Sunday, May 29, 2016

where does the time go when it's not around here

My friends and I used to play this game when we were kids — "How Old Will I Be in the Year 2000?" As a youngster in the middle 1960s, the turn of the century was a million years away. Television shows like Lost in Space (set in futuristic 1997) showed us that traveling to planets inhabited by giant vegetables would be as accessible and commonplace as a trip to the supermarket. The Jetsons presented a future filled with servant robots, push-button dinner preparation and flying cars. As a six-year old, trying to visualize a thirty-nine year old Josh in the 21st Century was unfathomable. The magically distant year 2000 would never arrive. Or so I thought back in my youthful days when a drive to Atlantic City took ten hours. (It actually took 90 minutes; 75 in light traffic) and the minutes of the school day would creep by like a snail. However, on a positive note, a Saturday matinee movie would serve up what seemed like an entire day of entertainment and summer vacations seemed endless.

Now, here we are — sixteen years into the 21st century. Things are great, but they didn't play out exactly as I had imagined when I was six. The little, silly pictures I drew as a child became the stepping stone to my career as a professional artist. However, my little imagination never considered that thirty-nine year old Josh would be married with a thirteen-year old son when the year 2000 rolled around. 

But, I can't quite place the exact moment when time went from a deliberate crawl to a mad dash. Now, it seems that days, months, years go by so quickly. Time is whizzing by at an astounding rate. It's already May! It was just January! The days zoom by. I sometimes look at the clock and it's 9:30 in the morning and my next glance tells me it's 4 in the afternoon. It's a different story for events in my long-term memory. I am blessed (sometimes cursed!) with a great memory, but I have trouble gauging how long ago certain events happened. If I try to remember when a saw a particular movie or concert, or how long since a specific vacation, I am usually off by a few years. I can recall numerous details — minor characters in movies or side dishes of meals we've had on vacation — but when it comes to pinpointing the time frame, I'm way off. Considering how aware of time I have become, I will just blame that shortcoming on my advancing age.

Oh, I am very aware of time. Most of what I do on a daily basis is dictated by time. Getting up for work, deadlines, bill-paying, appointments for haircuts (and hair coloring — very important!), setting the brand-new DVR for recording a favorite movie — all are time-driven. So, imagine my concern when yesterday, I awoke before my alarm went off and watched as the clock ticked right past the set time without a sound. Uh-oh! I checked to confirm that I had, indeed, set the alarm the night before. (I did.) I checked the settings and everything looked normal. I had this clock-radio for a long time. Long enough that I had forgotten exactly how long. Its electronic "beeping" and its dual alarm had served my wife and I well. It dutifully alerted me when it was time to go to work or to leave for a family vacation. But now, sadly, my trusty alarm clock had run out of time. It was time for a replacement. (Jeez! How many more "time" puns can I slip in here?)

New slogan.
When I got home from work, I headed over to a local Target store. I parked my car and walked in, unconsciously making my way back to the small electronics department where, I assumed, I would find a selection of alarm clocks from which I could choose, I wasn't looking for anything fancy. All I needed was one with a dual alarm and a large, bright display that I could read in the dark without my glasses. As I approached the small department I saw several flat-screen TVs and an endcap display of iPhones. In the first aisle, there were shelves of wireless speakers, something that did not exist the last time I bought a clock-radio. Aisle number two was stocked with various sizes of home networking hardware, all securely wrapped with cables and some sort of theft-deterrent device. I strolled slowly up and down each aisle, silently scanning the shelves. I saw printers and headphones and cellphone cases and a few sleek, matte black, high-tech looking things that I couldn't quite identify, but nothing that resembled a clock-radio. Suddenly, I ran out of shelves of electronics and found myself in the garden department.

I retraced my footsteps. I redoubled my shelf-scanning efforts. Nothing. There was not a time-measuring device to be had. I slowly — slowly — walked away from the small electronics department. I even purposely walked through the small kitchen appliances department, hoping to find a clock-radio miscategorized among the blenders and coffee makers. No luck. I returned to my car. Clockless. I would be forced to use the alarm on my cellphone as my daily wake-up call. Y'know, like most people do now.

I suppose I am one of the last members of a dying breed. I still read books with a cover and pages. I still shop in "brick and mortar" stores. 

And I still like to know what time it is.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

I eat cannibals

I love advertising. I'm one of those people who does not fast-forward through commercials. I actually enjoy watching commercials. I like the clever ones. I like the creative ones. I even like the stupid ones, in a "what not to do" capacity. I suppose it's because I've been in the marketing/advertising field for so many years, I feel I need to keep on top of my industry, making myself aware of current trends and not becoming complacent to rest upon my proverbial laurels.

I like to research and trace the history of advertising, especially for a product that has been around for a while. It is interesting to see how the methods have changed (or haven't changed) for the same product over a period of years or even decades. I often wonder who was the lucky ad agency representative that was able to convince a stuffy corporate executive to loosen up a bit with their ad campaigns. Who was able to get Charles Grigg to stop calling his carbonated elixir "Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda," shorten it to "7Up" and brand it as a psychedelic alternative to cola? It turned out to be excellent advice. See? Some courageous company decision-maker has to be the one to take a chance. To change for the benefit of company growth.

Consumer foods giant General Mills has been a leader in product and product marketing for over a century and a half. They didn't become a twenty-three billion dollar-a-year company by accident. Considering they produce staple goods similar to those produced by other companies, marketing was key in General Mills growth and staying power. That's why core brands like Gold Medal remain number one choices among consumers, along with acquired brands like Pillsbury and Green Giant.

Of course, General Mills is synonymous with "cereal." Names like Wheaties, Cheerios and Chex have been around — gosh! — nearly forever. Clever marketing has elevated brands like Trix, Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms to lofty levels, nearly untouchable by competitors. Each of these cereals, introduced in the mid-twentieth century, featured a fun mascot, instantly endearing to the younger target market at which they were aimed. General Mills used this same strategy with subsequent breakfast food introductions — The "Monster" cereals in the 70s, and, my personal favorite, Cinnamon Toast Crunch in 1984.

The evolution of Cinnamon Toast Crunch is an interesting journey through marketing trends and changes. Cinnamon Toast Crunch came along in much the same way as many of its predecessors. It was a crunchy wheat/rice combo coated with cinnamon and sugar. The box initially featured a happy little drawing of a cinnamon-kissed slice of bread and his pal, a smiling cinnamon shaker. These characters soon gave way to three happy, yet bumbling, animated bakers, all decked out in pristine kitchen whites. There was jolly Wendell, the obvious leader of the trio. He was flanked by two unnamed colleagues, although they were inexplicably referred to as "Bob" and "Quello." The group appeared in a series of commercials and their likenesses were emblazoned on box fronts for association and recognition (them there are marketing words!). In 1991, however, Wendell's associates were shown the door and the white-haired baker was flying solo. His visibility was increased and his adventures became the focus of commercials and promotions, including send-away premiums, like plush dolls. Wendell was prominently featured on every redesign of the Cinnamon Toast Crunch box as well as spin-off versions like French Toast Crunch, Peanut Butter Crunch and Frosted Toast Crunch.

But in 2009, after a solo run of eighteen years, the venerable Wendell disappeared. He was replaced by strange little creatures known as "The Crazy Squares." I can only imagine the conversation, and eventual convincing, that took place in the advertising strategy meeting up in the Minnesota corporate headquarters of General Mills. Seated at a long, dark-wood table in the center of a conference room lined with matching dark-wood paneling, the General Mills executive board gathered to be pitched to. A slick, nattily-dressed young man from the contracted ad agency — his head full of outside-the-box creativity and his hair full of mousse — clicked along a PowerPoint presentation while the stuffy seniors stoically sipped water from glasses wet with condensation.

Just after the first few slides displaying growth charts and boring facts and figures, the slick ad man unleashed this guy  — 
A collective gasp from the board members cut the air. Sure, this little character is smiling. Sure, he's full of whimsy and mischief. Sure, he's dusted with sparkly sugar and inviting cinnamon, but there's something... something.... off about him. Something malevolent. As the presentation offered more detail, the true horror was revealed.
Look! The little guy is playful! How cute!

Look! Oh, he's so funny, just floating in the bowl!

Ha! He's a little dickens! Getting silly with another Cinnamon Toast "Crazy Square."

Oh, this is a little weird, but I guess it's fun and those guys are adorable!

Wait! WAIT! What the fuck? What's going on here?


At that point, I assume, the CEO stood up at the table, cleared his throat and leaned forward. He was prepared to send slick ad guy and his crazy new campaign on the quickest route to the elevator. But then, suddenly, he had a moment of clarity. A vision. An epiphany. "If this campaign riled me up," he thought, "imagine how it will make kids feel! Kids love this shit! And, if kids love it, they'll beg Mom to buy those Crazy Squares!" A smile beamed across the CEO's face. He blotted his dampened brow with a monogrammed handkerchief and commended the slick ad guy. "Genius, my boy!," he bellowed, "Genius!" The slick ad guy smiled smugly. The board members applauded.

And so, the stalwart, reliable, friendly Cinnamon Toast Crunch became edgier and more aggressive in its advertising, taking a somewhat dangerous route. But, it worked! They took a gamble and it worked out great. It was no longer about "gee, our cereal is good and it tastes good and it's good for you" and hundreds of testaments that have been repeated over and over. It was now a shocking, attention-grabbing surprise with very little to do with the actual cereal. The Crazy Squares have been shilling for Cinnamon Toast Crunch for seven years, even appearing on new holiday-themed versions of the cereal, as well as a new chocolate version and reintroduced peanut butter variety.

But what ever became of Wendell? I'd be willing to bet those Crazy Square bastards ate him.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

the second time around

Remember that story I wrote about our wonderful — almost magical — experience at Movie Tavern?

Well, we went back.

Prior to our last (actually, our first) visit to Movie Tavern, the brilliantly-conceived melding of movie theater, restaurant and bar, my wife had signed up for their "special perks" club. Periodically, the marketing team at Movie Tavern would send emails telling about upcoming films, special events and other information to entice us to come back — and come back often. So, taking advantage of a "Free Ticket on Your Birthday" offer, Mrs. P and I returned to Movie Tavern on a Saturday night, I can honestly say that we were excited to go back, having really enjoyed our first encounter,

Keeping with Movie Tavern's policy of seating one half hour before showtime, we arrived at 7 PM for an 8:30 PM showing of Disney's live-action remake of The Jungle Book, a film that had already been out for about a month. With other bigger and more-hyped movies opening the same weekend, we never expected to be told that the auditorium showing The Jungle Book didn't have two seats together. Disappointed, we opted, instead for a 9:20 performance of the new George Clooney-Julia Roberts thriller Money Monster, a film we knew nothing about. But we didn't care. We were happily anticipating an enjoyable evening that duplicated our previous pleasure at Movie Tavern. But now we had an hour to kill.

We scanned the suburban strip center of which Movie Tavern is the centerpiece. Most of the surrounding stores were closed at this hour on a Saturday. So we strolled down to a supermarket at the far end of the parking lot to buy a few non-perishables that I remembered I had scribbled on a shopping list I, of course, left at home. We slowly walked the supermarket aisles behind a nearly empty cart and ate up as much time as we could. We made our purchases and slowly headed back to the theater. I dropped our groceries off in our car and met my wife in the Movie Tavern lobby. 

Time crept by, but soon we queued up at the ticket-taker podium. We were informed that the theater was "not quite ready" and would be called "around 9 or ten of." I checked the clock on my phone. It was ten minutes to nine right now. A little after 9 PM, the announcement was made and we filed into Theater 8.

We scanned the menu and, with an over abundance of offerings for carnivores, we decided on the "2 for $30" special, which was one appetizer, two entrees and two fresh-baked cookies, all vegetarian-friendly. We closed our menus and settled into our reclining seats, watching servers busily scurrying about the theater. A young man passed by us, smiled and said "Hi guys! I'll be with you in a minute. " He disappeared down the entrance hallway. When he returned, he passed us by. Instead, he headed to the row in front of us. He took orders from every one in that row and, again, passed us by as he exited. He did smile at us again, though.

My wife and I exchanged glances that expressed our mutual disappointment. Finally, "Dave," as he introduced himself, came to take our order. Mrs. Pincus started off my saying, "We're gonna make this simple. We're gonna get the '2 foe $30' deal. We'd like the spinach artichoke dip and two portobello mushroom sandwiches." 

Dave furrowed his brow and pointed to the menu. "I believe you get two entrees." 

Mrs. P and I looked at each other and then back to Dave. "Yes," I said, "two portobello sandwiches." 

"Oh. Right.," said Dave. 

Curious about another item I spotted on the menu, I added, "I'd like an order of the fried pickles appetizer."

Dave frowned. "Uh," he stammered, "you only get one appetizer."

"Yes, I understand," I countered, "but, I'd like an additional appetizer. I'll pay for it. I brought money."

Dave smiled and entered my additional selection on his order pad and set off to, I imagine, the kitchen. "Well, this is a little different from the last time we were here." My wife and I uttered the same observed sentiment almost simultaneously.

The lights dimmed and the trailers for upcoming movies began. A few minutes into the preview of a new Ben Affleck film that I will never see, a different server approached us with a plate of two freshly-baked cookies. 

"Cookies?," he asked in a whisper, "You ordered cookies?"

Again, in the dark, my wife and I traded dumbfounded looks. "Well, not before our dinner.," she whispered back her reply,  "Why would these come out before our entire meal?"

He looked at us as though we were the first people to ever want dinner before dessert. What was wrong with us? He offered to bring them back to the kitchen and return with fresh cookies after we finished our main course. Still, he shook his head as though there was something wrong with our request.

Our appetizers arrived as the feature began. A minute later, another set of appetizers arrived. In hushed tones, we explained that we already had our appetizers. The server shook his head and disappeared into the darkness. Twenty or so minutes later, our sandwiches arrived. And a second set of sandwiches arrived moments later.

When the film was over, our server dropped a leatherette portfolio containing our bill on one of the swing-out tabletops connected to our seat. When the lights came on, Mrs. P scanned the printout and frowned. "Well, This is wrong.," she said in disgust.

The lengthy check included our "2 for $30" special and an additional fried pickle appetizer. Below that were two spinach dips, two more pickle orders and two additional mushroom sandwiches. This brought the total to more than double what it should have been. We summoned Dave over and, after several explanations, he finally understood our complaint. (Yes, it took a few reviews of the situation.) He took the bill and promised a return with an adjustment. As we waited for a corrected bill, we were visited by a young lady in managerial dress, complete with a walkie-talkie in her back pocket and an official-looking earpiece firmly in position. She listened to our tale of woe detailing our extreme disappointment as compared to our first visit to Movie Tavern. With sorrowful eyes and concerned expression, she offered apologies. She told a convoluted story about the ins-and-outs of their computerized ordering system. I was not interested in how their business is run and the shortcomings there of. This seems to be a pacifying tactic that corporations love to employ, not realizing that the customer honestly does not give a shit. We signed the corrected receipt and Mrs. P said, "We enjoyed ourselves so much last time. However, if this had been our first experience with Movie Tavern, we probably would not come back." The manager apologized again, very corporately, However, she did not offer any additional incentive or compensation. Not that we were looking for that, but it would have made for good customer relations. 

Will we return to Movie Tavern? Probably. But, not as anxiously.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

teach your children well

I haven't voted in an election since the first time Barack Obama ran for president. The first time, back in 2008. I skipped every election after that, including state elections and local ones. I stopped voting for a few reasons. First and foremost, I was chosen to serve on a Federal Grand Jury for two grueling years, thanks to the pool of candidates culled from registered voters in the eight-county, Eastern District of Pennsylvania. That experience was one that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy, although I would heartily wish on my sister-in-law.

Second, I vividly remember the fiasco that was the 2000 Presidential election. The majority of the voting public in this country seem to get a little fuzzy on the details of that election and, thus, continue to vote, thinking their vote actually means something. In the past-midnight hours of tallying the returns, I distinctly remember Dan Rather proclaiming that Al Gore had won the crucial state of Florida. Suddenly, within seconds, an off-screen voice yelled something incoherent, the vote-counting map put Florida back to a neutral color and Mr. Rather tripped over his words as he backpedaled on his statement. Soon, the country was plunged into a recount hell that kept us on edge while votes were re-tallied and chads were examined and results were debated. In the end, George W. Bush became the 43rd President of the United States despite Al Gore winning the popular vote. I decided that I had participated in enough of these pointless exercises. I honestly believed my vote did not matter. Actually, I believed that nobody's vote mattered. Disgusted, I gave it one more shot for Obama and then I swore never to set foot in a voting booth again.

Once again, the country finds itself in a heated frenzy over the upcoming presidential election. From a large contingency of hopefuls, the Republican party had whittled itself down to just a few potential candidates, including blustery narcissist Donald Trump. Trump is a guy that I never liked. I always thought he was a pompous loud-mouth who marketed himself to the lower echelon with the promise of "you can be just like me." He's a slimy bullshitter who talks a big game, but whose actual accomplishments show his true colors. He is fraught with failures, bankruptcy, lawsuits, divorce, infidelity and lies. With campaign tactics he learned from his time spent with professional wrestling, he has convinced a staggering majority that he has what it takes to run the country.

Second best.
My wife has become worried that Mr. Trump may become president. She asked if I would consider voting this year. Just prior to the Pennsylvania primary election, she explained that if Donald Trump wins by one vote, it would be my fault because I didn't vote. Well, even though Trump is a Republican and I am a registered Democrat and one cannot vote outside your registered party in a primary, I conceded and agreed to vote. A few days before the primary, our son came over. He told us that he had proudly made a contribution to the Bernie Sanders campaign. I told him that his mom convinced me to vote this year. He asked who I would vote for. I shrugged and said, "Hillary Clinton, I guess."

He frowned. "Would you consider voting for Bernie Sanders?"

"Sure.," I said, "As long as my vote doesn't make a difference, I don't give a shit who I vote for. Bernie it is!"

So, when Primary Election Day rolled around, I pressed the little button next to Bernie Sanders' name and exited the voting booth. I didn't look at nor vote for any other office. That night, Hillary Clinton won Pennsylvania. Oh well.

Second best.
This past Sunday, my son visited for Mother's Day. As evening approached, I offered to drive him to his South Philadelphia home. He asked if we could stop at our local Target so he could pick us a few cartons of La Croix sparkling water. According to my son, La Croix is the elixir of life — calorie-free, Aspartame-free and unusually refreshing and delicious. It's waaaay better than that 68¢-a-bottle swill that I buy from Walmart... or so I was told.

I pulled into Target's parking lot and we headed into the store. My boy made a beeline to the soft-drink department where — tadaaa! — there was a special sale on La Croix beverages, My son grabbed three colorful eight-packs of La Croix.

"You should try this.," he said, tucking the pack of coconut-flavored water under his arm. I looked at the shelf display, considered the many flavors and I buckled. I selected three eight-packs of La Croix. So far, I've had three cans of La Croix apple-cranberry. It's okay.

I love my son. I wonder what he'll talk me into next.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

OK computer

I'm not exactly sure when it started, but it has been going on for quite some time. I'm talking about those mysterious calls from a man or woman with a vaguely-familiar, yet unidentifiable, foreign accent originating from a number blocked by your caller ID. The caller, speaking in a staccato, obviously scripted, delivery, officially informs you that they are calling on behalf of Microsoft Technical Support. They continue with bad news. It seems that your Windows computer has been sending them messages that it has been infected with a dangerous virus (sometimes more than one dangerous virus! Eeek!) The alleged technician says he has called to help remove the virus from your Windows computer. Usually for a price.

These calls are infuriating... for a few reasons. First, I imagine my poor in-laws receiving one of these calls and being thrown into a panic. While they have accomplished a lot and have improved on their computer skills, my wife's parents are not exactly what you would call "techies." Anything more advanced than sending an email would be like asking them to plan the next mission to the International Space Station. Not to knock their ability — after all they just turned 80 and computers were unheard of in their day — but they are not really interested in furthering their computer knowledge. They know enough to perform the few necessary tasks they need and that's sufficient. So, if one of these so-called "Microsoft Technical Support" calls are convincing enough, there could be some real trouble — both technical and financial.

The second reason I hate these calls is my contempt for anything deceitful. Obviously, these calls are Trojan horses preying upon the fears of the uninformed. They know they're lying. They know they are not calling from Microsoft. I could never understand how some people can tell lies and feel fully justified in their actions. Why don't they get a job where lying is not a requirement? It's maddening.

My wife, however, has turned the whole thing around and made these unsolicited and unwanted calls into a game. The object of the game is to get the caller to hang up first. Mrs. P usually goes the "I'm an Idiot" route, pretending that she is not familiar with anything the caller says. 

"Microsoft?," she'll ask in faux surprise,"What's that?" 

Sometimes the caller will hang up immediately. Other times, she'll get someone with infinite patience who will explain everything

"It's the company that made your computer.," they'll offer. 

"Someone made my computer?," she'll reply... and that usually does the trick.

I play this game by different rules. I try to catch the caller in their own trap. I have told these people that, indeed, my computer is sending messages. Messages from Satan!  *click!*  My usual line of attack is to tell these callers that I don't own a computer. This has elicited varied reactions — from an immediate disconnection to an incredulous "are you sure you don't?" 

Two nights ago, our daily viewing of Jeopardy! was interrupted by one of these calls. A very well-spoken, articulate woman, again claiming to be from Microsoft, informed me that she was receiving messages from my Windows computer. I cut her scripted spiel off mid-sentence.

"What kind of computer do I have?," I asked.

She paused and remained quiet for a few seconds. Then, she answered, "We have been getting messages from your Windows computer."

"What version of Windows am I running?," I pressed.

She paused again, gathered her thoughts (possibly to scan her script for the proper reply) and took another approach. "We are getting messages from your server." She carefully emphasized the word "server" to let me know that she, indeed, had technical know-how. 

I quickly countered. "What kind of server am I running?"


I guess I won that round.