Monday, December 12, 2011

Hard Rock Or Hardly Rocking—Who Can Tell?

On a recent morning at my place of business, which is to say, the location where my job is at, I happened upon the lunchroom television, tuned to VH1 and broadcasting a concert/festival/happening entitled “Hard Rock Calling 2011.” You might expect that I'd have been bombarded by heavy guitar riffs and guttural, perhaps even ape-like, vocalizations as I poured my coffee, but in short order I instead found myself confused, because there on the stage of this ostensibly raucous extravaganza was the band Train. In case you’re not familiar, here’s what the band called Train sounds like (and also looks like, since it's a video):

I was more than a little unsure why Train—whose current signature song features an upbeat and ukulele-flavored arrangement (not to mention an ever so sweetly lilting melody)—would be on the bill at a hard rock festival. Generally I’m inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt, but in this case it doesn’t help that the guy in the band Train constantly name-checks the band “Mr. Mister" (in a lilting and melodious way, of course).

Just in case you’re not familiar, here’s the band Mr. Mister:

So Train's cited influences are also pretty squarely not so much on the "hard" side of things. (Unless you mean "hard to listen to.") Considering all that, I think even The Band Train may have felt uneasy about its ("their"?) inclusion in The Hard Rock Calling festival, which is likely why they ("it"?) felt compelled to insert a Led Zeppelin cover into its set. Their set. Whatever. Leave me alone, grammar.

YouTube footage from not the exact concert, but as the kids say, "same diff."

At first it seemed like a silly ploy to confer legitimacy, but I have to admit, it kinda worked; I may have thought Train was too, for lack of a better word, "girlie" to feature in the testosterone-rich lineup of a hard rock show, but when singing that song the Train guy reminded me that back in Led Zeppelin's heavily rocking heyday, despite the bulge in Robert Plant's vacuum-shrunk trousers, nothing was more girlie than Robert Plant's voice.

Robert Plant, in squeal-inducing pants and a delightful housecoat.

Still, while Train Man's uncanny channeling of Robert Plant might have a profound and mesmerizing effect on the kind of long haired dude in a Dio t-shirt that you'd expect to find at a hard rock show, it's hard to imagine the spell lasting more than a couple minutes after the band reverted to the emasculated love songs that made them VH1 favorites to begin with. ("Duuude, that was ahhhsummm! ... Hey, what the shit is this?!")

In a desperate attempt to quell my confusion about the inclusion of The Not Really Hard And Not Really Even Rock For That Matter Band Called Train, I went and found the website for Hard Rock Calling.

There I discovered that this wasn’t so much a festival of “hard rock” music as it was a music festival put on by The Hard Rock CafĂ© And/Or Corporation. Which maybe sort of explains it, considering the level of credibility attributable to chain restaurants. No surprise, then, that the corporate overlords of this event might freely interpret "Hard Rock" as "Whatever Music Is Popular This Week." Not that it really matters; these days you can't expect a youthful concert audience to notice any such discrepancy anyway, considering what the average 13 year-old girl wearing an Urban Outfitters Iron Maiden t-shirt knows about Iron Maiden.

This one's actually an Urban Outfitters Guns N' Roses t-shirt, but same diff.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

December? Remember To Be Financially Well Endowed

For three years now, the people of these-here United States have been struggling through a terrible recession. The worst, we are told, since the Great Depression! But that doesn't mean we should give in to despair, or give up the comforts we're accustomed to. No matter how bad it seems, there are some things we can still rely on—like the annual holiday ads in which happy rich people surprise their significant others by buying them luxury cars.

What could be more uplifting than this couple of smiling, post-hipster yuppies, so breezily fluent with hand-held devices and so deep of pockets? You can already tell how sweet she is, buying him that car, but notice the short "do" she's sporting?—most likely she sold her beautiful long hair to pay for the $200 smart-phone she gave him, solely for the purpose of playfully alerting him to the fact that his real gift is a car with a price tag in excess of the U.S. median income.

Oh yes, it's a beautiful scene of domestic bliss. (It also gives new meaning to the words "White Christmas.") And yet it seems something is missing. Well, their abode is conspicuously lacking a fixed gear bike, but that's probably just because West Elm doesn't sell them yet. Anyway, it's not that. It's something less tangible.

But let's not lose the holiday spirit; here's another tableau of cheerful generosity.

This version of the Lexus Christmas Fable is in many ways the opposite of the last one. We are spirited away from the young Caucasian couple in their urban penthouse loft apartment to a suburban house, inhabited by an African American family. And while the young urbanites bought a white car, this family went with a black one. Lexus has something for everyone!

As a side note, I'm troubled by the way the woman in this ad is audibly gasping for air every 3 seconds.

She might want to see a cardiologist about that. Or at the very least, an acting coach.

Potentially imminent cardiac events aside, both ads offer visions of caring and gracious people filled with the spirit of giving. So why is it that watching these feel-good domestic vignettes, instead of filling me with holiday cheer, makes me want to stab my TV with a turkey fork?

Yikes—hostility! I need to clear my head—let me take a deep breath and meditate on this.


(I like to intone the syllable "hmm" when I meditate—it's like a less embarrassing form of "Om.")

Aha—I think I have it. What seems to be lacking from these ads is something called "shame."

It's not that I believe well-off, gleeful people shouldn't buy $60K stocking stuffers for their loved ones. It's just that it's hard to believe, given the economic climate, that a company like Lexus could be so tone deaf in their TV ads.


Then again, it's not hard to believe at all, since being shamelessly tone deaf is a cornerstone of luxury car marketing.

To wit: while the common rabble are risking hefty doses of pepper spray at the hands of law enforcement to protest economic inequality (or just pepper spraying each other in order to get their hands on a reduced-price X-Box), Lexus persists with portrayals of the "better-offs" saying to their domestic partners—by way of wedding-proposal-worthy gimmicks—We have so much disposable income that I didn't feel it necessary to consult with you before I bought you what most people would consider a very major purchase, complete with leather interior, moon roof and multiple climate zones. Probably heated seats, too, but to be honest I wasn't paying that close attention.

I was going to complain that these ads are obnoxious because they rub rich people's riches in the faces of the dirty-and-poor-rest-of-us; however, having watched upwards of 4,000 Republican presidential debates in the last 8 weeks, I have become sensitive to the sensitivities of the mega-rich, and so I do not wish to perpetuate "class warfare." (Mostly because I hate being guilty of something when I don’t understand what it means.) With that in mind, like an erstwhile Republican-hopeful I am repackaging my irritation with an unassailable pro-family spin.

Lexus seems unaware that television is not the exclusive domain of potential Lexus customers. In fact—and I'm just pulling this number out of the air—something like, I don't know, 99% of TV viewers in this country are in no position to buy a Lexus. And a lot of them are hard working people with children who require food and/or electronics and a spouse whose affection is entirely reliant on the reassurance provided by expensive gifts. So the main effect of these Lexus ads (in which purchasing a Lexus appears effortless for those with love in their hearts) is to make gift-giving spouses feel ashamed and inadequate. And, that, you see, is an attack on the American Family. (See how I twisted that around? I guess all that debate watching is finally paying off.)

But do not despair, for there are still good tidings which may yet bring comfort and joy. If you are just such a sad but family-oriented gift-giver (a.k.a. a TV viewer of limited means), there is one remedy, which is to purchase jewelry from Kay Jewelers.

While not nearly as extravagant, this too will allow you to curry favor with your spouse, because as you have heard, “Every kiss begins with Kay.” So maybe you can't afford a fancy car, but things can still work out for you; Kay's slogan is, of course, the most subtle way of reminding consumers of the age-old social contract: Giving jewelry will get you what's colloquially known as "ass."

I can't help but wonder, if a relatively affordable diamond necklace will allow you to "surround her with the strength of your love," what's the result when you buy your mate a luxury car? I don’t travel in the right circles to speak the secret language, but I suspect that for those in the upper financial echelons of our society these car ads include coded intimations of copious amounts of freaky, perhaps cocaine-fueled, spousal, uh, "heated seats" in the roomy leather interior of the gift-wrapped Lexus ES, in reciprocation for the gifting of such vehicle.


At least that part is pro-family, more or less.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

An Open (And Shut) Letter To Local Road Cyclists

Dear Prospect Park Roadies,

When you're done riding fast laps of the park in a pace line, and there are 4 or 5 of you winding down with a slow and congenial lap of the park, why must you always ride not just next to each other, but evenly spaced across the entire two lane roadway? Now all the other riders who are still riding at greater than "recovery pace" have to slow down and find a spot to get through your laterally-expansive line, as if picking out a toll-booth lane on the highway. For a bunch of guys who have just spent the last hour barking at every man, woman or Big Wheel that errantly wanders across the pavement it seems you'd be a little less ignorant of your own misuse of the public asphalt.

Please do something to correct this ridiculous irony.

Thank You.

Now, I don't know if it's intentional or not, but the message these fellows are sending is, "We have just dominated this roadway and now it is ours." Maybe the feelings of accomplishment and supremacy after completing a rigorous Wednesday morning training ride are so satisfying that they can't help but collectively gloat their way through a victory lap—and proper gloating creates an impenetrable aura around you of about 3 feet. Someday, if I can manage not to be dropped after 3 loops, I too will know that feeling, and it will swell within and around me and I will become oblivious to all else.

But in the meantime I'll have to keep paying the tolls.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Acura: The Elegance of Ugliness

Luxury car ads have made me a little bit crazy for years. Mainly this is because, as I see it, they have an ugly tendency of pandering to the moneyed egos of a certain class of people who are entirely devoid of empathy. In recent weeks I’ve started to think that in addition to courting those particular consumers, they’re also deliberately pissing off people like me (whose egos lack the financial resources necessary to smother their basic humanity). What else could explain this shamelessly irritating ad campaign?

“Aggression in its most elegant form.”

At first it doesn't seem so bad. There's an Acura juxtaposed with a boxing glove. And it's not just any old mitt, but rather a finely pedigreed—probably vintage—glove of brown leather: an object evoking the era of proper gentlemen, refined but physically adept, who—when not on safari or exploring the Amazon—would likely be found sipping cognac while surrounded by leather-bound books, old maps and astrolabes. And that glove's not made of just any old leather; it's some sort of exotic, textured hide, that maybe once had feathers or scales on it. It could have come from an ostrich, or even a gryphon or a basilisk!

For the truly refined individual, only the integument of an endangered/fictional animal will do.

Regardless of whatever fanciful creature gave its skin to allow proper gents to pummel the daylights out of one another without bruising their own well-moisturized knuckles, there's an analogy at work here: like the boxing glove, the car is, aesthetically speaking, all "fancy-pants," but metaphorically it's meant for pounding people into the dirt. Mind you, the Acura people, or their lawyers anyway, would say it's not intended to intimate any kind of violence, but merely the power and precision of a skilled athlete (in this case a particular sort of pugilist, who happens to appreciate a well-crafted clobbering-gauntlet).

Personally I find it hard to believe that this ad was not intended to exude at least a subtext of violent domination; however, Acura's campaign features other ads which might lend credence to the athletic artistry interpretation. These other ads can be seen on TV—I just started with the magazine ad because it was easier to fit onto my scanner. Anyway, having since mastered the art of cutting and pasting a line of HTML, here's one of those TV spots:

That's the athlete Calvin Johnson. His refined aggression is directed into the bone-crushing sport of football. Well, maybe that's not helping the case. Let's try another one:

Now, that is World Champion and Olympic Gold Medalist skier Ashleigh McIvor. And that's a commercial with a different angle—you'll notice that when a luxury car ad omits masculine power, it creates a vacuum that can be filled only with female sexuality. But no matter: the point is Ashleigh is a skilled athlete in the non-contact solo sport of ski-cross, where being aggressive means "attacking" the corners and making skilled calculations at speeds rivaling that of, say, a luxury car.

So there you have it. If the solo cello music wasn't enough to convince you, the association of an attractive, female practitioner of an aggressive yet non-violent sport should surely be persuasion enough that Acura intends only benevolent connotations in these commercials, right? There's only one problem. No matter how positive and benign a person taking part in one of these ads may be, once you put the word "aggression" in the context of cars, you are talking about road rage. You are talking about the behavior of people who are, as the kids say, "A-holes."

Ultimately Acura is peddling "aggression," not "being aggressive in an artful way." They can dress the concept up nicely and call it "elegant," but really it comes down to the appeal of revving a big engine—a display of the kind of power that is the result of having an expensive car and having a foot, which is not the same as the power or aggressive instinct that comes from spending years of your life developing a skill.

The advertising goal here is to appeal to base desires while convincing the target market that they are superior to everyone else who is motivated by those same desires. All the common rabble are power hungry and arrogant. But this—this is poised arrogance—so you can feel good about being a solipsistic asshole. Sorry, I meant "A-hole"—I'm trying to keep things elegant.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Beware Of Greeks Bearing Too Many Promotional Claims

About four years ago there was a small window of time, maybe six months, during which I felt special. I feel a little bit "special" pretty often—when I'm trying to balance my check book, for example—but for that brief stretch of time it was more of a sophisticated and superior kind of special. At the beginning of that period I had discovered Greek yogurt, a pleasingly thick and creamy version of the jellied glop that's usually consumed here in the New World, where most of the things we have are overprocessed, ersatz approximations of better things that we don't even know about. At least that's how I felt, having become an overnight connoisseur of Mediterranean dairy products.

The truth is, while gloating about this mythical, non-gelatinized yogurt, I was more like a Conquistador discovering the "new" world, or a 21st century 8th grader boasting of his favorite band, the Violent Femmes, as if it was a never before seen precious metal that he himself had dug up from the earth.

Nonetheless, for those several months I drizzled farmers' market honey over my yogurt and reveled in my refined taste. And then, as always happens, everybody else started catching on to the thing whose very existence I was taking credit for by dint of having known about it slightly first. It started off as a few flurries, but soon turned into a Greek-style milk product avalanche. What was once the provenance of imports from over-sees, and small progressive-minded (not to mention overpriced) brands became just another feather in the cap of the major food behemoths.

Yoplait, for example, has thrown their hat in the ring. And they have left every metaphorical marketing feather on that cap: it's Greek-style, it's fat free, and it's even got twice the protein of other yogurts. Companies like this are so jazzed about harnessing trends that they trot every one of them out every chance they get. I'm sure there was at least one guy in the boardroom asking if they could slap a Caffeine Free sign on there somewhere. (He's probably the same guy who's responsible for putting "New Look!" on every product on the shelf. I hate that guy.)

Yes, they've crammed every gimmick possible into that little cup. And they're not the only ones to debase their new knock-off in the name of marketing: Dannon's Greekish yogurt is fat free as well:

Introducing Dannon Greek, the most delicious yogurt imaginable! Rich, and creamy-thick, it’s an indulgent eating experience that you’ll want to savor and enjoy. Plus, with 0% Fat, you’ll feel good knowing this heavenly taste is good for you.

It seems to me that "fat free" is entirely missing the point of Greek yogurt. There's a reason Greek yogurt is creamy, thick and awesome, and that reason is not supposed to be gelatin, corn starch, or guar gum.

There we have the ingredients of a container of Dannon's Greekified yogurt in the honey varietal (found on Snack Girl's website), and for good measure, here's one from Yoplait:

(Also from a Snack Girl review.)

When I see products like these, with labels awash in marketing fads, I don't feel I'm being particularly cynical by saying that advertisers are wild-eyed, auto-piloted buzz-word generators who mindlessly market all grocery store items to hypothetical soccer moms. Fat free. Healthy for your kids. But also indulgent, so you can be taken away, Calgon-style, to a chocolate covered cloud where you might have an orgasm.

(Don't miss the video on the Dannon page—delicious!)

Well then. Now that I've gotten all that griping out of my system, I'm starting to think it might be unfair of me to denigrate Dannon and Yoplait like that without even giving their entries into the market a try. To be honest, I'm mostly just bitter that they had to ruin my moment of specialness. It'd take me what, like 4 seconds to eat a cup of yogurt? I mean, they're probably not all that bad—as long as they don't have any feathers in them.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Cell Phones—The Future Of Irritation

Like most things that are popular in the modern world, cell phones and other handheld devices have both admirable and abominable qualities. On the one hand:

Cell phones! Cell phones are awesome. They’re like the “communicators” that Captain Kirk used to talk to other crewmembers when he and his buddies had beamed down to some alien world with the sky painted onto the background 15 feet away.

"Why... so... few bars? This... terrible!"

Star Trek takes place like 300 years from now, and yet we have that same communication technology now. Not to mention, Captain Kirk's communicator had just that one ring-tone, whereas we have lots of options to alert us to an incoming call: anything from the classic sound of an old analog telephone to the nasal bleating of the music of Rihanna. Cell phones! Awesome.

Your phone, too, can sound like this.

On the other hand:

I'm not going to go on about phones ringing at the movies, mainly because there are far worse things in movie theaters, like paying $14 to see a movie and then having to sit through Coke commercials. However, whether in a theater where you're eating $9-worth of stale popcorn, or outside in the light of day, even the way a cell phone rings is inherently annoying. Let's compare: when there's an incoming call, an old-timey land-line phone leaves you with a few seconds of silence between each ring. This allows you to think clearly and decide if you want to answer it or just go back to darning your bloomers, or whatever it is that people who still rely on land-lines do when they're at home. A ringing cell phone, though, is like a whining little baby that never comes up for air.

I suspect that cell phone companies deliberately planned this to add a sense of dire urgency to every call, especially considering that when cell phones first arrived you were paying through the nose for every minute you used it. When you hear the insistent ringing of a cell phone, subconsciously you sense that whatever info is going to be related is certainly more important than repairing your bloomers, washing your hair, or ironing your poodle skirts.

Of course, if your cell phone has a ring-tone of the aforementioned "music of Rihanna," then its whining isn't so much insistent as it is ruminant:

Music to your ears, or just irritating? Cell phones! Awesome.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Parsing Gay Marriage: All Our Base Are Love This Wording

If you live in the New York City area, there's a good chance that, like me, you watch too much New York 1 News. For anyone not familiar, NY1 is the cable channel that brings you info on weather, traffic and bodega stabbings in a ten-minute news cycle that repeats ad nauseum all day long. (It may be hard to judge exactly what's "too much" of NY1, but roughly it's any multiple of ten minutes greater than one.)

And speaking of ads and nausea, lately on NY1 there's been an advertisement, a bit of absurd propaganda, really, that warns of the dangers of legalizing gay marriage in New York State.

Propaganda is a strong word, I know, but I think it's warranted when shameless fear-mongering is involved—folksy Waylon Jennings-ish Dukes of Hazzard-style voiceovers notwithstanding. Even the car commercials that annoy me so much attach their pompous opinions to some relevant and discernible facts; but for all this ad's Richard Linklater-esque verbosity, it's logic is still as confounding as, well, a Richard Linklater movie. (Maybe it only makes sense if you watch it stoned.)

In terms of concrete facts, all I learned from the "Consequences" ad—a product of a group called National Organization for Marriage, or NOM—is that there's a risk of teachers instructing children that "boys can marry other boys." As if once informed of the existence of gay marriage your impressionable 8-year-old son and his buddy from gym class are going to elope at recess.

I thought NOM's website might shed some light on the actual dangers of gay marriage, or at least provide some entertainment, so I went out a-clicking. Under the site's "Get Informed" heading I found a page about The Threat to Marriage, but instead of any specific explanation of the dangers of allowing the infamous "Adam and Steve" to "make it official" all I found was some very dry stuff about gay and anti-gay lobbying efforts. Nothing about how The Possibility of Gay Marriage amounts to a Threat To Marriage In General. And certainly not entertaining.

The Marriage Talking Points page, however, is much juicier, and much, uh, entertainier. (Fact-based? Informative? We'll get to that.) In particular the part about how to parry frequently asked questions may be the enterainiest. Here are a few stand-out items:

1. Are you a bigot? “Why do you want to take away people’s rights?” “Isn’t it wrong to write discrimination into the constitution?”

A: “Do you really believe people like me who believe mothers and fathers both matter to kids are like bigots and racists? I think that’s pretty offensive, don’t you? Particularly to the 60 percent of African-Americans who oppose same-sex marriage. Marriage as the union of husband and wife isn’t new; it’s not taking away anyone’s rights. It’s common sense.”

Here NOM is reframing the question with a bunch of rhetorical "doody," in an apparent attempt at Frank Luntz-style emotional manipulation: deflecting the question with an unrelated question, injecting obfuscating counter-accusations—even playing the race card to shame dissenters—and wrapping the whole bundle of "bull-cookies" in a picnic blanket of 1950s wholesome goodness. Rhetorically speaking.

Anyway, to answer your clever counter-question—“Do you really believe people like me who believe mothers and fathers both matter to kids are like bigots and racists?"—if promoting homophobia makes you a bigot, then yes, I believe that about you.

Ahh, but there I go calling you names, NOM. How shameful of me! Even though you're in the business of peddling intolerance, maybe you're right—we probably should consider whether we're offending anyone before we go wantonly passing any civil rights legislation.

Come to think of it, that was pretty offensive how that one black lady in the '50s kept refusing to go to the back of the bus, which totally offended all those white people who opposed desegregation. I mean, some of the victimized white people back then were so offended they started turning their fire hoses and police dogs on the callous, insensitive black folks. (Most white people keep police dogs around in case of periods of emotional duress.)

Offended White People

By the way, if NOM's reasoning is sound, this time around any offended black people can join in as we point the hose at uppity homosexuals!

3. Why do we need a constitutional amendment? “Isn’t DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act] enough?”

A: “Lawsuits like the one that imposed gay marriage in Massachusetts now threaten marriage in at least 12 other states so far. We need a marriage amendment to settle the issue once and for all, so we don’t have this debate in our face every day. The people get to decide what marriage means. No-end run around the rules by activist judges or grandstanding San-Francisco-style politicians.”

I must agree, the chief purpose of legislation should be to ensure we don't have to put up with debate in our faces. Also I have no idea what a grandstanding San-Francisco-style politician is, but it sounds awesome and makes any argument more convincing.

As a quick side-note, here's a gratuitous stock photo of an offended black person, who I'm pretty sure would have something entertaining to say about this subject (one way or another):

Debate for your face!

Getting back on track, here's the keystone of NOM's archway of spurious logic:


Extensive and repeated polling agrees that the single most effective message is:

"Gays and Lesbians have a right to live as they choose,
they don’t have the right to redefine marriage for all of us."

What makes this sentence so powerful? Well, "extensive and repeated polling" shows something that warlords, politicians and death squads around the world have known for millenia, which is that portraying yourself as the victim allows you to much more effectively persecute others. Menacing "Cockroaches" in Rwanda, filthy thieving Jews in the ghettos—that sort of thing. In this instance they've learned to pretend to treat gays humanely, but they still paint them as villains who are trying to rob the God-fearin' Americans of their freedoms. And yet for all the Chicken Little panic about The Threat to Marriage I was unable to find the part about how if gay marriage passes in New York State I'll have to replace my wife with a man.

Here's more about how The Sentence works:

This allows people to express support for tolerance while opposing gay marriage. Some modify it to “People have a right to live as they choose, they don’t have the right to redefine marriage for all of us.”

More accurately the crafty wording of the magic sentence allows people to feign support for tolerance while opposing tolerance. Also it's worth noting that laws, including those that "redefine marriage for all of us," are not passed by an exclusive cabal of gays and lesbians. There's actually a whole, um, like, legal process thing-a-ma-jig that goes on? And it also includes loads of heterosexuals too, and they all, like, discuss it and bang gavels and like vote and junk? I think they call it a congress or a government or something?

Getting back to that alleged "60% of African Americans who oppose same-sex marriage": I'm no mutant arachnoid, but my spider sense tells me that NOM determined that figure through the very same "extensive and repeated polling" that was designed to find the best wording to coax people into opposing gay marriage. (Um, like, objectivity and junk?)

Language to avoid at all costs: "Ban same-sex marriage." Our base loves this wording. So do supporters of SSM. They know it causes us to lose about ten percentage points in polls. Don’t use it. Say we’re against “redefining marriage” or in favor or “marriage as the union of husband and wife” NEVER “banning same-sex marriage.”

So there you have it: NOM is technically not against banning same-sex marriage.

Anyway, the only danger to John and Jane Doe if their neighbors Adam and Steven get hitched is that, should John & Jane happen to be old fashioned, bigoted homophobes, they will have to suffer their worldview becoming increasingly irrelevant. Which is fine by me—just as long as there are no, like, grandstanding San-Francisco-style politicians putting debate in our faces, and junk?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Half-Assed Product Review: Rabbit Flip-Top Cocktail Shaker

My product-testing laboratory

If you’re like me, on occasion you like to dumb yourself down a little bit with the aid of liquid inebriants. Though maybe “dumbing down” isn’t exactly accurate, for me at least, since my tendency to over-analyze just about everything actually makes me a functional idiot most of the time to begin with. Seemingly simple choices that should only take a moment or two—like deciding which boxer shorts to wear in the morning—are likely to take me over a minute. ("The red boxers might make me feel fired-up and productive, but the teal-blue pair could help keep me calm and collected. The stripy ones, on the other hand, I haven’t worn in a week or two, so I should get those back into rotation." You see? Exhausting.) And that’s why having a drink may actually make me a little smarter, practically speaking, by calming my addled brain and bringing me back from the precipice of stupefying indecision.

Drinking, however, is itself an activity that can be obsessed about, overcomplicated, and even over-accessorized. This is a fact of which I am reminded whenever I see one of those Rabbit Wine Bottle Openers.

A Rabbit opener can remove a wine cork in a few seconds but costs like $800 or something, which seems ridiculous when a cheap corkscrew can do the job just fine—maybe not quite as quickly, but still in less time than it takes me to pick out a pair of underpants. (For the record, I went with stripy today.)

I recently learned of another invention of the Rabbit People, which is the One Finger Flip-Top Cocktail Shaker.

Admittedly, my initial assumption was that this is yet another redundant invention with an inflated pricetag. But as I'm not one to go on forever judging something based on preconceived notions and superficial impressions (maybe for a few months or a year, but not forever), I have decided to embark upon an objective product review of the Rabbit Fliptop Shaker. Let's start with the advertising copy:

“Rabbit Barware shakes up the cocktail shaker market with a patented Flip-Top mechanism that does away with the usual strainer and lid. The Rabbit “Flip-Top” Shaker opens and closes with the touch of a finger. Two years in development, it’s a feat of hydraulic engineering applied to hi-tech sealing materials. The stainless double-wall keeps the cold inside and away from your hands. It’s the first real innovation in cocktail shakers since Prohibition. Dishwasher-safe. 24 oz. capacity. Retail price: $30.00”

I had a hard time understanding this paragraph, but I think it explains that Rabbit Scientists have been working to develop this device since Prohibition, which was two years ago. Now while I'm not so good with timelines, as I've indicated in the past, I do know that Prohibition was an era when booze was illegal. This fact I learned from watching "Boardwalk Empire," and that's also why I know that purveyors of alcohol during that period were way serious (as purveyors go). Hence I'm assuming Prohibition was a high water mark for barware innovation. So with claims like they're making, you can be sure that these Rabbit People are not fucking around.

Not only does this drink shaker include hydraulics and double-wall technology, but they have "done away with the usual strainer and lid." Does that mean there's nothing on top? This sounds like a ballsy innovation, until you find out that they just put on a different lid. But wait—just as I'm about to start griping about misleading advertising claims, my newfound objectivity urges me to go a different route; so we can understand the Rabbit's advanced features in proper historical context, let's first have a look at a "heritage" cocktail shaker. (By the way, if you are intrigued by the prospect of a bar that really does have "topless shakers," I can recommend some places over by the West Side Highway.)

This is my "beehive" style shaker. It was purchased at Crate and Barrel, but as you now know, due to the dearth of barware innovation since Prohibition, the technology is the same as the ones that were around when Al Capone roamed the earth. For those not familiar, Al Capone was a mean guy who looked like Robert DeNiro and carried a baseball bat to dinner. Anyway, you can see that these old things had a separate strainer and a cover on top.

The Rabbit Shaker has a lid with an integrated strainer, which means there's one less piece to lose behind the sofa.

Instead of a total of three parts, you now only have to keep track of two; and let's face it, unless you're a purple-faced, blood-sucking Muppet with an uncanny resemblance to Jamie Farr, counting to three is no small feat.

That arrogant bastard always laughs when he does it—it's just so easy for him.

Moving on, let's skip past simply nitpicking about promotional claims (temporarily, anyway) and get to some product testing. Mind you, this might be complicated by the fact that I don't really have the spare $30 lying around that would be required to purchase the shaker. (Insider's tip: when reviewing a retail product, it is considered customary to obtain the actual item.)

Fortunately I have this travel mug, which looks an awful lot like the Rabbit shaker, and which should suffice for making some proxy-experiments and poignant comparisons.

It might seem ridiculous for me to conduct a product review with the wrong product, but I think I deserve a little leeway here since I'm trying my best to be "objective." (Plus I never made any claims to being "accurate.")

With this advertising pictogram as my guide, I set out on my objectivist reviewing adventure.

This series of pictures notably shows the entire operation being accomplished with one hand. What’s the other hand doing? Who knows, but it better finish up and wash itself off in time to help me manipulate the ice cube tray. Anyway, onward we go with my product testing.

Filling up with ice and booze—so far so good.

Screwing on the lid with one hand was not so easy. (This steps is conspicuously absent in the Rabbit version.)

Single-handed shaking!

With the lid securely screwed on, I could safely shake the shaker, while my other hand was able take a moment to straighten my special bartending bow tie.

Snapping the lid open and closed required more than one finger, but that's just as well—left undirected, my other digits would've just occupied themselves with fidgeting, wrestling, or poking each other.

Next, the sippy-lid of my travel mug worked admirably as a strainer.

I'm pretty confident no ice cubes made it into my glass (though I couldn't be completely certain, since ice is pretty much invisible). I should note here that the genuine Rabbit shaker has a strainer that looks like the mouth of a baleen whale (no doubt a result of all the rocket scientists and hydraulic engineering).

In addition to ice cubes, this presumably filters out plankton and would make the Rabbit ideal for mixing artisanal, sea-sourced salt water cocktails.

By the way, due to the limitations of my non-sealife-filtering cocktail shakers, my salt water concoctions are all produced with home-salinated tap water, but I still use the best available ingredients.

Using coarse salt gives my drinks that genuine, sandy sea-water "mouth feel."

Now, the real Rabbit also includes double walled insulation to keep the cold away from your hands. I don't know how many walls my mug has, but I didn't need to worry, seeing as the attached handle served to keep my hands out of harm's way.

Note: if you are of such faint constitution that the seconds of frostiness imparted to your skin while preparing a drink is a matter of serious concern, then it's a good bet you're also not hearty enough for hard alcohol—stick to "virgin" sea water.

Now, after all the painstaking research, here are my findings. The Rabbit Flip-Top Cocktail Shaker is indeed very handy, and with fewer parts than an old Prohibitionist shaker, it's slightly easier to clean. The securely attached, one-piece lid also frees up your other hand for several seconds during the drink-chilling process, allowing you to simultaneously attend to another task, like opening your mail or patting yourself on the back for having made such an astute purchase.

Curiously, while the Rabbit has a suggested retail price of $30, my dual-purpose travel mug/martini shaker was only about $10. Which suggests that the Rabbit is not such a great value after all. Though I'm forgeting that the Rabbit has that hydraulic plankton filter. And according to the advertising, the Rabbit shaker has an impressive 24 ounce capacity, compared to the 16 ounces of my mug. After subtracting about 8 ounces from each for the ice cubes, that leaves the Rabbit with about twice the booze-holding capacity. This certainly would be advantageous to me if either I wanted to make a pint-sized martini for the purpose of blinding myself, or I were to acquire several more drinking buddies who, somehow, could be persuaded to travel to my apartment.

Additionaly, to make a fair comparison, I'd have to get my hands on a Rabbit shaker and fill it with a hot beverage and see how it fares as a travel mug. Though I'm afraid that giant whale-mouth of a strainer would pour an ocean-sized gulp of coffee—which my "heritage" coffee maker brews at temperatures that can only be described as "McDonald's Hot"—all over my face, neck, and bow tie regions, resulting in scalding, staining, and shrieking. And possibly dry-cleaning-related lawsuits.

I'm not sure if I'm really objective enough for all that. Instead I think I'll continue my experiments of repurposing cheap household items as substitutes for over-priced luxury goods. The next time I have a hankering to sit around by myself late at night drinking martinis and taking pictures of my efforts, maybe I can chill my hooch in a cycling water bottle. I'm kind of excited about the idea: a squeezy bike bottle would provide the added benefit of allowing me to squirt icy-cold cocktails into the awaiting glasses of party guests (hypothetical guests, anyway) without the unnecessary step of crossing the room to where they're standing.

But enough of all this impartial, over-wrought consideration. Time to get smart.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Brand Essence: The Spirit of Christmas

The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree...
and the real star of the show

It is now winter in New York City (and presumably the surrounding suburbs, but check with your local almanac to be sure), and this means it’s the time of year when you can count on certain things: you can sled down the snow-covered stairs into your neighborhood subway station; the WALK and DON'T WALK traffic icons, suffering from cold-induced dementia, appear simultaneously; and for some unknown reason your parent/guardian/spouse replaces your preferred breakfast with a rubbery grey substance known as "Quaker Oats."

This is also the season of holidays and their corresponding traditions—of eggnog, sugar cookies, and terrible, terrible Christmas songs played relentlessly over tinny speakers at Rite Aid. Preëminent among these traditions is the decorating of Christmas trees, and the most celebrated tree is at Rockefeller Center.

While the tradition of the “Rock Center” Christmas Tree dates back to the Great Depression, since 2004 there's been a new tradition: the Grand Swarovksi Crystal Company now puts a big sparkly object that looks like something salvaged from the ruins of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude on top of the tree.

(Fortunately that spiny object was not there when Lois Lane fell off that building a few years back.)

Now, each year, some generous individual or family donates a tree. The Rockefeller Center people may provide some token compensation (as detailed in this NYTimes article), but generally the people giving up their trees are not doing so for personal profit; and in fact while it must be rewarding to see your tree go on to brighten the lives of countless plaza visitors and TV viewers, there are certainly mixed feelings that come with permanently removing a massive and irreplaceable element of your daily landscape for such an ephemeral purpose. Swarovski, on the other hand, is in it for the money.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice that they built this big star for all of us to ogle, but as a recent trip to Rockefeller Center made clear, there is no shortage of Swarovskian self interest involved. It was in the final days leading up to Christmas when I made my Pilgrimage to the Plaza, where I was able to slither through the crowds to view the fêted (not to be confused with “fetid”) tree and it’s glittering topper, and where I also discovered a great deal of advertising for the star itself, like this banner just a stone’s throw from the tree.

You would think that, with all its shimmery crystals and its conspicuous placement atop the world’s most famous Christmas tree, the star would already garner sufficient attention. But that kind of assumption would make you a giant ninny, like me. This isn’t about Good Will On Earth—this is the Miracle of Christmas Marketing.

As soon as you come within moderate proximity of the grand tree, you find yourself being conditioned with marketing materials. You see, it’s not just that Swarovski made the star on top of the tree. It is “The Swarovski Star.” Yes, this is, like, “a thing.” It's something you should know about, an attraction in its own right. And now, with the tendrils of Brand Awareness insinuating their way into your brain, you are beguiled by a second, more accessible Swarovski Star just another stone’s throw away across the plaza. (Don't worry if your arm is getting tired at this point—any further stone throwing will be entirely at your own discretion.)

This clone of the Swarovski Star allows you to witness the sparkling opulence in vivid detail.

When you sidle over to gander at the star, all up-close and personal-like, you’ll find some textual panels to help you understand how impressive this thing really is. It’s like you’re a tourist from small town America, and now you’re visiting a big-city museum and getting all cultured and whatnot!

Here's a sample:

“A striking combination of art, science and technology, the Swarovski Star required a team of 15 designers, engineers and lighting consultants in Austria, Germany and New York City. Taking more than 12 weeks to design, and over 2,500 hours to produce from creation to the final product, the Star represents Swarovski’s brand essence of cutting-edge design, precision, and innovation. It was created and assembled at Michael Hammers Studios in Germany and shipped in 20 crates to New York City to be displayed here, on top of the iconic Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree.”

Not only does The Star possess a remarkable pedigree, but it “represents Swarovski’s brand essence of cutting-edge design, precision, and innovation.” I thought it represents the Christmas Star, but what do I know? (After all, I'm just a big ninny.) And besides, that "brand essence" stuff is much more impressive than a story about a bunch of smelly shepherds practicing amateur astronomy to locate a cowbarn.

And not only that, but Swarovski was so benevolent as to allow the Rock Center tree to be enriched by the presence of their star, for you see, "It is the largest and most precious star ever to grace the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree."

Impressed yet? Yes? No? Whatever—the inundation continues! Only now it subtly moves on to inculcate you with facts about the wondrous qualities of all the other shiny junk they produce.

"Swarovski is the world's leading producer and designer of precision-cut crystal for fashion, jewelry, home decor, gifts and objects d'art. ... The refined, design-driven collections celebrate crystal as a creative material: timelessly modern, rich in history and heritage, offering infinite possibilities."

So there's that. And to top it off, the company has even greater things in store for the future. Swarovski, you see, "has embarked on a mission to expand the possibilities of crystal, whilst preserving the independence and integrity of this company that has become a worldleader in its field."

And how do they go about the noble work of "preserving the independence and integrity" of their company? Well, naturally, by selling stuff.

That's right, now that you're all "learned" (that's pronounced with two syllables, folks) about the wonder and worth of the works of Swarovski, you can put your newfound knowledge to good use at the trinket booth right behind the star!

At this outbuilding, instead of noisy animals, filthy straw, and poor people having messianic babies, you'll find the fruits of cutting edge precision:

Indeedy, they gots Christmas stockings, candy canes, and other "innovative" cut-glass knickknacks, the likes of which you prob'ly never seen nor heard tell of before! Unless you happen to be one of those rare people who ever had a grandmother.

It would take a more sophisticated eye than mine to discern among these which are "home decor" and which are "objects d'art," but I certainly know quality when I see it. And I see it in spades in this "refined, design-driven collection" that I can only refer to as The Weebles of Distinction:

I mean look at that smile! That's a lot of holiday spirit for just half a C-note.

Now all of this is some pretty heady stuff. If you're like me (a tremendous ninny, as you may have heard), your head is spinning; but bear with me long enough to have your mind boggled one last time. We've seen a lot of superlative language describing the Star of Brand Essence and all of the other fine products of the luminous SwarCorp, but it would be no exaggeration to say that such fanciful language could well have been used to describe the wondrous personal grooming of company founder Daniel Swarovski.

His curled, playfully unkempt moustache and impressively tiny soul patch come together to form a striking Van Dyke that truly embodies “the poetry of precision.”

And that, my friends (and fellow ninnies), is what the Christmas spirit is really all about.