Stay Tuned/Version Four

From Eccentric Flower

 



stay tuned
 



Version Four
13 July - 6 November 2000


[March 2007:] I should probably explain the odd structure of the material below.

From July to November 2000, I tried to keep Stay Tuned in an extremely short, weblog-like format, one entry per item or observation. It didn't work. Even scrolling down the brief set of items on this page, you can see that they got steadily longer, as did the elapsed times between them. Basically, it appears there's a part of my brain that isn't going to post copy unless it feels it has something substantial to say, and it will wait to say something until it does.

Later, I tried a more general-purpose weblog which had more or less the same problem. While I have been able to keep a personal journal on the web for many years now without fail (in fact, I find it impossible to stop), when it comes to "real material" (that is, me not writing about my own life or my own head) I can't force it to happen; it happens when it happens.

To an extent it makes me long again for the Sunday Papers items at the very beginning of this process, where I had a dangerously limited scope, but there was almost always a column's worth of material every seven days.

Anyway, here's the entire lot of the Stay Tuned postings from July to November 2000, combined into one page.



It's Not Easy Being Green

13 July 2000

For our first item of the new regime, there was not even a contest: No fewer than three people mailed me to tell me about Heinz's new green ketchup ... in the course of a single morning, a new record for meme propagation.

You've probably gotten the meme by now too, but if you haven't, I suggest you hie yourself to the CNN article before it disappears, so you can see the photo and appreciate the full atrociousness of it.

Will even ten-year-olds (the intended audience) fall for this?

[March 2007:] The CNN article disappeared, as prophecied, and so its link has been removed.

After the original post, one reader noted:

"Actually, from what I understand, Heinz asked ten year olds about that ketchup thing in the first place. (More to the point, why on earth didn't they ask the ten year olds' parents, who would have said, 'If you think I'm buying green ketchup so my kid can draw with it, you're out of your freakin' corporate minds.')"

Another, with a fine grasp of the absurd, said:

"Actually, I'm in a consumeristic snit that they didn't go for a nice royal blue ketchup! There aren't nearly enough blue foods out there. Stuff all those studies that say food dyes are dangerous. If we're going to have postnatural food let's make it look that way!"

He was inadvertently prophetic. At the time we had no idea that the green ketchup was just the tip of the iceberg, and the blue ketchup did eventually come about. Suffice to say, though, that as far as I can tell it was all a passing fad, and now I can find no traces of the garish ketchups on the Heinz site.



Cran*America and Not-So-Powerful Ideas

13 July 2000

Most of the items here break down into one of three broad categories. In order of frequency:

1. What a stupid new idea.
2. They're trying to swindle us again.
3. Hey, this is actually pretty clever.

(The latter category, of course, being the rarest.)

Some items, however, don't really inspire reactions that strong, and that's one reason I have switched to this new format, with briefer commentary. This way I can put in items which I feel are worth noting, but which I just can't muster strong opinions about.

The other day I bought a bottle of Cran*America from Ocean Spray ... "A juice made from three native American berries," or some such. It had cranberries, Concord grapes, and blueberries. I had to try it to see if it was atrocious.

Problem was, it wasn't atrocious (assuming you like Cran*Grape, because no blueberry in the world would be able to make its flavor come out when competing with cranberries). So I can't say it's truly a bad idea. It's not even a truly weird idea.

Just a sort of unnecessary one.



Who Knows?

31 July 2000

For several days, I've walked past a billboard for a small local college which has the slogan "Where the Faculty Knows Your Name."

This probably irritates me out of proportion to the affront, I admit. Even so: Faculty are plural. Or, if you prefer: "Faculty" is a plural word. The faculty know your name.

This confusion is probably because of the stupid "Cheers" song, which we in Boston have been slower to forget than the rest of the country (since the thrice-damned Bull and Finch Pub continues to be used as a Boston tourism talking point). The thing is, "Where everybody knows your name" is both correct and deceptive. While the term "everybody" talks about a plural-looking concept, the word is singular. Think about it: It represents the idea of a large group acting in concert, as a single entity.

Pedantic of me? Maybe. But having a mistake like that on the poster for a college is much more deadly than it would be, say, in an ad for tomatoes. In an unrelated product, it just shows that the advertising agency needs to be fired. Here, it looks like the flaw is in the very product being advertised: Knowledge.



Sputnik!

17 August 2000

I haven't had much to say about bad ads lately, obviously, so let's try a good one, one that entertains me every time I see it:

A bored-looking woman sitting behind a coat-check counter. For no apparent reason, she says: "Sputnik." She appears to be looking off-camera to her right.

A man in a bar, looking offscreen as well. "Sputnik," he says, to no one in particular.

A couple in bed, fooling around. "Sputnik," the man says. He doesn't stop what he's doing - it just seems to be a random exclamation.

A person behind a convenience store counter, looking at something above the camera. "Sputnik."

So on, through three or four different individuals; then we cycle back through the same set of people several more times. They all appear to be addressing something off-camera, and they all appear to be getting more agitated. The man in bed has stopped what he's doing (to his girlfriend's dismay). Eventually they're all shouting.

"Sputnik!"
"Sputnik!"
"SPUTNIK!!!"

Then we cut to a closeup of a television set - there's a glassy reflection that makes it clear we're looking at a TV screen. On the TV there's an embarrassed-looking young woman, obviously under pressure. A gaudy set is visible behind her. She thinks for a few more desperate seconds, then finally says:

"Skylab?"

Cut to title card:

THE GAME SHOW NETWORK
We know you know.



Pruning Old Names

5 September 2000

So I guess by now you've all heard that prunes aren't prunes anymore, right? You may even have gotten the mailing that the California Prune Board has been sending out. (If not, see the back page of the October 2000 Consumer Reports.)

Yes, the prune is now the "dried plum." And frankly, I think CR is being a little harsh: The campaign's pretty clever (it involves a "federal witness reidentification program" for the prune, with mug shots and official-looking documents). You can't really blame the prune producers, whose product has been unfairly linked with an older demographic ... and a purpose which, while useful to some, is not conducive to people just enjoying prunes as a snack food or recipe ingredient. Nobody wants to munch out on a fruit many people see as a pre-packaged, all-natural laxative.

So if they want to call them "dried plums," I say more power to them. It's harmless. Question is, will it actually help sales?

[March 2007:] The name change is so complete that I had to delete a URL from this item - prunes.org no longer exists per se, it redirects to californiadriedplums.org, and (as you may thus deduce) the California Prune Board is now the California Dried Plum Board. Silliness.



Barbie Report

5 September 2000

While away at an SF convention, I had the privilege of hearing author Connie Willis read from her upcoming novel and just spiel at random on anything that occurred to her. One of the offhand comments she made was that when she sent in the manuscript of Bellwether, her editor had problems with the section where several types and names of Barbie dolls are invoked, to humorous effect. The scene is hilarious - the character can't believe that these Barbies really exist, and neither can most readers.

Nor could the editor. Willis describes it something like this.

"She said to me, 'Look, you can't make up Barbie names. Mattel will kill us.'"

"'They're all real names,' I said. I had gone to the toy store and copied them all down from actual boxes."

"'You're kidding!' she said."

"So I checked the names again, but they stayed in, and eventually the manuscript got to Legal. My phone rang. 'You can't have these Barbie names.'"

"'They're all real.'"

"'You're kidding!'"

But she wasn't kidding. The last time I reported on Barbies was quite a while back, and frankly I have a been-there-done-that feel about the topic, but while at the convention, we did stop by an FAO Schwarz just so I could make sure the madness was continuing. It is. The best one I saw on this trip was the Trend Forecaster Barbie (which I promptly dubbed the Faith Popcorn Barbie), but there were others which were far more laughable; this one just happened to hit my peculiar sense of humor the right way.

I don't worry about the dire influence of Barbies as much as others do, because Mattel really has cleaned up the role-model stuff in recent years, having Barbie do many things that do not reinforce 1950's ideals of what careers are suitable for women. They're trying.

Unfortunately they're a little hindered by the glamour factor - Barbie is, now and forever, a fashion plate, and some of the more interesting careers just don't mesh well with the need to always keep one's hair in place. And there will always be the phenotype issue - I think it's far more detrimental for little girls to want to have Barbie's looks than her lifestyle.

And of course some of these doll names are utterly ridiculous, some are wretchedly excessive (like the line of collectibles with miniature dresses designed by various high-priced fashionistas), and some cross the border into outright product placement, such as the Sydney 2000 Olympic Pin Collector Barbie and the "Got Milk" Barbie, not to mention the umpteen Coca-Cola Barbies in the last few years.

Everyone should spend a few minutes of quality time with the two Barbie websites. Yes, two. Mattel has a split personality when it comes to Barbies: There are the ones in the pink boxes that little girls are supposed to actually play with, and there are the ones that people (usually adults) buy to look at.

What most people don't realize is how many Barbies there are. If you try the Showcase link on the collector's site, you'll get a set of links down the left of the page - each of those is a line of dolls, not a single doll.

Never forget that almost all of Mattel's income comes from two, and only two, basic products: Barbies and Hot Wheels.



A Cat Of Nine Tales

5 September 2000

So, do you know what a :CueCat is? Besides a name which will give copy editors all over the country fidgets because it is spelled with a leading colon?

The :CueCat is a barcode reader. It plugs into your (Windows) computer and talks to special software (:CRQ) you have to install. The company that makes this stuff, Digital:Convergence (they adore colons over there), is more than happy to send you the reader and software for ten bucks, but if you really want one cheaply, hold out a little while; a lot of places will be giving them away for free. Forbes announced it was sending one free to all its subscribers recently.

What's the point? Well, if the scheme takes off, magazines will start printing little barcodes along with their ads (definitely) and articles (possibly). You scan the code, and your browser instantly goes to the pertinent website.

Never mind that this is not substantially easier, and may in fact be more of a pain in the ass, than typing a URL. To steal from the well-known comment: no one ever went broke overestimating the laziness of the American public.

Besides, this is just the natural evolution of the "consumer response" card some magazines, especially computer magazines, still offer. ("To learn more about this product, circle 25 on the card." You then send the card in to an address - sometimes run by the magazine, sometimes not - which passes on the requests for junk mail to the various companies.)

And the question you should be asking here is exactly the same question which always applied to the consumer response cards: Who gets the demographic information?

While it is valuable to a company to know that an individual wants information on their product, this is not nearly so valuable as group information - that is, of all the readers of this issue, how many wanted to know about our stuff? How many were male? What were their ages? Incomes? And there is almost always a way for them to get that information. The old response cards usually had a few questions to fill out. The :CueCat website will probably ask you for information at some point.

Even without the personal information, knowledge of your request history is very valuable - that in addition to asking about Widget X, you asked about Widget Y next month, and also about the competitor's Widget Q.

I don't particularly want companies to have that information. You may feel it's not important; I'm a contrarian. I want them to have to work for it. I want them to have to guess in the dark. I want them to have to sell more product on the basis of superior goods and services, not on a calculated attempt to pander to a particular interest group.

(The standard corporate reply to that is that knowing the demographics enables them to improve their goods and services. It's at least six-tenths a crock.)

So if you're like me, think twice before scanning a :CueCat barcode. Here's the word from the horse's mouth:

Digital:Convergence will only release generalized cumulative information to sponsors and the industry, but will never release your personal data to any third party to solicit you unless you have expressly elected to permit it. You are safe, protected and secure with :CRQ software and the :CueCat reader.

In other words, "We're making our cut on this by selling the demographics, and we can afford to appease you on the individual privacy because that's not what we care most about anyway."

You have been warned.



More Cattiness

28 September 2000

[March 2007:] This whole thing is now obsolete. This counts as a latter-day update both to this item and to the one above.

Via Dan Lyke, this item originally had a wonderful URL (I reproduce it here for posterity: http://www.flyingbuttmonkeys.com/useofthingsyouownisnowillegal/) which displayed a chronology of the ongoing battle between Digital Convergence and the hackers over the :CueCat. (By the by, somewhere along the way the colon in the company name vanished, both from hacker sites and from the company site.)

At the time I noted: "The hackers are going to win this one. Check out what's already been done with the hardware if you don't believe me. The device is too simple, the hardware's too simple, and Digital Convergence has an even less plausible objection to reverse-engineering than some major software companies do.

"I'm happy that there are such detailed instructions for 'declawing' your :CueCat - great metaphor, that - but I still say the preferred approach is to just not use the thing."

Now it's 2007 and the world has forgotten the :CueCat, but the site still has a notice ... and because it is short, may vanish one day, and has some really amazing reality distortion going on, I reproduce it here in full without comment. RIP, :CueCat, colon and all.

The :CueCat was a barcode scanner manufactured by vendors of RadioShack Corporation in the early 2000's. The product and associated intellectual property would instantly and directly link product UPC, EAN, ISBN as well as the unique :CRQ Cue codes to their appropriate web sites. Usually these were to links buried deeply within a site which could be further targeted demographically or geographically. The unique Cue codes were placed within traditional media content and some advertisements in publications like WIRED magazine, Forbes and its specialty magazines, Parade magazine and several daily newspapers. Product Cues were also placed in many catalogs to facilitate instant e-commerce shopping and the automation of wish lists. As you can imagine, this technology could eliminate search with "laser beam" accuracy.

The "tethered" :CueCat was just the beginning of the story. Portable scanners like the one manufactured by Cross as a pen, and a keychain scanner were ultimately cost-reduced and readied for deployment. This "store and forward" or "bookmark life" concept was just beginning as the dot-com crash and advertising money around it started to crumble. Today, everyone with a mobile camera phone has the potential to read barcodes, thus negating the need for a separate scanning device that Digital Convergence had produced to achieve the ultimate goal of linking the physical world to virtual space.

Since January of 2002, the database servers which provided this machine-readable code to Internet URL linking are no longer in operation. The desktop client, which requires a registration code, is no longer supported, nor can these codes be generated for the Windows PC or Apple OS-X software.

The weak encryption from the :CueCat, put in place to protect the company under DCMA laws, can be circumvented via instructions that can be found on the Internet. Many third party book, CD, DVD, video game and other media home inventory and web applications can even accept the obfuscated output and convert it to the original code format. If you are looking for the rare USB or popular PS/2 keyboard wedge :CueCat, they can be found inexpensively through many websites online. Click on the Search button below to find even more information or purchase them.

This site will not provide any support or answer any questions regarding the :CueCat. Please perform a Google search for additional information from the many fans and inquisitive hardware hackers of this technology that came before its time ....



Postcards From the Edge

6 November 2000

I have a confession to make: I adore postcards, especially weird ones. And obviously I have some vague fondness for advertising as an art form, or I wouldn't keep these pages limping along for the better part of four years .... So it should come as no surprise to you that when I go to a restaurant or nightclub and they have one of those postcard holders up on the wall, usually in the little corridor leading to the telephones and the toilets ... I generally stop to see if there's anything interesting in it.

Yes. It's a blatant advertising ploy and I fall for it every time.

In case you don't live in an urban area and have no idea what I'm talking about, go to the M@xRacks site and you'll see some samples. These people were the first to do this, and their racks still continue to dominate Boston. Certainly the business is lucrative enough to inspire competitors - I also have cards here from GoCard and the apparently websiteless Hotstamp. These racks are so prevalent that I'm surprised when I find a restaurant or bar that doesn't have one.

I'm not sure how the scheme works - probably the establishment gets some small fee for being willing to put the rack on its wall - and may get a discount on advertising via a postcard of its own; nine-tenths of the racks I've seen have a slot containing a postcard which advertises that very establishment.

These home-grown postcards for the bars and restaurants are usually the worst of the lot, just as local television advertising can't generally keep pace with the big boys. The rest of the postcards seem to run above average for advertising; the worst that can be said for the bad examples is that they're bland, and when they're clever, they're really clever. This is pretty amazing, considering the limitations of the medium - you have one three-by-five still rectangle to get your message across.

Here are two of my personal favorites:

1. A Heinz ketchup bottle. The bottle is upside down, with no cap, full, as if someone is pouring ketchup onto something. The ketchup, of course, is not coming out of the bottle in any great hurry. A sugar shaker in the background cues us that this is a diner countertop or some such, but we see no hand or other cues ... and there is nothing under the ketchup bottle waiting to receive the ketchup.

The label of the bottle has been altered. Instead of the usual product name, it says (in the normal typeface for the label), "You Still Have a Few Minutes to Find a Hamburger."

The word "ketchup," by the by, appears nowhere in the picture - it's been removed to make way for the words above - and there is no copy. This is the kind of ad you can get away with when your product has the kind of visual recognition Heinz ketchup does.

2. Two silhouettes of some young club kids - one male, one female - with outrageous hairdos; his is spiky, hers three long ponytails in extended ties. Product: Physique hair glop. Caption: "Thanks to science, your hair will look as good as everyone in the chat room thinks it does."

I like this ad because it's internet-savvy in a way that most ads which try to be aren't. To wit, it knows the most important fact about chat rooms: People lie. A lot.

It also demonstrates what I've observed for myself: These card racks tend to skew heavily toward a young, conspicuously hip, urban crowd - a desirable demographic. Some of the restaurant racks get an older set, and I've seen sets of postcards which are obviously meant for a more demure audience ... but in general the assumption seems to be that if you're the kind of person that would take a card off this rack at all, you're the kind of person who, for example, responds to the lure of Steve Madden shoes. (Madden postcards are frequent attendees in these racks.)

Well, I respond to it, they just don't make any in my size.


and now back to our program


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