Friday, December 2, 2011

Communicating the Brand -- Writer's Poke #344

I first became a fan of KISS in 1987. I was 14, and Paul Stanley was 35. That year, KISS actually received a fair amount of video airplay on MTV, but I have to admit that Stanley seemed old.

Mariah Carey released her first record in 1990 at the age of 20; she is a few years older than I am, but I never viewed her as “old” in the same way that I viewed Stanley as old. Not until I viewed her new video with Justin Bieber.

The “All I Want for Christmas” duet with Bieber is a remake of Carey’s 1994 Christmas release. It’s not unusual for artists to pair-up, and the song has some respectability as a contemporary Christmas classic. But why does the now 41 year-old Mariah Carey want to sing a duet with 17 year-old Justin Bieber?

Bieber is the butt of many jokes, but somebody is listening to his music; and somebody is helping to make him rich. Carey may suffer from Peter Pan Syndrome (I will never grow old), or perhaps she recognizes that Millennials view her much like I viewed Paul Stanley, and she hopes that Bieber’s youth will rub off on her. She’s hoping that she can appeal to a new generation of music lovers. And maybe it’s working. The video has received 2 million views in just the first 2 days of its youtube release.

But the video is undeniably creepy. Mariah spends most of her time in the video standing against a wall. In the opening sequence, Bieber and his bros walk by and she winks at him. Bieber’s goofy expression doesn’t indicate that his head contains any inappropriate sexual thoughts towards Carey, and he keeps on walking. After all, he has to fill his cart with a bunch of stuff before all of the common people are allowed to enter the store.

For most of the rest of the video, Mariah stays by the wall, turning to let her butt face the camera in multiple shots. Is this intended to be seductive? Is she trying to capture Bieber’s attention? If so, it’s not working. Bieber is too busy filling his cart with high-tops and multiple Nintendo 3DS’s.

Meanwhile, all those lucky enough to receive “gold tickets” are finally allowed to enter the store. Is Mariah Carey supposed to be Santa Claus? And is Bieber just Santa's Little Helper?

By video’s end, Bieber and Mariah end up in the sleigh together, with the happy masses surrounding them, their arms full of presents. But who has Mariah been winking at and shaking her booty to? At the 3:59 mark, a shot of Bieber indicates that he’s getting “ideas,” but in the next shot, it’s Mariah and Bieber back in the sleigh. Has the entire scene been imagined?

What message does this video communicate to you? What audience do you think its message is intended to target, and does it succeed?

“There's a lot of bad isms floating around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism.” – George Seaton

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ends of the Earth -- Destination #8: Vladivostok, Russia

If I had the means to visit the ends of the Earth, here are the ten places I would visit.

What ten "ends of the Earth" places would you like to visit? Leave me a comment. 

Destination #8: Vladivostok, Russia

Something attracts me to the idea of visiting places where nobody else goes. I’m sure many Americans go to the places I’m mentioning on my Ends of the Earth Top 10 list, but I don’t personally know anyone that has visited Barrow, Alaska, for instance; and I only know three people that have visited South Africa. These places aren’t impossible to visit, but people generally need a very specific reason – or a very passionate drive – to visit them.

Just to name a specific place, I’ve selected Vladivostok, but more generally, I could simply say “Siberia.” When I read Colin Thubron’s In Siberia, I become fascinated with the idea of visiting what I had always imagined to be a vast snow-covered wasteland. Siberia is not a wasteland, of course. Well, not completely, but it is vast, making up 80% of Russia’s geographical area.

I often wonder what it means to check off visiting a country. A person could, for example, visit St. Petersburg, which I will be doing next year, and claim to have visited Russia. But such a claim is relatively ludicrous. If someone from Russia visited New York or San Francisco, for example, and claimed to have visited the United States, any American would probably laugh. Visiting just one city in a country as huge as Russia or the United States shouldn’t count as “visiting” that country, should it? Travel writers like Thubron and Ian Frazier demonstrate that to visit a place the size of Siberia takes a long-term commitment. A true visit to such a place requires patience, and it requires, at a minimum, a number of weeks. Rome, as they say, wasn’t built in day, and Siberia cannot be experienced in the blink of an eye.

Thubron experienced Siberia, in part, via the Trans-Siberian railway. He did not elect to visit Vladivostok, instead ending his trip in Magadan. Vladivostok interests me because it’s a city of 600,000 people, which is about 200,000 more than Anchorage, Alaska. From 1958-1991, only Soviet citizens were allowed to visit, but since the 1990s, the city is open to visitors, and apparently it has been receiving an influx of Chinese immigrants. It is supposed to be one of Russia’s most diverse cities.

Flying there from Minneapolis might try the patience of the most seasoned traveler. While it might make sense to fly from east to west, priceline and other travel sites indicate that flying west to east is required, with a layover in Moscow. Flights arrive two days after take-off, and the total flight time in the air is approximately 20 hours. Cost of the flight runs around $2,000.

A Meaningful Life Philosophy: Sponsored By… -- Writer’s Poke #343

Gary Ruskin and Juliet Schor’s “Every Nook and Cranny: The Dangerous Spread of Commercialized Culture” points out an interesting survey result. “In 2003,” they write, “the annual UCLA survey of incoming college freshman found that the number of students who said it was a very important or essential life goal to ‘develop a meaningful philosophy of life’ fell to an all-time low of 39 percent, while succeeding financially has increased to a 13-year high, at 74 percent.”

Why the disconnect here? Couldn’t “succeeding financially” be a “meaningful” reason for being? Apparently not, or at least UCLA students don’t recognize it as such.

So, we live to make money. Money itself has no value except for what it can buy. And what do we want to buy? Cars? Clothes? Electronics and Toys? A nice house? In other words, stuff. I like stuff, you like stuff, and we’ll work long and hard to earn enough money to buy the stuff we want. The secret “they” never tell you is this: Buying stuff is a no-win proposition. There is always more stuff to buy, and the drive to buy stuff will always outpace one’s ability to pay for it all. Even multimillionaires often times end up much further in debt than their means to remain financially liquid. How is that possible? Surely if you had 5 million dollars, you’d be set for life, yes? Well, if the multiple examples of others is any indication, no. The more money you have, the more expensive your tastes become. That’s all.

Many people probably crave stuff while also subscribing to the cliché that “money can’t buy happiness.” If we intuitively recognize that happiness is intangible and cannot be wrapped in pretty (and expensive) paper, decked with a bow, and placed under our Christmas tree, then why do we continue to buy more and more stuff? Is it because we haven’t developed a meaningful life philosophy? One which reminds us that true happiness comes from friendships and the life experiences we have that cannot be charged to our Discover cards?

Personally, I hate Christmas ads, especially ads by jewelry stores attempting to sell diamonds. Guys, if your special lady is only interested in you for your ability to buy her a diamond – or even worse, the name of the jewelry store printed on the box(!) – it might be time to reassess your relationship. Since when is the happiness of a relationship determined by one’s shopping prowess, anyway? I might be guilty of a lot of things, including typical American consumerism, but I won’t ever be guilty of buying my wife a diamond for Christmas (sorry, hon).

Lately, I’ve been thinking about motivation. What does it take to be highly motivated? Perhaps financial reward can be an external motivator, but I have to believe that a better, longer-lasting, and intrinsically-superior motivator has to be the development of a “meaningful life philosophy.” We can do things for money, or for what money can buy, but how much better would it to be to do the things we love simply for the enjoyment of doing them? After all, isn't this what “they” mean when they claim that “the best things in life are free”? Maybe now is the right time to explore that option, and forget about who has the latest iPhone or the biggest diamond in the fanciest name-branded box.

Develop a meaningful life philosophy.

"Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself." -- George Bernard Shaw

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Ends of the Earth -- Destination #9: Barrow, Alaska

If I had the means to visit the ends of the Earth, here are the ten places I would visit.

What ten "ends of the Earth" places would you like to visit? Leave me a comment. 

Destination #9 -- Barrow, Alaska

All I know about Barrow, Alaska, I learned from watching the zombie flick 30 Days of Night. In other words, I know nothing about Barrow, Alaska.

Barrow is the northern-most city in North America, and its main claim-to-fame may be that it’s the biggest city in the National Petroleum Reserve.  As far as I can tell, the city has never been attacked by zombies, but polar bears have been known to drop by for unexpected visits.

Current population is 4,000, and apparently folks have been calling Barrow and the immediate area home for the past 1,000 years. This amazes me, as there were probably countless other places that people could have homesteaded back then, and yet out of all the places in the world, they selected Barrow? Amazing. Did these people cross the Bering Strait and just get too tired to walk any further? Is whale blubber really that addictive?

Anyway… Temperatures stay below freezing from October to May, which makes Barrow’s winter just a little bit longer than the one we enjoy in Minnesota. One difference between Minnesota and Barrow: When the sun sets for the final time in November, it doesn’t rise again until a morning in January – hence, the 30 days of night. 

An average flight from Minneapolis to Barrow in December runs about $1,400 and requires connecting flights in Chicago and Anchorage, which is 725 miles to the south. Total time in the air is around 11 hours. users have rated Top of the World Hotel  as the best of Barrow’s three hotels. To paraphrase one review, it’s the best choice in a place without any choices. Now that’s a stellar review.

If I spent any time in Barrow, I would hit the beach. I don’t know if it is possible to swim in the Arctic, but apparently you can dip your toe in it. And if you’re there in August, you can do so under sunny skies at 10 p.m.

p.s.  I just checked, and apparently you can register at the Mexican restaurant (I assume there’s only one in town) for a “polar bear challenge” in the Arctic, and receive a free t-shirt and certificate suitable for framing.

Ends of the Earth -- Destination #10: South Africa

The Earth is more or less a big, blue ball, and balls don't have ends.

Nevertheless, we speak of the "ends of the Earth," and when we in the West speak of the "center," we're usually not referring to the Earth's core. The United States, after all, is "the most important country on Earth." Everywhere else is only important in terms of its "distance" (physically and otherwise) away from us. (I don't actually think the U.S. is the center of the world.)

I have a special love for the ends of the Earth; in my imagination at least, I picture worlds much different from the one I live in; sometimes I hope I never have the chance to visit any of them, because I don't want to be disappointed to find out that "there" is very much like "here."

If I had the means to visit the ends of the Earth, here are the ten places I would visit.

What ten "ends of the Earth" places would you like to visit? Leave me a comment. 

Destination #10 -- South Africa

Traveling to Cape Town from Minneapolis isn't a straight shot. A typical round-trip ticket might cost over $2000, and before you can fly south, you must first make the connection in Chicago for the flight to London.

All told, the time in the air is around 20 hours, with the touchdown in Cape Town scheduled for arrival two days after takeoff.

Friendly Planet offers South Africa tours  (13 days from $3299 out of JFK). Their itinerary includes time in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Kruger National Park.

What is South Africa like? According to the famous speech once delivered by Robert F. Kennedy
perhaps not much different from the U.S., really. The current population is 50 million, and whites are the minority at 9%. English is the official language, but ten other languages also have "official" status. Approximately 80% of the population claims Christianity as its religion, while 15% claim no religion.

If I spent a week in South Africa, I would be interested to find out how the locals perceive their sense of place in the world. Do they pay much attention to current events in the United States? How do the people there get along with each other in post-apartheid South Africa?

I would love to visit Nelson Mandela's jail cell. I would also love to visit the locations where District 9 was filmed.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Encounter Yourself -- Writer's Poke #342

Kids learn incredibly annoying songs, and some of these songs stay with us for the rest of our lives. One such song for me is “This Land Is Your Land,” which according to wikipedia “is one of the United States’ most famous folk songs.”

Why did my grade school decide to teach us this song? Was it for the geography lesson, so that we could learn about “the Redwood Forest” and “the Gulf Stream waters”? I don’t know, but I do know that most of us thought the world began and ended at the county line. That is to say, most of us didn’t travel much further than Terre Haute, Indiana, which was the “big city” located less than 30 miles away from our hometown of Casey, Illinois (population 3000).

Every summer, Chad talked about how his family spent their summer vacation in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. This was a big deal for him, and for us, too, really, as most of us didn’t have the opportunity to travel even that far. Kids made do by playing little league baseball and swimming at the city pool.

The one summer I went to Bible School, I impressed the adults by claiming to have travelled to Paris and Palestine. These, of course, were small towns near where we lived, but for some reason, they assumed I meant some other more famous locations. I never bothered to correct their assumptions. After all, even at that age I liked the idea of being well-travelled.

When my third grade teacher asked the class what the world’s largest island was, I claimed it had to be Australia. She refused to accept that answer, claiming that it was a continent, and not an island. When I pressed the point, however, she did admit that Australia was surrounded on all sides by water, and she didn’t have an easy explanation for why it couldn’t be defined as not only a continent, but also as an island. (By the way, Greenland is technically the world’s largest island, but Australia – aka “the Island Continent – is three times the size of Greenland.)

As of 2011, I’ve been to 45 states and maybe 13 or 14 countries. And that’s pretty good compared to the average bear, but it’s not good enough to satisfy my wanderlust. Studying about geography and history and world cultures, and keeping up with International events on the Internet, that’s important, sure, but it’s no substitute for visiting actual places. And the way to visit is not as a tourist, but as a student.

Imagine the world as your classroom.

“The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” – St. Augustine