While I was banging out my weekly columns for the Boston Globe Business section throughout 1994 and into 1995, I also tried to produce as many radio commentaries as possible in order to compensate for the print freelancing I had given up as part of my Globe deal.
That effort got off to a good start with this 1994 New Year’s Day Monitor Radio piece about the commercialization of college football.
As they settle in for the endless college football games that constitute New Year’s weekend, millions of Americans are asking themselves the same question: Why isn’t there a bowl game named after me? The reason, of course, is that the rich old men who run college sports still haven’t found a slot for the Kellogg Corn Flake Bowl or the Tid-y Bowl. Once those are squared away, though, the field will be wide open, and Ed McMahon will be contacting you personally about sponsoring your own bowl game. Just look for the envelope that says, “You may have already spent $10 million dollars!” . . .
In February, I wrote this WBUR piece about Lexington-based Raytheon Company’s ads in national and international newspapers extolling its Patriot missile. The ads were conveniently timed to coincide with a Pentagon decision to award an advanced-missile contract worth about $1 billion over the next decade.
Ever since classical times, playwrights have gainfully employed a stock character known as miles gloriosus, the braggart soldier who’s invariably a coward, a liar, or both. The crowning achievement in this category is Shakespeare’s Falstaff, who could turn two assailants into eleven with a flick of the tongue. In contemporary life, Ollie North will do until someone better comes along.
On a corporate level, Raytheon has developed something of a Falstaffian reputation for itself in the wake of the Persian gulf war. Despite Raytheon’s claims about the performance of its Patriot missile, a number of defense-industry analysts persist in calling the Patriot a Scud Dud. In fact, Raytheon’s most vocal critics say that the defense system may actually have gone oh-for-Desert Storm. Needless to say, that kind of talk is exceedingly bad for business. . . .
Meanwhile, Raytheon is contending for new defense contracts with the promise that the Patriot is upgraded well beyond its Desert Storm capabilities. Whether the system is fail-safe or Falstaff remains, shall we say, up in the air.
Over at Only a Game, I produced a piece in June about a proposed new football league being formed by a group of sports and TV executives. Called the ‘A’ League – A as in advertiser – it would consist of 12 teams owned by corporations that would sponsor CBS broadcasts with their own commercials.
I did not give the idea an A.
Over the past year, CBS has become the Gerry Cooney of television networks – it doesn’t get in the ring very often, but is invariably outclassed when it does. In a remarkably short period of time, CBS has lost its NFL broadcast rights, eight major affiliates, and $561 million in market value. Now, apparently, CBS has also lost its mind, as it contemplates getting involved in a new advertiser-sponsored football league.
Let’s start off by dismissing a few of the common misconceptions about the proposed ‘A’ League. It will not have Mr. T as its commissioner . . .
‘A’ League teams will not be named after their corporate owners, although the Planet Reeboks would’ve been a great entry in the Universal Conference, Milky Way Division. And the players will not look like Penske drivers; just a discreet patch on the sleeve, according to informed sources . . .
Shortly after that, I made the A League myself by producing several commentaries for NPR’s All Things Considered. The first piece dealt with damage-control efforts by – wait for it – the tobacco industry.
In the interest of full disclosure I should say right off that I’m a practicing smoker, although after several decades I doubt I’m going to get any better at it. Regardless, the ads currently sponsored by the tobacco industry present a classic case of closing the door after the horse has left the barn. The signs that cigarette companies are one pack short of a carton began in April, the day after the tobacco barons got sandbagged at a Congressional subcommittee hearing. Philip Morris ran an ad purporting to give the “facts” about nicotine levels and cigarette addiction, which was vaguely reminiscent of the old Joe McCarthy refrain: “These facts, if true . . . etc. etc.”
The industry continued to play catch-up when the media publicized a list of the ingredients contained in cigarettes. In response, Philip Morris released another newspaper ad stressing the safety of its chemical additives. Presumably freshness dating can’t be far behind . . .
A couple of months later I was back on ATC with a piece about The Business Traveler As Victim.
Business travel is arguably the biggest annoyance in corporate America, outside of Alan Greenspan of course. For that reason, executive travelers used to be lionized by the ad industry as sort of jet-set crusaders.
But thanks to the mom-and-pop psychologists, people are no longer expected to rise above their circumstances, so a growing number of advertisers have begun depicting business travelers as the newest class of victim. Suddenly, every overnight hop to Dayton has turned into Homer’s Odyssey . . .
A few weeks after that I railed against the hypocrisy of the ad campaign run by Caterpillar, the world’s largest construction equipment manufacturer, in the face of a strike by its 14,000 United Auto Workers union members.
If advertising is truly a reflection of society, then image advertising – which promotes a company rather than specific products – serves as the fun house mirror of the business. Image ads can make bloated companies look downright svelte, and make slim bottom lines look fat.
In the case of Caterpillar, the company’s new campaign is designed to turn a corporate scowl into a happy face. Caterpillar’s TV commercials paint a lavish portrait of the company as an international freedom fighter, sort of a hydraulic Lech Wałęsa.
One commercial shows the Kuwait oil fires during the Persian Gulf war, with Caterpillar equipment being used to control them. Another ad alternates between scenes of construction sites and footage of Germans celebrating as the Berlin Wall comes down.
Substitute the United Auto Workers for the Berlin Wall and you have some idea of what Caterpillar’s really up to these days . . .
• • • • • • •
A few words about the JRC Archives . . .
From the mid ’70s to the late ’80s, I wrote my pieces on this eight-pound Olivetti Lettera 22 – accent on pound, which is what I had to do for every keystroke. It was, for the most part, an exercise in aerobic composition.
The thing is, I didn’t actually write on the typewriter; instead, I recorded what I’d composed elsewhere, usually on a pad of paper. There was certainly some cut (with scissors) and paste (with Scotch tape) involved before visiting Copy Cop to print the final version I would deliver to this or that publication, but for the most part, typing was the conclusion rather than the composition.
(There’s an anecdote about Ring Lardner, the great early 20th century sportswriter and short story author, who would sit at his typewriter and stare straight ahead for hours, then type out entire columns or stories without pause.)
For me, however, all that changed in 1989 when I purchased a Macintosh SE computer for – as best I can remember – $3000, which was real money back then. At first I missed the old Lettera 22 – and by “at first” I mean “for up to five minutes.” After that, I just let ‘er rip.
The Mac SE recorded content on floppy disks, of which I filled at least 15 between 1989 and 2000. The problem was, Mac devices progressed technologically from floppy disks, so eventually I had no way to access all that content on newer machines. Luckily, my Brainiac brother-in-law Jonathon was able to transfer eight of the disks onto my MacBook Air, which means I have text versions of roughly half of my work from those 11 years.
That’s life. As Sinead O’Connor said, I do not want what I haven’t got.
• • • • • • •
Early in 1995 I once again talked my way onto All Things Considered with a piece about the chemical concoction called I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, which introduced a spray version in a TV spot featuring a spokesperson the company called “an icon of love and romance.”
Back in the old days, companies created classic product names such as Uneeda Biscuit and Bess Eaton Donuts. Lately, though, brand names seem to be trying a bit too hard, like the skin care lotion called Kiss My Face. Also falling into that category is the margarine called I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.
To introduce a new spray version of the product, Vanderberg Foods has launched an ad campaign that features romance novel cover boy and sex symbol Fabio, who has recently begun co-authoring his own bodice rippers. Presumably the way that works is, Fabio goes about his daily business, and the ghostwriter takes notes . . .
Kicker: “Despite its elaborate staging and gauzy images, Fabio’s ad is sexy the way Velveeta is cheese: Both leave you hungry for the real thing. Again, I’m not the target market so maybe I just don’t get it. But considering that the ad features ‘an icon of romance and love,’ I can’t believe it’s not better.”
Back at WBUR, I started tracking the 1996 Republican presidential hopefuls, starting with Illinois businessman Morry Taylor and Steve Forbes, who inherited the Forbes magazine empire from his father. They were, I noted, representative of the new class of corporate candidates.
Over the past decade we’ve seen the rise of a special category of politician – the corporate candidate who runs for high office on the sole credential of being totally unburdened by experience. The category actually dates back to 1928, when multimillionaire mining engineer Herbert Hoover won the presidency on the promise of a chicken in every pot. Ask your grandparents how well that worked out.
The modern era has delivered such corporate candidates as Milwaukee Bucks owner and Wisconsin senator Herb Kohl, who put $7.5 million of his own money behind the quintessential outsider slogan, “nobody’s senator but yours.” Locally we had last year’s campaign from venture capitalist Mitt Romney, who turned out to be nobody’s senator at all.
But the big Kahuna among corporate candidates remains Ross Perot, who garnered an improbable 19% of the votes in the last presidential election. The Popeil pocket billionaire not only ran as an independent, but also conducted a thoroughly unorthodox campaign. He built a database of supporters with a toll-free 800 number, haunted Larry King’s cable TV show and, of course, ran a series of half-hour infomercials that rivaled anything produced by Totally Rebuilt Cher . . .
• • • • • • •
In the wake of Globe dumps Ad Hoc after 15 months, I decided to give the stately local broadsheet a good leaving alone for awhile.
So I looked around for some other print publications I could contribute to and latched onto a new magazine launched by Jim Braude, a labor activist whose quixotic efforts at the Tax Equity Alliance of Massachusetts (TEAM) to introduce a graduated income tax in the Bay State I had covered with a gimlet eye for several years.
As Braude himself would later describe it (oddly enough in the third person),”When he left TEAM in the mid-90’s, Jim published an artistically successful (he thought), but financially unsuccessful (that was beyond dispute!) political magazine, Otherwise…”
Hungry as I was for print production at the time, I began contributing to Otherwise, starting with this piece.
A couple of months later, I examined the manipulation of coverage in Boston-area community newspapers by their owner, Fidelity Investments.
Hey – the gig didn’t pay much, but otherwise it was fun while it lasted.
• • • • • • •
After – appropriately – 15 months wandering in the daily newspaper desert, I decided to pitch the Globe again. Focus editor Chris Chinlund (my favorite at that section by far) told me she’d been reading Otherwise, and the only column there she wished she’d been able to publish was my advocacy ad piece.
Through her good graces, I got back into the stately local broadsheet in August of ’96 with a piece about broadcasters – who are required to accept campaign ads from candidates for federal office – starting to police political commercials from outside groups.
Pity the television-viewing public in the so-called “battleground” states this election year. California, Arizona, Maine, Florida and most of the Midwestern states – all considered up for grabs in November – have been inundated with political commercials for the past several months. The Democratic National Committee attacks Bob Dole. The Republican National Committee whacks President Clinton, then goes after Democratic congressional candidates for good measure. The AFL-CIO drops the hammer on the GOP’s congressional candidates.
In some areas, Newt Gingrich and Ted Kennedy, the Frick and Frack of attack ads, are on the small screen more often than the Tasters Choice couple.
But many voters are getting something of a break from the battle-grind these days, thanks to an unusual development. Television and radio stations are actually rejecting commercials from political parties and special interest groups . . .
• • • • • • •
Nineteen-ninety-six was also a cracking good year for radio production, starting with this ‘BUR piece about the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s TV spot designed to generate opposition to youth-oriented promotional items distributed by cigarette companies.
In the interest of full disclosure, let me say right off that I am a cigarette smoker and have been since the age of 10. Despite – or because – of that, I consider tobacco companies a group of ethically bankrupt drug dealers who deserve their own circle in Dante’s Inferno. And nothing would please me more than if no child ever picked up a cigarette from this day forward.
That said, let me also disclose this about the anti-smoking campaign from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health: It’s been pathetically inept at both convincing young people not to smoke and helping them quit once they’ve started. While the DPH has spent roughly $30 million on flashy TV ads, the number of teenage smokers in Massachusetts has failed to decrease, and may actually have risen. Beyond that, the DPH has moved at a snail’s pace to establish smoking cessation programs in high schools around the state . . .
Nor should anyone expect great results from the new commercial produced in collaboration with Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau. The spot features the cartoon character Mr. Butts appearing before a Congressional committee investigating cigarette promotions aimed at kids.
That’s sharp enough to supply just about anyone’s minimum daily requirement of irony. But consider the ad from the perspective of the average 10-year-old: A cool-looking cartoon cigarette rides a fancy limo up to Capitol Hill, where he gets the star treatment from a gaggle of reporters. Inside, a group of angry adults starts yelling at him, while the cartoon cigarette hugs a group of kids, smiles, makes wisecracks and shows off a ton of neat-looking merchandise.
It’s a wonder the tobacco industry didn’t create this spot on its own . . .
• • • • • • •
I started off July with a piece for Only a Game about the increased presence of mountain biking in TV spots after that activity had become an Olympic sport.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say right off that I never learned how to ride a bike, having grown up three blocks from a subway stop in Manhattan. Tokens were always a lot cheaper than bikes, and you never had to worry about the IRT line getting stolen. So to my untrained eye, mountain biking looks a lot like a human demolition derby, with stretchers substituting for tow trucks.
But that’s also the way television ads portray the sport, making it look more dangerous than oil viscosity breakdown. Take the current Reebok commercial featuring professional racer Missy Giove, who’s been described as the Dennis Rodman of mountain biking. The ad shows quick cuts of her riding hellbent across all types of terrain, turning motel stairs and balconies into Nautilus machines, making friends with the locals, and painting herself silver while she says, “This is my bike This is my planet.”
Presumably that would be the planet Intravenous, given the 30 broken bones Missy has collected over the years . . .
New England-based Harvard Community Health Plan has spent big bucks running a commercial that alternates black-and-white footage of [mountain biker Michelle] with technicolor visits to the emergency room.
Michelle ends the commercial in a neck brace, which seems to be the mountain biker version of a turtleneck sweater . . .
Mountain-bike safety even came up in a recent ad for Volkswagen, whose commercials move faster than their cars do. The automaker was giving away free mountain bikes with the car, and the ad compared the two vehicles for handling, braking, suspension and safety.
The last demonstration involved two crash dummies on mountain bikes.
Michelle – Missy – is that you?
Also at Only a Game, I took a whack at NBC’s coverage of the ’96 Atlanta Olympics.
NBC’s coverage of the Olympics has so closely resembled a 170-hour infomercial, it’s a wonder that Cher and Dionne Warwick weren’t part of the women’s gymnastics team.
But that hellbent commercialism seems to have riled up the sporting gods, since some of the official sponsors in Atlanta have been more snakebit than Adam and Eve.
BellSouth, for example, had the cellular phone franchise in Atlanta, but the system flat-out didn’t work, giving a new twist to call waiting. The Coca-Cola Co., which is spending roughly the gross national product of Honduras on the Games, fielded complaints from Olympic athletes that all their Cokes were warm . . .
As it turned out, it wasn’t just the sponsors who were snakebit in Atlanta that summer, as Richard Jewell would painfully discover.
When the Clinton White House proposed new FDA rules to keep tobacco marketing from reaching teenagers – specifically through increased restrictions on cigarette ads – I was once again the skunk at the garden party on WBUR.
At the Democratic convention last week, Al Gore told in excruciating detail how cigarette smoking had killed his sister, a recital that threatened to do much the same to his weeping mother.
In addition, the Clinton campaign has been on Bob Dole like Brown on Williamson for Dole’s statements about smoking. One TV ad starts by showing teenagers lighting up, then puts the blame squarely on Dole’s head . . .
Dole opposes the FDA limits on tobacco ads because he thinks they should be regulated at the state level – a specious argument, perhaps, but slightly more nuanced than the ad conveys. As for [his] statements on the relative addictiveness of cigarettes and milk, that simply proves that letting Bob Dole speak ad lib is about as smart as holding Steak Knife Night at Yankee Stadium . . .
Most of my other radio work during that period wound up on APM’s Marketplace. In September, the season premiere of the Fox TV network’s “Party of Five” contained a little something extra in the broadcast seen on Chicago station WFLD-TV. During the program, an advertising message ran along the bottom of the screen, promoting a back-to-school sale at Marshall Field’s department stores.
The most surprising thing about the in-show ad that ran on Fox TV in Chicago is that anyone was really surprised by it. These days, advertising appears on just about everything except tombstones. Check that – in a hilltop cemetary overlooking Florence, [the late] Italian fashion designer Enrico Coveri has his corporate logo engraved on the marble headstone. Maybe you can take it with you . . .
In addition to being everywhere it wants to be, the ad industry is also relentlessly breaking down the traditional barrier between programs and ads. What once was called the Chinese wall has turned into the Berlin Wall – knocked down and sold off brick by brick . . .
Roughly six weeks before Election Day, Marketplace returned me to the presidential ad beat, examining the media buys of the major candidates.
Politicians are, by nature, experts on how to spend other people’s money. They’re constantly writing checks with their mouths that we have to cover with taxpayer dollars. But put aside for a moment the issues of indexing capital gains or giving tax breaks for college tuition. The real question is this: Based on how they buy airtime for their television ads, which of the three major presidential candidates would you send to the supermarket for you?
Start with Pres. Clinton, who begins almost every ad accusing Bob Dole of attacking him, then devotes most of the spot to attacking Dole . . . All of Clinton’s ads have run on a state-by-state basis, rather than on the national networks. That’s the supermarket equivalent of buying the Variety Pak in the cereal aisle, which fits well with Clinton’s all-things-to-all people taste in politics. . . .
Much of Dole’s media money is going toward national spots, probably the least efficient buy in politics, since you pay top dollar for an audience far larger than you want. He’s essentially buying the family-size box of Special K, even though he doesn’t have a family.
As for Ross Perot, his 30-minute infomercials are tantamount to buying the Russian-army-size box of Froot Loops at BJ’s Wholesale Club. Although that approach worked well for Perot in 1992, not only are viewers reluctant to watch his infomercials, the networks don’t want to sell him the time this year either . . .
A couple of weeks later I got to chinstroke about a topic even more contentious than politics: Condom ads on TV.
The piece examined the longtime refusal of major television networks and their local affiliates to accept condom ads, choosing to address the issue of condom use only through public service announcements. But then three local affiliates – KCPM-TV in Chico, CA, KING-TV in Seattle, and WCVB-TV in Boston – started airing commercials for Lifestyles condoms.
On most days, television shows display the same amount of skin as the average Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. So for years advocacy groups have lobbied TV networks to run condom ads as a counterbalance to television’s steamier side.
Of course broadcast executives made it clear that they’d sooner give Janet Reno her own sitcom. That left TV viewers with public-service announcements, which get on the air less often than Arsenio Hall . . .
Postscript: It appears that I produced eight pieces in September and October of ’96 for the radio program POV, which I have absolutely no memory of doing. There was one memorable line, though, about Ross Perot’s attempts to buy half-hour blocks of TV time in 1996: “Network officials have urged Perot to stick to :30 and :60 ads this year, which, as Ross might say, would be like trading a chicken for an egg salad sandwich.”
• • • • • • •
Ten O’Clock News
after 15 years
In the spring of 1991, the management at WGBH pulled the plug on the station’s venerable Ten O’Clock News after a decade and a half on the air. The show’s longtime anchor, Christopher Lydon, said at the time, “It never occurred to me that (WGBH) would bury its proudest standard, the news. It’s like the New York Times going porno.”
(Two years later Lydon would mount a quixotic run for mayor of Boston – see Part Two of this series – employing similarly overblown rhetoric.)
The cancellation was part of a trend in public broadcasting to replace local shows with national programs suitable for syndication. But ‘GBH officials insisted they weren’t entirely abandoning local programs. From a 1991 Los Angeles Times piece:
[WGBH spokeswoman Jeanne] Hopkins said that the program will be replaced with a ‘Ten O’Clock Something,’ although [station manager David] Liroff said the ‘Ten O’Clock Something’ will probably air at 7:30 p.m.
And so it did, when that “Ten O’Clock Something” was finally hatched the following year. The Group – whose existence has been wiped clean from WGBH’s history (see here and here) – was a sort of Darwinian talk show: A roundtable of five panelists, no host, one topic, turn on the cameras as the panelists start talking and turn off the cameras 28:30 later.
Et voilà – that night’s show.
Also of note: There was wine at the roundtable, and fruit – more than one panelist actually ate an apple during the taping. Way more than one panelist was pickled by the time the cameras shut down on any particular night.
Thanks to my local radio and print work, I was an individual known (as they say on the police blotter) to the producers of The Group, so I got calls to appear on the program from time to time. In each instance, around the 20-minute mark I would think, “Who in the hell would watch this show?” – at which point someone invariably asked me a question about comments I had totally failed to listen to.
(During the same time I also made semi-regular appearances on New England Cable News, the fledgling regional news network that had up to several viewers for shows hosted by the likes of Jim Braude and conservative columnist Jeff Jacoby. It was great: I got to develop some on-air chops while no one actually watched me crash and burn on live television.)
After about four years of The Group and increasing press flak about the station’s lack of substantive local news programming, the ‘GBH brass decided to launch a nightly news and public affairs show called Greater Boston.
The host would be former longtime WCVB news director Emily Rooney, who’d barely had a cup of coffee as executive producer of ABC’s World New Tonight and who brought minimal on-air experience to the job.
In early January of 1997, as the program’s producers ramped up for the Greater Boston launch, they asked me if I’d be interested in producing media commentaries for the show. Given my chronic case of byline fever, I said sure and found myself shortly thereafter sitting in front of a camera, delivering a commentary about a familiar topic: the inability of advocacy groups to place their ads on Boston TV stations.
It was a video version of my radio commentaries: Narration to camera followed by cuts from TV spots followed by narration followed by cuts, etc.
Every day, according to advertising analysts, the average American is exposed to anywhere from 1500 to 10,000 commercial messages – the latter presumably if you live in Los Angeles. Given all those ads, you wouldn’t think we’d miss any. But a certain type of ad hasn’t been seen on Boston television for at least five years.
Those commercials are public-interest ads from consumer advocates or liberal activists. You’ll see Michael Jackson on Sesame Street before you see a left-leaning advocacy ad on the major television networks or their local affiliates.
In 1991 peace group Neighbor-to-Neighbor ran an ad on WHDH-TV attacking Procter & Gamble for using Salvadoran beans in Folgers coffee. P&G promptly pulled a million dollars worth of advertising from the station.
Since then, the Boston airwaves have been off-limits to liberal advocates . . .
Right about then, Rooney herself burst into the studio.
Our conversation went something like this.
Who are you?
(Note: Rooney and I had been on a Big J journalism panel not long before, but obviously I hadn’t registered with her.)
What are you doing?
I’m recording a commentary about Boston TV stations rejecting advocacy advertising.
I’m doing on-camera narration interspersed with cuts from advocacy ads.
That doesn’t work!
(To myself): Seriously? It’s what your old man does every Sunday night.
(To Herself): Okay bye.
I subsequently reworked the piece, replacing the on-camera narration with a voiceover, but it never actually aired.
A few weeks later, though, I did appear on the debut episode of Greater Boston with a piece about the previous night’s Super Bowl ads.
For almost 20 years, the Super Bowl was just another football game to advertisers, who appreciated the large audience but didn’t do anything special for it. All that changed in 1984, when Apple picked the Super Bowl to introduce its Macintosh line of personal computers.
The commercial, a Madison Avenue version of George Orwell’s “1984,” cast IBM as Big Brother and Macintosh as a leggy blonde who liberates the brainwashed masses.
That ad, which ran only once, singlehandedly changed the course of Super Bowl advertising and ushered in the era of adstravagazas.
But big productions haven’t always paid off – in 1985 Apple flopped with a Pied Piper update called “Lemmings.” Apparently computer users don’t mind being labeled totalitarian tools, but they draw the line at small rodents . . .
After the show ended my first thought was, man, somebody needs to burn that tape. As it turned out, it was Rooney herself who got burned.
From a website called Radio Discussions:
When “Greater Boston” first went on-the-air, Monica Collins, then a TV-reporter for the Boston Herald lambasted the show. Emily read the column during a subsequent show and labeled Monica a fat loser (a la Donald Trump); yet some time later, they apparently made up because Monica sat in on the panel of “Beat the Press”. . .
(Fun fact to know and tell: I engineered that truce a few years after the initial blowup, which turned into a legendary local feud. I was managing editor of Greater Boston at the time, and I was sick of the constant sniping between the two media divas, so I brought the Boston Bickersons together for a lunch and convinced them to bury the hatchet someplace that wasn’t one another’s backs.)
As for the debut debacle, I don’t remember Rooney reading the column on the air, mostly because I didn’t watch the show the entire 11 years I worked there. I was either on the set or in the control room during the tapings. That was plenty for me.
What I do remember is that she called Collins “morbidly obese and unhappy” in an interview with The Improper Bostonian. That turned the feud downright nuclear.
(To be fair graf goes here)
To be fair, Collins wasn’t the only critic who found Rooney less than camera-ready. A week after the show’s debut, Boston Phoenix media critic Dan Kennedy (who would later wind up as a regular on Beat the Press, WGBH’s weekly media review show) wrote this.
Greater Boston is going to need some work. Week One’s topics, which included the Super Bowl and cute animals, were too light and fluffy to qualify the show as a must-watch. And Rooney, who doubles as Greater Boston‘s executive editor, needs to overcome her on-the-set jitters.
I banged away as a freelancer on Greater Boston for most of 1997, during which time the show got less than 1% of the TV viewing audience in its time slot. Not only that, it got no respect from the Boston Globe – WGBH’s Inspector Javert – which published this front-page piece six months into the program’s run.
So no one was Team Rooney – not media critics, not audiences, not nobody.
Except maybe me, but at the time I was still a freelancer and needed the work.
• • • • • • •
Some other stuff I produced in 1997 . . .
For starters I hit the Super Bowl ad review trifecta: In addition to the piece I did for Greater Boston, I produced this preview piece the week before the game for Marketplace.
Nowadays, there are precious few ways to get the attention of 130 millions Americans at the same time. Basically, you can run away from the cops in a white Ford Bronco, or you can advertise on the Super Bowl, one of the last collective experiences we have.
The Super Bowl delivers the only “mass” left for mass marketers anymore, and advertisers do everything they can to make the most of it. So, as much as lopsided games are traditional on the field, commercial extravaganzas are now mandatory on the screen . . .
And this year’s adstravaganza promises more of the same, with celebrities galore. In a spot for Royal Appliances, Fred Astaire will dance with a vacuum cleaner in another example of the growing trend toward necro-filmia. Bob Dole – picking up where Dan Quayle, Mario Cuomo and Ann Richards left off – will do whatever for Visa. Cindy Crawford, who’s done more to popularize moles than Beatrix Potter, will appear in a spot for Cadillac. And if we’re really lucky, the artist formerly known as Prince will team up with the Budweiser frogs – possibly in a Before-and-After format . . .
The day after the big game saw my less-than-triumphant return to the Globe’s Business pages as part of a trio of ad critics rating the Super Bowl spots. The re-entry fee was that Business editor Larry Edelman got to steal the Silver Helmet Awards format I created during my Ad Hoc days.
A few days later I hit the Super Bowl four-bagger with a ‘BUR post-game piece about Ocean Spray’s ad featuring Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York.
There was a time in the advertising business when the image of the company was reflected in the image of its commercial endorser. Joe DiMaggio was Mr. Coffee, and, of course, O.J. Simpson dramatized the benefits of quick getaways by automobile.
Sure, sometimes the choices were a bit of a stretch: Michael Jordan returned to the NBA to play basketball and somehow that made him the ideal spokesman for rechargeable batteries. Even more far-fetched, several years ago ads for a no-tie trash bag featured Robert Mitchum, because he never wears a tie . . .
Lately, however, companies seem to be choosing endorsers more for shock value than corporate values . . .
Ocean Spray has signed up Sarah Ferguson as a spokeswoman to promote the company’s line of juice drinks. In one ad the Duchess dumps a bucket of ice on the stalkerazzi lurking outside her window. In another spot, she talks of breaking the high tea taboo.
Of course, if Fergie were really unconventional, she wouldn’t be flacking for Ocean Spray, Weight Watchers and, next probably, Dr. Scholl’s foot powder. But that’s probably too much to ask . . .
In March Boston Magazine published my magnum smokus about the ill-conceived campaign by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to Make Smoking History.
First, the standard disclaimer: I am a practicing smoker, although I doubt I’ll get any better at it. Second, the financial disclosure: It’s my quarter – and the 25¢-per-pack special excise tax on every other Massachusetts smoker – that funds the state’s anti-smoking crusade. And third, the basic discontent: Smokers are not getting good value for the money.
Ever since voters approved Question 1 in 1992, triggering a 25 cent increase in the state’s excise tax on cigarettes, the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program has spent between $55 million and $60 million a year on anti-smoking efforts. The net result? Teenage smoking is up from 29% to 37%. Cigarette sales have declined, but at exactly the same rate as they did before the campaign started. Oh, yes – and Dr. Gregory N. Connolly, director of the Department of Health program, and Houston Herstek & Favat, the program’s advertising agency, have both enhanced their reputations through the campaign.
One relevant example of the DPH campaign’s basic dishonesty.
The campaign kicked off with a two-page spread in the Boston Globe that featured enough chest-thumping to fuel a Johnny Weismuller festival. Interspersed among the paroxysms of self-congratulation were handfuls of statistics, which varied widely in their reliability. Under a bold subhead that read “3,000 non-smokers will die from lung cancer this year because of smoking,” the ad included a gas mask and this statement: “Today, in Massachusetts, 3 residents will die due to second-hand smoke.”
Do the arithmetic. Even if you accept the estimate by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that second-hand smoke kills 3000 people a year – and not every analyst does – that still means, according to the ad, that one in three of them dies in Massachusetts. Our convention business must be better than we thought.
Beyond that, the DPH couldn’t even keep its own numbers straight. The Globe ad said “Thirty percent of the children who smoke . . . report buying their cigarettes from [vending] machines.” But a state-funded study from the same year pegged vending-machine sales to teenagers at eight percent. Small inconsistencies, perhaps, but what’s sauce for the ‘testilying’ Mark Furman is sauce for the public-health department.
(A note on factual documentation: Back in the pre-Internet ’90s, I was a human search engine, amassing multiple manila folders fat with newspaper clippings – MBTA Ads, Broadcast Networks, PETA Ads, Tobacco Advertising, etc. Tedious, but reliable.)
After the Boston magazine piece ran, DPH honcho Greg Connolly complained to me that “Every time you write about our ad campaign, I lose $10 million at the statehouse.”
That also was a lie.
The piece triggered a number of TV appearances where I faced off against nicofiends like Blake Cady at the American Cancer Society and Dick Daynard from Northeastern University’s Public Health Advocacy Institute. They would invariably ask me – often right before a commercial break – why I hated kids.
My answer – which rarely made it onto the airwaves – appeared at the end of the BoMag piece:
Even a veteran smoker wouldn’t wish this habit on a kid, so let’s hope the DPH’s new initiatives work out. The quarrel here is not with the goal of the program, but with the means. “The ad campaign can’t be evaluated independently on its own,” [Greg] Connolly explains.
Perhaps that’s true. But after $50 million-plus, it’s fair to ask what we have gotten for our money.
• • • • • • •
Back at Living on Earth, I had a few ideas about animals and advertising.
ANCHOR: There are thousands of endangered or imperiled species on earth right now, and scientists say thousands more may disappear by the beginning of the next century. Commentator John Carroll says Madison Avenue, not environmental activists, may have the best plan to save them.
CARROLL: Thanks to excessive farming, widespread deforestation, and modern technology in general, plant and animal species are dwindling faster than Al Gore’s credibility these days. To take just one example, scientists report that the penguin population of Antarctica has shrunk by 20% over the past several decades. At least in this instance, we know where they’ve all gone: to Los Angeles to shoot TV commercials. Lately, penguins have been popping up on the small screen at the same pace as Seinfeld reruns. With the penguins, though, you get a lot more variety. Recent TV spots have featured emperor penguins, African black-footed penguins, and Adelaide penguins: the classic black and white that inspired so many police cars across America. And penguins help sell products from BMW to Canada Dry to Bud Ice to N’ice cough drops.
Now, even though penguins aren’t technically endangered or imperiled yet, their current popularity has to be good for their long-term prospects. So maybe advertisers should think about adopting various endangered species as corporate icons to generate both goodwill and good ecology. How about a marketing campaign built around Ivory Snow leopards, which are 99 and 44/100% gone? I’ll bet Blue Whale Corduroys from Levi’s would be a big hit with the Birkenstock crowd, and after a hard day of saving the rainforest they could kick back with a Molsen Golden Monkey. For the internal combustion crowd, Madagascar Radiated Turtle Wax would probably do a great job of protecting cars against acid rain. And maybe NBC could switch its peacock symbol to the imperiled Chinese pheasant. Not to be confused with Chinese peasants, whose numbers are holding steady despite the spread of capitalism there.
Meanwhile, advertisers of all stripes keep flocking to penguins. Even the Aetna Life Insurance Company is using penguins in magazine ads for its retirement services. Of course, if the new eco-commercialism works, retirement would never have to come for endangered species.
When Globe Focus editor Ande Zellman asked me a few months later to produce a piece about the 30th anniversary of 1967’s Summer of Love, I hadn’t the foggiest notion of what to write. Undaunted, I sat down at the keyboard and this happened.
It’s been a banner year for anniversaries. Elvis died 20 years ago yesterday. Aspirin is 100. Last week India marked its 50th year of independence. We’ve celebrated the Golden Jubilee of UFO sightings in Roswell, N.M., and in another invasion of an alien world, Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in major league baseball. Also, and very timely, 1997 is the 50th anniversary of the passage, over a presidential veto, of the Taft-Hartley Act restricting the rights of labor unions. (New ad slogan: “UPS. Moving at the speed of Jimmy Hoffa. The Elder.)
Locally, we’re about to celebrate the Red Sox’s heart-stopping “Impossible Dream” pennant of 1967, the year in which, coincidentally, Christian Barnard performed the first human heart transplant . . .
But there’s been little or no hoopla about the fabled “Summer of Love” 30 years ago. Somehow, the Strawberry Alarm Clock never went off.
Having participated to the best of my ability in the Summer of Love, I of course remember nothing about it. But reliable historical references remind us that Israel . . .
Just as I was my own Google back then, my home office was also the After Hours Public Library, stocked with reference books ranging from the Compact Oxford English Dictionary to a complete 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica (which cost a month’s rent in 1975) to What’s What: A Visual Glossary of Everyday Objects to Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations to Thesaurus of American Slang to The Timetables of History, which provided a wealth of material from 1967 for that Focus piece.
Elsewhere, during the last two months of ’97, I wrote a bi-weekly column for the short-lived political newspaper, Beacon Hill. This piece addressed the issue of TV broadcasters substituting their financial interests for the public interest.
Around the holidays, I produced a piece for WBUR on the proliferation of mobile phones – and mobile phone calling plans.
During the early ’90s, the cellular telephone was an extremely attractive status symbol: less costly per hour than therapy, and more communicative than a trophy wife. But then the upwardly mobile phone crowd spawned a predictable host of imitators, and millions of people joined the walkie-talkie set.
Nowadays, the most impressive thing about the cell phonies is not that they have one, but that they figured out which one to get . . .
A random survey of ads in one day’s newspapers revealed a staggering array of come-ons, but trying to determine the best offer is like comparing Apples to PC’s . . .
And that was that for 1997.
Except for one thing . . .
• • • • • • •
So there I was waltzing my way through 1997, producing pieces for TV, radio, and print, thinking, this is great: I’m creating work for three different mediums, using the whole reporter’s toolbox. It’s my personal Golden Age of freelance writing!
Just two problems.
One, the Golden Age was producing very little gelt.
And two, the Missus had a high-paying job working with some truly awful people, which needed to end.
For the previous three years I had been teaching as an adjunct lecturer at Brandeis University, so I went to the chair of the American Studies Department and to the brass at WGBH and lobbied each of them for a full-time job.
Greater Boston came through first.
And so, after 23 years of freelance hustling, I was finally – at the age of 49 – a full-time reporter.
Nine months later, however, that was no longer the case.
(to be continued)