You Can't Start a Fire Without a Spark

Monday, 28 September 2009 06:58 AM Written by

(or at least a good, suggestive ad campaign)

I spent some time this morning with a client whose next big presentation includes a couple of PowerPoint slides meant to show, in an an almost subliminal visual shorthand, the effects that good marketing can wreak on health and self-image. One of his slides, featuring a vintage Kool cigarette ad from the 1980s, got me to thinking about another lovely little relic of the American marketing machine at work: a seminal blow and blast from the past, sent my way by the PG’s great Dennis Roddy, in which Chesterfield suits and flacks helped birth the idea that a woman who smoked was not only socially acceptable but economically imperative. As long as she was sexually suggestive.

The advertisement, published in 1926, seems to me most remarkable for the way that it, behind the barest veneers of restraint and sophistication, so clearly prefigures a twenty-first century advertising-industrial complex that fuels itself almost exclusively on sex. What is now naked aggression in both image and text was then just subtle suggestion, but the implication was still clear: the cigarettes and the smoke, thanks to the sharing and the blowing, were all about copulation.

The full moon, the lupine cloud formation, the oncoming, undulating white caps. The firm, hard rocks. The bent knees and exposed calves, the outline of the thighs and the warm, white light shining through the dress. The cocked head and mouth.The cupped hands. The glowing faces and the pulsating trail of smoke. The cigarettes reaching and straining to burst from the pack. And of course that slogan, atop it all with four words that may as well come with their own [throaty, breathless] stage direction. By the time you've finished reading the ad, you practically need a cigarette.

Eighty-three years and ten million lung cancer deaths later, the ad — as vintage as it is timeless, as inspired as it insidious — seems both testament and testimony to the near-perfect union of an industry that sells us an old product we never really wanted, and another that tells us new products are all we really need.

Even if they could kill us. And especially if they can get us some action.

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One More Reason the Pirates Suck

Sunday, 27 September 2009 06:22 AM Written by

(that you've probably already heard)

It is not enough, apparently, for the Pittsburgh Pirates to suck the heart and soul and hope out of a whole generation of baseball fans. Nor is it enough for them to inflict upon this city and its people a misery and a suffering and a seemingly infinite indignity of both athletic and administrative ineptitude. Nor was it enough, last night, to turn a 4-3 eighth inning lead into an 8-4 loss and then follow it with an AARP-worthy, Lou-Gramm-free, karaoke-caliber version of a Foreigner concert.

Oh, no.  

They topped it all off — for the couple of hundred people who were by then either numb or drunk enough to have waited around for it — with the thudding and senseless cacophony of Skyblast III, a fireworks display so loud and obnoxious that it could be heard, and indeed could wake people up, all the way in Squirrel Hill and Point Breeze. People who live on the North Side, or on Mt. Washington, or in Lawrenceville must have thought they were living in Dresden. In 1945.   

The sonic assault began sometime after 11:30pm. The blitzkrieg of a finale ended at 11:57pm. You know — THREE BLESSED MINUTES BEFORE MIDNIGHT. A fine time to watch an old horror movie, or to tiptoe into the kitchen for a snack, or to order up another round at the bar before heading home, but hardly a fine time to send the sounds of heavy artillery caroming across a half-sleeping city.

To their increasingly ignoble reputation for producing terrible teams and assembling terrible front offices, the Pittsburgh Pirates can now add the distinction of being terrible neighbors.

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(Just a Handful of) Notes From a Friday Afternoon

Friday, 25 September 2009 01:40 PM Written by

(pitching the fit of my mind)

For your consideration: another curious collection of thoughts, reactions, and observations that didn’t make it into a full-length post this week...

• Because I was working from home, hanging with the boys on their G-20 holiday, and trying to coordinate about three or four other side projects, and because I’m burned out on the G-20 and just about everything else, this week’s edition of the Notes will be mercifully short.

• Besides the images and comments I posted yesterday, perhaps my favorite irony from yesterday’s proceedings was the sight of all those so-called protesters, so outraged at the thought of a capitalist society, so angry at the very notion of national or multinational corporations, snapping and shooting away with their cell phones and digital cameras and digital camcorders. Unless they made all those electronics themselves, and unless they’re operating their phones on the Idiot Anarchist G-20 Resistance People’s 3G Network (Now With More Bars in More Protests!), their principles are as phony and as rotten as their fashion sense.

• Do you think those morons who smashed windows at McDonald’s and Subway and Quiznos and Panera have ever heard of the concept of franchises? Of locally owned chains? Of simple human decency?

• Every bit of that stupid, senseless destruction from yesterday makes me mad, but none madder than the breaking of windows at the Irish Design Center on S. Craig Street. Nothing quite says Down With Corporate America like vandalizing a one-of-a-kind, homegrown, individually owned and operated business.

• The Irish Design Center is a warm and friendly and beautiful little store. I’ve recommended it to many people over the years, and I recommend it now more than ever. Especially if you’ve never been there before. It’s a rare jewel, and one that right now could use a little polish and support from our community.

• I watched a couple of hours of local news coverage yesterday, and I have to say that the one reporter who, live shot after live shot, most consistently impressed me was KDKA’s Alison Morris. Intelligent, articulate, always in command of both her story and her telling details. Every time she came on the air, she delivered with a focus, a precision, and an authority that shamed most of the veterans in the field.

• I’d call her a rising star, but that wouldn’t quite do her justice. Yesterday, from what I saw, she was the star.

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Pittsburgh Welcomes the James Gang

Thursday, 24 September 2009 11:55 AM Written by

(and the cowards robert ford)

Because nothing quite says committed to your cause like hiding your face behind a bandana. 

[Photo by the Post-Gazette's Michael Henninger]

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Pittsburgh Welcomes the Irony

Thursday, 24 September 2009 07:34 AM Written by

(at tenth and liberty)

Here’s a photo taken by City Councilman Patrick Dowd at 11am this morning, via his Twitpic page, via his Facebook status update:

I’m trying to decide what tickles me more: the irony of the address, or the irony of that sign hanging a few feet in front of those great, imposing barricades.

Probably the sign.

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Sometimes the Fake News

Thursday, 24 September 2009 07:08 AM Written by

(is real)

Some days, our work at Carbolic Smoke Ball is easier than others. Some days, the news just writes the jokes for us.

Consider, for example, today's top story:

Pittsburgh Touts Revitalization at G-20, Boards Up Downtown

The headline pretty much says it all. But you can read the rest of the funny — or is that not so funny? — here.

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Black and Right

Wednesday, 23 September 2009 08:07 AM Written by

(and read all over)

Jimmy Carter is saying it. Bill Cosby is saying it. Maureen Dowd is saying it. Tony Norman is saying it. My father-in-law is saying it. Just about everyone I see or hear or read these days is saying it.

But that doesn’t mean I’m buying it. Nor does it mean that it’s true.

The idea that opposition to President Obama’s policies is based on the color of his skin, that most protesters can’t accept the fact that a black man is President, that the majority of his administration’s critics are racists who do not believe an African-American should be President and simply can not abide having their plantation worldview turned upside down, sure does make for good copy and conversation. It’s boffo for sound bites and great for op-eds, and it’s been repeated more than enough times by now that, Big-Lie-like, the meme has all-but defined the moment, so that the moment threatens now to metastasize.

But I think it may be time for a second opinion.

Because this kind of reductive, dismissive, debate-stopping A-Bomb (N-Bomb?) of a claim feels uncomfortably close to the kind of crap so many right-wing apologists pulled for the past eight years, asserting, with a moral authority matched only by their own rhetorical absurdity, that anyone who opposed President Bush’s policies must necessarily have been unpatriotic, terrorist-loving America-haters. Carrying on all the while as if repeated utterance of the claim and a zealous certainty of its truth were all the proof they needed.

Sound familiar?   

It does to a good friend of mine, one of Pittsburgh most whip-smart lawyers, and one of the precious few people I see these days who seems unwilling to share in the Carter-Cosby-Dowd-Norman Certainty of Racism. He’s emailed several times to observe that all these criers and players of the race card have so far produced no support for their arguments, much less for their conclusions, that the marchers and the teabaggers and the anti-health-reform-ers of the world are little more than KKK members whose white sheets are at home in the closet, or perhaps waiting to be picked up at the dry cleaners.

They might as well, he wrote last week, say these people hate men or hate people from Hawaii. The response to such a charge would be, “Oh, come on, it’s obvious...” At which point in court I would move for summary judgment, and they would lose as a matter of law, because there’s no evidence for their naked, desperate allegations.

He’s right, of course: there are suspicions and sensations, hunches and hypotheses, gut feelings and even a few educated guesses.  Some of them likely are correct. But you’d never know it, nor come close to being convinced of it, if you had to rely on actual evidence or support of the theories.

The one member of that opening, opining crowd who did offer up at least a whiff of a hint of a suggestion of some evidence was the PG’s own Tony Norman — a guy I respect the hell out of, but with whom I’m gonna have to take serious issue this time:

Mr. Obama doesn't believe that the relentless criticism that equates him with Hitler, the Joker, an illegal alien, the antichrist or a witch doctor is "based on the color of his skin."

With apologies to Tony, I’m gonna have to side with the President, who is rightly doing his best to downplay these claims and simply go about the business of doing what he thinks is best for the country, on this one. Because the claim that these depictions are based on the color of Mr. Obama's skin barely passes the smell test. And once you sniff around a little more, you realize — with one notable exception — how rank it really is.

Let’s take ‘em one by one.

First: Obama as Hitler.

It’s silly and stupid, yes, but is it based in racism? Really? If so, how do we reconcile it with the equally silly and stupid equation of President Bush to Hitler? You know, like all the ones here. And here. And a whole lot of other places in the past eight years.

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Wednesday Morning Double Take

Wednesday, 23 September 2009 04:08 AM Written by

(or, maybe there’s more to a worldview than just matching chromosomes)

Interesting op-ed in this morning’s PG from Kavita Ramdas, Executive Director of the Global Fund for Women, and Heather Arnet, Executive Director of the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest Pennsylvania, arguing that a central role for women and girls is the solution to the world’s economic woes. The piece calls for more women in government, more women on corporate boards, more women in positions of power and influence at the decision-making tables around the world.

Not experienced women. Not qualified women. Not accomplished women. Not the right kind of women.

Just women.

So I’m guessing Ms. Ramdas and Ms. Arnet were big supporters of the McCain-Palin ticket.

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