If you haven’t yet seen the original infomercial for the Snuggie, please do so immediately. We were stunned to learn via AdAge that this mindblowingly lame product has sold over 4 million units in just over 3 months. That’s right, 4 million of these suckers have been snapped up by consumers who apparently related to the challenges posed by traditional blankets when trying to do things like use the remote or pet the dog.
This is fascinating on multiple levels. First of all, the Snuggie is not an original idea. An identical product called the Slanket actually pre-dates it by a couple of years. At close to $45, I couldn’t fathom why anybody would buy the Slanket at all — but even back then, I remember being shocked that it was posting pretty decent sales. Then the Snuggie infomercial came along with its 2-for-$19.95 price tag and totally knocked the Slanket right out of its own recliner. While the Slanket was positioned as a sort of eco-novelty, the Snuggie chose to embrace its silliness with a direct-response ad ripe for parody and a price that many cocooning families found hard to resist in this recession. How amazing that in this time of extreme belt-tightening, people are responding to a product that is anything but necessary! The logic is baffling: “I need this Snuggie since I will be staying in a lot more and turning down the thermostat to save money,” etc.
In his excellent book The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, Gregg Easterbrook talked about the ridiculousness of American society which had amassed so much material wealth that products like carpeted dog steps were being sold on television. He had used that as an example of how in our culture, our material needs were so thoroughly satisfied that we had moved on to feeling like we needed even the most gratuitous products and services. Of course Easterbrook’s book was written before the Panic of 2008, during the height of massclusivity and trading up. So what does it say about our relationship to consumption today when people are buying Snuggies to the tune of $40 million even as the Magical American Wealth Generator ceases to function?
It’s telling that while the premium pricing and eco positioning of the Slanket didn’t cause much of a spark, the over-the-top sales pitch of the “buy now and we’ll even send you two book lights!” Snuggie has resulted in a veritable wildfire of consumer interest. In a way it exemplifies how we’re currently grappling with our oppositional desires — we are still plagued by a compulsion to buy things we don’t need, but we’re also wanting to cut back and find great deals. The Snuggie’s marketing is funny and lighthearted enough to temporarily anesthesize us from the realities of our crumbling economy, and the wallet-friendly pricing allows buyers to feel like they’ve scored an amazing deal.
Finally, if you’ve ever needed proof that humor sells, this is it. The sheer inanity of the Snuggie has inspired a rash of parodies like the one below, leading to millions of eyeballs worth of free exposure. The same recessionary conditions that drive us to spend hours trolling YouTube are also what make the Snuggie so perfect for our newfound lifestyles as shut-ins. Clearly the parodies are not intended to sell the Snuggie, but rather to make anybody who would consider buying one feel really stupid. But hey, we’ve all learned by now that when a brand is distinctive enough to be hated, it’s also distinctive enough to be loved. All this bad publicity for the Snuggie is doing nothing but boosting their sales. Go figure.
I’m sorry, but I can’t help but comment on this silly story today via CNN about how Canon employees in Japan are being sent home early from work twice a week as part of a national campaign to replenish the dwindling population. With the country’s birthrate at an abysmal 1.34, the Japanese have been fretting about how to deal with their reverse-pyramid demographics for more than a minute now. According to a company spokesman, “Canon has a very strong birth planning program. Sending workers home early to be with their families is a part of it.”
First of all, full disclosure: my dad has been working for Canon for almost 40 years. I think they’re a great company and have consistently been innovative (as far as Japanese companies go) in how they manage their global workforce. It’s pretty comical that CNN (and the other news outlets that have picked up this story) have focused on the “Check out what these weird Japanese are doing! Sending workers home to bonk!” aspect of the story–because if you bother to look beyond the misleading headline you’ll get to the real story in the final sentence: “(The 5:30pm lights out program) also has an added benefit: Amid the global economic downturn the company can slash overtime across the board twice a week.” DUH. If you ask me, that’s Corporate PR in its finest hour: taking a cost-cutting measure and spinning it into a CNN-worthy piece about companies doing its part to grow the population!
Also, anybody who has actually spent any significant amount of time in Japan can tell you that a few more hours at home every week is not going to solve its population problem. The important questions about Japan’s unrealistic immigration policies have yet to be answered; and nobody is really asking if Japanese women would choose to “go forth and multiply” even if they had all the flex-time and apartment space in the world. The fact is that more and more Japanese women today are delaying marriage or not getting marrried at all…and it’s not necessarily because they’re stuck at the office. What needs to be acknowledged is that a growing number of people are discovering an alternative paradigm for personal happiness that doesn’t necessarily involve marriage and kids. Instead of trying to bribe its citizens to procreate, the Japanese government should be opening up its borders to fill its growing labor shortage. Elder-care robots are fun to read about and all that, but frankly, if it came down to it I’d rather have my grandmother looked after by a warm-blooded immigrant than a souped up Wall-E.
It seems you can’t surf the web these days without coming across an article warning about the imminent death of newspapers. Come to think of it, you can’t browse a magazine or a newspaper without someone reminding you in print that what you are reading may be the last printed thing you ever come across. According to some death-watchers, it’s not entirely unimaginable for even the grand daddy of newsprint, The New York Times, to go toe-up as early as May–yes, as in, four months from now.
So it’s of course tickling as hell to see a techie entrepreneur bring everything full circle by creating a printed newspaper composed entirely of blog entries. According to The New York Times, which actually pays people to write obituaries about itself, a start-up pub called The Printed Blog hopes to be leaving ink smudges on the fingertips of blogophiles across the country with its free, ad-funded, user-generated content. The idea is that each edition will be hyper-localized and funded by local advertisers, with content being provided for free by willing bloggers who are eager to see their online musings in the form of ink on paper. That’s right, folks! Print’s still doing a-okay when it comes to prestige factor in the minds of most writers. Perhaps monitoring blog stats just doesn’t measure up to spotting someone reading a piece of paper with your name on it at the local cafe?
Given that there is no paid reporting, don’t expect your local issue of The Printed Blog to be breaking news on the next Darfur. As is still the case today, bloggers will continue to rely on paid (and trained) investigative journalists to dig up the really important stories that they can then blog about. That said, since the newspapers can’t seem to come up with a sustainable model for their rapidly decaying enterprise, it’s nice to see a total outsider give it a go. At the very least it should provide a nice alternative to going blind in front of your laptop.
The first edition comes out on January 27 in Chicago and San Francisco. We’re sure all the doomsday Twitterers will be watching what happens with bated breath!
The other day I found myself in a terrible situation. My broadband internet connection was still not working (it had been down for the last 48 hours) and I knew it was not an equipment problem since others in my building were experiencing the same malfunction. So I did what I had to do and called Time Warner to find out what was going on and how I could fix it. I dialed the number at 10am, not realizing at the time that I would be on the phone for the next hour and a half, transferred from one useless representative to another in between what seemed to be interminable hours of muzak. I was verbally abused, brought to the edge of tears, and ultimately NOT SERVED in any way.
After the traumatic ordeal, I still had no internet connection, no explanation (not even acknowledgment) of the outtage, and nowhere left to turn. To add insult to injury, Time Warner refused to credit me for the days of no internet connection as they claimed they didn’t see problems in my area. They were essentially telling me I was making this up and so were the people in my building. It was like that “Computer Says No” sketch from Little Britain, only not funny because it’s actually happening to you.
Within minutes of me posting a status update on Facebook (via iPhone since I had no internet!) about how I was trying not to cry over the bad service at Time Warner, I had multiple comments from both friends and distant acquaintances about how they felt my pain and how the Time Warners and Comcasts of the world existed solely to make our lives miserable. Sure we all know that cable companies are notorious for their lack of customer service despite the fact that we throw them $120 a month for it–but in the torrent of anger that my little status update inspired, I could feel the rumblings of a modern-day Boston Tea Party. “Taxation without representation is tyranny!” and all that — well, at least “monthly payments without customer service and no alternative options is tyranny!” Even last night on the Eyewitness News, there was a feature on how a congresswoman was put on hold for 40 minutes by her bank in an attempt to get some customer service! (She eventually received no such thing.)
I’m not asking for a “wow moment” here. I acknowledge that Time Warner is not the Ritz Carlton! But these dinosaur companies really need to shape up and think about what their customers are paying for, especially in this economy, because the second a customer service-driven alternative shows up, believe me we will all be jumping ship. The Amazon, Nordstrom, and Zappos of the world have given us a taste of how much better life can be without the expectation that the people we give our money to will do nothing but try to make us want to hurtle ourselves out a window. The era of no accountability is over. If you have a service job, if you’re running a business, it’s high time you start feeling appreciative about the paying customers who make your livelihoods possible instead of acting like you’re doing them a favor by even giving them the time of day. You don’t have to be a genius to recognize that in today’s socially connected Tivo-enabled world, quality customer service is infinitely more effective than any 30 second spot could ever be.
Words can’t express the euphoria we’re feeling here at SUITE 2046 over today’s extraordinary transfer of power. We’ll leave that to the infinitely more poetic Young Jeezy and tearfully imagine Obama’s face on future five thousand dollar bills.
In the meantime, since we’re all feeling so particularly refreshed over the inauguration, maybe we should go and buy a case of nicely redesigned Pepsis. Love it or hate it, in a bold move that couldn’t have been more perfectly timed, Pepsi’s latest makeover harnesses the collective positivity unleashed by last year’s Obama campaign and subsequent victory. Never mind that the logos of both the newly simplified Pepsi and the Obama campaign are absurdly similar; what’s interesting here is that smart brands are quickly seizing the opportunity to create lasting connections to what will surely go down in history as the most popular American presidency the world has ever seen. While it’s tempting to cynically dismiss it all as marketing at its most opportunistic–trying to profit off of Obama’s call for change? Are you for real???–the bizarre thing is that it’s hard to even be cynical in this fantastically idealistic post-Obama world. When Starbucks advertises free cups of coffee to people who sign up for community service at their stores, following live video of Obama talking about America being bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions, it’s hard not to get a bit choked up…and oddly thirsty for a tall latte. And honestly, isn’t it a sign of progress that Pepsi today is less interested in hiring Britney Spears and more invested in setting up websites like Dear Mr. President, in which people are invited to upload video messages to President Obama? The world is changing for the better. Today was proof. We think it’s great that corporate America is doing its best to follow suit!
I know I’m not alone when I say I barely go out to shop anymore. Even before Wall Street and its giving tree burned to the ground, the physical act of shopping–of going into stores and trying on merchandise–had become for me a distant memory; something I used to love and do compulsively but now find exhausting and devoid of joy. But before you jump the gun and assume I’m part of the rising tide of post-capitalist anti-consumers, I should tell you how I spend my mornings. I am signed up to so many “invitation-only” sample sale sites and “self-curated” sale aggregator updates at this point that I probably scan through at least 50 items of potentially purchasable products every time I log into my email. Most of the time I don’t buy anything — how can you when you know these targeted discounts will be magically refilling your inbox the following day? — but I do have to say it’s pretty hard not to peek, especially when you see the names of brands you like beckoning you from the subject heading. The daily emails from Gilt Groupe (or shall I say Guilt Groupe?) are the worst because not only am I tempted to buy the things from brands I already love, I am constantly being ‘educated’ in a sense about what else is out there and for how much. Then there’s Shop It To Me, a self-curated system (you pick the brands you like and what sizes you wear) that sends you daily emails that aggregate all the sale items of the pre-selected brands from multiple online retail sites. It’s less aesthetically seductive because there’s so much more stuff in each e-mail, but can be a deadly timesuck nonetheless.
These days with Oprah hawking sites like ideeli, and other targeted invitation-only sites like Rue la la popping up on what seems to be an almost weekly basis, it’s clear that much like porn, product ogling has moved entirely online. Just as the sex shops and peep shows of yesteryear have been cleared out to make way for on-demand porn on tv and the web, windowshopping has been replaced by a sort of ambient 24-7 virtual consumption experience. For sure we’re spending less money cus we have less of it now…but are we actually ‘shopping’ less? I don’t think so. Even if it’s not necessarily leading to purchase, we’re all probably dedicating a lot more mindspace to filtering through these endless streams of products, trying hard to ward off the feelings of desire they elicit. Whether you’re up until 2am browsing Ebay or flipping through Lucky magazine, for many of us, obsessive consumption (both real and imagined) is still alive and well despite the times.
I did a quick Q&A a few weeks ago on the publishing industry for HarperStudio’s blog, The 26th Story. Check it out here. HarperStudio is a new imprint run by Bob Miller at HarperCollins. Miller and his Gang of Four are valiantly leading the charge in trying to reinvent the broken model of book publishing. By lowering writer advances, which have become absurd for big name authors in recent years and offering greater profit-sharing, HarperStudio is hoping to make publishing more sustainable, both financially and environmentally. A staggering number of unsold books are sent back to publishers to be pulped every year–hardly a sensible way to run business in today’s economy. It also stands to reason that by avoiding debacles like Random House’s $8.25 million acquisition of Charles Frazier’s Thirteen Moons (a critical flop that sold less than half a million copies according to BookScan), publishers will be able to invest more time and money in the actual business of unearthing new talent and marketing them. Yes, publishing as we know it is rapidly coming to The End as Boris Kachka eulogized a couple months ago in New York magazine, but it’s also safe to assume that not all of us are going to stop reading any time soon. In today’s world, only the quick and nimble survive–and it seems to me that HarperStudio may likely prove itself to be the little imprint that could.
It’s a new year–a time for new beginnings. For us that means a new logo, a new website (should be up shortly), a new accountant, and this new blog thingamajiggy. Yes, after years of reading other people’s blogs for our jobs as trend analysts/marketing consultants, we’ve decided to start joining in on the general online chatter. We hope you’ll join us for the ride!