Christmas comes so early now…

… I thought I’d complement it by posting this so darn late.

My Christmas Essay on Weekend Virginia that played (appropriately enough) on the day of Christmas. It’s about the common complaint that Christmas has been overcommercialized. If it is, I blame that entirely on 200-year-old volcanic activity.

You heard me!



What’s So “Super” About it?

Did a bit for Academic Minute, which was kinda cool. In addition to my 90 seconds of brilliance, you should go check out what some other folks have done over there.

My bit was about the Super Bowl as a cultural event. I do chat a little bit about the advertising, pizza sales, etc. but try to get a little more… culturally philosophical. Humor me.

And yes, the Academic Minute is about 90 seconds. Which explains why those 1.5 hour classes you took in college felt like they took almost three.

"Strangely, I find this knowledge comforting."

Chevy gives us the runs.

Chevy recently introduced a new tagline: Chevy Runs Deep.   Except it’s not a tagline, it’s a “theme line” which I think is kinda like how Bill Clinton distinguished between sex and “sex.”

To say that the reaction to this new line (theme or otherwise) has been positive is a little like saying Hillary Clinton reacted positively to Clinton’s “sex.” It’s been criticized and downright mocked.

And speaking of sex… am I the only one who thinks this tagline seems a little… biological? Well, no, I’m not. Shew. Who knew I could find fellow perverts on the internet?

Jeff Goodby of the agency responsible (Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, so you know he’s kinda important over there) said he was surprised by the negative reaction, going so far as to compare it to how people didn’t like “Got Milk?” (another Goodby campaign) when it first came out. You know what else people didn’t like when they first came out? Crappy campaigns. Like that Sara Jessica Parker thing w/ the Gap because we all totally believed she wore Gap jeans

"My arm is itchy from all this affordable, mall based stuff. Anything under $400 and/or not vintage and I break out into hives."


Or that … WTF thing Jerry Seinfeld was in for Microsoft. Sometimes people just don’t like stuff and they are right not to like it.

Sorta like how people were right not to like what he was advertising... "VISTA" <said like "NEWMAN!">

Here’s my guess- the planning (consumer research) for this thing indicated that consumers have a deep and abiding feeling and connection with the brand. It’s a part of the proverbial Americana. And so that’s what those planners came up with, was a strategy that said “The feelings for Chevy run deep into the American psyche and as a part of the culture.” And then the creatives went “OOh, ‘run deep.’ That’s good. Let’s run with that.” Sometimes you need to translate a strategy and not just copy-and-paste it.

So what’s the lesson: a statement of brand strategy for a bunch of ad/marketing geeks who are in fifth gear and surrounded by context won’t necessarily make the same semantic sense to a bunch of consumers who have had a few Buds and are watching the World Series. And jackasses like me with blogs.

Because really, if the creatives had a few beers themselves (not Bud, but maybe Rolling Rock since I think they are a Goodby client), they would have easily started muttering to themselves the stuff that we are…

  • Chevy Runs Deep, Like the Titanic. Oh, Wait…
  • Chevy Runs Deep Into Your Wallet. Thanks For the Bailout.
  • Chevy Runs Into Walls and Garage Doors. Oh, Wait, That’s Toyota.
  • Chevy Runs Deep <Rawr, cue the porn music-> “Wakka-wakka-waaaaaa.”

Starbucks Lie-go

For some reason, I get the question about where Starbucks’ logo came from a lot. I guess it comes as no surprise that an expert in Medieval history would know more than me. I have no problem with this.

South China Sees: Part 4

The urban area of Shanghai can be seen in this...

Image via Wikipedia

China isn’t China: China is far too complicated to be painted with a broad pagodas-and-pandas brush. As an American, if you go to China, you need a visa, and the money is called the Yuan. If you go to Hong Kong, you don’t need a visa but you do need to go through immigration again even if you are coming from mainland China.

Immigration. Sigh.

And even though Macau is also a part of China, if you go there from either place  you also go through immigration again, and get different money, called the pataca.

Big landmark in Macau, the Ruins of St. Paul. Sounds downright Chinesey, huh? Probably because it was owned by Portugal until 1999.

According to one website (which was not Wikipedia thank you very much), there are around 129 languages spoken in China. And China is not all exotic looking, like any minute the Last Airbender will come flying around the corner.

This one. Not that movie one. No.

In Shanghai, one side of the Huangpu river, called Pudong, was farmland up until 1990.

And now it looks like this. What the hell kinda seeds were those farmers using?

We sat on the patio of a restaurant there, and had margaritas and tortilla chips, looking towards tall shiny buildings. There was landscaping that looked straight from the pages of Southern Living and thought I’d might as well be sitting in Charlotte, North Carolina.

So if you are ever in Shanghai, this is a safe bet.

View from my table at the Blue Frog.

Continue reading

South China Sees: Part 3

[The following is a version of a segment on Weekend Virginia, first run on August 21, 2010.]

Buying Stuff: Here’s one thing I never got used to: In the U.S. a sales person might say to me “Yes ma’am, may I help you?” But in China, there is no “ma’am. It’s “Lady.” It’s “Hello Lady.” “Lady, I have best price for you.” “Lady you come in here.” It’s like a country full of Jerry Lewises.

I didn't realize he was a Chinese shopkeeper. I thought he was fake French.

While I realize that China is supposed to be a communist country, somebody should tell the Chinese that. When you’d walk by somebody’s booth or shop, they’d hop off the stool as if it had become suddenly electrified. They’d follow you a  bit, saying “You want t-shirt? I give you best price. I have new sunglasses. These look good for you.”

Except for this guy.

The shopkeepers would insist that their stuff  was good item, good for me, real jade, no worries, how  that was the right size for my kids, even though the salesperson had never seen my kids. And that they’ll give me best price. Almost everything you buy- shoes, earrings, drinks, stuffed animals, t-shirts requires haggling. It’s the same exhausting, cognitive dissonance-inducing, manipulation-resisting process you have to go through to buy a Honda. Except shopping in a row of booths down an alley, you get less of a new car smell, and sometimes more the smell of cat pee.

This is what good shopping in China looks like. Serious deals here, baby. But you'll earn them.

And you know my daughter was attracted to this liiike... me to a Diet Coke.

There are three actors in the negotiations: There’s the oversized calculators where the prices are typed and shown, and then you and the shopkeeper, who are – as John Lovitz would put it: ACTING.

You stop and admire something. They type a number into a calculator. You wrinkle your nose in disgust, shake your head, and type a lower number in. They clutch their chests like your terrible, low, offer alone will undo the benefits of a lifetime of eating rice and drinking green tea. So they  type a new number into the calculator. In return, you do an impression of somebody from The Godfather, and hope you didn’t screw up and pick  Fredo.

But did you know it was me?

And on it goes. I’m not afraid of negotiating, I’ve done it for cars and TVs, but when the thing costs $4 US and you are arguing about the difference of 20 cents, but you still feel like you have to haggle because  you don’t want to get taken… Oh just give me the stupid t-shirt already. It may not have been my version of capitalism, where you have to beg a salesperson to help you,  and find comfort in the predictable and immutable nature of bar codes, but it sure looked like a profit motive to me.

Don’t feel guilty going to familiar brands in China. First of all, it’s unlikely that something has been reproduced in China exactly how it was at home.  For example, Pizza Hut is a nice restaurant, maybe a step above a Ruby Tuesdays. Not a crackly red plastic cup in sight. Instead there’s curry pizza, which I highly recommend.

So that's how you say Pizza Hut in China.

I'm fairly confident that red stuff is some sorta faux suede.

Ready for pizza. See, no red cups.

At McDonald’s, the  McNugget dipping sauces include satay flavor as well as a Thai chili sauce. Disneyland in Hong Kong isn’t a little pocket of pure Americana either. Alice from Wonderland is a Chinese woman with a long blond wig. Even my daughter didn’t ask if that was the real Alice.

But they were still thrilled to get their picture taken!

I couldn’t find chicken strips anywhere, but they sell Mickey and Minnie Mouse chopsticks. In some ways, the contrast from the familiar was more informative than something  truly Chinese. But there were some universals. I walked into Burberry, Louis Vuitton, and there were Tiffany’s everywhere. They looked exactly like version of those stores any other place I’d been. Except when I was in London- the Burberry there was full of people from Japan.

Bookmark and Share

South China Sees: Part 2

[The following is a version of the text broadcast on WVTF’s Weekend Virginia. on August 14, 2010. Listen here (I’m towards the end of this segment.]

The language: My Mandarin is a little thin, and honestly I was really worried that the language would be a problem. Until I went, I thought “ni hao” was always followed by Kai Lan (A joke you will only get if you have a kid under the age of 7).  But no, “ni hao” is Mandarin for “hello,” “sheh sheh” is “thank you,” “zai gen” is “bye,” and “Kai Lan” is  “Dora the Explorer.”

So yes, my vocabulary is that of  an 18 month old.  But it turns out the Chinese don’t expect you to know many words. They were  surprised that we even knew the Chinese word for our  country, which happens to be “Meiguo” (May-gwuh). If you have the sudden urge to sing “The Bare Necessities” you aren’t alone.

Because his name is Mogli. Get it? Oh, just nevermind.

The menus have pictures, so you point. The universal sign for “bring me a check” where you pretend to scribble in the air with your finger works there too.  And everybody knows what “Beer” means.  The taxi drivers speak about as much English as I do any Chinese, but that’s okay too.

But luckily the signs inside the taxi telling me how much it would cost to bring my bird are clearly stated in English.

The hotels give you a card with all the touristy places on it in Chinese and English, so you just point. Or you can get a guy at the hotel to write down where you want to go and you give that to the driver, although this did  make me feel a little like my mom had pinned a note to my shirt as I got on the bus. My kids got along better than we did. We would use too many words . We’d say “Hi, I was wondering if perhaps you had any apple juice” and the waiter would stare at us curiously. My kids would say “Apple juice, please”and the waiter would say “Yes, apple juice.”  In other words, everything I needed to know  to communicate in China, I should have learned in Kindergarten.

Speaking of Kids: They got a lot of attention. They were waved at, stared at, heads patted, smiled, even gawked at. They were hugged. After buying a necklace from one woman, she told me to watch her little store, took some of the money I’d just given her and ran outside to buy my kids some ice cream. She then told my daughter to call her Auntie. My kids were photographed. A lot. Parents had their kids pose with my kids.

I'm not kidding. Also, I'm pretty sure my daughter is the only one who wears "Chinese" outfits in China.

Grown ups would pose themselves with my kids.

I'm not kidding.

If you are going to rent an "authentic ancient" costume, maybe the little blond kid undercuts the look a little?

People would watch my kids just walk and take pictures of them. My kids got use to it  holding up two fingers in this  V-victory thing that  everybody in China seems to do when posing. I have pictures of people taking pictures of my kids.

Guess what these people are watching and photographing?

Although to be fair, they were posing appropriately.

You can even see she's got my son on her screen.

I don’t know if my kids were circus freaks or rock stars, or heaven forbid, stars of some cloying Disney show. I can’t imagine why it was so unusual for the Chinese to see these little American children. Doesn’t everybody sit their kid on a plane for 16 hours?

Cigarettes: I say this as a girl from North Carolina. There is a lot of smoking in China. I knew before I went that more people smoke in China than live in the U.S. But this is old school smoking, the kind where they walk down the street with a cigarette clenched in the center of their mouths with their teeth . I was served a beer by a guy whose clenched cigarette had about 1/2 an inch of ash hanging off the end. There was a guy hawking children’s toys with a cigarette in his mouth. I got a picture of that.


There was another guy standing outside of his own  butcher shop not 6 inches from hanging meat, same thing.

Cig in the right hand.

I guess smoke preserves the goose? And also toy helicopters?

Bookmark and Share