Monthly Archives: November 2007

Why you lust for the Barbecue Grill Tool Set in winter

There’s a reason people go nuts before Christmas, and it’s called evolution. No sane person with the average U.S. household income of $43,000 would consider blowing 0.23% of it on grilling utensils in early winter, but we furrow our brow ridges and want them anyway. Most of us have phones plugged into walls and miraculous miniature cell phones in our pockets, but we lust for the next generation iPhone because, well, its screen has pretty colors.

Holiday shopping is related to hoarding, and psychologists say hoarding is a subset of obsessive-compulsive disorder, an evolutionary instinct run amok. Hoarding works great in the wild, because the animals that collect energy and shelter tend to live longer and have healthy offspring. For instance, the Arctic gray jay bird stores more than 100,000 mouthfuls of berries and bugs to make it through winter. Humans buy junk because, almost certainly, in the recent Ice Age our cavepeople ancestors had a choice to store food and pelts before winter or not … and the ones who hoarded mountains of material were the sole survivors. Our great-great-great-great grandpas and grandmas shopped pelts til they dropped. Peaceful, loving, anticommercial types just froze in the cold.

So this holiday season, don’t fight the urge. Go get your Heritage Professional Barbecue Grill Tool Set, your Amazon Kindle, your Down Ice Scraper Mitt. It’s good for today’s economy. And tomorrow, your future great-great-great-grandchildren are counting on it.

Impressions flip the wig

Don’t miss Adweek’s brilliant report about “visual vampires,” those creative spots that are so creative they eclipse the product you are trying to sell. Seems researchers used eye-tracking studies to determine the worst visual icons; for example, the red wig in the new Wendy’s commercials draws keen interest to the hair, but viewer interest falls like a rock when the actual burger gets shown in the commercials.

The top integration of icon with product went to Apple’s iPod and Geico’s gecko. The worst-performing icons that appear to hurt product interest were Wendy’s wig, Chrysler’s Dr. Z, and Subway’s Jon Lovitz. Maybe Lovitz is too funny.

Writers’ strike may shift ad dollars to cable

Cable is looking better for media buyers as the writer’s strike enters its fourth week. Adweek reports that while networks have enough fresh episodes to last through February sweeps, marketers are getting nervous that prime-time ratings will fall as the source of its content dries up this spring. The thinking goes cable has great original content and series (such as The Sopranos) that can be replayed, pulling audiences off of the broadcast nets.

The broadcast season started off in a bad slump, with ratings down about 12 percent — even with original episodes on the air — in the first four weeks. If broadcast networks lose more steam, advertisers will want out, and the media planning chaos could cascade into demands for cash back and severe skepticism about the next 2008-09 season. Check out Adweek’s analysis here.

The end of newsprint and rise of newsblogs

Blogs and newspapers are getting close, friends, and they’re starting to have children. Many papers, like the NY Times, have launched blogs that provide the fluid immediacy of relaxed online chat. And many blogs, like the Huffington Post, have grown as good as real newspapers, with staffs of professional writers breaking news.

Now, professional journalists are launching web-only newspapers, trying carve out ad dollars in the middle ground. is a three-year old, web-only newspaper that gives the big paper in town a run for its money. VoiceofSanDiego is up to 15,000 unique readers a day, while circulation for The San Diego Union-Tribune has plummeted 8.5% in the past six months alone.

All this debate over names and who is professional or not is besides the point; the real story is many mid-market newspapers will disappear within a decade. High-end outlets such as WSJ and NYT will survive on paper, and small community weeklies should remain alive with ads for plumbers and electricians. But those tier-2 vehicles in the middle, filled with padded AP wire reports, have troubled days ahead. Falling circs lead to falling advertising response rates, and as marketers notice print doesn’t make the phone ring, they’ll continue to push ad dollars online.

Andrew Donohue, co-chief of the San Diego newsblog, notes online quality may be better, too. Donohue told Mediaweek that 75% to 85% of a traditional newspaper’s costs go to infrastructure. As for him, he can spend “every penny on hiring reporters.”

Arbitron delays rollout of accurate radio ratings

The Portable People Meter is an interesting device — it’s a little cell-phone sized gadget that allows the ratings group for radio to accurately record the exact station a consumer is tuned into. This meter picks up a signal from the radio station, and replaces diaries as an exact way to track radio ratings.

And guess what — as the new PPM system is unrolled in markets, radio ratings are tanking. It seems consumers skip around the dial more than previously thought, and while journals didn’t always capture the truth (say, someone might write in they listen to Howard Stern for 2 hours in the morning), the PPM device doesn’t lie (the consumer may actually change the dial during commercial breaks). Ratings in many markets are down by as much as 30%. Ratings were so startling low, in fact, that Arbitron launched a PR campaign trying to convince media planners that 70 of the new PPM GRPs were as good as 100 of the old ones.

Now, Arbitron is delaying the rollout of the PPM due to controversy over the new ratings results. A lot of networks don’t seem to like the truth. Clear Channel, Radio One, Cumulus, and Cox Radio have protested — because younger demographic groups, in particular minorities, have lower ratings with the new accurate PPM systems. Young audiences are a particularly sweet target for advertisers, and if their ratings fall, ad revenue will dry up.

There are only two ways this can break. Either the truth is young people don’t listen to radio as much as they used to, and instead use MP3s and cell phones to communicate (duh), or the electronic monitoring system has flaws in technology or sample sizes (uh-huh). We don’t know the truth, but we do predict when it arrives, the truth will set radio ratings free.

Arbitron reports the new PPM should be in eight of the nine delayed markets, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, by September 2008. For now, PPM is only active in Houston and Philadelphia.

Today, bloggers hold their breath. Because tomorrow, it’s coming for them.

Word on the blogosphere is we’re all supposed to take a break from writing Monday, to honor the Hollywood writers trying to get their fair piece of the American pie. Which brings us to unions. Unions. A politicized word. Depending on whom you talk to, unions are either a collective force for good insuring workers’ fair pay, or a fragmentatious force for evil gumming up the machinery of commerce. On one hand, unions have helped end child labor, given us the 40-hour work week and minimum wage, and made middle-class life a noble calling. On the other, unions are hated by business leaders as an unnecessary force of friction, slowing profits, competition, efficiency and growth.

Whatever your point of view, unions are merely collaborations of people seeking rights: We the people, no longer reporting to the other, say, the Union Jack. America was founded by iconoclasts saying yes to us and no to them. If it weren’t for unions, we Yanks would be speaking with British accents and driving on the left side of the road. The spirit of unions is the same spirit of country clubs or a military group or a baseball team or the executive suite. Whether you’re in or out just depends on (a) your location and (b) your current point of view.

Unions were created in the Middle Ages to protect trade secrets of masons crafting stones for cathedrals. Early in the 20th century, unions grew in power to protect blue-collar workers for fair wages, and then expanded to teachers, nurses, and air traffic controllers. Now, creative types with laptops are using unions to protect themselves from the power of outsourcing. The beloved Internet continues to turn every service into a commodity. Today as the world becomes flat, it is no longer steelworkers who have jobs at risk … it’s scriptwriters and accountants and lawyers and perhaps you at home, with your laptop and proposals and business communications.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was a start. But who will protect today’s knowledge workers from artificial intelligence when it emerges in 2028, when Google Autobusiness makes MBAs obsolete? Whatever one’s politics, the choice of success as the world becomes completely efficient is twofold: Either band together and fight, or go into the fight alone.

Monday, we post ( )

Ah, word in the blogosphere for Monday is Blog Nothing Day. Something about a writers’ strike and supporting the guys and gals who craft jokes for Letterman. Frequent writers to blogs are asked to sit back, do nothing, and just read the web for a day.

We wondered about the root of the current Hollywood strife — beyond the demands for fair pay and a share of profits, the typical union vs. management dispute — and found that trade unions date back to medieval Europe. Those early unions existing to protect craftsmen, and to foster the training of apprentices as they learned specialized skills in building cathedrals or whathave you. Today’s unions have become expansionistic in trying to collect far-ranging professions such as air-traffic controllers and teachers under their wings, to increase bargaining power.

The motives are noble, but it is often a clash of collective good vs. corporate profits, with an undercurrent of progress that may make the entire debate irrelevant. Many newspapers today are unionized, for example, protecting jobs and salaries but not stopping the tide from shifting from print journalism to the web. If print newspapers go extinct in the next 20 years as society moves to flat-screens, the current fights over benefits will be moot.

Unions are a case study in collective communications, showing how groups of workers with common incentives can band together to protect themselves and build (or rebuild) their community. Technology and the internet are making it harder for such groups to succeed, as business can now be outsourced to India or China or Mexico with broadband pipes

What will Google do with a time machine for world health?

The concept is brilliantly simple: The best way to understand data is to animate it so you can watch trends over time. Go to Gapminder and you can plot variables against each other, and watch bouncing balls shift and wobble as the years roll by.

Gapminder is really Trendalyzer, software developed by Swede Hans Rosling to plot world health trends. Google purchased the software back in March, and we’re waiting to hear if Google will do anything with it other than juice its web analytics tools. Rosling was just honored by Discover Magazine as a Notable Scientist of the Year.

The way data jumps off the page is quite startling. The above screen shot, for example, is one part of an animation showing how faster economic growth in China vs. India correlates with increases in carbon emissions. The software also helps assess if there is no connection between two variables; liberals in the United States will be pleased to find that increases in military spending appear to have no impact on U.S. fertility rates.

Until Google releases an update, healthcare policymakers can be tempted with limited data sets here.

Chevy’s curious new bait-and-switch campaign

The new Chevy Volt is not available for sale, it doesn’t exist yet except in theory, and it may or may not be headed for production by 2010. But Chevy is advertising it in magazines such as The New Yorker reaching the educated, affluent and environmentally enlightened. What gives?

The campaign is very curious. If the target is potential GM investors, the ads fail, since the GM name is missing from the copy and appears only in the legal fine print. If the target is consumers, the ads are tripped up with subtlety, since the curious will want to go to the web for more information. The fine print directs you to, where the Volt can’t be found, even under upcoming vehicles. You have to type “Volt” into the site’s search engine to find it.

The main promo at is a button talking about “gas friendly to gas free,” which two clicks later takes you to … a lovely selection of big-ass trucks that can run on an 85% blend of ethanol, with nothing electric in sight. GM actually has a decent web site for the Volt here, but you need Google to find it.

The car is certainly sexy, with an electric-petroleum engine combo that is nothing new, but sheet metal and glass that make grown men drool. Perhaps the goal is to build buzz by teasing us. Chevy, we’ve seen the future and we want it. Too bad it’s not available for sale.

Holiday shopping: Simple shoes, camcorder complex

Beating traffic, we shop the Web. Brilliance over at Abercrombie & Fitch with one of the simplest ecommerce designs we’ve seen in years. Click on the category, all the options appear as a horizontal series, and you swipe the scroll bar right to see everything. Probably works great for college kids in a hurry before Friday night parties.

Simple provides the coolest Earth-friendly shoes we’ve seen, made from bamboo and organic cotton. We feel good plopping down $90 for a piece of rubbery canvas.

And a big bad boo goes to the camcorder industry, for the various mind-fuddling formats that make moving from still pictures into video so difficult. Apparently, mini-DV is going out, DVD has some troubles, AVCHD is hi-def DVD that is sweet but doesn’t allow editing from many cams to Macs, HDV uses some form of mini-DV tapes, and hard drives are the best devices but should not be confused with HD … which means hi-def … but hi-def is available on hard drives. Got it? Camcorder Info at least helps us figure it out.

Maybe the very spirit of innovation that allows technology to progress so rapidly also creates this enormous fragmentation in the marketplace, where every private producer has an incentive to be incompatible with the other products. Simplicity is hard to find in commerce because complexity leads to the next level.

Speaking of which, we’re getting eggnog.