Monday, April 27, 2015

Harrison Ford experiences the force…in his kitchen

Like modern politics magic is about distraction and deception. One of the most important elements is misdirection or controlling the audience's attention to where you want it to be (and without them realising that they have been manipulated). Even though we live in a savvy era where everyone has seen everything before and almost expect to be fooled that's not a problem for sophisticated tricksters - especially politicians and their communications 'strategists' (spin doctors). Illusionists call the heightened sense of alertness 'hot attention' and they use it against the audience in a sort of mental ju jujitsu. 

One of the first things to understand is directing the audience's gaze. Magicians use this trick - if you look at something - they will look where you looked. They can't help it. If an illusionist wants you to look away they will look at something to the left or right - away from what they are really doing with their hands. And if you look someone in the eye - they will find it very hard to look away. While you are addressing them this way they won't notice what you are really doing - and it can happen so quickly they won't even know it happened.

Have you ever wondered why magicians have magic wands and brightly coloured silk scarves that they wave around? That's because they are unexpected and novel. People are curious about new things so they pay closer attention to them. While the audience is watching as you wave your hanky or wand - you pocket a sponge ball or palm a coin.

Use a big flourish to conceal a small move. When a magician waves their hand to do the big abracadabra, meanwhile they palm the coin. In an instant it seems as if the coin magically vanished.

And, speaking of abracadabra don't forget the power of magic words. Telling stories can suspend more logical rhetoric - people hate lists of 'facts' - they're boring. They love stories. Willy Apiata's story of heroism as an SAS soldier in Afghanistan will always trump any logical discussion of the realpolitik and deals New Zealand made in back rooms to secure trade terms and more influence. Advertising legend Bill Bernbach said: 'The facts are not enough.' Another trick is to engage the audience in the story. Attention can be distracted by asking an audience member to think of a number - then secretly tell it to the person on their right. Once they are engaged in their own part of the narrative they can't pay attention the the deception happening before their eyes. It also draws the rest of the audience's attention - which is kind of like baiting a political rival into a public discussion of a seemingly trivial matter - then accusing them of worrying about trivial matters when there are bigger fish to fry. That's the technique in play at the moment over the New Zealand prime minister's hair pulling episode. In fact it was a double whammy. Rather than engaging the electorate in a meaningful discussion about the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) or the deployment of New Zealand troops in the middle east -  the government stages a spectacle like the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli disaster. When the bizarre hair pulling event happens the spin doctors accuse opponents of distracting attention away from the distraction of the spectacle. The flag is waved, the coin is palmed.

Bad jokes are another part of the magician's repertoire - when John Key minces down the catwalk or says someone's shirt is a bit 'gay' it is pure magic. The audience can't laugh/cringe and think critically at the same time.

The final trick is to conceal a lie amongst a series of minor truths. When a card sharp asks you to pick a card then confirm it is your card - you do - that's true. He tells you he is going to cut the cards - true again - says he'll put your card in the middle - not true - but you are in the flow now and deception is straightforward. When you pull the card they chose from an envelope - or a lemon - the crowd is predisposed to believe you…and why wouldn't they?

Why wouldn't they indeed?

These are not the droids you're looking for.

Now, get the fuck out of my house.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Headphones to create a new experience at concerts

A friend sent me a link to this clip by the jazz group Snarky Puppy. I don't know if you like jazz or not - for me it's ok in moderation. But the thing that intrigued me wasn't the music but how it was being enjoyed by the audience. They are wearing headphones. I did some quick research and found that this could be a trend. Audience members listen to the performance through headsets connected directly to the engineer's soundboard. That way they get to experience the live event with clean, clear sound - as the artists intended.

Just a day before I had lunch with a buddy and noticed he was having a little difficulty hearing what I said in the yum cha restaurant when he wasn't looking directly at me. Or he may have been ignoring my comment about The Eagles - which is also very likely, as a DJ he is picky in his tastes. I asked if he could hear ok. He told me he had some hearing loss and was using hearing aids - he showed me the delicately wired phones. I asked if it was the result of DJing. He replied that, more likely, it was the result of years of gym classes - with pounding, loud music.

Wearing 'cans' at a musical event would make sense. Aside from transmitting the sounds pitch perfect it would also mean that you could select the volume you prefer. Combined with a smart phone app maybe you could interconnect with with friends in the audience and enjoy a private conversation - or group chat mixed in the audio stream - selecting whether to allow the intrusion or not. Maybe you could include a voice to text option so that you can so 'This bit reminds me of our holiday in Venice' isn't mixed into the stream.

It might seem anathemic to concert purists for whom feeling the music in their chests amongst 10,000 other AC/DC fans is the point, rather than intimacy or sound quality. But most mid size events aren't like that. The experience of a gig could be augmented by using cans - much in the same way that 3D glasses change the way you enjoy a film.

With revenues from recordings falling (Spotify and other streaming services barely register on bands balance sheets) concerts are part of the experience economy that is growing.
What do you think. Would you entertain the idea?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Campbell Live - Dead man walking?

Prime minister John Key has broadcast his view that Campbell Live is an entertainment and so the outcry about MediaWorks pulling the plug is nothing to do with the public good. According to the Prime Minister: "Look in the end we live in a world where it's largely about commercial returns of what is a private station. It's not funded by the government, it's not subject to anything. It's got a bunch of shareholders it needs to make a return to."

On one hand he is correct. TV3 is privately owned. They have paid their fee to license the spectrum they broadcast on so are free to air what they feel is the right programming to attract an audience that will make their operation viable. Though the government intervened to permit them to pay for their permits on 'the drip' - but let's set aside the fact that MediaWorks is a corporate welfare beneficiary for the moment and, contrary to what Mr Key said they are in fact funded by the people of New Zealand.

But let's also look at the role to the government owned broadcaster in this melee.

If TV3 and other free to air broadcasters have no public good obligation then it draws attention to the fact that TVNZ does. Instead of competing with privately owned stations, as it does, it should uncouple from addiction to advertising revenue - competing unfairly with private concerns for revenue and for the commercial programming that attracts a broad audience.

TVOne and 2 have virtually indistinguishable programming that, in turn is hard to differentiate from TV3's product. The consequence seems to be an endless reinvention of the wheel by all of the major players to compete for the middle ground. As a result the quality of programming is dubious - either imported bland 
genre driven finished product from overseas markets or licensed formats that are repacked for New Zealanders.
The cost of content, its promotion and production are part of the downward spiral that broadcast channels are experiencing around the world. They are confronting challenges to remain relevant in the era of continuously available on-demand content (VoD and the web).

The value of free-to-air seems to revert to the public service model that was once an integral part of the equation. As the government owned channels TVNZ should have more obligation to the public good. News and current affairs are an essential part of the public service mix. As Mr key infers, the proper place for people like John Campbell is in the public service arena. Take away the overly commercial bent of Campbell Live as format and you take away the criticism that dilute his reputation as a high quality journalist. His personality and indisputable charm would remain and attract an audience on a public platform - but the need to 'innovate' with b grade 'driving dog' diversions would be set aside. The news component of TVNZ should be considered as independent from partisan politics - just as the public service and government departments are supposed to be. Assuming this logic Seven Sharp would move from TVOne to TV3 and its host's partisan political spruiking could live or die by the commercial sword - instead of being on massively expensive life support from the public purse to distort the commercial reality.
In the context of the Campbell Live story media commentator gavin Ellis said "If they won't voluntarily meet civic responsibility then maybe we need to look at some form of regulation to require them to provide good, competent, professional news and current affairs."

As it has happened TV3 have, to some extent been performing the government's responsibility with Campbell Live but which the government has abdicated in the pursuit of acting as if it was a privately owned enterprise - which it is not.

So the prime minister is right. MediaWorks can manage their property as they see fit within the law and their obligations to broadcasting standards. But he can't have it both ways. TV3 is privately owned. TVNZ is not and has an obligation to public service broadcasting. They should get out of the way of private operators and provide value to the segments of society that do want access to New Zealand stories - both news/current affairs and the arts - because New Zealand viewers can get pop and pap culture anywhere but there needs to be a happy place that is free of commercial obligation.

If the current government doesn't agree with that, then it's not really as committed to free markets as it would have you believe.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Don't mourn for Campbell Live

When discussing the axing of Campbell Live​ I think it is important to isolate the parts of the conversation avoid confusion.

1. Campbell Live show
Moments of really goodness and moments of cringe inducing pap. But, by an large, an asset to the community (in the absence of anything else other than the execrable Seven Sharp - which should be illegal) - even if sometimes Campbell Live seems like an awkward cross between Fair Go and a telethon.

2. John Campbell
See above. Add in some hubris and awkward jocularity. Has succeeded in raising awareness of important issues like:

- creating understanding and empathy for Christchurch earthquake victims and their revicitimisation by government and insurance companies

- highlighting issues around zero-hours contacts

- etc

Many pundits are rallying to Campbell's cause citing his quality as a journalist and 'broadcaster' (that's a term media people like to confer on themselves in much the same way they like to talk about the Wellington 'beltway' - which is actually a specific geographic feature of Washington D.C. and nothing to do with New Zealand). I am not sure that he is a great journo there are sometimes moments I applaud - like revealing what a shallow and ineffectual person Simon Bridges is. Others, like the post election interview with John Key have been confusingly bad. His access to elected representatives and his ability to ask them hard questions has been stymied by a political culture that does not embrace transparency or taking off talking point questions. I'm not sure that's his failure. Our PM would rather routinely attend propaganda slots on morning TV and radio than be held to account when there are adults watching.

On a personal note - I like Campbell and I think his heart is in the right place. I would like for him to move up from this.

3. Commercial reality
TV3 has a chequered history and recently brought in commercially savvy Julie Christie and the oddball Mark Weldon to make cash for its shareholders. That's what they are doing. (It's also what TVNZ are trying to do with TVOne and Seven Sharp but which they, perhaps, shouldn't be - i.e. what is the role of a public broadcaster?). Like or loathe Christie's programming, money talks and you are paying for it with your attention.

4. News and Current Affairs
Obviously not as important as I once thought they were. Largely abandoned with journalism becoming a melange of PR, 'native advertising' and polemic or partisan rhetoric (often in the guise of journalism). Broadcast 'news' is now to objectivity as chocolate eggs are to religious observance. Why do you need a 6 oclock report when you already know the important things that happened from a glance at your phone and when you have already seen the amusing memes of the day in you Facebook feed?

5. The real issue
Some people are banging on about the 'dumbing down' of media. It's a hoary old chestnut. It should be ignored. Since the advent of the internet media has actually got smarter. For all its ills Spotify releases you from a radio station programmers taste and you can choose whatever newsfeed you like - I mix The Guardian,  New York Times and Google News with aggregation services like Flip. Video On Demand means I have no reason to make an appointment to watch any broadcast TV at all and I can buy or rent movies from iTunes and watch them on my phone, iPad or Apple TV.
Media has changed. I don't know what the answer is any more than anybody else - and I mean anybody. If you listen to media commentators it pays to check their credentials and biases by association - they can be a little bit in-bred (it's a small community) and shy of speaking frankly (it's a small community). There are two quotes that bear repeating when it comes to media:

"Nobody knows anything" - William Goldman - Adventures in the Screen Trade

"As far as I'm concerned, it's a damned shame that a field as potentially dynamic and vital as journalism should be overrun with dullards, bums, and hacks, hag-ridden with myopia, apathy, and complacence, and generally stuck in a bog of stagnant mediocrity." - Hunter S Thompson.

And, as we're going Gonzo here another gem from Thompson:

The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.

If you don't like what you see in media - don't look. Advertisers will follow you in the end. As for petitioning TV3? Sorry I'm not joining in that spectacle to be played and manipulated.

Feel free to discuss.

Monday, March 09, 2015

The Art of the Poster - The Times of Patrick Tilly

Patrick Tilly was a prolific graphic designer and illustrator whose work featured prominently in advertising and publishing in the 1960s and 1970s. He switched disciplines to concentrate on writing scripts and science fiction novels, including The Amtrak Wars series.

I'm not much interested in science fiction. But I do like a good poster. I came across this series of posters for The Sunday Times when I researching cut-out art for a project. In the 80s the Sunday Times Magazine was something of an event each week when the latest copy would arrive in the creative department of whichever ad agency I happened to be slumming at at the time (allowing for the fact that it was the 1980s and 'snail mail' was the only economical way of receiving physical objects). Campaigns for cars, booze and cigarettes were big budget affairs in the magazine - double page spreads with the best concepts and photography. Brilliant copy writing from the likes of David Abbott for clients like Sainsbury's, Volvo and Chivas were as luscious as the layouts. It was an education. Even the cheap webfed press paper smelled as though it was filled with promise.

I like these posters for their spartan use of words, the playful connection between the text and the image that isn't necessarily literal (wit in design leaves something for the viewer to do and it becomes the more potent for the mental exercise) and, of course, the graphic technique.

Tilley was a member of a group called Artist Partners and on their blog I found this story about the posters and how BBDO, the ad agency who commissioned them nearly-but-not-quite had an idea, but it was Tilley who solved the problem:

“The back story to the Sunday Times posters is quite short.I was called into BBDO by the art director (name forgotten) and was asked to produce a poster for the Sunday Times using the words “You are more interesting to know when you read the Sunday Times”.

Mulling this over when I got home I decided it was too much of a mouthful to put on a poster which by its very nature needs to be simple and punchy. Anyway, it occurred to me that I could fulfil the brief in a different way by selecting positive/desirable qualities for a newspaper and a reader to possess. And since I had been doing fully rendered poster designs for the Times I chose to represent these qualities as simply as possible using cut-out coloured paper. I produced all six in one week and took them in - and hey presto - they bought the lot but removed my name from the margin."

If you ever make a poster and the image doesn't speak for itself - remember to take away every element that is superfluous - words, details, images…remember that people will remember one thing if you you are lucky or clever.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy

I can't think of a better name for a compilation album than Meaty, beaty, Big and Bouncy. Neither could Decca when they launched The Who's Greatest Hits in 1971. As far as compilations go it's hard to fault.

If you are wondering about the origin of the album title?: Roger Daltry was a fitness nut - Meaty; Keith Moon was the irrepressible force behind the drums Beaty; John Entwhistle was a man mountain - his nickname was Ox - Big; and Pete Townsend's habit of cavorting about the stage made him a sitter for the appellation Bouncy.

The name also suggests The Who's emergence as a force when advertising was also become a curiously powerful force in post-austerity, post-war Britain. Meaty, beaty, big and Bouncy sounds like a proto slogan for a readymade dinner or a pie. They also released an album that paid ironic homage to brands of the day - The Who Sell Out (1967) - ironic because The Who's music was featured in ads for brands including this jingle for Coca-Cola (which was features as a bonus track on the Sell Out album)

Advertising and pop culture have gone hand in glove since the 60's. The apparently anti establishment The Who obviously weren't averse to a little extra coin or more exposure to sell albums. Their management team of lambert and Stamp were as entrepreneurial as the Beatle's manager Brian Epstein or Led Zeppelin's Peter Grant, but aren't talked about much (documentary out soon).

To get a feeling for the times what could be better than a French documentary from the era? …

Thursday, February 19, 2015

SMCAKL review - Of Arab Springs, Slacktivism and bringing down the Twitter wall

Yesterday evening I was sitting in a room with about 60 people to witness Auckland Social Media Club's regular gathering at Vodafone's city headquarters to soak up insights into hashtag activism last night and to enjoy the ultimate social engagement with their peers in marketing and comms - face to face. Together we would make a hashtag trend (in Auckland).
Toby Manhire, who comments on matters relating to the web for The Listener got the ball rolling as the first panelist to offer their opinion. He wrote a book about the so-called Arab Spring which arguably led to the overthrow of one dodgy Egyptian government and the installation of another by dint of creating sudden power vacuums that we all know nature can't tolerate. His opening remarks were almost the closing remarks as he proclaimed the idea that Twitter or other social media platforms were akin to the telephone and so were no more responsible for the events than the telegraph declared the start of the first world war (my analogy, not his).

The commentary that followed added little to anyone's real understanding of the power of the hashtag or any recipe for its successful use. (There is none - hashtags can be hijacked and people using social media to chat amongst themselves are reluctant to engage with brands or artificially inseminated intrusions to their stream of consciousness. Brands beware.)

Stuart Young from Oxfam seemed a little bemused by the moderator's immoderate insertion of 50 Shades of Grey into the debate. Canvasing panelists for their views about the topic produced little of the steaminess hoped for. Was it an opportunity to adopt the meme to advance the cause of abused women in our actual society? (presumably the women who don't actively seek to be humiliated for pleasure). It was, ironically, a bit like asking someone if they still beat their wife?

There was some discussion about the KONY campaign which ultimately proved a point that was inferred in the discussion - if not actually explicitly stated - that highly effective use of social media tools can produce extraordinary outcomes but, like any marketing activity, it will be far more successful if the product does what it says on the tin. In the old-school world of advertising there was a truism - nothing kills a bad product quicker than great advertising. KONY was a dud that suckered millions to a cause, as was the feted 'ice bucket challenge'. This meme was discussed in fawning terms. I hate to pour cold water on the enthusiasm of participants but the ice bucket challenge promoted an insignificant problem that generated staggeringly inverse response - in proportion to its significance (in meta terms, not to the individuals and their families who endure the effects of whatever illness was the beneficiary of the me-too frenzy). It played to the same chords that Fear Factor did in its hey day. The show may have generated enormous ratings and advertising dollars but it was to TV what Fear Factor was to TV.

Eddy Helm of Curative added some sensible things to the conversation, but I was reading the Twitter wall and couldn't concentrate. I recommend you adhere to Guy Kawasaki's dogma that you shouldn't ever put loads of words on a screen behind you when you are making a presentation because the audience can read faster than you can speak and while they do they are not listening to a word you say. So I apologise to Eddy, I was reading the screen and trying to see who had favourited my tweet about what Gareth Hughes had said and to compose something pithy on my phone as a sequel. A live feed of the Twitter stream is rude to speakers and panelists. Don't do it. Even at a tech oriented event the tech should be, if not invisible then in the service of the proceedings - not alternative channel.

As the event rushed to conclude with TED-like efficiency at the alloted time Gareth Hughes began to tease out some important thoughts about the importance of seeing the big picture when running a campaign and to know what you want people to do next. These are wise words. The Arab Spring wasn't slacktivism. It wasn't young people publicly pinning their colours to the mast in rhetorical protest. Social media provided an communication channel outside of the control of dictators and totalitarian regimes. It allowed people to organise and actively protest in overwhelming numbers in a way that a newspaper announcement or physical pamphleteering couldn't do. It also allowed people from different cohorts to cross lines - where in the places like university campuses were convenient breeding grounds to foment change. It wasn't discussed but this was also a great misunderstood truth about Obama's first campaign to secure the presidency of the USA. Social media was used to organanise networks or supporters - not as a substitute for traditional messaging (even if this was an element of the strategy). I recommend finding a copy of the book Yes We Did if you are interested in the Obama playbook.

The 60 attendees used their smartphones to tweet about the event - including the hashtag #SMCAKL - in part to see their tweets displayed to the attendees. People being people, some couldn't resist spoofing the fellow who used question time to deliver a rambling doctoral thesis rather than an inquiry. So I suppose I did learn something from the evening - if you project live tweets from an event there will always be a smartarse in the room who will SMCAKL you down. The upside for the organisers is that the lighter moments encouraged others to wade into the hashtag frenzy and, lo and behold the event's hastag trended in New Zealand. Which also demonstrates how easy it is to game social media statistics in New Zealand and how little value the tiny values that create a 'trending topic' really have.

The speakers:

Toby Manhire - journalist and pundit

Gareth Hughes, MP, Green Party

Yes We Did! An Inside Look at How Social Media Built the Obama Brand