Sunday, November 18, 2001

Breakfast at Target

The Baltimore Ravens play at PSINet Stadium. Tiger Woods competes at the Buick Classic. Wal-Mart brings you The Backstreet Boys. Those are just a few examples where company names festoon arenas, sporting events and music tours, endeavors where the name of the main act used to run solo. Yet, considering the costs, it's not surprising that the responsible parties would look to maximize their profit and minimize their risk by having a little corporate backing. Don't call it selling out; call it reaching out.

You can theorize that it's just the next logical step in the history of advertising. First came commercials. But those have become so pervasive as to be rendered invisible and therefore all but worthless. Then came product placements. There we see a car or computer or cell phone prominently placed in a scene, offering a not-so-subliminal hint to the viewer. But would you run out and buy an Apple Powerbook just because Tom Cruise uses one? Or do the same for the Nokia phone that Julia Roberts sports? Or the new BMW driven by Pierce Brosnan? Considering the cost of the appearance, the ad guys certainly hope so... but it's not likely.

But these are both the height of subtlety considering the ground being broken this season. For starters, there's Fay Weldon's new novel, due to be released this fall. In it, the best selling novelist doesn't just make reference to endorsable products... she sets the whole story in one. "The Bulgari Connection," her new mystery, was commissioned by the jewelry retailer to celebrate the opening of a new store in London. Weldon decided to call a spade a spade after she signed a contract with Bulgari for a minimum number of product mentions in the story. The, rather than simply slipping a few references into the plot, she created the ultimate coffee table vanity book for Paolo and Nicola Bulgari, respectively Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the company,

All this is fair enough. After all, for years artists and photographers have been commissioned by commercial ventures to create materials used in ads. The only difference here is that Weldon is now choosing to release the book to the general public and charging for it again, in effect getting two for the price of one. However, it's not like the literary police are going to come and take her away. As she says, "Have I betrayed the sacred name of literature? Well, what the heck!"

And then there's the joint promotion coming from the TNT Cable Network and Kimberly-Clark. On the face of it, it's hardly surprising. After all, there is a long history of major corporate support for television programming beyond plain old commercials, as in the "The U.S. Steel Hour," "General Electric Theatre" and "The Hallmark Hall of Fame." But in each of those instances, the company in question lent its name and money to a programming series unrelated to its specific business. An association with quality was all they were after, one that would hopefully rub off on their image.

Contrast that with what Kimberly-Clark, the maker of Kleenex brand tissues has done. They will be the exclusive yearlong sponsor of a series of movies, all picked because they're tearjerkers. Each film... still to be selected, but expected to include such offerings as "An Officer and A Gentleman" and "Steel Magnolias..." will be the kind calculated to make you cry tears of joy or sadness. They will feature a "Kleenex Rating System," giving viewers an idea of just how many tissues they'll need in the course of the broadcast. The goal is simple: to make a box of tissues as indispensable when you're watching a movie as a bowl of popcorn and a giant box of jujubes.

This opens up all kinds of advertising gambits. Sure, we see pickup trucks advertised during football games, and even pots and pans during cooking shows. But just as Weldon's book shilled shamelessly for a retailer and Kleenex is ranking films on the basis of the need for their product, so too might we begin to see the connection between content and sponsor get a little chummier. Not as simple as "Sex and the City" being brought to you by Ortho, the makers of birth control pills, or pharmaceutical firms sponsoring "ER," we'll see the plots thoroughly intertwined with the products... to the point that you won't be able to tell them apart.

Up till now it's been a causal relationship at most. Sure, the Plaza Hotel was featured in "Home Alone 2" and no doubt money changed hands. But there was still a storyline that was independent of the property. Are we in for dismissing the plot lines in favor of primetime infomercials? Put another way, would Audrey Hepburn have been just as glamorous in "Breakfast at Target?"

It's only a matter of time until it becomes routine. In that light, you can expect the opening of "Law & Order" to begin, "In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups. The police, who work with agencies like McGowan Detectives, specializing in domestic dispute cases for 30 years... 'We get our man and your alimony, every time,' says Buzz McGowan, company founder... and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders, successfully represented by Dewey Cheatum and Howe, defenders of everything from shoplifting to murder one. These are their stories.... and here their phone numbers. Operators are standing by."


Marc Wollin of Bedford is willing to talk to potential sponsors of this space. Paragraphs can be had cheap. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Sunday, November 11, 2001

You Meet The Strangest People

In "John Adams," David McCullough's biography of the second president, much of the story is told through excerpts from letters sent to and from the sage of Braintree. In an era when there was no phone or email, the only way to communicate was to take quill in hand and set down every detail, nuance and thought, summon a post rider, and dispatch the missive to its reader. Depending on the distance it needed to travel, it could take days, weeks or even months before the letter reached its destination, and at least an equal amount of time for the reader to respond. The bad news was that often the contents in question were rendered irrelevant by the time the letter arrived. The good news, however, is that if the letters survived, we have an exquisite written record of the events of the day that transpired.

Contrast that, if you will, with the way we communicate today. The postal system, once the pride and joy of the country, has been reduced to carrying credit card offers, bills and birthday cards. Far more data is transmitted... almost instantaneously... by voice, by fax and by email. And while it sure is quick, it's not always of the "When in the course of human events" quality. Additionally, the very nature of instantaneous communication with unseen parties creates the possibility of misunderstandings... and worse... as the following might illustrate.

A word of caution, however, is in order. To paraphrase that old police show, while the facts are true, the names have bee changed to protect the innocent from my stupidity.

Over a year ago we were having dinner with a group of friends in a noisy restaurant. One person wanted to send an article of interest to another, and email was deemed the fastest, most appropriate means available. Over the din, internet handles were swapped. I took note, as I'm always looking to keep my address book up to date, as well as find other innocent souls upon whom I can inflict this column (which I distribute weekly via email as well as publish in the paper).

Now, I know I had had a glass or two of wine, and wasn't paying complete attention. But I was sure I heard Betty say her email address was "CookBetty." And since Betty is a professional cook, this made perfect sense. I had some more sangria, some more tapas, and enjoyed the rest of the evening.

When I went to my office on Monday morning, I sent Betty a note that, with her permission, I was adding her name to my distribution list. And I dutifully did so, regaling her weekly as I do to all you other hapless victims who are regular readers of this space. No communication was heard from her end... but this was not unusual, and so I thought nothing of it.

As the calendar turned, we saw Betty and her husband on and off, and I would occasionally fire off an email to her, commenting on something she said over drinks or at dinner. She never responded, but again, this wasn't too unusual... after all, some folks are writers and some are not. Then Betty came and borrowed a bunch of books to take on vacation. A month of so later, I was looking for one volume, remembered she had taken it, and jotted a quick missive to the effect of "are you finished?" She wrote back: "What books?" Now Betty is known to be droll, but this was breaking new ground. I puzzled over it and let it ride, not wanting to endanger a friendship over something so trivial. When next we saw her, I mentioned the books. She apologized for the delay, and readily returned them. No mention was made of any of the electronic exchanges.

Occasionally, over the course of the year, I got an unprompted response to a column from Betty. While they were always short, they were also always just a little "off" considering the Betty I knew. Regardless, as I try to do with all comments, I quickly wrote back, referencing the comments she made, and making some personal aside about her husband or kids or life, all of which I knew fairly well. She never wrote back, but once again, this never stuck me as the least unusual.

Recently, I tagged a column with a line about my admiration for the TV show "MASH." Betty jotted a quick note back, saying how she too enjoyed it, "watching it with her husband in the morning when they got up." Now, I know Betty's husband by first name... and I know that Betty is not an early riser unless she has to, certainly not to get up to watch TV reruns. The proverbial straw was just about breaking the camel's back.

After thinking about it, I idly punched up the profile registered to "CookBetty." And lo and behold, the person described was not my pal, who lives 5 minutes from us, has two kids and is a professional chef. Rather, it was a newlywed from the Midwest, who cooks as a hobby. A quick call down the road confirmed it: my friend was "BettyCook" and not "CookBetty." For 15 months I had been engaged in a running dialogue with a woman 1800 miles away I had never seen nor met, who didn't know me nor I her, who chanced across my path through a dyslexic typing event. She had been receiving weekly missives she never thought to question, and we both swapped witty asides that more often than not didn't seem so witty. I'm lucky she didn't call the cops.

I laid this all out in a note that I promptly sent to CookBetty. Her response: "Now it all makes sense!" BettyCook had the same reaction. Luckily, no harm was done; I didn't alienate an old friend, I made a new one... and added two more sets of eyeballs to my mailing list.

The lesson? Check your spelling? Know your audience? If you don't have something good to say, don't say it? All true. But I prefer to keep in mind a simpler view courtesy of Eugene O'Neil in "Anna Christie:" "We're all poor nuts and things happen, and we just get mixed up wrong, that's all."


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to meet people... as long as he doesn't have to actually talk with them. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, November 03, 2001

Milepost 300

As I sat down to pen this 300th installment of Glancing Askance, I paused to reflect on the act of filling this space on a regular basis. Perhaps the biggest challenge is simply that... filling the space. It's easy to think of ideas that might be of interest to the general audience. It's much harder to develop those ideas into readable selections that might strike a chord. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. But there's an old saying that everything changes except the deadline. And so absent an act of God, every week for the last five and a half years I have delivered to my editor on Monday morning roughly a thousand printable words whether it's Pulitzer Prize material or...far more likely...not.

To fill this insatiable maw, I keep an idea file. It includes snippets of newspaper articles that strike my fancy, random jottings that reflect stray thoughts, email ideas sent to me by readers, notes of sayings or comments from friends and associates... any of which provide grist for the mill. Once called onto the screen, some develop into sturdy plants, while others poke up but a few inches, showing promise but never fruit.

Now, as my wife will attest, I have a brown thumb. My version of gardening is to never cut anything back that shows the slightest signs of life. As such, my file is filled with much deadwood in the form of half formed columns. Some are but a few sentences. Others extend to a few paragraphs. Still others are lacking merely a conclusion. But in my humble view, all involve ideas or concepts that warrant examination, even if I have been unable to do them justice and bring them to fruition.

In that light, following are some examples of those that I haven't been able to develop completely, but was also too squeamish to pronounce dead and buried. Some deserve to see the light of day. Others might be better remaining stillborn. I'll leave it to you to decide.

For instance, I was struck as I was driving along the highway one day by a strange sight. Out of the corner of my eye, I noted one particular tree that towered over the group of which it seemed to be a part. A second glance revealed it to be not a tree at all, but a cell phone tower made to look like a tree. However, it didn't really look like a tree; it looked more like a cell phone tower trying to look like a tree. So exactly who are they... and we... fooling? We all notice it, so it can't be for us. The only explanation is so we can say with a straight face to the next sparrow we chat with, "What do you mean, 'harm your habitat.' I don't think so!"

Or I noted that every person or politician who goes on the road feels they have to identify their journey thematically. Madonna has her "Drowned World" tour. During last year's election, Al Gore was on the "Prosperity Tour," while George W. Bush was on the "Marching to Victory" tour. My personal favorite was in New Jersey, where senate candidate Bob Franks crossed the state in his "Franks On A Roll" tour. Better they should call it what it is, as did the mythical band Stillwater from Cameron Crowe's film, with the "Almost Famous" tour. Perhaps this kind of honesty will continue, and we'll soon see the "Buy My New CD" tour, or the "Please Vote For Me" tour.

And then there's the legend that appears below the masthead of almost every publication that's on the newsstands or in your mailbox today. Regardless of whether it's a general interest sheet or a specialty rag, somewhere near the top is a small italic line of text to this effect: "For the latest news, check our web site at" Now, for Time or Business Week no one doubts that the events being covered are moving fast. But on other publications, you see similar lines such as "For the latest in breaking public relations news, visit our web site." Breaking public relations news? Such a thing exists? You mean it's possible some flak put out a press release about the fact that he's putting out a press release? Even in Lizzie Grubman's world, one wonders if any public relations news is that time sensitive.

In walking through a flea market in some metropolis somewhere, I passed the normal assortment of stalls selling cheap shirts, shoes, kitchen utensils, underwear and socks. All seemed to make a certain amount of sense for those looking to pick up basic necessities on a budget. But then I came to a guy who had an entire stand devoted to floor mats for cars. Now, I confess that I'm no salesman, but this would seem to be tough nut to franchise. Perhaps this entrepreneurial venture was the result of a marketing study, or an answer to a personal quest, or the fulfillment of a lifelong hobby. In any case, it's likely that the flea market is a good locale to start out, as it is unlikely that the venture capitalists in the crowd would jump aboard.

In a world of tough choices, we are all called upon to make difficult decisions. Judges do this everyday, most often involving weighty issues concerning freedom, custody and the like. So it's refreshing when they are called upon to make a call on more pedestrian items. In New York City, for a variety of political and health reasons, the powers that be banned barbeques at certain parades and festivals. A judge was asked to rule on the pronouncement. Using his best Solomonic wisdom, he neatly divided the baby in half. Ruling from on the high bench, he allowed sausage, hot dogs and hamburgers, yet banned chicken and chicken wings. Is this justice? Not if you're Frank Perdue.

And all that's just a smattering of the stuff lying around my hard drive. As I head into the sixteenth score, expect ruminations on root beer, parental report cards, company songs and the lack of status for the planet Pluto. I'll make a deal with you: you keep reading, I'll keep writing.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has been filling this space longer than he played Little League. His column appears regularly in The Record Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Thursday, November 01, 2001

Back to the Bottle

It's a paradox of life that when you're a kid, you can't wait to be recognized as an adult, while when you're an adult, you yearn to be a kid. That's why there are few things that upset our 14 year old as much as sitting down in a restaurant and being offered a kiddie menu. Or why your day can be made by the simple act of the bartender asking to see your ID. In both cases, it's the reach across a divide that we all yearn to conquer.

That being said, there are certain benefits to either status. Kids get freedom, boundless energy, fun foods and cartoons. Adults get... well... give me a minute. Actually, more and more, there is little that adults have that kids don't, and conversely, few things that are uniquely kid oriented that are off limits to adults. Like the homogenization of the rest of global culture, there is little out of reach for anyone anywhere.

At the frontier of this trend we find the manufacturer Kimberly Clark. After exhaustive market studies, they recently announced that people prefer to be treated as babies once again, at least in certain areas. According to their data, surveys show that one in four Americans use some kind of moist towelette in the loo. Realizing that most of these are hand or baby wipes, and that 50 million plus individuals were adapting them to another use, they saw a market just waiting to be swabbed. And so they committed $100 million to the development and $40 million to the marketing of Cottonelle Fresh Rollwipes, the latest advance in toilet paper.

The basic package consists of a dispenser that hangs above your regular dry toilet paper and four rolls of the product, all of which sell for $8.99. A set of four replacement rolls will cost $3.99, or about a buck a roll. For that you get a product that, to quote DeWitt Paul, the president of a company making a competing product, "Once you start using it, you wonder how you ever got by without it."

The narrow view is that Kimberly Clark saw a market niche and is moving aggressively to exploit it. But conceivably they have discovered something more. We all know that our culture is focused on all things youth... from fashion to music to food to entertainment. Perhaps we just didn't realize how young is young.

In a world looking eternally for the fountain of youth, maybe there is a huge untapped, unrealized wish among consumers out there to go back even further then most of us realize. Up until now, it's been an article of faith that when most Americans pine for those carefree times, they are referring to their teen and college years. That was when they had the most freedoms and the fewest responsibilities. It was a time of endless possibilities, when the predominant answer was at least as likely to be "yes" as "no."

But compare that with Japan, where the predominant pop culture icons are focused back even further. Sociologists who have studied this have theorized that since Japanese society is so regimented, the last time most Japanese felt unencumbered was not as teenagers, but as children. Recapturing their youth means reliving not the teen years, but prepubescent ones. And so when you ride the subway, you see businessmen and women reading comic books and sporting "Hello Kitty" fobs on their cell phones, and teenage girls with knee socks and backpacks shaped liked stuffed animals.

If you buy this line of reasoning, maybe Americans want to go back further still. Being a teenager is and was hard work... all those trends, all that pressure. And at least in these united states, little kids today are at least as scheduled as their big brothers and sisters, with soccer, gymnastics and play dates. So you have to roll back the calendar even further, and recapture those innocent toddler times. After all, in recent years we've seen adults sucking on lollipops shaped like pacifiers, sporting overalls, flocking to animated movies and snacking on baby skinless carrots. Are adult diaper wipes really that much different in concept?

If you're wondering if this is a movement or a flash in the pan, keep your eyes focused on California. From a cultural standpoint, the Left Coast is ground zero for what is hot and what is not. They led the nation with right-on-red, casual Fridays and other seismic shifts to our culture. If and when this movement gains speed, you'll see it on Rodeo Drive and in Malibu first, after which it'll migrate into the entertainment industry. And if you see Brad Pitt taking a role as Tommy in the live action version of "Rugrats," or Raffi appears on "VH1 Hitmakers," you can assume that the rest of the country will soon follow.

Have we defined a new trend here? We'll leave that for Faith Popcorn, John Naisbett and Alvin Toffler to work out, to create those great shorthand phrases such as "Booming Babies" or "Toddler Tendencies." All we can say for sure that the Baby Boomers of today have the money and the where-with-all to get whatever they want. And so if the mascot of the next Olympics turns out to look a binky, don't say we didn't tell you that it was time to invest in Zwieback futures.


Marc Wollin of Bedford would like to be five again, if only because he likes to dunk his cookies in his milk with no comments from observers. His column appears regularly in The Record Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.