Thursday, May 31, 2012

Milestone

Marking an anniversary is an effective way of tying together events from the past with current affairs.  This time is less of an anniversary and more of a milestone.  It is the 100th blog of Craig’s Corner.  It’s taken a little less than two years to hit this point.  Along the way “significant” issues have been tackled, some successfully, some less so.  On this auspicious occasion let’s look at some of the behind-the-scenes stories.
For a number of years friends (and foes?) have suggested that I take my opinions / perspective and put them on the web with a regular commentary.  I was dubious.  What was a blog anyway – some morass filled with gooey liquid?  I have not only found the process to be intellectually fulfilling, I’ve have quite a few nice things happen. 
You’re not alone:  thanks to all of you who generate 1,200 and 1,400 views per month.  It’s my Sally Field Moment (you like me, you really like me!).  OK, well, maybe like is too strong a descriptor.  Toilet Bowl Sunday from February 2011 which took a look at Super Bowl Sunday and the importance of advertising and branding and applied it to the political process is the most popular blog so far.  Well, truth be told it’s probably the most popular title I’ve written, but, still.  Stats don’t lie!
A reader asked me to read and write a book-cover review for their tome.  Of course the problem was that I couldn’t quite understand the two page summary the author sent as it seemed to be written in gobbledygook.  It seems that ended my potential side career as a blurbist. 
I have met with a variety of people – being asked by leaders of some major organizations to come and talk with them after a particular entry aligned with their goals.  Disappointment seemed to ensue when I had to make clear that I wrote things how I saw them and I wouldn’t be able to use the talking points I was being provided.  But it’s always nice to be asked.
This is ad supported content and a weeks ago I got my first payment.  $101 --- so that’s about $1 per blog.  It won’t quite replenish the 401K, but it’s a start.
Many marketing and branding experts have advised me to spend more time on getting each blog out to the public more so that more people could be following the entries and that there be more of an impact.   For a few months I cross posted the blog each week with a well known, well respected “progressive” site.  In short order the blog picked up quite a following and there was actually a fair amount of back-and-forth on the comment fields.  For a couple of weeks running by happenstance the subjects Craig’s Corner tackled mirrored the subjects the editor of the site tackled.  A number of readers began to support the perspective I offered.  I soon found the entries were no longer posted on the “highlighted” areas of the site, and shortly after that each commentary was suddenly rejected.  “Badly written” and “Poorly referenced” were reasons – though they were more justifications given that all facts are cross-linked to source material.  On the plus side I must’ve arrived – I’ve been censored!
Onward I go – opining on oddities, inconsistencies and things that catch my fancy.  Thanks for reading – and for clicking through.  Like, Share and comment…there’s more to come!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Vote Early and Vote Often

For the past 18 years I’ve been an absentee ballot voter in California.  I’ve been active (not absent) having not missed voting in any election.  I just don’t schlep out to do it.  In 1994 I went to my assigned polling station with my sample ballot that had my name and all of my information on it which would theoretically help find the listing in the books used to verify identity.  I spent 15 minutes with the poll worker who still couldn’t find my name…even with my finger pointing right at it.  Finally ‘verified’ I was handed the ballot with the comment:  “One of them Liber ones...not a normal one.”  California has separate ballots by party and there were only a handful of non major party ballots at the precinct.  The ballot itself has so many issues that even filling it in from the sample ballot took some time...and many folks just read it in the moment taking forever to vote.  It seemed (and has actually been) much easier to get the ballot it in the mail, research the issues/candidates, fill it in and mail it back at my leisure.  I haven’t been back.

A dear friend decries my decision – saying I’ve lost an essential patriotic duty for mere convenience.   I enjoyed the ritual in 1984, but not since.  I do savor the election night reveal of the ‘winners.’  I just don’t need to be hassled to exercise my rights.  I further justify my absentee status when the votes tallies are close I know the deciding votes become those in the absentee pile.  This fuels my theatrical side: the idea that my Libertarian vote might be deciding the whole election!  Well, it’s never quite happened, but the illusion is amusing nonetheless.
Last week I received my June 5 California primary ballot in the mail.  I continue to own property in Los Angeles and have plenty of California ties despite working in Minnesota.  Here I’m active with Minnesotans United for All Families www.mnunited.org which is a huge coalition of individuals, nonprofits, faith communities and businesses that have come together to fight against an Initiative that would rewrite the state constitution to ban gay marriage.

My dilemma personifies many of the challenges that voters face who don’t have 2 ballots to decide between.  In California there’s going to be a huge statewide initiative in November on raising the sales tax.  Again.  Locally there’s a number of attempts to raise fees, taxes and other costs on homeowners.  My water & sewer bills have quadrupled under the current mayor – none of which I can pass along to tenants.  My fiscal well being is dependent on how those issues resolve – and so participating in that election is very much in my interests.  Here in Minnesota the state has the opportunity to become the first (after 31 others haven’t) to have a popular vote recorded that supports the concept of gay people getting married.  I have a passionate investment in seeing that happen having lived through Proposition 8.

In choosing to vote for a particular candidate for President, each voter always has to make some sacrifices.  Rarely is there a candidate who we can fully align with.  Gary Johnson received the Libertarian nomination for President a few weeks ago at the party convention.  (This of course is ironic given that the largest state (CA) with the largest number of Libertarian registered voters won’t vote for candidates until this upcoming primary.)  He wasn’t the candidate that I had been supporting, but he’ll get my vote…maybe even two! 
My choice between financial and non-financial issues is stark because it’s not compromising as with a candidate, it’s prioritizing.*  Most of the time we don’t have that luxury.  Each area is important and deserves to have my voice heard.  Coin toss?  Perhaps I should just move to Chicago where it is permissible to vote early and vote often!
(*Note that for this philosophical argument I’m excluding the actual voting regulations!)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Coulda, woulda, shoulda

August 2004.  Google was going public.  $85 a share.  There was a complicated way to get in at that price – you had to get some form or something ahead of time.  I couldn’t quite figure it out and figured I’d jump in hour one.  Shares were at $105 by the time I logged in and it was going north fast.  I was all set to buy some shares – but it was going so high so quickly I reasoned it would tank equally as quickly.  I opted to watch rather than play.  It’s historic high (so far) was $715.  The $530 per share profit that I would have realized would have come in mighty handy on many occasions since then.  Instead of having a huge profit, it goes down as one of my coulda, woulda, shoulda.
JP Mortgage Chase announced last week that they lost $2.3 billion on trades.  It’s not quite the same as my phantom loss, theirs is real.  At the end of last year their Balance Sheet showed assets of $2.65 trillion – so while $2.3 billion is a lot of money to a lot of people, it’s just 0.08% of the company’s value.  That’s what ‘too big to fail’ has resulted in – a situation where a $2 billion loss is nearly a rounding error!
The basic stock philosophy of “buy low-sell high” is on steroids with hedge fund managers.  There is a near-hysteria about the loss in Congress and the media.  “Another financial catastrophe is upon us!”  “We need MORE regulation.”  The critics seem to forget (or ignore) the fact that the company has broken no laws or regulations – they just made a bad investment. Their investors will punish them, as they should.
Capitalism’s base tenet is that there have to be winners and losers.  It’s not an equalizing situation, but to be able to win big there has to be losses somewhere as well.  When returns are significant and everybody is making money the call for regulation and enforcement is muted.  Whenever money is lost government wants to protect people from themselves and pass a bunch of regulations and laws to protect against the pain of loss.  The problem is that without loss there can be no gain.
The stock market has reached the highs of the pre-Great Recession.  In 2008 the Dow average was 6,547.05.  Today it is 13,252.76.  It has more than doubled while the rest of the economy has stalled.  The market restored itself.  How did it happen?  Lots of ways, but essentially by some people taking a risk and investing when others didn’t.  There wasn't a hue and cry for more regulation during this ramp up period, was there?  Had I still had financial resources in 2008 I would have bought like crazy when the market was so low.  Over the past four years some have made money, some have lost.  But the government didn’t set the parameters.  If an investor wanted a large return and gave their money to increase it, then they took the risk and they get the reward.  Protecting against the risk is the antithesis of fair play and of capitalism in general.
The uproar is because in 2008 the U.S. Government set the precedent that no matter what, it would bail out the banks.  No consequence for errors or risky transactions.  So when a story emerges that somebody appears to be cavalier and loses $2.3 billion, taxpayers take notice because they are the backstop to the investors.  And therein lies the fundamental problem.  If JP Morgan screwed up and people invested in them, then they should be the ones to bear the loss, not the U.S. taxpayer (or more accurately the Chinese banks).
President Bush famously said he:  “abandoned free market principles to save the free market system.”  The absurd statement manifested into policy implemented and continued under President Obama.  The only way to let the free market work is:  let the free market work. 
Facebook is going public tomorrow.  I’ll be a spectator there as well thanks to my current fiscal reality resulting from Bush-Obama's economic policies.  The FB ticker will  be another woulda, coulda, shoulda.  Best if I consider it my version of my Dad's Red Alfa Romeo he sold for a few hundrd bucks back in the day that today would be worth 6 figures. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Dead Man Watching

Birthdays are the time of year when reflections of one’s mortality kick in.  I got a mid-year jolt this week learning about the University of Queensland, Australia study where “researchers have concluded that ‘on average, every single hour of TV viewed after the age of 25 reduces the viewer's life expectancy by 21 minutes, 48 seconds.’”  I immediately created a spreadsheet and determined that based on an average life expectancy and a real conservative assumption of my daily viewing habits, I’ll cut 4 years and 7 months from my time on earth.  Even if I don’t watch another moment of telly, I’ve wiped out 2 years. 
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Newton N. Minow’s famous speech was  51 years ago – May 9, 1961,  "When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. … I can assure you … [TV] is a vast wasteland.”
I probably watch more than the average person and I have discovered new worlds, new people and new experiences.  The ‘idiot box’ has been anything but – I’ve seen historic events as they’ve happened, I’ve been taken to places that I otherwise would never have gone and I’ve escaped the pressures of the day thanks to some extraordinary storytelling.
One of the great cultural shifts that I’ve adapted to since leaving Los Angeles is not having a television.  The hotel I stayed at for a few months had a dozen choices, but (gasp) no DVR capability.  I began watching TV on the laptop, something I once snorted at.  With my 48” screens safely ensconced in a pod somewhere in LA County it was worth trying, and now I’m an evangelist.
Hulu is fantastic.  One day after a show airs nearly all of my favorites are available for viewing for $7.99 a month.  Some shows take a month or so, but there are plenty of shows to watch and it’s a huge savings.  Netflix is great for movies and older shows, but for current offerings, Hulu is it.  In addition to “my stories,” I’ve been introduced to new shows – and with Hulu now producing their own content, I’ve become a fan of several of them as well.  (Battleground is terrific!)
Last week it was announced that Hulu’s owners have an agreement to buy out Providence Equity Partners' 10 percent stake for $200 million.  The deal would value Hulu at around $2 billion and allow Providence to double the investment it made in the company in 2007.  With 2 million members, that assumes $1,000 of revenue per user.  Given that the ads are embedded so you have to watch them, and a nominal subscription fee, the financial model is very much on par with traditional television.

Networks meet with advertising agencies in May of each year to pitch the new and returning content in exchange for guaranteed ad purchases before the season begins.  It’s how the network funds their portion of production costs.  The major networks hold their upfront meetings next week.  Hulu joined the process in April – becoming more of a content provider than just distributor.  Having unique content keeps people watching which means more revenue. 
On Wednesday, May 30 CBS will debut “Dogs in the City” – a canine-guru meets with clients who have relationship problems, domestic issues and lifestyle conundrums – all of which can be resolved via their dogs.  Perhaps one of the better benefits of being single is that I don’t have to rely on my dogs to fix my issues.  I’ll gladly skip this show in order to extend my life expectancy.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Brand Games

Nabisco announced this week that the Fig Newton will now be known as Newtons, as they were when introduced in 1891.  The packaging now has pictures of strawberries, raspberries and blueberries to show that the Newton isn’t just made of figs.  The soft and chewy snacks are being targeted at adults looking for a healthy alternative to cookies.  Extensive consumer research shows that the baby boom generation is looking for in-between meal substitutes, and Newtons will now be displayed in produce sections because of its fruit composition.  We live in the age of branding where the target audience responds when there is a consistent message between what is being promoted and what is actually being delivered.
In 1982 Extra-strength Tylenol was deliberately contaminated with cyanide and 32 people died.  In what is now a textbook crisis response the company pulled 31 million bottles from shelves at a cost of $100 million.  10 weeks later the company introduced the first-ever tamper-proof packaging and the company retained 100% of its pre-crisis market share.  They were able to do so because the response of withdrawing its product and introducing the triple-sealed safety container was consistent with taking care of people, what the core product is intended to do.

In 2008 Fast Company published an extensive piece “The Brand Called Obama” which showed the meticulous transformation of a State Senator to leading Presidential contender thanks to a carefully calibrated marketing and branding plan.  “Change we can believe in” and “Yes we Can” were brand slogans that propelled Barak Obama into the White House.  The candidate’s speeches, television commercials and media hype were all aligned around these themes.  The country responded to the message and elected the first term Senator to the nation’s highest office.


Upon entering the Presidency Mario Cuomo’s quote  proved to be accurate:  “Your campaign in poetry.  You govern in prose.”  The reality of governance by compromise, the Republican strategy of near universal opposition to anything the President proposed along with the on-the-job learning curve has resulted in the Obama brand being tainted.  His approval ratings show a steady decline in positive opinions and a rise in negative feelings.  This is not unexpected or new to the Presidency.  The lack of enthusiasm came after a number of legislative battles. 
The drop in support for the President is intimately linked to the promise of change not being delivered in a way that the electorate feels it was promised.  President Reagan’s “Morning in America” promise resonated in the 1984 election and bolstered his brand because it framed the successes of his first term against the difficulties of the Carter years.
President Obama’s re-election team announced this week the tagline “Forward” to replace “Change” for the 2012 election.  It is an astute choice.  It both sends the message that the President is focused on the future and wants to keep propelling his 2008 promises onward while not so subtly framing the opposition as “Backward” and reminding people of the messes he inherited. 
The slogan is very effective at communicating the President’s message, which is distinct from his record.  Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s “Believe in America” tagline is less effective because (thus far) the candidate hasn’t framed his messaging to resonate with the slogan and his track record isn't aligned with the catch phrase.  None of this, of course, has to do with actually policy or the ability of which man can deliver on their promise.
Nearly a billion dollars will be spent convincing voters that the actions of the candidate are consistent with what actions they will take after the election.  Given that the Executive branch is just a third of a very divided government there will be a further disconnect between brand message and accomplishment.  The more that these slogan don't align with practial results in people's lives, the more it becomes a marketing gambit.  That’s the joy and the frustration of democracy and why the whole branding effort is silly.