Category Archives: Media

Same Story, Different Sell?

This image got posted in a Fitocracy group about body image, and it crystallizes some thoughts I’ve had about this toxic high-circulation magazine market.

Different magazines, published at different times, with almost identical cover pitches. Women’s magazines are bizarrely homogeneous in their content, with sometimes barely perceptible differences in branding.

These magazines are painfully repetitive, but in a quest for some kind of novelty they often run through all kinds of goofy flavor-of-the-moment solutions. Men’s magazines do something similar, and this phenomenon is a big contributor to people’s confusion about what works and what doesn’t. And then there’s the flaks for various would-be (and already-are) gurus, actively pitching more sketchy stuff on top of it.

I’d love to see a magazine about fitness that just built the repetition into the editorial calendar. November and December could be about stress management and family issues. January is “Tune up your eating habits” month. February is “Heart health.” Maybe March is something about the pros and cons of alcohol and how to keep it a safe part of your overall pattern. And so on.

The sheer variety of strategies that are effective for different people in handling these larger issues, combined with the developing science (physiology, behavior) around them, could provide a magazine with page after page of genuinely helpful information, month after month, year after year. It could be interesting, “fresh” (as they like to say), and good.

Too bad it wouldn’t sell ad pages.

What Planet Are You On?

Over 80% of Americans don’t have a gym membership. The gym market is split among low-cost gyms with limited equipment and amenities, specialty gyms (for disciplines including powerlifting, weightlifting, climbing, or CrossFit), and “fitness clubs” with extensive services and amenities including training, massage, swimming pools, and so on.

Planet Fitness hasn’t tried to woo the less than 20% of people who already want to go to the gym – it’s gone hard after the other 80%, people who don’t like gyms, feel anxious in gyms, and may feel a need for fitness activity but probably don’t have performance goals. Planet Fitness tries to make going to the gym a fun thing with oft-derided events like bagel days and pizza feeds. This approach has kept it in business for more than 20 years. Unfortunately, in its zeal to avoid judging people for not being fitness freaks, it’s swung pretty far in the other direction.

Someone who judges – you mean, like, someone who uses
pejorative slang terms to refer to other people?

In a New York Times article about Planet Fitness’s marketing, Steve Red, the chief creative officer of marketing agency Red Tettemer & Partners (responsible for Planet Fitness’s recent “gymtimidation” campaign), was quoted about the aspirational approach to promoting health clubs: “I’m never going to get to be that washboard-stomach, super-cut guy that I see in the Equinox ads,” he said, referring to the chain of upscale gyms. “There are a ton of gym brands that are all about being cut and sinewy and having a six-pack, but I would argue that approach is not aspirational — it’s inaccessible.” (A Gym for People Who Don’t Like Gyms).

Planet Fitness doesn’t try to attract people who are reaching for the stars, whether in sheer amounts of weight lifted (its gyms don’t have the equipment heavy lifters need for training) or “perfect” abs (some argue the food offerings are part of a strategy to keep members feeling “failed” in fitness goals). A place you can go to get a nice bit of exercise, indeed where food is not “the enemy,” is a nice idea for a fitness company – it would be nice to see it done well.

A wild lunk appears! From one of Planet Fitness’s ads

But nobody likes being insulted. People who love heavy weight training, in particular, love to bag on Planet Fitness – and it’s easy to understand, when Planet Fitness has explicitly insulted and derided them in ads meant to show what their gyms are not. The hostility Planet Fitness expresses toward powerlifters and other gymgoers is offensive and contemptible, but it touched a nerve in Planet Fitness’s target market, as its “we’re not a gym” branding has done for years.

This tension and cliquishness has always bothered me. Both sides say some pretty wrong things. The “gymtimidation” campaign, with its laughable stereotypes and overt hostility, handily puts the lie to Planet Fitness’s claim of being a judgment-free zone, but a lot of responses in the fitness community haven’t exactly elevated the debate — and that helps to make life worse for everyone involved. Whenever I hear someone insult Planet Fitness members — not just the company’s marketing — as unrealistic or stuck in their own headspace, as weak-willed people that just need to suck it up and learn to work hard, I think, “You are the reason Planet Fitness exists.”

So Meta

We tend to think of many things as modern, as if previous generations never wrestled with them, or considered them. Just as the good ol’ days really weren’t, there is nothing new under the sun.

Take this ad from the mid 1970s. (Please!) It’s easy to dismiss it immediately with a “Jeez, aim high, kiddo – and by the way, doc, you’re a jerk.” (That was the reaction at the time, too – this ad ran in New Zealand, where it was called out by a local feminist publication, Broadsheet, as among the most sexist print ads on offer.)

But there is something else going on here, something we love to congratulate ourselves for today, and that’s an implicit critique of advertising in the first place. That guy’s a random dentist, apparently doing a well-child exam. He wants to harness this girl’s good genetics and responsible dental care, which there is no reason to believe he has any responsibility for (the ad is for a consumer product bought at the drugstore), as if it represents something about his practice. (Besides hiring cheerful, attractive receptionists, as I am sure most businesses like to do.)

I love/hate this kind of advertising. I worked in advertising long enough to gravitate happily toward almost anything that subverts its premises, but sexism aside this kind of in joke makes me weary, underscoring the vacuous manipulation of the industry.

Thing-a-day 7: Languages That Didn’t Make the Cut

How would that controversial Coke ad have sounded with a line in Klingon? Or dolphin?

Coke’s ad was nice. The company has famously expressed its wish to buy the world a Coke, and many people have a bottle or can of Coke labeled in a foreign language, that they kept after a trip abroad. You can even buy them on eBay. Appearing throughout popular culture in movies, books, and music, it has had remarkable, multichannel success in Coca-Colanization of more or less the entire planet. Coke does business (in a friend’s words) “in every country that isn’t actually on fire” — and probably in a few that are.

The United States population is composed primarily of people who came from other places in the world, or whose fairly recent relatives did. Over the last 400 years, North America has drawn speakers of almost every language with the promise of a new life, of new opportunity. It has refined the idea of the melting pot, with whole generations of immigrants refusing to teach their children their native languages, not wanting to hold them back from assimilation. America the Beautiful is almost necessarily an idea in foreign languages — when they got here, many immigrants found a day-to-day life of backbreaking work, with the best hope of opportunity resting on that of their children to have a better standard of living than they did. It’s an essential aspect of the American experience, the essence of the American dream.

A lot of people didn’t like this ad, calling the foreign languages un-American. I saw some particularly vociferous critiques of it from people whose family names made it clear that their own great-grandparents, give or take a generation or two, might never have been able to form a full sentence in English without difficulty. I think about stories from my own family, about the native tongue being forbidden — mostly with sadness now that we understand more about the cognitive advantages of being bilingual. Well-meaning but short-sighted, rejecting the languages of our forefathers is a powerful signal of affiliation but at a steep cost of isolation, which can rob us of compassion. The language issue was such a powerful flashpoint for many people that they didn’t even notice the gay couple. Maybe that’s progress.

The Strange Life of Beautiful Existence

Beautiful Existence, an Issaquah woman, is setting herself a series of extended challenges, most recently completing a year in which she obtained all her meals from Starbucks.

“I felt like it was definitely something that I could do. I had a lot of support from family and friends.”
“Starbucks puts together menu items and protein bistro boxes and you know as long as you’re active and as long as you really monitor the intake of your calories, you absolutely can lose weight and I did.”

Her challenges generally involve brands – limiting purchasing to Goodwill or testing advice in Parents magazine – although she’s also done a radical budgeting challenge.

Next up: a year of REI. Sounds like fun!

Article: Woman lives on nothing but Starbucks for an entire year

I don’t read comments at news sites, but after 20 years online I can guess how comments on this article would go. The usual gendered stuff about narcissism or selfishness, maybe some stuff about the brand orientation of her challenges, and the perpetual chorus of “too much time on her hands, I guess!” that sounds whenever someone does something that requires a lot of effort and time but isn’t sports or a traditional career.

This woman is remarkably privileged to have the support of her family for these projects, which must create substantial logistical problems. As I read this story, I felt that having that kind of freedom to make this sort of commitment to an idea is, in fact, a Beautiful Existence. I have the advantage of a very simple home life, and – like most, I’m sure – find it plenty difficult to sustain complex, lengthy projects outside the basic requirements of daily life. My coping strategy has been to try to make sure I have lots of options at different levels of effort so I can actually finish something once in a while. And I doubt I’ll ever have a local news mention to show for that, let alone one that gets picked up nationally.

I wish we had more social support overall for this kind of project. One of the things that makes humans so interesting is how idiosyncratic their passions or focuses can be. Artists of all kinds can be extreme examples of this, but we all know people with surprisingly specific – and sometimes just surprising – hobbies or collections. Collecting may be a gateway activity for some people – collect … make … present, teach, convene. An “embrace and extend” that actually adds value instead of ending in extinction.

I hope Beautiful Existence won’t be troubled by the inevitable range of reactions she’ll get. People online can get so hostile and intrusive, and she’s probably pretty easy to find. I also hope that a few people will think to themselves, “OK, not sure I could do that, but a year-long challenge sounds like it could be fun – maybe I’ll do ‘Photo A Day’ this year after all.”

And for those who don’t want to commit to a whole year, there’s always Thing-A-Day, the annual month-long “creative sprint” that is conveniently scheduled for February. In fact, I think I’ll do that one again myself.

Aqua hurdles

Photo by Bruce Mozert
Photo by Bruce Mozert

Sometimes there really are great moments in advertising.

Central Florida has many clear springs, but in the 19th century, Silver Springs also had location, location, location: connected to the outside world by the Silver, Ocklawaha and St. Johns rivers. After the Civil War, steamship-borne tourists including the likes of President Ulysses S. Grant and Harriet Beecher Stowe would flock to the springs to marvel at the sight of aquatic life seemingly suspended in space. Through the first few decades of the 20th century, whether they came by rail or by car, tourists continued to go to Silver Springs. But by the 1930s, the place needed a new image—or images—to keep them coming. For almost half a century, Bruce Mozert supplied those images.

… He likes to say that he “took to photography like a duck takes to water.” But “like a fish” might be closer to the mark. At Silver Springs, Mozert pioneered underwater photography, building waterproof housings that allowed him to go deep with a camera in hand. For some 45 years (except for service with the Army Air Forces during World War II), he created scenes of people—comely young women, for the most part—talking on the phone, playing golf, reading the newspaper…underwater, all the better to show off the wondrous clarity of Silver Springs’ waters. The Life Aquatic with Bruce Mozert, Smithsonian Magazine

He’s still in business down in Florida, too.

See a gallery of these images at the Smithsonian Magazine

The Nike+ World Turns

The FuelBand activity is over, and the devices are returned. I asked a Nike executive at the conference about what happens to the other Nike fitness properties, now that it looks like Nike is recomposing the “Fuel” concept from calories to this weighted score. He said, oh, it will take months to reorganize that stuff. I said I was worried, because the FuelBand and site do so much less than I already getting from the Nike tracking I was using, and he said he wasn’t really involved with that. Fair enough.

Today the tracking product that drew me into the Nike+ ecology announced that their site will be down for months while they get rolled into the new thing.

The tracking product I’ve shifted to is still alive and well, prominently linked directly from the new hotness as a menu item, and so, one hopes, unlikely to disappear anytime soon. It is a very different product from FuelBand, and fits well into a mix that serves all activity levels. Nike+ has turned into a confusing crowd of sites and products, and simplification is good, but the timing woke me up abruptly this morning.

I am glad I’m not on the support queue that will take calls today from people who spent the last couple of weeks or months getting hooked on the website companion to a different piece of hardware they already bought. The email tells them that their data will still be there at that indeterminate point in the future, but these products are about habits and regular reinforcement. Months from now might as well be the heat death of the universe. I remember how entertained I was by rewards displays when I first found those sites, and I know I’d be pretty frustrated if I were waking up this morning to learn that I’d never get a chance to see all the levels.