Wednesday, February 29

Speaking For SUVs: The Lorax?

Some people are saying the recent decision to cross-market the upcoming movie treatment of the Lorax and the Mazda's CX-5 could be the marketing mismatch of the decade. In a commercial featuring an animated CX-5 driving through a Truffula tree forest, the narrator suggests that the CX-5 has received "the only Truffula tree seal of approval."

Emblazoned on screen while the narrator touts the endorsement is the seal, proclaiming "Certified Truffula Tree Friendly. We Care An Awful Lot!" Only the Lorax seems a bit perturbed in the spot, poking grouchy fun at the repetitiveness of the spot and demanding equal billing at the end.

An anti-commericalism film that promotes cars? 

One of the many growing complaint columns about the commercial, this one by Devin Faraci, summed: "Sometimes I feel like satire is dead, and that's because everything in this world is so insane and screwed up that making fun of it feels redundant."

Faraci cares an awful lot. But he doesn't care more than Zozo. Zozo is a Hensen-created creature that was created to help educate children and their families about the environment. This includes how people think about combustion vehicles in general. Since the blowback began, Zozo has been voicing concern on Twitter and recently joined the "Rethinking the Automobile" project by Mark Gordon.

"This advertising campaign goes directly against the message and spirit of the Lorax," said Zozo in a release put out by OpenPlans. "The Lorax speaks for the trees, not the SUVees! I urge Universal, Mazda and their partners to immediately remove from circulation any and all advertising that uses Dr. Seuss's character the Lorax to promote and sell Mazda automobiles."

But how serious is Mazda about the promotion of the CX-5 as an environmentally friendly SUV? Enough that it would boost its advertising budget by 25 percent. According to Car Pro, that means advertising will be about $325 million to embed its new term, Skyactiv technology, into the language.

The chief marketing officer for Mazda North America went so far as to say that the pairing of the Lorax and the CX-5 is a natural fit (probably because it gets 28 miles per gallon). Along with the campaign, Mazda also launched a test-drive program that would benefit the NEA Foundation with a donation up to $1 million in support of public school libraries.

On the other side of the spectrum, some in the petroleum and logging industries have said that the film unfairly attacks them. And that is a curious thing that makes the Faraci quote stand out all the more.

When you think of an environmental-themed book being made into a multimillion dollar movie being marketed by a car company that promotes test drives for books causing two benefiting suppliers to be up in arms (petroleum for cars and trees for paper), there isn't any room left for satire.

The only thing that could make it more interesting is if the people who make Snuggies came out against the film. (They look like thneeds.) But then again, I might be biased. The Lorax sports a mustache.

Monday, February 27

Filtering Content: Efficiency Or Liability?

A team of researchers led by Carnegie Mellon University neuroscientists has identified how different neural regions communicate with each other in order to determine what we visually pay attention to and what to ignore. The study is a breakthrough in visual cognition.

Although the findings will be primarily used to guide research in visual and attention deficit disorders, the discovery has some far-reaching implications. Specifically, it could shed some light on how brains are trained to seek out affirmation-related content and how we might retrain brains to be more objective or, in the case of marketing, better understand how to weigh new information for consideration.

How can you ask someone to consider a red pencil when they are already looking for a yellow pencil?

The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, used various brain imaging techniques to show exactly how the visual cortex and parietal cortex send direct information to each other through white matter connections in order to specifically pick out the information that we want to see.

For example, if the parietal cortex (which is where free will partially originates) tells the visual cortex to look for a yellow pencil, the visual cortex and parietal cortex send information to each other to help find relevant information. It will literally screen out other objects and/or colors to make finding the yellow pencil easier and more efficient.

However, there are many presumptions made before we ever start looking for a yellow pencil. We may assume that a pencil is the right instrument for the job. We may assume that the yellow pencil may have other attributes (such as being a no. 2 pencil). We may assume it is made by a specific manufacturer. We may assume that a yellow pencil is superior based on previous experiences with the yellow pencil. Everything we associate with the yellow pencil (consciously and subconsciously) might come into play to find what we're looking for.

But what if some or any of these assumptions are incorrect? What if a red pencil manufacturer has made a better instrument for the task at hand, but consumers have already trained their minds to screen out other writing instruments? How can the marketer bring attention to what people are not looking for?

How visual cognition shapes our world, and not always in the best way.

What if we think about this phenomenon on a grander contextual scale? It is possible that people are predisposed to look for things that either affirm their opinions or cause alarm because something seems dramatically out of place from how they want the world.

Depending on what we have trained our minds to look for — either information that makes us right or information that causes us to be alert — people generally find exactly what they are looking for without ever considering any other relevant data. It could explain why inferior but popular products frequently edge out lesser known superior products. It could be why certain news grabs our attention (mostly negative) while we dismiss more important news (mostly positive). It could be why some people immediately dismiss some political candidates based on age, ideology, and/or party affiliation.

"With so much information in the visual world, it's dramatic to think that you have an entire system behind knowing what to pay attention to," said Marlene Behrmann, professor of psychology at CMU and a renowned expert in using brain imaging to study the visual perception system. "The mechanisms show that you can actually drive the visual system — you are guiding your own sensory system in an intelligent and smart fashion that helps facilitate your actions in the world."

While Adam S. Greenberg, post-doctoral fellow in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences' Department of Psychology and lead author of the study, suggested that the research could help scientists find new ways to train white matter (the connections that help the visual cortex and parietal cortex communicate) to filter out irrelevant or unwanted information, one wonders if the other is possible — white matter can be trained to allow more information, thereby seeing a bigger picture and drawing well-reasoned conclusions that are not weighted by presumption.

Friday, February 24

Winning Or Spinning: The Fifth Estate

Author Geoff Livingston recently mentioned how average citizens are using social media to activate themselves online and demand change. He defines the phenomenon as the Fifth Estate, which is an extension of the media being considered the Fourth Estate.

Among his examples are the Syrian revolution and the Planned Parenthood/Susan B. Komen buzz up. Both are events that are being shaped and were shaped, in part, by online activists, citizen journalists, and social media. And then he ends by asking: What do you think about citizen journalists and the Fifth Estate?

I think public relations professionals ought to be afraid. 

Take any issue under social media and run with it. As Livingston pointed out, you will find a healthy dose of successes and failures. Popular opinion isn't always the right opinion and the masses make mistakes just as much as individuals. And sometimes, the mistakes they make are fraught with peril.

Take The Pink Back. There is no question that Susan B. Komen did everything wrong in terms of its initial executive decision and all public relations after the fact, but there is always that one largely unasked question looming in the background. Why was a private nonprofit organization with a $400 million operating budget compelled to donate to a government-subsidized nonprofit with a $1 billion operating budget? And why was there that much controversy over $680,000 as a result?

As much as the outcry seemed like a groundswell, much of it was coordinated through the lobby arm of the larger organization. And for Susan B. Komen, the penalty could forever pin it to one of the most controversial and emotionally charged issues in the country. Ironically, before Komen reversed its decision, both organizations received an uptick in donations that far exceeded the grant.

Chink In The Armor. Anthony Federico, an ESPN editor, was fired after his unfortunate use of the phrase "chink in the armor" that created an avalanche of social media fervor claiming ESPN has racist intent. The expression, which means a weakness or narrow opening in something otherwise strong, has been used in sports for as long as anyone can remember. But people took exception when the term was used as a mobile headline over a player who happened to be Taiwanese.

Unlike the other case study, the outrage was clearly caused by groundswell. And it seemed to make no difference to anyone that Jeremy Lin accepted the apology of Federico, who didn't vet his own choice of words. Federico has said he only had the primary definition in mind and it was an honest mistake. Rather than give him the benefit of the doubt, ESPN fired him, which may prove to be the wrong executive "crisis communication by the numbers" decision yet. Now the phrase is being deemed unusable in any context.

LEGO. LEGO recently launched a new set of toys called "LEGO: Friends" which features pastels and pinks as well as figures that look a little more "Barbie" than construction characters. The critics of the new toys are claiming that the LEGO: Friends set is sexist, and little girls don't need to have a special set to be interested in building.

LEGO has invested $40 million to launch its LEGO: Friends campaign. In addition to being upset by the colors, critics are upset because the new toy includes leisure, homemaking, baking, and caring for animals. LEGO has responded to the criticism by reminding parents they can purchase whatever set their children are interested in. However, the group that has been using to get its message out has also won a meeting with the organization fueling the outrage to discuss their concerns. If they pull the line, it could be one of the worst decisions the company will ever make.

The Fifth Estate is a mess and the Fourth isn't much better. 

It doesn't matter where you stand on any of these issues. The issues are not the point. The point is that social media empowers the improbable for right or wrong, even if the ability to tell what is groundswell and what is motivated by social agenda is becoming impossibly blurred.

All of this was an inevitable outcome as the Fourth Estate began to shift away from objective journalism and toward affirmation media, which embraces and elevates public opinion. While some see that shift is as a positive trend, the reality is that public opinion changes like the wind and sometimes too late to rectify any wrongs that come to light with the benefit of hindsight. Don't be a lemming to it.

In the interim, the only remedy public relations professionals can apply is a temporal communication model not only after an organization makes a decision, but also before it makes decisions. It's not foolproof, especially because you can always find two differing opinions fanning the flames of their mutual disconnect, but you might sleep a little easier as even the most absurd "invented" crisis gets attention.

Wednesday, February 22

Targeting Customers: Researchers Over Influencers

While some social media specialists pine away about online ranking systems, more experienced marketers don't care about online algorithms so much. Do you want to know why?

Everything they need to know about their customers is already online, offline, and proprietary. In fact, in places like Las Vegas, the ability to track customer movements offline has existed for better than a decade and even longer if you count some of the amazing things resorts did with coupon codes and player cards. (In some cases, Vegas invented data mining.) It's not just about one city. It's everywhere.

Real measurement doesn't track kitty vid clicks; it tracks how much cat food you buy and how many cats you own.

Anybody who read the recent Forbes article already knows half of it. Target's data analysis has become good enough that, based upon purchasing decisions alone, it has a remarkably high probability of predicting if someone in the household is pregnant (even if not everyone in the house knows it).

In some cases, I wouldn't be surprised if the data analysis is good enough to predict the probability of pregnancy before the future parent knows it. It wouldn't be hard to do. By culling a large pool of newly pregnant customers' shopping patterns and then analyzing their purchases just prior to becoming pregnant, any marketer can test for a statistical probability.

Match this probability against every customer based on site views, product purchases, etc. and there will be a pattern, assuming there is a pattern to be found. The same method could even apply to any number of life changes: employment, unemployment, engagement, political leanings, successes, failures, etc. When you study the psychology and sociology of purchases, patterns begin to emerge.

It's all relatively simple too. Any company with a guest ID program (whether online or offline via club cards), has a sophisticated data analysis program or the potential to make one. As soon as any customer makes a purchase, select information is dumped into a data bucket, usually purchases, names, credit cards, email addresses, phone numbers, and any other information people willfully give up.

Such data mining isn't foolproof, but it has gotten better. This is why online advertisements follow you around on the Web after you visit a site, why some marketers know when to send you a discount coupon, and how some sellers make reasonably good (but not great) predictions of whether you might like certain books, music, fashions, etc. And, even better, you don't have to be online to make it work.

Influencers are interesting, but researchers are powerful. 

Naturally, the success of any company's data analysis isn't determined by the program alone. It's determined by the researchers — people who can identify trends and turn those trends into action.

Taking a second look at the Target story, statistician Andrew Pole was one of those people. His team created a statistical benchmark based upon women in the company's baby registry. They were buying larger quantities of unscented lotion; buying more supplements like calcium, magnesium, and zinc; looking at extra big bags of cotton balls and wash cloths; etc. All in all, Pole and his team identified 25 products as indicators.

When this information was matched to women not on the baby registry, Target had a reasonably good idea which customers might be pregnant whether or not they signed up with the baby registry. This is powerful information for any company that wants to create direct-to-customer communication, right down to specific messages based on which trimester.

Contrast the power of data mining against influencers who are actively attempting to appear influential by covering popular trends, soliciting traffic, using clever headlines, buying advertisements, gaming attention, etc. and the shortcomings become a little more apparent. Do you want to reach a percentage of an influencer's followers or do you want to reach people that you know are pregnant?

That's not to say influencers can't be useful. They can be useful for short-term prospecting, message reinforcement, amplification, and conversion (adding them to a database where the heavy lifting occurs). However, since numbers alone aren't nearly enough, it might make more sense to find out who your customers already listen to as opposed to any online algorithm.

The down side of data mining is always short-term creepiness. 

Any time an article like the Forbes story breaks, it always feels a little bit creepy. But as creepy as data mining can be (and it is creepy), it's also a constant. Target might have been the company covered, but hundreds of companies have been tracking equally detailed data for some time.

They did it before social media and social networks too; virtually anyone with a credit or rewards card. And if you want a friendly reminder of just how much data is being captured, take an unexpected shopping spree and make some oddball purchases on your credit card.

If you trigger a fraud investigation, your credit card company will be able to tell you everything you did during the day, including travel routes. And if they wanted to, they could probably cull the data and tell you some pretty interesting things about you, your family, and where your next vacation might be.

Related Reading:

• Social Media Key Influencer In Multi-Exposure Purchase Path by eMaketer

FBI Seeks Social Media Data Mining Tool by CBC News

How A Smartphone App Can Detect How Fit (Or Fat) You Are by Forbes

Monday, February 20

Observing Washington: George Washington Day

Although many in the United States believe Presidents' Day is a meant to be a celebration of both President Washington and President Lincoln (and all presidents to some degree), the federal holiday is still only tied to celebrating the birthday of President George Washington. Any other designation is usually derived from state laws and not those of the nation.

In fact, the one time the federal government tried to pass such a law, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968, it failed in committee. It wasn't until the mid 1980s that the idea of Presidents' Day took hold, spurred on not by government but by advertisers. Shortly after that commercial movement, some states began to rename Washington's Birthday observances as "President's Day," "Presidents' Day," "Washington and Lincoln Day," or other designations.

In some ways, the combining of the observance (if not in spirit, in law), might have been a mistake. George Washington had a unique vision for the country and one fitting for people to consider today. Nowhere did he make his thoughts better known than his farewell address, which you can read here. Here are some highlights.

Highlights from George Washington's Farewell Address. 

Unity. Washington reminded the American people that their independence, peace at home and abroad, safety, prosperity, and liberty are all dependent upon the unity between the states. Although he recognized different regions had different beliefs, values, and visions of commerce, he believed that the nation would only prosper through unity.

Change. Although Washington specifically said that it was the right of the people to alter its government that these alternations and changes ought to only be done through constitutional amendments. Even then, he warned that political factions would ultimately take the power from the people and place it in the hands of unjust men.

Parties. Even as the first president, Washington saw the rise of a political party system as a danger to the nation and the Constitution. He believed there was too much potential for one group or another to seek power over other groups and gradually incline the minds of men to seek security as opposed to the absolute power of the individual.

 • Values. Although many people like to suggest that the United States ought to preserve a hardline separation of church and state, Washington believed that religious principles promote the protection of property, reputation, and life that are the foundations of justice. He said the morality of a nation cannot be maintained without religion (despite being a Diest himself).

Budget. Washington said that a balanced federal budget, including the maintenance of the nation's credit, is an important source of strength and security. He said the nation should avoid war, avoid unnecessary borrowing, and pay off any national debt accumulated in times of war as quickly as possible so future generations would not have to take care of those financial burdens.

Alliances. Washington continually maintained that the nation ought to avoid permanent foreign alliances with other nations, especially because foreign nations will continually seek to influence the American people and government. He said real patriots will be those who ignore popular opinion and resist the influence of friendly nations to seek what is best for their own country.

Equally interesting, in looking at the entirety of the address, it seems remarkable that a man who began his life as someone considered among the "middle ranking" would one day gain the experience necessary to guide the formation of a country and eventually preside over a constitutional government that could evolve. And, the entire time, he remained humble enough to feel the position he was elected to was largely undeserved.

His humility, no doubt, was the result of his own heritage. Although his half-brother, who acted as Washington's father figure after their own father had died, did have some privileges and opportunities granted to him after developing a close relationship with the Fairfax family, Washington was not necessarily born into any elite status like some of the country's founding fathers. He earned most of it.

And perhaps it was because he earned it that Washington still imparts some of the best wisdom for this country, even if his farewell address is no longer read by the House of Representatives and had taken on a more ceremonial reading in the Senate than one for our senators and representatives to reflect on.

If they did, some might imagine a very different agenda. If they did, they might see a government that works to unite rather than divide, preserve a legacy rather than write their own, protect individuals rather than subjugate them, observe morals rather than vilify them, balance a budget rather than argue about how much more to borrow, and place more importance on the country rather than its position in the world.

Happy birthday, George Washington (Feb. 11 on the old calendar and Feb. 22 on the new one). You might not have thought yourself worthy of the position, but your considerable wisdom proves otherwise. On every point, you were right.

Friday, February 17

Sharing Nonsense: Warner Music Group

Unlike many, I don't have anything against Warner Music Group (WMG). They have produced scores of solid albums from talented artists on their label and several dozen independent labels for more than 200 years if you trace it back to Chappell & Co. It's the third largest music publishing business in the world.

However, it is kind of remarkable that it has been able to accomplish as much as it has, given that the company is also its own worst enemy. Last fiscal year, it reported a net loss of $205 million.

The company likes to say the loss is associated with its hard work to make the transition to the digital music industry. But the truth is that the company isn't trying to transition to digital. WMG is trying to make the digital music industry transition to it.

Some might even say it is the cornerstone of its current business vision. It has long been regarded as having views that make other SOPA and PIPA supporters look reasonable. In fact, it is the most aggressive label in removing content on YouTube. And now, it seems to be arbitrarily enacting a model that cost EMI a contract with OK Go last year.

Warner Music Group in action. Disabling video embeds. 

As some people know, we run a little side project called Liquid [Hip]. It's a site that reviews all sorts of things, with music accounting for about 50 percent of the content. Yesterday, we reviewed an alternative rock/metal band called Janus. They're signed by Realid (pronounced Reality with a D), which happens to be owned by WMG.

Whenever we can, we try to include video embeds of bands to give readers an idea of what we hear. For Janus, we chose the new lyrical video Stains, which is the advance single off their new album due out in March. We think if the album is indicative of the single, it will catapult the band to the next level.

Since embedding was enabled, we thought it best represented the sound while showcasing the single. After the first hour, however, embedding wasn't disabled but the playback was replaced with a message: This video contains content from WMG, who has blocked it from display on this website. Watch it on YouTube. The message is inaccurate. It really means any website.

That's fine with me. We picked up a replacement video. Unfortunately, it doesn't represent as strong, doesn't link back to the artist's channel, and caused some people to send emails asking us about it.

It makes sense that they would. For the first hour or so, the review was read by several hundred people and shared by a few dozen. All that went cold after the lockdown. And it never came back for the band.

To their credit, Janus tried to find a solution because they wanted the lyrical video up too. They even said so on our Facebook page.

They even included a link to the lyrical video; the same video. The image capture shows how that turned out. Janus couldn't share its own video, not even on Facebook.

Given the block was so extreme, we decided to cull through all of our old posts. Sure enough, every WMG video and every WMG indie label carried the same message. So we replaced all of them, even the one that we helped give life to: it had ten views when we shared it. It has 9,700 views today.

Personally, I don't care about the drop off of interest, other than how it affects the band. I don't care because when we first launched the review site for fun, we promised ourselves to never compromise on cool. Listen, don't listen. Read, don't read. Buy, don't buy. I couldn't give a shit about going viral.

We emphasize this fact with our tagline: we cover cool, not popular. Never once did we expect the site would hit 50,000 views in the course of a month. But that's still not how we measure success.

We measure success by giving exposure to what we think is cool (which is a higher bar than what we like). And when people who read the reviews thank us for introducing a new band or a label writes us a note to thank us for what we are doing or another review site follows our lead and asks us for links to a purchase site or a band likes a review not because it is easy but because it is hard, well, it feels worth it.

WMG, on the other hand, ought to give a shit about going viral. The more people exposed to the music, the more people are likely to buy the album. The more people exposed to the music, the more likely they are to become fans. And the more people exposed to the music, the more likely they will buy Stains, Nox Aeris, past albums, merchandise, and future albums even if we never review them again.

It's painfully clear the embed block is not about piracy. It's about shrinking the sales funnel for short-term control and, in some cases, attempting to elevate views on YouTube even if most people in the business know that the majority of video views are fueled by embed views.

A different digital strategy and policy could help people help WMG. 

All of this really isn't a big deal. I removed/replaced about ten WMG locked down videos (except the one above for purposes of illustration), even if it hurts WMG and related label artists because I refuse to carry their WMG content message on our site. I don't intend to put the videos back either.

What I would like to avoid is feeling forced to omit WMG and related indie label artists outright. So instead of boycotting WMG as some have done, I wrote a few ideas for the new owner, Len Balvatnik, to pass along to the fine folks at WMG who didn't respond to my inquiry about the video block.

• Always assume the first single is an investment in the album and let people share it.
• Be courteous to reviewers by disabling 'embedding' outright and not after the fact.
• Recognize that people who view embeds follow them to the band channel (you win).
• Add advertisements that run inside the embeds to increase potential revenue.
• Include an end title card with a direct link to the purchase site of your choice.
• Weigh the merit of publishing clips (in some cases) as opposed to full-length videos.

The question ought not to be about how to prevent people from sharing WMG content outside of its social media assets, but how WMG can maximize revenue because people want to share its content.

I appreciate the concern about piracy (although embedding a video in a review is a revenue generator and not a detractor). Piracy is something everyone ought to be concerned about. But companies such as yours need to remember that most people are happy to purchase music as opposed to pirating it.

Right now, most regulations WMG wants to implement as well as the overzealous WMG lockdown and blocking practices alienate people who are paying loyalists and does nothing to curb the appetite of real criminals. In fact, almost every practice currently employed by WMG alienates people, empowers pirates, and diminishes the fading respect people once had for the brand. Please try to do the right thing.

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