John Wilcock column header


The Column of Lasting Insignificance: May 9, 2009

THE INCREASE IN coupon offers and other cut-price deals is setting up advertisers for lasting damage to their brands, suggests a front-page story in Advertising Age. “I’m seeing a lot of money being spent in trying to bribe the shopper to buy,” warns consultant Thom Blischok, “but the more (you do this), the more you are setting your long-term pricing strategy.” The mag reports that “coupons” searches outnumbered those for “Britney Spears” last month and that more than half of all beverages in February were discounted. Conventional wisdom, AdAge concludes that such deals “pose a threat to brand health.”

LAWN-PAINTING is becoming trendy in some areas where foreclosures have punctuated suburban streets with ugly brown lawns flanking empty homes. In the California town of Perris (pop: 53,000), for example, three-man crews typically spend four hours painting dead lawns a healthy green.

“We’re trying to maintain properties so they stay at a decent value,”  says development director Ron Perris. “It’s money well spent.”

ON THE SUBJECT OF electric cars, says Fortune, Asian manufacturers “are leaving U.S. rivals in the dust”. What it all comes down to is batteries: the more mileage needed without a recharge, the bigger the battery needed and the costlier and more cumbersome the car. And the right kind of lithium-ion battery costs at least $10,000 — about half the price of the cheapest car. After its fiasco with the EV (recalled and junked a decade ago) GM is betting on its Volt (due next year) but meanwhile, the Chinese BYD company (in which Warren Buffett invested) is morphing from one of the world’s largest cell phone and battery companies into potentially the world’s largest automaker with the first plug-in model,  already cheaper and with a greater range than the Volt will have. The prediction is that the future lies in car owners renting their batteries rather than buying them which, says one expert,  “is like having to buy upfront all the gas the car will ever need.”

WITH A FRONT PAGE simulating Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, the Nation asked if the media tycoon’s purchase of the Wall Street Journal has caused the financial paper to “lose its soul.” The story offered more than it appeared to deliver, quoting several writers who supported the ensuing changes, but it did suggest that Murdoch “had smothered it and made it ordinary” and reporting that frustration was rife among the paper’s reporters. As to the future, former WSJ executive editor Fred Taylor surmised that the new editor, Robert Thomson, brought in from the London Times, didn’t have the cojones to stand up to the new boss and may end up being “merely Murdoch’s caretaker and custodian.”

AMONG SUCH WORLD-FAMOUS sites as Peru’s Chan Chan, Ireland’s Tara, and a 14th-century abbey in Kosovo, the Smithsonian named America’s “Mother Road” in its list of ‘Ten Endangered Cultural Treasures’. The magazine reports that Route 66 is badly in need of preservation and expiring later this year is the bill passed specifically to do that, which has never been fully implemented. (read the chapter in John’s autobiography, Manhattan Memories, devoted to Route 66.)

THE OUTLOOK FOR fundraising is predictably gloomy in these troubled times and is made worse, suggests the Utne Reader, because we have “outsourced compassion.” In recent years, “the United States has deliberately and steadily shifted the burden of meeting social needs onto a loosely organized, haphazardly regulated patchwork of nonprofits.” Apart from the fact these are hobbled by too many outdated regulations, it is time to abandon the Reagan-inspired concept that ”help is harmful” and have the government improve welfare and other social services. “Trying to end hunger with food drives is like trying to fill the Grand Canyon with a teaspoon,” declares Joel Berg, author of a book on the subject.

EUROPE’S MOST CAUTIOUS BANK, Spain’s Banco Santander, was careful to avoid most of the financial jiggery-pokery that capsized so many of its rivals. Last year it racked up a profit of $11.7 billion. Now it’s about to spread its wings in the U.S. by upgrading the 747 branches of Pennsylvania-based Sovereign Bancorp which it acquired a few months ago. This was only one of nine deals across three continents on which Santander has spent $31 billion in the past two years. “We only invest in markets we understand well,” says the bank’s CFO José Antonio Alvarez.

THE WILCOCK WEB: Profligate with money but dense about PR, banks don’t seem to realize that running the same ear-splitting commercial too often (yes you, Chase) just alienates viewers…. Who would have expected that the Martin Luther King family’s greatest fame would come from their greediness?…. After killing each other for the past 700 years, Sunnis and Shiites will continue doing it, whether we are there or not….With a column about collectibles celebrating his tenth year of writing for Popular Mechanics, Jay Leno confessed he had paid $800,000 for a MacLaren F1 which was now worth four times as much…. Those tantalizing glimpses of Ivanka Trump on Celebrity Apprentice are not enough. One could gaze at her porcelain features for hours…. Slate business writer Daniel Gross wrote that (now-defunct) Portfolio was too Condé Nast for its own good.  (It) “didn’t have the attitude of a hungry startup, which it was. Instead, it rolled like an established Condé Nast property, such as stablemates The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Wired, Condé Nast Traveler, et al”….The average cost overrun for NASA and Pentagon contracts is reported to be 26% so why aren’t the companies that sign these dishonest contracts obliged to eat the overcharge?…. “A celebrity” as defined by H.L. Mencken,is one who is known to many persons he is glad he doesn’t know”…Britain’s supermarket giant Tesco has already lost two hundred million bucks trying to crash the US scene with its Fresh and Easy stores…..Legislators in half a dozen states are pushing bills that would force Amazon to collect taxes on mail-order items…. We always knew Condoleeza was a real bitch, so it’s no big surprise to learn she was a torture enabler…. Welsh scientists claim that feeding cows garlic can make them fart only half as much…. Columbia Journalism Review has published a Chinese edition…. About half the world’s supply of lithium, an essential ingredient for electric car batteries, is in Bolivia whose president, Evo Morales, is planning to insist that the batteries be made there…. If the second Night at the Museum is half as funny as the first, it will still be hilarious…. Seventy years after introducing (at the New York World’s Fair) the boxy View-Master which allowed you to see a series of 3D pictures, toymaker Fisher-Price has stopped making them…..“If there is no struggle there is no progress. Power concedes nothing without a demand.” — Frederick Douglas (1818-95)