Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Villain or Victim?

Due to my daily, rather loud coughing fits and love for complaining, my co-workers have traced the plague that’s making its way around my office to me. They’re calling me Typhoid Amy. Before I was given this lovely new nickname, I did go to one of those Take Care clinics at Walgreens (which are surprisingly nice!)—against my mother’s advice, might I add, who thought I was just being over-dramatic as usual. The nurse practitioner told me I just had some kind of cold or virus and sent me home with a couple of bottles of over-the-counter medicine and “grandma’s advice” to get more sleep and whatnot.

So I’ve been drinking lots of orange juice and not going out during the week… and I worked from home one day. Despite these attempts to kick my cold, however, I’m still getting accusatory looks whenever someone coughs (one co-worker even claimed I got his dog sick, an animal I've never met...), and now they’re bugging me to find a primary care physician—I guess because they’re tired of listening to me cough up phlegm all day…might I suggest headphones?

But I actually think my new nickname is fitting—because like me, revisionist historians say Typhoid Mary didn’t deserve all of the heat she got back in the day, as she was a victim of circumstance. The public turned against “Typhoid” Mary Mallon when she went back to working as a cook after she knew she was a carrier of Typhoid, but historian Judith Walzer Leavitt argues: “To be sure, Mary Mallon was not entirely blameless when she knowingly returned to cooking in 1915, but the blame must be more broadly shared. Much of what Mallon did can be explained by events greater than herself and beyond her control. It is only in the full context of her life and the actions of the health officials and the media that we can understand the personal position of Mary Mallon and people like her.” Being a single woman and an Irish immigrant in the early twentieth century, Mary did not have at her disposal many ways to support herself, and after she was quarantined, “she was not permitted to work at a job that had sustained her, but she was not retrained for any comparable work.”

So just as circumstance must share at least some of the blame placed on Mary, I believe it should share the blame I’ve been saddled with as well. Consider the facts of my life, a century later in Corporate America:

  • I spend a great deal of my waking hours inside of an office building, inside of a cubicle, one cube away from the window. According to new research, the “sunshine vitamin,” vitamin D, “has been shown to help regulate the body’s disease-fighting immune system.And low vitamin D levels have been linked to heart disease and other health problems.
  • I spend most of my day sitting on my ass in front of my laptop, with the occasional break to walk to the kitchen or conference room to stuff my face with free pizza, brownies and other miscellaneous treats, offered up at least once a week if we have some sort of meeting or training…or it’s Tuesday. Obviously, this diet and lack of exercise does not do a body good.
  • To recover from the passive aggression and spinning hamster wheels experienced during the work week, I often consume a few too many alcoholic beverages. According to my mother and nurse practitioner, this corporate recovery is perhaps prolonging my plague recovery…

So are we villains or victims? It’s quite a predicament, in my opinion.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

It’s waaaay better than the truth. It’s advertising.

A couple of months ago I noticed a sign displayed outside of a diner around the corner from my apartment advertising “healthy breakfasts” alongside a picture of typical diner breakfast food: bacon, eggs, sausage, waffles, etc. It made me chuckle—a hearty breakfast maybe, but a healthy breakfast? I don’t think so. And who goes to a diner for a healthy breakfast anyway? Big breakfasts are all about indulging—for me it’s usually to top off or recover from a night out. The “Open 24 Hours” sign was what converted me from neighbor to customer.

The banner’s tagline seemed like a bad idea to me (and maybe the owner as well—it wasn’t there when I looked for it today) until I started noticing similar, i.e. blatantly false messaging in larger, more sophisticated campaigns, like the Wendy’s commercial below:

“It’s waaaay better than fast food. It’s Wendy’s.” Huh? But Wendy’s IS fast food… isn’t it? In fact, it’s the third-largest hamburger fast food chain, according to Wikipedia. And I’m actually a tad concerned that their burgers are never frozen—I don’t think they’re slaughtering cows back there in the kitchen—how sanitary is it that the meat they’re using isn’t frozen while it’s in transport from wherever it’s coming from? When I buy chicken breasts at the grocery store, they go straight into my freezer when I get home. Wobbly raw meat creeps me out.

And then there’s the Botox commercial that employs the catchy jingle “Express yourself!” What? Isn’t the whole point of Botox to paralyze, with toxin injections, the muscles that create lines and wrinkles on your face—the same muscles that EXPRESS EMOTIONS? Isn’t the entertainment value of watching slick foreheaded, expressionless soap stars struggle through crying scenes the silver lining of our youth-obsessed culture?

I couldn’t find the ad on YouTube, but is almost as ridiculous:

The main text on the right reads: “It’s all about freedom of expression...” Does the ellipsis serve as acknowledgement of the absurdity of this campaign? I like to use ellipses to punctuate ridiculous things I write—well, to punctuate pretty much everything I write…

I suppose the “Will I be able to make facial expressions? Find out more.” link is supposed to ease fears consumers might have about Botox, something a sub-page of a company’s Web site is great for… but it’s odd that Allergan (maker of Botox) would actually highlight this negative effect/connotation of its product in its marketing efforts (and the link only provides more vague, contradictory information). Users can see the product’s effect for themselves in a Before & After Gallery, which for me pretty much just affirmed the assumptions I had already made about Botox. The Befores show more expression and more wrinkles, and the Afters show less expression and less wrinkles. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

But the madness doesn’t stop there! Apparently the League of Women Voters and Allergan have teamed up “to encourage women to express themselves through the political process and by making choices about how they live.” Well that’s super. I thought the gobs of time and money I spend worrying about my appearance were distracting me from more important issues like sexism and empowerment, but apparently succumbing to oppressive beauty ideals IS empowering! Thanks, Allergan!

Either the brains behind these campaigns were experiencing some sort of corporate meltdown (a condition I’m familiar with), or perhaps their line of thought was that consumers have developed a resistance to the usual flowery, misleading advertising language, so they are trying something new by just throwing ridiculously false messaging out there—replacing puffery with absurdity. And maybe it’s a brilliant strategy … it certainly got my attention.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Paint-by-numbers pickup art

Last Friday was another interesting night at the bar. A guy who approached my friend and me managed to give me two odd insults in a matter of minutes. First he told me he was sure I was a teacher because I looked “homely.” After I asked him what that was supposed to mean, he said, “You know, you look like you stay at home and read a lot of books.” Hm. Were the rest of his pickup skills as lame as his vocabulary? For some reason I stuck around to find out. Next he asked me if I was Jewish. I said no, but people ask me that all the time. A lot of people think I’m either Jewish or Italian, I told him, but I’m actually neither. And he responded, “Oh I’m just trying to say you’re ordinary looking.” Huh? That was when I decided to put the unfortunate conversation out of its misery.

I was telling the story to a male friend the next day, and he said maybe the guy at the bar had been reading The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists. In the book, Neil Strauss, formerly “a self-described chick repellent,” apparently tells the story of how he was assigned to “investigate a community of pickup artists,” through which he learned and successfully used techniques he shares with readers. According to my friend, one of these techniques is to give women backhanded compliments. Another is to approach the less attractive woman in a group. According to Amazon, another is to "intrigue a beautiful woman by pretending to be unaffected by her charm."

My friend really got a kick out of the ordinary looking comment. “Maybe I should take it a step further,” he said, “and just go up to girls and punch them in the head.” (I know I should probably know better, but I thought that was hilarious.) When we were out later, I decided we should just fully embrace this gradeschool approach and suggested to my friend that he go up to a random girl and give her a wet willy. (I didn’t really think he’d do it…) She did not react positively at first (shocker), but I did notice she hung around where we were standing for a while afterward. Maybe her interest was sparked… or more likely she was waiting for an explanation.

So might some men actually experience success using some sort of reverse psychology to pick up women? I’m afraid that might be the case, now that I’m thinking about it. About a month ago, a guy discarded his empty beer bottle right in front of me, which I thought was rude, but I did end up talking to him when he approached me again and actually spoke. And I ended up going out with him… a few times… I think it might be a tactic that’s hard to pull off though, and maybe not the best option for the socially awkward, who are probably the ones taking advice from books like The Game, unfortunately.

Monday, June 2, 2008

SATC movie satisfies, SATC media coverage annoys

Much like I approach everything else in my life, my expectations were low, excitement high for the Sex and the City movie. It is most definitely my favorite show EVER—I have the fabulously hot pink velvet box set and can pretty much recite every episode by heart—and I knew the movie could never be as groundbreaking and outrageous as the HBO series, but I also knew seeing the characters five years later would be tons of fun.

What I wasn’t prepared for were some of the reactions to the movie and its success. Why is the media so shocked that it beat Indiana Jones in box office sales? Indiana Jones has been open for a week, and Sex and the City fans have been counting down the days until the SATC movie premiere for years. Matt Lauer, who I normally love, annoyingly told Meredith Vieira on The Today Show this morning that he thinks he’s figured it out: Men must have bought tickets to Sex and the City with their wives and girlfriends and then snuck out and gone to see Indiana Jones instead. I guess that’s supposed to be funny?

Why do so many men hate Sex and the City so much? This blog goes through a list of things men would rather do than go see the movie, which includes being mauled by one of Michael Vick’s pit bulls, although it stops at being shot: “We would definitely choose seeing Sex and the City over being shot. Sex and the City promises to be a somewhat tacky, thoroughly ridiculous movie that we would like some parts of and hate other parts of. Getting shot is scary and can kill you!” (Okay I admit that is funny.) Another article gives guys five excuses to get out of seeing SATC: “If you go see Sex and the City in theaters you’re going to be laughed at by all of the guys who managed to get out of it.”

I guess I’m surprised by these reactions to the movie (probably shouldn't be) because when it was just a crazy little show back in the day, guys seemed to like it … or at least the guys I hung out with. I remember turning the show on at a party in high school and heard no protests. The guy who was throwing the party (i.e., the guy whose parents were out of town) said he liked watching it because he could find out how girls think (I guess that could be problematic as well, but I appreciated the enthusiasm). And my college boyfriend loved the show. He even downloaded the intro music to be my ringtone on his phone :) Actually, I got a text message from him Friday (Well technically Saturday morning. There may have been alcohol involved...) asking me how the movie was, assuming I’d gone on opening night. He wanted to know what happened because he was pretty sure he wasn’t “allowed” to see it in the theater, being a guy and all, no matter how metrosexual.

The only explanation I can think of is that Sex and the City got too big. When it was on the cutting edge, maybe Average Joe found it to be an interesting peephole into a certain kind of woman’s psyche, but as its popularity exploded, it became clear that A LOT of women connected with it, and for some reason that’s scary—that it’s not just about “a certain kind of woman.” Or maybe it’s just the knee-jerk reaction that anything labeled “feminine” must be hated by “real men,” while women are considered “cool” for liking stereotypically “masculine” sports and movies, which is why women aren’t embarrassed to go see Indiana Jones, but men are embarrassed to go see Sex and the City.

Nevertheless, women did “flex their box-office muscle” with its $55 million opening weekend, which might help begin to convince the movie industry that half of the population should not be considered “a niche market.” Now, if only we can come together like that for other, perhaps more productive endeavors… Cosmos & Campaigning has a nice ring to it…

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