Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dog Pile on the Snobs!

Earlier this month I wrote about how out of touch Lexus – or perhaps their ad agency – is with the public. ("Lexus Gets Some Bad Advertising Advice.") They are so enamored with their own jingle, they can't imagine a world in which we won't recognize it, even from just a few notes. ("Lexus, I know the Law & Order 'Bom, Bom,' and you are no 'Bom, Bom.'")

As a result, the ads featuring a rich person playing the forgettable jingle for another rich person to let him or her know that they are about to receive a luxury car, falls flat for me. I heard from more than a few people who agreed – saying the spots actually confused them. Envy, lust, yearning – these are emotions advertisers usually shoot for. Confusion? Not so much.

I'm now thrilled to write about other car manufacturers piling on another ridiculous aspect of the long-running Lexus campaign: the giant bows.

Honda's new spokesperson, Patrick Warburton, brilliantly mocks the luxury car makers with his trademark sardonic arch of an eyebrow. (Of course, Honda also owns Acura – which at one time flirted with the giant car bows, but even they are now trying to tone things down with their "Season of Reason" spots.)

Warburton, who you may know as "David Puddy," "Joe Swanson," or "Kronk," opens the spot by asking, "Are you a millionaire?" Then he walks up on a new Honda festooned with a ridiculous giant bow. "No?" he adds, "Well then you probably don't give people cars as presents," and he drags the bow off the car, letting it fall to the ground disdainfully. Genius.

Brilliant too that at the end of the spot this millionaire actor tells us that he's giving this particular car to his niece – and he starts putting the bow back on the car. I haven't felt so good about being a Have Not in decades.

And now Buick has gotten in on the bow bashing. And let me tell you, as someone with a Buick in his past, if Buick is making fun of you – you're having a bad day.

In this spot, a man presents his girlfriend/wife with a luxury car, complete with The Bow. She turns to thank him, but unfortunately for him, at that moment a Buick drives by, catching her eye. She's hypnotized by the beauty and grace of the Buick – bow draped luxury car be damned.

I feel bad for the guy. It's like taking a date to Ruth's Chris Steak House and then on the way home you pass a Red Lobster and she says, "ooh, I just loooove Red Lobster!" Talk about flushing your money down the toilet.

Anyway, the point is, Lexus and their one percenter clientele are living in a different world. As the world economy crumbles around us, will they stick with their message of joyous inequality? Probably. After all, if we can't rub our success in other people's faces, how can we tell how much better than them we are?

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Lexus Gets Some Bad Advertising Advice

An inflated sense of self-importance is one of the most unattractive qualities an individual can have. But when a pompous windbag indignantly asks, "do you know who I am?!" it's easy enough to perform a combination shoulder shrug-eye roll while lethargically exhaling a simple "nope." (Can you tell I used to work in the hospitality industry?) So when an entire company asks the equivalent question, it's time for a reality check.

I haven't seen a company as in love with itself as Lexus since…well, ever.

Lexus is airing two television spots this holiday season that feature people giving each other Lexii for Christmas. I have personally never received, nor given, a vehicle for the holidays, but I guess there are people out there who do this sort of thing. Of course what with a recession, high unemployment, and flagging consumer confidence, some of the 99 percenters may find the premise in bad taste, but hey, Lexus is a luxury car company and they should just dance with the ones that brung 'em.

The offending concept in the spots is the way the Lexus recipient learns they are getting the car. In each case, the car givers are using variations of what is apparently the Lexus "theme song" to break the news.

In the "One Percenter Family Spot" the crafty dad and kids have customized a song in the Guitar Hero video game, calling it "Mom's Gift." Mom begins to jam on the guitar, and she suddenly recognizes the song. Wait - somebody pinch me, I'm getting the car of my dreams! (Note to self, work on sarcasm font.)

In the "One Percenter Hipster Twins Spot", a young couple with matching asexual haircuts use ring tones on their trendy smart phones to play the alleged "Lexus theme" song. The man (the facial hair is the tip off) is tickled pink that his wife/girlfriend/twin sister/brother has purchased him the car of HIS dreams!

Here's the problem: the Lexus theme song? It's not much of a theme song. Forget that the Guitar Hero and ringtone versions are, as would be reasonably expected, poor renditions of the song – tinny and badly mixed. The song itself is as uninspired and forgettable as a jingle can be. I saw both spots multiple times before I could figure out just what it was that made the mom's and the hipster's eyes light up. It's a badly conceived, poorly executed concept.

"Oh, Mike you're just a crank, bitter that nobody's ever bought you a Lexus. Or a Datsun even."

Perhaps, but go ahead, smartypants, hum the Lexus theme song. Can you at least describe it. Of course you can't. I can't, and I've been sitting here watching these dopey ads over and over again as I write this.

Poor Lexus. They've invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a non-descript jingle and then listened to the sycophantic ad agency that told them, "oh, everyone knows the Lexus song. Anyone who's anyone LOVES that song!"

Guess again.

A classic example of an inflated sense of self-importance resulting in wasted ad dollars and media impressions.

So Lexus, in answer to the somewhat indignantly-asked question, "do you know what our theme song is?" I'm happy to shrug my shoulders, roll my eyes, and say, "nope."

Friday, April 22, 2011

Pennies from Heaven

Spite is not one of the seven deadly sins, but my family has raised it to an art form at the very least. Case in point, I recently received a parking ticket in the People's Republic of Arlington (Virginia) for parking in a residential area where resident stickers are required at all times. Did I do the crime? Absolutely. In fact, my friend and I parked directly under the sign, we just didn't read it correctly. I do think the sign could have been a little clearer, but hey, this isn't DC where signs on the same post sometimes conflict with one another. I'm not fighting this ticket.

What I am doing, is paying my $50 fine in person. In pennies. 5,000 pennies. About 30 pounds worth.

When I tell this to my friend as I grab the ticket off my windshield, she thinks I'm joking. Or just running my mouth. No. I'm doing it. However, I know spite can be blind. I need to research it to make sure I can.

I read the back of the ticket. They certainly encourage you to pay by check – but they don't say you can't pay with cash. (Don't mail cash, don't put cash in their drop box, but nothing about a ban on cash payments.)

The county website specifically says you can pay in cash at the second floor cashier in the Department of Revenue in the county courthouse complex. Oh, it's on.

By this point, I estimate I've spent about 10 minutes on this project. A project I've codenamed: "Operation Copperhead Spite." I could sit down and write a check to the county, address and stamp an envelope in just under a minute. But this is going to be more satisfying. Isn't it?

I let a few weeks go by to see if I'll come to my senses and just write the stupid check; the ticket, thanks to the principle of sedimentation, sinks into a pile of papers in the backseat of my car and slips out of my mind. Then I receive a letter in the mail from the county. It reminds me that I have received a parking ticket and I have until the end of April to pay it, or incur a 50% penalty.

This reminder is actually a pretty good service. What if the ticket had blown away, been snatched off my windshield by a prankster, or been lost? If that happens in DC, the next notice you get is after they've doubled the fine. No, Arlington is actually offering a consumer-friendly service. Of course, that's not how I see it at the time. Against the backdrop of Middle Eastern regimes crushing rebellions, I see this letter as a taunt – a thumb in my eye. I am more determined than ever to stand up to these bullies in Arlington. I will pay my parking ticket in pennies on behalf of the Libyan people and oppressed people everywhere. Back to the internet!

Are coins an acceptable form of payment? U.S. coins are legal tender, right?

According to the U.S. Treasury, Title 31, Section 5103 of the U.S. Code states: "United States coins and currency…are legal tender for all debts, public charges, taxes, and dues."

Sounds cut and dry. Not so fast, Klein. Treasury goes on to say that while all U.S. coins are legal tender, not all legal tender is coins. Huh?

Businesses are free to establish policies with regard to which types of legal tender they accept. For example, some convenience stores and restaurants won't take bills larger than $20. Legal. But that's a private business, surely a government agency has to take – uh oh – busses and ironically, parking meters, don't take pennies. But that's a function of the machinery they use not being able to take the small coins; a cashier with a drawer can take pennies, right? We shall see.

Having excavated the ticket from the back seat, I head to my bank to collect my copper. The teller either doesn't hear me or refuses to believe me – she tries to hand me two twenties and a ten.

"No, I need it in change. Pennies actually."

She stares at me, as do the three other tellers who have abruptly stopped their counting and sorting.

"I don't think I have that many," she says.

"It's two boxes," another teller chimes in.

The bank manager in the lobby has overheard the whole exchange and authoritatively enters the teller area. She's tall, thin, and blonde and speaks with a thick Slavic accent. "Of course he shall have his pennies," she pronounces. And with a subtle tilt of her head adds, "The vault."

As two tellers scurry off to the vault, the manager looks at me with the slightly crooked smile of a woman who knows from standing up to tyranny. I imagine her grandfather once told Joseph Stalin to "shove it." Right before he relocated to Siberia.

A few minutes later, a teller wheels out a cart with, as promised, two thick, heavy, cardboard boxes of rolled pennies. As I pick them up and feel their heft I realize what a jerk I am. Thirty pounds worth of pennies. Really? Idiot.

On the drive over to the courthouse I start imagining the cashier will just take the pennies without batting an eyelash. That would really eat a spiteful person up. I know because it's what I would do – try to out spite the spiter.

I get a parking space in front of the courthouse and carefully read the sign, feeding the meter to the two hour maximum. I know an ironic set-up when I see one.

I wonder if my backpack will have to be X-rayed. I realize the boxes with 100 rolls of coins could look like 100 shotgun shells. Luckily, there is no security and I head up to the cashier unmolested.

The smiling cashier looks up at me and I hold up the parking ticket – "can I pay this here?" He smiles again and waves me over – and now the subterfuge.

I pull out my money clip and ask if I can pay cash. He nods and smiles again. "Sure!"

And Operation Copperhead Spite is a go.

I put my money clip back in my pocket and pull the first big box of pennies out of my bag, gingerly placing it on his counter. I bend down for the next box, and when I come up, I see this smiling agent of local government has lost his good humor. And after weeks of planning - my day is made.

"We don't take those," he says.

Now I am the one smiling. "Ah, but you must," I respond, opening up the email on my Blackberry where I have sent myself the pertinent sections of the U.S. Code, and U.S. Treasury and Arlington County websites.

"We're not a bank," he tries.

"No, you're the government. It's even more necessary for you to accept this legal tender," and I dramatically sweep my arm across all the pennies before me. (Seriously, I did.)

He takes a third approach, "We can't take them because they're rolled and so we'd have to count them."

Even he knows how ridiculous this sounds, and I respond simply by staring at him.

"I'll go get a supervisor," he says, hopping off his chair.

I'm giddy with excitement – the showdown is coming.

After five minutes, he returns and bursts my bubble.

"We think accounting might need the pennies, so we'll take them," he says.

No, wait. This isn't right. As Michael Palin once said, "I came here for an argument!"

Maybe I can still get one going.

"Need them?" I sneer at him. "You have to take them."

"Like I said, sir, we'll take them. I'll come around and get the boxes."

And like that, Operation Copperhead Spite is over. It's consumed about 90 minutes over two-and-half weeks, time spent doing research, at the bank, at the courthouse, and of course, driving to and from all these places.

Was it worth it? Well, I do have a small sense of satisfaction that some poor schlub in accounting had thirty pounds worth of pennies dumped on his or her desk on Thursday. But on the other hand, that person didn't write the parking regulation or even issue my ticket. They are what we call, "collateral damage." Maybe the story of the great Penny Rebellion of April 21st will make its way around the office and up the ladder all the way to the County Commissioner? Probably not.

Perhaps the person in accounting lives on the street where I got my ticket. Yeah, that's it. That's what I'll tell myself. Also, I saved a stamp.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Who Wants to Lead?

Monday at sundown, Jews all over the world will begin celebrating Passover. The holiday commemorates the Jews' exodus from Egypt and enslavement.

Part of that exodus involved a 40-year trek through the desert to the Promised Land. The journey was led by Moses, who had just partnered with G-d to successfully "negotiate" the Jews' release from Pharaoh's servitude. It would seem Moses was a far better negotiator than desert guide.

So why did the Jews journey take 40 years? There are jokes, (Moses was a typical man – unable to stop and ask for directions), and theological theories, (the Jews faith in G-d wasn't complete and a new generation needed to replace the non-believers).

No matter what the reason, I think it's impressive the Jews stuck with their guy. Barring divine intervention, they just figured, "hey, the guy got us out of Egypt, he'll get us to the Promised Land. Eventually."

The story gets me thinking about leadership. About the type of person who can lead other people. What makes us follow someone? And what makes someone think they should be followed? Obviously there's more than a touch of megalomania with a side of egotism, and a sprinkle of narcissism. But in our times today, there's also more than a little masochism.

For example, last week House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) unveiled his 2012 budget for the U.S. government. The budget greatly reduces federal spending. Mr. Ryan says that he's cutting back on spending money the government doesn't have. Opponents of his plan say the cuts are draconian and that they will destroy the social safety net so many Americans rely on. Okay.

Then, as is always the case, the pundits took to the airwaves to defend or attack the plan. The Democrat sound bite – a time-honored and effective one – was that Ryan was declaring war on old people and poor women and children. James Carville goes so far as to say that the message from Congressman Ryan to seniors is: "Drop dead!"

Now I don't personally know Congressman Ryan, but I find it highly suspect that he wants America's seniors to die, cold and penniless, huddled in a corner of an abandoned tenement – but I guess I'm a glass is half full kind of guy.

What I do know from my time working in Congress is that writing these bills is hard work. Mr. Ryan and his staff and other Members of Congress and their staffs spent days and days away from their families and friends – ignoring their personal lives to come up with what they believed was a common sense approach to our nation's economic woes. In other words, whether you agree with what they proposed or not – they were trying to lead.

They turn this budget document in and what happens? Do they get a, "well, thanks for taking a stab at this, but we're not so sure about where some of this is headed. Look at our take."? No. They get, "hey, look everybody, these guys hate old people and want young kids with autism to die!"

Now, of course this cuts both ways. Republicans are, after all, no stranger to hyperbole themselves.

But all this extreme distortion and misrepresentation makes me wonder – who in their right mind would want to make the many personal sacrifices that public service calls for, only to be labeled a "child hater," or a "heartless murderer of senior citizens?" Why would any reasonable person with good ideas want to put up with this?

And that's the answer. No reasonable person would.

That's why we're left with egomaniacal, megalomaniacal, masochistic madmen and women. And it's why I suspect we're going to do a lot of wandering before a generation that won't put up with it is in charge. Or before somebody just asks for directions.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Whose Fault?

The 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs got underway last night and my Washington Capitals pulled off a nerve-racking victory over the New York Rangers in overtime of game 1. I wasn't at the game, but I'll be at game 2 on Friday. Even though I wasn't there, I know the energy in the building was palpable. In addition, I also know, despite not being in attendance, that the Caps fans performed one of the stupidest, most annoying, and by the way, grammatically incorrect, cheers in professional sports.

They always do. And I'm sorry to say, I think it originates in my section.

Here's what happens: The Caps score. A few seconds later, the public address announcer officially reports the goal – who scored it, who got the assists, and the time of the goal. (And he says it twice, by the way. Something we'll deal with another time.) Then, as soon as he is done, a handful of fans – I'll guess 100 throughout the arena – stand up and with a visual cue from the Head Moron, count out the goals the Caps have scored in the game. If it was the first goal, they shout, "one," if it's the third goal, the count out, "one, two, three," and then they point at the opposing goalie and proclaim: "all your fault!"

Anyone with a third grade education can already see the grammatical problem. "All your fault," is kind of what they call a sentence fragment. They could fix it by adding an "it's," or a "they're." I'd even accept it if they used emphasis, hitting the "your," as in, "you know all those goals we just counted out for you? Well, they're all YOUR fault."

Okay, that's the first problem.

The second problem, and this is something my then seven-year old (soccer) goal keeper daughter pointed out, sometimes, it's not the goalie's fault. Sometimes the defense breaks down, coughs up a loose puck, miscommunicates, or even scores an own goal. Why is that the goalie's fault? How about, "one, two, three, mostly your fault!"

Wait, it gets stupider. We've been there when the Caps have gone on a scoring streak, lighting a goalie up for 3 goals on just a few shots. The visiting team pulls their goalie and sends in the back up. Then the Caps score again. And the count starts from one. If I were that goalie, I'd skate over to the Head Counting Moron in Charge and say, "hey, man, I let that last one in, but those other three? That other guy on the bench – he let those in. Don't put those on me." Perhaps, "one, two, three, that guy's fault, and four, your fault!"

There's another problem. And this is really a general problem I have with most "passionate" sports fans. They often lack a reality filter. They run their mouths when they shouldn't. Perhaps it's that I married into Red Sox nation where superstition is the norm; where counting your chickens before they're hatched is akin to cannibalism. Perhaps it's just that I'm not a moron – counting or otherwise. But when your team is losing, let's say, 4 to nothing, and you score a lone goal. The counting taunt just seems silly.

There's a time and place for most things, but I'm pretty sure there's no place for taunting a hockey goalie who is beating you soundly.

"No, man, we're getting inside his head," a counting moron might say. Well, no you aren't. First, he can't actually hear you. Second, even if he could, I've never heard a professional athlete in any sport say anything other than that home fan taunts psych them up and energize them to perform even better.

If you really want to taunt a goalie, and not sound like a dolt doing it, I think you must look back to look forward. Go back to the old school goalie taunt where after he lets one in the whole building slowly chant his name, syllable by syllable – now that's a good one.

"Luuuund-kvist, Luuuund-kvist."

I wouldn't mind hearing that tomorrow night. And since I believe that chant was started by Ranger fans at Madison Square Garden, maybe we can help make our guests feel more at home.

Monday, April 11, 2011

What’s in a Name?

The writers group that I run, the Arlington Writers Group, recently had a discussion about the writer's online presence. We discussed social media, websites, blogs, Twitter, and more. Members who are well entrenched in the online world, such as Michael J. Sullivan and Jamie Todd Rubin, argued that in today's world, writers need to have an online platform.

Some members looked upon this discussion with a gimlet eye: "this all seems like a big pain in the butt," one member decried.

Personally, I fall somewhere between. I understand how a platform to communicate directly with fans and potential fans would be a valuable tool to the published, or about to be published, author. But I'm not exactly there yet; my YA novel sits in its 17th trimester. So do I need an online presence?

I would like potential freelance writing clients to see samples of my work, and I make those available here and on my company website, but really, do potential clients want to read me waxing poetic about my quest to find the perfect egg roll, or why nobody seems able to actually stop at stop signs anymore, or which car brand has the most inconsiderate, self-centered drivers? Perhaps, but I sometimes have a hard time seeing it. As a result, I censor myself, refusing to subject the world to my ravings. I feel better about myself, until I come across excessive cyber navel-gazing and then I wonder, "well why not me? I can gaze into the heart of my navel as good as any of them!"

And so I resolved to give myself more of an online presence. I'll stop neglecting this blog that I started several years ago; however, I will try not to post for posting's sake. And then I got really inspired. What if I carry my YA novel to term finally, or labor is finally induced by my writing friends who constantly try to dose me with mental Pitocin? What then of my online presence, my platform?

Perhaps I should purchase a domain name for a future website with my name. I know there is a commercial photographer named Michael Klein. I also share my name with a journalist with the Philadelphia Inquirer. Middle initial? Nah, I'm not crazy about that. First of all, I don't really want to be "Michael L. Klein." Seems silly. Also, when writing it in a url, all those tall letters blend together and confusion will surely ensue.

I thought for a moment about writing out my full name, sure "Michael" and "Klein" are not very unique names, but "Lawrence" as a middle name? Come on, that's got to improve my odds of distinctiveness. But no. Google quickly introduced me to Michael Lawrence Klein, who, though several years older than me, almost shares my birthday.

And if Wikipedia is to be believed, this MLK is quite an achiever. Born in London, he is the Laura H. Carnell Professor of Science and Director of the Institute for Computational Molecular Science in the College of Science and Technology at Temple University. Prior to Temple, we held a prestigious chair at U of P. And our research into computational chemistry, particularly statistical mechanics, intermolecular interactions, and modeling of condensed phases and biophysical systems – whatever that is – is among the most highly cited in the field, (take THAT, other scientist people!) In 1999, we were honored with the Aneesur Rahman prize. And as you all know, that is the highest honor given by the American Physical Society for work in computational physics.

The good news is Dr. Klein does NOT own a website with our name, so I may yet be able to use my full name in a web address. Then again, I'd hate to mislead all those computational chemists and global fans of intermolecular interaction. Maybe A little clunky. I'll think of something.

Friday, April 08, 2011

In DC, Even Film Nerds are Policy Nerds

It's universally known that Washington, DC is a company town and the company is government, but I was surprised to find that even DC's film nerds can't stop wonking off for an evening.

I attended an advanced screening of the new Joe Wright film, "Hanna," on Thursday night. The film is a fantasy spy thriller starring the stunning, but unpronounceable, Saoirse Ronan, the misspelled Cate Blanchett, and the wayward Eric Bana. The film was entertaining, and it was fun watching Ms. Ronan, backed by throbbing Chemical Brothers tracks, kick, punch, stab, and shoot her way across Africa and Europe as she seeks to settle some family scores.

The screening was generously sponsored by The Washington Post and they promised a film discussion and reception afterwards. Would the filmmakers be there? I doubted it. Would representatives of Focus Features comment on the continuing rise of butt kicking young heroines ("Kick-Ass," "Sucker Punch," etc.)? Perhaps, I thought.

No. The Post offered up their resident film critic, Ann Hornaday, Style section editor Ned Martel, and – wait for it – a living, breathing former spook! Peter Earnest, a 35-year veteran of covert operations for the CIA and Executive Director of DC's Spy Museum was on hand. Not too shabby.

Martel opened the discussion by asking Earnest how the filmmakers did at capturing the world of spies – a reasonable question to get the crowd warmed up. Earnest buried his tongue firmly in his cheek, where it would remain for the rest of the night, and answered as we all thought he would: "fun to watch, but not close."

Having studied film critically at high levels, and having attended numerous film festivals, press junket screenings, and film society events, I then expected the discussion to focus on the film itself.

But this is Washington, DC.

Questions from the audience covered CIA and NSA recruitment ads heard on the radio this week, finding a means for analyzing the patriotism of new intelligence recruits in the age of job-jumping young hipsters, whether women make better spies than men, and whether women have broken the glass ceiling in the intelligence community.

Really, people?

Perhaps the funniest element in all of this was that Earnest spoke at length on each question, but actually never answered a single one. Once a spy always a spy, I guess. (Or perhaps he's still active – wouldn't being the director of a spy museum be an outstanding cover?)

With the discussion going nowhere fast and buried in spy double-speak, (which differs from other Washington double-speak in that it is said more emphatically and forcefully and when parsed actually means all possible answers), I felt obliged to try to get the conversation back on a film track.

I threw a few questions out to Hathaway, specifically "how did she think the film would do?"

Perhaps she was caught up in the excitement of non-answer answers, or maybe she was thinking about the wine and hors d'oeuvres awaiting us nearby, but she didn't really commit to an answer. But this is Washington, so I played the role of good company man: I smiled, nodded, and moved on to the reception.