Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Always Get the Original Flavor

This is simple, people. The original recipe is the one that built the brand. It's the one that people bought by the millions. It's Colgate toothpaste. It's Dial soap. It's Coca Cola. The reason Colgate is a household name is not because of Colgate Advanced Plaque and Whitening Formula, it's because of the original tube that had Colgate written on it. That was the advanced formula. This is what people don't understand. The original was the genuis product that made the name. The advanced plaque fighting version didn't exist until 80 years later, when a business school type was hired to figure out how Colgate could guard it's market share. Which product do you want: the toothpaste that built the empire or the one imagined up by the executive who preached the merits of diversification? How is this even a hard choice?

And you see this all over the marketplace. As soon as a product gets popular it spawns 12 variants, all inferior. And because the new variants are always presented as special, advanced, or improved, no one buys the plain old unadorned original anymore. But the original is where the quality is. You can bank on it every time. Shampoo? Look for the bottle that says "for normal hair". That's the original. Orange juice? Find the carton with no vitamins or calcium added. Sam Adams? Boston Lager. Pizza? Original crust. Don't take the experimental newfangled crust that was supposed to usher in a whole new pizza paradigm. That's a marketing exec getting paid and laughing at you. This is the person who got paid to say that a slice of pizza could be improved. Why should you pay the price for his assininity?

Consider the Oreo cookie. A masterpiece of design. A sculptured, aesthetic tour de force. Two irresistable flavors in perfect balance. This is the cookie that built Nabisco. Remember Barbarians at the Gate? Doesn't happen without the Oreo cookie. According to Wikipedia it's been the best selling cookie in the United States since its introduction in 1912.

And you know what you are if you buy your child the original Oreo instead of the double stuf? A heartless sonofabitch apparently. How dare you get the single stuf version for your family and deprive them of all that precious extra cream? Not to mention you didn't get any of the holiday colors versions, you cheap, thoughtless tightpurse.

That's what Oreo has done to it's own flagship cookie. By creating all these new versions and touting them as improvements, they've deliberately sabotaged the original and made it seem plain so that the fudge-dipped variety and others can look better by comparison. And it's worked. If you buy the original, which again to remind you was the dominant, most popular US cookie of the 20th century, then you presumably have no imagination, ambition or taste, and your child will look at you like you are deliberately trying to disappoint him.

Always remember: the original built the empire. The new version was the 1980's brainchild of the hired suit. Which do you want in your pantry?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Case Against Travel

Let’s say I walked into your house, took a dining room chair, and placed it facing a wall, with about 12 inches of clearance. Then I sat you in the chair, and made you a proposition. “Here’s the deal.” I say to you. “You have to sit in this chair for ten hours. You’re allowed to get up to stretch every few hours – and you can have bathroom breaks too. But otherwise you sit there. Don’t worry about food and water, I’ll bring it to you. You’re welcome to have a magazine or a book or an iPod to help pass the time. That’s it. For ten hours.”
“Why would I do that?” you ask me.
“In exchange I will give you something truly valuable.”
“Look,” you say, “It’s not like I have ten hours of free time to give you. I’m pretty busy.”
“Oh I know. I need you to use your vacation hours from work for this. We’ll schedule it months in advance.”
“I don't get too many vacation hours.” you say to me. “This would have to be worth it.”
“Oh it is.” I insist.
“So I sit here in this cramped chair for 10 hours. Anything else?”
“Well,” I say, “Every once in a while during the 10 hours I will shake the chair violently and you will experience a brief moment of mortal panic. Oh, and you need to pay me $1,500. That’s it.”
You: “This sounds terrible.”
Me: "Ah, but I haven't told you what you get in return. Are you ready for this?"
“Yes I’m ready.”
“In exchange for that irritating test of your patience, you my friend will get to tour some truly beautiful cathedrals.”
“What? Cathedrals? Why would I want to tour a cathedral?”
“Because you’re not some uncultured boob. But wait, that isn’t all. There’ll be a charming sunset in it for you too. Maybe a scenic vista.  A couple of meals at some delightful trattoria. And at night! You won’t believe what happens then!”
“What happens at night?”
“Well, it will be just like sleeping here at home in your own bed, except it will be a) hotter, b) on a shitty mattress, c) noisy, d) humid, e) creaky, f) vaguely unsanitary, and g) the room will feature an elusive biting insect who comes out and strikes at the exact moment of slumber, then expertly disappears back into the peeling, stained wallpaper from whence it came.
“How is that preferable to my own bed at home?”
“Because it will be different! And different is better!”
“All right. So, I get the cathedral tours,”
“For a small fee.”
“And the trattoria. And the sunset. And the shitty bed.”
“And all I have to do is sit in the chair for 10 hours and pay you the $1,500.”
“Twice. It’s actually twice in the chair. Once before, once after. Forgot to mention it.”
“Okay…” you say. “My answer is no. That’s an awful deal. It seems to consist of nothing except being uncomfortable and paying money, and the fleeting moments of enjoyment that might arguably be possible are entirely outweighed by the ordeal of everything else. Frankly, I can think of no worse use of my time.”
End….. scene! To me, this is travel. It’s the opportunity to pay money and be bored and uncomfortable in exchange for getting to a place where you can pay money to be bored and uncomfortable. Any travel proposal, for me, has to pass the chair test. As in: would I be willing to sit in a chair facing the wall for ten hours in order to do it.
Very, very few things in life pass the chair test. I would submit to the chair ordeal for, say, a large lottery win. I would do it for a weekend at the Four Seasons with a sex starved Mila Kunis. I would do it to prevent an earthquake that would kill thousands of people. I would do it for a time machine. And that’s really about it. Getting to tour a magnificent ancient cathedral does not pass the chair test.
To be honest, if there was a beautiful cathedral a mile from my house, I wouldn’t go tour it, because who gives a fuck? And why should I sit in a chair for 10 hours to leave the comforts and protections of the United States to visit some vermin infested shithole? And pay for the privilege! Even if I’m just going to some tropical paradise somewhere, why visit a country where you’re really not supposed to leave the resort unless it’s with an escort and a town car? Or a country with a gulag? Or a country where you can’t walk 5 feet without someone trying to sell you wooden toys? Or a country where the toilet paper has to go in a separate garbage can? Or where you can’t drink the water? Or where you need a series of inoculations?
Where’s the upside? What’s the reward? Where’s the payoff? I’ve done these trips, and the biggest moment of personal discovery was the feeling of giddy happiness when I realized I was only an hour or so away from home, my own bed, and food that I knew met a threshold of freshness and safety.

Don't get me wrong. If I could snap my fingers and just teleport to anyplace in the world, I would do a bit of travelling. Lunch at a Paris bistro here, an afternoon on a Caribbean beach there. But the key is the short duration. After I pay the bill at the bistro, I'm ready to step back into my own home where climate control and a PS3 await. What I'm not ready for is the jet lag, the hassles of the airport and customs. The suspicioun of getting ripped off everywhere you go. The language barrier. The power adapters that fry your electric shaver. And most of all, I'm not ready to hand over multiple paycheck's worth of cash and submit to the chair. Twice. All for what? Cafe au lait and a stroll through the Louvre? You've got to be out of your mind.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Bland-Phrase Movie Titles that Carry No Meaning

It's complicated. How do you know? Because I said so. Is this as good as it gets? Something's gotta give.

Do these bland phrases add up to a coherent thought? Or are they all movies starring an elderly Jack Nicholson?

How big a cop out is it when a movie just picks a random, dull, shopworn common saying as its title, without any attempt to relate it to the film itself? You've got an expression like "Something's gotta give." - which as far as I can tell means you've got an overpacked schedule and you'll need to cancel something. What does that concept have to do with the film of the same name, which (I did see it) is sort of a weekend-in-the-country light comedy about an unlikely romance?

Really - I've spent a long time thinking about this: who in the movie is the person from which something has gotta be given? Diane Keaton? Keanu Reeves? Who can turn to the camera and say "I've got A, B, C and D going on. I'm going crazy, I'm overburdened, I've got too much on my mind - something's gotta give!"

The answer is no one. They picked a cliche for the name of the film, and they couldn't be bothered to find a cliche that passed some minimum threshold of relevance. The movie could just as easily have been named "A Stitch in Time", "Sauce for the Goose", "Loose Lips Sink Ships" or even "Whoever Smelt It Dealt It". It wouldn't matter. The point, I guess, is that you, the audience member will think to yourself - "Hey, yeah, I know that phrase! This must be my kind of movie!" and head immediately to the box office.

Woody Allen is a particular offender in this department. When he comes up with the least inspired titles you've ever heard (Whatever Works, Anything Else, Don't Drink the Water) you wonder if he's deliberately trying to find something commercial by way of blandness, or if he just doesn't care. I suppose it must be a handicap when you can't call a movie Transformers 2. If you can't reference a known movie product that offers the audience some kind of reassurance, then I guess it's helpful to find a backdoor entrance to familiarity through cliche.

I prefer a good old fashioned informative title. A title that lets you know where you stand. Like Tower Heist. Or The Human Centipede.

But Rumor Has It that Everybody's Fine. It's Kind of a Funny Story. In Good Company. You Again? Imagine That. I Don't Know How She Does It. I mean What Goes Up, right? But hey, When in Rome, What Happens in Vegas takes a New York Minute.

Are We Done Yet?

Friday, February 22, 2013

Why is Framing So Friggin Expensive?

$500 to $750. That's how much I was told it would cost to frame a shirt I had brought in to Aaron Brothers. And the price, you understand, would be for only the simplest frame and the cheapest materials. If I insisted on paying this rock bottom price, again, for framing a shirt, well there wasn't much they could do for me. They could probably fashion a frame out of some particle board they found in the parking lot, and maybe use glass they'd salvaged from the windshield of an abandoned Dodge Dart. But hey, if I wanted to put a shirt in a frame and only pay $750, these were the compromises I would have to make.

What kind of alternate universe bullshit is this? In what reality does it cost $500 to $750 to put some glass and wood around a shirt?

Okay, I knew framing was expensive. I had had posters framed before, paying $200 a pop for what they claimed was the absolute bedrock, bottom of the barrel price. So when I walked in that day with the shirt, I had already mentally prepared myself to agree to pay $200, though I'd have to do it through clenched teeth and with the knowledge that at half that price it would still be a ripoff. So when Mr. Friendly at the counter quoted his paycheck sized number at me, I wasn't even angry. My reaction was laughter. We were on two different planets. He was in a world where ordinary people walk in and agree to pay $750 to put a shirt in a frame. I was in a world where you pay parts and labor for a service. We were on two different sides of a pane of museum quality, no smudge glass.

Anyone in the framing business: please listen closely to what I am about to say. Because I know you are ready to explain to me in a frustrated, didactic tone about the true costs of framing, and how $750 to put some wood around a shirt really is a bargain. But before that, listen to me. The problem is that people have expectations about what something should cost. Even without framing expertise, people look at any service and they ballpark what they judge to be a fair price. When they look at a framed poster, they see the parts: wood, glass, matting, screws, string - all of which cost close to nothing at Home Depot, and they can estimate about an hour of labor. So they calculate the costs of these basic materials, plus the cost of an hour of labor of one of these strip mall employees, throw in a small premium to keep the lights on in the store... and you end up at about $40. That's how much it should cost to frame a poster: about $40. So when this person gets quoted $300, after the discount, and it will be ready in 8 days, there is total incomprehension. Parts, labor, overhead: it doesn't add up to $300. It adds up to $40. And it should be ready in an hour. And there should be a little comfortable seating area and a free soda while you wait. That should be framing. This is why all of your customers seem to be angry all the time. This is why their jaws drop, or they laugh and walk out.

So now let's entertain the objections from the framers. I've read them and I'll paraphrase them:
"It's called custom framing, genius. Each work order requires a unique frame, personally nibbled to size by our colony of trained termites. And that glass? There's only one company in the world that makes glass of the quality we require at Aaron Brothers, and it's in deepest, remotest Tibet. Do you have any idea how expensive it is? And the framing process? You think this is a fast food worker getting minimum wage to flip a burger? This is a trained artisan who needs the finest precision to correctly align and mat your poster. You want to skimp on that? How foolish are you going to feel in 200 years if you see an air bubble or oxygen damage in the frame? Who's the chump then? All that plus the rising costs of commercial rent, and the continuing effects of the 2009 global paintbrush shortage, and you're lucky we're even still in business. $750 is a steal to frame your shirt, and you're a fool if you don't take it."

Here's an actual quote I pulled from a framer's online forum, where the professional framer is venting his frustration about customers who don't understand the price:

"The reality is that most people are not used to buying a product that’s custom made. If you go into Nordstroms to buy a good tie, it could very easily be in the $125 range. Made of nice fabric. Mass produced. Probably 10 minutes worth of time put into it. The typical frame job takes an hour and a quarter. Many people have become accustomed to paying $125 for a tie because it is what it is – along with everything else we buy, including clothes, plumbing and car repair."

So now here I think we get to the point. Yes, some ties cost $125. But.... other ties cost $10. I understand that for $125 maybe I'm getting something hand stiched, or from a big deal designer. But, if I don't care about any of that, I can get a $10 tie. I might even be able to get 2-for-1. And, more good news, the $10 tie gets the job done just fine.

I suppose I could be persuaded that custom framing for a shirt might get into the $750 range if every aspect of it was custom built by the most highly trained craftspeople using the finest materials. But where's the $10 alternative if I don't give a shit about any of that? What if I don't need my shirt to hang in the Guggenheim? If I needed my ceiling painted eggshell white, and Michelangelo showed up and said he'd do it for a million dollars - I'm sure he could justify his price. But what if I don't need Michelangelo? What if I just need a guy with some drop cloths and a paint roller? Where do I find that service?

So keep your $750 quote and point me to the $40 shop. And if the framer's response now is "Pfft. Fine. Buy a frame and do it yourself." then I say no. I don't want to. What a waste of my time. I want to pay someone to do it. What part of that is difficult to understand? In the meantime I will sooner burn $750 in front of an Aaron Brothers store before I hand it over to let them frame a shirt.

The shirt was signed by the 1988 Saturday Night Live cast by the way. It's pretty sweet.