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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Fortune Magazine July 23 Issue: 35 Ad page Marathon to the First Editorial Section

I am a little behind on my business reading and I was browsing through the July 23 issue of Fortune magazine this morning. As I began to flip pages, I noticed that I was flipping through many consecutive pages of ads in the front of the book. Before the magazine’s “First” section which was aptly titled until now, I had to thumb past 35 pages of advertisements and one lengthy uninteresting advertorial. (Are any advertorials interesting?) Sandwiched in-between were the table of contents, reader letters (which were sandwiched in-between two vertical ¼ wide inch ads – reader response didn’t even get full pages), and the plug page (an advertisement in its own right.)

Hmm, I thought ads were supposed to be inconspicuously placed so that readers common upon them on happenstance. By the time I got to the “First” editorial section, I was exhausted. Mississippi Development Authority took up most of this valuable real estate in the front of the book. I guess they are trying to entice businesses to move or setup shop there. Actually, I wouldn’t know what they were trying to do, I didn’t read the advertorial, I was too busy trying to find Fortune’s editorial section.

I know the publishing industry has taken a financial hit of late, but 35 pages of ads before you get to the “meat” of any publication is a bit ludicrous.

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Friday, July 27, 2007

Widget Mania

I recently learned the term “widget” and became obsessed with what they can do to a website. BusinessWeek has a insightful article about how widgets are becoming a major low-cost promotional tool for marketers.

See my widget for this blog.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A Historic PR Spin on Slavery: Colonial Williamsburg’s Website Dumbs Down Slavery

As a publicist, I am akin to spin. It is part of my profession and I usually do not fault a little spin, where appropriate. But after reading the spin on slavery on the Colonial Williamsburg official website , as an African American- I am in utter disgust.

I was planning a visit to Virginia and began researching Williamsburg. What I found was shocking. What we know as a horrific time for African-Americans in colonial times is characterized in a very odd manner on the Colonial Williamsburg website. To my horror, I stumbled upon the heading “Introduction to Colonial Life for African Americans.” Firstly, this makes the life for African Americans in those times sound very dignified. To even call it colonial life is a joke. Slaves had no lives – their lives were that of their slave masters. It wasn’t colonial life – it was colonial oppression. This section title alone put me on edge.

But it gets worse.

As I read this eloquently spun prose, I am learning some very eyebrow raising things about slavery. One thing is that there were advantages to colonial slaves. FYI - the words “advantages” and “slaves” should never be in the same sentence. Well it seems that field slaves had minor advantages over house or “urban” slaves. Here is Colonial Williamsburg’s spin:

“For slaves working on farms, the work was a little less tedious than tobacco cultivation, but no less demanding. The variety of food crops and livestock usually kept slaves busy throughout the year. Despite the difficult labor, there were some minor advantages to working on a plantation or farm compared to working in an urban setting or household. Generally, slaves on plantations lived in complete family units, their work dictated by the rising and setting of the sun, and they generally had Sundays off.”

“Complete family units?” “Sundays off?” Are you kidding me? Firstly, slaves who had SOME of their family with them were always threatened to be separated if they tried to break free OR did something to annoy the slave master, like report sexual abuse. Working sun up until sundown is no picnic – so how is that an advantage? The average person today begins work at least 2 1/2 hours after sunrise. Their “work” day was not easy.

To be fair they do mention disadvantages:
“The disadvantages, however, were stark. Plantation slaves were more likely to be sold or transferred than those in a domestic setting. They were also subject to brutal and severe punishments, because they were regarded as less valuable than household or urban slaves.”

Stop the madness.

All slaves were slaves in colonial times. All slaves were subject to abuse and there was very little preferential treatment. Yes, a house slave may have worn nicer clothing (because they were around their master’s guests and family) but they were not treated like gold. One misstep and they would be beat or thrown out to the fields. House slaves probably psychologically felt superior to field slaves – but they were all on the same level.

This is priceless – the story goes on to explain how “urban” and “domestic” slaves were better off than field slaves:

“Urban and domestic slaves usually dressed better, ate better food, and had greater opportunity to move about in relative freedom. They also were go-betweens for field slaves and the owners. They were privy to a great deal of information discussed in the "big house." They knew everything from the master's mood to the latest political events. The marketplace became the communal center, the place for "networking." At the marketplace, slaves would exchange news and discuss the well-being of friends and loved ones. They often aided runaways, and they kept a keen ear to those political events that might have had an impact on their lives. Regardless of a slave's occupation, there was considerable fear and angst caused by an environment of constant uncertainty and threats of violence and abuse.

Slaves networking – that is an interesting spin. If slaves were able to be off the plantation – they were still being closely watched. Their conversations were most certainly being overheard and they were desperately scheming to break free. I guess networking is a decent way to put it – but it is too positive. My favorite reference is “regardless of a slave’s occupation.” Occupation? According to Webster’s occupation means “"an activity serving as ones regular employement." Slaves were not EMPLOYED - they were slaves. This website’s characterization is totally ridiculous. “Threats of violence and abuse” Threats? Slaves were more than threatened – they were consistently abused, mistreated and on many occassions - killed.

I understand that Colonial Williamsburg is now essentially a business and a tourist trap. But there is no need to re-write history using questionable verbiage that clearly undermines the integrity of our history.

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Friday, July 13, 2007

PR Winner of the Week: Miss New Jersey

After coming forward with photos that could have comprised her role as New Jersey’s reigning beauty queen, Miss New Jersey, Amy Palumbo has been allowed to keep her crown. Although this was damaging to her personal brand, she certainly has demonstrated her chutzpah for pushing back on people trying to undermine her integrity as a beauty queen.

In my opinion, being forthcoming saved her. She didn’t deny the photos or make too many excuses (although she did say they were meant to be private – someone please tell her privacy is dead in age of camera phones.) She was booked on NBC’s Today Show on July 12 and shared her risqué photos with the world. She was fully clothed in all of them, but they were certainly compromising positions. She seemed nervous and embarrassed by the whole ordeal. But I believe her decision to be frank about the nature of the photos is what saved her crown.

In addition, if pageant officials were to set the precedent for stripping young women of their titles for photos of them having an unbridled good time – there would be a smaller crop of women vying for pageant titles. Let’s face it, today everyone between the ages of 13-24 has access to a digital camera or camera phone. It is easier than ever to catch someone doing something naughty. Pageant officials are going to have to relax there outdated rules and guidelines if they want women to continue to compete.

Miss New Jersey, Amy Palumbo, is my pick for the PR Winner of the Week for her savviness in using an appearance on The Today Show to save her crown.

Who needs Branding?

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Brand Busters: Fake Designer Handbags, Clothing and Pirated Movies on DVD Proliferate in New York’s Chinatown

By Shakira M. Brown

On Friday, June 29, 2007, my assistant and I were headed to Little Italy for a nice lunch. We got off the subway at Canal Street which dropped us in the belly of Chinatown’s counterfeit row. As soon as we placed our comfortably-heeled feet on the sidewalk, the sound of fake designer merchandise being hocked surrounded us.

As Asian women shoved laminated photos of faux bags in front of me they asked, “Coach, Gucci?” “Prada, Chanel”. This was not a trip for that type of shopping, so we continued on our journey up Canal Street toward the sweet smell of Italian food. But at each new block there were more street peddlers and hustlers asking us if we wanted a DVD of “Live Free Die Hard” (just days after its release) faux Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses or a Rolex watch. If we fancied, we could have indulged in a nice knock-off Tiffany bracelet ( ), but we motored on.

As I was wading through the crowded street, I could not help but think about an article I read in the Wall Street Journal ( no more than two years ago about how designer companies were cracking down on counterfeit versions of their merchandise. They were even cracking down on the desperate housewives who were raking in side money by having “bag parties” in their homes selling knock-off wares rather than candles or jewelry. Was that just a publicity stunt to scare off the faux bag peddlers? I am not sure, but what I am sure about is that the counterfeit designer goods and pirated media business is alive and well in New York’s Chinatown.

Why is this bad?

The counterfeit industry is very bad for branding. The number one reason for this is that the counterfeit items are poorly made and lack subtle details which typically add caché to the real items. Often the integrity of the brand is lost mainly because of the lack of attention to detail.

With thousands of counterfeit items being sold daily in various markets, high-end designer duds are making their way into the hands of the average Jane or Joe. Why is that bad? One reason is that those designer items are no longer exclusive to the wealthy and famous set. If a middle-class person can purchase the latest Birkin bag in Chinatown as a counterfeit for $100 why would Jennifer Anniston or Jessica Alba want to carry a bag that is suddenly so attainable to common folk? Counterfeits ruin the mystique behind some of the most revered designer brands. When celebs stop showing up in your hottest designer items - the free publicity the brands were receiving go away with it.

The movie industry seems to be more proactive with regard to piracy. Over the last year, Regal Cinemas has tested devices that allow movie-goers to alert theater staff if they see a scoundrel recording the movie they are watching. This is called citizen action and is a great idea and a step in the right direction. But piracy has taken a toll on the movie industry, so much so that theaters are doing everything they can to get people lined up to pay $9.75 or more to see the latest releases. Reduced pricing during certain hours of the week are in full swing and movie clubs offering free popcorn or other discounts are being offered by large theater chains.

But what about the designer bag manufacturers? What are they doing to stop their brands from being hijacked and sold for far less then the retail cost? I know some designer brands have legal departments dedicated to cracking down on counterfeit goods, but is it more then they can handle? Perhaps some luxury good makers have decided that they have bigger fish to fry and are not proactively looking to stop the counterfeits. Maybe it is the unsavory PR they would receive if they suddenly disenfranchised thousands of immigrant peddlers, many who are Asian and African, by raiding the back rooms and alleys the faux merchandise is sold from. Photos of immigrants being escorted from the scene in handcuffs plastered on New York tabloid papers would not be very good for corporate cultural relations.

I will tell you one thing, the counterfeit sales force is very savvy. Very few of them have items on display on the street. Instead, they show you a picture of their fake merchandise rather than have it right there on the street. I guess they are doing all they can to protect their counterfeit brands.

I wonder exactly what luxury good makers are doing to protect their real brands?

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Thursday, July 5, 2007

Product Placements in Transformers and Other Summer Movies: Overkill or Necessary Evil?

Sitting through the Dreamworks SKG/ Paramount Pictures “Transformers”, there was an ongoing theme other than cars turning into robots. As the film begins in the headquarters of the Department of Defense, you cannot help but notice that everyone in the room was using HP computers ( And when the computer analyst decides to steal secret data, there was a very tight shot on her slipping a mini-Panasonic SD memory card ( into her compact to take home with her. Who could miss the film’s hero – the yellow Chevy Camaro which turns into the autobot “Bumble Bee.” Ah yes, the summer blockbusters are in full swing and so are the product placements.

Of course, product placements are not new or groundbreaking. In fact, the history of television shows that many of the great television programs of yesteryear were “presented by” major consumer product manufacturers and often included LIVE commercials touting the sponsoring company’s products. So in essence, it seems consumer product companies and their advertising executives are bringing back the old to promote the new. And the reason for this shift? The fact is that we now have options! We do not have to sit through an ad any longer. So now advertisers are embedding their ads into our programming.

In June, NBC’S The Tonight Show ( aired its first live commercial in 20 or so years. Right before a commercial break, Jay Leno tossed to what most thought was a segment. It actually was toss to the show’s announcer, John Melendez, doing a LIVE commercial for Garmin GPS systems ( Complete with a set and actors, this was indeed a commercial and much harder to identify on a TIVO as a commercial. And that was the point. Live commercials embedded into our programming make it much harder to skip pass.

At the movies, it is also getting way harder to identify commercials. I saw “Transformers” at an AMC Theater. We arrived about 15 minutes before the previews. My ticket said “theater 9” but when I got there what seemed like a movie was playing. I said, “Oh this can’t be it, a movie is already playing.” I actually turned around to leave and then I noticed the lights were still on. I said – “this has to be it.” And indeed it was. What was playing on the screen was a long form commercial complete with a dramatic script and film quality. Unfortunately for the advertiser, I cannot tell you what the commercial was for because I spent most of the time it was playing trying to figure out if we were in the right place. But nevertheless, this is what advertisers are doing to engage consumers.

Is it overkill? Perhaps it was in Transformers. After a while, all I was doing was noticing one product placement after another. However, would a geeky teenager be inspired to buy a Camaro after seeing the film’s HUMAN hero win the girl in that car? Well that is what Chevy is hoping for. Let’s face it, you don’t see very many Camaro’s speeding down the highway, but with this type of hype, teenagers could be lining up at the dealerships around the country to snag their very own Chevy muscle car. Perhaps even teenagers in foreign countries would like to snag a Camaro. Increased interest from foreign consumers would be well-worth the price General Motors paid to have its vehicles in “Transformers”.

I just hope that the product placements industry doesn’t get too gung ho. As it is, I am noticing these placements more and more. If it starts seeming too contrived, they will not achieve the results that advertisers are hoping for in the long run.

Here are some of the product placements I noticed in the movie, “Transformers” and the way they were placed:

Apple iPod and Computer (visual – character transform[iPod])
Chevrolet Camaro (visual – main character)
Chevrolet Truck (visual)
Cisco VOIP phone system (visual)
Citicorp (visual)
Dance Dance Revolution (visual – indirect scripted mention)
Deloitte & Touche (visual)
Drakes Ring Dings (visual and scripted)
EBAY (scripted and visual)
Ernst & Young (visual)
Furby (visual)
Hawaiian Tourism (visual)
HP (visual)
KPMG (visual)
Microsoft – XBOX (visual – character transform)
Nokia (scripted and visual)
Panasonic (visual)
Pontiac Soltice (visual)
U.S. Air Force (visual)
U.S. Army (visual and scripted)

Did I miss any? Please add to the list.

Shakira Brown, PR and Branding Expert

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