Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Purple Milkshakes.

Life is full of choices.

Pepsi or Coke? Salad or pasta? Boxers or briefs? Compact or utility vehicle? Answer it or let it roll over? Go out or stay in? Take the over or the under? Call or send an e-mail? Drive or take a cab? Lots of choices.... a seemingly endless stream of choices.

The funny thing is, many of them – most of them – do not even register on a conscious level. Yet all of them have the potential to turn your life upside down. The right choice can put you in the right place at the right time. And the wrong choice can put you in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Life is funny that way.

The thing is, you rarely know until it is too late how the choice you made will turn out. So, the best you can do is raise your awareness and try harder to think just a little longer about the decisions you make. I mean really, how many times in life have you looked back and admitted: "I knew this was going to happen." And yet you made the choice anyway.

Then you beat yourself up, focusing on those times when your choices have serious ramifications (usually bad ones). When the decision to go out instead of staying home leads to one too many drinks and a DUI. When the choice to order dessert instead of stopping after the main course leads to stomach pains and guilt pangs. When the choice to buy the off-brand HDTV for $499 instead of purchasing the proven brand for $699 leads to frustration when the picture dies two days after the warranty expires. I hate that.

Judgments are a bitch.

Mostly because we don't give ourselves enough credit for the good choices we make and pay way too much attention to the bad ones. All of which is compounded when those around us (friends, family, associates, employers, spouses) also pay way too much attention to our bad choices and not nearly enough to the good ones. And so it goes.

I recall a hot summer day from my youth when I made the decision to spend one of my hard-earned paperboy dollars on a jumbo, grape milkshake. The owner of the Kustard Kastle tried to talk me out of it. My best friend Bill tried to talk me out of it. Even the little voice in my head was trying to talk me out of it. But I was having none of it. I wanted that grape milkshake; the thought alone of purple ice cream had me captivated.

But after only one sip I knew I chose poorly. Or did I? Truth be told, I learned some valuable lessons that hot summer day; lessons I still remember 40 years later.

1. Listen to the advice of people you trust; they have your best interest at heart.
2. Don't waste hard earned money.
3. Give yourself a break when you make a mistake; you are human.
4. True friends will always stick by you, even when you screw up.
5. Never, ever order a purple milkshake.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Human Spark

The Detroit Free Press announced earlier this month that the government released a sobering jobs report indicating that the number of unemployed nationally rose by 632,000 people in the month of December to more than 11 million.

That's a lot of people, many of whom are experiencing serious repercussions.

According to a recent report in the Washington Business Journal, "Two recessions over the last decade have elevated the number of people living in poverty, with nearly half of the increase occurring in the suburbs of the nation’s biggest metropolitan areas, according to a report released Wednesday by the Brookings Institution."

People aren't just losing their jobs, they are losing their cars and their houses, even their families. It is a tragedy no less real or tangible than any other disaster.

Of course in the midst of all this, the single biggest unemployment story in the news is that of Conan O'Brien, who stands to lose the one job he dedicated his life to landing. And I really feel sorry for Conan to the extent that he is getting screwed. Of course, I have also enjoyed the comedy battle royale that has ensued over the past few weeks as Jimmy Kimmel and David Letterman and Jay and Conan ruthlessly bash the snot out of NBC. It is American entertainment at its finest.

And then you remember the 11 million unemployed. The fortunate ones are collecting unemployment, which barely covers even the most basic needs, while the others have nothing but charity to fall back on. Meanwhile Conan stands to - at worst - collect $30+ million while waiting for his next gig.

All of which brings me back, once again, to that PBS special featuring Alan Alda in search of the human spark. Earlier this week, Alan Alda discovered how babies pick cooperative puppets over those that won't play. The general conclusion being that it is in our nature - even from the earliest stages of life - to prefer people who are helpful over people who are not. Something inside us is drawn to good.

So despite all the unemployment and the havoc it is wreaking. And despite the fiasco at NBC. There is reason to be optimistic and dare I say, hopeful. Because it turns out the nature of human uniqueness involves empathy and cooperation.

And that is a good thing.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

American Idol = Idol Americans

More than 30 million Americans sat home on Monday to watch American Idol's two-hour premier. That is a lot of 18-49 year olds who you would think could find better things to do with their time than watch TV... like surf the net or text or tweet or work out at the gym as part of their 2010 resolution.

Or maybe - just maybe - they were doing all of those things at the same time. We are after all a multi-tasking society of obese consumers who love to watch train wrecks and be the first to break news (General Larry Platt).

And, oh yeah, I was one of them. I spent a good 90 minutes in front of my TV last night, watching the beginning of General Larry Platt's career, while texting my niece and writing this blog entry.

What does this say about me and the other 29,999,999 Americans who tuned in? I do not know.

For sure we love to be entertained. We love watching average young (and old) Americans singing their hearts out for a chance at fame? And we also love peeping on the delusional misfits. And we can't wait to see what Simon is going to say or do next.

Meanwhile, just a few stations down the dial, the Public Broadcasting System has Alan Alda in an educational and intellectual discussion with scientists asking and attempting to answer the question: What is the nature of human uniqueness?

And for a moment I feel a twinge of guilt. Perhaps I should be watching PBS and supporting the cause. And then I realize that I am watching American Idol in pursuit of the answer to the same question.

Rock on General Larry Platt.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Maybe Translucent is Better than Transparent

2009 was all about transparency – open communications and honest relationships. No more secrets in a world of social media; give us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. After all, the truth will set us free.

Maybe not so much.

I read this morning in the Wall Street Journal that the new president of Procter & Gamble plans to introduce 30% more new products this year than last. That sounds like a lot to me; then I realized I don't know how many new products they launched last year, so...

Anyway, the story goes on to say "Among the planned introductions is a body wash that purports to fight wrinkles. P&G will roll out the product officially next month, adding it to Olay's Total Effects line of anti-aging face creams." P&G says it plans to promote the new body wash with print ads in the February and March issues of women's beauty and health magazines, as well as TV spots, betting that vanity will overcome the appeal of saving money. That sounds like a lot of marketing support to me; then I realized the Olay spokeswoman declined to say how much the company is spending on the campaign, so...

But I was intrigued about the new product. I mean of all the products in the P&G stable, why is this one so important? According to the WSJ story, the ads for the new body wash stress seven anti-aging claims, including that it improves skin elasticity, brightens dull skin and minimizes the appearance of dry lines. In other words, it helps consumers appear to look different from the way they really should look. Virginia Drosos, the company's president of global female beauty and grooming, says all Olay ads use the tagline, "Love the skin you're in." This sounds good until you realize that the products are designed to alter the skin you are in, which is the skin you theoretically love, so...

Still, you have to tip your hat to the experts at P&G who always seem to know exactly what consumers want. Then I read this assessment from Candace Corlett, president of consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail, explaining why finding fresh applications for existing brands is a strategy that risks confusing consumers. "When presented with so many choices, it's hard to understand why one is different than the other," says Corlett. "Or [shoppers] get to the shelf after they saw an Olay ad for a product, but can't remember exactly which one it was."

So, welcome to 2010, the year after the year of transparency, and the year I plan to refer to as the year of translucency, because I think it is a more transparent description.