The Lesson I Learned Today… 140608

Good intentions are sometimes a front for ill ones.

There is a lot of forced charity in my life. The cereal I buy gives 1% of profits to save the rainforests. Target donates part of their profits to charity. Starbucks gives back to local communities and various charities. The Kuhl brand shirt I bought gives part of its profit away to save the environment. Nearly everything I buy donates part of the money I pay to a charity, usually not of my choosing.

What if, instead, they just charged me a fair price for their goods with no hidden added costs? (Because, of course, they are not really giving to charity; they are merely re-allocating YOUR money to the charity of THEIR choice.)

If you don’t have a choice whether to give, then it is probably because you would have chosen not to.

Imagine if you could have that 1% back from Target and Starbucks, and the 5 cents from this boxtop and the half-percent from that clothing manufacturer and the five percent from your HP printer purchase and the whatever percent from your handbag, etc…

What if you could just have ALL your money, except the outright cost of the goods you purchase (and a fair, transparent profit), and you could allocate your extra money to the single 1 or 2 or 3 most important charities of YOUR choice? What kind of impact could you make on your local community or the things that are important to YOU if you were actually allowed to retain your hard-earned pay and do what you wish with it?

What a paradise that could be. The lesson, though, is not even that forced charity is bad (it is) but the worse evil is pretending it was your choice. The evil is marketing it as something they are doing out of their own kindness at their expense (as much as I like Starbucks, I am very clear it does not hurt them as much to give to a charity as it does me, mainly because I am supporting both their charities and mine!).

Beware of things that seem good but are meretricious at best.




The Illusion of Choice


It's totally cool if you don't agree as long as you agree.


When the only option is “Agree” or “Agree”… it is not really an option.

One of the worst offenses in Marketing, to me, is the illusion of choice. When the fake choice is “you must agree to our ludicrous terms and conditions written in legal-ese and longer than some books you’ve read… or you can’t get past this page to even see if you WANT to agree to use our product”, then it’s not really a choice. It’s an ultimatum. When the option is “Agree” or “Agree”, my fake answer to your fake question is “Yes” but I always really mean “No”. Just FYI.




Will Netflix Control Your Life?


I will never watch “The Debt” on DVD. I’m sure it was a good movie and certainly the people that worked on it would like me to see the results of their labor and passion. I am unwilling, though, to be forced to watch commercials when I pay Netflix for the option not to.

I rented the movie from Netflix and as usual, the DVD started with a slew of commercials and previews for other movies–a lot of them, at least 5 minutes worth. Normally, I skip through the ones of no interest to me (the stock Blu-Ray commercial or previews for movies I have seen already).

Some discs disable the “next track” button so I can not skip the ad–pretty annoying, but I can still fast forward through the fodder to get to the movie I paid to see. I can also skip the previews altogether, by pressing “Menu” on the remote control. On “The Debt”, however, I experienced a new level of forced viewing–I could not skip, fast forward or tap the “Menu” button to bypass anything. On that disc, I am forced to watch all the commercials and previews to get to the main menu. Worse, when I stopped the movie and tried to pick up where I left off the next day, I had to go through it all again.

If I wanted to be forced to watch advertisements, I would just go back to cable.

I was even more frustrated when I tried to write Netflix to let them know how I felt about this. Turns out, you can’t. They have no email address or chat feature on their website. You can call their customer service line, but after about 15 seconds of phone trees, you will want to hang up or claw your eyes out (just hang up, though).

Maybe the most frustrating part is I know my ire should not be directed at Netflix. They simply provide the disc. The problem, as with the music industry, is not with the artists or distributors. The problem is with the studios–and if you think Netflix is hard to get hold of, try contacting Miramax pictures and finding someone who cares what the customer experience looks like.

It is hard for me to think of something I dislike more than assumed control over my life, and unfortunately this example is just a pebble tossed into the ocean. There are many, many, many instances where someone (usually an advertiser or the government) takes over for you under the assumption you are a mindless lemming willing to jump off whatever cliff they throw in front of you.

Hopefully, other people have experienced this and are irritated enough to complain (loudly) as well. Forced Marketing is a total fail and I hope this new tact by the studios goes no further than The Debt. I would rather not watch any movie or television than be forced to watch garbage I choose not to see.

We do not have to accept assumed control over our lives, even over little things. It’s fitting that the movie I rented was called “The Debt”, and serves as a good reminder to Netflix and the studios that the debt owed for their existence is to us–the consumers–not from us to them.


What is the most frustrating way that someone has assumed control over your life or decisions?






Is the Magic Gone?


When I was young, my family owned 1 camera. It cost about $200 and the kids weren’t allowed to touch it. It was about the size and weight of a paperback dictionary, and it used film that could not be exposed to light. The film cartridge needed to be replaced after 24 exposures. It had a flash bulb about the size of pool cue that could only be used 6 times before it had to be replaced. If you wanted a zoom lens, it cost another $200 and weighed more than the camera. The camera and lens had to be handled carefully, kept in their own carrying case which you strapped around your shoulder and neck and carried around like luggage. When you finished a roll of film, you had to pay to send it away to a photo-lab and in about a week or two, you would find out how bad a photographer you were.

That camera is now magically in my smartphone, except my smartphone uses never-ending digital film, has unlimited uses of its flash, offers zoom, panorama, red-eye remover, enhanced lighting, color, and effects settings; my smartphone camera allows me to see my pictures instantly, can upload all my shots immediately to my social media or online storage, and a whole lot more. Oh, and it fits in my pocket.

My family used to have a video recorder, too. It cost about $300 and could record for an hour or two depending on the types of tape you bought. You had to heft it up on your shoulder (which you could only do for about a half hour before your shoulder and elbow went numb) and peer through a 1-inch square black and white viewfinder to see what you thought you were recording (which was often not quite the case). You had to bring a stack of blank videotapes and spare batteries with you to get through any family event because they only recorded a couple hours worth of footage. The tapes were about the size and thickness of three 7-inch tablet PC’s stacked atop each other. The camera or video recorder almost invariably ate the tape and ruined the recording anyway. The recorder could last somewhere between an hour or two with its weighty battery. You paid for the tapes, for extra batteries, for cleaning equipment, and it was a pain to make and distribute copies.

That video recorder is now in my smartphone, except better. My phone has a nearly 5-inch full color digital screen, can record 32 hours of footage (but why on Earth would I need to?), share my recording right away with my friends around the world, post it on YouTube, or play it on my TV, and of course, it’s all digital–no tapes, cleaners, or shoulder massage needed. I can play, convert, share, and edit on the fly and at no additional cost.

My family owned a set of encyclopedias. I think Mom and Dad are still paying for them. A good encyclopedia collection was a lifetime investment–$39 per month for… ever, I think. Of course, the encyclopedia was always at home, but that’s rarely where you needed the information, and it took you longer to find what you were looking for than it did to come up with the problem in the first place. If your encyclopedia was out of date, by the way, you had to go to the library or just never find the answer.

Guess what? The whole library is on my phone now, not just the set of encyclopedias. In fact, almost every library is. I can Google anything and have a thousand answers within a seconds… if I’m taking my time. I carry the internet with me and all that comes with it–games, resources, social media, pictures, information, and pretty much any kind of data I can think of.

I bought my first GPS device–a Garmin–for $350. I had to pay $100 every year to update the maps. It was a cool device but (you may see a pattern developing here) it’s on my Android phone now, for free (thanks again, Google!), except better. The maps are always updated, it knows if it is day or night and adjusts the screen brightness accordingly, and even routes me around traffic jams.

Don’t get me started on games… my Nintendo was $100 when it came out and every game cost between $20-$30 (and I probably had 50 games). Yep–on my phone now.

You get the idea. Here’s my point: we have lost our sense of wonder for the magic of smartphones (and probably technology in general). I can think of no other product that provides as much value for your money as even a clunky entry-level smartphone. I am astounded (and sometimes dumb-struck) when people balk at paying $2-300 for a new smartphone, or cringe at a $1 a day for data. When someone winces at shelling out $30 a month for data to have one of the most advanced devices on the planet, I have to wonder how much they spent the last time they went to the movies and how much value they got for that ticket price. Not to mention, I use my smartphone to save more money than I spend on it–it keeps all of my bonus cards off my key ring, it tracks coupons, compares prices, and lets me look for better deals as I am shopping!

We  forget we are holding one of the most advanced and magical products on the planet. The overall cost of a smartphone, even at its full retail price of $6-700 should absolutely wow us. For $600, you can buy outright a mediocre laptop computer–OR… you can buy outright an advanced laptop computer that fits in the palm of your hand, has 2 cameras, plus a video camera, a GPS device, access to almost anything you can dream up (if you can imagine it, there’s probably an app for it), voice control, and a fully interactive touch screen.

We shouldn’t be asking why smartphones cost so much. We should be wondering how they can possibly cost so little.

Oh. And did I mention my smartphone also is a phone? It replaced that bulky shoe-box sized thing that used to be attached to a wall in my kitchen with a rotary dial and a cord that couldn’t stretch beyond the length of my arm… and now I can take it anywhere and call anyone for pennies on what it used to cost just to call another area code.

Don’t lose the magic. If you want a truly phenomenal experience that will offer more rewards and excitement than a trip to an amusement park (which will cost you about the same) and will keep returning your investment for at least a couple years… buy a smartphone and then add up the price and former inconvenience of everything it replaces.

Most of all, though, just appreciate what you are holding and be amazed.



Quick Post: Marketing Fail.


“Or current resident” should be filed under “Worst Practices”. It is saying, “This very special and unique offer was tailored just for you, to show you how important YOUR business is to us. That’s why we took the time and accepted the expense of mailing it. But if anyone else finds it, that’s okay. You weren’t that important anyway.”


25% More Truth in Advertising… “Free”!



The devil is usually in the details. I love this one. “25% more free”… that is, 25% more than other 8-ounce un-named brands, not 25% more than what we normally give you.

How “free” is quantified is beyond me, since it is evident the price is the same as always. Sadly, “truth in advertising” doesn’t really exist and bad marketers still think the way to win sales is to start by deceiving customers.

Thankfully, the internet is a great equalizer. Shady practices and organizations will probably always be around, but they are getting harder to start up and run as consumers gain traction through skeptical thinking, education, and more ways to voice dissatisfaction and call shady businesses on the floor.

Don’t let them think they get away with it, and please reward honesty and actual Truth in Advertising by spending your money on the good marketers instead.

I figured after a statement like that you might ask me how to find the good marketers, right? Well… this is certainly not an exhaustive list, but here are a few pointers:


1. They tell you exactly what they are selling, and that is what they sell. The brand Tom’s of Maine says, “No Animal Ingredients”  and “No Animal Testing” on their boxes and tubes of toothpaste. Crest, Colgate, Aquafresh, and most national brands will offer no such comfort, or even any indication of where their ingredients come from, or what those ingredients actually do (and, believe me, you probably don’t want to know). At Tom’s website, you can find a link to all their ingredients right on the home page. Good luck with the other brands–if you throw away the box, good luck finding the ingredients. Remember, popular does not necessarily mean good.


2. You have a reason to like them. Okay, you get it. Tom’s of Maine has generally ethical business practices; they use natural ingredients and don’t torture mice. The point isn’t that they are a great business. The point is that you know why they are a great business. Colgate, on the other hand, shows you smiling kids and offers fake scientific claims (4 out of 5 dentists recommend… that is, 4 of the 5 dentists we asked who essentially work for us, but hey… here’s some smiling kids! See how happy they are?).


3. They don’t assume you are a moron. This is the “New and Improved” syndrome. As the late George Carlin so cleverly pointed out, there is no such thing as new and improved. If the product is “new”, that means there was nothing before it (thus nothing to improve). If a product is “improved”, then something came before it (and therefore it can’t be new). It’s traditional marketing jargon to sensationalize a product that is not sensational. Powerhouse brands (pictured at the top of the post) is not offering anything “free” and is not offering 25% more than they did previously, but they hope you are dumb enough to think so.  I’m actually not an advocate for Tom’s of Maine, but I recognize a good product when I see one–and they do a good job of explaining what their products are made of, and what each ingredient does, without assuming their customers are unimportant or too dumb to care. I respect a company that works to educate its customers rather than work hard to keep them in the dark.



The next time you see “25% more free”–ask yourself, “25% more of what, exactly? ‘Free’ as compared to…?” and decide if it is really worth its stated value. If the product is not worth its claim, then choose a product that is–the few pennies extra for a great product may be worth more than the “free” scam. Try to choose wisely. Don’t make the same bad marketing choice this guy did.




Everything You Need to Know About a Business is in the Toilet.

When I was a teen, I spent a lot of time at our family restaurant, “Mikey’s” (named after my grandfather). I mostly got in the way of my uncle Ahab, who ran the place, but I tried to help out by bussing tables, washing dishes, and generally asking too many questions.

Uncle Ahab was generous and patient, though. He taught me a great deal about business and marketing. One of the great insights he shared with me was this:

“Everything you want to know about a business, you can find out by visiting the bathroom.”

The restroom holds all the secrets of how a business is run. Just by taking a peek at the loo, you can decide if a business is worth your time (and money) inside of fifteen seconds. With no more than a cursory glance:

  • You can see the importance placed on cleanliness and organization. Are there streaks, fingerprints, and soap spots caked on the mirror over the sink? Is the sink dirty or clean? How about the door? Dirty fingerprints over the area by the handle or clean, shiny edges?
  • You know how employees are treated. I am a firm believer if you take care of your employees then they will take care of your customers and the business. Employees who are treated well and trained well have a sense of pride in their work and the company’s mission. You can surely see this in the bathroom… the sink may be clean but how about the faucet and handles, the little things like the soap pump? Same for the light switch and cover plate—smudged with grime? The floor, especially by the urinal (if  a men’s restroom)… is it stained or does it look freshly mopped? What does the bathroom smell like…an outhouse or a clean, inviting area, welcoming customers to relax for a minute?
  • You can tell what the business thinks of its customers. How well the bathroom is cared for indicates what the business thinks of its customers. Are customers a nuisance—nothing more than a necessary source of revenue or does the bathroom seem like a space that respects and honors customers as family or special guests?
  • You know what other customers think of the business. A glimpse of the restroom can also tell you what other customers think about the business. Is there graffiti and profanity etched into the stalls or written on the walls? Does the graffiti look like it has been there a long time (another sign of what employees think about the business)? Patrons who respect a business or have a relationship with its employees will not likely muck up the restroom walls like members of an unruly gang.
  • You see what the business thinks of itself. A business that respects itself will not turn a blind eye to graffiti; they will clean it up as soon as it is noticed and ask themselves why someone thought so little of  the company. A business that has high self-esteem will not stand for dirty walls, floors, door handles, sinks, soap pumps, toilet areas, mirrors, or even toilet seats. Is there enough lighting? Is there dust caking the lights, vents, and tops of mirrors or picture frames?

By the way, the picture for this post was taken at a restroom in Chicago’s Midway airport—the only airport I never mind visiting because every time I am there, the restrooms are spotless. Notice the high privacy walls, the generous space, the lack of dust on the vents; you can see your reflection in the floors and the toilet is clean enough to sit on without a paper barrier (but they still provide seat covers). The sinks and mirrors are equally well taken care of and the airport, in general, is clean, organized, and friendly. Other airports should take notes (but many won’t because they don’t care).

It may seem silly, but everything you want to know about a business you can find by visiting the restroom. To me, this is especially true at restaurants and not just because I have worked in the restaurant business. I figure if the restrooms are filthy or unkempt, I can expect the same treatment of my food. Uncle Ahab would only have one thing to say about that: “Check, please…”


Why Daylight Savings Time Needs To Die


This is a thought experiment, for fun (well it was fun for me, anyway). First, I need to establish the context of the experiment, so here is a brief, but fascinating, history lesson about Time…

Rail Time or “-ish” Time?

Prior to 1883, people had a different relationship to Time than we do today. You could walk into a Jeweler’s Shop, for example, and ask the time. The Jeweler might have said, “It’s 2:30.” You could then cross the street to the bank and the Banker may have looked at his watch and told you, “It’s 1:45 on the dot.” Then you could go next door, right away, to the Grocer and ask the time. The Grocer may have said, “Just turned 2:00.”

The Jeweler, Banker, and Grocer would all have been correct. Of course, that would seem odd today, but it was normal and not even inconvenient, then.

2:30-ish was good enough for the needs of most people, but after 1883, everything changed.

So what happened that made people come to agreement on what time it really was and why were they so misaligned before 1883?

The Railroad happened.

Prior to the advent of the rail system, towns were not necessarily connected in any way that required synchronization. Time was arbitrary because people in Ohio, for example, did not need to be in sync with people from Pennsylvania. Even towns geographically close to each other adhered to different time zones. Most people and towns set their watch by the sun’s location in the sky. For example, when the sun was at the highest point in the sky during the day, it was “noon”. Depending how good your eyesight was or how well-made your town’s sun-dial was, “noon” could be anywhere between 12:00 and 1:00. A town 400 miles away would  have a different “noon” than your town’s noon. It did not really matter because no one was on so tight a schedule that minutes counted so much as hours.

When railroads began connecting towns, however, time differences became a tremendous source of irritation for engineers. If an engineer was to leave Dayton, Ohio at “noon”, how would he know when to leave? The Jeweler would have showed up a half-hour late, the Banker 15 minutes early, and the Grocer might have just made it. Each passenger in each town was using their own approximate measurement of time.

The rails created a unifying effect. Eventually (but with much resistance) people began setting their watches to “rail time”. In 1883, the railroads adopted five standard time zones to replace the multitude of local times. People reluctantly accepted “railroad time”, even though it meant “noon” was not quite when the sun was at its apex in the sky in many locales.


The Fun Part


Okay, that was the context. Now here is the thought experiment:


Let’s look out 30 years and ask, what if ROWE truly is the status quo? If most everyone is producing in a Results-Only Work Environment, how might our concept of Time change (if it changed at all)?


Would we inadvertently return to a relaxed way of life, where “-ish” Time is good enough? Would we return to telling our children to “be home before dark” or “when the street lights come on” instead of giving a firm curfew time?


Time, being somewhat arbitrary and abstract to most of us, has a unique ability to expand and contract. Have you experienced an hour “fly by” when you are engaged in something meaningful or fun? Does the day just “crawl” when you are stuck performing grueling, mindless tasks that bore you? How might your perception of Life transform if your perception of Time transformed?


This is just an experiment. There are no right or wrong answers.


How would you meet your friends to catch a movie? Would it matter if they were a half-hour late? Would you care if you felt like you had “all the Time in the world”? What if the movie started late; would it matter? How might a leisurely meal be, if each one stretched to two-hours of laughter and  conversation? What would it be like to never be stuck in rush hour traffic, angry with how much “time” it takes to get home, or to work?


In other words, what if, after we threw our traditional, centuries-old concept of Work out the window, we also threw our traditional, centuries-old concept of Time Management out the window?



How interesting. Think about that, and get back to me about 2:30-ish.


First Class Marketing

First Class Dryer 1- 050410

This was the hair dryer in my room at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Denver, CO. Here is today’s Marketing lesson. If you have to tell me something is “First Class”… it probably isn’t.

This goes the same for outrageous claims like, “World’s best coffee!” or “America’s favorite burger!” (really? The best coffee in the entire world? After a meticulous search across every continent, it turned out the best coffee anywhere is right here in Dearborn, Michigan—world renowned for it’s great…coffee? Who knew? America’s favorite burger? When was everyone in America polled? I don’t remember voting on that one; do you?).

If you have a great product, the world will let you know, not the other way around. The Grand Hyatt’s cheap hair dryer was produced by a company called “Jerdon”, not by the Grand Hyatt itself, but it is a reflection on the hotel nonetheless. The hair dryer is part of the experience of staying at the Grand Hyatt.

Incidentally, another part of the Grand Hyatt Denver experience is the odd fact that such a seemingly prestigious hotel does not offer free internet to guests or a complimentary breakfast. To get online, the cost was $9.95 for 24 hours (of which, of course, you would likely use less than 2 hours). Breakfast would run most guests at least as much. Oddly, there is a Starbucks within 30 feet of the hotel entrance where I could get free wi-fi and breakfast for less than 8 dollars.

The Grand Hyatt has it wrong. There is a lot of competition in the downtown Denver hotel market and my guess is unless the Grand Hyatt steps up to the guest experience of comparable nearby hotels (like the Magnolia, for example), their “first class” hair dryers will not make up for their last place Marketing.


Know When You’re Being Ripped Off by “Sort-of” Lie Marketing


It is becoming easier to identify straightforward brazen lying that used to pass for Marketing. Companies are learning it is harder to make bold false proclamations when empowered customers pick their claims apart and post reviews and opinions on the internet, where their voices are louder than ever.

The thing that has been bugging me lately, though, is the “sort-of” lies that are not so easy to spot. One of the top offenders, to me, is big box stores like Target (I am not picking on Target specifically; I could easily interchange “Target” for any big-box name). They post large, colorful banners around their stores to remind us to feel good about shopping there because they donate 5% of every sale to charity.

Many people are oblivious to the fact that Target donating millions of dollars to charity is a “sort-of” lie that probably has little to do with altruism or philanthropy (neither of which deserves defending, but still, it is what is assumed in their marketing efforts…).

It is a “sort-of” lie because many assumptions must be sheepishly accepted for us to believe Target really donates 5% of each sale to a charitable cause. Customers, at their peril, must be savvy enough to ask questions and recognize non-congruence where it exists.

For example, Target giving money to charity, through me, is vastly different from me giving to a charity directly.

When I donate to charity, it costs me something (money and time, usually). It is a donation to charity because it exhibits a sacrifice on my end. I do not, for example, take YOUR money, give it to charity, and say I donated. I can not add 5% to the salary from my employer, funnel that money wherever I choose, call it a donation, and market it as my generosity. In other words, I can not force you or my employer, or anyone else, to pay my charities.

People should be bothered that no one is bothered about businesses or government agencies forcing you to donate to charity regardless of your will. At the very least, people should be loudly asking these “charitable” companies:

—Does that charitable 5% come from the gross sale, net sale, or 5% of the wholesale cost of each transaction? Is it taken before or after taxes are paid to my city and state?

—What kind of tax breaks or incentives do you enjoy with my charitable “donation”?

—What charity am I “donating” to? Where, exactly, is my money going? Are political parties considered charities? How about non-profits, churches, or organizations with political associations to lobbyists or political activism? Am I being forced to donate to an organization not aligned with my values?

—Since you (Target) are not actually “donating” your money but are instead funneling my money, can I choose where it goes? Can I pick the charity for my 5%?

—Can I choose not to donate as part of the price of your products? Can I instead just have a fair price for the product I came to buy (since I did not come to involuntarily donate money to a cause I may not support or to a group I am not familiar with)?

Target (or any company) taking your money to support their causes is a sort-of lie, at best.

5% seems like no big deal, until you consider all the “sort-of” lie donations you involuntarily make every day. Almost every big box store forces customers to pay for their charitable contributions. Most big companies do, as well. Check the fine print on your cereal box, soup can label, cat litter, or whatever products you buy. How much of the money you worked so hard to earn so that you could better your own life, is taken as a “gift” to others you do not know and may not wish to support? How many non-profit CEO salaries do you subsidize each year?

If every store and product stopped forcing donations, I wonder what percentage of salary would be returned to the public. Would my income increase by 1%, 5% (more than the average annual raise of 3%—not a bad chunk of change), or even more? Not only would I have more of my income returned, but if I chose, I could donate the full amount available to me to a single charity of my choosing—one that is really important to me. Not to mention, the tax benefit of my donation would also be returned to me, and the money would likely be spent in my locale (as opposed to “donating” my tax dollars to Target’s shareholders and CEO to spend where they live; my guess is that my community needs it more).

Forced Charity is just one example of the “sort-of” lie, and perhaps that is the scariest part. What is the impact of all the “sort-of” lies imposed by big business? (A business does not have to be big to give half-truths, of course, but it is easier to hide shady practices in a big box set-up than in a Mom and Pop family business where the owners likely reside in the same neighborhood as the business.)

As much as possible I choose to shop at local mom-and-pop stores, and eat at locally owned restaurants, preferably those where I have established personal rapport with the staff and owners. There is a greater likelihood of honesty about where the money comes from and where it goes.

There is nothing wrong with making a profit; that is the point of owning a business, but making a “sort-of” profit and sort-of swindle should be called out for what it is, and soundly rejected.

Choose local. Ask where your money goes. Read product labels and call, write, or e-mail big box stores and companies that force you to delegate the money you earned to improve your own life or circumstances. Most of all, be outraged and express your outrage in appropriate form to your state representatives.

Watch out for the “sort-of” lie, whether it comes with legitimate good intentions or not, it is still a lie and you do not have to sanction it.