Friday, August 29, 2008
Amoco is no more, and although "American Gas" referred to a brand name, there's very little of that, since we get most of our oil from overseas. "Perfection" is looking a little imperfect, eaten away by the rust of time. Perfection was a maker of dump truck bodies and hoists from Galion, Ohio, and this once-perfect truck body belongs to a 1960s-era Ford Truck parked (rather permanently) near the Amoco sign.
Friday, August 8, 2008
I was adding to my photo collection a few weeks ago when I came across the Hickory Grove Cemetery, one of the oldest in my home territory of Lackawanna County, PA. I decided to take a stroll and soon became fascinated with the history unfolding before me. One particular grave caught my attention: Deacon John Phillips, "a soldier of the Revolution," the stone proclaimed. I hadn't expected to find a Revolutionary War veteran; I was thinking (mistakenly) that our area wasn't very well settled by the time most of those soldiers had passed on. Before leaving, I found the grave of another Revolutionary veteran, and thus began a history tour in stone.
Deacon John Phillips was not born in our area, but came here during the Revolution. I found a book written in 1994 by an eighth-generation descendent, Jacqueline Lois Miller Bachar, in which she compiled a collection of letters written to John by his sister, Mary Lott, dating from 1826 to 1846. At the time, Mary was living "on the frontier" – which in the 1820s was Delaware County, Ohio, something that should amuse my friend G's Cottage. John was one of the first landowners in Pittston in our neighboring Luzerne County, where he also was justice of the peace. He became a deacon of the First Baptist Church in Abington (a church I pass almost daily in the summertime enroute to Lackawanna State Park). Both Mary and John died in 1846; John was 94 years old.
Harboring the perception that most people in the Revolutionary era were short-lived (and indeed many were), I was stunned to see that Deacon Phillips had reached such an old age. So as I continued my photo travels over the next few weeks, I added another item to my itinerary: cemeteries. I was using a street atlas of a six-county area that conveniently happened to mark cemeteries both large and small, so as I searched for scenic vistas, barns, old advertising signs and the like, I would stop by any cemetery along the route. (No GPS for me; I blew the budget on the camera and lenses. Besides, it was more adventurous this way.)
My best results were in small rural cemeteries, often unnamed and limited to members of an extended family. Although I did find many people who had died relatively young – typhus, scarlet fever, diphtheria and other illnesses claimed many, I found a great deal of septuagenarians, octogenarians, nonagenarians and an occasional centenarian. Perhaps it was a stronger constitution fortified by a great deal of hard work just to live from day to day. I found a number of surnames that now grace townships, boroughs or roads; unusual first names, including Urania, Electa, Permelia, Ashketh, Orton, Pardon, Erastus and others; and an overwhelming variety of stone shapes, heights and thicknesses, some absolutely plain, others elaborately engraved with decorative art and flowing script.
I learned to recognize certain types of monuments: any stone with a lamb carved at the top (or a pair of shoes) invariably marked the resting place of a child. Maybe I started getting too familiar with monuments – as I approached one from the rear, I said to myself, "That looks like an 1870s style." Coming around to the front, I looked at the person's date of death: 1875. Now that's a little scary. As for inscriptions, many quoted Bible verses or other religious sentiments, but one was very succinct: "A Good Woman." I suppose the most poignant of the inscriptions I encountered was one on a very plain stone: "Sacred to the memory of Miss Priscilla Basset, who was drowned Feb. 18th A.D. 1806 in the 20th year of her age." I could see the image of a young woman in those words.
Each cemetery was a lesson in military history: in addition to Revolutionary War vets, I found graves of soldiers who fought in the War of 1812, the Mexican War 1846-1848, the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, even Korea and Vietnam, although many of the rural cemeteries I visited stopped being active 50 years or more ago. Some had died in battle, with the heroism appropriately noted, while others survived the conflict (as did Deacon John Phillips) and lived to old age. One Union soldier had died in the notorious Andersonville Prison Camp of the Confederacy. The conclusion I came to: we've fought way too many wars.
Probably the most interesting was the family dynamics played out before me. Men from the 1800s were accompanied in rest by two, three or occasionally more wives, most likely having lost wives in childbirth and to disease. The last wife usually survived the husband, but not by long. One notable exception: a couple where the husband died in 1919 at age 56; his wife, buried with him, lived to be 104, dying in 1978. Their children buried alongside of them sometimes died in infancy or in the first decade of life. But more were begotten, in keeping with the social and physical needs of families living in rural areas in that era. If the children reached maturity, the next generation (and often the one after that) rested nearby.
Maybe this is the real stuff of history: plain, everyday folks living their lives, raising their children, struggling with livelihoods, fighting in wars and finally coming to rest. It may not be the history of great social movements, industry, commerce or technology; but it's the history of us all.
Friday, August 1, 2008
Friday, July 25, 2008
This week, the New York Times editorialized that eight years after the infamous "Butterfly Ballot" of Palm Beach County, Florida, little has been done to improve the design and usability of one of our most valuable weapons in the fight for democracy. As the Times notes, "…poor design and instructions have disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of voters…"
The problem is not with design per se; I'm not a graphic designer, but I've worked with many very skilled ones over the past three decades. Any one of them would be able to design a ballot that would be easily understandable. Here's one suggestion for paper ballots, either optically-scanned or hand-tallied: one block for each race, separated by distinct borders; each candidate/party listed and a large check box, punch out or whatever right next to each candidate's name. Make it simple and you make it easy to understand. For electronic machines, the same format would work; just be sure the voter can see how many contests there are per page (maybe number them?) so that someone's not voting a particular race is a choice, not a mistake.
The instructions? Make the ballot design simple and you eliminate the need for complex instructions. "Mark only ONE box per office" (or two or three if it's something like a board of county commissioners). Clear design begets clear instructions.
That's the easy part. The hard part? Getting such a simple design mandated as a uniform national ballot template. Why is that hard? Start with meddling by local and regional politicians eager to retain control over their fiefdoms. Couple that with the parochial attitude that "we're different here" and intransigent party bureaucracies (all guilty) and you have the formula for as many different ballots as you have voting jurisdictions. There's a reason why franchise operations like Quizno's or McDonald's look, feel, taste and even smell the same whether they're in Detroit, Dubuque, Denver or Duluth. There's value in delivering the same experience nationwide. In the case of uniform ballots, how's better turnout for a start?
If America hopes to meet the challenges of 21st century global commerce, it won't happen unless we wean ourselves from 18th and 19th century political systems. Congress feels no pressure to change from local and regional politicians with vested interests. Voters must demand it.
While I'm on the subject of outmoded electoral systems, will we ever get a national presidential primary to replace the current – and ever more controversial – system of state primaries, all jockeying to have the most influence? When a candidate runs for governor of a state, do they hold a primary in each county (which would be 67 in the case of my home state, Pennsylvania)? The presidency is a national office; a national primary gives voters in every state the same shot. But the same dynamic that keep ballots "separate and confused" seems likely to derail such a long-overdue modernization.
In both cases, voters must demand these changes. Now that's one form of "on-demand programming" I'd watch.
Saturday, July 19, 2008
Friday, July 11, 2008
Friday, July 4, 2008
One of the articles says most of Paul Revere's story has been embellished, but it was the subhead that caught my eye: "Every schoolchild knows the story, but most of it turns out to be wrong." Unfortunately, I don't think many -- if any at all -- of today's schoolchildren know the story.
As I pointed out in a post last year, historical illiteracy happens largely because history is taught as a dull collection of dates and facts, with no emphasis on the real, breathing people who forged that history. The historian David McCullough called much of today's history teaching "boring." It's no wonder modern students -- of any grade -- know so little of it. (Of course, it doesn't help that in today's culture, what happened last year is already "ancient history." Never mind the American Revolution -- wasn't that prehistoric times?)
No matter today; Happy Birthday, America! Since much of the American dream of independence and nationhood was built on hard work and sacrifice, here's a small photo tribute: an antique plow with a flag, photographed on the grounds of the Calkins Creek Vineyard and Winery near Honesdale, Pennsylvania. It may not be a Revolutionary era piece, but the kind of equipment that tilled the soil then remained the same for generations.
Friday, June 27, 2008
Monday, June 23, 2008
In order to save water, paper and energy, as well as prevent potential vandalism, places like rest stops, stadiums, schools and colleges, large office buildings and other facilities have been installing automation to control toilets, sinks and towel dispensers.
People used to automatically flushing toilets at work often forget to flush at facilities where the old manual standard prevails. That can lead to all sorts of mess for the next customer. If they’re used to auto-shutoff faucets, they tend to leave water running. If they’re used to waving their hands in front of an auto-paper dispenser, it can get pretty frustrating if they don’t realize it’s an ancient “pull-the-handle” variety.
Sometimes the degree of automation varies within the same bathroom. The toilets flush automatically, but the sinks or towel dispensers (or both) are still manual. Or two of the vital components are automatic while the third is manual. It’s enough work concentrating on the business at hand (or in hand as the case may sometimes be) to be worried about what’s automatic and when you’re going it alone.
Even when a restroom is fully-automatic, that’s no guarantee it’s problem free. The stories I’ve heard of non-flushing auto potties or their evil cousin, the multi-flusher, are downright scary. Some of the sensors entrusted with the vital task of telling the toilet when to flush acquire a mind of their own, delighting in frustrating or startling the users. You can almost hear the thing laughing. And I’ve heard that the next wave of auto-go includes seats that automatically raise and lower or give you a pre-measured amount of toilet paper– who gets to decide how much paperwork’s needed to finish the job? It’s a government plot, for sure.
A reliable female source – who shall remain anonymous – tells me of the time that she was about to commence her ritual when a stall mate had just finished. Not only did her stall mate’s toilet flush, but so did hers – startling her to the point that she catapulted off the seat and immediately peed on the stall floor. The incident left both women shaking – with laughter, to the bewilderment of their male colleagues passing by as they exited the ladies’ room.
I suppose bathroom technology will evolve to the point that such unhappy circumstances might eventually be solved. (Keep checking Modern Marvels® on the History Channel.) In the meantime, I propose an alert system – call it the Automated Certification and Notification System – or AutoCANS, for short. Each public bathroom door will have a label with an icon for the each of the Big Three – toilet, sink and towel dispenser – and a letter “A” or “M” beneath each. That way you can tell whether you get full service, only partial assistance or if it’s do-it-yourself time. On the vital issue of informing the public, it might go a long way.
I guess I’m finished; and now for the clean up. Maybe I wrote this nonsense because it’s Monday –or because I’m in a s****y mood. Whatever.
Bathroom customs vary considerably from country to country. The international traveler’s best guidebook is “Going Abroad” by Eva Newman.
Friday, June 20, 2008
Thursday, June 19, 2008
So sang Paul Simon in "Kodachrome" back in the days when most cameras took film and Kodachrome was the number one choice.
I got a Nikon camera recently, but it's a digital D40 SLR -- no Kodachrome needed.
I've been taking pictures since the late 1960s; mostly scenics. I shot pictures with a Nikon FG film camera for many years starting in the early 1980s. After using a few point-and-shoot digital cameras, I decided it was time to get serious again about photography. It's always been an expression of my creativity, just as my writing is.
So here's some clouds gathering at sunset -- a contrast between light and dark.
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
I usually avoid discussions of politics in this forum; the airwaves and blogosphere are filled with eminently more qualified (?) pundits. I’m making several exceptions for this presidential election because it’s probably the most important election in a generation.
As I commented in my post “Don’t Call It Advertising,” there’s been a paucity of real discussion and a profusion of attack ads in recent years. Negative political ads aren’t new – they’re virtually as old as the republic itself. What’s different today is the speed and breadth at which such negative attacks can be disseminated –just a few clicks and you’ve covered the globe.
Will this election be any different? Will we have substantive discussion on the issues or will there be more sound-bite sniping and swift-boating? I’d like to believe with all that’s at stake we might just get some respectful dialogue. But I’m not hopeful. As Montana State Senator Jim Elliott says in his Montana Viewpoint® commentary, “But most often candidates are not treated with respect by the other side, and portrayed to be purposefully deceptive, crooked, or just plain dumb.”
Negativity, half-truths and slippery answers – they’re just too good for candidates to renounce. If political ads were held to the same standards as ordinary product commercials, the surge of negative ads would wither.
Politicians alone are not to blame. There’s another reason – a lazy electorate. It’s much easier to watch a few TV ads and form an opinion than it is to really investigate a candidate’s position. If negative political campaigning is to be curtailed, voters must insist on it. But that takes effort.
Speaking of effort, the media’s been focusing on how energized young people are by this election. They could be a huge factor; any number of news articles point to an army of new voters – young people who’ve become interested and engaged in this election through online venues like Facebook and candidate websites.
I’ve seen some of that enthusiasm in the public relations courses I teach. But one cautionary note: online energy isn’t worth a damn unless you vote. And as I will tell my students in September, you can’t text-message your vote (at least not yet). You actually have to take the time to go to a polling place, perhaps stand in line for some time and mark a ballot. (And before that, you have to be registered.) Will they follow through? The country’s future might depend on it.
Issues or Invective? An army of new voters? What’ll it be, folks?
If you’d like to read Senator Elliott’s full commentary on negative political ads, you can find it at: http://www.clarkforkchronicle.com/article.php/20061102095050809.
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
I was enough of a baseball fan growing up to know “Say hey” is reserved for Willie Mays, the great Hall of Fame outfielder, but I can’t resist applying it to Willie Randolph, who was fired today as manager of the New York Mets.
Baseball lost me as a fan after the player strike that prematurely ended the 1994 season with no World Series. It was the best chance for my favorite Yankee player, Don Mattingly, to make it to the World Series after a long and distinguished career, and it was wiped out. (Mattingly did make it to the playoffs with the Yankees the following year, his final season, but the team lost to the Seattle Mariners and didn’t make it to the series.)
Willie Randolph was another of my favorite players. I remember when the Yankees acquired him prior to the 1976 season. The trade was described in the sports media with this clever description (sorry, can’t remember the exact source): “…the Yankees sent pitcher Doc Medich to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Ken Brett, a pitcher with a history of arm trouble; Dock Ellis, with a history of just plain trouble and Willie Randolph, with no history at all.”
Willie went on to establish quite a history as a great defensive player and a very patient hitter in a career that lasted 18 seasons. He finished his career with the New York Mets, the team he would eventually manage after spending a number of years as a coach in the Yankee organization.
As I said, I haven’t followed baseball very much for quite a while, but I tried to keep an eye on favorites like Mattingly and
How much do managers mean to a team? It depends. In 1975, Darrell Johnson led the Boston Red Sox to the World Series. Johnson began managing the team in 1974, with his disciplinarian style receiving a good portion of credit for the Sox’ new-found success. But by the middle of 1976, with the Sox slumping, Johnson was fired. What about that tough style? “He wasn’t relating to the players.” Isn’t it amazing how the perception of the same style soured so quickly, when the Lost column grew larger than the Win side of the ledger?
I’m sure Willie Randolph will resurface as a manager – he’s a high-character guy and a good leader. Some better ballplayers might help. So, say hey, Willie! Hang in there!
Saturday, May 31, 2008
Last week, I received a notice from a life insurance company. I’ve had a small policy with them since I was 18, purchased by my mother.
“Dear Policyholder,” it said, “we are pleased to share some new information concerning our company. [Our company] has been redomesticated from
Now what did that mean, I wondered? It sounded like a dog that had been a house pet and then had gone wild for a time and now was being “redomesticated” as a pet. No wonder they sent additional paper along with the notice – domesticating can be a messy business.
It turns out the company had moved its principal office from
Wouldn’t it have been simpler – and more understandable to the average consumer – to say, “We’ve moved our principal office to
Corporations move headquarters and other units like credit card and payment processing offices all the time, whenever less operating expenses resulting from lower labor, energy or tax costs can benefit their bottom line. Sometimes it was done to skirt existing regulations in seeking new markets. In
Recalling one of the biggest moves of that era, Citibank decided to relocate its credit card operation from
P.S. My know-it-all spell checker in Microsoft Word 2003 has never heard of “redomesticated” or any of its allied forms. Maybe I should have written this entry on my other computer that has Word 2007. Then again…
Thursday, May 29, 2008
I was going through some of my oldest files built up over 20 years of teaching public relations writing and case problems. I came across a newspaper ad I thought I had lost; I’m glad I found it.
“Don’t call it advertising” was the headline; the ad ran on November 9, 1994, the day after the mid-term elections and was signed by Ketchum Advertising, one of the country’s major advertising agencies of that period.
Jerry Della Femina, who holds legendary creative status in the industry, wrote the copy. In it, he highlighted several of the more egregious negative political commercials in what he termed “one of the dirtiest elections in the history of this century.”
“This is filth,” the copy read, “political filth that is not advertising and shouldn’t be dignified by being called advertising.” Ketchum called on people in advertising, broadcasting, publishing and business to “stand up together and say ‘Stop.’ Stop the character assassination. Stop the lies. Stop the ugliness. And, above all, stop calling what you’re doing advertising.”
The ad implored the broadcasting and publishing communities to hold political advertising to the same standards as commercial advertising, noting that if a corporation ran ads akin to political ads, its executives would face fines and jail, hounded by the same politicians whose ads made up that year’s political filth. The ad also asked ordinary citizens to urge politicians to rein in the ugly negative ads.
It’s now 14 years later and, unfortunately, not much has changed. Most political campaigns and the ads that support them are negative, containing much of the same dirt that Ketchum’s ad decried in 1994. Why did Ketchum’s plea for change go unheeded? Because negative political ads work – “attack ads” by individual candidates or 527 groups, whether local, regional or national, make an impact, or so at least some of the research tells us.
They also foster another other outcome – voter disgust and disillusionment with the electoral system As I’ve said in class, using two students as candidates, “If Mandy and Amanda are running against each other, and Mandy’s ads call Amanda a crook, while Amanda’s ads call Mandy an idiot, eventually the voter targeted by these assaults comes to a conclusion: Let’s see; I have a choice between a crook and an idiot. I think I’ll stay home.” The result: some of the lowest overall voter turnouts of any democracy in the world.
Because it works, negative political campaigning and paid media will no doubt continue. But let’s repeat the plea: Don’t Call It Advertising.
Thursday, May 15, 2008
I’m teaching a class in public relations writing this semester. As I’ve found with most college students, the one thing usually common to their writing is that it’s cluttered.
I’ve tried several methods to get them to pare their verbiage. I’ve pointed out examples in their writing as to how they can use fewer words and actually strengthen their sentences.
I’ve quoted from such noted writing teachers as Williams Zinnser and Roy Peter Clark, showing them how to keep the word count down. As Zinnser notes, don’t say “At the present time, we are experiencing precipitation” when you mean “it’s raining.”
Ieven recalled a college journalism professor of mine (a sportswriter, no less), who advised us one day that one of the most expressive sentences ever written was also one of the shortest: “Jesus wept.” (John 13:31).
The other day, I tried another tack. “You all text message your friends,” I said. “You don’t waste words there, do you?” They all agreed that needless words had no place in that medium. So I asked them to write with a text-message perspective – make every word count. If a word’s not pulling its weight, cut it out. You’ll be surprised how much excess you can trim, I said.
I think they may be getting the message. One thing I did not ask them to do was to fill their papers with text or instant messaging acronyms and emoticons. Those are already everywhere in abundance – with billions of BTWs, LOLs and ROTFLs traversing the spectrum daily. In fact, I suppose, those acronyms may someday become standard language. It could be coming, but if it does, I hope I’m LB&P – long boxed and planted.
One article I came across bemoaned the fact that public relations was becoming “commoditized,” that is, being seen by corporate executives as something you can buy like paper clips, as the article said “…ordered in volume and chopped in price.” The author expressed concern that this vision of public relations as a commodity was a new and growing trend.
Growing it may be; new it is not. I worked for an advertising and public relations agency for two decades beginning in 1974 and, even then, PR (and advertising as well) was being seen as a commodity that you could buy like a carton of paper. I remember this line from an annual report of a client of ours: “[The category] Other Expenses rose due to increases in office supplies, advertising and postage.” It’s always nice to be lumped in with the paper clips and stamps.
I’ll never forget a story that my boss told me about the time he got an inquiry from a local attorney about helping that attorney’s client with a “PR problem.”
I’m just paraphrasing, but here’s the gist: the attorney calls my boss and says (“in that stentorian voice of his”, according to my boss), “Bill, I have a client I think you know. We’ve helped him with some legal issues, but I believe as a result of those issues, he has a PR problem. Can you tell me, how much would a little PR cost?”
My boss said he thought for a few seconds and replied: “Well, counselor. I’m not sure. How much does a little law cost?”
I don’t think the attorney was pleased. But as public relations professionals, neither should we be pleased when someone asks how much “a little PR” costs. Maybe we should say, “It’s on special this week; cheaper by the pound.”
Saturday, April 12, 2008
More and more, that word is foul.
I’ve been in the advertising and public relations business for over 30 years. In the past five years, the business has probably changed more than it did in the previous 15 – mostly due to technology.
It’s harder for advertisers to get their message across, and many have turned to the internet to spread “buzz” with viral videos. With all the clutter – no matter what the medium – a number of advertisers are turning to less-than-palatable appeals in ordered to get noticed.
Jawbone, the maker of Bluetooth devices, is one of those. They recently introduced a series of web films purporting to show that their headset seals out noise so well, users can be completely unaware of what’s going on just a few feet away.
One of those “films” is called “Medium F*****g Starch.” (With virtually no censorship on the internet, of course, it goes by the full spelling of that title.) In the spot, a total jerk of a business exec comes into a Chinese laundry and proceeds to rebuke the laundry’s owner and his entire family in an f-word laced tirade full of racist stereotypes. In the meantime, another customer waiting for his laundry gets a call that he answers on his Jawbone. Suitably insulated, he never hears the owner’s daughters and wife eventually strangle and beat the guy to death.
Naturally, the clip has received a healthy share of internet views via YouTube and others, so it’s already done its job. The trade publication Adweek headlined its coverage of the spots by saying “Jawbone Gets Edgy…” It quotes the campaign’s creator, “We're seeking to use intelligence and want people to think and contemplate and end up in our camp.”
Allow me a few observations. It’s edgy all right…the far edge of disgust. As for using intelligence, there’s none present – unless you consider racism, profanity and violence intelligent. Oh, it made me think. I think it’s one of the worst spots I’ve seen in the entire time I’ve been in the business. It’s one camp I’ll end up in only at the point of a gun.
After seeing the spots featured in a “Creativity” email I get– I had the opportunity to rate it from one to five stars. I left a comment asking if it were possible to give it a minus-five. I’ve always thought advertising was an honorable profession – despite the assaults of the critics and the historically low “trust” ratings ad practitioners get, somewhere around used-car salespersons and members of Congress. Campaigns like this make me think the critics are right.The famous ad copywriter Ray Welch wrote a book called “Copywriter: A Life of Making Ads and Other Mistakes.” Since Ray is not too much older than I am, I enjoyed his stories of the advertising business as it once was. On the back of the book, the well-known advertising executive Jack Connors called Ray’s memoir “…a documentary of the time when advertising was fun.” That would imply that it is no longer fun. When I see Medium F*****g Starch, I know he’s right.