Fear is America’s Top-Selling Consumer Product

The Summer, 2017 edition of Lapham’s Quarterly tackles the subject of Fear. This literary magazine examines a theme using primary source material. Each edition contains dozens of essays, speeches, quotes, art, photos, statistics and excerpts from contemporary and historical authors. I attest that its Spring, 2012 issue on Communication is among the finest things I have ever read.

On the subject of Fear Lewis H. Lapham’s Preamble is highly compelling, intelligent, and troubling. He cites “the innovative and entrepreneurial American genius for making something out of nothing and the equally innovative and entrepreneurial American genius for self-deception.” His point being that the country has lost its capacity to reason critically. What I have noticed in the last two years is America is becoming more tribal and trivial. Ever greater numbers of smaller, more specific self-interest groups take increasing exception with whatever is being said by whoever says it.

The publication and Lapham himself  believe “Fear is America’s top-selling consumer product, available 24-7 as mobile app with color-coded pop-ups in all shades of the paranoid rainbow. Ready to hand at the touch of a screen, the turn of a phrase, the nudge of tweet.” It is important to note that when fear rules populaces crave a strong man. History is replete with such examples and a near corresponding number of disasters.

One could read this piece and conclude that the publication is anti-Trump. That is far too simple a conclusion and naively narrow in perspective. Indeed, in its totality this issue basically concludes people reap what they sow. America is not a Trump America but its fear gave Trump, his supporters and doctrine ground to flourish. American’s now react to a tagline to convince them of deeper thinking and reasoned arguments. “Just say No to Drugs”, “Shock and Awe” and “Make America Great Again” are mind-numbingly inane and absolutely deceptive or self-deceptive.

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The Evolution of the Cabana Jacket

In the mid 1980’s I worked at a ski and windsurf shop. The clothing merchandiser surprised me with a special item from Quiksilver. In strict definition it was a Cabana Jacket. Terry towel on the inside and a garish design on the outside. It became an instant favorite, so much so, that I wore it out over the next few summers.

The jacket sported not only a unique retro look but it was utterly practical and comfortable. It was short sleeved, button-up and featured two handy square pockets. You stayed cool in it when you were hot and warm when it drew cool. And the ladies loved it or so I like to think.

Recently, out of nostalgia, I went searching for a replacement. The only options I could initially find were vintage offers on eBay. No one seemed to be making them anymore. Not even Catalina. That famous beachwear company is still in business but now produce swim and leisure wear only for women. In the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s Catalina was huge.

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The “Women and Wine” Industry

For decades beer marketing and advertising was largely directed at men. The ’70’s was all about singular masculinity and a brew. The ’80’s and ’90’s was beers, babes and swimming pools. The 2000’s have been a bit weird. Craft brewing has put focus on quality and artisanship meanwhile wine has been steadily outpacing beer in consumption. Yet, the wine industry spends very little in traditional marketing.

What it has done is focus on women. And this a bit of a chicken and egg thing. It is impossible to know what came first … women’s love of the drink or pop culture’s promotion of women and wine? Our society is replete with women and wine references from movies to television to books. Kathie Lee and Hoda bizarrely normalized daytime imbibing. Popular TV shows “Scandal”, “Modern Family”, “Cougar Town”, “The Affair”, and “The Good Wife” all feature female leads unable to detach from a glass or five.

Megan Garber writing in The Atlantic in the article, The Women and the Wine, makes the point that these TV heroines “telegraph their internal turmoil via swigs of Syrah” and “wine, gulped just as often as sipped, is a visual metaphor for that most modern of afflictions: stress.” Garber makes the point, “You rarely see TV’s men gulping wine from goblets, alone in their kitchens—and, when you do, the sight will immediately suggest A Problem.”

Novelist Jodi Picoult deliberately or unknowingly has many characters across her ubiquitous works enjoying wine. Take this line from Plain Truth, “The wine—it made her limbs loose and liquid, made her feel that a hummingbird had taken the place of her heart.” Poet and novelist Sylvia Plath said, “I drink sherry and wine by myself because I like it and I get the sensuous feeling of indulgence…luxury, bliss, erotic-tinged.”

The wine—it made her limbs loose and liquid, made her feel that a hummingbird had taken the place of her heart.

Sarah Margaret Fuller Ossoli, commonly known as Margaret Fuller, was an American journalist, critic, and women’s rights advocate associated with the American transcendentalism movement. She also enjoyed wine saying it “is earth’s answer to the sun.”  Fuller lived in the 19th Century so this shows that women and wine are by no means a recent combination.

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10 Communications Challenges

Communications holds the power to change minds, prompt action and move the world. But it has to get better. It has to strive to be the best. In business communications, we have identified ten challenges that are standing in the way of it being better. These come from the breadth and depth of our work with leading brands and brands that want to lead.

Challenge #1

Everyone is talking about disruptions and innovation yet communications are predictable, safe and boring. Are you satisfied with being a me-too brand? Communications that are compelling and different are in short supply. Effort and spend are going up in smoke. Too few brands are bold.

Challenge #2

Communicators are attracted to shiny new toys and forget the fundamentals. Are you overcomplicating while missing the tried and true? Social media, V/R, video, SEO, programmatic – these are important tactics but they are that, tactics. What is missing is smart, sharp and penetrating strategies.

Challenge #3

Businesses think impersonally in terms of “audiences” and “targets” and “markets”. Do you really know who wants and needs what you have? The science and art of segmentation is a terrible state these days. The business schools teach it poorly and businesses employ it haphazardly. This leaves very real customers thinking you do not know them or care to.

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A Day With John Cheever

We are in the communications business. That means we are in the writing business. In addition to penning business and brand strategies and crafting marketing campaigns, we write fiction and non fiction.

Here is a short story from Jeff Swystun on Amazon currently ranked #400 in Literary Fiction/Satire and #425 Literary Fiction/Biographical. You can find it here on Amazon. This is the story’s description:

James Wolcott writing in  said, “If a tinge of melancholy haunts the cocktail hour, if a croquet mallet left derelict on the lawn evokes a broken merriment, if the bar car of a commuter train gives off a stale whiff of failed promise and bitter alimony, pause and pay homage to John Cheever. Light a bug candle on the patio in his honor. For Cheever—novelist, master of the short story, prolific diarist—is the patron saint of Eastern Seaboard pathos and redemption, the Edward Hopper of suburban ennui, preserving minor epiphanies in amber.”

Cheever’s short story, Reunion, gripped Jeff from the first read. It is absolutely succinct at 824 words but has the heft of a full-length novel. That tale and others of Cheever’s are referenced in this inventive short story that pays tribute to Cheever. It imagines a day with the writer in Manhattan and draws not only on his work but also his personal essays and the amazing biography penned by Blake Bailey. It explores the dark and light of being and being remembered.

The Right Place to Write

Tyler Moss, Managing Editor at Writer’s Digest, inspired me with a tweet today. Tyler shared this photo of Roald Dahl from 1979. It shows the author in the garden shed where he wrote many of his books—including Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. I was struck by the image. It is obviously far from opulent given locale and decor. In fact, Dahl is dangerously fending off the cold in a sleeping bag all too close to portable propane heater.

There is plenty more to observe and enjoy. Two rotatory phones, a steamer trunk for a footrest, wastebasket full of discarded writing, a homemade writing table resting on an older chair. Beyond the tangible items I had to ask myself, could the space be any less inspirational? But to each his own and I cannot argue with Dahl’s prolific output. It worked for him so I thought where do other notable writers ply their trade and love?

Sebastian Faulks wrote Human Traces, Engleby and Devil May Care in this space. He has noted that the window and its view provide helpful respites from the page. It is tight and focused. There is precious little decoration but comes with the advice to “Carry On”.

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Parrot: A Bespoke Collection of Business Quotes

We invite you to download this collection of quotes that goes beyond the well-known. Just hit here (Parrot) for over 40 pages of cool and inspirational thinking.

Revitalizing a Wine Brand: Making Mateus Relevant Again

I was born in 1965 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. That sentence reads like a dual confession and I have one more to share before this is over but we will get to that shortly. Any how, from the 1960’s to 1990’s, wine took a backseat to beer and spirits in Canada. In Manitoba, Old Vienna beer and any rye brand dominated for decades. When wine did grace the table or flowed at a party, invariably it was Black Tower, Blue Nun, or Baby Duck.

Black Tower suggested Teutonic dominance with its once clay bottles. Blue Nun had a pleasing name and label that implied organized religion had blessed your choice. Baby Duck was hugely successful. It sold 8 million bottles in 1973 alone. The name prompted many imitators. In the 1970’s, you could buy Canada Duck, Love-A-Duck, Kool Duck, Daddy Duck, and Fuddle Duck (say this last one three times fast). One brand even tried a poorly thought-out deviation and went by the name of Cold Turkey.

With all due deference to Black Tower, Blue Nun, and Baby Duck, they were outclassed by a fourth 158243774_-mateus-rose-pink-wine-bottle-candle-brazil-nuts----1powerhouse. Do me a favour. Close your eyes. Now picture a wine bottle unlike the standard. In this one, the 750ml of wine was contained in a squat teardrop shape. Remember it? I am speaking of Mateus. Following consumption that bottle often housed a succession of candles in its tapered neck. Waxes of different colours would run together in pleasing collages. In Manitoba, drinking Mateus and displaying the empty bottle as part of your household decorating suggested European refinement at its best (I am not joking).

Now take a break and allow yourself an eye-roll or laugh. Everyone pokes fun at Mateus. They attack the quality of the wine and claim in a self-deprecating way just how silly they were to ever drink it in the first place. Still, this indicates a fond nostalgia that the brand has never capitalized on. In its heyday, Mateus sold 4 million cases annually in the United States alone. The wine’s owner, Sogrape, now makes less than 2 million cases a year in total. This, to me, is a huge opportunity.

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The Reason Ad Folks are Unhappy

In the Mad Men television series, Harry Crane of Sterling Cooper helps out Paul Kinsey, a former colleague. Kinsey lost his copywriting position at the agency and went on to successively fail at McCann, Y&R, K&E, and B&B before going in-house at grocer A&P. When that didn’t work out he joined the Hare Krishna.

Crane is largely an unsympathetic person but he shows empathy for Kinsey. Crane says to Peggy Olson, “Don’t you know how lucky we are?” Crane cannot believe his hare-krishna-diner-mad-men-640x448own good fortune in the agency world. This episode and much of the series examines those in advertising who make it and those who do not. Mad Men beats up the profession while simultaneously aggrandizing the ad world.

The show profiled tensions and issues that persist to this day. A big one is employee morale. CampaignUS recently shone the light on growing unhappiness. On October 24, 2016 they published their 2nd Annual Morale Survey.

It found that nearly half of agency employees suffer from poor morale. Forty-seven percent of employees rated their morale as either “low” (31%) or “dangerously low” (16%). That is up 36% from the previous year. As alarming is the fact that 63% of those claiming poor morale were actively job-hunting. One assumes that means not switching to another agency.

On the same day (a cool coincidence) Advertising Age published an article titled, These Are the 50 Companies Creatives Would ‘Kill to Work for Full Time’. It covered the survey conducted by Working Not Working. Twenty-four of the fifty companies identified were not agencies.

Creative folks would much rather be at Vice, Spotify, Tesla, National Geographic, or Nike over McCann, JWT, Leo Burnett, Y&R, or Ogilvy.

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“Hang in There, Baby!”: The Tao of Motivational Posters

Do you remember the company Successories? It was responsible for the cheesy posters that hung in offices all across North America. Successories was founded in 1985, by Mac Anderson who, as a hobby collected quotations and motivational writings. Mac took these quotes and added them to a vaguely relevant stock photo. Close your eyes and picture a soaring eagle (setting goals), synchronized rowing crew (teamwork), sharpened pencil (ideas) or mountain climber (perseverance).

These were incredibly popular and at one point the company had stores in malls selling all manner of imagemotivation and inspiration accessories. I saw a lineup to get into one in a Galleria in Dallas. It did not take long for wags to mock the format. This gave way to a wave of de-motivational posters that brought people back down to earth. In some cases the mockery was so well done that it was difficult to tell the two camps apart. This proves that imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but parody is envy of the original idea.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but parody is envy of the original idea.

If you spend two minutes on the Internet or thirty seconds on any social media, you will see Mac’s original idea is alive and well. Instagram and Tumblr is replete with motivational quotes and writings artfully arrayed on various backdrops. Hundreds, if not, thousands of blogs are dedicated to these positive provocations. People the world over on Facebook share these encouragements in hopes of connecting with like-minded souls or, by doing, give themselves a little lift. Twitter’s 140 characters pump out imagethousands of pithy expressions every minute that encourage and cajole.

The original intent of motivational posters was to make people achieve more, or to think differently about the things that they may be learning or doing. It was about challenging beliefs and looking at the world in a fresh way. CBS News concluded that modern motivational posters “are geared more toward things that need to be done than things that are good to believe”. In other words, motivation has become a task or bucket list of things to do or buy versus a perpetual state of being.

Motivation has become a bucket list of things to do or buy.

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