Sunday, January 13, 2008

Golden Wazoo

On January 8, 2008, Ka-BOOM! announced the winners of the three $25,000 Golden Kazoo and five Silver Kazoo $5,000 grants in the Playful City contest. Portsmouth, one of the contestants, was not one of the winners. If our local news media reported Portsmouth’s failure to win anything in the contest, I missed it. You see, reporting a setback or something that’s wrong with the city, is supposed to be bad for the city. Instead we are told everything is wonderful, things have never been better, it’s progress, progress, progress, all the time. You can read all about it in the special Progress issue that the Portsmouth Daily Times is currently working on. If a reporter strays from that line, the line that everything is wonderful in Portsmouth, if a reporter doesn’t show the crooks who control this town in a favorable light, if a reporter disloyally shows examples of how our river city is not progressing, if a reporter shows how imperfect, how very imperfect Portsmouth is, he won’t be able to work for the Daily Times. He will be fired, like reporter Jeff Barron was. What we get instead from the Daily Times are unctuous editorials from the hypocritical Arthur Kuhn, the latest in a long line of short-lived managing editors. Just what Portsmouth needs, another Kuhn artist.

Somebody at the Daily Times or Community Common or WNXT, should have done a little digging and pointed out that the Ka-BOOM! Playful City contest tends to prove the wisdom of P.T. Barnum’s reminder: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” A city, as well as an individual, you see, can be a sucker. Contestant cities in the Ka-BOOM! contest had to jump through a number of hoops before they could qualify to enter the contest for those Kazoos. One purpose of the qualification trials may be to enable Ka-BOOM! to separate those communities that are likely to be able to follow through on their goals and spend the most money on building play areas for kids. In other words, Ka-BOOM! may be sizing up the potential suckers. The “Playful” grants are seed money, with communities being expected to raise considerably more to complete their play areas. The playground construction companies and building suppliers behind the Ka-BOOM! Playful Cities contest expect winning communities to spend much more than the grants they win, and they not only expect, they require the winners to spend their seed money, in the stores and construction companies behind the contest. Those are the requirements included in the so-called “guidelines” that Ka-BOOM! contestants must agree to. Contestant cities’ building plans must be approved by Ka-BOOM! in order for a city to become a contestant.

No Place like Home Depot

Home Depot contributes $500 to the $5,000 grants, but the $500 is really a gift certificate that must be spent at a Home Depot store. And the other $4500 must be spent at the designated play area construction companies. Home Depot’s $500 and the other $4500 that must be spent in specified construction companies are like “loss leaders” in retail stores. The store advertises an item on which it takes a loss in order to get you into the store where you are expected to buy a lot more other items the store will make a good profit on. If a winner must go to Home Depot to spend the gift certificate, it’s likely the larger amounts the winner will spend on building supplies will be spent at a Home Depot store.

And as an added bonus, Ka-BOOM! ends up not only with the names and email addresses of contest participants, Ka-BOOM! also ends up with the names and email addresses of the many more people who, in an unwise show of civic virtue, supplied their email addresses in voting for their city’s contest video. The fine print says Ka-BOOM! will not sell these names and email addresses to third parties, but it does not say it and the companies connected with the Playful Cities contest cannot use these lists for their own purposes. More spam anybody?

The Ka-BOOM! contest is a marketing scheme posing as philanthropy. Marketing is about making more money by selling more of your product or service. Marketing has been around for a long time and is now part of the curriculum in business schools and colleges. It is like a degree in fleecing. Marketing includes but is not limited to advertising, the purpose of which often is to convince somebody to buy something he or she doesn’t need and can’t afford. Marketing is as pervasive as the oxygen we breathe, so we are hardly aware how much it dominates every facet of life, not just commerce but politics, sports, sex, religion, etc. What are political campaigns but vast marketing exercises? What are candidates promoting if not variations of the two dominant brands, Republican and Democrat? What is religion in America today but a fierce struggle of varieties of the dominant brand, Christianity, for customer loyalty? What are the most successful brands of Christianity? The ones that promise the biggest bang for your buck. Do you remember councilman David Malone’s “Portsmouth: City of Prosperity” campaign, something he borrowed from the Ministry of Truth movement?

Social Marketing

In a new twist, marketing has evolved into something called “social marketing,” which is supposed to employ the methods of marketing but for the sake of the public, not for the sake of profits. Ka-BOOM! is supposed to be engaging in social marketing. A cynic might say – and count me among them – that the line between marketing and social marketing is a narrow one and is easily crossed. Marketing wolves can easily change into social marketing clothing. Count Ka-BOOM! among the wolves offering a bigger bang for your buck. How do you explain that ridiculous name – Ka-BOOM! – if not as a bigger bang for your buck? What an image to use for a kids' campaign, a violent explosion!!!

The name of the company that provided Ka-BOOM! with the idea for the Playful City contest is Shycast, which should be called Slycast. On its website, Shycast “claims to be a community of people and brands, working together to make great new things happen in the world of social marketing.” Notice, it claims to be “a community,” not a company, and its announced goal is not to make money but “to make great things happen” through social marketing. What “great things” are they talking about? “At Shycast,” they boast, “we see the future: brands opening up to their customers, and people becoming more able, interested in, and open to, a real relationship with their favorite brands.” If there is something missing in your life, it may be you do not have “a real relationship” with your favorite brands. Is Home Depot your favorite “brand,” is Home Depot your favorite building supply store, or are you still in a meaningless relationship with poky old Lowe’s? Win a Silver Kazoo and you might see the light, or at least enter into a real relationship with a building supplier. After God, Country, and kids, what is more sacred to us than “Home,” with all its meaningful associations. Social marketing is prepared to exploit our most sacred feelings for the sake of profits. We haven't just been screwed; we've been "shycasted."

Hot Videos

Shycast is a company that provides other companies with a marketing strategy to make money. One of Shycast’s marketing strategies is conduct contests that include videos as part of the competition. “If you have a hot video contest idea for a brand you love,” Shycast says, “tell us about it. Brands tune in; they can make it real. We'll be working in the background, helping them find you. If your idea gets made, you’ve been shycast, and you’ll be involved.” Most of the contests Shycast helps promote are not even remotely beneficial to society. Shycast does not appear to be involved in the campaigns to eliminate AIDS or other Sexually Transmitted Diseases, or smoking. On behalf of IKEA, an international home product company, Shycast came up with a contest for new ways of making a bed. “We’re looking for bed-making maniacs who aren’t worried about what Mom says,” the come-on for the IKEA bed-making video contest says. “If you mix and match sheets, have a special blankie for the Shih-tzu, or the craziest of quilts this contest is for you.” Or if you have kids who, in addition to being bed-making maniacs, are also overweight couch potatoes, get on the ball and join Ka-BOOMS!’ Playful Cities contest.

Embarrassing Video

The Portsmouth video that was entered in the contests is, like our mayor, who is featured in it, an embarrassment to the city. Hot it is not. Instead of featuring kids, the Portsmouth video features city employees taking time off from their jobs to have fun. Try to imagine how hard it must have been to get them to do that. Try to imagine how hard it must have been to persuade our playful mayor to tool around on his motorcycle as the helmeted mystery star of the video.

If Portsmouth was not awarded a Golden of Silver Kazoo, it was awarded a consolation prize for being the best stunt video. What does that mean? One definition of “stunt” is an “unusual or difficult feat requiring great skill or daring.” Another definition of stunt is something “performed or undertaken chiefly to gain publicity.” I watched the video several times. I saw no feats requiring great skill or daring. I did see something done to gain publicity for city employees and Mayor Kalb. Unfortunately, it is bad publicity. The technical skill and the imagination behind the video is also an embarrassment. Portsmouth has a video specialist who claims to be a professional: the owner of Dawgbert Productions. If this Ka-BOOM! video is the best Dawgbert can do technically, go to Columbus or Huntington to have a video made, because Dawgbert is to videos what Snuffy Smith is to grammar. Dawgbert was the official media consultant for David Kuhn’s recent disastrous re-election campaign for city solicitor. ‘Nuf said? Perhaps Dawgbert can enter a social marketing contest on the evils of marijuana. Perhaps he could make a video called “Potsmouth,” showing the harmful effect heavy marijuana use has on the social development of over-the-hill bikers. Perhaps, he could win an Up-the-Golden-Wazoo Award.

Charity Begins at Home

Rather than helping make profits for Ka-BOOM! and company, Portsmouth could have better used the time and energy expended fruitlessly in the Playful Cities campaign. If more and better playground areas is a high priority for Portsmouth, some public or private agency should have organized a campaign for that purpose and not allowed a marketer to make a sucker of the city. Such playground projects have been undertaken in the past in Portsmouth. But with our current crop of public officials, intelligence and imagination, not to mention honesty and competency, are in short supply. Foolishness on the part of adults should not be mistaken for playfulness, nor a clueless biker for a cool dude. We now have two councilmen who will not be rubber stamps for the over-privileged of Portsmouth, and a city solicitor who has taken down the “Out-to-Lunch” sign. The Municipal Building should not be a playground out of which employees come pouring to have fun but the seat of city government, whose responsibility it is to provide safe places for kids to play in every neighborhood.