Saturday, December 26, 2009

Corporate Literature: I'm Lovin' It

I don't eat fast food often, but when I do, I am usually alone and I always eat inside the restaurant (I literally never use drive-thrus). And I absolutely must have something to read. Most of the time a newspaper is handy, and since nobody reads newspapers anymore, I usually don't have to worry about any other patrons monopolizing my reading material. At times, though, I've been in places where there is no newspaper, and I'm stuck reading nutrition information or employment application forms (Arby's has a particularly strong recruitment flyer--I was almost persuaded to try to become part of the "Arby's team").

But no fast food restaurant offers the amount of corporate-provided reading material that McDonald's does. I have been to two separate franchises in the last six months (70 miles apart), both of them sans newspapers, but both providing the same smorgesboard of informational pamphlets and brochures. In addition to the predictable nutritional information pamphlet and the expected Ronald McDonald House brochure, there were three others that caught my attention:

1) "We Care About You": a two-sided pamphlet encouraging customers to submit comments to corporate headquarters
2) "We Share One Community" (subtitled "Socially Responsible Neighbors"): an eight-page fold-out brochure
3) "All About McDonald's & You" (subtitled "Your Family. One Community. Our Commitment."): a six-page fold-out brochure containing different content but indistinguishible in theme from "We Share One Community."

All of the above are copyrighted 2003, and are printed on "acid-free recycled paper." Following is a sampling of quotations that I found amusing:

"We think of our restaurant as a second home for you and your family."
"When you choose to purchase our delicious food, you are making an investment in your community."
" one year in Atlanta, Ga., we spent more than $11.3 million on business and payroll taxes, or about $30,900 each day."
"For a limited time this year, we will bring back our traditional 'White Bags' that we first used to serve your to-go orders. These bags symbolize the vision and commitment of our founder who believed that our customer is the most important part of our business."

This last quote made me wonder exactly what year the traditional white bags were or would be used. A little bit of googling led me to this press release, which discusses not only the white bags, but the very brochures I am referencing here. The year in question is (of course) 2003. It is therefore likely that for the last six-plus years, millions and millions of corporate McDonald's brochures have been sitting out in plain sight, all the while completely ignored by the "billions and billions" of customers streaming past them. I am greatly amused by the sheer incongruity of on one hand, one of the most ubiquitious cultural locations in the nation (the McDonald's restaurant) and on the other hand, a cultural artifact located therein that is so irrelevant that a google search of key phrases within the pamphlets indicates that no one (until now apparently) has taken the time to disseminate any of their content to the world wide web.

In hindsight, it seems possible, if not likely, that these brochures were first published in response to Eric Schlosser's 2001 book Fast Food Nation. And ironically, they arrived just before McDonald's received another round of negative publicity thanks to Morgan Spurlock's film Super Size Me. But in amongst the public backlash against the industry, McDonald's continued to expand their bottom line. Starting in 2003, they had 55 consecutive months of increased profit. About a year ago, The New York Times published a story analyzing McDonald's robust decade. They attribute McDonald's success partially to an inclusion of healthy options, but mostly to an emphasis on quality service.

And while all that may be true, I think there is another reason that McDonald's is able to whether P.R. hits better than almost any other corporation. When your mascot is a clown, and not just any clown, but a clown that is a walking eyesore with a ridiculous rhyming name, you are essentailly broadcasting the fact that your corporation is a joke. (And lest that is not enough, one of your other corporate mascots is a large purple blob named "Grimace"). But fast food is one industry where being a joke is not a detriment, and might even be an advantage. Your customers have a pretty low set of expectations. As long as you keep the floors clean, you have a pit of balls for kids to play in, and you cook your meat long enough to kill salmonella, you are guaranteed success.

But what happens if you try to position yourself as anything other than a place to get fast, cheep, and greasy food? What if you try to brand your company as a legitimate positive force in society? Well, you then raise your customers' expectations. The worst thing that could have happened to McDonald's in 2003 would have been for a significant number of people to have picked up and read their brochures. Fortunately for them, nobody took them seriously enough to bother doing so.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

East Coast Offense

A few years ago, ESPN radio morning show hosts "Mike and Mike" initiated using the term "man up" to describe acts of fortitude. One day, searching for an antonym for this term, Mike Greenberg tossed out the phrase "woman down." A trickle of complaints came in to ESPN offices, and Greenberg responded with extreme contrition, offering a heartfelt on-air apology.

I suspect that no one remembers this anymore. The only reason I remember it is because of what I saw on an on-line forum shortly after the incident. People were outraged--not at Greenberg's statement, but the fact that anyone would take offense to it. This depiste the fact that there was no fallout from the incident; unlike the Don Imus situation that occurred around the same time, Greenberg was not punished, and there was no lengthy public debate. Reading people's reactions, it was obvious to me that there was something bigger in play than this one comment and subsequent apology.

I came to the same realization this week while reading about a song and youtube video made by students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The song is entitled "What's a Coastie?" and then proceeds to answer that question by describing a certain type of female UW student: out-of-state, from a priveleged background, attention-seeking, and obsessed with materialism and fashion. The most controversial lyrics single out the "Coasty" as Jewish: "East Coast Jewish honey" and "Jewish American Princess, baby."

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel ran a story about the song and video, and invited reader comments on a forum. A minority of posters found the song offensive, but most were vehement in attacking anyone who would take offense to it. Here is a sampling of responses:

Big Deal. Who Cares. Get over it. Find something interesting to print. Quit trying to be sensitive about others feels. I am Polish and never attempted to stop someone from telling a polish joke. Stop being so dam PC.

To those who took offense, I guess we can’t decide what does or doesn’t hurt your feelings but maybe grow some thicker skin?

My God, everyone needs to relax! This was a light-hearted song about the differences between east and west coast kids and kids from the midwest.

Give me a break!! It a silly song and not meant to hurt anyone!! All of the "political correctness" we endure in this country is absurd!!

Should be a harmless song in most people's eyes. If one is looking for a reason to be offended, one will undoubtedly be offended.

These comments show that 90% of people are in favor of the song, and 10% are on a quest to ruin the song for everyone else.

This literate morons at UW who are offended will have a lot more to cope with when the get out of Fantasy Island South and enter the real world.

The people who complain about this need to get a life.

Give me a break. This country is so full of overly sensative babies, that shriek victim at every possible turn. Frankly, I'm sick of it. Get over it, already. And why are you SEARCHING for reasons to be offended.

I think those offended by this should get a life - they must not have enough to do in their lives if they have time to be offended by what is obviously a joke.

The only people who would complain about this either have absolutely no sense of humor or just like to hear the sound of themselves whining.

Anyone who seriously thinks the whole idea of "coasties" is based purely on what your religious heritage is, is a complete idiot. Get over yourselves, and find a hobby. You clearly have WAY too much time on your hands.

Please find something else to complain about. Or better yet, quit complaining all together.

Of course, there is a lot of irony in these statements. Those who are complaining about people being offended sound pretty offended. Those who complain that people have too much time on their hands seem to have some spare time themselves. And the cacophony of voices that bemoan a lack of humor demonstrate little wit of their own.

Yet in amongst the anger and vitriol, I detect a hint of fear. And I find this to be understandable. People know enough to ascribe the term "political correctness" to the phenomenon they are observing. But the scary thing for them is that they don't know who the guardians of "poltical correctness" are; there is no rule book to describe what is in-bounds and out-of-bounds, and as such they are subject to criticism or censure for any utterance, or even any "slip of the tongue" (which is apparently what happened to Greenberg).

Making this fear and frustration more palpable is that in the "Coastie" video there is no overt offensive content. If there was a picture of Hitler right after the video flashed the star of David, the reaction would have been much different. But what's wrong with simply showing a star of David and using the term "Jewish princess"?

But that is not to say that the song and video is not problematic. Check out these other two reactions from the Journal-Sentinel forum:

I find this hilarious. I am midwestern transplant from Milwaukee now residing in South Florida. "Coasties" are everywhere down here. And yes, down here it does pertain to the priviledged east coast women who sport the Ugg boots in 90 degree weather. Jewish? probably. But Remember, Delray Beach is a southern borough of NYC. They also hang with the shaved-head, tattooed-laden, beater-T wearing, dirt-bag poseur guys at Starbucks, who sit on their laptops, smoking cigarettes acting all important while they are unemployed.

Coastie song? One. Hundred. Percent. Accurate. The only problem is that it narrows the scope to females. The coastie dudes are as insufferable, if not moreso. Summer is the only time to visit Madison--when they're all gone.

One doesn't need to be a Freudian to find some truth in his observation about jokes--that they are a way for people to work out taboos and sublimate troublesome conflicts. A further reading of the forum indicates that there really is and historically has been a cultural clash between "Coasties" and "Sconnies" on the Madison campus:

When I was in Madison a decade ago, they were called Easties. I guess the people from the west coast weren't nearly as conspicuous back then.

As far as I know, the term "coastie" wasn't around in the late 80s/early 90s when I was there, but the stereotype sure was. We all got along more or less, and had some fun at each others' expense, some inappropriate in hindsight. Looking back, what bothers me most is that the coastie/sconnie communities rarely if ever interacted - it was like two completely separate groups that might show up in classes together, but ate, lived, and partied in different quarters.

I attended UW Madison in the late '70's. There were many Jewish students from the east coast living in my dorm. I didn't have a stereotypical name for them, but they had one for me. Because I was from Wisconsin I was a hick.

I went to UW for undergrad and then grad school earlier in this decade, and I must admit that the Coasties were often a source of debate and frustration. They seemed to want attention by talking loudly during lectures, whether to each other or on their cell phones. They liked to flaunt their wealth, be it through Juicy Couture outfits, North Face puffy jackets, or even Range Rover SUVs. They acted like they were better than everyone else, and in the Midwest, most people will not condone that kind of behavior.

While I have no doubt that the authors/artists involved in "What's a Coastie?" amused themselevs and others, I would assert that it is only funny to those who have experienced this cultural conflict (hence a number of other comments on the forum questioning why this is newsworthy).

Ultimately, if humor is a method by which we work out conflict, there will inevitably be humor that will be disturbing. And disturbing humor could potentially be counterproductive to actually addressing the conflicts. The key to making such statements (or as in this case, products) productive would be to engage in dialogue about A) what makes them funny, and B) what makes them potentially offensive. Unfortunately, although there is a whole lot of dialogue being generated, very little of it is focused on either of these two categories. We get assertions like "This is funny," and "This is offensive," without any further exploration, and then the discourse very shortly degenerates into lamentations about "political correctness."

I'm rather pessimistic that such a productive dialogue will be forthcoming. I wouldn't anticipate that Internet forums will become outlets for enlightenment anytime soon, so the failure of the Journal-Sentinel website to serve as a gateway for dialogue isn't a disappointment. But the institutional failure of University of Wisconsin to facilitate a better negotiation of an ongoing cultural divide that has persisted though generations strikes me as a more troublesome phenomenon...perhaps even one that could inspire offense.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The New Old Celebrity

Although the relentless news cycle around Tiger Woods continues to remind us that we live in an era preoccupied with celebrity news and gossip, it bears mentioning that this phenomenon pre-dated the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle. Even though Perez Hilton and TMZ weren't around in 1932 to cover the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, it was still the cause celebre of the media. According to a 2008 story in Lindbergh's hometown's newspaper:

"Governments fell, nations warred, industrial empires toppled, and yet the stealing of an infant from his crib in the Lindbergh home in the lonely Sourland hills of New Jersey pulled on the heartstrings of the world as probably no other happening in recent decades," reported the Associated Press.... That was the unanimous judgment of 17 AP editors "over whose desks flow 75 million words of copy a year." They named it the top story.

Of course, Lindbergh was a different kind of celebrity than those we encounter today. I can't think of any celebrity explorers. Maybe Steve Fossett has achieved that status, but only posthumously; he followed the sad rock star route of achieving fame only through mortality. The only living celebrity aviator I can think of (Chuck Yeager) belongs to a different era. (I wouldn't consider Sully Sullenberger to be a celebrity, as there doesn't seem to be much interest in his life outside of the cockpit).

On the flip side, every type of celebrity that we have today also existed in Lindbergh's era. The Hollywood star, the athlete, the politician, the criminal/outlaw, the military hero, and the musician are all basic types that just keep repeating through generations. Even the Paris Hilton/Kim Kardashian variety of celebrity is nothing new; the concept of the debutante has been around for centuries.

Lindbergh, of course, wasn't the only person to achieve stardom by blazing a trail. Edmund Hillary appeared on money in his native New Zealand while he was still alive. Ernest Shackleton was literally the toast of Britain . John Glenn cashed in on his fame to become a U.S. Senator, while Neil Armstrong (fairly recently) had to sue his barber for selling a lock of his hair for $3,000. Jacques Cousteau has inspired both rap lyrics and New Age compositions.

The other category of celebrity that seems to no longer exist would be the scientist/inventor. Thomas Edison got a nickname similar to one earned by the NCAA's all-time winningest (in terms of championships) basketball coach. Albert Einstein became a household name by writing things that households wouldn't comprehend. Carl Sagan developed a pop culture catch phrase. (I suppose Stephen Hawking would qualify as a living scientist/celebrity; it helps that he wrote an accessible best-selling book).

Some might argue that people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have attained stardom based on their ability to innovate, but it seems to me that they are recognized primarily for their enterpreneurial skills, which again puts them in a lone line of iconic American businessmen (Carneigie, Rockefeller, etc...)

So will we ever see an explorer/scientist/inventor celebrity again? A couple factors conspire against such a possibility. I'm sure if we ever make it to Mars, the astronauts who land there will be lauded and feted. But short of that, we are running out of places to explore. And as for inventions and discoveries, it is now more likely that recognition will be shared by a group of collaborators, rather than an individual.

But I can foresee at least one potential opening. If somebody were to actual invent an automobile (or any other form of transportation) that could legitimately displace the status quo, and if he or she were to take the new invention on a spin around the country or the world, that person would make everyone forget about Tiger Woods.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Big Reason Sports is so Popular

When I was a wee lad, I made an effort to watch every athletic event that was broadcast on my television (or at least those that were aired before my bedtime--there were some football seasons when I would tune into ABC every Monday night but never see the end of the game). Though this might have been a tad obsessive, it wasn't actually as bad as it sounds. My family didn't have cable, so my sports viewing was pretty much restricted to weekend days and the occasional weeknight (even local broadcasts were limited in those days).

Sometime around fourth or fifth grade I was introduced to the concept of scoring baseball games. But lacking a true scorebook, I devised my own system for use in a wide-ruled spiral bound notebook. And shortly thereafter, I created my own system for keeping score of football games and basketball games. It wasn't long before I was dedicating certain notebooks to the sole purpose of scoring games. This evolved into keeping a table of contents in the front, numbering my pages, and eventually assigning volume numbers to the notebooks. I also decided that this series of notebooks should have a title, and given my somewhat literal mindset at the time, I settled on The Sports Notebook.

In the early days of The Sports Notebook, I fantasized that one day as an adult, I would be sitting in a den (which looked a lot like Ward Cleaver's den), surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of spiral-bound notebooks. And as I was unable to predict the emergence of, I actually thought that my notebooks would be of interest to historians and scholars. (To that end, I made sure to update an "About the Author" section in the back of every few volumes). Even as my illusions to the import of my work were divested, I continued to maintain the notebooks until about the midway point of my senior year of high school, eventually ending up with over 30 volumes, which I still possess to this day.

Early on, I decided that The Sports Notebook needed an introduction, in order to inform the (very hypothetical) reader of the series' raison d'etre (though I wouldn't have used that term at the time). I don't have the exact date I wrote this introduction, but it appears in The Sports Notebook Volume 2, between a Bucks/Nets game from December 2, 1988 (The Bucks won 103-92 behind 32 points from Terry Cummings) and a Broncos/Raiders game from December 3, 1988 (won by the Raiders 21-20, a game in which I record John Elway making two punts, which I suppose is possible). So it is about 21 years to the day since I wrote the following:

The reason I keep this notebook is because on the interest [sic]. Sports is one of the most interesting things around. The big reason sports is so popular is its just plain exciting. It's exciting to see Joe Montana at the 3 yd. line with 2 seconds left and down by four. He throws a 97 yard bomb to Jerry Rice! It's exciting to see Rob Deer, Jose Canseco, and Mark McGwire shell the baseball 500 feet. It's exciting to see Michael Jordon [sic] sail through the air and jam the basketball in the hoop. It exciting to see the great Gretzkie [sic] score the game winning goal with :05 left. Since the beginning of time fans enjoyed wrestling. In England rugby was invented and turned into football. This one boy who loved to make up games put down 9 bases and used a stick and a stone with some of his neberhood buddies. He lived in Cooperstown, NY the site of the baseball hall of fame. The game he invented was baseball. The one man who invented basketball originally had normal baskets. Then there where the ones who turned it around: Curley Lambeau, George Halas, Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Lou Ghereg (sic), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt the Stilt, the Great One, and Bobby Orr. And the memorible moments here is just a few miracles of sports:

-Dwight Clark and "The Catch" which gave the 49ers a Super Bowl victory [sic].
-"The Drive" Where in the 1986 AFC championship the Broncos where on the 2, down by 7 and less than 5 min. left. Elway and company ledd to a TD and a victory in OT.
-And who could forget the ice bowl. In the NFC Championship in 1968 [sic] the Packers and the Cowboys. Simaler to the drive Bart Starr marched the team 95 yeards [sic] and ran it in on an outstanding block.

In basketball Wilt the stilt scored 100 points. It was an awesome show of power and a record that may always stand. And then lets get to baseball perhaps the most memorible sport. Di Majio's 56 game hitting streak. Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth's all time home run mark off Al Downing.

Something happened in the 1988 world series. Can you guess what it was? I'll give you a hint. Remember the '88 film "The Natural" [sic] It was a baseball movie. Robert Redford starred. The Knights where in the series when Redford was spending most of the game in the locker room with an injury. In the bottom of the 9th he came in to pinch-hit and blasted it out of here [sic].

Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers limped up to the plate in obvious pain. 3-2 out of here. He limped 360 feet and the Dodgers won.

As I read through this, I'm obviously amused by much of it (not the least of which is my name checking poor Al Downing. Why didn't I feel the need to also mention that Gibson hit his home run off Dennis Eckersley?). But I'm also intrigued by the fact that pretty much everything I mention is second-hand knowledge. One would think that someone who poses the question "Who can forget the Ice Bowl?" remembers the Ice Bowl himself. But not only was the Ice Bowl played before I was born, I misidentified the year that it was played, and embellished the yard total on the Packers game-winning drive.

Here is a list of other people or events that I laud about which I failed to witness myself, even on TV: The Montana 97-yard bomb to Rice (which never actually happened to the best of my knowledge), 500 foot home runs, a Gretzky game-winning goal (or even Gretzky playing at all--I had never seen an NHL hockey game on TV at the time), Lambeau, Halas, Ruth, Cy Young, Gehrig, Wilt the Stilt (and his 100 point game), Bobby Orr, "The Catch," DiMaggio's streak, Aaron's record, and "The Natural" (I never actually saw the movie as of this writing, hence my misstatement of key plot points).

And the people or events that I did witness: Jordan slam dunking, Abdul-Jabbar (though he was old and past his prime by the time I saw him play), and "The Drive" (though I didn't really understand what I was watching). As for the Gibson home run, I actually watched the start of that game, but was in bed by the 9th inning.

And I also show a curious interest in the genesis of sports. What made me feel the need to mention the historical significance of wrestling, and to mention the evolution of other sports (even to the point of repeating the false myths of Abner Doubleday's invention of baseball, even though I apparently couldn't remember Doubleday's name)?

Taking into consideration the three elements of my manifesto: heroes, (exaggerated) feats, and origins, I realize that this is the same formula that comprises the narratives of mythology. In hindsight, I was interpolated into not only internalizing this mythology, but wanting to inscribe it for others. And while I'd admit that my prose lacked polish, I would also have to assert that much of the discourse of sports produced by adults is not inherently smarter than that produced by a fifth grader.