Monthly Archives: December 2009

Rebranding Playboy

When design student Alex Cornell was given the assignment to reinvigorate a dying brand, he first thought of a clothing line from his middle school years. And then a spark. Why not reboot Playboy, once the pulse of American maleness?

The joke, you see, is some people claim to read Playboy for the articles, which no one today believes … but back in the 1960s it was true. Alex writes, “Playboy was once regarded as a sophisticated and classy magazine for the modern gentleman. It attracted all of the best writers and was a beacon of style and culture … I imagined a Playboy comprised solely of articles, devoid of nudity (or images of any kind) — something that people would have no choice but to read.”

Alex’s blog post provides a brilliant narration of his thought process, at first a fox eating the classic Playboy bunny, then deemed too violent, the fox becomes an iconic replacement to bunny ears and bow tie. His most interesting analysis is how the audience moved on, awash in a world filled with laddie magazines and Internet porn … and how some brands like Playboy must thus move themselves if they don’t want to drown in a competitive tide. As Dirk Singer at London’s Cow notes, will someone now please give Alex a job?

The allure of recency

With three days left in 2009, we’re preparing for the rush of news accounts recalling the top stories of the decade. Which makes us wonder — why are news and ads and gossip so much more compelling if they happened recently, rather than, say, 50 years ago?

History is history, yet humans are preconditioned to believe things that happened recently are more important. This of course is nonsense — your position in time is random, you could just as easily be living in 10,000 B.C., well, except for your distribution in today’s population spike which makes it more likely you’re living near the peak of human civilization, but we digress — but if it happened yesterday, it’s big news. Here’s a test: If we handed you last month’s newspaper, would you want to read it? Why not?

Emotional information

Neurobiologists suggest that novelty excites the brain. It seems deep in your skull you have a “novelty center” hardwired to both your hippocampus, the part of your mind that helps you learn, and your amygdala, the area that manages emotional information. The amygdala is why you get hot or bothered when you see attractive members of the opposite sex, or when an angry driver in traffic flips you the bird. The combination of the two — learning plus emotion — makes us keenly attuned. Novelty spins the mind in a manner that makes us aroused.

This can lead to trouble. Psychologists note the “recency effect” often clouds our judgments, because we give more credence to events that happened most recently. Think of a gambler betting big because he just won the last few hands — logic would decree there is no hot streak, but he thinks there is — and you get the idea. It seems our minds have difficulty moving things to long-term memory, we recall events most clearly that are at the ends of lists because they’re still floating around short term, and so what happened in the near past becomes our irrational compass for the next action we take. Worth remembering next time you feel cocky after having some good luck.

For communicators, this poses an interesting dilemma. If you seek to manipulate an audience, novelty can give them things more likely to be recalled. But chasing new-ness means you must keep providing it. It’s all worth a thought as you consider how long your current ad campaign message should last, and how often the mime you’re spreading within the public needs to be refreshed. Until you figure it out, enjoy the 2000s’ Aughties news retrospectives. Those things happened recently, so they must be very important.

Image: ToniVC

Merry Christmas and all that

About two weeks ago we started getting holiday notes from friends and colleagues, and many shared a common theme: Photos of the actual families they love. A hip client posed on train tracks holding an ornament with his girlfriend/wife. An ad agency chief sent a beautiful image of his kids via email. We toyed with responding, and yes, have a photo of our own two boys in red jackets in the snow in front of a wreath, but somehow this image above, shot last summer, of them posing tough by an old New England prison wall seems more in keeping with the real spirit of youth. (Truth is, Christmas cards are a social virus gone bad, but we digress.)

Which makes us wonder: Why do humans hide their most personal relationships from the majority of people they see each day? We spend more time with co-workers than family; we love our families; and yet rarely do we let the two worlds entwine. The much-bandied social media has extended our Dunbar number of relationships, but it really is just outgrowth of the quasi-personal friendships we build outside bedrooms and living rooms. Twitter looks forward to new relationships; Facebook looks back to classmates of years past; but all the connections are tenuous, people whom you rarely invite inside your home. Do we fear the loss of love if we share our closest lives with others? Do we all on some level build false faces to the globe outside that don’t fit inside our families? Or, perhaps, are all people really fragmented by dissociative identity disorder, with multiple external and internal personas that, like matter and antimatter, react violently if allowed to touch the antipodal other?

Don’t know. But it is true that only at seasonal times of reflection do most of us let our shields down to show the world the people closest to our souls.

Alter egos

Strange, that humans have two levels of communication, and that we seem to fear sharing our clan with our professional colleagues. So to all of you who opened up a little with us, thank you. We loved the peek inside. In return, here are the Kunz brothers above, usually smiling, but apparently headed for the solemn thoughts of teendom. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, share your hearts, don’t grow up too fast and all that. We’ll see you again truly next year.

Newsday’s pay wall crumbles

Newsday is the United States’ eighth-largest newspaper, so when it set up a “pay wall” at its web site in November, media circles buzzed. Could Newsday prove that forcing people to pay to read online newspaper content is a viable business model? Could Newsday, an example of a large local paper with a lock on a region’s news, use its unique editorial to build subscriptions online?

Early indications are — nope. Quantcast data shows monthly U.S. traffic, which had hovered for years in the 1.3 to 2.5 million person range, suddenly fell off a cliff to just over 600,000 individual people. Newsday may be hamstrung by the fact its web site is incredibly confusing to navigate for nonsubscribers — quick, click to and try to determine in 5 seconds how to sign up. But this failing experiment can’t make print publishers happy as they reconsider making readers pay for online content. The buzz is new tablet devices may give subscriptions a boost. Be careful, publishers. The long tail of substitutes is just a click away.


If your boss still don’t get Twitter then show him this little initiative cooked up by John Winsor, former creative chief at Crispin Porter + Bogusky. (We think it was him. This is Twitter. Things evolve here.) Toss a comment on Twitter with the hashtag #yocmo and your thought will pop up in a stream of comments telling chief marketing officers exactly what they should do with their business.

Will CMOs listen? To the top complaints or concepts, yes. Ideas that resonate get retweeted, passed along by others, scaling until potentially tens of thousands of people are telling Netflix they want to move past DVDs to a web-streaming service that actually works. It’s an instant inbox. A crowdsourced product lab. A complaint discovery database. And chances are good that if you strike a chord, the CMO in question will write you back.

Tell your Twitter-skeptical boss to pull that off with an email.

The forces driving The Economist to Facebook

Word came across the pond today that stiff-upper-lipped plans to acquire half a million Facebook fans in the next six months. Publisher Ben Edwards told The Financial Times that making The Economist more social is “the core of our strategy.” What gives?

Let’s view the world of publishing competition as a play in three acts. Act 1 began 100 years ago with Michael Porter’s classic five forces model. (If you haven’t read Porter, the genius who coined the phrase “competitive advantage,” all you need to know is five things act on any organization — suppliers upstream, customers downstream, competitors in your space, and potential substitutes or entrants. This works in marriages, too, but we digress.)

Publishing thrived in this model nicely, with the nuance that it really served two sets of customers, the audience who watched TV or read the magazines and the advertisers who in turn chased that audience. Since advertisers fund 90% of any publishing venture (subscription fees are but a pittance), the size of the audience was paramount.

And then, in the late 1990s, the Internet and Google reared their heads … and audiences began to move south.

This second act of the publishing era gave us the Andersonian Long Tail, or what we call “The Era of Search Substitutes”: readers rushing from paid subscriptions to millions of free web sites, anything you desire found via Because audiences were so vital, publishers gave away a portion of their wares online for free in hopes of luring readers back, opening a Pandora’s box of declining print circulation and ad revenue.

And then in the past two years, audiences moved again — to Act 3, “The Era of Social Entrants.” What at first seemed online games for flirting teenagers became tools attracting millions of users, who could follow breaking news inside Twitter faster than CNN and network professionally with thousands of new contacts without the onerous ping-pong of email. The iPhone, the first portable device with easy Internet access, pushed the trend, and next year both Apple and Dell are set to release larger-screen mobile tablets that will take portable interactivity further.

Can publishers rebuild subscriptions in a new sharing world?

Once again, publishers face a threat, but there is also hope of more control … since marquee brands can sound their own voices in social media forums. Tablets are being eyed especially closely, since they provide a narrow window for publishers to improve their content in exchange for new paying subscribers. (See this Sports Illustrated tablet demo for a sneak preview at their tempting tablet layouts.) The trick will be to move beyond gimmicks to give users some skin in the game; The Economist, for instance, will encourage commenting inside Facebook and Twitter by building a new “reputation system,” similar to the rank-scoring mechanisms of “follower counts” that make Twitter so popular.

Since social propagation can’t be controlled and requires constant experimentation — there is a Talebesque randomness to the fads that “go viral” — The Economist is making managing its social media presence a full-time job. Major retailers are moving this way, too: Pepsi just announced it is skipping SuperBowl advertising in 2010 to instead drop $20 million on social media experiments, and now provides widgets helping bloggers link its online products for a cut of the sale.

The Financial Times notes “broadcasters … are finding that mingling with the huge audiences gathering on Twitter and Facebook can be a source of traffic to rival that of search engines.” Perhaps this is a wake-up call for your business, if you’re still focused solely on your advertising, web site, or search presence. What are you doing to attract the rising crowds in the social entrant space?

Economist photo: Suttonhoo

2010: Year of the oh-so-sexy tablet

We wrote recently that Oppenheimer analyst Yair Reiner has determined the Apple tablet is coming this spring. Magazine publishers are preparing to use the new platform as a savior for their ailing subscriptions and ad revenues — this time, by creating something radically new, editorial content and magazine glossiness plus swipes of video, web interactivity and social media.

Sports Illustrated has unveiled one swanky prototype. Here’s another, by Sara Öhrval of Bonnier, publisher of Saveur and Ski Magazine. Add a webcam to the device and you could even insert yourself, perhaps creating an ego-fueled magazine-publishing-newscast in which you, iReporters, become stars. Sounds far-fetched, but who knew typing in 140 characters would be a fad, too?

The apples don’t exist

This bit works on several levels. First, it’s a dramatic ad pointing out New York City residents waste 270,000 pounds of food each day while others go hungry. Second, it was shot on an iPhone (backstory here). Which third, means that soon special effects will be as simple as the Lego brickfilms now being made by your 9-year-old. Which, of course, fourth, means the visual representation of reality will soon be so hard to judge that we won’t know what is real and what is not. But fifth, our view of reality has always been artificial — money itself is an elaborate fiction of ones and zeros on computer systems — so why not view the world as we want?

The challenge for Comcast’s web TV = ads

One gigantic fear within the cable industry is the migration of consumers to watching television on the web — via services such as Hulu — will undermine their lucrative subscription model. After all, why pay $150 a month for cable if you get shows for free online? So the obvious defense is to entangle cable subscribers to watch their cable TV on the web as well. The cable industry is hyping this with a so-called TV Everywhere movement.

Comcast is the latest cable provider rolling out a national web TV service, called Fancast XFINITY TV. The service will give free Comcast cable content on the web to any authenticated cable subscriber (at first to only subscribers of both Comcast cable and Internet service, and in about 6 months opening up to any Comcast cable users).

But the ads, dear, are heavy.

There’s a tiny problem — analysts don’t know if users will accept the “full advertising load” of cable programming in an online format., for instance, has compressed ads to 15-second formats and shows only 2 minutes of commercials per 30 minutes of programming vs. the 8 minutes typically shown on a TV set. With online users able to immediately click away at the first sign of boredom, Comcast and other cable giants have two huge hurdles: first, get users to their online TV portals, and second, hope the commercial load of old TV models doesn’t make web users touch that dial. Nielsen has reported that consumers’ “concurrent media use” spikes when spots air on traditional live television; good luck avoiding such switches online when they have a mouse in hand.

In a way, cable companies and broadcasters are to blame for this dilemma. The load of commercials has been increasing ever since Bulova ran the world’s first TV spot, a 10-second ad, in 1941. An average hour of U.S. television now includes only 42 minutes of real programming, down from 51 minutes in the 1960s — meaning that any reruns from that period must be cut by 9 minutes. Television commercials now take up twice the time they once did. If consumers rebel online, perhaps it’s because commercials have gone too far.

Image: Spoon