Sunday, March 11, 2012

Helping Me To Ruin

I tell you what, advertising really works. You might be thinking, Well, duh!, but honestly, I figured that an intelligent and knowledgeable person could be immune to it, but I suppose that is like saying that an intelligent and knowledgeable person could be immune to a heroin injection, or a cigarette…well, maybe we don’t have to go THAT heavy…how about to sugar or comfort food? In the battle between what we KNOW and how we FEEL, I pretty much believe that for me, at least, the feeling state will win over almost every time except in cases when I work very hard at girding the loins of my intelligence and rationality against what I know is a very powerful influence. Is this a sign of my weakness, or of my normal humanness?

My college degree, a bachelor of science in business administration (and yes, there actually is a science behind it), had the specialty of marketing. There were several other specialties I could have chosen, I suppose, such as personnel, production, transportation, finance. Probably the most valuable of those choices when it came to obtaining a job later would have been finance. And I honestly did enjoy the beginning courses in accounting, but the advanced courses in accounting didn’t move me very much, and while I very much enjoyed macroeconomics, I truly detested microeconomics (price theory), and also found wholesaling pretty bad, plus “finance” seemed to be a good specialty for introverts, which I absolutely am not. So, finance was out, although I knew that regarding earning money in the corporate world, those who worked with money earned the most, those who worked with people earned the least, and those who worked with data came somewhere between.

My favorite business courses ended up being in business law, which led to my going to law school for two years, but then I realized that I really didn’t want to be a lawyer for various reasons, so I dropped out before I started the final year.

Ironically, the work that I am doing now is a cross between both business law (specifically: legal compliance)—but definitely not earning at an $800.00 an hour billing rate—and personnel (now called human resources), but I never took a single personnel course in college, mainly because the professor in that specialty was so awful (I had signed up for the beginning personnel elective, but fortunately was able to drop it before the deadline), but also because of what I said two paragraphs up, those who work with people make the least money in the corporate world, so I saw no lasting value in electing those subjects.

So why did I choose marketing, of all things? Because in the advanced stages, it is actually a fascinating subject, a marvelous combination of science and creative artistry; it had the sort of course material that a person might want to audit no matter what their major. Unfortunately, though, the early employment tracks in that field can be pretty awful, in my estimation…such as sales. Sales, no thank you.

Writing advertising copy might be fun, but for someone who actually should have chucked college altogether and become a professional writer (no matter the struggle and expected poverty), advertising copy would have made me feel that my head was in a vice. Oh, working in New York City might have felt like “success” (if, presumably, I had actually managed to achieve that), at least for a few months, but I know that ultimately it would have been a nightmare.

Again, ironically, through some kind of great fortune I did gravitate into something that skipped over the whole sales track, and that was being a market research analyst. And it was in that position whereby I got to experience at the creative level how advertising really works, or doesn’t, as the company for which I was a project director was there to determine that success or failure for advertising creators so that they didn’t waste untold millions in publishing or running advertisements or commercials that weren’t effective.

Some of the elements to be analyzed and evaluated are (a) the introduction of the product, (b) the person presenting the product, (c) the demonstration of the product, (d) the music in the commercial, (e) and various other subtle elements, such as colors, graphics, the emotions induced, the fears induced, the satisfaction promised, and so on. Audience testing will show the analyst just how well these elements are working, and if any of those pieces don’t work very well, the whole the marketing effort can come apart (and maybe even do more harm to the product’s success than good).

Having professionally analyzed those various elements, I am pretty familiar with them and can intellectually recognize and subjectively evaluate them (how they work for me), but I can also see how often I am just as helpless against them as somebody who is entirely consciously unaware of their effects. I think just about the only way to not be affected by them is to not be exposed to them, which really means don’t look at any magazines, don’t watch television, don’t go to any movies. I add “movies” to that list of “don’t dos” because I am aware that there is hardly a coming attraction I have seen that didn’t make me want to go see that movie. I have noticed that if I stop going to movies for a while, then I don’t go to movies for a LONG while (because the desire/fulfillment dynamic is broken), but if I break that long-term absence from the movie theater, then I end up going continuously until I get sick of it again.

Watching television is something that I had stopped doing regularly about fifteen years ago when my cable bill had reached $100 a month and I realized that the only channel I was ever watching was Showtime. Yes, I liked Showtime, but I realized that for much less than a hundred dollars a month I could watch everything that Netflix could throw at me, so I got rid of my cable and until very recently, was a most peculiar oddball in that I never watched television at all…only DVDs and videos on the TV screen.

I am still pretty much that same oddball in that I don’t have cable. I am able to receive 13 basic channels (and dozens of Spanish and Asian channels that may as well not exist) via an antenna and a digital converter box, which comes in sharp and clear and is completely free. Right now, I am watching only ONE television show, though, and THAT is because of going to a free movie screening, which happened to be in the very office-building-with-a-test-audience-theater where I used to be the market research analyst described above, except that that company is now no longer there. It wasn’t a movie, though, but an advanced screening of the television pilot (also the kind of thing I used to analyze) of the NBC television show, SMASH. Like what happens to me with coming attractions at the movie theater, I got interested in watching this TV show, so my Monday evening is devoted to watching this one television show. And maybe one other that precedes it (so it is convenient), Alcatraz, because it is executive-produced and sometimes script-written by the husband of a teacher at the school where I work. But I am more devoted to SMASH, not missing an episode, and can be hit and miss with Alcatraz.

So, after a decade and a half’s absence, I am now being exposed to television advertising, which on Monday night, at least, seems to basically be lots of car commercials alternating with lots of cell phone commercials. They may be advertising other things, but apparently I am immune to those products whatever they are as I couldn’t tell you what a single one of them is…oh, no, that’s wrong, trying to remember, I do actually remember one for a Scott lawn product (memorable because the man presenting speaks with a Scottish accent, which is an effective gimmick) and another one for a Chase Bank cell-phone-oriented method of sending money to somebody (memorable because it features a cute and funny little boy toddler who is into kicking a ball that smashes all the neighbors’ windows), but as I do not have a lawn, the Scott advertisement means nothing to me (and, if anything, it makes me not want to have a lawn, because it involves all that work to take care of it), and for some currently unknown reason, I’m not really into the idea of transmitting money via cell phone. Who knows, though, maybe that will change.

But what I AM suddenly driven by is (a) an emotional desire to get a new car, and (b) a desire to get a Smartphone with lots of apps.

Sigh.

I really don’t intellectually want to buy a new car. I don’t want to have a car payment! And yes even though my 1993 Cadillac Sixty Special sedan is now 19 years old (and has something over 150,000 miles), it is huge and roomy and powerful (and, I think, beautiful and elegant-looking), which is very hard to come by with affordable 2012 models, and runs pretty well (although not as well as it should) and looks pretty good (although ideally I would like to have it repainted). Its flaws are not enough to justify getting a new car that will be smaller, weaker, and a car almost indistinguishable for every other car out there on the road, and that will COST ME!

Naturally, though, the car commercials dangle what seem to be amazingly low lease rates, rates that make we wonder how they compare against whatever I am paying in repairs to keep a 19-year-old car running. Maybe I am just being stupid and uneconomical…I mean, if it is cheaper to lease a new car than to keep my 19-year-old (gas guzzler) running….

The one thing saving me from running right out now and leasing (buying?) a new car is that the ones that appeal me really are the ones on the more expensive end and truly do, or would, go over any kind of repair bills that I have. So those apparently quite low lease rates don’t quite manage to pull me right into the car dealerships with my checkbook in my hand, because I realize well enough that they are nothing but loss leaders (for me). I am not ordinarily one to get the rock-bottom model of any car line (I want the biggest engine, the top-level trim, virtually all the options…so forget that at-first reasonable price).

But this doesn’t mean that I am able to blissfully be fully satisfied with the car that I already have, like I was before I started watching television again. I find myself constantly noticing OTHER cars, and my brain is continuously running little gears evaluating the various cars that catch my eye, that convertible sure would be nice… maybe I should figure out what I would want to go out and get if my car died right this minute… gee the way my engine seems to be skipping a beat when I accelerate up a hill between 55 and 60 miles per hour… isn’t that shifting getting to be a little bit too jerky and rough—how long has it been this way? In another words, a constant stream of “potential new car” talk keeps unavoidably running in my head.

However, due to how much money is involved, I probably will successfully beat the new car advertising.

But the cell phone advertising?

I am someone who hardly ever actually uses his cell phone. I am not one of those people (apparently the vast majority) who seem to be ON their cell phone every single possible second. While they are walking down the street. While they are driving their car. While they are sitting in a booth at a restaurant on a dinner date. While attending a business meeting. While walking down the stairs exiting a stadium movie theater, like they have been painfully putting their text-messaging and e-mail-checking on hold throughout the two-hour duration of the movie, but the second they are free to do it, they are back on that cell phone like an addict.

Sometimes people do call me on my cell phone, but unless I am expecting them (“If I will be delayed in meeting you downtown, I will call your cell phone”), I usually miss the call and end up getting their voice mail weeks later. I don’t normally carry the phone around in my pocket, but leave it in the car (my main expected use is to have it in case I need to call AAA…does this connect with the situation of having a 19-year-old car?), as I can’t imagine having any reason to call somebody while I am out, and if somebody were to call me, I wouldn’t want to talk to them while I am out. I’ll talk to them at home.

In a way, I am remarkably cell-phone-unsavvy. I have never sent or received a text message, and truly can’t imagine why I would want to. I don’t even have text-messaging capability on my now-ancient clamshell Motorola. It DOES have a rudimentary ability to go on-line, but it is so slow and the screen so tiny that I never have enough patience to actually use that feature. (Naturally, I have the lowest cost plan.)

An example of that “unsavvyness” was a couple of weekends ago when I went to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to see a marvelous artistic creation (kinetic sculpture) (that has something to say about the frenetic and inhuman quality of car-centered urban culture but is also awesome-cool), "Metropolis II", which was like an immense Hot Wheels and model train set.

Before I went there, I toyed with the idea of bringing my digital camera (which also has a video feature), because I figured I might want to photograph this, but then, similar to a concert, I figured that that might not be allowed, something about this work being proprietary, so I decided to leave the camera at home. Well, of course, I discovered nearly everybody in there, people by the hundreds, were snapping pictures and taking videos of it—with their CAMERA phones. I suddenly felt stupid…of course, you can’t take people’s cell phones away. Even if the museum WANTED to prevent picture-taking, there seems to be in this era no way to actually stop it. And this meant that technologically, I was being left behind.

It was not that I wasn’t able to do something, because I could have chosen to bring my digital camera, but that I was out of actually thinking what was capable of being done.

Even more powerful of a lesson was a school event we had a little after that day I went to the museum. Instead of the usual drinks and dinner party that the school has every year as a way for the employees and the trustees to get to know one another, the event planners decided to make the event “experiential” and set up an event of fun that was also meant to be team building and competitive, which was in the form of a commercially-produced “scavenger hunt” (called “CityHUNT”) which took place on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.

This “scavenger hunt” consisted of a three-page listing of various locations, activities, tasks, and items to be documented by photographs and videos taken by cameras that the company furnished, and collecting some required items. Some examples of tasks might be (“taking candy from a baby”, “helping a stranger”, “the entire team in mid-air”, “shaking hands with a policeman”, “being under water”, “walking two dogs”, “getting a pair of chopsticks”, “read the school’s mission statement very passionately to a group of people dining in the food court”, “putting a coin into a dolphin”, “the group doing high-fives in front of the Disney Store”, and so on and so on (and so on!). These activities and items had various point values depending on their difficulty in doing or complication in figuring out what was required. We were allotted two hours to this task.

What at first seemed like it would be very difficult, eliciting the help of strangers or interrupting or bothering them, was actually quite easy and was probably the most fun aspect of this. The strangers out there having a good time on a Friday night on the Third Street Promenade were all so nice, and it ended up that their experiences with us in doing all these various things was entertaining for them. So if team-building was what was required, part of the lesson of team-building included being open to strangers and honestly enjoying this expansion beyond our comfort zone.

Teams were chosen at random, except that every team would have at least one, if not more than one, trustee (since employees outnumbered trustees by about 5 to 1). This provided an opportunity for the trustees and the employees to work together "on the ground".

After it was all over, the facilitators of the scavenger hunt received back all the cameras and evidence and calculated all the scores. The group that I was in came in dead last out of about 12 different teams. We earned a little over half of the total possible points. Aw. But we got a good booby prize, though!

What was surprising to me was that the winning group had successfully completed every single thing on that list but one…they got an almost outstandingly perfect score.

As it happens, for the casual dinner that came afterwards (and a showing on a screen of all the photographs, many of which were hilarious), I ended up sitting at a table with some friends of mine, and who also sat at that table were three of the nicest trustees of all, and whose teams had come in first, second, and third place. And so of course in the discussion at dinner was what strategy (or strategies) worked, which came in in various pieces during that dinner, which I must have mulled over in my mind later that night so that by the time I was up and cooking breakfast Saturday morning, I understood what our team SHOULD have done.

Our team (and, I suppose, most of the others) immediately felt the pressure of competition that made us almost immediately leave the bar where this whole thing was to begin and end, taking off at almost a run down the street while somebody was to read out loud on the go the list of things that we were supposed to do, which list-reading would be stopped if we saw something along the way that satisfied one of the tasks. This already set us up for a random, chaotic, running round, hoping to come up against or recognize various things that we were to do, and this very unorganized activity kept us frantically busy for the whole two hours and was only good enough to successfully complete a little over half of the required tasks.

Here, instead, is what we SHOULD have done, and is exactly what the winning team DID do:

Not leave the bar until the entire list had been read and everybody on the team had heard and understood everything that needed to be done. Ironically, there were about 5 tasks that could be completed right there in that bar, and which we didn’t figure out, or see, until the very end when we came back, but too late to complete.

All teams were furnished with a basic Third Street Promenade map that, while not showing the name of any store or identifying any particular feature such as a fountain or a food court or a bus stop, DID show where the starting bar was in relation to the whole Promenade, and demarcated the various blocks along the whole length of it. The team then should have marked on that map the location of everything they could see that was required. For example, a man on our team already knew where there was a sculpture of a dolphin, and a woman on our team knew where the Disney store was. We should have marked these on the map.

But, beyond using the knowledge of members of the team, the winning team pulled out a SMARTPHONE (by the way, the moderator of the game, in giving his instructions, had said “If you get lost, you can call my cell phone number”—which he gave us—“either from a payphone or feel free to use your own cell phone which you can certainly use, and I will guide you back here”) and obtained a complete, detailed MAP of the entire Third Street Promenade, complete with store names and landmarks, so before they had left the bar, they pretty much already KNEW every location they needed and in which organized route to get to them the most efficiently. A Disney Store, a movie theater, a food court, a chinese restaurant, an Apple store, a Puma store, Victoria’s Secret, a candy store, Easton’s Gym, were some of the required destinations. Also, one of the tasks was to find a store that had in it the name of somebody on the team…that might not have been possible for every team (but maybe it was possible to be creative), I don’t know, but the winning team was able to figure that out by having this entire directory of all the store names on the Third Street Promenade.

Also part of the winning way to organize the hunt was to take into consideration the point value of the tasks. There were some tasks worth as much as 120 points (and we had completed only ONE of them, to have somebody video us doing a conga-line in front of the Cabo Cantina), while most of them were worth only 40 points.

We did ATTEMPT another 120-point task, and that was to go into a store and have three of us sing the song “I Will Survive” to a customer in the store. Unfortunately, none of us knew the words to the song, and hardly even knew the tune, so while we did put together an awful video of our attempt, we didn’t earn any points for that one. The winning team? They used a Smartphone to find the lyrics on a website that also played the tune, so they did a beautiful job.

So, you can guess what I got out of all this. Even though this whole thing was just playing a game (but one that our EMPLOYER figured was something we needed to do for some of the lessons involved, and one of the school's current focuses is TECHNOLOGY and understanding the kind of world that our students will be living in), I guess that the deeper lesson in all this is that in our current era, one can no longer afford to NOT have a Smartphone; that being outside of that technology is similar to not even having a computer. And nobody wants to be left in the dust of progress.

And here’s another obvious advantage to having a Smartphone. Something kind of weird has been happening with LA traffic, lately. It seems that I get everywhere way more quickly than I expect to, sometimes having an hour, and maybe even an hour and a half, to KILL. Several times in the past month, I have had to use my cell phone to change the time I was going to meet somebody, because I had gotten there way earlier than I had thought I would (which is better than being late, but being right on time is best). And I am pretty sure this isn’t because LA traffic has suddenly become delightful, but that I have gotten used to adding so much cushioning to my time estimate that I am now going way overboard.

The way I use Mapquest is to obtain driving directions and see what their time estimate is…let’s say it says 20 minutes, so I round that up to an easy 30 minutes. But then my rule in LA is to double Mapquest’s estimate, which in this example now means that I will make it an hour. But if I am going to do this drive during rush hour (in other words, after work, for example), I will then TRIPLE it, so now we are up to an hour and a half. And if the event or occasion is so super-important that I absolutely do not want to miss it, or be late to it, I will add in an extra half-hour as a cushion…so now for a trip that Mapquest originally estimated at 20 minutes, I might be allowing two hours! So, no wonder I am often getting there way ahead of time. And that is a waste of time.

I have seen advertisements for Google’s Nexus Smartphone on the Internet, and their traffic app, where they show you the bad traffic areas and the good traffic areas and all the alternative routes, really really really appeals to me. How incredibly wonderful it would be, especially when stuck in heavy traffic, to actually find out what is going on and figuring out what you can do in that situation. I find that I am spending a lot of time going somewhere by automatically taking the alternate route by default, when the traffic on the freeway might actually be quite light. Light traffic on an LA freeway might mean that to travel three miles actually takes three minutes, but in heavy traffic, might actually take 20 minutes, or if traffic is stopped because of an accident, that same three miles might take several hours. So if a person is going to live in a city like Los Angeles, then having available accurate traffic information while on the go is pretty important for daily life unless you are going to live like a hermit.

Sometimes I am out on the road and suddenly feel like going to a movie (one whose coming attraction I had seen, probably!) but out of five or six theaters in the area that might happen to be showing it, I probably don’t know what times they will be showing it and from my car, have no way to easily compare all the possibilities…that is, if I don’t have a Smartphone to give me that information. So, wouldn’t I like to have this information at my fingertips? Prior to seeing all these cell phone advertisements along with the TV show, SMASH, I would shrug my shoulders and think, oh well, if I want to see that movie, I’ll go tomorrow after I have checked all the times on-line from home or work. But even that is not foolproof, because plans change, things come up, my time gets allocated differently the next day, and so weeks may go by before the opportunity comes up again and by then I may have missed seeing the movie altogether (some of them don’t stay around too many weeks, since they have to make room for the next one), when I COULD have seen it that day when I felt like it when I was out in my car.

In a way it’s kind of silly to only recently be awakening to the benefits of having a Smartphone, but my point is that it has been all this advertising that has been raising my awareness and making me feel that I NEED this. I don’t REALLY need to have a Smartphone any more than I may need to have a maid to come in and clean my house once a week, but I sure do seem to keenly FEEL the advantages of having one.

And finally, the most emotional draw of all, and this is the final demonstration of how powerfully well advertising works…working on your self-image, desires, and maybe even your fears. Here, this has to do not only with being left behind, things changing very fast, but of a sense of aging, becoming too old, of possibilities soon to be lost, or already gone. And that is the iPhone commercial that shows the attractive young male teenager whose face they don’t really show in full, which means to me that he stands in for “the generic good-looking lean-bodied totally hipster youth who has EVERYTHING ahead of him" (a) asking SIRI, iPhone’s voice-command system, where he can buy a guitar, (b) digitally uploading the recording of a song he wrote on the guitar he bought, (c) asking SIRI to send the love song to his girlfriend, (d) asking SIRI to make a note of his new rock band’s name, (e) asking SIRI to send an invitation to his girlfriend to attend his rock band’s show tonight at such and such a club, and (f) asking SIRI to refer to him from now on as “Rock God”, with the commercial ending with SIRI saying back to him, “Okay, now you are ‘Rock God.’” And you know what, you really do think he is a "God". He is, and you aren't. But you want to be.

I also love the other SIRI commercial with various people demonstrating all the things that it can do (answer questions about the Grand Canyon, finding the nearest gas station, etc.) that ends with “Remind me to do this again,” and the SIRI voice says, “Okay, I’ll remind you.” I am pretty sure that the SIRI voice is the same female voice that is in these XtraNormal YouTube videos (although yes, I could be wrong). It is a voice I have already come to love.

At any rate, I think that voice is very funny and appealing, so now I want THAT feature. And anyway, not using cell phones hands free in the car is illegal, not to mention dangerous to keep glancing at the screen while driving, having this voice activation and communicating feature seems almost essential. Of course, Android phones also have a voice system (they even had them first), but it doesn’t seem to have the same level of artificial intelligence that the iPhone SIRI system has, plus I don’t think it talks back.

So, all this is to say that I definitely now WANT a Smartphone; I keep hearing the SIRI voice saying, “Okay, you are now ‘Rock God’”, so that probably means an iPhone (which also has a traffic app and all the other stuff, not too different from what Android phones have), but there is the problem of how expensive some of these phone plans are when you include data downloads and the like. Unlimited plans can cost over a hundred dollars a month (thinking back to when I cancelled my cable TV, that seems to be my negative price point), but I have no frame of reference for how much of a data plan I would need if I got a cheaper plan where usage was charged by the minutes and gigabytes. Having never had this, how do I know how much I need?

So that, for now, hangs me up.

Yesterday I went for a walk throughout the whole huge Topanga Mall in Canoga Park, and you can guess which TWO stores I happened to walk into (since they were there...), and they were the ONLY stores I went into.

1. The Audi dealership (yes, they sell cars at this mall, too; they also have a Ferrari dealership there, but I didn’t go into it!). Audi IS one of the cars I would consider getting, although gee, too expensive, really, except for the smallest, most basic, 4-cylinder model.

2. Best Buy Mobile, “Any Carrier”, “Any Phone”, “Any Plan”, although I don’t think they sell the iPhone…for that I would need to go one floor up to the Apple store. The guy there was very helpful, demonstrating with his own phone several of the apps that interested me. But gosh, just SO MANY choices of carriers phones, and plans unless I just jump in with both feet say, “Okay, iPhone, unlimited everything plan, just wipe me out totally.”

Advertising, are you helping me, or ruining me?

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