Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Kind Word for Euphemisms

Euphemisms have their place. Maybe you don’t need to tell a     4-year-old what really happened to his puppy just yet. It’s a kindness.

“Enhanced interrogation”?  “Downsizing”?  They’re meant to spare feelings too. In these cases the feelings being protected are those of the speaker rather than the listener, but you can see where the intent is similar.

Each industry has its own expressions, and publishing has come up with a nifty one: “native advertising.” It amounts to inserting advertising into the editorial matter of a publication. Not sure where the name got its start, but parsing it out, I’d guess that saving “advertising” in the name was a way to attract advertisers, while the “native” part is calculated to make it sound healthful. Like “natural” prefaced to ingredients for all sorts of foods. 

It used to be that publishers and journalists were so concerned about even the appearance of conflict of interest that they maintained a “Chinese wall” between the department that wrote news and the department that sold advertising. No advertiser could ever be able to influence news coverage. If you didn’t keep that wall separating the editorial and advertising departments, your publication was considered to be prostituting itself.

 Well, not only have fallen publications been rehabilitated; respectable ones have joined the sisterhood. In a 180-degree turnabout in reasoning, the argument now goes that you’re not serving your readers if you’re not telling your advertisers’ stories.

I’ve written for a number of trade journals, but I’ve never been a full-time journalist, and I attended Business rather than Journalism school. Even so, I’ve always subscribed to the idea that advertising should be kept out of the editorial side. There’s enough persuasion going on already without slipping in more in the guise of reporting. Yes, there are federal regulations and industry codes of ethics that mandate transparency for the new format, but as we know, regulations are skirted regularly and ethics…ain’t what they used to be.

Maybe the worst part is, now reporters and editors --- the people formerly under almost Hippocratic Oath not to  do it -- are being conscripted to write the material. The argument for it is that, in business publications, for example,  they write about the companies in their industry regularly and so are in the best position to “go native” (while we’re talking in euphemisms).

Unarguable as far as it goes, but what happens when and if one of those reporters or editors has some negative news to report about one of the advertisers he or she’s been shilling for? The conflict of interest that’s been latent all along now becomes real. Where is his/her loyalty expected to lie? It’s the old “serving two masters” problem, and I haven’t heard that anyone has come up with an answer to that one yet.

My inclination is to bemoan the change, although practical considerations tell me I should celebrate it. I’m in the catbird seat: I can write  advertising that reads like journalism, and journalism slanted to persuade. But I still don’t like it.

(Belay that posting date up there by the title; this was ready on Sunday the 26th. 
I forgot to post it!)

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Die Gedankenleiter

Can’t help myself; “Thought Leader” just sounds like it needs to be in German.

There has arisen a class of people christened “Thought Leaders.” I thought they had been anointed by LinkedIn because I keep running into them there, but apparently the term originated in a Booz and Company business magazine about 20 years ago. 

The information on origin is from a website called Mashable, which goes on to try to define what a Thought Leader is. Ultimately, after much conversation, for Mashable it comes down to "a Thought Leader has earned his or her title because that person's ideas have gone viral." Presumably the ideas can be good or bad as long as a lot of people see them. 

David Brooks does a much better job in a column in the New York Times of December 17, 2013. I subscribe to his version, or at least his attitude: he defines "Thought Leader" as “sort of a highflying, good-doing yacht-to-yacht concept peddler."

It’s very confusing. Why are some people in the group? What are the criteria for ordination? I see President Obama near the top -- what the president says is important -- and Sir Richard Branson,   a very inventive guy who’d be worth listening to.  But it falls off pretty quickly after that. 

I’ll allow for experts in fields I know nothing about and whom, accordingly, I don’t recognize. Call that a second  tier, as seen from my viewpoint, and it figures to be a big one. But it gets kind of hazy after that, for me, anyway. There seem to be hundreds, if not thousands of these people. And all with vital information I'm told I should want to hear.

I don’t buy it. I’ve run  into quite a few advice-givers on line by now, and most often what they have to say is a transparent attempt to put a twist on something old and present it as something new. It's especially prevalent in the marketing field. 

You also find Dueling Leaders. One marketing maven says you must use psychology and emotion to sell things to business buyers; another says using emotion to sell business-to-business is “an exercise in futility.” If you’re gullible enough to follow these guys, what are you supposed to do with that?   

The original Thought Leader didn’t have that problem. There was one party line. Everybody believed it. Or else. That’s thought leadership. You can almost hear the echoes from the big stadium. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Nibble on the Novel

After years of trying, on and off, to sell my novel to someone,       I suddenly have a sign of interest  -- and not from a publisher or agent. It’s from a movie-making company.

It happened more or less accidentally, the only way it could happen. The description of one of the writing assignment I bid for had the throwaway line at the end, ”We’re always looking for movie scripts.” I told them I had a novel, but if they’d like to make it into a movie I wouldn’t object.

As the novel had languished over the years, I had considered trying to convert it to other formats. I'd thought about a comic strip, but the problem there was that comic strips go on -- sometimes for years -- but my story had an ending.

After that I thought about a photonovella and tried the idea out on some graphics-type friends. That ran into a different kind of problem: these guys are so visually oriented I couldn't get them to read enough of it to see the potential. "Too many words." 

So, no luck with novel, comic strip, or photonovella; what was left? MOVIES!

To my surprise, my half-joking offer drew a response. I fired a synopsis off to the fellow who contacted me, a man named Victor (a good sign) with a rhyming last name (even better). 

Still better, I had long ago written a “cast of characters” for the novel describing the players and how I envisioned them. I’d never had occasion to use it before, but it seemed just right for a pitch to a movie-maker. All in all it wasn’t a professional package, and it’s not even a script, but I had to take the shot.

To my even greater surprise, I next received an email saying the material I sent would be read within a day or two and I would hear back almost immediately. Wow. That kind of speed and businesslike approach is unheard of in the freelance game. It’s enough to start you wondering if you're onto something really great or being drawn into some kind of scam.   

Abandoning myself to optimism -- I'm assuming it will take some doing to turn the novel into something you can make a movie with; it’s written first person and there’s a lot of what I guess you’d call ”internal dialog,” where the narrator is thinking things to himself. Not the best material for the silver screen. 

So I suppose much of my job, when they buy, will be to translate the internal stuff into dialog you can hear, or into action. I haven’t done that kind of work before, but I’ve been really close to the novel’s characters for a long time; I think they'll say and do the right things if I ask them 

Sunday, July 5, 2015


Anyone who thinks there isn’t enough “transparency” in the business world today should see the agreement and disclosure statement I received along with the debit card I applied for. You’ll note I said “see”; I didn’t say “read.”

The reason is that, in what they would probably call a victory for transparency, VISA sent more information than anyone, the most literate among us, could possibly absorb. 

For starters, the type is almost microscopic; I would estimate it at a 4 on the typographic point scale that rates one-inch-high type as 72-point. This mouse type, single-spaced, covers both sides of a sheet that folds out to 14 inches wide and 7-1/2 inches high. The disclosure from the bank itself with the same type runs an astounding 33 inches wide, and it’s an inch taller than the debit card piece. Word count is beyond estimating. But you want full disclosure? We’ll give you full disclosure.

This is a device I’ve seen also used by the utility company, in the enclosure that comes in every bill, informing you of their application for a rate increase. (Not the rate increase from last month; this is a new one.) Everything you need to know for your futile comment to the state Public Utilities Commission is there, but encoded in type so small and so lengthy that only the lawyers who wrote it can be sure of what it says. But it’s there; what’s your complaint, citizen?

There are consumer advocacy organizations and they have lawyers, too, so sometimes we get to hear what all those words really mean, and it’s usually bad news. The organization here in California has celebrated some victories, but whether such organizations can overcome the utility’s lobbying of the state agency over the long haul is a question. You’d think our side would win, considering the unfair advantage we seemingly have: we’re a whole group of people and the utility corporation is just one person. But what if he or she is dating someone on the Commission?