Thursday, February 9, 2017

Super Bowl Ads Reveal Things About Us

(From the February 9, 2017 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

This past Sunday, millions of people watched the Super Bowl and the advertising spectacle that accompanied it. It turned out to be an extra exciting game, and the advertisements once again generated a lot of commentary.

But there is one thing people may have missed: they were watching reflections of themselves.

Media both creates and reflects culture. This is true of all forms of media, from fine art, to news, to entertainment, and advertising. Ads are ubiquitous and therefore high profile, particularly during the Super Bowl when they are not merely peripheral but often the focus for viewers.

While some people complain that there are too many ads in some cases, advertising is also valued. In addition to sponsoring much of the content we enjoy for free or reduced cost, ads have entertainment value, such as in the case of humorous or moving mini-stories in some ads. They are also seen as an art form, for their production value, technical skill and creativity. Ads are also seen to have a practical utility when they inform or educate about a product, service, or cause that is of current relevance to the viewer.

But while these are the values of ads to the public that sees them, of what value are they to the advertisers? This is a particularly important question in the context of the Super Bowl, for which a single national ad could cost as much as $5 million, just for the placement. For one, the Super Bowl is one of the last forums where a large audience can be reached at once. So advertisers pay out the big money for the simple ability to reach a mass audience. They also have objectives behind the ad messages, such as to rebuild or establish a reputation, to advance a cause, to maintain brand preference, and of course to launch a new product or sell something. There is also a little bit of showing off to the rest of the advertising community on a national stage.

But what does all of this say about us as a culture? I watched the ads this past weekend with that in mind. I also participated in a Twitter hashtag discussion with my Advertising and Public Relations students at Grand Valley State University, as well as alumni, professors and industry professionals who joined in. Here are a few of my observations. These insights may not be true of all individuals, but they are revealing about at least segments of the culture in which we live.

We are still a material society. The ads about luxury goods, particularly cars, had an obvious appeal to not just what we need but what we desire. Not all ads were for the luxurious, but it does show that there is a market among us interested in the finer things.

We have an increasing degree of nostalgia. While previous year’s Super Bowl ads tended toward childish or juvenile humor, this year had a lot of throwbacks. References to the Budweiser dog Spuds McKenzie and the theme song from the old TV show “Cheers” revealed an interesting longing for the past. Some were wondering if these references to content from years past would go over the heads of the often sought after “millennial” generation market. But perhaps that’s exactly why some advertisers used them—to let the slightly older folks know they’re still appreciated too. Some accused advertisers of running out of ideas. Others pondered that the present culture is so divisive that a throwback to an earlier era would be refreshing.

We still are a little sex obsessed, but not nearly as much as in past years. There were few scantily clad women race car drivers selling IT services. Instead, Mr. Clean had sex appeal, and maybe was popular with female viewers who want their husbands to help clean around the house. The supermodel in the Snickers ad appeared only briefly and wore a lovely and modest dress. Two ads from Verizon, however, had an unusual reference to “50 Shades of Gray.”

Patriotism still runs through us. Coke boldly ran the national anthem through its ad. Others used iconic American imagery to associate themselves with America. Related to patriotism, the ads showed that we are a culture of social conscience and commentary. 84Lumber told the beginning of a story about migrant workers. Viewers had to see the conclusion on a web site, and the site crashed. Anheuser-Busch told the story of its immigrant founder. The NFL in its “between these lines” spot spoke not of football but of national unity. These ads are always a 50-50—the people could feel good about them or the ads could backfire as people see the patriotic theme as cheap pandering. A lot depends on execution of the ad, the reputation of the brand, and the judgment by the public of the advertiser’s true intent.


In total, I was personally happy to see fewer ads that were juvenile and boldly appealing to base passions such as sex and greed. Ads were more direct, mature, and clean. Perhaps a culture, like a football team, can come back against all odds.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Art Has Power to Heal at Cancer Center

(From the January 12, 2017 issue of the Grand Haven Tribune)

My wife has enough reasons to drive into Grand Rapids to visit the Lemmon Holton Cancer Center at Spectrum Health. There are the routine checkups with the nurse practitioner at the surgeon’s office. There is the class to treat or prevent lymphedema, a condition that some people suffer after lymph nodes are removed as part of cancer surgery. There are the PET-CT scans and the MRIs to monitor her. And there are the periodic infusions she needs indefinitely to prevent recurrence of tumors.

I did not think she needed yet another reason to go to the cancer center.

It turns out I was wrong.

It started as a spontaneous and fun event. That lymphedema class has a number of people in it with whom she has formed friendships. My wife recently organized all of them chipping in to get a gift for the instructor, who is stepping down after a number of years. When that went well, my wife thought it would be a good idea to organize a group of them attending an “Expressive Arts” program together offered at the cancer center.

The program is about two years old. It is led by Renee, a woman who has a BFA (bachelor of fine arts) in painting, as well as a nursing degree. The program is offered at several of Spectrum’s campuses, working not only with cancer patients but also those who have had a traumatic brain injury, stroke or other medical condition for which the program could he helpful.

And it is helpful. As my wife and others painted on a recent afternoon when I had some time to go along, I spoke with the program director. Renee said it is all about “bringing the humanities to health care.” That warmed my heart, as a college professor who values a broad or liberal education, which includes not just an emphasis on job skills or math and science, but the humanities, which is an area of study including literature, history, art, music and philosophy.

As a side note, some of the best doctors we know are not limited to science, but have a humanities or creative side. The pediatric heart surgeon who worked on my nephew does graphic arts on the side. My wife’s nuero-oncologist studied theatre as an undergraduate and still participates in performances. A family friend who was a general practitioner was skilled in woodworking.

There are obvious emotional and mental benefits for cancer patients expressing their creative side. A flyer for the program notes that it promotes an individual’s ability to think creatively, to express their individuality, imagination and emotions. It makes people feel whole, a little more in control when they can paint a picture on a canvas. They realize they can be creative, that they can plan and do something. They learn that, of all of the parts of them that cancer steals, it cannot take away their creative expression.

A trip to the cancer center can be, dare I say it, fun.

Renee is working with some other staff members at Spectrum, including those who work in occupational therapy, to examine the physical benefits of Expressive Arts. While the study is not complete, already she says they are seeing patients have increased range of motion in their wrists, elbows and shoulders from making brush strokes on a canvas.

Meanwhile, you can’t paint all cancer patients with a broad brush. While only a handful were working on a painting the day I tagged along, Renee had placed dozens on the window ledge from past classes. There was a wide range of expressions, reflecting unique personalities, experiences, visions, and expressions. There were landscape, still life, and even abstract works of art. It was interesting to me that if anything was in common, it was the brightness of color and beauty of subject matter. There was not one dark or morose theme among them.

My wife’s art—you can see it in the photo accompanying this column--has nothing to do with cancer. It has everything to do with life. Her scene is light shining in a snowy woods, it is all about brightness and beauty, like the artist herself.


Of course cancer is treated with science. But it can also be treated with art. Science tells us what we must do in response to cancer. Art allows us to do what we will in spite of it, with cold indifference and oblivious creativity. 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

We Need a New 12 Days of Christmas

(From the December 8, 2016 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)

Lords a leapin’! After today there are only a few more shopping days until Christmas. That probably makes some people excited, and others panic. It makes me wonder.
  
What exactly is a “shopping day” versus any other day anyway? Well, there’s no difference of course. But the term was injected into our vocabulary and culture by retail marketers who have successfully equated this holiday with an annual buying binge. You see it in the advertisements, coming earlier every year. And the news media carry the theme by interviewing business owners and economists, asking for a forecast of sales this Christmas season.

So, in spite of all that we say about Christmas, that it is about peace and love and hope and joy, it really seems to be about, you know, stuff.  Buying stuff, giving stuff, getting stuff, even stuffing the turkey. Last year I saw a group of women go ga-ga over some large plastic containers. “These will be great for storing stuff!” one of them exclaimed. A friend of mine, a builder, pointed out that the average size house of 50 years ago is about the size of an average garage today. Garages are bigger because families typically have more than one vehicle, and lots of stuff that go with them. Meanwhile, a big selling point for a home these days is a basement storage room--extra room for extra stuff. Even with that, “Storage” merits its own category in the yellow pages. There are doezens pages of “u-store-it” type businesses in our area ready to help people who have too much stuff.

When you really think about this, our habit of accumulating things seems as ridiculous as that perennial song “The 12 Days of Christmas.” I mean, the person who wrote this annoying ballad must have been the person who had everything. Why else would his true love give him such impractical crap? Seriously. Other than the thoughtful yet extravagant gift of jewelry on the fifth day, the poor sucker kept getting birds for seven days. It started with a simple partridge and got quickly out of hand, culminating in seven swans a swimming by day seven. By my count, in a week’s time he was stuck with 23 birds including the aforementioned as well as a variety of turtle doves, geese, and french hens. The guy probably had to hock the five golden rings just to afford the bird food. Now, eight maids a milking would have been useful if he had been given cows, but no, they were excessive as well. With all that fowl it’s no wonder the 10 lords were leaping, obvously trying to avoid stepping in all that 23 birds might leave behind.

This all makes a sweater and a gift card to Home Depot seem about right.

Or better yet, maybe we could refocus the 12 days of Christmas on something other than the hectic pursuit of more stuff. Maybe it could be about rest from routine, rekindling relationships, and remembering others. Here are my suggestions for enjoying the 12 days starting tomorrow and ending the day before Christmas:

On the first day of Christmas--read a good book.

On the second day of Christmas--meet a friend you haven’t seen in a long time for a cup of coffee and a long chat.

On the third day of Christmas--play games with your spouse and kids, or a few close friends.

On the fourth day of Christmas--try to repair a strained relationship.

On the fifth day of Christmas--call (don’t email for once) a friend or family member who lives a long ways from you.

On the sixth day of Christmas--get a cup of coffee or hot chocolate at a local coffee shop and then walk downtown and enjoy the lights.

On the seventh day of Christmas--walk the pier and/or the beach to appreciate the beauty of nature in winter.

On the eighth day of Christmas--write in your journal--or start a journal with an entry--about all the good things other people did for you this past year.

On the ninth day of Christmas--visit someone who can’t get out much.

On the tenth day of Christmas--Enjoy a concert or play.

On the 11th day of Christmas-- Go to a crowded shopping center not to shop, but just to smile at the frenzied people who are.

 On the 12th day of Christmas--remember that there are people who really need stuff, including food, clothes, toys, furniture and even housing. Make a donation to local charities that are providing those things.


 Then, on Christmas Day, remember that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. Remember that this fact affects us every day, not just 12 in December. Remember that Jesus is a gift to us from the most true love we’ll ever know.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Local Attention Gets College Students Excited About Election

(From the November 10, 2016 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I knew it would happen when the news broke over the weekend. Hillary Clinton would do a campaign rally on the Grand Valley State University campus on the day before the election. Then more news came. Donald Trump would do a rally in downtown Grand Rapids.

Let me sidetrack for a minute. My colleagues and I in the Advertising and Public Relations program have been bringing in a series of speakers about this profession. The idea is to engage students outside of the classroom, to bring lots of students together--as opposed to only those in one class. We also wanted to give the students opportunities to rub shoulders with professionals in their chosen profession, as well as alumni of our program. The attendance at these events has been ok, but not great. We have to incentivize them by making a class assignment out of it or offering extra credit.

But when I saw the news that Clinton and Trump would be coming to west Michigan, I knew getting students to attend would not be a problem. Sure enough, my email inbox started filling with the questions and comments from students. I smiled at some of them, because they were written professionally and persuasively, the way I teach them to write. They knew that there were group presentations in class today, but.... they all began. Then came the careful arguments. We could postpone the presentations until Wednesday and do them in the writing lab. Perhaps they could hand them in without presenting them. These were the solutions. The rationale was more precious. They pointed out this is the first election in which they had the opportunity to vote. They told me, as if I didn’t grasp it, that having both major candidates in a presidential election on campus and in town on election eve was a rare opportunity.

I didn’t make them wait too long. I sent a blast email to the class that we would not meet today and gave them instructions for what to do outside of class, after the rallys, to be ready for Wednesday. It must have been for them rather like an impending snow day in the winter semester. We’re not having class, right? I can’t believe we’ll still have class. He HAS to cancel class! Finally, relief and glee: class is cancelled.

But I also made this a teachable moment. Since the class I released was my media relations class, I told them to observe carefully everything they can at the live rally, and then to look at the media coverage later. I told them to look at TV, radio, print. I told them to look in native format and on apps and web sites. Then I asked them to compare if the media captured what they saw.

One student had already done this when Donald Trump Junior was on campus last week. In an email to me he bemoaned the fact that the subsequent news reports focused entirely on a handful of protestors with no details on what the young Trump said. “It was very one-sided,” he noted with the certainty and disappointment of a veteran pundit. Another student also expressed her disappointment that the protestors at that event seemed bent on preventing anyone from being heard. “I’m fine if you disagree with a speaker,” she said. “But let the speaker speak so the rest of us can hear. It was very childish.”

Millennials are growing up. They are getting freedom, and with it the car keys, utility bills, and all the incivility the world has to offer.

But there is hope. I recall the year 1984, when Ronald Reagan was running for re-election. As a journalism major at Central Michigan University at the time, I drove down from Mt. Pleasant to Grand Rapids to hear a president speak on the banks of the Grand River by the Ford Museum. I came with a friend, a photographer, and we got photos and a story for student media. It was a thrill of an assignment. It was the first presidential election in which we could vote. I don’t remember now, but I probably got out of class that day. I do know that I and my friend were more excited than we had ever been on a snow day.

I saw that kind of excitement earlier this week. This column is in the paper two days later, when we know the results. But at the beginning of the week we did not, and Michigan was in play when in previous years campaigns took us for granted. Young people were excited, as they should be.

One student in particular represented this. A soft-spoken African-American man who works in an athletic shoe store when not in class, he came to my office and gently knocked. He inquired about my weekend, and if my wife is also a runner. We chatted about that a bit. Then he asked about missing class. He wanted to go to the Clinton rally on campus and then the Trump rally downtown.

“Both candidates, right here, the day before the election,” he said, lifting his hands and shaking his head. “I have to go, I just have to go.”

“Yes,” I said. “You do. You really do. And I think it’s great you’re going to both.”


I didn’t ask him for whom he planned to vote. In the moment, I didn’t think it mattered. Sometimes it’s more about the process than the politics.