"I don't battle anymore! I uplift motherfuckers!" - GZA
Saturday, August 30, 2008,12:22 AM
The Color of Money
by Julia M. Klein

The first African American presidential campaign is drawing vast sums; meanwhile, museums dedicated to black history are struggling.

In July 2007, Vonita Foster traveled to New York at the invitation of the American Express Foundation to make the case for the United States National Slavery Museum. Her goal: a major gift for the $200 million project, which is hurting for funds and has yet to break ground at its scenic Fredericksburg, Virginia, site.

After the meeting, "we really felt positive," recalls Foster, the museum's executive director. "I think they were very excited about it. I don't know what happened after that."

In a letter last August, Leslie Schiftic, the foundation's manager of philanthropy, praised the museum as "a wonderful project that should generate much interest." But, she continued, "unfortunately, our plate is very full and we are unable to provide sponsorship for this year." Foster's request for clarification went unanswered.

While Foster says that the recession and competition from the presidential campaigns have certainly hurt fundraising efforts, the underlying problem may be the museum's subject matter. "People think of slavery and they think of guilt," she says. "When we try to raise funds, we have found that people are very uncomfortable, corporations are uncomfortable."

The slavery institution is not the only African American museum to face challenges ( view slideshow), even as the country may be on the cusp of having its first black president. When you discuss slavery and civil rights, "it's a tough conversation," says Lawrence Pijeaux Jr., president and C.E.O. of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and former president of the Association of African American Museums. The problem is magnified, says Pijeaux, when "you have an emerging number of cultural institutions looking for financial support from this shrinking pool of resources." Among the museums vying for cash are the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture, slated to open in 2015, and the four-year-old National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Meanwhile, "African Americans don't have a history of giving to museums," Pijeaux says.

"It takes generations to establish giving patterns," says Vernon Courtney, president of the A.A.A.M. and director of the museum and archive at Hampton University, a historically black school. "The black community is very, very generous in giving, but it gives its money to the church. This African American museum movement is relatively young. Those patterns have not yet developed."

The amount of discretionary income in the African American community remains limited, Courtney adds. "Whenever you start a project," he says, people inevitably ask, "'Have you tried Bill Cosby? Have you tried Oprah?' as if 999,000 other folks aren't trying to get their attention at the same time."

Cosby has given about $1.2 million to the U.S. National Slavery Museum. Oprah Winfrey sits on the council of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a $500 million behemoth that will open on the National Mall. Winfrey donated $1 million to Cincinnati's National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in 2004 to mark its launch.

Even so, the $110 million, 158,000-square-foot Freedom Center has been cash-strapped and has fallen short of its ambition to serve as an engine for tourism and economic development in the region. According to Freedom Center C.E.O. Donald Murphy, the museum is too large for its mission, and its annual attendance projections—which began at 1 million and have slipped steadily downward—were wildly optimistic. Visitation has leveled off at about 170,000, he says.

In response, Murphy slashed the annual budget from $12 million to $7 million and reduced staffing by 30 percent. To boost income, he wants to lease out space in the building and develop temporary exhibitions with box office clout. Instead of being pigeonholed as an African American museum, he wants the Freedom Center positioned as "an institution of conscience that has a broad appeal to anyone who is interested in freedom in the world."

Sometimes the issue isn't dreaming big, but starting too small. Romona Riscoe Benson, president and C.E.O. of the null since 2005, says that many "ethnically specific" museums, with grass-roots origins in the 1960s and '70s, lacked endowment funds. "Folks are just looking to have a museum and don't always think about long-term support strategies," she says.

The Philadelphia museum, founded for the 1976 Bicentennial with city funding and without an endowment, foundered for years, temporarily laying off its staff and reporting nearly $600,000 in debt before Benson took over. By negotiating with creditors, reconstituting the board, raising visitation, and appealing to Philadelphia's corporate and foundation communities, Benson achieved a balanced budget. A new core exhibition will open next year, she says, and the museum is planning a move from its cramped quarters at the edge of the historic district to a larger, more centrally located building.

Juanita Moore, president and C.E.O. of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, took charge last year under better circumstances—near the completion of the museum's $43.5 million capital campaign, launched in 2002 as a last-ditch attempt to save it from bankruptcy. But the 43-year-old museum, like the Freedom Center, is still looking for ways to boost its earned income in what Moore calls "a very tough economic climate for all museums."

"Everybody's trying to raise money. Everyone has their own turf to take care of," says Richmond, Virginia, mayor L. Douglas Wilder, founder of the U.S. National Slavery Museum. "I don't know that it's a problem of competition…It's a problem of having access to funding, having doors open."

Wilder and Foster would like to begin construction of a $10 million visitor center this year, but that prospect appears to be receding. The museum has raised about $50 million, including pledges and in-kind donations, but Foster says that all but about $3 million to $5 million has been spent for architectural plans, exhibit design, site preparation, and other preliminary work.

Slavery museum supporter Amaré Stoudemire, a star power forward and center for the Phoenix Suns, says that he is trying to organize an event that would raise at least $200,000 to $400,000 from black athletes and entertainers. But those plans have yet to crystallize.

"No, I'm not discouraged," insists Wilder, the grandson of slaves, as well as a former governor of Virginia who declared himself a presidential candidate for the 1992 election. "We're going to build a museum. The only question is when."

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posted by R J Noriega
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Friday, August 29, 2008,8:40 PM
Summer Silliness Brings a Pizza Field and a Giant Oreo
OUTDOOR advertising is a growing category — not just billboards, but increasingly, weird publicity stunts that often go awry.

There have been more of them than usual in recent months. On the positive side, people seemed to like the glass elevator in Manhattan that was done up to look like a giant Oreo dunking into a glass of milk. A video of the scene was posted on YouTube, where it was drawing lots of praise.

On the down side, people in London were not so fond of a prank by Right Guard, which sent a team of people onto subway trains with tiny video screens in the armpits of their shirts. Whenever one of the team members reached overhead, a commercial for Right Guard would play in someone’s face.

Others examples have merely served to puzzle. A Chevrolet billboard that used real pennies was stripped clean within 30 minutes. In Singapore, advertisers painted an extra yellow safety line on a train platform with the name “Wonderbra” on it, leaving commuters to figure out the message (that the bra’s lifting qualities were so forceful that wearers would have to stand back).

For the most part, the silliness is intended to lift an advertiser’s message beyond the clutter.

“Advertisers are being pushed to creative extremes, partly because it’s just so difficult to get consumers’ attention these days,” said Pete Blackshaw, executive vice president of Nielsen Online Digital Strategic Services, which advises clients on managing their online reputations. “It may just be a flash of brilliance that everyone pays attention to, and it gets that huge return, but it’s very difficult to replicate on a regular basis.”

Advertisers spent $7.3 billion on outdoor ads last year, a rise of 7 percent from 2006, according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. About 16 percent of that fell in the “alternative” category, which covers ads that were not on billboards, bus shelters or the like.

Alternative is a good way to describe the Right Guard campaign staged in London last month. While Right Guard referred to the subway stunt as “pitvertising,” bloggers called it icky and posted cheeky speculations about what might happen if the technique were applied to other products.

Despite the criticism, executives at Dial, the subsidiary of Henkel International that owns Right Guard, said they were pleased.

“It was one of those wacky ideas that came to fruition: somebody said, what about putting a TV under someone’s armpit at the point of perspiration?” said Nina Daily, a marketing manager at Dial. “We were obviously hopeful that the Right Guard brand would come out in a good light, which I believe that it did.”

Other people were not so sure.

“I wouldn’t want to look under someone’s arm,” said Brian Martin, chief executive of Brand Connections, a New York marketing agency that did not work on the promotion. “I don’t care whether you’re a deodorant or not, it’s just not something a consumer’s going to go home and feel good about.”

Sometimes stunts are too abstract to resonate with people. That may have been the case with the Wonderbra campaign in Singapore that ran this year: Many people did not get it.

“This one took me a while,” said a blogger who posted a picture of the campaign on her PhotoShelter blog.

“I don’t feel like the average consumer would fully understand the concept behind this idea,” wrote a commenter on the I Believe in Advertising blog.

The notion, according to the agency, Euro RSCG Singapore, was that the second line demonstrated that “with the bust-enhancing effects of Wonderbra, those who use the product need to be even farther back.”

“For us, the goal was getting our foot in the door with a new client, and this was a really fun way to do so,” Charlie Blower, executive creative director of Euro RSCG Singapore, said in an e-mail message. “The fact that the core idea is quite subtle in nature means the campaign appeals to the target audience in a nonconventional way.”

Even when stunts are well received, they do not always go off without a hitch.

Last month Chevrolet U.K. put up a billboard in Central London that was meant to emphasize that the new Aveo was budget-friendly. The designers used magazine glue to affix British pence to the background.

The company was hoping for consumer reaction, and it got it: passers-by peeled the money off rather quickly.

“It only lasted for 30 minutes,” said Daniel Glover, creative director of Mischief, the public relations agency that devised the campaign. “But it kind of made everybody smile.”

HSBC hit some snags with an outdoor campaign this summer, when it sponsored Wimbledon. In honor of the grass-court tennis tournament, its London advertising agency, JWT London, commissioned grass portraits of three little-known Wimbledon personalities, made by artists who expose grass seeds to different amounts of light to produce shades of green. It also decided to cover taxis and subway stations with grass.

Grass, as it turned out, was not the most flexible medium.

One of the portraits was of a British player, Tara Moore, who was out of the tournament by the time her grass portrait had grown (it takes about eight weeks).

As for covering the stations and taxis, the agency wanted to use real grass, said Mark Norcutt, the art director of JWT London. “But because of health and safety, we weren’t allowed to, because people might slip on it if it were on the floor. It got to be a bit of a nightmare,” he said.

In the end, Mr. Norcutt went with fake grass on the taxis and stations, and kept the portrait of the eliminated Ms. Moore in the stadium.

“A lot of people wanted to know about the process, a lot of people came up and touched it,” Mr. Norcutt said. “That was part of it as well — we wanted people to interact with it. Some were even sniffing it.”

Papa John’s, too, has been wrestling with natural elements as it tries to create a giant pizza in a field near the Denver airport in time for the Democratic National Convention. The idea is to promote its whole-wheat crust pizza.

Papa John’s hired an artist, Stan Herd, who has created crop circles for Absolut Vodka and Beck’s beer, among others. He devised a pizza made of pepperoni (red mulch), onions (limestone), green peppers (cornstalks) and olives (black mulch).

“It’s the best field location I’ve ever had,” said Mr. Herd, who says it will take him another week to finish. “All of the passengers at that point are all anxious to get out, and all looking out the window, and we’re perfectly poised to have them see something.”

If Papa John’s is lucky, its stunt will be as well received as the one done this spring for Oreo by Draftfcb. The agency converted a clear glass elevator in Manhattan Mall with a giant sticker of an Oreo cookie; on the clear vestibule in the lobby, it pasted a large sticker of a glass of milk. Whenever the elevator descended or ascended, it looked as if the Oreo was being dunked in a glass of milk.

The gimmick lasted only a day, but YouTube video of it has been viewed more than 34,000 times. Oreo, which is owned by Kraft Foods, said it was a one-time event.

“Out-of-home is an area that it makes sense to explore,” said Laurie Guzzinati, a Kraft spokeswoman, but any further plans “are all sort of T.B.D.”

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008,10:34 PM
Damon Dash loses shoe
By Christine McConville

Stride Rite Corp. has reacquired the rights to the Pro-Keds brand from financially struggling hip-hop mogul Damon Dash.

The change for the iconic, 60-year-old shoe comes a week after Dash, who once boasted that he never wears the same socks twice, reportedly may lose two of his properties to foreclosure.

Lexington-based Stride Rite insisted Dash’s financial woes had nothing to do with the rebranding.

“It was just a matter of timing,” Stride Rite spokeswoman Debra Fernandes said yesterday. “We just wanted a new direction.”

Pro-Keds was launched in 1949 as a performance athletic shoe. By the 1970s, the round-toed sneaker was synonymous with some of the biggest names in professional sports - JoJo White and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar endorsed them.

The shoe also enjoyed a cult-like status in New York City’s early hip-hop community.

In 2004, Dash, co-founder of Roc-A-Fella Records, purchased Pro-Keds’ licensing rights from Stride Rite for an undisclosed amount.

cw3 The next year Dash left Roc-A-Fella, and since then several of his ventures have suffered. His reality TV show, “Ultimate Hustler,” lasted only one season, and his record label, Damon Dash Music Group, was shuttered.

cw-2 Last week, New York newspapers reported that Dash and his wife, Rachel Roy, owe $7.3 million in payments on their mortgages for two Manhattan apartments.

cw3 Stride Rite - owned by Collective Brands Inc. of Topeka, Kan. - plans to kick off the new Pro-Keds line in November. Classic styles such as the Royal and Court King will be updated with new materials and colors. It also will launch limited-edition lines in a few months.


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Tuesday, August 26, 2008,10:00 PM
A real revolution in advertising
Guerrilla campaigns turn the power of advertising on its head.

Tijn Touber

Ever looked absent-mindedly out the window of a train or bus and realised that an irritating advertising jingle has been running through your head for the past 15 minutes? In High Times (May/June 2004), the monthly that talks about a lot more than just soft drugs, René George Vasicek says it bothers him so much he’s considering taking companies to court for “unjustly taking up space in his brain.”

Is he joking? No, Vasicek is dead serious. And he’s not alone. Vasicek’s stance makes him one of a growing group of ‘culture jammers’ who have had enough endless bombardment from jingles, slogans, posters and other unsolicited advertising. It’s more than simply a personal aversion to the ‘commercialisation of public space’. Culture jammers are concerned about the as yet unknown effects of all the advertising that now saturates our culture. They fear for the mental well being of their fellow citizens.

In Playboy (January 2004), American author Norman Mailer argued that television is the crux of many kids’ learning problems. “There used to be a time in childhood when one could develop one’s power of concentration (which may be the most vital element in the ability to learn) by following a sustained narrative—by reading, for example. Now a commercial interrupts nearly all TV presentations every seven to 12 minutes. The majority of our children have lost any expectation that concentration will not be broken into.” In other words: children’s brains are being programmed to take a commercial break every 10 minutes.

Vasicek realises banning advertisements altogether would violate freedom of speech. His solution: if companies insist on claiming space in our brains, they should have to pay for it. Thus, his idea of filing suit against heavy advertisers.. It sounds absurd, but the idea of suing tobacco companies for health damages was similarly outrageous not so many years ago. Vasicek and his sympathisers believe there is a good chance a similar case can be made against pollution in our minds.

You can switch off the television and stop reading newspapers and magazines to block out ads, but billboards are more difficult to avoid. Which is why more and more people around the world are protesting against them. Last November members of the French Brigade AntiPub (“pub” stands for “publicité”, the French word for advertising) were arrested after some 1,000 culture jammers rose up in a simultaneous protest: students and artists, but also engineers and housewives from the wealthier districts of Paris. Billboards of scantily clad women eating desserts were converted into horrifying monsters. The ‘brigade’ that launched this successful guerrilla action has no address or telephone number, but it does have a website: www.bap.propagande.org. Protest actions are announced on www.stopub.tk.

The Parisian campaign is the largest to date, but certainly not the first. Billboards in the United States have been modified by guerrilla anti-ad groups since at least 1977. Late that year a new cigarette brand called Fact was introduced in San Francisco. Large posters portrayed a middle-aged gentleman praising the cigarettes as follows: ‘I’m realistic, I only smoke Facts.’ But on six billboards the text suddenly read: ‘I’m real sick, I only smoke Facts’.

That early form of culture jamming was done by activists calling themselves the Billboard Liberation Front (BLF). The network’s—somewhat playful—“ultimate goal is nothing short of a personal and singular Billboard for each citizen. Until that glorious day for global communications when every man, woman and child can scream at or sing to the world in 100 Pt. type from their very own rooftop; until that day we will continue to do all in our power to encourage the masses to use any means possible to commandeer the existing media and to alter it to their own design.” Under a section entitled The Art and Science of Billboard Improvement their website (www.billboardliberation.com) includes practical instructions to carry out your own billboard “improvements”. The best method: photograph the billboard, blow up the photo to its actual size, cut out the necessary letters and paste them over the real billboard using rubber cement.

BLF’s main beef is with the “advertisation” of society. Everything—even arts, literature and spirituality—are being reshaped into bite-sized consumer goods and sold like soap. Artists are no longer judged on their talents or vision, but on their skill in drawing attention to themselves.

But resistance to the billboard society is growing, according to Kalle Lasn, founder of the Vancouver collective Adbusters. Lasn, who popularized the phrase ‘culture jamming,’ knows what he’s talking about. Adbusters magazine, published by the collective, has been parodying existing advertising campaigns for years and now has 120,000 subscribers. Another key figure responsible for the growing campaigns against advertising is another Canadian, author Naomi Klein. In her popular book No Logo she made the tactic of culture jamming accessible to the wider public.

Some large companies targeted by the activists, a few are re-adjusting their advertising campaigns to the changing times. Hewlett-Packard, for example, now uses young, hip graffiti artists to help sell their printers in the paradoxical hope they will reach the obstinate anti-advertising movement.

But the culture jammers also appear to be changing. Adbusters has launched an alternative sports shoe via its own website www.adbusters.org. This blackSpotsneaker is a direct protest against Nike, which underpays its workers in the developing world but has enough money for massive advertising campaigns. The shoe is acclaimed as an “anti-brand”, but it does have a kind of logo: a red dot on the tip of the sneaker, meant to give Philip Knight, the chairman of Nike, a kick in the ass.

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posted by R J Noriega
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,8:55 PM
Can a Dead Brand Live Again?
Do you remember Brim?

The coffee brand? Perhaps you recall its advertising slogan: “Fill it to the rim — with Brim!” Those ads haven’t been shown in years, and Brim itself has been off retail shelves since the 1990s. Yet depending on how old you are, there’s a fair chance that there’s some echo of the Brim brand in your brain. That’s no surprise, given that from 1961 to around 1995, General Foods spent tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars to get it there. But General Foods disappeared into the conglomerate now known as Altria, which also acquired Kraft, maker of Maxwell House. With much smaller sales than that megabrand, Brim soon disappeared — except, perhaps, for a vague idea of Brim that lingered, and lingers even now, in the minds of millions of consumers.

What’s that worth? A small company in Chicago, called River West Brands, figures that it’s definitely worth something, and possibly quite a lot. The firm did its own research a year or so ago and claims that among people over the age of 25, Brim had 92 percent “aided national awareness.” What this means is that if you ask people anywhere in America if they have ever heard of Brim, about 9 out of 10 will say yes. If true, that’s potentially a big deal. Building that level of recognition for a new brand of coffee — or anything else — from scratch would involve an astronomical amount of money, a great deal of time, or both.

Marketers like to talk about something called brand “equity,” a combination of familiarity and positive associations that clearly has some sort of value, even if it’s impossible to measure in a convincing empirical way. Exploiting the equity of dead or dying brands — sometimes called ghost brands, orphan brands or zombie brands — is a topic many consumer-products firms, large and small, have wrestled with for years. River West’s approach is interesting for two reasons.

One is that for the most part the equity — the idea — is the only thing the company is interested in owning. River West acquires brands when the products themselves are dead, not merely ailing. Aside from Brim, the brands it acquired in the last few years include Underalls, Salon Selectives, Nuprin and the game maker Coleco, among others. “In most cases we’re dealing with a brand that only exists as intellectual property,” says Paul Earle, River West’s founder. “There’s no retail presence, no product, no distribution, no trucks, no plants. Nothing. All that exists is memory. We’re taking consumers’ memories and starting entire businesses.”

The other interesting thing is that when Earle talks about consumer memory, he is factoring in something curious: the faultiness of consumer memory. There is opportunity, he says, not just in what we remember but also in what we misremember.

River West is a young company, and few of its ideas have been directly tested in the marketplace. The revival of Brim, for instance, has yet to crystallize into a plan with real manufacturing and distribution partners. But River West is starting to bring some familiar names back into the consumer realm. It is thanks to River West that you can buy Nuprin again at CVS. The firm has also played a role in the return of Eagle Snacks to some grocery-store aisles. In late January, Drugstore.com began accepting orders for Salon Selectives, which is also making its way into 10,000 stores, including every Rite Aid in America and grocery chains like Winn-Dixie and Pathmark. And by way of a deal with River West, Phantom, a Canadian hosiery manufacturer, is pushing a new version of Underalls to department-store and boutique clients in the U.S.

Whether these brand-reanimation efforts pan out as a successful business strategy or not, they offer an unusual perspective on the relationship between brands and the brain. By and large, examinations of successful branding tend to focus on names like Harley-Davidson, Apple or Converse, which have developed “cult” followings. Such cases are misleading, though, because they are not typical of most of what we buy. A great deal of what happens in the consumer marketplace does not involve brands with zealous loyalists. What determines whether a brand lives or dies (or can even come back to life) is usually a quieter process that has more to do with mental shortcuts and assumptions and memories — and all the imperfections that come along with each of those things.

River West’s offices, on the 36th floor of the Chicago Board of Trade Building, are sprinkled with the bric-a-brac of obscure products: a Quisp cereal box, Ipana toothpaste packages, Duz detergent bottles. On a wall of Paul Earle’s office is a framed, five-foot-by-three-foot sheet of uncut “Wacky Packages” stickers — those 1970s trading-card-size brand-parody images that rendered the word Crust in the style of the Crest logo, for example. Earle has a Midwestern everyman quality about him: he’s compact, with a big and friendly let’s-get-along voice and a penchant for deadpan jokes. Only his designer-eyeglass frames deviate from his overall demeanor.

Earle loves brands. They are not mere commercial trademarks to him, but pieces of Americana. He seems not just nostalgic but almost hurt about the fate of the “castoff brands” of the world. “If commerce is part of the American fabric, then brands are part of the American fabric,” he said to me on one occasion. “When a brand goes away, a piece of Americana goes away.”

Earle’s professional entanglement with branding began at Saatchi & Saatchi, where he was a cog in a gigantic ad agency working for gigantic clients, like General Mills and Johnson & Johnson. That was in the mid-1990s, and he saw what happened as conglomerates merged: brands that didn’t have the potential for global scale got squeezed to the bottom shelf, or out of existence. He was attracted to the idea of working with “noncore” brands, but when he figured out that big-agency economics made it impractical, he left Saatchi and went to the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and then took a brand-management job at Kraft.

At Kraft he observed the same mergers-and-consolidation process from a different angle, and he seems to have found it equally frustrating. “These are American icons with loyal consumers,” he says. “It’s not their fault a $40 billion company doesn’t like them anymore. Consumers like them.” He sees reviving brands as “a civic mission” of sorts. “If it weren’t my job,” he said, “it would be my hobby.” He says this in a way that sounds not just plausible but hard to doubt.

Even so, he has set out to make this particular civic mission turn a profit. While he recognizes that a given brand might not be able to survive in the portfolio of a multinational, different sorts of business models might work to sustain it. As surely as the ownership of brands has consolidated through one megamerger after another, the consumer market seems to be moving in the opposite direction, with an individualism-fueled demand for almost unlimited variety. Earle’s theory is that such demand means room for brands like the ones River West owns, and his idea is facing its most significant test to date, by way of the reanimation of Salon Selectives.

Helene Curtis began selling this line of shampoos in 1987, and sales shot past the $100 million mark within a year or so. It was, one Wall Street enthusiast claimed at the time, “probably the most successful hair-care launch in the history of the universe.” Heavily advertised, the brand was a pioneer of the sales pitch, now routine, of a “salon” product available for home use. Unilever bought Helene Curtis in 1996, acquiring a new batch of cosmetic, shampoo and deodorant brands that had to be integrated into those the conglomerate already offered.

It’s often hard to pin down the exact moment a brand disappears, because a product can linger on retail shelves for quite a while before it’s sold down or otherwise liquidated. But by the early 2000s, Salon Selectives had become a casualty of brand-portfolio consolidation. A few years later, River West acquired what was left of it: intellectual property like the trademarks and the original formulas.

River West’s partner in the Salon Selectives effort is called SSB, which has five full-time employees coordinating the efforts of various subcontractors (manufacturers, package-makers) out of River West’s offices. Selective Beauty is run by Gene Zeffren, a former top executive at Helene Curtis with a Ph.D. in chemistry. Earle and Zeffren are partly motivated by the belief that there is a core of Salon Selectives fans out there who miss their product and are eager to buy it again. You would think, then, that the goal would be to give those consumers their old brand back, just as it once was. And sure enough, when I visited Anne West, the chief marketing officer of the new Salon Selectives, there was an array of pink plastic bottle samples in her office, part of an attempt to match the old color as closely as possible. She showed me a video in which a surprising number of randomly confronted Chicagoans, asked if they remembered Salon Selectives, responded by singing the jingle.

Then she showed me storyboards for new Salon Selectives ads, which were not much like the original ones at all. She went on to explain that while the bottle color would be the same, its shape would be different. The reintroduced line also includes a number of new products, and the products are now more aggressively marketed as “customizable” (by hair length, thickness, texture, etc.) than they were in the earlier incarnation. Then there’s the apple scent. West said fans of the brand in its heyday frequently cited that signature smell as one of the things they missed most about the shampoos. So the new version will have an apple scent — but even that was being tweaked and “updated.” The bottom line is that Salon Selectives isn’t coming back just as it used to be, but sort of as it used to be.

West figures that fans of the brand who are nostalgic for their long-lost product just need to know that it’s back. But the real point now is to attract younger customers who probably never used the stuff. The name “Salon Selectives” might sound familiar to them, so the strategy must balance that familiarity with something that makes the product seem fresh and novel. Later West sent me the new Salon Selectives ads, now running on VH1, Lifetime and other cable networks. The spots do not announce the return of a favorite old brand, or even allude to the fact that Salon Selectives was ever gone. In one, a woman escapes from prison and immediately washes her hair. The cop who confronts her admits that she doesn’t look like an escaped con but (punch line) as if she “just stepped out of a salon.” This is followed by glimpses of the (pink) bottles and a quick “mix and match” pitch and then, at the very last second, a snippet of the familiar old jingle, rerecorded. West calls this snippet a “button,” and it clearly aims to function as the slightest mental nudge: this is something you know about.

Among River West’s various projects, this is actually one of the more conservative in testing the boundary between the positive associations of a familiar memory and the attractions of novelty. There’s less room to test that boundary because Salon Selectives hasn’t been “dormant” all that long: At least some fans of the old apple scent are going to have opinions about the “updated” version. Much will depend on specific associations with a product — which is not the same thing as a brand. Brands aren’t quite so tangible, so quantifiable. That’s what’s interesting about them.

One of Paul Earle’s professors at Kellogg was John F. Sherry Jr. (now at Notre Dame), who has devoted some study to “retromarketing” and “the revival of brand meaning.” In 2003 he wrote an article (with Stephen Brown of the University of Ulster and Robert V. Kozinets of Kellogg) on the subject for The Journal of Customer Behavior. “Retromarketing is not merely a matter of reviving dormant brands and foisting them on softhearted, dewy-eyed, nostalgia-stricken consumers,” they asserted. “It involves working with consumers to co-create an oasis of authenticity for tired and thirsty travelers through the desert of mass-produced marketing dreck.”

I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but Sherry turned out to be more straightforward in conversation. “There’s no real reason that a brand needs to die,” he told me, unless it is attached to a product that “functionally doesn’t work.” That is, as long as a given product can change to meet contemporary performance standards, “your success is really dependent on how skillful you are in managing the brand’s story so that it resonates with meaning that consumers like.”

The holy grail example of brand reanimation is the Volkswagen Beetle, which a few years ago rose from dormancy and became a hit all over again in an updated form that was both nostalgic and contemporary. The reintroduced Beetle layered “nostalgic reassurance” over modern functionality. “It’s a brand that’s memorable for a lot of different reasons,” Sherry said. “But largely because it evokes this past that never was — that was morally superior or simpler, an era of better craftsmanship. That kind of thing.”

Such abstract notions are much on display at the Licensing International Expo, an annual event at which the owners of cultural properties — TV shows, movies, cartoon characters — meet with makers of things and try to negotiate deals granting them a paid license to use the properties to add meaning and market value to whatever things they make. It is a good place to contemplate the business potential of “the brand” in free-floating form, unmoored to any product or company that may have actually created it. A surprising number of the symbols represented at the expo held last summer in New York were simply brand logos. Spam, for instance, had its own booth. IMC Licensing was there on behalf of its clients Oreo, Altoids, Dole and Oscar Mayer. At one point I encountered a person dressed up as a can of Lysol, which is represented by the Licensing Company.

Another firm that represents a number of consumer brands is the Beanstalk Group, which staked out a rather large chunk of floor space at the expo, complete with a coffee bar and about 20 tables. Owned by Omnicom Group, Beanstalk is the licensing firm for a wide range of cultural properties, from Harley-Davidson to Andy Warhol to the United States Army. None of these are dead brands, of course, but Beanstalk’s track record with converting brand meaning into revenue is the reason Paul Earle was at the licensing expo. Beanstalk was exploring strategies to revive the Coleco and Brim brands as, essentially, licensing fodder.

Michael Stone, the president and chief executive of Beanstalk, has a refined sense of the licensing business, and how consumer brands fit into it. He knows what many people think the business boils down to: I make plastic lunchboxes and you own the rights to reproduce images of Spider-Man. How about a Spider-Man lunchbox? Stone cheerfully explained to me that this is merely a “decorative” form of licensing, and that’s not his game. As a point of contrast, he told me about Beanstalk’s involvement with Stanley Works, the venerable maker of hand tools.

Stanley hired Beanstalk about nine years ago. Stanley conducted “consumer permission research” to try to determine where the Stanley brand could go. “I remember looking through the focus-group tests, and there was a guy who absolutely swore that he had a Stanley ladder in his garage.” Stone paused. “Stanley never made ladders.” This is an excellent example of what “brand equity” really means in the marketplace.

In contrast to the fanatical-devotion theory, part of the point of most branding is very specifically to circumvent conscious thought. Psychologists use the word “heuristics” to refer to the mental shortcuts and rules of thumb that allow us to resolve the various routine problems of everyday life without having to make a spreadsheet for every trivial decision. Brand owners want a way into your purchase heuristics. Often it is not so much a matter of, say, a Stanley Works fanatic seeking out all products bearing that trademark; it’s a matter of looking for a product and choosing one with a particular trademark that, for whatever reason, we find acceptable. This is not brand loyalty. It’s brand acquiescence.

We’ve all seen the Stanley name, for instance. And by and large, we trust it. We have a general idea of Stanley that fits into our hardware-store purchase heuristics. But there is a great deal of imperfection and vagueness in these thought processes, and that is good news for a licensor. It suggests that there’s potential — or “permission” — for the Stanley name to migrate onto new products.

What Beanstalk did not do when it took on Stanley as a client was recommend investing in a ladder-production facility and hiring a bunch of workers, plus a sales force to blitz potential retail channels. Stanley Works, as a company, has actually been moving in the opposite direction, closing factories and outsourcing its manufacturing since the 1980s. Instead, Beanstalk worked out a licensing deal with Werner, which was already the biggest maker and distributor of ladders in the country. “They needed another brand because they couldn’t expand the Werner brand anymore,” Stone said. So Werner started making and selling ladders with the Stanley name on them. This gave Werner a way to get more shelf space, reach more consumers and make more sales. What it gave Stanley was its name on a new product and a licensing fee. Beanstalk has worked out many such deals, hooking up the Stanley brand with manufacturers of work gloves and boots, power generators and a variety of other things that Stanley never made (and does not make now).

Too many such deals, or the wrong kinds, can boomerang: this happens with some regularity in the fashion world, when a famous designer name gets spread over so many products, with so little regard to quality, that the entire image of the brand sinks. Still, if you see a ladder made by Stanley, you may well think, Well, there’s a name I can trust. What you’re trusting, though, isn’t Stanley workers in Stanley factories upholding Stanley traditions and values under the watchful eye of Stanley managers. What you’re trusting is Stanley’s recognition that a badly made ladder with the Stanley name on it could be highly damaging to the Stanley brand. You are trusting Stanley’s recognition of the value of its brand and its competence in defending that value.

We circled back around to Beanstalk’s ideas for River West’s brands, particularly Brim. Stone mentioned White Cloud. White Cloud is a brand of toilet paper once owned by Procter & Gamble. P.& G. also owned the Charmin franchise, so eventually it let the trademarks on White Cloud expire. These were then acquired by an entrepreneur, who worked out a licensing deal with Wal-Mart to make White Cloud an exclusive Wal-Mart product. It became, essentially, a store brand, but infused with equity of mass-market familiarity. It’s very doubtful that the typical White Cloud buyer is aware that the product is available only at Wal-Mart. It’s also very doubtful that P.& G. (which would surely prefer that its Charmin didn’t have to compete against a brand that P.& G. itself created) will let anything like that happen again if it can possibly help it.

This is essentially the situation that River West brokered with the Nuprin brand, which was a dead line of ibuprofen painkillers (once upon a time backed by the widely known “Nupe it” ad campaign). Its trademarks were acquired by River West and sold to CVS, where it is back on the shelves as a stealth store brand. (And presumably enjoying better margins than it would if, like a traditional store brand, it competed solely on low price, not trustworthy-brand familiarity.) My read was that this is what Stone thought should happen to Brim — and that Earle had mixed feelings, believing, perhaps, that Brim could come back as something bigger. Even Stone seemed at least somewhat intrigued with the possibilities of licensing a brand that was familiar but dead. “With Stanley we have to be careful — this is a famous brand; we have to do everything right and mitigate all the risks,” he says. “But with Brim, the risks. . . .” He paused. “There really are no risks.”

This brings us to Earle’s ideas about the potential upside of faulty consumer memory. Maybe, for instance, you’re among those who remember Brim. But do you also remember that it was a decaf-only brand? That’s actually why you could “fill it to the rim.” River West’s research found that many who recall the Brim brand have forgotten the decaf detail.

The relationship between brands and memory (faulty or no) is a specialty of Kathy LaTour, an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In one of her most interesting studies, she worked with Elizabeth Loftus, a memory specialist and now a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and a third researcher, Rhiannon Ellis, to take the issue to its logical extreme: What if, for example, an advertising campaign “implanted memories into consumers of things that never happened?”

The researchers found that subjects presented with a fake Disney World ad inviting them to “remember the characters of your youth: Mickey, Goofy . . . ” were significantly more likely to say they recalled that as children they had met “a favorite TV character at a theme resort” than those who didn’t see the ad. The fascinating thing was what happened when they repeated the experiment, tweaking the ads to include Bugs Bunny, who, of course, is not a Disney character at all. About 16 percent of subjects subsequently claimed that, as children, they shook hands with Bugs Bunny at a Disney theme park. Repeated fake-ad exposure apparently led to higher false-memory rates. In a separate study, Loftus asked subjects with Bugs in their memories what, exactly, they recalled about this incident; of these, 62 percent recounted shaking Bugs’s hand, and more than a quarter specifically recalled him saying, “What’s up, Doc?”

Earle says that this imperfection of memory can be used to enhance whatever new Brim he comes up with. This is “a benefit of dormancy,” he says. The brand equity has value on its own, but it can be grafted onto something newer and, perhaps, more innovative. “Consumers remember the kind of high-level essence of the brand,” he says. “They tend to forget the product specifics.” This, he figures, creates an opening: it gives the reintroduced version “permission” to forget that decaf-only limitation as well and morph into a full line of coffee varieties. “ ‘Fill it to the rim with Brim’ stands for full-flavored coffee,” Earle says, with a chuckle. “Fill it to the rim — it’s great stuff!”

Finding the deceased brands that consumers are likely to remember — sort of — is a process that can begin, of all places, in the library. Earle spent hours going through old issues of People, Time, Glamour and other magazines, “looking for brand names that sounded familiar but that I hadn’t seen lately.” This results in many, many possibilities that don’t work out for one reason or another. But every so often the process yields an Underalls.

Earle was intrigued with Underalls. Produced by Hanes from about 1975 to the mid-1990s, Underalls was once a prominent brand, advertised aggressively. (“O.K. America — show us your Underalls!”) It spawned “flanker” brands like Summeralls, Winteralls and Slenderalls. It was unique and memorable: a good brand. “You see the memorabilia on eBay,” Earle says. “That’s usually a good indicator.”

By way of MarketTools, a research company, River West asked 1,000 women ages 25 to 54 to answer an online survey about hosiery brands. About 850 did so, and among these, 72 percent had heard of Underalls. Among those who recognized the brand, about three-quarters remembered the “Show us your Underalls” tagline. Promising. But River West needed a partner to actually manufacture and distribute whatever the new version of Underalls might be.

It found that partner in Phantom, a hosiery maker based in Toronto. Phantom’s main product line is called Silks, the dominant hosiery brand in Canada. The company also manufactures a number of store brands. Phantom wanted to get into the crowded U.S. hosiery market, says Svetlana Sturgeon, vice president of sales and marketing for Phantom, and it made a certain amount of sense to leverage a name far more familiar to American consumers than Silks would be. Sturgeon jokes that, at first, she did not want to admit at meetings that she remembered the brand (“I’m much too young for that!”). But she did.

The point of the original Underalls was that they combined panties and stockings into one undergarment. (“They were the pioneers in the whole idea of eliminating panty lines,” is how Sturgeon puts this.) In early brainstorming sessions, Phantom and River West tried to come up with “the most expansive but credible definition” of the brand, Earle says. In this case that turned out to be “intimate-apparel solutions,” which means anything you wear under something else that’s “functional and fashion-forward,” Sturgeon says. This includes camisoles and bras and other things the original Underalls never sold. The San Francisco design firm Thinc came up with a new graphic identity and packaging ideas that referenced classic elements of the old ads, but radically updated them. New slogan: “Lovely underneath it all.” With the prototypes complete, Sturgeon has begun the process of meeting with boutique and department-store buyers, in the hope of getting products into stores, at least on a test level, in the fall.

Brand familiarity alone guarantees nothing. Sears owns several well-known brand names — Kenmore, Craftsman, DieHard, the Sears name itself — and is viewed by Wall Street as a basket case. Multinationals routinely go through cycles of acquiring and creating brands and then paring back when, inevitably, some underperform. A tiny number of hard-core loyalists not only doesn’t mean a whole lot when reviving a brand, it might be a problem because those people do remember. A number of the more cultish devotees of the VW Beetle, in fact, forthrightly rejected its reanimated version as a fraud. In that case, those consumers were marginalized by a far wider buying public who weren’t such sticklers.

And really, something like the Beetle is actually a special case: it wasn’t just a well-known product, it was a cultural icon on a level that very few products or brands ever achieve. River West is trying to reanimate brands that are sort of familiar but don’t have anything like a VW level of built-in cultural capital to draw on. If there is a cult of Brim out there somewhere, it’s pretty small and very quiet.

What River West really wants is to bring back these brands in a way that not only builds on their former popularity but also manages, via the skillful management of what we do remember and what we don’t, to transcend it. This would be quite a trick. A few months after he returned from the licensing expo, Earle more or less dropped the strategy of turning Brim into a glorified store brand. These days he’s talking about finding a “really innovative” coffee-manufacturing partner who could make the Brim brand an umbrella for groundbreaking (but unspecified) coffee advances that would work in the general market, not just one chain. He sounded almost protective of the Brim idea, and possibly a bit frustrated that he hadn’t hit on the way to bring it back. “Brim is, within our company, one of our best-known brands,” he said to me at one point. “In fact it’s our absolutely best-known brand. So expectations are high.”

Later he added: “The strength of a dormant brand is we can remake this however we want. The challenge is we can remake this however we want.”

Eventually, Earle introduced me at his office to Scott Lazar, chief executive of another River West partner, Reserve Brands, which is overseeing the revivification of Eagle Snacks. I’d never heard of the brand, but I was assured that plenty of Midwesterners knew it. Eagle had once been owned by Anheuser-Busch and was the beer maker’s way into the salty-snack market dominated by Frito-Lay. Its most well known product, it seems, was the honey-roasted peanut, particularly in tiny bags given out as snacks on airlines. Anheuser-Busch eventually pulled the plug, selling its equipment to Frito-Lay and the trademarks to Procter & Gamble in the mid-1990s. Lazar said that while the new Eagle has acquired those trademarks, the new and expanded product line consists largely of snacks that the old Eagle never made, with names like “Poppers!” and “Bursts!” These are rolling out in a variety of grocery stores across the country. Lazar tried to give me about six large bags of samples, but I demurred on account of limited luggage space.

I ended up with two bags, which Earle and I took downstairs to the bar at the Ceres Cafe. It was crowded and loud, filled with big Chicago men who in some cases had spent the day screaming on the Chicago Board of Trade floor and who in all cases were not shy. We found a place to sit, plopping the Eagle snacks in front of us. And one man after another leaned into our space and pointed at the bags and boomed, “Eagle!” Big hands reached toward the bags to get a scoop of snacks that the old Eagle had never made, and at the time were not in stores, and big voices declared, “I remember those!”

Rob Walker writes the Consumed column for the magazine. His book, “Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are,” will be published by Random House next month.

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Big Buck Bunny
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Monday, August 25, 2008,7:48 PM
Helping the beat go on for Brands
Profile: Steve Stoute
Helping the beat go on for brands
Aug 25, 2008

-By Eleftheria Parpis

NEW YORK Steve Stoute, the 38-year-old CCO of Translation Consultation & Brand Imaging, launched in 2004, has been building brands since he was barely out of high school. But the former record executive -- who once managed artists such as Mary J. Blige and Nas -- still considers himself an advertising neophyte.

"I really am a novice," says Stoute, who despite his modest characterization has built a lucrative career connecting brands to the much sought-after hip-hop-inspired youth market. In fact, he's being honored by the American Advertising Federation in November with an induction into the organization's Advertising Hall of Achievement.

"It's something that took me by surprise," says Stoute of the honor. It shouldn't have. Stoute, who earlier this year launched Translation Advertising with Jay-Z -- as a division of Translation Consultation & Brand Imaging -- has leveraged the increasingly smitten relationship between Madison Avenue and the entertainment business into a lucrative career. His matchmaking efforts over the years have paired Jay-Z with Reebok, Justin Timberlake with McDonald's and Gwen Stefani with Hewlett-Packard.

Most recently, Stoute paired Wrigley's with artists including Chris Brown to help rebrand its chewing gum products. He commissioned the singer to revamp the brand's classic Doublemint jingle, which was released first as a four-minute single, "Forever." (The blogsphere subsequently lit up with fans angry they hadn't been told about the Wrigley's connection.) Wrigley's new campaign also includes revamped jingles for Big Red by Ne-Yo and for Juicy Fruit by Dancing With the Stars contestant and country singer Julianne Hough.

Brown's "Forever" was recently nominated for MTV Video Music Awards' Music Video of the Year. "It's incredible that an artist was nominated for a Video of the Year with a Wrigley's jingle," says Stoute.

With no formal business training, Stoute relies on instinct. He says he developed his insight into consumer behavior by watching people window-shop. "I've always paid attention to what people pick up and put down," says Stoute, whose client roster includes State Farm, Samsung and General Motors.

It was Peter Arnell, founder of the Arnell Group, who believed Stoute could give traditional advertising a nontraditional spin. In 2000, Stoute left the music business and became a partner at the agency. It was there he started working with Reebok, which he helped relaunch in 2003 with a new product line and an ad campaign with Jay-Z, whose S. Carter Collection by Rbk helped reconnect the brand with urban culture.

"The client results, selling product, means much more to me than awards and things of that nature," says Stoute. He credits his relationship with his Translation partners, Charles Wright, chief strategy officer, and John McBride, group strategy director, for his success. "They shape my vision tremendously," he says. "It all starts with strategy."

Currently, Stoute is working on a State Farm campaign with LeBron James and what he calls a "groundbreaking" effort for Samsung, which will debut during New York Fashion Week in September. It pairs the brand with Valentino and Conde Nast.

Celebrity endorsements, says Stoute, have changed since the time that smiling while holding the product and then receiving a check were the extent of the deal. Now, he says, "product endorsements are about product development and new-product creation all the way to a traditional endorsement model and everything in between."

And "selling out" today, he adds, means creating inauthentic relationships between pop culture and product. The most successful relationships, he says, come from brands and artists viewing themselves as true business partners. "Artists want to be more responsible for the final outcome," he says.

Pondering his November advertising honor, Stoute says, "The advertising business is saying, 'Steve, we're accepting you.' And I never knocked on the door. I just put out work. ... It makes me feel good. It makes me feel like we're building a strong agency here."


Education: Stoute, who grew up in Queens, New York, attended five colleges in two years, searching for "something that made sense," he says.

Career: At 19, Stoute began working in real estate and invested in the music business, putting artists like Kid 'N Play in the studio and on the road. He became a road manager, artist manager and A&R executive, and has worked with stars including Mariah Carey, Eminem, Jay-Z, Nas, Enrique Iglesias and U2. "In working with these artists, you learn a lot about branding, but in the record business we never called it branding," says Stoute. He worked at Sony Music and Interscope Records before partnering with Peter Arnell of The Arnell Group in 2000. In 2004 he launched Translation Consultation & Brand Imaging, which was acquired by Interpublic Group in 2007.

Extra curricular: This year, Stoute co-founded the Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now with Mary J. Blige.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008,8:44 PM
Did China Rediscover Its Soul?
-By Tom Doctoroff

In my 2005 book, Billions: Selling to the New Chinese Consumer, I asked whether the Middle Kingdom would summon enough courage to show the best side of itself. "Will the opening ceremony be a rousing release of national passion or an Orwellian propaganda spectacular? Will an insecure government paranoid about losing face overshadow the awe-inspiring zip, zing and pizzazz of the Chinese people?

On Friday night, Aug. 8, as I sat among 100,000 spectators at the "Bird's Nest" stadium, an architectural masterpiece of epic proportion and sublime transcendence, the question resolved itself with an emphatic exclamation point: China would reveal to the world -- and itself -- its soul, shaped across thousands of years of triumph and tragedy.

As I waited for the show to begin, melting in Beijing's August "haze," not all signs were positive. Grade B local celebrities spent 30 minutes teaching spectators how to deploy cheaply produced patriotic paraphernalia. Hyper-friendly supporting cheerleaders, college students who were also Communist Party members, were deployed every 10 rows. Security clearance, an hour-long marathon, took place in a ramshackle lot two kilometers away from the main venue. The gargantuan Olympic Park, seven square kilometers of solidly constructed athletic infrastructure and commercial pavilions, lacked touches of humanity. And grim-faced security personnel were everywhere, reminding everyone that the government's twitchily defensive "Safety First!" rallying cry was no laughing matter.

And yet, despite the security apparatus' defensive crouch, the masses were warm. They were curious, eager to ask where a foreigner was from, what he thought of Beijing, why he had come and what he expected. When different countries' athletes entered the stadium, applause was genuine -- particularly for Brazilians, Argentineans, Australians and, yes, Americans.

No one doubted the production, helmed by impresario Zhang Yimou, famed director of operatic films such as Raise the Red Lantern and Hero, would be world class. It was. The Chinese people were, literally, the heroes of the show. Within 70 minutes, 20,000 performers had graced the field and a huge screen on which the nation's artistic heritage was vividly brought to life enveloped the entire stadium. Larger-than-life scale, an obsession in a nation in which mobilization of resources is tantamount to survival, shocked and awed. When more than 600 Chinese athletes appeared, the crowd charismatically erupted with Maoist fervor. The lighting of the Olympic flame was nothing short of volcanic. When giant Olympic rings formed from stardust, many gasped, then cried.

I was struck by the combination of scale on one hand and depth and thoughtfulness, even intellectualism, on the other. The ceremony, surprisingly and touchingly, was about Chinese culture which Zhang and, yes, now the government believe to be the only force capable of resolving omnipresent conflicts percolating within the People's Republic of China: between growth and stability; progress and tradition; East and West; past, present and future. More ambitiously, the Olympic spirit was defined as synonymous with the very idea of China. Zhang interpreted the Games' tagline, "One World, One Dream," as China's life force: harmony -- harmony between individuals (Confucian sociology) and with the universe (Daoist cosmology).

The night had two audiences.

Most importantly, the ceremony was targeted to the Chinese. Zhang, a victim of Cultural Revolution abuses, was pleading with the nation to, finally, stand up with pride. Today's China, he believes, springs from a rich cultural heritage and a timeless worldview, one in which all elements of the universe are elegantly interconnected, always in motion. China's profound respect for analytic intelligence has created a country that reveres the scholar, emphasizes knowledge over might, defense over offense, skill over brute force, concentration over impulse. These qualities, he insists, must be venerated.

Domestically, Zhang and the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games succeeded brilliantly. At the stadium, on the street and in hotel lobbies, many locals were moved -- sometimes to tears. They described the show as "perfect," "eleven on a scale of 10" and "meaningful." (That said, a few expressed concern that foreigners could never fully understand what they saw. And the singing seemed to fall flat.) People streamed out of the stadium beaming with pride.

China was also reassuring the rest of us its rise would not threaten geopolitical order as long as its olive branch is reciprocated with a respect for the Middle Kingdom's world view. In this respect, the show fell short of a grand slam. True, the staging was exquisite. And its message of geopolitical harmony was uninterrupted by political posturing, a rare coup in and of itself. However, many of the themes were probably too esoteric for Westerners to grasp, beyond the reach of even some of us "China hands." More important, everything was "one way." The entire night, while steeped in declarations of universal brotherhood, may have reinforced perceptions that China, so skilled in absorbing foreign influences and applying them in a Chinese context, is not yet capable of reaching out or understanding what makes other societies truly tick. The glories of the Middle Kingdom were not presented as part of a global tapestry. They were manifestations of absolute truth. Chinese culture was framed as the quintessence of human civilization and the Middle Kingdom, as always, its epicenter.

Yes, we heard African drums and Scottish bagpipes. We gazed upon costumes from every corner of the world. But Western civilization -- from renaissance art and modern American technology to rock music and "freestyle" soccer -- did not even score a courtesy mention. There was no celebration of "one plus one equals three," no yin-to-yang dynamism, no fusion of Chinese and the world's other centers of gravity. Foreigners remained, in the purest sense, spectators, on the outside looking in. That's why the parts of the show intended to represent the benefits of "mutual understanding" lapsed into propagandistic cliche. We ended up with limp, dime-store transcendence, e.g., astronauts floating in space, doves in flight, and many, many smiling children.

But let's not be small. The night belonged to the People's Republic. On 08/08/08, a nation articulated its spirit with brio. On 08/08/08, China proclaimed its strength, values and culture to be worthy of respect. After decades of trauma and self-doubt, China may finally be willing to, armed with confidence, embrace the world.

Let us hope that other nations, without forfeiting their own beliefs, also summon enough self-possession to help China try.


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Tuesday, August 19, 2008,9:56 PM
Study finds minorities more likely to be paddled

WASHINGTON - Paddlings, swats, licks. A quarter of a million schoolchildren got them last year — and blacks, American Indians and kids with disabilities got a disproportionate share of the punishment, according to a study by a human rights group.

Even little kids can be paddled. Heather Porter, who lives in Crockett, Texas, was startled to hear her little boy, then 3, say he'd been spanked at school. Porter was never told, despite a policy at the public preschool that parents be notified.

"We were pretty ticked off, to say the least. The reason he got paddled was because he was untying his shoes and playing with the air conditioner thermostat," Porter said. "He was being a 3-year-old."

For the study, which was being released Wednesday, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union used Education Department data to show that, while paddling has been declining, racial disparity persists. Researchers also interviewed students, parents and school personnel in Texas and Mississippi, states that account for 40 percent of the 223,190 kids who were paddled at least once in the 2006-2007 school year.

Porter could have filled out a form telling the school not to paddle her son, if only she had realized he might be paddled.

Yet many parents find that such forms are ignored, the study said.

Widespread paddling can make it unlikely that forms will be checked. A teacher interviewed by Human Rights Watch, Tiffany Bartlett, said that when she taught in the Mississippi Delta, the policy was to lock the classroom doors when the bell rang, leaving stragglers to be paddled by an administrator patrolling the hallways. Bartlett now is a school teacher in Austin, Texas.

And even if schools make a mistake, they are unlikely to face lawsuits. In places where corporal punishment is allowed, teachers and principals generally have legal immunity from assault laws, the study said.

"One of the things we've seen over and over again is that parents have difficulty getting redress, if a child is paddled and severely injured, or paddled in violation of parents' wishes," said Alice Farmer, the study's author.

A majority of states have outlawed it, but corporal punishment remains widespread across the South. Behind Texas and Mississippi were Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Florida and Missouri.

African American students are more than twice as likely to be paddled. The disparity persists even in places with large black populations, the study found. Similarly, Native Americans were more than twice as likely to be paddled, the study found.

The study also found:

_In states where paddling is most common, black girls were paddled more than twice as often as white girls.

_Boys are three times as likely to be paddled as girls.

_Special education kids were more likely to be paddled.

More than 100 countries worldwide have banned paddling in schools, including all of Europe, Farmer said. "International human rights law puts a pretty strong prohibition on corporal punishment," she said.

In rural Drew, Miss., Nickolaus Luckett still remembers the paddlings he got in fifth and seventh grades. One happened when he called a teacher by her first name, the other when a classmate said, wrongly, that he threw a spitball.

"I didn't get any bruises, but they still hurt, and from that point on, I told myself and my parents I wasn't going to take any more paddlings," said Luckett, who is about to be a sophomore at the University of Mississippi.

It's not an easy choice. In many schools, kids can avoid a paddling if they accept suspension or detention, or for younger kids, if they skip recess. But often, a child opts for the short-term sting of the paddle.

And sometimes teachers don't have the option of after-school detention, because there are no buses to take kids home later.

During the three years Evan Couzo taught in the Mississippi Delta, he refused to paddle kids, offering detention instead. But others — teachers, parents, even kids — were accustomed to paddling.

"Just about everyone at the beginning of the year said, `If he or she gives you any trouble, you can paddle them. You can send them home, and I'll paddle them. Or you can have me come out to the school, and we can both paddle them.'

"It's really just a part of the culture of the school environment there," Couzo said.

There is scant research on whether paddling is effective in the classroom. But many studies have shown it doesn't work at home, said Elizabeth Gershoff, a University of Michigan assistant professor of social work.

"The use of corporal punishment is associated almost overwhelmingly with negative effects, and that it increases children's problem behavior over time," Gershoff said.

Children may learn to solve problems using aggression, and a sense of resentment might make them act out more, Gershoff said.

The practice is banned in 29 states, most recently in Delaware and Pennsylvania. While some education groups haven't taken a position on the issue, the national PTA believes paddling should be banned everywhere.

"We teach our children that violence is wrong, yet corporal punishment teaches children that violence is a way to solve problems," said Jan Harp Domene, the group's president. "It perpetuates a cycle of child abuse. It teaches children to hit someone smaller and weaker when angry."

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Monday, August 18, 2008,9:17 PM
What Obama Can Teach You About Millennial Marketing
By Peter Feld

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Baby boomers and Gen Xers declared mass marketing dead long ago. We live in a world of fragmented media surrounded by cynical consumers who can spot and block an ad message from a mile away. But what Gen Xers and boomers may not realize is that the unabashed embrace of select brands by millennials, from technology to beverages to fashion, has made this decade a true golden era of marketing for those who know what they're doing. And when it comes to marketing, the Barack Obama campaign knows what it's doing.

Mr. Obama's brand management, unprecedented in presidential politics, shows pitch-perfect understanding of the keys to appealing to the youngest voters.

Perhaps inevitably, among the first apps introduced for Apple's new iPhone -- the latest success from another millennial mass marketer -- was an Obama "Countdown to Change" calendar that ticks off the seconds until Election Day.

So what's the appeal to the under-30 set? True, the youth vote traditionally skews Democratic, but the difference this year is that Mr. Obama has actually motivated turnout. His success, it seems, is a result of both product and the branding behind it. The qualities he projects -- a cool, smooth aura, the communal values of hope and unity, his teeming crowds and his campaign's seamless graphics -- are the essence of appealing to millennials.

"Millennials want someone smart, funny and with a slight edge," observes Allison Mooney, who tracks youth trends for Fleishman-Hillard's Next Great Thing. Mr. Obama's occasional prickly moments, as when he dismissed Mr. McCain's recent ad comparing him to Paris Hilton -- "Is this the best you can do?" -- shows them he gets it. "Obama's kind of mellow. He doesn't have polarizing views."

Neil Howe agrees. Mr. Howe -- co-author with the late William Strauss of "Generations" (1991) and "Millennials Rising" (2001), which christened the generation -- said that Mr. Obama "has a certain coolness, detachment and a slight formality. He never loses his temper."

Then there's the messaging. Mr. Obama sticks very well to his script, said Mr. Howe.

And that hasn't gone unnoticed in most quarters. Wrote Newsweek's Andrew Romano, "Obama is the first presidential candidate to be marketed like a high-end consumer brand." His rising-sun logo echoes the one-world iconography of Pepsi, AT&T and Apple.

Design guru Michael Bierut told Romano that the stand-alone logo, consistent use of the Gotham typeface ("very American ... conversational and pleasant") and his online look and feel make Mr. Obama the first candidate with a "coherent, top-to-bottom, 360-degree system at work. ... There's an absolute level of control that I have trouble achieving with my corporate clients."

Mr. Obama's packaging might discomfit older generations, who may think of themselves as immune to mass marketing. But it is "no problem" for millennials, whom Mr. Howe sees as averse to chaos and unpredictability (a trouble spot for both the Hillary Clinton and John McCain campaigns), and are "very comfortable with a very smooth brand that has minimal turmoil."

Communal, pro-social
According to Mr. Howe, Gen Xers required niche marketing: "If too many people liked something, it wasn't cool." But mass brand experiences, from the iPod to Harry Potter, appeal strongly to millennials, who have been shown to be a more communal, pro-social generation than their predecessors.

While critics see Mr. Obama's penchant for mass gatherings as arrogant, Mr. Howe finds it perfect for millennials: "They're more civically connected, and they find strength in numbers."

According to Fleishman-Hillard's Ms. Mooney, the Obama campaign's mastery of cutting-edge social media, through the my.barackobama.com site (known internally as "MYBO"), is optimized for millennial appeal. For this generation, "the new pronoun is me, my. Using my-dot brings it to a personal level."

The MYBO site shows that Mr. Obama's campaign has made the leap from CRM (customer relationship management) to CMR (customer-managed relationship) better than many commercial marketers, according to Ms. Mooney. "Young people want to be in control of their relationship with a brand. They want to customize and personalize," as they can on iTunes, Mobile Me and YouLocate. The campaign's site allows this with its use of tagging, discussion boards, photo uploads and other interactive elements.

Of course, most young people will never find their way to the Obama site. But, as with commercial brands, those that do will be Mr. Obama's "passionistas" -- his power users and brand ambassadors.

Generational divide
Gen Xers and boomers may have assumed that today's youth are as anti-marketing as they once were; millennials' mass adoption of Mr. Obama's brand may puzzle or alienate them. After a video featuring celebrities like the Black-Eyed Peas' will.i.am and actress Scarlett Johansson crooning along with an Obama speech went viral last winter, a response mocking the mass Obama phenomenon was posted to YouTube, set to "Building a Religion" by quintessential Gen-X band Cake.

Pete Markiewicz, co-author with Mr. Strauss and Mr. Howe of "Millennials and the Pop Culture," said Gen Xer cynics Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert often lampoon the Obama campaign's messianic tendencies. Said Mr. Markiewicz, "Both Colbert and Stewart are liberal, but the worship of Obama sticks in their Xer craws."

John McCain's early-August success in erasing Mr. Obama's lead, with a campaign that directly attacks the Obama brand by mocking his celebrity status, shows that branding can cut both ways.

Which is not to say that Mr. Obama lacks appeal to voters ages 25 to 55. Polls generally show him beating Mr. McCain among voters under 60. And boomers, even if skeptical of mass-branding campaigns, may find the outpouring of youth supporting Mr. Obama reminiscent of their own experiences in the 60s.

But Mr. Howe believes Mr. Obama's appeal to Xers and boomers is "based on an older image of what the Democratic Party means" -- agreement with Mr. Obama on issues ranging from Iraq to the environment. Middle-aged voters may end up supporting Mr. Obama despite his branding campaign, rather than because of it.

Rock the vote
Because young people vote in such low numbers, some strategists question the wisdom of Mr. Obama's emphasis on appealing to them. But this year, Mr. Obama may have more success bringing new voters to the polls than in converting an ever-shrinking pool of undecided voters.

Citing surveys showing a rising percentage of young voters intending to take part this year, the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne believes the youth vote can be decisive for Mr. Obama in November.

A July 27 Gallup Poll shows both the dilemma for Mr. Obama and the opportunity: Among all registered voters, Mr. Obama led by three points. When the sample was reduced to an older-skewing pool of likely voters only, Mr. McCain led by four. If Mr. Obama can mobilize a fresh source of votes from the normally low-turnout millennials, while making sure to maintain sufficient appeal to older generations, his brand strategy may turn out to be decisive.


posted by R J Noriega
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Thursday, August 07, 2008,10:46 PM
Can Black Journalists Be Trusted to Cover Obama?
Aug. 7, 2008--When a weary and jet-lagged Barack Obama took the stage on the last day of the UNITY Journalists of Color convention in Chicago last month, most of the attendees had already left. But there was still a healthy crowd of over 2,500 there to hear the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

That is when, according to the mainstream media, black folks apparently acted like natural-born fools.

"When Obama walked on stage at the McCormick Center, many journalists in the audience leapt to their feet and applauded enthusiastically after being told not to do so," reported The Honolulu Star-Bulletin. "During a two-minute break halfway through the event, which was broadcast live on CNN, journalists ran to the stage to snap photos of Obama."

Later, National Public Radio Ombudsman Alicia C. Shepard told the radio network's Talk of the Nation that she actually witnessed a journalist rush the stage to score an autograph and later bragged about touching the senator. "I think it's unfortunate, but it's inappropriate," she scolded. NPR political editor Ken Rudin chimed in, calling the reaction, "disheartening" and "disappointing in our profession."

"This was a convention of journalists, not a rally of groupies for Obama," snorted John Leo on New York Daily News' Web site.

As a longtime journalist, I have a question of my own for those critics: Was the visible enthusiasm really so different than journalists (mostly white) fighting for the chance to go to the White House and have their pictures taken with the president at the annual Christmas party or gathering every spring to hold a dinner in honor of the President of the United States? What about the fabled media crush on Maverick McCain, from the mostly white male Washington press corps? For years journalists have been fawning over politicians while keeping their credibility and objectivity securely intact. Which black reporters did John McCain have in mind when he referred to the news media as "my base?"

If it's not, it should be second nature for black journalists to act as if their every word and deed is under constant observation, scrutinized and examined for traces of racial pride that supersede their objectivity and fidelity to the facts because some of their white counterparts are always suspicious and need to be re-assured. Under an Obama presidency, black journalists will be more suspect than ever.

It should also be noted that many of the people at the convention were public relations types, activists, college students, journalism educators, sportswriters, county government reporters, music and movie critics and weather forecasters from places like Biloxi, Miss. or Greenville, S.C. or Maple Grove, Minn., who will not get near a political story this year. There were bloggers and freelancers who write about fashion or music, or of social issues like homelessness. The room was not full of political reporters who lost their minds.

Black journalists are being taken to task by white journalists who suggest that to remain journalistically chaste they must not show one shred of pride or enthusiasm in light of Barack Obama's history-making presidential bid, lest our precious "objectivity" be called into question.

"I would think that you give up certain rights when you are a journalist and if you are married to a journalist," Shepard said.

I, for one, am not giving up anything to meet Shepard's arbitrary standards of what makes a good journalist. Too many people gave up too much blood to get me the rights I enjoy today.

If my white colleagues are confused as to where my allegiances are, let me make it clear for them: I am a human being first, a black man second and journalist last. Dead last. It's not even remotely a close call.

Journalism is what I do. Black is what I am.

There is no such thing as pure objectivity. Because of who I am, I look out for and protect the interests of African Americans. I'm always on guard for inaccurate and racist representations in the mainstream media. The news business remains one of the least diverse institutions in America—despite commentator Pat Buchanan's ridiculous fear of journalists of color plotting to squeeze out white reporters.

The Barack backlash is a reminder of elitist gatekeepers' double standards.

It would seem some of our white colleagues don't trust us and don't respect our ability to do our jobs. This is one of the reasons the UNITY conventions exist in the first place.

To our peers who seem concerned as to how fairly and accurately journalists of color will cover the presidential contenders, I ask only that they judge the results of our reporting first and not assume a shared racial identity automatically means we will be more sympathetic and less critical of Obama. After all, when it comes to race, white journalists have been given the benefit of the doubt when covering white candidates since, well—forever.

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posted by R J Noriega
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,9:58 PM
Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization
We’ve reached a point in our civilization where counterculture has mutated into a self-obsessed aesthetic vacuum. So while hipsterdom is the end product of all prior countercultures, it’s been stripped of its subversion and originality. (Cover story of Adbusters Issue #79, hitting the newsstands now.)

Take a stroll down the street in any major North American or European city and you’ll be sure to see a speckle of fashion-conscious twentysomethings hanging about and sporting a number of predictable stylistic trademarks: skinny jeans, cotton spandex leggings, fixed-gear bikes, vintage flannel, fake eyeglasses and a keffiyeh – initially sported by Jewish students and Western protesters to express solidarity with Palestinians, the keffiyeh has become a completely meaningless hipster cliché fashion accessory.

The American Apparel V-neck shirt, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and Parliament cigarettes are symbols and icons of working or revolutionary classes that have been appropriated by hipsterdom and drained of meaning. Ten years ago, a man wearing a plain V-neck tee and drinking a Pabst would never be accused of being a trend-follower. But in 2008, such things have become shameless clichés of a class of individuals that seek to escape their own wealth and privilege by immersing themselves in the aesthetic of the working class.

This obsession with “street-cred” reaches its apex of absurdity as hipsters have recently and wholeheartedly adopted the fixed-gear bike as the only acceptable form of transportation – only to have brakes installed on a piece of machinery that is defined by its lack thereof.

Lovers of apathy and irony, hipsters are connected through a global network of blogs and shops that push forth a global vision of fashion-informed aesthetics. Loosely associated with some form of creative output, they attend art parties, take lo-fi pictures with analog cameras, ride their bikes to night clubs and sweat it up at nouveau disco-coke parties. The hipster tends to religiously blog about their daily exploits, usually while leafing through generation-defining magazines like Vice, Another Magazine and Wallpaper. This cursory and stylized lifestyle has made the hipster almost universally loathed.

“These hipster zombies… are the idols of the style pages, the darlings of viral marketers and the marks of predatory real-estate agents,” wrote Christian Lorentzen in a Time Out New York article entitled ‘Why the Hipster Must Die.’ “And they must be buried for cool to be reborn.”
With nothing to defend, uphold or even embrace, the idea of “hipsterdom” is left wide open for attack. And yet, it is this ironic lack of authenticity that has allowed hipsterdom to grow into a global phenomenon that is set to consume the very core of Western counterculture. Most critics make a point of attacking the hipster’s lack of individuality, but it is this stubborn obfuscation that distinguishes them from their predecessors, while allowing hipsterdom to easily blend in and mutate other social movements, sub-cultures and lifestyles.


Standing outside an art-party next to a neat row of locked-up fixed-gear bikes, I come across a couple girls who exemplify hipster homogeneity. I ask one of the girls if her being at an art party and wearing fake eyeglasses, leggings and a flannel shirt makes her a hipster.

“I’m not comfortable with that term,” she replies.

Her friend adds, with just a flicker of menace in her eyes, “Yeah, I don’t know, you shouldn’t use that word, it’s just…”


“No… it’s just, well… if you don’t know why then you just shouldn’t even use it.”

“Ok, so what are you girls doing tonight after this party?”

“Ummm… We’re going to the after-party.”


Gavin McInnes, one of the founders of Vice, who recently left the magazine, is considered to be one of hipsterdom’s primary architects. But, in contrast to the majority of concerned media-types, McInnes, whose “Dos and Don’ts” commentary defined the rules of hipster fashion for over a decade, is more critical of those doing the criticizing.

“I’ve always found that word [“hipster”] is used with such disdain, like it’s always used by chubby bloggers who aren’t getting laid anymore and are bored, and they’re just so mad at these young kids for going out and getting wasted and having fun and being fashionable,” he says. “I’m dubious of these hypotheses because they always smell of an agenda.”

Punks wear their tattered threads and studded leather jackets with honor, priding themselves on their innovative and cheap methods of self-expression and rebellion. B-boys and b-girls announce themselves to anyone within earshot with baggy gear and boomboxes. But it is rare, if not impossible, to find an individual who will proclaim themself a proud hipster. It’s an odd dance of self-identity – adamantly denying your existence while wearing clearly defined symbols that proclaims it.


“He’s 17 and he lives for the scene!” a girl whispers in my ear as I sneak a photo of a young kid dancing up against a wall in a dimly lit corner of the after-party. He’s got a flipped-out, do-it-yourself haircut, skin-tight jeans, leather jacket, a vintage punk tee and some popping high tops.

“Shoot me,” he demands, walking up, cigarette in mouth, striking a pose and exhaling. He hits a few different angles with a firmly unimpressed expression and then gets a bit giddy when I show him the results.

“Rad, thanks,” he says, re-focusing on the music and submerging himself back into the sweaty funk of the crowd where he resumes a jittery head bobble with a little bit of a twitch.

The dance floor at a hipster party looks like it should be surrounded by quotation marks. While punk, disco and hip hop all had immersive, intimate and energetic dance styles that liberated the dancer from his/her mental states – be it the head-spinning b-boy or violent thrashings of a live punk show – the hipster has more of a joke dance. A faux shrug shuffle that mocks the very idea of dancing or, at its best, illustrates a non-committal fear of expression typified in a weird twitch/ironic twist. The dancers are too self-aware to let themselves feel any form of liberation; they shuffle along, shrugging themselves into oblivion.


Perhaps the true motivation behind this deliberate nonchalance is an attempt to attract the attention of the ever-present party photographers, who swim through the crowd like neon sharks, flashing little blasts of phosphorescent ecstasy whenever they spot someone worth momentarily immortalizing.

Noticing a few flickers of light splash out from the club bathroom, I peep in only to find one such photographer taking part in an impromptu soft-core porno shoot. Two girls and a guy are taking off their clothes and striking poses for a set of grimy glamour shots. It’s all grins and smirks until another girl pokes her head inside and screeches, “You’re not some club kid in New York in the nineties. This shit is so hipster!” – which sparks a bit of a catfight, causing me to beat a hasty retreat.

In many ways, the lifestyle promoted by hipsterdom is highly ritualized. Many of the party-goers who are subject to the photoblogger’s snapshots no doubt crawl out of bed the next afternoon and immediately re-experience the previous night’s debauchery. Red-eyed and bleary, they sit hunched over their laptops, wading through a sea of similarity to find their own (momentarily) thrilling instant of perfected hipster-ness.

What they may or may not know is that “cool-hunters” will also be skulking the same sites, taking note of how they dress and what they consume. These marketers and party-promoters get paid to co-opt youth culture and then re-sell it back at a profit. In the end, hipsters are sold what they think they invent and are spoon-fed their pre-packaged cultural livelihood.

Hipsterdom is the first “counterculture” to be born under the advertising industry’s microscope, leaving it open to constant manipulation but also forcing its participants to continually shift their interests and affiliations. Less a subculture, the hipster is a consumer group – using their capital to purchase empty authenticity and rebellion. But the moment a trend, band, sound, style or feeling gains too much exposure, it is suddenly looked upon with disdain. Hipsters cannot afford to maintain any cultural loyalties or affiliations for fear they will lose relevance.

An amalgamation of its own history, the youth of the West are left with consuming cool rather that creating it. The cultural zeitgeists of the past have always been sparked by furious indignation and are reactionary movements. But the hipster’s self-involved and isolated maintenance does nothing to feed cultural evolution. Western civilization’s well has run dry. The only way to avoid hitting the colossus of societal failure that looms over the horizon is for the kids to abandon this vain existence and start over.

“If you don’t give a damn, we don’t give a fuck!” chants an emcee before his incitements are abruptly cut short when the power plug is pulled and the lights snapped on.

Dawn breaks and the last of the after-after-parties begin to spill into the streets. The hipsters are falling out, rubbing their eyes and scanning the surrounding landscape for the way back from which they came. Some hop on their fixed-gear bikes, some call for cabs, while a few of us hop a fence and cut through the industrial wasteland of a nearby condo development.

The half-built condos tower above us like foreboding monoliths of our yuppie futures. I take a look at one of the girls wearing a bright pink keffiyah and carrying a Polaroid camera and think, “If only we carried rocks instead of cameras, we’d look like revolutionaries.” But instead we ignore the weapons that lie at our feet – oblivious to our own impending demise.

We are a lost generation, desperately clinging to anything that feels real, but too afraid to become it ourselves. We are a defeated generation, resigned to the hypocrisy of those before us, who once sang songs of rebellion and now sell them back to us. We are the last generation, a culmination of all previous things, destroyed by the vapidity that surrounds us. The hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture so detached and disconnected that it has stopped giving birth to anything new.

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posted by R J Noriega
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,7:45 PM
Condescension, or by Another Name, Snobbery

The American Version

The great thing about snobbery is that there is a snob pecking order. Since it is all about looking up and looking down at people, snobs are quick to decide who merits disdain and who deserves esteem. For instance, driving an expensive and ostentatious car is snobbery to some, plain bad taste to others. Private snobbery, in contrast, requires a sophisticated audience: there is no point in dropping the name of an eminent philosopher if no one has heard of him. Then, more subtle still, there is reverse snobbery, like doggedly ignoring fashion. But whether crass or disguised, Joseph Epstein argues in his new book, ''Snobbery: The American Version,'' just about everything we say or do to assert our identity can be gauged as snobbery.

Unsurprisingly, then, as part of his dissection of American snobbery, Mr. Epstein engages in an extended mea culpa of his own peccadillos. Now a lecturer at Northwestern University, he caught the snobbery bug more than four decades ago when, as a student at the University of Chicago, he learned that the only worthwhile careers were artist, scientist, statesman or teacher of any of these three. ''Henceforth the snobbish system under which I would operate would be artistic, intellectual, cultural,'' he writes. In time, though, he broadened out: today he confesses to owning a classy fountain pen and good clothes, to driving a Jaguar and to feeling pleased with himself when his son was admitted to Stanford.

Is this snobbery? Can exhibitionism, boastfulness, pride, political correctness, name dropping, rudeness and one-upmanship all be attributed to snobbery? ''The essence of snobbery is that you wish to impress other people,'' offered Virginia Woolf, herself no mean expert on the subject.

Mr. Epstein goes further. ''The essence of snobbery, I should say, is arranging to make yourself feel superior at the expense of other people.'' So all is well. By his own definition, Mr. Epstein is a harmless snob because ''in everyday actions I am not a snobbish person.'' He explains, ''It is only in my thoughts that my snobbishness lives so active a life.'' But can one be a snob if nobody notices, if nobody is offended? Perhaps Mr. Epstein should be acquitted, so he can get on with his story.

The real problem, in his view, is that snobbery has become enormously complex and time consuming. In the old days, by which Mr. Epstein means before the 1960's, snobbery was perpetuated by a class system, itself reinforced by association with the right neighborhood, school, college, club or profession. ''The minimal but unrelenting qualification was to be white, Anglo-Saxon in heritage and Protestant in religion,'' he notes. True, up to a point. If endowed with wealth, breeding and position, many Wasps probably did look down on the rest of America. But did that automatically make them snobs? Elsewhere Mr. Epstein suggests snobbery is a sign of weakness. One characteristic of a ruling class is its presumption of its right to rule.

In any event Mr. Epstein's point is that there was less snobbery in what was known as Society than there is in today's more open and egalitarian society. ''What the demise of Waspocracy did for snobbery was to unanchor it, setting it afloat if not aloft, to alight on objects other than those connected exclusively with social class,'' he writes. Thus, traditionally admired professions -- medicine, law, clergy, engineering -- have lost their cachet, while architects, chefs, artists, television anchors and above all actors enjoy celebrity.

Graduates from top colleges are now drawn to mass entertainment, Mr. Epstein observes with disapproval, ''even if it entails heartbreaking compromise, turning out meretricious work and sucking up to some clearly loathsome characters.'' (Voilà! A good example of intellectual snobbery.)

Still, a far larger field for snobbery has opened up in the world of taste. In the old days you were raised with good taste. Now taste can be bought in the form of clothes, furnishings, library, cuisine, wine cellar and the like, yet not everyone learns how to use it properly. ''For the snob, this fear of ridicule -- or if the snob has the social whip hand, the delight in inflicting ridicule -- is uppermost in questions of taste,'' Mr. Epstein warns. Getting taste right, though, brings the reward of status. ''Status is not in the possession of its holder but in that of the beholder,'' he explains. To win the accolade, you need a knack for following the taste du jour without seeming to try too hard. It is a perilous game, though, because taste is defined by others.

Here Mr. Epstein offers a bizarre theory. ''The reason so many Jews and homosexuals (chiefly, though far from exclusively, homosexual men) have been involved in the formation of taste, and hence in the changes and twists in the character of snobbery, is that Jews and homosexuals have always felt themselves the potential -- and often real -- victims of snobbery, and of course much worse than snobbery,'' Mr. Epstein claims. Whether or not this reasoning is valid, it is certainly true that many Jews and homosexuals are now at the center of the American taste industry. And in that sense, while they may still be targets of snobbery, they are now also well placed to hand it out.

A lingering problem with this book, however, is that Mr. Epstein has chosen to view all social intercourse through the prism of snobbery. Surely not everyone is enslaved to humiliating or being humiliated. Surely a snob is both entertaining and offensive precisely because he or she stands out in the crowd. Still, striking closer to his own academic and literary habitat, Mr. Epstein makes a good case that much American intellectual snobbery ''has its roots in the cultural inferiority that Americans have felt in comparison with their European counterparts.'' He then pronounces himself an Anglophile. ''Being well educated and openly distinguished has always seemed easier in England than in the United States, where either quality could be held against one, especially in public life,'' he writes.

Finally, having concluded that snobbery is an intrinsic part of the American way of life as well as of his own, Mr. Epstein feels a need to condemn it. He quotes Marcel Proust as writing that ''snobbery is a grave disease, but it is localized and so does not utterly corrupt the soul.'' Mr. Epstein cannot agree. He prefers to imagine a day when all injustice is eliminated, ''when fairness rules, and kindness and generosity, courage and honor are rightly revered.'' In other words, he concedes with regret, snobbery is here to stay.

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