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Armchair Expertise

It’s the most widely available in the world. And completely useless, at least in solving the issues at hand. You see armchair experts everywhere. Lounging in street cafes holding animated conversations. Or consigned to a little square on your TV screen. Waiting patiently for nearly an hour to get two minutes and answer a question posed by a breathless anchor. Who is out to ‘break’ another story or tell you exactly what is going to happen to the country next.

Armchair experts are people with lots of time on their hands. And nothing much to do, really. They have an opinion on everything – whether you ask for it or not. Sample these pearls of wisdom. Sachin has overstayed his time at the crease and should retire. Manmohan Singh is an ineffective Prime Minister. Corruption is India’s biggest problem, Then the same experts proceed to pay a few lakhs in cash to obtain admission for their non-performing child to an engineering college without skipping a step. India is one of the dirtiest countries in the world – no civic sense, they will proclaim while tossing an empty mineral water bottle out of the car window.

Every one of us if guilty of armchair expertise at different points in our lives. We cannot be experts on everything, but we come up with solutions to various issues on the spot with no understanding of what the problems are. Let’s take a general one – unauthorised parking on the streets, that narrows the space available to drive. If you were to call a meeting of residents along the road and ask for solutions, one of the first suggestions that will come up is – the government should build more parking lots. When asked where space is, they shrug. That’s not for them to determine. They have already provided a ‘solution’ and it is up to the government to implement it.

However, armchair expertise does provide an escape valve for all the frustrations that we face. It allows us to ‘solve’ the problem in our heads and console ourselves that it is the perfect solution – even if we do not have the power to implement it. On another plane, It allows the conversation to flow. Otherwise, what would we talk about, anyway? If we could not gossip about stars, or get outraged over the stolen millions by politicians, or defend the past instead of the present, what conversations would be possible? According to everyone, the best times were when they were young – the schools, the people, the movies, everything was much better then.

People come closer because they hold shared views, even if the views have nothing to do with reality! And armchair expertise is a wonderful way to tackle the big problems of the world without moving a muscle – whether it is disease, war, education or corruption. We have all the solutions at our fingertips and we discuss them with anyone who will listen. There’s no investment required, no real work needs to be done and we can all go home and sleep it off and not worry about whether the problem actually got solved. And yes, this post is written by an armchair expert – but one who has no illusions that he is helping to ‘change the world’ – what does that inane phrase mean, anyway?

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Audi Vs. BMW

According to a feature in Wired, Audi is now the car of choice among young entrepreneurs and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. It’s the mark of having arrived and reached a certain status among peers. The BMW, or the Beemer, is apparently no longer as ‘cool’ as it used to be. It’s become a victim of its own success. How about the  Mercedes and the Lexus? Well, they are the symbols of success for old Wall Street bankers and you know that demographic is in the doghouse, in terms of public perception and respect.

This is not a technical analysis of the relative merits of each of the brands. There are enough auto magazines and websites performing the service if that’s your requirement. I’m more interested in seeing how they steer their images in this brave new world of technology ubiquity. Most high-end cars today have significant digital components, in addition to the mechanical ones. The map and fuel consumption interfaces, the notifications and lights at every stage of driving have transformed the overall experience.

When it comes to projecting these features, one of the hardest lines to walk is to keep the luxury quotient relevant across the target audience spectrum. It helped earlier that success was a gradual process and by the time people could afford these cars, they were well into middle age. Today’s millionaires are in their 20s and that makes it difficult to keep the pitch tight. Their perspectives on life and what entitlement is about are vastly different. Both need pampering, but the younger one is more about brashness than status. One wants to flaunt it, the other wants to build a distance and limit access.

In terms of conveying the image, a choice has to be made. One will have to be alienated in order to favour the other.

Take this Audi commercial that aired during the latest Superbowl. It highlights a single feature – the headlights as bright as daylight breaking up a vampire party. Think about it. When was the last time you saw a vampire party in a luxury car commercial? It is obvious that Audi has made the primetime choice. They no longer have the smooth suave definition of luxury when it comes to their brand. They’re willing to breach their citadel for the newly minted, IPO fueled millionaire.

And now, here’s the latest BMW commercial. As trite a definition of luxury as you can find. Convertible, wind blowing the hair, long uninterrupted driving shots, pearls necklaces fluttering in slow motion, it’s all there. And what does the tagline say? BMW – The feeling remains. What feeling? It’s careful not to anger the current set of customers. But it does nothing to attract new ones. The two comments about the ad were actually more interesting. The first one said “5 people just bought an Audi” The response – “Piss off” I have no idea how old the commenters were, but it does not take a genius to figure out. The Audi commercial has been watched over 7 million times. The BMW – just over 70,000.

Images age just as humans do. What was the epitome of youth – flower power in the 60s is now the symbol of a forgotten generation. The Beatles were the Justin Beiber of the 60s. Evoking just as much hysteria and awe. But things change. And that is the way it should be.

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Bread, Butter and the Media

Imagine that every channel is a slice of bread. And a slab of butter is the money available to spread across the slices. The smaller the loaf, the easier it is to spread generously. But as the number of loaves and slices mount, it becomes one of the hardest jobs to do. Which is the story of how media companies became the force they are in today’s advertising environment.

We’ve gone from a few loaves to hundreds of loaves in the last couple of decades. If you count ‘channels’ on the internet, it’s in millions. Assume that news is one of the loaves and you’ve got national, regional and language ‘slices’ catering to smaller and smaller audience segments. The same rule applies to music, or movies or sports channels. But the money available for advertising has not grown at the same breakneck speed. If anything, applying the butter has now become a statistical game of mind-boggling proportions. Figuring out where the customer is going to be is an art – and a science with a lot of equations and algorithms built in.

There are nearly 200 channels on the TV that one can watch today. But the vast majority are going to confine themselves to a maximum of 10 or 15. If you’re interested in football, you can now choose between 4-5 tournaments at any given time. There are three 24 hour sports channels in India dedicated to cricket. There are already 20 ‘top’ cricket websites listed by ‘The Telegraph’ and readers contributed several more. So, sports fans are not a general category under one umbrella. The cricket segment needs to be weighed against those who watch football or tennis or Formula 1 racing.

We’re watching sports, movies and serials on screens that start from 5 inch handhelds and go all the way to a giant 55 inches. Designing communication that effortlessly straddles this entire spectrum is a huge task. We’re in subtly different mental states when we watch TV, surf the latest episode on a mobile or catch a celebrity interview on the tablet. So, something that is meant to intrude on TV can get very annoying when extended to the mobile screen. We’re getting better and better at shutting out rather than letting in.

Our internet connections are getting faster year on year. The size of our hard disks is growing by terabytes. There are 50,000 movies being produced every year. The Gracenote database shows a record of over 97 million songs that have been recorded until now. Like accumulating unread books in a library, we are accumulating humongous wish lists of movies, music, travel and art. And even if we were to spend decades viewing, listening or experiencing even a fraction of the catalogue on offer, we would hardly have scratched the surface.

So, if the choices that fight for our attention are bewildering, imagine the plight of the media owner desperately trying to maintain the freshness of the programs on the channel and predicting audience taste. Like butterflies in a sea of vibrant flowers, we now flit aimlessly from one experience to the other. From food to fashion to drama to sports to sex, we have more options than opportunities. I think we are in for a lifetime of distraction rather than fulfillment and achievement.