Results tagged “advertising”

The Right Wing's $7 Billion Media Subsidy

February 6, 2012

Considering how much conservatives and right-wing political personalities in the United States claim to hate the liberal media, it's remarkable how much money they've been able to funnel into the coffers of the liberal media institutions they malign.

By looking at a few numbers, we can see nearly where nearly 7% of all U.S. advertising dollars are attributable to policy decisions and judicial activism driven directly by conservative priorities.

  • The United States is the only country other than New Zealand which allows the bizarre practice of advertising prescription drugs directly to consumers. Called direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA), this practice accounted for $4.9 billion dollars in advertising spending in 2007, nearly all of it targeted to traditional media such as television and print. It's hard to imagine how a mainstream print magazine such as Time would survive without this largesse, especially as the FDA's regulations typically require drug interaction disclosures which effectively double the amount of advertising space which the pharmaceutical company must purchase. The conservative goal of commercializing prescription drugs while reducing oversight has undoubtedly succeeded; the data show that FDA oversight of DTCA drug ads is decreasing while any of us who consume media have noticed the increasing medicalization of ordinary aspects of life for which companies have created remedies. But it's inarguable that this adds up to nearly five billion dollars in advertising that goes overwhelmingly to the old media institutions which conservatives rail against.
  • Similarly, conservatives delighted in the execrable Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, which equated money with speech and has resulted in SuperPACs which offer no accountability or transparency while supporting candidates despite being ostensibly required to be independent. It's a horrendous thing, but it amounts to a $2 billion subsidy that, again, goes largely to traditional media with television being the single largest benefactor. Here I'll quote liberally from Wikipedia, because this is a topic where the community has done a remarkably concise job of illustrating the impact:

With total projections of all campaign spending exceeding $1 billion and more likely to be approach $2 billion, some comparison to overall advertising spending is in order. World-wide, total spending in all areas for 2012 is expected to be $438 billion, with North America accounting for 26.6%. In rough terms, allocating some of North America's total to Canada and Mexico, this leaves predicts the US market share to be roughly of $100 billion ($438 billion global times 26.6% for North America times 85% estimate for USA). Therefore, if total spending is nearer the $2 billion figure, the US consumer should expect, averaged out of over the year, about 2% of advertising to be regarding the election. However, since spending is focused closest to voting dates, and may be area focused in hotly contested areas, some markets may see peaks upward of 20-30% of all messages to be election related and paid by PACs and 527 organizations.

The key thing to realize here is that mainstream media cannot encourage reform, either of politically poisonous ideas such as corporate personhood or of personally poisonous ideas such as drug advocacy that is not driven by medical professionals, without fundamentally advocating for the obliteration of as much as 7% of their total revenues. The amount represented by just DTCA pharmaceutical ads and SuperPAC/PAC/527 spending is equal to twenty seven times the $262 million in advertising purchased in the New York Times last year.

As somebody who loves media and has lots of friends employed by these big media companies, I'm surprised and impressed by the concerted conservative efforts to prop up the liberal media establishment. As somebody who detests the commercial exploitation of those who are unhealthy and the distortion of our political system by wealthy oligarchs, I am saddened by what the math shows. I wish that the billionaires behind most SuperPAC dollars would go back to just having their own personal media outlets, like rich people did in the old days. But for today, I'm just delighted by the idea that the unintended consequences of focused lobbying from the right has been the artificial sustenance of the media monoliths run by the left.

Additional Reading

(Special thanks to my colleague Chris Morf for helping with a sanity check on some of this research. None of my opinions stated here are his fault.)

Fat Pages

October 12, 2010

Today, in a Wired interview about Instapaper, Marco Arment offered up:

“People love information,” Arment said. “Right now in our society, we have an obesity epidemic. Because for the first time in history, we have access to food whenever we want, we don’t know how to control ourselves. I think we have the exact same problem with information.”

Meanwhile, Clay Johnson's InfoVegan states in its thesis:

As we consume food, we also consume information. Yet few of us make deliberate decisions on what kind of information to consume or how much. We do make unconscious, non-deliberate decisions though— we’re naturally drawn towards the opinions we agree with, whether it be through following our friends on twitter or the mass media we consume. We naturally avoid diversity in the news we consume— you won’t find many conservatives watching MSNBC or being fans of Keith Olbermann, and you’re not going to make any liberal friends happy turning on Glenn Beck in their living rooms.

Information consumption also has a consumption chain, just like food does. Most news, for instance, comes from a set of facts on the ground, that get processed, and processed and processed again before it ends up on your television set boiled down into chunks for you to consume. But it also gets filled with additives— expert opinion, analysis, visualizations, you name it— before it gets to you. If this was food, a vegan would want none of it. They’d head straight to the data, to the source, to the facts, and try and get as much of that additive business out of their way.

There's a lot of thoughtful, broad vision in what these smart geeks are getting at, but some small part of what they're articulating is merely about clutter. I'd attribute some large part of the success of app phones to the fact that they've merely erased much of the clutter that we take for granted in most of today's web experiences. Instapaper's one of my favorite New York City startups, not simply because of my usual New York boosterism, but because the future of media ought to be decided here in New York. And something simple and readable, with room to breathe, feels like the future.

Of course, I've tried to practice what I preach here on this site; I got rid of ads about a year ago, and kept only one image on the page, not counting any illustrations in the posts. The one concession to the proliferation of Digg/Like/Tweet spam I've added is the "Read Later" link in the sidebar, which of course would let you read this content later in Instapaper. I decided that was worth the tradeoff because the intention to read something later is, at its core, a fundamentally hopeful and optimistic tendency, and I want to encourage that in my readers. And also because this blog is usually among the top ten Google results for "TL;DR".

I've also tried to bring that ethic of decluttering to other projects I work on (Gourmet Live has a page reader that looks almost as clean as Instapaper, which is surprisingly uncommon in the magazine world), but I know for lots of web publishers that's an unaccustomed luxury.

Trim The Fat

So, if these smart folks are right, and lots of people value a clean experience, and right now publishers are making zero dollars off of readers who prefer uncluttered reading, who is going to be the first to charge for a clean version of their site? And which bloggers are going to choose to eschew all the flashing ads and obnoxious sharing buttons, forgoing a few dollars in revenue in exchange for a better presentation for their ideas?

We already know people will pay for more control over presentation and the ability to skip ads on TV. That same drive has helped satellite radio take off. We see even the Gawkers of the world headed towards designs with fewer ads. And lots of us pay a premium to use computers that aren't pre-loaded with spammy software or covered in advertising stickers. Hell, I've been linking to the (cleaner, less ad-cluttered) print versions of articles on this site for the better part of a decade. Why not simply give the people what they want?

Know Your Shit: Ten Years of Twitter Ads

April 21, 2010

Last week, Twitter announced its new advertising system, called promoted tweets. I was at Twitter's Chirp conference as a speaker, so I got an up-close look at the reaction to the big news, along with the (frankly, more interesting to me) announcements for developers and media.

But from the New York Times to CNBC to the dozens of other media channels that covered the story, there was no mention of the essential fact that Twitter's senior executives have all made similar advertising and monetization systems in the past.

Why does it matter? Because looking at the decisions Ev, Dick, Biz and other senior Twitter execs have made in the past could provide valuable insights to anyone trying to understand the roadmap of how the company got to this point, and what they're going to do next. And because innovation happens in the tech business not because of who you know or how much money you have (though those things help, of course) but because, fundamentally, you know your shit. The tech trade press wants to focus on personalities and funding, but for the developers I met at Chirp, or who are making their way to Facebook's F8 conference today, success comes from recognizing industry patterns.

So, some examples:

  • PyRads, launched in November 2001, was a self-service text ad system built by Pyra CEO Ev Williams, now Twitter's CEO, to provide an advertising system for users of Pyra's signature application, Blogger. (Trivia: PyRads was named by Jason Shellen, now CEO of Brizzly.) PyRads actually launched between Google's rollout of AdWords and its later introduction of AdSense, alongside similar efforts like Matt Haughey's TextAds and Phil Kaplan's HttpAds.
  • SpyOnIt, launched in 1999, was led by its CEO Dick Costolo, now COO of Twitter, as a realtime notification system for changes on websites. In addition to sending instant messages when a site had updated, the SpyOnIt team stayed at 724 solutions after it acquired their company, with one area of focus being the delivery of realtime notifications through partnerships with mobile service providers. Dick and his SpyOnIt cofounders would later go on to create Feedburner. You know, that thing that does realtime delivery of feeds with ads in them?
  • A bonus one: Xanga, launched in 1999, was one of the earliest large-scale blogging services, and its initial marketing efforts were led by Biz Stone, now Creative Director of Twitter. While Biz was at Xanga, they launched one of the first pages to aggregate media consumption in a blogging community, creating an Amazon shopping portal of the most popular books, music and movies amongst their users.

There are dozens more examples, but if you are going to compete or succeed in the Twitter ecosystem, shouldn't you know exactly what choices these men made when in nearly identical circumstances a decade ago? Because I'm friends with these guys, I can just ask them. But none of the developers I've talked to at events like Chirp seem to know this legacy, and they don't have the access and privilege that I do to ask questions directly. That's not really a criticism — a lot of them are young or inexperienced or simply arrogant and don't think history matters, so they are disinclined to listen to an old-timer like me rant about ancient times when they were in junior high school.

And while the brashness of youth can be a powerful driver of innovation, a blind devotion to the narratives as presented by today's tech press is incomplete at best. Without the whole story, today's startups are going to be sitting around surprised when industry cycles repeat themselves. It doesn't have to be that way. All you have to do is Know Your Shit.

Don't worry, I'm not 100% Grumpy Old Man yet; Here's video of me improvising a PowerPoint presentation to slides I'd never seen at the close of the first day of the Chirp conference. Caution: The jokes are nerdy.

Update: The video works now.

Communications and Perception

October 15, 2009

Most of my career has been dedicated to communications, either in making tools for enabling it, or in trying to practice the art myself. My friends tend to be people of conscience, so they often question why I waste my time on activities that could be described as "marketing" or even as hype when there are much bigger challenges that my talents could be applied to.

Perhaps the best articulation of why I think communications matters is in this short TED talk by Rory Sutherland:

In short, Sutherland argues that we need to start to value intangible, emotional experiences and that marketing, communications and, yes, even advertising can help bring that about. By starting to place importance on experiences and appreciation instead of objects and consumption, we become more sustainable as a society while also becoming more creative as a culture.

A lot of people offered up criticism when I launched Last Year's Model, asking why I was just encouraging people to talk to each other instead of actually doing something. As it turns out, talking to each other is doing something.

Blog Advertising, Prescience and Seven Years

September 3, 2009

About seven years ago, Matt Haughey, Paul Bausch and Meg Hourihan ran a very cool early blogging community called Blogroots, which acted as watercooler for conversations about the evolution of the then-nascent medium.

I'd found some links to the site in the Web Archive a few months ago, and sent them around, and then was delighted to see one of them surface on its own again today. Gawker Media's Erin Pettigrew used the initial thread about the launch of Gizmodo (Gawker's first title), along with my post at the time as a jumping-off point for a look at Gawker's success seven years later. I'm a big fan of using the history of our blogs as a record of the lessons we've learned over the years, and I'm glad I wasn't (overly) harsh about Gawker's chances.

As far as advertising on blogs goes, though, I'll admit I've become a bit of a convert to the potential. Today's conversation prompted a quick glance at the numbers for the biggest blog advertising platforms in the U.S., revealing something kind of interesting:


Not too shabby, considering it's only been a little over a year since Six Apart Media launched. Another little trivia note — that first Gizmodo design, which inspired such an interesting conversation, was designed and implemented by Mena and Ben Trott, working as sort of an ancient ancestor of today's Six Apart Services. It's fun to see that everybody involved is not only still blogging, but succeeding at it.

A Red Flag Before The White Flag

November 26, 2008

Major labels function with the assumption that 90 percent of artists they sign are going to fail — that should have been a red flag for everybody. I mean that’s a bizarre business model in any arena. But particularly in the cultural arena, the idea that the system through which culture is transmitted is dictated entirely by profit should concern us, because that’s going to narrow the types of culture that are transmitted. And then, on top of that, the alternative venues of distribution are stuck in the shadows of these major labels.

That's Dr. Bethany Klein, in an outstanding interview about her research into the commercial licensing of pop music, and its impacts on artists and the music industry as a whole.

The interview is in support of her upcoming book As Heard on TV and you can read her dissertation on the topic as well.

If you're so inclined, a few years ago I'd ranted about Bob Dylan's appearance in a Victoria's Secret ad, which certainly marks a nadir in the realm of musicians licensing popular music for commercials. Not because he was "selling out" (I don't believe in that idea), but because he is so damn unsexy.

AdSense Can Sense My Soul

February 29, 2008

I've had friends ask why I have advertising on my site; After all, it's not like I'm gonna pay the rent with the kind of traffic that a Snoop Dogg fansite drives. Usually, I explain that I just like to understand how that stuff works, to keep up to date with the customers I deal with at work, or just because of curiosity.

But today, I have a much better answer. It's because sometimes that little bit of Google code can make something magical happen.

Me and Snoop

A Moral Problem

September 21, 2007

From eWeek's "Upcoming" section, which I'd praised a few weeks ago, comes this interview with Java creator James Gosling. The key quote, for me:

Of Google, Gosling said: "I guess part of me has almost a moral problem with, 'What do you mean the killer app for Internet is advertising?' I'd love to believe it was all about building communities on the Web. But building communities is just a scam for getting people to pay for advertising. Search is just a scam to get people to pay for advertising. I know the Google folks actually resisted doing advertising for a long time. They didn't like the idea, but they had to have a spreadsheet solve to a positive number."

He goes on to overreach with some of his conclusions, but I thought his perspective was interesting.

They Got Married?!

July 25, 2007

They Got Married If you've been on the Internet at all in the past, oh, ten years, you'll have seen the ad for that features an improbable matrimonial matchup of a bookish young woman and a dreamy young man. "They Got Married??!!!" screams the headline above their images, and this is supposed to entice us to go register for the site. (Does still charge money in this post-Facebook era?)

Because of the campaign's ubiquity, I find it reassuring that people have gotten hungry for the backstory behind these two archetypical images. It turns out a lot of people are hungry for a happily-ever-after story, especially when these particular pictures have been seen over a billion times.

The truth? As it turns out, the two are not married. In fact, Bryce Lane and L.A. Smith weren't even high school contemporaries -- they just both did stints at as employees, and that's how their faces got into the ad.

That news story from last year should be particularly reassuring to Justin, who'd blogged about the phenomenon at length.

On Blogs and Conversational Marketing

June 26, 2007

There's been a (mostly boring) conversation going between some blogs over the past few days regarding the line between editorial and advertising. Largely, this is a case of the same silly-meme-into-faux-fact path that I tried to document yesterday. In this case, it's a little less innocent -- Nick Denton used a Valleywag blog post to take a jab at John Battelle and FM Pub by implying its writers sold out by creating copy for a Microsoft campaign that ran on their sites.

The whole thing is, as I said, mostly boring, except that the idea of the post is what ended up being debated, instead of the fact that this is really a case of a not-that-serious personal rivalry turning into an assault on the credibility of a number of good bloggers. And a number of overrated ones, but that's beside the point.

Again with the disclaimers: I know both Nick and John, and like them both for what they're good at, as well as for what makes them different. And I have good friends in both of their companies. This isn't name-dropping; A big part of my job is making connections to people who do innovative things with blogs and in the blogging industry, and they both fall squarely into that description.

But Nick is being pretty transparently intellectually dishonest here -- throwing bombs at John and FM not because he believes what he's saying, but because he knows it'll get attention. The idea of advertising becoming more blog-like is a good thing. If every ad were written by an actual human, had a permanent link to its location, and let people share or tag it, we'd end up with a radically better advertising culture.

The idea of a media team creating advertising content isn't new -- it's as old as publishing itself. And it continues today. Here's Ziff Davis' Contract Publishing services. In public media, here's PBS' Red Book guidelines for underwriting content. Sure, it makes sense to have different teams be responsible for money and editorial. But in blogging, where the editor is the publisher and you can't split a one-person staff in half, merging these functions isn't just logical, it's inevitable. Perhaps if Nick hadn't been a pioneering blogger himself, I'd have believed he was simply mistaken.

In this case, though, we're fortunate to have some pretty articulate advocates for the idea of conversational marketing. For example, FM Pub's Chas Edwards does a great job of telling the story.

But perhaps the best advocate for this style of conversational marketing is Nick Denton. From three years ago (Emphasis mine):

For appropriate clients, Gawker Media will...

  • conceive a weblog campaign
  • provide editorial talent and oversight
  • create a co-branded page within one of the Gawker sites
  • design and build a standalone blog
  • promote the campaign weblog on Gawker sites
  • promote the campaign weblog on other weblogs
  • syndicate out the campaign blog content to news reader applications
  • distill and spotlight weblog buzz on the campaign

Some people will question the use of the weblog format in marketing. There is no straightforward answer. Contract publishing, online or offline, can be done well, or badly. It depends on the subject matter, and the tone. Dr Pepper/Seven Up seemed cynical in its exploitation of the weblog format when it launched, a site devoted to a new milk drink. However, a smart approach to an appropriate topic can work. Witness, Macromedia's product weblogs, or Jason Kottke's weblog campaign around the release of Adaptation, the movie.

In principle, campaign weblogs allow a marketer to participate in the weblog conversation, rather than observe it as a passive sponsor. Now we'll just have to see whether they work.

Seems reasonable to me. Or at least worth a try.

Update: Nick sent me an update with some very reasonable additions to my post. His email follows.

First of all, if you're going to imagine my motives, at least say that you're doing so, rather than pretend that you know. In fact, I was just rooting around for a story, on a very slow news story.

Second, for evidence of that, read the original post: I took to task, not Battelle, nor even Michael Arrington, but people I thought should know better, such as Om Malik and Paul Kedrosky.

"I can't blame Battelle's team for latching on to this idea. The campaign is slick; and Microsoft is a deep-pocketed client. But it's disappointing that so many of his most reputable writers have signed on as spokespeople. One would have thought that tech opinion-leaders as influential as Om Malik and Paul Kedrosky would ration their credibility more carefully, and reserve it for companies and products for which they felt real enthusiasm."

And, finally, good find on Gawker's old contract publishing business. However, one thing I'd appreciate you mentioning: we hired writers specially for the marketing copy writing, precisely because we didn't want to compromise the credibility of any of our editorial writers.

Google Web History - Good and Scary

April 20, 2007

Many years ago, when the web was a simpler place, one of the scariest monsters conjured up to describe the privacy threats that lurked on the Internet was the DoubleClick cookie, used for tying your ad-viewing behavior on the web to your real-world identity. USA Today said it was Orwellian, and set off a half-decade of worries for web surfers, many of whom didn't even have the foggiest notion what they were worried about.

Today, Google's released Google Web History. It's a brilliant, powerful, even insightful tool that will undoubtedly worry those who were concerned about privacy in the early days of the web's popularity. It doesn't help that Google now owns DoubleClick, and all those worries about cookies are amplified that Google actually stores all of this data on its computers, not yours, tied to an identity that might well also be linked to your email, office documents, your instant messages, and of course your browser history itself, courtesy of the browser toolbar.

Google Web History

Services For Your Web History

From a technical standpoint, Google Web History is one of those tools that's so well-executed it seems simple, or even obvious, the first time you see it. There's a basic timeline of your search history, with the ability to drill into specific search result histories for Google properties like web search, image search, news, Froogle (now renamed Google Product Search, though the UI for Web History shows the old name), Video, and Maps. There's even, astoundingly, a history of which AdSense Ads you've clicked on.

Some Google properties are missing -- Google Apps documents don't show up in your history, and the more loosely-connected services like Blogger, Reader, and Picasa are nowhere to be found. Plus, there's a peculiar disconnect with the Google Desktop Search tool's services -- the Timeline feature shared between both applications appears completely different, and your desktop history isn't integrated into the new service.

As you'd expect, there's a prominent and simple way to remove those scurrilous bits from your web history. And the improved presentation of an item as mundane as one's browser history reveals a recent strength of Google's: revealing data you already have access to. The Google Desktop Search tool on Windows made smart use of a disk indexing system that Microsoft had already built into Windows. In a similar way, the Web History service makes use of the Google Toolbar history to take old data and turn it into useful information through smart presentation.

There's a promising, but (for me, at least) still blank area titled "Interesting Items", and the reappearance of a feature that first showed up in the excellent Google Reader: Trends.

Google Web History's Trends Display

Now, Google's data for my own history is slightly skewed; I tend to use Blingo for a lot of basic searches on my computers, and Google's toolbar doesn't track that. But the fundamental underpinnings for a remarkably deep look into behavior on the web are already present.

The Real World

Google Web History's Web Activity Chart Outside of the world of users who gawk at every shiny new thing on the web, though, this is going to give people the heebie-jeebies in a way that we're probably only used to getting from Microsoft. In fact, it's probably safe to say that no other major web company could release this product today; The backlash from the user community of players like Microsoft, Yahoo, or AOL would simply be too strong.

Google is still in a period where most users on the web feel they are a relatively benevolent company. And it helps that the new product is excellent, useful, and unique. But with the release of Web History, especially in the context of its recent acquisitions and announcements, Google may have crossed the line where regular users start to react with skepticism and caution instead of unabashed enthusiasm.

This product is all about web history. We've already learned some lessons from the history of the web about what happens to companies once users start to question their trust in the intentions or implications of new products. It may serve Google well to revisit those lessons.

Some Links

Here are a few useful links to add to your own web history:

I am appealing to young men!

July 7, 2006

Microsoft's AdCenter advertising service has a demographic predictor as part of their labs; It's supposed to indicate what audience can be expected to respond to a certain search term or URL. Here's the results for

Gender: Male Oriented with following Confidence:

  • Male: 0.54
  • Female: 0.46

Age: <18 Oriented with following distribution:
Age Demographics

I'm a bit skeptical that my readers are that young, but it's interesting to see what the service says regardless. And thanks to George for the link.

I'm a micropatron

February 25, 2005

On Tuesday, Jason Kottke announced that he was devoting himself full-time to working on maintaining his weblog, and asking for his readers to support him financially so he could do so. There was, of course, a lot of attention and a lot of discussion, since Jason is arguably the most popular individual weblogger on the Internet, and because his framing of his effort is fairly unique in its motivations and execution. What's more important to me, though, is that Jason's decision to work on his site professionally matters.

I am a micropatron
Of course, that's the kind of statement that gets bloggers ridiculed (often rightly so) for hubris, or for losing perspective. So let me explain. In short, Jason's decided that blogging as a medium deserves to be supported for its own sake, not as an adjunct or a lesser sibling to other media, and to put his money where his mouth is.

And this comes down not just to believing in blogs, but in choosing what blogs can be. Blogging isn't about politics, or technology, or food, or design. It's about all of those things, or none of them, or whatever topic catches your eye. It's as idiosyncratic and compelling as an individual, and it's a different medium to every person who's ever participated, or to every one who's ever dropped out. (Though they always come running back.) So Jason's betting on the potential of the medium.

More impressively, he's bet his rent that bloggers are generous enough and adventurous enough to support their own. That we all care about the medium so much that we'll make his risk worth his while. Given the track record of in-fighting and cliquishness and polarization that has characterized the weblog realm since its earliest days and worsened over the years, it's an optimistic and brave endorsement of the medium that Jason's decided to wager his entire lifestyle on our generosity.

Continue reading I'm a micropatron.

sharp as a razor

April 5, 2003

One of the things that troubles me about my daily routine is that we seem to have devoted a disproportionate amount of our culture's scientific resources to the development of new kinds of razors and other shaving implements.

This has become more apparent to me after having recently gotten rid of my facial hair. Yes, I'm a web guy, but it's probably been about half a decade since the "geek goatee" thing was either appropriate or novel. So it was time to trim.

A few unfortunate revelations accompanied this change to my heretofore hirsute countenance. The first was that, sometime during the last few years, I lost my chin. It has receded at an alarming rate, leaving me with a head shaped exactly like a big, fat, perfectly spherical Charlie Brown basketball noggin. You know how that one "wacky" uncle of yours insists upon referring to your head as a "melon"? Well, that's my fault. I'm the guy who inspired that.

But the other unfortunate realization is even less pleasant: It turns out that I used to look almost exactly like this guy. Which, as you might guess, turns out to be a bit inconvenient, especially since I've been hopping on commercial airline flights fairly frequently of late. But that's not really a serious problem. A serious problem is going through airport security while looking like a freshly-shaven version of America's Number One Terrorism Suspect.

"Hmm. Sir, your ID here shows you with a goatee."

Uh, yeah. I shaved that off.

"And no glasses...?"

Well, I usually wear contacts.

"And this address doesn't match the tags on your luggage..."

Well, that's just to distract you from the massive quantities of C4 in my carry-on!

As it turns out, the TSA agents have even less of a sense of humor than they're given credit for. And they've got no sympathy for changes of address. But speaking of carry-ons, that's what I used to keep my razor in while travelling, though that's no longer allowed. And said razors, mind you, is what I was talking about in the first place. Pardon my digression.

I like to think of myself as keeping up to date on developments in science and popular culture. Clearly, though, I'm kidding myself, as sometime during the 1990s an entire technological arms race in shaving technology passed me by. One blade? No! Two blades? Not enough! Three blades! Now you're talking!

I shudder to think what sort of combination of steel wool and zoysia grass is growing out of people's faces that it requires three successive passes of razor-sharp steel in order to separate them from their hair. But the really interesting side effect of the increasingly elaborate shaving systems under development is that they are starting to require some terrifyingly complex implements to be constructed just to provide the necessary support infrastructure.

Assembly lines spitting out advanced composites forged from rare alloys and graphite and polycarbonate and bulletproof tyvek, all shaped into perfectly ergonomic grips. These precision-molded handles are then topped with razor heads the size of a credit card, which seems to assume an awful lot of flat, planar space on someone's head. I'm picturing the users of these devices as being largely polygonal, with some kind of unlikely cubist skull, like Max Headroom or Frankenstein or Nancy Kerrigan. ("Why?! Why?! Why?!")

And it's not enough that they just have these blades propped up on computer-controlled hydraulic suspensions, no. They have to hone these things from the most obscure and scarce materials possible. "We destroyed four of Jupiter's lesser moons in order to refine enough molybdenum to create these blades, all to bring you the closest shave possible! Get your hair off!"

That's not to say that all of these efforts aren't important, of course. It's only our clean-shaven status that keeps us from becoming savages like the Taliban or Frida Kahlo. But it seems as if all of this technology could, perhaps, be focused on something slightly more productive or useful. Like USB-powered toothbrushes. Why, imagine if such devices caught on! It'd be a future where anyone with a laptop computer could clean their own teeth. Perhaps even as frequently as once or twice a week, batteries permitting.

That's the kind of tomorrow I want to live in.

diamonds are for never

January 20, 2003

So, we all know that diamonds are intrinsically worthless stones whose popularity and value are a recent creation, the result of a concerted marketing efffort by a monopolist cartel whose control on its market makes Microsoft look like amateurs.

And even if one doesn't disagree with the morality of a company that blithely funded the South African economy during the embargo-strained apartheid years, the fact that fifteen percent of the diamonds on the U.S. market are conflict diamonds that either helped fund, prolong, or motivate violence in Africa ought to give anyone pause when buying into the hype that's been generated over a stone that's far from the rarest gem on earth. Even diamond advocates concede that, once they've been cut, it's virtually impossible to tell stones that are from areas of conflict apart from ones that were legitimately mined, making it unlikely that stores selling cut stones can have any way of guaranteeing that their diamonds didn't originate in areas of conflict.

But you might not be convinced by all of that, so I'll give you another reason to avoid them: The people selling them are fucking pigs. They're heavily invested in selling a world where men are insensitive, thick-headed incompetents transparently trying to dupe women who are vain, superficial, materialistic fools. I typically tend to be on the "eh, it's just a joke" side of things, but the sheer repetitive insistence of the cynical stereotypes in diamond advertising is astonishing.

I took a couple of pictures around town. The taglines range from creepy to blatantly misogynist. "Reduce the entire English language to three syllables. I love you." I suppose that's trying to be romantic, but if your significant other finds that their expressions of love are only prompted by being handed a rock, it seems that one of the 4 Cs you might want to worry about is "communication".

There are some that are just pathetic. "Get ready to hear one more tearful acceptance speech." "Never have to plagiarize another poem as long as you live." Who are these guys? Who does this appeal to? What hapless, undemonstrative loser identifies with stealing poetry as a subsititute for romance? Who finds the effort of copying someone else's sentiments so strenuous that he'd rather spend ten percent of his annual income on a pair of earrings?

Any one of these ads might be amusing, even charming, on its own. But there are dozens of them, all based on these same idiotic, dysfunctional archtypes. "Carve the turkey any way you damn well please." Think about the number of assumptions there. A shrill harpie of a wife, so overbearing that she's prone to criticizing her husband's turkey carving, yet so inept that she can't carve the turkey herself because it's a man's job. A henpecked, spineless cad of a husband, so hapless that he accepts her orders to portion the poultry but then holds onto the resentment of her criticisms of his effort. A relationship so broken and twisted that his purchase of a blood-tainted rock from a monopolist cartel would appease her superficiality enough to get her to relent from her sniping at his performance of a trivial act. And this seems like a bargain because this man is so emotionally worthless that he couldn't just say, "Hey, if you want me to carve the turkey, you should probably be less critical of how I do it."

Any guys who use that line can feel free to give me ten percent of their yearly income. Hell, I'll settle for five percent, and send the rest to the Angolans to buy weapons.

I know what you're thinking. "It's not that bad." It's just a joke, and I'm taking it too seriously. But how can you look at a list on the industry's own marketing website and see "Of course there's a return on your investment. We just can't print it here." and not be aware that they're selling, along with war and market dominance, dysfunction. Want your materialistic, easily-misled wife to stop being such a frigid bitch? Buy her a diamond! Did your husband decide to increase your consumer debt in order to buy you a pair of earrings that were mined at gunpoint by children in Africa? Reward him with grudging sex and a temporary cessation of your relentless nagging!

One of the few upsides to the whole ugly business is that such transparently offensive and annoying ads lend themselves to easy parody, such as the frequently-forwarded "She'll pretty much have to..." ad that makes the rounds every few months, demonstrating a wife's implicit fellatio obligation after the presentation of a diamond. (That link, needless to say, is not work-safe.) The same joke was featured in an episode of The Family Guy, as I understand it, proving the thought isn't particularly original. But the fact that the parody is that obvious, because it lies so close to the reality, is the most damning indictment of the sheer misogyny and contempt for healthy relationships that the diamond industry has based its marketing upon.

I'm sure I'll get a lot of grief from people who've given or received diamonds, arguing that the ads are cleverly playing on classic archetypes and that I have a stick up my ass, etc. But the reality is, this is a broken industry with a product whose very existence is absurd. If we look back at the efforts of the conquistadores in the Americas, and their monomaniacal focus on the pursuit of gold, even by members of the Catholic church, I think we'll have a fairly decent idea what our culture's association of romance with diamonds is going to look like to future generations.

In the meantime, don't buy their hype. If you already have a diamond, or you must continue with the dying tradition of purchasing them, don't fall for the De Beers cartel's concerted efforts to encourage the burial of diamonds with one's loved ones in order to perpetuate the artificial scarcity of the stones. I'm hoping that we see a stigmatization of diamonds, and a decrease in popularity and sales similar to the one suffered by the fur trade when the brutality of their industry was revealed. But if the moral issues aren't compelling enough, perhaps their contempt for your emotional maturity, your partner's character, and the solidity of your relationship would be enough to dissuade you.