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Kramer vs Kramer vs Consumerism

There are films that never lose their emotional wallop, despite how many times you’ve seen them. Steel Magnolias, The Color Purple, Stella Dallas and An Affair To Remember come to mind. There is no element of surprise in the viewing; in fact the memorized dialogue and outcome are part of the pleasure. But the way in which the stories are crafted pull the viewer in for the punch. Of course there are reasons to revisit a dramatic film besides an opportunity to use tissues and visine. Films can tell us an awful lot about how we lived or thought. A film is fantasy of course, but it is a reflection of a director, screenwriter or producer’s viewpoint. Attitudes portrayed about gender, race, sexuality and religion are often an accurate reflection of the time. A film shot in the early 1970s will not only look very early 1970s but sound it too. Women might be referred to as “girls” or “honey,” bottoms might be patted. Generally, if non-white actors appear it’s to make a point. The storyline probably has nothing to do with any of these details, but the details are telling nonetheless.

You might remember the film; Kramer vs Kramer. (For those who don’t; it was a cutting-edge tale of divorce and custody starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, set in New York City.) The emotional wallop of the film doesn’t diminish with time. Much of what will rip you to shreds is the incredible performance of (8 year-old) Justin Henry. You’d have to be made of stone to not crumble at the raw hurt and anger on his face. Meryl Streep’s eyes do most of her talking. She has perhaps twenty lines and expresses pages and pages of dialogue with her eyes. The viewer understands everything about these people and their anguish. But there is also (now) a story on the periphery of that story. The year is 1979 and times were decidedly different. The family is middle class (daddy works in advertising.) They are educated people living in a two-bedroom high-rise apartment uptown. The child attends a neighborhood school and they frequent Central Park. Sounds rather timeless, no? It’s what you don’t see that is so telling. The family (before they weren’t one) is living comfortably on one salary. There is no car, there is no private school and there is no luxury. The child’s bedroom has been hand-painted with clouds by the creatively frustrated mother. (In 1979 this was considered somewhat decadent.) However, there is no Pottery Barn kid’s furniture or matching bedding and window treatment. There are some books, some toys, and later a framed photo of mommy. The chaos that ensues with mommy’s departure is linked to the time period. There are no babysitters or nannies on call or even in existence. (Nannies were still for the posh or the British.) Daddy must master grocery shopping and food preparation as take-away was not ubiquitous and children did not dine out. Luckily for daddy there are no play-dates (there is only play) and there are no enrichment programs or team sports for a first-grader.

Now no one would suggest that the late 1970s were halcyon times. The demise of the marriage in question hinged on the fact that the wife felt marginalized. She left her husband and child to “find herself” (aka get some analysis and a job.) But had the marriage worked, and had she felt able to go out and get a job, their lifestyle wouldn’t be that much different. There’d be an after-school babysitter no doubt. But the minimalistic consumption wouldn’t alter. Sure, she might need some work clothes, but shopping wasn’t a legitimate hobby in the 1970s. New appliances would’ve only been purchased if every attempt at repair had been exhausted. There were no strollers being sold for the same price as a moped. In short, they would have had more money and more time (not running from expenditure to expenditure) than they would today. Something to contemplate while watching the film and choking back the tears

 

 

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Always Be Selling

Are you tired, run down, listless? Do you poop out at parties? Are you unpopular?  Don’t reach for that bottle of vitametavegamin just yet.  It might not be vitamins, minerals and 23% alcohol that is lacking from your diet.  You may in fact be suffering from pitch overload.

Much is made of the unrelenting pressure and demands of sales.  Just look at those men in Glengarry Glen Ross or poor Willy Loman.  Selling can be exhausting and soul crushing.  But guess what? so is being sold to night and day, day and night.  From the moment we wake until we crumble into fitful sleep, we are bombarded.  The morning news is brought to you by…(even public broadcasting will read you corporate underwriter ads.)  The news (whether read, watched or heard) has to be weeded from the press releases and publicist’s coups.  Once out the door, wearing what was sold to you, you head for your commute.  At the bus shelter, or subway entrance, you will view at least 3 different rotating ads.  The subway car is plastered with ads (usually of a very depressing nature; lawsuits, questionable training institutes, and booze, lots of booze.)  One’s actual workday may be filled with more spin and sales, depending on one’s place and nature of work.  By the time we arrive back home, we have been pitched countless times.  It’s nothing we can’t handle.  We’re used to it.

It’s when the pitch tries to disguise itself, that things get a bit trying.  Back in olden times, when one had to get up from the recliner to turn the channel, to one of five stations; not everyone on television was selling something.  There was a format known as the talk show, where interesting people came to talk.  Some of these people were famous, sometimes not.  The reason that there were so many of these show is that they were interesting, and they were interesting because people weren’t being booked to sell a product.  Conversations were not being designed by publicists but by producers and hosts.  And I’m not just talking about Dick Cavett and Tom Snyder here; lots of hosts were creating great entertainment. Print media has become very similar to television in its mass marketed hermetically sealed value meals of stories.  Whether it’s an “expert” whose expertise is that they are selling their book, doling out a sound bite, or the hard hitting exposes about high end knock-offs periodically placed in fashion magazines, the audience struggles to discern; “is this real?”  When we add embedded advertising to the mix (shout out to General Mills for the television series Homeland!  Your Lucky Charms has never looked better in its FOUR close-ups!) it’s no wonder we’re feeling listless and pooped out at parties.

Embedding is not all that new.  Remember when Don Draper won the Clio for the Glo-Coat ad?  It wasn’t that the child as a prisoner (behind a kitchen chair) was so innovative, it’s that the commercial was filmed like a movie.  The viewer was lulled into the commercial because it felt like actual programming.  That is the point of embedded advertising.  We’re practically inured to traditional ads (unless it’s during the Super Bowl) and don’t even see the many pop-ups on our computer.  But when the ad seems like part of the narrative our brain needs a moment to register that we are being sold something.

The exhaustion comes from the fact that we have so many advertising delivery systems now.  What was the first logo apparel you owned?  Was it a T-shirt, a cap, or a cotton jacket festooned with a pattern of “Pepsi-Cola” emblazoned in red, white and blue (ahem, that was me.)  Please, that is so 1977.  There are companies who don’t even bother with design any longer, they just slap their brand/logo on the shoe, bag, shirt and call it a day.  You can’t even look at another person without seeing an ad (and I’m not just talking about people who copyright their baby’s name.)

At the end of the day, if we are surrounded by things (i.e., books, music, art) that we chose because they speak to some fiber of our being, we will rejuvenate (at least until the next day.)  But what if the book we fall asleep to is always a “bestseller” and doesn’t resonate at all?  What if at the end of the day we find ourselves surrounded by nothing more than what we’ve been sold?

 

 

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2012 in Media/Marketing

 

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U.(nidentified)F.(acebook)O.(bjections)

How many times have you read “Facebook” and “privacy” in the same sentence?  It’s not just me, right?  So what exactly is stoking this anxiety?

For decades, I have been bristling (and acquiescing) to being asked for personal information at every turn.  Doctor’s offices, insurance companies, banks, jobs; you name it.  They all want one thing from me; my personal information.  Identifying numbers and dates have been flying around unprotected forever.  There was a time when college identification cards were emblazoned with the student’s social security number.  Personal checks often had the account holder’s driver’s license number printed on the front (to avoid that pesky step of a cashier copying down a customer’s most identifying number at each purchase.)  It was routine in many high schools and colleges to post test results in hallways with “only” the identifier of a social security number.

So what is it exactly that makes some people feel stalked by Facebook?  To establish an account you need to provide a name and an email.  That’s about it.  There’s no financial information and certainly no call for any identifying numbers.  You may choose to provide your birth date, but you needn’t.  I can only assume (and yes I am aware of how dangerous that can be) that the perceived invasion of privacy centers around the actual behavior while on Facebook.  All those “Like” buttons and photo sharing may result in some huge database of T.M.I.?  And then what?  Since data collection (of such mundane points) could only be useful from a marketing standpoint, is it a fear of adverts?  I don’t know about anyone else, but my (real) mailbox and email inbox have been brimming with adverts (tailored just for me!) for about twenty years.  My reactions range from annoyance, to hurt pride (“really, teeth whitening offers?”) to grabbing my coat and going shopping (hey, sometimes they do get it just right.)

To be clear, I am not a lover of pop-up ads or commercials (shout out for the DVR, you beautiful little genius, you!!) but like death and taxes, they’re going to happen no matter what.  Close the pop-up box, delete the message, avert your eyes.  Facebook is free, and free costs.  Think of the adverts as a pledge drive.

But then again, we know what happens when one assumes.

 
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Posted by on February 5, 2012 in Media/Marketing

 

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Wessonality

I hear that taxi receipts are going to be emblazoned with advertising soon.  In theory, that passes the laugh test, no?  For anyone who has ever been handed a mangled 2-inch receipt with blurry ink, it sounds ridiculous.  Unless it’s an ad for a better receipt mechanism, we might want to rethink this initiative.

Advertisers for the most part are hitting the right note in placement.  The industry has matured and is adept at following (and even predicting) trends.  Traditional platforms are still in the game, but new media has prompted creative delivery initiatives.  With our hand-held devices, web-based platforms and the like, we are bombarded with new forms of ads.  Only the most rural of us leave our homes without entering a technicolor world of advertising.  Those taxis about to get the smudgy receipt ads?  Most of their roofs are festooned with a large (illuminated) table tent of an ad.  Almost all cabs now have advertising (posing as network news) playing on a monitor in the backseat.  There really isn’t much to malign about the ubiquity of advertising.  If it hurts anyone, it’s the product/client not the user/consumer.  How in the world do you make yourself heard above all that noise?

One of the oldest ways to get noticed is celebrity endorsement.  Since there were celebrities there was celebrity endorsement.  If anyone had thought to market apples, I’m guessing they would have approached Eve.  Throughout the years most endorsements and advertisements have been quite obvious.  But what happens when advertising not only becomes more ubiquitous but more embedded?  What happens when a celebrity is famous for selling themselves as a brand (versus being a performer?)  There is a potential for conflict of interest as well consumer confusion.

Let us take a recent example of Paula Deen, a woman whose gimmick has been selling mayonnaise and butter laden dishes.  She is a southern woman who got her start making sandwiches for local workers.  With no culinary training but an innate understanding of showmanship, she is a perfect example of today’s celebrity brand.  She announced her (three year old) diabetes with her drug company endorsement in hand while declaring that her diet has nothing to do with her disease, thereby protecting her brand.  When asked on air if she was a paid spokesperson for the drug company she retorted; “I’m compensated just like you are.”  Well, not exactly.  The newsreader is being compensated by the network to do a good job for the network (and probably to cross promote the network’s other programming.)  Not many people watching the show think he is doing it for free.  The issue with not declaring (in a big black box) that “Miss Paula Deen is a paid spokesperson for this company” is that we are not the most educated of consumers. Sometimes public health has to trump capitalism.  Our country is just getting heavier.  Miss Deen has a loyal rural and southern following who may very well be suffering from diabetes themselves.  To hear a (very healthy looking) famous person declare that “diabetes has nothing to do with what you eat and if you take this lovely drug like I do there’s nothing to worry about,” is troubling.  Miss Deen is allowed to sell whatever she chooses, and the drug company is allowed to hire whomever it pleases.  Hence, the black box.  The drug company could also do themselves a big public relations favor by prefacing all their messaging with “maintaining a healthy weight is proven to have a positive impact on diabetes management.”

Users/consumers are becoming increasingly inundated with advertising, and may be a bit numb.  A million years ago, the novelty of Judy Garland selling Max Factor was so unique the consumer would think; “Look it’s Judy Garland selling Max Factor!” (and most fans knew that Max Factor was the make-up artist for the movie studios.)  Now that everyone is famous and ads are everywhere, being intuitively savvy is a challenge.  The harm is not to the product or advertisers but to the consumers.  Regulating advertising to protect consumers is not new.  You may remember when some paperback books had full-age cigarette advertisements.  Liquor and cigarette advertisements were once on television all the time.  Public health concerns change over time and in my estimation will always trump profit.  A simple black box hurts no one, not the product and not the paid spokesperson.  All it will do is remind the consumer that they are in fact experiencing an advertisement.

 
3 Comments

Posted by on January 20, 2012 in Cultural Critique, Media/Marketing

 

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Wait! But If You Act Now

There’s been some buzz recently about the “advent” of embedding advertising in entertainment.  Evidently, research indicates that people don’t like to watch commercials.  Crack research team, eh?  So embedding product placement seems to be the new radical solution to DVR/Tivo fast forwarding.  How in the world is this a new idea?

I still remembered my fevered distraction in watching the film Million Dollar Baby (2004.)  And no, not because of the hammering over the head obviousness of the failed attempt of melding two short stories, but by that damn soda machine.  I think it had its own stylist, or at least trailer.

While I can understand how placating it is to the client, product placement is just so counterproductive.  Not only am I not interested in purchasing the car being given its own role in a primetime television show, I can no longer take the product, the show, the characters or even the poor exploited actors, seriously. Really?  An equity member actress having to extol the virtues of the parallel parking features “in character.”  That just seems punitive to me.  Perhaps a newer generation will be lulled into the embedded advertising, but I was raised on overt label covering in television and film.  How many “cola” cans, “Heerios” boxes, “McBurger” cartons have we all seen?  Before that trend of course, there was the overt sponsored program.  “We are the men from Texaco…”  But alas, that was a simpler time.

I can’t help but feel that embedding is the first quiver of a death throe.  Towards the end of its 72 year run, the (excellent) daytime drama Guiding Light created a convenience store set stocked with Procter & Gamble products.  When the industrial sized Folders can appeared on the restaurant counter, they knew, I knew, Springfield was doomed.  It made me question the solidity of Procter and Gamble as well.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I am susceptible to advertising.  No sooner did we have a television room in our family than I was clamoring for that toothpaste with the stripes and fabric softener sheets (I was a strange child.)  My mother, otherwise impervious to pop culture, or fashion, actually dressed my sister and I in Pepsi-Cola jackets.  These were red, white & blue baseball-style cotton jackets festooned with the soda logo.  As the younger of the sisters, I wore that jacket for 4 years.  And I was thrilled, dear reader, I was thrilled.  I admit, at the tender age of 10, I fell hopelessly in love with the Pillsbury Dough Boy; the impish giggle, the soft pliable belly, the association of impending baked good.  I’ve also witnessed my brother’s longing for Snuggle.  I can still hear his plaintive cry: “But is Snuggle a boy or a girl?!”  Once grown to a consenting consumer age, I devoured teen magazines to discover what I should covet.  What twisted little advertising genius discovered teenage girls’ desire to smell strange?  Love Baby’s Soft, Lemon-Up shampoo, fruit flavored lip gloss.  Damn it, I wanted it all.  But sometime around the social studies advertising curriculum (8th grade?) it was difficult to not feel a bit cynical.  I had never stepped foot in a Wendy’s before, and a quest to find the beef, wasn’t gonna change that.

My suspicion is that advertising is most influential on me (and perhaps you) when it takes on an educational role.  Tell me about this new product, and why I need it.  I may give it a try (hello Swiffer! nice save Procter & Gamble.)  But so much of what’s being advertised is not new.  And being new, no matter how confusing and weird (i.e., the Tiffany key and now, lock) is no guarantee to sway me.  And when the advertising is annoying?  You just lost me as a potential customer.  So if I am the last person you want buying your product (and I may very well be) I encourage more humiliation of actors and actresses and definitely invest in some pop-up ads.  Oh, and while you’re at it, airbrushed a very over-exposed former television star, and I will so not buy your fortified water.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on October 7, 2011 in Cultural Critique, Media/Marketing

 

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