Flickr Interlude: Catlow/Family Guy


Originally uploaded by rikcat.

Rik Catlow was “commissioned by Fox Licensing to do a piece for their Family Guy Gallery at the Licensing Show in NYC. Artists were asked to do there favorite Family Guy character in their style.” This is his version of Quagmire.

Rage Against the (Customer-Service) Machine

I guess most people with sites like this apologize for the silence when they haven’t posted lately. In my case I should probably just say: You’re welcome.

Anyway, I’ve been finishing a longish story that I hope will come out in July, so it’s been rather hectic. But I think I’m in the home stretch, so now I’m getting caught up and giving some thought to what’s next. Two broad topics have been on my mind. One is customer service. Two service-rage incidents got a surprising amount of attention recently. There was the guy who videotaped a Comcast tech who fell asleep on his couch. And there was the guy who recorded a frustrating experience with AOL customer service, put it on his Web site, and ended up on the Today show.

The messages or theme that most observers have taken away from these incidents have been grindingly predictable: The Internet changes everything, consumers have the power and big companies are running scared, etc.

I don’t know. Presumably people have had bad customer service expriences for many years. Seems like that wouldn’t have gotten you on the Today show a few years ago. Now it can. So what? Does that actually mean anything?

Has customer service gotten significantly worse? If so, why?

Does the problem underlying bad customer service have anything to do with consumers’ ability or inability to complain extremely loudly?

I had my own little service rage moment the other day, with Vonage. The whole reason I decided to switch to Vonage is that I was enraged with my Verizon service. And in the end, I’ve decided to stay with Vonage, even though I was unhappy (to put it mildly) with my customer-service experience. Earlier this year I had a service-rage blowout with Comcast, and when the dust settled, I was still unhappy, and still paying Comcast for cable service. It’s not like there are 50 other cable and phone companies I can choose from, and these companies know it.

According to the current Ad Age, Vonage spent $413 million on advertising spending last year. Comcast spect $425 million. Verizon (counting its wireless unit and other businesses) spent almost $2.5 billion. That’s astonishing.

One line of thought is: Well, these companies are going to figure out that all the advertising in the world won’t help if their service stinks, and redeploy their spending accordingly.

That makes sense, and it makes for a good Powerpoint presentation and all that. But what if it’s wrong? I got a pitch the other day from somebody about the power of negative word of mouth, and how it can really metastasize, people take it more seriously and act on it, etc. On the other hand, if you really extrapolated out the data they were pushing, then big companies that get complained about a lot would be going out of business right and left, or at least showing revenue declines. Is that happening? I’m ready for the real-world examples on this, because I’m really interested in the question.

I’m also interested in the service business itself. It’s easy to say: They should spend the money to give better service, but is it easy to execute? What’s it like to be the person on the phone listening to angry consumers all day? Consumers can be irrational, too. I suspect it’s an awful job. I suspect the turnover is high, and recruiting good people is difficult. I suspect most people doing that job hate it.

So what would it really take to fix the problem of annoying customer service? How much power does the typical customer-service rep even have in any given service-rage incident? I know that I’ve yelled at coustomer service reps who were really in absolutely no position — for reasons having to do with the structure of the company they worked for — to truly solve my problem.

Anyway, this is one of the things I’ve been thinking about. The other one is religion. More on that later.

Design Ethics

A while ago I was contacted by a someone who teaches design and was putting together a book that I gather is intended for students, who asked if I would contribute “a statement” about “ethics” in branding and design. I said sure, and I sent the essay below (it’s now more than a year old).

A few weeks later I heard back that what I had written was too “inflammatory.” “The design education community is an especially tightly-knit, small community,” the person told me, via email. “It’s important for me (as an educator) and for my audience for me to have good relations with professional organizations as well as with other design educators and writers who have contributed to the discipline.” I was shown a “redacted” version that essentially said nothing, and was asked if that version could be used instead. I said no, and that was the end of that.

I looked back at my original essay. Maybe it’s a little snotty – but inflammatory? I don’t think so. I certainly didn’t aim to inflame. I didn’t even intend to criticize anyone, per se. I was just trying to raise a few questions. Here it is; see what you think.


The cover of the 2003 book Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility, shows a clenched red fist. It’s an exciting image. Combined with that title, it suggests that being a designer is maybe a little bit like being an activist or societal change agent, someone with the power to make the world a better place. The back cover promises that the book “responds to the tough questions being asked by today’s designers,” including, “How can a designer effect social and political change?”

I’m not a designer. I’m a journalist, and to the extent that I deal with design I write about it from the consumer’s point of view – certainly design has an effect on what people buy and why they buy it. I know a few designers, and I’m aware that this whole notion of “responsibility” has been a significant topic in the profession in recent years, but I’ve never quite understood the way the debate is framed – and the cover image of Citizen Designer is a good example of what confuses me. That red fist doesn’t look to me like a symbol of weighty and serious “responsibility.” It looks to me like a symbol of thrilling and seductive power. Read more


In Consumed: Da Mayor In Your Pocket: How a terrible news event made the transition into (curiously amusing) commodity.

A few days into the Hurricane Katrina crisis, Steve Winn was in a hotel room in Memphis when he heard a now-famous radio interview with Mayor C. Ray Nagin of New Orleans. Begging for more federal help and using harsh language, Nagin sounded raw and desperate. A New Orleans native, Winn evacuated before the storm, assuming that he’d be home in a few days. Winn’s company was also based in New Orleans: Emanation Inc., maker of amusing novelty items like Cajun in Your Pocket (a plastic device with six buttons that plays recordings of Cajun sayings) and the similar Mr. T in Your Pocket. But like many evacuees, Winn was thinking not so much about work as about the implications of this disaster for his life, and for a place that he loved, and he was frustrated about what seemed an impotent government response to the catastrophe. So he didn’t know what to make of it when friends and acquaintances called him with the following suggestion: The interview was great fodder for a Nagin in Your Pocket….

Continue reading at the NYT Magazine site, via this no-registration required link.

Related links: Emanation, maker of Da Mayor In Your Pocket. Slimbolala post; no notes post.


No column this week. Back next Sunday.


“tiny,” Originally uploaded by diastema.

I don’t know who this person is, or what her story is, but her photographs of toys on Flickr are amazing.

The book on “Obey”

Just out: Supply and Demand: The Art of Shepard Fairey. Sample page images here.

Mr. Shepard Fairey will be signing copies at MOCA in LA, on Saturday. He says:

“This book is 350 pages, large format (9″x12”) with a foil embossed cover. More than looking spiffy from the outside, it is mega-juicy on the inside. There are tons of images that have never been published as well as essays and interviews by Steven Heller, Carlo McCormick, Roger Gastman, Rob Walker, Helen Stickler, and me [Shepard Fairey]. This is the definitive case study, art book, bible of Obey Giant. I hope you dig it. All copies from the site are signed.”

Straight from the AstroTurf

According to Brandweek, earlier this year Sprint sent a free phones to a bunch of bloggers, under the auspices of a “Sprint Ambassador Program.” A Sprint rep called this “a grass-roots approach.”

What a snooze, right? Actually, there’s something interesting about the article (a truncated version, which I guess ran in Adweek, is online here), but it took me a while to realize what that interesting something was.

All the “Ambassadors” mentioned in the article are bloggers who happen to be professional marketers or consultants of one sort or another — people whose blogs are largely devoted to importance of blogging (and of hiring a consultant who, you know, really gets just how important blogging is).

Not surprisingly, these people are pretty impressed by Sprint’s tactic. After all, as blogggers they can tell the truth, no holds barred, blah blah blah. (Don’t Consumer Reports, or Walt Mossberg, etc., do the same? Whatever! Only someone who doesn’t get it would ask that question.) What all the marketing bloggers basically say (without actually saying it) is: “You can tell how smart Sprint is, because they agree with my point of view.”

Evidently it was actually one of the “Ambassadors” who told Brandweek about the “grass roots” campaign — resulting in the article that gave publicity to Sprint, to him, and to the concepts that he pushes in his own business. Intentionally or not, Sprint stumbled on something that’s better than grass-roots marketing: AstroTurf marketing.

Bread & Sneakers

I love the Wonder Bread logo. (See?) So I guess I’m slightly impressed that somebody at Pro Keds also recognizes its graphic beauty. And I would love to know the deal-making back story on this particular “collabo” (as the kids say). Who paid whom, and how much? The entity that makes Wonder Bread (and Twinkies, as it happens) is in bad shape these days, and has been operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for more than a year. These items, according to Josh Spear, are “part of the company’s newest campaign … a series of food-based sneakers that are pretty tasty looking.” He points to this HypeBeast post on the Oreo-like Pro-Keds Milk & Cookies.

I don’t really see the point of “food-based sneakers” in general, but the Wonder hookup seems particularly odd: What does Pro-Keds, not exactly a vibrant brand, despite the fact that Damon Dash is now running the show, see in an association with Wonder? Is it ironic? Or does Wonder Bread speak to the sneakerhead in some way that I don’t understand? (As a contrast, the recent New Era/Gabriel Urist collaboration addressed recently in Consumed is an example of a collaboration that seems less forced.) Maybe they liked the same thing I did: the excellent logo. Too bad, in that case, that the actual shoes are so hideous.

Just Asking…

Subject: The Philosophy of Cancelling an Extra Line
Date: June 12, 2006 8:41:23 PM EDT

Hey, what’s up?

I have a question for you. This is sort of just a curiosity thing. I’m curious about Vonage’s thinking on customer service. I often write about consumer issues, so, that’s why I’m curious.

I signed up for your service the other day, and I’m really happy with it so far. The sound is good, the install was super-easy, etc. I’m really pleased.

But when I was signing up they asked me if I wanted a free trial of an additional phone line. My understanding was, you know, I could check it out for a month or whatever, and if I wanted to keep it, I would have to pay for it. Maybe my wife could use that line for her business, or I could use it for a fax machine, etc. etc.

But once I got set up, I realized right away: I don’t need or want that other line. And it’s another $25 a month, so, I may as well just get rid of that, just opt out now, before I forget.

I feel like I more or less know what I’m doing when it comes to navigating a web site, but after about 15 minutes I reazlied that there was no quick and easy way — actually, there simply was NO way — to get rid of that number through your site.

I was pretty surprised!

You guys seem pretty, you know, tech-focused and all.

Anyway, after searching through your help center, I found a couple of entries (“How do I remove a line from my account?” and “How do I cancel/remove a line or account?”) both of which said I had to call a phone number.

I called the number, and the voice mail tree said unless I was ordering more services, there was actually this different number I needed to call. I finally got to the right number, I guess — and I got put on hold for “an estimated 25 minute” wait!

The robot operator thingy kept coming on with basic instructions like, “Hey if you’re having a a problem, maybe you should restart your modem,” or whatever — so I guess in general this is the line for every stupid problem in the world. Odd that this would be the number I’d have to call to get this “free trial” brought to a swift conclusion.

So here’s my question.

Is the idea that you’re COUNTING ON people just giving up, and saying, “Okay, I’ll pay for the extra line”? Or that you’re counting on people being so stupid that they won’t notice the extra $25 being charged to their credit card?

Because that seems like a bad strategy to me. You’re kind of going out of your way, as a brand, to court the “savvy” consumer who is sick of “the phone company,” and the phone company’s bad costumer service and so on. So, given that fact, why would you not just make it easy for me to cancel this additional line with a few clicks.

People would SO respect you for doing that. You have no idea.

Take me for example. Mere hours ago, I was all jazzed up to tell everybody, “Hey, yeah, I really stuck it to my phone company, I got Vonage! It rocks!” Blah blah blah. But now, you know, forget it. Who wants to talk about their phone service anyway? I mean who cares? Yeah, yeah, Vonage is better than the company I was using — but not THAT much better.

Maybe I’m wrong though, in the sense that Vonage makes more money squeezing the slothful and confused out of that extra $25, than they would by making it easy for everybody to cancel an unwanted line. Which is really worth more, the “positive word of mouth,” or $25 a month cash dollars?

I honestly don’t know. A lot of people say the positive word of mouth would be better in the long run. But I think the truth is perhaps more ambiguous than that. After all, I’ve pretty much made up my mind that I’m going to post this entire email, which makes your company look bad, on the Web. On other other hand, once I get this extra line removed, I’m not going to cancel my service, I’m going to stick with Vonage for my main phone line, because basically my previous “traditional” phone service provider was even worse.

So on the one hand I’m annoyed with you. On the other hand, I’m going to keep giving you money. So, maybe you’re doing the right thing after all, for your business, I mean.

What do you think?

I wrote this up while on hold, waiting to cancel this line that I don’t want.

Do you know how long I”ve been on hold?


I got an immediate reply to the above. It went like this:

Thank you for contacting Customer Care,

Many of your questions can be answered quickly and easily by checking out the Frequently Asked Questions and Learning Center sections on the Vonage website at


Oh well. I was asking an honest question. I’d love to know the answer.

Add Hock

Cash America: How the familiar lessons of retail growth are building yet another chain — of pawn shops.

The core tenets of building a retail chain are well known. The stores need to be consistent and welcoming — a brand you can trust. This idea has guided chains for decades. It guides recent iterations selling organic vegetables, expensive lattes and well-designed kitchenware to what has been called the “mass affluent” consumer. And it guides chains of pawnshops. It turns out that there are several such chains, the biggest of which is Cash America: from one location in 1983 it has grown to 468 today, and it reported 2005 revenue of about $600 million….

Continue reading at the NYT Magazine site via this no-registration-required link.

Also worth reading the Magazine this week (a special issue on debt): One of my favorites, Jackson Lears, on “The American Way of Debt,” and Niall Ferguson on “Reasons To Worry” about declining household savings, rising home-mortgage debt, and the trade deficit.

Status & Starbucks

According to The Los Angeles Times, Lions Gate spent $20 million marketing the film Akeelah and the Bee, which has grossed $17 million. The most famous piece of the marketing strategy was a deal with Starbucks, and the paper says Lions Gate executives are “privately” disappointed in how that worked out. Meanwhile, a Starbucks exec defends the campaign: “How we measure our success is not always in terms of box-office receipts but our customers’ reception.” The definitive Starbucks-watching blog, Starbucks Gossip, wonders: “Is there *anybody* at Starbucks corporate who is honest enough to admit that this venture flopped?”

Here’s a theory:

While the official spin on Starbucks “getting into the entertainment business” or whatever has always been that the move signals the way a high-end coffee chain can leverage a sort of cultural tastemaker status into new profit centers, I’ve never really believed that. I think what they’re really doing is associating themselves with “good culture” products to burnish the notion that there’s something special about Starbucks. Something special enough to justify their prices, I mean.

With “good” coffee cheap and plentiful these days, the Starbucks premium has less to do with the actual coffee, and more to do with the Starbucks image, or rather the self-image of the Starbucks customer. Starbucks needs to find new ways to seem elite, not mass (and let’s face it, it’s totally mass). Selling Ray Charles CDs might generate some money, but it mostly pays off in the form of the suggestion that the Starbucks consumer is the kind of person who buys Ray Charles CDs. (It’s not like Starbucks “broke” Ray Charles.) Being associated with a critically acclaimed indie movie pays off in the form of the suggestion that Starbucks consumers are the kind of people who see indie movies — or (to go a little meta) even the suggestion that they are seen that way by others. And selling ethical bottled water (something I wrote about earlier this year) has a similar payoff.

To Starbucks, in other words, it’s less important to move Good Cultural Products than it is be associated with Good Cultural Products. It doesn’t lend status to those things, it borrows status from them.

Of course, if Starbucks ends up being associated with Failed Cultural Products, then eventually the strategy backfires.

Just a theory….


Shortly after I wrote a column with the headline “Street Couture,” I got invited to “the Sprite Street Couture Showcase.” This, I was told, would feature brands like Rocawear, LRG, and Triple Five Soul showing new designs, some of which would supposedly include “interpretations” of the new design of Sprite cans. (What I’d written had nothing do with Sprite, or any of those brands; it was about Supreme.) I almost never go to these things, and I didn’t go to this one. But maybe I should have. According to a Village Voice account, Kanye West, Missy Elliot, and the guy who plays A.J. Soprano were all there. (Also on hand was Farnsworth Bentley, who seems to be an official Sprite endorser.) Voice writer Corina Zappia quotes (with appropriate mockery) an official release regarding the event:

Emerging fashion, hip-hop music, and authentic street culture have been part of Sprite’s DNA for nearly two decades. By bringing together five fashion companies with distinct styles for the first Sprite Street Couture Showcase, we are celebrating the brand’s roots in a fresh, contemporary way.

This is a consistent theme with Sprite — how the brand is really tied into hip-hop and so on. What that really seems to mean is that Sprite has positioned itself around hip-hop for a long time. That is: Hip hop has been part of the DNA of Sprite’s marketing strategy for two decades. (And I’ve seen things in the trades indicating that Sprite is actually planning to move away from this strategy, but we’ll see.) I’m certainly not aware of any organic Sprite moment in hip-hop, a soft drink equivalent of the song “My Adidas,” for example. The only reference to Sprite I can think of in rap was that Lil’ Kim song in which she bragged that she could get her mouth around an entire can of Sprite. I’m guessing that the brand didn’t pay for that particular name-check.

It’s not clear if any of the designers actually did interpret the new Sprite can, or whether a promised “influencer after-party” really occurred. But in the end, The Voice says, the event wasn’t bad, and LRG’s stuff looked good, and there wasn’t all that much branding (“until the lights flashed green and the Sprite logo popped up on video screens,” anyway.)

The more interesting question, once you clear away Sprite’s rhetoric, is why LRG and Triple Five Soul would do this. Aren’t they risking their cred by cozying up to a mainstream brand — and basically getting used? The official Sprite answer would of course be: No, because their core audiences are totally down with Sprite! Sprite is part of hip hop and urban culture!

Well, maybe. Here are two other possibilities. One: The streetwear brands figure that their core audiences will understand that Sprite basically paid for them to have a cool fashion show, and this shows admirable hustle on the part of the apparel-makers; it was Sprite, in other words, that got used. Two: The streetwear brands figure that, at the end of the day, their core audience will simply never hear about any of this.

For Suckers

Today’s evidence of societal decay comes by way of Babygadget, which points out a solid white gold pacifier decorated with 278 diamonds, available (for online purchase, no less) for $17,000. The sales copy explains:

We’re pleased to introduce our exclusive line of custom Diamond Pacifiers, the newest trend in celebrity baby gifting … Though we do not recommend actual use, the Diamond pacifier makes a fabulous, upscale keepsake and will become a new classic … !

Babygadget, which generally seems to have a fairly high tolerance for spending money on “contemporary finds for modern tots,” finds this a bit much, commenting: “Yeouch!” Fair enough.

This item inaugurates a new category on this site: Foolhunting. I think that’s self-explanatory. Nominations for future Foolhunting topics are welcome.

Smashed Cans, Redeemed


Originally uploaded by rikcat.

I don’t remember how I first came across Rik Catlow, an artist now based in Charlotte, NC, but I’m a fan. I particularly like his pieces done on smashed cans — a great example of making something with value and meaning out of what is, traditionally, trash. I own one of these pieces, which I bought (from him) on eBay. Nowadays I keep up with his work through Flickr; he posts new pictures of pieces (and, in one instance, of a T-shirt he did for Burton snowboards, all the time. Here’s a Flickr set of his smashed-can work.