What’s Hiding Inside

29 03 2012

They say that what you don’t know, can’t hurt you.

Balderdash. A pure lie. Because in this era of expected transparency, any food producer who does not willingly come clean with what they put in their food, will be found out. Exposed. Naked. And hung out to dry.

Like Starbucks and the info leak that the pink coloring in frappuccinos is made from beetles.

Eeewwww! gross!

This time the outrage is coming from vegans who feel deceived. Vegans by definition do not eat any product that is animal-based, including insects. No meat. No dairy. No eggs. And, apparently, no beetles.

As a vegetarian, I feel some of their pain. I routinely read every label of every item I purchase, but I also know that I cannot go into a restaurant’s kitchen to read their ingredients. There is some risk in coming out of the cave of dietary control, because you never really know what goes into the food you are eating.

But it is still in the best interests of food producers and providers to be forthcoming about these things. There are many people who refrain from things as a matter of conscience. And don’t forget those who have food allergies (wheat, corn, nuts, etc.), for whom eating the wrong thing can lead to catastrophic results.

Starbucks should have known that sooner or later, word would get out that it had started using beetles. Heck, they only started using them recently, in an effort to eliminate artificial ingredients. But while beetles may technically be all-natural, they do violate the dietary preferences of some. This information should be made available so that those affected can then choose more wisely.

McDonald’s was stung a few years ago when it was discovered (and they later admitted) that they actually coat their french fries in beef tallow before frying. That’s what gives their fries that distinctive taste. A hindu family took great umbrage over the deception and filed suit.

Now don’t get me wrong. There is nothing unethical about using beef tallow or beetles, but you do owe your customers the courtesy of being transparent. because if you don’t, you wind up being a headline in nearly every major media outlet.

And that, my friends, is not exactly an ingredient for positive PR.

Just yesterday I served on a panel reviewing a number of small Amarillo companies seeking development grants. One company is a consumer food producer. the representative glowed about how his product was “beef-based,” which threw me for a loop, because I had never before seen a product in this category that had beef as an invisible base ingredient. I asked to see the product label, and there it was (albeit in very small print): beef bouillion.

Again, I would catch this in a supermarket, because I do read all that fine print. But I did advise them that they should probably a little more forthcoming on the label. In fact, the fact it is beef-based could be a real advantage among the majority for whom consuming meat is not a problem. But imagine if I had given up meat for Lent, only to find out later I had eaten this product? I would be upset.

We live in very different times, one in which people avoid foods because of allergies, and others avoid them for personal, ethical, religious and/or health reasons. Given these differences among the eating public, it behooves every manufacturer and preparer to tell us everything.

Even if it has crushed beetles in it.

You know, I think I’ll just stick with my coffee. God knows I already accidentally ingest enough bugs as it is is while riding bikes out here. I just don’t want them in my beverage.

Dr “Feeling Buggy” Gerlich

Unhappy Meals

29 03 2012

Sometimes the truth just hurts.

We know we probably should not eat as much fast food as we do. Deep down inside we understand that most of the stuff is artery-clogging, fat-filled, empty calories that barely provide some semblance of nutrition. But now along comes a study that shows, among other things, that fast food patrons are the least happy Americans when it comes to their health.

Well hold the pickle, hold the relish. Apparently these orders really do upset us.

Worse yet, the article ranks the top four (or should I say bottom four?) fast food eateries for customer unhappiness: #1, McDonal;d’s; #2, Taco Bell; #3, Wendy’s, and, #4, Burger King.

And not only are these patrons unhappy with their health, they are doing to least to help it!

Through my Marketer’s eyes, these means that fast food as an industry has a long way to go toward correcting its image as unhealthy, bad-for-you food. Sure, McDonald’s may have made great strides with salads and apple slices, but it has a long way to go.

Fast food is viewed as fast and convenient, and often as being cheaper than other alternatives. Compared to fast-casual sit-down restaurants, this is probably true. And those fast-casual diners can be just as unhealthy, if the wrong menu items are selected. The same goes for fast food.

The study, though, points out that fast food patrons tend to already be less than health-conscious by default, or else they probably would not be there in the first place. Although healthier options are available if one looks, going to fast food for the health of it is like smoking cigarettes and saying that each puff combats all those nasty airborne pollens we inhale this time of year.

And it’s not that fast food cannot have an entirely healthy focus. It’s just that maybe we Americans are not yet ready to embrace it. There was once a Bless Your Heart franchise in Amarillo, but here in the middle of cattle country, it just could not compete with the heavy-on-the-beef menus of the burger joints. There was never an issue finding a parking spot at Bless Your Heart, and the shop barely lasted a couple of years.

While the study highlights the apparent dissatisfaction with living that fast food patrons report, change is going to have to come from both within…and without. Literally.It is hard to blame the fast food establishments when no one is holding a gun to consumers’ heads. No one makes us go to McDonald’s. And while Fast Food, Inc., could certainly stand to clean up its menus, it is going to take customer demand to make it happen. In other words, fast food restaurants serve what people want…even if it is making them unhappy.

And that, my friends, is not going to be easy. We crave convenience and speed, even to the point of compromising our health. There is a sad commentary within when a burger through a drive-up window trumps health and fitness. Besides, it’s darn near impossible to eat a salad while driving. It makes texting look relatively safe.

Which is another way of saying that I don’t expect to see much come of these results. We already knew most of this. Americans may have little or no control over their choice of restaurants, but probably even less control over their hectic lives. And this goes a long way toward explaining the study’s results.

The truth really does hurt, and in this case, it’s a 1-2 punch right to the gut. Literally.

Dr “Can I Get That To Go?” Gerlich

The Wired Brain

29 03 2012

You really can teach old dogs new tricks.

According to a recent study, it is entirely possible that our brains can completely rewire and adapt to the technological changes around us. of course, it may drive you crazy, and you have to actually want to rewire, but it is possible.

The rest of the story, though, is that all of our technology is totally consuming many of us, regardless of age. Give it an inch, and it will take a mile.

Not to mention my nightstand, which is where my iPhone and iPad sleep comfortably beside me.

I did a telephone interview yesterday with Jon Mark Beilue of the Amarillo Globe-News about this very subject. He was interested in my comments about another recent study, one in which British researchers showed that worker productivity improved if people would take just one evening away from their phones. The answer: Yes, resoundingly.

But just because research shows this to be the case does not necessarily make it any easier for phone addicts to put the damn thing down. There is fear that business will be lost. Others argue that we are truly a 24/7 society, and that we must always be ready for a command performance.

Heck, my boss likes to work around midnight. I often receive emails from him in the middle of the night. Not that he expects me to respond within 30 minutes or anything, but I do confess to having anxiety attacks that I might be late to reply to something important. And I also must confess that there is an implicit “competition” among the three department heads to see who can reply first to his group messages.

Thank God my 53-year-old body can’t sleep straight through anymore. I nearly always awaken around 2:00am. With phone at my side, I am able to jump on those emails while the steam is still rising. Score one point for Dr. Gerlich.

But in response to Mr. Beilue, and much to my great credit, thank you very much, I did say that we all need to set aside some sacred time during which we are not reachable. For me those times are when I am out on my bike, at church, or sharing a dinner and movie with my wife and kids. And thanks to push-notifications from incoming text and Facebook messages, I can see them pop on my screen and decide if it’s an emergency or not without having to open them up.

As we continue to leap head-long into the always-on culture we have created, I sometimes feel like we have become the victims of our own device. But it is what it is, and this technology is not going away any time soon. In fact, as I mentioned to Mr. Beilue, it is only going to get worse. Remember those Google Glasses I wrote about not long ago. Yeah. Get used to them.

The good news is that as we age, we can adapt to these changes, as long as we are willing. the bad news is that we will be on ever shorter digital chains, attached to our desks and work stations…unless we retain some semblance of control over it. Therefore, we must stand firm in our resolve to unplug a little bit. There is no magic number of days or hours, but the time itself must be magical.

Each year my family goes camping in Rocky Mountain National Park. Cell phone service in the park is lousy at best. I have to go to “the rock” to be able to get a weak signal, and then check email, post a few FB updates, or return calls. Yes, I climb atop that rock a couple of times each day, because in my position you sure don’t want to miss an important message from your Dean or Provost (even if you are off-duty). But the rest of the time, I am in a glorious no-contact zone, going on long hikes with my wife, riding my mountain bike up over 12,000 feet elevation, or, better yet, taking a nap on the hammock.

My brain has weathered the changes well. of course, I have been working on computers since 1974, so this wasn’t a big stretch, but it still takes some effort to embrace the new.

As for you, I encourage you to hang on to that sacred time, but never stop allowing your brain to rewire. Your career depends upon it. Your shopping depends on it. Your communications depend on it.

Just be sure to keep those wires straight and tucked away nearly beneath your cap. The guy in this picture doesn’t look at all cool, does he?

Dr “Wired That Way” Gerlich

There Goes The Neighborhood

29 03 2012

We’ve all seen them. Barns around the country are painted with large block letters, and beckon us to “See Rock City,” “Visit Wall Drug,” or to stop by Meramec Caverns. Those of us within a 500-mile radius of Amarillo are well aware of the many Big Texan “Free 72oz. Steak” signs as well. Basically, it’s all a little over the top, and maybe we become a little inured to it all, but it’s all just outdoor advertising writ large. Over the top. In your face. And probably just a little cheesy as well.

Outdoor advertising has been around as long as there have been marketers, whether it’s a small sign outside a shop in ancient Athens, the limerick-laden Burma Shave signs of the 1950s, or a string of signs laid out like so many dominoes along the freeway. Some communities consider them the bane of our existence. I noticed a long time ago in Vermont that cities were free of them, as well as in Hilton Head SC. They are regulated in number. Controlled for size. And in some cases banned outright, with business only allowed to have a waist-high sign.

Yeah, I also remember driving past that Walmart in Hilton Head three times before I finally saw the sign. What they gained in visual aesthetics, they lost in increased emissions from my car.

But now there’s a company that wants to pay you to let them use your home as a billboard.

No kidding. Brainiacs From Mars will pay your monthly mortgage for up to a year, and in return, all you have to do is let them paint your house. Like the one in the picture.

Yecch. I am pretty sure the neighbors won’s be thinking ncie things.

Of course, such blatant marketing in a residential area is bound to raise the hackles of homeowners associations, as well as municipal code enforcers. In other words, before you sign on the dotted line, make sure your development as well as city allow such use of your domicile. Deed restrictions can be pretty limiting (heck, my parents couldn’t even have a clothesline in their last community).

Which is another way of saying that these house-as-billboards probably won’t be happening in the nicer and/or newer developments, but instead in older sections lacking the teeth of sweeping zoning regulations or HOAs.

I suppose that if you really need the money, this seems like a great opportunity. Imagine a year without having to make mortgage payments. For some it could mean the difference between foreclosure and keeping home, sweet, home.

But for everyone else living in proximity, it’s an eyesore. There’s a reason why we have commercial districts. We expect there to be signage. But not in residential areas. It can be distracting (I pity the little children living and playing nearby). And it is just plain ugly to me.

While I am all in favor of relatively unfettered advertising, and certainly the rights of homeowners to do as they please, this one is just a little too far-fetched. Please keep the billboards along the freeways and main arterials, as well as on those quaint rural barns. Because when people are in their neighborhood, the last thing they want is to be marketed to. Even if it’s for a free steak.

Dr “Ad Nauseam” Gerlich

A Nice Pair

29 03 2012

In this era of hyper-social media, it is all too easy for us to allow our personal pages to simply get out of hand. People follow me on Twitter; I follow people, but not necessarily the same ones who follow me. Facebook is different, of course, in that “friending” is a two-way street. In the process, though, I (you, we) have lost the ability to have a social network of only a select few, or even just one.

A relative newcomer called Path has tried to solve this by allowing users to have only 150 friends, effectively an inner circle of friends, family and associates. Better yet, though, is the new app Pair, which allows users to have only one “friend:” your significant other.

And what a breath of fresh air is this!

Actually, Pair was designed for those in long-distance relationships, but I think its usefulness can go far beyond miles. What about the busy couple that just doesn’t have enough hours in the day to interact? Or even dating couples within the same area, but caught up in the hustle and bustle of work and school?

Yes, I think this has HUGE possibilities.

And as applied to married couples, an app like this could be a gold mine for marketers, because it would begin to reveal specifics about a specific dyad living under the same roof.

Can you say targeted marketing?

“Boo!” “Hiss!” OK, I hear you. What the world needs now is probably not more targeted marketing. But it does need a way for couples to interact on a social media platform without having to worry about what others might think, or worse yet, revealing TMI. The targeted marketing is just a collateral asset for the maker of the app.

I speak from experience. My wife and I may have been married nearly 26 years, but we do not get to see much of each other. Between work and hauling kids around, we try to flash the headlights when we see the other coming down the highway. Having a one-tap solution to staying in touch would be a godsend.

Sure, we can always just send sweet little nothings via text, but those just seem so ephemeral compared to an ongoing dialog on a private social network. n addition to leaving flowers, candy and cards for the other to find, wouldn’t it be nice to wrap those little whispers of love into an audience-of-one social network?

Maybe it is ironic that we have even had to consider throwback versions of going social. Who would have thought a few years ago that we would one day have sites for limited engagement, even as limited as only one pair of users? But remember this one thing: We are still clearing a trail in this jungle of social media, and while our machete may be sharp, it’s still a manual process.

While Pair may not have had proximal couples in mind, I see this as the far greater purpose. If it helps these people stay in touch just one iota better, then it will have established its socially redeeming value.

Now if I can just remember to use it. But not when I’m flashing those headlights.

Dr “What’s Your Status, Honey?” Gerlich

In Your Face(book)

29 03 2012

Earlier this week I ran across an article that gave me the shivers. In a nutshell, it reported that some employers across the country were requiring prospective employees to either login to their Facebook accounts while at the interview, or, worse yet, surrender their account information so the employer could check it all out later.

The civil libertarian in me nearly spewed his coffee.

I simply cannot fathom the prospects of a country in which job candidates had to strip socially naked before a tribunal of corporate analysts, intent on seeing if you pass muster. I thought that resumes and transcripts were all that people needed these days.

Silly me.

But just yesterday I caught wind of a big, gigantic in-your-Facebook glimmer of hope. Turns out that Facebook is not going to put up with this nonsense, and has taken a stand against corporate demands for our passwords.

Well, hallelujah and pass the schadenfreude. I love to see others suffer when they are so badly in the wrong.

As Facebook is quick to point out, it violates their Terms of Service for anyone to share their login information. This includes potential employers. But aside from this, Facebook is standing up to the corporate bullies among us. As it nears its soon-to-be-epic IPO, it is positioned to become one of the most capitalized businesses ever. Bolstered by the mere thought of such economic clout, Facebook no doubt feels pretty good about its ability to put troublemakers in their place.

The whole thing no doubt came about because jobs are still scarce, and employers hold the upper hand. Once we return to prosperity, employers may have to wiggle and squirm a little more as they seek out talent. But this does not matter in the least. By demanding user logins, they are basically saying they do not trust people one iota. Worse yet, they would have access to information the likes of which could never be asked in an interview (like “Are you married?”). Sneaky, but no “Like” button for you.

Facebook has become the lingua franca of the 21C, and the company knows it has immense power by virtue of it. Since no one pays for corporate pages, Facebook has the ability to delete those Pages as they see fit…like if their are reports of brow-beating and intimidation.

I have no doubt, though, that this matter will one day have to be resolved by the Supreme Court. At its very core are the issues of free speech and privacy. We must be able to share our information with whomever we please, nothing more and nothing less. And companies, no matter how sneaky they are (e.g., sending friend requests via other employees for the express purpose of spying) must be stopped, and users held unaccountable for their actions.

Not that users do not have responsibilities of their own. I still preach that everyone must use common sense when posting, and to remember to turn off their dang phones when they’re out drinking and dancing. Pictures, status updates and tweets at those moments could land you in a world of trouble (if not with your employer, then certainly your spouse).

But after all is said and done, I am thrilled that Facebook has the cojones to stand up to the corporate bullies making life miserable for job candidates. It is none of their damn business what I or you post on our FB or Twitter feeds. It shows that they have no understanding of how social media work.

Believe me, a little too much of this invasiveness, and a company could wind up finding itself backed into a corner of having to ‘ splain itself.

Now that’s something I would tweet about.

Dr “Share This” Gerlich

Where’s My Phone?

29 03 2012

Yep. I hear this almost every day around my house. I usually wind up calling my wife’s phone and hope that she left the ringer on, for it will serve as a beacon to help locate it.

A friend recently gave her a “Clapper-type” device for help in keeping her keys within reach, but, alas, she forgets to use it. What good is technology if you can’t remember to use it?

But aside from my dirty laundry (and hopes that said wife isn’t reading), I was amazed to read today that Americans lose $30 billion worth of cell phones each year. really? In fact, the article posits that, on average, each American loses their phone once each year.

And I don’t mean somewhere in the house.

You would think that by now we would have become accustomed to toting a small portable device, and keeping an eye on it. Maybe it is its very portability that makes it so lose-able (I have no idea if this is even a word). And maybe it’s because people tend to do silly things, like place their phone on the roof before getting into their car (like their Cokes, carry-outs, etc.). Or, worse yet, in a dark, smoke-filled bar. After a few too many, of course.

Interestingly, residents of some cities are more forgetful than others, which could lead to a slew of jokes. San Franciscans and New Yorkers? Why, they don’t know which way the water is, much less where there phone is hiding. As an aside, I’ve always known that we Chicagoans are a pretty with-it group (my phone is on my desk right beside me, thank you very much). Heck, I am so anal about my phone that I compulsively tap my left-front pants pocket when out and about, making sure I have it.

More importantly, though, phone manufacturers need to make phones…every one of them…with built-in locater services. Sure, there are some apps available, and Apple has probably done the best job of trying to solve the problem, but clearly the job is not getting done. Thirty billions dollars’ worth of phones each year translates to over $100 worth of phones lost for each and every cell phone owner in the US (obviously ranging from cheap disposable pay-as-you-go phones to elaborate smartphones).

And marketers need to be aiding and abetting such an improvement, because it is through this device that we are all receiving an increasingly large amount of our advertising. Without our phones, we cannot be reached by our commercial suitors. We will not hear their subtle wooings, the sweet little nothings they splash across our palm-sized screens, their compelling calls to action.

It’s all about mobility, folks. And while I cannot vouch for how or why people lose their phones (I have never lost my phone, he says, while quickly looking for some wood to knock), the future of marketing may very well lie on such innovation. This is how we do it, and the way we do it is simply much different from how we did it in the past.

I have yet to hear of someone losing their television set.

In the mean time, be sure to set a security code for your phone, because if you do lose it, there’s no point in giving someone else the keys to your entire life. As for me, I’m just glad my wife’s forgetfulness does not extend beyond the walls of our home. Because then the Baltimore jokes would run unabated. I hear those people are a lot like New Yorkers.

Dr “Just Kidding, Honey” Gerlich

Gentlemen, Start Your Carts

22 03 2012

My Dad was always the Purchasing Agent for our family. Maybe it was the accountant in him. Maybe it was because Mom didn’t like to do it. But for whatever reason, in our home, Dad was the one who brought home the bacon.


Strangely, though, doing the marketing has been a traditionally female preoccupation…until now. One recent study shows that men and women are in a dead heat when it comes to procuring the domicile’s groceries.

But the two are not at all alike in how they shop.

Men tend to be mission-driven. It’s a job to be done, and we are going to do it with ruthless efficiency…kind of like the way we shop for pants and shirts. Get in. Get out. Minimize the pain.

That also makes men easy marks. Men are not as likely to use coupons, and are often more likely to make impulse purchases. Heck, I could tell you dozens of stories of Mom excoriating Dad over and over for bringing home that dang coffee cake that wasn’t on the list.

Supermarkets have taken note. Items that appeal to men are being featured more prominently, and in more depth…things like beef, men’s personal care products and outdoor grilling items. Oh, and the beer selection. For you Amarilloans, just stop by the United store on 45th at Bell. Their craft beer selection exceeds that of many liquor stores.

Groceries do have a way to go, though, when it comes to catering to men. A few months ago I noticed I had a hole in the side of one of my socks. Not wanting to look less than professional around the office, I scurried across the street to the Canyon United to try to find a replacement pair. But all they had was pantyhose. No sale. I finished the day “holier” than they and thou.

This would be an easy fix for the truly male-friendly grocery, you know. We only need three colors (black, navy and brown), and for most of us, one size fits all. The maker of L’eggs should have it so easy. Three pegboard hooks, one for each color. That’s all we need. Of course, this probably explains why the men’s section in department stores is also small. Everything is made to work with black, navy and brown.

Still, I am intrigued by this sudden shift in shopping behaviors. I am sure that many women are relieved to have some assistance in this area. And I have always heard that, among singles, the grocery was one of the best places to meet other singles. If anything, it presents new challenges to the grocery industry as they try to make one store serve two equally-sized clienteles. The Beer Cave will work like ants attracted to a picnic, and big slabs of beef steaks will have many guys beating their chests (well, ahem…not me, since I am vegetarian). Somehow this all needs to work amid the things that attract female shoppers. Good luck there.

Because, while we only need three colors of socks, some of us (read: me) demand 150 or more varietals of beer (did I tell that I am a beer snob?). It’s going to take some time to figure out how to make this all happen, but I am sure they can make the supermarket a happy place for men and women alike.

I just hope you don’t go looking at my socks. Hey, I’m doing well to just be wearing clothing on any given day, much less clothes that match and are in perfect working order. I get bonus points if it all comes together right.

Now if you don’t mind, I need to have a word with the beer steward.

Dr “Sock It To Me” Gerlich

Jeepers Creepers

21 03 2012

It’s bad enough that some prospective employers are demanding to see your Facebook account. Having a potential boss scrutinize your FB Wall is not only beyond the pale, it is just scary. I cannot ask a candidate about his or her marital status, religious or political preferences, etc. But they can sure be discerned in a heartbeat if someone else is lurking within.

But now there are new apps that users can willingly use to allow complete strangers to know of their presence. Among these is Highlight, a new geolocation-based app that alerts you (and them) when you/they come near people with similar interests.

No kidding. Imagine walking through Times Square only to be alerted by your phone that a potential soul mate is right around the corner. She likes How I Met Your Mother and Big Bang Theory. Bicycle racing. Photography. Pez.

Wait. I just described myself.

Sure, it’s all opt-in, but why in the heck would anyone want to opt for this kind of creepiness?

As I posted on my FB Wall this morning, I am really not interested in finding other people who are like me. It is their otherliness that attracts me to people. Not that I scare myself, mind you (keep your comments to yourself, please), but I value people with diverse interests more than similar. Heck, if all you do is hang out with people like yourself, you’re going to become pretty monochromatic.

More importantly, though, is that these apps open the doors for creepers like none before. If you think having a prospective employer look over your shoulder at your FB is scary, think about the implications of allowing strangers to not only see you coming, but know that you like certain things. You may as well put a bulls eye on your forehead.

It’s not a whole lot unlike the situation I had a few years ago at Gordon Biersch Brewery in Las Vegas. I was dining with Shanna and Charlie, two cycling pals of mine. At the next table were five men drinking beer and cracking jokes.

But I noticed that one of the guys kept stealing a glance at me. I wondered if my hair looked goofy perhaps (not that I have a whole lot, mind you), or if I had a crumb of onion ring hanging from my cheek. Then one of the guy’s companions looked over at me and said, “Hey, he found one of his own kind!”

“Huh?” I replied.

“Your shirt. He totally digs your shirt.”

I looked down. I was wearing one of my favorite shirts from Think Geek. “There are 10 types of people in the world. Those who understand binary, and those who don’t.”

The guy continued, “This guy’s a nerd and thinks in binary. He figured you were a fellow geek.”

“Oh. Cool,” I mumbled. I quickly finished my food and said to Charlie and Shanna, “OK, now let’s get the hell out of here. This guy is giving me the creeps!”

Of course, Shanna and Charlie teased me all night long about my new “friend.” And I must admit to having told this story a few hundred times since then, because once the discomfort wore off, I began to see it as rather funny.

But imagine if you didn’t have the benefit of friends with you when someone noticed your shirt, but rather had a big invisible red arrow pointing down at you as your strolled along the sidewalk.

Now that’s scary.

Which is why I won’t be signing on to Highlight any time soon. I have enough trouble keeping my FB Wall free of incriminating garbage. You never know when someone will take a look.

Dr “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Gerlich

They’re Ba-ack!

20 03 2012

One of the more memorable lines from Poltergeist II (1986) is when the toy phone rings, and the Beast, appearing as a ghostly Reverend Kane, alerts little Carol Anne of his return. Insert scary music and sound effects, topped with crying and screaming. The movie kind of goes downhill from there, which is understandable given that about the only thing people remember today are those two cryptic words.

Unfortunately, I found myself thinking the same two words when I read of the return of NetZero, the once-popular 1990s free dial-up service making its return to the internet realm. The only difference this time (and it is arguably a big one), is that NetZero is now offering free mobile wifi service instead of clunky snail’s-pace dial-up.

OK, there are some strings attached. Big ones.

First of all, you have to buy the device ($50 for a USB wifi card, or $100 for a stand-alone wifi hub). You only get 2000MB per month of bandwidth. And…here’s the kicker…it only lasts for a year.

Which is another way of saying that this time around, NetZero is basically teasing wifi newcomers to the table. You can’t do much more than send and receive emails with that kind of data plan. Naturally, NetZero is going to hit users with full frontal assaults to upgrade to pricier options (that can reach $50/month) that allow up to 4GB of bandwidth (or $9.95 for 500MB).

NetZero is actually reselling Sprint/Clearwire wifi in this instance, which means that technical support is now two steps removed from users. Clearly, this offering is designed for those who have not yet jumped on the wifi train. I currently pay $60/month to Sprint for a similar wifi hub that supports 5 devices, and gives me unlimited 4G bandwidth (or up to 2GB in 3G mode). I never have to worry about approaching my limit, and I know who I can call if I ever have trouble.

But NetZero is coming in essentially with a blue light special. And if all you really need to do is check your email, this might just be the trick. Even after the trial period is up, for about $10 a month users can have 500MB (still rather limited) to play with.

All told, this is actually a very clever strategy, because NetZero learned long ago that those most likely to fall for the free model are not likely to be heavy users in the first place. I am sure they no doubt have clever algorithms in place predicting exactly how much bandwidth each person will use. Given that they are bulk-buying unused capacity from Sprint/Clearwire, they are getting a huge deal…and then passing it on as if it were a real bargain for consumers.

Good marketing, as long as you don’t decide to become a YouTube junkie.

As for me, I abide by the “you-get-what-you-pay-for” mantra. When it comes to internet service, I don’t want to be bound by ridiculously low limits, only to suddenly find myself into a bonus round of fees. I’d rather pay up front for a smorgasbord, and then eat what I want.

Which is why when my toy phone rang this morning, I wasn’t the least bit scared of the Reverend Kane as he came down my street. He can walk on the other side.

Dr “I Can Be A Beast” Gerlich