. Human beings being what beings are, naturally want to help someone who is nicer to them. At least most of them are. And the ones that are narcissistic dicks—well, they’ll get fired soon enough anyway.

It’s not religion, it’s marketing.

Call me new-agey, but I also think there is something else at work when you are generous and personable to people you do business with, like karma or grace. Good things happen to you. Or at least they seem to happen to you. Or at least you notice them more when your attitude is more generous. It’s not that it’s a transactional thing. You aren’t nice just to get something out of it—not to get into The Good Place philosophical conundrum—but you’ll notice that you do tend to get things out of it. Better customer service, for one.

The other day I was parking on a metered street at the beach. As I got out of my car to stick my credit card into the meter, a city meter reader came up to take data from it. I greeted him, smiling, and stepped back so he could do his thing first. When he was done and  I started to put my card into the machine he said, “Oh, you don’t have to do that, I gave you three hours.” Would he have done that had I scowled at him, had I not stepped back to let him reset the meter? Probably not. But my extremely slight gesture of letting him go first and smiling at him saved me $6.75. Talk about transactional!

And yes, I thanked him profusely, and called him by his name on his nametag (Steve).  And he probably felt good about himself too, for having done a nice thing for somebody.

This gets back to marketing. Marketing works both ways. Companies that are good to their employees, get more enthusiastic, loyal, and helpful employees. These employees, in turn, are good to their companies’ customers, who are themselves more enthusiastic and loyal patrons, passing on glowing anecdotes and Yelp reviews. But it works both ways, customers who are good to the people who serve them, are completing the circle. And all the boats rise.

We are a marketing species. Everything we do is a social transaction. So we’re constantly marketing to each other: businesses to customers, customers to businesses, politicians to voters, voters to politicians, people to people. Even when we pray to God, if we believe in God, we’re marketing ourselves to Him. On a cynical level you could say that this behavior has an evolutionary advantage. But on another level, you could also say that that’s how we can get through the day more smoothly. It’s just easier.

Can we all join hands now?



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.

We Know You

man on a couch w laser
Stay right where you are.

I know you. You have a passion for life. You won’t anything slow you down. You won’t accept compromise. You stomp on necks when you don’t get what you want.  Wait… What?

Here’s another copywriting trick to get your audience to instantly fast-forward through your commercial or block your ad: Tell them that you know them.

Start with a list of banal virtues that some phoned-in market research has associated with a target market. Then proceed to make your target market feel like a target market, like just another datum waiting to be harvested. People love to be categorized. People love to be second guessed. They love being harvested.

And, most of all, people love being made to feel like a target.

Reality Bites Data

blackswanflockI’ve been thinking about all of the ridiculous upsets in reality, or at least data-driven predictions of reality, in the past three months. From Five Thirty Eight to all the major polls predicting an easy Clinton victory in last year’s election,  all were so wrong that everyone, including the winners, just stared with jaws agape at the broadcast that night. How could this be happening? What about the data?

Prior to that there was the major upset of the World Series, where, against overwhelming data-fueled prediction, the Cubs came from behind and won, heralding in a sign of the End Times as foretold in Revelations (or was it Nostradamus?). Then there was the CFP Bowl in which Clemson didn’t read the script and beat Alabama at the last minute (was that even legal?). Then the Superbowl upset of the upset (also at the last minute, more or less). And the most recent example was the fiasco at the end of the Oscars, in which slam-dunk favorite La La Land lost to Moonlight for Best Picture, even after the former had been mistakenly announced as the winner.

After all these upsets in prediction, it has occurred to me that data don’t know squat. Or we’ve been looking at the wrong data.

What’s going on? How can so many data-fueled models be so off? Aren’t we supposed to be living in a new, enlightened age where every tiny thing can be predicted, every human need anticipated before the human lifeform even knows what it needs?

Apparently not. If you thought that’s where we were going, then you haven’t tried to have a coherent exchange with Siri or Alexa lately. Or tried to get your iDevice to play the song you actually want to listen to instead of what it thinks you’d like to listen to.

I’m sure, too, that all of you have been emptying your email inbox every day of so-called “targeted” junk mail, finely tuned to your most minute desires based on your web-browsing history or your Facebook likes. What? You mean you aren’t worried about your severe-to-moderate irritable bowel syndrome at the moment?  Or that when you look up a title on Amazon or Netflix, they offer up random titles that their algorithms assume are just like what they think you are looking for? (Do you really care that people who watched Sherlock also watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2?)

Everything seems to be not just off, but spectacularly wrong.

Reality Hath Reasons that Data Knoweth Not

Here’s what I think is going on: Reality is biting back. Again. Just at a point in history when we think we have reached the limit of all there is to know in the universe, and Big Data will be the answer to all human needs, everything we thought we knew turns out to be bass ackwards. It reminds me of a similar point of hubris at the end of the 19th century when it was also widely trumpeted by pompous scientists that mankind had just about learned everything that needed to be learned, and everything useful had been invented. Then came Einstein. And the Wright Brothers. And Henry Ford.

Now the age of Big Data is discovering that reality doesn’t give a shit; it has its own agenda.

Chaos theory is rearing its ugly head again. It’s quantum unpredictability (the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle) applied to human behavior, whether that behavior is voting, playing a game, or buying.  Quantum Mechanics come into play in the physical world as the observational scale gets smaller and smaller, down at the sub-atomic level. And as that happens, predictability vanishes.

In the realm of human behavior this Heisenberg analogy applies to individual humans, or to individual human events, like a single game or a single election.  This is the atomic, quantum scale of behavior. On that scale, predictability is mythic.

This getting it all wrong is especially true of data-driven advertising.  Advertising data-specialists can try to convince their clients that they can serve up an ad to the exact person in the precise frame of mind for their product at the perfect moment; when they’re ready to buy. But all of our personal experience is that they get it dead wrong more often than not.

Wait, Wait, Wait. Too Many Variables.

Besides the Quantum Mechanics of individual events,  there’s the sheer number of variables that sabotage predictability. Each game, each election, each competition, each purchase decision, each individual event has so many variables that the degrees of freedom in any statistical model flatten the bell curve, making it worthless as a predictive tool. The extreme outcomes on a distribution function become as likely as the mean.  The black swan event becomes a flock of black swans.

In the last election, those extra variables (like the ineffable frustration felt by the traditionally Democratic white labor voters) were ignored in the more traditional models used. Of course, pollsters will probably incorporate those variables in the next round, but then there will be other variables not taken into account. There always are. People always fight the next war with lessons learned from the last one.

Same with marketing again. At any instant of time, there are so many variables in play with a marketing campaign–the economy, social memes, the weather, external stressors, scandals involving your client, local conditions–that advertisers can’t possibly account for them all. And each one tends to spread out that bell curve, so you might as well take a wild guess as to how to frame your message, or where to put it.

But there’s a way around the fickleness of reality.

Great. So What’s a Marketing Professional to Do?

Well. You can always go back to marketing as an art, relying on the ancient psychological tricks of empathy and creativity to make yourself noticed and loved. These tricks used to work pretty damn well, back before Big Data swallowed up advertising like a swarm of army ants, eating it down to the bone. We’re starting to see these ancient tricks pop up again, like plants poking above the soil after a long drought. Every once in a while you see an entertaining TV spot, or a clever web ad that seeks to entertain as well as sell. Marketers are just starting to rediscover the power of creativity. They not only stand out, they use a key into the human psyche that Big Data never had.

This is Unbreakable Rule #3: Be Creative or Die.  It’s also Rule #6: Give Love to Get Love. Data may allow you to ring the doorbell of the most likely customer for your product, but it won’t help you when the door is opened. For that you need to disarm, to charm, to entertain, to win that customer over and keep them from slamming the door in your face, or clicking “skip”. And for that you need both empathy and creativity.

This is what the winner of the last election did, upsetting all predictions; he empathized with just enough people to get him elected. And he sure entertained the hell out of them. He even entertained those who didn’t vote for him, though they continue to hate him. And the reality of that vote will bite not just pollsters, but all of us.

The other consequence of these flock of black swans we’ve been experiencing has been that people have begun to lose faith in data at all.  We now live in a time where conspiracy theories abound, where people believe what they want to believe. To hell with the data! Or so-called facts and experts. Reality is what each person says it is. The biggest problem facing us now is still a marketing one. It is to persuade people that data and mathematical models, even though discredited by recent events, are still useful.  And purveyors of them, pollsters, marketers, account planners, all need to start marketing their value again to a public that has lost faith in data.




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.”

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.