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Friday 30 July 2004

Customer Experience

This story is specifically about website ‘customer experience’, but it’s still generally applicable:

Those with ad budgets, remember: Bring customers in, but be sure to treat them well when they get there.

Woah. That’s why the consultants get the big money: ideas like that. I shouldn’t make fun, though, since most businesses don’t seem to figure it out on their own.

Posted by tino at 13:27 30.07.04
Wednesday 28 July 2004

Product Placement and Video Games

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article today, particularly apropos of yesterday’s thing about the MTA’s proposal to rename subway stations for corporate sponsors. (Journal subscribers can read the article here; if you’re not a subscriber, why not? You can download a 155K PDF of it here.)

The article in question is about product placement in video games, and how the advertising industry is all agog about it.

That in itself is somewhat interesting. It’s hard to sort out cause and effect here, but the advertising industry always seems to be agog about something, but for all the ad industry’s focus on novelty, very few of its innovations actually work, at all.

This is true behind the scenes as well as in its product: In the mid-1990s, Chiat/Day was famously agog about ‘hoteling’, the idea that worker-bees should not be assigned permanent work spaces, but that they should just come in in the morning and sit down at whatever desk was free. Computer networking and modern phone systems make this possible, if not practicable: hoteling was a disaster. Chiat/Day — an organization that’s supposed to have its finger on the pulse of how to motivate people — completely ignored the fact that people don’t like this. The program had some good results — like introducing cordless phones so that people are reachable even when they’re not sitting at their desks — but overall the somewhat predictable effect was to make people feel uncomfortable and disconnected.

Nevertheless, because Chiat/Day knows nothing like it knows how to promote things, and so a lot of other companies attempted to duplicate this harebrained scheme, and they continue to attempt to duplicate it, even long after Chiat/Day themselves concluded that it wasn’t cost-effective and went back to a more traditional approach.

Anyway, the current idea in advertising seems to be that, since people aren’t watching TV ads, maybe they’ll notice our products if we stick ‘em into video games somehow.

For years, videogames have been stealing away consumers who might otherwise have been watching television or reading a magazine. Now they’re beginning to attract business from some of the U.S.’s most coveted advertisers, part of a broader assault by new media and technology on the traditional ad industry.

It’s not a ‘broader assault’ by anything but the advertisers themselves, though. Consider an average TV show: you watch it because you find it entertaining or informative. Several times an hour, the stuff you find entertaining or informative stops, and the ads come on.

These ads, any advertising 101 textbook will tell you, need to grab your attention somehow and hold it, and then present you with whatever specific message the advertiser wants to get across. Ads for a few products — diet soda, chewing gum, and beer most prominently — do this by putting good-looking women on the screen. In ads for some other things, you can generally count on seeing a baby. These are some very basic attention-getters for certain demographics, and they’re based in biology.

Beyond those few things, though, advertisers seem to be entirely out of ideas. One of the few new ones I’ve read about lately is to somehow rig the software in TiVos and similar devices so that you cannot skip the ads. If they don’t want to see the ads, we’ll force ‘em to see the ads! That’s certainly a way to build audiences and goodwill.

Anyway, maybe someone put down the crack pipe long enough to realize that. Unfortunately, the video game he played while sobering up gave him an idea.

There are two different approaches to product-placement in video games, I gather: the first involves sticking your product or logo into a commercial video game, and the second involves making your own video game that’s centered, somehow, around your product.

The main problem with the second approach is that there are not that many products to which it’s even applicable. It works for cars — and according to the Journal article, Jeep has had some success with it — but what other products can be so easily turned into a game? ‘Dish Washer 3: Plates of Rage’ might be useful for Dawn product-placement, but it would suck as a game. Most of the things advertised on TV these days seem to be medications of one sort or another, but somehow I don’t think that ‘Flonase Floyd In The Land Of Pollen’ — the gameplay would involve wandering around and breathing — would find too many willing players.

This leaves the first approach, the idea of sticking your logo or product into a video game that people actually buy. While this might work for any product, it doesn’t work for all games: you can easily have a billboard for Snuggle high above Vice City, but that doesn’t make sense in a lot of other games. If video-game producers follow the path of the TV companies, they’ll start tailoring the games to the advertisers’ needs, by ranking ‘advertisibility’ near the top of the list of design considerations. We’ll wind up with games like “Drive Down Billboard Alley ‘08”, which no one in their right mind will pay for, and the advertisers will again speak of an ‘assault’ and will come up with another cockamamie scheme, possibly involving naming rights again. Viagra Presents Staten Island. The Great Ohio Experience, Brought To You By Depends. The USS Cialis, CVN-65: 280,000 shaft horsepower: for the whole weekend! Warning: those with high blood pressure should not use nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

I’ve written before (warning: embedded Quicktime) about the hazards of product placement, as well as about its potential. The problem with most product placement is the same as the product with most advertising in general these days: the advertisers feel that the audience owes their attention to the advertisements for supporting whatever main content is being supported by the advertising. Unsurprisingly, the audience sees it differently, and the eagerness of the advertising industry to find alternative methods of getting their messages in front of the public suggests that they don’t have any real idea why their TV ads are not working. As long as they don’t know that, they’re not likely to be able to come up with product-placement strategies — whether for video games or anything else — that achieve their goals, either.

Posted by tino at 10:03 28.07.04
Tuesday 27 July 2004

Naming Rights, Private Enterprise, and Subsidies

There is apparently a plan under discussion in New York over whether the MTA should sell naming rights to subway stations and the like. I wrote about a similar situation a couple of years ago when Bloomberg was publicly suggesting that the city should sell naming rights to things like Central Park.

The article in the New York Times says:

Indeed, the authority’s officials said they could easily imagine the Delta Times Square Shuttle or, say, I.B.M.’s adopting the Tarrytown station on Metro-North’s Hudson rail line.

It is not until the last paragraph of the article that the Times points out that Times Square itself, as well as its subway station, is already named for a corporate entity: The New York Times.

And they don’t mention at all that Grand Central Terminal — apparently one of the things under consideration for a new corporate name — is already named for the New York Central Railroad.

A lot of things are named after corporate entities without anyone minding, or even thinking much about it: Wrigley Field in Chicago is named for the chewing-gum company. The Sears Tower is named for a certain mail-order and department-store company. Ditto the Woolworth Building, the Chrysler Building, and Busch Stadium: they all carry corporate names that are ‘organic’ in that they were named by (and for) the companies that built them.

These companies were also fairly well-respected — they built these buildings and stadiums, after all — and all these names are names rather than brands. Even among today’s sponsored-name stadiums, a few stand out as not setting one’s teeth on edge: Ford Field, Miller Park, Coors Field, and Heinz Field. All are so-named because big companies wrote checks, of course, but they’re also in a way named for the car, beer, and ketchup magnates who helped build their cities into what they are today.

You can even make a guess as to where these things are, so strongly-associated with particular cities are Ford, Miller, Coors, and Heinz. On the other hand, things like ‘U.S. Cellular Field’, ‘Ameriquest Field’, ‘Minute Maid Park’, ‘Citizens Bank Park’ and ‘Petco Park’ could be anywhere, and they just sound idiotic. ‘Citizens Park’ in particular would sound just fine; but then the bank wants to make sure that the people of the city (who of course paid for the stadium) are not under the mistaken impression that the place is named for, you know, them.

What’s the difference, really, between a corporation writing a check to a city (these things are almost always municipal operations now) to name a stadium, and a tycoon personally running the operation and then naming the thing after himself? One of the big ones is that when the tycoon names the stadium after himself, he’s patting himself on the back, recognizing himself for improving the city this way. When a company buys the naming rights so that it can add a giant sign reading ‘Zovuvazz Meat Byproducts Inc. Coliseum’ to the skyline, it’s naked advertising and something of an insult to the taxpayers who build these things.

So back to the MTA. They appear to be making the mistake — pretty common now — of thinking that any kind of advertising is desirable and in demand. To begin with, there’d be a certain reputational cost to anyone who bought the naming rights to something like Grand Central Station. If it was suddenly known as Famous Original Ray’s Station, a lot of people would be so disgusted that they’d start getting their pizza from Original Famous Ray’s instead.

Second, companies buy naming rights for stadiums because nearly everything that happens in a stadium happens on TV. For a few million dollars, you get your corporate name repeated over and over on TV every time there’s a game. Very few subway stations are televised. Aside from a very few things — every one of which would present the backlash problem I mentioned above — most of this stuff is fairly anonymous. Nobody in their right mind would pay money for the name.

Here’s an idea, though. If the MTA really needs the money, they should sell off some of these anonymous stations. The sale would have a few conditions, like that you couldn’t close the station without the consent of the MTA, and, obviously, you had to allow people to use the station to get on the trains. The MTA would maintain the tracks, and you would be in charge of everything else. The MTA would take most of the fares that you collected (what percentage of the fare accounts for running the stations? 10%? Then give that to the station operator, assuming that about as many people leave the system at a given station as board), and you’d keep the rest. You’d have an incentive, as a subway station owner, to attract as many people as possible to your station, and with so many people a day passing through your premises, you could potentially clean up by renting out little shops in the warren of offices, passages, and storage rooms that NYC subway stations seem to be full of.

If you bought an under-used station, you’d have an incentive to get more people to use it, perhaps by financing attractions on the surface. You might refund part of passengers’ fares, cutting into your margin in order to increase volume.

None of this makes the slightest bit of sense, though, not least because the MTA is in a strange position. The MTA wants as many people as possible to use their services, because that is, after all, why the MTA exists. But because the MTA — like all transit systems — does not make a profit (or even attempt to), they’re not really in a position of wanting to do anything that encourages too much use. More use, above a certain level, means less money, not more, because the MTA can’t pay its costs out of the fare money. The only real solution is to sell off the entire system, and thus require it to operate at a profit (or at least to break even) or not operate at all.

But this won’t work! everyone says. The BMT and IRT went bankrupt and were taken over by the city! The subway needs to be subsidized!

Well, it’s true that the BMT and IRT went out of business, but then they charged the same fare — five cents — from 1904 until the city bought them out in 1940. The subway fare — fixed by the city — was an issue in mayoral campaigns and, as railroads don’t vote, successful candidates supported the nickel fare, saying that it was essential to the operation of the city. Unfortunately, enough money to actually pay the bills turned out to be essential to the operation of the subway, and eight years after taking over the system, the city doubled the fare that had remained fixed at five cents for the previous forty-four years. The fare has been increased fourteen more times since then.

The New York subway system would be a good one to privatize because it was originally built with the intention of turning a profit. Publicly-built transit systems were never intended to make money, and so they probably can’t.

It’s not going to happen, but it would be nice if it did, at least as an experiment. In the United States, most things are done by the private sector, and most things here are at least the equal of their counterparts everywhere in the world. Most things get cheaper (in real terms) with time, too.

But mass transit we leave almost entirely to the public sector to run, and then when there’s an enormous cock-up we do nothing but examine how the public sector might get more money to do the same things.

Posted by tino at 22:28 27.07.04
Sunday 25 July 2004

Cultural Production and Audiences

Nicole and I have been working our way through the Freaks and Geeks DVD set lately, and as a result we’ve been marveling (once again) at how the TV industry kills off good ideas. Interestingly enough, when you search for Freaks and Geeks on Amazon, the second result — under the Freaks and Geeks DVD set — is the complete series of My So-Called Life, a not-too-dissimilar show that was cancelled despite rave reviews.

Both of these excellent shows were moved around on the schedule a number of times so that people couldn’t find them — MSCL, a show targeted at teenagers, eventually wound up on Friday nights, when nobody watches TV — and then cancelled due to low ratings. The TV networks never seemed to consider the possibility that not many people watched the shows because they were on a different night, and at a different time, every week.

I’ve got a lot more to say about TV scheduling at some point (see the second half of this for a pale version), but today I came across a month-old book review in The Atlantic that adds another clue.

The review is of a book called Screenwriting for a Global Market, pertains mainly to movies, not to TV, and it would be an understatement to say that it’s a pan. But it goes on to examine Hollywood’s increasing focus on appeal to foreign audiences:

Here, alas, is the virus laying waste to modern Hollywood movies. What do, say, the Batman and Matrix pictures have in common, besides banality? Just for openers, insipid, infrequent dialogue. Why take the trouble to bang out good lines—supposing one can—if they’ll only be mistranslated for their real target markets, abroad? Both these movies could have been silents if they weren’t so loud. They’re overbearing, carelessly told, and gang-written into incomprehensibility. Small wonder they were tepidly welcomed in the United States. Americans at the movies are guilty of the same mistake in the early twenty-first century that grown-ups made at the movies in the 1980s: supposing that the pictures are made for them.

Foreign TV these days is depending less and less on American sitcoms to fill time, so I don’t think that this is much of what causes American TV to be so awful: in fact, the target audiences for American TV shows seem to be getting narrower and narrower all the time. I think TV is so bad simply because the TV companies are totally unwilling to take risks; but it’s an interesting article nonetheless.

Posted by tino at 19:07 25.07.04
Friday 16 July 2004

So I’m Lazy


Well, okay, so I’m a lazy bum, and I haven’t written anything in so long that everything here has scrolled off the main page.

The problem is that, here in the Humidity Belt, you tend to get cabin fever in the summer because it’s too awful to go outside most of the time. So you stay in the house and eventually you get annoyed by all the junk laying around and you get involved in all sorts of little projects to make the place less horrifying. Or at least I do, anyway. I am beginning to suspect that Nicole and I might be the annoying kind of people who apologize to guests for the colossal mess just as the guests are marveling to themselves at how damned clean and tidy everything is.

Anyway, it’s better to just stay in the air conditioning, and being refrigerated all the time tends to cause the creative juices to thicken and to stop flowing. So I’m using this time instead to attempt to get the kitchen island rebuilt to my specifications. I usually sit at the thing all day long, and my back is starting to hurt, because it wasn’t really well thought-out to begin with. Actually, saying ‘my back is starting to hurt’ is understating things somewhat; my back is so strained by this practice that once when I sneezed a couple of months ago, something went wrong with the muscles of my upper back and I collapsed. I had to spend the rest of the day laying flat on the living-room floor, whimpering and admiring the dust on the ceiling fan. Say, that reminds me, that thing needs cleaning.

(40 minutes later)

So, inspired somewhat by Lileks, we’re rebuilding the the kitchen island.

The idea is to have two levels on the thing, one at normal countertop height for chopping, mincing, and occasionally dicing, and the other at normal desk height for propping computers on. There’ll be all kinds of electrical outlets, network jacks (for the gigabit Ethernet connections that make it easier to back up data to the computers in the basement), phone jacks, TV and audio wires (for feeding signals back to the AV stuff in the basement), the whole magilla. Several thousand dollars at a minimum.

The problem is that we’re having a hard time finding anyone willing to take our money. The first people we went to said that their granite supplier was too busy to even give a quote, and they actually recommended that we try Lowe’s, who, it seems, have their own granite pipeline. The guy at Lowe’s didn’t seem very interested in what we were trying to do, and in fact they still haven’t called us back.

The place we tried today, the third place, was the first that did anything other than leave me with the strong impression that they were totally uninterested in the work. We’ll see. I already refuse to go into the Burger King, the Taco Bell, the Martin’s, and one of the 7-Elevens in Front Royal, so disgusted have I become with their total inability to even begin to do business; if many more places let me down, I’ll have to move or become a hermit.

So anyway, that’s what’s going on at Tino Manor. There are a few other things in the hopper, but they’re really just rants about how idiotic everyone is. That’s pretty much par for the course here, but it’s too hot for me to work up the proper head of steam for a really good rant; for the next month or so, I might just try something other than ranting. If I can figure out what that is.

I see Nicole coming to rook me into the horrible task of emptying the vacuum cleaner, so I’m off.

Posted by tino at 18:35 16.07.04