Saturday, April 21, 2007

Ads for States

Isn't it true that there are certain businesses that just shouldn't advertise? Especially on TV? When you see a lawyer standing in front of a wall of books saying "Have you been injured in a motorcycle or automobile accident?" - doesn't that ad accomplish the exact opposite of what it intends? The only thing it tells me is: do not, under any circumstances, use this lawyer. A lawyer who advertises on TV cannot logically be a good lawyer. I'm not saying he's not a lawyer who can't make money from rolling the dice on car-accident cases, but still - he isn't a good lawyer.

And so it is with states who pump out the ads on TV. Here's the rule of thumb. The more feverish the state's tourism office seems in its advertising, the more it boasts, the more they deluge you with their ad campaign, etc. the less you'd ever want to go there.

How many times have you ever seen an ad that says: "New York. Excitement awaits!"
How about never? "The District of Columbia. Come see our rich history." Nope. "Texas. Saddle up and ride!" Haven't seen it. These places don't need ads. These are states that are confident in their ability to draw a crowd. They don't need to strut on the street corner that is a Jeopardy! commercial break.

By contrast, no matter where I go in the US, I am carpet bombed with ads for North Carolina. All the freaking time. The beaches. The surf. The lush landscapes. The history! The peaceful bucolic countryside. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Every damn state has natural splendor. Even New Jersey and Delaware and Rhode Island and Kansas has its share of natural splendor. No matter where you are in the USA, you are probably no more than an hour's drive from as much natural splendor as ANYTHING North Carolina has to offer. What am I saying? I'm saying you can't make "Come see our natural splendor" the central focus of your state tourism ad campaign. A few states like Alaska can get away with it. But North Carolina is just barking up the wrong tree here.

With the NC ads I get this distinct whiff of the old orange juice ad problem. The orange juice ads would remind us how healthy orange juice is and then say something like "Doctors recommend drinking a glass of Tropicana orange juice every day." Well why does it have to be Tropicana, doctor? The same goes with North Carolina. "Like beaches? Like, uh, ferns? Like crickets at night? Like clement weather? Then come to North Carolina!" Well why? Why North Carolina? What temptations and delights can NC possibly have to distinguish it from whatever state you're already in? If what you want is a beach trip, aren't there a dozen states with better beaches? How about Civil War sites? Aren't there far better places to go? Lush countryside? Sleepy towns? What? Tell me! Why would I possibly set foot in this mediocre state?

I give North Carolina Kitty Hawk and that's it. I'm sure there's a good exhibit there, and then probably a decent crab shack next door. Fine. That's one interesting morning you can spend in NC. Other than that, there's no reason to visit. The info on the state quarter pretty much satisfies all my curiosity about NC.


And doctors too, of course. Any doctor that advertises on TV is a doctor to avoid. In fact, there's really only one method to find a good doctor. What you do is mention to a trusted friend that you've got this recurring sinus infection, and then the friend leans over and tells you in a conspiratorial tone: "I have this great Ear Nose & Throat guy. The best. Give him a call. Tell him you're a friend."

Then you call the guy, and you find out that a) He doesn't take your piddling insurance plan, b) he doesn't take cash patients, and c) there's a 6 month wait for an appointment. That's how you find a good doctor. You don't just scan your PPO book for the guy with the closest office, and you certainly don't trust a doctor who advertises on TV.


And hoo boy, you do not want to go anywhere near a institution of higher learning that sees fit to market itself to a mass audience. I suppose if you're completely unskilled and unemployed, and you see an ad for some vocational technical school, then that's okay. Something like DeVry. But if it's an actual 4-year college or university with aspirations to seriousness and respectability, then what the hell are they thinking? When was the last time you ever saw "Harvard. A fine education... at reasonable prices."

There are just some places and people: doctors, lawyers, universities and states - whose success depends on a perceived self-confidence. By advertising, you cheapen yourself. You expose yourself as struggling in the contest with your competition. You send out the warning beacon to stay far away.

Now go on and sue me, states! That's right, take your best shot! (These state tourism offices can be litigious. Just see what the state of Maine did to a blogger who dared criticize its ad campaign)

Sunday, April 01, 2007

These "Unrated" DVDs of PG-13 Movies

Isn't this just the biggest crock?

I'm afraid I missed the long, slow buildup to what is currently an enormous cinematic debacle. Just as you don't see an ant or a roach until you've got a full blown infestation, it wasn't till recently that I scanned the aisle at Blockbuster and Hollywood Video and realized that every third title is "Unrated and Uncensored!"

Again, what an enormous, stinking load of bullshit this is. To add 2 seconds of bared breast to your unpleasant PG-13 comedy and then release it as Unrated! like it's a long lost cut of Behind the Green Door - it makes me want to give up all civilization and become Amish. Then kill a lot of people. And then become Amish again.

Here's a condensed version of this sad story. Once upon a time, back when ratings were a whole lot stricter, there were movies that were too violent/disturbing/sexual to get an R rating. But it was the kiss of death to accept an X rating, because the porn industry had eagerly claimed that letter as its own. So if you were unwilling to cut the film down to an R, you screened the movie where possible as "unrated" and hopefully made a few dollars. Unrated meant X, but not porn.

Then we got NC-17, which was supposed to eliminate the gray area, but it didn't work because theaters still wouldn't screen NC-17s and most stores wouldn't carry them. At this point, moviemakers essentially gave up, and resigned themselves to not making movies that couldn't pass by with an R. We, the public, are the losers. In a way, the pendulum has swung back towards permissiveness, since the R rating keeps getting more and more lenient. I'd say it now captures most of what was previously NC-17 territory. Can any movie get an NC-17 for violence alone? At one time I'd say yes. Now, no.

So that's the history of the "unrated" label that the American Pie marketers are now feverishly trying to exploit. Never mind that today's young audiences don't know that "unrated" used to mean taboo, the tactic seems to be working all the same. So now you've got one of these Mr & Mrs Smith or Date Movie! type movies, and they're barely squeaking by with a PG-13. The studio strategy is to edit a blatantly R version of the film for the MPAA and ask for a PG-13 rating. The MPAA falls for the ruse perfectly by demanding a list of 15 specific cuts and changes to get the PG-13. But the studio doesn't care. They threw 40 things in there which deliberately challenge the PG-13 rating. If they have to remove 15, that means they get to keep the other 25. And they get the PG-13 rating.

So now, when it's time to release the DVD, you put the 15 cuts back in and you simply don't resubmit the new edit to the MPAA. Now you've got an unrated version. But here's the thing: The "uncensored" parts that you're now reincorporating into the movie were conceived as bits that could possibly slip by the MPAA into a PG-13 version. In other words, they're weak-R. They're barely-R. They were filmed with the intention of being part of a PG-13 movie.

So when you see something like this in the comedy aisle, stop and take stock of all the ways you're being insulted and deceived.

1) Nothing in America is censored. A DVD that claims to be uncensored is really just saying "We, the studio, chose to self-censor this movie earlier because we knew we could make more money. Now, we can un-censor our own product, because, again, we can make more money."

2) The bits that are now uncensored are weak, weak R-rated shots, some no longer than a single second. Go rent Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Even a tame R rated movie like that has acres more nudity than an uncensored Taj. Go rent The Sure Thing.

3) An attempt is being made to confuse you into associating an unrated PG-13 movie with the Unrated movies of yore. The real unrated movies. Doesn't that piss you off?

4) And what the hell is Blockbuster and Walmart and Target and Best Buy doing? Don't they have these high and mighty policies about only stocking movies with certain ratings? So now anyone can sell an unrated movie at Best Buy? What happens when Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer comes out as unrated on DVD? What will the Best Buy policy be then? Or Delicatessen?
What kind of cartwheels of logic will be necessary to ban some unrated movies but keep others?

On my recent trip to Blockbuster I asked about their ratings enforcement. Do they treat their unrated movies as R's or PG-13s? Or more than R's? Answer: a blank stare. Kids can rent R rated movies at blockbuster if the account says that they have permission. Do the unrated movies count as R's? Apparently it's at the discretion of the guy at the counter. So..... no.

But don't get me wrong. What's bothering me isn't the idea of kid seeing a tit. It's the rank hypocrisy of Blockbuster. The pious rental chain that won't stock NC-17 fare, the chain that strictly enforces the rating system. I guess when you dangle an extra $3.25 in front of blockbuster their principled position kinds of melts away. And you know, it's not just the hypocrisy. And it's not just the studio's presumption of my stupidity. And it's not just the way that they market their movies to confuse and deceive.

Unrated movies used to mean something. An unrated video meant that you were about to see some seriously messed up shit, or at the very least some bush. Movies that could shock and appall. Exciting movies. Dangerous movies. Movies where buttery fingers could at any minute slip up Marlon Brando's anus and it was par for the course.

And now every third movie on the aisle is unrated, and so of course it ceases to mean anything. Pornographers, in the 70s, exploited the ratings process and turned it into a form of advertising. Single X.... how about Triple X! (question, was there ever a Double X porn movie?) Now, national lampoon is doing THE EXACT SAME THING. Using the MPAA process (and the MPAA are themselves spineless and unprincipled) as a way to promote product.

Roger Ebert is right. (Not something I say every day) The rating system is broken. The whole idea of going back and forth with the MPAA to get the most graphic and explicit R or PG-13 that you can goes against the entire spirit of what the ratings are for in the first place. It also guarantees that the limit of what's acceptable will just keep moving north. Ebert wants an "M" rating, for movies that are too harsh for R, but aren't pornographic. But he's misguided in thinking that this would work. NC-17 was the M rating. That was supposed to be its function. But it failed because it's never going to be in a theater's interest to take a film that comes with a built-in limited-audience handicap. The theater will always be better off posturing and saying "We only play family fare here", (as they show Hostel on 3 screens).

No, there really is no good solution. Eventually the establishment will take a stand against the proliferation of these unrated DVDs, and then blockbuster will clean up its act. Until then, sit back and enjoy borderline R movies that boast that they're Uncensored!

Porn in my PS2

Speaking of arbitrary ratings and smut, why is it that when I put porn DVDs in my PS2 I get prompted to authorize parental control level 8? What in God's name do I need to put in there to get prompted for level 9 or 10? Cause the scale on the screen goes to 10. You may not be aware how disheartening it is to put in some serious porn and find out that you've triggered only this medium-high response from the PS2 parental control. Here I thought I was going to watch some hardcore shit, and the PS2 is treating it like it's one of the lesser Emmanuelles, or a Victoria Secret catalogue or a Oui Magazine.

What do I have to do to get the 10, Sony? What do you want? A snuff film? Nazi medical experiments? I'll do it! Just tell me! I want that 10.

The scary thing here is that according to Sony's logic, they have envisioned a situation where a parent might permit a child to watch anything up to and including hardcore porn, but absolutely nothing more adult than that! You hear me buster! Level 8 and that's it! Now be a good boy and watch your Seka.