Observations and arguments.

On Lessig’s Run for Congress

Stanford Law professor Lawrence Lessig, co-founder of Creative Commons and thought leader on issues of technology and intellectual property, recently switched the focus of his advocacy and research to the reform of the U.S. legislature.

At almost the same time, longtime Congressman Tom Lantos died in office, leaving an open seat in the very district where Lessig resides. A group of peers, friends, and fans of Lessig’s work have seen this as a sign that the professor and change agent should run for Congress himself–that he might work to change the system from the inside.

Lessig is taking the suggestion seriously, and is asking for additional input as he weighs his decision whether or not to run. The centerpiece of his campaign would be a pledge that he would take–and that he will encourage other members of Congress to take–

A significant counterargument to his candidacy is that he would have to compete with Jackie Speier, a longtime California pol with the name recognition, resumé, organization, grass roots support, and progressive bonafides to crush him in an election.

But that’s not what I wrote to him about. In my email I posited that:

Adherence to the pledge opens a member of Congress up to becoming an easy target for accusations of hypocrisy, regarding any behavior, past or present, that could be spun as a violation of the pledge. (Cf. Today’s NYT feature about John McCain.)

What’s needed is an open-source methodology for grading adherence to the pledge on some kind of percentage or value scale, rather than a binary system (did she or did she not violate the pledge). Until that value scale is established, the mass media narrative of “balance” will stick to a binary assessment, allowing political opponents to apply our culturally shallow definition of hypocrisy to discredit any member of Congress who takes the pledge.

Your help will be needed on the *outside* of Congress to help develop this alternative system of assessing success in adhering to the pledge, and communicating the results of those assessments to national and regional media in ways that move the discussion forward.

Once you are within the halls of Congress yourself (and perhaps long-term it will be required for you to maximize your success), you will be unconscionably scrutinized in ways that will draw focus from the overarching objectives.

Chris Ereneta

Moreover, I am concerned that Lessig could be chewed up and spit out in a media-driven election.

This is a brilliant, thoughtful, careful man, who made the unfortunate choice of using the word “Corruption” denotatively to describe his next area of focus. After a few months of having to explain his meaning in contrast to the word’s connotations, he has switched to the expression “Change Congress“. Politicians typically succeed with voters when they leverage the established cultural connotations of language, to maximize the communication within the limits of a media soundbite.

Lessig’s much more precise language constructions might not serve him well as a politician.

He’s more careful with his words than I am, and look how many popularity contests I’ve managed to win. Is all I’m saying.

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Matt Mullenweg’s Third Law of Social Media

Mullenweg, founder of WordPress, speaking last week at the Northern Voice conference in Vancouver (audio available here):

“Unfiltered interaction is worse than useless at scale.”

Which Seesmic is learning the hard way.

Complete exposure of one’s mania

“When I hear incredible records, I feel like the people involved in those records were on some kind of a mania that was, like, possessing them, and that only they could really grasp. And if they tried to dumb it down for other people, it wouldn’t be as awesome, because it wouldn’t be as complete an exposure of their mania.”

– Rock producer Steve Albini, in an interview with Jesse Thorn for The Sound of Young America

Listen to the interview

What will it take to kill the Aflac Duck?

News today in AdvertisingAge that insurance giant Aflac was changing its marketing strategy to reduce its reliance on the “Aflac Duck”, because while most US consumers recognize the feathered character (85% in testing), almost no one knows it has anything to do with insurance.

Following a flurry of blog posts, Aflac released a press release within hours reassuring the public that the rumors of the duck’s demise were greatly exaggerated.

“Like all of America, we love the Aflac Duck,” said Jeff Herbert, Aflac’s Chief Marketing Officer. “It is as central to our marketing efforts today as it will continue to be going forward.”

Credit Aflac for paying attention to the internets, but for the love of God, please just kill the duck.

I credit (blame) Chiat/Day for the creation of modern mascot advertising, partly because they like to credit themselves for it. After taking the Energizer battery account from DDB Needham, Chiat/Day leveraged the pink bunny used in a previous commercial, and created a series of ads that are now considered classics of the last century. In the classic template, a fake commercial for a fake product is interrupted by the roll-through appearance of the battery-powered bunny, which is “Still going…”. Funny, yes. Memorable, yes. “Disruptive” and surprising in the way that Chiat likes its advertising to be.

But here’s the problem: people remember the commercial, and the mascot, but not the product. I realized this when I heard Katie Couric once refer to the “Everready Bunny” on the air. I’ve heard (and read) this mistake multiple times since, and it suggests to me a fundamental problem with the campaign.

Would there have been any better way to brand Energizer to help distinguish it from Everready? I don’t have the answer to that, and Energizer does at least put the bunny on its packaging (although on some packages it’s hidden by the batteries themselves).

Chiat/Day went on to create the Taco Bell chihuahua and the Pets.com sock puppet, both of which the agency (now TBWA\Chiat\Day or Media Arts Lab or some wank name) still claim as major success stories. The sock puppet was popular enough that even though Pets.com collapsed, the character was revived by a different company for a series of ads selling… what, exactly? Can anyone remember?

The much beloved chihuahua ultimately got the agency fired, because while the fast food chain was selling a lot of plush dog toys, its sales of food (you know: its actual product) continued to decline. Despite the popularity of the ads.

While I know that brand advertising is about building relationships with customers (rather than generating sales per se), the point, as I understand it, is the relationship you want to build is between the customers and the brand, not the customers and the award-winningly creative advertising creatives.

Tom Carroll, chief executive of TBWA/Chiat Day (sic), said he was disappointed by the dismissal and felt ditching the Chihuahua would be a mistake.

“People like the dog,” he said. “It’s just that simple.”

Tom. Your creative team was not hired to get people to like a dog. Is that a simple enough concept for you to understand?

To build its business, or better yet to create more meaningful relationships with its customers, Aflac should put its award-winning duck out of its misery and try something new.

Or, better yet!

Create a series of ads telling the story of the duck’s near-demise, and its long descent into the hardship, faceless bureacracy, near-permanent financial burden, and lasting emotional toll shared by millions of uninsured Americans. Show the real human (or avian, as it were) cost of being caught without a safety net. But funny, you know? Like those Foster Farms chickens.

People would love that.

A portrait of the toddler as a creative problem solver

Of course the key problem I need to solve creatively for myself is getting a new career.

But tonight, within the context of swirling questions about the boy’s emotional, language, and sensory development, we witnessed an act of clear ingenuity.

For a while now, the boy has enjoyed running the hallway loop while I kneel in the kitchen, juggling three beanbags. He careens gleefully around the corner and runs headlong into me. I drop the balls. We hug. He asks to do it again.

(I will note here that we intend to steer him away from encountering any actual, working jugglers, until he has become bored of this activity.)

Last night, however, he added a new variant to the game, one in which he shuts his eyes as he enters the kitchen, I suppose as a self-administered test of how he perceives distance in relation to his own velocity. Having a parent to crash into provides an excellent and dynamically adjusting safety net at the terminus of the test.

While I can respect the developmental leap he is making by conducting this experiment in the first place, I also know that it’s a really bad idea for anyone–especially a toddler–to be running with their eyes closed.

He ignored our advice to keep his eyes open, of course, so we quickly transitioned to another activity.

Tonight, however, during our contact-juggling routine, he began to experiment once again with shutting his eyes before colliding into me. This time we successfully convinced him of the importance of opening his eyes, in part by quoting Dora the Explorer: “So we can be safe!”

But by the third or fourth time around the loop following this rule, the boy was becoming bored with the activity. He was apparently dissatisfied at not having completed his experiment, but he somehow understood that shutting his eyes was no longer an option.

So he came running around the corner with his head turned 90 degrees to the side.

His eyes remained open, but he couldn’t see where he was going. He could once again run into me and the juggling balls without looking.

Mad. Genius.

I was so impressed by the ingenuity of his workaround that I let him do it a few times more.

Tomorrow night, we’ll change the rule from “Keep your eyes open.” to “Watch where you’re going.”
I am curious to see what he comes up with in response to that.

No more waiting for a Prius?

When we finally put down our $500 deposit for a 2007 Toyota Prius, we were told we’d have to wait two to four months–especially as the color (silver pine mica, aka green) and options package (with bluetooth phone connectivity) were the most popular choices.

I received a call two days later telling me that we’d have the car within a two weeks.

Five days later I was driving it off the lot.

The official story I was given was that Toyota was ramping up production, and that the dealership was surprised with a shipment of eighty cars for the month, up from their typical shipment of thirty.

If this story is correct, then quoted wait times for the cars should begin to come down, and not just at Toyota Sunnyale.

I remain unconvinced, however, as our car was the only Prius I saw on the lot. For the narrative to sustain plausibility, there would have to be at least some small number of cars available for sale. Unless one were to believe that nearly all eighty of the cars were silver pine mica with the HK option set–otherwise, how would they have gotten so far down the “waiting list”?

The more likely scenario is that yes, Toyota has built up its production to better meet demand, but that the cars are held at an intermediate location and shipped to order promptly in response to customer deposits. Toyota would benefit by being able to artificially sustain demand, and give them some power over its dealers by tightly managing wait times. Dealers would benefit by maintaining their zero-day inventory on the cars and their sticker-price sales numbers–customers are not bargaining from strength when they have to “custom order” their vehicles. Sales representatives also get to play the good cop role when delivering the news to the customer that their vehicle has arrived well ahead of expectations. As dealers (and their better sales reps) are typically working not just to sell you today’s car but your return business, delivering good news can be a powerful emotional hook.

(In my earlier post regarding a bad experience at another dealership, our obnoxious rep attempted this as a last ditch maneuver as we were on our way out the door–promising to finagle a car “just for us” within two weeks. Curious how the end result matched this prediction.)

The trouble with this strategy, at least from our perspective, is that we were in a position to wait two to four months, so that we didn’t experience any real emotional relief at getting the car so quickly. Our advance planning allowed us to remain detached from the theatrics and drama, and as a result I’m much more critical of the manipulations involved.

I would encourage future Prius buyers to kick the tires of the quoted wait times. Share the fact that I got a car within a week, and that you’d be willing to walk off the lot and find a dealer who can match that.

See if you can get a car quickly, and for a fair amount under the quoted price.

There is a third possibility that I can envision, however, only because this dealership is located in Silicon Valley. It is conceivable that the dealership’s internet manager found my earlier blog post, which favorably compared our experience to that we had at a competitor. Hoping to milk some additional positive blogness, s/he may have influenced the speed at which we got our car. This seems unlikely to me, but if it’s true at all and you the dealership’s internet manager is reading this right now I hope you understand that it kinda backfired.

I’ll have positive things to write about my Prius in future posts. But getting the car so quickly has left a foul taste in this car buyer’s mouth.

Giving up consistency as an organizational objective

Marketing ethnographer and anthropologist Grant McCracken let fly a question this week that’s been gnawing at me for a while now:

What if we gave up consistency as an organizational objective? What if we stopped trying to integrate ventures and strategies? What if we just let the corporation rip as something essentially inconsistent and unintegrated?

I wonder this because as my organization has begun its latest initiative to improve our internal workflows (seriously enough to add headcount to help do it), there has been a directive from our management team to make workflows consistent across teams.

Which: from a management perspective is a perfectly reasonable request.
But which: from a workflow perspective can make little sense.

As a workflow or systems analyst, of course you are invested in satisfying the desires of management–the people you’re working for. But is your goal consistency? Or is it to improve the methodologies and ultimately the outcomes of the system/workflow?

Consistency should be a tactic, not an objective. Sometimes it helps the work itself improve, especially when there is a great deal of interaction between teams. In other cases it helps management track progress or profitability. Consistency in UI design can help the end user learn to make good guesses about where to look for a button or command. There is often a measurable value one can attach to the application of consistency.

But when consistency is itself the goal, you can wind up placing obstacles in the road to quality outcomes, by limiting the abilities of teams to make good (or great) decisions. All simply to help management not have to think quite so hard about the business.

The wrong question: How can we make things more consistent?
The right question: Where (and how) can consistency help us?

What if by giving up consistency we could create better products?