Saturday, January 29, 2011

Tear gas "Made in USA"

Is being gassed by a US-backed regime a "brand touchpoint"? For the one being served, it's certainly a bad "brand experience."

A colleague wonders about the impact of "Made in U.S.A." tear gas canisters fired at anti-government demonstrators in Egypt. He suggests that these exported canisters used against civilians damage America's brand.

Let's agree that it doesn't help. Tear gas – whatever the provenance – stings like hell. Weapons from any country of origin are hated by those they are used against.

At the same time, the association of the US with the current government of Egypt is well known. Presumably bags of grain enter the country stamped "U.S.A." – and movies, commercial jets and other exports reflect economic ties between the two nations.

The fact is, America's brand image in the Middle East is the product of a complex web of factors – historical and current, economic and military, local and geo-political. The fact that a company in Pennsylvania makes and exports tear gas does not help Brand U.S.A. But the label "Made in U.S.A." is stamped on every jet plane we export and implied in every speech our leaders make.

Our brand is seared into the minds of our enemies and friends. That we make tear gas as well as gasoline is part of our projected, paradoxical image of brutal violence and noble values.


Friday, January 28, 2011

GE ad expresses intoxi-gination

You might suspect that concern for the environment has slipped a few rungs on GE's corporate agenda. I'm guessing that – to get this "eco-magination" ad designed – a government affairs officer asked a third grader for a concept – but because the third-grader's concept was too profound and engaging, the government affairs officer decided to have a few glasses of Chardonnay and come up with the design after work while watching Home Shopping Network. So the resulting concept was, "Let's take a picture of a jet engine and paste yellow flower pedals around it, okay? That says something about ecology, right? Ecology is a very important subject here at our corporate company where I work at."

"...and I just thought of this... We could add a bee in there flying around the engine... you know, off to the side."


Monday, January 17, 2011

American Hero

We admire effective writers. We thrill to the power of charismatic speakers. We follow visionary thinkers. We mourn murdered leaders.

From the August 28, 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial… These soaring words were part of King's thunderous conclusion:

This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring." And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California! But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

Complete text is here:

Was this a "great speech"? Was it "well crafted"? Do you wish you could write like this? Well, it was not just a speech. It is not just a piece of writing. This was a man in action and the cause he embodied. The speech was war for justice. The man was the speech. The speech was the man.


Sunday, January 16, 2011

Imposing civility on political discourse

In reaction to the attack on Congresswoman Giffords, many people are pleading for more civility in political discourse. Representative Bob Brady wants to make it a federal crime to use language or symbols that could be perceived as threatening or inciting violence against a federal official or member of Congress.

If those calling for toned-down rhetoric are drafting new legislation, I could save them some time. They need only adopt language from this text, which was written some time ago and passed into law:

SECT. 2. And be it further enacted, That if any person shall write, print, utter, or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered, or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering, or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either House of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either House of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States...then such person, being thereof convicted before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.

Pretty close to what the civilizers of political debate want, wouldn't you say?

The law herein described was passed in 1798 during the administration of John Adams. It was called the Sedition Act, and by its authority citizens were convicted and tossed into prison.

Thomas Jefferson and his party fiercely opposed it, of course. The Sedition Act was allowed to expire in 1801 when Jefferson became President, and has generally been branded a notorious affront to democratic institutions.

While sitting as President in 1804, Jefferson wrote to Abigail Adams this denunciation: "I discharged [i.e. pardoned] every person under punishment or prosecution under the Sedition law, because I considered and now consider that law to be a nullity as absolute and as palpable as if Congress had ordered us to fall down and worship a gold image."

Those seeking to outlaw over-heated debate would do well to look deep into our history (or only as far back as the 1960s – or the recent Bush Administration). They would find that hot, highly uncivil rhetoric accompanies our democracy at every turn. They might pause before trying to tame angry expressions by legal means lest they find themselves regarded with the same disfavor as the party of John Adamswhich, a few years after passing the Sedition Act, became extinct.


Thursday, January 6, 2011

When a committee edits your work

When members of the Continental Congress – 1776 – picked away at Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson received kindly advice from the veteran writer Benjamin Franklin. Franklin told Jefferson that it's always frustrating to have others edit your work. He backed up his advice with this example:
"I have made a rule, whenever in my power, to avoid becoming the draughtsman of papers to be reviewed by a public body. I took my lesson from an incident which I will relate to you. When I was a journeyman printer, one of my companions, an apprentice hatter, having served out his time, was about to open shop for himself. His first concern was to have a handsome signboard, with a proper inscription. He composed it in these words, 'John Thompson, Hatter, makes and sells hats for ready money,' with a figure of a hat subjoined. But thought he would submit it to his friends for their amendments.

The first he showed it to thought the word 'Hatter' tautologous, because followed by the words 'makes hats,' which showed he was a hatter. It was struck out. The next observed that the word 'makes' might as well be omitted, because his customers would not care who made the hats. If good and to their mind, they would buy them, by whomsoever made. He struck it out.

A third said he thought the words 'for ready money' were useless, as it was not the custom of the place to sell on credit. Every one who purchased expected to pay. They were parted with, and the inscription now stood, 'John Thompson sells hats.' 'Sells hats!' says the next friend. 'Why, nobody will expect you to give them away. What then is the use of that word?' It was stricken out, and 'hats' followed it, the rather as there was one painted on the board.

So the inscription was reduced ultimately to 'John Thompson,' with the figure of a hat subjoined."
Lesson for present-day communicators? Whoever you are – John Thompson the young hat maker or Tom Jefferson the proclaimer of national independence – you can always, always expect other people to change your words.