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Brain Pickings

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Culture-Crossing Subcultures

$12,000 hot dogs, digital Olympics, friends with money, friends without, virtual bridges, virtual divides, what Atlantis has to do with high fashion, and why testosterone now comes in silver.

CULTURAL KNIT-PICKING

Guerrilla knitting. Yes, it exist. And it’s not a bunch of grannies running around town with gigantic needles in a bout of end-life crisis. It’s the practice of using knitting to create public art in clever, won’t-believe-this-was-knitted ways. It’s “knit graffiti.”

knit.pngIts roots can be traced to the early 70’s when British-born knitter Elizabeth Zimmerman was commissioned to knit a sweater based on a pre-canned knitting pattern. Which she did, except she radically rewrote the pattern with a proprietary system and set off the beginning of the “thinking knitters” movement, rising above the “blind followers” of patterns.

Now, we remember seeing a small knitted hot dog at an art gallery a couple of years ago, accompanied by a 5-digit price tag, at which point we promptly concluded this was the stuff of insanity. But despite our prior view of the craft, we recently came across a fascinating talk by sociologist Rose White on the history of guerrilla knitting that goes as far as aligning it with the history of computer hacking. And history aside, today’s guerrilla knitting has reached unbelievable levels of craftsmanship and creativity.

Sure, we still couldn’t swallow a $12,000 knitted hot dog. But maybe that’s just because we don’t have the knitted digestive system.

ARTIST-SLASH-ATHLETE

Hell hath no fury like a designer’s ego challenged. Or at least that’s what the guys behind Cut&Paste found in November of 2005 when they held the first digital design tournament, a live face-off judged by a panel of industry all-stars amidst a rowdy crowd of onlookers.

Today, Cut&Paste designathons have been held all over the world, spreading the tournament’s three-fold mission: to end designer anonymity, to bridge the gap between artists, clients, recruiters and consumers of good design, and to educate about how design really “happens” by cracking open the creative process.

And in case this is giving you the impression it’s all just fluff, rest assured: it’s hardcore. Designers get 15 minutes. They may bring in approved objects to capture with a digital camera, but these objects become available to everyone. And none of it can be artwork, images, pre-designed digital elements or anything that falls outside the strictly-from-scratch framework of the tournament.

It’s all worth it, though — besides the laurels and the street cred, winning designers get material kudos from the likes of Apple, Wacom and Adobe. Not bad, not bad at all.

And because it’s something this cool, it calls for a grateful nod in the direction of the tip-off, one friend-of-a-friend Mr. Richard Parubrub hailing from North Carolina. Gracias, señor.

FRIENDS WITH MONEY

LendingClubSure, money matters can inject a healthy dose of awkward into a conversation or a relationship. Especially between friends. But it doesn’t have to be that way, mostly because we live in a capitalist world where it’s only natural for our financial capital and social capital to intersect.

That’s where Lending Club comes in, a social lending network that lets members lend and borrow amongst themselves at rates much better than the bank’s. And because money ventures are also naturally likely to get you suspicious or skeptical, pull that eyebrow back down: Lending Club got major kudos from Barron’s, BusinessWeek, USA Today, and more. Which is no surprise since the folks behind it hail from big-timers like eBay, MasterCard, Wells Fargo, Agency.com, and aQuantive.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qbdsO7gMAE4

So far, over $5 million has changed hands since Lending Club launched last May. No wonder, what with all the careful screening (no sub-640 FICO scorers here), lending done entirely on members’ terms (you pick the level of risk you’re comfortable with, even what specific “need” to lend to), and the smart, proprietary lender- borrower matching system.

We could finish with some obvious pun on how networking really pays off. But let’s cut the clever crap — the concept is fucking genius.

REEL DIFFERENCE

Film. What a cultural commodity of the western world, one we take for granted and consume alongside popcorn. And what a way to treat the seventh art, one with enormous and often unexpected power.

FilmAid InternationalThankfully, there are visionaries out there using the overlooked medium to send a message of hope to those in the underprivileged world. FilmAid International uses film to enrich the disrupted lives of the millions of displaced people living in refugee camps all over the world. The simple act of hanging a 12-by-16-foot movie screen from the side of a truck has been making a tangible difference in the lives of refugees from Kosovo to Afghanistan to East Africa to Louisiana since 1999.

Sure, it’s easy to say that with no roof over your head and hardly any food on your folding table, film is the last thing you care for. But that’s such an underestimation of the far-reaching effects of psychological trauma, such a painful stab at the power of human imagination, the capacity to transcend the bite of the present and see hope in the future. Which is exactly what the million-and- counting viewers in FilmAid’s seven camps are doing. More than that, a 2006 study found that 96% of the project’s refugee audiences found it to reduce conflict and strengthen community building.

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Movie producer Caroline Baron, whose brainchild the project was, nails the answer to the why-film-when-no-food question: “I throw the question back to the refugees themselves. They say the film is food for them — that if their minds are not well, the food doesn’t help.”

If you’re feeling like putting a tiny stitch on a broken life today, make a small donation to keep the hope reel rolling.

PARALLEL VISION

For artist friends Stephanie and Mav, telecommunication wasn’t enough of a bridge between their creative brains when they had to move apart. Instead, last January they set up 3191, a visual blogging site named after the exact distance between their homes. Every morning for a year, each took pictures of herself and some other environmental element of her morning, then posted the pictures side by side on 3191.

The result: a joint photography project absolutely brilliant both in concept and in execution. So brilliant, in fact, that Princeton Architectural Press picked it up and is publishing 3191 a year of mornings this fall.

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Meanwhile, Stephanie and Mav are chasing the sun this year with project sequel 3191: a year of evenings. And suddenly, we feel like all those awful cliches about the beauty in the little everyday things are, well, not so cliched.

Simple. Stunning.

UNTRIVIA

brainiac.gifThere’s little we love more than irreverent design, geeky web stuff and, um, data. Which is why we were delighted to discover the following take on today’s virtual world: a map-visualization of online communities and their related points of interest, wherein geographic areas reflect estimated membership bases.

And, um, anthropomorphic dragons? Wait, are they talking about Sergey and Larry?

Sure, we may take some issue with the accuracy, but the concept is nonetheless neat, playfully reminiscent of Grayson Perry’s brilliant “Map of an Englishman.”

AU REVOIR PARIS, CIAO MILAN

And whilst on the subject of geography and topography, who better to contribute than the masters of the man-made archipelago? Yep, Dubai is at it again, this time with Isla Moda: the world’s first blob of freestanding ground inhabited entirely by fashion.

The island is intended to be a global fashion hub, with boutiques from the world’s most celebrated designers, a slew of residential villas (set to go on sale for shameful amounts at the end of this quarter), and an extravagant fashion hotel. Dubai Infinity Holdings even plans to invite high-end designers from each continent to design the various pieces of the island. (We can’t wait for the one from Antarctica.)

At $80 million, this project seems to have outclassed class and outluxed luxury. Too bad global warming’s plans for it skew more Atlantis than fashion world atlas.

STREET PICKINGS

We’re not ones to put people in danger of overdosing on class. And it seems like neither is Philly.

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Oh, Philly, city of the enviable ability to see beauty (booty?) in the least likely of places. Wait, we take that back. This was actually spotted across the street from a respectable establishment sporting neon silhouettes and gentlemen walking out with brown paper bags in hand. In broad daylight.

Guess what: Philly’s just as fun when you don’t sleep over. Silver Sharpie on us.

BP

Feeling Thoughts, Playing Visions

Public display of emotion, world-saving vocabulary, the new jet set, David Lynch, the animal in us, what Mike Gravel and Moby have in common, why parting with our miniature sheep collection finally seems doable, and how everything begins with music.

HEART OF A CITY

The Nordic countries, always the beacon of design and innovation, are bringing yet another refreshing new project to the cultural table. Emotional Cities is the work of Swedish artist Erik Krikortz and is a multilayer, concrete, visual reflection of the world’s emotional pulse as it changes in real time.

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The concept is both simple and elaborate. First, there’s the website where you pick your current emotional state on a seven-level scale by clicking the visual representation of your mood. Then there’s the elaborate part that turns it into a public art installation of an emotional snapshot.

mood.pngThe project aspires to calculate and plot the average values for cities, countries and the world in real time. You can also create custom groups by using the Emotional Cities Facebook app and mood-track your workplace, your posse or your roommate. The idea is to make us more aware of our own emotions and those of others, and hopefully to help us understand them better — after you’re asked the “how?” question about your emotional state, you can also choose to answer the “why?” in a private diary on the website, encouraging you to deal with emotion in a healthy, intelligent way.

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Here’s the elaborate part: in some cities, the city’s current emotional state is projected onto a light installation in a public space. So if you were flying into Stockholm, you’d be able to instantly get a feel for the city’s cumulative emotional state at that time.

And to say the concept has gigantic social potential would be an understatement. Emotional transference or mimicry is a tremendously powerful, primal force that we humans are neurologically wired for. For details on the back-end, read up on mirror neurons and indulge in Daniel Goleman’s brilliant book “Emotional Intelligence.” But, meanwhile, let’s just say that the Emotional Cities project has the potential to virally infect real people and entire cities with positive emotion, improving everything from the stress level of the daily grind to our overall standard of living.

How are you today?

SYMBIOTIC BETTERMENT

Ask Chaucer, and he would’ve probably told you literature can save the world. And you would’ve probably laughed. Possibly pointed. Well, put that finger down because FreeRice, a smart new sister site to aspirational poverty-assassin Poverty.com, is feeding the hungry while enhancing your vocabulary.freerice1.png

Here’s how it works: you play a web game that tests your knowledge of fancy words (remember those SAT questionnaires?) and for every word you get right, FreeRice donates 20 grains of rice through the United Nations World Food Program to help end world hunger.

And that’s not all. These are serious folks — the “game” is built by professional lexicographers to ensure maximum benefits for your vocabulary. So you’re helping the world while helping yourself sound smarter, formulate ideas better, make greater impact with your speech, score better on tests, nail job interviews…you get the idea.

To kick up the challenge, you can set your computer to remember your vocabulary level as you play, so the game pushes you to make actual progress. There are 50 levels total, but getting above 48 is Shakespearean.

We dig the idea — it sounds like symbiotic quality-of-life improvement: for the world’s poor, relieving hunger clearly improves their lives; and in the world of capitalism, improving vocabulary, which is integral to your image and therefore a “self-marketing” currency, will ultimately improve your life.

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The site is entirely ad-supported, which allowed the project to double its impact — it actually started out with a 10-grains-per-word contribution, but it got a tremendous response. And because more traffic means more advertising revenue for the program, they were able to double the donation in November. Still, it may seem like tiny chip at the world poverty problem — eliminating which, along with all its related diseases, the UN estimates will cost $195 billion a year.

So scurry off to FreeRice and make yourself a better person in more ways than one. Heck, let’s go crazy — bookmark it and spend a minute on it every day. It may save a life.

Word.

BIG BIRDS, BIG EGOS

dopplr.pngWhat happens when you combine business networking, social networking, travel, and real-life fun get-togethers? Dopplr happens, a brand new service for the city-hopping business elite. It lets frequent biz travelers share plans with their friends and colleagues so that if they happen to be in the same city as a buddy at any given time, they can swap the boring staring-at-my-hotel-wall evening for a night on the town in good company. Trade in the pay-per-view for, you know, actual humans.

Seems like we’re running a Nordic theme here — Finland-based Dopplr (the country seems to be on an innovation spree lately) is the brainchild of several business geniuses, media executives and designers with extensive upmarket experience — the same crowd that embodies the site’s average user.

But with the success, smarts and talent of this set also comes some networking snobbery — right now, Dopplr is invite-only (just like uber-exclusive luxury social net darling aSmallWorld.net.) The folks behind it say the main reason is that they’re focusing on the business clientele and want to maintain maximum security, but they also admit they like to maintain an air of exclusivity. Yep, someone’s gotta cradle all those big egos. Plus, replicating people’s real-life relationships to lend the service some word-of-mouth credibility wouldn’t exactly hurt.

Do check it out — it may sound like a niche project, but we think it’s a sign of a powerful trend that’s starting to emerge. These same new-age business execs may well be the hot new commodity, a lucrative demo driving both culture and economy forward. Watch out.

NO ELABORATION NEEDED

Why we love David Lynch and simple parody.

Download it and watch it on your iPhone here.

UNTRIVIA

brainiac.gif

Okay, let’s do nerd-talk for a second: Goal-Gradient Hypothesis. (Man up, you can take it.) It’s the behaviorist idea that animals expend more effort when there’s an imminent reward. And because we’re all just animals (no, not like that, you dirtball), our behavior is shaped by the same patterns.

Case in point: an interesting study by a bunch of Columbia and Fordham researchers substantiated the “duh” knowledge we already have by backing it up with numbers. They looked at exactly how and by how much the prospect of a reward changes everyday human behavior. And they found that when folks joined the reward program at their local coffee shop (you know, the buy-10-get-1-free kinda thing), their interpurchase times dropped by 20%. That’s a lot. The pattern was also projected onto online behaviors, like rating a certain number of songs on a music-rating site to redeem an Amazon gift certificate. The idea is that once people have a tangible reward at the end of a task, they accelerate towards that goal beyond how they would normally complete the task. Yeah, we know, “D’oh!”

But even more interestingly, they also found that people who joined the reward program were also…

  • 19% more likely to chat with cafe employees
  • 12% more likely to say smile
  • 8% more likely to say “thank you”
  • 18% more likely to leave a tip.

So besides being numbers-based evidence for the obvious loyalty and incentive programs many companies already use, we think there’s a bigger human truth behind it — we all appreciate feeling appreciated. We want tangible proof that we matter — whether it’s to a cafe or to our bosses or to our friends — and it all becomes a loop of reciprocity.

The point here is, tangible appreciation does’t just make better customers: it makes better people. So go ahead and send that old-school thank-you note to your great aunt, even though you were so not feeling that reindeer sweater. You’ll feel better, as will she. And, who knows, maybe she’ll get you a Modbook next year.

THINKTUBE

And while we’re being brainy, the big news on that front this week is BigThink — a brand new online video network that aims to empower the “citizen-consumer” by providing access to the brains of today’s greatest thinkers and a venue for those absorbing the ideas to respond.

The army of experts spans an enormous range, from faith to science to politics to art, and everything in between. And the idea people are as diverse as former Viacom CEO Tom Freston, presidential candidate Mike Gravel, Overstock.com founder Patrick Byrne, University of Pennysilvania President and political theorist Amy Guttman, iconic entrepreneur Richard Branson, and time-changing artist Moby. Plus a ton more.

Currently, the site is in private beta. But the idea is that once people immerse themselves in the world of ideas, they’d be inspired to respond and contribute, uploading their own videos. Right now, BigThink is simply an amazing and rare library of ideas, professionally organized and neatly gathered in one place. Which is great. But whether or not the project truly succeeds (and we sincerely hope it does) depends entirely on the willingness of that same “citizen-consumer” to shift from the passive lean-back comfort that current web video has become and lean forward into the active world of thought.

Time to quit watching other people’s cats do funny things and maybe think about the nature of humor.

CLUTTERBOARD

Lately, it seems like stop motion has been having a field day with award shows, YouTube popularity and the sorta-indie-but-skewing-mainstream set. And, sure, the most recognized representatives of the genre are often the most elaborate, big-budget productions backed by a corporate merchant of cool. (Hey there, Sony and Guinness.)

But it’s neat to see a fresh stop-motion spot from an unexpected, even traditionally “boring” category. Let’s face it, it’s a little easier to get excited and inspired by plasma TV’s and beer than it is by, say, storage. Which is why we dig “Tide.”

https://youtube.com/watch?v=6QfvSGZIDuM

Out of London-based agency CHI & Partners, by director Dougal Wilson, this Bronze-Lion-winning spot is visually indulgent, yet short and to-the-point: it really makes us think about the pack-rattish clutter in our own lives that we’re drowning in — heck, nothing’s come this close before to making us feel like it’s time to stash our miniature sheep collection away.

MEDIUM/MESSAGE

frame_davis.jpgThere’s no question that music has ignited some of the greatest fires in civilization’s belly. Still, it’s rare that the artistic vision music inspires uses both music’s medium and its content to craft new kinds of art. But that’s exactly what SoCal mixed media artist Daniel Edlen has done in vinyl art, using white acrylic and vinyl records to create portraits of the artists right on the physical canvas of their music.

Although the artist says his “payoff is people’s reaction when they see the pieces for the first time,” you can help support his work and vision with a more tangible payoff by buying one of the few yet-unsold pieces, framed in a clean black metal LP frame with the original album sleeve as background.

BP

Gags, Drags and Other Oddities

Cheat absolution, crash kittens, why digital restraining orders aren’t far away, how the alternative to the alternative is doing, and what parachute pants have to do with Silicon Valley. Welcome to the Gags, Drags and Other Oddities issue.

KARMA POLICE

We’re all for eco-sensibility (and we were long before the whole greenwashing bandwagon rolled into town.) And ethical judgment of motives aside (did someone say corporate PR?), it’s a good thing for all of us little ants because, well, we’ve only got one anthill. But as great as the idea of damage control via carbon offsetting may be, we can’t deny there’s something sketchy about it. It’s just too weird a cross between corruption, the Catholic church’s confession- absolution model, and those miracle pills from the late-night infomercials that promise to help you lose 30 pounds in a week with no diet and exercise.

So we kinda dig CheatNeutral, an innovative British project promising cheat offsetting for the chronic dabblers in infidelity and cash rewards for the faithful folks. They claim to have come up with a market-based solution to a natural part of most modern human relationships: cheating and jealously. The back-end is simple: you cheat on your apparently-not-all-that-significant other, then pay a small amount of money to CheatNeutral, who then invest the money in a faithful couple and — voila! — your little indiscretion has been karmically offset. Too good to be true? Just check out their real-life success stories.

Okay, so it’s a gag. Get with it, son. But it’s a gag with a solid point: it’s so much better to be eco-conscious in our daily lives than it is to crap all over the planet and then try to clean it up. Or, like our mother likes to say, “Just keep your room clean and you won’t have to whine about having to clean it, you thoughtless little pig!” Wait, that last part was actually Alec Baldwin. Never mind.

LESSER NOT EVIL

It’s been a while since we came across an artist’s summation of his or her own work so succinct and honest it just, well, says it all. Which is why we dig CrashBonsai and its creator John Rooney, a self-described “artist torn between the desire to create and destroy.” Not a hard concept to relate to, we admit.

The miniature fender-benders are sculptural mash-ups of home-grown bonsai plants and vintage car models, each uniquely disassembled, cut, melted, filed, banged up, and then reassembled to portray a “living crash site.”

The quirky collision sculptures are available for sale in select Boston-area stores. And if you find yourself confined to the other 99.9% of the world, you can always check out the gallery or buy his awesome crashed cars and make your own bonsai. Just stay away from kittens. (Chill out, that was all a hoax.)

STALKER IS THE NEW BLACK

Ah, the paradox of choice — the online world is like a wonderland that lets you go anywhere, but which little door to enter? It can get overwhelming, especially under the pressure of knowing all your friends are out there doing their thing. All the time. All over the place. So it would be kinda nifty to keep track of your buddies’ Flickr and Picasa postings, Pandora and Last.fm cravings, Facebook and MySpace updates, YouTube uploads, LinkedIn connections, Digg finds, Twitter blurbs and more — all in one place.

Well, it now is. Thanks to Spokeo, a brand new service that lets you keep track of your friends’ updates across a ton of (32, to be exact) digital hangouts. It’s kinda similar to Google Reader or another RSS aggregator — it pulls only the updated content from your friends’ web dwellings so that you don’t have to go on each of those websites, then look for what exactly your friends have changed since last time you checked.

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You’ve got three super-simple options to track friends: by address book (just type in your Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail email and Spokeo will pull all your contacts’ public content online), by friend email (type in a friend’s email and see what they’re up to online), or by social network (just login to your key social net and Spokeo will keep you posted on how your friends there are doing.)

Spokeo may be a nifty time-saver for the web-glued generation. But it also has the potential to be a smart platform for behavioral targeting or, at the very least, a powerful upgrade to the sociological study that is the social graph. It’s only a matter of time until marketers, academia, or both devour this approach to better understand how people interact, connect and consume information across the entirety of the social web.

UNTRIVIA

brainiac.gifIt’s funny how we still refer to non-TV watching of TV programming as “alternative viewing” — it’s mostly funny because TV itself is becoming the “alternative” to “alternative devices.” According to the latest numbers from The ChoiceStream 2007 Survey of Viewer Trends in TV and Online Video, more than 55% of Internet users who watch regular TV also watch TV content on their computers, mobile devices and mp3 players — especially the younger folks (66%), although the older ones also sport a not-bad-for-geezers 36% rate.

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Some more findings from the study:

  • The trend is expected to grow — 20% of respondents expect to watch even more on alternative devices, mostly displacing from their traditional TV watching time
  • Surprisingly, 23% watch the commercials even if they’re tuning into a TiVo-ed programming, with the most popular commercials to watch being those found to be educational (36%) and entertaining (34%)
  • A good 42% of folks are willing to watch even more commercials if that meant a lower-priced subscription package
  • 65% of those cross-watching on alternative devices watch professionally-produced content
  • 39% watch user-generated stuff

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  • The computer is the most popular “alternative device” (66% vs. 6% for each mobile and mp3 players) and it seems to be a favorite among heavy users: 33% of those who watch on their computers admit they do it for more than 4 hours a week
  • A key frustration with getting entertainment online seems to be how long it takes to find quality stuff — but even more people find channel-surfing for good TV just as frustrating
  • Although browsing sites is the main way people find content online (56%), we hate beating on the same drum but word-of-mouth is a formidable force, driving some 32% of content finds (via family and friend recommendations) and pretty much tying with search engines (33%) — how’s that for the underdog tying with the champs?

And here’s the kicker: another, much larger-scale study (by Simmons) found that when people watch TV shows online, they’re 25% more engaged with the show’s content than when watching the traditional way and — get this — 47% more engaged with the advertising accompanying the show. And, really, without the engagement metric all those other numbers on who watches what where are as relevant as a bikini store in Alaska.

PLEASE TOUCH

Seems like everyone wants to shake it like a Polaroid picture these days. Yep, dance is a budding mainstream trend, the “it” cultural commodity. It’s popping up everywhere. First we got DDR (that’s Dance Dance Revolution, for those with no nerdy-hip friends) — the video game that first popped up in Japanese game parlors in 1998, then caught on like an international wildfire with over 4 million copies sold in the US alone where it’s showing up anywhere from college parties to family living rooms to anti-obesity school programs. Then came all those TV reality shows that started off between questionable and laughable, then sucked in audiences by the millions. Then YouTube kicked it up a notch with the most-viewed video of all times: Evolution of Dance. And the ever- present underground dance subcultures are starting to emerge in the mainstream.

But nothing says this-is-where-the- money’s-at like serious interest and financial investment from a celebrity- turned-Silicon-Valley-entrepreneur. Yep, the parachute-pants-wearing man behind one of the most danced-to songs of all times is starting a new venture for uploading and sharing dance videos. That’s right, MC Hammer, who’s been known to indulge his passion for all things digital by lurking in the offices of Apple and other tech companies, is launching DanceJam — a niche haven for the dance-minded, if today’s millions of dance passionistas can be considered a niche.

Stereotypes of Asian boyband-wannabes aside, take our word for it: dance is going to be big. And everyone and their mother will wanna touch this.

BP

SPECIAL: Second Annual Not-So-Much Awards

Bowel bothers, $4 million can-can, wow- lessness, flogger flops, unfab abs, FedEx, how “the social” never happened, what public bathroom walls have to do with big mergers, and why Gossip Girl isn’t feeling lucky. After a year of celebrating the good, welcome to the second annual round-up of the bad and the ugly: the Brain Pickings Not-So-Much Awards.

FAST POOPED NATION

With all the health-related propaganda oozing from the popular media, you’d think it’s getting easier for the nation to stay healthy. Well, not so much. Last year gave us the glorious E. coli outbreak from spinach that caused 3 deaths and 200 illnesses. And what did this year bring?

Another E. coli outbreak (this time from beef patties and frozen pizzas — we’re downgrading); asthma- attack-provoking sulfites in dried sweet potatoes; thousands of cans of beans with botulism– causing bacteria; Veggie Booty with Salmonella; and various- untimely-body-exits-inducing baby carrots with Shigella.

So has it been a great year for the 5-a-day set? Eh, not so much. Unless the number refers to the frequency of daily number-two runs. Then 2007 hasn’t been half crappy.

PLANS AND PROMISES

This was going to be the year of good television. The return of comedy that’s actually funny. The rise of smart scripted dramas. The time for well-written shows to claim glory, audiences and ad dollars back from the national tragedy that is reality TV. At least judging by the upfront extravaganza, that was the plan.

abc_upfront.pngMillions of dollars were spent (3 to 5, to be exact), grand venues were rented, all-star Academy-winning casts were made to do the can-can in uncompromising spotlights, glamorous swag was sent to the media and marketing folk who matter, big plans were laid, $9.2 were sucked in from advertisers.

And then the WGA struck. More than 12,000 writers raised their communal and previously snubbed, ignored, unheard voice for the first time in two decades to ask for a teeny bit more than the measly revenue crumbs they’ve been getting. No writing, no audience, no ad dollars. Network terror. Panic. The unmistakable smell of TV exec shit.

For all those reasons and more, a well-deserved Not-So-Much award goes to the 2007 TV Upfront. Congrats, too bad TV execs can’t retire on a virtual trophy once they’re handed that cardboard box.

GARGANTUAN PRODUCT LAUNCH

vista.pngBilly Boy, we love your humanitarian work — but Vista? Seriously? How about you first test it out on your PC at home next time, eh? Needless to say, the “WOW” moment never came. Unless we count the “WOW” you got after PC World (!) named Vista the biggest tech disappointment of 2007. Combine that with the overwhelmingly underwhelming review by ultimate tech tastemaker Engadget, and there you have it: wow? Not so much.

Really, though. Isn’t this why you’re paying those pimply programmer kids seven-figure salaries? Feed them more pizza, buy them more beer, do what you gotta do. Just don’t let another one of these slide.

BIG PAYOLA PIMPIN’

Rather than learning from last year’s flogs debacle (hey there, Sony PSP and Wal-Mart), the ethically challenged bastard-children of the marketing industry decided to kick it up a notch this year: they hired full-fledged floggers. Under the PayPerPost model, thousands of bloggers brokered their “opinions” to eager advertisers — it’s Payola 2.0 and it’s going down in flames already.

So the FCC threatened. WOMMA (the Word of Mouth Marketing Association) initiated an investigation and proceeded to slam the practice as non-compliant with their Ethics Code. The New York Times raised a disapproving eyebrow at chief offenders PayPerPost.com, ReviewMe.com and SponsoredReviews.com. Then it really escalated: first the FTC stuck a major red flag on it all, then it got as bad as it gets — Google spanked the questionable practice big-time. (Because, let’s be honest, these days a bitch-slapping by Google is far more serious a threat than anything coming from a Federal Toothless Committee.)

In the end, PayPerPost (legally IZEA) folded some of its properties and quietly tucked away others. And the obvious answer to the “Isn’t paid blogging a great, legitimate, win-win idea?” question seems to be an unanimous “Not so much.”

CELEBRITY COMEBACK

It’s not that they didn’t give her a chance. They did. And boy oh boy did they regret it. Because Britney’s “comeback performance” at the VMA’s was just the kind of ordeal that sent 99% into almost-feeling-bad-for- her-but-not-quite bouts of convulsive laughter. The remaining 1% got fired because of it…although we’re pretty sure they too laughed all the way to the Unemployment Office. Wait, wait. We take that back. the remaining 1% were Chris Crocker.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=jK-T5Y1ZeVg

But the abysmal performance isn’t what’s earning Brit the Not So Much award this year. Because while it may have been abysmal, at least it was real. Which isn’t something that could be said of her spray-tanned- over-the-flab abs. If only she had spent those 2 hours rehearsing, then maybe it wouldn’t have ended like…oh, who are we kidding.

UNWITTING KICK IN THE GROIN

And what’s an annual shitlist without an Ann Coulter entry? Nope, it’s not for dropping the F-bomb on both Al Gore and John Edwards. It’s not for saying the Jews need to be “perfected” into Christianity. (All that and more has come to be naturally expected from the depravity dame.) It’s not even for comparing the New Testament to FedEx.

It’s for doing it on Donny Deutsch‘s The Big Idea. Here’s the thing: Donny, always the media whore, is probably much less disturbed by stabs at his private beliefs, such as religion, than he is by even the slightest allusions to his public failures. Because, coincidentally, Donny’s big Super Bowl idea this year crashed and burned like no other. Which we’re sure only added fuel to the fire of his grumping about how BBDO’s spots for FedEx outperform any Deutsch Super Bowl creations year after year.

Congrats, Ann. You’ve reached a point where your bile reaches far beyond your intended sore spots.

GARGANTUAN PRODUCT RELAUNCH

And so it is, Microsoft appears to be the Tina Fey of the Not So Much awards (you know, snagging the honors in multiple categories)…only not nearly as smart and much, much less sexy. Case in point: the Zune.

You may vaguely remember last year’s overhyped launch and the sharing-based “Welcome to the Social” positioning. Well, after an initial review by make-or-break tech expert Engadget that actually included the word “sucked” and a subsequent extensive confirmation of the Zune’s overall lackingness, it became apparent that the only sharing going on was that of worldwide opinions on what exactly about the Zune makes it suck.

So swinging between damage control and a second stab at taking down the iPod, the unfortunate underdog decided to pretend like “the social” never happened (wait, it actually never did) and position the Zune with the sharply original (in another universe) “You Make It You.” More hype followed, including one rather blatant rip-off of a certain shot-down- by-client Cutwater spot for Motorola by Michel Gondry, or of the wonderful “Hello Tomorrow” spot for adidas by Spike Jonze from a few years ago, or of both.

In the end, the Zune continues to tank, Microsoft continues burning through ad agencies like a celebrutante through rehab stints, and the answer to the “Are we bumping the iPod yet?” question continues to remain: “Not so much.”

FOOL-PROOF PLAN

Remember in high school when the bathroom walls were a graffitified slander fest, a Sharpie-driven manifestation of petty popularity vendettas? Well, seems like Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, the same nice guy who made his own salary $1 last year and basked in the press ooohing and awwwing over it, is more high school girl than business big boy. Or at least that’s what his doings in the business version of bathroom walls — you know, the stock market forums — suggest.

wall.jpgBecause this year was the year he got caught Sharpie-handed, busted for being the mysterious bad-mouther of Whole Foods competitor Wild Oats all across the stock forums, something he’d been doing since 2005 — when, apparently, his plan of acquiring Wild Oats was first cooked up. (A plan that finally came to fruition when Whole Foods agreed to buy Wild Oats for $565 million, or $18.50 a share, this year.) That mysterious had been dishing out rather specific prophetic projections, including the prediction that Wild Oats would crumble into bankruptcy after its stock price dropped to $5, as well as some pretty stabby critiques of Wild Oats management. So how did the mystery bad-mouther get traced back to Mackey?

Via the very, very, very cleverly devised username: Rahodeb. Which just so happens to be wife Deborah’s name with the syllables swapped backwards. Even more embarrassingly, “Rahodeb” went as far as revealing, like, an ohmigod-total crush on Mackey, complete with confessions like “I like Mackey’s haircut” and “I think he looks cute!”

Not to worry, though. Our aforementioned government hero, the FTC, stepped in hands-on-hips and cape aflow to resolve the issue by questioning the bigger-than-high-school legal issues about a Whole Foods / Wild Oats merger. Too bad big bad villain Bureaucracy got in the way — the case is still pending, and we’re left hanging for a final word. But, meanwhile, we’re pleased to present Rahodeb with a Not-So-Much award for a high-school-to-business-world transition.

BELIEVABLE PRODUCT PLACEMENT

It’s not news that product placement, branded entertainment, or whatever else you wanna call the ubiquitous paid-for logo-slapping on today’s screens, has become a big deal. Some takes on it are actually marginally believable and not too disruptive of the show’s flow. NBC and Bravo had the formula right again this year, with 8 of the top 10 most successful (a.k.a. least likely to piss off audiences) product integrations.

So what is the formula? The pros say it best: Frank Zazza, CEO of product placement valuation company ITVX points the finger to seamlessness: “[Seamlessness] is the key to the future of product placement… If it is done organically and seamlessly, it will match [the viewer’s] real world.”

Hmmm, we have to wonder what kind of wax the CW folks had in their ears when deciding to go smack against the expert advice. Sure, they’re hungry to rise above being the pimply loser at the popular kids’ party that is broadcast television. And, sure, they may be lusting after the 13-24 female set with shows like the flashback-to-the-worst-of-high-school Gossip Girl. But seemlessness, it seems, wasn’t anywhere on the roadmap for getting there.

verizon.pngSee, the CW chose to splatter Verizon products all over that canvas of mediocrity that is Gossip Girl (a gig so inexplicably sought-after that it ignited a vicious three-way bid-off against T-Mobile and AT&T, which Verizon in the end won.) And by all over we mean all over: long pan-and-zooms on Verizon devices, unnaturally lengthy screen time of text messages (and, yes, we mean unnatural even in the uber-texty universe of teenage girls)…you get the idea.

Meanwhile, they choose to purposely mask the most natural, plot-based use of one of today’s most universally recognized brands: Google. In fact, a brand so crucial that they simply couldn’t get around it in the story line, and so powerfully popular through word-of-mouth alone that it didn’t even need to pay for placement. Most importantly, a brand so strong that it’s inevitably recognized beneath the changed colors of its homepage, the generic “Search” name, and the bland “1st Result” label for its iconic “I’m Feeling Lucky” button. How’s that for matching the viewer’s “real world.”

google.png

What an ironic allegory for the power of brands this is — goes to show that no product placement budget can match the pure value of authenticity. In the great words of Google VP of Marketing David Lawlee, “It’s easier to do a thousand little things than one 30-second spot, if you have the world’s attention.” Unfortunately for the CW, the world’s attention in this case was neither there nor generating revenue.

Spotted: CW trying oh-so-hard to score with the cool kids but scoring the year’s biggest Not-So-Much award instad. Fake recognizes fake, little net.

BP

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