Yes, it’s my fault for trying to read a local newspaper article about something instead of doing what they want, which is buying a subscription to the local USA Today franchise for Clementon, New Jersey, or whatever just so I can see one piece about an amusingly shaped pumpkin or whatever it was. And I realize that many people have no trouble forming or giving opinions about stuff. But then they wanted my opinion on this to let me read on.
And this is after I had said what the phrase “C’est la vie” suggests to me. Well, as best I could approximate. What the phrase really makes me think is someone who accepts that yeah, this sucks, but it’s the way the game is played and if you get through this you can move on to some other phase of the doom. They wouldn’t let me write that down so I had to select ‘Neutral’ instead.
Anyway I feel like I have the chance to mess up somebody’s hummus marketing campaign here. Wish me luck.
I saw that Sports Authority didn’t get any bids for its stadium naming rights. Somebody else brought it up. I wasn’t prying. I was vaguely sad about Sports Authority going bankrupt, what with how I kept thinking I might go buy one of those nice slick-looking exercise shirts for years without doing it. I didn’t think I had the figure to wear one just yet and I didn’t want to go buying two of them, one for now and one for when I could look good wearing it. But I don’t blame myself for Sports Authority going bankrupt since I don’t think I’m to blame. It would be at least four shirts and a pair of ankle weights that they needed to sell to make the difference. And I already got ankle weights, back in 2010. They’ve been satisfying. They fit well on the shelf in the basement where they can fall onto my toes when I’m trying to get a can of fossilized paint. I forget where I bought them. Anyway, I was willing to let them go to wherever expired companies go without further action.
It was Consumerist.com that told me an asset auction turned up no bidders for their stadium naming rights. Also that they had stadium naming rights, for Mile High Stadium in Denver. I hadn’t heard the Broncos had sold their stadium name but that figures. Corporations like to graffiti just like any of us do. By paying an exposition authority they can get away with it just like the rest of us don’t. Here I have to divert for a real thing that I saw when I was living in Singapore years ago. I didn’t notice any noteworthy graffiti for months which is not a tautology because shut up. When I did spot one, it was spray-painted on a steel girder at a construction site. It read, “I Love Singapore”. Nice trolling, whoever you were.
Maybe I’m numbed to the selling of naming rights to everything. It’s hard to avoid, anyway. Sports venues and like got named for the team that got them built. Or at least the union-busting rich people that bought the place after the team went bankrupt. Or for lumps of matter you could put in your mouth and chew. If that didn’t suffice you could name them for geographical features, which is how we got Madison Square Garden or Mile High Stadium. I’m not saying the geography names were all that good. Madison Square Garden hasn’t been near Madison Square since Coolidge was President. I assume that’s because of a primitive 20s form of Gentrification. Mile High Stadium is actually only eight feet above ground level, owing to the high cost of stilts. But they offered a kind of certainty. They were named for places and you could be pretty sure about places being around. This was before we discovered continental drift and marketing.
And it is marketing. Corporations figure they want people to like them more. I can sympathize. It’s hard liking corporations. They’re not really about doing things that serve any particular good. They’re mostly about holding the rights to leverage real estate transactions. And who cares for that? It doesn’t matter what a company says it is. It’s just an operating entity existing on behalf of a holding company that’s really in it for the leverage. So you can understand how a corporation would try to make itself look better. They pick hanging around professional athletes. That way they can tie their image to an event that will end with any given consumer’s preferred team losing about half the time, and failing to achieve a championship most of the time. This reminds us that corporations how we as people organize to justify doing dumb or offensive stuff. Some places are astounding at naming rights. Lansing’s baseball stadium sold the park’s name to a law school and the field itself to an insurance company. They don’t seem to have thought to sell the name for the stands, or I just didn’t notice. I can’t wait for them to sell the naming rights for the slow-moving line of confused people at the hummus vendor’s.
Still, I’m surprised to learn nobody wanted to buy the Mile High Stadium naming rights. I’d imagine someone to try just for the fun of it. I’m thinking of starting a collection. Between me and all my friends we could probably put up literally hundreds of dollars to the cause of buying me the naming rights for Mile High Stadium. And I know what you’re thinking, that we’d come up with some hilarious syllable goo and pretend that’s the name for the place. First level thinking. We need better. I’m figuring to name it after some other stadium, like, Giants Stadium at Mile High Stadium. Or the Boston Commons Candlestick Veterans Park at Mile High Stadium. It’s at least as good as any other name.
Hm. Maybe I need a little more. I should sell the idea rights to this name.
The consoling thing about every company building up massive databases of every bit of information about all of us is that they’re all fantastically incompetent at it. By this I mean, yes, Best Buy, do keep asking if I’ll consider buying the cable modem that I bought from you seven weeks ago. I could easily use a second in case I need to crush walnuts between the two, I suppose.
A man walking with his friend says, “I’m a walking economy.”
His friend replies, “How so?”
“My hairline is in recession, my stomach is a victim of inflation, and both of these together are putting me into a deep depression.”
And I’m stuck wondering: who’s the joke supposed to appeal to? Never mind why it’s supposed to make me feel better about the price of the calendar and it not having Sundays. I get a kid finding it funny that older men might lose their hair and get fat, since that really is no end of merriment. But then the language throws you off. To a teen? Isn’t the hoary old joke structure too old-fashioned to amuse someone of that age? To a young adult? Why would they be buying a comic strip page-a-day calendar? To a middling adult like me? The time that joke would’ve amused me is long since passed, and the joke structure would need someone at least as skilled at delivery as a minor Muppet to work at all. To an actual adult like my parents? They’ve never gotten in a page-a-day calendar past the 12th of January. Why are they going to the effort to put a joke like that on the back of the calendar page? They could be putting trivia about the day that nobody will see until they next day when they tear today’s page off the calendar, instead.
I had been looking around the tea aisle because, as mentioned, I’m one of those people, and came across an honestly menacing and quite large box of a brand I hadn’t heard of before. It proclaimed its contents to be Make Mine A Builders Tea, “Britain’s Cuppa”, and as you can see from the picture if I don’t forget to include it, it’s got the styling of hazard signs warning you that the road is going to be torn up and there’s going to be dug-up roadbeds and people wielding things that make sparks at what sure looks like the waffle iron ordinarily hidden underneath the asphalt.
I’m not seriously ashamed to admit it’s the first time I’ve been intimidated by a box of tea, because its cover copy suggests that if I don’t buy it they’ll send a pack of football hooligans over to wallop me silly and stuff tea bags down my pockets. It warns, “Britain wasn’t built on camomile”, and further that “Fancy, frilly, flowery teas are all very well. But to get through a busy day, us Brits need a strong, satisfying brew. The type that gets right to the heart of your thirst.” I should point out I’m not a Brit, although I have spent nearly a whole week in England, where I enjoyed a visit to the Blackpool Pleasure Beach amusement park on an early July day nearly hot enough that the carbon dioxide wasn’t liquefying out of the air and raining down on us. It wasn’t a day for the water rides, due to icebergs.
The tea goes on to explain how making a proper tea is much like a sturdy building. Much like tea, you construct buildings by putting a bag full of building parts into a large pot of hot water and then, after a while, taking them out again, and finding there’s nowhere you can put the bag that won’t leave a puddle of mis-colored water where you don’t want it, and it’s starting to burn your hands, so you scoot over to the trash bin and try to toss it in cleanly, and miss. This is why so many suburban developments have to have swooping, curved roads, so that the houses look like they were built street-facing.
It’s the comparison to camomile as a particularly un-manly tea that’s got me, not least because who knew that tea was really missing gender essentialism, somehow? But a while back I was tossing out a box of Celestial Seasonings Tummy Mint Wellness tea, which probably would make the Builders Tea people explode if they heard about it, and I noticed on the back an actual, honest-to-goodness, somewhat alarming warning:
WARNING: If you are taking prescription medication, or are pregnant or nursing, consult your health care provider prior to using this product. Persons with allergies to the daisy family may be sensitive to chamomile.
Also apparently chamomile is a kind of daisy, and there’s different ways to spell it. The thing is while Builders seems ready to send roving packs of b’hoys wielding cudgels and shouting things like “Oi!” at people not drinking manly enough teas, apparently it’s conceivable you could end up in hospital with a severe case of chamomile. It’s not everyone who can say their life was endangered by the Celestial Seasonings corporation, at least besides the people who have to actually pick the tea leaves, and Celestial Seasonings probably subcontracts that job out to some company whose actions they can plausibly deny anyway. But then b’hoys were a 19th-century Bowery thing, out of place and somewhat anachronistic for modern Britain, so everybody’s on an equal footing again.
But the discovery that chamomile might be the world’s most dangerous tea not actually regularly containing guncotton was surprising, although not so surprising as if it actually exploded out from under me. Particularly I wondered why about eight percent (by volume) of the Internet and the columns of Dear Crazy Abby wasn’t entirely warnings about tea. I mentioned this on Usenet and a friend helpfully pointed out that according to Google, there were 3,750,000 matches for “Chamomile warnings” compared to 7,350,000 for “Snooki”. I suppose tea being half as threatening as Snooki is about the right balance of things. But I get completely different numbers trying it now, with much more concern about Snooki and far less about chamomile, so either we as a society have come to peace with tea recently or Google’s decided we need to stop asking questions about chamomile.
The Builders tea was fair enough, by the way. I haven’t seen another box since.
I bought this neat little tea-making gadget, good for bagged or loose-leaf teas, because yeah, I’m that kind of person. You put the tea and the hot water into the main reservoir, and then you set the whole thing on top of your cup, and it drizzles out the center, and hope that when you lift the gadget up again it stops pouring, and if it doesn’t, you buy a replacement tea-making gadget, like I did in the previous sentence.
I noticed that packed with it was an advert asking me to “peruse our monthly newsletter with entertaining and interesting insights into the history and enjoyment of tea”, which is terrifying enough and a deeper connection than I really feel like for a company that sold me a tea-making gadget. Then it went on to ask that I “drop in on our lively bulletin board — you’ll meet tea-loving friends and find answers to all your tea questions.”
On the one hand, trying to strike up conversations with people with whom I share exactly one known trait — tea-drinking — is terrifying. The idea that I should have multiple tea questions ready for them to answer is all the worse. And on the other hand I’m fascinated by the idea of what an Internet community of tea-drinking people is like. And then I remember that since it’s an Internet community it’s a group of people telling one another that they drink tea wrong. Still, imagine the flame wars they must have.
It further encourages me to “take part in our monthly contest and discover the whimsical dishes created by people with a passion for cooking and tea”. That’s the sort of advertising copy to make me hide under the bed and feel vaguely bad about eating, having tea, or enjoying whimsy.
I do look at the people Twitter recommends I follow, because it’s neat seeing how radically they change every time I do add someone and Twitter Master Command desperately searches for anyone who’s even remotely like that person. Sometimes it’s even people I’ve heard of, like when it suggested I follow Billie Jean King. And then I noticed: it was a promoted recommendation that I follow Billie Jean King.
The implication is that someone working for Billie Jean King Master Command, while apparently of sound mind and probably on a Tuesday, decided that it was worth paying some amount of money to Twitter Master Command so as to increase the probability that I, Joseph Nebus, would follow Billie Jean King’s Twitter account. They probably didn’t phrase it like that. They probably phrased it more like “increasing brand-name recognition among tall, bearded men from New Jersey”, and possibly they tossed the words “monetize” or “gamify” in there somewhere, but that doesn’t actually make the decision less daft.
I have a Peanuts page-a-day calendar because otherwise I’d only be reading three different Peanuts strips online every day, and on the back of every page is a miscellaneous bit of stuff, like a word puzzle or a sudoku puzzle or a note about what the day’s an anniversary of, which would be kind of useful if I saw it before I tore the page off the next day. On the back of January 27 they had this:
Corporate executives consider Tuesday the most productive day of the week. It’s the day to get down to business and start crossing off items on to-do lists.
Is this a “fun fact”? I’m not a fair judge of whether something is fun because I own multiple books which explain the history of containerized cargo, and I’ve been thinking seriously about picking up James Q Wilson’s Bureaucracy for recreational reading. I know that sounds like a joke, but I got interested in Wilson’s book because of some reading I was doing about Harry S Truman’s 1946-1949 director of the Bureau of the Budget, so you see why that all makes sense. You can tell me whether corporate productivity assessments are fun.
But is it a “fact”? People have a complicated relationship with facts. We like them, because we’re pretty sure knowledge is built out of them, but just how that building gets done is a mystery. You can check in the World Almanac and find out how many tons of steel the United States produced in 1945, if you were trying to look up when Arbor Day is and had some trouble with the index, but all that really tells you is how much steel the American Iron and Steel Institute was willing to admit was made back then. And really, all you learn is how much the World Almanac claims the American Iron and Steel Institute claims was made back then, and they’re pretty sure you aren’t going to go checking, what with Google being a much easier way to find out when Arbor Day is. Knowing what you do about American steel production rates in 1945 doesn’t give you any idea about why Arbor Day.
We want facts to be on our side, as we get ready to do cognitive battle with the world, but they’re not reliable allies. A fact can be pretty hard to dispute — that steel-production figure has got to be pretty sound if I could figure out where I left the World Almanac so I could look it up — but then it’s also too dull to enlist except on a game show; it’s got at most the power to make you go “huh” and move on. Facts that are about anything interesting are graded and qualified and have subtleties and need other facts to help them out. If we, say, want to know what made World War II happen and what we can do to prevent a recurrence we can’t really grab anything concrete and have to content ourselves to not calling that area “Prussia” anymore.
We want facts to speak for themselves, as long as they stick to our scripts. When we run across a treacherous fact that doesn’t seem to care if it supports us we could say something about how we might change our minds based on “this fact, if it’s true.” This should cause Mrs Furey to pop up from seventh-grade English class and berate our intellectual carelessness. If it isn’t true it isn’t a fact, by definition, which is a kind of fact used to divert an argument we might not win into an argument everybody will walk away from, losing and bitter. We can get away with the carelessness because it’s a big world and Mrs Furey might need years before she can get back to us.
That’s all right; only the old-fashioned try to change minds with facts anymore anyway. Now it’s all done with the right colored lighting, appropriate background music, and the vague scent of vanilla, which research into the psychology of decision-making shows will cause us to decide, never mind what we said before, we are going to buy whatever it is that’s in front of us, whether it’s a Snoopy doll, a footstool, a bowl of keychains, or a 2016 Toyota Something Limited Edition (pre-recalled for your convenience). At least that’s what the facts they report say and who are we to quibble?
If there’s a fact I am pretty sure about, it’s that the calendar company started putting this stuff on the back of their pages at the same time they stopped printing separate pages for Sundays. That’s fourteen percent of the year they’re hoping I won’t miss if they put in a sprinkling of fun facts. I bet they decided to do that on a Tuesday.
There’s a Sears near us, which isn’t that surprising. There are Sears stores near literally millions of people, left over from the days when they were the anchor stores to malls and serving to this day as spots where the restrooms aren’t too busy and the electronics sections have a different wash of sadness from what Radio Shack offers. But the one by us is a little unusual in that it hasn’t got a mall attached; it’s just free-standing in the midst of a sea of parking lot. A couple weeks back the Sears had put up a sign, declaring their “Regrand Opening”, surprising me with the news that they had been closed, apparently? Also that “Regrand” is a word? I was so curious about this I almost went to the store but I guess I had other stuff to do instead, somehow, and kept on driving home, past the Fish and Chips place that just took off the “Arthur Treacher’s” from the name and otherwise made no alterations to their sign or decor whatsoever, far as I can tell. The Sears still seems to be there, but the sign has gone away.
Advertising has always been driven by a pathological hatred of the consumer, on the grounds that if people really, really hate the commercial they’re going to remember that hatred, and therefore buy the product sponsoring it because the name is kind of familiar-ish from somewhere. The theory is incredibly sound, based on longrunning experience like the time the advertisers themselves bought their homes from a guy they knew nothing about except that one time he leapt out of a dark alley and bludgeoned them with a small caribou. They were so impressed they spent decades searching out their assailant and talking him into taking up a career in real estate just so they could buy homes from him. This is how powerful a sales and skeletal impression the caribou made.
Being annoying used to be a scattershot business, advertisers just guessing at what would irritate the viewer, but now that computers make it easy for them to harass web site users into describing their demographic niches exactly (“no, we can’t POSSIBLY set up an account recording what birds you saw in the yard unless we know whether you’re male or female, your age to within five years, and whether you’ve ever been bludgeoned by a caribou with a postgraduate degree”) they can get much more exactingly infuriating. For me, this involves making me sit through yoghurt ads when I’m just trying to watch The Price Is Right online.
But finally you get to your episode, losing only several members of your party to dysentery, sea monsters, and a utopian colony founded in the Carribes, and you can watch your show just after you watch the most annoying commercial that has ever been made. And then watch it again because even though folks have been watching TV shows on web sites for like a decade now, the advertisers figure every web broadcast has only a single advertiser ever, and if you have any questions about that we’re going to give you the same commercial five times in every commercial break, not counting the interactive Flash ad that promises to customize your viewing experience by crashing, freezing up the whole video so you have to start over at the start.
I don’t know why the advertisers figure yoghurt ads are the way to irritate me. I had no strong feelings about yoghurt one way or another. I generally approve of the existence of yoghurt, as something that casually trolls people who spell it the other way and as something to eat in those contexts where society would frown on your eating pudding. But there it is; if I just want to see this contestant, that the connoisseurs of this stuff say is the most cracklingly incompetent The Price Is Right contestant ever to play Bonkers, I have to have yoghurt pitched at me fifteen times. It’s better than a caribou, but it’s a lot more common.
So why am I the kind of person who’ll read They Satisfy, Robert Sobel’s 1978 history of the cigarette industry in America? It’s because of passages like this:
There was a plethora of new brands in the summer of 1974, most of which were unimaginative and soon were discontinued. For years Lorillard had attempted to find a counterpart to Marlboro — a full-flavored smoke witha western motif. It had marketed Maverick, Redford, and Luke, all of which failed. Now it introduced Zach, which in tests featured a pack that looked like blue denim. Zach lasted less than a year. Brown & Williamson had even less luck with Tramps, an attempt to cash in on a revived interest in Charlie Chaplin. Although Chaplin’s face and form weren’t used in commercials, the company paid the retired actor two cents per pack in royalties so as to be able to suggest the connection. American Tobacco had Safari and Super M Menthol; L&M tried the market with St. Moritz, and Philip Morris produced Philip Morris International. This last smoke, a longer version of the old standard, did find a following, but the others were gone by early 1975.
And now my mind is captivated by the scene in Tobacco Industry Master Command, sometime around February 1974. “Gentlemen,” says the President of Tobacco, a burly guy who insists on people calling him “The Head Honcho” believe he thinks that makes him sound approachable and friendly before he kicks their knees in. “This is 1974! It’s a turbulent year! Nixon’s destroying the national belief that government can be a useful force, and America is about to finish the last Skylab mission! What are we going to do to get more people to smoke?”
And one meek fellow from Lorillard says, “We were thinking, maybe, we could try a blue denim-y package?”
A guy from Brown & Williamson says, “I don’t want to brag, but, we have a little project in mind wherein we’re going to just start giving Charlie Chaplin money without getting anything specific in return!”
The guys from American Tobacco and L&M were dozing through the question, but the Philip Morris guy said, “Um … maybe … do the same stuff, only more?”
And the President of Tobacco leans back, puts his feet up on the desk and says, “Boys, I don’t know who, but someone who walked into this room today just had the best cigarette idea of 1974.” Everyone else applauds The Head Honcho, or else.
The local newspaper mentioned that at South By Southwest a trade group from the Lansing area advertised to whoever’s interested in this sort of thing the proposition “Escape To Lansing”. The big selling point — and the one that’s on their web site — is that Lansing is free of many disasters which make it annoying to do business, to wit:
Hurricanes. True. Mid-Michigan is admirably hurricane-free, what with most hurricanes refusing to tromp over the Appalachian mountains and deal with trying to follow the highways around Toledo.
Scorpions. I can’t dispute that the Lansing metropolitan area has a pretty low number of scorpions, and most of those who are around are either in their designated pens within the pet shops or are work-study students helping make sure that visitors to the college or university library are briefly examined by eye and grunted at before they finish entering or exiting. I have to question whether scorpions are a major problem in most business districts, however. If they are then maybe startup businesses just need to buy screen doors.
Radioactive Gas. I hadn’t imagined that Lansing ever had a problem with radioactive gas emissions gathering to dangerous levels, but now that they’re going to the bother of telling people there’s no radioactive gas it’s started to make me worry. They maybe shouldn’t have raised the issue.
Earthquakes. Michigan has a very low earthquake risk, with the greatest hazard being earthquakes which other states or Canadian provinces hold and which spill over owing to inadequate soundproofing in the walls between states. The upper peninsula was subject to a series of earthquakes in the mid-19th century as the copper underneath it was dug out and turned into telephone wires in New York City and Boston, and the remaining crust collapsed over and over again, but the ground has mostly settled since then, and any attempt to get an earthquake going will be dampened by abandoned mining equipment. No serious risk there.
Justin Bieber. This seems petty. Pop stars are a fundamentally unpredictable, whimsical force of nature, prone to blowing into our lives and inspiring tiresome conversations about how we don’t like them and then blowing back out again, sometimes leaving us with a song we can’t quite get out of our heads. We have little to fear from them, and they pay for their existence by giving entertainment journalists something to talk about which isn’t lists of TV shows you won’t watch. They should be appreciated for how they enrich life’s tapestry of things we don’t really have to do anything about.
Tsunamis. Actually, the adorable little wave they use here makes me think of the original Bell Atlantic logo. While it’s true Michigan had very little phone service by Bell Atlantic before it changed its name and become a more annoying company, I don’t see why South By Southwest attendees would be particularly impressed by this. If they didn’t want to do business with Bell Atlantic they could as easily do that in Austin.
Volcanos. Michigan hasn’t had an active volcano in about 2.5 billion years, but it seems presumptuous to say that companies would want to relocate to mid-Michigan just to avoid volcanos. Obviously companies that do volcano tours are going to be attracted by having volcanos, but what about places that hope to get in on something igneous? Maybe they’re figuring corporate headquarters can be away from the magma action and this will be somehow worth it in the end. I don’t know.
Sharks. I’m fairly sure there aren’t many shark attacks even in the business districts of coastal towns. I have to imagine a company that’s routinely losing key personnel or equipment to shark attacks, and isn’t in the shark-annoying trade, is screwed up in fundamental ways. If they relocated to Lansing they’d probably just get lost in the woods and see their business plan get eaten by squirrels.
[ The Peace of Breda was the 1667 conclusion of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, and produced the legal settlement by which the English crown secured (Western) ownership of Delaware while the Dutch government obtained security in its claims on the nutmeg-producing island of Run, in the Banda Isles. S J Perelman is noted for writing a couple of pretty funny movies. This all appeared in The Best Of S J Perelman. ]
The other night a forty-five-year-old friend of mine, after ingesting equal portions of Greek fire and artillery punch, set out to prove that he could walk across a parquet flooring on his hands while balancing a vase on his head. As a consequence, about eleven o’clock the following morning he was being trepanned at the Harkness Pavilion and I was purchasing a bottle of Major’s Cement. I had reassembled the shards and was about to uncork the cement bottle when the bold yellow leaflet in which it was wrapped caught my eye. To predict that this small
circular will eventually outrank Magna Carta and the Peace of Breda in historical significance may seem audacious. Yet even the most frivolous cannot escape its implications, for in a single decisive stroke it alters the entire status of the consumer.
From its opening sentence, the document was marked by a note of brooding, reminiscent of a manifesto:
If we could make the cement in liquid form and transparent, and at the same time as strong and as proof against moisture as it is now, we would be glad to do so. But this cannot be done.
I understand that with the advanced sophistications in marketing today, where marketers can gather even bits of information about myself I had no idea about, they’re able to target advertisements and free trial offers with unparalleled precision, but they mostly just figure to try out “everybody ought to buy everything, all the time”. All right. But why are they trying to get me to subscribe to Bussiness Week: The Journal Of Fussy Old-Fashioned Kisses? Also how is that still going on while Starlog died like five years ago and nobody ever mentioned? You know?
I admire the work that the mighty Land’s End Catalogue Company has put into finding ways to sell me pants. It’s been mostly sending me catalogues showing that there are pants, leaving it to me to conclude that I could if I so wished buy them, but I admit I don’t have many better ideas. If they tried, say, chasing me down and holding pants up to me so I could kind of see how they’d look on me if I were flat, that wouldn’t entice me to buy more. This is why I’m not an important pants marketer. I presume they want me to wear them, but they should know that once I’ve bought them, the pants are wholly my concern and it’s none of their affair what I do with them.