The New Face of PBS

PBS has taken another bold step in expanding our concept of public
broadcasting. This past year they introduced a new character for the three- to
eight-year-old set who is surpassing even Barney in popularity. The new star is a cuddly
aardvark named Arthur who popped on the scene with a herd of associated products. Yes, you
can get talking dolls, toothbrushes, underwear, puzzles, pajamas, and Play-Doh all bearing
Arthur’s likeness, thanks to the foresight of producing station WGBH in Boston which
planned the product licensing from the beginning. Critics have been dredging up old PBS
statements about their educational mission to question whether public TV should be
marketing just like the commercial boys. But director of PBS children’s programming,
Alice Cahn, had a quick rebuttal. "I don’t see anything wrong," she said,
"in children trying to hug a character from a television show that is important to
them." Sadly, she had less to say about the adults trying to make money off the
"children trying to hug…" A minor oversight, I’m sure. (NYT 9/24)

Best One-Liner From the Tobacco Settlement

It was a tough job culling out the best joke from this year’s
$368 billion settlement with the tobacco companies, but researchers at the Federal Trade
Commission went ahead with the job. First, the runner-up, the vanishing $368 billion. It
turns out this widely published figure has been made using mythical future U.S. dollars of
lower value. The actual figure in today’s dollars, admittedly an old fashioned
concept, is $100 billion, a figure the FTC says would allow the industry to thrive
financially while enjoying immunity from litigation. No small feat. But the killer
punchline is a small anti-trust provision allowing cigarette makers to "jointly
confer, coordinate or act in concert" to achieve the goals of the settlement. Not
that they have ever needed permission. But wouldn’t just a tiny fig leaf be
appropriate to cover such open price collusion? (NYT 9/23)

The Ghost of Kissinger Past

The United States found itself virtually alone at the recent
international conference in Oslo, convened to ban land mines. The mines which once laid,
just keep on ticking like Timex watches, kill thousands of people every year and have been
denounced by over 100 nations. But not by the United States. Fortunately, the Clinton
administration was able to find a compromise they say could "pave the way to a treaty
they could sign." The compromise had a few minor clauses of Catch-22 quality. First,
our proposal would ban anti-personnel mines except for one minor purpose, that of
protecting anti-tank mines (which are not covered by the treaty). Seems only fair that
legal land mines should be protected. Then in the very fine print comes a proposal to
allow nations the right to withdraw from the treaty during an exceptional time, known as
war. So land mines would be banned when we don’t need them and allowed when we do. A
perfect demonstration of the U.S. meaning of the word "compromise." (NYT

The Return of Ben Hur

Actor Charles Heston has been putting his keen analytical skills to
work for the National Rifle Association. The result—a breathtaking discovery that in
our Bill of Rights, the right to bear arms is "the first among equals." The
second amendment earns this promotion because, says Heston, "it’s the one right
that allows rights to exist at all." The discovery that freedom of speech rests not
on respect for law but is possible only because every whacko has a loaded gun reportedly
had many right-wing pastors handing out copies of Chairman Mao’s Quotations. (You
will, of course, remember his "Power grows out of the barrel of a gun.")
Meanwhile, Heston has a new spin to put on the attacks made on Saturday night specials,
plastic guns, and cop-killer bullets. These are, it turns out, examples of
"nit-picking." Just "nit-picking little wars of attrition," says
Heston, "made-for-prime-time non-issues invented by some press agent…" (NYT

Recruiting Travel Agents

The corporate clients of many travel agencies will be able to
realize great savings thanks to the discovery of a valuable new source of cheap labor.
Travel Wholesalers International will be booking trips for other travel agencies using a
dozen female inmates from Leath Correctional Institution in South Carolina. Co-owner
Daniel P. Bohan has discovered that our prisons are not only "filled with a lot of
smart people," but "Better yet, prison labor is cheap." How cheap? Try 50
cents an hour for starting salaries. And, says Bohan, "you don’t even have to
pay them benefits." Fortunately, Bohan was wearing a drool protector when he said
this. Trans World Airlines was so inspired by this prisoner rehabilitation project, it
went one step further. TWA opened an airline reservation center inside a youth detention
center in Ventura, California. (WSJ 9/16)

Empowering Our Schools

Channel One, the news program that brings advertising to over eight
million students in school, has found a way to be more participatory. No longer will
students, teachers, and administrators be mere passive observers of the show. Channel One
is enlisting teachers and principals to help in marketing campaigns. Teachers, for
example, are being engaged to help students write commercials for Snapple and design art
for Pepsi vending machines. Principals are being sent coupons for Subway sandwiches that
they can hand out to students. Says Channel One sales director Martin Grant, participating
in these ad campaigns is a way for teachers "to make the lesson relevant."
Answering actual criticism of turning teachers into marketing partners, CEO David Tanzer
says they are "sensitive about turning schools into merchandisers, but it only runs
promotional campaigns that benefit advertisers and students alike." "But Mr.
Tanzer, aren’t all ad campaigns of benefit to students?" asked Beaver Cleaver. (WSJ

Crack Down on Loiterers

The ACLU has once again stuck its nose into a fine piece of American
legislation and filed a pesky court challenge. Citizens in Salida City, Colorado, in an
effort to wipe out the scourge of "loitering," passed a bill earlier this year
stopping adults from spending more than five minutes in a public place after 11:00 PM. The
ordinance outlawed the disgraceful practice of people staying too long in one location,
which it defined precisely as "any two points within two hundred feet of each
other." Despite trivial objections that this makes waiting in lines at theaters
illegal, supporters have stuck to their position following a few initial compromises. The
original bill, for example, not only prohibited "loitering," but also
"lingering," "tarrying" (my personal favorite), or "standing idly
about." It covered the entire day as well. Unfortunately, the language about
"standing idly about" may have proved to be too descriptive of the city council
that enacted the ordinance and so had to be dropped. (ACLU Press Release 9/2)

Wilderness Justice Returns

Louisiana has declared open season on carjackers, allowing owners of
autos a year round hunting season against anyone threatening their property. A recently
passed bill thoughtfully allows the state’s upstanding citizens to use not only their
handguns on miscreants, but also their squirrel guns or assault rifles. (Howitzers and
anti-tank weapons were inexplicably left out.) The bill declares "deadly force
justified" when committed against a person "reasonably believed" to be
making an unlawful entry. To fully appreciate the mood of Louisiana’s lawmakers,
it’s important to know the word "reasonably" was not in the original bill.
However, this obvious liberal addendum to "believed" failed to water down the
legislation. Its intent was best captured by the stirring words of a Republican candidate
for governor in Georgia named Michael Bowers: "Carjackers shot dead won’t be
carjacking anyone else." So true. And likewise, jaywalkers shot dead won’t
be…. (NYT 8/31)

Privatizing of Big Brother

Yet another corporation has learned the value of customer
surveillance. Harrah’s Entertainment has unveiled a giant databank that tracks the
buying and gambling habits of six million of their customers. Their computers can now tell
hotel clerks what you eat in their restaurants, what sweatshirts you buy in their gift
shops, how much you spend on slot machines or even the amount of your mortgage. This
valuable information, much of it bought from credit card companies, is provided, says the Wall
Street Journal
, because it "helps clerks decide how to treat [customers] based on
how much they are likely to lose." I mean, why waste friendly
"hello’s"? Besides all the financial information, Harrah’s computers
also contain "emotional data" indicating whether you had a good time. Just how
personal does their information get? Well, according to Harrah VP Reg Mallama, "It
depends on how valuable to me as a customer you are." (WSJ 9/2)

Student Censorship

It’s sometimes a challenge for school administrators to come up
with convincing rationales for censoring student publications. Fortunately, some brave
souls are mapping out fresh turf, like principal Tom Paulsen of Naperville Central High in
Illinois. Faced with student reporters who unearthed evidence of administrators over-
spending on travel during a budget crisis, Paulsen did the only thing possible. He
censored the students’ news story. His reason? "My concern," he said,
"was that there may have been an appearance that these administrators’ did
something wrong, and that would affect their ability to lead." An appearance of
wrong? Tsk, tsk. But remember, according to the Supreme Court’s famous Hazelwood
decision, principals can censor material that interferes with a school’s "basic
educational mission." Hordes of embarrassed administrators would certainly undermine
any basic educational mission. (AP 9/7)

Hot Adjectives

Are you wondering what superlative terms to use to describe a new
product? Tired of "new" and "improved?" Well check out Glenn
Gunderson’s new guide to the latest trends in trademark applications to the U.S.
Patent Office. In the year’s biggest development, he reports that "extreme"
overtook "ultra," "mega," and even the perennial powerhouse,
"super." Also hot were brand names that included "global," which rose
31 percent, and "silver." Leading the declines were "authentic,"
followed by "international" and "gold." The biggest gainer though was
"genuine," which gained 51 percent, much of it at the expense of
"authentic." Marketers report that "genuine" has a truer ring to it.
Similarly, "international" has fallen on hard times because it
"doesn’t cover enough" anymore. Such is the life and death of concepts in
the global marketplace. (WSJ 9/4)