And Now A Word From Our Sponsor

31 10 2010

I suppose it all started with Seinfeld. Without doubt, Seinfeld is one of the most iconic of all TV sitcoms, and yet it admittedly was a show about nothing. It revolutionized the way sitcoms are written and shot. Each episode had a stand-alone theme, but with three and sometimes four story arcs meandering through the fabric, stitched together with those trademark thumpy bass riffs. Oh yeah…and it all managed to fit into about 22 minutes (what’s left after you remove the commercials).

If anything, Seinfeld ushered in the era of ADHD on TV. It bounced around so quickly you dare not step out of the room for a beer lest you miss something funny going on with Elaine. Amazingly, by the end of the show, it all came together and Jerry tied the story knot. But your brain was just a little tired from being stretch in so many directions in such a short period of time.

Seinfeld’s impact is now being felt in the world of TV advertising, with commercials having shrunk first from 60 seconds to 30, and now down to 15 seconds. If you feel like you are being yanked around every time you watch primetime, you are not imagining things.

There are a number of factors at play here. Marketers now correctly assume that we 21C citizens have very short attention spans, that our lives have become like Seinfeld episodes of old. The only things missing are those quirky bass riffs to serve as segues from one seemingly random idea to another. If you feel like a pinball ricocheting between the bells and bumpers, you are not imagining things. Our lives have become as disjointed as those of Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer.

But there are other good reasons why commercials are becoming shorter. One is cost. The economy has made it difficult for companies to advertise, and media to sell ad time. The 15-second burst is perfect. While the cost-per-second is about the same as for longer spots, the shorter versions allow companies a chance to at least put their name before the viewing public.

But there is another fact working here as well, and that is repetition. The assumption (and it is one based soundly on theory) is that repetition is good, and that it takes numerous exposures before people finally pay attention, remember, and then act. Short ads allow companies with sufficient ad budgets to scatter many seeds, and in some very creative case, even wrap their ads around others, all during a 75-second commercial break.

So while our lives may read like the fabled 90s sitcom, and economic expediency may dictate the terms, the truth of the matter is that short, repetitive bursts may actually serve their purpose better than less frequent long ads.

The only problem I see, though, is an increasing clutter. If everyone is doing it, then there will be hundreds of voices in the air, all screaming in short, calculated outbursts. And just like we quickly immunized ourselves against ubiquitous banner ads a decade ago, we may very well find ourselves doing the same today. In the era of the DVR, we are already zipping and zapping our way through ads as it is, and a 15-second message could be practically obliterated in 8X speed as we skip forward.

I can only imagine the ads of the future: 5-second screams, repeating every 15 seconds, at triple the volume of the regular show. Have a Coke. Eat Cheerios. Drive Toyota. Have a Coke. Sale at Target. Red Robin…Ummmm! Have another Coke.

It’s enough to make my already addled ADHD brain tired just thinking about it. I can’t handle any more bass riffs. I can’t process any more story arcs. I can’t handle Kramer sliding in unannounced.

All this noise is about to convince me that, instead of a cornucopia of meaning, we have devolved into a commercially nihilistic reality. Nietzsche would be proud. It’s time to head down to the diner for some lunch.

Now that’s a story arc I can stomach.

Dr “It All Ads Up” Gerlich

Can You Hear Me Now?

30 10 2010

On my recent trips to Las Vegas, I was dismayed…ok, furious…at how spotty cell phone coverage can be in the City of Lights. This is no longer rocket surgery, guys. If I want to text, FB a pic or status update, or even place an old-fashioned call, I should be able to do this with ease.

But no. I dropped more calls than a blindfolded juggler. In my hotel room. In casinos. Walking down The Strip.

So I was intrigued to note this week that the next time I try to scale Mt. Everest, I’ll be able to place a cell phone call. No kidding. Swedish telecom giant TeliaSonera has mounted a cell tower at Everest base camp, some 17,000 feet above sea level. And that tower will reportedly reach all the way to the top of Everest, which sits a bone chilling 29,029 feet in the air.

Which means that future adventurers and sherpas will be able to Facebook, tweet and email their progress up and down this giant metaphor (as well as place emergency calls). That is, if they can still use their frostbitten fingers to tap out a message. Or don’t get blown into a crevasse as they update their status.

If anything, this latest attempt to bring technology to the ends of the earth speaks to our fascination with always-on communications. Unless we willfully turn off our devices, we are now on-call 24/7.

Gone are the days of complete unavailability. The downhill run started with the answering machine, which allowed people to tag us when were not at home. Cell phones were fine until they became ubiquitous, but now that over 90% of USAmericans use one, it just means we are reachable in otherwise unreachable places, by people who also would be unreachable. As in out and about.

Worldwide, there are now a little under 5 billion (no kidding) cell phones in use. And with just under 7 billion people, that means cell phones have a market penetration rate of about 70%. There are 3 billion cell phone calls made each day in the US alone. And while this is an apples-to-soft drinks comparison, Coca Cola, available in over 200 countries, serves 1.6 billion beverages each day.

Yeah, we like our cell phones, but probably not as much as we like Coke.

While I am amazed at the new Everest tower, I am disappointed that the US lags other nations in cell coverage. A quick look at any coverage map (Pick one…ATT, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile) shows huge gaping holes, especially throughout the west. Sure, we can argue that the US is a victim of its own size and thin population densities, but if we truly want to espouse this always-on aspect of communications, then we need to be building more towers in more places. You know…so we can have more bars. And I don’t mean the drinking kind.

And while I have on occasion been surprised to find a signal in some pretty remote places, I think it was more a matter of luck than strategic willful availability. I realize that having been a leader in land line technology decades ago actually set us up to fall behind in emerging wireless technologies, because developing countries could leapfrog right to the front of the pack. But the time has come for us to start putting towers on our Everests, in our Death Valleys, and in the most lonesome of places.

Because our lives depend on it. Our business survives on it. Our Facebook friends crave it.

And our accessibility should not be subjected to rolls of the dice. I want better odds than that.

Dr “Climb Every Mountain” Gerlich

Smoke Rings

29 10 2010

Novelty products and parodies are nothing new in the marketplace of the silly. We have endured countless song parodies (Weird All Yankovic comes immediately to mind), as well as trading cards, t-shirts, beverages (think soft drinks for cats and dogs, and beers for TV shows) and food products (you name it). Let someone or some thing become famous, and instantly the comedians start looking for a way to inject a little humor.

Which is precisely what appears to be happening with the introduction of Bama’s cigarettes. Introduced by a small Florida company and available in five states, Bama’s are not just another pack of emphysema to go. No, the cleverly placed “O” on the label quickly signifies these smokes as being nothing short of a quick shot at President Obama. Yes, everyone, go ahead and inhale to the Chief.

Sure, company co-founder Rob Klotzback swears they are not capitalizing on our President nor his affinity for tobacco. No sirree, that big “O” is just a “flavor circle.” Uh-huh. Sure.

It’s not the first time a product has been associated with a politician. In 1996, Clinton Cola was released during President Clinton’s re-election campaign. In 1964, both Gold Water (for Barry Goldwater) and Johnson Juice (for Lyndon B. Johnson) were released in 12 ounce cans. And let us not forget Billy Beer, named in honor of President Carter’s hell-raising brother. (And no, the beer cans are worthless…millions of them were set aside by people thinking they would be worth something.)

Truthfully, I laughed out loud when I saw Bama’s. I instantly knew them for what they are: a quick and easy attempt to turn a profit on someone else’s success. Everyone knows Obama smokes on occasion, but we have all gotten over it. And there is that pesky little midterm election coming this Tuesday, so the timing is right.

The only problem is I am not quite sure whether this is an effort to promote or detract from our President, because a case could be made either way.

Of course, social critics are aflame over this one, grabbing the microphone to cry foul. No one should be creating and selling products that could potentially addict a user for life, right? But I doubt the Bama’s people have the means to mount an advertising campaign capable of seducing new smokers.

More importantly, I doubt there is anyone alive who would for a moment think these smokes are in any way, shape or form connected to the President (just like no one thought Jimmy Carter endorsed Billy Beer). And to argue that no one should be allowed to parody the presidency has not watched Saturday Night Live before.

In other words, get over it. Recognize this for what it is: a novelty product with a very short shelf life. They may generate a buzz today, but in a couple of years the whole lot may go up in smoke. The only place you will be able to find them is eBay. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Dr “Got A Match?” Gerlich

Pop-Up Culture

29 10 2010

Just when you think the winter of our economic discontent can’t get any worse, along comes news of a glimmer of hope. Kind of like the first daffodil of spring. The snowdrift melting to reveal grass. Walking outside without a jacket.

And while it may not mean long-term jobs for all the victims of the current recession, at least there’s a growing number of short-term gigs popping up. Chalk it all up to the growing number of pop-up stores sprouting like those springtime daffodils.

Pop-up stores are retail outlets filling empty retail and commercial space. Thank to the recession, there’s a lot of boarded up storefronts. Landlords are thrilled to have tenants if even only for a couple of months, while retail chains and other marketing entities are all too happy to have inexpensive opportunities to put their brand in front of the people.

Pop-up stores are nothing new. Anyone who has lived long enough to shop the mall around Christmas has seen the seasonal kiosks as well as boomerang tenants such as Hickory Farms return each November. But while most pop-up stores still stick to the winter formula, there is evidence this time around the pop-ups are popping at all times of the year.

Consider the advantages: They allow retail chains to test out new locations with little risk, as well as double up on retail space whenever the need arises. Chains like Target and Toys ‘R Us can spread themselves around town without having to commit to the real estate footprint of a new stand-alone store. And more esoteric marketing efforts (like those surrounding the release and merchandising of a movie) can position themselves visibly and within proximity of a theater.

Industry reports tell tales of a growing number of retailers filling vacancies with pop-ups the likes of which have not been seen before. Whereas pop-ups have traditionally been limited to seasonal vendors, the format is being used by retail mainstays. And while these mainstays may not yet feel quite ready to invest in a slew of new buildings, at least they are demonstrating some economic confidence.

And that confidence has to make all of us feel a little bit better about things. That there is indeed a spring after the winter. Grass beneath that snow. A blossom at the end of that sprout.

That alone is worth writing home about. Let us hope that the economic sun beam,s down brightly on our economy in ever increasing hours, and that summer is not far behind.

Dr “Vernal Equinox” Gerlich

Out Of The Limelight

27 10 2010

Tap. Tap. Tap.

That’s the sound of a hammer tapping coffin nails. After yesterday’s injunction against Limewire, the filesharing site is effectively out of business.

And the recording industry can heave a big sigh of relief.

It took nearly four years for the RIAA to get the ruling it desired. And now the RIAA is expected to go after as much as $1 billion in damages.

Limewire is little different from Napster, which faced a similar fate earlier this decade. The fact of the matter is, filesharing is illegal. Plain and simple. It matters not that technology makes it so easy to swap music files, the reality is that we are dealing in stolen goods.

Yes, stolen. Once a copyrighted item is copied and procured (regardless of method), it is little different from shoplifting. Looting while the store is open. Pilfering right in front of the manager.

Of course, critics will scoff and say that we have been making mix tapes ever since the 70s, and no one cared one iota back then. And that is a valid criticism, even though the simple act of making and sharing a mix tape is, in fact, just as illegal as downloading a song from Limewire. It’s just that Limewire is a one-to-many model of sharing, whereas making mix tapes is one-to-one.

In other words, Limewire is a facilitator. The RIAA is not so concerned about whether you want to impress your friends with a CD full of your favorite songs. And they’re really not that concerned even when you lend your CDs to a friend so they can make a personal copy (yes, still illegal). What they are really concerned with is the wholesale copying by thousands, yea millions, of songs all at one site.

So I know some of you are wondering: “Dr. Gerlich, are you so pious as to never have committed this sin?” The answer is no. I have copied, but never from Napster or Limewire. But years ago I saw the error of my ways, and will no longer accept or offer copied music to friends. After having done extensive research on the music piracy phenomenon (and four published articles resulting from that research), I can honestly say that I side with the RIAA.

It really does not matter how any of us rationalize it. Yes, it is way too simple to copy or download. And yes, the price of CDs is high and song quality often low. But we now have the ability to cherry pick the songs we want at iTunes for $1.29, or, better yet, subscribe to listening services like for $10 a month. There is no reason to engage in unlawful behavior at any time, but especially when the savings are so meager to begin with.

As for me, I am glad to see Limewire posting this notice on their site. It’s about time the courts closed this coffin and buried it.

Dr “I’ve Got The Music In Me” Gerlich

Dead Man Walking

26 10 2010

If ever there were an iconic product of our times, it is the Sony Walkman. Introduced in 1979, the Walkman cut the umbilical cords that connected us to our home and car stereos. For once we could wander freely, and take our music with us. Never mind that we were limited to however many cassettes we could carry, it was the Walkman that allowed us to become our own DJ. The drummer whose beat we followed. The leader of the band.

And now reports have surfaced that indicate Sony is ceasing production of the Walkman for the Japanese market. Early reports of the Walkman’s death were exaggerated, though, because it will still be available in the US and other parts of the world. If you can find them. Or if you really want one.

I can wax nostalgic about the Walkman and its myriad copycats for days, for it conjures memories of a youth well spent. I fondly remember walking through a supermarket with a friend who was jamming to her Walkman, all the while trying to carry on a conversation with me. Of course, one tends to speak loudly enough so they themselves can hear their own speech. And being the opportunist for which I am known, I let her SPEAK LOUDLY FOR THE WHOLE STORE TO HEAR for quite some time, doing my best to contain my laughter.

Yeah, I can be a real jerk. I don’t think she was very happy with me.

And who among us can argue that the Walkman did for mix tapes what Napster did for music piracy two decades later? Sure, we had already been making our own cassette collections of various artists, but now we had reason to turn our home tape decks into miniature recording studios. Let us also not forget that there is no stronger indication of a guy’s affections for a young lady than to endow her with a custom mix tape filled with tunes reflective of his innermost feelings, musical sensibilities and ability to discern deeply emotive lyrics.

Gack. Excuse me while I choke on this syrup.

Still, for the life of me I cannot imagine how the Walkman has made it this long. While it may now technically have one foot on a banana peel, it is not yet dead. Who among us is buying these things? Where do you even find blank cassettes these days? And who are these technological Neanderthals, and where is this cave in which they have been living?

Oops. I’m sure I just offended someone there. Hey, maybe one of you can be in charge of music at the Luddite national convention.

The Walkman has been on a slippery slope for some time, though. When the iPod was introduced in 2001, it effectively signaled the impending death of the Walkman. Ironically, there have been as many iPods sold in 9 years (220 million) as there have been Walkmans sold in 31.

But even the traditional iPod may be nearing its run of musical supremacy, because smartphones with Pandora and Rhapsody apps are changing the way we consume music. Free and subscription services make it possible for us to still be more or less in control of our listening pleasures, without having to actually own the music.

I would be remiss to not say I am a little bit saddened by the poor health of the Walkman. The last mile is a lonely walk. Death is inevitable, if not imminent. The Walkman is a symbol of our freedom and mobility, emblematic of a society desirous of controlling its environment. Spinning our own songs. Weaving our own sonic euphoria. Compiling the soundtracks of our lives.

And as for my friend who I let shout with reckless abandon, I know you were simply lost in the musical moment, your neurons dancing to the beat. All I can do is say two words…

Dr “I’M SORRY” Gerlich

Extra Helping of PR

25 10 2010

It has been said there is no such thing as bad PR. Whenever anyone says anything about you in the public domain, it is priceless communication of your brand and who you are. Even if it’s bad. To begin to pay (as in advertise) for what one gets freely (via PR) would be cost prohibitive.

A local case in point is The Big Texan, Amarillo’s claim to gustatory fame. Their free 72oz. steak has been their calling card for decades, and media wags from around the world have made the journey to that faux old west barroom to chronicle this feast of flesh. No one really cares if the subject actually finishes it. It’s just the shock value of having all that meat and fixins covering the table in front of you.

Yeah, it makes for great TV and journalism.

Anymore it seems that for a restaurant to catapult a few levels skyward, it needs to get lucky and score some PR. With all the travel and death-defying food shows now airing, sooner or later some host is bound to land in your dining room with a film crew. And when they do, you’d better be ready to milk this cow for all it’s worth.

Kind of like the folks at Hash House A Go Go have done. I had the pleasure of dining at their west Las Vegas store this last weekend (they have 2 more shops in LV, plus the original in San Diego). Featured on the Travel Channel’s Man Vs. Food, Hash House is about ginormous portions of “twisted farm food” and putting a new face on traditional dining.

How’s that again?

One of the founding partners hails from Indiana (a place near and dear to my Midwest heart), where he adored the local down-to-earth cuisine. Hash House focuses on down-home menu items, but with a little more west coast flair and presentation than country fried graviness (yeah, I just made that up). Oh yeah, and did I mention the servings are as big as the desert is hot? (Check out this FB pic to see for yourself.)

Starting out with just breakfast and lunch, Hash House now serves three squares daily. With big-city-moderate pricing (most meals are $15-20), you are pretty much guaranteed to be toting a bag of leftovers. The meatloaf and eggs Benedict my former boss had would have been enough for all 6 of us. And I barely made it through my veggie plate (fried green tomatoes, butternut squash, corn-in-the-husk, asparagus and carrots). I heard tell of 14-inch diameter pancakes and “house hashes” on the breakfast menu that could carry a hungry farmer all the way through till supper (yeah, the evening meal is called “supper” in Indiana).

The food alone is enough to ensure Hash House’s success, but a huge push from cable TV is all was needed to launch them into gastronomic orbit. Toss in a New York Times article and a media hit list as long as my arm, and you have all the necessary ingredients for good old fashioned buzz.

Which is pretty much what I was feeling as I walked out of the place and headed back down to the Strip. That, and maybe the need for a good long nap.

Dr “Waist…Not!” Gerlich

Pause Button

25 10 2010

Often the biggest roadblock to progress is a competitor who feels threatened. It happens all the time in city commission meetings, when a new business wants to come to town, but the commercial establishment does everything in its power to make life difficult. I also see it when local communities launch “shop local” campaigns aimed at intimidating residents into spending their money in town, lest any of those competing far away cities reap the economic benefit.

Ah, competition. Everyone’s in favor of it…until it starts to affect them.

The latest round of opposition is being levied by network TV stations fearful of the effect Google TV might have on them. Rather than trying to compete mano-a-mano, the networks are basically threatening to take their ball home.

While live network TV will still be viewable through a Google TV box, it is the archived recent shows normally viewed online that will be blocked. In other words, if you missed the latest episode of Survivor this week, tough luck viewing it. You will have to go to a standard computer and pull it up through one of the network’s viewing sites.

I can understand why the networks are nervous. After all, Google is seeking to combine TV and the internet into one experience. And it is the natural progression of things. The networks are effectively stonewalling and saying that there is no way they are going to allow the extension of this street, because to do so would mean customers might go streaming by. Yeah, pun intended.

If the networks are trying to buy time so that they might forge a product response, it would be one thing. But I do not think this is the case. The networks are acting as if the only way they would allow this type of viewing would be through their own proprietary device. We do not need multiple devices. What we need is an aggregator like Google TV that will allow us to do it all.

Aggregators are not new, of course. In fact, Google is perhaps one of the biggest aggregators of all. Their News feature brings together the output of hundreds of media outlets. And our cable and satellite TV operators have been doing the same for years. All that Google is trying to do is take our television and internet activities to the next level.

For the networks to draw this line in the sand is simply reprehensible, and gives me all the more reason to dismiss them from my viewing activities. If your content is so good, then let it stand on its own.

I will never forget the wisdom of my International Marketing professor at Indiana University. Dr. Hans Thorelli told us in class so succinctly, “Protectionism is the hallmark of a third world economy.” And that is exactly what the networks are trying to do, effectively protecting themselves (and us) from competition. Just like when local economies lack the confidence to allow residents to make up their own shopping minds, and instead resort to guilt trips.

Give me that remote. I think it’s time to change the channel.

Dr “Compete or Die” Gerlich

Songs You Know By Heart

23 10 2010

I grew up in the late-60s and early-70s. During this time the Viet Nam War was claiming lives and front page headlines, Nixon was busy corrupting the White House, and rock music was driving parents crazy. “Those people won’t live to see 40,” critics would decry.

Promoting a lifestyle of decadence, demoralization and disestablishmentarianism (oh, the alliteration!), it was easy to see why the status quo would be so quick to dismiss these renegade chargers of the rock brigade.

Or maybe it was just wishful thinking.

As it turns out, rock never died, and there were in fact some incredibly astute businesspeople among the cohort. People who saw a career in their music. People who cultivated customer relation management long before CRM was a buzzword. And people who realized they could build a brand around their music and persona.

People like Jimmy Buffett.

Now almost 64, Buffett started as a country musician but quickly found his pop sensibilities. Advocating what has come to be known as an “island lifestyle,” Buffett’s songs often focused on fun, games, storytelling, and drinking sticky concoctions.

And tonight I get to fill a box on my bucket list when I see him and his Coral Reefer Band perform in Las Vegas.

To say that Buffett is a businessman is really an understatement. No, he is the consummate marketer. With two restaurant chains built around his songs (Margaritaville and Cheeseburger In Paradise), Buffett has found a way to keep fans plugged in even when there are no concerts for months or many miles. His lucrative licensing arrangement with Anheuser-Busch allows his Landshark Lager to be available nationwide, not just in his restaurants. In his spare time, he has written three #1 best-sellers. Merchandising puts shirts on the backs of millions of adoring fans. Toss in 20-30 concert performances throughout the year and you have the formula for a man earning $100 million every 12 pages of the calendar.

And were it not for the magical powers of the whimsical Margaritaville in 1977, none of this would have happened.

Maybe it is because Buffett sings of escape. Relaxation. Reality. Whatever the pop hook that snags in your mental craw, Buffett’s music has resonated not just with his aging generation, but also their kids and grandkids.

So when my family and I find our way to our seats tonight, I expect to see the stands filled with bald heads and beer bellies, youthful vim and vigor, and even kids for whom the subject of that hit song is not even close to being on their radar.

To be fair, Buffett is not the only rock or pop star to leverage his brand. The Rolling Stones have done a remarkable job through the years (although without restaurants). Sammy Hagar has proven himself to be a successful bar and cafe owner (although on a smaller scale).

If Buffett has begun to sound like a marketing machine rather than just minstrel and musician, you are right. It took attention to detail, an intuition that he had something far more than just number 1 hits, and a vision to monetize it all.

Not bad for a fellow who seemingly would rather spend his time contemplating the contents of a blender.

Dr “Sobering Reality” Gerlich

Square Deal

22 10 2010

Huey Lewis once sang that it’s hip to be square, and I have to say that with today’s newest credit card payment system, he ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie. The Square now allows businesses large and small to take their credit card terminal with them wherever they do business. And it is only about the size of one die.

Compatible with a slew of Apple products as well as Android, Square may be more saving grace than just convenient payment gateway. Small businesses often have a disadvantage outside the office or store front because standard terminals are clunky and expensive, especially for wireless units. The Square, though, relies on the same wireless networks our phones are using. Have a small quilting business that finds you at craft shows across the region? Accept credit cards on the fly and listen to that cash register hum.

But wait, there’s more!

The Square is also perfect for individual use. There’s nothing worse than 5 people trying to split a bill and bar tab at a restaurant. Inevitably the kindest, best-endowed person in the group just gives in and says, “It’s on me. This math is brutal.”

So now you can accept your friends’ credit cards, making sure to tack on the 2.75% + 15-cent transaction fee. Yes, now you, too, can become your friends’ ATM and bill-settler-upper.

Launched by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, Square seeks to democratize credit card transactions for everyone. As a small business owner, I have often wished for the ability to accept plastic while away from my terminal. Customers often do not carry cash, and checks are quickly becoming passe. Furthermore, many people do not like writing down their credit card information for processing back at the office. The Square helps sellers to not lose the sale.

No doubt the biggest concerns will be over privacy and security, but the Square encrypts data no differently than do larger, more expensive wireless terminals. But because the device is so new and so different, there may be some initial reluctance to let sellers (or your friend) use it.

All fears aside, the Square marks a new era in payments. It will help even the field between large and small vendors, and help solve restaurant debates between otherwise good friends. I have never been accused of being too hip, but this handy little device is going to make this square dude one gransacting fat cat. Sixteen digits at a time.

Dr “Visa or MasterCard?” Gerlich