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Freedom. Liberty. Equality

Freedom.com on the web is a communications company. Liberty.com is a mishmash of tea party sentiment. And equality.com is permanently corrupted by a data error. Surprising how some of the most powerful words in our lexicon have such trivial outposts on the internet. The Freedom website, for example, looks as if it has not been updated since 1995. The Liberty.com website looks like a nursery school project – full of enthusiasm and a mess of typography, logos, and navigation. And don’t bother about Equality.com because it won’t load.

When they registered it, Freedom on the Net was probably one of those trivial accidents that go on to become multi-million dollar treasures – not due to foresight, but simply proximity and knowledge of something called a domain. The dictionary in its entirety, except for obscure words like pusillanimity, is all gone. Apparently, every combination of 3 letter words, sensible and nonsensical, is gone. You now have to register twisted phrases and words that sound more like the original in order to have a chance.

There’s this race to name companies now, where the domain becomes more important that the name of the company. Domain name companies have tried every single extension – from .net to .org to .tv to entice business owners, but ultimately, it is the .com that gets chased and registered. They provide all kinds of permutations and combinations, but to little avail. The belle of the ball is the one with a .com suffix and there’s nothing that anyone can do to undo it.

One of the most famous departures was the company called delicio.us. For some reason, .ly is proving to be quite popular as a suffix – primarily from the coverage of the Libyan uprising. For a short while, there was a concern that the popular URL shortening service called bit.ly would go dark if a rogue government took over and stopped the service since these domains are under that particular government’s control. However, since freedom and equality seem to have been restored in Libya, bit.ly continues to edit URLs that stretch to infinity in the browser address bar.

But back to easy words in English. Common.com is a wealth advisory – obviously not for the common man, only for the privileged! Power.com is an email service. Flower.com is a florist – and their website again looks as if it has not been updated since the 90s. They are either doing very well or very badly. I’ve noticed that the only time people take chances in business is at the start-up stage. Once the money begins to come in, they become extra cautious and risk averse. At easy.com, you can rent everything from a car to an office. Classic.com is a placeholder site – hoping to make a lot of money from the domain sale and so is Paint.com.

The only site that lives up to its domain is sex.com – the most searched for word on the internet has to be a pornography site. All the talk about cordoning off these sites to their very own .xxx domain has come to naught. They are among the most difficult to restrain and keep down. Bouncing back every time.

And to end, equal.com is a sugar substitute. The virtual can never be the real thing!

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What does ‘please’ mean?

Look up the dictionary for tough words like ‘disambiguate’ (remove the ambiguity from) and the results seem meaningful. The definition works as long as you are clear on what ambiguity means. Now, look up the word ambiguity – doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention. Look up doubt and this is what you get – be uncertain about; hesitate to believe. Look up uncertain and this is the definition – not definitely ascertainable or fixed. See where this is going? We understand words only in the context of the situation they are referred to. Words are the very hounds that lead us on a merry chase and disappear in a puff of smoke just when we get closer. There is no such thing as absolute meaning.

If that seems strange, think of ‘freedom’. We all know what it means, straight off, right? No need to consult a dictionary or that all encompassing fount of human wisdom – Wikipedia. Look it up for ‘freedom’ anyway and you won’t get one set of meanings. You have to define freedom within various contexts to get a more definitive result. You have to deal with disambiguations! In other words, dive deeper. Skimming on the surface is not an option.

So words that refer to very broad contexts – the ones that we use in everyday conversation are the hardest to define! What does the word ‘please’ mean? The answer? It depends on whether you use ‘please’ as an adverb, a verb or an idiom. If that sets you scurrying for the meaning of adverb (any member of a class of words that function as modifiers of verbs or clauses) or verb (any member of a class of words that function as the main elements of predicates) and idiom (an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements)

Are you any wiser? It’s like the dictionary which is a friend in times of need suddenly bares its fangs and hurls abuses leaving you completely befuddled. Don’t bother to look it up. The confusion is not likely to be cleared any time soon. It appears that when you turn to the dictionary to look up the simplest words in the English Language, you get mind benders. When you think you finally know English, or for that matter, any language, you realise you don’t!

Our entire knowledge of letters adding up to words (a unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation, that functions as a principal carrier of meaning) is built on shaky, verbose foundations. We need complex definitions for the simplest of words. But simple words aren’t enough to convey shades of meaning. So, we have to layer it with complexity till the skyscraper that it is built on threatens to fall. Let’s construct one starting now. Doubt, uncertain, vague, ambiguous, enigma, illusory, apocryphal are all overlapping words built atop one another. What is the real difference? The contexts we use them in. Academics would not like to use simple words because they seem elementary.

Words are representations of meaning rather than true meaning. The rest is in our expressions and body language – thankfully we seem to understand this universally without the need for an actual language. Otherwise, communication would be impossible.

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Too much of a good thing

One of the things that advertisers and marketers frequently wrestle with are the offers and discounts to be given to customers. How much? How often? What are the ways to reward the most loyal customers better? How can it be done without diluting brand value? After hundreds of years of commerce, there’s still no black and white answer – only shades of gray.

Take, for example, the problem that American Airlines was trying to solve – giving large companies who were their biggest customers an incentive to buy more First Class tickets. They assumed that they could lock in this segment with VIP treatment and not have them cross over to a competitor. So they priced ‘lifetime’ free First Class tickets at $250,000 in 1981. That was serious money 30 years ago – or even today. To sweeten the deal further, they even offered a freebie – travel with a companion.

Given the normal flying pattern based on existing customer data, the airline would have come out ahead. What they did not expect was the change in customer behaviour. Instead of top executives alone, the idea was embraced by those who could afford it and loved flying. Within a few years, these customers had racked up millions of air miles – enough to give them unlimited privileges at airports, lounges and in-flight for free. And it was the airline that lost – in some cases, as much as a million dollars a year.

Groupon as a company is built on daily deals. At first, it seemed a great way to introduce people to new brands. The idea of sampling taken to an exciting new level. But there were too many instances of customers who took the deals happily and never returned. Sometimes, the deals were so good, they overwhelmed the company offering it and the loss was both bad for business and bad for customer perception. The number of Groupon imitators has multiplied. There are Indian ones like Snap Deal which have simply taken the same model and replicated it, hoping to reach an insane valuation in a short while and sell out… But they did not handle the primary problem. How do you ensure that the deal is good for both, the seller and the buyer? The danger is also that if the first experience of the brand is a discounted one, getting customers to pay the full price just gets harder.

It’s the classic chicken and egg problem. Does the customer come first or the brand? Actually, what comes first is anticipation. No customer buys a product alone. They buy into the promises and benefits associated with the brand – the shades of gray. And discounting a brand is an even greater headache. Because people have now come to expect that brands will have days on which they are sold at less than the regular retail prices. At the festival time. Or when a milestone is crossed – 1 million cars sold! In many cases the milestones are invented – summer sale, end of season sale, annual sale because there has to be an excuse to drop the price. Or else the brand value takes a hit. There aren’t easy answers to this one – and even the most experienced marketing managers can end up playing ‘eeny meeny myna mo’

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Satyameva Jayate – Aamir makes a splash

It was a highly anticipated show. India’s ‘Thinking Star’ Aamir Khan has used his persona to address the country’s problems. And the picture he paints in the first episode isn’t pretty. Female Foeticide has grown by leaps and bounds in the last couple of decades to a horrifying statistic – 30 million girls killed before they even had the chance to be born.

He traces the genesis to a state-sponsored policy to reduce the number of women in the 1970s because the population growth in the country was assuming alarming proportions. The government believed that if the number of child bearers was reduced, the population growth would slow as well. Instead, it led to a flourishing industry of unscrupulous doctors and ultrasound machine manufacturers systematically eliminating girls in the womb. The business has developed its own code – Jai Shri Krishna if the scan revealed a boy and Jai Mata for girls. The second is a virtual death sentence and a ‘package deal’ where the cost includes an abortion.

The social effects are already apparent. There are villages like Kurukshetra in Haryana where men over 30 are unmarried because they simply aren’t enough girls. So, another industry has sprung up around the procurement of girls from poorer states who live a life very close to prostitution with no legal remedy.

And for all those who live smug in the misconception that female foeticide is a rural and a ‘poor people’ problem, he demonstrates that it is the middle class and the rich who have access to advanced medical facilities who are the biggest culprits.

Indian families see girls as burdens since they have to bear the cost of marrying the girl off and providing the dowry. The boy, on the other hand, is seen as the saviour, the one who can be depended upon when parents grow old. But the stereotype is no longer true. India has had to enact a law where the rights of elders are protected and they are not driven from their homes when too old to take care of themselves.

Against a more forgiving and a more inclusive society, there was the joint family web that protected the aged and women. But with the development of the nuclear family and the ‘every man for himself” attitude, there is little tolerance for those who are not ‘useful’ anymore – or for those who live beyond it

It’s heartening to note that Aamir Khan has put his charisma on the line to speak up for those who need a voice – and to shine a light on the problems that most people wish away or change the topic. The format of the show – part talk, part documentary, part activism, with a musical flourish at the end does not break away from convention. A number of options were probably explored before the team decided that this would be best way to present sensitive subjects. Most stars tend to use their charisma to build their image – but this is an exception. Instead of walking on the red carpet, Aamir has taken the pains to explore the dirt that is routinely swept underneath it. And moved from mythology at prime time to exploring the myths we comfort ourselves with – just because the truth is so hard to take.

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The internet in 60 seconds

There’s nothing happening around you, except for the ordinary buzz of everyday life. People walk, cars drive past, the wind rustles through the trees and somewhere in the distance, a phone rings. Now imagine if you were transported from this into a storm of activity that overwhelms you – take a look at a graphic that puts together what happens on the web every minute. While it isn’t documented and the sources are not given due attribution, it shows how crowded our ‘information superhighway’ – to quote an early description of the net has become. It’s like imagining a quiet road with intermittent traffic becoming an autobahn where the number of vehicles and the action never ceases.

This post, for example, will be just one of 1500 blog posts created every minute. So the fact that you are here, reading this, is a real privilege as far as I am concerned. Or the fact that you got here in the first place. You have navigated through millions of links to land up here and spend about 4-5 minutes (or however long it takes to go through a 500-word post) on something that you believe is worth your time. Because, by the time you read this, another 7500 fresh posts would have appeared in blogs across the net.

The catch-up game, no matter what you ‘follow’ is well and truly over. In our lifetime, we will have always have access to all the stuff that is being created. Even going by the law of averages where only 1% of all that is created is worth consuming, we would still have no way of seeing all of it. Or even a tiny fraction. And once you factor languages into it, we are talking about consuming only atom sized portions. Because when you look at the other side of the statistics – how many websites do people visit in a day (it’s about 100, for those statistically inclined) you see the utter futility of matching consumption to creation

Maybe I made it a little easy for you to get here. Posted a link on that ‘social terminus’ – Facebook and the career station – Linked In, as well as the world’s personal broadcasting tool – Twitter. But if the graphic were to be believed, there are nearly 700,000 status updates on Facebook every minute and nearly 100,000 tweets. So its easy for my voice to get drowned in the chatter, even if you are part of my ‘personal network’

In a sense, I am happy that all this activity stays within the confines of little screens in your hand or on office desktops and does not spill over into real life. Because the potential for permanent distraction is immense. That is why programs like the ironically named Freedom, which cut off access to the net so that you can get things done, have proliferated. Because of the urge to check your email every five minutes or returning to your Facebook page to see how many comments your smart post or retort got, is immense. There’s more discipline required now to accomplish even the most mundane tasks. And that’s hardly a good thing.

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Cars and being single

Can cars ever go out of style? Looking at the glitzy car shows, the endless programs devoted to automobiles or the gushy reviews for new model launches, one would think that it’s all business as usual. Yet, there’s a very clear sense of dread at automotive companies – that a growing number of 18 to 24-year-olds think of cars as nothing more than gas guzzlers and don’t plan on buying a car anytime soon. So GM is turning to the expert purveyors of youth culture, MTV – to understand what will make cars more attractive. What is more worrying is that young people would prefer the internet to the car any day – and that is a definite cause for alarm.

If you’ve noticed, children today rarely look out of the car during a drive. If they have a mobile phone, they are absorbed in it because the screen is a lot more ‘active’ than the scenery that passes by. They aren’t happy to just watch nature unfold its majesty in quiet splendour. They want it in fast forward. So the only thing that retains their attention is a video game or a chat with 10 friends simultaneously. There’s no excitement is watching a cloud drift slowly and guess what it will transform into. So, what’s the point in being stuck behind a wheel for hours to get to a place?

The other change is that the number of people living alone in the US has multiplied over the last decade. Not just those who don’t want to get married but people who prefer it that way. Solitude used to be for a select few. Now, apparently, it is the preferred state of being. People retreat to their internet-addled, video streamed, microwaved lunch and dinner scheduled lives without having to answer or share space with anyone else. And share only on their social networks. They have hundreds of online friends and few in the real world. And if you really see what has changed in the last couple of decades is networking on a global scale. So instead of feeling close to one another with the death of distance in the virtual world, we feel oddly disconnected.

We need the net like a daily fix, if only to hop skip and jump from link to link in an endless voyage of being everywhere and getting nowhere. Our attention spans have dropped to less than 3-4 minutes, the vast majority of us have no patience with books and the more conveniences and material riches we have, the more we crave for. In a less developed and less connected world, we seemed to have the time for making friends and collecting experiences.

Like wine kept for decades and maturing slowly, we grew into our jobs, our successes and our families. Today, it’s about how many shots you can pour down in a single sitting. There’s nothing to savour or linger over. Whatever life has to offer, take greedily and go looking for the next novel experience. Don’t make five friends, make 500. Don’t earn thousands, earn billions. Taking is winning. Giving is losing. And are we still foolish enough to believe that nothing much has changed in our lives?

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Making cool look stupid

How do you assault a brand image that is the very essence of cool? Where the brand only has to get an unfavourable review for its acolytes to jump to its defence and flame the reviewer. I am speaking of course of Apple. For decades now, it has stayed at the pinnacle of cool, scorning all attempts to dethrone it. Even though they have sold millions of the same assembly line products, they have managed, through clever design and communication to make their features seem individually unique and desirable. Their army of followers have camped outside stores, waited with bated breath on blogs and rumor sites for the next unveiling or the next unboxing. Now, that’s another peculiarity – the act of taking a product out of the package and switching it on seems to drive frenzied viewership for those lusting after it. It’s like a product striptease and it gets the same kind of salivating response

So, a brand that has for long been seen as a pale imitation and a wannabe scored a deep hit with its commercials‘The Next Big Thing’. Samsung’s Galaxy S II, seen as a worthy foil to the mighty Apple 4S chose not to attack the specs of its competitor, even though that would have been a perfectly viable strategy. Instead, they made fun of its core consumers – the ones who would wait in a queue for days. And suddenly. the passionate followers of Apple seemed like a bunch of idiots. Which was reflected in a poll in a few weeks after the commercials started airing. Now, Samsung has gone in for the kill expanding a single idea into a series of commercials that make Apple look downright dowdy and out of touch – by attacking their fanboys. Apple now has the tough job of making not its products but its consumers look cool again – They might choose not to respond at all, but this can cool fan mania pretty quickly. No one likes being portrayed as a loser.

Another instance of attacking the consumers, instead of the product is playing out in India between two of the country’s leading newspapers, Times Of India (TOI) and The Hindu. A few months ago, TOI launched a blistering campaign against the staid image of its competitor, implying that it was so boring that its readers needed to wake up – to TOI. It showed a bored young man sleeping even in exciting situations. The implication was that news needed to be peppy and young – and that was what TOI delivered. The Hindu is not known to be aggressive but its latest commercials taking on TOI indicate that it is just as game for a fight. The ads show a set of young people who are not able to answer even the simplest questions, except of course film trivia. When asked which newspaper they read, they all mouth TOI, which is bleeped out. The final tag line – Stay ahead of the Times.

Ouch. That must have stung. Of course, young people these days no longer read newspapers, so the fight may seem irrelevant. But it’s an interesting turn in communication strategy. Make your competitors’ consumers look silly and their choices seem ridiculous as well.

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Which side do you part your hair?

Take this simple test. Keep a recent photograph of yourself in one hand while you take a look at your reflection in the mirror. There’s a difference and though it’s a very small one, the person in the mirror may be a little more appealing than the photograph in your hand. Or the other way around. And it all goes down to this – the way you part your hair!

The way we perceive our public self is actually the inverse version of how others see us in real life. If that seems crazy, listen to this fascinating episode from Radiolab. On the page, there is a photograph of Abraham Lincoln – the way he appeared in public. Click on the photograph and it flips to its inverse version – and somehow, it looks much less inspiring – or trustworthy. That’s the way Lincoln saw himself in the mirror all through his life and it is a sobering thought. So, did Lincoln maintain this consciously – knowing fully well that the less attractive version in the mirror was not what people were seeing, but the more attractive one. There were no spin doctors those days, or public relations masters, so it must have been more instinctive – or just plain coincidence.

In these highly televised and image conscious political times, what matters is not just what you say. Every gesture, every pause, every little colour coding and prop in the frame is carefully placed in order to stay on message. The laws of branding and advertising are far more demanding than the laws of the land – especially when you are in the public eye and every single word you pronounce is analysed, discussed, debated and deconstructed by an army of political analysts on prime time television.

The more we learn about how to build a brand and influence public opinion, the more we restrict spontaneity and reality. Actors in movies speak very differently from the way we converse. They speak perfectly, every word formed and delivered at a perfect pitch and tone. The actual shooting, recording and editing of these sequences may require several ‘takes’ or repeats to be perfect, but that is not something that the general public sees. They see a final product made by professionals with no flaws or hesitation – unless it is intentional and part of the script. Record a session with friends and you will see how most normal conversations are rambling, incoherent and take place in fits and starts depending on the interest in the topic and the participants. There is no seamless sense of flow, unless some speakers are particularly gifted.

One of the prime requirements of being a brand is to never deviate from a message unless it is part of the overall strategy to change. Brands get ‘relaunched’ and the new, improved versions appear because the sales graph of the old one has begun to stagnate and requires an infusion of freshness. That could mean a change in the packaging and the graphics and the tone of advertising. Sounds familiar? It’s what happens when the world of advertising and branding converges with something far more explosive – politics. Even something as trivial as the parting of the hair has an effect – and once we have the knowledge, there is no stopping its use.

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Election Campaign or Product Launch

With each successive election campaign, the difference between selling a product and a President is getting a little blurrier. Democracy used to be about policies and ideologies. But it now looks like just another mega launch. Listen to what people want. Then craft the product to deliver. Sit back and count the money. Or in this case, the votes.

At Barack Obama’s campaign headquarters, there is a group of highly gifted coders working to mine the information being gathered about ‘swing voters’ The ones who will decide which candidate gets elected and which one gets left behind. And with every campaign, the jargon mounts. This time, its ‘micro listening’. Getting to decipher not just what people are saying about the President or the opposition, but trying to understand how they will act on election night. The army of people assigned to do this include mathematicians, statisticians, software developers, organisers and of course, analysts.

Their grounding for this all-important effort comes not from political history but from consumer buying habits. How choices are made for shopping lists. Why grape juice is preferred over orange juice. How do you get to change the minds of consumers – by offering them a better deal, or fortifying it with vitamins, or by changing the way it is compared with other brands in the same category? What combination of qualities works best at moving the brand off the shelf faster? The analysts who crafted and implemented these strategies are now tasked with packaging the Presidential campaign and making sense of what people mean when they respond to polls.

So that’s what it has all come down to. Listen closely to what people are saying about the government on Facebook, on Twitter, in conversations on the ground and by inviting them to ‘Tell their stories’ on why they want to be involved in the Presidential campaign. Tease out nuggets from the stories and derive the patterns of behavior. Figure out what antagonizes and alienates them. Understand the hierarchy of priorities. And deliver a campaign that addresses these needs.

I don’t know whether I should be amazed or horrified with the way things are going. On one hand, the inference is that consumer behaviour is driving Presidential aspirations and motivations. On the other, it means that the whole process has been reduced to a set of cynical parameters that can be assessed and controlled. So the public is told and sold what it wants. But what happens after it’s all over is beyond their control.

Are you electing a person or the image of the person who leads you? Does the candidate believe in the promises they make to you or are they simply telling you what you want to hear? There is no answer. It’s the most extensive smoke and mirrors campaign on the planet, that reveals everything and nothing at the same time.

In comparison, the brute money power of Indian politics seems paleolithic. And the profusion of languages and castes mean that it may never be reducible to a set of equations that can be predicted. But you never know.This is a high stakes game and the levers of power are just to alluring to be left to the whims and fancies of the voters. The medium isn’t just the message, it shapes the messages now.

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What exactly is the news?

We’ve seen it 24 hours a day on our TV screens for the past two decades. It slips under our door in the mornings. It is updated by the minute or the second in social media. When we say ‘news’ each of us has a certain image in our minds. But to a generation brought up on access to information in a hundred spheres as it happens, the newspaper and the television are poor substitutes and relics belonging to another era altogether.

The news is one of those words everyone knows but no one can accurately explain. Is it about politics, development, disasters, entertainment, culture, sport, business or crime? What constitutes a news story depends on what you are interested in. On a daily basis, we only wish to know what we care about. So if you are interested in what goes on in your college and your social circle, that is all you would read about. In Clay Shirky’s wonderful analysis of the state of news gathering and publishing, there’s a big insight – So long as newspapers faced little competition for advertisers or readers, this was a distinction without a difference, but as papers are being sundered by the internet, we can see how tangled the system always was. Outside of a relative handful of financial publications, there is no such thing as the news business. There is only the advertising business.

Such a telling statement. Advertising is the only glue that held newspapers together for over a century. We came to believe that the system would be able to withstand any intrusion or fragmentation. The moment the internet unbundled whole sections and created separate interest groups around them, the validity and the very premise that newspapers were built upon has begun to disintegrate. The existence of newspapers in a form that the earlier generation was accustomed to is in doubt, at least in the West.

In India, however, the march of the internet has not been as sweeping or as inclusive. Move out of the major metros and broadband access is patchy at best. So the press, especially the vernacular is thriving, not just surviving. It will be interesting to see if the same pattern plays out as the rate of internet penetration increases in the country, given the speed at which mobiles have cut through to every single social sector in the country. Right now, it is just used for calls and texting, but give it a few years and we will see the newspaper competing with the mobile – and no prizes for guessing who is in for a bruising

Our consumption patterns are skewed. We spend tons of money on things that make us feel good, like beauty creams and lavish dinners, but for the majority, books are reluctant purchases and happen usually when mandated by colleges or airport delays. The news comes very low down on our list of the things we want to pay for. It doesn’t make it feel very good on most days, with major coverage about scams and disasters. And the small section of the aware and informed public that wants to know has several sources from which to choose from now. What’s your take on where the news is going?