Consumer Group Can’t Be This Naive

It’s kind of cute. Apparently, the consumer group Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood really thought the people who make Dove soap came up with their much-praised “Campaign for Real Beauty” for some reason other than to sell bars of soap. But the scales have dropped from their eyes all right! According to the LA Times:

A consumer group accused Unilever of hypocrisy Tuesday for running conflicting advertising campaigns — one for Dove that praises women and their natural beauty and one for Axe that the group said “blatantly objectifies and degrades” them.

The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood launched a letter-writing effort on its website and demanded the company pull ads for the Axe line of grooming products for men, which one online pitch says makes “nice girls turn naughty.”

Unilever shouldn’t be commended for Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” while promoting products with a starkly different message, said Susan Linn, the consumer group’s director and an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

“The campaign says they’re going to help girls to resist a toxic marketing environment but they’re creating that environment as well,” Linn said.

Both campaigns are clever attempts to push the right buttons to stimulate their respective target audiences. In this case, there is probably zero overlap between the horny teenage boys who are supposed to buy Axe and the skin-texture-obsessed women who buy Dove beauty soap.

The consumer groups surely understand this. They’ve just found a good PR angle to draw attention to themselves, albeit by insulting the intelligence of the rabble they seek to rouse.

Nevertheless, a flack tries to keep Santa alive for another season:

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PR Agencies Keep Trying “Stealth.” Why? (*Updated)

By now, you’d think the major PR firms, the ones staffed by the crème de la crème, that snag the biggest, most prestigious accounts, would have learned that you can’t get away with a campaign premised on hiding the identity of the client.

Doing so is regarded as unethical by everyone you’re trying to persuade. Disclosure–which is almost inevitable–has a disproportionately negative effect, and the client risks being left in a worse position than if they’d done nothing.

But “nothing” of course means “no fees for you.” So instead of giving clients a real-world expectation of the dangers of a super-secret stealth campaign in an era of relentless transparency, agencies push bad ideas that get them paid.

Burson-Marsteller has apparently spent the past few years paying no attention to their own industry. And Microsoft’s amnesia is truly incredible for a company that sells “memory.” Get a load of this from the UK Observer:

Microsoft is at the centre of an embarrassing row over an attempt by a lobby firm strongly linked with the Seattle computer giant to rally opposition against rival Google’s proposed acqusition of internet marketing firm DoubleClick.

The Observer has seen an email sent by a director at leading lobby firm Burson-Marsteller to a number of top UK businesses. The email urges board members to raise the issue of Google’s dominance of search engines with politicians, regulators and the media.

The email asks companies to join a new organisation – Initiative for Competitive Online Marketplaces – which in the next few weeks will make a series of announcements on Google, internet privacy and copyright.

The email’s author is Jonathan Dinkeldein, a director of B-M. He admitted the firm was working with Microsoft on the initiative. A spokeswoman for Microsoft agreed that the firm has an ‘ongoing relationship with Burson-Marsteller’ but said it is not lobbying for Microsoft.

Relations between Microsoft and Google are fraught and the development comes at a sensitive time. Concern over Google’s dominance in online advertising prompted the US federal trade commission to probe its £1.56bn takeover of DoubleClick. Google itself asked the European Commision to investigate the takeover.

Microsoft has objected to the tie-up on the grounds that it will combine the two largest advertising distributors on the internet.

It lost in the auction for DoubleClick.

When asked about the email, Dinkeldein admited the organisation was formed by Microsoft. Dinkeldein added that his initiative attracted several orgnanisations to join it.

But executives contacted by The Observer told of their disquiet at being ‘cold-called’ in this manner. The emails included newspaper articles from the Financial Times and the Economist which some executives were concerned broke copyright rules. Others suggested that by not disclosing who Burson-Marsteller was representing, the firm was breaking the spirit of political lobby firms’ code of conduct. Continue reading

Michael Deaver, R.I.P.

mike-deaver.jpgThe last thought I remember having before going to sleep last night was, “I wonder how Mike Deaver is doing.  I’ll have to e-mail (a mutual friend) to see if she knows what’s up.”  This morning, the first news story I saw on the internet was Mike’s obituary.    

I was aware of his diagnosis: Pancreatic cancer.  I first heard he had it about a year ago.  There was nothing in the news about it, but Deaver’s name was in the press for other reasons, suggesting he was working through his illness.  I hoped he would be one of the fortunate few who overcome what is almost always a fatal cancer.  That he survived a year is a testament to the heart of a fundamentally peaceful and kind man. 

You reading this know Michael Deaver as an historical personage; Ronald Reagan’s “media maestro,” a member of the “troika” guiding Reagan through his first term.  If you dislike Reagan, you might blame Deaver for using his masterful PR skills to sell him voters who were otherwise eager to reward Jimmy Carter with a second term or Walter Mondale with a first.  If you like Reagan, you might have mixed feelings about Deaver, too.  He was often suspected by the hard right of being something less than a true-blue conservative. 

I don’t know about any of that.  As brilliant as Deaver was, I think his reputation as a media hypnotist was overblown by political pundits struggling to figure out how this “amiable dunce” Reagan got elected.  “Must’ve been those American flags Deaver put behind him.”  And if Deaver wasn’t a consistent right-winger, that reflects the fact that Reagan wasn’t a consistent right-winger either.  Deaver was a true PR man, and the essential skill that PR people need to have is a clear picture of who or what it is they are selling.  Deaver understood Reagan the man, and that’s what enabled him to create Reagan’s image as a candidate.

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Here’s What “John From Cincinnati” Means

I get it.  The fact that I get it doesn’t make “John From Cincinnati” a good show, but if you’re wondering what it’s all about, it’s simple.

“John From Cincinnati” tried to answer the question of what would happen if the most potent figures from the New Testament, akin to John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, Joseph and Mary and of course, Jesus Christ, were to emerge in a contemporary setting.  What would the people around them do? 

The show asks:  Do you believe the New Testament?  Do you take it as a matter of not just faith but fact that Jesus performed miracles like raising the dead and walking on water?  Was the purpose of these miraculous feats to persuade the people of his times to believe he was divine, and that his words were prophecies? 

If you do believe these things, why would you find “John From Cincinnati” implausible? Isn’t there supposed to be a return?  Well, then, it could happen like it does on the show, couldn’t it?

shaun-butch-john.jpgThe show was rife with Christian mystical symbolism, but I don’t think the point of the show was to bring us all to Jesus.  It was, instead, a what-if, a fantasy, a film noir Second Coming. And yet, within the universe of the show, we are to believe that this particular Second Coming is a very good thing — for the characters in the show, and for humanity in general.  The crisis precipitated by 9/11 is “huge,” as John says.  Bigger than what we believe it to be already.  An existential threat that will require divine force to save us mere, frail humans from turning it into an apocalypse. Continue reading

Iced Cappucino, Scourge of Starbucks

If you order an iced cappucino at Starbucks, the cashier will tell you “we’re not supposed to make iced cappucino, but we’ll make one for you.” I guess you’re supposed to feel like they’re cutting you a break but, shh, don’t tell everyone.

Perhaps inspired by the current book I’m reading, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” I had an overly literal reaction to this disclosure. I pointed to the menu on the wall above the barrista’s station. It listed all the coffee drinks including cappucino. Each one could be purchased “hot or iced.”

“You got us on a technicality,” one of the employees said, laughing like the jig was up.

A technicality? “It’s on your menu. It’s been there for years.”

Finally, they let me in on the real secret. Apparently, the Starbucks corporation is worried about the possibility of bacteria forming growing when the heated foam hits the ice cubes. So employees are instructed to say what the cashier said to me. I assume the company’s lawyers came up with this.  Perhaps they have gotten a ruling that the company would not be liable if I come down with food poisoning after such a dialogue.

If I keel over in the next few hours, Starbucks will be able to say, “We warned him, but he ignored us, the poor chap.”

It’s a weird way to manage a liability problem, to orchestrate a conversation between employees and customers that’s supposed to seem friendly, spontaneous and intimate.

Corporate practices like this tend to replicate themselves.  I’m already used to being asked at Pavillion’s whether I want help carrying my groceries to my car, even if I’m only buying a tube of toothpaste.  You’d think the clerks would have figured out by now that I’m perfectly capable of pushing a cartful of groceries.  I’ve been shopping there for years, and I don’t recall ever passing out from exhaustion in their presence. But, of course, “we’re required to ask,” so this charade of a friendly offer will continue, and I will continue to be forced to say, “No, but thank you.”

But the Starbucks variation — “We’re not supposed to make it for you” — is a new one.  Anyone else run into something like this?

Tired Earth*

begleyrav4.jpgNot too long ago, having a celebrity at your environmental press conference was a sure way to attract the cameras and spread the word. Luckily, most of the celebs who agreed to appear were walk-the-walk types, like Ed Begley, Jr. You wouldn’t invite anyone who wasn’t serious about it. Begley would bicycle all the way from the Valley to Santa Monica to stand up for Heal the Bay or the Coalition for Clean Air. If someone had taken a satellite photo of his home, it would have embarassed neither him nor his cause. And he was never sanctimonious.

Now, the celeb phase of the environmental movement has achieved its absurd apotheosis and badly needs to be shut down. Billed as a massive teach-in on climate change, the Live Earth concerts were, politically, a train wreck. From Rasmussen Reports, a polling site:

The Live Earth concert promoted by former Vice President Al Gore received plenty of media coverage and hype, but most Americans tuned out. Just 22% said they followed news stories about the concert Somewhat or Very Closely. Seventy-five percent (75%) did not follow coverage of the event.

By way of comparison, eight-in-ten voters routinely said they were following news coverage of the recent Senate debate over immigration. Fifty-four percent (54%) said they followed news coverage of the President’s decision to commute Scooter Libby’s sentence.

Skepticism about the participants may have been a factor in creating this low level of interest. Most Americans (52%) believe the performers take part in such events because it is good for their image. Only 24% say the celebrities really believe in the cause while another 24% are not sure. One rock star who apparently shared that view is Matt Bellamy of the band Muse. Earlier in the week, he jokingly referred to Live Earth as “private jets for climate change.”

Only 34% believe that events like Live Earth actually help the cause they are intended to serve. Forty-one percent (41%) disagree. Those figures include 10% who believe the events are Very Helpful and 20% who say they are Not at All Helfpul. Adding to the skepticism, an earlier survey found that just 24% of Americans consider Al Gore an expert on Global Warming.

Given a choice of four major issues before the United States today, 36% named the war in Iraq as most important. Twenty-five percent (25%) named immigration, 20% selected the economy and only 12% thought Global Warming was the top issue.

Whatever needs to happen next to bring about a reversal of man-made global warming, that goal is now farther away, thanks to Al Gore, Madonna, Leo DiCaprio and the global concerteers, who only managed to persuade the public they received some personal benefit from their association with the issue. Neither the celebrities nor the event organizers never answered the question of their basic hypocrisy. In a TMZ/Defamer/Murdoch world, of course we’re all going to find out how much energy the movement’s stars use, how many times they fly in private jets, tour demands completely at odds with their stated positions, huge stock positions in companies that pollute the most, and the vast amounts of energy burned and pollution released by the concerts themselves.

Gore and the celebrities complain about the tabloidization of the news, and are especially bitter if the snark gets in the way of their unselfish efforts to, you know, change the world. But an intriguing NY Times Magazine piece about a neurological disorder called Williams Syndrome and its implications for understanding why the human brain evolved the way it did, contains a profound nugget of insight into why celebrities hurt the causes they seek to help, unless they’re willing to be more like Ed Begley, Jr., and less like the people we saw on those concert stages Saturday.

Bear with me, it will all make sense:

Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist and social-brain theorist, and others have documented correlations between brain size and social-group size in many primate species. The bigger an animal’s typical group size (20 or so for macaques, for instance, 50 or so for chimps), the larger the percentage of brain devoted to neocortex, the thin but critical outer layer that accounts for most of a primate’s cognitive abilities. In most mammals the neocortex accounts for 30 percent to 40 percent of brain volume. In the highly social primates it occupies about 50 percent to 65 percent. In humans, it’s 80 percent.

According to Dunbar, no such strong correlation exists between neocortex size and tasks like hunting, navigating or creating shelter. Understanding one another, it seems, is our greatest cognitive challenge. And the only way humans could handle groups of more than 50, Dunbar suggests, was to learn how to talk.

“The conventional view,” Dunbar notes in his book “Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language,” “is that language evolved to enable males to do things like coordinate hunts more effectively. . . . I am suggesting that language evolved to allow us to gossip.”

Dunbar’s assertion about the origin of language is controversial. But you needn’t agree with it to see that talk provides a far more powerful and efficient way to exchange social information than grooming does. In the social-brain theory’s broad definition, gossip means any conversation about social relationships: who did what to whom, who is what to whom, at every level, from family to work or school group to global politics. Defined this way, gossip accounts for about two-thirds of our conversation. All this yakking — murmured asides in the kitchen, gripefests in the office coffee room — yields vital data about changing alliances; shocking machinations; new, wished-for and missed opportunities; falling kings and rising stars; dangerous rivals and potential friends. These conversations tell us too what our gossipmates think about it all, and about us, all of which is crucial to maintaining our own alliances.

For we are all gossiped about, constantly evaluated by two criteria: Whether we can contribute, and whether we can be trusted. This reflects what Ralph Adolphs, a social neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology, calls the “complex and dynamic interplay between two opposing factors: on the one hand, groups can provide better security from predators, better mate choice and more reliable food; on the other hand, mates and food are available also to competitors from within the group.” You’re part of a team, but you’re competing with team members. Your teammates hope you’ll contribute skills and intergroup competitive spirit — without, however, offering too much competition within the group, or at least not cheating when you do. So, even if they like you, they constantly assess your trustworthiness. They know you can’t afford not to compete, and they worry you might do it sneakily.

The sentence I emphasized suggests why a global TV event featuring movie stars and pop-music performers might be just about the worst way to convey environmental information — or in fact, any important political message. In the very same global village Live Earth sought to educate, we are consumed with gossip about the stars who pretend to teach us–the truth about how they live as opposed to what they want us to hear and believe.

Stars attract attention, but the audience’s relationship with them is complex. We’re suspicious of their motives, don’t completely buy their idealism, and are on the lookout for hypocrisy — which this group of stars gave us by the carload. The media doesn’t create this; it’s human nature.

That is why the “carbon offset” concept is not working and should be dumped forthwith. All it does is emphasize that rich entertainers can’t bear to sacrifice and will buy their way out of living their lives in anything remotely resembling the fashion the rest of us must do. It destroys any possibility of consensus on dealing with climate change.

Climate change is a scientific issue. It raises complex issues for governments. Individuals can’t do very much about it, but they are avidly interested in considering viable solutions offered by experts. Of course, we might want to know something about those experts to determine if they’re trustworthy, but we wouldn’t be bombarded on a daily basis with stories about their incredibly opulent lives. Instead, the focus would be where it belongs, on the points of debate leading toward a political solution that, one would hope, would make a difference in earth’s environment.

green-city-hall.jpgIronically, in “the entertainment capitol of the world,” there was no Live Earth concert. Just Mayor Villaraigosa, Begley, produce Lawrence Bender and a few supporting-actor types from TV like Daphne Zuniga and Sharon Lawrence, turning on some lights that made City Hall look green. I was glad the mayor mentioned that “Los Angeles recycles more than any other metropolitan city.” Hurray for the Bureau of Sanitation!

*Edited, 7/9/07

Help Wanted: Democratic Candidate to Run for President that People Don’t Hate

It is said that while the right looks for converts, the left looks for heretics.  The consequences of that tendency are demonstrated in this perceptive story from the LA Times:

It is a paradox of the 2008 presidential race. By a wide margin, several polls show, voters want a Democrat to win — yet when offered head-to-head contests of leading announced candidates, many switch allegiance to the Republican.

In a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll conducted this month, this dynamic was most clearly evident with Clinton.

When registered voters were asked which party they would like to win the White House, they preferred a Democrat over a Republican by 8 percentage points. But in a race pitting Clinton against former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the Republican was favored by 10 percentage points.

Clinton’s showing against Giuliani was the starkest example of how the general Democratic edge sometimes narrows or vanishes when voters are given specific candidates to choose between.

The poll also showed Clinton trailing when matched against two other Republicans, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. The deficits, however, were within the survey’s margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

These results, as well as follow-up interviews of poll respondents, reflect the array of difficulties that Clinton could face as the Democratic nominee.

Plenty of time remains for Clinton to temper resistance to her candidacy. But for now, her failure to match her party’s generic advantage underscores the primacy of personal appeal in a presidential race, regardless of political context.

“Personal appeal” is part of the problem, but I don’t think it really captures it.  Hillary, Edwards and Obama are anything but repellent personalities.  In their own ways, they can be charismatic.  The problem is the toll that being a Democratic leader takes against a candidate’s image for strength and having a core of beliefs.

The one-issue caucuses within the party, especially labor, put so much pressure on candidates to carry their water regardless of how the general public feels, regardless of what common sense and experience shows that one of two things happens.  The Democratic leader becomes unviable because the special interests exert their veto power; or they become a flip-flopping ball of confusion, totally reliant on careful parsing of words and PR spin to make their positions seem coherent and principled.

To some degree, the netroots phenomenon was supposed to overcome this.  Kos is a “just win baby” Democrat who wants the party to unite around broad principles.  But despite the good intentions, the netroots have somehow evolved into yet another single-issue constituency — the “get out of Iraq now” caucus.   Both Clinton and Obama joined a small minority of Democrats in opposing the troop funding bill, because they believed they would otherwise be crucified.  But that position is likely to come back to haunt them later.