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Junk Food Carrots

How do you get people to eat more carrots? Keep telling them they are healthy or sell them like junk food? A company in the US is doing just that. Packaging, promoting and selling carrots as the next thing to crunch instead of burgers or chips. And people just seem to be lapping it up. What does it mean? We tune out preachy pitches but respond to anything as long as it’s ‘fun’? There’s a lesson in this for all the campaigns where we emphasise the obvious. We’ve had it drilled into our heads that carrots and vegetables are healthy. And we yawned. But package it as the next hot chip complete with the subliminal crinkly pack and the crunch that entertains? Well, it appears that we are mindless about what we put into our mouths as long as we are told it tastes like forbidden food.

The market for baby carrots is already worth a billion dollars. And this guy wanted to take it to the next billion – when his team discovered a crucial statistic on examining advertising campaigns for agricultural commodities. like avocados, eggs, milk or almonds. That it was effective every time. Paying back as much as twice to 10 times for the money spent. But when he asked agencies to pitch, every single one of them emphasised the healthy aspect of eating carrots in their communication until he got to Crispin Porter and Bogusky. From the packaging to the advertising, they went for junk food style graphics – emphasising fun, not health. The campaign, run in 2 test markets has already yielded impressive results.

The moral of the story here gets a little muddy. Do you take something that is known for a certain quality and turn it on its head? Does bank advertising have to be boring and straight laced just because banking is about prudence? But today’s bankers are far from prudent, as the Wall Street collapse revealed. Will we buy more insurance if it is sold to us as a very risky thing instead of ultrasafe? Or real estate as a fun, casual way to blow up a few millions? High priced cars have done a great job of getting devotees of speed to buy at insane costs. It will take persuasion to convince marketing heads in sedate product categories that serious advertising is like advising people to do the right thing. Between a friend who lectures you drinking too much and the one who takes you on a tour of the hottest night spots, who are you most likely to follow?

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Protecting Personal Space

When personal space is encroached upon, we get acutely sensitive. Sitting on a train, a bus or an airplane, we devise our own ways to keep the crowds out. We bury our heads in the newspaper or a book. Plug our ears into music and tune the world out. Elbow digs into ribs are ignored, droopy heads lolling onto the shoulder are dodged with a quick forward movement. But the real war is fought for control of the armrest. It is all done surreptitiously. Pretending that both have no knowledge of what is happening. The moment the armrest is free, the other arm occupies it. You can’t push the other person’s arm off. That’s a foul. But everything else is fair game. All this has to be achieved without a single word being exchanged and without acknowledging that the other person exists. In practically every case, you won’t even remember the face of the person who was right next to you. But you have to win. Why do you have to dominate? No idea. But if the other person manages, either by sheer size or savvy to monopolize the space, you can’t shake the feeling of resentment easily.

The same thing happens in front of lifts. Coughs and shuffles, quick glances to see if there is an acquaintance. Everyone punches the lift buttons, even if they are lit and the lift is on its way. Inside the lift, there is a curious dance not to end up right at the back. Most take up positions midway on the side and make way for others. Then, eyes are riveted on the floor indicators as if a thriller is playing out. Conversations die out, people try and hold their breath or look vacantly into the distance as if they are contemplating something profound. The smallest rustle of fabric, sniffles and throat clearing sounds are amplified. There’s something about standing very close to strangers that make for awkwardness in behavior. The violation of personal space is tolerated just long enough to reach the floor.

Forced intimacy is awkward. Wherever we have to be in close proximity with strangers, there is a conscious attempt to build distance in the mind. Even when introduced, people step forward, shake hands and then instinctively withdraw to the boundaries they have set. The mobile phone offers the perfect excuse to get close mentally to those we want to and keep the current company out. At parties, gyrating on the floor we seem to drop our inhibitions. But even that needs a stiff dose of alcohol or other mind-altering substances.

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Creating paywalls

Starting March 28th, The New York Times is going to go behind a paywall, again – with a lot of caveats. Free access every month for the first 20 articles, videos or interactive features. An experiment in 2005, Times Select,  where you could read all the articles, except the Op-ed, was abandoned in 2007. Since then, the Times archive and the newspaper are essentially free, subsidised by online advertising. There is no argument with the fact that customers need to pay. The quality of writing and the range of subjects covered at the Times are well worth the money. The only question is whether people have got options that make payment unpalatable. The Times now has traffic of over 30 million readers every month from across the world. The estimate is that they hope to convert 300,000 into paying ones – about 1%. Now that may not seem like much, but that could mean a lot more revenue. Opinion inside is also clearly divided on the way forward – but unless new payment options are tried, the loss of revenue from the dwindling sales of the real world newspaper will not be made up.

The argument against paying for online access is that it does not cost anything beyond salaries currently being paid. But bandwidth, security and setting up a robust infrastructure at this scale costs money. And where does that come from? Focus groups have been very positive about paying for content, especially on multiple devices – but focus groups are not real customers. Spending $50 on a night out is fine but paying $15 for a whole month of access is iffy. And for a whole year, it’s anywhere upwards of $200. For India, that’s a lot of money to pay and read. Annual costs for newspapers is rarely more than $15- $20.

The Wall Street Journal has been the only online news portal that has managed to get a decent number of subscribers.- and so has the Financial Times. The other problem with going behind a paywall is the huge loss in traffic – and the chatter in blogs, forums and social networks. The Times has said the monthly free limit does not apply for articles linked to from social networks. Now this will give Facebook a lot more leverage and traffic, not that it is starved of either. The Times experiment will be watched with considerable interest. If it succeeds, a lot of other sites will summon the courage. And that could mean that the free ride on the internet that lasted for over a decade is over.  The ‘pay gardens’ will blossom and a lot of those who cannot afford them will be shut out, especially from countries outside the US

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Stop Rambling

Only a few have the ability to express themselves economically. People meander, testing the patience of their listeners who are mentally pleading,  “Get to the point” This could be anyone from lecturers in class to bosses who try and impress subordinates. When asked for an opinion, most people provide streams of rambling thought. Media savvy politicians have learned the value of quotes that fit perfectly into 2-3 seconds edits with a turn of phrase that guarantees attention. It ensures that their opinions don’t end up in the footage archives instead of prime time. Some of them never master this at all. India’s ex-Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee was an acclaimed orator who spoke with long punctuated pauses at political rallies. On TV, those pauses lasted for eons and most of it was snipped out. Even our current Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh will win no marks for oratory but he gets a lot done.

Microblogging will hopefully create a generation that leverages the value of brevity. If the limit is 140 characters, there’s no room for vagueness. Sentences can get cut mid-thought and hang in the air. A lot of tweets are about moods, where there is really nothing much to say. But actor Rahul Khanna, who’s not made it big time, has an interesting set of well-expressed ones. Sample this – ‘The indignity of modern air travel. I’m not offended the scanner operators saw my family jewels. I’m offended they didn’t compliment them’. He rarely provides links. It’s observations on life in the glamour lane. Far more interesting than just saying where he is and what he’s up to. He steals a march over established stars like Shah Rukh Khan who do not have the same gift for expression

A professor who teaches English is helping students express themselves pithily by setting them exercises to convey thoughts in a sentence or two. It’s a refreshing change from being asked to write reams of stuff on any particular topic in class. I suspect that is the origin of the long-winded prose and expression that we all emerged from college with. An essay assignment was never less than two sides of a page, even if you had just a couple of points to make. So students took the easy way out. They learned to say the same thing in a rambling fashion since the reward was for length, not coherence. He makes a valid summation – Philosophers like Confucius (“Learning without thought is labor lost. Thought without learning is perilous.”) and Nietzsche were kings of the aphorism.

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Browsing through Bookstores

Being surrounded by books is a lot nicer than just seeing them displayed on a screen. There’s a physical feeling of being in the middle of thoughts and ideas that have emerged from obscurity and seen the light. And behind every book, there is a story – one that never gets out. The rows and rows of carefully catalogued pearls of wisdom – everything from learning Java to finding God and making millions or cooking a perfect paneer achari. It’s like going through a lifetime of conversations with people you never know. I mean – have you ever wondered what James Hadley ChasePG Wodehouse or Robert Ludlum were like? You know their books, you can reel off their bestsellers and the plotlines but you never know what they themselves went through in life. It’s always the books they wrote that are interesting, not the authors themselves.

Airport bookstores are like abridged versions of the real thing – like pocket editions. The difference between a restaurant and the roadside kiosk. And the books there tend to be the ones on management and a few select bestselling names.  The booksellers know what people are going to pick up. Travelers have a couple of hours to kill and depending on their frame of mind, they either pick up the latest management tome, bestseller or spiritual retreat. But I don’t see too many takers in the bookstores now. Most are glued to TV screens or laptops – imagining what words can conjure is probably a little too taxing.

E-books are on the cusp of mainstream adoption. And that probably means that we will have another screen that we turn to. The lure of brick and mortar bookstores is the variety of titles on show. The feel of stiff paper. The artfully designed cover. The smell of glue and the soft swish as you turn the pages. The book is an idea turned into an object you can touch and feel. But the virtual one is an idea that stays within the confines of the screen. The cover is not something you linger on. In a few decades from now, the physical book will probably go back to being produced only on request. Maybe that is a good thing because resources are not wasted and the printed book will indicate true value. We will print what we really treasure and want to keep returning to. And in a lifetime, there may be just a handful of those titles.

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Birthday Branding

It’s fine to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ within the confines of home or the office but to use it on screen or in a public performance, you have to fork out money to the Warner Music group. A ditty converted from ‘Good Morning to All’ has provided revenue since 1935 and the copyright will remain in force till 2016 in the European Union and 2030 in the US. Somehow, it seems odd that a song that is the most widely recognised in the English Language still needs a license. But the tradition of using cakes dates back to ancient Rome in keeping with the advancement of baking. And candles on the cake can be traced to 18th century Germany along with the singing of birthday songs. But those songs haven’t made it to the present.

Birthday cards began to take off in the 1800s with postal services growing in popularity and cards being exchanged on important occasions. That continued until the end of the 20th century, a prize run of almost 200 years. The net took over as personalized and multimedia cards got to be sent through email. But the brick and mortar greeting cards industry in the US is still a big business with over 7 billion cards sold every year. There’s also a fair amount of torment delivered to young people who are hoisted in the air by their friends holding their arms and legs and giving them ‘birthday bumps’ equal to the number of years they have completed. While it initially started off to ward off evil, it’s now just about fun with a little pain.

But why are birthdays celebrated at all? After all, it just marks the passing of a year. In some ways, it has to do with the human fascination for patterns. The establishment of the calendar brought about recurrence and periodicity. And births marked an important point of the continuance of a family. The wealthy naturally celebrated the annual recurrence and the growing of their progeny. It was a way to establish their position at the top of the social order. Something that continues to this date. The wealthy throw lavish parties for kids too young to understand and bewildered by the presence of innumerable guests who pinch their cheeks and tell them how cute they look – even if they don’t.  But the tying up of birthdays, their astrological significance and its influence on life in the future has not changed at all. Linda Goodman struck publishing gold with Sun Signs – pairing up every month in the calendar with another one. In India, where birth is tied up with destiny, what is fated will happen – because this is just one of the hundreds we will pass through before we attain salvation.

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What outrages you?

We are all irritated by different things. People take long detours in order to avoid stopping at a couple of traffic lights. Others cannot let anyone cut ahead of them in a line. Or bear to be left out of a particularly juicy bit of gossip. We have all felt the collective exasperation when a delay in the flight is announced. Glared at the snotty kid who throws a tantrum in public and the parents can’t seem to take control. Shaken our fist at the driver who leans on the horn. Grimaced at a dropped chance in a cricket match. Frowned at the family that speaks too loudly in a restaurant. Or wracked our brain for someone’s name we just can’t seem to recall. Or the words of a song that was hummed just yesterday. Normal everyday situations. And yet, they have a profound effect on our mood that could last the whole day. In fact some of the things that upset us are so trivial that we wonder why they affect us the way they do.

Psychologists will tell you it is hormonal – that we react to things that we don’t like or expect in different ways. Which is true. There are mothers who are paragons of patience staying calm in the face of constant wailing. Or players who give off their best even when hecklers in the crowd dominate. None of us can really predict how we will respond to a provocation until we actually come face to face with it. Some of us are laid low by an unkind word. On the other hand, some writers will take any number of caustic rejections and keep at it till they finally make the cut.

It is amusing to see the amount of effort and vitriol expended on forums when Facebook makes a change in its interface. Flame wars erupt when a user criticises a Mac or a PC ad campiagn lampoons a Mac. The horde of Mac lovers come down on the hapless writer as if their pride is hurt, and it probably is. Some people will walk into a restaurant, take the bad service and do nothing about it. Others will post a long diatribe in Yelp or any of the complaint sites and trash everything from the decor to the dishes. The anonymity and the ease of complaining ensure that those who have a grouse will act on it. Some of them are truly entertaining. A well written scathing review is a lot of fun to read, as opposed to a bland and turgid one. There’s only so much sweetness we can take on any given day.

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Living to 150 years

Is immortality the paradise it is made out to be? David Murdock of Dole Foods is planning to live to 125. He’s currently a healthy 87 and a headache is one of the rarities in his life. He eats only fruits and vegetables; seafood, egg whites, beans and nuts. He completely avoids dairy products, red meat, and poultry – counting them as poisons. There’s a spring in his step and he looks forward to lasting far beyond his contemporaries. You can understand why he feels the way he does – blessed with health and wealth, heaven is not necessarily a better place. Earth is good enough as a substitute or a replacement. But is the human body built to last that long? The joints creak, eyesight fades, skin sags, hearing gets progressively faint and the heart, pumping every single second, can suddenly shudder to a halt. So why do we have this primal urge to live to eternity? Not all of us, surely. Once our friends and the people we count as close are gone, there is little incentive to linger.

So if you live long enough, what kind of a world can you look forward to? According to Michio Kaku molecular assemblers will create anything we want, at the touch of a button. Toilets will diagnose disease automatically (and fix doctor’s appointments?). We’ll all have x-ray vision without glasses and watch football games from the side of the ground in a simulation that’s very close to the real thing. Reminds me of the turn of the century book that predicted that we would all have our personal robots and live on different planets by 2000. If we were to imagine incremental leaps of inventions, there would be little to be excited about. Grand visions of energy, transportation, human strength and disease prevention are the holy grails – as if we would want to travel the whole world and to different planets, if only we had the means.

But while everything around us has changed with dizzying rapidity, especially over the last couple of decades, we still cling to what we have always cherished – friends, family, and recognition. There’s the old saying that ‘Success is worth nothing unless you have someone to share it with’. Living on Mars or another planet would have little meaning unless we could boast about it to folks back home. If a round trip took 20 years of earth time, we’re just going to be in time for the next class reunion – and no one would look the same. Even if medical science managed to find the key to eternal youth, going to the same parties and seeing the same people for decades is not exactly something to look forward to. So living to 150 – well, what for?

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Luscious Lipstick

Today’s young women have to thank a couple of actresses from back in the 1950s – Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. They made dark red lips fashionable at a time when it was still frowned upon in civil society. The history of lipstick goes back 5000 years but it is filled with stories of betrayal and promiscuity. Cleopatra’s ‘Kiss of Death’ with a lipstick made of extracts from ficus and carmine beetles is still the stuff of lore. Women who were ‘decent’ would not be caught dead with the stuff on their lips – it was the mark of prostitutes and women with loose morals. For a product like this to get mass acceptance, it would take a dedicated entrepreneur – Florence Nightingale Graham of Elizabeth Arden, inspired by a poem to change the cosmetics market in the US and make it into households. A sign of sure rebellion in the 30s were teenagers who fought with their parents over the use of lipstick. Today’s parent’s grapple with tattoos, piercings and sexual orientation – a sign of how far we have come in under eight decades.

Full lips, slightly parted, have always been the code for sensual arousal. There’s not a single shot oozing with sex appeal that has the model with her lips pursed since that indicates prudishness and distaste. Even actresses with thin lips have worked to accentuate a fuller line and magazines are strewn with ideas on how to make lips more luscious. So someone like Angelina Jolie, who is naturally endowed has no problems attracting a legion of admirers from across the world. Half-shut eyes and the parted mouth work in unison to accelerate fantasies. Then lipstick companies looking to expand the appeal, introduced a wide range of shades, depending on the texture and shade of skin that worked best. They invented the ‘wet look‘ lipstick that has been a significant revenue generator. All that it does it to keep lips looking as if you just licked them – and that’s worth paying a premium for. Last year the lipstick market across the world generated around $20 billion.

After YouTube cosmetic companies have realised that it isn’t enough to offer the product without the how-to. So there are channels where potential customers are treated to extensive sessions on just how much they can improve their looks with just the right shade and the right tinge of lip makeup. Makeup is not just something you do with the face – every single aspect, from the eyes to the nose, the lips and the hair have specialised routines. Doesn’t it make you pine for the time when all it required was a quick wash to look fresh faced? Today, it takes a battalion of makeup specialists and photographers to achieve the same effect.

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Tch, Tch, Charlie Sheen

Being paid $1.2 million for every episode would be enough for anyone to get down to work, you would imagine. Charlie Sheen, the now infamous lead of ‘Two and a Half Men‘ shot himself in inconvenient places when he called his producer names and ranted that the only reason the show as a hit was because he was in it. Calling his bluff, the production house cancelled it altogether, leaving Sheen and a pretty large cast and crew temporarily unemployed. It’s not as if actors have not had ‘creative differences’ and got thrown out of other shows. It’s just that this particular spat was played out in the full glare of the media and it just doesn’t seem to stop. Sheen has threatened to sue for $100 million – on what grounds, it is difficult to imagine. The remarkable thing is that Sheen’s rants may have actually improved his marketability as an actor, since he is now permanently in the news.

Grant McCraken has a post that explores the view that celebrities are trapped in their own image and can never break free. You can be famous or infamous, but you can never return to anonymity – or become ‘unfamous’. I’m not so sure you can’t. There are several actors who were so famous in their heyday they had girls write fan letters in blood for them. Rajesh Khanna, the loverboy of the 70s degenerated into a fat, forgotten and forlorn figure. Kumar Gaurav, a one hit wonder from the early 80s, disappeared into the crowd after he was touted as the next superstar when his debut Hindi film ‘Love Story’ ( Not to be confused with the Ali McGraw- Ryan O Neal pairing) became a big hit. In some of these cases, they became invisible in spite of their best efforts to grab the limeleight again.

So celebrity is not something that even those with their feet firmly planted in stardom can afford to take for granted. Fame is a merciless temptress, dismissive and enticing by turns. There are no rules for what is successful and what isn’t. Even in the case of Sheen, he would not have imagined that this would get as big as it has. Time is a great leveller and the world today has a lot to turn to. Tiger Woods is teetering after a meteoric rise, a burn out of mythic proportions when the stories of his infedility broke and indifferent form after his much anticipated return. Today, Tiger is ordinary, just as mortal and flawed as the rest of us with the veneer of invincibility wiped clean.