Roger That

Don't Shoot The Messenger

So Long!

In the end, I’d say it was a positive experience, blogging. It’s nice to dedicate time to get some words down on paper, so to speak. We’re constantly thinking, talking, communicating, but not always organizing ideas for presentation, and in that vein, regular writing is a good thing. In signing off though, I don’t expect I will continue with a personal blog. The less you say, the less you have to be accountable for, and in my personal life, that’s a good thing for me. Of course, I could blog about topics that aren’t personal and don’t require the broadcast of opinions beyond matters of taste and preference–maybe food, or music, or whatever the case may be, as opposed to matters of social outlook.

In truth, I do enjoy writing, speaking, communicating–that’s why I got into the business of corporate communications–but where I get satisfaction is applying my skill to the need of another party. There’s craftsmanship in that. It’s challenging and rewarding in way that writing from your own perspective can’t be. After a semester’s worth of blogging about messaging and communicating, that’s where I’ve landed: a better understanding of the separation between personal communication (undertaken through the act of starting my own blog featuring my own perspective) and professional communication (as examined through that blog); then, moreover, I’ve won the ability to pinpoint my preference for the latter with regard to public broadcasting. So, ultimately, the discovery of that division–at least, consciously, verbally–is something I owe to this assignment. It’s something I’ve learned about myself. Looking the About page of this blog–somewhat sheepishly–I can see that the my expressed end-goal for this blog was a touch of identifiable growth. And I think I can say I achieved that.

So–thanks, and so long.

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“They do exist!”

Around this time every year, M&Ms/Mars airs its famous “Fainting Santa” television commercial. I saw it just a few nights ago, and my first thought was, “Man, they’re really still airing this?” And then my second thought was, “Hm, that’s kind of nice.” In truth, I found it kind of comforting. A bit of Web research wasn’t entirely conclusive, but some reports placed the ad’s debut as far back as 1996. A lot of folks might find it stale, but I found it comforting. Maybe it’s because M&Ms only has to air it one season a year, which helps keep it fresh, but mostly, I was comforted that they haven’t chosen to abandon it.

I appreciate that a large corporation has opted not to go bigger, newer, flashier, more technological, more integrated, buzzword, buzzword, buzzword. It seems nothing is able to stick around long enough to become iconic anymore. But in continuing to buy airtime for this commercial, M&Ms shows an admirable preference for tradition, nostalgia, warmth–which seems to be a savvy move as well, as these concepts are closely associated with the holidays.

Even though my first thought upon seeing the ad this year was a cynical one, I can imagine that from here on, I’ll eagerly look out for the “Fainting Santa” commercial each holiday season and feel warmed and charmed when I see it. But I can’t help but wonder: what year will it stop airing? What will replace it? Why? Whatever the reason, I hope it’s not for corporate Scroogery.

Money Talks Like Never Before

Nothing sends a message like money, and in the digital age, it’s never been easier to put your money where your mouth is. By simply logging in to Facebook, one can see just how easy it’s become to spend money online, especially tied to some kind of sentiment. In the case of Facebook, that sentiment is the birthday wish. You used to have to run down to the mall to or to a retail location to pick up a gift card or certificate, but as social media is increasingly commercialized, that transaction has become part of the conversation. There’s nothing special about the Facebook birthday wish; it’s commonplace now. But in a few clicks, your wish has been supercharged with $25 bucks in Starbucks cash–or a gift redeemable at dozens of other retailers in spaces such as entertainment, retail, charity, and elsewhere in food & beverage. The wish + gift package can now be completely and conveniently digitized.

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Indeed, in the same way that the Internet has made it so simple for people broadcast their every thought, it has now made it nearly as simple for them to spend their every dollar, just as impulsively—-and not even just for commercial reasons. Need investors? A banner ad might help. Just ask Wikipedia. Anyone who logs on to the site and is feeling a little generous that day can support the wildly popular but financially fledgling nonprofit with the push of a button. I haven’t yet, but I’ve definitely considered it and can easily imagine making a donation eventually.

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Additionally, websites like Kickstarter.com allow creative, entrepreneurial individuals to set up online collection baskets that well-wishing citizens can pledge money to in a show of that most precious form of support–financial. Project creators who meet their fundraising pledge goals keep that money and are on their way.

I might sound flippant right now–and I don’t wish to contend that there’s absolutely something sinister about they way companies have been able to facilitate spending online. In the end, everyone has to make a conscious decision to give or spend. In the context of this blog, then, the takeaway is that as social media and digital collaborative platforms become increasingly commercial or money-minded, it becomes easier to recognize how those two components–social/collaborative and commercial–are becoming increasingly intertwined. It’s a matter of messages and money. That makes sense, as it’s nothing new to contend that the measure of sentimental seriousness is a financial one. What’s new is the form that this contention has now taken–digital–as the social media frontier expands. We broadcast and publish faster, we spend faster, we invent faster, we create faster, we financial pledge support in new ways, and it’s all intertwined. That’s increasingly obvious to me as I study messaging and media more and more closely.

Old Media Charms In An On-Demand World

I’m intrigued—and maybe bothered—by an increasingly popular trend relating to how consumers might now prefer to consumer media. It became easier for me to verbalize my feeling on the matter after I began buying magazines again. Sometime toward the end of my time in college, I let my physical-magazine subscriptions expire and began to ignore the glossy selections arranged neatly in newsstands. The internet is free, I’d considered, and whatever I can pay to read in a magazine I can read for free on the web. But after recently receiving a dirt-cheap renewal offer from a magazine to which I used to subscribe, I signed up to receive physical magazines again.

Every time it arrives in the mail, it feels like Christmas. I relax with my magazine, and I’m taken back, reminded of a much more fluid style media-consumption that can’t be duplicated on the Internet. The magazine is pre-packaged for easy, linear consumption. You read page by page, rather than clicking around a homepage, getting duped by links that lead to something you’re not looking for and falling into vortexes of content so deep that you can’t find your way back to a comfortable browsing experience. There’s no searching, no surfing, and no digging with a magazine. It’s all laid out right in front of you for easy browsing.

Having been away from magazines for a period of years, returning to them reminds me just how nice it can be to have a packaged, and curating reading experience. Since I began reading them again, I’ve discovered more enriching and memorable content via physical magazines than I can remember seeking out or stumbling upon in years via that cacophony of media bells and advertising whistles called the Internet. In many cases, I’ve enjoyed getting back into fascinating and enlightening longform content that I’d never have engaged on the Internet, amid its ocean of traps and tricks and cat videos designed to engage the eye for a few seconds and then be sucked of its value in that glance.

Similarly, as I seem to hear with increasing frequency that the people are clamoring (though I hear this more from the media than from actual people) to unbundle their television packages and go a la cart, I shudder in consideration of what that suggests. So much of the most interesting and enjoyable programming I consume was discovered via channels that I’d probably never subscribe to on demand. It seems that people are forgetting that so much of what you’re fortunate to find is that which you were never looking for in the first place.

It seems that consumers are insisting increasingly that they know exactly what they want, and that they’d like to shut out everything they’re not actively seeking out. It’s understandable when you consider how saturated the contemporary media environment is, but that’s precisely why a packaged, curated experience is valuable–and why there’s particular value in an experience that is packaged and curated not by you, but for you. Well, people do whatever they want, but I for one am open to the idea that not everything I choose for myself will be memorable and enriching, and that so much of what I’ll choose to pass on in an a la carte, on-demand media environment will truly be my loss. The new media experience is remarkable, powerful beyond belief, exciting and undeniably the future of media (and the present), but it might still have a bit to learn from its elders.

“…because it’s good for your soul”

Keeping with a common theme I find in personal blogs, narcissism (see About)–a theme that I’m admittedly excited to emulate with my own blogging experiment here–I’m going to tell you a story starring me. Just a little narrative about my afternoon. It’s not particularly fascinating, but the events of this tale did have a profound impact on my outlook Monday, and I expect it’s something I’ll keep in mind for a while, as I tend to hold on to little experiential gems from daily life for as long as I can, and I expect that writing about them will help me absorb the lesson.

I was in a subdued but irritable mood all day Monday. I had no particular reason to be irritable, and I didn’t act on any negative feelings, but I was just so easily annoyed by petty nothings all day. A shrill laugh from the office near my desk, a shoulder brush from a fellow urbanite on the sidewalk–things that I’d never think twice about seemed to frustrate me terribly. I was lethargic and uninspired–and that lasted all day until the commute home.

“EXCUSE ME LADIES AND GENTLEMEN.” Another one of these guys–a guy and his sad story, asking for money from people on the subway. I’m not wholly opposed to giving loose change to folks who ask for it–sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. I usually just make a judgment call on the spot. Honestly, I almost never have cash on me, to begin with. In any case, Monday was a different situation. I looked up, and this fellow had a jovial expression, a gregarious posture, and a warm voice. He had a gentle-giant sort of look to him, with a mass of hair packed into his knit cap in what some might call a Rastafarian style. Most critically, he had a foldout chair and a couple of bongos.

“Don’t be alarmed! I just came to bring you all some music! Because it’s good for your soul.”

He deftly tapped out a rendition of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” (Don’t worry about a thing/ Cuz every little thing gonna be all right!”). Before he started, he plopped an old ball cap on the floor in front of him, indicating that he was still hoping for a bit of money. Most folks on the train ignored him, probably fearful that acknowledging the song obligated them to give a tip. For me, it was the perfect prescription for my blues. For one, the guy was good. Secondly, there was something very poetic, reassuring, heartwarming about the simplicity of his performance–the man’s voice and two small bongos–and what power it had to completely turn my day around. My heart was warmed and my spine was chilled. It was so simple but so remarkable to me. I felt completely rejuvenated. In part, this has a lot to do with the fact that I’m just an oddly sentimental person. By that I mean that my default disposition is colder, quieter–but I warm up very quickly. I’m easily touched. As easily as I can feel annoyed or skeptical, I can feel charmed and warmed.

After the song, he carried his cap throughout the car. He didn’t ask for money. He held the cap out, but all he asked was for people to smile, or he asked them if they enjoyed the song. He smiled and joked, and helped other people to smile too. And if somebody gave him money, he accepted it, but he didn’t ask for it verbally.

I wanted him to play another song so badly, but the closest I got was an opportunity to hear his muffled stylings from the car next door.

This week, the most important message I received came in the form of a song–“Don’t worry ‘bout a thing…”–but the most effective message sent went unspoken: “If I cheer you up, will you help me out? Just some loose change–or, at least, please cheer me up too, and tell me you liked my song.” It was worth the dollar, to me.

When Scotch Wins Without a Single Shot

I’m behind on blog posts. In part, this is because I wrote a post of more than 1,100 words but felt like I just couldn’t get those words right. I won’t be posting that entry, and I’m starting over. The newspeg would have been a combination of the necessity of adding an avatar photo to my blog and street artist Banksy’s residence in New York, the uniting principle being the nature of anonymous messaging, the sometimes overpowering effect of author identity on the way a message is received, and how knowledge of the author/sender can add to or take from the power of a message. It’s a complicated topic that I became interested in as an undergrad studying rhetoric and literary theory. Maybe I’ll still post something on it, but not today–because I was attracted to something much simpler but similarly remarkable walking through Grand Central recently. It was an advertisement that struck me as nearly perfect, thought provoking without being over the top or irrelevant to the product.

Heading downstairs to the 6 Train, I encountered several large advertisements for Johnnie Walker blended scotch. The first thing I noticed was the logo: a negative-silhouette depiction of a Victorian-era gentleman, complete with top hat, overcoat, breeches, and walking stick. Despite the fact that the logo consisted of only two colors and almost no interior lines–all outline/silhouette–the level of detail I could gather from the depiction feels remarkable. Moreover, the lines and colors are sharp, bold, but never overpowering. The gentleman, drawn with no discernable countenance, wears his hat low, pronounces his chest, and makes long strides; in other words–I can’t think of a better way to say it–he looks like a badass. He’s almost–almost–sinister looking, but without more to go on, a viewer should only reasonably consider that he’s just one smooth operator–and most certainly, he’s well on his way somewhere.

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This brings me to the next portion of the ad: the text. It’s simple, self-juxtaposed and complementary without being redundant, and necessarily a bit corny. As so many silly advertisements do, it hinges on an obvious pun: the name “Walker” and the act of walking–stepping, striding toward your goals–and if not for the strategic placement, I’d have dismissed it as obnoxious. But I appreciated that the Walker/walking pun was posted above a stairwell–and not just any stairwell, but one in a high-traffic area at the crossroads of the world, Grand Central Terminal–in what is often considered the most romantically upwardly mobile city in the world, New York, NY. The message that one is only steps from greatness is one that should resonate to a New Yorker–at least one who buys into the if-you-can-make-it-here-you-can-make-it-anywhere mantra. And what does a man who’s made it drink? At least stereotypically, he drinks high-end scotch (or, she drinks high-end scotch; though I’d call it a safe bet that a disproportionate number of males are buying Johnnie Walker, make them the likely ad target here). It seems to subtly marry your aspirations–everything you want to be–to something as relatively achievable as buying a nice bottle of scotch. Well done.

In any case, I find a lot to like about this advertisement. It’s attractive and slick, it’s not preachy or aggressive, there’s a cool factor, it’s placed well, and it implies layers of meaning (some cheaper and others more rich). I might even feel compelled to raise a toast to it–and isn’t that the point? Message received. You win, Johnnie.

What Sticks When Listening to a Lecture?

I recently sat down for a guest lecture by a top ethics and compliance officer at a large public relations firm. Knowing it would be a ripe opportunity for blog ideas, I endeavored to listen to the talk and, without making any extra effort to take notes or aid in my own recall of the lecture, determine which messages were “sticky,” why, and what about the style of speaking made the information in the lecture memorable.

The speaker was charismatic, likeable, and articulate, and his lecture was heavy on stories. He began with his own, detailing how he ended up working in ethics. I only really remember thinking that it was an interesting story, but I didn’t write any of it down. I can imagine I didn’t think it would be “important” enough in the long run, given that it was nothing I’d be tested on. What stands out in my mind was his interesting ethnic background, a mix of different emigrations and cultural traditions. And I remember having no real objections about the man’s credibility, at least based on what I inferred from the short talk on his background.

The second phase of the talk had to do with laying out the basics of ethics: foundational principles, common conundrums, and different ethics tests—i.e. questions to ask yourself to determine if a decision is ethical. These items I did take notes on, and many of them I found I could easily recall without consulting those notes. I’d hypothesize that something went off in brain to signal, “This is important; write this down.” I felt predisposed to the desire to make sure the nuts and bolts, the hard-lines, went down on paper.

The third phase of the talk centered on a series of stories, occasionally with a mild practice “drill” built in. The speaker discussed several true case studies from his experience, offered the ethical conundrum to the class—maybe took a quick poll by show of hands as to who in the class might go Route A and who might go Route B—then revealed the course of action that was ultimately taken, and finally discussed whether that action was likely the correct move or not. In some cases it was; in some cases it probably wasn’t. But in terms of consuming the message, I noticed an interesting tendency in my note taking. I rarely took notes as the story was being discussed, and I can think of two reasons as to why: 1) I didn’t want to miss anything interesting or critical to the plot, and 2) I couldn’t be sure which details were important until I had a grasp on what lesson the story was ultimately leading to. So what I’d end up doing was waiting until the final revelation, the epiphany, and then quickly scribble down the key plot points I could remember, the climax to which they led, and what the ultimate lesson was—the moral of the story.

Lastly, the wildcard: I found myself highly likely to jot down maxims, little gems of wisdom, as they appeared throughout the talk. Often without context, my notebook is riddled with short, dense, declarative aphorisms that must have demanded attention. Something about these jewels signaled importance: maybe the way the speaker delivered them, pausing then articulating them slowly. The decisive phrasing that signals, This is a rule; this is Gospel—something that assures the listeners that the information is useful reference for the future. These things always seem to get written down.

In the end, what I can take away—on the subject of messaging—from my lecture-listening drill is that I tended to jot down the short, simple, quick-reference jewels. When it came to longer stories, I preferred to absorb them by ear for context, fearing that I might miss a critical plot element if I started writing, only then breaking concentration only afterward to write myself a short summary for later reference. But more likely I’d recant the story later in some very generalizing way, forgoing all the descriptive details and endeavoring only really to convey to listeners how the story made me feel, and to offer assurance that somewhere out there there is verifiable evidence that the feeling is valid, that the point I’m making is fair. The details can be Googled later.

Interestingly, my professor must have been able to read my mind, because after the lecturer had concluded and left, he expounded on the value of all that we just heard, offering, “You probably won’t say, ‘Oh, I remember that chapter in the ethics book,’ but you might say, ‘I remember from [speaker’s name, redacted] story…’ and that can help guide your decisions.”

We’ll see what I ultimately take away.

How Not To Read the Writing on the Wall

On the corner of 103rd St. and 3rd Ave in upper Manhattan, there’s a large mural on the side of a brick building. It was visible to me as I walked north up the west side of 3rd Ave. I am not a native New Yorker, but I live with one and associate with many. This has led me to understand that New Yorkers are very sensitive about the borders of their neighborhoods and, thus, where they can be said to be “from.” With this and various linguistic and demographic cues in mind, I venture cautiously to say I was walking through Spanish Harlem. At first glance, this awareness would not have influenced my study of the mural, but as I looked closer, a breadth of inferences became possible based on it, enriching the power of what I later realized was a collection of different messages written and overwritten on top of each other.

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The mural was noticeable for his sheer size, if unremarkable overall. It was attention-grabbing, but seemed consistent and sterile. It looked like it might have been a commissioned advertisement or a promotion for a pet shop or animal clinic, the focal points being furry, friendly faces of puppies and kittens. I was eventually distracted, however, by a hulking, haloed figure that I vaguely recognized spray-painted to the side of the building, street level, at the base of the mural. It was revered and now-deceased Latin American rapper Big Punisher, or Pun for short—the letters of his name spelled out vaguely on his ball cap, visible only from right up close to the portrait. Noticeably, however, his face was blocked out with white spray paint. And just to the left of the partially effaced portrait, there was a rendering of one of the most famous photographs of one of the most iconic sportsmen of all time, Muhammad Ali. His face was blocked out, too.

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And then, as with the animal mural before them, I was quickly distracted from the portraits by a still smaller disruption on the side of this brick building in Spanish Harlem. A myriad of posters, each conveying a clear political message: No Charter Schools, Stop Illegal Search, and Stop Police Violence. Appropriately, they were posted directly next to the portrait of Ali, who gained fame not just as a boxer but as a man who stood up to a government he felt was abusive toward minorities — just as the poster of these fliers likely feels about today’s government with respect to the issues depicted.

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There is a lot that I don’t know about what’s on the side of this building in Spanish Harlem. Some of it I can probably figure out with more research, such as who or what the MST-NYC entity is—the apparent poster of these fliers. Some of it, I don’t think I’ll ever get to the bottom of: I don’t know why the faces of Big Pun and Ali were blocked out while the rest of their portraits were untouched, and I don’t see how I might ever determine the answer to that question. But, in keeping with the theme of this blog—how messages are conveyed and received—the most easily answered unknown remains an unknown through my own foolishness: I still have no idea what the large mural of the animals was for.

Maybe I didn’t look closely enough at all the different messages on the side of this building—I probably didn’t—but really, I wish I had looked from father away. There is a phone number on the mural, and clear writing, but I never took the time to consume that information. Nothing about it grabbed me; I just bounced from message to message.

So what lesson did I learn? You can analyze, overintellectualize, and examine a message all you want, but often the clearest, most obvious messages go unnoticed because they are bland, or because something more intriguing is being broadcast just nearby, or because the message recipient is moving too fast.

There’s a palimpsest of messages on the side of a building in Spanish Harlem, and together they are indicative of the modern media climate, wherein each message is broadcast and immediately overwritten, spoken over top of, superseded. All that’s truly clear to me, in either case, is that standing out is the task of the message senders, and responsible consumption is the task of the receivers.