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Wednesday 20 July 2005

Improper Use Of Quotation Marks Department

Real Cream Cheese


Pasteurized cultured mile and cream, salt, stabilizers (xanthan, carob bean and/or guar gums).

Sounds like real cream cheese to me. The manufacturers must be some kind of solipsists, or in any case unsure that the cream cheese really exists. They still want $0.50 for this little tub, though.

Posted by tino at 08:24 20.07.05
Tuesday 19 July 2005

When Marketing Takes Over

I saw this sticker inside a household freezer door this weekend:

Whirlpool Brand Promise

Note the wording:

The Whirlpool Brand is committed to designing quality products that consistently perform for you to make your life easier

Er, no. The Whirlpool brand is a wholly conceptual and imaginary thing, dreamt up and managed by the marketing department.

This makes as much sense as saying, ‘The Coca-Cola Dynamic Ribbon Device is refreshing as hell’, or ‘Reddy Kilowatt keeps your lights on!’ The D.R.D. and Mr. Kilowatt do nothing of the sort. They are merely marketing tools.

The Whirlpool Company — which is to say a group of people — are committed to designing etc., etc.

Unfortunately, their communications to the outside world seem to be run by the marketing department, which sees things exclusively through the lens of their own work.

Posted by tino at 17:20 19.07.05
Tuesday 12 July 2005

Paper Spam, Part 2

No sooner had I written my previous complaint about deceptive practices in direct-mail advertising than does my man Hedges bring in the mail, which included this:

Employee Benefits

Note they get the double whammy: in addition to having ‘EMPLOYEE BENEFITS’ in 30-point type on the envelope, they’ve cleverly sized the window on the envelope so ‘Pay To The Order’ appears there. Huh, huh, lookee Maw, a check! I know this is a scam right off the bat, because I’m not anyone’s employee. But, honestly, if you’re so dumb as to not be able to see through this anyway, you’re probably unemployable in the first place.

I don’t imagine that anyone appreciates advertising that openly takes the would-be customer for a fool. I certainly don’t.


Chrysler Letter

(Click on the image for a bigger version)


I think what they mean is ‘Now everyone across America can buy like an employee (of DaimlerChrysler)’.

Further down:

Never before have DaimlerChrysler offered new vehicles at prices this low.



Though I suppose that’s not DaimlerChrysler, so they’re not actually lying.

If your payments are too high, you own more than your vehicle’s worth or it’s out of warranty, NOW IS THE TIME TO TRADE - - - you’ll save thousands during this once-in-a-lifetime event!

If you’re struggling to make car payments or if you own more on your car than it’s worth: don’t buy another goddamned car, you idiot. Half the ads on TV these days are for schemes to ‘get out from under your debt’ by borrowing more money, so I don’t know why I’m surprised.


By definition, everything is bought and sold at 100% of its market value.

Due to record sales this past year

And these ‘record sales’ would be the reason I get so many desperate and cheesy come-ons in the mail from car dealers

we have a need to acquire several pre-owned vehicles including yours in order to fill special used vehicle requests. Our records indicate you own one of these vehicles

Would that be the fifteen-year-old Jeep, I wonder, or the forty-year-old Austin? Or maybe another of the dentmobiles littering the Motor Court here at Tino Manor.

and our sales managers have been ordered

Ordered! Maybe these sales managers need some Employee Benefits of their own.

to give you 100% of market value for your vehicle on trade.

Well, not giving me ‘100% of market value’ would really constitute auto theft, so there might not be as much magnanimity behind this as they’d like me to perceive.

Posted by tino at 20:35 12.07.05

Paper Spam

Yesterday, this envelope turned up in the mail here at Tino Manor:


Click on the picture to see a larger version.

As wealthy and good-looking as we are here, we get a lot of junk mail; a lot. I believe that the idea is that our lifestyle is so enviable that other people, seeing us using a particular brand of medicated lip balm, or stink-preventing shoe pads, would immediately rush out and switch brands. Either that, or some database somewhere has us listed as easy marks, and marks who actually pay their bills, too.

Anyway, so this thing turns up, and I immediately spot it as spam. The difference between physical spam and junk mail is that junk mail is something you don’t particularly want: today’s catalog from Pottery Barn, for instance (they send out about five a week), or a come-on inviting you to spend $900,000 on a vacation house in a ‘luxury resort community’ somewhere in North Carolina (no lie, such a thing showed up last week). Junk mail is advertising for something you are not particularly interested in buying.

Physical spam is junk mail that attempts to trick you into opening it. The credit-card people have gone in big for the fake-card-in-the-plain-envelope approach; I have to open all of these things to make sure it’s not an actual card (most of those cards also make good frost-scrapers, though recently a lot of the cheaper companies have switched to some kind of pasteboard thing, which is useless except for propping up uneven table legs).

This envelope employs the popular technique of trying to look like correspondence from the government. This one caught my eye because it says ‘PROTECT OUR TROOPS!’ in big letters on the front — so they are exploiting the war to promote their business. This is what first caught my eye, since I thought that it was a particularly cynical move. Exactly *how* cynical, I had no idea: there’s no mention of the war, or troops, or anything else except the sale of bargain-priced used cars inside. I was expecting a donation of a nickel to the DAV or something for each car sold; but no, it’s just the envelope. I can’t decide whether this is better, or worse.

Like most e-mail spammers, the senders reveal themselves to be idiots in smaller ways, too. The complete government-correspondance look requires threatening you with prison before you even open the envelope, and to this end most paper spammers make reference to postal regulations. In this case, the law they refer to is:

Whoever takes any letter, postal card, or package out of any post office or any authorized depository for mail matter, or from any letter or mail carrier, or which has been in any post office or authorized depository, or in the custody of any letter or mail carrier, before it has been delivered to the person to whom it was directed, with design to obstruct the correspondence, or to pry into the business or secrets of another, or opens, secretes, embezzles, or destroys the same, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

This is Title 18, Section 1702 of the United States Code; it basically says that you’re not allowed to steal mail.

On the envelope, though, they refer to ‘TLT.18’; ‘tlt’ is not an abbreviation for ‘title’. The error, though, makes it easy to identify where this envelope came from: On-Target Direct Marketing. A number of their envelopes use ‘TLT 18’ to threaten would-be customers. On-Target Direct appears to just handle the logistics: a quick Google search suggests that the promotion itself is run by an outfit called RPM Communications, which appears to be unaffiliated.

Inside the envelope, there’s a flyer for the promotion and a scratch-off card; ‘if’ the numbers on the scratch-off card match, you win an amount ranging from $5 to $50,000. Everyone, of course, ‘wins’ at least $5 just for coming in to the dealer with the papers; that’s the whole idea of the promotion.



And it would appear that, in 2003, at least one person won the $50,000. One George Bouche is pictured on the flyer, and there’s a web page here that would seem to indicate that he’s a real person who really did win; an article here further backs it up. I was not able to track down any information on ‘Robert Lewis’, the other winner mentioned, but I don’t doubt that he’s real, too: it’s just that ‘Robert Lewis’ is a much more common name that ‘George Bouche’ — except in France, where they’re always talking about ‘George Bouche, ze eempirialist warmongair’.


How long can this work, though? In the electronic world, eBay has recently moved to communicating with its customers exclusively on their website in order to fight the people who send me a dozen eBay phishing attempts a day. Certainly by now nearly everyone with two neurons to rub together has figured out that 99.9% of the brown-paper envelopes they get with threats on the front are not from the government. These promotions undoubtedly draw people in with the promise of having won ‘at least’ $5, but the fact that the envelope doesn’t say ‘You May Already Be A WINNER!!!!1’ on the front shows that people do catch on, sooner or later.

Posted by tino at 12:46 12.07.05
Sunday 03 July 2005

Jeff Jarvis Has Problems With Dell

Jeff Jarvis runs Buzz Machine, a very popular weblog. He writes:

I tested Dell and they failed. Their customer service mechanism did not recognize a machine and service pattern and customer that were a mess. They didn’t try to fix it.

I could have stayed on the phone for hours and gone up a tier at a time playing the customer having a psycho fit (ask anyone who has heard me go after customer service people who don’t serve: I play the role well).

Instead, I chose to write about the saga here. I chose to elicit the sympathy and conspiracy of fellow pissed-off Dell customers. I chose to see whether Dell is listening.

They are not.

I have never had any serious problems with Dell, myself. But I would think at least twice before buying a computer from them (particularly a laptop) after reading too many stories like this. Jarvis says that, thanks to cheap communications, we are in the age of caveat venditor, and I think he may have something there.

This is, of course, already covered by Customer Service Rule # 15:

Customer-profitability accounting is almost totally inaccurate. Especially in any kind of retail business. Most businesses who have ongoing relationships with their customers will treat some better than others. It’s just smart business, given limited resources, that the customers whose business is very lucrative will get better service and pricing than the customers whose business generates less profit. If you try to apply this to unknown or little-known customers, though, it can blow up in your face. You can’t serve only the 20% of customers who produce 80% of the profits, so stop trying. If you are thinking of classifying a customer as ‘unprofitable’ and not worth serving well, make sure that you know, truly, who that customer is and who it is he influences.

PS: The comments on Jarvis’ post are also particularly good.

Posted by tino at 13:46 3.07.05
Saturday 02 July 2005

Cause and Effect, Part III

Apropos of this and this, the Wall Street Journal’s OpinionJournal Best of the Web yesterday remarked on a blog post that correlates Republican voters and low real-estate values.

The point you’re supposed to get, I suppose, is that Republicans Spoil The Neighborhood or some such thing. This is, of course, nutty. The worst slums tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic, and the fanciest suburbs tend to be Republican strongholds.

Best of the Web (correctly, I suspect) suggests that the difference in real-estate values is because:

First, Democrats help produce rising home values by supporting development and labor regulations that suppress new construction, thus limiting the supply of housing.

Second, geography produces both Democrats and rising home values. That is, Dems tend to prefer living in old cities that are already built up and that often have physical barriers to sprawl (i.e., oceans, lakes and rivers). The housing supply in these places is less elastic than in Republican-leaning cities like Phoenix and Dallas.

They also leave out the fact that rural ‘Republicans’ will tend to value individualism and self-reliance more, while urban and suburban ‘Democrats’ will value interdependence and ‘community’ (i.e. low taxes and few services vs. the opposite). When you live in the boonies, you have to be self-reliant, because anyone else you might think about relying on lives too far away.

In fact, this might do as a symbol of rural and semi-rural America:


The truck and the generator. When big storms, often the remnants of hurricanes, come through the greater Washingtonia metro area (which stretches all the way to West Virginia), the newspapers are full of stories of suburbanites who are left with their streets blocked by debris, and their houses unpowered, for weeks. Here in the boonies, our roads are cleared before it even stops raining, because we go out there ourselves with chainsaws.

And here is the chief irony, as I see it anyway: out here in the solidly Red sticks, when neighbors are in need, everyone shows up and pulls together. (That this generally involves power tools can’t hurt, either.) In the Bluer and presumably more communitarian suburbs and city, everyone meekly waits for the public-works crews to come solve the problem for them — and they probably call the police on their neighbors if they start cutting something without the proper permit, too.

Posted by tino at 13:21 2.07.05

Cause and Effect, Part II

In the Washington Post today:

After returning from his job as a writer for the American Civil Liberties Union one evening this spring, William Potter grabbed an iron pry bar and, with a few whacks, demolished the kitchen of his Petworth rowhouse.

I wonder whether he’s got a permit for that?

For Potter, 25, this act of destruction was just another thing he thought he would never accomplish so early in life. He certainly didn’t think so a year ago, when he was living frugally in a group house in Mount Pleasant and saving for a down payment. Now the first-time homeowner has a second job: rehabbing his house to a livable standard.

Because you can’t have people just rehabbing things to a livable standard without the proper paperwork. But rehab they will, because for some reason things that have been rehabbed are amazingly expensive. I wonder why that might be?

Posted by tino at 11:26 2.07.05
Friday 01 July 2005

Cause And Effect

The Washington Post says:

The District’s skyrocketing real estate prices have fueled an increase in illegal construction as property owners across the city are building and renovating homes without obtaining the required permits, according to D.C. officials and a review of city records.

But it occurs to me that in fact real estate prices in D.C. may be ‘skyrocketing’ because it’s so damned hard to build anything there. They’re arresting people who are building without permits — or without the city’s bureaucracy being properly aware that permits have been obtained.

Cyrus C. Blackmon and his wife, Katarina Varani, were arrested at their Capitol Hill home in April and charged with building without a permit, removing stop-work orders and entering a property in violation of a stop-work order.

In the past 17 months, D.C. has issued over 1,400 stop-work orders, according to the Post. Fairfax and Montgomery counties — each of which is larger than D.C. — each issue fewer than fifty a year.

One report of illegal construction activity can quickly lead to other violators being cited.

Alerted by a neighbor, the agency’s inspection unit recently discovered that Oladele had been constructing a four-story, multiunit building at 723 Morton St. NW since 2003 without a building permit. Inspectors immediately posted a stop-work order.

Then they noticed that a homeowner across the street was renovating his house without permits. They halted that work, too. D.C. police officer Kevin E. Brittingham, the property owner, has received $10,000 in fines and penalties. He said he is appealing the fines because he didn’t know he needed a permit to remodel his kitchen and replace windows.

“I know now,” he said.

He knows to move out of D.C., and to a place that doesn’t see targets on all of its residents’ backs, if he has any sense.

Posted by tino at 19:06 1.07.05

Adventures (not) In The Cinema

Gizmodo observes:

In an era of portable instant gratification, the process of movie-going is expensive—logistically and monetarily—and the payoff is dinky. […] Short of strip-searching us, there can’t be any way the movie houses could make the process any more grating.

I can’t remember the last time I actually went to a cinema. Every time I think about seeing something there — usually during rush hour, when I’d like to let the traffic die down a bit — the expense and the expectation of a crap experience put me off. That’s right, I choose I-66 over seeing a movie.

And Gizmodo’s rant doesn’t even deal with the fact that nobody seems to know how to behave in a movie theater any more, i.e. Shut The Hell Up. Last week, at the museum under the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, I saw ‘Monument to the Dream’ (the documentary about the Arch’s construction) once again. It was just as I remembered it from childhood, except back then there weren’t some boorish assholes sitting behind me and talking in normal voices through the whole thing.

Posted by tino at 13:39 1.07.05

Adventures in Online Shopping

Nicole writes of her experience with Audible in the past few days:

So, basically, “we hope you enjoy your weekend, we’re violating our contract by not providing the stuff you paid for, you can’t call us to complain, and by the way we’re taking Monday off. Fuck you very much.”

To say that I’m pissed off at them would be a huge understatement. They clearly have a problem that calls for immediate attention, and they are just leaving it to fester over the holiday weekend. There is no recognition here we, as customers, are even entitled to that which we’ve already purchased. Customer service doesn’t come much worse than that, now does it?

You usually see this kind of thing in more subtle ways: like how Best Buy never, ever seems to have in stock the things I’m looking for. It’s annoying, but Best Buy is under no specific obligation to have the stuff I want, even if those things are things that they nominally carry.

In this case, Audible is quite clearly breaking their agreement with the customer. (I’m sure there’s actually a clause in there, as there is in most contracts that businesses make with consumers, wherein they disclaim any responsibility on their part to do anything at all in return for your money, but they’re breaking their moral agreement to provide value for money, anyway.)

Now, Audible is a reputable and usually reliable firm, so I’m sure that this problem is the result of something beyond their control, and that they are working to fix it: but the notice on their website (see the screenshot on Nicole’s site) is pretty opaque. If these problems really do persist ‘through the holiday weekend’, as they warn, then I’m going to have to reassess my evaluation of Audible as a ‘reliable’ firm.

So I propose a new customer service rule:

Don’t keep customers in the dark. When things have gone so badly wrong that you cannot live up to your obligations, respect the customer enough to tell him specifically what’s wrong, and what you’re doing to solve the problem. If you’d prefer to have an opaque operation, you must first have a perfect operation.

Posted by tino at 13:05 1.07.05