Thursday, February 26, 2009

Why Can't the English Teach Their Children How to Speak?

So complained Professor Henry Higgins in the musical hit play and movie, "My Fair Lady." Dear Henry would be alarmed to know that proper pronunciation tips are as close as anyone's computer. No need for the tortuous methods he used on Eliza Doolittle to extinguish her Cockney whine.

We don't all need to speak as if we're from Mayfair, but some of our Midwestern/Southern drawls could use a bit of tightening up. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, though a fine governor and an all-around swell person, did poorly on national TV. Of course, she was nervous. But the problem is that she is plagued with Kansas-speak, a style of speech as flat as our prairie terrain. Perhaps some tone training with Prof. Higgins' xylophone would help.

We tend to pick up the pronunciations of people around us. When I revisited my mid-Missouri hometown, it wasn't long before I, swept away by nostalgia for those familiar vocal eccentricities, began sounding as if I'd never left town. When I had extended visits to a client in East Texas, the "y'alls" were flying everywhere, out of my own mouth. And after 10 days in London and surrounds, I had, if not an accent, a Brit-like phrasing in my vocal expressions. And when I visit New Yawk? Fuhgeddaboudit!

Accents can be seductive. A young woman I knew went to Ireland for one year and kept the brogue, even after she'd been back home in Nebraska for years. In a sense, perhaps she never did come home. But she was an actress, RenFest regular performer, and so on. The creative performer is allowed some latitude, I suppose. It's not as if a CPA or a plumber did the same thing. His or her co-workers would be whispering "Weirdo" at the snack machines, and such a far-out choice might eventually endanger the person's job. Unless s/he could say she'd had a stroke that left him or her with foreign accent syndrome. That'd shut 'em up, but quick.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

NY Times grapples with grammar gripes

A Data By Any Other Name?

I just discovered an interesting department of the online NY Times that deals with grammar and usage gripes sent in by readers. Some of the Times stylebook usages get under the skin of readers who either favor AP or learned certain usages in school long ago and can't let go of them.

Let's face it: fashions in word usage change. See some of the Times' current usages here.

Monday, February 23, 2009

How consumers shop today - cautiously.

Bling is Dead. Long live the Bling.

Here's an excellent article on how consumers are thinking and shopping today. The culture of, "I want it, so I can afford it if I charge it" is dead. Bling is dead, or at least immoral, according to the article. I never could afford bling in the first place, so I've been shopping Marshall's, Dollar General and thrift stores for years. I mean, why pay full price for anything, when everything is always on sale or available for a dollar?

Lots of people like to shop, but these days, before they arrive at the checkout, they put back some of the stuff they picked out. Kind of like a sport fisherman returning the fish he catches to the lake. They've had the pleasure of the quest, but they'd rather keep that $7.99 in their pockets to buy groceries rather than have that really cool cashmere sweater on unbelievable Final Clearance.

Folks, you can't eat a cashmere sweater. Or the de luxe image it projects. Which presents a challenge for marketers who trade on image, rather than utility. If you can buy a couple of pounds of nice fish with your last few shekels, why would you buy a sweater instead?

Don't get me wrong: I'm no fan of the Sham-Wow and other 800-number items, but heck, at least the DO something, e.g., the Sham-Wow. It soaks up liquid like a demon. But your cashmere sweater just looks cool. Sure, it'll soak up a spill, but then you have to have it dry-cleaned.

Cost matters today, more than ever. Even the (recently) rich are hurting. They're hiding their faces while shopping at consignment shops (or even -- horrors! -- thrift shops). Let's face facts: unemployment is headed toward the highest rate since 1997 -- around 9.5%. Middle-class Americans are showing up at food pantries. So if you have expensive stuff, don't flaunt it. At least put a sign on it saying, "Purchased before the economic crisis." You'll be safer that way.

But you know what? Even if you are economically challenged, you can look like a million for considerably less by using a little imagination. You can chance upon nearly new designer fashions for a trifle at thrift or consignment stores. A friend of mine purchased a 100% cashmere winter coat at a thrift shop. The only problem was that it was a foot or two too long. The coat cost $10.00. A tailor shortened it for $35.00. Total cost: $45.00 for a beautiful camel-colored cashmere coat. A bargain! and it looks terrific on her.

Be imaginative. Shop smart. It's the fashion, dear.

Geico's lizard seeks to reassure in new campaign

The Gecko and the Financial Wizard

The one thing Americans want and need the most right now is reassurance. That's what Geico tries to convey in a new series of TV spots featuring the lovable lizard and The Boss, who has some questionable ideas as to how to go about it. The print campaign, more serious in tone (well, sorta), invokes the name of Warren Buffett to show how stable Geico is.

EXCERPT from NY Times story:

In advertisements appearing in newspapers and magazines, the gecko wears horn-rimmed glasses. “Presenting a straightforward and serious talk about the nation’s third-largest car insurance company,” the headline on one print ad reads. “From a spokesman who’s not wearing any pants.”

That ad, about halfway down in the text, describes Geico as “a financially stable company that’s here for the long run” and “a wholly-owned subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc.”
Click the link and see videos of a couple of the gecko TV spots. Reminds me of a campaign I proposed to a bank client over a period of two or three years, always unsuccessfully, can't think why. The ads would feature an iguana. He would become the Geico gecko of this bank. So the ads would say, "I guana get a checking account at (bank)." Or "I guana get an auto loan at (bank)." Or "I guana get a great CD rate at (bank)." The last time I mentioned it, the client got red in the face and told me, through clenched teeth, "Don't ever talk to me about iguanas again." No sense of humor.

That bank got bought by another bank, but I still think it might have been the other way around, if only the client had listened to my iguana idea.

Lizards watch the Oscars, too.

Oscar Schmoscar!

My friend here, Louis Lizard, relaxed with a drink while taking in the spectacle and excitement of the Oscar show last night.

As usual, however, he was disappointed that no reptiles were nominated. He gets steamed that pandas, dogs, even machines who can't talk get nominated, but not a single anole. Better luck next year, Louis.

Oscars: I apologize for not having faith in Hugh Jackman

Wow! This guy is good! Not only handsome, but also a terrific dancer and singer. And that smile! Okay, it's clear that I'm head over heels for him. Let's move on.

"Slumdog Millionaire" won Best Picture, to almost no one's surprise, though "Milk" had its partisans, too. Sean Penn won Best Actor for "Milk," beating out Mickey Rourke, of "Wrestler" comeback fame, who had won all the minor awards shows leading up to the Oscars in recent weeks. A comeback story is always compelling. But at the Oscars, often it isn't the brilliant newcomer or comeback king who wins -- it's the actor who has earned the respect of his or her fellow actors. And Mickey, good start, but you've got a ways to go on that count.

The most amazing thing about the show this year was the set. The rounded stage of the Kodak Theater glittered with thousands of crystals strung from the proscenium, above a floor of intersecting circles that changed color. The most gorgeous set I've ever seen at the Oscars.

Another great innovation this year was that groups of previous Oscar winners, young and not-so-young, came onstage to speak words of praise to the acting nominees before the winner was announced. Among the star introducers were Sir Ben Kingsley, Eva St. Marie, Sophia Loren, and Adrien Brody. By the way, Sophia at 72 still is going strong, but that dress -- heavens! a nightmare of mustard-colored ruffles. Time to have your glasses checked, dear.

Nearly all of the nominees wore wonderfully simple, elegant gowns. One diagonal strap was a dramatic look on many of them. Kate Winslet, Best Actress winner, wore an iron-gray satin dress that was sleek and sophisticated, with a Grace Kelly-like hairdo to match.

To read more, in case you missed the show (What a pity!), go here. You can see some pictures of Sean, Kate and Penelope. Also, Heath Ledger's parents and sister, who accepted his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for "The Dark Knight." Lots more pictures here.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Oscar Picks for 2008

It's beginning to look a lot like Oscar time, with everyone abuzz with speculations about what picture, director, actor and actress will be voted the best for 2008.

Well, truthfully, they're more ayawn than abuzz this year. Most of the pictures are dark, which people don't like much, especially in a down economy. And it looks as if "Slumdog Millionaire," the one with a happy ending, will sweep the show. So where's the excitement?

TIME's Richard Corliss makes his picks here. Oh my, if Jon Stewart could see his Best Picture choice! See what you think.

Paintbrush! Free program from

Paintbrush 2.0.0

If you're looking for a free, simple paint program for Mac, but the mere mention of the word "Microsoft" gives you the yips, try Paintbrush.

Paintbrush is a Cocoa-based paint program for Mac OS X, similar to Microsoft Paint and MacPaint. It's from It's pretty simple, fun to fool around with, and best of all, it's FREE!

My son in Shanghai sent me the link. He said that though the program is simple, he's seen some pretty awesome art that was created with it. Try your hand! In practically no time, I drew a formless abstract thing and a series of intersecting teal-colored ovoid shapes. WOW. Art world, here I come!

Friday, February 20, 2009

How to Keep Innovating

I hope you'll read this excellent article and take Buxton up on these ideas. I suppose I'm doing it, per the blog entry below. It never occurred to me to go out and try to be bad at something I love, but I'm about to do it.
How to Keep Innovating
BusinessWeek - Feruary 18, 2009
by Bill Buxton
The dogged pursuit of excellence might be the wrong strategy. Microsoft Research Principal Scientist Bill Buxton outlines some tips to keep innovating

I've recently been nagged by a somewhat peculiar thought: In a way, the dogged pursuit of excellence is the path to anything but. As you head down the road to mastery, you run a real risk that in fact you have nothing to distinguish yourself other than the depth of your expertise. That may sound like a good thing, but that expertise may not be either sufficient or satisfying.

To be clear, I am not suggesting for a moment that depth is not important. There are no shortcuts. One does have to put in the thousands of hours that are required to achieve mastery in pretty much anything worthwhile. But like anything else, there are limits beyond which the effort may well prove counter-productive.

In this vein, let me put forward a few balancing counter-propositions:

Always be bad at something that you are passionate about.

[Read more.]

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Reinventing to thrive

These days, there's no such thing as a copywriter or an art director. Meaning someone who writes words or does layouts. No, what companies want is someone who can write copy, design and maintain websites, do Search Engine Optimization and social website marketing, design and lay out print pieces, manage a department and its budget, create Excel spreadsheets, do client contact and balance an egg on the tip of the nose. Simultaneously.

The astounding thing is, the companies who advertise these positions probably can get some newborn Journalism or IT grad who can sort of do all of these things. Some young stud or studette with lotsa moxie who positively reeks of "can-do" attitude.

How can one person do all things well? Perhaps the question is, how well do these companies need all those things done? Perhaps not very.

But it's fruitless to sit on the porch rocking and spitting and cursing at shiny new grads who seek to be all things to all people. It's time to leap out of the rocker and into the world of the variously talented. Therefore, I have recently ordered InDesign CS4 and accompanying manual with the goal of becoming a writer who can design, or a designer who can write.

Actually, design is not totally new to me. I studied it at MU, and for years, I have designed and produced self-promotional postcards and brochures. (I also have bugged art directors by making "constructive" over-the-shoulder design or font suggestions which have been met with varying degrees of gratitude.) I have a decent sense of design, color and proportion, and hey, I can write, too. I currently use Quark 6.5, which has its limitations.With CS4 under my belt, I'll be more of a double threat. And if I ever learn Excel, though I hope it never comes to that, I'll be the triple threat so in demand.

So freelance remains in my future. And I hope it will be a more interesting, colorful and lucrative one with the addition of slick graphic and Web skills to my bag of marketable tricks.

I am inspired by Hunter S. Thompson, who famously said, "When the going gets tough, the weird turn pro." He also said, "Buy the ticket, take the ride." So okay, Dr. Duke, here I go. WHEEEEEEeeeeeee!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Who stole Heinz's pickle?

When I was growing up, Heinz Ketchup was a staple food in our house, along with Hellmann's Mayonnaise, Idaho potatoes and round steak ("Ugh" re the latter).

Heinz was the best ketchup on the grocery store shelf -- thicker, more robustly tomatoey than those few other available brands. A slice of fresh Wonder Bread with a dollop of the red ambrosia spread on it made a swell after-school snack. It's still my favorite, but now my old friend is sporting a new look and a new attitude.

Instead of the familiar green pickle on the front label, Heinz Ketchup now sports a tomato on the vine, and a new tagline, "Grown not made." You can still find the pickle; it's moved onto the lid.

Why does Heinz Ketchup need the makeover? The brand seems solid. But in these tight economic times, store brands and less expensive ketchups are eating into Heinz's sales. So what's America's favorite ketchup to do? Obviously, hire a British firm to redesign the packaging and reposition the brand.

The new label's improvements are subtle enough not to confuse customers. The graphic of a pretty tomato on the vine emphasizes the "grown" emphasis in the tagline. I'm puzzled, though, as to how ketchup can be "Grown not made." If anybody figures out how to grow ketchup, s/he'll make a fortune. I also don't know why the Brits put "57 Varieties" right under "Tomato Ketchup," since the phrase refers to Heinz's pickle line, not its ketchup. Seems silly.

Heinz hopes to lure back straying customers with its new "whole foods" or "healthy organic" image (A completely false one, I might add, since all ketchup contains alarmingly high levels of sodium and sugar). Perhaps they think a "whole foods" image will justify its higher price versus competition. But I don't accept the idea. I, like many others, have been buying my second favorite. Maybe the cheaper Brooks Ketchup is "Made not grown," but for my money, on a hot dog it's pretty hard to tell the difference.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Stephen Fowler: America's Worst Husband?

I admit I've tuned in to "Wife Swap" on ABC a few times. But I've never seen an episode where one of the husbands cruelly insulted and humiliated his temporary "wife," and in front of his own children, yet. His nastiness has spurred a national revulsion that is way out of proportion to the importance of the show. Stephen Fowler (at left) is now labeled "The Worst Husband Ever." What an honor!

The reason I'm recommending this blog to you is so that you can read this letter, which was imported from Facebook. It is a superb example of intelligent ridicule. As opposed to Stephen Fowler's crude dagger to the gut, the writer expertly employs the neat stiletto to the ego. In its way, perhaps it is as cruel to Stephen Fowler as he was to his "wife," Gayle. But it is so much less brutish, more gentlemanly. Take a look and admire the style.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Japanese Use Obama's Speeches to Learn English

When Senator Barack Obama delivered his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, America sat up and listened. Here was a confident young black man communicating perhaps the clearest, most inspiring vision for the future of the country many had ever heard. Here was someone who eschewed the double-talk and dumb-speak of the typical DC politico.

From the convention floor to the White House, Barack Obama has flown on wings of well-chosen words. He has written three best-selling books and delivered innumerable speeches, all notable for their thoughtfulness and masterful use of language.

The rest of the world has sat up and listened, too. In fact, the Japanese people have bought more than 420,000 copies of "The Speeches of Barack Obama" since its release on Nov. 20 -- an "unprecedented huge hit" for an English-language text, according to publisher Asahi Press. Why? To memorize his words as a way to learn English and master their pronunciations.


Although the simplicity of campaign speeches makes them an obvious choice as a language-learning tool, other American presidents have rarely been so feted.

"We don't publish every single president's speeches," Asahi Press official Yuzo Yamamoto said. "Would you buy the text of former President George W. Bush's speeches?"

One shudders at the thought.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Logos scare consumers, and other new ad wisdom

Who the heck is Martin Lindstrom? And why is he saying all these counter-intuitive things about advertising?

Lindstrom is the author of a new book called "Buyology." The book "details the results of an extensive global study of 2000 consumers who submitted to brain scans as they were exposed to various sorts of marketing communications. One finding he cites is that brand logos in ads generate more consumer suspicion than brand awareness."

In other words, everything you thought you knew about logos (make 'em bigger, plaster 'em everywhere, deluge the consumer in logos) is WRONG.

Go see his short video, "Do Consumers See Your Ads But Forget Your Brand?," one of a series he's doing in association with Advertising Age online. It explores new and innovative ways of building brands. And we all can use some help with "branding," that oft-used but seldom-understood term.

An apostrophe! An apostrophe! My kingdom for an apostrophe!

The King's English shall henceforth be known as "The Kings English," at least in Birmingham, England.

Some bureaucrats evidently decided that including apostrophes on directional signs was an unnecessary expenditure of time and paint. The official explanation was that the apostrophes were "confusing and old-fashioned." The powers that be have been quietly doing away with the cute punctuation marks ever since the 1950s. Apostrocide!

Here in the U.S., it's more common to see the apostrophe misused and overused. At the supermarket, for example, you may see a hand-painted sign advertising "Watermelon's $3.99." On this side of the Pond, we love apostrophes so much, we scatter them everywhere, like sprinkles on a frosted donut. But the Brits? The Birmingham variety will have none of it.

What unfortunate punctuation mark will be murdered next, the comma?

See the whole story here.