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Friday, August 30, 2013

Corporate Hara-Kiri

Watching Beyonce shatter mirrors in Pepsi’s “Live for Now” commercial reminded me of the night my wife became a casualty of the Cola Wars that have been ongoing since the 1980s.

Jo Anne was working as an event manager at a Pepsi show in Palm Springs. If you’ve ever produced an event for one of the warring Cola companies, you know the de rigueur routine that Jo Anne followed. 

She made sure the hotel's Food and Beverage department served only Pepsi drinks at meals, and she directed soda and snack machines throughout the venue to be switched over to Pepsi products.

If there was an exposure in the plan, it was the banquet act – The Beach Boys. Their rider stipulated Diet Coke. Period. 

So the show team hand-wrapped the Boys’ Coke cans in colored paper to conceal the names and logos.

Jo Anne after the show … and before all hell broke loose

Everything went swimmingly until the meeting ended – when client kudos were anticipated.

As soon as the hundreds of happy Pepsi sales reps filed out of the ballroom, the show crew began breaking down the set.

Load-out was well under way when one of the Pepsi executives wandered into the ballroom.

The client, of course, was the only one to notice that sitting on the lip of the bare stage was – an open can of Coca-Cola. Some crew member had taken the can from the Green Room, removed the paper wrapping, and, after consuming the soda, had left it on the stage instead of trashing it. 

The crew froze in place when they heard the aghast Pepsi gal shouting at Jo Anne about this unforgivable breach.  

At moments like this, there is nothing for an event planner to do but fall on her sword.

This ritual suicide by disembowelment, you may recall, was practiced in Japan by samurai as an honorable alternative to disgrace. It was known as hara-kiri -- belly cutting.

Of course, what Jo Anne really wanted to do was yell back at the Pepsi gal, “What the hell’s in a name? They all taste the same!”

When you think about it, she has a point.

The cola companies have always inflated their advertising with the magnificent jargon of consumer marketing.

The record shows that during the past half-century, both cola companies have flailed about in trying to define the persona of their respective sugar-water products.

I counted almost two dozen Coke slogans since 1961. Pepsi deployed fewer during the same period, but they were equally oblique to, say, Coke’s “Life Tastes Good” (introduced in 2001 and resurrected in 2013).

Here’s a sampling of Pepsi’s slogans:
·         "Now It's Pepsi for Those Who Think Young"
·         "You've Got a Lot to Live, and Pepsi's Got a Lot to Give"
·         "Pepsi's Got Your Taste For Life"
·         "Pepsi. The Choice of a New Generation"
·         "Be Young, Have Fun, Drink Pepsi"
·         "Right Now"
·         "Generation Next"
·         "For Those Who Think Young"
·          "Live for Now"

In introducing its new campaign for 2013, Pepsi’s press release called it, “the next iteration of Pepsi's 'Live for Now' brand spirit, which encourages fans to embrace the NOW and be at the epicenter of, and helping to define, pop culture.”


In my next blog: A boy named Josh

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Starship commanders

I’ve had the opportunity to work with two starship commanders. One was the hero of Apollo 13. The other the hero of TV’s original Star Trek series.

During my years at IBM, ROLM, Siemens and Executive Media, my work as a speechwriter expanded to encompass writing and producing live corporate events. These were also known as Industrial Theater – recognition meetings, sales rallies, management conferences – for audiences ranging from a few hundred to more than 10,000.

One of the benefits of being a producer is that the job enabled me to indulge my boyhood fantasies.

In creating program content that would excite and motivate audiences, I was influenced by my boyhood passion for science fiction.

I had watched Captain Video on my family’s black-and-white Dumont and deported myself as one of his “Video Rangers.”

I was there in the theater for the premieres of the 1950s sci-fi movies that are now classic: “The Thing”“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

So it was a natural for me to hire Jim Lovell – whose heroic performance brought the crippled Apollo 13 and its crew safely home. He served as on-camera narrator of an identity video for the high-tech ROLM Corporation, which pioneered voicemail among other telecommunications innovations. 

The heroic crew of Apollo 13

I got to pick him up at SFO, noticing how he put on his seat belt first thing. And as we drove down Route 101 past Moffett Field toward ROLM's Santa Clara campus, I listened to him reminisce about testing planes tethered to an anchor post inside one of Moffett’s vast hangars.

In the car that day, I asked Captain Lovell the question that had burned since my days as a Video Ranger: “Just how strong is the thrust you feel when you lift off?”

His disappointing answer: “About the same as accelerating a car.”

Heck, Captain Video had led me to believe the acceleration of lift-off practically flattened your eyeballs.

Captain Lovell was a delight to work with – affable, patient and a natural on camera. I hired him a second time to speak to a ROLM recognition event about his Apollo 13 experience.

Then there was Captain Kirk … William Shatner. You remember: “to boldly go … ”

The handsome crew of the Starship Enterprise

On stage in front of 600 or so top performers at a different ROLM recognition event, the CEO – a German – talked with a video-projected Captain Kirk who was supposedly orbiting Earth in the Starship Enterprise.

Then, using what’s known as a “laser cone” effect, we beamed Shatner down to the stage to join the CEO and help him conduct the awards ceremony.

Shatner turned out to be a not-so-good choice.

For one thing, he toyed with the CEO and kept going off prompter. Shatner enjoyed tripping up and showing up the CEO, who was trying to follow a carefully crafted script to help him with what was his second language.

I came away thinking that Shatner seriously believes he’s a starship commander.

The difference between the two? And the lesson for me?

One of these starship commanders was a real hero. The other only played one on TV.

In my next blog: Corporate Hara-Kiri

Friday, August 16, 2013


During the summer months, driving up from Manhattan to Cape Cod on I-95 comes with a lot of stop-and-go.

Out of sheer boredom I took notice of all the billboard advertising along this major artery between New York City and Boston.

I discovered that my reaction to most of the ad slogans came down to three little letters: WTF!

Maybe you can do better than I in figuring out what they’re talking about:

McDonalds: “You can’t fake local flavor.”

101.1 FM: “50 shades of radio”

Coors Light: “First round, last call.”

Walgreens: “Well at Walgreens”

Clean Care of New England: “We are the grand master of disaster.”

Mazda: “When you change everything, everything changes.”           

By the time I arrived home on Cape Cod, I was on a roll. Everywhere I looked, I saw ridiculous advertising:

On my jar of peanut butter from Woodstock Foods: “Eat because it’s good”

A mailer from Duane Reade: “Treat your dog to a treat”

And the punchline of Helloflo’s tampon subscription service commercial: "It's like Santa for your vagina."

What bothers me about all these slogans is that they are self-obsessed, more in love with alliteration, internal rhyming and parallelism than with communicating a persuasive thought.

Bill Bernbach said it well: “Whereas the writer is concerned with what he puts into his writings, the communicator is concerned with what the reader gets out of it.”

David Ogilvy backed him up: "What really decides consumers to buy or not to buy is the content of your advertising, not its form."

In other words, what you say in advertising is more important than how you say it.

Television advertising pioneer Rosser Reeves used to rail against the cleverness of copywriting:

"Let's say you have a million dollars tied up in your little company and suddenly your advertising isn't working and sales are going down. And everything depends on it. Your future depends on it, your family's future depends on it, other people's families depend on it. Now, what do you want from me? Fine writing? Or do you want to see the goddamned sales curve stop moving down and start moving up?"

In my next blog: Starship commanders

Friday, August 9, 2013

Queen of the Fairies

The first time I met Ilona, she lay flat on her back in her bed, beckoning me to kiss her. 

The only problem was that my wife was in the room. 

I had come to pick up Jo Anne after a painting class conducted by Impressionist Artist Ilona Royce Smithkin. Ilona had been felled by severe back pain and had taught the class from her bed in her Provincetown studio.

In the few years that I’ve known her, Ilona has emerged in my eyes as proof of the theory set forth by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: "People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within."

Ilona, Queen of the Fairies

At 93 years of age, Ilona forbids her inner light to dim. She powers it with inner energy: 

Every day, she paints, swims in Cape Cod Bay and goes for walks through Provincetown -- her summer home since the 1940s -- or in Manhattan’s West Village, where she winters

She teaches, accepts commissions and does personal appearances

She performs her “Eyelash Cabaret” to sold-out audiences in Provincetown and Manhattan, singing throaty ballads reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf – and winning standing ovations each time she renders La Vie en Rose

“Otherwise, it’s bye-bye baby,” is how she justifies her active lifestyle.

Ilona fled Berlin with her family in 1938. Her father smuggled only enough money to tide them over until he learned English.

Today -- although she may not have the celebrity of other mononymous figures like Cher, Madonna or Prince -- she is known to her devotees around the world by the single name Ilona, which happens also to be the name of the Queen of the Fairies in Hungarian folklore.

At a recent dinner party at the Wellfleet home of Dr. Bill Shay and his partner, Jim Hood, Ilona displayed her skill as a raconteuse. Some examples:

She discovered Cape Cod in 1942 or 1945 – Ilona forgets which, exactly – when she asked a travel agent to recommend a place to go “where I might meet someone or, if I don’t meet someone, a place where I could at least go bike riding.”

On a romantic trip to Nova Scotia with a would-be lover: “It was the first time I saw lobster. He took me to dinner, ordered champagne and then they brought out two steamed lobsters, amorously entwined on the platter. I said, ‘How can you eat this? Their eyes are pleading with you!’ I didn’t eat dinner and there was no sex, either.”

Instead she married the man who took her for a date on his motorcycle. “He told me all the other girls were too afraid to ride with him on his motorcycle. Afterwards, I didn’t hear from him for two weeks. When he came around again, I asked where he’d been. He said, ‘I wanted to see if I could live without you. I can’t.’”

Although she is a larger-than-life lady, Ilona is a distractingly petite woman – well under five feet and far less than 100 pounds. So it could have been understandable when a visitor to a South Carolina gallery showing asked Ilona about the size of her panties. “I thought it was a rather personal question. Then I figured out that in her Southern accent, she was saying ‘paintings.’” 

Ilona frequently bursts into song to underline a point she wants to make. To me she likes to sing: Peter, Peter, du war mein beste schtick. You don’t need Google Translate to figure out that one.

In the same way, she continuingly jests about her advanced age, accepting that, as for all of us someday, “the darkness sets in.”

Another larger-than-life lady, Rosa Parks, is quoted as saying: "Each person must live their life as a model for others."

Ilona has been just that – a model -- as this video indicates:

At the dinner table that evening at Bill and Jim’s, Ilona reveled in regaling us with wisdom gained during the decades: 

“Nice people find one another, like rivulets running to rivers.”

“My painting now is bolder because I don’t care anymore what people say about my work.”

“I never criticize, because I’m happy to be alive.” 

“I expect nothing, so whatever happens, it’s a surprise.”

“I believe unendurable pleasure should be prolonged.”

Dear Ms. Ilona, you find pleasure in every person and in every moment … and we pray you enjoy a very prolonged life.

In my next blog: WTF?

Friday, August 2, 2013

How you get to be chairman of the board

When two of my speech clients were elected chairman of the board of their respective organizations, I looked for a common denominator.

Of the many other reasons I could cite for the prowess of these two in upgrading from CEO to chairman, I found one overarching characteristic: the self-awareness and easy acceptance that they were worthy of the “mantle of leadership.”

One chairman articulated those exact words when he said to me without a trace of self-consciousness, “Because I wear the mantle of leadership …” 

You might call this a manifestation of egotism. And, yes, egotism does have many manifestations. 

I had many other clients who were chairman of the board of their corporations, and every one was an egotist, too.

Some examples: 

  • The chairman who spent a good 10 minutes debating with me if we should use the word “the” before “strategy” in this sentence: “But strategy by itself is not enough to ensure success.” This investment of his precious time arose from his certitude that his audience would hang on his every word.
  • Another chairman – when I became his speechwriter – sat down and briefed me on just how he wanted his talks styled: I was to use the word “folks” at least once in every speech, and any humor was to be self-deprecatory. He wanted his public image to appear down to earth, despite the air of privilege he exuded in private. 
  • Still another chairman quietly employed a dresser. Maybe because he had no wife to tell him each morning which tie would match his suit.

Egotists are easy targets for jokesters.

Novelist George V. Higgins, for instance, called egotism “the art of seeing in yourself what others cannot see.”

Satirist Ambrose Bierce defined it as doing The New York Times crossword with a pen.

Notre Dame Head Coach Frank Leahy is quoted as saying, “Egotism is the anesthetic that dulls the pain of stupidity.”

But I never found egotism among my clients to be detrimental to their work.

Instead, I found that a chairman’s egotism – fueled by their lifetime of winning -- armed them with supreme self-confidence and enabled them to go on guts.

It’s as Tom Cruise’s character, Maverick, says in the movie “Top Gun”: “You don't have time to think up there. If you think, you're dead.”

I loved being around these people. Even though I was taller than some of them, each seemed to me a little larger than life.

Here’s how I sketch them in my forthcoming novel, Cold Stun:

Jenny discovered that she had entered a corporate world that issued its own citizenship papers. Men like Lauterbach earned yearly compensation measured in many millions of dollars. They were summiteers who operated at Everest levels: board chairmen, presidents, chief executive officers. Jenny’s clients had reached the heights in no small part because they were gifted in their ability to sway the thinking of others. They practiced enchantment. They played just the right levers that would stir board members, customers, employees, stockholders, analysts, newspaper reporters. They left their retainers to get by on second-hand oxygen. They revered their own leadership abilities, crediting themselves with being the prime contributor to their organization’s performance. They understood that people defer to leaders. And, by instinct, they acted in the ways expected of leaders. If acting the role required concealing their own shortcomings, so be it. Their instincts told them that at least some part of leadership is theater, part is deception. You put a better face on things than they really are. If you act confident, you become confident. And the deception becomes truth.

In my next blog: The Queen of the Fairies