Monday, June 30, 2008

Actually, Motley Fool, any fool who listens to your investment advice might get his own wallet handed to him – empty

See that bar chart over on the right? It shows approximately where GE stock was on June 30, 2007 (left bar), and where it was a year later (right bar). It’s based on a copyrighted line graph that I can’t show you, but that you may still be able to find over at Yahoo’s finance pages.

Both my cranky bar chart and the June 30th line graph at Yahoo indicate that had you invested approximately $3,800 in GE on June 30, 2007, your investment would be worth $2,649 a year later.

So what – the stock market is down. Correct. Except for this gushing-with-praise quote from The Motley Fool, a stock advisory service, that I also found posted the same morning of June 30th 2008.

Instead of being content as a lighting company, the people at GE decided to be an idea company. That's why GE became such an incredible success, and why it continues to churn out market-beating returns a century after its founding. Indeed, over the past 20 years, GE has returned more than 1,170% -- turning a $1,000 investment into nearly $13,000 today. What gave GE the flexibility to move up the value chain? Besides hard work and know-how, it was the company's bulletproof reputation for high quality. In other words, it was the company's brand.
Bulletproof? Moving up the value chain? No no no, guys. As you can see from the charts, the price for "bulletproof" GE is getting shot to pieces at the moment.

The thing about brands is, when you sell off your appliance business, your lighting business and a bunch of other businesses that make things people want, and instead go into the "idea business," your ideas are nothing but a pile of high quality bushwah to the stock market, and so's your brand. Especially when you’re still in the credit business, and the credit business is in the toilet, along with most of the rest of the market.

Sure, once the market goes back up, GE stock may go back up too, and then The Motley Fool will prove to be correct. But if you want to make 13 times your investment, you may have to wait yet another 20 years to see the money.

And to think – people actually pay The Motley Fool for advice like this.

Friday, June 27, 2008

You say “militia” and I say “baloney.” About the Supreme Court decision encouraging murder, mayhem and civil disorder.

This week, in a fit of judicial activism, five members of the United States Supreme Court overthrew the Constitution of the United States.

At issue was the “meaning” of the Second Amendment that states:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
Note that this is the only – the only – item in the Bill of Rights that the framers of the constitution felt necessary to explain with any clause whatsoever. This one exceptional clause begins, “A well regulated Militia being necessary…”

The other items in the Bill of Rights don’t, for example, say that “discourse and free exercise of conscience among citizens being necessary to a free state…” before they prevented Congress from interfering with freedom of religion, speech, assembly or the press.

Why the difference?

Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the Constitution-be-damned ruling, explains his twisted reasoning this way:
The “militia” comprised all males physically capable of acting in concert for the common defense. The Antifederalists feared that the Federal Government would disarm the people in order to disable this citizens’ militia, enabling a politicized standing army or a select militia to rule. The response was to deny Congress power to abridge the ancient right of individuals to keep and bear arms, so that the ideal of a citizens’ militia would be preserved.
Let's grant that he's right about the history, so far as he goes. But that still means that the purpose of the law is to permit “well regulated” citizens’ militias, and not for you and I to keep a Glock under our pillows and another tucked in our waistbands for “self defense” as essentially unregulated individuals.

For that matter, if you follow what Scalia and his four concurring justices say, it doesn't give women the right to bear arms for any purpose whatsoever. Got that, Annie Oakley?

Imagine an armed
march on Washington

If we logically follow Scalia’s argument, you and I, as ordinary citizens, have the right under the constitution to form a militia, and in well-regulated order march on Washington with our arms and put down either a "politicized" army – and who decides whether the U.S. Army is "politicized" or not? – or a "select" militia, whatever that means. We could simply open fire on the United States Army. Fat chance that would be allowed to happen!

Besides, what would we march for? Maybe, in defense of the United States Constitution and in favor of civil order – because we are sickened by drive-by shootings, gunshot accidents and suicides, gang wars, robberies, murderously berserk students shooting up their fellow students on high school and college campuses and of the Supreme Court justices who by their rulings encourage this murder and mayhem.

Maybe our militia would march on Washington to demand that the five members who voted for this Constitution-killing decision be arrested, tried and hanged for playing fast and loose with constitutional law.

Armed insurrection
ain't constitutional

Except if we did that, that would be an armed called an insurrection, wouldn’t it? And how do you think the Supreme Court would rule if we were tried for this insurrection and appealed our absolutely certain convictions?

Well, here’s a hint: The U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t allow citizens – members of a well regulated militia or not, men or not – to bear arms in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Dude, where’s my shareholder value? The money flying out of Wachovia bank is yours, if you’re a stockholder. But the bank blames customers.

Love those banks, dude! Take Wachovia, the North Carolina banking conglomerate that’s doing more than it’s fair share to bring down the U.S. economy – and train-wrecking it’s own stockholders in the bargain.

Fact is that if you invested roughly $5,500 in Wachovia, as I did on January 23, 2007, your investment, like mine, would have lost in excess of $3,000 of its value as of the morning of June 23, 2008.

I know, I know, I shoulda bailed out ten months ago. Woulda, shoulda, coulda, the old lament of investors since cave men began trading rocks on the Neanderthal Exchange.

I probably still should bail, take my roughly 70% loss, lick my wounds, and move on. Except, cranky old fart that I am, I take a perverse pleasure in assuming the authentic role of an increasingly aggrieved investor and skewering the bank’s former president, Ken Thompson, who recently seems to have been fired, earning  $8.7 million in farewell gifts for the job he did in shrinking shareholder value. 

The bank's cheerful message: 

What, me worry?

This rant was prompted by a letter I received from someone at Wachovia over the weekend. It told me about terrific things Wachovia is doing improve the bank’s, uh, situation.

So I went to Wachovia’s website to see what else I could learn.

The first thing I saw was a picture of the woman above, apparently grabbing cash that's flying in cyclone gusts out of Wachovia's windows. That advertising artwork was created to help the shaky bank lure some depositors into the house.

Then I went to the financial stuff. Here I learned that Wachovia is taking “initiatives” to “further enhance its capital base and flexibility.”

Wow, with “further enhancements” like this, we’ll all be able to afford bread and water in the poorhouse.

Shooting the stockholders

Specifically, Wachovia is going to “raise capital through a public offering of common stock and perpetual convertible preferred stock…”

Tell ya what that’ll do. That’ll further water down the value of the stock I already own. Then the bank is going to engage in:
Lowering the quarterly common stock dividend, which preserves $2.1 billion of capital annually, to build capital ratios and provide more operational flexibility.
Wow! Since my stock will generate even less dividend income for investors than it did last year, did it occur to whoever is now piloting this sinking ship that that this will drive down the price of the stock? And by the way, how did you manage to shrink capital ratios in the first place?

Blame shifting 101

And the website has begun pointing fingers. Rather than simply saying, “We screwed up, so we're going to resign, go home and gas ourselves in the garage, the way true gentlemen in the banking business used to do during the Great Depression,” the website points the gas hose at you and me.

You’ll have to plow your way through a sudden fit of turgid jargon, an odd shift from the simple English used elsewhere on Wachovia's website, so pay close attention as Wachovia tells us…
The update in the credit reserve modeling in response to the current and forecasted market environment and its effect on consumer behavior, particularly in stressed markets, resulting in a significant increase in the first quarter 2008 provision for credit losses. In addition, the scope of credit disclosures was increased to provide enhanced insight into the payment option consumer real estate portfolio.
Uh, got that, folks? Let me tell you what I get, in addition to shafted. I get that Wachovia is telling us it was “stressed markets” that did former CEO Ken in, as well as an evident lack of insight into what was going on with his bank. And what "stressed" those markets?

Why, it was...
...the precipitous decline in housing market conditions and unprecedented changes in consumer behavior prompted us to update our credit reserve modeling and rely less heavily on historical trends to forecast losses.
"Unprecedented" behavior? When people go bust, they're bust. When they don't have enough money, they can't pay their mortgages. That's it, pure and sample. It's as precedented as an empty wallet. But never mind all that.

The gist of Wachovia's argument is, it was your fault, you stupid consumers, for having the unmitigated nerve to purchase those outrageous home loans that Wachovia was either offering to the public or snapping up in the secondary market. And then you made it worse,“behaving” badly by failing to behave the way former CEO Ken's "model" said you would and make payments that the bank knew, or should have known that you couldn’t possibly afford.

Surprise! History goes back
more than 10 years

And now, as a consequence the bank will rely “less heavily” on “historic trends” – such as, “Hey, housing prices have been going up for ten years. So we can’t lose. Keep pumping out those variable rate junk mortgages!” Now Wachovia's going to “update” their credit reserve modeling – meaning, somebody going to try to be a little more sure you can afford a mortgage before they give you one.

Okay, even with all those brilliant minds  behind Wachovia’s operations, there’s still hope for badly drubbed stockholders that some takeover artist will buy the bank for a song and merge it into another bank, perhaps returning a tad more than the 30 cents we now have left for every buck we kicked into Wachovia's pot.

That’s the good news. But it’s also the bad news and here's why: The bigger that banks become by purchasing other troubled banks, the bigger the U.S. Government’s liability will be when the next dunderhead comes along to follow so-called “historic trends.”

Yo, Washington! It’s time to break up 
those oversized banking conglomerates

Apparently, a significant piece of history that Wachovia has somehow ignored is called The Great Depression, during which many banks failed. This gave rise to heavy, heavy banking regulations that kept banks and the economy in line. Or at least they stayed in line until “free market” cheerleaders started pouding deregulation into our ears.

One of the things this country really needs is some fierce anti-trust action to break up the few big banks into the many itty-bitty banks they used to be. Then, when a mismanaged bank goes down, not too much harm will be done to the stock market, depositors, and the U.S. economy. Write to your senators and congressman and tell them. Mention that the New York Crank sent you.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A few words about locutional nincompoops: even when they go missing they make me think to myself that I’m like, so…like, well, like, whateverrrr.

Okay, I have to confess first. My beautiful girlfriend got me wound up to write this one.

It started when, for the umpteenth time, she heard someone on a television news show use the phrase “gone missing” – meaning, one could deduce from the surrounding blather, that somebody had disappeared. Or vanished. Or had been kidnapped. Or had been murdered, her remains disposed in some secret place. Or had eloped with a pimply guy wearing a motorcycle jacket who never held down a job for more than two days.

“Gone missing”: clear,
unaffected language

“Gone Missing” is a ridiculous phrase. “Is missing” would do the job, at least until the awful final fate of the victim in question is determined. Or even until a haplessly lost person has the good fortune to be found again, alive and well.

But no. The airhead network newsreaders and the nincompoops who write their scripts for them…(Are you listening, Katie Couric? Because this might explain part of your problem.)…all of these fools are using an awkwardly inappropriate phrase that blames the victim for his or her plight.

A kidnapped child doesn’t “go” missing. Listen, you lame brained news writer (or should I call you a news ritur?) If you say a child has "gone" missing, you’ve implied that the child has deliberately taken the action that makes her missing. It’s somehow all her own fault that she has gone and purposely gotten kidnapped. Or murdered. Or crammed into a newsritur’s bottom desk drawer and held there against her will along with the newsritur’s books on correct English language usage and a rubber corset. That applies to you, too, you imbecilic network newsreadur.

Where it all started

Mind you, the Crank’s beautiful girlfriend isn’t the first person to begin seething over this vile misuse of the simple verb “to go.” Back in 2004 the writer – definitely not a ritur – Ben Yagoda traced the source of the “go missing” abomination straight to the press. He revealed, in part:

Along with variants "went missing" and "gone missing," it [the phrase “go missing”] appeared in The New York Times not at all in 1983, and only twice in 1993. In 2001, however, the formulation was employed 24 times. The reason was a major national story about a person who went missing: Chandra Levy. And that year was the tipping point. In 2003, the Times had precisely 50 "go missings," and today even writers for USA Today and People use it with a straight face.
Hey, New York Times. Hey print media. Hey, network news. Maybe there’s a reason your educated audience is going missing, too. And here I’m using the phrase somewhat more appropriately. They aren’t getting kidnapped. They’re simply getting fed up and furiously going away – or going missing from your newspaper subscription lists and the viewership of your program, if you will.

Reflexive redundancy
runs ridiculously rampant

If you think misuse of the phrase “going missing” is bad, at least don’t think it to yourself. “I thought to myself” is another phrase that gets the Crank’s beautiful girlfriend’s goat.

It’s an outrageous redundancy, she points out. Simply saying “I thought,” would do the job. You can’t think to anybody else except yourself – unless you’re telepathic, or unless evil secret agents are tapping your brain waves to spy on you.

The beautiful girlfriend has most certainly met some of those folks. She’s a psychiatrist and she knows a mental case when she hears one thinking to itself. So I’d better warn you that if you tell her that you’re thinking things to other people via some involuntary high-tech brain suck, she’s likely to have you committed.

Therefore, whatever you do, don’t show up on her couch wearing your tinfoil hat when you tell her what you thought to yourself.

That most especially goes for your other self.

Valley of the Valley Girls

While I’m on the subject of turns of speech that nearly make my own superego “go missing,” I’d like to say an unkind word or two hundred about those Valley Girl locutions that are gradually infesting speech among the general population, as if they were locutionary kudzu.

Here are a few of them:
“He, like, seemed very nice.”
The word “like” says nothing that the same sentence without “like” wouldn’t say. Using, like, the word “like” will only, like, slow down your listeners and readers and, like, get them irritated or, like, turn them off. Like get it?

More recently, “like” and “go” have been conscripted by idiots to serve as verbs replacing the completely appropriate, “said.”

Example (including more than one inappropriate way to use“like”):
He suddenly, like, lets go of my hand and walks up to this other girl. So I’m like, “You’ve got to be, like, kidding me!” And he’s like, “Sorry babe, this is my wife.”
Another example:
So I go, “What are you doing Saturday night?” So she goes, “Whatever I’m doing, it won’t be with you, Bozo.” Like, I can’t believe what I heard!
If it’s not a question, dumbkopf,
then don’t say it like a question

Still another example has to do with what you might call the "interrogatory declarative sentence." Once upon a time only valley girls and people who had spent too much time visiting their weird cousins in California used it. Now it’s as common as germs on public toilets. It’s a way of ending each sentence with a slight rise in intonation, turning a declarative sentence into something that sounds almost as if it's a question.
So I’m, like, not believing my ears? I mean, she was talking to me like I’m an uneducated idiot? And I think I know why? I mean, like, it’s probably because she’s my teacher?
What’s that? You don’t agree with any of this rant?


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Washington Post “uncovers” the secret and insidiously mind-altering political power of comedians. Hey, this isn’t funny!

You and I and the rest of us should have known. No sooner does the Los

It all depends on what your
 definition of “definition” is

The problem, says the thrust of a recent article in the Washington Post that humorlessly dissects political humor, is that not only are people getting their news from comedians, but that comedians are in effect “defining” politicians by making fun of them.

One could look at the first part of their complaint, and wonder aloud, “Hey, if people – let’s say in the Washington D.C. metro area – are getting their news from the Colbert Report instead of the Washington Post, could that be telling us something about the Washington Post?”

Only asking.

Hell hath no fury like
a newspaper scorned

Personally, I’m beginning to see a pattern here. Blogs – as reported in my previous cranky post – begin scooping newspapers for news. Poof! Blogs come under the Los Angeles Times’ critical scrutiny.

People also start “getting news from comedians.” Another poof! The Washington Post tells us why political humor isn’t anything to laugh at.

Of course, the Washington Post “balanced” its news by quoting two funny guys – Gary Trudeau the Doonesbury creator, and Ben Karlin, the Colbert Report co-creator – who say, in essence, that humor has barely more power to destroy a politician than a whoopee cushion under your grandma’s rocking chair can kill termites.

A funny thing about truth

Trudeau put his finger on what it’s really all about when he told the Washington Post reporter, “For something to be funny, the audience has to be in a position to sense the truth of it. It has to be primed. Satire can crystallize what's already in the air, but it can't really put it there.”

That may be why there aren’t a whole lot of conservative comedians. Even among their doting followers, the existing handful of conservative yuckmeisters tend to get applause rather than real laughs. That also may be why they aren’t getting much TV exposure. Do you really want to say at the end of a comedy show, “I applauded so hard my sides hurt?”

The Washington Post seems to have missed this point.

We report. You read.
Then we un-report.

The Washington Post did take the trouble, after quoting Trudeau and Karlin, to re-un-balance their balanced reporting. So they went out and found a college professor to say something grumpy:
Russell L. Peterson, an American studies professor at the University of Iowa, believes comics who refute satire's power are purposefully insincere. "But they have a good reason for being disingenuous," adds the author of "Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy Into a Joke." "Their comic license depends on them denying that."
Gosh, Russell, at least nobody will ever have to issue you a comic license.

Monday, June 09, 2008

O the horror of it all! It turns out anybody – anybody at all – can unearth a news story or express a political opinion. Without a license!

You can sense, just under the surface, a growing malaise among journalists who work in traditional media – print and broadcast.

Competition from the masses

The latest press concern? That anybody with a tape recorder, or a cell phone, or even with nothing but some intellectual curiosity, can dig up and break news these days – as long as they own a computer.

Gone are the days when somebody first had to take courses from the South Podunk State University School of Journalism and Mass Communications. Or even from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Gone are the days when you had to intern – as I did – for some small town paper like The Troy (Ohio) Daily News and the now-defunct Paterson (New Jersey) Sunday Eagle before you could get launched as a cub reporter – also as I did – for The New York Post. 

At that point, you finally had a credential that enabled you to stand in the crowds during a presidential election rally phoning in “color.” Or, at 3 o'clock in the morning, you got to ring a doorbell and throw a pair of bleary-eyed parents into shock by saying, "Your son just got killed in a drunk driving automobile collision on Pitkin Avenue. What kind of a boy was he? How was he doing in school? Was he ever drunk before? Who were his friends? Did he have a driver's license. How was he doing in school? Why was he on Pitkin Avenue?"

Instead, whoever you are these days, if you see something you can say something – and potentially get worldwide exposure for it. You can even show the world a record of the event that  you shot with your cell phone.

Journalism major?
Big freaking deal.

The problem with college majors in journalism is that most of the courses are how-to lessons in journalism that you could pick up on the job.

Each hour spent in a journalism class is an hour that is not spent studying history, or government, or sociology, or science. So journalism students learn mostly technique, not perspective. You learn how to interview, how to construct a pyramid-structure story that enables editors to chop off your copy to fit from the bottom up. You learn (maybe) where and how to check public records. Okay, I’m for that part of it.

You also learn the “ethics” of making sure that if you quote one person, you also quote “the other side.” That’s called “balance.”

"What color is the sky?
Here with another point of view is..."

While the theory of “balance” is good, it doesn’t always serve the purpose for which it’s intended. If you quote some dude as saying “The sky is blue,” you then have to go out and find somebody willing to say, “No, the sky is brown with orange polka dots.”

In the name of “balance” the traditional press has given a podium to flacks, hacks and fools willing to say we’re actually “winning” the war in Iraq, or that Social Security is going down the tubes and can be saved only by “privatizing” it, or that God created dinosaurs the day before he created people, and then buried the dinosaur bones to test our faith.

All these claims are patently ridiculous, yet all get placed before news audiences as “reasonable” alternatives to what is obviously the truth.

“But we’ve always misreported
the news this way.”

People get accustomed to doing things the way they've always done them. So it’s not surprising that newspeople are so accustomed to having a lock on news that they get their bustles twisted out of shape by the “amateurs” who scoop them on every level – from national news to small town stuff (as you’ll see if you read on) involving a political candidate who failed to obtain a $100 license for a bed and breakfast.

No fair! A mere“amateur” discovers
Bill Clinton’s potty mouth.

The national story, in this case, involved Bill Clinton. Good ol' boy Bill launched a potty-mouthed denunciation of a journalist who made him look bad in Vanity Fair magazine. Reports the Los Angeles Times (with what one senses is a thinly-masked explosion of outrage):
The 61-year-old self-described "failed writer" and amateur Web journalist helped create two of the most unexpected moments in the 2008 election -- most recently on Monday, when she recorded former President Clinton's fiery denunciation ("slimy," "dishonest") of Vanity Fair writer Todd Purdum. The latest incident cemented Fowler's place as the unlikely face of the new-media revolution that is remaking presidential campaigns. Online videos can dominate the evening news. Or an unpublished novelist "with absolutely no journalism training" can alter the national debate.
Well, “alter the national debate” might be going a tetch far in this case, especially since that alteration is an unsupported claim in a newspaper of national standing.

Absolution for the 
Los Angeles Times

But let’s forgive the L.A. Times. The folks in the newsroom there must be suffering the hellish agonies of the scooped. Heck, it’s a good story, and they didn’t get it. Instead, someone “with absolutely no journalism training” got the story ahead of them.

Let us instead pick up the tale in the New York Times which horrifies us – O, what horrific horror! – with this nugget:
The woman, Mayhill Fowler, who calls herself a citizen journalist, wore no credential around her neck and did not identify herself, her intentions or her affiliation as an unpaid contributor to Off the Bus, a section of The Huffington Post.
While her digital audio recorder was visible in her left hand during that encounter last Monday, she says, she did not believe Mr. Clinton saw it. “I think we can safely say he thought I was a member of the audience,” she said in a telephone interview on Friday.
Newsweek writer twists
his own bustle, too

The same Times article has Jonathan Alter, who writes for Newsweek, huffing – accidental pun – “You identify yourself when you’re interviewing somebody. It’s just a form of cheating not to.”

Wait a second, Jonathan. Just wait a second! Who’s getting cheated here? Seems to me it certainly wasn’t the readers of the Huffington Post, who were given a vivid insight into the irascible personality of a man who might have been a highlyu influential “First Hubby.”

So why the outrage? The Times quotes Jane Hamsher of the blog Firedog Lake as saying, the purpose of identify-yourself-guidelines is “to “protect this clubby group of journalists and their high-ranking political subjects, and keep access to themselves.”

Let’s look at it another way.

"Excuse me, Mr. Hitler, are the

awful rumors about you true?"

Let’s say I’m a newspaper reporter in 1941, and in the name of “balance” I identify myself to Adolph Hitler, and ask, “Are the reports true, Mr. Hitler, that you are exterminating Jews in concentration camps?”

“Of course not!” barks Hitler, “This is just vicious anti-German propaganda, nothing more.”

On the other hand, suppose I sidled up to Hitler without identifying myself and asked, “Say mein fuhrer, how many more Jews do we have to exterminate before they’re all gone?” And suppose, his guard down, he replied, “Not long. We killed a million already and we’re gassing ten thousand a week right now.”

You’re telling me that if I broadcast that quote, and revealed he admitted the horror of what he was doing to the world before another five million innocent human beings died, I’d be unethically “cheating” – right Jonathan?

America’s first blogger
used a printing press

Remember that America’s first freedom of the press case – the colonial uproar that made the First Amendment so important to the authors of the constitution, involved not a “trained journalist” but a printer who was publishing his own opinions – the 18th Century equivalent of a blogger today.

His name was John Peter Zenger, and if you missed history class because you were too busy studying journalism, you can read more about his case here.

Of course, it isn’t always bagging big game that offends the “trained” press.

Shock that a blogger unearths
a small town "scandal

Consider exurban “Dan’s Papers,” a rich, fat weekly in New York’s most fashionable outlying vacation colony, “The Hamptons.”

Dan Rattiner, the founder, editor and former publisher is a talented writer, raconteur, and observer of the Hamptons scene. He built his journal from a simple broadsheet to a behemoth he recently sold for $19 million.

Dan was writing his paper in the style of a personal blog before the word blog was invented. I begrudge him neither his hard-earned bucks nor the bully pulpit he still retains on Dan’s Papers after the sale. But I do begrudge the tone of a recent “20-Something” column written by his son, David Lion Rattiner. Young David complains:
Thanks to "On The Beach Blog," a personal blog about Westhampton Beach, that town's Deputy Mayor, Jim Kametler, is finding himself in the middle of a scandal.

O, the scandal of it all!

Just so you are aware, in order to get a proper permit for the bed-and-breakfast, a $100 application fee is required each year, and Village Code approval must be obtained. You also need to register with the Suffolk County Treasurer's Office to get a certificate of registration. Not a whole lot of work, but needless to say, the Deputy Mayor didn't get that paperwork, and a man with a computer wasn't about to let him get away with it.
Got that little elbow in the ribs concerning “a man with a computer?”

Nevermind that Dan’s Papers, other local weeklies and the big daily Long Island Newsday missed the story until the “On The Beach Blog" uncovered it.

Axes, grinders and love

Young David’s piece goes on to imply that that the On The Beach blogger has some axes to grind with the mayor. So what? Since when is there a law that you have to really, really like and admire a guy to expose his illegal activities? And come to think of it, might Young David have an axe to grind with bloggers who scoop him?

Heck, it’s getting to the point where some kid who has a 30 column-inch sinecure because his father started a newspaper simply can’t tell where the next scoop by some untrained journalist is going to come from.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Holy cow! A how-to book on advertising that's especially useful for small business owners and beginners. And – wheee! – reading it is a joy ride.

When I meet Jay Heyman, author of the new book, “All You Need Is A Good Idea” for lunch (which I’ve been doing now on average once a month for over 20 years) we usually avoid arguing about advertising principles and fight about something else instead. There's a reason.

Dueling theories
of advertising

We’re both advertising copywriters by trade. (Writing cranky tirades is just a sideline for me.) But we come from opposing schools of thought. I cut my advertising teeth at the atelier of the late David Ogilvy who preached, “The more you tell, the more you sell.” Long ad copy was king at David’s shop, at least in those days.

Heyman, on the other hand, seems to have learned his point of view from Mies van der Rohe, an architect, not an adman, who proclaimed that, “less is more.” Or as Heyman re-states the principle in his book, “Don’t talk so much.”

So at lunch we speak of things other than how to advertise, lest our regular meetings over pastrami sandwiches begin to resemble the final conference of, say, Sheriff Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid (I leave it to you to decide which of us is which) with pickles and cole slaw flying instead of bullets. If it ever happens it’ll be the food fight of the century.

“Burgering” the mayor

None of this should be taken to mean that Heyman’s school of say-it-quick-and-run advertising doesn’t have its notable virtues. For example Heyman, now a partner in the boutique Porte Advertising agency, coined the memorable line for his client, The Stage Deli and its famously over-stuffed sandwiches, “Celebrating 70 Years of Excess.” That just about says it all.

Heyman also got the deli to rename one of its hamburgers “The Mayor Bloomberger,” and actually got the Mayor to come to the deli and eat one, thus generating a brief storm of valuable-but-free publicity. Hey, it doesn’t work when you’re selling Rolls Royce automobiles, but I’ll bet it moved a heck of a lot of chopped sirloin.

Advertising 101

The advice that Heyman dispenses is practical and likely to be helpful to most people whose living depends on creating or judging advertising, even if the advice is a bit basic in spots. For example, he doesn’t get into the techniques such as counting direct mail responses, gauging return on investment, recording web clicks and other measurements that you can use to determine advertising effectiveness.

But what the book lacks in tutoring on advanced technique, it more than makes up for in basic advice for small businesses and others, often couched in deliciously-written copy. Consider his warning on coming up with a klunker of an idea, “Get it wrong and you will suffer the death of a thousand silent cash registers.”

The book also contains illuminating case histories, and wonderful advertising yarns that will have most Madison Avenue veterans nodding in recognition. I’ll excerpt just one of them here, since I really do hope you’ll run out and buy a copy.

This tale, which Heyman builds around a stumble in his own career, explains how fragile a good idea is, and how eagerly “helpful” colleagues in an advertising agency will flock to kill it:

With friends like this
he didn’t need enemies

…It was a new business pitch for Drambuie, an after dinner drink that is a blend of scotch whiskies, heather honey and, naturally, a secret recipe. Lots of pressure, lots of prestige for the winning creative and therefore lots of politics in the agency. The odds of anyone other than a very senior creative (which I was not) having their work considered was, well, you know the usual story.

... I wanted to focus on the fact that Drambuie was rarely served before or during a meal. It was only served following a meal…

…I found myself with the idea of using arresting black and white portraits of famous influential historic icons. Each of them was a significant leader in whatever field they were involved with. The good idea was not just the unusual look of the page. It was the combination of words that was the headline in every ad in the campaign.

For example, you had photos of three impressive notables in one ad: Andy Warhol, Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw. Plus a headline writ large: There Have Been Many Great Leaders…But Only One Great Follower.

Next to the bottle, at the bottom of the ad, was the claim, “Drambuie Liqueur. Nothing Follows A Great Dinner Better.”

...Agreed, it was a good idea. Even top management of the agency in charge of the presentation recognized its worth and praised it. And then came what you have to beware of: Being Pecked To Death By Ducks.

The first thing that happened to my good idea was the suggestion from a high-ranking creative that perhaps it should not be famous leaders and followers. It should be famous endings, like the demolition of Ebbets Field. So that had to be worked up for him.

Then another biggie creative suggested making the leaders less formidable and more approachable so the common folk could relate to them. And be sure to include the names of each celebrity, so that the reader would never feel ignorant. Another suggestion was to just put one person in each ad. I don’t remember all the suggestions but the net effect was to dilute the idea beyond saving. Yet, I must admit I listened to them all. Partly because they had never been so involved with any of my previous work at the agency. Partially because part of me said, well they are the top hierarchy of the shop; they must be better than their comments make me feel they are.

Then came the next internal presentation. The president of the agency, who had seen only my initial idea and not the various changes, took one look and got very upset. With me! He dismissed the idea and said in effect, that I had no idea how good the original campaign was and that I had destroyed it with what I was showing him now. I looked around for support from those in the meeting who had led me down this path. I am still waiting.

The end result was that the campaign was not shown. (By the way, the agency did not get the account. The campaign recommendation, as I recall, was a photo of a man entering his home after a difficult day and saying to his wife: “Do Me A Drambuie.” No comment.)
Check out his blog, too

For free samples of Heyman’s wisdom and counsel, I also recommend checking out his blog.

But just once thing: Remember that while there are times when you shouldn’t talk so much, there are also times when more copy is actually more effective.

Monday, June 02, 2008

“Oh it’s hard out here for a ‘ho.” You know it’s a whopper of a recession when even the brothel business starts feeling the pain.

If you want to know what’s really going on in America, turn off the networks and CNN. Toss out your daily newspaper and start reading the trade papers.

Advertising Age is reporting today that:

George Flint, director of the Nevada Brothel Owners' Association, said revenue at the 25 legal bordellos for which he lobbies is down 25% to 45%, depending on the location. "We used to say Nevada was immune from recession," Mr. Flint said. "Not anymore."
When even sex is getting taking a hit of up to almost 50 percent, you know the Republican Bush Economy is sinking us.

And please – puhleez – don’t tell me those put-upon cathouses ought to do the right thing for their businesses and promote themselves more. Heck, some of them have already pulled out all the stops, most especially when it comes to appealing to the truckers who are evidently their most avid customers.

For example, Advertising Age reports:
…many legal owners are marketing nonetheless, with offers such as casino-style VIP programs that "comp" frequent customers and offer barbecues for truckers and other passersby. Explained Mr. Flint: "'Get your card punched, and the 10th visit is free.' Or free buffets, so you can come and have a nice roast beef dinner with the girls."
Added Mr. Johnson [a brothel owner]: "We market Donna's as a home away from home for truckers. There's always free chili, ham and beans, and corn bread. And they respond to it. We'll hold a barbecue, and they're the ones who are flipping the burgers."
Home or no home, hookers, madames and bordellomeisters are sharing the pain. Not to mention white collar workers, blue collar workers, the unemployed, students, the medically uninsured, homeowners and automobile drivers – to name just a few categories of Americans who are taking a brutal hit thanks to Bush Republican economic and social policies. Meanwhile, CEOs continue to pull down multi-million dollar compensation packages that are taxed very little.

Heaven help us if our next president is a Republican and continues those policies – as Republican candidate John McCain seems to be planning.