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Yo Momma!

Sunday was a much hyped and over marketed day in this country that—like Christmas—has lost a lot of its meaning in the rush to spend money on gifts and candy.  Mother’s day is set aside to honor those women who have raised children, and the honoring is supposed to be done by those children.  It is an opportunity for all of us to thank the women who brought us into the world and/or helped mold us into the people we are as well as supporting us throughout our lives.

The celebration started in 1914 when Woodrow Wilson bowed to the constant petition of Anna Jarvis, who had been lobbying for the holiday to honor mothers, and set aside the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.  Jarvis insisted on Mother’s being singular possessive so the remembrance would be specific and individual for families.  Despite her best efforts to the contrary, the holiday quickly became one of the more successful commercial days of the year.  Because of the crass commercialization, Jarvis would actually be an outspoken critic of the day she created.

Typically referred to as a “Hallmark Holiday” today, Mother’s day is often lumped in with Valentine’s day as nothing more than a marketing day to sell greeting cards, candy and jewelry, accounting for almost 8 percent of annual sales for jewelry.  People spend more on dining out as well, with Mother’s day being the most popular day of the year to eat out.  It is estimated that Americans will spend more than $68 million on cards alone.  There is plenty of money in motherhood.

What has gotten lost amid the flow of glittery jewelry, prefabricated popup, sound enabled, bright greeting cards and flash enabled animated e-cards is the actual heartfelt sentiment of a child expressing to his or her mother genuine gratitude for the support, caring and love that only a mother can give a child.  And it is just this expression that matters.  Many people express their thanks to mothers everywhere, and while the sentiment nice, the true meaning of the holiday comes from the mother-child relationship.  A woman could receive hundred of well wishes and Mother’s day greetings from friends and coworkers, but if she doesn’t hear it from her kids then has she been honored for her efforts?

Some husbands will recognize the holiday to thank their wives for their children and while this is a good and smart thing to do, it is not really a wife’s day, so it is not the husband’s duty to honor his children’s mother on mother’s day (unless the kids are too young to do it themselves).  This is Mother’s day.  Mother’s is a singular possessive, not a collective.  We do not need to honor all mothers on Mother’s day.  We do need to remember our own mothers and recognize the sacrifices they have made as they raised us.  We also need to honor step-mothers who give of themselves to children they did not bear, yet help support through the love of family.  Motherhood is an underappreciated role.

My mother had to put up with my growing pains and my pride and my refusal to listen to any advice she offered when I faced life’s more difficult lessons.  She has endured the most difficult years imaginable lately with my dad’s condition and my sister’s death and still takes time to worry about me and my problems as well as those of my brother and sister and the grandkids.  She still makes time for her kids even while working her full time job and caring for dad.  I know I haven’t thanked her enough.

While the marketing machine would spend millions on slick advertising and enticing retail specials to encourage all of us to spend as much money as we can doting on moms the world over, we need to step back and remember that the day is about connecting with our own mothers and letting them know that we appreciate their love, support and patience as we go through our lives.  I hope everyone reached out to their mother with a personal contact like a phone call, a visit or a letter (not a prefab card) to let them know they are loved.

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What Feeds Imagination These Days?

I have three grandchildren and they are a beacon of light in the world and bring me immeasurable joy when I get to see them (which isn’t nearly enough if you ask me—are you reading this son?) I keep several toys in a cabinet for them to play with when they come to visit and I was going through them recently. The thing about kids is that they have this annoying knack of growing up when you aren’t looking. The toys I have are getting a bit young for them, so I will need to replace them with more age-appropriate toys. As I shopped for toys, I had a bit of an epiphany…which was corroborated when I was watching Saturday morning television. Toys have changed.

When I was young, we had toys. Cool toys. Toys we loved to play with for about an hour—then we got bored with them and moved onto other toys. Lincoln Logs, Legos, Tinker Toys, Erector Sets and slot car race tracks were some of my favorites. In most kid’s rooms, toys were stored in a plywood box with some degree of decoration—contact paper or paint unless your parents were minimalists and left you with bare, unfinished plywood—which was called (surprise surprise) a toy box. Of course, for the most part, this box sat empty with the lid up and its contents strewn over the floor of the room (some things never change) long after the play session was over. I had this electric football game once, the kind where you turn it on and the board vibrates the players all over the place and you hope one of them gets to the end zone; not just their end zone, but any end zone. But the toys I had were nothing like the toys my kid brother had. Oh, did he have some toys.

When I was somewhere around 10, Hasbro brought out the Inchworm. It was a little plastic scooter that you hopped up and down on and it moved. It looked cool. My brother seemed to enjoy it, and, of course, that made me want to ride it. I couldn’t have my little brother having a cool toy that I couldn’t play with. Problem was that I was too big to play on it (or so my mother insisted) without breaking it. There was also the Big Wheel. Again, I was too big for it. Curse my birth year! Oh, let’s not forget the Pogoball. It held wonderful potential for fun and broken bones. My mom wouldn’t let me near one—wouldn’t let me near a pogo stick either for that matter. When I was young, I had a little metal car with peddles that made it go. My son had a power wheel which ran off a battery. He didn’t even have to peddle! Yep, times, they do change.

Now, I did have some cool toys, like GI Joe, back before the term “action figure” became vogue. My Joes were 12 inches tall and fully poseable and fully jointed and came with uniforms—no, not costumes and not clothes like some Barbie doll—these were UNIFORMS because GI Joe was a soldier. Soldiers were cool. Some of the soldiers were firemen, some were infantry, some were pilots and some were tankers. They all had different uniforms and Joe could do any of these jobs simply by changing uniforms. I also had the mobile support vehicle and the fold-up command headquarters and my brother had the helicopter. These were cool, and Joe was always on a mission somewhere. In fact, sometimes his mission required that he ditch his vehicle in favor of Barbie’s corvette, as long as Barbie was beside him. Of course, these missions happened to coincide with the times my sisters were both out of the house. Ken got jealous, of course, but Ken was a girly man…he had clothes—not uniforms, and Ken didn’t have the Kung Fu grip. It’s no wonder Barbie kept dumping him.

Today’s toys are a far cry from these imagination-driven toys. Even GI Joe has changed. He shrank to 3-and-a-half inches tall and his uniforms are molded to his body. His name is not even Joe anymore, but rather the term GI Joe applies to a team. These are not “soldiers,” they are a team of elite counter-terrorism specialists. Now, this does sound cool, but it doesn’t leave as much to the imagination. In fact, Hasbro even scripts the play time by providing cartoons and a comic book to model the play time. Kids can’t even come up with their own adventures anymore.

My brother had other cool toys that I was too old for. Transformers came out when I was in high school and college. They looked cool and it took a degree in engineering to get the fool things to change form. In fact, many older kids and adults (not me) ended up breaking the toys trying to get them to change. He still has them too. All my childhood toys are long gone.

Toys today are much more interesting in their design and marketing, and they have a huge cool factor, but they pale in one very important aspect: imagination. Kids today are told how to play and what to play and not given the opportunity to invent their own scenarios for playtime. Toys come with movie and cartoon tie-ins that limit how kids interact with them. I doubt GI Joe has gone on a date with Barbie in 35 years. It doesn’t help that she is now three times his size.

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Prostituting Our Culture

Is it any wonder that television is often compared to prostitution? Celebrities who lend their voices or faces to advertisers are accused of “whoring” themselves. This metaphor is not underserved, since at the root of both industries is currency. In order for studios to produce the shows we as a viewing audience like to watch, they have to sell commercial time during the broadcast. In order to get us to watch these commercials, advertisers pay the celebrities we love to watch to perform in them and those actors who do may be compared to a prostitute. The comparison becomes more clear and more apt when the ads appear in the television shows themselves instead of during ad breaks.

Product placement is not new. Any time you see a brand-name cereal box or soda can in a show or movie, the manufacturer paid the producers to put it there. But now, they are actually writing the ad copy into the script of the show. I was watching Ghost Whisperer this weekend when I noticed one of the more egregious examples. The Melinda character had her car destroyed and her husband buys her a new one. He has it delivered to her store with a big red bow on top (the big red bow—in case you didn’t know—is a tried and true car commercial icon) and the characters talk about and demonstrate the features of the car from the remote ignition to the third-row seating. This activity did nothing to advance the plot or subplots of the episode or aid in character development. It was just to sell the car.

Imagine if this goes on. New movies and TV shows will be peppered with pitches that we don’t see coming. These ads will be fully integrated with tomorrow’s classics. Our culture is full of timeless stories that most of us know well enough to recognize from limited exposure. Suppose they rework these classics the way they are infiltrating our new shows.

Darth Vader faces Luke Skywalker on the forest moon of Endor. “I see you’ve constructed a new light saber…and you’re using the improved Energizer Lithium Ion technology for more power and longer life. Your skills are now complete.”

Scarlet O’Hara clings to Rhett Butler as Tara burns around them. “Oh, Rhett! Where will I go? What will I do?

“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn, but if you book 30 days out with Expedia, you can get significant savings on all your travel plans.”

The slaves are facing the Romans and being threatened with mass execution if someone does not point out Spartacus: All of the slaves stand one at a time and say “I am Spartacus!” Then an aid leans into the general and says, “Search Overload? Try Bing. It’s not just a search engine, it’s the first-ever decision engine. From Microsoft.”

Once was a time when ads were pitched during variety shows and game shows, but those were clearly advertising. There has historically been a demarcation between content and commercial. You knew what you were seeing and you had an expectation of hearing the sales pitch. It kept the content pure, so you could allow yourself to become immersed in the story without worry about being sold a bill of goods. What marketing companies are doing now is more subliminal and more devious. Now, they are not just using our favorite celebrities to sell, they are using our favorite characters and stories. I find that a line they should not cross.

 

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But I Need This, Don’t I?

Why do we do things we don’t want or shouldn’t? I’ll tell you why. We’ve been brainwashed, that’s why. Like some spy movie, we have had our minds altered by the nefarious villain. Our will has been sapped and manipulated by the evil forces of the enemy. They know us. They watch us. They control us like a puppet on a string. Who is this enemy? Is it Big Brother? Is it Kaos? Is it Spectre? No…it’s marketing companies.

Haven’t you found yourself buying something that you felt you had to have, despite the fact that—until the moment you got it—you never even knew you needed it? How do you think that happens? You watch TV. You read books. You surf the internet. Companies that make products have a simple mission: to sell their stuff. They don’t really care who buys it, as long as someone buys it. But those companies don’t know how to sell it to the masses. They hire people, or outsource to a firm, that specialize in convincing other people to part with their money.

I got a phone call from a company the other day that wanted to know if I would like to participate in a key contest where they would send me a car key and if it fit the lock of a Ford Ranger, I got to keep the truck. I said “Sure, why not?” If I don’t want the truck, I still get $10k cash (before taxes). No reason to pass up a chance at free money. Besides, I also will definitely win either a 300 bucks, a dream vacation, a flat screen TV, or a shopping spree (or some such nonsense). When I bought a car several years ago, the ad I took into the dealership had a similar consolation prize. I would win either a TV, 1000 bucks, a home entertainment system or a basketball. My son said that with my luck, it would be a flat basketball. I won the basketball. It was not pre-inflated.

So, I get this key in the mail. The company calls me to ensure that I got the key and set up an appointment for me to try it out. Now, I have had telemarketers call and give me the cue-card spiel, but never have they send a key in a hand-written envelope and made several calls to get me to listen to the spiel. I am somewhat suspicious of the whole thing, but now I am curious enough to go. And maybe that’s just what they expect me to do. Maybe I’m playing right into their evil clutches.

Their plan may be to lure me in with the promise of riches (ok 10k isn’t riches, per se; but it is money after all) then they spring the trap. Perhaps it will be a time-share, or maybe an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a real estate investment firm, or I may have a chance to start my own business with only a modest initial investment. Then again, it could be legit. It could be a company trying to get the word out of their new store and this is just a contest to build name recognition.

I hope so. I don’t need more stuff that I don’t need. Our house is too full of stuff we don’t use to go out getting more of it just because some marketing firm made me think I needed it. That is the scheme, you know. They use imagery of beautiful people (who remind us a lot of ourselves—in a deluded way) using their product to make us want to be those beautiful people using the product. That creates a “need” where one did not exist before. These firms have employed doctors and behavioral scientists to figure out the best way to get into our heads.

I guess the best way for me in this case is a chance at a free truck or cash. I’ll let you know what happens.

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