President Barack Obama

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A Branding & Advertising Evolution: 4 in a Series of Musings Sparked by “The 100 Greatest Advertisements,” Julian Lewis Watkins, Dover Books, 1959

This week, President Obama made one of those statements he probably wanted to retract as soon as he expressed it. He was lauding Kamala Harris, the Attorney General of California, for her many accomplishments and her legal experience, when he did something guys of another era used to do all the time — he complimented Ms. Harris for being attractive. Instantly, attractive women felt marginalized (He only admires her for her looks.), unattractive women felt even more marginalized (I bet he’d never say that about me.), attractive men were confused (What’s wrong with that?), and unattractive men were also confused (What’s wrong with that?).  Surely, the President got a later earful from the First Lady and his two daughters. All around it was an awkward moment that momentarily tilted the world off its access.

Meanwhile in the world of advertising, super models are the daily norm and sensitivities be damned. Attractive people have always been used in commercials and catalogs to build brands and sell products. When that dynamic is tampered with, as GoDaddy did in their commercial during the last SuperBowl, having super model Bar Refaeli soulfully kiss computer nerd Walter, to illustrate the blending of sexy and smart, something doesn’t feel right (maybe having Danica Patrick announce the moment?). In this case, the situation was meant for comic effect, but there was something cruel about it. I know the young man wasn’t complaining about having to do take after interminable take to get the camera angle right, but he was clearly the butt of a joke in front of that audience of 108.4 million viewers. At times, we are overly sensitive, while at others like this one, we aren’t nearly sensitive enough. Take Target this week and their “manatee grey” plus size dress. Did they think anyone (everyone?) was going to miss that inference?

The Lonesome Girl learns how to make a dress.

All of which brings me back to the “100 Greatest Advertisements” collection, which features some ads that play on sensitive subjects, especially on women’s insecurities. “The Diary of a Lonesome Girl” makes every other copy-heavy ad seem like haiku. But it is worth a read to get a sense of the pitch for the Woman’s Institute, which is a mail order teaching curriculum. In this case, the course is on dress-making and it is the salvation of the Lonesome Girl from the headline. The ad is a diary account of a young lady who is practically destitute, living at home, sequestered in her room because she can’t afford to go to her neighbor’s parties, tormented because she can hear those parties and knows that her neighbor is dancing with Tom, and embarrassed that she only owns that old blue crepe dress. Since President Obama wasn’t around at the time to lift her spirits by calling her attractive, the narrator of the ad has to turn to the Woman’s Institute, which she does, discovers the art of dress making, and eventually she throws her own parties and wows Tom and her neighbor. I’ll never worry about over-promising in one of my ads again.

You may be attractive, but it's actually your breath that's stopping traffic.

You may be attractive, but it's actually your breath that's stopping traffic.

There are two ads that follow, further unnerving women readers who are unattached. An early ad for Listerine reveals why one woman is often a “Bridesmaid but Never a Bride.” Evidently, because she cannot smell her own breath, the thought of halitosis has never occurred to her. The ushers’ shriveled-up boutonnieres from the last 8 weddings never raised a red flag?

Pepsodent was on teeth film long before white strips.

Pepsodent was on teeth film long before white strips.

Meanwhile, if we think teeth whitening strips and treatments are a recent obsession, Pepsodent can remind us that we’ve been concerned with dingy-colored teeth for a very long time. Once again, a woman’s appearance is hugely important to her. And sometimes it is a matter of Presidential importance.

Diamonds. Attracting women since forever.

Diamonds. Attracting women since forever.

Finally, this N.W. Ayer ad for DeBeers was one of many to launch a long association between diamond jewelry and advertising (1939-1947), and the famous slogan, “A Diamond is Forever.”  One thing we can all agree upon when it comes to the word “attractive,” it is safe to say in public that women find diamonds very attractive.

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It has been a difficult week or so since the Presidential election. Thankfully, we had a clear winner of both the electoral votes and the popular vote. Still, President Obama’s re-election did little to heal divisions. A disturbing number of petitions have been launched calling for states to secede from the federal United States. A woman was arrested for running down her husband for not voting. A man began flying the American flag upside down as a sign of distress. Comments boards have been full of the same trash-talking nastiness that preceded the election, much of it treating the outcome as if it was a Monday Night Football beating.

Meanwhile, both sides of the aisle in Congress, along with President Obama, continue to posture from their entrenchments over positions taken with regard to the approaching Fiscal Cliff deadline. Most of it is attributable to politics as usual while Americans and American businesses and American investors await Federal tax decisions that will have real consequences for 2013 and beyond.

Then, without a breather, we’ve had the resignation of General David Petraeus as CIA chief in the wake of an extra-marital affair, leading to the extra-bizarro world of scandals cascading to the FBI agent who began the investigation, a socialite with lots distracting side-stories, and linkage to the current general in charge of the Afghanistan theater. All of it representing layers of distraction from the real scandal — the deaths of four Americans, who went without requested security and aid, during the attack on our consulate in Benghazi.

I don’t know about you, but I am thoroughly disgusted by the profiles in cowardice on exhibit in recent weeks. We are all human and we all have our weaknesses and failings, but no one on the horizon appears to be taking a long view, or thinking of whether their actions are corrosive and ultimately self-defeating in pursuit of momentary satisfaction, or giving anyone else consideration or even the benefit of the doubt.

"Claudette Colvin; Twice tward Justice" by Phillip Hoose won the National Book Award

"Claudette Colvin; Twice Toward Justice" by Phillip Hoose won the National Book Award

At times like this, grace can sometimes be found in unexpected places. When I was at my low point surveying the current landscape, I discovered uplift in of all places, my daughter’s latest school project: a non-fiction book report. She chose a recent National Book Award winner, “Claudette Colvin; Twice Toward Justice” by Phillip Hoose.

Whereas most Americans know who Rosa Parks is, few of us have ever heard of Claudette Colvin or her inspiring story. You owe it to yourself to learn who Colvin is via either Hoose’s excellent account or other resources. Frankly, Colvin was a solo spark in the fight against bus segregation, and all forms of segregation. She was a lonely teenager who had big dreams, recognized simple right from wrong, and demonstrated a remarkable personal courage made all the more remarkable because of her youth.

In a nutshell, well before the courageous but organized bus protests and civil rights marches of the 60s, Claudette Colvin was riding a Montgomery, Alabama public bus and refused to give up her seat to a white woman standing in the aisle. Her three friends and seatmates got up, leaving three available seats, but the white woman would not sit down and insisted that Colvin get up from the row as well. Colvin stood her ground, which led to her arrest for violating bus segregation laws, disturbing the peace, and “assaulting” police officers. Quite simply, she knew she was within her Constitutional rights, but it took tremendous presence of mind and moral focus to not bend to the pressure of the woman in the aisle, the bus driver, a transit officer, and finally two police officers who subsequently boarded and dragged her off the bus. She went to jail, had to brave bullying by law enforcement, ostracism by classmates, and a judge who found her guilty, even maintaining the “assault” charge in a subsequent appeal, so she was branded with a criminal record.

There are many other aspects to Colvin’s story, but ultimately it was her decisive action that helped lead to the Supreme Court upholding the abolishment of segregated seating and to spurring on Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and other civil rights leaders to vigorously carrying on the fight.

Colvin, now in her 70s and having subsequently lived a quiet life out of the limelight, stands as a shining example for all of us at this particular moment in our history. The time is always right for each and every one of us to do the right thing.  Taking a stand against hate and for freedom and individual rights often requires courage and the potential for mistreatment by others. This is what leadership looks like. If more of us were willing to take such principled stands against popular opinion, withering criticism, and hard-nosed  entrenched authority and special interests, we might be able to effect positive change. Sometimes it means picking your battles, but in Colvin’s case, her battle picked her, and even as a young teenager without any adult to guide her, she rose to the moment and made a lasting difference. Her personal courage really resonates at this time when so little is on display from our elected and appointed leaders.


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Advertising is all about beautiful people (aka supermodels), looking beautiful, acting beautiful, and being beautiful while using the sponsor’s product. While this type of advertising is easy on the eyes, there is so much, it can become like wallpaper, blending into the background, barely attracting attention. This week, a new presidential campaign tv ad launched that so jarringly broke the beauty mold that it was all that every media pundit has focused on ever since. I’m talking about Herman Cain’s Smoking Man spot.

The Smoking Man (not to be confused with that mysterious X Files figure) is actually Cain’s Chief of Staff, Mark Block, who while delivering a weirdly cadenced but believably impassioned endorsement of his boss, proceeds to literally blow smoke, because he is enjoying a cigarette outside.

What is going on here? How can a man responsible for helping his boss project a positive, electable image allow himself to be videotaped matter-of-factly puffing on a cigarette. Commentators across the political spectrum, almost in unison, wondered aloud why he would set such a bad example for young people. Hint: it wasn’t by accident!

It is hard to stun people in 2011, but amazingly, this ad has managed to move the meter off the chart. The question is why? Cigarettes are a legal product. They appear often in popular entertainment (films, tv shows, and music videos). Our current president has been known to sneak outside the White House to light up. So, why is this ad so surprising?

It’s been a ridiculously long time since anyone in a tv ad smoked (except for an anti-smoking PSA). And cigarettes while legal are perhaps the most heavily regulated products on the market (with even more regulations proposed). And now, we’re getting to the crux of this message — the current regulatory and capriciously restrictive environment of the United States. At a time when people on the right, left, and in the center are fed up with feelings of powerlessness, it is strangely liberating to see a man in a tv ad smoking a cigarette. It is un-PC. It is unhealthy. It is unnervingly appealing in a defy the nanny-state way.

Already the spot’s YouTube page has attracted nearly one million visitors. Less than 10,000 have weighed in to “like” or “dislike”, but the dislikes are running well ahead, not exactly a scientific poll, but a trend nonetheless.

It is too early to tell whether this is a spark for the Cain campaign or just a weird reminder that America is still free even if the Marlboro Man isn’t allowed to ride the broadcast range anymore.

Update: Election year news cycles are notoriously short. It’s exactly one week later and Mr. Cain is dealing with fire instead of smoke this week. So far, the sexual harassment allegations are sketchy, but the candidate’s handling of the media questioning has been spotty at best. Consistency and accuracy of story is critical when it comes to crisis PR.  If you believe the old adage that this is no BAD PR, Mr. Cain has had two news-dominating weeks.

When is the last time you saw a man smoke a cigarette in a TV spot?

When is the last time you saw a man smoke a cigarette in a TV spot?

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Osama bin Laden out of Time

Osama bin Laden out of Time

By now, you have heard the terrific news that Osama bin Laden is no more, unless of course you’ve been living in a cave. Late Sunday evening, not only did we learn that the Al Qaeda leader had himself been living in comfort in a fortified compound in Abbottobad, Pakistan, but that he had been dispatched in dramatic fashion by an elite team of Navy SEALs and CIA officers. Bravo to all who made this possible, including President Obama for making some difficult decisions about this raid, and President Bush for laying a solid foundation for our war on the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11.

If anyone needs a moral clarity reminder of why this is a moment of great triumph for America and Western Civilization, I suggest they watch or rewatch Paul Greengrass’s excellent  film, United 93, which chronicles the events of September 11, 2001 as a real time dramatization.

Not easy viewing, but an amazing account of arguably the worst day in our nation’s history (and how it brought out the best in so many — from the brave passengers on Flight 93 to NYC’s exceptional first responders) 9/11 was a day that changed our world and although it took a decade to eradicate the mastermind of evil behind this terror plot, it was critical to do so. Evidently from data recovered in the raid, he has been involved in other terror plots since, including one involving our railways planned but not executed  this past September 11 on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.  As long as bin Laden lived, he remained a national security threat.

But this is a marketing/communications arts blog, and the events of this week serve as an excellent punctuation point to last week’s post about the limits of digital proofing. You can read all about the questions raised by layers in the PDF of President Obama’s birth certificate — its release spawned another round of conspiracy theories, but it really underscored the ease with which files can be manipulated.

So, when the President decided it would not be appropriate or necessary to release photos confirming the death of Osama bin Laden, we would have to agree purely on the latter point.  Photoshop makes it possible to manipulate the hell out of imagery, so how does a digital photo file in any way allay the doubts of those who will continue to believe bin Laden is alive?

As if on cue, even before the President announced his decision to withhold release of these photos, grisly Photoshop fakes purporting to be the real McCoys overran the Internet and social media sites. I saw one of these in a forwarded e-mail. Convincing digital imaging of head wounds. Some, maybe all, of these fakes were reported to contain viruses or worms to collect and transmit people’s personal data files. Great, so bin Laden remains a security threat, even beyond the grave.

Here is a reassuring headline. If Al Qaeda believes bin Laden is dead, for once, their word is good enough for me.

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PNG Screenshot of President Obama's Long Form Birth Certificate

PNG Screenshot of President Obama's Long Form Birth Certificate

Last week’s look at two humorous political videos triggered an appreciative response from Philadelphia Republican mayoral candidate, John Featherman, whose campaign produced one of the videos (we can’t wait for the next). This week’s post is about President Obama’s birth certificate, but I don’t expect him to weigh in since his release of the long-form was intended to put the matter to rest. It did. For one day. And that is why we are wandering from a marketing opinion this week, but staying within the fields of graphic arts and public relations.

The afternoon after national relief that the matter of the President’s official birth place had been settled once and for all, my business partner and our art director, Gerry Giambattista, heard a caller to Michael Medved’s radio program, who identified himself as being a graphic artist and was expressing amazement that the long sought document, digitally delivered from the White House web site in PDF file format, when opened in Adobe Illustrator is actually a layered file. A many layered file. Michael Medved quickly dismissed the caller with a combination of skepticism and the realization that none of this translates well to radio.

It most definitely piqued our curiosity, however. Gerry opened the digital version of the President’s birth certificate on his computer in Adobe Illustrator and sure enough saw a multitude of layers. What does this mean? With all the glitches and weird results in the digital world, that is hard to answer with complete certainty. However, when a print document is scanned, with OCR (Optical Character Recognition) active, it should, to the best of our professional knowledge and experience, create a PDF file with just two layers, one for text and one for background. I am immediately reminded of the oft-quoted Marx Brothers line from Duck Soup, “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”

In trying to get our heads around this, and realizing that the Medved caller was maybe not the first person to explore this, we Googled the terms “Obama birth certificate” and “layered file.” If you do the same, you will see a long list of sites that have already created tutorial videos and detailed technical examinations of this.

When an artist does digital imaging work on a photograph in Adobe Photoshop, or builds a complex illustration in Adobe Illustrator, he or she adds a variety of layers to the image. The existence of more than one layer here raises question whether this document was created or changed in one of these programs vs. merely being scanned from a print document. For instance, saving the scanned document as a jpeg format file might have avoided this issue (more on that at the end of this post).

Here are some examples of what Gerry and I saw and found perplexing about the President’s multi-layered birth certificate file:

What is going on with left margin and upper left corner of the certificate?

What is going on with left margin and upper left corner of the certificate?

Box in upper right shows all the different layers; this layer has a few things missing.

Box in upper right shows all the different layers; this layer has a few things missing.

In each layer, you can select individual items (like this date) and move them elsewhere.

In each layer, you can select individual items (like this date) and move them elsewhere.

This post isn’t about conspiracy theories or political motivations, but it is worth noting one other strange thing about this file. If it were doctored, it was done so in a pretty visibly obvious manner by an Adobe amateur. Anyone who wanted to cover his or her tracks could flatten the layers and the file would be left with one layer.

With so many dead ends to intriguing questions, it was time for me to phone a friend, so I posed this digital weirdness to my chums, Pete, Glenn, and Steve, whose professional credentials for this matter are that they cover the political, technical, and pop culture spectrum so completely that our team would every week win the weekly trivia contest on our college’s radio station. Now equipped with Google, they came back with a wide range of articles that provided credible answers on scanning, software, the President’s maternity hospital name, and Hoover’s hat size (a tip of the trivia hat to anyone who remembers the sitcom that reference comes from). For me, the most convincing ones are these from National Review and FoxNews, because they come from sources not usually considered friendly to President Obama’s agenda.

Nearly satisfied myself that the multi-layered mystery could be put to rest, I was troubled by one additional thing. The expert in the Fox article is a leading software trainer and Adobe-certified expert. So, what does Adobe, the company and the creator of the Creative Suite of all the software involved here (Illustrator, Acrobat, Photoshop), have to say on this subject. With so many graphic artists weighing in, surely the company would be all over this story on its software, because if ever there is a “teachable moment,” with a huge global audience, this is it. A visit to Adobe’s home page revealed silence on the subject. So did the News Center. But then, I found a link to Adobe Featured Blogs with nearly 20 separate Corporate and Product blogs. Amazingly, the term Obama birth certificate yielded zero results.

Adobe's silence on this subject makes them look like A dope.

Adobe's silence on this subject makes them look like A dope.

This is what I would call an epic fail by an otherwise highly reputable, creative product rich, digitally savvy company. I don’t know whether this was a busy week in San Jose. Or whether legal and PR concluded this is too hot of a hot potato, but silence is really not an answer. The reputation of the leader of the free world was being questioned because of nuances in your software, and you as a company have nothing official to say on the subject? Wow. Not a good week to be bogged down in debugging the latest version of Dreamweaver.

A last word (and image) on this fascinating subject came to me this morning in a viral e-mail forwarded from my cousin Donna.

Einstein = Monroe = Sanity Check

Einstein = Monroe = Sanity Check

It is visual non-holographic trickery, which works on a PC but not mobile devices and hopefully is not an indicator of middle age eyesight. Anyway, keep looking at this picture of Albert Einstein as you step back 15 feet or more and you will see him transform into Marilyn Monroe (how’s that for a new theory of relativity?). Don’t know how some graphic artist did this, but I guarantee it began life as a multi-layered Photoshop file and it’s now a jpeg. “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”

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