That Damn Hippie Pope

NEW SLAUGHTERMy guess is that Pope Francis was well aware of the appalling orgy of fevered consumerism — Black Friday and the onset of our sacred “Holiday Season” — when he dropped his 50,000 word rip job on “trickle down” economics and our “idolatry of money.” The timing was just too ideal to be a coincidence. And that, you have to hand it to him, demonstrates some shrewd marketing chops, along with a bona fide Christian conscience.

I am not expecting it to do much good though, unless he requires his “shepherds” in local parishes to hammer that message … to the dwindling audience that still sees moral authority in a church degraded by medieval sexual politics.

Coincidentally, news of the Pope’s hippie-like attack on the foundation of American exceptionalism — i.e. unbridled acquisitiveness and status through possession — came on the same day I caught a nakedly cynical Christmas-y ad that began with a lament for the sad state of Christmas today.  (Open with: A montage of Norman Rockwell-like imagery; happy nuclear families, cherubic kiddies, fresh snow, tree trimming). The clear inference being that we’ve fallen a long, long ways from “the true meaning of Christmas”.

Where, I wondered, was this leading?

Cut to a scene from today … inside some tricked out big box super store, with … you know t, a fake Santa and excited shoppers stockpiling massive amounts of crap (excuse me, “gifts”). It was an ad for Gander Mountain or Cabela’s or some much enterprise, which, I think you can see the irony here, has nothing whatsoever to do with the “true meaning” of Christmas and everything to do with what’s wrong with this blessed season and what the Pope was getting at.

Popes routinely bemoan crass consumerism and exploitation of the lower classes. But soon they move on … to negotiating Vatican politics, managing the church’s vast real estate holdings, meetings with attorneys fending off sexual abuse claims and battling homosexuality. The priority stuff.

Maybe Francis, who is off to a good start, will be a transformative figure. Maybe he’ll push this them, especially when he makes his first visit to the United States. But the odds are against him.

Especially here in America, where to watch the network and local news there is no greater unalloyed good than storming the mall — or WalMart — in support of the economy. Sure they all reported the fistfights over 40″ Funai TVs and laughed at the video of the guy loosing his drawers in a WalMart brawl and flashing plumber butt — but nowhere did I see anyone come back from any of this and say, “This is nuts.”

Obviously, TV news has an enormous stake in shilling for any excuse to spend money. But, Barry Ritholtz in the not exactly hippie-dippy Bloomberg View tells us again, it’d help if “news” was actually based in some semblance of fact instead of junk numbers made up by random shoppers and repeated endlessly everywhere you looked.

I still think it’d be interesting to get someone like Barack Obama into a candid conversation about values. Not just the usual platitudinal stuff about “democracy” and “a thousand points of light” but the essential message leaders have an obligation to convey to their citizens.

Once away from the White House (and you know he’s got scratch marks on the cell wall counting off the days ) I suspect he’d agree with the Pope. There’s almost nothing about inciting mass psychosis and the constant pornographic exultation of the super rich that meshes with actual Christian (or Jewish, or Muslim) values.

Hope and Branding

NEW SLAUGHTERBefore getting to the important stuff, as a member of “the single-payer left”, but also someone sees Obamacare as a substantial step forward, can I just say that I’m delighted to see a resurgence of skepticism among the “lamestream” press over the hysterical claims coming from Obamacare’s entrenched opponents?

First there was Eric Stern’s instant classic, “Inside the FoxNews Lie Machine”, where Stern fact-checked three sets of guests in a Sean Hannity interview. Then a couple of days ago Jim Tankersley of The Washington Post reported a story out of Rome, Georgia on a guy convinced his small business failing was entirely Obama’s fault.  (By all means read through the comments section on that one.) Then yesterday we had Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times doing the same thing as Mr. Stern in a piece titled, “Another Obamacare horror story debunked”.

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Bangladesh to Pope and All of Us: We Are You

“I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”

We are responsible for the deaths of garment workers in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Just as we are responsible for the deaths of garment jobs in the United States. Our never-slaked appetite for more and cheaper consumer goods hurts the livelihoods and lives of millions of other people.sweatshops-240x265

I always sound so preachy when I write something like this. I buy stuff I don’t need too — so I’m talking to myownself here, as well. I am a child (old man) of the Sixties and global ecological consciousness just won’t leave me.

What if we had fewer clothes, and better clothes? Made of good material by skilled workers who are treated and paid well, whether in the US or Bangladesh. What if companies made less profit? Top executives made fewer millions? Investors looked at human, not just financial, return? Business journalism measured and covered more than just financial factors? I know, I know, this is all so “Imagine,” so John Lennon.

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Ship-for-Brains Kmart

For many of us, our biggest strength often also turns out to be our biggest weakness.  For ad agencies, their biggest strengths often are their creativity and sense-of-humor.  Those wacky guys in the skinny jeans and pointy shoes crack me up!  But when not checked by clients and agency grown-ups, that strength can sometimes manifest itself as a weakness.

Witness K-Mart’s ad agency, Draftfcb.   (You can already tell how hip they are just by the funky corporate name.)  This is the assignment Draftfcb was given:  Promote Kmart as an online shopping outlet, something Kmart is lightly associated with.

But, it’s also critically important that any ad agency also be mindful of the overall brand backdrop for their narrow marketing assignment:   Historically, K-mart has had shitty stores, a shitty customer experience, shitty customer service, and shitty products, and, consequently, a shitty brand image.  Kmart desperately needs to change both the reality and perception of its wall-to-wall shitty-ness.

So, Draftfcb created, and Kmart approved, this gut-buster:

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Online Brainstorms Overcome Many Problems of Traditional Brainstorms

The other day, I highlighted research showing that face-to-face brainstorming meetings are not as effective at generating ideas as quiet contemplation. It’s important to note one partial exception to that rule: online brainstorming.

E-brainstorming.
The research is very supportive of online brainstorming. With face-to-face brainstorming, the larger the group, the worse the performance, both in terms of quantity and quality. With online brainstorming, however, the bigger the group, the better the performance, according to the research.

Why? I’d say it is because online brainstorming fosters what introverts particularly need to excel, time for quiet contemplation and self-vetting. Online brainstorming – a prolonged email-based discussion, for instance – removes many of the problems associated with the ubiquitous face-to-face brainstorming sessions so many organizations adore.

First, online brainstorms remove many of the distractions inherent in face-to-face brainstorm sessions. In face-to-face brainstorming sessions, our minds are racing from irrelevant subject to irrelevant subject: “The facilitator is not as funny as he thinks he is…do people think I’m talking too little, or too much…why Snickers…bad hair day, dude…why does she always work the word “synergy” into every monologue…if I had pointy shoes like that guy, would people conclude that I’m creative…wouldn’t white boards be more environmentally sustainable than giant Post-it notes…is the facilitator on happy pills?”

When you’re back at your keyboard, those environmental distractions are removed, so you can focus on the task at hand. Sure, distractions still exist in your office, but nothing like the wild sideshows happening in Cirque du Brainstormsession.

Second, the problem of “evaluation apprehension” – the fear of looking moronic in front of colleaugues — is mitigated online. After all, with online brainstorms, you have ample time to self-scrutinize and research your argument before expressing it, which builds confidence in the value of the contribution. When allowed sufficient time to develop the idea, you are much more likely to share it, and it is likely to be a better developed idea. Not so with the spontaneous blurting required in face-to-face brainstorming.

Third, the problem of “production blocking” – where thoughts are lost as you’re waiting for others to express their ideas — is nearly eliminated during online brainstorms. With online brainstorms, thoughts can be written down, and fully developed, as you have them.

In short, online brainstorms allow for uninterrupted contemplation, while still taking advantages of the “wisdom of crowds” phenomena.

In the book Wisdom of Crowds, author James Surowiecki sings the praises of the decisions crowds jointly make. But Surowiecki also stresses that crowds are capable of making very bad decisions. He says that a primary factor that leads to poor crowd decision making is when members of the crowd are so conscious of the opinions of others that they start to emulate each other and conform, rather than thinking as individuals.

Face-to-face meetings are much more apt to generate this kind of blind following of vocal group leaders than large groups of people sitting at their keyboards thinking independently.

Granted, online brainstorms are far from perfect. For instance, the problem of social loafing – sitting back and letting others do the work – arguably could be aggravated with large online groups. And tragically, there is no junk food supplied at e-brainstorms. But online brainstorms do avoid many of the problems associated with face-to-face brainstorms, and research indicates that they produce better results.

– Loveland

Brainstorm or Braindrain?

All wet?
Those of you in the PR, advertising and marketing business are probably very familiar with the brainstorm model of idea generation, but I know it is also used in many other industries.

For those of you who have been left out of the brain rain, here is a crash course: During brainstorms, a group of colleagues closes themselves into a room and spontaneously blurts out ideas on the given topic. The ideas are excitedly written on giant Post-it notes adhered to the walls by a perky brain storm facilitator.

“There is no such thing as a bad idea,” the facilitator, pacing around the room frenetically, continually reminds us, usually after someone offers a particularly bad idea. “The wilder the idea, the better!”

The group is urged to generate a large quantity of ideas, and rapidly build off ideas with supplements or variations. Toys and treats are often offered, to foster creativity. A few people usually sit quietly looking at their watches, and looking idealess, while a relative few dominate the airwaves. The session ends with the chirpy facilitator congratulating the participants, pointing to all of the giant Post-it Notes on the walls as evidence of the world changing ideas that the brainstorm precipitated.

Brainstorming, which was particularly promoted by legendary BBDO ad man Alex Osborn, is the operational and cultural building block of many creatively oriented businesses. The brainstorm session is to PR and agencies as the assembly line is to a manufacturer. It’s the place where the company’s talent synergistically comes together to create MAGIC.

Or does it?

In the book “Quiet: The Power of Intoverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” author Susan Cain examines the heavy workplace emphasis on consensus and teamwork generally, and the brainstorming work model specifically. Cain cites research done by University of Minnesota psychology professor Marvin Dunnette in 1963. Dunnette asked ad executives and 3M executives to do a set of tasks. Some worked alone, and some in groups. Cain writes:

The results were unambiguous. The men in 23 of the 24 groups produced more ideas when they worked on their own than when they worked as a group. They also produced ideas of equal or higher quality when working individually. And the advertising executives were no better at group work than the presumably introverted research scientists.

Since then, some forty years of research has reached the same startling conclusions. Studies have shown that performance gets worse as group size increases…

‘The “evidence from science suggests that businesspeople must be insane to use brainstorming groups,’ writes the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. ‘If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.’

…Psychologists usually offer three explanations for the failure of group brainstorming. The first is social loafing: in a group some individuals tend to sit back and let others do the work. The second is production blocking: only person can talk or produce an idea at once while the other group members are forced to sit passively. And the third is evaluation apprehehsion: meaning the fear of looking studid in front of one’s peers.”

So, why is brainstorming still such a big part of business operations?

Because we’re all afraid to protest, for fear we will look like killjoys who can’t appreciate all the giddy merriment and free Snickers bars?

Because all of those Post-it notes on the wall feel more like tangible evidence of productivity than the evidence offered by peer reviewed scientific research?

Because the extraverted leaders that tend to lead organizations personally are attracted to the energy such sessions gives them?

Quick, someone get some giant Post-it Notes, colored markers, beanbag chairs and Cheetos. We’ll get to the bottom of this in no time!

– Loveland

Silver Parachutes and Super Pacs

In the blockbuster dystopian movie and novel The Hunger Games, when contestants are near death, wealthty sponsors are allowed to intervene by sending a silver parachute containing the life-giving substance they need to survive long enough to kill others. These powerful sponsors watch the bloody show stealthily from the sidelines until they are moved to use their wealth and power to save or waste lives. They play God.

In politics, we now have a remarkably similar system. The contemporary silver parachutes contain hundreds of millions of dollars in messaging for candidates near death. The sponsors are stealthy puppeteers possessing the power of political life and death. We call them Super PACs and 527 groups.

In Minnesota, gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer had a 527 group funded by Target, Best Buy and other corporations spending millions to fund his anti-gay crusade.

Nationally, Newt Gingrich has been near death countless times during the Republican primaries. But timely life-giving silver parachutes keep arriving from a billionaire Super PAC pupetteer, allowing Newt to continue to bloody his opponents.

Now, Mitt Romney, staggering from wounds inflicted largely by fellow conservatives and himself, has a D-Dayesque number of Super PAC silver parachutes lofting into his lap. This morning’s news advises that as much as $200 million in Super PAC money will be arriving to heal what ails him. The size of that number had me choking on my Cheerios. The money, a consultant cooly explains, will be used to “dislodge voters” from Barrack Obama.

President Obama will also have his own silver parachutes arriving to do his own “dislodging.”

A handful of powerful sponsors playing God in a game where lives are saved and lost. There are many problems here. The lack of limits. The lack of disclosure. The granting of individual rights to corporations.

Lord Acton warned, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The silver parachutes possessed by a relatively small club of powerful sponsors are drowning out the voices of those who are supposed to have an equal voice in a democracy. Are the silver parachutes corrupting? Absolutely.

– Loveland