Cranky Post No. 203: Boomer-oriented commercial

Sorry, can’t gear up much sympathy for the Baby Boomers in these John Hancock ads. You’re 60 years old having a text-message conversation with your spouse about “We’re not even close!!!” when talking about how much you need to retire. If you hadn’t been running around spending your children’s inheritance 15-20 years ago, you know, you might be in a better place, ya think?

(And no, by “spending our kids’ inheritance” I’m not talking about the meme du tea party, but about those bumper stickers people from my parents’ generation used to have on their cars in the late ’80s and early ’90s. But you know, it might as well apply in the reverse for the Glenn Beck/Carl Paladino/Christine O’Donnell-addled, since, if we don’t spend some money to create jobs now, all your worries about government debt hurting your kids in the future will be irrelevant if your kids can’t get jobs now, in the present. But I digress.)

And why don’t you just end those messages to your spouse with a few LOLs and BRBs, just to confirm your lameness.

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Mad Men musings on creativity as a commodity

Among the meticulous historical details, brilliantly gripping story lines, and the spot-on commentary on America then and now, Matthew Weiner’s 1960s-set Mad Men is really a paean to the age-old battle of creativity vs. business, and how those concepts sometimes fit, sometimes don’t in America, yes, then and now.

Obviously, if you enjoy eating and having a roof over your head, you can write and paint as much as you like, but you still need to turn the heat on in the winter.

Still, the lament is that creativity always seems to still get the short shrift — even when creativity is what you are selling — often by devaluing the workers who produce it (through low salaries, under-staffing, or merely a general lack of creative freedom).

Don Draper, the ad man who keeps his firm in business through his much-sought-after creativity, is a proxy for the artist whose work is bought and sold, but whose creativity derives its business value through bringing in money. It’s not art for art’s sake, a point obviously made clear in that he’s in advertising, and not a starving artist. But he is an artist nonetheless, and though not a poet or painter, it’s a point worth noting.

“I want to work,” Don says in last year’s season finale, as he learns his firm is being sold to a larger corporation with even larger eyes on the bottom line (and, presumably, less on the creative aspects of the finished product, except, again, as a commodity). I commented on nymag.com‘s recap of the finale, and I wondered if that episode, and the entire series for that matter, expressed Weiner’s feelings about creative workers, including writers like himself. Don wants to create something — yes, a new firm, but he also wants to create new ads. It’s how he gains his self-meaning in the world. It brings him material gains, and it brought him a wife, kids, and house with a white picket fence — all those things that people expect to see. Don wants the freedom to create ads, and running his own agency will bring that as he railed (in that finale) about accountants wanting to turn a dollar into $1.10.

As much as it is about social change 45 years ago, Weiner’s show is as much about the search for creative freedom (for himself personally as a television writer and creator, but also for all creative types at large). But without being able to turn that $1 into $1.10, Don would be without his own firm and lose that creative freedom he so needs. Mad Men portrays that duality, nicely in a 1965 skin.

Tonight, in this season’s penultimate episode, as they further learn of the dire financial straits their new firm is in, Peggy asks Don, what are they going to do?

“We’re going to sit at our desks and keep typing while the walls fall down around us, because we’re creative — the least important most important thing there is.”

It’s not a new question: is creativity merely another commodity? Holding a mirror to society to reflect back what you see — it may give viewers greater understanding of the world, but how do you support a family on that? Don’s ex-fling Midge makes a guest appearance in this episode as a struggling artist and heroin addict — does her art have value to her beyond its ability to bring her money to further fuel her habit? Or does it inspire Don to continue the strategy laid out for him in the first episode of this season — to promote and sell himself (and his agency) in order to have creative freedom? Is that inspiration worth the $120 (in 1965 dollars) Don pays for it? Should we even put a dollar amount on it? But isn’t that what you do if you graduate college with a degree in English, Fine Art, Drama, and so on? If your degree can’t help you get a job (and thus earn money), is such a degree valuable merely through its intrinsic value?

Perhaps it is the least important most important thing there is. How do you eat off of that, and is it crass to even ask the question? Or is linking the two concepts mutually necessary?


Mad Men and the Mets

With Mad Men kicking off its fourth season on Sunday, it’s time to celebrate the Mets-Mad Men connection.

Mad Men takes place at a point in history, to cite a 2008 New York Times Magazine article, when ad men were rock stars of an era, when “the creative revolution in advertising was taking off.”

The Mets were born in 1962, in the heart of the Mad Men era (and the year in which season two of the series takes place). They were New York City’s new team in the National League after the Dodgers and Giants left town, and much of their essence, which survives today, is — at least in part — a product of early Sixties advertising. The “Meet the Mets” song, as much an effort by J. Walter Thompson as it was of the Mets’ execs themselves, has that fun, zippy feeling of the early, swinging part of that decade.

The Mets even garnered passing references in two episodes of the show, both from junior executive Ken Cosgrove. He tries to use the lure of Mets tickets (“great seats for probably a terrible game”) for a date with Jane, the new secretary — and future second wife of partner Roger Sterling — in season two (1962), then drops by Pete Campbell’s office with an offer of Mets tickets, which Paul Kinsey takes him up on, in season three (1963).

Even the Mets acknowledged the connection as much (or merely latched onto a popular show, or both), with a promotion last year related to Mad Men at their new, new modern stadium.

Jimmy Breslin, in his own way in his 1963 book “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?,” links advertising and the Mets’ birth:

“As noted earlier, it took more than baseball people to create the Mets. One of the biggest culprits, for example, is a beer company called Rheingold. This company, based in Brooklyn, put up, on the advice of an advertising agency, $1,200,000 per year on a five-year contract to sponsor the Mets on television and radio. The bid was made and accepted in the fall of 1961. The Mets had not yet signed a player. By December, the Mets had signed players and the Rheingold account was taken away from the ad agency and placed with another organization, J. Walter Thompson. …

“‘We didn’t like losing the account at all,’ one of the admen said over a martini.
“‘How come you lost it?’
“‘Somebody gave the client a bad report.’
“‘What was it?’
“‘They told the sponsor who was going to play third base for the Mets.'”

The “Meet the Mets” song and the Mr. Met mascot fit in perfectly with the early Sixties. It’s something that perhaps Don Draper wouldn’t have thought of — Draper, socially climbing, image conscious, would probably have been a stodgy Yankee fan, and possibly would have dismissed the Mets ad campaign, the way he is both intrigued by and then dismisses the ultimately iconic “lemon” Volkswagen Beetle ad in the first season.

Though who knows? Would the 1960s version of J. Walter Thompson, which was involved in the “Meet the Mets” song, have had more in common back then with Sterling Cooper (though certainly not today) than Doyle Dane Bernbach, which came up with those “lemon” and “think small” ads? Or perhaps the Mets’ early campaigns fell more in the category of “traditional” (for 1962) advertising rather than DDB’s ironic VW Bug ads.

Either way, perhaps the mysterious, slowly adapting Don Draper might have come up with the Mets’ catchy, enduring ad campaign, after all. Along with the upheavals of the Sixties, perhaps we’ll see more changes in Don Draper, with a new firm to run (as set up in the final episode of Season Three) and presumably new life away from his wife and children (we’ll see, beginning Sunday night). Of course, this might come down to where you feel the Mets’ ads of 1962-1964 fall in the traditional-ironic advertising divide.

Author Dana Brand describes in his Mets Fan book, how, as a child in the early Sixties, he loved the “novelty of the blue and orange colors, and the cool, contemporary brevity of the name” of New York’s new team.

(And, come to think of it, orange surely must have seemed to be the “new” color for the Sixties. Along with the Mets, think of the orange adopted by new teams like the Astros in 1965 and hockey’s Philadelphia Flyers in 1967. Or, put another way, think of teal and purple as the new “orange” of the Nineties, with the Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies.)

SNY’s chipper “Mets Yearbook” TV commercial — with the bobblehead doll, clips of Casey Stengel and the Polo Grounds, an easy-to-whistle tune, and the 8mm filmstrip feel — pays homage to those days.

Brand, later in “Mets Fan,” writes in a piece about the “Meet the Mets” song:

“It fits with Mr. Met (who would think him up now?). It fits with the apple that comes out of the hat every time a Met hits a home run. It doesn’t come out of the twentieth-first century … It is the tone of the team. It brings us back to the smiling sixties. It draws us into the Mets-happy universe.”

How correct he is. It is a team for the Mad Men era, both then and now. New York was changing, New York baseball was changing (even the Mets themselves, who moved from the old Polo Grounds to the modern Shea Stadium in 1964), and, of course, America was changing. The orange-and-blue Mets were, and still are, the baseball baby born of the Mad Men period.

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Addendum, August 30, 2010, 12:24 a.m.: Another Mets reference in Mad Men — an orange Mets pennant appeared in Lane Pryce‘s 1965 office in the Week 6 (season 4) episode that aired earlier this evening. A nice touch, and a humorous one, because why on earth would the dry British Pryce have a Mets banner in his office? Is he merely trying to immerse himself deeper in his newly adopted country by following the Mets’ eventual 50-112 season? Or did his secretary add that to his decor, with Pryce — distracted by his constant concerns over the ad firm’s finances —  not even noticing it?

Addendum, October 8, 2010, 9:55 p.m.: No, Pryce is certainly a Mets fan. Witness his love of America in the episode of two weeks ago, when he comes out with a Teddy Bear and red, white and blue balloons to greet (he thinks) his son. Pryce, the stuffy Brit, has embraced his new country, and what was more 1960s American (well, more ’60s New York, anyway) than the lovable underdog of the Mets of that decade?

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Local-washing food and sportswriting

McDonald’s recently launched a local TV commercial around these parts (h/t All Over Albany). Yep, multi-national Mickey D’s name-dropped a bunch of Albany-isms (some of which The Locals don’t actually or frequently use) into a spot in a bid to put a local face on the Golden Arches.

I suppose it should be a compliment that parochial Small-bany rated a commercial geared directly toward its decidedly Single-A market. But a comment about “local-washing” in the All Over Albany blog got me thinking about the phenomenon.

The “Buy Local” movement has had some positive impacts, even beyond the obvious growth of the excellent farmer’s markets we have in upstate New York. I like that regional chain supermarket Hannaford sells some local produce from farms in a few-county radius here, even if the offerings are limited to one cart in a several-thousand-square-foot store. But they position the offering as you come into the produce section and label it with the farm it came from. Bully for them. It’s a good idea, and a smart idea. It appeals to my 100-Mile Food sensibilities, even if I don’t come close to fully practicing that.

But what about Starbucks re-naming one of its Seattle stores as “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea” to whitewash some corporate stain? What about the execrable Gannett Corporation’s deceptively named ShopLocal™ Web site? (h/t Forbes). Frito-Lay ads in Florida? Local-washing efforts by Barnes & Noble, Wal-Mart, Citgo and Hellmann’s? Does at least some of what Wal-mart and other supermarkets do (in selling local produce) redeem themselves in the same way that Hannaford does in my mind (though Hannaford’s superior-for-a-chain organic section, including its own house-brand, gives it a bump in my book, and no, I’m no flack for them, I just like their store; but am I biased because I’m a fan?). And, as Elisabeth Eaves writes in Forbes, did the “Localvores” bring this onto themselves?

I have mixed feelings about this. Not about the McDonald’s commercial, but about the full ethos of buying local. I support that philosophy wholeheartedly, but I worry about the dogma of supporting that ethos to the exclusion of all other approaches.

It’s hard to ignore the fact that the chains do actually hire local people, which Eaves notes — yes, I agree that they do create jobs. On the flip side, those jobs often pay poorly, come with limited or no health insurance, send most (if not all) of the local franchise’s profits out of the area and back to the corporate headquarters, are situated in a building that often has no architectural relationship to long-standing neighboring structures (except to other chain places in a sea of urban sprawl, and this in the face of typically weak zoning laws), and quite possibly replaced jobs in locally owned businesses (not franchises) to begin with.

On the other hand, in these strained economic days, if I’m not eating PB&J for lunch (again) my lunch budget is $3 — enough for two items off McDonald’s Dollar Menu and a buck coffee, provided I can scrounge up enough change in between my car seats to cover the sales tax. Plus, we took Junior to the place once and he referred to it as “Old McDonald’s.” In fact, we tried Wendy’s a few weeks later, and eager to avoid him becoming brand-brainwashed, we called Dave Thomas’ place Old McDonald’s, too.

(Aside: At once point I had attempted the Neil Pollack approach in Alternadad and tried to flip branding on its ear by telling Junior that, whenever he saw the Golden Arches, it signaled a building that sold yucky food. That didn’t last long once we had a hungry 3-year-old suddenly awake on a road trip and the only thing open on a Thruway rest stop was Mickey D’s. But I digress.)

In the end, it’s a fine line. Hannaford’s approach seems to be the right one, though of course, I’d like to see even more local offerings there. But McDonald’s approach seems more sneaky, more insidious somehow.

It’s not entirely dissimilar from what ESPN is doing with ESPNChicago.com, ESPNBoston.com, ESPNDallas.com and (God help us) ESPNNewYork.com. (Though ESPNScranton.com still seems to be available.)

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