Showing posts with label advertising. Show all posts
Showing posts with label advertising. Show all posts

10.23.2017

the mysterious case of kars4kids: deceptive advertising for orthodox jewish proselytizing

When I watch baseball, I always watch the Red Sox broadcast, and almost always choose local radio for the audio feed. (Hooray for MLB streaming on Roku!) And while I always mute the ads between innings, hundreds of ads are stuffed into the broadcast itself, so it's impossible not to hear and see a lot of advertising.

One advertising staple is something called "Cars for Kids". The ad exhorts you to make a cash donation or to donate your used car, and tells you how Cars for Kids makes it very simple. I've been hearing this for years, but only recently wondered, what is Cars for Kids? Who are the kids, and how are cars helping them?

I assumed it had something to do with fundraising for children with a serious illness. The Red Sox are linked to an organization called The Jimmy Fund, which supports the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. The Make-A-Wish Foundation of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, is also a Red Sox sponsor. So I assumed that Cars for Kids was something similar.

Wrong!

First, I discovered Cars for Kids is actually "Kars 4 Kids," which is stupid and pointless. Since the misspelling is pronounced the same way as the proper spelling, why misspell?

Next, I discovered that when you visit the Kars 4 Kids website, it's not immediately apparent what the vehicle donations actually support. The FAQs are all about how to donate your car. The donor comments are about how easy it was to donate a car. The "How It Works" link, same.

Those links are in all-caps, bold, right up front when you first go to the site.


In a smaller font, not all-caps, not bold, on the left, there are links to "charity" and "about us". Click on one of those, and for the first time, you see the word Jewish on the site.

The website for Kars 4 Kids Canada (I guess they realized Kanada would be a mistake), shows this.


Both websites (and all the Kars 4 Kids websites) keep the purpose of the charity pretty vague. They help "children develop into productive members of the community", they "keep kids busy in a healthy environment", they "give Jewish children and their families the support, resources and guidance they need". What does that mean?


All the Kars 4 Kids websites mention something called Oorah. In the US: "our sister charity, Oorah", with no further explanation. The Canadian site says "Your car donation will benefit Kars4Kids, d/b/a Oorah Charitable Organization, a registered charity dedicated to addressing the educational, emotional and spiritual needs of Jewish children and their families."

Having been raised Jewish, when I see those words -- the educational, emotional, and spiritual needs of Jewsih children -- I know exactly what it means. I have the code book.

Next stop, Oorah. Oorah appears to sponsor programs exclusively for Jewish people to explore Judaism. This is code for trying to get Jews to become Orthodox.

People who practice Judaism generally fall on a continuum from Reform, to Conservative, to Orthodox; these are called movements. (They are sometimes known as sects, but they're really not equivalent to, for example, the Protestant sects.) In addition to the three movements, there are sub-divisions, such as Reconstructionist, Modern Orthodox, and several others. This is a huge, complex political and cultural stew, full of hypocrisy and arrogance, full of people looking down on other people for choosing or taking paths different than their own. To someone like me who was raised in a Reform but observant household, the words "make their Judaic heritage more personal, relevant and meaningful" are heavily loaded.

More importantly, why would the general, non-Jewish public donate to this charity? I'm not sure why anyone, Jewish or not, would care about making "Judaic heritage more meaningful to Jewish children", but surely non-Jewish people wouldn't care about this, would they?

The absence of information -- who are the "kids"? how are the cars helping them? -- is obviously not accidental. Ad copy isn't found in nature, it's purposely and carefully written. And once I discovered Kars 4 Kids' mission and purpose, the omission of the word "Jewish" in ad copy seems purposely misleading -- deceptive.

I'm not the only person who thinks so.

From Tablet, a online magazine of "Jewish news, ideas, and culture": Kars 4 Kids Rakes In The Buckz: "A well-branded Jewish charity goes to great pains to avoid calling itself Jewish—and takes in millions nationwide."

From CharityWatch: Costly and Continuous Continuous Kars4Kids Disguise Charity's Real Purpose. (Clever use of alliteration!) From this story I learned that Kars 4 Kids advertises everywhere, especially on sports TV and radio, and apparently has an incredibly annoying jingle. CharityWatch writes:
Cars for… an Orthodox Jewish Cause

Nowhere in the Kars4Kids ads (in most states) does the charity inform potential donors of how their car donations will help kids. A visit to the "kars4kids.org/howtohelp" website displayed at the end of the TV commercial is similarly vague as to how kids will benefit, simply encouraging people to "take action" for the "1.2 million kids [that] leave school without a diploma each year" by volunteering to "mentor, fundraise, advocate or run an awareness campaign." (This "take action" message likely is a strategic one designed for Kars4Kids to take advantage of an accounting rule that allows charities to report a portion of advertising costs as program instead of fundraising expenses.) When going to the website address shown in the TV commercial, only by scrolling all the way down to the fine print that includes Kars4Kids' copyright notation at the bottom of the page will donors eventually learn what activities their donated cars support: [emphasis mine]"Your donation will benefit Kars4Kids, a national organization dedicated to addressing the educational, material, emotional and spiritual needs of Jewish children and their families [emphasis from CharityWatch]."

In CharityWatch's view, the Kars4Kids ads deceive potential donors by failing to inform them that donated cars will benefit a Jewish organization and kids of Jewish faith. Furthermore, the youth programs Kars4Kids supports promote an Orthodox Jewish lifestyle, which CharityWatch believes compounds the deception perpetrated by the Kars4Kids ads. Oorah, Kars4Kids' "sister charity," is the organization that actually runs the "educational, developmental, and recreational programs for Jewish youth and their families" described in Kars4Kids' mission statement. Kars4Kids and Oorah share a principal officer, Eliyohu Mintz, the son of their founder, Rabbi Chaim Mintz, and both organizations are located at the same address in the heavily-Orthodox Jewish town of Lakewood, New Jersey. Oorah, which means "awaken" in Hebrew, "specializes in outreach to non-observant Jews, operating summer camps and other programs that seek to make non-Orthodox Jews more observant," according to an October 2016 article in the Forward, which covers news for a Jewish-American audience.
CharityWatch continues:
While supporting Orthodox Jewish organizations is a worthy endeavor for those donors who are intending to do so, many donors of other faiths may not be pleased to learn that the car they donated to Kars4Kids may have funded religious teachings that are in conflict with their own faith or personal beliefs. Orthodox Jews, who follow the traditional interpretations of Jewish law with strict observance of Jewish ritual, make up only about 10% of Jewish adults in the U.S., according to a 2013 survey published by the Pew Research Center in August 2015. Moreover, many secular Jews are not enthusiastic about funding Orthodox organizations...

If the truth about Kars4Kids' mission as a Jewish organization and its funding of Oorah's Orthodox Jewish outreach is an unwelcome surprise to some donors, perhaps they will be comforted to learn that since 2010, Kars4Kids also has conducted various charity events and giveaways for the benefit of needy children, regardless of their religious affiliation. These events have included several backpack giveaways and coat distributions in parts of New Jersey and New York. Kars4Kids also released a free smartphone app in mid-2014 designed as a safety alert for parents to remind them not to leave young children in the backseat of hot cars. Nonetheless, Kars4Kids' grants to Oorah still represented more than 91% of its program spending over the two-year period from 2014-2015, thereby making Jewish children the primary "kids" that benefit from its car donation proceeds – a fact that many Kars4Kids donors likely never end up knowing.
I also found stories, showing that less than one percent of funds raised even goes to the "kids". Oorah is also the subject of a million-dollar lawsuit, accused of using a synagogue to hide questionable financial dealings and putting the synagogue on the hook for a million bucks.*

Even more troubling than Kars 4 Kids deceptive practices are their unwitting donors. Do people really donate to organizations without knowing what they support? Never mind researching what percentage of donations goes to the actual cause -- start with the basics! What is the cause? Where does your money go?

According to everything I'm seeing online, millions of people -- which by definition means millions of non-Jewish people -- are forking over their hard-earned money to support Orthodox Jewish indoctrination education? Seriously?

Are tax deductions from car donations so amazing that donors don't care where the money goes, so long as they get their deduction? From CharityWatch: Car Donations: Taking Taxpayers for a Ride, and from Nonprofit Quarterly: Nation's Largest Car Donation Charity a Self-Dealing Mess.

* Since someone will undoubtedly point this out in comments, Bill O'Reilly "exposed" Kars4Kids on Fox News. I don't even want to click. I'll just call O'Reilly a stopped clock and move on.

9.02.2017

what i'm reading: the attention merchants by tim wu

Everywhere we look, every available space is filled with advertising. The Toronto skyline is a sea corporate logos. The due-date receipt from my library book features an ad on the back. I once tracked all the ads shown during a major league baseball game -- during play, not between innings -- and the results were startling, even to me. And, of course, our entire experience on the internet -- especially on our personal mobile devices -- is tracked and used by corporations with only our dimmest awareness and nominal consent.

It wasn't always like this. How did we arrive at this current state? The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Tim Wu answers this question. The answer is fascinating and entertaining, and -- if you dislike the constant and ever-increasing commodification of our lives, as I do -- more than a little frustrating.

In the first part of the book, Wu presents a capsule history of the "attention capture industry" -- what this review in The New York Times adeptly calls "the slow, steady annexation and exploitation of our consciousness". This begins with the first ads to appear in a daily newspaper, moves through snake-oil salesmen, to the first people to recognize the power of radio to sell products, through sponsored television shows, to ads during shows -- which was shocking and provoked outcry in its day! This section is truly fascinating. Wu is a master at finding sparkling details that make the story come alive. For example, I learned that snake oil, now a generic term for worthless products touted as cures for all ills, takes its name from a product that actually involved snakes. The Attention Merchants is packed with these kinds of tasty nuggets of information.

In the history of attention capture, Wu also includes government propaganda. He looks at how during the first World War, the British government, joined later by its American counterpart, used mass-media lies to entice young men to all but certain death in the trenches. This segment also analyzes the first modern total information campaign, and the first to harness electronic media for large-scale propaganda, that of one Adolph Hitler. We've all seen footage of the giant Nazi rallies with huge fascist insignias, but I didn't fully realize that Hitler, along with Third Reich propaganda master Joseph Goebbels, was the first to study and analyze attention capture, and to use it on a grand scale. (Incidentally, if you know anyone who believes the 'Hitler was all right at first, he just went too far' canard, Wu provides ammunition to shoot it down. From his earliest days making speeches in beer halls, Hitler was blaming Germany's woes on Jews.)

Another interesting segment is devoted to what Wu calls "The Celebrity-Industrial Complex". For someone like me who doesn't share the mainstream obsession with celebrity -- indeed, I don't understand it, even a little -- this was both fascinating and affirming. Wu offers an interesting analysis of Oprah Winfrey's attention methods, which he sees as groundbreaking in a not altogether positive way.

The part of The Attention Merchants that has been the focus of most reviews and interviews is about the price we pay for supposedly free services on the internet. Most of us have heard the phrase, "when a service is free, we're not customers, we're the product" or variations thereof. (Various people have made this public statement at various times, dating back to Richard Serra in 1973.) Wu dissects exactly what that means -- for the tremendous potential of the internet, now tremendously debased and squandered, and for ourselves, with our fractured attention spans, short and ever shorter.

In the book's later chapters, the tone and tenor changes from dispassionate historical analysis to passionate and savaging. The rise of "free" social media, where billions of people willingly submit to having their personal habits mined, tracked, and resold for other people's profits, on a scale never before seen in human history, is not a mixed blessing in Wu's worldview. It's a flat-out evil.

By the time I finished the book, I challenged myself to take a holiday from social media and reclaim my own attention span. Some of you know that because of my health issues, I struggle with low concentration. Perhaps the effects are exaggerated for me... or perhaps not. I want to spend less time with little bits of information scrolling in front of my eyes. When it comes to information, I want quality over quantity. I'm experimenting with it now, but I'm not sure I'll ever go back.

Wu also points out a massive public pushback, as evidenced by the millions of people willing to pay a monthly fee to enjoy advertising-free viewing through Netflix, HBO, Showtime, and similar services. The cultural phenomenon known as binge-watching is evidence that we can focus our attention for lengthy periods of time, when what we're watching is good enough to warrant it.

Wu writes:
Ultimately, the problem was as old as the original proposition of seizing our attention and putting it to uses not our own. It is a scheme that has been revised and renewed with every new technology, which always gains admittance into our lives under the expectation it will improve them -- and improve them it does, until it acquires motivations of its own, which can only grow and grow. As Oxford ethicist James Williams puts it, "Your goals are things like 'spend more time with the kids,' 'learn to play the zither,' 'lose twenty pounds by summer,' 'finish my degree,' etc. Your time is scarce, and you know it. Your technologies, on the other hand, are trying to maximize goals like 'Time on Site,' 'Number of Video Views,' 'Number of Pageviews,' and so on. Hence clickbait, hence auto-playing videos, hence avalanches of notifications. Your time is scarce, and your technologies know it."
Wu references William James,
"who, having lived and died before the flowering of the attention industry, held that our life experience would ultimately amount to whatever we had paid attention to. At stake, then, is something akin to how one's life is lived. That, if nothing else, ought to compel a greater scrutiny of the countless bargains to which we routinely submit, and even more important, lead us to consider the necessity, at times, of not dealing at all.
I've added Wu's first book, The Master Switch, to my to-read list.

9.17.2016

fun with bag signs: in which i am photographed removing garbage from my neighbourhood

Are there bag signs where you live?

In Mississauga and perhaps most suburban places, people put up bag signs advertising services. The signs are cheap to buy and easy to post. They are also illegal. To me, they are the Nexus of Evil: advertising plus visual pollution plus polyethylene waste.

I have called 311 to complain about these signs in my neighbourhood, and if the City has someone available, they will sometimes dispatch a crew to remove the signs. Presumably this crew is also doing other outdoor maintenance, or perhaps they are driving around removing bag signs, which would be awesome.

Allan and I also remove these signs ourselves. When we lived in a house, we would throw the signs in the garage until enough had collected, then bundle up the vinyl for trash and the metal frames for recycling. Now, while we're out with our dogs, we'll just put the whole thing in a public trash barrel.

This morning while I was out with Diego, I slipped the vinyl off a bag sign, crumbled it up, and threw it in the trash. As I turned the corner, I noticed a car parked across the street, the driver removing something from the trunk. Then he walked towards me, carrying a sign.

Diego and I watched as he pushed the metal frame into the ground. I said, "You know that's illegal, right?"

Sign man said, "Are you a city councilor or a police?"

Me: "No, I'm a resident of this neighbourhood and you are polluting it."

Signman: "It is only for a few days, then I will come back and remove it." Ha!

Me: "That doesn't matter. It's illegal. As soon as you walk away, I'm going to remove it."

Signman: "You cannot do that. Only a city councilor or police can do that."

Me: "That's incorrect. I've called the City and they said it was fine to remove these any time."

Signman: "If you remove this sign, I will take your picture and I will sue you!"

Actual Photo of Me Throwing Out the Sign
Me: "Great! Excellent. I will give you my name and phone number right now. Let's exchange phone numbers and you can sue me."

Signman: "I don't want your name and number! I will take your picture!"

Now, I am not a lawyer, but I think it might be difficult to sue someone if you only have their photo, but not their name.

Me: "Ok, get ready." He backed up -- I assume because of Diego's presence -- and I stepped forward to slip the vinyl off the frame.

He took out his cell phone, and I smiled and posed with the crumpled sign. I normally hate being photographed, but this was fun.

As Diego and I walked away with the sign, Signman shouted after me, "See you in court!"

"See you there," I said. "Have a nice day!"

9.27.2015

what i'm reading: the doubt factory, a young-adult thriller by paolo bacigalupi

A thriller about public relations? And for teens? It sounds improbable, and The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi is an improbably terrific book. Marrying a somersaulting plot with heart-pounding suspense to an unabashed political agenda and a hot love story, Bacigalupi has delivered a stunning youth read.

On the political front, we contemplate "the place where big companies go when they need the truth confused. . . . when they need science to say what’s profitable, instead of what’s true.” All the tricks of the trade - astroturfing, fronts, false flags, sock puppets, money funnelling, stealth marketing, planted news, and outright false data - are touched on, along with the human damage they cause.

And the political is nothing if not personal. Alix leads the good life of a private school girl in Connecticut, and is forced to confront the possibility that her privilege is built on other people's pain. That pain is impossible to miss, when she meets a group of homeless kids, all orphaned, one way or another, by her father's handiwork.

Pharmaceuticals, pesticides, fossil fuels - you name it, Alix's dad has helped confuse the public, shield wrongdoers, and ultimately cause the death of thousands, while a few brave class-action litigants are painted as selfish and greedy, and those who say otherwise are branded as conspiracy kooks.

Alix is attracted - perhaps dangerously so - to a young man who turns out to be the leader of a radical group focused on exposing her father's complicity in all that suffering. Betrayal lurks behind every door, but who will betray, who will be betrayed, and who will be exposed?

My only minor complaint is that the political agenda gets a teensy bit preachy at times. Preachy politics in fiction are usually a dealbreaker for me, but with The Doubt Factory, I was so hooked by the plot and the suspense that I didn't mind. More importantly, I don't think young readers would give it a second thought.

11.02.2014

negative reviews and threats of lawsuits: let's not give in to corporate bullying

There's a new bully in town, and he's not going after fat kids in the school cafeteria. He's a corporate bully, and he's gunning for you, his dissatisfied customer.

An increasing number of companies are threatening lawsuits against customers who post negative online reviews about their products or services. At least one company has actually sued a former customer for defamation, based on negative reviews - and won.

This is a chilling development for anyone who cares about free speech, a free internet, and consumer advocacy. But it may not be as dire as it sounds.

A slightly more level playing field

We are bombarded with advertising at every turn. Everywhere we look, companies are claiming that their products will make us beautiful, cooler, more connected. That we'll look smarter, live longer, enjoy our lives more... if only we buy their products. Our world is filled with false advertising, if not by explicit claim, then certainly by implicit suggestion.

If these claims turn out to be untrue, there's little we can do about it.

In the past, when we complained about a company, our complaints reached very few ears. We could write a letter to their corporate headquarters, and we could tell our own contacts, but for an ordinary person with no media access, it ended there.

The internet has changed all that. Now consumers have the opportunity to create a slightly more level playing field. If we have a bad experience with a company, we can warn many more people away from their products and services.

Not only has the internet given us the means to spread the word, but internet culture encourages us to share information with others. When a product falls apart, when a contractor does shoddy work, when a restaurant offers consistently terrible service, we feel something bordering on a responsibility to warn others away from a similar experience.

(Is it a level playing field, even now? My post about bad customer service from Heys Luggage (here, plus two follow-ups) is Google-able if you're searching. But Heys' own advertising on billboards, in magazines, and online is visible by hundreds of thousands of people every day.)

The opportunity to share information online has been incredibly empowering for consumers. So perhaps it's not surprising that many companies are pushing back. Through letters threatening lawsuits, they are trying to frighten consumers away from the culture of information-sharing, and trying to create a culture of self-censorship. They are corporate bullies, and their ranks appear to be growing. I found numerous stories, most with sensational headlines designed to fuel the fear, warning people to watch what they say or they'll be sued.

A letter is not a lawsuit

Many of the news stories I've seen put the onus on the consumer to avoid potential threats. The Toronto Star's consumer reporter Ellen Roseman offers tips for consumers posting reviews, such as sticking to facts and avoiding inflammatory language. Good advice, for complaints and almost everything else. But stories like these don't address the basic inequity at play.

A consumer posts an online review that a company finds potentially damaging. The company refers the complaint to its attorney, who then writes a standard "cease and desist" letter. The letter demands the consumer remove the offending review from the internet and threatens a lawsuit. But - and this is the important bit for consumers to know - the letter doesn't mean there are solid grounds for a lawsuit. It doesn't mean that the company would necessarily win a lawsuit, or even that they would invest the resources in a legal proceeding in the first place. The letter is the equivalent of shaking your fist and saying, "Take that back, or else!" It looks official, what with the letterhead and legalese and all, but it has no teeth. They may use the word demand, but it's actually more like a request. (The cease and desist letter is also a necessary precursor to a potential future lawsuit.)

Sending a letter is low-impact for the company. It costs perhaps an hour of some lawyer's time. But for the person in receipt of the letter, it can be frightening. Even the possibility of a lawsuit is enough to get most people to retract their reviews. And so, even though the review was factual and there is little chance of being hurt by a lawsuit, the consumer deletes the review.

Now the company's bad behaviour is not exposed, and all it cost was a letter.
Nevertheless, even the threat of litigation is a powerful option for contractors. When a Toronto couple posted a 2,000-word negative review about their $400 home improvement project, their contractor threatened litigation unless the review was removed. Intimidated, the couple revised their review to a mere 30 mild words.
In this case, it sounds like the consumers might have been a little over the top. Was it really necessary to post 2,000 words? Would a factual and not-heated 50 words have avoided the threat of litigation? Perhaps. But the threat of litigation was effective. The consumers were bullied, and the review was diluted.

As a customer-service person, I find it a bit mind-boggling that a company would choose this route, rather than practice a bit of damage-control. A legal spokesperson for Yelp - which was involved in an actual lawsuit - said:
Litigation is not a good substitute for customer service. Businesses that try to sue their customers into silence rarely prevail, end up wasting their own time and money, and usually bring additional, unwanted attention to the original criticism.
In one case, a company threatened a lawsuit against a consumer who posted a negative review... then Amazon dropped the company from their website. Then there was the crazy restaurateur in Ottawa, whose online bullying made international news.* OK, it was only The Daily Mail. But still.

Dietz v. Perez

The one documented instance where a contractor followed through on the lawsuit threat - where a customer was actually sued - was far from typical. Following the reports as the story developed, I could tell that there was a lot of bad blood between the two parties. The contractor and the homeowner apparently knew each other before the work was done; the consumer claims her home was damaged and her jewelry was stolen; the contractor was claiming $750,000 in damages. The fact that the case even went to trial speaks of two parties that have dug in their heels. Most consumer lawsuits are settled out of court.

But to the dismay of free-speech and consumer advocates, the consumer was found guilty of defamation, although no damages were awarded. And the court ruled that the offending review would remain online, unaltered.

So, that happened. The threat of a lawsuit may actually turn into a lawsuit.

Does that mean if you write a factual negative review, you will be sued? No, it doesn't.

This is an important piece to remember. Follow good behaviour guidelines. Stick to the facts. Avoid sweeping generalizations. Don't get personal. (Ellen Roseman's guidelines are very good.) But if you do receive a letter from a company, take a deep breath. Read the letter carefully. Anyone can threaten anything. It doesn't mean they have grounds for an actual lawsuit, or that they'll choose to invest the resources in one, even if they do.

Let's not be bullied

To be sure, the consumer is not always right. There are people with an axe to grind, there are lies and exaggerations. There are trolls. So if you feel your business has been unfairly maligned, what recourse do you have? TripAdvisor offers restaurant and resort management the opportunity to respond to negative reviews. Smart management will apologize, thank the customer, and pledge better future service. Not-so-smart management gets into arguments on the TripAdvisor site.

Online reviews are potentially powerful tools. We have a responsibility to use them wisely. But let's not be afraid to use them at all.


* An Ottawa restaurant owner was so furious - and, it would seem, so unbalanced - that she sought to disparage the customer's reputation with the customer's employer. She sent "sexually suggestive e-mails" to the woman's workplace, and created an explicit dating profile in her name. In this case, the customer sued, and the restaurant owner was found guilty of libel. As far as I can tell, the customer posted one bad review, and the restaurant owner hounded her for two and a half years. In other words, a crackpot troll.

4.26.2014

the gluten-free hoax: nutritionism run amok

Today I saw a bag of high-end cheese puffs, made with organic corn and real cheese. WHEAT FREE and GLUTEN FREE, the package boasted, which made me chuckle. Yup, just like all cheese puffs for all time. Like most snack food, cheese puffs are made of corn, and corn does not contain gluten.

Marketing old products with a new twist to take advantage of a nutrition craze is nothing new, of course. I remember when fat-free and low-fat labels were slapped on everything. (This craze happened to coincide with some of my worst dieting addiction.) In those days, supermarket shelves were laden with fat-free cookies and other snack food, all of which were loaded with white sugar and other empty calories. Candy that is little more than sugar cubes with artificial colouring and flavouring would be advertised as fat-free. About a decade later, globules of saturated fat, salt, and nitrates were hawked as zero grams of carbs per serving.

I've wondered what the next craze of nutritionism would be. Now that carbohydrates are no longer the work of the devil, what would we all rush to eliminate from our diets?

I've been gluten-free

A long time ago, a doctor thought some issues of Allan's were caused by celiac disease or at least a gluten sensitivity. So I can honestly say, I was gluten-free before gluten-free was cool! We learned all about what a diet containing gluten can do to a gluten-sensitive person. It isn't pretty.

We purged our home and most of our restaurant eating of gluten. When we didn't see the expected results, we read it could take a long time to repair past damage, or we must have slipped up, or... maybe come back for more tests.

Over the years, as will happen, we became less disciplined about eating gluten. Recently our doctor confirmed that Allan is not celiac, and likely never was. So I've been everywhere on the spectrum from completely gluten free to not caring about it at all. I do know some people who have celiac disease, but I never imagined that eliminating gluten from ordinary diets would become some kind of moral imperative.

If it sounds too good to be true...

These days we are urged to believe that everything from cancer to diabetes to Alzheimer's is caused by gluten. And that should be a clue to what's really going on. When normal foods that humans have eaten for millennia are suddenly called poison, your hoax alert should be lighting up. (Similarly, when a food or a diet or a nutrient is said to cure a wide range of disease, be highly skeptical.)

Turns out there's not much science behind any of the claims for eliminating gluten. What science exists is all "...a correlation was found," and "a possible association may exist," and based on one or two studies with insignificant sample sizes. Conclusions are leapt to, wild extrapolations announced as fact, with a healthy dose of fear-mongering thrown in. After all, don't you want to prevent dementia?

Here's another trope that should set your bullshit-detector blaring: diet claims that evoke the lives of early humans. This is familiar ground in the diet industry, so adept at exploiting the disconnection and alienation of consumer culture and the vertiginous rate of change, along with the media-fostered sense that we are all so unhealthy (despite all evidence - life expectancy up, infant morality down - to the contrary). Where once we wished to "get back to the land," now we imagine we can get back to the cave.

Several very popular gluten-free diet seeks to "realign" our eating with that of our hunter-gatherer (and gluten-free!) ancestors, who supposedly never suffered from dementia. But as James Hamblin points out in "This Is Your Brain on Gluten":
In the Paleolithic Era, human life expectancy was around 30 years. Even accounting for childhood deaths and tramplings by wooly mammoths or wooly rhinoceri, humans did not live past their 50s. I wonder often why these are the times we cite as a standard of health. The paucity of old age should in itself explain why Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease were basically nonexistent, shouldn’t it?
Truth is, the authors of these diets know very little about what early humans ate, how their brains differed from ours, or even whether or not they were healthy. They certainly don't know if early humans had dementia.

I have no wish to deny anyone's personal experience. People with a gluten sensitivity absolutely feel better when they eat gluten-free. And many people without gluten sensitivity find their lives enhanced by reducing the gluten in their diets. A gluten-reduced diet is usually lower in processed foods and higher in fruits, vegetables, protein, and whole grains. That is, a healthier diet. So of course they feel better.

But if being gluten-free means a diet full of commercially processed foods labelled "gluten-free," the general rule applies: garbage in, garbage out.

This is your brain on advertising

To me the gluten-free fad is a prime example of what Michael Pollan calls "nutritionism," the ideology that reduces eating to the intake of specific nutrients, such as antioxidants, omega 3, cholesterol... or gluten. In some of Pollan's tweets to "glutenphobes," he has pointed out this Scientific American article about how unhealthy a gluten-free diet can be (not unlike the fat-free diet of the 1980s) and these two from The Atlantic: A Gluten-Free Diet Reality Check and This Is Your Brain on Gluten, the latter a thorough debunking. I didn't want to recreate their arguments here, but if you're skeptical about my skepticism, please do click.

I think what bothers me most about these nutritionism trends isn't the junk science or the fictions about our hunter-gatherer ancestors but the amnesia that enables their success. First we try to eliminate all the fat from our diet, and end up fatter and unhealthier. Then we try the same thing with carbohydrates, until it's obvious that, too, is unsustainable and doesn't work. But now we run off to eliminate another ordinary, (to most people) harmless, naturally occurring substance, as if we haven't heard it all before.

If you're eating gluten-free, I hope it's working out for you. It is definitely working out for marketers, advertisers, diet-book authors, and commercial producers of crappy, unhealthy, gluten-free food.

4.13.2014

military propaganda at sports events reaches new extremes: continuous recruitment ads at baseball games

I've recently returned from a lovely trip to Boston, filled with so many of my favourite things: friends, family, books, and baseball.

I love Fenway Park, and I'm always happy to be there. On this trip, we saw three great games, two of them wins, so I was thrilled. The games were marred by only one thing: nearly constant propaganda for the US military. This is not an exaggeration.

Throughout Fenway Park, as in many sports venues, monitors show a TV feed of the action on the field. Right now, between innings, the Fenway Park monitors show a continuous feed of advertising for the United States Army. During the game, the ads continue on a sidebar beside the action.

Let that sink in a moment. The constant advertising crammed into every moment of the ballgame, and the constant linking of sports and the military, are now joined in this doubly offensive development.

There is something particularly Orwellian about watching a baseball game while a constant stream of silent images of war and military run in your peripheral vision.

I gathered from the brief branding displays that the ad feed is supplied by Access Sports Media. According to its website, Access Sports Media
provides advertisers cross-platform solutions engaging passionate fans in sports venues nationwide through digital out of home, social media, mobile, and in-venue sponsorships. Access Sports reaches more than 110 million viewers annually through a national footprint of 200 sports properties and a digital network of over 20,000 screens across professional, minor league and college sports.
Its list of clients includes many major corporations, a few specific products, and - listed first - the US Army.

The Army ads themselves stem from a campaign written about here in The New York Times, called a "reality" theme without a trace of irony. Of course, it bears little resemblance to reality. There are no bombings, no destroyed villages, no torture prisons. No amputations, no traumatic brain injury, no alcoholism, no domestic violence, no suicides.

The ads are built around the slogan "Army Strong": "There's strong, then there's Army Strong". This is a particularly good sell for a Boston-area audience: after the Boston Marathon bombing, the city rallied to a cry of "Boston Strong". The Times article notes that the ads are
an example of what is known on Madison Avenue as a program-length commercial or infomercial. Once the province of gadgets peddled with hard-sales entreaties like, “But wait, there’s more,” such longer spiels have been embraced by well-known brands like AT&T, Bing, Chase and Teleflora, along with a number of automakers.

Program-length commercials are becoming more popular as part of a trend known as content marketing, sponsored content or branded entertainment. The trend is meant to counter the growing habit — particularly among younger consumers, like the target audience for the Army, ages 18 to 24 — of ignoring traditional forms of advertising.
The "Army Strong" ads at Fenway are a barrage of quick-cut images emphasizing camaraderie and bonding, toughness and strength, dirt and grit, and stirring patriotism. Men (I saw no female soldiers in the ads, although there might be one somewhere) worked hard and played hard, always together, often dirty, but always serious and strong. In a world where career choices often involve life behind a desk or tethered to a computer, the men in these ads were running across rugby fields, rappelling down snow-covered mountainsides, parachuting out of airplanes, and using lots of exciting-looking equipment.

Only two quick images gave any hint as to why so many men are running, rappelling, shooting, and seeing the world through night-vision goggles. In one image, a woman in a hijab slides a slip of paper in a ballot box. In another, a group of soldiers sit in a circle in a tent, listening to a traditionally-dressed Afghan man (or, I should say, an actor dressed as one). What's the caption here? "How many weddings did we bomb today?" "You take the oil, we'll keep the heroin"? Or maybe just "Me smokem peace pipe."

As both Allan and I have written about before (here, here, and here, for example), there is already a huge amount of military propaganda inappropriately linked to sports events. The Boston Red Sox and the many other teams that contract with Access Sports Media - a list is here - now take the trend to new extremes.

I wrote this to the Boston Red Sox. If you are a sports fan who finds this advertising offensive, I hope you will speak up to your team's management, too.
I am a Red Sox fan who lives out of town. I am able to enjoy games at Fenway about every-other year, at best. I love Fenway Park, and thus, when I attended three games against the Texas Rangers last week, I was extremely disheartened to be subjected to continuous military recruitment advertisements.

Many young people, especially those from low-income families, believe what they see in the United States Army's ads and enlist, only to find the reality gravely different. Of course, who would ever sign up if the ads showed the truth? Amputations, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder; rampant alcoholism and domestic violence, skyrocketing suicide rates.

By partnering with Access Sports Media to show these deceptive ads at Fenway Park, the Red Sox are complicit in that deception.

The Red Sox Foundation promotes the "Run to Home Base," which raises money to "provide much needed services to local veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan... with combat stress disorders and/or traumatic brain injuries". At the same time, the Red Sox are helping to ensure that more healthy young men and women will eventually need those services.

The constant showing of military propaganda during a baseball game is inappropriate and offensive. I hope the Boston Red Sox will reconsider the decision to run Access Sports Media's US Army recruitment ads during games.

2.16.2013

two great reads from the new yorker, part 2: jill lepore on political advertising

The current New Yorker stories by Joseph Mitchell has given me an opportunity to post something I've been meaning to share for ages.

Last September, Jill Lepore unearthed an incredible bit of history, a piece of the American past that is  alive with us today, and more dangerous than ever. (I am generally interested in anything Lepore writes; last year I gushed over her reviews of books about Clarence Darrow, one of my abiding heroes.)

In this piece, Lepore writes about the roots of political advertising - the falsehoods and trickery, the lies and slander, the deception and distortion, the swiftboating and smearing that make us grit our teeth in frustration. The advertising firms that design and disseminate those orchestrated lies can be traced back to one company, an operation called Campaigns Inc.

Its first victim was Upton Sinclair, the writer and socialist and one-time candidate for Governor of California. He called it The Lie Factory.
In 1934, Sinclair explained what did happen that election year, in a nonfiction sequel called “I, Candidate for Governor, and How I Got Licked.” “When I was a boy, the President of Harvard University wrote about ‘the scholar in politics,’ ” Sinclair began. “Here is set forth how a scholar went into politics, and what happened to him.” “How I Got Licked” was published in daily installments in fifty newspapers. In it, Sinclair described how, immediately after the Democratic Convention, the Los Angeles Times began running on its front page a box with an Upton Sinclair quotation in it, a practice that the paper continued, every day, for six weeks, until the opening of the polls. “Reading these boxes day after day,” Sinclair wrote, “I made up my mind that the election was lost.”

Sinclair got licked, he said, because the opposition ran what he called a Lie Factory. “I was told they had a dozen men searching the libraries and reading every word I had ever published.” They’d find lines he’d written, speeches of fictional characters in novels, and stick them in the paper, as if Sinclair had said them. “They had a staff of political chemists at work, preparing poisons to be let loose in the California atmosphere on every one of a hundred mornings.” Actually, they had, at the time, a staff of only two, and the company wasn’t called the Lie Factory. It was called Campaigns, Inc.

Campaigns, Inc., the first political-consulting firm in the history of the world, was founded, in 1933, by Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter.
If you like history and you deplore the Lie Factory, you will love this article: The Lie Factory: How politics became a business, by Jill Lepore.

1.13.2013

it's time we all starved the trolls: stop reading comments on mainstream news stories

Robert Fisk has a good piece in The Independent about the incivility (to put it mildly!) that is endemic in the comment sections of online news stories: "Anonymous trolls are as pathetic as the anonymous "sources" that contaminate the gutless journalism of the New York Times, BBC, and CNN".

Fisk wonders why newspapers that will not publish an anonymous letter to the editor will allow anonymous lies and hateful screed in comments. Surely he knows the simple answer: money. Advertisers are paying for clicks, and the idiots in the comments section are increasing the clickage.

Why should we help them by reading those comments? Consider this.

We know that governments pay people to troll the comments section with disinformation and misinformation, just like they hire fake journalists and bribe working columnists to influence public opinion.

We know that the number of comments in any one direction cannot be taken as a gauge of public opinion. When Common Dreams responded to a flood of reader complaints after they opened articles for comments, they learned that one person was posting under more than 50 names.

So:

1. Media needs comments to generate advertising income.

2. Governments pay people to write comments.

3. Comments that may appear to represent a majority may be written by one or two people.

4. We have no idea how much #2 and #3 overlap.

Every time I share these facts, at least one person has not heard them before. This has led me to make it a personal mission: to always ignore comments to online news stories and to always encourage others to do the same. I hope you will join me in this mission.

Many people seem to believe that these comments reflect public opinion. They may or may not - we have no way of knowing. The only thing we know that comments reflect is corporate media's need for clicks.

Media sites won't close down their comments sections anytime soon, not as long as clicks are associated with income. But we have a choice.

I know it can sometimes be seductive. You want to see what people are saying. Don't go there. Refuse to look. Refuse to click. Remind yourself: you will not learn anything, the ignorance and hate will upset or anger you, and you will change nothing.

What's more, it's not an effective use of our time. If we're busy reading and responding to comments, we're not building a movement to change the world. Think of it this way: Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney would love it if we spent our time responding to comments on news stories.

That sewer of hate and lies lives on clicks. The only way it will die is if we starve it.

1.12.2013

help defend whistleblowers who defend animals: marineland suing former employees who went public on animal abuse

Company abuses animals/the environment/labour.

Employee comes forward to make the abuse public.

Company tries to silence employee.

It's an old story, and it repeats itself again and again, in many different contexts. You've seen it dramatized in movies like Silkwood and Erin Brockovich. It's what Bradley Manning is going through on a grand scale.

Whistleblowers risk their jobs, and in some cases their lives, to stand up for others. Often, without whistleblowers, we would never know the truth. That's why we have an obligation to stand up for whistleblowers.

If you live in Ontario and watch any television, you've seen the ads for Marineland, with that cloying song: They come from a land of ice and snow, now belugas have a home in On-tar-ee-o... Everyone loves Marineland... Everyone loves Marineland...

That chorus is bitterly ironic. If the residents of Marineland could speak, I doubt those marine mammals would say they love living in unhealthy water that causes constant eye irritation and blindness, being held in waterless concrete pens, living alone (a practice that amounts to a prison of solitary confinement, banned for marine mammals in the US), bleeding, neglected, abused. But these animals can't speak, and they can't leave, and they can't change the conditions of their lives.

Trainers at Marineland were so upset about conditions there, and so frustrated at being unable to make improvements, that they quit their jobs, and went public.

Now Marineland is suing them for $1.5 million.

A fund has been started to help with the mounting costs of their legal defence. If you can give, any amount will help. As little as $5.00 or $10.00 will make a difference. Click here to donate.

Background, all from the Toronto Star:

Marineland animals suffering, former staffers say

Marineland: Heartache for Smooshi the walrus as top trainer quits

Ontario SPCA to inspect Marineland

‘Everyone loves Marineland!’ singer wants voice pulled from commercials

Marineland: Killer whale bleeding for months, trainer says

Marineland sues former trainer Christine Santos for $1.25 million for Toronto Star article

Donate to Christine Santos' legal defence here.

1.06.2013

naomi wolf: director kathryn bigelow is our generation's leni riefenstahl

Naomi Wolf, in The Guardian:
Zero Dark Thirty is a gorgeously-shot, two-hour ad for keeping intelligence agents who committed crimes against Guantánamo prisoners out of jail. It makes heroes and heroines out of people who committed violent crimes against other people based on their race – something that has historical precedent.

Your film claims, in many scenes, that CIA torture was redeemed by the "information" it "secured", information that, according to your script, led to Bin Laden's capture. This narrative is a form of manufacture of innocence to mask a great crime: what your script blithely calls "the detainee program".
This is an excellent and important piece. I hope you will go here to read it.

12.10.2012

anti-choice group advertises on... hangers. yes, hangers.

Apparently this is not a story from The Onion. From Reproductive Health Reality Check:
There is a branch of anti-choice activists that will use pretty much anything as a medium for their message: newspaper ads, graphic signs displayed in front of schools, bus stop benches. You would think they would know well enough to leave one place untouched, though. Wire coat hangers.

You would be wrong.

Springdale Drycleaners of Cincinnati, Ohio, has been etching "Choose Life" ads on wire coat hangers used to hang dry-cleaning.

What's worse is that this seems to be an ongoing effort. Reports of the "choose life" coat hangers already were on the internet back in March of 2011, when Joe.My.God posted a picture of the hanger then. And before that on Regretsy in 2010. So despite over two years of attention, the business continues to think this is an excellent cross-advertising campaign. In fact, the practice was losing them customers as far back as August of 2010, but still the dry-cleaner continues to use hangers as a place to offer inappropriate propaganda.
See original for links. You know I won't link to that crap.

8.20.2012

informed citizens vs. enbridge: misleading pipeline ads must go

What's wrong with this picture?

Lori Waters knew what was wrong. Waters, who lives in BC and designs scientific graphics, recognized that 1,000 kilometres of island coastline was missing from the map, giving the appearance of a broad, clear channel - one that might accommodate oil supertankers with a degree of safety that does not exist. Waters' media release:
Enbridge Pipeline and Tankers: Competition Bureau Asked to Investigate Deceptive Northern Gateway Marketing by Enbridge

Company Quickly Alters Widely Distributed Ads That Show Hundreds of Kilometres of BC Islands Missing From Tanker Route

A BC woman who designs scientific graphics for a living today filed a formal complaint with the federal Competition Bureau claiming Enbridge is misleading the public with promotional videos that have erased the numerous and intricate web of more than 1000 square kilometres of islands along the proposed Northern Gateway tanker route. Since the Vancouver Island resident made a corrected graphic two days ago showing Enbridge's omission, it has gone viral with over 8,000 shares. The graphics have been remixed by citizens and community groups into videos, infographics and photos.

The original video advertisements appeared on Enbridge's website and YouTube and are among the company's key promotional pieces for their pipeline project and have been used by several media outlets in stories since late last year. Since the controversy broke in the media yesterday, Enbridge hastily beat a partial retreat, removing the offending image from one of their videos, and making the existing disclaimer more prominent in another. The offending video remains a prominent feature on the company's website, and is being widely shared on the Internet and through social media. The controversy comes amid shaken public confidence in Enbridge as a result of a scathing US National Transportation Safety Board report that concluded Enbridge's pipeline operations showed a "culture of deviance" on safety procedures.

"What Enbridge has done is to distort the maps in its promotional videos to erase numerous islands and twisting passages so that tanker route appears much safer than it is," said Lori Waters, who has a graduate degree specializing in scientific animation and owns a biomedical communications company. "Enbridge continues to offer this misleading video to the public, and it can't be trusted. Quickly pulling their fake map out of one ad, and slapping a disclaimer at the front of the other ad confirms for me that something weird is going on, and I've included that in with my complaint."

Waters is the mastermind behind a corrected graphic that has gone viral on social media over the past two days. She put together a few simple slides showing Enbridge's depiction of the tanker route along with the same graphic that includes the islands that were erased and a Google Earth version of the same views.

As a result of the negative attention, Enbridge responded yesterday afternoon by partially altering the ads and stating to the media that the video was meant to be "illustrative" and that other videos, and their regulatory filings, contained accurate maps.

"I thought it was important to set the record straight", said Waters. "It's not acceptable to make a misleading video and then hide behind a claim that it's just an illustration, or that the map is not to scale. The rest of the coastline is drawn fairly accurately - they've just deliberately eliminated all the islands. Frankly, it's ridiculous that Enbridge is now suggesting that the viewer should scramble around and look at documents they've filed in a government registry or in other videos to find a true picture, when the most prominent image that they've provided is false. The fact is that the illustration is deceptive and that's why I'm asking for a formal investigation."

The graphic was picked up by groups opposed to the tar sands development project and rapidly went viral. SumOfUs, a world-wide, citizen-driven campaign organization dedicated to watchdogging corporate practices, posted the graphic online with a petition to Enbridge asking them to take the videos down from their website. As of this morning, over 12,000 people had signed the petition in about 12 hours.
This comes on the heels of a steady stream of strikes against the Northern Gateway pipeline, including a report by the US National Transportation and Safety Board calling Enbridge the "Keystone Kops" of pipeline safety, for their bungling response to the leak in the Kalamazoo River wetlands. More recently, Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair said the pipeline is "a non-starter". Naturally, Mulcair takes the politically safer (i.e. spineless) route and supports the tarsands generally, but suggests the oil be refined in Canada.

The petition to "tell Enbridge to pull its misleading ads" is here.

This excellent video gives a simple, visual explanation of the insanity of the pipeline and the extent of Enbridge's lies.


7.17.2012

vaginal discharge. now i've said it, too. (thanks, carefree.)

How can it be that an advertisement is considered controversial because it clearly states the intended use of its product?


Strangely, it makes perfect sense, in a world where legislators are banned from their workplaces for uttering the word vagina, where breasts are used to sell everything in creation, but the most basic function of a breast - feeding babies - must be hidden from view. A world where the product in question is itself marketed under a euphemism: feminine hygiene.

Thank you, Carefree, for an ad that uses plain language. Thank you, too, to model Cody Condell, who says she is "proud to be part of" the Australian Carefree campaign. Now would everyone else just grow up?
How would you describe the substance that comes out of a woman's private parts when she's not menstruating?

Let’s just call it what it is: vaginal discharge.

That’s what Carefree did in its latest ad for underwear liners, which shows a naked young woman, her body hidden behind white flowers, discussing the often taboo subject of female bodily functions.

Ads for “feminine care” products are replete with euphemisms (and what’s with the blue liquid?), featuring young women beaming at the camera while they strike a yoga pose or jump off a diving board.

“You never see a bathroom, you never see a woman using a product,” Elissa Stein, co-author of the book Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation, told The New York Times in a 2010 article about menstrual product ads. “They never show someone having cramps or her face breaking out or tearful – it’s always happy, playful, sporty women.”

After the Carefree ad aired Sunday night, the Advertising Standards Bureau in Australia starting receiving complaints – five so far. But the company has defended the commercial, saying it is “the first time a major brand has had the guts to use real words, not euphemisms or diminutive terms."

Campaign spokeswoman Debbie Selikman told Nine News in Australia that Carefree conducted research and found that women wanted ads to use the proper terminology for their anatomy; other words used for vagina made women feel like they should be ashamed or embarrassed about their bodies.

It wasn’t until 1985 that the word “period” was said on TV in a Tampax commercial by none other than Courteney Cox (before Friends, of course). That was 27 years ago. Maybe one day we’ll look back and think how silly it was that “vaginal discharge” would be described in any other way.

5.04.2012

do not buy a cuisinart electric percolator. i will not make that mistake again.

I am fuming. Friggin' fuming.

Remember my coffee maker, the Cuisinart electric percolator? I was impressed that Cuisinart, a division of Conair, honoured their three-year warranty.

Short version: the replacement percolator that they sent me has broken after only eight months of use. The company has told me that this unit is not covered under a separate warranty. It is covered under a warranty from the original unit, and that has run out.

Longer version. August 18, 2011:
Two weeks ago, my coffee maker broke. It was a electric percolator (I wrote about my preference for it here), made by Cuisinart. It's the third such percolator I've had in a six-year span. One day they just stop working.

I purchased this particular coffee maker 13 months ago. After digging through my receipts and warranties and instruction booklets, I learned Cuisinart has an unusual three-year warranty. To access the warranty, we had pack up the coffee maker, ship it to a service centre, enclose a $10 cheque for return postage, and wait an estimated two weeks. Meanwhile, we had to buy another coffee maker, which, if it will last long enough, could be our back-up for the next time the electric percolator breaks - but is more likely to break well before it is needed again.

The broken percolator was inconvenient, and annoying, and wasteful. But at least I can - presumably - get a replacement from Cuisinart.
August 26, 2011:
Although the damn thing broke after only 13 months of use - and although I was very annoyed at having to ship it at my own expense to the service centre - and although I was even more annoyed that the warranty also required me to pay the return postage - a new Cuisinart electric percolator has just arrived on my doorstep, 14 days after we mailed off the broken one. The new one still includes Cuisinart's three-year warranty. Perhaps if they have to replace enough of them, they'll start making them more durable.

Also, I did not have the receipt for the broken percolator. It seemed like I had every receipt for every item I've ever purchased, except that one. The coffee maker itself has a serial number, and from that the company can tell when it shipped to the store. You just have to hope it wasn't sitting in the store for two years before you purchased it.
Now the replacement percolator I received last August has stopped working. Because (as noted above) the warranty was dated from the shipment to the store, not from the date of my purchase, it's possible that I missed a few months on the warranty. Nevertheless, the new unit says it has a three-year warranty. But apparently that is not really true.

I had some trouble with my BlackBerry while it was still under warranty. Wind replaced it, but told me the replacement was not covered under a new warranty; the warranty still started from the date of purchase only. I thought this was ridiculous and perhaps unusual. Now I see it is probably the norm.

Someone has posted instructions on how to fix an electric percolator, but that's not something I would attempt. In comments the blogger mentions the fix was temporary anyway.

I have a strong preference for an electric percolator over drip or French press. But the only electric percolator I can find in the GTA is Cuisinart, and I'm not buying this piece of crap again.

My most recent rant about disposability and planned obsolescence is here, and there's some good stuff in comments as well.

Grrr.

12.21.2011

what i'm watching: old timey tv and old timey ads


One of my favourite comedies has always been "The Burns and Allen Show," the old TV vehicle for the comedy team of Gracie Allen and George Burns. The show's entire run (1950-1958) was finished before I was born, but in my days as an insomniac teenager and young adult, I would watch late-night re-runs, and I fell in love with this show.

Burns and Allen, who were married, began their act onstage in vaudeville, then moved to radio in the heyday of that medium, then had a popular TV show from the earliest days of television. Gracie was the comedian, playing on her supposedly addle-headed, ditzy, unique way of seeing the world, and George was her straight man. (Interestingly, their stage act originally featured George as the air-head and Gracie as the straight, but Gracie was getting all the laughs, so they switched roles.)

One of Burns and Allen's long-running gags was that George would be poor and unknown if it weren't for Gracie. This reflected real-life common wisdom that Gracie was the star, and George would have no career without her. Gracie retired in 1958 and died in 1964. As you may know, George Burns went on to have an entire second career making movies and doing standup, especially known for his role as God in the "Oh, God" movies. He died in 1996 at 100 years old.


"The Burns and Allen Show", although predictable, corny and dated (and hilarious), had some post-modern touches that put it way ahead of its time. George served as narrator, setting up Gracie's situations, and stepping in and out of the frame. The borders of the set were left visible on a proscenium stage, so George could walk in and out of the action. If you've seen "It's Garry Shandling's Show," where Shandling rode a golf cart to the fake sitcom set, that was an homage to Burns and Allen. The action also stopped for George to do standup on related themes, similar to the opening and closing frames of "Seinfeld". Later in the series' run, George would turn on a TV and watch Gracie and their neighbours, Harry and Blanche Morton - "Let's see what the Mortons are up to..." - while he smoked his cigar and addressed the audience.


I love The Burns and Allen Show, and I absolutely love Gracie Allen, a comic genius. I hadn't seen the show in years - decades - and I always wanted to re-watch it on DVD. A few months ago, Allan surprised me with more than 100 episodes on DVD, somebody's homemade package being sold online.

We started watching it, thinking we could go through the entire series in order, but we've been disabused of this completest plan. As is often the case with the early days of a great comedy, the beginning was rough. The show needed more time to develop, and was probably still making the switch from radio to television. So instead, we're going to sample various seasons until we find where The Funny begins, and watch from there.

In the early days of television, shows had a single sponsor that was strongly associated with the show, another holdover from radio. The sponsor often enjoyed top billing, such as "Maxwell House Coffee Time" or "Texaco Star Theater". This had mostly stopped before my time. The one show I remember that retained that type of title was "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom", which people of my generation grew up watching on Sunday nights - "before Disney," as we all said.

Not only did shows have single sponsors, but ads were part of the show, and much more conspicuous than current product placement or other forms of embedded marketing these days. The only analog that I can think of today is (sadly) the in-game advertising we are subjected to during baseball games, where someone sits in the announcer's booth for an inning, and the announcers and the guest "chat" about the product during the game. In these old shows, the ads were performed by the show's "announcer" - another radio holdover, and a precursor of the late-night co-host. This freed the show's star from unseemly shilling, and in George Burns' and other's cases, allowed them to distance themselves with irreverent snarky comments about having to do the ads.

The Burns and Allen Show was sponsored by "Carnation Evaporated Milk, the milk from contented cows". Each show contained two or more scenes in which coffee, or baking, or some form of cooking - or even Gracie receiving a bouquet of carnations! - figured in. Then the comedy stops and the announcer launches into a long spiel about the benefits of Carnation evaporated milk. (For Burns and Allen fans, this is Harry Von Zell*, except for the first season, I was surprised to learn a different announcer, Bill Goodwin, was part of the show.)

In some scenes, the characters themselves extol the virtues of having been raised as a "Carnation baby" or how wonderful the cake was because the icing was made with Carnation evaporated milk, or how silly Gracie wondered how you get milk from a bunch of carnations. It's a full-fledged commercial, but the show doesn't stop, break for ads, then resume, the way we're accustomed to. It's similar to today's embedded marketing, but much cruder. Although who knows, as we continue to mute and skip commercials, this technique might be revived.



* This made the Burns and Allen Show very unusual in having two characters with the same first name, Harry Morton and Harry Von Zell. The latter Harry was already referred to as "HarryVonZell".

10.25.2011

being erica whores for mccain pizza

I don't watch this show, but if I did, this would piss off the hell out of me.


CBC and McCain, the frozen food company, are "partnering" for a contest. Viewers are invited to submit audition videos. The winner lands a spot as an extra on "Being Erica"... eating McCain pizza. In other words, the winner gets to act in a commercial without being paid. McCain gets to advertise their brand throughout the contest, then again during the show, without a commercial break that everyone can fast-forward through or mute.

Since viewers don't watch commercials anymore, advertisers embed ads right into the show. We know this. We've been seeing it for years. But when the show turns into an extended ad, and there are ads for the ad itself, is there even a show left anymore?

McCain makes good pizza. Is "Being Erica" a good show?

9.14.2011

straight goods, advertising and propaganda

In case you missed it last week, my post on advertising and propaganda is running on Straight Goods. I hope you'll give it a read.

Comments are best posted on the original thread.

9.06.2011

war is peace, freedom is slavery, and bp is listening: more tales of corporate propaganda

You all know how I feel about advertising. Usually it's not the ads themselves that drive me nuts, but their massive proliferation: that everything in our field of vision and seemingly every moment of our time is filled with corporate logos and catch-phrases and exhortations to buy, buy, buy, more, more, more.

Sometimes, though, it is the ads themselves I hate. Two years ago, I wrote "you can't find inner peace in a bottle (of iced tea)," about the co-opting of the language of people's movements and of spirituality in advertising. These days, a certain fast-food chain (owned by a corporation with $11 billion in global sales) exhorts us to "join the revolution" by eating a crappy burrito instead of a crappy burger.

The ads I hate most, however, aren't trying to sell us anything - make that "any thing". They're selling ideas. Associations. Lies. These ads are politely called public relations, but more properly called propaganda.

Only rubes listen to environmental alarmists

Take this one, paid for by the BC Salmon Farmers Association.


This is one of a series of ads in which we're invited to eavesdrop on some gullible rubes, people stupid enough to fall for any scam. We can scoff at those dummies, knowing we are smarter, more savvy than they are.

The ad doesn't offer a single fact about farmed salmon, nor describe any controversy. We see no fish, no fishermen, no grilled salmon anchoring a healthy, delicious meal. The people too smart to be deceived - you and I, viewers of the ad - are invited to learn more at a website.

The website is full of statements termed myths and facts. In a clever design, when you arrive at the page, only facts are visible. You have to click to see the myths.

Who sponsors this website? At the bottom, there are six logos. They represent: the BC Salmon Farmers Association, a fish-food supplier ("Knowledge Makes the Difference"), a corporate seafood producer, an aquaculture engineering company, plus two organizations whose names sound like environmental groups, but are, respectively, "the second largest producer of farmed salmon in British Columbia" and "the largest aquaculture company in British Columbia". In other words, all six sponsors of this site have a potent economic interest in salmon farming.

On the other hand, the people and organizations who oppose current methods of salmon farming have no economic interest; their interest is the health of our oceans, animals and people. For another perspective on farmed-raised salmon, see "How Farm-Raised Salmon Are Turning Our Oceans Into Dangerous and Polluted Feedlots", "Farmed Salmon Are Really Bad News – For Us, for Wild or Captive Orcas, and for the Environment", and an excellent, nuanced article offering viable alternatives, from the David Suzuki Foundation: "Salmon farming: A grave concern, a great hope".

Oil is life

Another ad from my propaganda collection touts "a different kind of oil sands". On YouTube, this company's ads are not embeddable, but you can watch one here.

Seen through aerial photography, the tar sands production field looks like a small city nestled in a lush, green forest. We're told the oil is being "recovered" - an amazing bit of semantic propaganda right there - by "a Canadian company," appealing to our love of all things Canadian.

There's no sense of scale - we don't know how big that city is - and we certainly don't see it close-up. We don't see how much water it consumes and pollutes, the toxic mess it leaves behind, the poisoned food chain, the First Nations communities with skyrocketing rates of rare cancers. Just a distant city surrounded by deep forest, with the corporation profiting from that city claiming, "It's a different kind of oil sands".

Another Cenovius ad is even more insidious, and more brilliant. Thirty seconds, no voice over, so even with your TV audio muted, you'll get the message.

First we hear a whooshing sound, the opening piano chords pulse, and we see a blurry image, possibly of a face. "125 years ago, it illuminated a room".

The camera pulls back as the stirring chords rise. Now we see that the blurry face is actually on a TV screen - no, not a TV, some other kind of high-tech screen. The camera pulls back further, revealing a woman in a white coat and a man, vaguely brown-skinned. It's an ultrasound! "Today, it illuminates a life."

Finally, the music swells, pulsing piano joined by shimmering cymbals, and we see the white-coat and the brown man are gathered around a woman, her pregnant belly fully visible. The man and pregnant woman clutch hands, exchange looks of wonder, then turn back to the screen. "Oil is more than just a source of fuel. It's an essential part of product innovation." We are invited to "discover the connection" at a website.

What is this ad selling? Obviously not happy expectant couples or medical technology. It's selling an idea - or even more tenuous, an association. Oil, so beneficial. Oil, important to science. Oil, health care, life-saving. Oil, birth, joyous new life.

Nothing to see here: deadly bacteria is invisible

Please watch this 30-second ad.


Again to the strains of stirring piano, an ad invites us to "fill your plates" with "tender meat, succulent taste, health, and love". People of various ethnic backgrounds recount the events of their days over a meal, one of the most universally shared experiences of human cultures. A father places his hands on his daughter's shoulders as she tries her hand at the barbecue. From a backyard, we see a house lit from within, a powerful image of safety and warmth. Inside, a family gathers for a meal. Maple Leaf Prime.

No outright lies here, merely an association: Maple Leaf Prime is associated with the love, warmth and safety of family. Maple Leaf hopes this will replace the association of its company name with two listeriosis outbreaks that caused the agonizing deaths of 23 people, and serious illnesses of another 34 who survived. Conservative Agricultural Minister Gerry Ritz had a good laugh at the victims' expense; the Harper government continues to dismantle food safety regulations, leaving the corporations to police themselves - or not. Take a peek at this website: Stephen Harper waves goodbye to food safety.

In case the ads don't work - if consumers persist in remembering Maple Leaf as the deli of death - the company also hides its besmirched name. Next time you're in a Canadian supermarket, check out the processed meats sold under the brand name "Natural Selection"; spot the tiny Maple Leaf brand logo. You won't see that logo on the brand name "Artisan"... but keep looking. When you find the company name and address, you'll know that those "artisans" are actually Maple Leaf processing plants.

"Research suggests most people cannot distinguish between sponsored links and actual news sites"

I started collecting examples of televised propaganda after the Deepwater Horizon Gulf of Mexico disaster.

I hope you will recall that BP's then-CEO Tony Hayward inflamed an already disgusted public, first by denying the magnitude of the disaster (a "relatively tiny" spill in a "very big ocean") and by disowning BP's culpability ("this was not our accident ... This was not our drilling rig ... This was Transocean's rig. Their systems. Their people. Their equipment"). Then in a stunning display of arrogance and disconnect, he sailed off on his yacht, complaining about personal inconvenience: "You know, I'd like my life back."

This played badly, to say the least. Hayward apologized, and was forced out of the company with one year's salary - £1 million ($1.6 million Canadian) - and a pension reportedly worth more than £10 million ($16 million Canadian). Then BP went to work. Wikipedia:
On 30 May BP hired Anne Kolton, former head of public affairs at the U.S. Department of Energy and former spokesperson for Dick Cheney, as head of U.S. media relations. BP established a new division, headed by board member and managing director Bob Dudley to handle the company's response. On 4 June BP began running TV ads featuring CEO Tony Hayward as he apologized for the disaster, adding "We will make this right." The company also ran print ads in newspapers including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Washington Post. . . . BP spokesperson Toby Odone told ABC News that BP had successfully bid for several search terms related to the oil spill on Google and other search engines so that the first sponsored search result links directly to the company's website. This is "a great PR strategy" commented Kevin Ryan, CEO of an internet communications firm, and one not used before by other firms facing similar public relations "nightmares," adding that research suggests most people cannot distinguish between sponsored links and actual news sites.
In the BP propaganda ads, "community outreach" employees - often brown-skinned, and always with Louisiana accents - tell us that BP was taking "full responsibility for the clean-up in the Gulf, and that includes keeping you informed". While the gentle music swelled, the compassionate, knowledgeable, down-to-earth BP rep clutches hands with ordinary people (you can tell they're ordinary, because they're overweight) and tells them, "BP is listening." People gut fish, men in rolled-up khakis (presumably tourists) cast off in the surf, weathered faces nod sagely at a community meeting. There's a whole series of these ads, the gentle music designed to lull you into dreamland.

And dreamland it is. When the shrimpers whose livelihoods had been ruined were hired to work on the cleanup, they were required to sign contracts forbidding them to speak to media. Meanwhile, dead animals will eventually decompose and wash away, so BP threatened, harassed and intimidated photographers. Out of sight, out of collective memory.

This year, on the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon crime, Democracy Now! ran a series of stories, including: Deepwater Drilling Resumes Despite Unclear Impact of BP Spill: "It is All about Hiding the Oil, Not Cleaning It Up", Death Toll from BP Spill Still Rising as Residents Die from Spill-Related Illnesses, Five Million Barrels of Oil Do Not Disappear, Naomi Klein on how climate change could be exploited by disaster capitalism and militarization, and many others. So what are these BP ads selling? A Big Lie.

The ad campaign reportedly cost BP $50 million, pocket change for the world's fourth-largest company. But it might save itself even that much, while reaching a new generation of consumers who might not watch TV or pick up a newspaper: BP now has a hand in developing California's schools' environmental curriculum.