Monthly Archives: March 2008

In which I join the cool kids on Twitter

I’ve been a Twitter skeptic for a while. I have a blog already; wary of more time-sucks; what’s the point; etc. Then again, I didn’t get RSS at first either. And after seeing this cute little video (via Craig Stoltz), I decided what the heck. So I’ve started Twittering. And I’m having a blast. So if you feel like it, check out my Twitter page. (Or is it a Twitter feed? I’m probably already getting the nomenclature wrong, thus proving I’m not actually one of the cool kids.)

Burger King’s brilliant What-If? ad

While poking around Burger King’s Web site for my previous post, I came across this 7-minute documercial for their “Whopper Freakout” campaign. The premise is that for two days, a Las Vegas Burger King told its customers that the Whopper had been discontinued; hidden cameras and interviews capture customers’ reactions.

Vodpod videos no longer available. from www.whopperfreakout. posted with vodpod
Parts of the video are unsettling — the toying with customers, the blase way a Burger King employee fakes being a reporter — and it could have done without the sinister background music. But overall this is probably the most effective advertisement I’ve ever seen, for any product.

First of all, it’s funny. At one point, two deadpan customers talk about their surprise: “Burger King doesn’t have the Whopper, they might as well change their name to Burger Queen,” one says; his long-haired buddy processes the joke for 3 seconds and grunt-chuckles, “hyeah!” Another customer is shocked by the second element of the trick: He orders a Whopper, only to find a Wendy’s burger inside the bag. The cashier questions whether the man brought it himself, and the customer huffs back, “I hate Wendy’s!” They couldn’t have asked for a more perfect response if the whole thing were scripted.

It’s also an interesting thought experiment — how would you react if your favorite restaurant stopped serving its biggest item? Consumer products and pop culture change all the time, but the customers’ testimonials reveal a deep comfort provided by the tradition and constancy of favorite foods. In this way, the ad functions as a kind of mini-American studies project. One customer says in voiceover, “When I was a kid, my dad wouldn’t order me a Whopper, because I wasn’t big enough to eat it all. That was one of the things when I got big, and the Whopper — that was like, I was a man.” Another talks about his mom driving him and his siblings to Burger King when they were kids — they got double Whoppers, because “we were big boys.”

Finally, the ad serves as a reminder of the continued power of branding, at least in certain cases. James Surowiecki wrote an interesting article for Wired a few years ago making the case that, contrary to conventional wisdom, brands aren’t nearly as valuable or important as they used to be because consumers are getting ever less loyal. He writes:

A study by retail-industry tracking firm NPD Group found that nearly half of those who described themselves as highly loyal to a brand were no longer loyal a year later. Even seemingly strong names rarely translate into much power at the cash register. Another remarkable study found that just 4 percent of consumers would be willing to stick with a brand if its competitors offered better value for the same price. Consumers are continually looking for a better deal, opening the door for companies to introduce a raft of new products.

This is pretty persuasive when it comes to consumer products — particularly tech products, which are the focus of Surowiecki’s argument. But the Burger King ad — though admittedly anecdotal — shows that in the case of food at least, nostalgia, self-image, tradition, taste and personal narrative may have as much to do with a brand’s success as value and innovation.

Chipotle comes clean on nutrition

I’ve been a huge Chipotle fan since the chain opened a restaurant in College Park in 2001 (for a time, it was the top-grossing location). When I moved to Florida in 2003, I had to wait a year and a half for another taste of cilantro-lime rice. It was torture.

I dig Chipotle’s emphasis on buying naturally raised meat (including gearing up to serve 100 percent Polyface Farm pork at its Charlottesville location) and organic beans. I’m not aware of any other fast-food chain whose Web site describes Concentrated Animal Feed Operations and suggests Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation for further reading (under the “manifesto” tab). Not only do I not mind that Chipotle is was owned by McDonald’s, I like the fact that a big, bad corporation like McD’s is pioneering once supported (see comment below; after Chipotle went public, McD’s apparently sold its stake) a company pursuing positive industrial-scale practices (I like Wal-Mart, with obvious caveats, for similar reasons).

My one reservation about Chipotle was a seeming lack of transparency about its menu’s nutritional information. While the big fast-food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell have nutrition pages linked prominently on their home pages, for the longest time Chipotle seemed to be hiding that its fare isn’t as healthy as some think (not least because each burrito is 1.5 to 2 meals worth of food). I was all set to write a post about how Chipotle needs to put its nutritional info where its mouth is, but then I discovered that they have put the information on their Web site.

I wish it were more obviously placed — you have to click on the FAQ page to find the link — but it’s better than nothing. So good for them, but they should move it onto the home page — and then stop making us overdose on sodium every time we want a burrito.

Remasters gone wild

I’m a bit of a sucker for remastered music. I’ve rejoined the BMG music club three times for the remastered Paul Simon and Bob Dylan libraries alone. I’ve bought The Who’s Live at Leeds twice (expanded CD reissue and Deluxe Edition 2-CD set); The Clash’s London Calling twice (pre-remaster CD and 25th Anniversary Legacy Edition 2-CD/1-DVD set); and The Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet twice (original CD and remastered CD/SACD hybrid), among others — though I’ve largely resisted the shameless re-rerepackaging of Elvis Costello’s albums. (Out of all my cremastered CDs, the only ones I can truly tell are an upgrade are The Band’s first two albums.)

I’ve also avoided the even more shameless repackaging of movies for various DVD reissues. So while I understand the intended audience of the Criterion Collection’s two-disc reissue of The Ice Storm (i.e. suckers like me), I couldn’t help but laugh when I read this in the Washington Post’s review:

Thanks to the Criterion Collection, releasing “The Ice Storm” today in a two-disc set ($39.95), the movie has a shot at rediscovery. The restored digital transfer, accompanied by audio commentary from Lee and screenwriter/producer James Schamus, allows viewers to see every detail in all its exquisite, retro glory. (emphasis added)

Keep in mind that The Ice Storm came out in 1997. I love the implication that the original print was found peeling and crumbling in some dank movie studio vault, and had to be restored to its full glory … 11 years after it originally came out.

And now that Sony has won the high-def DVD war, I guess we should brace ourselves for the coming Blu-ray remasters. Imagine the ad copy for the 2010 Transformers Blu-ray Legacy Edition: “You’ve never seen imaginary giant talking robot trucks like this before! Watch Shia LaBeouf talk to a car in this high-definition, luminously restored digital transfer that rescues a modern classic from the blurry, fading, what-were-they-thinking 2007 original digital file!”

Life is not, in fact, like a sitcom (or, What I learned from Carolyn Hax)

I’m a little late to this one, but I finally read “Marry Him!” — a buzz-fishing article in last month’s Atlantic that ostensibly makes the case for settling for a spouse instead of holding out for Mr. Right. Here’s the gist:

Of course, we’d be loath to admit it in this day and age, but ask any soul-baring 40-year-old single heterosexual woman what she most longs for in life, and she probably won’t tell you it’s a better career or a smaller waistline or a bigger apartment. Most likely, she’ll say that what she really wants is a husband (and, by extension, a child).

[snip]

My advice is this: Settle!

What stands out from the article isn’t the fact that author Lori Gottlieb herself hasn’t settled (she’s a 40-something who, along with a friend, decided to have a baby with donor sperm “in fits of self-empowerment” — surely the best reason to have a baby). Or her attempt at ironically defusing the shock and vitriol she just knew her taboo-busting article would provoke (“Oh, I know—I’m guessing there are single 30-year-old women reading this right now who will be writing letters to the editor to say that the women I know aren’t widely representative, that I’ve been co-opted by the cult of the feminist backlash, and basically, that I have no idea what I’m talking about.”) Or her repeated undermining of her case for settling.

No, the most notable aspect of the story is that Gottlieb is dispensing romantic advice even though she seems to be the kind of person who believes that life is like a romantic comedy. Or rather, that romantic comedies are true to life, and that adults should draw their lessons about life and love from TV and the movies.

Continue reading

The Washington Post transforms editing (in theory)

Does Leonard Downie Jr. read my blog? (I’ll field this one: no.)

Via Jack Shafer, I see the Washington Post has accepted that the current editing system is outdated, inefficient, and unaffordable. From a memo to Post staff by executive editor Downie and managing editor Philip Bennett:

We will remove layers of editing by providing greater flexibility to determine when a story is edited and by whom. We will create truer alignment of editing for the web and for the paper, recognizing that deadlines for many pieces are defined as the earliest moment they can be edited and published online. We will deepen collaboration among editors on assignment desks, copy desks, photo and the news desk to change how a story, graphic or photograph goes into the newspaper.

Overall, these changes are meant to make our editing model less like an assembly line — moving copy towards the presses on a pre-determined schedule – and more like a network, responding to how journalism is actually created, distributed and discovered by our audiences in print and online.

My main recommendation for keeping copy editors was to give them more responsibility as editors. This is the first element of the Post’s plan:

Several editors will move from the National and Foreign copy desks to take on new roles that begin earlier in the day. These assistant editors will have broad responsibilities for moving early copy to the web and for the next day’s paper. They will provide the first read on some stories and the final edit on others. They will compose working headlines. They will collaborate with the News Desk to assign stories to pages earlier than our current practices allow.

I argued that giving copy editors more responsibility would potentially allow for fewer eyes on a story because a handful of thorough edits can be better than a half-dozen cursory edits. This is the Post’s logic as well:

With the involvement of assistant editors, we’ll reduce layers of editing. Currently, stories in the A section are routinely changed by a half-dozen different editors (an audit by Don Podesta for this project found fingerprints of 12 different editors on one single inside piece). Under the new model, many stories will be handled under a “two touch” rule; they will have a first editor and a second editor.

My next recommendation was to free up copy editors for new roles by giving reporters and line editors responsibility for basic tasks traditionally left to copy editors. The Post calls for this as well:

In addition to supervising their reporters, assignment editors will advance the editing process by doing more fact-checking, and (along with assistant editors) composing working headlines for pieces. Working headlines will also be welcome from reporters when they file.

Finally, I disagreed with copy editor curmudgeons who doubt change is possible because “this is the way it’s always been” or because they think reporters will never learn to write or worry about the little things that copy editors have always had to check. My answer to that argument: make reporters change. So it was especially nice to see this in Shafer’s piece:

The reason many newspapers rely so heavily on editors—a reason rarely spoken—is that some reporters can’t write. Their copy isn’t edited as much as it’s rewritten. Bennett has a message for them: “Reporters who can’t write are a dying breed.”

If the Post truly follows through, this will amount to a revolution. Every newspaper editor should read Shafer’s story and the Post memo — and consider making the same kinds of changes.

UPDATE: David Sullivan has a much more skeptical take on the Post memo. He argues that this has been tried in the past, and all that happened is dayside people spent their time working on pretty centerpieces and still left all the real editing and too many stories for the night desk. I think he’s right to be wary, but the Post’s plan seems to be different in several ways from similar attempts in the late 80s/early 90s.

According to Sullivan, those attempts came in response to investors getting crabby about poor (or no) earnings growth during a general economic downturn. But the business was still sound; the industry was doing fine; that’s just shareholders doing what they do. The Post’s attempt to transform editing is a response to a crumbling industry whose business model is in peril. It’s less a “hey, where can we shave costs regardless of if it makes sense for day-to-day operations” plan than the start of a holistic attempt to reconfigure newsroom roles in the face of the new reality.

The plan will only work if the Post is serious about rethinking newsroom roles; as I said in my original post, changing copy editors’ roles without giving more responsibility to reporters and line editors for basic stuff won’t solve anything. But the Post’s memo and Phil Bennett’s comment to Shafer about reporters who can’t write indicates to me that they understand that. At least I hope they do.

The Niche-Reader Fallacy

A reader (uh, my brother) has a response to my post about newspapers’ bad decision-making that helps clarify why papers are often paralyzed by small decisions. As a newspaper reader, he’s unsure of the wisdom of cutting some elements like box scores and TV listings. He writes:

As my students remind me, an awful lot of people (in raw numbers) don’t have fast Internet access or even home access at all. Those box scores and op-ed pages take a long time to load via dial-up. And one of the reasons I subscribe to print newspapers is to have the TV listings as a ready reference without having to go online yet again. The L.A. Times recently dropped its weekly TV guide section, and I’m seriously considering dropping my subscription because that was one of the most important resources it gave me that I couldn’t get online – a week’s worth of planning in one shot, whenever I wanted.

This is a perfect illustration of one reason newspapers are so sclerotic. Call it the Niche-Reader Fallacy: Newspapers live in such fear of readers canceling subscriptions if there’s any change to the horoscopes, comics, TV listings, box scores, stock tables, Miss Manners, etc., that they end up hanging on to everything for way too long.

Every paper has its own audience, so there’s no single right answer about what to cut and what to save/rethink (though stock tables come pretty darn close to being an across-the-board no-brainer). But part of this isn’t just “what’s more effective on the Web” — it’s “what’s the best use of increasingly limited print space to give readers news that they can’t get anywhere else?”

So yes, box scores may take time to load — but the average person wouldn’t be going online for results from the Arena Football League, horse racing, dog racing, WNBA, MLS, non-major tennis or golf tournaments, boxing, college baseball, and all the other obscure miscellany that takes up sports sections. The people who care about those things will watch SportsCenter or go online, and the average reader won’t care. Those readers would be better served if that space were used for more local investigations or what have you.

As noted in the post, the typical newspaper response to this is fear of making any changes or deletions because those few people who do care about all the box scores (or stock tables, or comics, etc.) will cancel their subscriptions — just as my brother is thinking about canceling his because of the TV listings. The solution isn’t then to cater to every reader’s niche interests — it’s to convince readers that the paper is worth reading for more than just that niche element. (In other words, leave the long tail to the Web.) If the L.A. Times can’t put out a paper that’s interesting enough to keep my brother’s interest once they drop the TV guide, then they don’t deserve his subscription.