Friday, November 27, 2009

Lights, Camera, Action!

Strange Bedfellows

On the surface, comparing the AMC series Mad Men to HBO’s The Sopranos might seem like comparing Doris Day to Peg Bundy. On the one hand, you have the dapperly-dressed advertising execs of Sterling Cooper and their dainty, obedient wives in direct contrast to the ruthless, violent vulgarity and misogyny of mafia boss Tony Soprano and the rest of his Jersey crew. But I dare to ask (and wonder) if both Mad Men and The Sopranos are really that different. If Don Draper and Tony Soprano weren’t on different TV shows and living in different eras, I could see the two of them as drinking buddies.

While Mad Men is set in the early 1960’s and the characters look and seem like they are cut out of the goody-two-shoes, cookie cutter mold of the 1950’s, it is quite the opposite. Don Draper, Roger Sterling, Sal Romano and Pete Campbell are the white collar versions of Tony Soprano, Paulie Gualtieri, Silvio Dante and Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero. And while The Sopranos may have the market cornered on adultery, racist and homophobic behavior, blackmail, corruption, sexism and violence, one could say the ad execs at Sterling Cooper were actually their forefathers. The behavior exhibited by the male characters in Mad Men is a reflection of the changing social mores of the time.

Similarities between the two shows are eerily inspired, starting with Mad Men creator and producer Matthew Weiner who also worked as a writer with producer David Chase on The Sopranos. Both show’s lead characters, Don Draper and Tony Soprano have pasts that they’ve tried to hide from their family, friends and business associates. Don, whose real name is Richard Whitman, assumed the identity of the real Don Draper while serving with him in the Korean War after the real Don Draper was killed. Tony is the head of a crime family while projecting the image that he’s an honest, hard working family man to friends and business associates.

Both show’s characters don’t handle the idea of alternative sexuality very well either. When Sal Romano, the art director at Sterling Cooper, who also happens to be a closeted gay man married with children, rebuffs the sexual advances of a male client, the client orders that Sal be taken off of the ad campaign. Don is so angry that Sterling Cooper has lost a large, lucrative account, that he fires Sal. Also, Don had accidentally witnessed a gay encounter that Sal had had with a hotel employee while the two of them were away on business in a previous episode. When Vito Spatafore, a captain in Tony’s crew is outed as a homosexual, he goes into hiding, but is found and brutally killed.

While the Sopranos crew throws out derogatory racial epithets as easily as if they were saying hello, the Mad Men crew express their racist tendencies in other, equally offensive ways, like when Roger Sterling decides to don blackface during a party to serenade his wife with the song “My Old Kentucky Home”.

And as far as women go, both shows treat women as objects of desire and of sexual conquest. While the male characters of both shows are either engaged or married, they frequently have sexual affairs with the opposite sex. In the Mad Men world, the objects of desire are usually the secretaries working at Sterling Cooper while in The Sopranos, it’s usually the strippers at Silvio’s strip club, The Bada Bing. Despite their best efforts, the women in both shows find it incredibly difficult to assert their individuality due to the very prohibitive environments in which they are living.

The old adage that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” certainly defines the lead characters in both shows. Don and Tony, as well as their partners in advertising and crime, will do whatever they feel is necessary to solidify their power bases and appease their narcissistic tendencies, even if it means literally and figuratively screwing (and in The Sopranos case, killing) their neighbor. Watching these characters balance their professional and personal lives while trying to stay on the side of the angels is one of the reasons why both shows are so compelling and keep viewers wanting more.

Mad Men image property of
Sopranos image property of Tower Records.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Lights, Camera, Action!

Wars & Coming of Age

Children have a different slant on the world — dare we ask if that is the answer to the question of whether Mark Herman and Guillermo Del Toro see through different lenses than the rest of us.

Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone explore the crises arising around young boys who grow up in a wartime arena. Both movies show how the idealism of the young gives way to the increasing pressures of an adult world. Yet the master stroke with each is the point-of-view displayed by the young boys as they bear witness to horrors usually seen from an adult point-of-view.

Both movies deal with the horrors of how a war divides people into groups so they can struggle against an enemy. Both deal with aspects of evil acts committed by the usual suspects and some unlikely ones. And both show the hope to bridge barriers.

In The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Bruno loses his father’s closeness because the war has taken him away so that despite being in the same house, father becomes distant. Bruno grows up believing the propaganda about a Jewish threat, but grows to see the falsity of his learning. He strives to counter that by forming a friendship with a Jewish prisoner.

In The Devil’s Backbone, Carlos strives to cope with hatred from students and a caretaker who murdered a young boy. He is surrounded by a staff that yearns for a fountain of youth to supplant death and also crave gold to avoid life’s harshness. But Carlos inspires others with a sense of community.

These examples of hope emerging from an arena of despair come to us from the way the stories are told by Herman and Del Toro. The struggles against war and close-mindedness don’t hit us from the eyes of the adults who have set the troubles in motion. The point-of-view strikes us from the child who suffers in the environment of that crisis.

Herman and Del Toro must have sat around a cafe talking about their approaches together. Herman takes Bruno step by step from his known world into the discoveries about the lies from father and the kindness of two Jewish people. Del Toro submerges us within Carlos’ world so that the staff and caregiver’s experiences only become understood through a layered effect of discovery. Herman and Del Toro want us to view the horrors from another angle.

Too often we only see the fight from the eyes of the combatants. Dare we ask how that conflict shatters the psyche of others caught in the mix?

The Boy In The Striped Pajamas image property of Tower Video.
The Devil's Backbone image property of Yahoo Movies.

Follow The Bouncing Brawl

Why Chase Away the Blue Collars?

Old frames of homeruns hit into the stands show the clapping hands of workers who chose to take the day off. Dare we ask why those people are missing in the latest shots of baseball games?

As more stadia erect plush boxes replete with hotel-sized rooms and catering staffs, the costs weed out those average fans in favor of the corporate clients. Rising prices have made the game a business, but that was also true in the 1920s. The Babe came to New York because the Boston owner lost money on a Broadway show. Money has always been a factor for trying to grab an audience. But the audiences have changed.

Now giant boxes are aimed to give smiles to CEOs and board chairs. The number of seats has dropped to make room for those stretch limo rooms. Regular fans can watch the game on their FIOS or Cable. Maybe the front office thinks the corporate people are more consistent in terms of paying for seats. Maybe the aim is to fill in the seats before the season starts. Whatever the reason, the seats are being held for upper and middle management people. After all, clients come to town and the office has to show off the team.

But the blue collars were also consistent. Despite the Depression, those workers filled the stands even in day games. The worker returned in more of a pattern when the price was right and almost guaranteed the same support for the team. Those people would also act as the advertising arm as they hovered around the water cooler the following day. So they helped the sales in a number of ways.

So why then does the current mentality aim for the big bucks over the constant flow? Those workers kept the game alive for more than a century. The new guys are up and down with the Dow. Who’s more reliable — the homerun hitter, or the guy for average?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Thought For The Week

After the tragic shooting rampage at Fort Hood by Major Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist and Arab-American, many fear that life for many military personnel of Arab-American descent will become noticeably more difficult. Was the shooting at Fort Hood an isolated incident or is it a product of larger issues taking place?

1] This was an isolated incident by a psychologically disturbed individual and should not be a reflection or generalization of all Arab-Americans in the military.
2] Arab-Americans wanting to join the military or who are already in the military should be subjected to extra questioning and debriefings.
3] Prejudice in the military against Arab-Americans exists. The military needs to do a better job in addressing racial and religious harassment issues which might lead to more violence in the future.
4] Other

List your choice of answer, or an alternative in the Comment section. If you pick answer #4, include an example as to why you picked "Other".

Friday, November 13, 2009

Worlds Meet

Conrad’s Heart of Afghanistan

When the outlaw leader Hernandez asks the miner Bonafacio why he supports the silver mine in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, Bonafacio’s answer should be heard as Congress spends $10 billion in Afghanistan. We dare to ask why literature can see an answer that eludes the reality decision makers.

Bonifacio answered that the mine owner, “Senior Gould pays me very well.” Yet the policy makers in DC can’t find a similar group to pay the way they did with the Awakening in Iraq. The situation is different, they say. So the funds go to the military.

While the groups in play are very different between Iraq and Afghanistan, the presence of a group like Bonifacio’s miners does exist in Afghanistan — the poppy growers.

Conrad’s Nostromo shows the political elements in a fictional Latin American country where the English mine owner fights local groups who try to expel all foreigners. The lessons from literature demand we see certain parallels. The miners are the poppy growers. The use of force alone does not work. Respect for the local population is needed.

While it’s easy to see the importance of the miners in Nostromo, our real decision makers can’t see the crucial aspect of the poppy growers. The miners produced the wealth that drove the plot in Conrad’s book. The poppy grower’s wealth supports the Taliban. The real world of Afghanistan is filled with vying groups that seem to dilute the image of those growers in the minds of the decision makers. Control a few warlords, and maybe you can swing some support to the Kabul government…for awhile. But control the livelihood of those growers and suddenly the Taliban loses its fighting ability. Maybe the $10 billion could be used to change the growing patterns of the poppy growers.

The use of force alone doesn’t work. In Nostromo, the Gould character uses the secret police after he becomes dominant. But he still can’t stop the anger of growing resentment and an underground resistance. When he first took possession of the mine, he stopped General Montero’s brother who arrived at the mine with a small army. He stopped them because the workers remained loyal to him because of the fair treatment. Afghanistan could be seen in the same way. Extra force to control the poppy fields means nothing if farmers working those fields require money to live.

This brings us to respect for the local population. The strength of the Taliban comes from the support of the locals. Spend the money on troops or to aid the warlords, and those farmers will still have to grow poppy. They are growing poppy because certain grain fields were destroyed during the ages-long conflict. They have to survive, and poppy gives them a chance. Give them the financial support while they convert their fields to pomegranates and you take away the local support from the Taliban.

Nostromo’s characters showed a lesson for Afghanistan. The miners who supported Gould’s mine against Montero had family members who stood by and watched Gould’s father being killed by a previous revolt. Gould avoided that when he respected the miners in the beginning of the story. He saw other methods were needed than using force, and he recognized the value of the worker. Well, we have $10 billion and we have a choice of spending on the military, the warlords or the growers — hmmm.

The Response Meter

Where Have All The Circulation Professionals Gone?

It seems like each day I read about another publication folding and more circulators being laid off. There’s no doubt that the current economic crisis has hit the publishing/media industry like a freight train and circulation professionals have been directly in the line of fire when it comes to their jobs and resources being cut. I’ve lost count of the number of colleagues who have lost their jobs and who are currently pounding the pavement like a pack of rabid dogs all trying to compete for the same one or two jobs that happen to show up on the publishing/media job boards each month.

Many have given up on the notion that they could make a career out of being a circulator and are now working in completely different lines of work. Obviously, the state of our economy has played an enormous role and has forced companies to make a lot of hard decisions, but I began to see the exodus out of circulation/audience development by many even before the economy went into freefall and I dare to ask…why and how did this happen?

I think I speak for many when I say, that I didn’t go to school wanting to be a circulation professional. When I graduated from Adelphi University back in 1992, my original goal was to get a job in Editorial at a major publishing company. Unfortunately, the job market when I graduated was in a bit of a slump and because I had graduated with a French major (I had originally wanted to work in International Business, but found that it wasn’t to my liking) and a Communications minor, I found it hard to get my foot in the door because I didn’t have an English degree or prior experience working for my college’s newspaper. After bumming around and doing a couple of odd jobs here and there, I got my first taste of Circulation through a family friend that happened to work for CMP Publications in Manhasset, NY. CMP hired me on as a Circulation/Quality Control analyst. I spent my days making sure all of CMP publications were ready for their audits by doing dupe checks and mock audits. My original plan was to stay as a Quality Control Analyst for approximately a year or two and then make my eventually segue into Editorial.

Unfortunately, the Quality Control department at CMP was eventually phased out but I wound up getting a job as a Circulation Assistant at Miller Freeman Inc. Miller Freeman was where I received my Circulation education. I found that I liked Circulation because of its mix of the analytical and the creative. I also worked with a supportive staff and was given the ball to run with. If I stumbled a bit, I was given to opportunity to learn and correct my mistakes. I also found that I could make a decent living being a circulation professional. In my close to three years at Miller Freeman, I was promoted from a Circulation Analyst to an Assistant Circulation Manager and then to a full-fledged Circulation Manager.

Back in the early to mid 1990’s when I started my career in Circulation, magazines were plentiful, companies had lots of money to hire and train their staff, and employees would be rewarded for their hard work with salary and title increases. But as the years went on, a circulator’s role expanded to include not only the promotion of magazines, but of enewsletters, company websites, trade shows and eventually adding a company/brand presence on various social media sites. In many cases, this added responsibility came with little to no additional help and in many cases without an increase in salary. As the economy started to unravel, companies demanded that their circulation staffs do more with less.

Because of their increased workloads, circulators, myself included, found themselves having to learn new skills on the fly, and have even more responsibility without having the necessary resources to go along with the additional work flow. As the economy continued to spiral downward, pay freezes and pay cuts became common in many companies. Many circulators began to feel overwhelmed, underappreciated and burnt out. They also began to see their job descriptions change dramatically as the shift from print to digital and online caused them to have to learn new skills with little to no training provided by the company’s they worked for. Many began to feel disenchanted with the industry.

I began to see this trend occurring at the beginning of 2000. Pressure from upper management to increase revenue and decrease costs seemed to filter down to the group directors, then to the circulation managers and ultimately to the circulation analysts. Everyone became so consumed with just keeping their head above water and learning new skills on the fly that they didn’t have time to help the person below them. The recession was ultimately the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I have colleagues and acquaintances that are no longer in circulation but are now teachers, running day care centers, firemen, writers or physical therapists. Others have been out of work for close to a year. Many are trying to ride out the storm, hoping the economy will right itself by early to mid 2010 and that job opportunities will become plentiful once again.

Some have become so disheartened and are so skeptical about what the future holds that they’ve decided to find new careers. Many wonder if they’ll have the necessary technical, web and online skills needed when or if the job market rebounds, or if they’ll be left in the dust. It will be interesting to see how many return once the storm subsides.

In the interim, for those trying to weather the storm and get back into the audience development industry eventually, it’s vital to keep up-to-date on company and industry trends. Going to industry events such as NTCFI (the National Trade Circulation Foundation Inc), signing up for industry webinars, and reading industry enewsletters (Audience Development, Media Business and Folio are my top three) and blogs on a daily basis is extremely important. With the move away from print to online, knowledge of web analytics, search engine optimization, HTML, social media and other online resources is essential. I would even advise taking a couple of courses in the above topics to ensure that you’re up-to-speed on the constantly evolving world of online marketing and technology. Keeping in touch with colleagues is also crucial and could provide the extra edge needed to get back into the workforce.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Laughs Abound

Washington DC — Congress Creates Restaurant Insurance

Since the nation’s healthcare insurance works so well, Congress has decided to create a restaurant insurance industry to encourage more people to dine out.

The effort puts in place insurance firms that collect money to be used in payments to restaurants when a diner wishes to eat out. People obtain their coverage from employers who are required to set aside funds for their workers.

“This makes it convenient for the average joe to take out his family,” said Sen. Morgan Weight. “He doesn’t have to dig into his pocket for those flimsy credit cards.”

However, restaurants are struggling with long lines of people who wait for hours to check out as groups of restaurant administrators have them sign forms.

“I saw a broccoli third party administrator who made me fill out a form in triplicate when I ordered a stuffed pepper filled with broccoli,” said Les Green, a new vegetable advocate. “The dish meant that the restaurant had to work with a third party for the vegetable side dish, and another third party for the subcontracted work with the added broccoli.”

Yet the new jobs are a boon to the economy, according to Rake Itinn, a business lobbyist. “Businesses run the country, and anything that helps them, helps the country.”

Other lines have been set up in tented streets next to restaurants to accommodate the people who have to identify types of dessert and appetizer they want so they can have the correct coverage. Restaurants no longer make complete meals, but have to contract out with local food provider groups. The tented areas in streets have caused a traffic jam in most cities as cars try to navigate around the restaurant areas.

But the benefits of the restaurant insurance structure are greater than the obstacles, according to Sen. Cap Tilsim. “This is just the marketplace at work and we can’t hinder the marketplace.”

The employer groups have been excited about spending the extra money for their workers because they obtain special food for CEO banquets from the insurance plans.

Most plans have been set up in either a Hot Meals Organization (HMO) or a Plate Plan Option (PPO) that handles the way people are covered. The insurance firms believe this will keep the costs of food down.

“People are demanding more and more special items,” said Ginger Flakes, an insurance spokeswoman. “We have to run tests in most restaurants now to determine the types of food best suited for the diner.”

These tests include the Most Ravenous Index (MRI) and Eating Kitchen Gourmet (EKG) are forcing manufacturers to design equipment to scan the diner so they can determine the best menu for the person.

But these options can annoy some diners who liked certain foods besides what is shown in the tests. The insurance firms refuse to cover previously digested patterns.

Restaurant goers are also finding that not every restaurant will be covered. Often, people have to visit a special restaurant that offers a previously desired favorite like seafood. Usually, these would be considered out of network for many insurance firms.

“We can’t cover everything the person wants to eat,” Ginger said. “We’re trying to contain costs for the employer.”

The tests also take time and add to the long lines that bother neighborhoods. “These restaurants are putting a drain on our entire city,” said Pete Zer, from a Foods Rights group. “Why don’t we have a one plate system like other countries?”