Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Internet is for Porn! Avenue Q closes on Broadway

"Why you think the 'net was born? Porn, porn, porn!"

Wiser words were never spoken.

And so I was saddened today to learn that Avenue Q will be closing on Broadway in September after 2,534 performances. I went to one of them, and laughed so friggin' hard, I had tears streaming down my face for most of the show.

Essentially an R-rated Sesame Street - and a musical for people who aren't into musicals - Avenue Q asked the question, "What do you do with a B.A. in English?," and somehow answered it with live puppet sex, so acrobatic and graphic that it would make Team America: World Police blush.

In the big finale of the show, the lesson for everyone is to take heart, because everything is "only for now," including life, love, work, and George W. Bush. I feel better already.

And with that I give you: the Internet is For Porn - shakily recorded and illegally distributed; just the way Avenue Q would want it.

Monday, June 29, 2009

"The weirdest news conference of all time"

And you thought Michael Jackson was weird.

Here is South Carolina governor (and potential presidential candidate no more) Mark Sanford's bizarre news conference in its entirety (the panel on ABC's This Week called it "the weirdest press conference ever") - where he attempts to explain why he lied about hiking on the Appalachian Trail and instead went to South America to visit "a dear friend."

In the clip, Sanford is painfully honest - just like the creepy dad in Happiness! Honesty is usually a good thing in PR - but he's also weird, weird, weird - which isn't as good a thing in PR.

He starts with rambling comments about making educational trips in his boyhood, goes into "God's law," apologizes to everyone for everything, and - eight minutes in - finally gets to what he was really doing... You can tell when the media expects the news by the sound of cameras clicking...

Key quote: "I would ask for y'alls...a zone of privacy."

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Listen like thieves! INXS vs. Michael Jackson

Turns out, he did go for that.

No sooner did I post the Hall and Oates/Michael Jackson comparison yesterday then did I see Daryl Hall being interviewed on Headline News about Jackson's death.

He confirmed it: at the "We Are the World" recording, Michael Jackson jokingly hid from Hall and told him that he "stole" "Billie Jean" from "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)." Hall seemed very good natured about it, telling the story more as humorous anecdote than revenge fantasy (sorry, no video).

INXS comparison

Since I posted that article, I've received a few e-mails pointing out how Michael Jackson's "Black or White" sounds a lot like INXS. I agree: it does.

Upon a close listen, "Black or White" appears to be a mixture of music from INXS' "New Sensation" and "What You Need," crossed with the lyrics from "Original Sin." Possibly the closest comparison is the guitar riff from "New Sensation," the signature part of Jackson's "Black or White" (the opening riff in Jackson's song was played by Slash).

Listen like Thieves!

INXS - New Sensation (1987)

Michael Jackson – Black or White (1991)

Michael Jackson - Black Or White

Friday, June 26, 2009

Is this copyright infringement? Michael Jackson edition!

Hall and Oates, 1981:

Michael Jackson, 1982

Four underplayed videos about Michael Jackson

Since today is all about Michael Jackson anyway...here are some videos not by, but about, Michael Jackson that don't have a lot of YouTube views, but should.

1. Pulp's Jarvis Cocker interrupts Jackson's Earth Song at the 1996 Brit Awards. Cocker said he couldn't stand seeing the self-important Jackson, so he got up onstage and flapped his bum at the audience. Ha!

2. One of my favorite American punk bands ever: the Minutemen. This song, called "Political Song For Michael Jackson to Sing" appears on the band's best album, Double Nickels on the Dime, and is - according to one talkbacker:

"...about balance and conflict between the desire to make music with a message and the desire to make music with artistic value. The "mortar shells" are the urgency of the political situation, but the "guitar solos" are the fragile artistic aspects."

Whatever it is, it's avant garde, so make up your own meaning!

Sample lyrics:
"Being born is power scout leader Nazi tagged as big sin your risk chains me hostage me, I'm fighting with my head, am not ambiguous i must look like a dork me, naked with textbook poems spout fountain against the Nazis with weird kinds of sex symbols in speeches that are big dance thumps if we heard mortar shells we'd cuss more in our songs and cut down the guitar solos..."

3. Even Jackson's own family has found him bizarre from time to time, as evidenced by his brother Jermaine's song, "Word to the Badd."

This version has the original lyrics to the song, which don't appear on the one that was eventually released. Sample:

Been abducted
Don't know who you are
They may love you
They don't know you
Lonely superstar

Never think about who you love
only think about number one
You forget about where you started from
You only think about what you want
don't care about how it's done
you only think about you

Once you were made
You changed your shade
Was your color wrong?
Could not turn back
It's a known fact
You were too far gone

4. OK, this one isn't underplayed at four million hits and counting, but it's a classic: Eddie Murphy's great Michael Jackson impression from Delirious:

Michael Jackson is the King of Pop - he told me so himself

Pop goes the world!

It's interesting to see and hear the media using the term "The King of Pop" today - more often than not as the headline in articles about Michael Jackson's death.

It's not surprising that Michael Jackson has a nickname, but its origin may be - even Wikipedia doesn't have it right. Simply stated: Michael Jackson is the King of Pop because he said he was the King of Pop, and got the media to play along to make it so.

Where do nicknames come from?

In PR class, we talk about the importance of using nicknames, labels, and symbols to catch your public's imagination, especially when you're a "showbiz impressario."

What you communicate must be clear and unequivocal. The thing we observe, read, see, or hear and that produces our impressions must be clear, not subject to several interpretations, because people tend to see things as "black or white" (thank you, MJ).

Nicknames are perfect in this regard: they're memorable, capture the public's imagination, build up "the brand" of whomever (or whatever) it is you're trying to sell, and they stick.

Bruce Springsteen is the Boss. Elvis is the King. Jerry Lee Lewis is the Killer. Frank Sinatra is the Chairman of the Board and Ol' Blue Eyes. James Brown is the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

And Michael Jackson is the King of Pop.

Where do the nicknames come from? Some are hoisted upon the performer ("I hate bosses. I hate being called the Boss," says Springsteen), and some are coined by the performer him or herself.

That's what Michael Jackson did in 1991 - not because he was having trouble catching the imagination of his public, but because the nickname that had been hoisted upon him by the British Press - "Wacko Jacko" - was much less flattering. This was a nickname smackdown.

Rolling Stone's Michael Goldberg reported on it in January, 1992, and even revealed the exclusivity agreement that Jackson used to get the nickname used in the media, which was only too happy to roll over and play along:
"The King of Pop. That's how Fox, BET and MTV, the American TV outlets that got the rights to premiere Jackson's "Black or White" video, now refer to him. That was the deal. You want to get "Black or White" first, you dub Jackson "the King of Pop."
MTV was especially eager to play ball:
(A) November 11th, 1991, memo, typed on MTV Networks letterhead...was circulated among the MTV staff the week before "Black or White" was first shown. The memo directed all on-air personnel to refer to Jackson as "the King of Pop" at least twice a week over the next two weeks. It also thanked staff members for their cooperation, adding that "Fox and BET are already doing this."
Why get the media to say you're the King of Pop when you can just tell people yourself?

What's more persuasive: hearing me say how cool I am, or hearing someone else say it? The first way comes off as conceited and calculated, the second as a disinterested third-party observation and endorsement - at least in the mind of the audience, which is where it really matters.

Calculated controversy

After the video came the inevitable controversy - in the last couple of minutes of the song's extended video, Wacko Jacko simulates masturbation and chucks a garbage can through a window.

More disturbing now, we can agree, is seeing Macaulay Culkin with a big Michael Jackson poster in his bedroom and George Wendt ("Norm!") for a dad, who he sends to Africa. Sheesh, I think I know how this story turns out.

Goldberg thought the controversy intentional:
"Certainly, it's not far-fetched to imagine that media-savvy Michael Jackson, a star for more than twenty years, hero to both children and their grandparents, might have had an inkling that if he rubbed himself and smashed up windows, he would get a rise out of his fans."
Goldberg's 1992 article already points out the creepiness of Jackson's life - pedophilia and all - but in a completely non-actionable way, of course:
"Jackson is extremely fond of children.

"(He) frequently has children over to play. According to his personal spokesperson, Bob Jones, these regularly include "busloads" of underprivileged and terminally ill kids, as well as young personal friends of the superstar."

"When the children are here, sometimes they get so excited they just can't go to sleep," says Lee Tucker, who helped design Jackson's movie theater and serves as his projectionist."
RIP Wacko Jacko: the King of Pop.

Update: Saturday

I realize that many folks believe that Elizabeth Taylor coined "King of Pop." This may be true, but she's a Jackson insider, and this wouldn't change the thesis of this post, or Rolling Stone's original story: Jackson liked the name better than "Wacko Jacko" and manipulated the media into going along with it.

Has the tide started to turn? Last night, CBC showed the Channel 4 documentary: "Michael Jackson: What Really Happened."

Get ready for the flood of Jackson exposés

Does this guy look troubled to you?
(Photo by PEX/BuzzFoto/FilmMagic)

The body is barely cold, but you get the sense that a flood of Michael Jackson revelations is about to be set upon us.

Among reporters who attended Jackson's court appearances, there seemed to be fewer fond memories last night than among the entertainment reporters who breathlessly remembered how excited they were the first time they saw the Thriller video.

Yesterday, I wrote about how it looked like Jeffrey Toobin had been pulled from a CNN Michael Jackson roundtable for being too negative about him; he was back on CNN later in the evening and his disposition seemed to be somewhat sunnier.

Toobin covered the Jackson trials, and you could tell that he's still disturbed by what he heard - mainly because he said so; if any other person on planet Earth died amidst accusations and evidence of pedophilia, I doubt that we'd be seeing the fond recollections that seem to be making up the bulk of the stories today.

I was a kid in the early 80s, so I know what a huge star Jackson was at the time - the first African American star on the otherwise very white world of Friday Night Videos; he didn't just break into that world, but dominated it.

So, it's not surprising that people want to remember Jackson fondly - hell, he was once the Barack Obama of the music world.

However, even fans owe it to themselves to read the best Michael Jackson journalism out there: Vanity Fair's Maureen Orth wrote some of the most interesting and disturbing stories about Jackson, which mainstream media was mostly too jittery to cover.

Nonetheless, as Orth points out in today's VF post: nothing she wrote was ever challenged by Jackson or his lawyers.

"I spoke to hundreds of people who knew Jackson and, in the course of my reporting, found families who had given their sons up to him and paid dearly for it. I found people who had been asked to supply him with drugs. I even found the business manager who told me on-the-record how he had had to wire $150,000 to a voodoo chief in Mali who had 42 cows ritually sacrificed in order to put a curse on David Geffen, Steven Spielberg, and 23 others on Jackson’s enemies list. I sat through two trials and watched his bizarre behavior on the stand when he said he did not recognize his publicist of a decade."

There are too many incredible and disturbing facts in these articles to start listing them; suffice to say, read them and get ready for Orth's inevitable book, which should talk about all of the terrible things that she couldn't tell us in these articles.

Nightmare in Neverland

The Jackson Jive

Losing His Grip

Neverland's Lost Boys

The last article is probably the most disturbing of all of the stories ("Jesus juice," etc.), and also directs us to read a book that was by and large buried in North America, but may now be cleared for release: Michael Jackson Was My Lover: The Secret Journal of Jordie Chandler - written by the boy's uncle.

There are most certainly a lot of people who accepted a lot of money from Jackson over the years, who no longer have to honor the agreements in which they entered and - since they clearly love money - will likely want to make even more by writing a book, being interviewed, or whatever.

As I finish this blog, I just notice that CBS has put up this recollection of Jackson "confronting controversy" in his famous interview with Ed Bradley. Chris Rock fondly remembers the moment:

We ain't seen nuthin' yet.

What did Michael Jackson ever do for advertising?

A lot - especially for Pepsi.

Here's a clip from the great three-part Canadian documentary "The Cola Conquest," which should be required viewing for anyone interested in the cola wars and advertising (as I always like to say, "The history of Coke is the history of advertising").

Marketing calls Jackson an advertising icon today; in the 80s, Michael Jackson "opened the floodgates to big companies signing up celebrities as brand ambassadors."

For $5 million Michael Jackson - the biggest star of the day - rewrote and rerecorded Billy Jean - his biggest hit - and appeared in the spot. Whatta deal!

Despite what we know about Jackson and kids, there's no denying that this ad still has the goods:

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Memo to CNN: just beat it

For Larry King, Jackson's death was all about...Larry King.
Highlight at 5:03: "He loved little boys, he loved to play with them...there was nothing sexual about it." Uh, OK.

CNN used to be the leader in breaking news.

Having watched the network's Michael Jackson coverage for most of the evening, I must ask: wha' happened?
  • CNN seemed shockingly slow at declaring Michael Jackson dead, and very suspicious of the story, which is weird, considering that it had already been confirmed by the LA Times and NBC News half an hour to an hour earlier.
  • Not long after, a CNN anchor interviewed one of those goofballs from TMZ, and actually asked him, "What are your sources telling you?" Uh, CNN, what are YOUR sources telling you?
  • Wolf Blitzer repeatedly called the Jackson song "Black AND White." Can "Bobby Jean" be far behind?
  • As part of a CNN roundtable, pundit Jeffrey Toobin was one of the few who seemed reluctant to call Jackson a "genius," and highlighted his coverage of the Jackson pedophile trials instead. The anchor (the woman in the video, above, is filling in for Lou Dobbs; oddly, her name is never mentioned) suddenly stops Toobin in mid-sentence, and cuts away for a puffball interview with Larry King (above). When they return to the roundtable: no Toobin. Did he jump or was he pushed?
  • Finally, we got some real news with this interview with Brian Oxman, the Jackson family lawyer. At 3:06 in the following video he blames medications and says, "The people who have surrounded him have been enabling him. If you think that the case of Anna Nicole Smith was an abuse, it was nothing in comparison to what we've seen taking place in Michael Jackson's life." Wow, that's news!
  • Until the follow-up question comes along: "So, you were able to observe some of these rehearsals and you found him to be in some weakened condition. Is that what you're saying?" Uh, no...that's not what he was saying. Listen, lady, this guy's ready to talk!

  • Possibly the worst of the night, though, has been Larry King, who has never come across as being more self-obsessed and celebrity-crazed. "Stay tuned - we've got Celine Dion and Cher - they'll die one day too!"
Twitter has never looked better.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name: the lost art of "you"

In the same week that my favorite ad columnist, Rob Walker, talks about the Hyatt providing its guests with random acts of kindness and generosity, I found myself waiting in the Student Services line at Red River College's Notre Dame Campus.

I teach at the Princess Street Campus, which means it's like the opposite of Cheers when I go to Notre Dame: nobody knows my name. No one yells "Norm!" (my actual middle name!). And I get treated like any old schmo off the street. Which is exactly what I am, so I shouldn't complain.

However, something happened yesterday that gets me riled up more and more each time it happens - and it seems to be happening more and more: as I stood in a line of 10 people at Student Services, which was moving so slowly that we had actually crossed the time/space continuum, a "gentleman" slid up beside us, and decided he wouldn't wait in line.

The lone Student Services person then uttered the phrase that travels up my spine and explodes in my head, "Can I help someone over here?" Not "you" or even "next in line."

So, the guy who didn't wait in line walked right up, and the student services person waited on him - as though the cutting had not even happened in full view of me and my 10 angry linemates.

"That doesn't seem fair," I said out loud to no one in particular.

No one jumped aboard my angry wagon. I was tempted to yell, "Don't you know who I am?!" but I knew the answer and didn't want any further humiliation.

"The Pharmasave problem"

I first noticed this problem in the shopping world at Pharmasave, where it seems to have caught on with all staff - even the ones working at the post office. This, of course, is based only on anecdotal evidence, but what anecdotes!

Last summer, I stood in line at Pharmasave with my 16-year-old niece, who had come to visit for the summer. I had a major runny nose and sore throat, and I hung onto my $45 box of NeoCitran like a drowning man clings to a life preserver.

Suddenly, my favorite thing happened: all the people at the end of the line ran to the newly opened wicket, and the clerk in my line slapped up the "next wicket" sign and went to lunch without so much batting an eyelid.

"Watch this," I said to my niece.

I put the NeoCitran back on the shelf, walked over to the newly opened wicket, and stood before the clerk and customer who thought that "last in line" meant "first in line," everyone else be damned.

"To be fair, you should ask the next person in line to start the new line," I said. They looked at me like I had leopresy and continued the transaction.

"Shame on you," was my big finish, and my niece and I walked out of the place with our heads held high.

"That was awesome!" said my niece.

I was no further in my quest for NeoCitran, and everyone at the store thought I was insane, but my niece liked me even more, and righteous indignation is a great feeling - like the smell of napalm in the morning.

You you you you you - have made my dreams come true

Every advertiser knows that "you" has a magical power over people: it causes them to feel important (or at least like an individual), like the message has been tailored specifically to them, and to imagine themselves enjoying the very thing that you're trying to sell.

When someone yells, "Hey, you!" in a crowd, everyone turns to look. If someone were to randomly yell, "Next in line!" in a crowd, no one would react, because "that person isn't talking to me."

As any good business knows, the entire brand of the company lies at the hands of its client services staff. Case in point: Are McDonald's staff really "lovin' it?" If not, that's incongruous with the brand image, which - if true - would cause people to interpret McDonald's messages as being "inauthentic."

Visit a McDonald's - any McDonald's - in New York City, and you'll see what I mean.

Red River College bills itself as "More than just an education. New experiences included." Further it says, "...make YOUR college experience a memorable one."

Hey, RRC is talking to ME again! Ahhhhh....I feel better already.

Now can I take someone over here?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The greatest marketing trick of all time

One of the greatest marketing tricks of all time is making people believe that you don't want their money, preferably at the same time that they hand it over to you by the truckload.

Pearl Jam = marketing geniuses

There are numerous examples of marketers who do it very well, like - let's say for the sake of argument - Pearl Jam.

When I raise this example in advertising class every year, there are some students who get riled up at the very idea that I would consider Pearl Jam to be among the seedy ranks of "marketers."

"I don't listen to the kind of bands who would do commercials," I recall a student once saying.

"Oh, don't the bands you like want to make any money?" I asked, triumphantly (in my own mind).

But if the definition of marketer is "anybody who has something to sell," Pearl Jam is certainly that; the band makes millions of dollars a year selling all kinds of merch to its fans: CDs, DVDs, downloads, T-shirts, concert tickets, hats, stickers, buttons, fan-club memberships, and even "activism."

It's the activism that the fans remember, and that's what makes Pearl Jam marketing geniuses: people who buy tickets to their concerts know that the band once took on Ticketmaster - it seems like Pearl Jam doesn't want my money, which - ironically - is what makes me not mind paying $79.50 on Ticketmaster to see them in Toronto: "the band is authentic and only cares about the music!"

Yes, Pearl Jam has truly figured out how to have its cake and eat it by remaining "authentic" in the minds of its audience, while doing the same thing that Britney Spears does all the time: hawking its wares for cash.

Hey, every band has to make a living. Or, preferably, get rich.

Tom Sawyer makes Pearl Jam look like child's play

Which brings me to an even greater marketing trick - the best one of all time - pioneered by Tom Sawyer in Mark Twain's classic book: getting people to give you money for something that you should really be paying them to do.

In this classic scene (from the 1973 musical version, starring none other than Jodie Foster as Becky), Tom gets his buddies to paint his Aunt Polly's fence - by making it sound so appealing that they pay him:

Every year, I run a variation of the same scam. I tell my PR students that "admission" to the next class is to have the first half of their PR proposal written. No proposal, no admission. The students who don't do it don't have to come to class and suffer no penalty. In other words: you don't have to do the work, and you get a class off in which you don't have to do it.

Logic would tell you that no one would show up to the class - however, over half of the class usually shows up.

Now that's what this instructor calls "gratifaction."

Mama don't take my Kodachrome away

Speaking of "old media," Kodak has pulled the plug on Kodachrome film.

Says BBC:

"Along with every other blogger, I can't end the post without mentioning that Kodachrome will of course always be remembered for at least one reason, the fact that as far as I am aware it's the only brand of film that has been immortalised in song. So perhaps the last word should be left to Paul Simon."
Happy to oblige.

What other product could take the notoriously product-shy Paul Simon:

And turn him into an eager product pitchman?

Mama don't take my Kodachrome away!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Classic ad treatment: Schlitz. Light.

Another hard day at the office for Mr. Coburn.

"Schlitz. Light." Cheque. Please.

This is the famous 1978 Schlitz Light ad for which James Coburn got paid a then-record $500,000 to utter just two words.

The story is that Coburn first said no to the offer; pressed, he said he'd say only the name of the product for half a million, thinking that his "counter-offer" would be turned down. It wasn't.

Appearing on Late Night with David Letterman (sorry, no video), Coburn said that when he showed up on the set to shoot the ad, the pressure was on. He was being paid a lot to say two words, so he figured he'd better make them count:

Take one: "Schlitz. Light."

Take two: "Schlitz light!"

Take three: "Schlitz, Light."

Take four: "Schlitz! Light!"

Etc, etc, etc...

They eventually settled on the above take - which still sounds a bit forced.

Coburn would never utter the words, "I drink Schlitz Light" or "I like Schlitz Light" in a commercial or anywhere. In fact, in an interview, he later said he never cared for the stuff.

Poor. Schlitz.

This week, I finally become qualified to teach

These guys won't be at convocation, will they?

This week I finally become a man.

A "teacher man," that is. Sorry to disappoint so early in the post...

One of the requirements of being an instructor at Red River College is that you agree to take 10 Certificate in Adult Education (CAE) courses over six years to officially become qualified to teach.

As I've said before, it's like RRC saying, "Now that we've hired you as an instructor, you should learn how to be an instructor." OK!

The good news is that I'm putting away my last CAE class this week, so I will soon get my highly coveted certificate - suitable for framing or selling on eBay, should worse come to worse. More importantly, I get a pack of Tim Hortons gift certificates and a Red River College mug from my boss.

I have never tasted free coffee out of a free mug, but I imagine it tastes something like victory. And, no, I won't share.

Deep thoughts

A few, closing thoughts about the good that comes from teachers embracing lifelong learning, before I let the proverbial door hit me on the proverbial butt on the way out:

1. Teachers are the worst students. So they should be students more often.

When I take a CAE class every year, I'm reminded that my attention span has never been worse, which - let it be said - has absolutely nothing to do with who's teaching the class.

I start to get sleepy about five minutes in, and wonder to myself, "Why am I so not able to listen or pay attention?" Then I remember: because I'M not talking.

Yes, six years of teaching has made me a glory hog and much worse listener than I would be, were I only a mortal man without a teaching certificate.

Like a stand-up comic who goes to see another stand-up comic, I sit in the classroom and think, "Give me the floor, and I'll really show these melon ranchers what it's about!"

But once the sleepiness takes hold, I can only stare out the window and wonder why I must be a captive in school while those merry squirrels outside get to jump around from branch to branch all day, every day.

Lead item on tonight's squirrel news: "Humans hate our freedom!"

Oh, yeah: for my short attention span, I also blame Google. Which reminds me: I like Jell-O!

2. Being able to relate to the student experience is a good thing. After you get through the red tape.

Empathy is a beautiful thing.

The problem is that most of us aren't very good at it. "The way I'm feeling must be the way you're feeling, right?" "Sorry, what were you saying?"

Some teachers have been out of the student game for so long, they can't relate to what a student goes through to get into a course, succeed, and graduate, including all of the administrative and financial challenges that come up along the way.

For example:

I had to register for my course online. The form was confusing. There were fields that needed to be filled out, and fields that didn't need to be filled out for no apparent reason.

If my program was going to pay for the course (it was), the Dean needed to sign an additional paper form.

This being my last class, I needed the program chair to confirm that I'd achieved the 200 hours of practicum. Another letter.

So far so good, until one of my credits mysteriously vanished off of my transcript. Now I had to prove that I'd taken the class. Thankfully, I had asked for a course transcript a couple of years ago, and it proved that I'd achieved the missing credit. My mark: A+. The memories: priceless.

Now, I'm taking my last class and when I'm done, I'll automatically graduate, right? Well, no, I found out today that I have to apply to graduate. Where and how do I do that? To be determined.

Hello, empathy, my old friend. I've come to talk with you again...

3. All teachers have the same things in common. But most of us don't know it.

Being a teacher is a very social, yet solitary pursuit. On one hand, you gab and gab and gab all day, on the other, you're rarely hanging out in other instructors' classrooms, and almost never have a chance to compare notes with them.

The good news: when you finally do get together - in a CAE class, for example - you find that you have so much in common, it's downright liberating to take solace in each other's successes and miseries. Mostly miseries, because who doesn't love to complain? I do, I do!

Last summer, I made friends with the good instructors in Radiology - who knew that all the wacky practical jokers and class clowns came from that industry? Think about that during your next brain scan! Then again, don't.

This week, it looks like I may learn a thing or two about being a chartered accountant, electrician, and hairstylist. And, yes, I plan to open a business that incorporates all three. That's all I can say, because I don't want anyone to steal my idea.

4. Memo to myself: I like this job.

Most of all, taking the CAE has reminded me how much I like teaching. Hey, I get paid to hang out with smart people, who like to discuss and debate current events, advertising, books, movies, and culture. Now if only we could do something about "marking assignments," life would be gravy.

Which reminds me: can I have my A+ now?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Marketing Bruno: subtlety is out, then

Cute + Creepy = Funny!

Meet the Queen of All Media: Bruno.

Bruno, of course, is the latest film and character from Sacha Baron Cohen, star of Borat. This time, Baron Cohen plays a flamboyant Austrian fashion reporter, whose antics, much like Borat's, disgust and shock the real people he meets along his journey.

Bringing a whole, new meaning to drip, drip, drip publicity (wah, wah), Baron Cohen/Bruno, and his team of publicists have been unstoppable in their pursuit of media impressions in advance of the film's opening on July 10.

The challenge, according to Robert Marich (interviewed here in the Wall Street Journal):
“One of the things about Borat was that it surprised everyone. The challenge here for Universal is to sustain that with Bruno, which isn’t always easy with high-concept movies because they’re not so fresh the second time around.”
The template:

1. Get them talking with a shocker

The first order of business is to get your product in people's faces. In this case, putting Bruno's butt into Eminem's face at the MTV Video Awards. Talk about "leaving a bad taste in your mouth" - am I right, people?

Eminem eventually admitted being in on the shock-marketing stunt, but by that time, buzz and awareness for the Bruno film had reached a fever pitch among the target demographic: 18 to 34 year old males, who only look away from their Xbox for something really, really gross or cool, like this.

Howard Stern, the self-proclaimed King of All Media, did almost the same thing at an MTV shindig in 1992, proving that a good idea is always a good idea.

2. A lawsuit is your friend

As Baron Cohen's first movie, Borat, proved: "Where there's a writ, there's a hit!"

So, this must've come as great news:
"Richelle Olson sued the 37-year-old actor-comedian and NBC Universal on May 22, claiming an incident at a charity bingo tournament that was filmed for the upcoming "Bruno" left her disabled.

"Olson claims she was severely injured after struggling with Baron Cohen and his film crew at the event in Palmdale, Calif., two years ago. The lawsuit states she now needs a wheelchair or cane to move around."

As David Letterman will tell you: controversy and ill will sells. Milk it for all it's worth.

3. Sell the character first.

There's an old saying in comedy, "Buy the premise, buy the bit," which loosely means that if people are chuckling at the setup part of the joke, they'll die laughing when you get to the punchline.

In that spirit, Bruno's marketing efforts have been focused more on the character than on what happens in the film, the thinking being, "If the character makes you laugh, you'll buy into the film."

Or does the Wall Street Journal's take on it make more sense?
“How does a major Hollywood studio promote a movie so raunchy and offensive that it initially got an NC-17 rating? By staying under the radar."
I wouldn't call this "staying under the radar," but on the NC-17 issue, it might have a point: soft sell the controversial film by hard selling the cuddly - or is that oily? - character.

4. Get the media to play along.

The true genius of the film's marketing may lie here - instead of getting the media to write articles about the film as outsiders looking in, Bruno's publicity campaign positions reporters and editors as conspirators, which means that all of the resulting publicity is good publicity.

Marie Claire, for example, allowed Bruno to be the first male to ever appear on its cover, and ran a "Fashion A to Z" article ostensibly written by him - along with a bad-taste disclaimer.

Some of his advice in the article:
"A is for Austria, ze most amazing place in Europe. Ve're all proud of our country und are raised to try and achieve ze Austrian dream - find a job, get a dungeon und raise a family in it."
Then, GQ put a nude Bruno on the cover of its first-ever "Comedy Issue." Hmmm...I wonder which came first, the idea for the photo or the idea for the comedy issue? And from where?

The GQ article also takes Bruno seriously, asking him a variety of questions ranging from the economy to Barack Obama: "It’s slightly disappointing that he needed zat beard, Michelle, to help him – but vone shtep at a time."

5. Release the film with heavy advertising support

Even if the film's no good, find the scene that gets people talking, and run it in an ad over and over and over again. Think Terminator: Salvation, which once had a big secret, but revealed it in its ads, when it appeared that no one was going to see the film.

Bruno could do the same: Paula Abdul and Ron Paul have already gone on the record as saying they've been punked in the film - apparently Paul storms out of the room and calls Bruno "a queer." Box office gold, I tell you!

See you on the red carpet.

Are YouTube and Twitter portals or news agents?

Is this really what's going on in Iran right now?

On the day that TV icon Walter Cronkite is reported to be in "fragile condition," TV news itself is in fragile condition, as the main source of information about Iran continues to come from Twitter.

Watching the TV news this morning, I was surprised at how little was available in the way of pictures or up-to-the-minute information - which is what TV used to be so good at: remember CNN and the first Gulf War?

On CBC TV this morning, we got a reporter on the phone from Iran talking about the very limited stuff he'd seen on the street: "a man with a head injury was taken away in an ambulance, but I couldn't tell if he was a protester, bystander, or policeman..." etc.

Twitter directed me to this citizen video on iReport.com (above), which appears to show student protesters shot in the street. That's the big question mark: "appears to show."

Says a talkbacker on the site:
"It's funny that no one makes mention of any of these killing on the news nor do they show this footage. So many people are getting shot and its the duty of the American news channels to show videos like these so that people can SEE what VIOLENCE is going on in the streets!"
It is odd. If it's true. Further than that, it shows a major problem with online media: there's no way to verify whether what we're looking at just happened, is real, and first-hand news.

I can imagine a nervous traditional media unable to verify any of this and erring on the side of caution by not showing it (something, we can agree, that it should've done on U.S. election night in 2000).

Should it be up to YouTube, Twitter, and iReport to verify it for us? In other words: are these sites simply portals that carry the news, or are they news agents who owe it to their viewers to verify what's posted on the sites?

The jury's out. But today Jeff Jarvis at Buzzmachine makes the case that "YouTube has a responsibility in the news ecosystem." He says:
"YouTube has unique knowledge it can add to inform the discussion and to not add that knowledge becomes irresponsible, no? They are the only ones who can verify at least some information about the videos for our benefit. So shouldn’t they?"
As he points out, YouTube can't just reveal its users and where they're located, because that would put them in harm's way. But it could perform the role of a traditional news agent by verifying everything it can and letting us know when it has. This would allow content on its site to "go viral" to traditional media sources and, I imagine, increase its value in the news marketplace.

On the other hand, this cautious approach could lead YouTube down a slippery slope: once it has power of verification, wouldn't its newfound role as gatekeeper just turn it into a new version of the traditional newspaper and broadcast media?

"It's not news until we say it's news!" is no business model. But is "it's all news!" any better? And is there a sweet spot between these opposites?

Stay tuned to a screen near you.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Little Boots: when "amateur" is the new "professional"

Meet "the new face of British pop": 24-year-old Victoria Hesketh, who goes by the name Little Boots.

Her debut album, Hands, has just been released in England and North America, and the reviews have been good to underwhelming: Q Magazine calls the album, "something of a mess - the sense being of an artist trying to run before she can walk" and "modern-pop cliche."

Q mentions that Hesketh co-founded the band Dead Disco, signed a record deal, and worked with the producer of Lily Allen's breakthrough, It's Not Me, It's You.

Yet, it was none of these "professional credentials" that made her a star.

What worked, oddly enough, was that though Hesketh was no novice, she appeared to be one by posting these do-it-yourself videos on YouTube and MySpace; charming and raw, they were an instant online hit.

You still need the TV to be famous, so - true to form - she appeared on Last Call with Carson Daly, became the only musician to appear twice on the British music show Later... with Jools Holland without having released a prior album, and had one of her songs used in an ad for Victoria's Secret.

Whether this was all part of the big marketing plan, or she accidentally fell into something that captured the public's imagination may be beside the larger point that, thanks to the Internet, "amateur is the new professional."

This must be confounding to people working in the traditional music or TV industries - they spend all of their time producing a product to perfection, only to find out later that "perfect" isn't really what anybody wanted in the first place. Why, the new argument goes, do you need Michael Jackson when you've got Chocolate Rain?

Congrats on the new album, Little Boots, but I like grandma's house and the fuzzy hat better.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The best Father's Day song of all time

No, it's not "Papa Was a Rolling Stone."

The best Father's Day song of all time has had precious little airplay here in Canada, but reached number one on the British pop charts in 2005 - it's "JCB" by Nizlopi, a two-piece band fronted by Luke Concannon, who wrote the song about his troubles with dyslexia as a kid, and how great it was to skip school and hang out with dad.

Great video too. Get ready for goosebumps at 3:01, when the song - and JCB - kick into high gear.

"My dad's probably had a bloody hard day, but he's been good fun and bubblin' and jokin' away..."
These words remind me of those long, hot summers as a kid, when dad coached my pathetic baseball team - we lost every game but got more Slurpees than any team in the league. Yay for dad!

Top it off with shout-outs to the Transformers and Bruce Lee, and a credo that even a teacher could love: "I'm so glad I'm not in school, boss!" and there you have it: the best Father's Day song of all time.

(This video was designed by Monkeehub, a freelance digital animation outfit. Check out its awesome video for Radiohead's "Creep" here.)

I'd like to apologize for a joke of my own

While I'm at it, I'd like to apologize for this Fringe poster from 2005.

After seeing David Letterman's many apologies to Sarah Palin, and liking the least sincere of them best of all, it occurs to me that there's a joke for which I need to apologize.

As any stand-up comic knows, you're only worth your salt if you constantly "test the limits" to find out what works. As "testing the limits" goes, Letterman's joke was pretty standard Letterman fare: combining two current events to create something altogether new, the very definition of "creativity" and "funny."

Of course, "funny" is in the eye of the beholder, which is where the trouble began; personally, I think Letterman's joke is far less deserving of an apology than Palin's insinuation that Letterman is a pedophile. One is a monologue joke about current events, the other is character assassination.

As well, Letterman mistaking the two Palin girls seems more genuine to me than Palin's assertion that Letterman's joke was about rape. That's just zany.

The "hilarious" joke(s)

Now that my loyalties have been exposed, the joke for which my apology is long overdue.

The era: July, 1999.

The place: a bar in Gimli, Manitoba, where comedians were paid in Guinness.

The joke(s):
"JFK Jr.’s plane went missing off the coast of Massachusetts last week. You really get the sense that his family cares about him: they sent the army, navy, airforce and marines looking for the wreckage in the ocean for three days. In my family, I’m in the bathtub for longer than six minutes, and they’re already arguing about who gets my TV."
Mild laugh.
"So, they have the entire military searching for the plane - at the cost of $50 million - three days later they find the plane wreckage, they pull it out of the water, and the next day, they have the burial - at sea. Is it just me, or do the words “eliminate the middleman” come to mind?"
No laugh.

I discovered what all comedians discover at some point: death is never funny. Ever. Unless, maybe, it's Osama bin Laden.

To me, this event was so far removed from my day to day existence, it was nothing but a current-events joke that I was telling. To everyone else in the room, I was making fun of a dead guy.

Then, to make matters worse, I once repeated this story at work - not as a joke, but as a story about how I bombed for telling a tasteless joke - and another woman got angry at me, even though my story was about how the original joke was inappropriate.

To the gods of all things tasteful and decent, I apologize.

The "fire Larsen" line forms here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I took a plane, I took a plane for you. And I was all yellow (bellied).

Lie to me, captain, lie to me!!

For a guy who loves traveling, I really hate flying.

Every time I'm on a plane, I think, "Who built this plane?" The answer: "Men. Men built this plane."

Then, I wonder: "Who built my VCR at home?" Same answer: "Men."

My VCR doesn't work - why should the plane? "Lemme offa this thing!"

I first started being a jittery flyer on a trip to New York City a number of years ago. We hit one of those famed "air pockets" and the plane dropped in mid flight. My joke: "the plane dropped 100 feet, and the s**t in my pants dropped 120 feet."

But it was scary: flight attendants flying around the cabin, people screaming, dogs barking - the whole shebang. When I got off the plane, I asked the flight attendant how far we "fell."

"I don't know, but it was pretty impressive," she said. I should say so.

On the flight home, I nervously waited to hit an air pocket again - which, of course, never happened, because it's so rare. I must've looked scared when we had a bit of turbulence, because a helpful Air Canada attendant leaned over and said, "Eet ees only ze air," in her charming French Canadian accent.

(As anyone who has seen Bon Cop, Bad Cop knows, the English Canadian has to be an uptight dipstick, and the French Canadian has to be a relaxed rogue. So all cultural stereotypes were in check, and I was happy to play my role.)

Still, it was hard to shake that feeling of helplessness, especially given that we Canadians still think of planes as "giant metal birds," applauding something as mundane as another successful landing in Cleveland.

I've slowly gotten less jittery over time, mostly because it's embarrassing to be white knuckling it over turbulence, as the little granny next to me knits away, like nothing's going on.

"Don't you understand, old woman - we're about to crash!" isn't generally met with a lot of positive reinforcement.

(Nor is the classic line from the Watchmen: "What you don't realize is...I'm not locked in here with you people. You're locked in here with meeeeee!")

I thought I might get over it by reading this book, which actually scared me more. "Oh, so turbulence only causes some planes to crash," isn't exactly the most comforting thought.

So, the last time I flew, I did what I had to do to get over it: I embraced the irrational fear by taking it to the level of the absurd:

"Well, I'm going to die," I told myself. "Goodbye world. Goodbye friends. Goodbye loved ones. Goodbye cruel world. Goodbye new Bothwell Cheese location at the airport. Goodbye blue sky. Goodbye Miss American Pie. So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye, Von Trapp Family."

You get the idea: I made my peace. And...I lived to see another day. Yes! Life rules!

"I'm going to die!" followed shortly by "Hmmm...the plane landed safely...", repeated often enough, seems to do the trick eventually.

New seat configuration

But, today, I saw something else that might help in the Boston Globe: a new airline seat configuration that would allow me - and you - to travel "in space in comfort."
"(Emil Jacob) came up with the "step seat principle." It involves elevating alternate rows of seats, from one to five steps above the cabin floor, to give passengers more room to lean back in economy class and enough space in business class to lie down, either by sliding their legs under the seat in front of them or stretching out in pods stacked on top of each other - no sweater on the floor required."
I've often wondered how much of the mental discomfort we feel when we fly is actually a manifestation of the physical discomfort we feel being crammed into the middle seat between strangers, knees propped up against the passenger's seat in front of us, unable to get up until the flight is over - full bladder be damned.

Couldn't all of that turbulence be put to better use by rocking us to sleep instead of up and down? It would bring a whole, new positive spin to the term "airplane crash." Er...I hope.

10 things that crossed my mind during last night's Coldplay concert

Cold, cold, cold!

Ten things that crossed my mind during last night's Coldplay concert at MTS Centre:

1. I sure hope the Winnipeg Free Press doesn't use the headline, "Coldplay's performance is hot, hot, hot."

2. Not that I'm going to, but where would one buy a Che Guevara meets Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band meets Police-era Synchronicity outfit in Winnipeg?

3. Where are Gwyneth and Apple?

4. Confetti cannons, beach balls, and the wave never get old.

5. What was all yellow?

6. Coldplay sure sounds a lot like U2. And move around the stage like U2. And sing, "I'm a Believer," like U2 did at the PopMart Tour. Wait a sec - it is U2!

7. How does Caramilk get the caramel into the chocolate?

8. A concert attendee on the floor uses a cell phone to call a concert attendee in the nosebleed seats. They wave until they see each other. They get excited. They wave some more. This must be stopped.

9. Whatever happened to that giant, smiling, arena-sized portrait of the Queen?

10. When are they going to sing, "Livin' La Vida Loca?"

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Summer's here, and the time is right for sales promotions and publicity stunts

Did somebody say "free?"

I was hangin' at the 7-Eleven today, which is what all teachers do during the summer when they're not writing their blogs.

As I stood in a long line, a HOT 103 cruiser pulled up in front of the store. A nondescript station rep, lucky enough to be working on a Sunday, got out of the car and set up a table.

When he gave the signal, a clerk announced: "The HOT 103 guy is giving out free Slurpee coupons!"

A guy standing in line shouted, "Holy fuck!" and bolted from the store, almost crushing a granny at the very promise of being the first to get a free Slurpee coupon.

He was followed out in rapid succession by everyone else in the store, but for a young guy who was unfortunate enough to have just bought a Slurpee. "You've gotta be shitting me," he said twice, as though his life had been ruined.

I would rather pay for a Slurpee than wait in a long line for free ones, so that's what I did, as I pondered this classic summer sales promotion: creating pandemonium by giving away something that costs about 99 cents.

I just hope the guy from HOT 103 survived the onslaught of thirsty, not to mention thrifty, Winnipeggers.

Michael Moore starts collecting for CEOs

Meanwhile, Michael Moore has launched a very unusual, interactive trailer to his new film in which he doesn't even mention the film's name.

Instead, Moore himself appears and suggests that everyone in the theatre chip in to "Save our CEOs." Cue ushers, who entered the theatres (New York, LA, Chicago, and DC) with collection jars and "Save our CEOs" T-shirts. Apparently, some audience members actually ponied up the cash, God bless 'em.

According to /Film:
"Perhaps the lucky cinema patrons had some inkling that something odd was going to go down tonight when, as they walked in to take their seats, they had to pass by signs telling them that they were liable to be filmed and informing them that entering the auditorium would be, in effect, giving consent for their images to be recorded and used."
A new teaser trailer is expected as early as next week, which means we've officially entered the "drip, drip, drip" stage of the publicity campaign, which should continue until the new film opens on Oct. 2.

The trailer:

Of classic videogames and all-you-can-drink root beer

That's me in the corner. That's me in the spotlight. Losing my allowance.

Before there was Xbox and the Internet, there was Long John Silvers, Circus Circus, and Magicland.

Dan Vadeboncoeur's blog about classic videogames struck a chord with me today: I've been looking for a coffee table/photography book about downtown Winnipeg in the early to late 80s - the days of my misspent youth - to find photographs of the videogame arcades that used to make up a good bulk the Portage Avenue strip, between Memorial and Donald.

I haven't found a single book that fits the bill, and maybe it's better that way; I'm sure my selective memory has glorified the long days and weeks I spent hanging out at the downtown arcades every summer - which you could do as long as you had a permission card signed by your mother. I did. So did every kid: either your mother signed it, or you forged it. Both worked.

For nourishment, my friends and I hit the Portage Avenue A&W, which poured all-you-can-drink root beer out of giant kegs. For literature, we went to Comic World. For records, we went to Kelly's. Girls weren't yet in the picture, for some odd reason, so everything else was Long John Silvers, Circus Circus, Saratoga, and MagicLand.

Oh, yeah: there was a porn theatre on the strip as well; we were too young to go, not that we ever tried to get in, but my Mennonite grandparents accidentally went once, when someone told them that a thriller about an airplane crash was playing downtown. They wanted to see "Airport," but accidentally found themselves at "The Stewardesses."

Then again, that would probably be my excuse as well.

Videogames: the book

Which brings me to the book pictured at the top of this post: Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age, 1971 to 1984, by Van Burnham, is the closest I've come to capturing the thrill of those heady days when "Pac-man Fever" was a Top-40 hit and Time Magazine put "Gronk! Flash! Zap!" on its cover.

Burnham does a decent job of cataloguing the important videogame titles and describing the historical importance of the most deserving: Phoenix, Scramble, Tempest, Space Invaders, Asteroids, Pac Man, Ms. Pac Man, Defender, Centipede, Donkey Kong, Tron, and Dragon's Lair, in addition to the classic videogame consoles, like Atari and Intellivision, which was pedaled by George Plimpton in TV ads for no apparent reason other than he was considered to be "intelligent."

The book also makes the case, correctly, that a big part of the appeal of the classic arcade videogames was the cabinet design, which would depict a scene that the game was not technically capable of showing.

So after you played Tempest, you could have sworn you'd seen the aliens and flying saucers pictured on the cabinet, when you had actually seen this: an early example of how marketers can encourage consumer "imagination" to overcome the boring "reality" of a product.

The videogame screen shots are the book's biggest kick - though there aren't any captions, so if you've never played the games, good luck figuring out what you're looking at.

I originally kinda knocked Supercade when I reviewed it on Amazon.com: "a design over function misstep," I think I said. However, returning to the book eight years later, it rekindled my fond childhood memories of basking in the glow of Space Invaders and Asteroids in downtown Winnipeg on a hot summer's day.

Now, if only A&W would bring back that all-you-can-drink root beer, all would be right with the world.

Hit the road, Bob: Uncut maps Dylan road trip

Uncut's Dylan's America Guide.

How does it feel to be out and on your own? Like a complete unknown? With no direction home? Like a rollin' stone?

At long last, you can answer these pressing questions for yourself. The latest issue of Uncut Magazine includes a very cool map of Bob Dylan's America (above), descriptions of what went down where, the places that inspired his songs, the routes of four of his key tours, and locations in the lives of his heroes. Whew.

To the Winnipeg traveler, it's worth noting that a good 10 destinations are within a day or two's drive from the city - including Dylan's birthplace (Duluth, MN), boyhood home (Hibbing, MN), and school (the University of Minneapolis), all located along or near the famed Highway 61 (famed because it's the title of Dylan's masterpiece, Highway 61 Revisited).

I've been threatening to take this trip for years, but with the help of the Uncut map, I may finally convert my empty dreams into reality. All I need is a red Cadillac, shotgun, and case of Jack Daniel's, and I'm so there.

Additions to the map:

1. Winnipeg

Winnipeggers should start their Dylan road trip right here at home: 1123 Grosvenor in Winnipeg - Neil Young's boyhood home. Bob Dylan unexpectedly came knock, knock, knockin' at the door last year before playing a concert at MTS Centre.

This location is one of Winnipeg's most statueworthy - would someone get Leo Mol in on it? I recommend a statue of Neil Young and Bob Dylan fighting a bear; it would be symbolic (of something, I'm sure) and an instant tourist attraction.

2. Alexandria, MN

Winnipeggers should know Alexandria as the perfect mid-journey stop between Fargo and Minneapolis.

In his autobiography,"Chronicles: Volume One," Dylan recounts telling U2's Bono over beer that if he really wants to understand America, this is where he must go:

"I told him that if he wants to see the birthplace of America, he should go to Alexandria, Minnesota..where the Vikings came and settled in the 1300s."
Dylan tells Bono to follow the river "up through Winona, Lake City, Frontenac." Highway 61, in other words.

We never find out if Bono actually showed up in Alexandria, though I like the idea of U2 hanging out in the town's 24-Hour Wal-Mart and Super Target. But in 2005, NY Times columnist Steve Dougherty took Dylan's advice, and made the journey himself.

In Chronicles, Dylan remembers the wooden statue of a Viking in Alexandria - A spiritual, if goofy, relative of the stone statue in Gimli, MB? That would be Big Ole, who stands outside Alexandria's Norse Museum.

Dougherty comes face to face with the statue:

It was strange to see the fierce visage of the towering Viking exactly as described in "Chronicles." The statue was built for Minnesota's state pavilion at the 1964-65 World's Fair in New York and later bought by the town and installed outside the museum. An attention-getter in his own right, Big Ole helped draw nearly 8,000 visitors to the Runestone Museum last year.

See you on Highway 61.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Old man suspicious of Internet, says newspaper

Safer playin' it safer.

60 Minutes' newsman Morley Safer isn't having any of this Internet B.S.

I don't believe there's a link to the article online, but in today's Globe & Mail, Safer comes off as a grumpy ol' man pontificating about something that he himself seems to know little about: the Internet.

In the article, he repeats his famous line that he would no more trust a citizen journalist than he would a citizen surgeon. Pithy, yes, but I don't think his comparison holds up under scrutiny: some of the best journalists in the world didn't take a single day of classes, which isn't true of surgeons. I hope.

I've always liked Safer in a grandpaesque kinda way, and I usually show one or two of his 60 Minutes corporate-culture pieces in PR class when we look at Employee Communications.

When you watch Safer's reports, especially in a roomful of young students, one thing becomes painfully clear: Safer is the king of the puff piece, and has never met a cliche he doesn't like.

Here, he profiles SAS and its founder, Ron Goodnight. Groan of the year award goes to Safer's line, "Ron Goodnight said...good night!" Ta-dah!

Nope, the Internet could never achieve so high a level of journalism! And without a voiceover no less? Sacrilege!

It's sad that Safer is knocking a new medium, when he himself was a pioneer in TV journalism - a form that was mocked by print journalists at the time and, until 60 Minutes, considered to be beneath a "real" investigative reporter.

Any good reporter should have a driving curiosity about the world, even Morley Safer. So while he may not think that there's anything good online, he probably should check it out for himself. Or don't TV reporters do that anymore?

Every year, a student will inevitably say to me, "I'm only doing well in my Journalism class, because that's the only field I'm interested in." My reply: "Oh, so when you graduate, you're only going to be writing articles about journalism?" Good luck with that!

Those who succeed in the communications business - journalism, advertising, PR, etc. - are those who anticipate and embrace change. As Billy Bragg once sang, "You can be active with the activists or sleeping with the sleepers - while you're waiting for the great leap forward."

Friday, June 12, 2009

The remaking of Pelham 123

*Spoiler alert* - maybe.

Today, the remake of the Taking of Pelham 123 arrived in theatres; I have no plan to see it, nor should you, if the Globe's review is at all accurate.

However, it reminds me that one of my favorite movie endings of all time is from the classic, 1974 film, starring Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, and Martin Balsam. And, yep, that's Seinfeld's Jerry Stiller as the cop.

Throughout the film, Matthau talks to Shaw on a two-way radio, and hears a familiar sound in the background that bears fruit in the very last second of the film.

I have no idea if the new movie ends the same way, but - even if it does - there's no replacing Matthau's expression in the final shot.

I'm sorry. No, really.

I'm sooooooo sorry.

I apologize to about 100 people a week. When school's in session, it's more like 500.

Of these apologies, about half are for things that I really believe that I've done wrong. The other half, I'm saying "sorry," while thinking, "I really didn't do anything wrong, but if this is what you need to move on..."

Why? The life of a college instructor demands it, and - let's face it - I'm a man, and my species isn't known for its thoughtful introspection or listening skills. So, if you think I've wronged you - fair enough, maybe I did. "I'm sorry."

When you're an instructor, you're standing up in front of a group of people talking, talking, talking all day, every day, and you're prone to put your foot in your mouth from time to time, get ticked at someone who's not listening, or tell a "hilarious" joke. And it's all happening in "real time," which means you don't get a second take. Just like Jack Bauer on 24 - oh, wait: he does get a second take, lucky guy. Kiefer, not so much.

My grade 12 computer teacher, Mr. Yoshida, once accidentally said, "Fuck," instead of "function," and the class cried with laughter for about an hour, give or take 10 minutes. No one demanded an apology - it was accidental, and to err is human, right? Poor guy.

I once noticed a student sitting glumly at the back of the room, with a hood pulled down over her eyes, sunglasses on, and body language that said, "stay away." I didn't. Instead, I said - hilariously - "What's wrong? Didn't your lawn mower start today?" A pretty innocuous version of the Corn Flakes line, I thought.

I apologized the next day for singling her out - guilty! - and for "pointing out her age," which she felt the lawn mower reference was designed to do - not guilty! But while I was in the neighborhood, I figured I'd apologize for that as well.

The apology was accepted, and we became best friends for all time, which is what usually happens when you "suck it up."

Apologies are a growth industry

Demand for apologies seems to be going up: see Letterman's non-apology apology to Sarah Palin this week, above. It's funny that we want more people to apologize to us, when we know that our own apologies are empty at least half of the time.

Part of what's happening, I think, is that we're seeing a collective "thinning of the skin" in society in general - we're feeling wronged more, and we want people to apologize more. It's almost "revenge by apology," where we feel that we "win" if the person who wronged us has to apologize. The more public the apology, the better the revenge.

There are times I dig my heels in and won't apologize, but they're pretty infrequent, and usually only when:

1. I know that the motivation of the person who wants an apology is to get revenge (these are the people who go "above your head" before discussing the problem with you).

2. When the person did something to motivate my supposed "wrong" (like skipping three classes in a semester, which causes me to do exactly what I say I'm going to do).

3. Or when the person uses the classic card-stacking technique, "Everyone thinks that you're unapproachable and unfair! It's not just me!"

Otherwise, take a number, and get in line. Apologies on the house!

The stand-up comedy apology

Before I was a college instructor, I was a stand-up comic. To this day, I'm surprised at the thin skin of stand-up comics, who can go onstage and offer a no holds barred, public attack on anyone and anything, only to cry like little babies when insulted themselves. Hypocrites, all!

Update: Dave Shorr has provided me with a link to great online discussion on that very topic here.

Of course, comedians are also called on to apologize for their jokes from time to time (like Letterman). It's a tricky business.

Sometimes the apology is warranted: like the comedian who confidently tells a joke about a local tragedy, only to find out that there's a family member of the victim in the audience. Sometimes it's not: the staff of a flight company felt wronged when my friend told a joke about the safety of the airline - after one of its flights had crashed. Sorry, that's the airline's fault. Wait - was that an apology?!

Sometimes, it's not clearcut. Once, a fine local comic, who is Metis, but looks white, told jokes about attending a sweat lodge ceremony. The jokes were great - but the audience didn't buy his Metis heritage. Two audience members gave him a lecture after the show, and he looked crestfallen. I think he apologized.

I'm sorry that you're an idiot

There's a famous story about Canadian stand-up impresario Mark Breslin. He received a letter of complaint about a joke told by one of his comics. He called the comic into his office and said, "Did you tell this joke?"

"Yes, I did," said the comic.

"I thought so."

He pulled out a stamp from his drawer, applied it to the letter, and sent it back to the sender. It said, "Fuck you."

If you find yourself apologizing more and more, this might help. It's Vanity Fair's all-purpose public mea culpa:

I'm sorry if this blog offended anyone.