Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures

This troubled economy has brought down many businesses, but one business it seems to have bolstered is the "going out of business" advertising shops of the world. Case in point:

Oskar Huber, a Philadelphia-area furniture store is reorganizing under Chapter 11 bankruptcy, meaning EVERYTHING MUST GO GO GO GO! (Sorry, I got a little caught up in the moment there. -Ed.)

The interesting thing is that since they announced this bankruptcy plan, it seems like the company has poured more attention on itself than ever before. For example, the Cherry Hill store has done all of the following to try and get people in the door:

-rented a billboard truck that simply drives around all day with a sign announcing to all passers-by the discounted furniture that is for sale
-paid a poor shlep or two to stand in front of the store by the roadside holding a sign (in gaudy neon pink and green no less), on wooden pole announcing said sales
-placing a portable stadium light in front of the store and pointing it right at the sign above the store front, presumably so drivers will notice it at night while driving by
-hanging shiny red and blue streamers up on the light poles in the parking lot, making it look like a used car dealership

And that's probably just a tip of the iceberg as far as Oskar Huber's going-out-of-business advertising goes. Which tells me that when things are going bad in the economy, riches can be made in the "going under" advertising business.

In other words, catch people when they're desperate and they'll toss all kinds of money around to undertake desperate measures...

Monday, December 29, 2008

Free Credit Reports... A Good Idea that Can be Made Better?

I like the fact that all US citizens are entitled to a free credit report from each of the "big three" credit report companies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion), since it allows for individuals to better monitor their credit reports for errors or areas that need improving. Having to pay for a report that you never even asked for is rather bizarre to me in the first place, but getting a free credit report is most certainly a wise way to provide more transparency in this otherwise secretive industry.

One suggestion I have to take the free credit report process to the next level would be to automatically send a free credit report each year to all consumers. This would save time for everybody, but would also provide a reminder to each credit report recipient that their credit report and credit score are vital pieces of information in this day and age. And perhaps it would wake some people up to remind them that they really need to get in gear and fix up their reports and scores, otherwise they will be taken to the cleaners any time they ask for a loan, mortgage, etc. Perhaps if people took initiative to improve their credit scores, the economy wouldn't be in the gutter like it is now since people would be more aware of what's going on and would be more mindful of their expenses. Just a thought.

Yes I realize there are challenges to automatically sending everybody a credit report, but for those people who forget or are too lazy to request one or don't have readily available internet access, I would think there might be some way this can be arranged.

Ultimately, my feeling is that the more people that get on board with reviewing their credit reports, the better.

Now I'm off to go check mine out... wish me luck!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Congrats to The Onion... "THE" Number 1 Site

Anybody who has read The Onion will know about the power of great journalism and how vital it is to our civilization. It is a classic example of building a following and expanding largely by word of mouth because of its excellence in reporting. Satirical as it all may be.

But what I found fascinating regarding The Onion comes straight from Google's search results. I was just curious to see what results came up when I searched the word "the". Out of 10,040,000,000 estimated results, The Onion came up #1. Quite impressive! This is clearly a triumph in search engine optimization (SEO), a marketing tactic that helps websites get to the top of the list for search engine results... whether or not The Onion did this intentionally remains to be seen. But I thought I should point out that for the search on the word "the", The Onion managed to top such venerable institutions as:

-#2: The White House (well, maybe not quite so venerable, but I digress)
-#3: A Wikipedia entry about "the"
-#4: The Economist
-#5: T.H.E.-- Technology Horizons in Education (seems rather amazing that they didn't come up #1 since THE is the title of the publication!)

As you can see, the legend of The Onion continues to grow. So to all of THE writers at THE Onion, keep up THE great work... and keep showing THE White House how to do THE job right!

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Thanks to n:vision for brightening my day...

Give credit where credit is due...

About a year or two ago, I bought compact fluorescent light bulbs made by n:vision for my bathroom vanity. The light bulbs have worked great, helping to cut down on my energy bills and also helping my peace of mind by using up less pollution-causing electricity.

Interestingly, however, two of the bulbs blew out over a month ago, after a short life. I still happened to have the packaging (where I was safely storing the old incandescent bulbs in the event I still needed them) so I checked the info on there. Indeed, n:vision guarantees the bulbs to last for nine years, so I thought it was odd that the bulbs burned out so soon. To check on this fact, I called the company, spoke to a representative right away (not having to wait on hold), and she said that I was entitled to new bulbs. And guess what? I got them. After a few weeks, I received the new bulbs in the mail, and things are back to normal.

This, to me, is excellent customer service and the perfect example of ensuring tremendous customer satisfaction.

So, thank you to n:vision and I highly encourage others to change their bulbs as well. Consider yourself... enlightened!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

AT&T Commercial: Thumbs Down

Sorry, it's another negative blog post by me ripping on a bad television commercial. But what voice does a lowly consumer have when it comes to these terrible commercials that are forced down everybody's throats? The good ole blog is probably the best bet.

So you've undoubtedly seen the AT&T Wireless commercials showing a closeup of two hands holding the typepad on a Samsung phone. The thumbs, used to type in a text message, have faces superimposed on them. Not only do these thumb-faces make me want to gag because they look bizarre, but they talk and try to say funny things like "Shake your funnymaker." It's really quite torturous and annoying.

I get the concept here, but the execution doesn't work for me. I'm all for a little innovation and having fun with TV commercials, but hopefully AT&T can come up with *ahem* thumb-thing else.

Now back to your regularly scheduled program.

Monday, December 8, 2008

How the Yellow Pages Could Be More Relevant

Within the past month I've picked up two or three new phone books that were plopped down by my front door... books from RR Donnelly, Verizon, etc. Talk about hundreds and hundreds of pages of wasted paper. I kept one book and immediately discarded the others in the appropriate bin. Why? Well, the Internet has virtually all of the answers I need, making these behemoth books a thing of the past.

Like most people, I find that the yellow pages are just not that useful anymore. I might flip through a book once or twice a year to find something, but otherwise, I'm heading online to dig up the information I need.

But there is one way that the yellow pages could become more useful. My theory is that if the yellow pages were organized in another way, it could probably serve people better. Yes, alphabetical listing is helpful if you know who you're looking for, but otherwise, it's a game of naming rights and also who has the biggest ad to get your attention.

If I wanted to find a good plumber, for example, how do I know if AAAA Plumbing is better than AA Plumbers? Clearly there are companies out there that play the name placement game, hoping to get customers by virtue of being listed first in the phone book. Alternatively, it will come down to companies that buy the biggest, most colorful ads. That's not going to cut it anymore folks.

If the phone book was organized by, say, the best customer ratings for excellence in performance, it would be a lot more useful to Joe and Sally Homeowner. This way I could find the company that is most likely to do the BEST job on my plumbing repairs, rather than just picking the name I see first, or the one that spends the most marketing dollars to get my attention.

Otherwise, the yellow pages will continue to lose market share to Internet searches. By changing to a format that offers genuine information, rather than listings, it would be a more highly regarded source of help and probably wouldn't get tossed by people like me.

On the other hand, it does make for some good kindling...

Friday, December 5, 2008

Target Kicks It Up a Notch

I must say that I'm thrilled to report that Target made me smile today.

Big sale?


Free giveaways?


Product placement innovation?


"Huh?"... you must be saying.

Well let's put it like this. Every store selling shoes that I've ever been to has always had their large sizes stuck in a corner or way at the bottom of the rack. By placing their larger sizes at the top of the racks, Target finally got it right (or perhaps they've had it this way for a while and I never noticed). Let's face facts here, people looking for bigger shoes tend to be taller. And taller people tend to be adept at reaching things in higher places. Putting larger sized shoes on the bottom of the shelf, therefore, makes no sense. Fortunately, Target figured out this little nuance of human nature, unlike most other stores.

Unfortunately, they still didn't have my size.

Guess they're off target with getting shoes bigger than size 13.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

One Way Car Makers Could Go the Extra Mile

With the economy in the gutter, car sales have skidded, and automakers have begun to plead for government subsidies. It's an ugly scene out there.

That situation aside, I think that car makers should look at ways of going the extra mile to befriend consumers again. Sure, cars are safer now than ever, gas mileage is slowly improving, and the amenities inside of cars (can you say cupholders?) have increased. But perhaps it's the simple things that they're missing out on.

For instance, I just read an article in Consumer Reports about 12 things you should have in your car in case of a break down. The list they developed contains the following items: hazard triangles or flares, jumper cables, a flashlight, roadside-assistance membership, tow rope, duct tape, small shovel, bag of sand, windshield scraper, emergency blanket, and hand warmers. All simple things that people ideally should have in their cars, but how many of us really do bother to have all of it?

My feeling is that an auto maker or car dealer should set themselves apart and surprise buyers with a package containing all of these items upon purchase of a new car. Think about how little this entire package would cost (a couple hundred dollars at the very most), but how much goodwill they would be delivering to the new car buyer. Ultimately, it's a simple gesture but it shows they care about the driver.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

When Not to Slow Down...

I thought maybe I'd have some luck at getting a hold of people at work this week, figuring that fewer people would be traveling for Thanksgiving this year and more people would want to be at work in order to safeguard their jobs and/or boost sales. Y'know, good old fashioned boot strapping.

Quite the contrary.

This week has been so slow and that really surprises me. Usually, when the economy is going well, people tend to feel more free-flowing with their time and money so they take off work and you can't find them on days surrounding the holidays. And I would have thought the opposite would be true for this year's Thanksgiving since people seemingly would be hustling to boost sales for the end of this dismal year. I guess that's not happening though, at least not in my neck of the woods

I've made lots of calls and emails and it's like a ghost town out there. I guess I didn't get the memo!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Pillsbury Doughboy: Happy 40+ Birthday

It dawned on me that the Pillsbury Doughboy has been around for a long time. Turns out, Mr. Doughboy popped into the advertising world in the 1960s, making him over 40 years old.

Which leaves me with the simple question... shouldn't he be the Pillsbury DoughMAN by now?

Chew on that one.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Just a Random Dental Hygiene Thought

Everywhere I look I see ads for teeth whitening. I guess that's a good thing, in the sense that most people out there take care of their teeth, so dentists and dental product companies need to drum up business in some other way... so "why not encourage people to have a bright, shiny white smile?" these dentists must be saying.

I just had a random dental hygiene thought however... I wonder if it will ever be socially acceptable, and/or trendy to have one's teeth dyed another color. At this point in time, seeing somebody with, say red teeth is considered pretty gross, unless it's Halloween or it's a kid who just ate a cherry flavored lollipop.

But maybe some day down the road, you'll see kids picking out teeth dye colors to match their outfits, or rabid sports fans dyeing their teeth in their team's colors, or politicians taking on a new hue to impress a crowd. After all, who would have thought that tattoos, ear piercings, and hair coloring would be so popular just 50 years ago?

Just something to chew on...

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Reminder, in Light of Today's Election

As people stream out to the polls to elect either Barack Obama or John McCain the next President of the United States of America, this election has focused around "change" from the current path this country has taken.

Keep in mind, however, that regardless of who is elected today, the REAL power to change things lies in the hands of the PEOPLE.

Wall Street meltdown? The American people let that happen, from seemingly intelligent businesspeople to everyday citizens.

Global Warming? This is one of the greatest catastrophes of all time, also created by humans like you and me.

Iraq War? True, this one was led by the current President, but Americans still enabled it to happen and continue.

This list could go on and on.

Ultimately, if the people of the country truly want change, they have to be more involved and not rely just on the President and other elected officials to make it happen. Talk is cheap, voting is cheap, but doing something about the problems on an individual level is the best way to really bring about change...

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Email Inefficiency

This is a call to all marketers and web designers at various email service providers, including, but not limited to Care2, Comcast, Hotmail, and Yahoo!...

Let's make email more efficient.

Altering one simple step would save countless hours for the collective masses of email checkers:

After entering my screen name and password on an email providers login page, ELIMINATE the next screen which basically says nothing more than how many emails I have in my inbox. I don't care about links to news snippets or cutesy articles or things you're trying to sell me, which are slipped into this meaningless page... I'm just trying to get to my email!

That is all.

Thank you.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Simple Things... So Hard to Do

Sometimes people really irk me.

Recently I was sitting at my dining room table eating breakfast when I happened to see a neighbor walking outside carrying a cardboard box. She proceeded to walk and carry it to the trash dumpster in front of her house.

Okay, simple task, no big deal.

But, the morning she did this also happened to be the morning when recycling items were getting picked up. And for those of you wondering... yes, my township (Evesham) does pick up cardboard boxes as part of its bi-weekly recycling program.

This really irked me because it's typical of all too many people who simply take it for granted that we have things pretty good, and that we don't have to really worry about where our trash goes on a daily basis. We just chuck it and forget about it.

The thing is that recycling is probably THE EASIEST possible thing that people can do to make a positive impact on the environment. You don't even have to think about it most of the time, just take your cans, plastic bottles, paper, etc, put it in a separate bin from your trash can and take it out every so often. It's really mind-boggling that people are so stubborn to NOT recycle, especially when it benefits everybody when it's done.

Interestingly, our neighboring township Cherry Hill has reported tremendous success with its RecycleBank program where households earn points for recycling that can be redeemed for gift cards and the like. Previously, the recycling rates in Cherry Hill had been good, but are now quite astounding. In other words, people will only do something that truly benefits society if it benefits them directly. Pretty sad, folks.

While I don't disagree that the RecycleBank program is a wise one, I would just be so much happier if people could just conjure up that slight increase of energy and time to be able to do the right thing in the first place, and recycle on their own.

But that would be too simple I suppose...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Presidential Candidates: Put Your Energy Where Your Mouth Is

Green, as we all know, is the latest buzz word in every corner of the country. "Green" alternative energy supplies, such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric, are talked about on a daily basis by laypeople on the street and congresspeople in Washington. Indeed, this topic is quite popular with John McCain and Barack Obama in their respective presidential campaigns.

Voters want to know what plans and ideas these candidates have about staving off our addiction to oil, due to its effects on climate change as well as its effects on our pocketbooks, among other reasons. And these candidates regularly bandy about how they would change things by investing in alternative energy sources, and so forth.

What I want to see happen is a candidate say-- "Okay-- I'm going to send a message to America and the world. When I get in the White House, I will turn it into a 'Green House' by installing solar panels on the roof, ensuring that the lighting fixtures use CFL bulbs, and make any other feasible retrofits to make this the most efficient building it can be."

Personally I can't think of a better way to make a point and encourage fellow Americans to do something about the dire situation we are in than by leading by example.

Unfortunately, leading by example is not always a hallmark of politicians. Let's see if either one of them goes for this alternative route...

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Next Revolution in Soap Bars

Yes, you read the title correctly. This post is about a revolutionary idea for soap. It finally came to me today and you heard it here first. Are you ready for this? It's going to blow your mind. The idea:

Soap bars with a sliver on the side.

What could I possibly mean by that, you ask?

Well let me start with some background.

It's always aggravated me that at the end of a soap bar's life, the last 5% of the soap bar becomes too small to use. So you either throw it out, or it drops down the drain, or it breaks into little pieces, or it gets stuck on the soap dish, or any number of futile, wasteful demises.

But now, with my idea, you get a new bar of soap, take the old, small bar of soap, and insert it into the small opening on the side of the new bar. Thus, you waste no soap and the old bar gradually melts seamlessly into the new bar as it gets wet from washing. You just saved yourself the aggravation of dealing with an otherwise useless remnant of a soap bar, and you saved a few cents as well. Why not?

Yes, I told you this idea would blow your mind.

Now who will be the wise person to clean up on this free idea?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

More Green = Less Green?

I've long been a supporter of the so-called green movement and I'm encouraged to see it succeeding in everyday life, from people determined to buying cars with better gas mileage to shoppers using fewer disposable bags to homeowners replacing their incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lights.

The increase in these types of actions, to me, is all great news. It means we're conserving our resources, helping to make our world more sustainable, and also in many cases saving money.

Which is where I'm getting increasingly curious as to whether or not the green movement is causing at least part of the readjustment in the stock markets.

Considering the fact that Americans are driving less year over year and that cars are getting more efficient, it should help to cut back on money spent on gasoline. Additionally, if people are using reusable bags to carry their groceries, that's another huge source of petroleum that is not wasted. Or having people use more energy efficient light bulbs means saving money on electric bills. All of these initiatives and others inevitably will result in less money for the oil, electric, and industrial companies. And as these initiatives increase across the country and worldwide, it will have a major impact on corporate bottom lines... read: less profit.

So perhaps part of the sell-off on Wall Street and other stock markets around the world is a result of this fundamental change in society of being more green. If less money is being wasted on oil, electricity, etc. then it means more money to spend elsewhere, but it would also mean less money for those industries and fewer jobs. The net result could end up in people saving more money, or it could result in deflation which could shake up the entire system. Perhaps it will be the starting point of taking wasted money away from companies and putting it back in consumers' pockets, which means a fundamental change in the way we spend money in the future.

I'm clearly not an economist, just a rational observer of what's going on and I would be curious to learn more about the impact of green practices on the bottom line regarding corporate greenbacks. Eventually we'll start to see long term trends, but in the meantime we will have to do our best to adjust to the changes.

Friday, October 3, 2008

FedEx and Today's Lingo

I just heard a fascinating quote by Alec Baldwin on Real Time with Bill Maher.

It's not the content of what he was talking about, but the wording he chose to use. The quote, as best I remember it, with specific names left out, went something like this...

"Somebody needs to FedEx [a script] to [John & Jane Doe] right away so they get a clue real fast."

This fascinates me because just think about that. He could have said any verb to insinuate "get something to someone FAST". He chose to use the branded term "to FedEx" rather than to "fax", "email", or even "PDF" the document, to imply fast delivery. Wow. That's a pretty impressive marketing coup.

It always amazes me to hear brand terms become standard lingo or verbs, such as Kleenex, Xerox, or Hoover... names that have become synonomous with a generic item, i.e. facial tissue, copier, or vacuum, respectively.

Well done FedEx, you've made the brand-turned-verb list. Score one for the marketing department!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

I Hate People that Litter!

I really, really try not to be someone who complains or criticizes others all the time, but then again I often find myself doing just that on this very blog. I guess it's difficult to keep totally quiet when something causes much aggravation, and I suppose it's a cathartic relief to vent about it in the blog world, at least for me.

So, where was I?

Oh yeah-- I hate people that litter!

This morning I was outside cleaning my yard and found a couple of scraps of paper sitting on my lawn. Strike 1.

Then I walked around a common area in my neighborhood and saw McDonald's cups and a Pepsi can sitting on the ground. Strike 2.

The last straw for me was watching a twenty-something girl in the passenger seat of a car driving by my house drop tissues out the window like it was no big deal. Strike 3.

Look folks, if you drop stuff on the ground, be it from a car, bike, or as you walk somewhere, you're ruining things for every other person around you. Nobody wants to see garbage all over the street/sidewalk/grass/garden, and nobody wants to have to pick up after you. Get a clue!

Ok, that's my rant. Next time I'll find something positive to write about. Promise!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Where to Entrust Your Money

Getting down to the core of it, investing in stocks means you entrust people that work at public companies to get a better return on your money than you would be able to do on your own. In other words, when you have extra money sitting around, you can either spend it, put it in an interest bearing product (CD's, savings account, etc) or put it to use in another vehicle like stocks to try and get a better return. This entails higher risk obviously.

But with all of today's talks about bailout plans of financial institutions by the government, failing banks and investment companies, and a failing credit system, why should anybody trust other companies to get a better return than I can?

Okay, I'm being a little extreme, but all of this turmoil definitely has a negative reflection on the viability of blindly trusting other companies to do better than you can on your own in terms of getting return on investment. For better or worse the stock market is still the best system we have for building wealth, but now more than ever it's important to realize that you're still risking your trust in someone else to excel. Buyer beware and let's hope this whole thing shakes out soon and proves to be an improvement over where we've been.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Where Would Women Turn without Chocolate??

I work with a lot of women in my office. And hardly a day goes by where I don't hear something along the lines of:

"I need chocolate!" or

"Do you have any chocolate?" or

"I have such a chocolate craving!" or

"Oh my god, does that have chocolate in it? That looks so good, can I have some?"

Well, you get the idea.

My question is, what would women do if chocolate was never invented? I doubt you'd hear something like:

"I need a turnip!" or

"Do you have any parsley?" or

"I have such a chard craving!"

Well, you get the idea.

I guess that really goes for anything though. Once you get a taste for something (be it a food, drink, or even just a personal preference like driving fancy cars) then you don't want to go back.

But the next time I hear "Oooh, I need some chocolate!" I'm tempted to respond with "Sorry, chocolate's been officially banned. Can I offer you some monkey brains?" That'll stir some things up around the water cooler...

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Quote of the Day

Hurricane Ike has ravaged Texas and I feel for and fear for what the residents there have gone through and will have to go through in coming times. While reading this news report about the damage done, however, I just had to simultaneously chuckle and sigh when I came across this blurb about one resident of Southside Beach:

South of Galveston, authorities said 67-year-old Ray Wilkinson was the only residents (sic) who didn't evacuate from Surfside Beach, population 800. He was drunk and waving when authorities reached him on Saturday morning.

"He kinda drank his way through the night," Mayor Larry Davison said.

Wow. 'Nuff said.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

My Dream Bridge

After sitting for a half hour at 9:00pm last night in traffic on the dreaded eastbound I-76 Schuylkill Expressway, and after seeing the effects of a major accident on I-295 South in Cherry Hill this morning, I would like to call on all inventors and engineers to develop an "instant bridge" that can be quickly erected to allow traffic to simply go over an accident or small construction zone with only minimal interruption in traffic flow, and no imposition on the work being done underneath. That way, everybody's happy and there is no major mess on the roadways.

Yes, that's my dream bridge. Are there any smart people out there who can make this dream come to life?!? Or if such a thing exists, can we please find a way to implement it?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Door to Door Fundraisers... Knock Somewhere Else

This evening, while I was making dinner, the doorbell rang. I knew right away that it must be a kid trying to sell me something to raise money for some venture or another. I pondered the option of not opening the door but then thought it could be my parents who have been known to stop by on occasion.

Sure enough a teenage girl was on my stoop when I opened the door, and she was holding a binder. I immediately cringed because I really despise when people do this. I understand the need to fundraise (heck, I work for a non-profit which has to do fundraising), but I really hate to be bothered at home by a desperate person without my having previously consented to see him/her. But I listened to her pitch, not wanting to be rude.

The girl was very well prepared with her pitch as she tried to sell me a subscription to help her raise money for an organization that involved students and some sort of project that she breezed over. I said no thanks, I just ended my subscription to that particular publication and was ready to close the door. She then asked me why I had ended the subscription. I said that I just didn't read it anymore and didn't want it again. She said that I could order the subscription and then cancel it right away and still be able to help her cause. I thought this was kind of fishy. So I declined again.

She then asked if I would like to make a donation anyway. I asked her if I could get a form and fill it out and mail it in. She took out a form and said I could use this as a receipt. But she said that I could not mail it in-- even though it had an address on the form. I then saw a website address (which I unfortunately didn't think to write it down or memorize it), and asked if I could donate online. She again said no. The fishiness continued to build here.

So I basically mumbled something about not wanting to give out money in person and that she should come back later, just trying to let her down easy. She said okay and finally left. She didn't return and hopefully she doesn't again, quite frankly. Interestingly, a little later on, I went online to try to find information on this supposed organization based on the information she told me. Of course I couldn't find anything despite doing mutliple searches. Something tells me this was a scam and I'm glad I didn't give anything to her.

This brings me to my conclusion here. While I understand the need to raise money, and I understand the need to ask people to give in order to raise that money, I really think it's in poor taste to stop by unannounced to a person's house to ask for money (and not just a dollar or two, but tens of dollars, mind you), without even knowing that person. A slick sales pitch and vague answers are simply unacceptable and I refuse to throw money at someone just to make them go away. It's really the lowest of the low ways you can fundraise if you ask me.

If anything, my tip would be for the fundraiser to start the pitch by saying "I'm not asking for any money at this time, but I was hoping you would take a minute to hear about X project that I think you will find interesting..." followed by a brief synopsis of what is going on, and accompanied by a brochure with ways I can get more information and ultimately give. This is at least in the direction of trying to build a relationship with me, not trying to bilk me for a few bucks.

Unfortunately it's people and organizations like this who give fundraising a bad name. On the whole, most fundraisers do not take this strategy, but the ones that do are instant turnoffs and give a bad reputation to other organizations that do it right.

Moral: If you're going fishing for money, don't be a fishy person representing a fishy organization and simply trying to bait unassuming people into donating.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

866-825-4573: Just Ignore this Number

This past week, my caller ID has shown the number 866-825-4573 calling my house during the day on three different occasions. One time I was home and picked up and it was just loud classical music playing. After doing a Google search for that phone number I found that scads of other annoyed people have had these calls come in as well. They wrote that sometimes there was silence on the other end, and sometimes idiots babbled on the other end.

So if you get this number calling you, I'd suggest just ignoring it. Unless you want to fall into their trap and call them back or answer the phone and deal with inane calls every few days. I really have no idea who would waste their short time on this planet by doing such nonsense, but hey, to each his own I guess. No sense in wasting your own precious time in dealing with these losers!

Monday, August 18, 2008

TD Bank Branding: Zero Interest

I realize that trying to brand and market a bank can be quite unexhilarating. But it'd be nice to at least see an attempt to do so by the folks at the newly named "TD Bank"... the name that resulted from the merger of Commerce Bank and TD Banknorth. (Side note: the name in itself is a total bust since Commerce Bank had such a large following in the regions where it has grown. Instead of going with TD Commerce Bank as was originally planned, the bank meekly folded in the wake of a small lawsuit that should have been inconsequential. Now they're stuck with the very nondescript name of TD Bank. I digress.)

Truth be told, I'm a longtime Commerce customer, and yes, it is a bit of a downer to see Commerce lose it's identity in such a manner, but that's just the way of the world. Not something I'll lose sleep over.

But to add to the fact that they've chosen a name with zero pep, they also have partnered it with a clarifying slogan of sorts that attracts zero interest:

TD Bank: "A brand is more than a name..."

Yes, that's literally what it says when I log onto pay my bills. "A brand is more than a name..."

Ok, I realize that this is not their REAL, everyday slogan, but it just seemed like such a weak attempt to generate clicks on the particular page where I saw it. It's like saying:

"A blog post is more than a headline..."

Thank you, Captain Obvious.

Monday, August 11, 2008

More Trashing of the Environment?

Sometimes I just don't get it. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" apparently doesn't ring true with certain national leaders any more.

The Endangered Species Act has helped bring back animals from the brink of extinction and all of the sudden a certain administration wants to go and throw it out the window. Check out this article for more information.

While some of the arguments in the article make some sense, I really just have no trust or faith in the current administration to do virtually anything that benefits the public, and I don't see how changing the Endangered Species Act really helps us in general. Sure, businesses and industries might benefit, as is stated in this quote in the article:

In recent years... some federal agencies and private developers have complained that the process (of conducting reviews before construction projects) results in delays and increased construction costs

Sorry guys about the delays, but I think that's inevitable in the construction world regardless of animals, but let's not forget the long term... I hope the people behind this law change understand the consequences on their actions on future generations. I truly fear for what our kids and grandkids will encounter in years to come and hope that we can be better stewards of this world. On the one hand I feel as though we've made progress with the attention on all things "green", but on the other hand I wonder if we're really in it full throttle when I read news like this.

Now let's see what else we can break...

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Virtual Wallet Update

Last night I ranted about how PNC introduced its new banking product called Virtual Wallet via a TV commercial blitz but failed to have any connecting search results on Google.

Just out of curiousity, I went back to Google just now and guess what? The top (and only) sponsored link is for PNC's Virtual Wallet, and it looks like they have developed a landing site for the product. This landing site still does not show up in organic results however. And if you go to this landing site, you'll also find that it doesn't have the same setup as PNC's regular site, which may confuse some people.

Let's see how this marketing plan plays out...

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Virtual Wallet: Virtual Marketing Flop

A few months ago an acquaintace of mine who works at a PNC Bank branch tipped me off to a new service that PNC would be offering this summer. She dubbed it "Virtual Wallet". It sounded like a nifty tool when she explained it, which allows people to easily and instantly transfer money back and forth between various personal accounts. Good idea, though quite frankly after a while I forgot about it.

Until yesterday. I saw a commercial (two actually) for PNC's Virtual Wallet. I suppose this is their big summer product launch.

So after seeing the commercial, just out of curiousity, I went online to look up Virtual Wallet on Google. And whadya know-- no relevant results! How does that happen? In fact all of the results for Virtual Wallet were so weak they weren't even remotely connected to PNC. If that were me I would have made sure to have paid search and organic search all lined up before this launch. Even if it leads to informational pages announcing that the service would be coming soon. Instead, it led me to a virtual dead zone in terms of sales and marketing. I was a curious prospective client but couldn't find virtually anything on the subject. As they say on the baseball diamond-- "whiff".

So after that I went to PNC Bank's site and nowhere on their site could I find anything about Virtual Wallet, even when doing a search on their own site. Whiff again.

Maybe I'm missing something here. Maybe it's supposed to be a teaser. But it sure seems to me like the Virtual Wallet marketing campaign is not on the money...

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Cat Toys: Cheaper is Better

Anybody who has seen a young baby open presents know that oftentimes the tyke's favorite gift is that of bubblewrap, a box, or a bow. Well the same goes for cats.

I don't know why cat owners buy fancy toys for cats. I've fallen into that trap with my cat, but never again! I'll save my money for other more important items in life.

To wit, my cat's top 4 toys are:

1. An old shoelace
2. A twisty tie
3. A ping pong ball
4. A black plastic piece that fell off of my desk chair

Total cost for each of these items (estimated): 18 cents.

Total cost for a menagerie of stuffed mice, birds, and other such creatures (estimated): 18 bucks or more.

So to all feline fans, forget your fivers, just grab some trinkets and your cat will be thrilled.

Oh, and just as an aside, that's a picture of my cat pawing and playing with a small bug. Talk about a cheap date!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Book Review: "Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: A Guide to Creating Great Advertising"

They say that in order to succeed in any given industry, you really need to immerse yourself in it. In other words, read books, read trade journals, listen to mentors, and generally gain a passion for the field. By doing this, you will become a student of your job, and eventually an expert.

In the weird, wild world of advertising, there are myriad books and magazines and awards shows that a young devotee can immerse herself in. One book that is able to effectively summarize the art of advertising and how to improve yourself in the field is "Hey Whipple, Squeeze This" by ad vet Luke Sullivan.

Anybody in the ad business knows that advertising is largely subjective, ever-evolving, and a creative challenge that is not easy to master. Sullivan describes in detail why these points ring true, while primarily delving into the art of making good ads. And rather than producing a dull, intellectual, research-driven book that could potentially turn off any curious reader, Sullivan has fun with it by showing many great examples of premier ads. Indeed, his passion for advertising jumps off the page. It's a solid book for any college student considering studying advertising in college, or for a burgeoning member of the advertising field, or even for a seasoned pro who just needs a light refresher course. The book is quite versatile in that way.

The book was originally published in 1998, followed by new editions in 2003 and 2008. As a result, "Hey Whipple" touches on new media avenues, such as internet advertising, but still mostly focuses on the big ad outlets of print and TV. I'd say that one area where this book lacks is its small focus on how to create great ads in this new world of media, and where advertising will be going in the future. Since the world of advertising is so rapidly changing, it's important to have a plan for how to adapt.

Another area that lacks in this book is accurately describing life in an ad agency. Sure, if you're a Madison Avenue all-star, this book hits the spot, but the vast majority of ad agencies are not in New York, and in fact many are not even in big cities. So there are many stereotypical references in this book to the life of an ad guy (or gal) that reflect on the one we know so well from the Big Apple. This quote from Neil D. Brown in a recent book review on Amazon.com reflects my sentiments exactly:

What you [Sullivan] espouse about agency life proves you have no idea what the real world of advertising is like. You have a lovely and accurate view of the myopics for New York agencies and clients and processes and even though you now call Austin home you have never really worked in the world of small agencies, smaller clients. And it shows.

His "myopics for New York agencies" notwithstanding, I think it's a good book that breezily depicts the creative side of advertising. That said, you should take this book as just one of thousands of potential sources in your ongoing immersion of the field. Everybody in advertising has an opinion, and this is just one of them. Enjoy your exploration.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Journalism on Drugs

I have a good friend who lives in the San Antonio area. Today I did a news search to see how things looked there after Hurricane Dolly swept through the area. I found the article below which recapped the damage done in a very succinct manner, like a good write-up is supposed to do. But then, right at the end they throw the reader a vicious curve ball. And I mean a wicked Roger-Clemens-on-steroids curveball. Have a look for yourselves...


"WHOA!" Right?


Can anybody explain this journalistic twist for me?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A New York City Hotel Surprise: Comfort Inn

This past week, my wife and I took an overnight trip to New York City, in part to see Ricky Gervais stand up. (The show was quite funny, for those who are wondering.)

Going to NYC doesn't thrill me enough to go regularly, but it's fun to zip up there for a quick vacation getaway every once and a while. One reason I don't like going there regularly is because of the notoriously insane prices for everything. And hotels are one of the big culprits, especially if you crash at a nice place in a central location in Manhattan.

But this past trip I was pleasantly surprised with the Comfort Inn that we stayed at on 46th Street between 6th & 7th streets. The location was great, situated within walking distance to Central Park and down to Madison Square Garden, and the other key spots in between. The price was the cheapest I could find out of any other hotel when doing a search on my preferred vacation planning source, kayak.com. I was a little squeamish about what the place would be like when we got there since it was the lowest price and because Comfort Inn is not exactly synonomous with the Ritz-Carlton, but I'll be honest and say that the Comfort Inn genuinely came thru for us.

Here's what I liked:

-The room was perfect for what we needed. You're not going to get a huge room in NYC without paying out the nose for it, but in this room we could move around and there was ample furniture and storage space. In addition, everything was new, including the bathroom which was also roomy and recently remodeled. The flat screen TV was a nice touch too.

-The staff was friendly. Sometimes you go to a hotel, particularly in NYC, and the bellhops or other staff members are just hanging all over you for tips. I understand that's their job and that's how they make money, but it can be overbearing and annoying. Other times they can be crabby. Here, they helped you when you needed it, let you carry on if you didn't, and generally smiled the whole time either way.

-The continental breakfast was pretty good. It featured your basic spread of cereal, toast, bagels, donuts, fruit, juices, and hot beverages, but everything was well stocked, fresh, and tasty. The only downside here was the the breakfast room was tight and a surge of people came in while I was there making it a bit uncomfortable.

The only major downsides are that the workout room is literally only a couple of machines, our room had a dismal view of a brick wall behind the building, the hallways and elevator are narrow, and the ice/vending machines are on the ground floor rather than on each floor. Ultimately, however, none of these negatives had any real dampening effect on our stay.

That's my review of this noteworthy NYC hotel. Business travelers and families going on vacation alike should check it out when heading to the Big Apple. And I'd be happy to hear your reviews if you stay there...

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Shipping Tips Learned the Hard Way

Pop the cork, I made my first sale on ebay!

(Yeah, yeah, I hear you out there saying "Welcome to the 21st century, slacker." Jibe noted.)

It was an exciting moment for me, but unfortunately it wasn't all rainbows and sunshine.

I was pretty clueless about, of all things, shipping the item to the buyer. Here are the issues I had...

1. I was tempted to print a label and send it from home, but I wasn't going to be home to send it and didn't want to (or know if I even could) just leave it outside for a pickup.

2. I didn't want to send it from work because I didn't particularly want the recipient to know where I work.

3. So I went to the local UPS Store, innocently, and perhaps stupidly. For starters, in the auction price I way underestimated how much shipping would cost so I had to eat a few bucks on that end since I figured in a set shipping price. (Lesson learned: either explicitly leaving shipping cost blank and make sure buyer knows that they will pay full shipping price, or get a more accurate estimate in the first place, if possible.) Also, at the UPS Store, I blindly brought my item without a box, figuring, "Okay, UPS gives away free boxes for shipping all the time, right?" Well maybe I'm just clueless but I wound up paying three ($%@ing) dollars for a box that was no bigger than a toaster oven (or a breadbox, if you must). So that was a major rip. Three bucks for a stupid box. Wow.

In the end, after making these poor decisions about shipping I hardly made anything on the sale and I wound up spending a lot of time on it to boot.

I'll chalk it up to beginner's errors and see if I can improve on it in future sales. But hopefully you don't make the same dumb errors and assumptions that I did.

Happy selling!

(And shipping!)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Yes, I'm Fashion Illiterate

I was just looking at Eddie Bauer's website, and I realized just how fashion illiterate I am. I usually just buy clothes based on looks and prices, but I feel left out because nobody ever sat me down and told me what the difference was between "chino" and "khaki" pants or "chambray", "poplin", "twill", or "oxford" shirts, for example.

This lingo confusion is, of course, one of the major gaps between shopping at, say, Gap.com or Gap in the mall. In person, you can touch, try on, and ask others about their opinions; descriptions have minimal value because you're right there to look at the clothes. Online, you're dependent on the company's descriptions-- some of which are unitelligible-- and one-dimensional photos. To add to that, you have to wait for these closed to arrive at your house to determine if you like them, plus you get to pay for that convenience of shipping.

Obviously, these limitations don't apply only to clothes, since buying virtually anything online involves a leap of faith to some extent, but I'd say clothing is probably the most challenging common item that would come into play.

For those of you wondering at home, I'm wearing mesh basketball shorts with an all cotton t-shirt. And no, they're not for sale...

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Dumb Economics/Financial Question

I follow the economy pretty regularly, though I have no formal training in it. I like to learn about the world of finance, without delving deep into complex formulas and numbers. Call me a minor league financial fan, if you will. Not quite ready for the big leagues, but definitely way more advanced than tee ball.

So here's my dumb question:

In a market like the one we're facing today, where virtually every sector is losing money... WHO is making money?

I don't think anybody would argue with the fact that the industries of housing, banking, retail, manufacturing, and so on are struggling right now, both in America and in many other countries. On the flip side, energy companies have done well and perhaps a few other sectors.

But ultimately, it seems like a LOT of money has been lost all across the stock market and in the housing market and elsewhere, and I'm not quite grasping as to where it's all going. Consumers are getting squeezed by higher prices all over the place (read: inflation), companies are starting to cut back on employment and production it seems, houses still are not selling all that well, savings rates are low so holding money in a safe account doesn't reap big rewards, and on and on.

So I ask again, WHO is on the other side of the transaction, making money right now? Average John and Suzy homeowner, stock investor, employer, and consumer sure aren't making money... so where does it all go???

-Curious in Jersey

Sunday, July 6, 2008

I Don't Like this Form of PR

The other day while finishing up a project at the non-profit foundation where I work, I got a call from a PR person from another charity. I won't use any names to protect the innocent, but the charity itself is a very noble cause and the person I spoke to was genuinely friendly. She was essentially calling me asking for ways to get them grant money, which is fine since we do award grants.

But this was about the third time in six months I have either spoken to this same woman or had an email exchange with her and she still doesn't know who I am. Not only that but she sends these massively huge email files containing Word document attachments that clog up my inbox or that don't work or look unprofessional when I am able view them. In fact, one time when she sent these Word files that didn't open, I suggested she make them into PDFs. She replied saying she didn't know how to convert Word documents to PDFs. So I replied telling her how to do it. So she did it and rattled off like seven in a row in a drive-by emailing. They promptly went into my trash file. And then, as part of this latest phone call that she made, she had the audacity to ask me what my email address was.

I really don't like this form of PR.

What this tells me is that I'm just one person on a huge list, she has no kind of records about who I am, and quite frankly, she doesn't know how to do her job.

Nice combo there.

To all college graduates looking to get a job in public relations, here are a few quick tips:

If you're going into the field of public relations...

1. Learn who your audience is and how to talk to them
2. If you're trying to build rapport with someone... build it! Don't just dump your emails on them or pester them with phone calls. That just moves your organization down a notch on your caller's list because you're annoying them.
3. Learn the latest best practices and how to use technology. Don't expect anybody to bend over backwards for you. You need to be ahead of the game and be able to make somebody else's job easier, not more complex. People are busy and you're trying to get their good favor, not make things harder for them.

Good PR can do an organization a world of good, but bad PR can set it all back a hundred years.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Cleveland Indians: Adding Insult to Injury

It's bad enough that there's a professional baseball team whose team logo depicts a cartoonified, stereotyped drawing of a Native American warrior. But I think it's pretty ridiculous to offer up a 4th of July logo design that has a United States flag emblazoned over the face (see right).

Across Major League Baseball tonight, teams sported Independence Day designs on hats to salute the troops and raise money for veterans. Nice idea, but the execution by the Cleveland Indians did little to stir a patriotic feeling in this writer's heart. It's adding insult to injury for the Indians to slap a patriotic American design across a stereotyped logo, especially considering how Native Americans were pilfered and plundered by people representing these American colors over the centuries. Now the remaining Native Americans get to be reminded of this shame by watching a baseball game.

Sorry, but no medicine man can cure those longtime wounds, and MLB certainly isn't helping any.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

One hundred thousand pounds of...

One hundred thousand pounds of pigeon excrement will have been scraped off of Philadelphia's City Hall by the time its refurbishing is done.

Ummm.... on the bright side, it's a good thing elephants can't fly and land on buildings, I guess.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Get Smart and Wait for It on DVD

I'm a tough movie critic, especially when it comes to comedies. I enjoy a good hearty laugh, but at the same time I've grown weary of the same manufactured comedies over and over. What I find is that so many movies use recycled jokes, pratfalls, and innuendo that quite frankly, it just ain't funny anymore.

This leads me to "Get Smart", the new Steve Carrell movie based on the old TV show.

If you're looking for a movie with recycled writing, this one will fit you just fine. It's got 'em all:

-a dance showdown (why does every comedy need a dance showdown nowadays?)
-spy spoofs (dime a dozen)
-stereotyped bad boy characters (woo-hoo)
-weak political commentary (yawn)

I've been a big Steve Carrell fan since he came onto the scene on The Daily Show and The Office, but his movies are taking a dive, in my book. 40 Year Old Virgin was a knee-slapper, but I just can't get into his other stuff lately. Seems like his work that doesnt have an edge to it just doesn't make the grade for me.

So that's what I think. Please help me Get Smart and let me know where I'm missing the jokes by leaving your comments... maybe I missed by "just that much..."

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Extra, Extra... Time to Go Cold Turkey

For the past 5 years or so, I've been a devoted subscriber of the Philadelphia Inquirer. It's a good paper, I get a lot of info from it, and it's helpful to have on hand for using under my cat's litter box. My subscription has been set up to automatically renew using my credit card, and I have just let it keep on charging over the years... I'm not even quite sure what it costs to get it to be totally honest.

Recently, however, I got a new credit card mailed to me to replace my old credit card. And guess what-- the Inquirer can't automatically bill me anymore since the numbers changed. So my subscription will be running out in the next few weeks or so, and the Inquirer's sales team has been calling me relentlessly to remind me that my credit card account has changed. Being the *ahem* wild and crazy guy that I am, however, I'm going to go cold turkey and just let my subscription slide without renewing it. It will be a test for me to see what life is like without getting the newspaper after reading it religiously on a daily basis.

Currently, I read (or skim) the paper during breakfast at home, during lunch at work, and during appropriate bathroom breaks. That's a lot of time spent staring at newsprint, probably well over an hour each day in total.

So I'm going to switch things up a little bit. I'm going to devote more time to reading books (something that's fallen by the wayside recently), catching up on magazines, and perhaps flipping thru Philly.com to get bits and pieces of articles as they catch my fancy.

On the bright side, by not reading the Inquirer, I will no longer be depressed after reading story after story depicting the waning intelligence and lack of decency in this world. Obviously news, by nature, centers around "what's happening", but I can only take so much of political corruption, violence on the streets, nations at war, environmental destruction, filthy rich celebrities getting into trouble, and so on. My enjoyment of the world definitely takes a hit after reading the news every day, and it doesn't help reading about a Philly team losing a game the night before. For once, it might help to be blissfully unaware of most of the problems with the world, and instead focus on how I can make the world better in my own ways.

On the down side, I will need to find an alternative for protecting the carpet under my cat's litter box...

Friday, June 13, 2008

Airlines: Where'd All the Good People Go?

We've all lamented that air travel has gone downhill every year. From price increases, to squeezing people into smaller seats, to long lines to get through security, to terrible flight delays, airlines have made traveling a nightmare. US Airways has certainly taken the lead in disappointing customers by charging $2 per soda. While I understand the need for businesses' need to make money, it just seems like with all of the highly intelligent, highly educated, and highly creative businesspeople in this world, somebody somewhere could have come up with a better plan than this.

Not only has this drawn a ton of negative publicity, but now this rule encourages travelers to bring their own soda on board and totally defeat the airline's purpose of offsetting the cost to transport the soda.

All of these rules and cost-cutting measures and confusing policies cannot possibly help benefit the airline industry. Hopefully one day some of the great businesspeople of this world will figure out a way to make traveling more enjoyable, more cost efficient, and less of a flea market inside the cabin. Or perhaps it's already happening with airlines such as Southwest, JetBlue, and their innovative brethren.

Instead of scaring away the good people who want to travel, it's time for the good people at the airlines to figure out ways to get other good people to love flying again.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Couch Recommendation: Three Piece Sectional with Chaise Lounge

To this day, one of my best purchases of all time was buying the couch that I have in my living room. I bought it about six years ago when I moved into an apartment with my friend. It has held up well over the years, but more importantly, it's probably one of the best couches I've ever seen, in my biased yet humble opinion.

You see, it's really about the shape of the couch. It's a three piece sofa that is shaped like a "U". I was too lazy to take a photo of mine, but the one pictured at right is similar in design to my "baby". Essentially it's two sofas at a right angle to one another, with a chaise lounge wrapped around on the opposite side.

The reason this sofa is the best value and most functional is because you have dozens of ways you can sit or lay on it, plus you can have a large number of people configured on it if you have a gathering at your house. You can conceivably sit about eight adults on my couch, which is hands down more than most couches can fit. Plus kids love it because they can make their own little nooks and forts and such with the pillows. (And my cat likes it too, but she likes sitting on any piece of soft furniture!)

Okay, so let's say that you simply want to sit on this particular couch and watch TV. You have a plethora of options. You can lay on the chaise lounge, facing the TV. You can lay sideways on the middle part. Or lay on the opposite sofa piece. Or you can sit on any of the various cushions as you so choose.

One additional major benefit to this type of furniture is for tall people like yours truly. If I want to lay down and take a nap, I can do so fully extended in the middle part without having to curl up my knees or have my legs squeezed in by the arm rests like most couches. To me that is one of the most uncomfortable ways to sleep, but on my couch I have no such restrictions. Needless to say I have logged countless hours in naptime on my beloved couch.

Oddly enough, I rarely see couches of this design in showrooms or in people's homes. Indeed I remember searching a half dozen different stores when looking for the right one, and the one that I got was the ONLY one I saw in any of the stores. Fancy that. Maybe it's a collector's item now. ;-)

So if you haven't gathered already, I would whole-heartedly recommend that if you are shopping for a new couch, and if you have the space in your desired room, you should do yourself a favor and consider buying a three piece sectional sofa with a chaise lounge like I have. If you can find one, that is.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Commercial Suggestion for Cell Phone Companies

I see cell phone companies often bragging in their commercials about how they provide better reception than their competitors.

"More Bars in More Places" (AT&T)
"Can You Hear Me Now?" (Verizon)
"Now, That's Better" (Sprint)

But how much more vague can you get? Not only that, but many of these commercials show a made-up scenario that is supposed to represent a real cell-phone situation, like AT&T's doofus on top of a ridge knocking on car windows trying to find his daughter because he didn't get the message from her that she was staying over a friend's house. It's lazy marketing.

Instead of all this cutesy stuff, here's my idea for a killer, sensible, and direct ad campaign...

If you're really the best wireless carrier, take comparable phones from each company to one spot, line them up on the screen, and simply show the reception on the phone to illustrate just how much better your reception is. Perhaps it's a field in the middle of Iowa where your company has four bars, the others have two or one. Or maybe it's in the lobby of a hotel in Walla Walla Washington, or on the 17th hole at Augusta National Golf Course.

To me, seeing the actual reception levels at various places like this is indisputable evidence that your company really is better than the others in providing a good signal. And it would be a lot less annoying than these other bogus characters they've developed.

But hey, that's just me.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Book Review: "A Boy Named Shel: The Life and Times of Shel Silverstein" by Lisa Rogak

Always admiring of famous geniuses in history, I enjoy occasionally reading about the men and women who do great things and create a legacy that lasts long after they're gone. So when I saw "A Boy Named Shel" by Lisa Rogak in the library, I just had to check it out. Silverstein's poems and drawings were always a favorite of mine growing up, but I really knew nothing about him. Now I probably know more than I ever wanted, having read this detailed story of his life.

Perhaps I always had the hunch that, being a children's book writer, Shel Silverstein would have been a classic "kids' kinda guy". You know... the guy who's always running, laughing, and playing with kids, bubbly and outgoing. Well, sometimes hunches are wrong.

In a nutshell, Silverstein was a bit of an enigma. He grew up with an angry father and was very withdrawn, relying mostly on the comfort of reading and drawing, which never pleased his dad, though his mom was very supportive of him doing what he wanted. As he grew up, he worked hard at drawing and eventually served in the Navy as a traveling cartoon artist overseas, and later became a cartoonist for Playboy, which was just the rocketship he needed to travel to the stars.

His career skyrocketed in all different directions, having made his name in cartooning, children's books, country music writing, playwriting, and more. I never really realized the breadth of work he had done, but this book surely gave a comprehensive overview of all that he did. And it also gave much insight into his personal life which really caught me offguard, quite frankly.

In six words, this book portrayed Shel Silverstein as a: woman wooer, world wanderer, and workaholic writer.

Never one to settle down, Shel became a master at reeling-in women (a la Austin Powers, perhaps), and managing to move on after short periods of time of being with them, yet staying friendly with many of them over the years. He hit it off with jaw-dropping Playmates and was always on the prowl for new women wherever he went. He never married, but did have two kids with two different mothers. Unfortunately his first child, his daughter Shoshanna, died tragically at a young age. And while he did love his kids, he didn't seem to spend a whole lot of time with them, which kind of surprised me.

Never one to settle down, Shel lived and traveled all over the world, having lived in Chicago (where he was born), New York, San Francisco, Key West, Martha's Vineyard, etc. Thanks to the marvel of air travel, he would up and leave at the spur of the moment and fly somewhere else whenever he wanted. He would even up and leave in the middle of a conversation if it became boring. He just kept on moving and never collected dust.

Never one to settle down, Shel would write at all hours of the day, jotting notes or drawings on whatever he had nearby, be it a cocktail napkin, a notepad that he always carried, or his shirt sleeves. Ideas seemed to pop out of his head and he would write them down in a flash. He also seemed really intense with his work and never took a day off from creating SOMEthing. And his body of work shows it. Not only that, but he would constantly try new creative outlets, be it learning a new intstrument, teaching himself a different type of writing, or something entirely different. His mind was restless.

These traits were repeated over and over again in this biography to the point of becoming trite. He seemed like an incredibly interesting fellow and a one-in-a-million genius at what he did. But definitely not the person I had pictured in my mind. But ultimately, his works became worldwide gold, though to him fame was never important and he shunned the limelight whenever he could.

If you enjoy reading biographies, this one is well put together and quite in-depth, despite the fact of not having much to work with in terms of interviews of Shel. This is becasue he was very elusive and rarely talked to the media. Rogak paints a vivid picture of Shel's life, which is commendable, though by the end I found myself saying "Okay, I get it already" about his life. This is not necessarily a knock on the writer, but more on the fact that his life was such a revolving cycle, and there also wasn't a lot to work from, just quotes from other people. (And that was a challenge as well because there were SO many people that he became involved with over the years, that it was difficult to remember which person was which and what he or she had in connection with Shel whenever someone else was quoted.)

Having read biographies of many celebrities and historic figures, ranging from Andy Kaufman to Ben Franklin to P.T. Barnum, Silverstein most definitely fits into the category of a fast-moving, never-stopping, genius at work. He was like a speeding train that everybody else just tried to catch up with. And few, if any, really could.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Book Review: World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

Admittedly I'm not much of a sci-fi or horror buff. I find sci-fi to be a little far-fetched at times and horror to be too sickening or repetitive. Fortunately, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks offers a new spin on both genres. It's somewhat sci-fi because it involves the man-made idea of zombies causing chaos in the world, and it's somewhat horror-based because of the destruction the zombies cause, but it's told in a unique way... it takes place roughly in the present time, but told after the actual Zombie War is over. This narrative angle gives it a historical feel and is not in-your-face like horror projects tend to be. And it's an easy read to boot.

Probably the most interesting thing to me about this tale is the parallel that is drawn in this book from zombies taking over the world to other threats that this world faces. Essentially, as you read this book, you can replace zombies with virtually any threat imaginable, such as a highly contagious virus (which is essentially how zombies propogate in this book), to terrorists, to aliens, and so on. As you read, you realize that the tactics used to learn about and fight the zombies are not much different from the tactics needed to control any of the aforementioned threats to our civilization. (And based on this story, let's hope we never have one of these threats happen to this world!)

As the story unfolds, the reader is introduced to a plethora of characters telling their respective stories about how the zombies affected their particular locales, with reports given from all over the world. The manner of writing is very straightforward and does not go overboard in trying to impress you with wacky new inventions like a typcial sci-fi production would. The stories feel very natural and realistic, but in a creative, eye-opening way.

I enjoyed reading this book and "taking the plunge" into genres that I wouldn't normally touch. It's a good crossover book for those who like fiction, but not so much fantasy or horror, but don't mind some overlap. Kudos to Max Brooks for proving that creativity runs in the family, being the son of comedic director Mel Brooks and actor Anne Bancroft. And I'm excited to hear that this book will be made into a movie, so hopefully it lives up to its potential and doesn't flop like a zombie shot in the brains...

Friday, May 30, 2008

Buying Insurance: Not a Walk in the Park

I don't know about other states, but buying insurance in New Jersey is quite a prominent, competitive, and overwhelming business for consumers. Let's consider how many layers are involved in this buying process...

First off, it really boggles my mind to think about all of the types of insurance out there. There's car insurance, homeowner's insurance, life insurance, health insurance, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. So let's say you know what type of insurance you need.

Then, each insurance product has dozens of different options that affect the size of your premium and payout. If it's car insurance, you have to determine how much deductible to pay, what bodily injury limits to choose, whether or not to get rental car reimbursement, etc.

After that, you need to weigh all of the various companies that sell insurance. If it's auto insurance you need, you've got State Farm, AllState, Geico, Safe Auto, new Jersey Manufacturer's, Esurance, Mercury, Liberty Mutual, Progressive... well, you get the point. Life, health, and other insurance providers subsequently exist to sell their specific policies, such as MetLife or MassMutual. When purchasing from any given insurance company, you must subsequently consider the reputation of the company (i.e.-- will they be there to pay up when called upon?), as well as price and the ability to build a relationship with you over time.

Finally, in many cases you need to determine which agent you want to buy from. I would wager to guess that most insurance agents are found thru referrals, be it from family members, friends, or trusted business associates. A large portion would also come from marketing efforts. Ultimately, if buying thru an agent, you have to like the person/staff and trust that he or she is on your side. Sure there's a commission to be made on every sale, but are they selling you a particular policy with particular options that are in your best interest? And are they good at explaining the policy to you? Sometimes, these factors are just a gut feeling more than anything since they are intangible qualities.

One bonus level to consider is the rule of thumb that you should compare your insurance rates every few years to make sure you're getting a good deal. Geico is betting big marketing bucks on this fact since they hammer home the notion that you can save money with their services, and do it in a brief amount of time (I'm sure you know their slogan from the thousands of commercials that air daily). But regardless of how easy it is, it adds another layer to already-complicated matchmaking game of finding insurance.

I can't think of many other fields that are this multi-leveled for a consumer to have to make a purchasing decision. Perhaps that's why nobody ever looks forward to buying insurance... True, insurance is a must-have in many aspects of life, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily enjoyable. It's certainly no walk in the park.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Stumbling Over Writer's Block

It's a strange thing, that human brain.

I never ceased to be amazed about how many distinct mental states I can have. From happy to hysterical to hungover, the mind has more moods than a tie-dyed shirt has colors. Right now, for example, I feel like I'm trying to wring out my brain after dipping a plain white t-shirt in vivid-hued liquid dyes in order to get a burst of creativity in my head. The colors seem to keep fading away right after I pick my shirt up from the bucket.

Mentally, I'm stumbling over a case of writer's block, trying to regain clarity and creativity rather than listening to the buzz of a dimming light bulb in my head. Sure, I can jot some notes about the act of having writer's block, but I feel all tapped out in terms of writing fresh and original content, hence the blog post about writer's block. And while the internet has a wealth of resources for inspiration, such as The Simpsons' website, there's only so much staring at a computer monitor that I can do. I do it all day at work, now I'm doing it more at home. Looks like I'll have to kickstart my skull juices some other way.

Hopefully my next post will be full of insight like, *ahem*, usual. Till next time, if you see a guy banging his head against the wall, you'll know what's going on in his brain. Most likely nothing.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Why Jon Corzine Might Be Right About Toll Increases

Much has been made about New Jersey Governor John Corzine's plan to raise funds by increasing tolls on roads such as the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway. While it's not desirable to have to pay more to drive somewhere, he does have two things going for him in this plan:

1. Tolls are the "perfect tax" as it's said. You're only taxed if you use the road, and the funds raised go to fixing those same roads. So unlike an income tax, for example, all of your taxes go back to help you as user of the road.

2. In the next few years, cars will undoubtedly be getting more efficient as hybrids grow in popularity. This results in less gas used, and, thus, lower amounts of money spent on gas and taxes accompanied with gas. So while gas taxes go down, the tolls will help supplement them, and you'll also be paying less in gas. In theory.

So before dismissing this plan altogether it may be worth consideration if we really do want to fix the aging roadways in NJ. Otherwise there's no comfortable, fun, or magical solution for this situation. Might be time to bite the bullet.

Monday, May 5, 2008

There's Little Reason to Like this Dicks's-Reebok Commercial

Not too long ago I sounded off about a fairly new obnoxious, annoying, stupid Volkswagen commercial, and found that fellow viewers overwhelmingly agreed that this commercial was one of the worst on TV.

While I can't top that argument, since I think it still IS the most annoying commercial on television, I think I found a close runner-up. This is the one by Dick's Sporting Goods, promoting Reebok sneakers, and features Chad Johnson, Matt Hasselbeck, Tory Holt, and Stacy Keibler. Click on the following link if you really wish to view this waste of ad money, entitled "Reasons".

For those of you who haven't seen it or don't wish to see it, the formula goes something like this... three football players bragging about their skills, one attractive actress clearly demonstrating her lack of acting skills, and one of the football players trying to dance and be funny while the other two laugh at him. I mean, it's quite possibly the most stereotypically bad commercial you could make, in my not-so-humble opinion.

Why? Well for starters, it is a scientifically proven fact that athletes can't act. It's also a scientifically proven fact that white guys get laughed at when they dance, which I know all too well :-) The joke's old. And when you mix in some poor writing and subpar acting by a real actress, you've got a recipe for changing the channel.

I'd just like to point out that, honestly, I really am a positive guy and I try not to focus on the negative, but when these types of advertisers hammer you over the head with the same bad commercial over and over and over, well, sometimes I just have to snap. That's not how marketing is done.

And those are my "Reasons" why this commercial must be put out to pasture.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Water Bottle Update: Out with Nalgene, In with Klean Kanteen

A few weeks ago I blogged about my frustration with Nalgene over it's BPA laced bottles. Allow me to update you with recent events...

Shortly after blogging this irate post, I received an email from a source connected with Nalgene (whose name and affiliation shall remain anonymous). Here's the gyst of the email they sent me and my response:

1. For starters, I inadvertently posted misinformation that there was no information about BPAs on their site. I completely missed this page, which has various links to reports and studies on the effects of BPAs on humans. My apologies.

2. Subsequently, I looked over the information which curiously all slanted to say that there are no significant health problems associated with BPAs on humans. I find this strange as Consumer Reports gave a pretty clear view that 38 experts from around the world colloborated to find that exposure to BPA at levels typcial in the US did increase the rate of breast and prostate cancer, and more. Nalgene seems to have chosen not to mention this. My feeling is that if the concern is out there and that SOMEBODY, SOMEWHERE has stated that your products may be harmful in some way, you need to address that, and I don't see that effort being taken on their site to do this.

3. Back to the email... the sender wrote, in essence, that Nalgene would never sell products that they didn't feel were safe, but if somebody did have concerns over the BPA issue, Nalgene offers non-BPA products, and this person proceeded to send me jpg photos of the bottles and a link to the site where I can find the bottle that's right for me. My opinion: too little, too late, too pushy. I'm an angry customer having been potentially exposed to a dangerous product... now's not the time to push something my way.

4. Subsequently, after I replied to the email (and having heard no response), I went out and bought a Klean Kanteen stainless steel bottle. Here's my review with pros and cons of my new bottle...

-Stainless steel gets cold FAST and seems to keep the temperature pretty well
-Easy to wash in the dishwasher
-Looks sharp
-Not too heavy
-Safe from any potential plastic issues (if somebody comes out and says stainless steel may be dangerous, then I simply give up!)

-Not a big fan of the lid... I bought a bottle with a "sports cap" and the water does not flow smoothly. Too much suction or something. Rather annoying as that is the prime purpose of a water bottle. I may have to try another cap if possible.
-Can't see through as to how much is left, but not a big deal.
-A bit heavier than Nalgene bottles.
-More expensive than Nalgene.

In sum, I do like my new bottle but it's not quite ideal. Quite frankly, I do prefer the design and benefits of the Nalgene bottles over Klean Kanteens, but the Klean Kanteen bottle is a pretty good alternative. Ultimately, if it benefits my health in the long run, I'm all for using the Klean Kanteen.

Thanks and drink up...

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Comcast's Curious Display of Showing Its Concern

Editor's note: this post has no connection with today's article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about how Comcast is monitoring blogs now to try and help boost its customer service ratings. I meant to write about this a few days ago but just got around to it now.

Here's my story:

About a month ago, I called up to ask for a Comcast service technician to come out and replace one of our cable boxes because I had various small annoyances with it, which I won't go into detail here. They promptly and amicably took care of it by giving us a new box for free. Good stuff.

A couple weeks after that, Comcast sent a greeting card-sized mailer to me that apologized for the problems I had and gave me a voucher for a free On-Demand movie. Good stuff.

Then this past week I received another greeting card-sized mailer, which again apologized for the inconvenience and this time sent me a coupon for $10 off any purchase of $50 or more at espnshop.com. Huh?

So let me get this straight.. for their technical difficulties, I should go out and spend money just to take advantage of a small discount? Thanks for that generosity... I think I'll go ahead and save my money instead.

Here are other variations I would have strongly considered to be sensible compared to this silly offer:

A. $10 voucher for my purchase of anything on espnshop.com.
B. $10 voucher if I submitted an opinion survey about my experience with Comcast
C. $10 voucher, in some form or another, where I don't HAVE to spend money in order to get value from it

To me, this whole concept of giving an inconvenience customer a $10 voucher for a $50purchase is a good idea gone sadly wrong. Instead of making a positive customer "touch", they're making this into a blatant sales ploy, but with poor timing at that because before I was just mildly irked about the inconvenience, whereas now I'm steadily creeping up to disgruntled.

So my voucher goes in the recycling bin along with every other inadequate marketing junk mail I receive...

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Fundraisers: The New Night Out

In the past year or so, I've been invited to, heard of, and/or attended charitable funraising functions that centered around the following acts of entertainment:

-beef 'n beer
-comedy shows
-famous speakers
-sporting events

And that's just a list off the top of my head.

It's becoming quite apparent that the average "night out" is moving away from a casual, loosely planned night out with friends, to an evening arranged well in advance with detailed activities and lots of people gathering to support the same cause. This is a direct result of more involved non-profit marketing, as well as a desire for people to feel a part of something, but also a way to change things up a little bit from the norm.

So for example, instead of making last minute arrangements to go out with my wife and a few other friends to dinner and then to somebody's house to hang out or what have you, I now find many days getting booked well in advance to attend a festivity of some sort that probably will cost us more than a casual night out, but will give us the nice feeling that some of that money is going to a good cause.

All in all I guess it's a good thing to be able to support so many different charitable endeavors and have some fun simultaneously, but at the same time I feel as though I'm losing some of my freedom to be able to do what I/we want rather than having to follow somebody else's schedule of what they think I want.

And now a new thing is for charities to request that you donate money for a "non-event", where you save the money and just spend time at home with your family instead. Novel idea, but that's basically just a voluntary donation with a little PR spin on it. But it ironically reflects on the fact that so many people are inundated with so many event invitations that it's kind of a clever way to ask people to not have to worry about going to another fundraiser, but rather just give the money in lieu of the whole event.

Ultimately, I'm curious to see where this trend goes. After a while, if people get too saturated with fundraiser event invitations, they'll just stop going altogether... kind of like how I feel when I walk down the cereal aisle at the supermarket. Too many choices makes life too complicated, and you just wind up going back to the same 2-3 options everytime because you just don't have the time or energy to analyze them all and decide which one to splurge on.

And such is the way with today's night out at a fundraising event. Now pardon me while I check my schedule to see when I'm booked and when I can just hang out...

Friday, April 4, 2008

Irate with Nalgene... Something I Never Thought I'd Say

For over 5 years now, I have been bringing bottles of water to work and drinking from them throughout the day. Specifically, I bring Nalgene bottles and fill them up with water from my fridge. I use these Nalgene bottles because they are incredibly sturdy, easy to clean, save me tons of money compared to buying bottled water, and help save the environment because I'm not consuming wasteful, plastic bottles everyday. They've been great for me. But now I'm absolutely petrified of them.

Today I read in Consumer Reports a descriptive article pertaining to the potential dangers of B.P.A.-- a type of plastic that is used to make these Nalgene bottles. I can't find this particular article online yet, but the Consumerist ran a helpful piece, as did this blog post which really rings true with me, and this Treehugger.com article echoes this growing concern of mine... and hopefully yours as well.

This society we live in where we perpetually produce new products, and THEN LATER find out they are harmful has got to stop. It's positively scary what we're doing to our Earth and ourselves, and reading an article about a product that was previously considered to be innocuous really disturbs me. Especially when I used one every freaking day of the work week.

The average lay person like myself would never know the difference between a "good" plastic and a "bad" plastic, and now I feel completely used and ignorant because I would never have had any idea about the problem with BPAs had I not read this article. Nalgene has really made me irate.

Sadly, nowhere on their site does Nalgene even attempt to address this issue, which is poor public relations to me. Nor do they make any attempt at offering refunds or exchanges for people who bought these types of bottles. Not only that, there's no humanoid listed that I could even write to, just a department name or a generic email address, both of which will probably wind up in their respective trash bins. But I'll still give them a piece of my mind, and hey, I just griped with the world about my concerns right, so that's a start.

My next thing to do is find a new SAFE water bottle...

Friday, March 28, 2008

REALTOR Commercials Reek of Desperation

For the past year or so I've seen a few different commercials for REALTORS (henceforth referred to as just "realtors", lower case, here... sorry, I just want it to seem like I'm SCREAMING at readers). To me, these commercials just reek of desperation.

Maybe it's the stiff, overly business-like actors that have no real personality other than trying to professionalize an industry that is largely wide-open in terms of personalities. Let's face it, real estate agents are often real characters, and that's probably because they have to be in order to sell homes through think and through thin. But I definitely don't associate a realtor as being a corporate suit, which is the image that these commercials are going for.

Add to that, these realtor commercials remind me of what the gasoline industry is trying to do... pounding the airwaves with ads that are really veiled attempts at public relations. All of a sudden, gas companies are the Earth's best friends: researching new "clean" energy, giving tips on how to improve gas mileage, and showing what the "green" future holds in the world of energy production. All so friendly and glistening. And all too phony for me to believe it's really happening.

In my humble opinion, I think that the real estate industry is trying to cling to an outdated, dying industry. Or if it's not dying, it will soon be changing.

Having recently purchased a home for the first time, I found the process rather daunting, from soup to nuts. A good realtor, to his/her credit, guides a homebuyer (as my realtor did) through all of these obstacles and answsers a lot of questions along the way and gives worthwhile advice. To get paid, the real estate agent simply has to sell houses for high values (that increase over time) in order to absorb high commissions.

But as I see it, and as Seth Godin talked about in this great post, this formula will be changing in due time. As housing prices rise higher (okay, maybe not at the moment, but over the long run), commissions will also be rising for agents, while their amount of work performed, in theory, won't. So either an hourly rate or a flat selling fee will eventually come in to play, I would theorize. Or more people will take things in their own hands and buy/sell on their own.

On that note, with the advent of the internet and with the pressure that has now come on homeowners to do more thorough research, the average homebuyer will be able to easily obtain important information that otherwise would have come from the realtor. In other words, information is becoming more readily accessible via the internet and other sources, meaning the realtor's competitive advantage will likely gradually decline.

So getting back to the commercials, the National Association of REALTORS has it in its best interest to try and preserve that image of the realtor being the all-knowing confidant that you absolutely need to buy or sell your home. Maybe that's the case today. But in the long run, that sounds like an uphill battle to me. And desperation is no place to be in the world of advertising...

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Volkswagen Ad: Bad Sounding?

My last post centered around the poor timing of Verizon ads, which give me the creepy feeling of "Big Brother is Listening to Me".

Today I'd like to write a blurb about how annoying this new Volkswagen commercial is. At least I think it's a VW advertisement, but to be honest it annoys me so much that I can't even stand to pay attention to it enough to look at what company is torturing me.

So here's the summary of the commercial:

Guy and gal are in a car showroom (how innovative).
They see a car they like and start to get close to it.
The car's alarm starts up and car starts beeping obnoxiously.
They back off.
Alarm goes silent.
They step forward again.
The alarm blares again.
Guy and gal can't figure out why, but they keep inching in towards car.
Turns out-- are you ready?-- a buyer upstairs is hitting the alarm button on the remote just to mess with them.

So not only are the people looking at the car complete idiots (is that the kind of message you want to convey about your customers? -Ed.), but the commercial insists on blasting the horn repetitively.

Sorry folks, but in my book it don't get much more annoying than that. Most people that drive hear horns every single day and don't particularly want to come home, relax on the couch, and get hit with them from a lame commercial because some marketing flunkie misread the focus group reports that people really "Don't like to hear horns repetitively."

That's my sound-off for today. Thanks for tuning in. Next time I'll try to focus on something more positive and less headache-inducing.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Verizon Ads: Bad Timing?

These Verizon commercials that are all over the tube nowadays have me wondering if perhaps they're giving the wrong subliminal message at the wrong time.

The gyst of the commercials is that wherever you go with your Verizon cell phone, the entire Verizon company will be there to make sure your call goes through successfully. Each commercial depicts a scene of somebody on the phone in a public place and then shows a flood of Verizon workers following him or her around. I suppose it's a pretty good metaphor for what they're trying to convey.

But in recent months (years?) we've been hearing more and more about the government's controversial act of performing wiretapping to monitor potential terrorist phone calls. So these Verizon commercials almost give me a "Big Brother" is watching (following) you.

Obviously Verizon is not intending on this mental connection for its potential and current customers, but I can't help but be a little skeeved out when the Verizon spokesperson asks the person on the other end of the line "Can you hear me now?"

"Yes, I can hear you now. But who else can here us now?"