Jul 15

Untruths succeed better than truths

The words in the headline aren’t mine. They belong to the master showman, publicist and flim-flam artist of the 19th century: P.T. Barnum

I stumbled across Barnum’s highly relevant quote as I tore through a superb new book: Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous With American History.

Written through the eyes of author Yunte Huang, Inseparable not only tells the amazing tale of Cheng and Eng, but reads like a modern-day Asian American’s de Tocqueville-like tour of antebellum America.

First, some way-cool facts about the twins and their times:

  • Their early touring success in the 1830s enabled them to build a house near Mt. Airy, NC, where they not only married two local sisters, but went on to sire 10 children, two of whom fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.
  • The twins saw themselves as the equals of the landed white gentry of the South and were alleged to have grossly abused the 30 or so enslaved people they owned.
  • Before Andrew Jackson sent the Cherokee Nation heading West on the horrific “Trail of Tears,” the tribe owned no fewer than 20,000 enslaved black people of their own!

Now back to P.T. Barnum.

The Bethel, Conn., native was a huckster from the very beginning.

Clerking at his father’s country store, Barnum instinctively realized he could con his customers. He came up with the idea of a lottery in which the highest prize would be $25. The minor prizes consisted solely of worthless glass and ware. The tickets sold like wildfire, and Barnum had found his passion in life: separating fools from their money.

Barnum quickly latched onto the notion of showcasing America’s curios, oddities and freaks (which sated Victorian-era America’s unquenched thirst for the salacious).

And so, he built The American Museum in New York which, in its day, was the equivalent of Disneyland. Americans from near and far saved their hard-earned money to observe:

  • Joice Heth, a toothless black woman publicized as being 161-years old and George Washington’s nurse (after she died, an autopsy revealed she was no older than 80 and had never been within 50 miles of Mt. Vernon). A classic Barnum scam.
  • General Tom Thumb, a 25-inch-tall teenager who weighed all of 15 pounds.
  • The twins (but accompanied by their perfectly “normal” grown children in order to subliminally titillate viewers to conjecture about Cheng and Eng’s sex life).

The twins became Barnum’s pièce de résistance and reinforced his instincts to continue to prey on his target audience’s willingness to be scammed by bogus attractions on the off chance they might occasionally view the real deal.

Now getting back to the untruth headline, allow me to share two other Barnum observations:

“When people expect to get something for nothing, they are sure to be cheated, and generally deserve to be.”

“Advertising is my monomania. When an advertisement first appears, a man does not see it; the second time he notices; the third time he reads it; the fourth or fifth he speaks to his wife about it; and the sixth or seventh he is ready to purchase.”

Advertising was Barnum’s version of misinformation and disinformation. Some of it was real, but most of it was smoke and mirrors.

And to tie this time travel blog back to the present, I submit a link to the Institute for Public Relations’ outstanding new study on disinformation, showing that both Democrats and Republicans view disinformation as a major problem in our culture – on par with gun violence and terrorism.

Afterword: It seems to this blogger that, as we approach the 2020 election cycle, one camp has its advertising message locked and loaded a la Barnum while the other flounders helplessly to construct a coherent, memorable narrative that will accomplish what Barnum did so many years ago.

The Democrats need a latter-day Barnum to manage their campaign. And regardless of the eventual rallying cry, the Dems could sure use the twins. They could run as vice presidents who simultaneously appeal to far-left progressive wing of the party who want free college for everyone, and the middle-of-the-road Joe Biden camp.😎

 

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Jul 09

The female professional network

Today’s guest blog is authored by Peppercomm’s amazingly amazing Courtney Tolbert. I do hope you will read it and share your thoughts on her POV…

Why would women need a separate professional networking platform? I imagine this is the number one criticism that Sophia Amoruso’s new “Girlboss” platform will receive. It’s a fair question. After all, women are free to use existing platforms like LinkedIn, why not just capitalize on the features and networking opportunities there? I would tackle this question with one of my own – why do minority or underrepresented groups tend to form their own advocacy groups? 

While college educated women are no longer the workplace minority in terms of numbers, a pay gap still exists, and they still fight corporate stereotypes that hold them back professionally (i.e. mothers can’t or won’t go back to work after giving birth). The answer to the aforementioned question would be: women need to connect and work together with other successful and capable women who understand why and where they are coming from professionally – and arguably more important, where they would like to go with their careers.

There are existing professional networking platforms that focus on women a little more such as Bumble Bizz; however, Girlboss seems more enticing to me because from the preliminary stages, it is interested in the longevity of one’s career. When signing up for the platform, users are prompted to answer three questions: “I’m good at ____,” “I’d like to learn ___,” and “I’d like to meet ___.” These are seemingly simple questions, but they get you thinking about where you are and where you want to go next, at least they did for me.

This post is not meant to serve as an ad for Girlboss, though I think the platform holds a lot of promise. It is meant to draw attention to the fact that while women have made amazing strides in the professional space, we are still not treated the same as our male counterparts. It is to highlight available tools and networks that women can take advantage of while we continue to strive for professional excellence and work smarter and harder. Girlbosses unite.

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Jun 26

The United States of Amnesia*

It has been 30 years since Jimmy Breslin, the legendary New York newspaperman, simultaneously attacked Donald J. Trump’s demagoguery and the fawning media’s round-the-clock coverage of whatever outrageous thing he said or did (sound familiar?). 

In a Newsday column titled: “Violent Language, Between You and I”, Breslin savaged Trump for his bullying, racism, egomaniacal ways and, surprise, surprise, butchery, of the English language.

Breslin’s column ran right after Trump had paid for a full-page ad in all four of Gotham’s four major daily newspapers.

The advertisement was headlined: “Between You and I” and, as Breslin noted, “…practically called for the death of the black teenagers arrested for the rape and attack on the woman who later became known as ‘The Central Park Jogger.”

Breslin wrote of Trump’s ad: “As the young woman is not dead (indeed, she would live and miraculously testify in court about the mugging and rape) and those arrested for her attack do not as yet even have a trial date, much less guilt established, his (Trump’s) scream for vengeance could be considered premature by some.”

While excoriating Trump for his rush to judgment, Breslin provides equal time for the New York journalism community.  He asks why Trump “…became so immensely popular with the one group of people who are supposed to be the searchlights and loudspeakers that alert the public to the realities of such a person.”

He continues, “Even the most unhostile of eyes cannot say that his buildings are not ugly. Yet all news stories say ‘imaginative’ when common sense shouts ‘arrogance.’ Always, the television and newspapers talk of his financial brilliance, when anybody in the street knows that most of ‘Between You and I’ Trump’s profits came from crap games and slot machines in Atlantic City, the bulk of that, the slot machines, coming from old people who go down there with their Social Security checks.’”

Breslin presciently balances the chutzpah of Trump with the adulation of the media (a modern-day phenomenon that I believe anyone on either end of the political spectrum would agree is alive and well, if not thriving).

Breslin’s brilliance is on full display when he analyzed Trump’s Between You and I headline: “When the unwashed get to the word ‘between’ while speaking, the first thing their ear tells them is that ‘Between You and I’ is right because it has a tonier sound to it, almost regal they imagine, than (the grammatically correct) ‘between you and me.’ Therefore such people as Trump say, ‘Confidentially, between you and I.’”

I urge you to read more of Breslin’s take on the future president and the subservient media of the late 1980’s. There are many lessons to be learned for The Base and the current representatives of “fake news.”

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* While I love the headline and think it fits this blog like a glove, I must give Gore Vidal credit for having coined it.

Jun 19

Acing the customer experience

My Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter connections know that, when it comes to customer experience, my twin bete noirs are United Airlines and New Jersey Transit, respectively. The former still has the unfriendliest skies in the nation and the latter is a daily excursion to hell and back. 

So it’s rare when I stumble across a truly superior customer experience. And, it’s rarer still when I give a shout out to an organization. But I’m doing so in this case because the institution in question scored a perfect 10 in every aspect of my customer experience. And that institution is (drum roll please) the Ace Shoreditch Hotel (www.acehotel.com).  They truly aced my stay in London last week.

Here’s why:

  • The front desk clerk greeted me by name as I strolled up to registration (I’m guessing the car service arranged for that? Or my London employees? The ghost of great customer experiences past?).
  • The room was reasonably priced, within a five-minute walk of our London office and chock full of every conceivable amenity one might desire in the middle of a jet-lagged night.
  • The overnight manager was an angel in disguise. I won’t bore you with the details, but I had to be at the Ace’s front door at 4:40am one morning to meet a car service that would whisk me away to the EuroStar and a trip to Paris. As I anxiously paced back-and-forth waiting for the tardy car and checking my watch, Sam, the night manager, walked right alongside me. He calmed me down, told me about shuttle flights from Heathrow, etc., that could still get me to my appointed rounds on time and, well, talked me off the ledge. Caring hotel employees can be an oxymoron nowadays. But not at the Ace Shoreditch. And definitely not Sam.
  • Last, and not least, the Ace was chock full of branded merchandise. I felt like a kid in a candy store (since I am absolutely obsessed with branded merchandise). Ask any client, prospect or trade group to which I belong for verification. I kill for SWAG.

So, if your travel plans should call for a jaunt across the pond and a visit to London Town in the near future, I cannot more highly recommend the Ace Shoreditch.

After Word: I will be sending hotel management a link to this blog and they bloody well better upgrade me to a luxury suite when I’m next in town. 😊

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Jun 11

An angry mom takes aim at the NRA

Shannon Watts is my hero. 

As you’ll read in this riveting account of one week in her life, Shannon is putting everything on the line (including her life) to mobilize moms to stop gun violence. In fact, she has already succeeded in helping to pass gun safety legislation in 20 states.
Shannon is a Type-A mom with a cause. She’s authored a book called “Fight Like a Mother” and founded a non-profit called Moms Demand Action that has more followers than the NRA.

Watts began her one-woman crusade in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook mass school shooting in 2012.

Since then, she has been the Energizer Bunny of the anti-gun violence crusade (Note: Moms Demand Action isn’t anti-gun. It’s anti-gun violence).

Make no mistake that Shannon Watts knows she is putting her life at risk by taking on the more extreme elements of the NRA.

In fact, if you read her weekly diary, you’ll see that when she arrived in Rhode Island to participate in an advocacy day with Governor Gina Riamondo, Shannon was met at the gate by two security guards. As Watts noted, “Their job is to take me to the nearest hospital if anything should happen.”

Our country is a better, somewhat saner place thanks to a true take-no-prisoners, damn-the-torpedoes, full-speed-ahead hero like Shannon Watts. And it proves that one person can indeed make a difference.

I encourage moms (and dads) everywhere to join Ms. Watts in her crusade. The life you save may be your own child’s.

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Jun 05

Still think global climate change is a Chinese hoax? Ask Mount Everest climbers their POV

As someone who dabbles in high-altitude mountain climbing, I’ve been closely following the horrific events on Mount Everest in the past month.

While most news coverage has focused on the lax standards that have allowed hundreds of climbers to be caught above the death zone in complete gridlock (and many die as a result), I stumbled across an equally disturbing trend of late.

Thanks to global climate change, warmer temperatures and melting ice, scores of long-dead bodies are suddenly emerging from their ice tombs on Everest.

In fact, it’s now a routine occurrence for guides and climbers alike to spot human bones poking up from the ground, smooth and ice encrusted.

As one guide told the New York Times, “Snow is melting and bodies are surfacing. Finding bones has become the new normal for us.”

The plethora of long-gone, perfectly preserved climbing corpses has caused something of an ethical dilemma for the climbing community.

Traditionally, people who perished on Everest had been left on the mountain in the exact position in which they expired. (Think the perfectly preserved Roman corpses of Pompeii.)

Now, though, with so many previously buried bodies popping up from the melting ice, the climbing community is faced with a conundrum: Do they leave hundreds and hundreds of corpses on the fabled mountain or ship the remains back to the victims’ families?

All of which brings us back to global climate change.

According to the New York Times, the snowline on Everest is higher than it was just a few years ago. Areas once coated in dense ice are now exposed. Climbers are trading ice aces for rock piton spikes that are hammered into cracks on the mountain’s walls. Trust me when I say that is absolutely mind boggling.

The Nepalese government already has its hands full with far too many inexperienced climbers attempting to summit the world’s tallest peak. Now they have to figure out what to do with the zombie-like remains of previously buried climbers.

For the Climate Denier in Chief, I’d say it’s high time to schedule a State Visit to Mount Everest. Assuming he can make it at least to base camp (which shouldn’t be a problem, given his self-proclaimed physical prowess and fitness), I think the president would get a whole new point of view, literally and otherwise, on global climate change. Let’s hope seeing is believing for Trump. Otherwise, melting ice won’t be the only condition that yields human bodies.

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May 29

The client from hell

Every agency has had its fair share of truly horrific clients. 

You know the ones I mean: the screamers, gropers, the ones who keep losing the invoice that’s already 180-days old.

And then there are those who poach your talent but never ask permission or compensate you for the loss (despite contractural wording to the contrary).

My two favorites were a retail chain that told us they were reallocating our money to expand their internal IT infrastructure, and an industry group that replaced our budget to sponsor a rock group’s tour (FYI: Our program for the concert lovers has been named a finalist for three separate major awards).

But I digress.

I have to say that after reading John Carreyrou’s spellbinding book about Theranos and founder Elizabeth Holmes, “Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start-Up,” I am equal parts empathetic and appalled by the actions of the lead Theranos agencies: Chiat/Day and DKC, respectively.

The legendary Chiat/Day was contacted directly by Holmes because they had represented Steve Jobs and Apple (and to say that Holmes was positively obsessed with all things Jobs-related is to say that Donald Trump occasionally compliments dictators).

Holmes hired Chiat on the spot and did her very best to lure the legendary Lee Clow (the creative genius behind Apple’s iconic 1984 campaign) out of retirement). Clow wisely demurred, but Holmes nonetheless insisted on following the exact same schedule Jobs had put in place with her Chiat team up to, and including, weekly Wednesday afternoon meetings.

Holmes retained the public relations firm DKC just prior to the oft-delayed launch of the Theranos website (whose bold claims had to be constantly dialed back as the white-hot corporation’s lawyers came to realize the start-up’s promise to revolutionize the medical industry with a machine that would make blood testing significantly faster and easier was a complete ruse).

Indeed it’s not a stretch to say that Holmes is easily the most diabolical and disingenuous liar this side of Jeff Skilling, Dennis Kozkowski and Bernie Madoff.

I’m not an ad agency expert, so I can’t address why so many super smart Chiat/Day account team members didn’t smell a rat sooner than they did. But I MUST address the behavior of DKC and their lead account manager, Matthew Traub, as described by WSJ reporter Carreyou in his spellbinding book.

DKC had been successful in pulling the wool over fawning reporters from such mainstream publications as Fortune, Forbes, CNBC and others. But the Carreyrou was a different breed entirely. Various Theranos insiders had confided in the investigative reporter, and he was asking questions that Holmes, her pit bull-like law firm and DKC assiduously avoided.

Traub asked Carryrou to submit a list of questions, which the latter did. Carryrou also asked for an in-person meeting with Holmes at their posh, Fort Knox-like Silicon Valley headquarters.

Traub said Elizabeth’s schedule wouldn’t permit an in-person meeting, and provided brief, legal-approved responses to Carryrou’s questions.

At the same time, DKC was perfectly content to keep disseminating feel good press releases about Theranos and arranging countless other interviews. But not with Carryrou. They knew that he knew what was going on, Carryou writes.

I urge any advertising or PR professional, academic or student to read the book for further details because the various documentaries omit the Theranos/agency relationships.

Afterword: I must admit to feeling some empathy for Traub and DKC because they (and every PR firm) depend upon clients to tell the truth. But after reading this book, I’m convinced there were countless warnings that DKC (and Chiat/Day, for that matter) should have spotted and resigned the business ASAP.

It’s easy to look the other way, especially when an incredibly well-funded start-up is tossing hundreds of thousands of dollars your way.

But when does an agency say, “Enough is enough?” Because DKC didn’t until it was too late, they now find themselves forever painted as having played a small, but critical, role in perpetrating a complete hoax.

Final question: How did the PR trades miss this one?

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May 21

“You can pay me now or pay me later”

To mix metaphors, a brand’s reputation is only as strong as its weakest link. Case in point is the recent donnybrook surrounding the backlash from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s accepting donations from the infamous Sackler family

The Sackler Family owns Purdue Pharmaceuticals which manufacturers OxyContin. Just recently, the family had to pay the state of Oklahoma $270 million as part of a settlement in which they were accused of aggressively marketing the highly addictive painkiller that has laid waste to generations ranging from pre-teens to Octogenarians.

Last week’s backlash against the Met and the museum’s decision to no longer take donations from “members of the Sackler family presently associated with Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin,” is indicative of the mega exposure that for-profit corporations and non-profits institutions alike now face: Have they invested in questionable business concerns or, as was the case with the Met, has an organization willingly accepted funny money from very bad people?

The only way to ensure an organization doesn’t appear on the nightly news and become the focal point of an op-ed in The New York Times is to perform an honest assessment of stakeholder relationships and business practices in the context of the values and purpose the organization claims to hold.

This is especially critical in the “Age of Purpose” which is seeing every corporation, charity, marketing agency and entity under the sun determine its higher purpose for existing. It’s one thing to announce that your organization exists to end world hunger or cure the common cold. But, it’s another issue altogether when activist employees or, in the case of the Met, loyal patrons, call you out for hypocritical business practices or a disgraceful partnership. Espousing a noble purpose that is not consistently upheld in all aspects of your organization is what is now popularly considered to be “Purpose Washing.”

It’s incumbent upon every organization, large, small or otherwise, to stress test their corporate purpose to ensure it isn’t undermined by questionable sponsorships or partnerships, board composition, or marketing programs. And I happen to know a few PR firms who excel at providing exactly that sort of service.

To delay doing so is to invite trouble. I’d equate a Purpose stress test to the slogan of the old Midas Muffler advertising campaign: “You can pay me now or pay me later.” In other words, a quick stress test today could avoid a massive crisis containment program down the road.

The choice is yours, Ms. CCO or CMO.

 

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May 16

Actions speak louder than words

Philip Morris International (PMI), which has earned a well-deserved reputation for saying one thing and doing another, is at it again. 

Close on the heels of PMI’s launch of a global marketing effort for its heated tobacco vaporizer called IQOS (or, I Quit Ordinary Smoking), the Big Tobacco brand was caught marketing its killer weed to unsuspecting young people.

Happily, an alert Reuters reporter spotted the social media transgression and called out the nefarious nicotine maker for violating its own marketing policy.

Allegedly intent on helping smokers ease their way off the killer weed through IQOS AND not marketing to younger, impressionable teens who see vaping as the cool, new thing, PMI featured 21-year-old Alina Tapilina, a Russian model/influencer, endorsing IQOS on Instagram.

Caught red-handed (or black lunged, if you prefer) PMI chose to suspend the marketing campaign and yank the IG post VERY LATE on a Friday night (hoping against hope no one would notice).

A PMI spokesperson Tweeted, “We were deeply disappointed to discover this breach and are grateful that it was brought to our attention.” Yeah, sure they were.

Make no mistake that, despite hollow promises to provide “smoke-free alternatives”, PMI delivers shareholder value by continuing to addict people worldwide.

To make matters even worse, PMI had the unmitigated gall to declare 2019 the “Year of Unsmoke” (while continuing to pay young, attractive social influencers to peddle their vape).

PMI remains a slippery, sleazy brand intent on devising new and ever more insidious ways to addict a whole new generation of smokers with its youth-oriented influencer and social media campaigns.

This most recent transgression belies PMI’s stated intent to remake a battered image and be seen as a highly moral company. In reality, it’s just the latest example of PMI saying one thing and doing another. Shame on them.

Late-breaking news: North Carolina just became the first state in the nation to sue Juul. Fingers and tobacco leaves crossed that many others will follow suit.

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May 09

Big Tobacco is Baaaaaack!

Not content with having tempted and trapped countless generations of unsuspecting high schoolers to become nicotine addicts, Big Tobacco is back in a new and insidious way.

As detailed in this superb opinion piece by legendary ad man, Alex Bogusky, Big Tobacco has jumped on the coolness of a new delivery mechanism, vaping, as a way to tempt today’s middle and high school kids.

Marketed as a tasty, fruity and fun way to enjoy tobacco, vapes have immediately became fashion statements for Kool Kids, who also see them as a new way in which to rebel against their parents and teachers.

Some schools have stepped up and “banned” vaping in classrooms. But, naturally, the kids have found a way around that rule.

They blow a day’s worth of the vaped cigarette smoke into water bottles and “sip” it down as they tread innocently from classroom to classroom.

So where were the various surgeon generals and the FDA when Big Tobacco started to badly bend the rules again? Taking a smoking break, perhaps?

Someone needs to stamp out this latest, insidious assault on our nation’s young people. And it needs to be done now, before another entire generation is addicted and skyrocketing health care costs further cripple our global competitiveness.

With Washington lawmakers deadlocked on everything under the sun, who’s left to shine the spotlight on the new scourge?

I nominate The Ad Council and suggest they dust off some of the legendary anti-smoking TV spots and print ads of the 1980’s and launch a massive education program aimed at pre-teens and teens. Make no mistake: the future health of an entire generation is at stake.

In the meantime, those of us with scruples who also happen to own marketing communications firms should just say NO if Big Tobacco comes knocking with millions of dollars for a cigarette vaping campaign. How could you possibly justify making a pact with the devil weed?”

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