Archive for the ‘Wonderful World of Advertising’ category

My funny Valentine

February 9, 2012

For those of you who’ve expressed an interest in my burgeoning voice acting career, here’s a little something I voiced recently.

It’s a promotional video for a Bay Area men’s chorus that delivers Singing Valentines. NIA Creative, an awesome marketing and production company, produced the project.

Fun stuff…

…and if you decide to purchase a Singing Valentine for your beloved, please tell ’em your Uncle Swan sent you.

Just a guy named Joe

August 31, 2010

I went shopping at Trader Joe’s this afternoon.

Now, I realize that doesn’t sound especially momentous. This was, however, the first time I’d darkened the doorstep of a Trader Joe’s in a good eight years — since my corporate days, when I worked a mere two blocks from the local TJ’s and dropped in there frequently. My new life in self-employment keeping me chained to my desk at home most of the time, and with the home of the “Fearless Flyer” being now more than a little out of my way, TJ’s and I have drifted apart.

But not today.

A shiny new Trader Joe’s opened in Santa Rosa a while back, right around the corner from my favorite Hawaiian barbecue joint — which, as fate would have it, has been closed ever since some nutcase drove his car through the front of the restaurant. With the news of the recent death of Trader Joe’s reclusive German owner, Theo Albrecht, fresh in my mind, and with a few hours of free time on my hands, I decided to venture in and check out the goods.

For the benefit of those of you unfortunate enough to live out of range of a Trader Joe’s, I’ll explain what I’m talking about. Trader Joe’s is a chain of specialty markets that’s big here in California. Originally a group of convenience stores, Trader Joe’s changed its image in the late 1960s, adopting a Polynesian motif and stocking select products sold mostly under its house brand names. (These often riff on the ethnicity of the comestibles in question — my chicken quesadillas, for example, bore the moniker “Trader Jose’s.”) Unlike a conventional supermarket, where you can buy practically anything your stomach desires, Trader Joe’s focuses on a narrow blend of gourmet and organic foods and household products. The store caters to a niche clientele including foodies, aging hippies, and bargain hunters.

Eschewing big-budget advertising, Trader Joe’s mostly draws customers in via its “Fearless Flyer,” a multipage direct-mail circular printed on cheap paper and featuring cartoons in the style of Victorian-era illustration. The store’s merchandise profile changes constantly — you learn never to get hooked on a Trader Joe’s item, because they’ll stop selling it the moment you do — but often includes unique products (especially seafood and frozen entrees) you’d never find anywhere else. Because almost all of the product line is branded in-house, TJ’s “cuts out the middleman” and frequently offers surprisingly good value for such an upscale retailer.

I strolled into the shiny new-ish TJ’s today with few expectations. I ended up needing a second handbasket to carry all of the stuff I lugged to the cash register, where a stone-faced college student in an aloha shirt (that’s part of the TJ’s vibe — all of the employees wear colorful Hawaiian shirts, and summon one another to the registers not with an intercom, but with a hand bell) totaled and bagged my purchases. I came away with frozen dinner items to feed myself for the next week, a few snacks, two cans of whole bean coffee, and a box of vanilla almond granola (quite tasty — I’m eating a bowl as I type).

The store was brightly lit and cheery, if rather spartan in decor — another Trader Joe’s trademark — and everyone, both staff and shoppers, seemed happy to be there. (Everyone, that is, except my cashier, whose personality made the prosaic bag of raw almonds I bought seem lively by comparison.) I know I was.

Thanks, Trader Joe.

The Blacker the Berry, the hotter the Torch

August 17, 2010

For an individual who spends as much time using technology as I do, I’m really something of a closet Luddite. My Luddism, however, manifests in odd, inconsistent ways. (Inconsistent to a casual observer, that is — my often oblique approach to things makes perfect sense here in Swanworld.)

I resisted owning a cellular phone for years. Part of my resistance stemmed from the fact that, as those of you who know me in meatspace are well aware, I despise talking on the phone. I rarely use the phones in the house or office, I reasoned, so why would I want to tote one around? Another part was that, being something of a lone wolf, being constantly connected to the rest of the world by a mobile device rankled me more than a little.

At long last, as my family’s needs for contact evolved, I surrendered to the inevitable and purchased an inexpensive phone that could be loaded with usage minutes as I needed them. The device didn’t do anything except make and receive the occasional call or text message — and I’d owned it for years before I sent my first text — which suited me just fine.

With the most recent alterations in my life, however, I’ve rethought a lot of long-held practices. Among these: my cell phone. More and more frequently, I find myself in situations where an Internet-enabled mobile device would come in mighty handy. Plus, with The Daughter heading back to college in a week — and with our primary means of communication over that distance being text messaging — I wanted something with which I could generate a text more quickly (and less fumble-fingeredly) than I can on the numeric keypad of my Motorola handset.

In addition, as my career has changed focus, I’ve been paying an unseemly amount every month for a business phone line that I rarely use. (Everything is e-mail and file transfer these days.) Those funds could be redirected toward upgrading my mobile communications experience.

It was time to buy a smartphone.

Yesterday afternoon, with The Daughter along as my technical adviser, I ventured out into the harsh, unfeeling world of wireless merchandising and came home with this… the BlackBerry Torch 9800.

I'm picking BlackBerrys... who's with me?

We spent the better part of an hour fiddling with the floor models of the various smartphones affiliated with AT&T. (Before you AT&T Wireless haters wax all self-righteous on me, I had significant logistical reasons for going with that provider. Don’t shoot the messenger.) The Daughter liked the Apple iPhone 4, and with good reason — it’s a beautiful device which appeared, based on my limited exposure, to function like a dream. But the iPhone posed one serious hurdle for me — its thin frame and glass faceplate looked and felt fragile in my chubby fist. It’s also a bit too lengthy to fit comfortably in a pocket.

BlackBerry’s newest innovation, while lacking some of the dash and flash of the iPhone (though we all know how Steve Jobs really feels about Flash), had a thickness and heft that felt more solid — and less breakable — to clumsy me. Its grippy rubberized backplate clung to my palm as though tailored to fit it. I also was entranced with the Torch’s slide-out QWERTY keyboard, which elegantly alleviates my ineptitude with multitap texting. And, although the Torch’s touchscreen — a BlackBerry first — may lag somewhat in performance when compared with the zippy-slick iPhone, to my aging eyes it’s slightly less glare-inducing than the iPhone’s mirror finish, and the Torch’s plastic face simply feels more forgiving to my fingers than the iPhone’s glass.

I’m well aware that the techies are less than impressed these days with Research in Motion’s product line, including the somewhat tepidly reviewed Torch. But I’m not trying to impress anyone. I just want to be able to surf the ‘Net wherever I am at any hour of the day, swap text messages with my outbound offspring, keep up with my friends on the various social networks, check and respond to my e-mail, and maybe even call the local pizza joint with an order once in a while. Based on the last 24 hours’ exploration, my new BlackBerry torch will do all of that just fine.

Besides which, I have it on excellent authority that Facebooking from the porcelain throne is wicked cool.

I can hardly wait.

You’re a good commodity, Charlie Brown

April 27, 2010

This just in via Sopwith Camel…

The E.W. Scripps Company, the struggling one-time media giant whose newspaper empire has in recent years been shrinking as if it had been dunked in ice water, today sold its subsidiary United Media Licensing for $175 million.

United Media‘s best-known property is Peanuts, the seminal comic strip created by the late Charles M. Schulz. The company’s new majority owner is Iconix Brand Group, the marketing force behind Joe Boxer underwear, London Fog raincoats, and Starter athletic wear.

I’m guessing that Charlie Brown’s baseball team will be sporting Starter jackets this season. And, I suppose, Joe Boxer supporters. Although that’s probably more information than you wanted.

The local angle here is that Schulz’s family buys into the deal for a 20 percent stake in United Media. This will give the Schulz heirs some degree of ongoing control over Peanuts licensed merchandise, which racks up gross sales in the neighborhood of $2 billion annually. That shakes out to net revenue of approximately $75-90 million. Not too shabby a legacy for a cartoonist working out of an office in an ice skating arena in Sonoma County, California.

By the way, if you’re ever in town, stop by the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa. Run by Jean Schulz, the artist’s widow, the museum always has fascinating and entertaining themed collections of original Peanuts strips on display. The museum also frequently hosts special exhibitions and educational programs, including its popular Cartoonist-In-Residence series the second Saturday of each month. Recent Cartoonists-In-Residence have included Keith Knight (The K Chronicles), Scott Kurtz (Player vs. Player), and Brian Fies (Mom’s Cancer). Plus, there’s always the off chance that you might bump into Paige Braddock, the Eisner Award-winning creator of Jane’s World, who’s the creative director for Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates and the mastermind behind all of the Peanuts licensed merchandise you see everywhere you look. (Somebody has to be.)

I have a feeling that Snoopy and the gang will quaff a root beer or two over this latest bonanza.

Iron Goofy, Incredible Duck, and the Amazing Spider-Mouse

August 31, 2009

This may be the biggest pop culture business story of the decade: The Walt Disney Company is buying Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion.

Already, the fanboys — and, to be fair, the occasional fangirl — are burning up the ‘Net with their prediction of what will happen when the House of Ideas collides with the House of Mouse.

The truth is simple: We’ll see.

Disney is now, and pretty much has been throughout recent memory, all about licensing. There’s no question that the reason they want Marvel isn’t because they crave a niche in the rapidly shrinking world of comics publishing. Heck, Disney can’t be bothered to publish comic books starring the characters they already own — they summarily dumped the last vestige of this connection, the hugely popular Disney Adventures magazine, a while back, with hardly a fare-thee-well — much less floppies about people running around in brightly colored underwear.

What intrigues Disney’s beancounters is the tremendous stable of familiar characters that Marvel represents — characters ripe for exploitation on toys, T-shirts, and oodles of memorabilia. A quick stroll around Anaheim’s Disneyland Resort will clue you in to how thoroughly and aggressively the Mouse House has co-opted the characters from their last mega-acquisition, Pixar Animation Studios. The mind boggles at the fun Disney will have — and the kajillions they’ll profit — marketing Spidey, Wolverine, and the rest of the Merry Marvel Marching Society.

What does it all mean for Marvel in terms of its comics line? Who knows? Comics are a dying industry. Movies and video games, on the other hand, have never been hotter, and Marvel offers a veritable cornucopia of product to churn through. I don’t know how much longer comics will last, regardless of who holds the reigns. With Disney pulling the strings, however, it seems likely that Marvel’s signature superheroes will plow ahead in one form or another for the foreseeable future, and perhaps beyond.

As for the worriers who believe that suddenly Marvel’s going to get all family-friendly because Disney takes over: (a) I’m not sure that would be an awful thing if it happened, and (b) remember, this is the company whose ABC Television Network brings you Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy.

In the words of the immortal Stan Lee…


What’s Up With That? #80: Video killed the RadioShack

August 11, 2009

My long-ago former employer RadioShack (to illustrate how long ago it was that I worked for them, the name was still two discrete words back then) is rebranding itself as “The Shack.”

Aside from the potential conflicts with other businesses (the Joe’s Crab Shack restaurant chain comes immediately to mind) and celebrities (namely, a certain NBA center who recently joined the Cleveland Cavaliers), this seems like a silly idea to me. I get the fact that “radio” is an old-school communications medium that few in the iPod generation listen to anymore, but the whole notion of a company giving itself a pithy, street-sounding nickname is ridiculous.

Knowing, however, the lemming mentality of American corporations, I find myself wondering whether — if RadioShack… I mean… The Shack’s experiment proves successful — we’ll be seeing any of the following:

  • The Soft
  • The Buy
  • The Gamble
  • The Bucks
  • The Mart
  • The Get
  • The Motors
  • The Cola
  • The Cast

I’d come up with a few more, but I need to visit The Room.

What’s Up With That? #78: Crunch time

June 8, 2009

The current leader in Uncle Swan’s Moron of the Month Sweepstakes is Janine Sugawara of San Diego, who sued PepsiCo Inc. in federal court because the crunchberries in Cap’n Crunch cereal are not actual berries.

Ms. Sugawara’s lawsuit alleged that during the four years she purchased Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries, PepsiCo’s subsidiary Quaker Oats defrauded her by leading her to believe that crunchberries were really fruit. Imagine Janine’s shock when, after four years, she discovered that she was actually eating little balls of corn cereal flavored with strawberry concentrate.

In dismissing Sugawara’s suit, Judge Morrison C. England Jr. wrote:

This Court is not aware of, nor has Plaintiff alleged the existence of, any actual fruit referred to as a “crunchberry.” Furthermore, the “Crunchberries” depicted on the PDP are round, crunchy, brightly-colored cereal balls, and the PDP (principal display panel — legalese for “side of the cereal box”) clearly states both that the Product contains “sweetened corn and oat cereal” and that the cereal is “enlarged to show texture.” Thus, a reasonable consumer would not be deceived into believing that the Product in the instant case contained a fruit that does not exist.

Further, Judge England found:

Plaintiff claims Defendant expressly warranted that the Product contains berries. However, that simply is not the case. Defendant chose the moniker “Crunchberries” for its brightly colored cereal balls. As far as this Court has been made aware, there is no such fruit growing in the wild or occurring naturally in any part of the world. Furthermore, a reasonable consumer would have understood the Product packaging to expressly warrant only that the Product contained sweetened corn and oat cereal, which it did. Accordingly, Defendant did not promise Plaintiff that the Product contained fruit, nor did the Product contain anything other than that which was actually expressly warranted.

Crunchberries don’t grow in the wild? Say it ain’t so, Judge!

It’s people like Janine Sugawara — who previously sued Kellogg’s because Froot Loops do not contain actual “froot” — who make a mockery of the American legal system… which does not, in fact, need assistance in that regard.

Next on Sugawara’s hit list: Keebler cookies, which, come to find out, are baked in a factory, and not by elves with magic ovens in hollow trees.

That’s a Stretch

June 3, 2009

Just when you thought it was impossible for Hollywood to scrape another layer of muck off the bottom of the creative barrel…

Universal Pictures announces that it’s going to make a movie based on the 1970s toy action figure Stretch Armstrong.

I kid (no pun intended) you not.

For the benefit of those of you born during the last quarter-century, Stretch Armstrong was a doll that resembled a blond wrestler wearing black swim trunks. Stretch’s soft plastic body could be stretched (hence the name) and contorted, thanks to the semi-liquid silicone gel encapsulated inside.

Think of the many elastic-powered comic book superheroes — Plastic Man, Mister Fantastic, the Elongated Man — and you’ll get the inspiration.

Stretch’s mortal enemy was the Stretch Monster, a similarly constructed green being that vaguely resembled the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

As most kids who owned a Stretch Armstrong soon discovered, a fair amount of overextension or indelicate handling would rupture Stretch’s skin, spilling the gel and ruining the toy. (I’ll wager that this unfortunate feature won’t play a role in the upcoming film.)

I know that nostalgia is big business. Doubtless, some executive at Universal saw the box office figures for Michael Bay’s Transformers movie and sent a flotilla of flunkies scampering for the archives to ferret out another long-ago toy hit to exploit.

But seriously… Stretch Armstrong? A toy that was pretty much a joke in its heyday… which was more than 30 years ago? Most of the people old enough to be nostalgic for Stretch Armstrong — assuming that anyone is — have aged out of the demographic for the potential film.

I’m sure that the special effects will be amazing, though. (Snicker.)

What’s Up With That? #76: Reward Zone? More like Twilight Zone

May 21, 2009

The following is an example of how NOT to provide an incentive for your business’s customers.

Earlier this year, I bought a new HD plasma TV at Best Buy. This purchase garnered me a membership in Best Buy’s bonus program, Reward Zone, and $35 in free merchandise of my choosing. (Say it with me: If it’s free, it’s for me.) The company mailed me a bright blue Reward Zone card a few weeks after the TV arrived… a card which I tossed into a stack of paperwork and largely forgot about.

Forgot, that is, until a Best Buy representative called me the other day to remind me that my $35 reward expires on June 13, and encouraged me to redeem it promptly.

Online shopping being as efficient as it is, I rarely make a trip to Best Buy these days. But hey, for $35, I could use a little fresh air and sunshine. I’d been looking at desktop microphone stands on eBay — just the ticket for lengthy narrative and audiobook reads — and I knew that Best Buy sold such an animal. So, off to the Big Blue Box I travel.

A quick cruise around the musical instruments and audio department turned up the mic stand. I picked one up and proceeded to the register. I handed the box and my Reward Zone card to the young man behind the counter.

“I’d like to get this with my Reward Zone bonus,” I said, just in case the combination of merchandise and reward card wasn’t self-explanatory.

“Do you have a certificate?” the clerk asked.


“Yeah. A certificate that says how much your Reward Zone bonus is.”

“I don’t have a certificate. They mailed me this card.”

“You have to go online and print a certificate.”

“Umm… I went online and registered the card like the instructions said. Can’t you just scan the card and see how much reward money I have coming?”

“No, you have to have a certificate.”

Clearly, this conversation was going nowhere.

My next stop was the customer service desk. The young woman there was, at least, more enthusiastic than her counterpart in the audio room.

“Yes, you do have to print out your Reward Zone certificate in order to redeem it. But let me scan your card, and I’ll print your certificate right here.”

She brought up the information and directed me to key in my password. In moments, she handed me a certificate for $35 in Reward Zone funds. Oh, frabjous day!

“Did you want to use this to buy that?” the clerk asked, pointing to the mic stand in my hand.

“Yes, please.”

She scanned the bar code on the box.

“Oh, this is only $12.99 before tax.”

“I understand that. But that’s less than $35.”

“Yes, but the way the program works, you have to get a combination of merchandise that’s a minimum of $35 before tax. The system won’t break up the amount. You have to use it all at once.”

“Okay. How about if I just take this one item, and you guys keep the $22 balance?”

“The system won’t let me do that. You have to get $35 worth of merchandise.”

“Even if I only want one $13 item?”

“I don’t know why they set up the program that way,” she said empathetically. “But that’s how it works.”

Thus, having already wasted an incredible amount of time on what seemed at the beginning like a simple project, I now found myself trolling the aisles of Best Buy, trying to find something worth at least $22 that I might actually use.

Twenty minutes later, laden with a 2 gigabyte flash drive and a six-outlet surge protector strip in addition to my mic stand, I approached the checkout counter. With dispatch, the clerk processed my merchandise, collected my $35 certificate — plus $7.61 from my debit card — and sent me on my way with a bright blue bagful of Best Buy gear.

So, here’s the bottom line.

In order for me to get the one $13 item I wanted in exchange for my Best Buy Reward Zone bonus, Best Buy…

  • Gave up a total of $42 in merchandise.
  • Wasted a half-hour of my Thursday.
  • Involved three members of its customer service team.
  • Raised my already hypertensive blood pressure with pointless exercise.
  • Got seven bucks of my money in the bargain.
  • Frustrated me to the point that it’ll be a snowy August in Fresno before my shadow falls across the threshold of another Best Buy store.

Is that any way to run a rewards program?

While I’m on the subject: Why is the name of the store Best Buy, if your best buys are always at Fry’s, guaranteed?

For that matter, why can’t you get fries at Fry’s?