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Archive for February, 2008

Way to go, Canada and UK. Making daddy proud! Since I am not exactly growing my readership, all I am doing is spreading the same amount of love to more countries, which is fine with me.

Interesting data on internet users’ adoption of Google Images as a search tool. Be careful Googlemonster: You’ve lost some share (negligeable as it may be) since this time last year.

I don’t have data on February 2007 vs. February 2008 browser and OS changes, but I am glad to see that Firefox, IE7 and IE6 are so close together. I use Firfox at home and IE7 at work… which may be pretty typical of most people who access this blog from a non-Apple machine.

As far as the OS thing… I’m a little sad that Mac’s OS (which only accounts for 6% of the OS market) is still beating the crap out of Vista, but whatever. The masses will come around sooner or later.

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“The problems of this world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were.”

- John F. Kennedy

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Every once in a great while, I cave in to common sense and take a sick day. This was the case today. I rested, I slept, I drank soup and tea,rested some more, and worked my way through a giant box of tissues. The result: This completely derivative post. Read it, follow the link to the original piece, and chew on this idea for a while. In the process, give some thought to the role of design in product development, art, publishing, software, websites, logos, advertising, entertainment, fashion and retail spaces.

Have a great Wednesday, everyone. ;)

“The public is more familiar with bad design than good design. It is, in effect, conditioned to prefer bad design, because that is what it lives with. The new become threatening, the old reassuring.”

– Paul Rand

Design is such a multi-layered practice that it’s often difficult to define. That being said, I believe that the word “design” is increasingly confused with “style”. For example, to most “I like the way it’s designed” means that they like the way that something looks.
The visual aspect of what we do is highly important, and style has a place in that. For
example, if we want to connect with a particular audience, employing a style can sometimes be helpful. That being said, it seems that style often leads efforts. We have to break this habit.

(…)

As soon as a particular style is hot, legions of designers reverse-engineer the treatment, and imitate it until it’s everywhere.

The challenge here is that as we are bombarded by these styles, designers, by their own accord and that of their clients and peers, gravitate towards reiterating whatever the style-du-jour happens to be. (Think of the swoosh logos of the late 1990s.) It’s easy to do, the pay-off is immediate, and for a short while, one’s portfolio seems deceptively strong. Most times though, this work is void of the research, strategy, and logic that are necessary to do something effective. As a result, it’s in fact a big pile of shiny bullshit.

In turn, we’re left with scads of generic work that doesn’t hold-up for any length of time. There’s no design there, just polish that quickly tarnishes requiring another coat. In the meanwhile, budgets are exhausted, clients are left to with an out-of-date

“look”, and designers are seen as stylists: kooky kids who like to do fun, pointless things. At the risk of being melodramatic, I believe that this approach diminishes the value of our industry and limits our opportunity to contribute to higher-level discussions.

I’m a believer in what I like to call “hardcore” design. This is design focused on results. It can employ any of a multitude of treatments. It’s not personal in nature, unless this is in fact necessary. Hardcore design is driven by insight, strategy and purpose.

This kind of design forces us to see ourselves as intermediaries, who facilitate defined outcomes. To do this, we consider and weigh business, marketing, communications (and other) challenges, and work to resolve them through design. The end-result doesn’t have to look good, even though it might, but it absolutely must work.

For hardcore designers, “does it work?” is the one question that must be obsessed over. Really, this should be the case for any designer anyways; not whether it looks cool, and not if it can win awards. Hardcore design is about taking away the cute, fluffy stuff, and concentrating on what is actually accomplished.
This kind of design typically doesn’t get its due. Many call this work “corporate” (in the pejorative sense), implying that anything “corporate” must be soul-less, bland and the polar-opposite of what we like to think of as creative. This perspective is simplistic and out-of-date. Apple’s marketing is highly corporate and perhaps one of the most stand-out examples of using design to connect with an audience.

The challenge in establishing an effective design solution that reaches a broad audience is in no way less difficult or creative than making work that is personal in nature. In fact, I’d argue that it’s typically much more challenging, as it requires one to dissociate with personal perspectives, in an effort to understand the situation from a more pluralistic standpoint.

Not doing so is, in my mind, what derails so many design efforts. Clients and designers equally fall into the trap of bringing personal aesthetics (that have nothing to do with the task at hand) to projects. As a result, we see lots of pretty, ineffective “design” out there.

(…)

Style will always be there, and it’s for us to employ, just as we would any color, typeface, written approach or photographic direction. And that is just it: it’s a device, and we too often let it drive the effort. You may disagree with me here. You could (rightly) point to a number of groups and individuals who place the same premium on pragmatic design as I; nevertheless, I argue that these groups are in the minority, and that this represents an imbalance in the quality of design actually being delivered.

We have to get our collective heads out of the sand. Everything we do must be held to a higher-standard. Read the entire article here.

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“When you actually ignore reality for years on end, payback’s a bitch, brother!”

– Bruce Sterling

Research shows that half of the agency/client relationships out there last less than two years. This is from a sample of about 140 companies with an annual marketing spend of at least $2 million, including Citibank, General Mills, IBM, GE, and ESPN.

After nearly 15 years in agencies, this percentage sounds about right. But where the research tries to determine why this is the case, I take issue with it.

The other big reason [for the short tenure] is likely the fact that agencies take their eye off the ball. When you examine the reasons why clients get rid of agencies, a lot of it has to do with weaknesses in strategic thinking, creative, and service. Too many agencies try and do too many things well. They are in the business for being great creative and strategic thinkers and do-ers…not to be a great lead generation/business making machine. Too many agencies take their eye off the ball soon after an account is won, only to look for the next new win. Staying more focused on existing clients and leaving the business of building business to experts is likely a more productive strategy, long-term.

A lead generation firm sponsored the research. This fact turns the above excerpt from a research insight into a thinly-veiled ad.

It’s Not You, It’s Me.

So who’s fault is it? Part of this churn is a natural cycle vs. it being someone’s fault. Marketers are restless creatives at heart. The shelf life for any type of creative work is getting as short as consumers’ shrinking attention span. And, while it’s expensive to select a new agency and get them ramped up on your business, doing an agency review is often seen as the best way to get new ideas. Even the research notes (depressingly) that “more than 40 percent said they ‘look forward to’ or ‘find it exciting’ to search for a new agency.”

But there are also external factors that impact the client/agency relationship. Many of these factors are out of the agency’s control, including industry economic climate, client contacts changing jobs, client politics and client chemistry. These are just a handful of items to deal with and we haven’t even discussed the work yet.

Since moving client side three years ago, one of the biggest benefits I’ve discovered is time. I’ve been able to prioritize and grow our marketing efforts strategically. With a few years of momentum, and plenty of results along the way, I’m looking forward to doing even more in 2008.

This may read all Pollyanna, but I think clients and agencies need to rethink ways to keep their relationship vital to realize this kind of return on investment. Yeah, who am I kidding. Anyone want to be a client/agency counselor? LOL, I can see the role playing session now.

Other likely culprits:

- Clients’ inability to work with their agencies as a true partner in developing marketing solutions, growing their brand, etc. This is RAMPANT across all industries. The fact of the matter is that most companies tend to a) not understand marketing, b) be afraid of creative, c) lack the insight and tools to adequately measure the value of great marketing/the opportunity cost of bad marketing, and d) promote douchebags with no concept of brand development to CMO positions – when they even bother to have a CMO position.

- Many agencies’ inability to see the client as anything other than a cash cow.

- A business-as-usual attitude towards “marketing”. This starts on the client’s side but eventually infects the account team on the agency side. (Usually characterized by a “job shop” attitude by the client towards the agency.)

- Fear. Fear of pissing off the client. Fear of taking a chance with the creative. Fear of making a statement. Fear of standing for something. Fear of standing out from the competition. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of looking like asses. Fear of trying something new. Fear of asking the right questions. Fear of letting customers voice their opinions. Fear of losing control of the brand. Fear of paving the way. Fear.

- Really, really, really REALLY lousy, clueless, lazy or otherwise dumb AE’s.

- Really, really, really REALLY lousy, clueless, lazy or otherwise dumb marketing managers/CMO’s on the client side.

- Risk-adverse decision-makers.

- Lack of focus on both sides. Client: “Hey, we need something awesome for this new (XYZ).” Agency: “Right. What do you have in mind?” Client:”Um… We don’t know. We’ll know it when we see it.”

- Complete, total and utter emphasis on overrated brain-rot like “messaging” or “brand consistency.”

- Overbearing reliance on 1980’s “channels” to reach the masses.

- The notion that “it’s worked great for us for the last fifty years. If it isn’t broken, why fix it?”

Have a great Tuesday, everyone.

As usual, post comments from the main page, not the from the permalink.

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The latest images from Roby’s world:








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My good friend and super personal trainer Holly DiGiovine sent out an email over the weekend that struck a cord with me. Here’s some of what she had to share:

When you have a goal that is as huge as the marathon-it will “keep you honest.” It’s not like a smaller goal that you can announce and then put off or fake your way through. Once you sign up, commit months to training, and take your first step on race day-you better have done your homework.

The beauty of this is that it goes against 99% of the natural tendencies of our culture that favors gratification without effort or devotion. But is that kind of achievement ever as satisfying? Linda Hill once told me she loved the quote, “There is no glory in training, but there is no glory without training.” In no way is this more true than in running.

And business.

One thing I’ve found over the years is that many of the folks I train with (and race against) are for the most part as devoted to their jobs (if not more) as they are to running or cycling or triathlon.

Unlike participation in say, golf or softball or basketball – no offense to club/league sports – the type of determination, discipline and emotional focus that comes with training day in, day out for extremely challenging endurance events (often by yourself) tends to bleed over into people’s 9-5’s.

Whether you’re training for a marathon, a century or the Ironman triathlon, one thing you quickly find out is that there’s no room for bullshit out there on the pavement. You either do the work or you’re screwed. Politics won’t get you to the finish line. It doesn’t matter who you know or how well you can work the system. When you’re out there, every weakness bubbles up to the surface and stares you in the eye. Lack of prepapartion, lack of motivation, lack of dedication will all come back to bite you in the ass. there’s nowhere to hide. They will all find you and jump up on your back to stop you dead in your tracks. The choice becomes this: Do you let them stop you, or do you accept them and keep going?

You learn a lot about yourself, training for that type of event.
You learn a lot about how to break thresholds and get past your own little ego, training for events like these. When you’re tired and sore and hungry but you still have four miles to go, guess what? You still have four miles to go. How you get through these last four miles is entirely up to you. Nobody cares whether you walk those last four miles or run, or hail a cab. Nobody made you set 26.2 miles as a goal. Or 100 miles. Or 144+.
Once you’ve broken past your lack of will and learned to keep going, you are transformed. A similar thing happens to Marines during training. At some point, who you used to be before you went beyond what you thought your limitations were, before you kissed excuses goodbye, before you left all of the bulllshit that stood in your mind’s way ceases to exist. You become someone else.
That someone else, the marathoner, the long distance cyclist, the triathlete, the Ironman, he or she walks into your place of work with you every morning.
We all work with two types of people: Partisans of the least amount of effort, and dedicated professionals.
The latter aren’t all marathoners and triathletes, but I have yet to meet an Ironman or marathoner who didn’t take his or her intensity and dedication to their job.
Not that there’s anything wrong with drinking a case of beer and watching sports on TV all weekend, but who you are outside of your work does have parallels with who you are when you are at work.
Something to think about.

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John Moore – whom I ran into yesterday – posted these very cool little Seth Godin vignettes on his blog. At first glance, I thought “Cool! This is a really sweet idea.” I set out to check each one out… and… quickly realized that although the action figure and quote montage thing was indeed very nifty, the selection of Seth quotes was… well, surprisingly bad.

At first glance,it looks and sounds great… and it comes from Seth, so you put on your Seth filter and expect it all to be very wise and true and insightful… but not this time.

Frankly, having been a big fan of Seth’s work over the last decade, going back to his days penning killer editorials for Fast Company, this was a huge surprise.

Feeling like maybe I had stepped into some weird Twilight Zone episode where everything is backwards, or stepped through an alternate opposite dimension like in that Star Trek Episode where Spock sported a goatee and Captain Kirk was shagging all the female members of his crew, I quickly turned on the TV and flipped to Fox News to see if their version of the news made sense. (A true litmus test for alternate realities if you ask me).

Alternatively, if you happen to have more “conservative” propensities, getting your hands on a copy of “It Takes a Village” would certainly do the trick.

Anyway. Long story short: The Fox Box turned me off in about two minutes flat. Verdict: I hadn’t stepped into an alternate universe. Ergo: Seth Godin had indeed lost his friggin’ mind.

Let me illustrate:

Wrong. Those of us who live in the real world still do come in the front door quite a bit. And even if the initial contact with a website is not with the home page, the next click or two will invariably take us there. So will most of our return visits. Perhaps Seth meant to say something else, but being that he makes a living writing articles and books and whatnot, that is pretty unlikely.

Wrong again. Old Marketing is simply a methodology, and as such has nothing to do with the quality of the products it aims to serve. Old Marketing is Old Marketing whether the product is great, average or plain lousy. The same is true of New Marketing.

True. But I’m curious about whether we’re talking about New Marketing or The New Marketing. I shouldn’t make fun. Seth just needs a better editor, that’s all.

Wrong. It demands better marketing as well. Hence the term “marketing.”

Wrong. I see plenty of brand new companies with crappy product, crappy customer experiences, crappy organizations and crappy marketing. Likewise, I see plenty of established companies turn their troubles around by adopting what Seth would call “New Marketing.” New Marketing is not the domain of fresh new entrepreneurs at all. I find that kind of thinking pretty disappointing, actually.

This is the kind of generalization that I would never have expected from “Papa Seth.”

Well… the end of the second part is true… It must be embedded into the experience of the product, but there are plenty of great “big” ideas everywhere, including the world of Advertising. And yes, advertising ideas sometimes travel VERY well.

The problem with advertising is that the US had never been all that great at it anyway. Yeah, sometimes you get a good one, but all in all, it’s a lot of noise aimed at the “good enough” middle of the bell curve. (We’ll come back to that in a bit.) Back to the point: Big ideas can indeed be advertising-based.

Let me add that if – as Bruce Mau suggested – “creativity is not device dependent,” neither is it industry-related. Seth’s anti advertising religion is starting to cloud his logic.

You wish!

In a perfect world of mavens and super cool intellectuals with unlimited greenbacks, maybe. But out here in the real world, market share matters. Volume matters. Why? Because massive amounts of revenue buy business, mind share, government regulation, premium shelf space and whatever else is necessary to either maintain that market share or increase it.

Simple illustration: I don’t care how great your burger is and how cool the setting of your new cool fast food restaurant, you aren’t going to displace McDonald’s.

Who is going to defeat companies in markets defined by volume and market share, Seth?

What little startup will defeat Verizon, at&t, Microsoft, Ford, HP, Gilette, Miracle Whip, Coca Cola, or Nike?

It’s a nice thought that may be true for some smallish businesses, but deeply flawed as a generalization. As much as I hate to admit it, the old model is very much alive, and no amount of daydreaming or ideation will change that.

I am not even going to touch that one. It’s… ugh. Never mind.

Earth to Seth! Earth to Seth! Come back!

iPod is neither remarkably weird, nor remarkably well priced. The same can be said of just about anything made by Starbucks, Nike, HP, BMW, VW, Ford, Chevy, McDonald’s, KFC, Victoria’s Secret, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, RayBan, Microsoft, Canon, Nikon, Sony, Verizon, cingular, HBO, Trek, Pepsi, CNN.com, Colgate, Speed Stick, Whole Foods, Levis, Fruit of the Loom, Exxon, etc. I don’t think I need to go on, but I can if you want me to. For hours. Days, even.

And advertising still matters. A lot.

You are so wrong it hurts.

You say everyone is a critic.
And you want to satisfy the critics.
Which means you want to satisfy everyone.
Yet… you can’t satisfy everyone. Surely, you realize that.

So I have to ask:

1. What the hell are you babbling about?
2. How does pleasing everyone play into the whole “marketshare is irrelevant” thing?

Even if I agree with you on this point, how is it different from what every company has been trying to accomplish since the dawn of enterprise?

Dude. You’re scaring me.

What are you smoking, man? Breadth and depth are not mutually exclusive.

Until recently, marketing was all about breadth because the tools weren’t there to reach people individually, based on specific criteria. Now that these tools are getting more accessible, effective and affordable, companies will be able to combine breadth AND depth to drive sales, product adoption, mindshare, or whatever they want.

To say that mass isn’t important is to say that generating revenue – and growth – are not important.

I’m worried about you, Seth. Seriously.

Kinduv. I’ll give you that one. I could argue it, but I don’t feel like splitting hairs right now. I’m getting a headache trying to make sense of your ramblings.


Obviously, you have never set foot in a K-Mart or a WalMart. Or a restaurant chain. Or pumped gas into your car. Or walked down the street.

Seth, people buy average crap every day, seemingly by the pound. They can’t get enough of average, in fact.

Average food, average cars, average clothes, average haircuts, average music, tickets to average movies, hours of couch time watching average TV shows… Our entire culture is based on the premise that the fat middle of the bell curve is where the lion’s share of the revenue (and value) is. The point here Seth, is that the majority of people actually do go for what’s “good enough.”

The sweet spot for most businesses, is right there between “not good enough” and “very good.”

And um… “people avoid the deceitful?” Really? Tell that to Exxon, McDonald’s and the current administration, for starters. People don’t give a crap about the deceitful. They’re jaded. As if integrity was even a blip on the radar anymore.

We’re kind of into denial, Seth… in case you hadn’t noticed. Check out the stats on how much money is spent each year in the US alone on weight loss products. Deceit obviously sells just as well as anything else.

The very fact that over 93% of Americans eat red meat is proof enough that people don’t avoid the deceitful at all. Come on, man. What country do you live in? Our entire way of life is firmly anchored in denial. Deceit doesn’t even enter the picture.

I don’t mean to be critical, but I have to call bullshit when I see it. (Even if John did a kickass job for you on the improvised presentation.)

I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt, Seth. Everyone goes a little crazy sometimes… but… wooh. You don’t do anything half-assed, do you.

I think I’m going to go drown my sorrows in Kambucha now.

Or better yet, go watch some “good enough” TV.

It’s a world gone mad I tell ya.

Comment writing note: The permalink will not allow you to leave a comment. To leave a comment, go to the blog’s home page, scroll down to find this post, and click “comment” at the bottom of the post.

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Courtesy of (mostly) Bear at Orange Coat/Orange Yeti, here is the photostream from yesterday’s inaugural Tech After Five event:

PS: In true Yeti/bigfoot lore fashion, I cannot produce a single material witness and have absolutely no photographic evidence to corroborate my sighting of – and brief conversation with – The Practioner himself at the event. What are the odds. Seriously.

It’s a crazy, crazy world. Or at least a small one.
Big thanks to Phil Yanov for putting this on.

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Sally Hogstead’s “Radical Careering” advice isn’t about looking for greener pastures somewhere else, it’s about shooting a wholelot of life back into your professional universe.

Click the image and download the presentation. It’s short and fantastic.

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Why David Armano (of Logic + Emotion) rocks, and why his blog is one of my very favorite among favorites:

“We’re focused on relevant, groundbreaking solutions that fuse style and substance—insight driven creative, supported by technology, which ultimately leads to measurable results. Not merely flashy creative or fleeting viral campaigns, but rather, applications that shift consumer behavior, brand experiences that deepen customer relationships and game-changing strategies that meaningfully impact the bottom line.”

Via AdPulp by way of the Yeti.

Your turn: What’s your elevator pitch?

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Again from Seth Godin, here’s a great little post on Marketing. (It’s good to hear it from the horse’s mouth:)

Very rarely do we come to meetings and say, “well, here’s our cool new PBX for Fortune 1000 companies. It’s exactly the same as the last model, except the phones are designed by frog design so they’re cooler and more approachable and people are more likely to invest a few minutes in learning how to use them, so customer satisfaction will go up and we’ll sell more, even though it’s precisely the same technology we were selling yesterday.”

Very rarely do vodka marketers tell the truth and say, “here’s our new vodka, which we buy in bulk from the same distillery that produces vodka for $8 a bottle. Ours is going to cost $35 a bottle and come in a really, really nice bottle and our ads will persuade laddies that this will help them in the dating department… nudge, nudge, know what I mean, nudge, nudge…”

It would be surprising to meet a monk or a talmudic scholar or a minister who would say, “yes, we burn the incense or turn down the lights or ring these bells or light these candles as a way of creating a room where people are more likely to believe in their prayers,” but of course that’s exactly what they’re doing. (and you know what? there’s nothing wrong with that.)

It’s easier to get people to come to a meeting about clock speed and warranty failure analysis than it is to have a session about storytelling.

We don’t like to admit that we tell stories, that we’re in the placebo business. Instead, we tell ourselves about features and benefits as a way to rationalize our desire to to help our customers by allowing them to lie to themselves.

The design of your blog or your package or your outfit is nothing but an affect designed to create the placebo effect. The sound Dasani water makes when you open the bottle is more of the same. It’s all storytelling. It’s all lies.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

In fact, your marketplace insists on it.

To find out how that post got started, click here.

My point for the last decade or so has been this: Marketing isn’t all about the “message”. Brands aren’t about fresh coats of paint and cool logos and expensive advertising. No matter how many time brand shops will tell you otherwise, brands aren’t about creative or media buying – which is why ad agencies are the last place any business should look for advice when trying to ‘develop’ a brand.

Bleh.

People, listen to me: Design a better PBX. Develop a tastier vodka. Don’t just tell stories. Design products, services and experiences for your users that will make them talk about you.That’s how you build strong brands. That’s the foundation upon which you build your marketing and branding practices.

As a marketer, if you are only in the business of telling stories, you are in the business of charging a pile of money to deliver a whole lot of hot air. Regardless of how many awards you win for your brilliant work, you aren’t contributing much to your clients’ brands.

Food for thought.

Have a great Tuesday, everyone. ;)

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Seth Godin points us to these very cool little online resources dealing with – you guessed it – color schemes:

Color Theory
Colour Lovers
Kuler (adobe)
And the most corporate/boring one of all…

Hey, it’s the little things that matter most.

Web, graphic and product designers, this one’s for you.

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If you want to see me get heated, ask me about doping and sports. Hopefully, you aren’t a football fan (American rules) or a baseball fan – as my opinion of steroid use is pretty cut and dry. You see, I’m a purist when it comes to athletic performance. Any athlete who uses a drug or other substance to enhance their performance, strength, endurance, recovery, etc. is a cheater. Period.

I understand the need for bigger and bigger hits in football, I understand the need for baseball players to be able to hit the ball out of the park with one arm, time and time again, and yes, I understand the need for track athletes to break speed records in the 100, 200, 400 and 800.

More to the point, I completely understand the temptation to dope in the world of grand tour cycling – especially when I am sprinting up a steep hill, my heart beating so hard I can taste blood in the back of my throat, and I still get dropped by guys more talented and better trained than me. If only I could take a pill or drink some kind of special shake that made me just 5% faster. 5% stronger. Gave me 5% more endurance. Yeah, on the verge of puking my guts out at the top of a climb, I often wish Accelerade or GU came up with a little magic pill that would make climbing a wee bit easier.

And as competitive as I may be, I am just a recreational athlete.

Imagine if I were a pro, and my paycheck depended on my getting to the top of a mountain in first place as opposed to… fifth or sixth or seventh place.

Imagine if the difference between success and failure depended on just 5% more output from my body.

Imagine if the majority of the athletes I competed against were doping up, and the only way for me to even-up the scales were to shoot up?

What if I lived and worked in an environment, a culture, an industry that not only encouraged me to cheat, but also made it easy for me to do so? What if every single day of working in this environment, everything led me to rationalize that… well, if everyone else is cheating, it isn’t cheating since all I am really doing is evening the playing field?

It would be difficult. I can sit here on my high horse and pretend that the choice not to dope is easy, but it isn’t. It can’t be. Not when the culture of your sport and the incredibly high stakes make doping the solution of choice when it comes to not getting churned out like a chump.

The problem with professional cycling is that blood doping has been at the core of the Grand Tour culture for quite some time, and it is nigh impossible to change that kind of behavior overnight. But some athletes, teams and directeurs sportifs are trying. They really are. The problem is that we still can’t tell for sure who’s cheating and who isn’t, because doping science is always just a step ahead of testing science.

If you were to ask me if doping scandals have turned me off from the Tour, my answer would be yes and no. No, I will never be completely turned off by the Tour De France because it is such an awesome event to watch and be a part of. It is inspiring. It is exciting. You can’t be a cyclist and not watch at least the mountain stages of the Tour… or the TT, or maybe the first week’s sprint finishes. But yes, I am a bit turned off because every seemingly superhuman performance raises a little red flag in the back of my head: Is this guy really that much of a badass, or is he on a very expensive cocktail of hemoglobin and top secret meds?

That’s the part that sucks: Not knowing. Doubting that the performance is genuine. As much as I enjoy watching an athlete crush his competitors the way Lance Armstrong did a few years ago, not being able to buy into his victory 100% affects the value of the experience. It also affects the relevance of the event, and of the sport in general. And that sucks.

Today, there still is no definitive way to absolutely 100% identify cyclists on the juice from those not on the juice… and until that changes, the Tour De France will be only half the race it could be.

In light of this, here is an email I received over the weekend:

On February 13th, the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) barred Team Astana from competing in any race or event organized by the ASO in 2008. The ASO owns premiere cycling events like Paris-Nice, Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Tours, and the famed Tour de France.
To justify its decision, the ASO has cited the doping scandals of last year’s Tour de France.There can be no comparison between the Astana team of 2007 and the new Astana. The entire organizational structure has been rebuilt under the direction of the team’s new General Manager, Johan Bruyneel, who has thoroughly cleaned house. What’s more, Astana has adopted the rigorous doping controls developed by anti-doping expert Dr. Rasmus Damsgaard, and Astana now spends more money on anti-doping controls than any other team in the pro peloton.
“That the happenings of last year…prompted the Tour organizers to leave Astana out of the season’s most important race sounds understandable,” notes Bruyneel. “However, Astana Cycling Team 2008 has nothing to do with the team of last year. We have done everything to change the dynamics of the team. New management, new riders, new philosophy. Only the name of the sponsor remained.”
The ASO has turned a blind eye to Johan’s efforts. By barring the entire team from competing in ASO events, outstanding athletes like Levi Leipheimer, who was not a member of last year’s Astana team and who has never been implicated in any doping affair, are forced to sit on the sidelines while their life’s work passes them by.
“When I saw the Tour de France on TV when I was young,” laments Leipheimer, “I knew that someday I wanted to do that race. I sacrificed my life to participate. After finishing on the podium last year I want to do even better. Now I’m a victim of an illogical decision and have been excluded from the race.”

I don’t claim to know the exact chemistry of Levi’s blood, but I’ll say this: Give the guy and his team a chance to race. Punishing a team for past misdeeds when its membership, management and anti-doping measures have all been overhauled is moronic. Sure, the team’s ownership may be rightly punished (something hefty fines would do just as well), but in the end, it is the riders and the public who suffer – and unjustly at that.

Whether in the world of sport or the world of business, when an organization completely rebuilds itself in the wake of a scandal and commits to rebuilding its reputation, why punish them? Why not embrace their effort and their spirit? Why not make them the poster child for the kind of change you want to see? Test them to death, scrutinize their every move, but let them prove themselves. Give them the opportunity to fail.

What could be worse than not punishing athletes and teams when they cheat?
Punishing the wrong people.

Though I am not a huge fan of Levi’s riding, I admire the way he is fighting for his right to race in this year’s Tour. His fight isn’t about winning – it’s about wanting to race, which is at the core of cycling (and sport’s) very spirit. That is sonething I can both relate to and stand behind. So Levi, you have my vote.

To voice your opinion, click here.

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Oh no they didn’t.

“At 36lbs, 33″ long and 9″ wide at the front element, calling this lens a ‘tele’ is like calling King Kong a monkey.”

At $99,000 a pop, I doubt that B&H is going to sell many. And since there are only a few dozen of these lenses in existence, that point is moot.

What I see here isn’t a monster lens, but a brilliant bit of self promotion by B&H.

Well played, sirs. Well played indeed.

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Interestingly, I find that I am not the only one who has decided to boycott Valentine’s Day this year. I cannot provide you with a percentage of people in the US who are beginning to rebel against what Valentine’s Day has become – an empty shell of retailer-driven “holiday” characterized by cultural uniformity, and a strong penchant for mass-produced commodity-level products/gifts – but I will try to put something together next year.
The blogs are surprisingly abuzz with anti-Valentine’s Day sentiment, shared by a surprising number of people in my office today.
I suspect this backlash is due to the over-commercialization of the holiday by greeting card companies, chocolate/candy makers, flower retailers and the hundreds of chinese factories pumping out cheap crap most of us are only too eager to buy for a “loved” one.
The point is that Valentine’s Day has been so overcommercialized (I prefer the term ‘plastified’) that it has lost its authenticity: When everyone buys the same crap, the act of doing something special for a loved one (or ‘buying’ something special for a loved one) becomes not special at all. Everyone buys the same cards, the same flowers, the same teddy bears, the same lame box of chocolates… and yes, even the same set of diamond earrings.
We’re just going through the motions, at this point. Not all of us, but most of us. $2.99 for a little red VD bag. $0.99 for some silk paper to fill the bag with. $19.99 for a dozen roses… or the chocolate box with special edition teddy bear Valentine kit. Or better yet, $4.27 worth of candy from the checkout aisle.
Maybe $3.99 for a greeting card.
Heart-shaped candy or brownies for the kids.
We’re tools.
We’ve forgotten how to take the time to celebrate a true sweethearts’ day. We’ve forgotten how to take the time to think about doing or buying something unique. Something special. Something memorable and meaningful for our loved one. Instead, we just go to the local Walgreens or Target or Walmart or Costco, and we grab whatever’s on the shelf. We go through the motions. We do what’s expected of us on this day. We buy boring Valentine’s Day crap just because everyone else does.
And it is crap.
What does that say about us? “Hey honey, I love you so much that I bought you this big red heart-shaped piece of crap. I put a lot of thought into it. I actually picked it myself. Millions of people bought the exact same piece of crap for their special someone too, but mine is more special because it comes from me. That’s how much I love you.”
I imagine that the numbers I will present next year will show a significant and steady increase in US consumer’s disdain for this ‘holiday’ that has now become as hollow, artificial and commoditized as the insultingly mediocre products retailers attempt to shove down our throats.
We’ve cheapened what used to be great little holidays to such an extent now that our culture is truly beginning to turn into a cliche of rampant consumerism and bad taste.
For shame.

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This actually made it past my SPAM filter today, and I thought I would share.

Someone please explain to me what the point of this kind of email is, why they are always so obnoxiously bad, and why their narrative always contains some sort of life-threatening element.

Note: The sticky space bar is not my doing. This is how the email came to me. I added the red copy for emphasis.)

FROM: MR.Patrick K. W. Chan
(Executive Director & Chief financial Officer)
Hang Seng Bank Limited
83 Des Voeux Road, Central
Hong Kong
SARE-mail : p_kwchan@yahoo.com.hk

FOR YOUR ATTENTIONIt is understandable that you might be a little bit apprehensive because you donot know me but I have a lucrative business proposal of mutual interest to sharewith you. I got your reference in my search for someone who suits my proposedbusiness relationship.
I am Mr. Patrick K. W. Chan Executive Director & Chief financial Officer of HangSeng Bank Ltd. I have an obscured business suggestion for you. I will need youto assist me in executing a business project from Hong Kong to your country. Itinvolves the transfer of a large sum of money. Everything concerning thistransaction shall be legally done without hitch. Please endeavour to observeutmost discretion in all matters concerning this issue.
Once the funds have been successfully transferred into your account,we shallshare in the ratio to be agreed by both of us.
I will prefer you reach me on my private email address below{p_kwchan@yahoo.com.hk} and finally after that I shall furnish you with moreinformation about this operation.
Please if you are not interested delete this email and do not hunt me because Iam putting my career and the life of my family at stake with this venture.
Although nothing ventured is nothing gained.
Your earliest response to this letter will be appreciated.

Kind Regards, Mr. Patrick chan
{p_kwchan@yahoo.com.hk}

image by Christopher Wray-McCann

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The Paris-Dakar Rally isn’t very big in the US, but it is in Europe and other parts of the world. For decades, it was the quintessential international motorsport expedition event – more so than the Camel Trophy and its other motorized adventure race style events.

As a kid, I remember watching the day’s highlights on TV, and sitting next to my dad on Sunday evenings as the race was recapped stage by stage. Helicopters equipped with cameras followed intrepid racers in kit cars and modified supercross bikes as they raced balls out across the North African desert. The crashes were as spectacular as the scenery. The teams were made up of seemingly unshakable professional adventurers and thrill-seekers. Drivers routinely got stuck in the sand and had to get themselves unstuck. Mechanical problems had to be fixed without assistance. The race was as much aout self-reliance and survival as it was about horsepower and speed.

More than anything, the race was about courage.

I remember watching a participant on a motorcycle crash so hard one year that he broke both legs. He was on a motorcycle. In the desert. By himself. With two shattered legs. He managed to get back on his bike and somehow ride to the finish – amid dunes and rocks and some of the most hostile terrain known to man. Other than the hiker who amputated his own arm with a pocket knife a few years ago, this dude holds a special place in the pantheon of courageous and tough bastards.

Like I said, this race was mostly about courage.

That ended today when the organizers of the Paris Dakar Rally announced that the rally would temporarily move to South America next year in an attempt to avoid the threat of terrorism (from msn.com):

PARIS (AP) – Argentina and Chile will host the 2009 edition of the Dakar Rally, which was canceled this year because of fears of terrorism in Africa.

Organizers said Monday the race will start in Buenos Aires on Jan. 2 and finish in the Argentine capital Jan. 18. The full route will be announced Tuesday in Argentina by Patrice Clerc, who runs the company that organizes the rally.

This year marked the first time that the 30-year-old rally, one of the biggest competitions in automobile racing, was called off. The threat of terrorist attacks pushed the element of risk to levels organizers deemed unacceptable.

The roughly 550 competitors were to have embarked on a 16-day, 5,760-mile trek through remote and hostile dunes and scrub from Portugal to Dakar, Senegal.

The race, once known as the Paris-Dakar, was canceled following warnings from the French government about safety after the al-Qaida-linked Dec. 24 slaying of a family of French tourists in Mauritania. Eight of the competition’s 15 stages were to be held there.

Organizers promised that the cancellation did not mean the end of the Dakar race.

Please. Grow a pair.

Easy for me to say, sitting comfortably at my desk, thousands of miles away from Europe and North Africa? Don’t be so sure. Anyone who makes it his or her career to train for these types of events and risk everything to race in them isn’t the kind of person who will back down because of the “possibility” of a terrorist attack. Racing teams have to be fuming over this ridiculous and unbelievably cowardly decision.

As if Al Qaeda didn’t have better things to do.

As if the race couldn’t be adequately protected.

I understand that the decision to cancel, and then to move the race is probably related to insurance coverage, but that is no excuse. The Paris-Dakar is called Paris-Dakar because the race starts in Paris, and ends in Dakar. Duh. It has for decades. Moving the race to a different continent makes in another race altogether. If you move it, it ceases to be Paris-Dakar. Period. End of story. The race dies.

Perhaps this is me sitting on my high horse, but when the threat of terrorism pushes event organizers to postpone, cancel, or move a sporting event, the terrorists win… and this is unacceptable.

Why don’t we also move the New York Marathon to Ontario, while we’re at it?

Why don’t we move the Superbowl to Australia?

Why don’t we move the Tour De France to Japan?

Why don’t we just cancel the Olympic Games?

All for security reasons. Al Qaeda and all…

Maybe race organizers should also get rid of the swim portion of the Hawaii Ironman because of the threat of shark attacks.

Maybe Mount Everest expeditions should be redirected to a safer mountain that doesn’t claim so many lives. We could still call it an Everest expedition… you know… for the sponsors. And for the public too, since they’ve heard of Everest.

Maybe Nascar should enforce speed limits.

When your event/race/brand is synonymous with courage, adventure, and survival in the face of adversity, cowering before the bullying specter of terrorism is just sad. Excuse my French, but if we have become too chicken-shit to race cars through the desert, the spirit of Paris-Dakar is indeed dead – only Al Qaeda had absolutely nothing to do with it: Terrorists may plant bombs and crash jetliners into skyscrapers, but we’ve become cowards all on our own. We can’t blame Al Qaeda for that.

I think that we can officially call the Paris-Dakar brand dead and buried.

Shame on the race organizers. Shame on the race sponsors. Shame on us all.

Let me close with this little bit of Chuck Palahniuk, for good measure:

“The laws that keep us safe, these same laws condemn us to boredom.” (…)

At her last trial, before the last time she went to jail, the Mommy had sat up next to the judge and said, “My goal is to be an engine of excitement in people’s lives.”

She’d stared right into the stupid little boy’s eyes and said, “My purpose is to give people glorious stories to tell.”

Before the guards took her into the back wearing handcuffs, she’d shouted, “Convicting me would be redundant. Our bureaucracy and our laws have turned the world into a clean, safe work camp.”

She shouted, “We are raising a generation of slaves.”

And it was back to prison for Ida Mancini.

“Incorrigible” isn’t the right word, but it’s the first word that comes to mind.

The unidentified woman, the one who ran down the aisle during the ballet, she was screaming, “We are teaching our children to be helpless.”

Running down the aisle and out a fire exit, she’d yelled, “We’re so structured and micromanaged, this isn’t a world anymore, it’s a damn cruise ship.”

- From Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk


Nothing is sadder to me than watching courage die. This is at the very least a sad day in the history of sport.


R.I.P. Paris-Dakar Rally.
1979 – 2007

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image: Polaroid SX-70 Time-Zero Film (expired film: 05/05) by macomaco.

From AdPulp’s David Burn:
Polaroid Slides Down Far Side of Bell Curve

Newspapers and record companies are experiencing the awesome power of disruptive technology, but not like Polaroid.

According to The Boston Globe, Polaroid plans to make only enough film to last into next year before shuttering its factories.

Polaroid chief operating officer Tom Beaudoin said the company is interested in licensing its technology to an outside firm that could manufacture film for faithful Polaroid customers. If that doesn’t happen, Polaroid users would have to find an alternative photo technology.

Polaroid has already quietly halted production of instant cameras. “We stopped making commercial-type cameras about 18 to 24 months ago, and we stopped making consumer cameras about a year ago,” said Beaudoin.

This is so sad. My first camera (before my Pentax K-1000 SLR) was a Polaroid instant camera. I remember the pop-on flash array with its neat line of blueish oval bulbs. I remember the weight of the camera when it was strapped around my neck. I remember the feel of the viewfinder against my eye socket. I remember the smell of the paper when I peeled back the cover paper. Even back then, I spent most of my meager allowance on film and flashes.

I remember how excited I was when I got a brand new polaroid camera to replace my old one when it broke. This one had a little motor that ejected the photograph, and cold little pockets of ink inside the paper tab under each photo. I remember sitting there, saking each photo and watching the opaque little black square turn into an image time after time after time.

My entire childhood was captured on Polaroid cameras and film.
This is a sad, sad announcement. Somehow, it seems that humanity was better off with Polaroid cameras in the world than without them.
Could Polaroid – arguably an extremely strong brand when it comes to embodying a very specific technology, an entire era, an artistic sensibility – still be saved? I think so. Heck, I KNOW so.
As a matter of fact, I just figured out how to save Polaroid outright. Um… Polaroid execs? Please contact me asap and I will impart you with my stroke of genius. Honestly, if you were worth a fraction of the compensation Polaroid pays you, you would ahve come up with this plan too. Years ago. And we wouldn’t be talking about this.

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Davia Temin – of Temin & Company sent me an terrific email a few days ago that outlined seven considerations that could help you strengthen company or brand in 2008:

Challenge Assumptions – Daily
An older corporate Board Director once said to me, “Do you know when we Directors know it is time to step down? When the things we believe to be undeniably, incontrovertibly true – aren’t any more.”

Things are moving so fast, fueled by technology, by globalization, by a troubled economy, by what is possible today that was not before, that it is crucial to challenge every assumption you have, all the time.

Especially in communications and reputation. One day Barry Bonds is riding high; the next he is a candidate for indictment. The same is true with CEO after CEO. But rehabilitation is possible. Take even the bizarre example of Joan Rivers. She was once a Johnny Carson wanna-be, almost a joke; today she is a QVC mogul, a fashion icon selling tens of millions of dollars worth of products over TV.

Reputations are no longer only slowly and deliberately built – they soar, they plummet, they crash, they resurrect. They are kinetic things and one must keep on top of them – monitoring them, readjusting them, and reinventing them –
constantly.

“News” is Being Redefined

As traditional print and broadcast media such as newspapers, magazines and TV news shrink and hemorrhage profitability, and information delivery continues its transit to the web, the influence of “editors” lessens. Press releases, oft maligned as organizational hype (and mostly are), have taken on new potency in the web world.

If you issue a release over the pay wires, it is immediately picked up, whole, by tens or hundreds of websites, which are in turn linked to hundreds of other sites, referenced in blogs, and sometimes received as unadulterated truth. Not always, of course, but more often than before.

And reported, researched, edited, thoughtful articles can sometimes be placed next to these marketing-messaged releases, and to blog postings, as just another form of news distribution, instead of being valued more highly.

Why else would organizations like ProPublica, the independent, non-profit newsroom that will produce investigative journalism in the public interest, crop up? Because a group of the most thoughtful, experienced news experts, such as former Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Paul Steiger, Dick Tofel and Steve Engelberg, see that impartial, investigative journalism is no longer going to be economically viable. But it is still crucial to our world, and thus needs to be supported as a non-profit public endeavor.

Expect this trend to continue to grow. We need to understand the system in order to embrace it, while still honoring the difference between marketing messages and news. Believe it or not, that will hold marketers in the best stead.

We Won’t Be Fooled Again – Or Will We?
Osama/Saddam/Obama – The cynicism of those who seek to manipulate public perception cannot be overrated.

Communicators – especially in the political arena – have counted on the gullibility and lack of perceptivity of the public. They deliver muddied messages and expect the populace to not see clearly enough to uncover crucial distinctions, or the
truth.

How else could the current US administration have counted upon its constituents to confuse Saddam with Osama, half-believe that Saddam was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and sanction the Iraqi war? (See the Wall Street Journal’s July 10, 2003 article, “The Fog of Deceit.”)

Well, we’ve seen where that leads us. And we’re smarter now – or are we? Will it work again? Watch, if Barack Obama reaches the ticket as Vice President or President, whether we begin seeing messages confusing “Osama” and “Obama.” Watch who puts those messages out, and who consumes them whole.

And let’s make sure that our own messages are clear and distinct, and that we help the public see crucial distinctions, as opposed to gloss over them.

Lies, Lies and More Damn Lies – Do They Matter?
To embellish on the previous point: perhaps it has ever been thus, but I think it is more true today – we are officially jaded by lies, and may no longer even care that we are being lied to.

“These CDO’s are safe, highly-rated investments.” “The value of your home will only go up.” “ Iraq has weapons of mass destruction.” “The US does not engage in torture.” “These products for your children are safe – and so is this cough
medicine….”

Public institutions are lying in profusion. Product safety breaches continue to rock various industries. But, is the traditional way of dealing with contamination still needed? Traditionally, a mea culpa, plan for remediation, and then follow-through were needed to repair product “tainting” problems.

Disturbingly, a headline in the December 21, 2007 WSJ proclaimed: “In the US , Playthings Stay on Customer Shopping Lists; Parents ‘Couldn’t Care Less,’” right before Christmas.

Privately, executives have criticized Mattel for overly-ambitious recalls, instead of “toughing out” its lead contamination issues.

What is the balance that beleaguered companies need to strike between defending themselves and apologizing, taking a hit, correcting and moving on? Millions of factors affect that balance – like the facts – but the trend seems to be shifting to a hardball stance. As the populace becomes more and more jaded, and expects less truth from its institutions, they seem to accept tougher corporate responses, and a lack of responsiveness. Is that a trend to take advantage of, or fight? What is best for share price, stakeholders and reputation?

Conflicting Trends: Transparency vs. Complexity
A dialectic is emerging between an increasingly interconnected, complex world – everywhere from the global supply chain to new derivative financial instruments – and calls for increasing public “transparency” and simplicity.

It is no wonder, because complexity and interconnectedness are as weak as their weakest links, and we often don’t know what they are until they fail. So complexity is scary.

But transparency and simplicity are hard to come by, and at best can only serve as an “executive summary” of the complexity that underlies them. Because complexity, fueled by technology and creativity, is not going away any time soon….

How will organizations, products and individuals need to publicly negotiate between these two trends? Proclaim transparency, but operate opaquely? How they come to a synthesis in their public profiles will determine their success in ‘08.

The Consequences of Our Loss of Privacy
It goes without saying that the concept of privacy is fast disappearing. People are being fired for indiscretions memorialized on the web—from ill-advised social networking postings to indecorous photos, often posted by others. There is nothing we do that might not be outed on the web…and even if it has not been yet, that does not mean it may not be in the future.

I can’t tell you how many times we have been hired not just for web site “optimization,” or to increase the exposure of organizations on the searchable web, but also for what I would call “deoptimization,” or trying to remove or bury certain items on the web. Of course, you can seek to correct incorrect data or lies in many ways, up to and including litigation, but as for dealing with breaches of your privacy, that is a different story.

The concept of an “open” society is taking on a new meaning. And in the future it will mean that either we all will have a much higher tolerance for human idiosyncrasy, or we had better be pretty careful of our behavior…even in Tahiti , on a private beach!

The Web as a Living Thing
Some scientists I have been working with talk about future inventions that will “read the web” like a living thing. Now I don’t just mean data mining Google to see who is looking at what at any given moment. Or researching how the web is valuing an organization’s “reputation” by crawling through and evaluating everything being written about it in real time.

These are already being done.

I am talking about several steps beyond: being able to model, visualize and understand the web as a sentient, growing, meta-organism that has a psychology, personality, moods, quirks, and powers that mirrors its users, en masse, and perhaps surpasses them. Call it Web 4.0, or maybe Web 5.0 squared.

This, over time, may be the reputation engine that supercedes all reputation engines.

Have a great weekend, everyone. :)

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For whatever reason, I recently started trying to stop using plastic bags. At the grocery store, at Target, and wherever else plastic bags rule the checkout counter, I try to do without them.

It started one day at Whole Foods. Here I am, feeling all green and superior and hip with my liter of organic kefir, my wedge of imported Pont L’Eveque, my quart of all natural taboule salad and my 100% recycled carton of free-range, hormone free, all vegetarian fed chicken eggs… when the girl at the counter asks me those dreaded words: “Paper or plastic?

Pause frame.

Paper bags are bad. They kill trees. Actually, they’re the crushed, melted and reconstituted remains of dead trees… and they’re harder to recycle, etc. So… no paper bags.

But what about plastic? Plants that make plastic bags spew all kinds of chemical pollutants all over the place, they’re all over South Carolina’s roadsides, and they fill gajillions of miles of landfills.

To give you an idea, worldwide, the number of plastic bags used is anywhere from 500 billion to 1 trillion every year. Americans throw away about 100 billion plastic bags each year, according to the Worldwatch Institute. Only 1 percent of them are ever recycled. That means that about 1.5 BILLION lbs of plastic bags hit landfills every year in the USA. That’s 4,000,000 lbs of plastic bags every single day.)

So… plastic bags are basically an unnecessary evil.

The question at the moment is “paper or plastic,” and I’m stumped.

That’s when I see the fancy little $0.99 (or $1.99) green “material” tote bags for sale right there by the counter. I figure… okay, they’re made out of recycled materials or whatever, so that’s good. And I can use them over and over again, which is also good because I won’t be uselessly throwing bags away anymore.

So I buy two bags, the cute young cashier proudly fills them with my food with extra care, and I drive home, proud as a bug for having taken a big step towards being a better human being.

But then something weird happens a few days later. When I use my Whole Food bags at Bloom, I get dirty looks from the cashiers. I even get a comment on my way out: “It’s not very nice using those Whole Foods totes in Bloom. They’re a competitor. Why don’t you use ours?” The cashier is joking, of course… but not really. So the following visit, I buy a couple of Bloom bags and use them to carry my food home. I now have two sets of totes.

A week later, the same thing happens at Publix. I add a set of Publix tote bags to my growing collection.

I now carry three pairs of tote bags in my car. This way, not only will I not be using plastic bags anymore, I also make sure not to offend anyone at any grocery store by using a competitor’s bag. These are the lengths I go to to be a good little neighbor. A good little shopper. A responsible corporate citizen.

It is complete nonsense, but it makes everyone happy and I can be brand-friendly.

Anyway. That isn’t my story. This is my story: I’m in Whole Foods three weeks ago, with my two good karma WF tote bags, buying all kinds of overpriced but very healthy sounding food items, when I notice that the bagger is wrapping all of my stuff individually with plastic bags before putting them in my tote.

She’s about half way done when I look up from the card pad thing and catch her in the act. I watch her take a bottle of Kombucha, wrap it in a plastic bag, and carefully place it inside the tote. There are more plastic bags inside my tote than if she had just bagged my stuff in a couple of regular plastic bags.

WTF?!?!?! Luckily, by the time the thought makes it to my mouth, it sounds more like “Um… wait… What are you doing?”

The innocent little old lady blinks up at me with the kindest smile. There is absolutely no way I can be mean to this woman. In the friendliest way possible, I tell her that she doesn’t need to wrap any of my stuff in plastic bags. She insists. I explain that I am trying to reduce my use of plastic bags… which is why I use the totes. She doesn’t seem to understand, at first. She looks down at the totes and seems confused. But then she gets it and apologizes. She starts reaching into the totes and unwraps everything. I don’t stop her… but I thank her half a dozen times.

On my way to my car, I ponder the possibility that perhaps as a people, we’ve become completely addicted to plastic bags.

My next grocery outing takes me to my neighborhood Publix, where the exact same thing happens. Instead of just putting my stuff in the totes, the bagging lady wraps them in plastic bags first. WTF?!?!?!

I go through the same dialogue: I’m trying to stop using plastic bags. Hence the totes.

As I said: Addiction.

I expect that a year from now, this confusion will be water under the bridge, but this is South Carolina, so… maybe not.

I figure most people here will not change their plastic bag habits unless retailers (or local and state lawmakers) follow the example of our clever brothers from another mother in Ireland.

From PSFK‘s Piers Fawkes:

Will the plastic bag be remembered in the same way we now think of how they used to smoke on the London Underground or maybe even how people used to wear fur coats? The image of the plastic shopping bag has taken a drastic plummet in Ireland as carriers are cast as socially irresponsible, the New York Times reports. After a tax charge of 33 cents a bag was instigated at cash registers, use of plastic bags plummeted and were replaced by the owners’ reusable cloth ones. The NY Times reports:

Within weeks, plastic bag use dropped 94 percent. Within a year, nearly everyone had bought reusable cloth bags, keeping them in offices and in the backs of cars. Plastic bags were not outlawed, but carrying them became socially unacceptable — on a par with wearing a fur coat or not cleaning up after one’s dog….Today, Ireland’s retailers are great promoters of taxing the bags. “I spent many months arguing against this tax with the minister; I thought customers wouldn’t accept it,” said Senator Feargal Quinn, founder of the Superquinn chain. “But I have become a big, big enthusiast.”

Mr. Quinn is also president of EuroCommerce, a group representing six million European retailers. In that capacity, he has encouraged a plastic bag tax in other countries. But members are not buying it. “They say: ‘Oh, no, no. It wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t be acceptable in our country,’ ” Mr. Quinn said.

As nations fail to act decisively, some environmentally conscious chains have moved in with their own policies. Whole Foods Market announced in January that its stores would no longer offer disposable plastic bags, using recycled paper or cloth instead, and many chains are starting to charge customers for plastic bags.

But such ad hoc efforts are unlikely to have the impact of a national tax. Mr. Quinn said that when his Superquinn stores tried a decade ago to charge 1 cent for plastic bags, customers rebelled. He found himself standing at the cash register buying bags for customers with change from his own pocket to prevent them from going elsewhere.

NY Times

This is how little things can have a huge impact almost right away. It just takes the will to do it. Doesn’t it seem like perhaps we should have thought of this first?

Why this post? A) Because it’s an interesting experience actually having to fight everyones urge to bag groceries in plastic bags for no good reason, and B) Because branding is soon going to become a big driver in the adoption of tote bags. And I don’t mean the amorphous canvas bags you can decorate with sharpies. I mean the new style bags that are popping up in grocery stores all across the US.

Let’s face it: I don’t want to carry three sets of totes with specific grocery store logos on them. As much as I like Bloom, Publix and Whole Foods’ logos, I would much rather have one set of totes for all three places (and more). I can’t keep track, honestly. And call me silly, but I don’t want to attract the ire of another cashier for using a competitor’s bag to carry my groceries home. The fact is that it’s kind of rude anyway.

Enter the clever marketers and fashion houses: Gap totes. Gucci totes. Chevrolet totes. Coca Cola totes. Starbucks totes. Greenpeace totes. Nike totes. Nascar. NFL. Olympic Games. NBC. HBO. First Baptist Church. Mauldin High School. Bank of America. Girl Scouts. Delta Airlines. Doritos. m&m’s.

I would much rather have a VW logo on my tote… or a Canon logo… or the emblem of Manchester United, than a Whole Foods, Bloom or Publix logo. If I am going to carry a tote into a store, I want it to say something about me. I want it to be cool and relevant, like everything else in my world. Why limit myself to a boring grocery store logo when my tote can be an outwardly expression of who I am. Isn’t this what we’re all about now? Myspace, facebook, custom T-shirts and license plates, blogs, everyone’s so-called personal style?

Who the hell wants to carry a Wal-Mart or Bi-Lo tote bag around? My grandma, maybe. But I bet she’d rather walk around carrying a UNICEF tote. Or something a little more a propos, like Iron Maiden or Pantera. Maybe a Che tote. Maybe The Sex Pistols.

I dread the day when I start seeing WWJD totes invade the aisles of my local supermarket, but whatever. It’s as inevitable as bad taste, so I’m ready for that unfortunate reality.

The possibilities are endless if you think about it. The issue here is one of distribution, of course: The tote bag is a commodity item you purchase at the grocery store’s cash register. You probably don’t want to make a special trip to the Apple store or the VW dealership to get yourself a $1.99 tote bag. It just isn’t realistic. At least not yet. Which means that totes could soon stop being a commodity item. Totes could soon be priced at $4.99 or $9.99, depending on what is printed on them. Competition for placement inside store might become pretty stiff.

We could have tote wars.

Realistically, I could see a system by which your Gap or Banana Republic purchase could go into a $4.99 Gap or Banana Republic tote (which you would also use at the grocery store) – and every time you used your tote with subsequent purchases, you could enjoy a 5% discount. Think of the totes as a) a way to eliminate the cost of plastic bags in a company’s P&L, b) a way to gain some good PR karma by being “environmentally” conscious, and c) a new version of a discount card. The tote is the discount card.

For the smartest marketers out there, the tote could even be equipped with a chip that records its owner’s purchasing habits.

With the exception of the chip thing, if advertisers/vendors don’t start this branding trend, the tote bag manufacturers will when the adoption curve eventually flattens and sales grow stagnant. They will have to find ways to entice shoppers to buy – and even collect new totes.

This seems a little ridiculous and far fetched, but let’s revisit this in a year and see where things are. You might be surprised. Meanwhile, I’ll be keeping an eye on what our Irish friends are doing in the tote department. Whatever trends emerge out of this, they will surely start there.

PS: I think that a set of Orange Yeti tote bags would be pretty fly.

Additional reading: Sixwise.com, China to ban plastic bags, Fashion tackles totes.

Have a great hump day, everyone.

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