Marketing Unplugged: Super Foods

Going to the grocery store can be a dreary chore, so I reframe the trip as a contest of wills between me, the wily consumer, and marketers, eager to suck me in with their coveted eye-level shelf-space, flashy packaging and dubious health claims.

I have seen marketing terms come and go.  Natural, light, organic, craft, vine-ripened, and various iterations of fresh (farm fresh, fresh frozen, fresh picked, etc.) have all have grown stale with overuse.  The word “artisan” is in the process of being flogged to death.  When properly used the word implies a product that is individually made, perhaps a loaf of bread made by a stooped woman from the old country with knuckles gnarled from a lifetime of kneading.  Now McDonald’s has co-opted this word to describe its buns.  When I asked the cashier with the greasy hair and visible bra what makes the flattened bun “artisan,” she said, “How am I supposed to know?  Do you want it or not?”

The grasping maw of McDonald’s marketing department has perpetrated an identity theft on the true artisans of the world. Continue reading

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Podcast: Marketing Unplugged: Superfoods

What the hell is a superfood anyway.  Turns out it is nothing.

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The Dumbest Player on the Hockey Team

Last month Nick and I spent 36 hours in the clutches of the Marquette General Hospital in the Upper Peninsula, Michigan, investigating his fleeting episode of chest pain, which turned out to be nothing more than a flush of heartburn.  As we left, the nurse practitioner handed Nick a copy of his medical records to give to his home town physician.

The first line on the history and physical read, “The patient is a pleasant man in no acute distress who appears his stated age of 63.”  Yes, it is a hard reality to look as old as you are, but after glancing in the mirror, Nick had no quibble with the assessment.  However, the next sentence was startling.

“The patient states that he was the dumbest player on his college hockey team.”

We hooted until our stomachs ached, but then a sobering reality set in.  This physician had permanently etched this into his medical record, certain to follow him for the rest of his life.  This conversation was worthy of a meticulous dissection, I thought.  What were the steps that lead to this gross misrepresentation?  What possessed the physician to add this irrelevant detail?

I was on my way to the ER when the physician interviewed Nick, so over the next several weeks I questioned him extensively on the 10-15-minute interaction, trying to plumb the depths of the conversation and gather the slightest nuances in the exchange. I wanted to reconstruct the steps that had traversed the vast gap between a pleasant gentleman and the dumbest hockey player.

Nick reported that the ER physician was an athletic-looking man who appeared his stated age of 40.  He interspersed his cursory physical exam with simple questions, like where are you from, what are doing up here in the Upper Peninsula?  Nick felt that this was nothing more than the type of killing-time, blah, blah, blah conversation you have at a cocktail party with someone you will never see again.

I countered that any conversation in an emergency room is saddled with the unintended consequences of the patient physician-relationship.  “Nick, remember you were sitting on the examination table, feet dangling, wearing one of those demeaning paper outfits.  And you were talking to a physician who could be making life or death decisions, could whisk you off to an emergency angioplasty.  This was a man who could snap his fingers and send you down the rabbit hole of the health care system,” I said.

“Well, okay,” said Nick.  “This was the third physician that had done an identical history and physical.  My EKG and lab tests were entirely normal, and I was ready to leave.  I thought that if I established a rapport with him he would let me go, maybe come back as an outpatient if I needed a stress test.  The last thing I wanted was to stay overnight.  So yes, I was trying to be nice, but what about him?  What was in it for him?”

“Remember that both the hospital and physician are constantly rated on social media.  Your power was that you could have given him a crummy rating, saying that he was brusque and impersonal, no bedside manner, that sort of thing.  I just want to establish that that there was probably an implicit agenda on both sides of the examining table.  Okay, what happened next?”

“The physician saw scars on my knee and asked me how I got them.  I told him that I had blown out my knee playing hockey.  Then the guy turned around to fiddle with the computer.  He wasn’t even looking at me when he asked, ‘did you play in college?’  I thought it was a weird question.”

“In what way was that weird?” I asked. “Wouldn’t this still be in the realm of idle conversation?”

“Yes, but I had already told him that I regularly worked out on the elliptical and played a lot of tennis.  So I had established myself as a reasonably fit athlete.  And this guy was very athletic looking, and it just seemed like he was setting up some sort of competition as to who was the best.  I don’t know, maybe in retrospect I am reading too much into the remark, but it was just a weird vibe.”

“What did you tell him?”

“Well, all I said was that yes, I did play in college and then he said that he also played college sports.  Then he asked me where I went to college.  Now I felt trapped.”

I understood because Nick had played hockey at Harvard.  Outside of Boston, the mention of Harvard always prompts a response, typically negative. In fact, Nick has learned to drop the H-bomb very sparingly, often saying something like “I went to college back east,” in hopes of deflecting the issue.  People often assume Harvard students are too brainy for their own good, or belong to an elitist society whose members have birth certificates stamped with “Born to Succeed.”  Maybe the doctor was jealous.  And then there was the added issue of playing hockey there.  Maybe the doc thought that hockey was Nick’s way into Harvard, a jockish work-around to GPAs and SAT scores, obscuring the truth that he had worked his ass off.

Nick went on.  “I was so tired I just said it.  ‘I played at Harvard.’  Then it got really strange.   The doctor said, ‘What it was like to play on a hockey team with such a smart group of people?’  That put me at a complete loss.”

I nodded agreement.  If Nick said yes, everyone was really smart, he might set up an IQ battle with the physician and potentially alienate the very person he was trying to ingratiate.  Say no, and he might create the impression that the hockey team didn’t deserve the cachet of a Harvard education.

“I tried to finesse the issue,” said Nick.  “I told the guy that there were plenty of dumb guys on the team, and then we got interrupted.  I was going to add that I got tired of dumb jocks and precious preppies asking me for help in classes that they never went to.  I just quit the team, but he never heard that part.”

“Well, I guess that gets us to the launching pad for his fateful statement, but still what prompted his final leap?”

I looked over the hospital transcript to see if there was any way the statement could have been the result of a typo or a glitch in a voice-activated transcription.  The only possibility I could imagine was that the physician had dictated, “The patient reports that he WASN’T the dumbest player on the team,” but this is damning with faint praise.  “That doctor must have been carrying a lot of psychological baggage,” I said.  “You were just collateral damage.”

“Like what?” said Nick.

“Okay, I’m just brainstorming here.  Maybe you unwittingly prompted some deep-seated resentment.  Perhaps the guy had been rejected by Harvard, his grades, athleticism or both were not enough, perhaps his brother or sister had gone to Harvard and he was the only one in his family without an Ivy League pedigree.  Here he is in Marquette, logging hours in the emergency room far from the elitist East Coast that he aspired to, and now his conceptual nemesis shows up, vulnerable and anxious in his examination room.”

Nick was surfing the internet as I prattled on.  “Unbelievable. Look at this.  Here’s a profile says that he is an outstanding physician, had brilliant grades at Michigan State and does brilliant work and is one of the most reputed specialists.”

“Wow, how about that – you were in the presence of greatness,” I said.  “Now don’t take this personally, but the doctor probably thought you were a boring patient.  Rule/out heart attack is a routine protocol that wouldn’t require his brilliance.  On the other hand, if you had shown up with a fish hook embedded in your eyeball, well that might have piqued his interest, required some deft heroics on his part.”

Nick’s eyes widened as I gathered momentum.  “Your ER physician just got stuck with you.  Now imagine him at the end of the day, droning on as he dictates his dreary, repetitive cases – heartburn, sprained ankles, ear infections.  His eyes flutter, his head wobbles, and in this weakened state he uses a history and physician to exact revenge.  He wouldn’t remember saying it and would be shocked to see it in print, but here it is, forever more.

“The patient states that he was the dumbest player on the hockey team.”


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Podcast: Dumbest Player on the Hockey Team

What was the physician thinking when he put this into the medical record?

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Lists: Reasonably Flat Surfaces That Could Be Used for Forced Idleness Advertising

The airport experience is nothing but sequential moments of forced idleness.  As we stand numbly in security lines or fidget at the gate, our weary eyes dart around looking for stimulation.  Marketers have obliged.  Every available surface is slathered with ads – the pillars of the concourse, the elevator door, the escalator rails or the bottom of the bins in the security line.  I have even seen an ad on the floor beamed from a projector hanging from the rafters.

These ads are fleeting – elevator doors close, the bins in the security line are promptly covered by clothes – and thus they convey nothing more than product awareness.   But marketers must believe that even this brief exposure can seep into our psyche.  Marketers are like sharks, ever moving on the ocean floor, searching for new meat, eager to extrapolate the airport experience into the cracks and crevices of our daily lives.

Here are my top picks for the next wave of forced idleness advertising.  Continue reading

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Lists: Reasonably Flat Surfaces That Could Be Used For Forced Idleness Ads

Marketers view forced idleness, such as standing in  lines, as an opportunity for advertising.  The airport experience, where ads are slathered onto every flat surface, is the epitome of forced idleness advertising.  Now this advertising is poised to move into our everday lives.  What flat surfaces will be exploited next?

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Only to Find Gideon’s Bible

My family rarely stayed in hotel rooms when we were kids, so when I first saw a Gideon Bible I thought that it had been left by a previous occupant named Gideon.  I thought nothing more of it until 1968 when I heard the Beatles sing Rocky Racoon:

Rocky Racoon checked into his room

Only to find Gideons Bible.

A Gideon was not an individual, it was a group and why did these Gideons keep leaving Bibles in hotel rooms?

The Gideons quickly passed into my brain’s deep storage locker, but after a forty-year hiatus they came bubbling to the surface when Rocky Raccoon popped up again on the radio.

As a writer on the prowl for quirky characters and story lines, I was intrigued.  I discovered that the Gideons were an evangelical Christian organization founded in 1898 by two traveling salesmen who kept bumping into each other on the road.  They decided that they could multitask by placing Bibles in hotel rooms.

I tried to imagine an early scenario.  It is 1910; the Gideons have begun to deposit Bibles in bedside drawers.  I envision two traveling salesmen sitting at a dreary diner picking at the remains of their apple pie.  A persistent fly circles overhead, just missing the dangling flypaper. Continue reading

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Podcast: Only to Find Gideon’s Bible

Who are these Gideons and why do they keep leaving their Bibles in hotel rooms?

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Podcast: Mind Trip

Staying sharp and keeping an engaged mind on a long road trip is a tricky business!

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Mind Trip

Driving makes me drowsy, so I am anxious as I contemplate my solo drive from my writer’s retreat in Montpelier, Vermont to my home north of Chicago.  On most long drives, I wisely stop for refreshing naps.  Once a wavering median line prompted me to pull over in Milwaukee just one hour north of my starting point.  I fell asleep for a solid two and a half hours, wakened only by a ripening bladder and thickening saliva.  On this cross-country trip, I cannot afford any such therapeutic dallying if I want to avoid the withering Fourth of July traffic through Chicago.

In preparation I have selected audiobooks that tread that fine line between entertainment and distraction.  A prior choice of Jeremy Irons reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita cost me dearly.  Iron’s reptilian voice coupled with Nabokov’s seductive prose had me so enraptured that I lost track of my accelerator foot in rural Michigan.  It wasn’t until I heard the siren that I realized I was speeding.  As I rolled down my window, I wanted to tell the cop about the mitigating details, about Nabokov’s use of words like “sibilant” to describe Lolita’s childlike lisp, or “crenulated” to describe the pattern that an elastic band might make on soft flesh.  But the argument wasn’t going to work on this young cop with a peach-fuzzed and acne-stippled face.  Forty-five minutes later, now in rural Wisconsin, I got a second ticket, but I considered the tickets as money well spent for the privilege of quality time with Jeremy Irons and Nabokov.

Since then I have sought safer entertainment with biographies or history.  I am a World War I and II history buff, but the slow measured tones of the narrators can put me in a dangerous trance.  Besides sometimes I am just not in the mood for Hitler.  For this trip, I decide that a murder mystery will hit the right balance – a zippy plot that will keep me awake, but not encroach on the required concentration needed for safe driving.  My friend recommended the author Louise Penny, and I pack in a couple of her books.

Within one hour of Montpelier I am in traffic hell.  In my eagerness to avoid the Chicago traffic, I have plunked myself in the middle of arriving traffic on this holiday weekend. Lumbering campers, sharp turns and winding roads suck up too much attention to focus on a book.  I must entertain myself in the odd moments of calm.  I think about the Bingo game my mother made decades ago to entertain us kids during long vacation drives.  She replaced the dreary entries of store-bought Bingo, such as “bird on a wire, or “cow” with spicier entries, such as “road kill, “religious lawn decoration,” or “dangling bra on a clothes line.”  As I inch along, I spot additional entries for her Bingo cards, such as “driver really picking his nose,” “kids fighting in the back seat,” or “man with a hairy back mowing his lawn.”  I make a mental note of the man as a potential character in a story.

Finally, after six hours, I reach New York and the blessed interstate, a shimmering ribbon unspooling all the way to Chicago.  With no more jockeying for position or white-knuckled passing, I can just hit cruise control and motor on.  This driving will only require a fraction of my attention.  Time for the murder mystery.

I have chosen poorly.  The plot line is familiar, involving a murder at a dysfunctional family reunion; every member has a plausible motive.  I shift my focus to the author’s prose style, but it is simple and unadorned.  I think of my hero Nabokov whose command of imagery is remarkable given that English is his third language after Russian and French.

Louise Penny’s occasional attempts at literary flourish fall short.  She writes of scudding clouds and dappled shadows.   What else scuds besides a cloud?  I can only think of the Scud missiles featured in the Iraq Gulf War and the embedded reporter referred to as the “Scud Stud.”  Besides shadows, only horses are dappled.  Well okay, maybe vitiligo can dapple skin, and I think that there is such a thing as a dappled dachshund, but that’s about it.

And then there is the word “scamper,” which Penny uses to describe how ants move.  I think about all the words at Penny’s disposal – scamper, scurry, scoot, skulk, scuttle, slither and skitter – each conveying intent as well as movement.  Skulk and scuttle imply clandestine or evil intent – cock roaches scuttle – skitter suggests disorganized movement, while scurry is more purpose-driven.  Penny’s scampering ants just don’t work for me.  Scampering implies a joy and playfulness that is just not within the emotional repertoire of ants.  Squirrels scamper, ants scurry.  I ponder the infinite shades of movement in language and thrill to the idea that both Nabokov and I like to dissect words.

I spend a nervous night in Geneva, New York during a massive manhunt for two prisoners who have tunneled beneath the wall of the maximum-security Clinton Correctional Facility.  They are still on the loose when I leave in the morning, directly on my route through upstate New York.  I am safe whizzing along in my cocooned world of the front seat, but I feel vulnerable as I pull into the Niagara Falls oasis for gas. They have already hijacked one car.  Do I park amidst many others, seeking safety in numbers, or perhaps park in the open where it would be more difficult for a crazed criminal to sneak up with piano wire, garrote me and commandeer my maroon Honda CR-V?  I park the car in plain view but quickly scuttle in and out, relieved to be on my way again.

This would be a much better murder mystery than Penny’s, I think.  Maybe the man with the hairy back could be one of the escaped prisoners, his back a defining feature that he cannot disguise.  This would be my first foray into fiction and I relish the freedom to make up whatever I want.  Why not pile on other quirks to my character?  What the hell, I could give my prisoner a sibilant lisp, and/or a pock-marked face, crenulated from old acne scars.

New York turns into Ohio and finally I see signs for Cleveland, where my grandmother lived.  I see her exit for Kirtland and am tempted to take a quick loop to rekindle fond memories, but I stick to my time schedule and keep heading west.  As I squint into the afternoon sun, I remember my grandmother’s firm opinion on the superiority of the east side residents compared to those living west of Cleveland.  “The people on the west side have to commute into the sun in the morning and then again when they go home at night,” she said.  I think it does something funny to their brains.  They’re just not as smart as us east-siders.  We never have to look into the sun when we commute.”

Here’s another possible story line, I think, perhaps a parody of Romeo and Juliet’s forbidden love that rips apart affluent families living in competing suburbs.  My car has turned into an enforced writer’s retreat.

I finally reach the Ohio Indiana border.  One more state to go.  I gaze ahead at the featureless landscape.  Sometimes I am just not in the mood for amber waves of grain.  Indiana is a skinny state and I feel I should be almost home, but I am wrong, so wrong.  I am reminded of the scene in the movie Lawrence of Arabia where Peter O’Toole must cross the searing Nefud desert to reach his goal of Aqaba.  The local Bedouins say it has never been done. Camels with wrinkled, dehydrated humps stagger onward and O’Toole’s only sign of life is a determined glimmer in his piercing blue eyes.  He will get there or die trying.  Well, Indiana is my Nefub desert and Chicago my Aqaba.  And surprisingly, Indiana seems to agree.  The license plates contain the state motto, “Indiana, the Crossroads of America.”  Even the residents think that Indiana is meant to be endured and not enjoyed.

I trundle on, tempted to pull over to revive my softening brain, which Nabokov might describe as “all ooze and squid-cloud.”  Vigorous shoulder hunches and sustained butt clenches that raise me off my seat provide temporary stimulation.  Finger clenches on the steering wheel are less successful, but I do notice that they make my hands look like wizened claws of a 100-year-old chicken.

The setting sun hits the rear-view mirror at the perfect angle to highlight the delicate crepe-like wrinkles on my face.   I notice my left nostril is larger than my right and there is more grey hair on my right temple than my left.  My glasses are crooked on my nose and I wonder if my ears are alop.  As I run my tongue along my teeth, I detect a slight misalignment.  I remember a funky Peruvian sweater I bought years ago.  The tag read, “The minor irregularities in this garment are part of its hand-made charm.”   I hope this describes me.

I am as weary as O’Toole’s droopy camel, drifting dangerously.  An inventory of my asymmetries no longer keeps me awake.  I return to mental games, this time focusing on idioms.  How many millennials know that the phrase “Drinking the Kool-Aid,” describing mindless obedience, comes from the mass suicide engineered by Jim Jones in the remote jungle of Guyana?  Years from now will the phrase “Land it in the Hudson” still be in play to describe a heroic rescue?  I try to come up with an idiom that transcends time.  “Stew in Your Own Juices” is as apt today as it was when a caveman first conquered fire and put a carcass in a pot.  Who was that clever linguist?  Perhaps Shakespeare, the towering genius of word play, or maybe even Chaucer.

Ah, finally, I see it, my Lake Michigan peeking through the skyline of Chicago. I have beaten the weekend traffic.  I swing around the base of the lake and shoot out the north side of the city, a horse to the barn streaking towards the northern suburbs.  I briefly wonder if this timeless idiom was invented some 6,000 years ago when horses were first domesticated.  But no, I no longer need contrived entertainment.  My mind pivots like a heat-seeking missile to focus on home, where I will find good potato chips, reruns of Law and Order, and a blank piece of paper just calling out for a man with a hairy back.


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