Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Ad Alert

Hello and welcome to Ad Alert, a possibly recurring feature of this blog in which I list instances of advertising that freak me out.

Let's start with the story that's received probably the most attention, that of the M.T.A. selling the naming rights to a Brooklyn subway station to the London-based bank, Barclays. I think I'll let The New York Times raise a few questions:

This raises a few questions. An academic might talk of the intersection between public and private space. A straphanger may ask how all those names can fit into one announcement.

And if a company can pay to get its name on any station, a New Yorker might wonder what’s next: Coca-Cola Presents 59th Street-Columbus Circle?

The answer is maybe. Once upon a time, geographic relevance determined a station’s name, but now, the authority says it is open to any naming agreements that can raise revenue for its transit system, including ones not directly tied to location.


Still, while selling station names could bring the authority revenue it needs, advertising experts say companies may not be as well-served.

“To be effective, the viewer needs to understand the relevance of the ad,” said Allen Adamson of Landor, a branding firm. “To rename the 59th and Lex stop the McDonald’s stop — it ain’t going to work. I don’t think it will stick.”

So not only is the M.T.A. possibly betraying its stewardship for $200,000 annually over the next 20 years (this might sound like a decent chunk of change, until you remember that the M.T.A. is facing a $1.2 billion deficit in 2009; yikes), but the plan might not even be effective. Alrighty.

On a related note, I was thoroughly confused by the new subway turnstiles at Penn Station's A Train stop, sponsored by H&M. Unlike the subway station naming rights, this idea actually makes some sense--it's a way to cover some of that $1.2 billion deficit without being too intrusive. Except the execution is horrific. Via the DesignNotes blog, here's what this bad boy looks like:

Double yikes. The alternate price listing is confusing as hell, especially in light of of the new subway fares, but I was more annoyed by the bright red coloration; as I first approached this new revenue model, I grew concerned that the subway station was closed and that I'd have to find a different train. Did H&M agree to this deal only if the finished product would be guaranteed to confuse subway riders?

Lastly, because I'm cool like that, I spent last Saturday night playing Guitar Hero with a few friends, and I noticed one similarity in all the disparate guitar hero venues: the conspicuous presence of Coca-Cola bottles and KFC containers sitting on a table. So there are now product placements in a video game that my friends paid for. This is quite a bit more disturbing than product placements in, for example, 30 Rock; that is a show that is, for the most part, provided free of charge, whether on Hulu or regular TV. If traditional advertising rates no longer can cover the costs of the show, then I understand the need to seek out alternative options. But Guitar Hero isn't something that is distributed free of charge--my friends had to pay money for it. And you can be sure that the video game isn't any cheaper because of the ads. What's next? Are we going to have product placements in novels? That possibility makes me nervous.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Daring Young Woman on the Flying Trapeze

I just want to point out that last week's The New Yorker included a short piece about Evan Rachel Wood's recent session at Trapeze School New York, the very same Trapeze School I once attended. The article even explains what "hep" means.

Huzzah for Trapeze School.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Random Recommendation: Gunnin' For That #1 Spot

It's a beautiful day in New York City, 70s and sunny--the kind of day we've gone without for the last three weeks. How did I choose to spend the spectacular morning hours of this glorious day? I sat on a chair in my bedroom and watched a documentary on Hulu, specifically, a documentary on Hulu called Gunnin' For That #1 Spot. This 96 minute film--produced and directed by Adam Yauch, of Beastie Boys renown--follows a group of 2006's most highly-touted high-school basketball phenoms as they prepare for an elite exhibition game hosted by this country's most famous outdoor basketball court, Harlem's Rucker Park.

The film is divided into two main sections (not counting Hulu's intrusive and annoying ads; this is the first feature-length film I've watched using that site, and it might be the last, at least for a long while): interviews with eight of the high-school players along with their respective coaches, trainers, older brothers, parents, entourages, etc., and game footage of the exhibition contest. Except for a few moments, the game footage section is by far the less interesting portion. (Most of these fascinating moments involve Michael Beasley, now of the Miami Heat, as he alternates between outplaying his elite competition and trash-talking it.) It's of a high-school all-star game, which means that there is very little defense on display, but, more important, Yauch's heavy-handed directorial decisions result in quick-hitting action lacking any sense of coherence, with countless unnecessary multi-angle replays sprinkled in for good measure.

The first 50 minutes or so are much stronger, featuring interviews with high-school athletics experts on topics ranging from the business of ranking prep basketballers to the intense media scrutiny young players face today. But it's the interviews with the athletes themselves which makes this project worthwhile. I don't know if Yauch and friends deliberately delayed releasing the film for nearly three years past the date of the Rucker Park exhibition, but it turned out to be a smart move. As the introduction to an interview with Yauch on Hulu's blog notes:
If you’re a hoops fan, you may recognize some of the players featured: Four of them are pros — Jerryd Bayless (Portland Trail Blazers), Michael Beasley (Miami Heat), Kevin Love (Minnesota Timberwolves) and Donte Green (was with the Sacramento Kings) — and another two, Tyreke Evans (Memphis) and Brandon Jennings (playing in the Italian League), are participating in the NBA draft tonight. (Kyle Singler will remain at Duke; Lance Stephenson starts college in the fall).
This familiarity is an important point, as basketball fans get to see pretty extensive interviews with prominent young NBA players. I might be alone in this assessment, but I think it's great to see an 18 year-old Kevin Love talk to his mother about the girls that throw themselves at him when he visits Los Angeles. That's really the most interesting part of this project, seeing athletes interact with the media before they're completely comfortable with it. This film doesn't document the standard athlete-interview cliches--high-school is really the last time you get to see these players before they're media-trained. This documentary, of course, functions are part of their training and some of the differences evident over the course of the movie are striking. My favorite part of the film is the footage of Jerryd Bayless announcing his intention to attend the University of Arizona for college. In the middle of the proceedings, a middle-aged man (his coach? his father?) leans over and tells the best high-school player in the state of Arizona to look up when he talks. And yet, in Yauch's interviews filmed only a few month later, Bayless looks completely comfortable in front of the camera. It's hard to tell from this film how these players develop as basketball players from the time their high-school careers end to the point when they reach the NBA or major college ball, but it's easy to see how they learn to deal with the attention that surrounds them, from press conferences, to magazine covers, to interviews, to, yes, even documentaries produced and directed by a Beastie Boy.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Taste the Happy, Michael

Via Kottke, here's the trailer for a soon-to-be-released documentary about Arrested Development.

Judging from the trailer, it seems the documentarians aim to uncover why America didn't love this show as much it should have.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Paris, Rebooted

As part of The New York Times Magazine's recent Architecture issue, Nicolai Ouroussoff composed an article titled "Remaking Paris," examining the effort of French President Nicolas Sarkozy to improve one of the world's most iconic cities. According to Ouroussoff,
One of the first things Sarkozy did after he moved into the Elysée Palace was to convene a meeting of prominent architects and ask them to come up with a new blueprint for Paris. “Of course,” he said, “projects should be realistic, but for me true realism is the kind that consists in being very ambitious.” His job was to clean up the city’s working-class suburbs, and at the same time build a greener Paris, the first city to conform to the environmental goals laid out in the Kyoto treaty.
It's no secret that I'm fascinated by how cities work. I worked on compiling the index for the recently published Cities, Citizens, and Technologies: Urban Life and Postmodernity (a fine title, if I've ever seen one), and, more important, I attended a class taught by that book's author. That's really the extent of my formal training in architecture and city-planning, so many of the details described by Ouroussoff were lost on me. Also, I'm sure my comprehension of the various plans wasn't aided by the fact that I've spent a grand total of five days in Paris, with most of that time devoted to eating in restaurants and looking at things in museums. (Though, if you do want to learn more about what the various proposals would entail, there is a helpful narrated slideshow accompanying the article on the website; I would embed that slideshow here, if only The...Times allowed its videos to be embedded.) No, the really fascinating part of the article is Ouroussoff's conclusion, reproduced below for your edification:

Sarkozy has asked the 10 architectural teams working on the Paris plan to collaborate and produce a more cohesive blueprint for the future. The chances of a definitive plan emerging from such an effort seem remote — and even if one does, architecture won’t solve all the city’s social ills. Nonetheless, the Grand Paris project represents a critical shift in how we think of urbanism. The tabula rasa Modernist experiments of the 1960s and 1970s not only damaged cities across the world; their failure spelled the abandonment of visionary master planning. In places where large-scale urban projects did re-emerge, like China and the Middle East, older, poorer neighborhoods were often bulldozed to make room for new development at a frenetic pace, with little regard for how the pieces fit together.

The plans presented for Grand Paris suggest that it is possible to believe, once again, that government can play a decisive role in achieving a truly egalitarian city — and that architecture is essential to that transformation.

The goals of Sarkozy's project diverge strikingly from New York City's prime example of this type of city-engineering, that of Robert Moses's quest to incorporate large public works projects into the city and to improve automobile access in the five boroughs. The goals of the Paris plan --creating a city that is both egalitarian and green--are undoubtedly worthwhile and should be pursued. It might be because I've watched too much of The Wire in the past six months, but I find it hard to be optimistic that governments and its related bureaucracies can make decisions for the long-term public good, rather than for the short-term benefit of politicians. Time will tell if Sarkozy manages to pull this off. If he does, it might go a long way in allaying doubts about the effectiveness of what governments can do for cities.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Something Important is Happening In Iran

And I heard almost nothing about it until I was directed to check out Andrew Sullivan's blog.

I have nothing to add. Go check out the important work Sullivan is doing.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


In between arguing about Raul Ibanez's relationship to both bloggers and steroids and laughing at the similarities between 30 Rock and The Muppet Show (it wouldn't at all surprise me, by the way, if 30 Rock manages to work in a reference to that blog post next season), the internet's been focused on deconstructing Pixar movies and What They Mean.

Is Pixar sexist, because their movies haven't featured a female protagonist? At least some people think so.

Is the Kevin character in UP, as Hunter Stephenson put it, "a Nod to the LGBT Movement?" Hunter Stephenson, obviously, thinks so.

Is Pixar even more sexist than we originally thought two paragraphs ago because their 2012 film, The Bear and the Bow, which finally features a female protagonist turns out to feature a female protagonist who is a princess? Linda Holmes thinks so.

It's important that people are thinking about what our contemporary fairy tales mean. Louis Althusser, in his essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, describes the ways in which a ruling class maintains it's hegemony: "However, it is not enough to ensure for labour power the material conditions of its reproduction if it is to be reproduced as labour power. I have said that the available labour power must be 'competent,' i.e. suitable to be set to work in the complex system of the process of production." He goes on to relate the ways in which the dominant culture inculcates it's values and ideologies, mentioning--in addition to the obvious ones like the army, police force, etc.--as examples of Ideological State Apparatusses:
  • the religious ISA (the system of the different Churches),
  • the educational ISA (the system of the different public and private "Schools")
  • the family ISA,
  • the legal ISA,
  • the political ISA (the political system, including the different Parties),
  • the trade union ISA,
  • the communications ISA (press, radio and television, etc.),
  • the cultural ISA (Literature, the Arts, sports, etc.)
So yes, our cultural artifacts, including kids' movies, matter.

But it's important to investigate them in the right way. With the exception of Stephenson's Kevin theory, the focus has shifted away from the movies themselves. Speculative grumblings about a movie that won't be released for thirty months doesn't help anyone. Holmes's post reflects almost entirely on herself and her feelings, which would be fine if it hadn't masqueraded as a comment on UP and Pixar's upcoming movies.

All this chatter only distantly related to the source material detracts from the film itself and what makes it special. The touching wordless montage retracing the steps of the Fredericksen marriage. The simple Pixar storytelling which is never simplistic. The rounded characters with motivations. The protagonist who--while not a woman--takes the form of an elderly gentleman. (What's the last animated film to do that?) The call for adventure.

What is readily evident in UP is quite good. There's no need to look at the film for what it is not.

Monday, June 1, 2009

How The New York Times Does Business

This, it seems to me, is a brilliant way to conduct business. From the June 1, 2009 The New Yorker, in an article titled "Slim's Time," about Carlos Slim and his effort to purchase The New York Times:
"In my early days as an editor, I had someone explain to me the marketing strategy of the Times," [executive editor Bill] Keller recalled. "What most newspapers do when they want to expand is to conduct a survey of people who don't read their paper and ask, 'What would make you like our paper better? What could we change to appeal to you?' Then they go out and add the advice column or the comic strip--whatever it was that the nonreader said he wanted. The Times' approach was to go find our most loyal readers--who say they couldn't live without it, they read it every day--and to profile those people. Who are they? The strategy was to find more people like that, to define ourselves demographically, not geographically. The whole marketing apparatus was out there looking for people who want what we're doing. The commitment to solid journalism wasn't just a slogan. It was a sound business proposition."
The confidence the Times has in its product is amazing. They know they have the best product in the field, and they just try to find more people who would appreciate what they have to offer.

Figure out what you do well, and focus on that. Don't water down yourself or your product. Sound advice.