Archive for the ‘Better Thought Next Time’ Category

Better Thought Next Time, No. 5 (Allstate Advertisement)

Saturday, July 23rd, 2011


The advertisement sponsored Allstate Insurance Company, below, appears on page 50 of the July 25, 2011 edition of Time magazine. In it Allstate lends its support to the Save Teen and Novice Driver Uniform Protection Act, federal legislation intended to save teen lives lost to car accidents. I have no quarrel with the sentiment of the ad. What I do have to wonder is, What was the copywriter thinking when she/he came up with this headline? —



Here’s how I imagine the typical reader encounters and absorbs the ad’s message.

After turning page 49 to look at pages 50-51, the reader likely looks briefly at the left side of the two-page spread, her glance  taking in the picture of a prescription drug container spilling its capsule-like contents. OK, the reader now has placed the idea of “drugs” fresh in her consciousness. Then, looking up at the first line of copy (the attention-grabbing words in the largest font), the reader sees the first line’s phrase: “The #1 killer of teens”.  The reader blends those two items (drugs + top-teen-killer) and finds they’re compatible. Yes, she’s aware teens die from abuse of drugs, and it’s a big problem. It sounds reasonable to assume drugs are the top killer of teens.

Then comes the writer’s “Gotcha!” moment and it’s a good one: a switcheroo. It tells her she’s mistaken. The split-second link her mind forged is wrong. She looks more carefully at the capsules spilling from the bottle and sees they are miniature cars. At best (the ad writer ought to have predicted) she thinks this odd, but she’ll keep this oddity in mind. But the text calls for her to please keep reading, to be set straight with the correct answer. Helpfully, not only does the second line reveal drugs is NOT the answer to the riddle, but the words guide her in the right direction with a teaser. Not the final answer, mind you, but a clue that will help her find the answer: Think of something unrelated to “a dealer.”

So: the top teen killer is not drugs since their usual source is a dealer (at least if the copywriter wants her to envision hard drugs, and exclude patent drugs stolen from a parent’s medicine cabinet). The answer is some causal agent that does NOT come from a dealer. Think. Think. OK, the reader’s mind goes into second gear, running through the possibilties. Guns? Suicidal behaviors? Violence perpetrated against teens? All good choices; she’ll keep them handy. The clue also helps eliminate possibilities. For example, one not good answer, since it violates the criteria (that a “dealer” cannot be involved), is cars. The majority of cars, new cars certainly, still come from dealers. As for acquiring a used car, this often means checking out the goods of a used car dealer. “Car + dealer” are terms linked in the human mind because the two terms are connected as a matter of routine commerce. So, the top killer of teens is not cars, the reader concludes.


It’s hard for me to believe the advertisement’s copywriter intended to confuse and frustrate and anger the reader with a second switch-back (one of ugly temper: “Ha-ha! I fed you a false premise! Try and keep up with the game, sucker!”).

Which means, while this advertisement doesn’t qualify as an Epic Fail, it sure is a plain failure.


Odds and Ends – 2

Friday, August 6th, 2010


Things Overheard in Bookstores

The Huffington Post has a story on ridiculous things overheard in bookstores.  On Twitter, the hashtag #bookstorebingo is where people are sharing these funny remarks. Yet “clueless” remarks are probably no less rampant in bookstores than in any other speciality store (expect there to be a follow-up investigation: ridiculous things overheard in sex shops. In a bookstore, as in any shop, it is the job of clerks to turn the clueless into the clued in. The disregard of this ethic is why I remember an exchange I overheard some years ago in the now-defunct Crown Books in Washington, DC.  A college age customer approached the store clerk and asked where he could find Billy Budd. The clerk’s reply: “Check over there in the Biography section.”

Color Coordinated

Election day approaches which means utility poles and front yards in Washington DC are being dressed with campaign signs for local candidates. Vince Gray is running for mayor, Kwame Brown for DC Council Chairman, and Vincent Orange is also vying for Council Chair. Mr. Gray, Mr. Brown, Mr. Orange. Who are these characters really? What is their backstory? One imagines only Tarantino, only Mr. Quentin Tarantino could do it justice.

Not Ready for Video

This morning, while checking the Washington Post’s website, I came across a short video in which Ned Martel, the editor of the newspaper’s once-celebrated, now tired, Style section critiques the premier episode of the Bravo series, Real Housewives of D.C.  Martel’s performance is not easy to watch. You’ll probably wonder why there was no one at the video shoot speaking up in favor of doing another take. You might thinks you’re watching a sound check run-thought, or maybe an early thinking-out-loud session — thoughts that are still being formed. Martel’s profession requires marshaling words with precision; unfortunately what the Washington Post has allowed to be posted is a dribble of verbal bungling. In just the initial 60 seconds the speaker refers redundantly to “this first premiere” and describes a high-energy cast member with the oxymoronic phrase, “so enervated and quick.” (The mistaken use of “enervated” is untangled in a “usage note” here.)  Martel deserves better support from his employer. Here’s hoping he bounces back stronger . . . in time for his second premiere.


Better Thought Next Time, No.4 (Richard Corliss)

Saturday, August 1st, 2009

You begin with a few simple thoughts.  Maybe you’re sad over the closing of a nearby video rental store.  Perhaps you’re finding your Netflix subscription wonderful but not perfect.  Maybe it’s beginning to strike you that, my God, people sure are growing fatter.  Then comes your editor asking, Where the hell’s your piece for this week’s Time magazine?  You approach the keyboard where your three thoughts congeal into embarrassingly silly prose — a rant you (or more likely, that exaggerating editor of yours) decide to title, “Why Netflix Stinks.” 

What I’m describing is a throw-away piece by Time movie critic Richard Corliss in the magazine’s August 10, 2009, edition.  The article is online, here.  It’s not worthy of a critic whose elegant and well-argued film reviews I’ve been enjoying for a long time.

Corliss, whose voice is assured and accurate in his film reviews, opens his argument with a strained predicate:

“It’s Friday night, and you want to watch a movie at home with that special someone.  You could go to a video store and rent a film, and instantly it’s yours; popcorn extra.  Or you could go to Netflix, and the movie will arrive, earliest, on Tuesday.  Here’s hoping you had a Plan B for your big date.”

Unless the “special someone” is a stranger picked up in a bar earlier Friday evening, I’m not buying into this scenario.  A “special someone” is someone you’ve had conversations with before, maybe even talked about films with, more than once.  Why, it could even be a spouse or partner with whom you’ve been sharing a home — and a DVD player.  A relationship in which the couple plans things in advance.  One or the other makes plans so that beer and toilet paper don’t run out; pays bills in advance of the electricity being shut off; has necessities on hand in advance of the blessed arrival of a quiet weekend.  What a concept!  Plus, planning in advance turns out to be a widely applicable tool.  I bet with practice it wouldn’t be long before the Average Joe is managing a 4-DVD Netflix subscription in a way that places one or more must-see films in the house every Friday evening.  Yes: Plan A, all the way.

(Not to shill for Netflix, but you have to wonder why Corliss conveniently forgets that Netflix provides a “Watch Instantly” feature.  It streams movies instantly to your computer monitor or TV.  Is he looking for an excuse not to watch a movie on his “big date”?  [I’m seeing Groucho’s eyebrows flutter at the mention of “Plan B.”]  Only in the article’s next to last paragraph does Corliss suddenly remember, Oh yes, you can get thousands of Netflix titles instantly, even on a Friday night.  Did he think readers would forget the premise of the piece after reading for two minutes?)

Like some anti-romantic comedy, Corliss’ article goes downhill after that opening “date night” scene, passing over moguls of illogic on its way to a morose finale.  He says he has “misgivings” about Netflix’s usefulness compared to that of a well-stocked bricks-and-mortar video store.   He warns ominously (cue the theme from Jaws) about “the possibly harmful effect that Netflix may have on American society.”

Well, even Corliss has to concede there is no video store within walking distance of his home, or anyone else’s home in America, that is as well-stocked as Netflix.  Yet Corliss waxes nostalgic for video stores that once had movies “you could see right away” — conveniently forgetting those fun times when a cassette, previously rented by an irresponsible viewer, would require you to spend precious time rewinding to its playable start; not to mention those countless instances when the tapes and DVD’s were defective and unwatchable. 

In a segment of the article captioned, “Wait Time: Eternity” (you hope that was the editor’s dumb idea, not the author’s), Corliss complains Netflix sometimes has a “wait” time for unexpectedly popular titles (he cites the scarcity of the 1974 Taking of Pelham One Two Three in the wake of the remake this summer).  Yet he fails to acknowledge a video store’s shelves would in those circumstances similarly disappoint the instant-gratification crowd.  He says the Netflix folks “sometimes” don’t put the correct movie in your envelope, and later in the piece he ratchets up the irate rhetoric by referring to “botched orders.”  I don’t know: that’s never happened to me under my Netflix subscription. 

Corliss yearns for happy days of yore spent visiting his local video store, befriended by a “budding Quentin Tarantino, eager to point renters toward some arcane masterpiece from Italy or Hong Kong.”  Earth to Corliss:  There’s a reason the lapel-grabbing Quentin Tarantino and obsessive video-store clerks of his ilk are objects of derision and the butt of jokes.  If Tarantino is the face, the voice, and the personality Corliss sees when ruminating on halcyon days, what can you say — other than chacun à son goût.   

At the finale, Corliss’ thoughts enter the mishagoss zone, where he goes for broke — pushing the nuclear option, as it were.  He takes a page from the inimitable Craig Ferguson, shouting: “I’ve figured it all out: why everything sucks!”  For Corliss, Netflix is why.  It’s Netflix that’s making us passive, inert, fat and flabby. 

Time for Congress and the President to act?

Better Thought Next Time, No. 3 (Joel Stein)

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

Joel Stein, humorist and frequent contributor to Time magazine, where his pieces are often the best thing between the covers, is a very funny fellow indeed.  True, his humor is mostly adolescent, and if you’ve been reading his stuff for years, like me, you may be wondering, when is this guy ever going to grow up already?  The answer, I suspect, is never, not ever.  Because on that day he’d have to find another line of work.

Joel Stein has a blog.  Let me correct that:  he had a blog.  Let me correct my correction:  he has a blog but it’s been defunct for nearly three years.  He stopped posting after a final entry dated September 6, 2006.  And from what I saw of his other posts, well, let’s just say abandonment was a mercy.  His heart wasn’t in it (translation: there was no money in it, and as Dr. Johnson said, no one but a fool ever wrote except for money).  Foolishly, I have a blog, and my most recent post is the one you’re enjoying this very moment.  Or it could be that my most recent post is an even newer one, and though hard to believe, the newer post might be even more of a joy to read than this!   

So the question I’m asking is, who is smarter, Joel or me?  And who has more endurance when it counts?  (This may come down to a split decision.)

Before my theme becomes completely stale, I wanted to mention an article by Stein that appeared in the April 16, 2009 edition of Time.  There Joel ruminates at great length on his and other guys’ penises.  He does so  under the guise of examining the great circumcision debate (“Joel Stein Contemplates Circumcision (For His Son),” here).  I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with Joel thinking and writing about his or other people’s genitals.  It’s a potentially humorous subject and Stein is a funny guy (or did I say that already?)  But the article contains one very odd thought, actually a strange thought accompanied by a strange image, that occurred to him in the course of comparing Americans and Europeans.  Stein writes:

“Our penises are clean and sleek and new like Frank Gehry skyscrapers, while theirs are crumbling, ancient edifices inhabited by fat old men in hats.”

Let’s pause for moment.  (You wanted to catch your breath anyway, right?)

OK, then.  Someone’s got to step up to the plate — and I volunteer to be that someone — and ask whether Mr. Stein has even the teensy-weensiest bit of familiarity with the architectural designs of Frank Gehry’s skyscrapers?  Not Gehry’s sprawling horizontal buildings, like the Experience Music Project, with their shiny smooth expanses of titanium and stainless steel, but his skyscrapers.  I’m asking the question rhetorically.  Non-judgmentally, too.

Consider Gehry’s proposed plans for a skyscraper in lower Manhattan:




Sleek?  In these photos do you see anything “sleek” (a word that requires smoothness)?   Hardly.  “Wrinkled-looking [with a] distinctly bumpy silhouette” is how the Gehry skyscraper was described by the NY Times.   Are there really a lot of folks out there who long to stroke this form? (Note to self:  Avoid eye-contact with J.S., lest his hand be raised.)

To read an author is to enter her mind.  Or in the case of Joel Stein, his mind, whenever he’s not stealing thoughts from her.  (I make a little joke, no?)  The consistently clever views that seize Stein’s mind, when put in English and down on paper, make me laugh.  But my message is this:  We can’t trust him with architecture.   He needs to bone up on it.

Now, food — food he knows about, as he’s shown here, here, and most squeemishly here.  I bet if Mr. Stein were to come across the items below (items introduced to my local Safeway some time ago) he would stop and stare and stare some more — and then come up with some funny way to mention this in a column.  Something I’ve been trying to do for weeks. 



They say Joel likes to Google his own name from time to time, something we all like to do.  But he adds this twist:  To protect his fragile ego he sets the search parameters to find only those articles in which the author of the piece writes that Stein is really “funny” and repeats that adjective at least five times within the article.

Hi Joel !

Better Thought Next Time, No. 2 (Chedd Airs)

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

Someone at Eat Smart Snacks thought it a good idea to concoct a comestible (or what purports to be a comestible) lovingly described as “corn and rice cheese puffs delicately seasoned with apple cinnamon and cheddar”:



Eat Smart Snacks assures us this is a “gourmet flavor.”  Effusive prose on the back of the bag extols the “exotic medley of flavors.” 

I should know by now that when food packaging pats itself on the back for the brilliant achievement of its contents, I’m being handed a clue to the questionable judgment of the thing’s begetter.  Someone at Eat Smart Snacks headquarters wasn’t thinking right to greenlight this exotic medley.  Someone’s tastebuds in the Eat Smart Kitchen weren’t functioning right since those buds failed to convey the distasteful flavor of these things.  They’re awful.  I know that’s a subjective opinion.  But they’re really awful.  And the cost of $3.99 for five ounces adds insult to injury. 

Avoid at all costs.

Better Thought Next Time, No. 1 (Steven Johnson)

Sunday, July 12th, 2009

Over at Time magazine, Steven Johnson wrote the June 15th cover story on how Twitter is affecting social communication (“How Twitter Will Change the Way We Live”).  Soon after the article appeared Twitter began to play an important role as a communications channel during post-election protests in Iran.  Johnson, the author of six books, has an engaging writing style on display throughout the Time piece.  But at one point the narrative hits the shoals, nearly wrecking his message. 

Early in the article Johnson describes how, at a day-long conference held in Manhattan on the subject of education reform, a large cohort of participants sereptitiously wrote and responded to tweets, creating a parallel stream of interactive commentary.  Johnson uses this example, which he describes in five paragraphs, to support as argument that Twitter significantly enlarged the conversation:

“And it gave the event an afterlife on the Web.  Yes, it was built entirely out of 140-character messages, but the sum total of these tweets added up to something truly substantive, like a suspension bridge made of pebbles.”


Johnson obviously wanted to end his lengthy anecdote with a memorable image.  He saw small bits coming together to form a large and useful construct.  How could he capture this phenomenon in a striking simile?  Something reality-based, not fanciful or fantastical, was needed.  Something to advance the purpose of the article, which was to lift readers’  skepticism about this silly Twitter fad.

I wonder if Johnson thought of the countless individual mud bricks that make up the Great Mosque of Djenne, a World Heritage Site in Mali?



Probably not.  All we know for sure is this:  Johnson was thinking of pebbles.  He was also remembering the dependable, albeit over-used, symbol of a bridge — a bridge that links society, that transports us to the future.  Could these ideas be conjoined?  Yes, literally, in the case of ancient Roman arch bridges built of stone and pebble-rich concrete, such as this one near Torino, Italy: 



But something else captured his thoughts:




Whoa, again!

The sina qua non of a suspension bridge is its cabling system: the sweep of cables suspended between towers and the vertical suspender cables that carry the weight of the deck below.  Pebbles might become a constituent of the towers, but how in hell tiny stones can transmogrify into cables (multiple strands of metal wire) is beyond my poor power of imagination — literary, metaphorical, religious, or otherwise.   

The simile Johnson chose, likening Twitter to “a suspension bridge made of pebbles,” is a diversion from literal truth.  But then so are many similes.  The suspension bridge image dies not from lack of literal truth, but from the absense of any intuitive appeal or poetic beauty.  The simile is nonsensical.  Worse still, it stirs up thoughts of failure and collapse every bit as disturbing as the Biblical vision of a “house built on sand” in Matthew 7:24-27.  In a perverse way it undermines the author’s positive view of Twitter’s potential.

OK, I concede this is a minor misstep in a long article.  But one wonders whether the vaunted editors at Time saw this or were asleep at the switch.

Better thought next Time.

Better Thought Next Time (on the launch pad)

Sunday, July 12th, 2009

Today I’m launching a new Category of periodic postings.  Each piece will feature my brief commentary responding to a piece of writing, a video, or other cultural artifact I’ve come across that, for some reason or other, doesn’t ring true, misses the mark, or strikes me as just plain dumb.  Virtually every generalist blogger goes into critical reaction mode from time to time, under the guise of  revealing pet peeves, or railing against offensive people and arguments, or pointing out errors in the work of the elect.  All I’m doing is putting my own activity of this sort under one roof.  I thought of calling the series, dyspeptically, “You Dumb Sh*t!,” but I am no longer of swearing age and besides, I saw a value in adopting a label with a hopeful tone.  Hence, “Better Thoughts Next Time.” 

Blogging can turn self-expression into narcissistic preening.  A know-it-all attitude can hijack one’s prose.  Maybe it’s the cheapness of the medium, its dryness, that prevents growth of a richness and grace in thought.  I don’t want “Better Thought Next Time” to become a ghetto of snarking.  So, under this tag I will place only cases in which an established author, or speaker of high reputation, or recognized creator, exhibits a momentary lapse of judgment.  I’m looking to shine a light on the rare hiccup of error (an example being a  superb writer who temporarily succumbs to the lure of a terrible mixed metaphor).  I will try to inject humor into my comments.  Cheap and easy targets will find no home here.  I seek out slips of the credible, not mistakes of the incorrigible. 

(Expect to see nothing related to Sarah Palin.)