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Hurricanes have a way of getting your attention. Being part of the Mid-Atlantic path of Sandy has made me aware of many things out of the normal course of daily business. Storms of all sorts are increasingly opportunities for local news stations to push weather expertise and project themselves as round-the-clock regional communications centers. The result is typically a lot of supermarkets benefiting from bread and milk sales and a lot of snow shovels and sidewalk salt sold at Lowes and Home Depot.

Erie Insurance and State Farm took to the air pre-Sandy promoting emergency preparedness.

Erie Insurance and State Farm took to the air pre-Sandy promoting emergency preparedness.

However, the potential for serious flooding, property damage, and power outages with Hurricane Sandy over such a wide path of the Eastern seaboard has upped the ante in many directions. Yesterday, a number of smart retailers like Wal-Mart and Office Depot had moved essentials to the front of their stores, including bottled water, flashlights, batteries, etc. Perhaps the only exception — portable generators are still tough to be had at a time like this.

Especially surprising were some smart radio commercials yesterday by two different major property/casualty insurance giants — State Farm and Erie Insurance. Both spots were direct, full of good preparatory advice, and reassurance that they would be there for policyholders. That is a solid message for corporations to send ahead of what will be a costly quarter for them as they help customers settle claims post hurricane. The media buy was expensive, but likely more than offset by the new customers they will gain from competitive property/casualty insurers who don’t treat their insureds well in the days ahead.

Travelers sent a safety email to customers in advance of Sandy.

Travelers sent a safety email to customers in advance of Sandy.

I wondered about my own company, Travelers, but found a similar message emailed to me, along with important details on storm preparedness and claim follow-up. This is a terrific use of a Customer Relationship Marketing database, and while it may seem like a no-brainer, it requires advance planning on the part of the insurance company’s marketing department, along with coordination with all the departments within the company to ensure accuracy of information.

One of the biggest concerns related to Sandy appears to be about loss of electricity from downed trees taking down transmission lines and water affecting the power grid. I had one unexpected level of assurance from my friend Steven Brush posting to Facebook on Sunday — he snapped a smartphone picture of electrical crew trucks traveling north from Alabama via I-95. Now, that’s emergency preparedness and much appreciated out-of-state assistance even before it is officially needed.

Power crews from Alabama already headed north in advance of Sandy.

Power crews from Alabama already headed north in advance of Sandy.

In the information age, all of us are getting better prepared to handle whatever nature throws our way, certainly following painful lessons learned during Katrina. And government, utilities, media, non-profit relief agencies, and businesses are getting smarter in helping citizens weather these storms.

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This one is wrong on so many levels, I am not sure where to begin. One of the biggest stories of the week is the FDA’s intention to require graphic new warning labels depicting cancer and other bad outcomes on the packaging of cigarettes sold in the United States.
I am all for visceral advertising that packs an emotional wallop to change hearts and minds. A wealth of public service spots carrying this message have been in the public domain for decades. This, however, is not advertising. What this is is a series of well designed, slickly produced package warning labels, each added to a legal product sold to adults who willingly purchase that product. It is hard to believe that any cigarette smoker at this point in human history could possibly be unaware of the harmful effects of smoking.
This is a great example of big government overreach at cross purposes with itself. The FDA’s goal is to get everyone to stop smoking by every means necessary. Is there a more regulated product than tobacco? Tobacco companies are not allowed to use broadcast advertising, because it might seduce new smokers, especially young people. Heavy penalties are in place to discourage retailers from selling tobacco products to minors. Municipal regulations have driven smokers out of public places to the great outdoors to light up (casinos appear to be the exception). Print advertising and packages already carry ominous text-based warning labels. Then, there is the matter of extreme taxes slapped on cigarettes to force smokers to make an economic decision about smoking. The enormous tax revenues reaped by government off a product that the FDA could ban outright suggests enormous hypocrisy and a conflict of interest. Finally, where does Big Brother get off plastering graphic images of disease and death all over commercial packaging. Why stop with cigarettes? How about photos of liposectioned fat featured on the front of Big Mac cartons? Car crash decapitations added to new car stickers? Melanoma posters in tanning salon windows? Many slippery slopes lie ahead.

One of the FDA's tasteful new warning labels.

One of the FDA's tasteful new warning labels.

What bothers me the most about this latest effort, however, is another nail driven in the coffin of civility. Just because the Feds CAN do something doesn’t mean that they SHOULD. Cigarette breath is one thing. This is just in really bad taste.
During college, I went to transfer a car title at the local justice of the peace. In his office was a poster of a smoker whose jaw and lower half of his face were gone from cancer; the poster bore the cheery greeting, “Thank You For Not Smoking.” Once the transaction was over, I left disturbed by what I’d seen, but also alarmed that this man was okay with having this horrible image of disfigurement and impending death staring back at him, eight hours a day, five days a week. Nice treat for his office staff, too.
This new round of warning labels brought back another memory. One Saturday, I was driving through the next town with my elementary age son. Abortion protestors were staging a demonstration and some were standing by the road with incredibly graphic signs featuring images of dead fetuses. Freedom of speech may allow zealots to expose young children to those shocking photographs, but wouldn’t a sense of decency kick in at some point in their protest planning process. A punch in the gut isn’t a winning debate strategy.
At a time when we are looking for ways to reduce big government spending and the growing deficit, I nominate the new cigarette warning labels program to get lopped off by the grim reaper’s axe. How’s that for a graphic image of death?

Update: A preliminary injunction has been granted against the Food and Drug Administration’s new requirement for graphic warning labels. Suit was filed by Lorrilard on constitutional/free speech grounds. Read all about it here in Packaging Digest.

Update: Looks like the Feds came to their senses. I’m sure it was after they read this blog post.

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Making lemons from sour lemonade stand story

Making lemons from sour lemonade stand story

Chalk this NY Times story up as a “Things that make you go hmmm?” (Perhaps I’m dating myself, as I vaguely recall that being a song a decade or two ago). Attempting to enforce a license on a 7-year-old selling lemonade is akin to many of the other nuisance ‘laws’ certain municipalities set forth. The ‘Peddler’s License’ (when is the last time you saw a peddler?), for example. Now the media frenzy comes, after the little girl was forced off the complex for pushing her wares (sent away crying, no less), she already has the morning shows lining up to interview her. Will the full-length feature film follow? I just wonder where people’s common sense lies. It’s one thing to have rules and stricly enforce them for the good of the community. It’s quite another to know when to draw the line and ask — Is this endangering the lives of the members of the community? Perhaps you’ll think twice before plunking down 50 cents for a cup of lemonade, even though the young entrepreneur does’t have a license, those who are afraid to try usually keep asking “What if?” I’m willing to risk it.

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Image: Liz Nofsinger/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image: Liz Nofsinger/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I admit it. I am a capitalist. If any of you sixties holdouts want to add the pig noun, be my guest. Not sure why this unfortunate, all-purpose, dehumanizing slur got applied to police officers and businesspersons alike, but ironically it often came out of the mouths of radicals preaching peace, love, and understanding in their next breath.
As we mark July 4th, 2010, the US economy is stagnant and unemployment is rampant. There are predictions of a slip into another recession. The political urge to do “corrective” things in the coming months will be great. Unfortunately, we have had plenty of corrections and big programs and new edicts by central planners in DC over the past year and they have only made things worse.
Here’s a modest suggestion: get back to incentivizing American business with carrots instead of whacking it with large sticks (and possibly soon, new taxes and more regulations). In particular, get back to incentivizing small business, where most innovation and jobs growth occurs. Then, get the hell out of the way and let the free market work its magic. Supply. Demand. Profits. And sometimes losses.
Too Big to Fail is a popular phrase and justification for bailing out failing companies. It could be applied equally to government. However, a more apt expression might be Too Big to Function. Whenever bureaucracies result from corpulent corporations and ill-defined, ever-expanding government entities, you wind up with something that looks, acts, and smells like Jabba the Hutt.

Too Big to Function: Jabba the Hutt

Too Big to Function: Jabba the Hutt

Big doesn’t have to mean bad. Last time I checked, Apple was large and successful. But they are supplying products that are in demand. Value is a critical part of the equation for success in business.
The single best thing our government can do right now is to stop treating business like public enemy number one. Or like colonists to be taxed and taxed again. Freedom is a beautiful thing. When businesspeople are freed from excessive government compliance, when investment capital is freed up, and when markets are free, then a lot more companies are free to hire and put people back to work. It’s a pretty simple idea and not that revolutionary.

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