Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Word "War": What's it Good For? Plenty, Actually.

Officially, Russia and Japan are currently at war. Officially, the United States has not fought a war since WWII. Since these two scenarios are clearly incompatible with reality, the general public has every right to disregard the official definition of what constitutes a "war" and impose their own meaning. This is problematic, though, because the word continues to carry heavy connotations. It is a powerful word that, beyond expressing ideology, actually helps to shape ideology.

We've just observed the fourth anniversary of what is widely referred to as the "Iraq War." Coming up on May 1, we will observe the fourth anniversary of President Bush's announcement that major combat operations had ended. This moment has become infamous, of course, and Bush's "Mission Accomplished" statement is one he would certainly like to take back. Yet, in a sense, he was right about one thing that day. For all intents and purposes, the war was over.

No matter one's feelings about whether the U.S. and allied invasion of Iraq was justified, few would argue that it constituted an act of war. A sovereign nation was invaded by other nations and a leader and his government were deposed. However, when sovereignty is returned to the inhabitants of a nation, and the original invaders remain to serve a policing function at the behest of the internationally recognized government, can it properly be considered a state of war? Nobody speaks of an ongoing Kosovo War, though NATO forces remain in Kosovo.

So why is it still referred to as the Iraq War? On one had it is (overly) simple to use the term "war" to encompass any military activity. However, I think there is a deeper, more surprising reason. Both sides stand to benefit from the use of the term.

For the Bush administration, a key part of its response to 9/11 has been to convince the public that we are in the midst of an ongoing, somewhat nebulous, "War on Terror." By virtue of being in a state of war, certain actions that are not permissible in a state of peace become permissible. By hooking the "Iraq War" to the "War on Terror," the association is made that Iraq is a critical front in a larger war. If Bush started taking issue with the use of the word "war" in Iraq, it could backfire. After all, a police action would be more likely to have a firm timetable, while a war has to be fought until it is won.

Paradoxically, though, opponents of further military intervention in Iraq can use the word "war" to exploit a popular distaste for the concept. Nobody wants wars, after all, though widespread objection to a "peacekeeping mission" might not be so cut and dried. Plus, any righteous indignation about the original invasion can be mapped onto the current paradigm, even though the military's current objectives are completely different from what they were in 2003.

I'm not sure what the best policy is for Iraq from here on out, but I do know that I don't want the connotations of a single word to play a role in deciding the policy. I also know that whenever Iraq gets it own mess straightened out, it really needs to sign a peace treaty with Israel. After all, they've been at war since 1949.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Is the Genie back in the Bottle?

The Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction of 2003 had a direct influence on my professional life. I was working in radio at the time, and as a direct result of that incident, I was no longer permitted to play flatulence sound effects over the air.

It was quite interesting to be in the media back then. There was a general paranoia that the FCC would be cracking down excessively on anything that wouldn't be considered family friendly content. Radio shock jocks around the country were threatened with termination if they didn't alter their routines. Several stations pulled Howard Stern. Soap operas become much less risque overnight.

I remember a conversation I had at the time with a longtime radio professional. We both wondered if it was possible for this one incident to result in the genie going back in the bottle. After a slow but steady progression in the liberalization of content over the decades that TV and radio had existed, was it truly possible to go backwards? Especially given the amount of uncensored content available on the web? And even if broadcast media did become less crude, would the culture necessarily follow suit?

Four years later, I'm surprised to say that to an extent, both media and culture have become less crude, crass, and cynical. To be sure, there is still a lot out there to make parents skittish; shows about forensic science (i.e. blood and guts) lead the TV ratings, Hollywood (free from FCC constraints) is virtually the same as it was four years ago, and you might even hear the sound of wind breaking on the airwaves today.

However, I recently had occasion to compare the media and cultural landscape with the way things were a few years ago. I watched the 2001 PBS Frontline Documentary Merchants of Cool, which documents how mass media sells "coolness" to teenagers. They identified the main marketing strategies to males as "the Mook" and to females "the Midriff."

To quote: "The Mook is what critics call the crude, loud, obnoxious, in-your-face character that can be found almost any hour of day or night somewhere on MTV." This is the frat boy archetype, "frozen in permanent adolescence." Examples of Mooks and Mook programming that the documentary cited were Howard Stern, Tom Green, Fred Durst, MTV's TRL, and Comedy Central's "The Man Show" and "South Park."

A few years later, the latter is the only one that is going strong. But through always crude, "South Park" always had an intelligent satiric element that the others lacked. And today when people think of "Comedy Central," rather than the crudeness of "The Man Show," it is the satiric "Daily Show" and "Colbert Report" that come to mind. As for Comedy Central's sister station, MTV's TRL has fallen so far that the "L" is now irrelevant, as evidenced by this recent article.
Tom Green has gone from household name among adolescents to very little name recognition (as I tested out recently with my students). You could argue that his role has been usurped by Borat, who is certainly crude, but like "South Park," Borat's crudeness has irony and satire behind it, something that is lacking in Green's productions.

Howard Stern, one time self-proclaimed "King of all Media," is now being blamed by some analysts for the misfortunes of Sirius Satellite Radio, which is accused of grossly overpaying him (and overestimating his ability to draw in subscribers).

Fred Durst's entire genre (Nu Metal) has nosedived in popularity over the last few years, and the Limp Bizkit frontman himself is now an afterthought. The Frontline documentary didn't explore the area of hip-hop or BET. This seems like a gross oversight given the popularity of the genre and the general "mookishness" that the latter has seemingly promoted. Perhaps the producers were uncomfortable with the racial implications of criticizing this genre. In any event, people in the Black community are now criticizing popular rap music, and the industry itself is in decline.

"The Midriff" is the tool through which marketers targeted adolescent and pre-adolescent girls, and of course the most famous midriff in the world at the turn of the century belonged to Britney Spears. Britney certainly has maintained the same high profile, but she has fallen far from being an influence on girls, who are now likely to view her as a joke. Millions of girls may have copied her bare midriff look back then, but today I don't see a dramatic surge in the number of girls who are walking around with shaved heads.

Although the documentary covered all of the above, it spent perhaps the most time dissecting Vince McMahon's wrestling empire, then called the WWF, now called the WWE. To quote: "Wrestling is currently the hottest thing among males 18-24 and among teenage boys. And it's been propagated across the entire spectrum of teen media. It's broadcast 15 hours a week on five different networks and is seen by 15 million people." The discussed McMahon's plans to launch the XFL as a "mookish version of pro football." The XFL tanked after a couple weeks, of course, which was a sign of the coming decline in pro wrestling in general. After being the "hottest thing" among males, it is once again a fringe property.

Many of these trends were in evidence even before the Janet Jackson incident, but that event seemed to galvanize the backlash, which seems to still be occurring today. And perhaps the genie will stay in that bottle, at least until the adolescents who grew up wearing "Austin 3:16" T-shirts are in control of the entertainment industry.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Save the Dollar, Lose the Greenback

I've figured out a way to knock gasoline prices down to a quarter a gallon. It will also involve a massive re-structuring of the U.S. economy, but I think it's time.

Everybody knows that the value of a dollar decreases every year, and steps are taken to halt inflation, but most people are resigned to the belief that we can't repeat the past, that never again will we be able to buy anything of substance for a dime or for a quarter. In response to that, I would have to quote Bob Dylan quoting Jay Gatsby: "You can't repeat the past? What do you mean you can't; of course you can!"

Before I unveil my plan, I have to make a case for the desirability of reversing inflation. The dollar has more than a literal importance on our economy; as the central unit of measure, it is a symbolic anchor. For decades, inflation was ever present, but the price of everyday items was consistently under the one dollar mark. So while both wages and prices went up, the dollar remained a figure of value. As long as the price of a comic book or a movie ticket remained under one dollar, it was reasonable for a kid to get a dollar bill as a birthday present from her or his grandparents. Now, with the dollar relatively powerless, the grandparent is forced to decide between multiple singles, a five, or a ten. Each of these options are fraught with peril. Anything less than a five makes the gift appear to be a cold calculation; anything five or higher speeds along inflation exponentially. I think this is representative of a psychological aspect of inflation. Sure, there are complex market forces at work in the increase of prices, but I think the continuing regression of importance of the central unit only speeds this increase. When a dollar is meaningless, why should we believe that two have meaning? What good are coins at all in this economy? Why should we be frugal with two dimes, when they won't buy anything? And once we become unfrugal with coins, it is a slippery slope to unfrugality with small currency, and finally large currency. As Yeats said, "Things fall apart/The Centre Cannot hold/Mere Anarchy is Loosed Upon the World." But what if we can restore the importance of the center? If we learn to be frugal with a pair of dimes, how much more frugal would we be with a pair of tens? And that all starts with restoring the center and making the small item less than a dollar.

What we need to do is reset the clock, so to speak, every generation. It would probably take a couple years of planning, but I think we can go back to 1945, when today's dollar was equivalent to a dime. Every bank account in America would lop off a zero. If you had $3500 in your account, you now have $350. If you were making a million dollars a year, you are now making a hundred thousand. You need to go down the bank and trade in all your greenbacks for the new bluebacks. Every dollar bill you cash in will get you a new golden dime, and every ten dollar bill will net you a new dollar coin. Of course, all prices would be slashed a commensurate amount. Gas is about a quarter, milk costs about 30 cents, and the dollar store is an old-fashioned five and dime store. Granted, we live in a global economy, so we'll just have to make this a sweeping worldwide policy.

My other idea is to probably less tenable--to replace the dollar with the doll hair.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Why We Really Hate Daylight Savings: A Theory

According to poll I ran across on the Internet, 71% of people want to do away with daylight savings time. This was a very unscientific poll on a radio station's website, but I am inclined to credit it as being an accurate reflection of popular opinion. I also found this rant on-line, which was evidently written a couple of years ago:
I simply don't like Daylight Savings Time. I know I am not alone. I have found that there are a growing number of people who share my disdain and I think it is time we do something about it. Come out of the closet. Write your Congressman. Stand up and be counted and maybe, just maybe, this October, (a month before the Presidential election) we can just turn the clock back a half an hour and forget the whole darn thing.
Of course, rather than take the advice of this blogger, Congress actually extended daylight savings time. On some levels, this is astounding. I can't think of any other issue where our government has acted so out of touch with its constituency. People grumble and complain around April 15 every year, yet most deep down acknowledge that taxes are necessary. However, when people grumble and complain about Daylight Savings, they by and large really don't see a benefit to it.

Many argue that the economic reasons for which the policy was created are now obsolete. Our economic productivity is now for the most part free from reliance on natural sunlight. Ergo, they say, we should dispense with the inconvenience of messing with the clocks twice a year.

I would tend to agree with that logic if I agreed with the premise that economic reasons are the only impetus for the policy. But I don't. Although 71% of people don't like Daylight Savings, I think an even higher percentage like having long days. So, their argument goes, why not have DST year round? The answer to that question is that during the winter months the cost outweighs the benefit: the benefit of longer days is compromised by the cost of having darkness until mid-morning. In the summer months, the benefit outweighs the cost, since even with DST, dawn occurs earlier. I think you can quibble over what weekend in the spring constitutes the best time to change, but I don't see how you can argue the basic facts.

So why is there so much opposition to Daylight Savings? Part of the explanation may be that it's been around long enough that we don't know what life would actually be like without it, so we don't know how convenient it actually is. The thing that bothers me about this, though, is that familiarity should lead to conservatism. If we don't know anything different, why would we be so eager to change to the unknown?

Here's one theory: I think our dislike of DST has the same roots as Al Gore's current wave of popularity. We have a deep-seated fear of exerting too much control over nature. When changing settings on clocks, it feels like we are artificially trying to cheat time. We know we can't do this, so we may actually have a superstitious fear of retribution for attempting to do so. Naturally, such a superstition may be repressed, but finds itself returning in the form of an illogical dislike of a truly good thing.

Fascinatingly, one of the most ubiquitous and popular songs of 2003 was "Clocks" by Coldplay. It contained lines like "Lights go out and I can't be saved," "Confusion that never stops/The closing walls and the ticking clocks," and, "Am I part of the cure/or am I part of the disease?"

Why would Coldplay singer Chris Martin wonder if he was the cure or the disease? Perhaps he's still trying to work out an inter generational guilt. After all, his great-great grandfather William Willett invented Daylight Savings Time.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Madison Avenue, Ignore This at Your Own Peril

Several years ago, I made the choice to not subject myself to advertising. Print ads are incredibly easy to ignore. Internet browsers have all but won the war on pop-ups. I used to never listen to a commercial on FM, opting to switch channels, but now I listen to XM and don't even have to worry about that. I used to have to listen to commercials on AM, but now when I listen to games on XM I only have to put up with station promos. I watch one live action TV show, and I always tape it and fast forward past commercials. When watching live sporting events, I have mastered the art of un-muting commercials exactly as the game comes back on (I usually fill the time during commercials reading). This was all terribly hypocritical of me when I literally made my living directly from paid advertising, but hopefully I can make up for that before this post is ended.

I know many people vehemently dislike telemarketers, spam, and door-to-door solicitors, and I don't see any difference with advertising in other media. Why should I give my precious time over to anyone with the express agenda of taking money from me? I would perhaps be more tolerant of that agenda if they were at least open about it, but most advertising is designed to obscure this fact, and manipulate me with any number of logical fallacies and emotional appeals.

Though I don't think a great number of people are taking an ideological stand against advertising, I do think the changing patterns of media consumption are cutting into Madison Avenue's power. Video ipods, Tivo, satellite radio, and various forms of on-demand viewing and listening are transforming the media landscape, and advertising is caught in the vortex.

I think commercialism is a resilient force, and creative people will continue to conceive of new ways to target consumers (and the opening up of niche markets could actually be a boon to some companies), but it would be tremendously interesting just from an academic standpoint to observe how a radical diminishment in advertising would effect the economy in general. I'm well out of my area of expertise, but my guess is that consumer spending would decline some, known brands and powerful commercial entities would lose sales, smaller commercial entities would gain sales, and wealth would be more distributed.

And though I'm on record as disapproving advertising, I can't help but put forward a theory of one way that it can remain viable. I believe vintage cable networks like TV Land sometimes play old commercials for nostalgic purposes. There are a number of websites which feature vintage spots, and youtube has thousands of old commercials with thousands of views. Ironically, the mavens of marketing seem to be ignorant of the huge untapped market which is literally at their fingertips. Just think how effective a McDonalds campaign would be in which they brought back vintage spots spanning decades, with some kind of tagline which would emphasize their continued dominance in their marketplace. No matter your age, you would probably re-connect with the childhood memory of at least one of the spots, and the positive association it would form for many people is the type of associative connection ad agents drool over. The type of nostalgia such a campaign would generate may actually work on a couple levels. Consumers might also find appeal in a nostalgia for the very medium itself, as they (perhaps unconsciously) think back to a time when TV commercials carried more cultural capital than they do today, and therefore assign it more power than a new spot. (For more on this, google "Marshall McLuhan").

If you are skeptical that such a campaign would work, how do you explain the 2480 hits on the youtube search "McDonalds commercial"?

There. That should make up for all the time I spent biting the hand that fed me. If the ad industry doesn't take me up on this, at least my conscience is clear. Now I can go back to ignoring commercials and not feel bad about it ever again.