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Saturday, July 23, 2011

RIP, Amy Winehouse

Amy Winehouse was found dead in London today at age 27, and I find myself really saddened, although not surprised. I didn't know Amy, obviously, but I loved her voice. I listen to Back to Black all the time. I just made a comment on another blog yesterday that I love the soulful singers that are coming out of the UK (Adele, Amy, Jessie J) and I wished Amy would get it together and make another album. And now she never will.

Amy was talented, no question. You can't hear this and not recognize that she had a gift. But she was also really troubled. Plagued by addiction, perhaps unable to handle the demands of celebrity (she was only 20 when her first album, Frank, was released in the UK, and only 23 when Back to Black came out and blew up), and surrounded by people who didn't have her best interests at heart (with the exception of her father and father-in-law, the latter of whom called for a boycott of her music until she got some help). What makes me saddest is that she almost seemed to be committing slow suicide at the end of her life. That clip of her slurring and forgetting the words during concerts last month (she cancelled the remainder of her appearances afterward) ... it was clear that she was deeply unwell, and deeply troubled, and there seemed to be no attempt, even, to get out of it.

A few years ago, one of my best friends and I were gossiping about celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears (this was when she was in the throes of whatever she was going through - I think she'd just shaved her head, which prompted the conversation) and my friend brought up Amy Winehouse. She said she thought Amy would die young. We talked about the news today, and she was sad to have been right. I am too. Hopefully she's found some peace. And hopefully this will inspire others in the lives of celebrities like Amy - young, fragile, turning to bad things to cope - to take their health and safety more seriously.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Goodbye, Borders

I just read that Borders, which has been circling the drain for about a year, will begin liquidating as early as the end of this week. I find myself really sad about this.

It's awful that nearly 11,000 people will lose their jobs. No question, that sucks, and I feel awful for those folks and their families. But I'm the most sad about the end of an era, if I can be corny for a sec. I felt the same way when a few local movie theaters closed - they were the first theaters I got dropped off at, the first places I started feeling grown-up, and now they're a bank and a drugstore. Same with Tower Records.

Growing up in Philly, there was a Borders in my section of the city. (It's been closed for some months now; the space remains vacant.) It was a hangout spot. You could go, drink coffee, read books and magazines without buying them (except for the time I spilled coffee all over Oprah Book Club Selection Songs in Ordinary Time and had to buy it, which is one of the few books I put down without finishing. Too much rambling, not enough goings-on), and no one paid you any mind. You could spend an entire afternoon in there for the price of a snack. If you were wandering around the avenue, bored, you'd end up at Borders. Kept you out of trouble - what's more wholesome than spending an afternoon at a bookstore?

When I was 16, I had a huge crush on a boy a couple of years older than I who worked in the cafe of my local Borders. He used to flirt with me and give me free coffee and whatnot. My crush on him took up the whole summer. One day I noticed him, and then I went back and gaped at him from behind a book, and then I went back and actually got up the nerve to talk to him (which I cheerfully reported to my friends), and then he started flirting back and giving me coffee and having actual conversations with me ... it was SO sixteen and silly and cute. My friends would sometimes come with me to check him out and we'd have powwows in the bathroom: "He IS cute! And he totally smiled at you!" "I know! And he always gives me a bigger size coffee than I asked for!" Borders has all those memories for me. (The boy is in his 30s now and is one degree of separation from me on Facebook, although we're not connected.)

Leaving aside my adolescent memories ... dammit, I just love being surrounded by books. I always have. I am one of the few people I know who regularly uses the public library. I don't have a Kindle. The dream home I have designed in my fantasies has a library, with built-in floor-to-ceiling bookcases. And Borders has (had) more of a library feel than Barnes and Noble. It felt homier, more personal. Barnes and Noble screams "Big Business" in a way that Borders didn't.

Part of me wonders if Barnes and Noble is to follow. Does it make sense, from a financial standpoint, to pay rent on an enormous retail space when people are turning to Amazon more and more? (Myself included - I love books, but I'm also cheap. Undergrad and b-school texts in particular - I bought all my b-school texts online or from students who were looking to unload them.) And a part of me also wonders if this is all cyclical: if Barnes and Noble falls, will we see the return of small local 'round-the-way bookstores? I'd welcome that, but I'll really miss Borders.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Google+ Vs. Facebook

I was recently invited to join Google+. I'm using both Google+ and Facebook now, although the latter more than the former. My Google+ circles are gradually working up to actively using Google+, and so far my circles are a mix of Facebook and Twitter friends (I replied to a Tweet asking who was on Google+).

This article thinks that Google+ isn't a good personal branding tool, and I'm not sure I agree. I love the Circles feature, because it lets me control who sees what. There's a marked difference between my LinkedIn contacts and my Facebook friends, and a marked difference between what I post in both places. LinkedIn is professional; Facebook is social. It's the same way I have Twitter set to only post my #in tweets to LinkedIn; my professional contacts don't necessarily need to see that I replied to Aziz Ansari about the premiere of the fourth season of Breaking Bad. Circles helps me compartmentalize.

One feature that I'm really curious about is Hangouts, where you can use a video conference to connect up to 10 people. I don't have occasion to use it yet, but I think it could be a great personal or professional tool.

The author and I are on the same  page in that we both think Google+ can be a useful supplement to your personal brand, but it's still best to cover all bases. The author seems a bit more negative about it than I am, though - I'm definitely curious to see what features are added.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Social Media and the Company Website

Jeff Bullas posted an interesting article, wondering if Facebook is cannibalizing companies' web pages. I think he's dead right. It's true that whenever you go on Facebook, one of your friends has "liked" this brand or that brand. I tend to "like" people as opposed to brands: Tim Gunn (he's very wise), Barack Obama, the late (and brilliant) Manning Marable, a former professor of mine at Columbia and prolific author who passed away this spring.

With retail brands, I think there's less of a concern. You can't buy products on Facebook; if I want to replace my Carol's Daughter Hair Balm, I'll either look on the Carol's Daughter website or on Amazon. And if I went to a company's website and it redirected me to Facebook, I'd be put off if it didn't have a site of its own. As Bullas says, Facebook owns the content you post on it - if a company has its own site and social media, it can control the content. Likewise, a brand that doesn't make use of social media may find itself behind. Social media builds awareness.

So the key is to juxtapose social media and the company's own content - to use one to drive to the other. You can use Facebook and Twitter to drive people to the company or brand's website by inserting links and running promotions on social media that refer the user to the site. Look at social networking as a supplement, rather than a replacement for the company website - make the goal to be to drive people to the website and increase brand awareness.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Boom! Roasted.

Charlie Sheen is being roasted in a Comedy Central special airing on Sept. 19. This is also the day that Ashton Kutcher's first episode of Two and a Half Men is set to air, which I highly suspect is a deliberate move on Sheen's part to stick it to CBS. A "you take my show, I'll take your ratings" type of thing.

I'm-a be honest: I follow Sheen on Twitter. I watched the 20/20 special with him and his now-ex-goddesses, with my mouth agape. I read gossip about him out of perverse curiosity, sort of like how I read gossip about Amy Winehouse.* But I don't think this is going to be funny.

Sheen is such a mess that I suspect the jokes will just be plucking low-hanging fruit. "Charlie Sheen does a lot of drugs and has a lot of sex with a lot of porn stars. WINNING!" Remember James Franco in drag at the Oscars, talking about how he'd just gotten a text from Sheen? That was really weak. I think that's what to expect at the roast.

Seth Meyers' remarks at the White House Correspondents' Dinner worked (boy, did they work) because they were topical and specific. That bit about how he didn't think Obama was going to release his birth certificate was great, because it showed that he was paying attention. That's sharp, biting wit. Even when he talked about the obvious, like how America is broke, he did so in a way that wasn't so trite. Or when he took on Trump ... Trump is a completely ridiculous person, but he talked specifically about the ways in which he was being ridiculous in current events. (That joke about "the Blacks" being a family of White people had. Me. Rolling.) It wasn't "Trump has weird hair that looks funny" (although there was a hair joke in there). 

Now, to be fair, the audiences for the Correspondents' Dinner and for a roast on Comedy Central are probably pretty different. But I don't have enough faith in Comedy Central, I guess, to handle Sheen with any sort of depth. And Sheen himself isn't messy in an interesting way, anymore - he's just messy, and it's kind of sad and kind of gross, and his messiness in and of itself isn't funny.

I will say, though, that people will absolutely tune in for this, not to see the jokes, but to see what Sheen does. Is he going to make a speech afterward? Is he going to ... I don't know, streak? Call someone a charlatan? Just scream "WINNING" at the top of his lungs and run off the stage flapping his arms? I won't watch it (or Two and a Half Men, that show is totally not funny), but I will almost certainly YouTube highlights from it on the 20th.

*I keep hoping that the latest piece of gossip about Winehouse will be that she's going into detox and rehab for three months, getting all new friends and management, moving to a small town in the English countryside somewhere with few negative influences, and re-dedicating herself to her music. I bump "Back to Black" ALL THE TIME. If/when she puts out another album, I will be all over it. Please get some help, Amy, and keep making music.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Who Drinks Whisky?

AdWeek posted an interesting article about the changing face of whisky. I worked briefly on a well-known brand of whisky (a “lifestyle brand,” in PR terms) and the goal at the time was to widen its audience and make it more palatable to young people and women in particular. Whisky has an old, stodgy reputation, conjuring up images of someone’s silver-haired grandfather in a smoking jacket, sitting in a high-backed chair in a library full of dusty old volumes. Not books: volumes.

And in the 50s, whisky was seen as the grown man’s drink. It signified a certain maturity and lack of frivolity. If you’re drinking whisky, you’re a Man. Don Draper, with his suits and pomade and serious voice, drinks whisky (although he engages in plenty of frivolity, but that’s another story). The first ad for Old Grand-Dad, with the bust and the slogan “Bring out the bottle,” wants the consumer to be proud to drink whisky (it was apparently commonplace to pour cheap booze into the good crystal and serve it that way, keeping the bottle hidden). The bust in the ad is an older man, looking stern and watchful. And come on: busts themselves are kind of old. When’s the last time you were in a 20something’s apartment and there was a bust on the mantle? (I haven’t had a mantle since I left my parents’ house for college.)

In the lower ad, the bar is clearly a fancy cosmopolitan one – skyline, dim lighting, table polished to a shine – which appeals to the sleek, urban(e) drinker. The fact that the whisky is “handcrafted in small batches” makes the drinker feel discerning, as though they’re in on a secret. The cocktail on the table isn’t whisky straight up or on the rocks; it’s a mixed drink, which women tend not to shy away from.

The brand I worked for was trying to make whisky cool and sophisticated. The audience was young professionals, and the message was “look how cool.” Look how cool you’ll be if you bring this to a house party; look how cool you’ll be if you give this as a holiday gift; look how cool you’ll be if you just have it around your home for people to notice; look how sleek and cool the packaging is; look how cool it is that these female celebrities drink this brand; look how cool it is to sip a fine whisky, rather than chug gallon-jug wine (not that I would know anything about that). We focused on the less expensive bottles (although we did do a launch event for a $10,000 bottle; when I tasted it I immediately said, “It tastes like money”) and the more mildly flavored ones. We pitched coverage to sleek, glossy monthlies: GQ, InStyle, New York Magazine. Whisky and its drinkers have come a long way, and it's refreshing (no pun intended) to see the market changing. It's still a Grown Folks Drink, but I think it's less intimidating than it has been.