Thursday, May 31, 2007

People, You Don't Need to Cut Holes in the Soda Can Plastic Rings Anymore

Every so often, I still see someone piously taking out the scissors to thoroughly carve up a six-pack plastic ring, or "yoke" before disposal. When I see someone do this, they throw me that look. The "I pity you" look. It's the look that says "Maybe YOU don't cut up the plastic rings, Mr. Choke-a-fish, but some of us have a little compassion."

What the sanctimonious yoke snippers don't seem to get is that they already won this fight. You don't have to cut up the six-pack plastic rings anymore because they're all photodegradable now, and have been so for almost 20 years. US and Canadian law demands they be photodegradable, and the one company that makes them, ITW Hi-Cone, bends over backwards to demonstrate how environmentally friendly they are. Did you know they're all made from post consumer product and are made from 30% less material than a generation ago?

Leave them out in the sun for more than two weeks and they disintegrate. Throw them in the ocean and they float to the surface and disintegrate. There's really nothing bad you can say anymore about six-pack plastic rings. They're used in arts and crafts. The days where you could see humorous sights like this are long, long gone.

But cutting up the rings is just one of those leftover behaviors that you can't get anyone to shake off. It's been drilled in so well that you have to cut up the rings. It's a relic. It's like how every gas station still screams out "UNLEADED" 30 years after it's necessary. It's like the people who are still fighting the battle against styrofoam and preaching about saving the whales.

That's it for today. I was actually working on a grand treatise about which supermarket items it's okay to buy the generic versions of, and which items really demand a brand-name purchase - but now that I've taken such a hard stance against branding, maybe it wouldn't be appropriate anymore. It's just... diet coke is so much better than diet rite... I have to admit I'm conflicted here.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Don't Be a Dusthole

That's right readers, don't be a dusthole. For at least the last year or two there have been these billboards all around Las Vegas cautioning drivers not to "be a dusthole". I see one on my commute every day, and sometimes I'm stopped at a red and I get to just stare at it. Here, have a look:

Here's my problem. After living with this billboard in my neighborhood for several years and contemplating it more than once, I have to confess: I STILL HAVE NO FUCKING IDEA WHAT IT MEANS. And I'm a guy, not to toot my own horn here, I'm a guy with some experience at breaking down ads and deciphering all the hidden insults. But this billboard has been my kryptonite. This ad is just a wall of incomprehensibility. I *want* to know what it's talking about so I can scoff at its presumptiveness and go drive through a little dust just to show it who's boss. But I can't just drive through some dust, cause, this is Vegas and there's dust everywhere, I drive through dust every day, it accumulates on my windows faster than I can clean it, and - for the love of God what the hell is the point of this billboard!

Am I supposed to swerve out of the way when I see dust? Am I supopsed to avoid dust if I see a pile of it on the median? Am I supposed to judge an oncoming dust storm and steer in the opposite direction? And no, those aren't sarcastic asides, those are my actual theories for what the billboard means. I can't just dismiss this appeal to "steer clear" of dust as the rantings of an insane person, which is what it feels like - because someone actually cared enough about this issue to design a public awareness ad campaign, craft the ads, and pay for billboards all around town. So someone with money clearly cares about my driving habits with regard to dust avoidance, but in all of their planning they forgot the most important ingredient - the ingredient that makes your billboard make sense.

So the plan today, right here with you the reader, is to go on the internet, track down the sponsors of this billboard, and find out finally, for once and all, what steering clear of dust actually means and why the Dusthole, pictured, is such a poor dust-steering-clearing decision maker. So here we go...

Okay, I'm back. And now finally, I do know what steering clear of dust means. But I will say, that was not an easy search. I had to deploy all of my googling prowess to track this info down. I did all kind of searches for "air quality", "Las Vegas", "billboard" and "dusthole" and came up with nada. Actually, surprisingly, all I found were other blogs also expressing confusion over the dusthole.

The breakthrough came when I found this site, which you really need to see for yourself. It didn't solve the mystery, but at least now I had a name for the dusthole face: "Dusty the Dusthole"

Now I renewed my search for the meaning of the billboard, using the name Dusty. And voila. I found this article from the RJ. It's a long article about the successful ad campaign to raise dust awareness. Bafflingly, it almost completely omits any mention of what Dusty is supposed to be teaching us. I ask again: what does "Steer Clear of Dust" mean? In the name of the baby Jesus, please, what does it mean? But then thankfully, we get this money paragraph:

Reid and fellow commissioners credited the success of the dust-control program in part to public awareness through television ads that featured Dusty the Dusthole, a character with a penchant for stirring up dust by driving fast on unpaved roads and speeding across vacant lots.

So that's it. Driving on unpaved, dusty roads or lots stirs up dust that pollutes the air. Okay, now how was I supposed to figure that out from the "Steer Clear of Dust" slogan and a picture of a guy with Down syndrome? Shouldn't it have been "Don't kick up dust." with a picture of a truck... I don't know, kicking up dust?

The good news is, I don't think I've ever taken a shortcut across a vacant lot, so I can finally feel relieved that I'm not a dusthole. It had been weighing on my mind. And Clark County, by virtue of having an indecipherable billboard, actually succeeded in its mission, which was to raise awareness. Consider me aware.

I leave you now with my favorite Las Vegas billboard, located somewhere around Decatur and Spring Mountain, which I think pretty much speaks for itself. Till next time!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Willy Wonka Hypocrisy

So I had the opportunity to rewatch this movie recently. The original Willy Wonka. A fine, fine film in my opinion. Has it aged well? Eh, mostly. It does feel out of place that Charlie bumps into an honest to God tinker outside the factory gates. I mean, a tinker? Even in 1971 I'm not sure how many tinkers there were wandering the streets.

Also there's the gum thing. I feel like I grew up in an era that was still recovering from some kind of childhood gum plague. Teachers in school would tell us with the harshest insistence: "Absolutely no gum chewing in my classroom! Do you hear me!" And we're all looking at each other thinking "Gum? Who chews gum? What gum?" So presumably there was a time when children chewing excessive amounts of gum was a huge problem, I just had the good fortune to be born afterwards. No, our problem were those damn curling bracelets that looked like little rulers but they snapped onto your wrist. What were those things? Where have they gone?

But anyways, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory takes a bold stance against gum chewing, and it does feel a little out of date. But dated or not, it is still a great movie.

Well, except for a slightly bigger problem. See, the film has always seemed a little hypocritical to me. How? Well, the Roald Dahl book is a morality tale. Dahl shows us that kids with bad habits get what's coming to them. Take Augustus Gloop for instance:

He's a glutton. He's fat. He eats too much chocolate. He falls in the chocolate river and gets sucked up the pipe. Lesson: don't be such a pig. But now here's the funny thing. Do you know who made the film? Not Paramount or Disney. The film was made by the Quaker Oats Company, and it was made first and foremost as a marketing tool to sell these candy bars:

The actual Wonka candy bar was a complete failure (supposedly it was like a Nestle Crunch bar with graham instead of crackle), but the movie was a big hit. Now if you want to make a film adaptation of a Roald Dahl morality tale about the dangers of eating too much chocolate, do you really think it's wise to use the film as a vehicle to sell chocolate? Don't you think that just slightly undermines the message?

And that's without even mentioning that the book contains another character, Mike Teavee, who's addicted to television:

Why would you make a film adaptation out of a story whose moral is that television is bad for children? Isn't there a bit of a problem there? It would be like, I don't know, making a Cliffs Notes edition of a book about the dangers of using Cliffs Notes. Or taking a book about the sad lives of circus animals, and doing a stage adaptation of it with actual circus animals. It's just not a good idea. Did the filmmakers mind these two casual betrayals of the moral of the story?

So there's always been that hypocrisy with the Willy Wonka film. The film tries to draw moral lessons, and the filmmakers undercut the lessons. But then, with the new, inferior Tim Burton remake, we get a fresh dose of hypocrisy.

See, they've reinvented Mike Teavee. Now he's a video game addict. He's not just vain like the original Mike, now he's violent:

What a smart idea. How bold of Tim Burton to update Mike for the 21 century. It's not just television that rots the brain, it's these damned video games. Good for you Tim Burton! Kids today need to be told what's bad for them. What bold commentary. What fresh insight. What courageous... wait a minute! Hold on! What's this?

Why, it's a video game of Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. "Hey kids, crack is bad for you. Oh and by the way, here, have some crack." Tim Burton, you're a hack. You're nothing. And yeah, the movie sucked. What the hell was up with Johnny Depp?

Do you see now why I hate marketing? Look how they've exploited Roald Dahl and undermined his story. Look how they've sold him out. And for what? To make money? Is that all? Man does this get me cheesed.

Saturday, May 05, 2007


I'm going to have to go into full soapbox mode for this one, so everyone should probably stand back. In fact you may just want to browse out of here.

I think that advertising cheapens and coarsens our lives. It pollutes society. It takes the joy out of everything it touches. It teaches us all the wrong lessons. Any one ad, taken in isolation, is irritating but benign. It's the cumulative force of tens of thousands of them, over years, that cause permanent damage.

Coca Cola, you see, doesn't make you happy. It doesn't mean that the party has started, it doesn't help you bond with the guys, it doesn't take you back to the old days. There are other things in life that really can make you happy; but if you've been tricked into thinking that Coca Cola does it, you're that much poorer. You're further away from the real pursuit of happiness. You've let Coca Cola detour you into a dead end.

I've tried to resist this programming. I know that ads promise things, like happiness, that have nothing to do with their product, but I don't think I've escaped the effects. I know I've been programmed to think that going out and buying something will make me feel better. The act of buying and the act of owning have been drilled into me as the source of personal fulfillment.

Just a brief disclaimer now. All of this is not a prelude to saying that we need to a) renounce materialism and go live on a commune, or b) find Jesus. I'm actually a big cheerleader for materialism, in the sense that I think that all of our material conveniences and comforts are necessary stage-setting for the real pursuit of personal fulfillment. My swiffer doesn't provide happiness, but it cuts the cleaning time in half so that I can spend that surplus time doing something meaningful (or, more typically, playing Grand Theft Auto). For that reason alone I'm grateful for the swiffer.

It's "branding" that has to go. Branding is evil. Branding is responsible for this cheapening of our lives. Here's my amateur theory on the subject.

I think in the old days of consumerism, the really old days, there was no government oversight, no money-back guarantee, snake oil salesmen selling you mysterious tonics and potions, and lots of bad science floating around. If you bought something, drank it, and were allergic to the wrong thing, you could keel over and die. This is why good products, back then, had to trade on their name. If your toothpaste said "Colgate" on it, then you could be relatively assured that it was good toothpaste.

I seem to remember as a kid that a lot of advertising would stress the word "guarantee". Our product is guaranteed. Works every time or your money back. Company founders would appear in their best suit in the ad and give their personal word that the product was guaranteed to work as promised. You don't see that too much anymore. No one makes "It really works!" the focus of the ad these days. Now it's more likely to be a 30 second skit with a joke and some sexual innuendo with the product as a central prop to the play.

The reason why the "guarantee" ads have disappeared is that everything is guaranteed now. By the time something gets to your supermarket shelf, it's passed every conceivable test for safety and effectiveness. And if something still manages to go wrong, you get immediate service recovery. And if something still isn't resolved to your satisfaction, you can sue the bastards.

But the whole reason that Brands and Jingles and Catch-Phrases existed was to convince you of the quality of the product. Now that the quality of any product on any shelf is always guaranteed, what do we need the aggressive sales pitch for anymore? I've always conceded that commercials can sometimes function in an instructive way - for example showing me a upcoming movie that I wasn't aware of, or alerting me to a going-out-of-business sale, or announcing hat day at the ballpark, etc. But there's no longer any need to tell me to use Colgate brand toothpaste.

Because, now, there's no difference between Colgate, Aquafresh and Crest. None. It's all the same thing. Any ad that tries to persuade you that Colgate is superior is just a phenomenal waste of time, money and energy. At best, it annoys you and spoils an otherwise pleasant 30 seconds. At worst it actually succeeds in persuading you that Colgate is better.

So how can a commercial persuade you that one branded commodity product is better than another branded commodity product. The method that marketers have discovered is to persuade you that the toothpaste offers something more than just the normal toothpaste-y goods. One way is to differentiate the brand by inventing lots of different toothpaste categories, like Tartar control, extra whitening, maximum strength (?), etc.

But the problem with that is that Aquafresh and Crest will quickly mimic any successful toothpaste differentiation you can cook up. They'll have their own Tartar control product. So now what?

Now is when you get really sneaky. Now is when you decide that toothpaste can actually transport you into an entirely different lifestyle or social class. If you make an ad that shows a woman scrubbing with Colgate before hopping gleefully into bed with an attractive man in what is obviously a well appointed house, you're pitching a lifestyle. If you see that commercial enough thousands of times, you might actually start to associate Colgate with great sex and fabulous wealth.

And yes, I'm by no means the first person to make this case. In fact it's been made to me in several classrooms - sadly though it's been made by teachers who actually endorse this kind of marketing, and who clearly admire the strategy.

Modern marketing says that you don't pitch the product, because that's futile - all of your competitors have the same product. You have to pitch something that's out of reach, something that's otherwise unobtainable. Colgate doesn't just clean your teeth, it also leads to great sex. You don't need to demonstrate how Colgate can provide great sex, you just need to put them in the same picture frame over and over.

Now this indeed might be the best way to boost toothpaste sales. I can't fault the theory on its successful track record. But I wonder if the professors and faculty in my school's Marketing Department have thought about what they're helping to do to society. (Jeez, and I really hate writing sentences like that last one. But it's worth it. The message has to get out.)

What it does is promote a gnawing sense of insecurity that whatever we currently have isn't good enough. This bombardment of film footage that we are constantly subjected to that equates product ownership with happiness - it messes with our programming. I know my programming has been permanently altered. If someone were to ask me right now: what's the best laundry detergent on the market? Without hesitation I would say "Tide". But, Tide isn't better than any other detergent. All of those detergents: Wisk, Gain, All, Cheer, Tide - all of them - they're all the same. That smug sense of satisfaction I get when I take my Tide to the laundry room and see all the poor saps with their generic supermarket detergent. How I pity them! They can't afford Tide. Maybe I should be charitable and give them a cup? Give them a taste of the good life... See how Tide has twisted my brain?

And these professors, these educators are going into the classroom every day and instructing the next generation how to perpetuate the deception. Does anyone ever raise their hand and ask why we should devote so much time and strategy to convince total strangers that Coke is better than Pepsi, when it's actually not better? That would be a fun question to ask in class.

What can I possibly hope for here? Will ads ever die? Sometimes, when the product becomes so commoditized that no one can even pretend to claim that their brand is better, then the ads go away. Like... I don't know - salt. No one makes ads trying to claim that their salt is the bomb. Unless I just haven't seen them. I can't recall any salt ads where the woman takes the salt down from the cupboard and the muscular, manly husband comes up behind her and puts his arms around her and nuzzles her neck. "Mmm... smells delicious honey. Is that Morton's Iodized table salt?"

Well, yep, I'm definitely plummeting down from the coffee high now, so it's time to wrap it up. People, don't be fooled by ads. All those different brands, they're all the same. Okay, maybe a laundry detergent connoisseur can detect the slightly different bouquet of Cheer and prefers it to Downy, but whose fault is it that he got the idea in his head to have a detergent preference in the first place? Can one really have a preference? Can one really express individuality through brand choice?

All right, I'm done. No more soapbox today.