Monthly Archives: September 2014

commercials aren't dead

If we were all sane and rational people we’d appreciate television commercials a lot more than we do.  They subsidize the shows we watch.  They provide us information on products we might want to buy.  They occasionally entertain us.  During a long show they give us a few minutes to go to the bathroom, check our email or otherwise zone out.  Sometimes they exert the necessary discipline on languorous producers who, without the need to take regular breaks, would let the story-telling drag on.

Yet despite these benefits, we all generally despise commercials – or say we do.  Actually, maybe we don’t hate them as much as we say we do.  Nielsen research has consistently shown that viewers who play back recorded programming typically watch about half the commercials that they could fast-forward through.  And if people truly loathed commercials they wouldn’t march out and buy the products being advertised.  After all, advertisers spend more than $80 billion a year on TV commercials precisely because ads convince us to part with our hard-earned cash.

Like most red-blooded Americans, I have a long history of disdain for commercials.  But several things happened this summer to make me question if I truly hate them deep in my heart.  First, I started watching the news-parody show, “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” which, because it is on HBO, is commercial-free. The show is only 30-minutes long but it’s crying out for commercial breaks.  The show has a lot of segments, each with their own humorous (or not) climax. You need a break after these climaxes. On most shows, the commercial provides the necessary down time to let the viewer emotionally transition to a new segment.  But with no commercials, Oliver has to create his own down time, with brief pre-recorded mildly amusing bits showing different reporters all using the same phrase.   This is fine, but I would actually prefer an outright commercial.

Also this summer, my father-in-law came to visit.  He’s a guy who really likes the Yankees and really hates commercials, so whenever we watch those games, he insists on muting the TV when the ads are on.  As far as I’m concerned, this is the exact opposite of what we should be doing (which would be to mute the Yankee announcers and play the commercials).  In any event, I was surprised at how much I missed the commercials – even the local car dealership ads – and how antsy I became when there was only silence between the innings.

But the real epiphany came when I showed up early for a movie last month and happily sat through 15 minutes of big-screen commercials, which were a big upgrade from the usual assortment of on-screen quizzes, anagrams, and popcorn promotions that used to run before a movie.  And even though I’d seen some of these ads on TV, they seemed so much more palatable in a movie theatre.  Which leads to my theory, which I am grandiosely calling “Holmes’ Theorem”: the bigger the screen the more tolerable the commercials.  An ad that’s enjoyable on a movie screen is acceptable on a TV, barely tolerable on a computer screen and outright obnoxious on a mobile device.

Even the most ardent commercial-hater has to concede there are many good ads. For my money the most recent Google and Apple ads are some of the best TV spots ever done. And is there a TV viewer with a heart so cold that he doesn’t have a soft spot for some favorite ads from childhood?

The Google and Apple ads are an example of another theory of mine: that the better the ad the less a company actually needs to advertise.  I’m thinking of those old GE and IBM ads from the 80s, which were classy and brand-building at the highest macro level.  They didn’t seem to be selling actual products at all.

Which leads the real problem with commercials. They suffer from a “tragedy of the commons” phenomenon.  The ads we most enjoy are not necessarily the ones that are most effective at moving product off the shelves.  And even the most entertaining commercials become loathsome after you’ve seen them three or four dozen times.  All the good intentions and high-toned qualities we could potentially enjoy about TV advertising are eventually degraded by the intense competition for mindshare.

That’s why I say only one cheer for commercials.  As a “tax” on TV viewing, they provide the necessary funding to keep television on the air, but they do so in a way that drives everyone crazy.  If we would all sign a pact only to buy products from the most entertaining, truthful and life-affirming advertisers, we might get a better class of ads.  But that would never happen. We have only ourselves to blame for the state of modern advertising.





Putin just-riding-this-horse-topless-nbd

If we’re being honest with ourselves, I think we all can agree that the West’s response to Russian aggression has been disgraceful.  First they invade Crimea and we basically wagged our finger at them and said “no more.”  Then they shot down a jetliner and all we did was sputter. Now they’ve invaded Eastern Ukraine and we’re still incrementally tightening the squeeze to the general hilarity of Moscow.

Look, I understand that no one wants to start World War III over Ukraine, but I don’t really understand why some obvious steps like arming the Ukrainian army are off the table except that we don’t want to make Putin mad.  And I understand, although don’t accept, that Western countries who do a lot of business with Russia don’t want to hurt their own commercial interests.  Wouldn’t want to undercut the French arms industry would we!!!

But rather than torturing ourselves by arguing over the kind of ineffective economic sanctions we’re going to impose or the tough U.N. speeches we’re going to make, let’s think creatively.  Let’s accept that Western democracies are going to be wusses when it comes to military action or anything that might also hurt a domestic company and instead develop some non-military, non-economic penalties.  Here are five ideas:

  1. Move the 2018 World Cup out of Russia. Really, Russia never should have been awarded the 2018 World Cup in the first place. I can only imagine the corrupt bargains that made that possible.  The Sochi Olympics were bad enough but allowing the World Cup to continue to be in Russia under these circumstances is an outrage.  If FIFA won’t go along (and who are we kidding, FIFA will never change its mind), the Western democracies could organize their own world cup.    If we have it in Latin America again we could get the Latin teams to join too and leave the FIFA World Cup to Russia, Iran, North Korea and China (e.g., the Axis of Evil World Cup).
  1. Allow unrestricted immigration to any college-educated Russian citizen. The worst thing we could do to Russia is to hollow out their educated classes.  Let’s entice all their scientists, writers, engineers, etc. to the U.S. by offering them immediate green cards.  The transfer of the cream of Russian society to the U.S. would not only be an embarrassment to Putin, it would be a boon to our own economy.
  1. Recruit Trey Parker and Matt Stone to produce a sequel to “Team America World Police” with Putin as the comic buffoon bad guy. When the “South Park” creators ridiculed North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il in the original “Team America” (see clip below), well, it’s safe to say his reputation never recovered.  The scuba diving shirtless horseman who runs Russia cares a lot more about the world’s opinion than Kim Jong-il ever did, and a vicious satiric attack by Trey and Matt would hurt more than all the sanctions currently being contemplated.

  1. Beef up Voice of America. The Russians have tried to block VOA programming and shut down independent domestic news services because they don’t want the Russian people to know what’s really going on.  Build bigger and better transmission services and blast VOA programming all over Russia.  And while we’re at it, figure out a way to prevent them from shutting down Facebook and Twitter accounts.
  1. Drive down oil prices. Russian power rests on two things: oil revenue and a lack of shame in bald-facedly lying to the rest of the world. We can’t do anything about the latter but we can undercut the former by dramatically increasing energy production and decreasing energy usage.  This is something we’ve talked about since the first Arab oil embargo in the early 1970s but every year our scientists develop more technology to develop energy and use it more efficiently.  Let’s take advantage of that.

Here’s the bottom line.  NATO is a military powerhouse and the EU and USA together are economic powerhouses.  But collectively our leaders are afraid to act.  OK, got it. Instead, let’s unleash our “soft power” and use the strength of our open societies to punish Putin without direct confrontation.









Cryingmen Robin Williams

For about a week this summer, my Facebook news feed was consumed by posts on just two subjects: people pouring ice water on their heads and lamentations on the death of Robin Williams.  At one point my wife said that someone should do an ice bucket challenge for Robin Williams and totally melt down the Internet.

This is not the place for an analysis of viral philanthropy, but the social media reaction to Robin Williams’ death, combined with the more restrained response to Joan Rivers’ departure, got me wondering: In an age of social media, what is the appropriate way to mourn a personality you know only from popular culture?

Not to be a cynic, but the deluge of online grief for Robin Williams came to seem weird after a while.  Of course it was sad that he’d died “too soon” and doubly sad that he’d exited by his own hand.  But really, would Robin Williams have been 1% as sad if you’d been the one who killed yourself? The one-sidedness of the relationship between celebrity and mourner is what seems so out-of-kilter.

This is not to say this is only 21st Century phenomenon. The 1926 funeral of Rudolph Valentino was an early example of mass hysteria for a celebrity, and we all remember how Princess Diana’s  death nearly brought down the monarchy. So by historical standards, the Facebook outpouring for Robin Williams was not unique.

Certainly I understand that Robin Williams and Joan Rivers actually did seem like our friends, because they came into our living rooms on TV.  There’s a special intimacy we feel with the people we see on TV.  Sometimes we think we know them — but more often than not, as was the case with Robin Williams, it turns out we don’t know them at all.

Given the outsize role that celebrities play in our cultural imagination, I would never argue that the feelings we experience when they die are not legitimate or valid.  But I would caution that over-mourning on social media can come to seem — how to put it? — um, self-indulgent.

With that in mind, here are some thoughts about how we should conduct ourselves on social media when a TV celebrity dies.

  • Don’t be a jerk.  Don’t post nasty comments about the recently departed. That’s basic human decency.  The snarky comments about Robin Williams temporarily drove his daughter off Twitter — which shows, once again, that the Internet is always on the verge of being overrun by the morally impaired.
  • If you snooze you lose.  If you don’t have anything to say in the first five or six hours after a celebrity dies, don’t pile on after that.  It’s almost impossible at that point to say anything interesting or non-repetitive.
  • Personalizing – sometimes OK, sometimes not.  If you want to post a photo of yourself with said celebrity in happier times, that’s fine, especially on Thursdays when it can also count as a “Throw-Back Thursday” post.  Less interesting are anecdotes about how you used to watch him/her on TV when you were a little tyke and how he/she changed your life.
  • One post per celebrity death.  If you post your personal reminiscence on Day One, don’t follow-up with a link to a New York Times “appreciation” on Day Two and a YouTube clip reel on Day Three.  Enough is enough.
  • Keep a sense of proportion.  Don’t act more bereft than you did when your Uncle Al died.  Don’t publicly rend your garments.   Don’t be sadder than you’d be if the President of the United States suddenly died.
  • Don’t troll for “likes” and retweets.  We’re all guilty of this from time to time, but it seems a little unseemly to do it over someone else’s corpse.
  • Don’t act like a bigger fan than you actually were.  Am I the only one to be surprised that Robin Williams turned out to be such a beloved figure?  On the day before he died, I doubt he would have been in a list of 50 most beloved TV and film personalities (according to this IMBD list, he was the word’s 64th most beloved celebrity, in between Tim Allen and Kevin Spacey).  The next day?  There’s a collective hole in our heart, according to Facebook, and we can’t imagine a world without him.
  • Don’t post for the sake of posting — especially if you don’t have anything to add to the conversation.  As far as I’m concerned, if you don’t have anything interesting to say about the dearly departed, don’t say it on Facebook.

Look, I know we all have these feelings we just want to let out, but give it a rest on Facebook. I don’t like being turned in to a curmudgeon — but after about the 100th post about Robin Williams, my genial nature started to curdle.   Before the next TV star heads for the pearly gates, let’s try to develop a little online grief restraint.