Archive for the ‘Advertising’ Category

In praise of snail mail

March 12, 2008


Last week the New York Times reported on cable network HBO teaming up with the United States Postal Service to promote its new mini-series “John Adams.” In the process, they’re also promoting letter writing. Our nation’s second president and his wife Abigail were “prolific letter-writers,” as the article tells us. “They exchanged more than 1,100 letters from 1762 until 1801, dating from their courtship through his presidency.”

As part of the campaign, you can even send a free card, postage paid, to anyone you choose from a special Postal Service website. HBO is picking up the tab for the service.

john-adams.jpgThis brilliant marketing campaign got me thinking about the pleasures of snail mail. You know—real mail. I mean, I love the immediacy of email. It’s more than convenient—it also helps us feel connected. Often after exchanging a flurry of emails with a friend or family members, I feel as if we’ve been talking on the phone.

But there’s just something magical about real mail. If I drop a card or a note in the mail, even to these same friends with whom I routinely swap emails, invariably I hear back about how special it was to receive an actual piece of mail.

And who doesn’t have a stash of old letters and cards tucked away somewhere? My colleague Lisa recently told me about writing a letter to her grandmother, or perhaps a birthday card, just remembering some of the many wonderful things the two of them had done together when she was growing up and lived next door to her grandma. By then, her grandmother had retired to another state and walked with the aid of a walker. She kept Lisa’s letter in the basket on her walker and showed it to everyone.

Another reason I like letter writing is I like rituals. I love to make martinis, for instance, even though I don’t much care to drink them. What I like about them is that they involve cool stuff and processes: Frosted martini glasses, cocktail shakers, twists or olives, shaking or stirring, depending on which Bond film you believe… Fortunately for me, Marion likes the occasional martini and I get to make it.

Mail has its own paraphernalia and processes. Cards, postcards, stationery [if you want to get fancy]… and the stamps! We always buy commemorative stamps. Always. And we always have the postal clerk haul out all the various kinds available to choose from. There’s also the whole chain of events that gets set into motion when you drop a card or a letter into the mailbox. Maybe I paid too much attention to those movies they showed us in grade school, but I think about the journey that piece of mail will make as I send it. Then again, with the way people obsessively check tracking numbers on packages when they ship something, maybe that’s normal.

The beauty of postcards. The range of postcards out there is nothing short of amazing. From the typical tourist cards to humor to absolute works of art. Of course, a favorite of mine are unintentionally funny promotional cards. I once got a postcard from a relative on vacation in Florida that had obviously been sent out of familial duty. It was a free card provided by the motel where she was staying and featured the self-serve washers and dryers that the motel considered a major selling point for making it your home away from home. Said relative didn’t have an ironic bone in her body, but plenty of practical ones—so for her, the card filled the request for one. For me, it was hysterical, better than any carefully chosen palm tree scene could have been.

The real beauty of postcards, though, is their finite writing space. Sometimes you want to just drop a quick line to someone, make contact, but an entire sheet of paper is daunting. With a postcard, you can dash off a few lines and you’re done. And the person on the other end still feels really good and really special when it arrives. Or you can do what we more often do, writing small, filling the entire writing space and even spilling over under the address.


For a while, anytime we hit flea markets, I would look for old postcards, mostly vintage cards of places I’d lived, St. Louis and Chicago. And I specifically sought out cards that hadn’t been written on. I would send these to friends who had also lived in these places. Typically, these cards run anywhere from a buck to a few dollars, cheaper than most greeting cards. And way more fun. Preparing to write this post, I flipped through my stack of old postcards. I think maybe it’s time to revive this practice.


Ditching the D word

January 23, 2008


In December, the Chicago Tribune reported that Kraft Foods Inc. was scrapping the word “diet” from its popular line of diet foods. They’re now called South Beach Living, thank you very much. The South Beach line has been a winner for Kraft, according to the article, growing from 50 products to 70 and being named a “Product Pacesetter” in 2006 by market researchers Information Resources Inc. Still, negative connotations to “diet” have prompted the move.

And now Weight Watchers, a company whose very name is synonymous with dieting, has come out against it. The word, at least. Their new advertising tagline shows exactly where they’ve planted their new flag: Stop dieting. Start living. Their current ad campaign, all over taxi roofs and subways here, takes D word dissing even further, with headlines like DIETS ARE MEAN, GO ON A DIET DIET and PEOPLE DON’T FAIL, DIETS DO.

An article in ADWEEK this month reports that the company has hired prolific video blogger or vlogger Faint Starlite to promote their new attitude. She’s been posting video blog entries about a wide range of topics since 2006, including chronicling her weight loss after joining Weight Watchers.

So why has the D word fallen into such disfavor? Because diets don’t work—at least not by themselves and not in the long run. Consider this. At any given time, roughly a quarter of Americans are on a diet. Yet according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 64% of us are overweight or, worse, obese.


Being overweight is more than just a fashion or appearance issue. The CDC reports that deaths due to poor diet and physical inactivity rose by 33 percent over the past decade and may soon overtake tobacco as the leading preventable cause of death. It doesn’t exactly make living a barrel of fun either. Weight problems can lead to many health issues, including high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

There are any number of reasons diets don’t work. Psychological, practical, cultural, physical… One of the most insidious is our own bodies trying to save themselves. If you try to lose weight by cutting calories alone, your body will play along for a while. But at some point, all the eons of humans surviving famines kicks in—your body decides you’re starving to death and reduces its caloric needs, causing weight loss to grind to a halt.

So what does work? Living, according to Kraft and Weight Watchers. Specifically, sensible living. You know. Moderation. Balance. Not just cutting calories, but burning them. Anyone who’s honest about weight control will tell you losing weight comes down to burning more calories than you consume. In other words, exercising, not just starving yourself. I once heard someone sniff that Americans are the only people who try to lose weight by eating.

Which brings me back to these two companies ditching the D word. All Kraft has to sell is food. So for them, I think it’s mostly an effort to expand the line’s reach beyond dieting to lifestyle. Kraft’s vice president for strategic marketing initiatives Howard Brandeisky said as much: “We think [the name change] is going to broaden the appeal of the brand and fuel its growth trajectory.”

Weight Watchers has a bigger story to tell. Besides their food line, they’ve got a program, a chance to deliver on the promise of this ad, my favorite in the series. The headline says: DIETS TAKE AWAY THE THINGS WE LOVE, THEN MAKE US HATE OURSELVES FOR LOVING THEM. The copy goes on to read: Weight Watchers teaches you to replace deprivation with moderation, so you can finally learn how to lose weight and keep it off. And then love yourself like crazy for it.

I’ve already seen some bloggers railing against both of these companies for this latest move, saying of course they’re selling diets. And maybe they are. But if they even further the conversation about living and lifestyle decisions instead of always relying on the D word, maybe they’re doing something good after all.

What’s so funny about beef and good health?

January 16, 2008

Red meat takes a lot of heat these days in the health department. And while over-consumption of beef can lead to a host of health problems, the same can be said of just about anything. [At least once a year, there’s a story of someone dying from drinking an extreme amount of water.] Indeed, one Harvard study citing the increased risk of of breast cancer from consuming too much red meat involved women who ate more than 10-1/2 servings of red meat a week over a 12-year period! The unanswered question for me is where did they find these women?!?

The takeaway message from all but the most strident studies is this: “You don’t have to swear off red meat completely—just eat it occasionally and keep portions small.”

feel-good.jpgSo what about the benefits of eating red meat—more specifically lean red meat? Lean cuts of red meat are low in fat, with around half the fat being unsaturated [you know, the good kind]. Lean red meat is a valuable source of many essential nutrients, such as protein, iron, zinc, B vitamins, vitamin D and selenium. More important, some of these nutrients are more readily available than when they are derived from plant foods. As an aside, the leanest ground beef—called ground sirloin in the U.S.—is actually lower in fat than ground turkey. So if you’re going for a turkey burger at home, do it for the taste, not the health benefits.

Further, foods rich in protein have a high satiety value—they keep us feeling full longer—and could actually play a role in weight control.

By now, this is all starting to sound a little dry, I imagine. Not unlike that turkey burger [you don’t want to order that medium rare, do you?]. So take a look at this entertaining message from Australian television about the benefits of eating red meat.

“We write ads or people die.”

October 17, 2007

I work in advertising. When I tell people that, I get a wide range of responses. Everything from some wistful version of “wow, I bet that’s really interesting” to a kind of pitying reaction, as if I’ve just confessed to selling used cars or liking Danielle Steele—or perhaps that this lowly, somehow vaguely criminal activity [in their view] is the best I’ve managed to do in life. Interestingly, I can almost always count on academics to hold the latter view.

Truthfully, though, I like what I do. Most days, anyway. Sure, there are sometimes long hours, boatloads of stress and unbelievably idiotic clients. But there are also days [or at least moments within days] that I agree with legendary adman Jerry Della Femina’s view that advertising is “the most fun you can have with your clothes on.” [Now, apparently, so is running a restaurant in East Hampton, but that’s another story.]

For a while, I was so completely into advertising that I mainly wanted to hang out with other advertising people after work and considered anyone not in the business a “civilian.” Which is why, when this video showed up on YouTube, I found it especially funny.

A little set-up before you hit PLAY. I generally hate insider jokes, and this video is rife with them. To give you a better idea of the dynamics in play, there is often more than a little tension between creatives—copywriters, art directors, creative directors—and account service people. Creatives sometimes view account people as spineless creatures ready to rubber stamp any stupid request from clients who often need to be saved from themselves. Account people sometimes view themselves as the lone voice of sanity standing up against creative crazies who only want to goof off, piss off clients and win awards. Both sides are wrong, of course. Both sides are sometimes right too. And both sides are every bit as passionate in their views as depicted in this short clip. Enjoy.

Who put the F in the WTF?

August 22, 2007

This is supposed to be my forum for going off-topic, “sometimes wildly so.” But the past couple of weeks I’ve talked about food and health, wine and health… This week, I just want to give you a good, healthy laugh.

I WARN YOU, THOUGH: If you’re at work or the kids are up, proceed with caution. If you’ve read my What’s with the name? page, you know that I can speak fluent sailor on occasion. But the star of this video blows right past me, carpet bombing with more F-bombs than I’ve ever dropped on the worst night in the kitchen. Nothing sexual or offensive here [unless you’re offended by the F-bomb itself]—just a guy expressing his, shall we say, displeasure over the way things are going during a corporate video shoot.

I can totally sympathize. I work in advertising and have been on some hellacious TV shoots. On one little 10-second TV spot for a bank, for instance, the client-picked talent could not for the life of her nail the line. The director talked to her. As the writer/creative director, I talked to her. We both delivered the line as it should be read—all she had to do was mimic us, for crying out loud, but no dice. Finally, after more than 30 takes, we got something out of her that we all agreed was close enough. Afterwards, the director came to me holding an entire 35mm reel of film, all unusable takes, and asked if I was sure the last take [on a fresh reel] was what we wanted. I said it was. We threw away the entire unprocessed reel of film rather than pay to have it processed.

Sometimes, it’s not just the talent that’s the problem. We did a 30-second spot for a St. Louis restaurant chain once that again required thirty-something takes. The entire commercial was a single shot, with the camera dollying to follow the talent across the set. So in other words, if any one part of a take was bad, the whole thing was unusable. Sometimes, the problem was indeed the talent, one of the chain partners, blowing his lines. Other times, it was a bad camera move, the plate of pasta looking flat or not steaming enough [the restaurant chain’s executive chef kept making plate after plate for us as the shoot progressed], a key prop failing to fall on cue… Unlike the guy in the video below, our client was a great sport about it and kept up the energy. Still, I was glad that since we’d put him through so much, I was able to tell him that we in fact used the very last take.

Okay, without further ado, the video. Either enjoy or consider yourself forewarned.

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The art of advertising

May 23, 2007

I’ve always been intrigued by the intersection of commerce and art [I think I’ve even said these exact words here before—and probably will again]. It’s one reason I find Walker Evans’ photography so interesting, with its many depictions of often hand-painted signs on storefronts and buildings. And why I find signs like this one in my new neighborhood so charming.shake2.jpg

One thing that charms me with these lovingly but amateurishly produced signs are the sometimes unintended results—the oversized, steaming hot dog apparently being a cause for concern rather than delight, for instance.

susanna_truax_1730.jpgThese commercial artists come from a long and proud tradition. Limners were anonymous itinerant painters of 18th-century America who usually had little formal training. They were primarily portraitists, and their work was generally characterized by flat, awkward figures in richly detailed costumes. Between portrait sittings, many of them also filled in as sign painters to make ends meet.

I for one hope the tradition continues. There is plenty of slick marketing blandness in the world. Keep the homemade stuff coming.

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