Monday, December 19, 2011

Advertising makes it happen. Now, who's got the 'nads to write the check?

I had occasion to revisit the nexus of my two previous lives -- motorcycles and advertising -- the other day, when I found myself writing about the nadir of motorcyclists' image in U.S. pop culture, in the early 'sixties.

Motorcycles were bad news after the breathless coverage of the Hollister ‘motorcycle riot’ in 1947. Those greatly exaggerated tales inspired The Wild One in 1954. Then, Hunter S. Thompson published ‘Hells Angels: The strange and terrible saga of outlaw motorcycle gangs’. It’s likely that Thompson’s account of life with the Hells Angels was almost as apocryphal as press accounts of Hollister had been, but by the mid-‘60s, the image of motorcycling in the U.S. could hardly have sunk any lower.

The American Motorcyclist Association wrung its hands and plaintively painted the outlaw crowd as ‘one percenters’, claiming that 99% of riders were regular folks, but the media sure weren’t buying it -- probably because that story didn’t sell newspapers.

It wasn’t the AMA that set motorcycles back on the road to respectability, it was Honda. Hollywood and the media had knocked motorcycles down, and Honda’s ad agency, Grey Advertising, knew that Hollywood had a role to play in redeeming them, too. Grey conceived the “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” ad campaign and pitched an audacious media plan to Kihicharo Kawashima, the head of American Honda.

Grey proposed running a pair of television commercials during the 1964 Academy Awards telecast. That would put two 90-second ‘nicest people’ ads in front of more than two-thirds of the U.S. television audience. Buying the two spots cost $300,000, which was enough to give Kawashima pause; it was the equivalent of the gross revenues -- not the profit mind you, the gross revenues -- on the sale of about 1,200 Honda 50s.

This is not the original, 90-second, 'You meet the nicest people on a Honda' ad. The original is not available on YouTube and in the spirit of full disclosure I should admit that while I've seen the campaign's print executions, I've never watched the original commercial. (Please, please, American Honda, scour your archives, digitize a copy, and post it!) 

The truth is, most people in the ad business felt that Grey Advertising was well-named. The agency had a reputation for safe, middle-of-the-road creative. That said, the strategic thinking behind the 'nicest people' campaign was worthy of Don Draper (and in one Mad Men episode, the fictional Sterling Cooper agency actually pitches the non-fictional Honda company business!) Overall, the real campaign played to Grey Advertising's strengths and Grey's tendency towards insipid creative was OK; the campaign was, after all, aimed at the middle of the bell curve. 

About a decade later, Grey was still at it. This ad, featuring a young John Travolta, acknowledges the first -- 1973 -- Arab oil embargo/price shock and the ensuing recession; the short-arsed motorcycle cop is probably a tip of the (half) helmet to Robert Blake in 'Electra Glide in Blue.'

Kawashima needn’t have worried. That ad campaign didn’t just plant Honda in the minds of millions of hitherto non-riding consumers, it helped convince the country’s media that it was not in their commercial interest to alienate the entire motorcycle industry. Life Magazine ran a famous photo of a drunken biker at Hollister in 1947 (the ethically questionable shot was set up days after the actual ‘riot’.) When Honda started buying full page ads in the ‘60s, Life’s editors stopped running negative motorcycle stories.

That $300,000 advertising investment really gave me pause, too. That was the equivalent of about $2,000,000 in 2011 dollars. I don't know, offhand, what American Honda's best-selling (current) motorcycle is, but if the company spent 1,200 x that model's revenues on a single night's advertising, it would amount to a lot more than two million bucks.

American Honda won't spend that much this year. Hell will freeze over before we'll see a breakout motorcycle ad in this year's Academy Awards or Superbowl. I get occasional press releases from manufacturers claiming year-over-year sales growth, and it's possible we've seen the worst of the post-2008 meltdown/housing bubble. But don't kid yourself; the motorcycle business is in the fucking toilet. Why is it that there's no chance American Honda will show that kind of leadership today?

Mister, we could use a man like Kawashima today.

I stole this pic from Honda's 'history' site. It's captioned as follows: Holding up the You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda. poster are Kihachiro Kawashima (then general manager of American Honda), left, and Takeo Fujisawa (then senior managing director of Honda Motor), second from right. I'm guessing the tall guy is from Grey Advertising.

For a slightly different take on Honda's rise in the U.S. (and a look at one of the 'nicest people' print executions) you can read this blog post by FrogDesign's Adam Richardson.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Blind Man - an excerpt from Riding Man

There’s a natural evolution in motorcycle racing. Almost all racers have families and friends who race. Most amateur racers are their own mechanics; they start early, by borrowing their dads’ tools. Whether they should be mechanics is debatable (I suspect that my inability with tools may have improved my results; at least I never hurt my bikes’ performance.)

Over time, the typical clique of racing friends shrinks, as guys get tired of being injured or broke or backmarkers or some permutation of those three. Those left gradually coalesce into two groups: riders and mechanics. Sometimes, the mechanics are the handful of guys who are honest with themselves and ready to admit they don’t have the speed to get to the next level. Sometimes they run out of money to race, but can’t give up the scene. More rarely, they have a gift for it. The French have a great expression for this: they call it having “les doigts de fee,” which literally means “a fairy’s fingers”. The first mechanic I ever knew went a long way towards making me believe that a mechanic’s skill with tools was almost a magic power.

When I was a kid, my dad worked for a big international company. The company moved our family from Canada to Switzerland, so he could run their Geneva office. Our home was in Tannay, an agricultural village that looked down over orchards and vineyards to a big lake. Under Swiss law, at 14 I was allowed to ride a 50cc moped. In surrounding countries, mopeds had three-speed transmissions, but in Switzerland, models sold to teenagers had the top gear removed from the box. Thus, in theory, they were limited to 30 kilometers an hour. Trust the Swiss to take the fun out of everything.

I counted the days down to my fourteenth birthday anyway. My parents bought me the Cadillac of mopeds: a Puch Condor. To start it, I pedaled it like a bicycle. The pedals came in handy for assisting the motor on steep hills, or when we were racing out of slow turns (though digging the inside pedal into the pavement at maximum lean was definitely to be avoided!)

All the kids I knew had similarly restricted bikes, and we endlessly attempted to eke out a little more power. Since every single time any other kid went faster was a serious personal insult, our own neighborhood ‘arms race’ made the U.S.-Soviet debacle seem like an episode of Chip and Dale.

One night, mulling over the possibilities of increased compression, we decided to skim our cylinder heads. Unencumbered by knowledge of milling machines, we cast about for a suitable tool. We found it in a neighbor’s basement: a belt sander. Not one of us waited to see if it worked for anyone else first. We’d have got better results skimming our own stupid heads. Over the next few nights, quite a few local mopeds (which were often left parked outside front gates, in the convenient shadows of stone walls and overgrown hedges) lost their heads.

At every gas station; there was always a special premix pump for motorbikes only. We’d decide how much fuel we were going to buy, which was never much. We told the attendant how much fuel – and what percentage of premix oil – we wanted.

Knobs were set, and a handle was pulled down, sort of like the handle on an expresso machine. The customer was reassured to see a little spurt of oil sprayed onto the inner wall of the glass ‘fishbowl’ on top of the pump. Then a second handle released the gasoline, which swirled in after the oil, dissolving it. It was a special mixture – different than buying gas for a car – that may as well have been a magic potion. All of us idiots concluded that by reducing the percentage of oil to 2% from the recommended 3%, we could get 1% more gasoline, with a concomitant increase in horsepower.

Of course, nothing we did had any impact on performance at all, except to occasionally make it much worse. The top speed of every bike was pretty much determined by the luck of the draw, though since I was the smallest rider, I could pull taller gearing

While the bikes were simple and generally pretty rugged, we were awfully hard on them. We rode without helmets, so it’s amazing we didn’t find ways to kill ourselves, even at sorely restricted speeds. Low-siding on cow shit was a common excuse; once, I took to the ditch at full speed when a tractor and trailer laden with 200 bushels of apples emerged from a hedgerow in front of me. Damage from such wipeouts had to be repaired at the local shop. If my bike would still roll, it was an easy push; just up the street from my house.

The mechanic’s shop was basically a two-bay garage, which along with a tiny beauty salon, made up the ground floor of a two-story house. He worked on bicycles and mopeds, while his wife was the beautician. In general, his customers were not spoiled foreign children, they were real Swiss; farmers, cops, shopkeepers and like, who relied on motorbikes for day-to-day transportation. The wives and girlfriends of those guys were the customers for the mechanic’s wife. All of them were xenophobes, and their treatment of foreigners usually ranged from outright scorn to something resembling the Amish concept of ‘shunning’, unless money was changing hands.

If I was pushing in the bike, or walking in to pick it up, I’d always make a little noise, sort of like throat clearing, to warn him of my arrival. He was an intimidating character for a 14-year-old to deal with. He was old. 60 or 70. Tall and gaunt. Shaking his hand was like grabbing a bunch of walnuts. When he talked to me, he’d walk up to the sound of my voice, but stare straight out over my head. That was because cataracts had, long since rendered him completely blind. Hiscorneas were as opaque as a boiled trout’s.

He did everything by feel. Routine maintenance, stuff like fitting a new inner tube and tire, was absolutely no problem; sighted mechanics could do that with their eyes closed too, maybe. But he rebuilt top ends, replaced brake shoes; stuff that utterly baffled me. A few hours a week, he had a sighted assistant that came in, but usually he was alone. When I went there, there was always some little thing he’d borrow my eyes for, like having me read the tiny numbers on a carb jet.

Occasionally, I’d stop by his shop just to fill up my tires. (The Condor actually came with a bicycle pump for the purpose, but you had to pump like a madman to overcome leakage in the pump itself. He had a pump powered by a foot treadle that allowed me to run the rock-hard tires I preferred for minimal rolling resistance.) When I asked if I could borrow his pump, he always sternly warned me to replace it exactly – exactly – where I’d found it.

Luckily for him, the bikes he worked on were simple. They were all piston-port two-strokes, whose basic design hadn’t changed since the introduction of the NSU ‘Quickly’ in about 1947. When my bike arrived at his shop for the first time, though, he was fascinated. Until then, most Swiss-market mopeds were sold with rigid front forks, like a bicycle. Mine had an inch or two of suspension travel, thanks to a bogus leading-link arrangement in which a little block of rubber served as both spring and damper. He spent a long time ‘looking’ at it, stroking and probing the workings with his fingers, memorizing the arrangement of the parts. It was not long before he got the chance to repair those forks.

He had a name of course, but we just called him ‘the blind man’. By the time I was old enough to get a moped, my family had lived in Switzerland for several years, and I spoke fluent French. Other foreign families came and went every year or two, so I occasionally introduced new customers to the blind man, and acted as a translator. Since his ability was so extraordinary, I sort of ‘showed him off’, I guess. He always took the work. He and his wife were making their living about five bucks at a time, so there was no turning away paying jobs.

After Switzerland, my family moved back to Canada, to Calgary. Out west. Cowboy country. It seemed good, for me, because I could have a bigger bike. I ended up getting a finicky, disc-valve Kawasaki. While it ran, it was just fast enough to illustrate the fact that despite my intense desire, I was incapable of intuiting just how people rode motorcycles really quickly. My inability to keep it going was one of the reasons I ended up giving up motorcycles for a long time.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Intolerance is un-American

A few weeks ago, the manager of the grocery store where I work (on my day job, obviously. I don't practice motorcycle journalism in grocery stores -- that's what Starbucks is for) took me aside. He told me that someone in North Carolina had written an email to the store, complaining about the contents of some of my blog posts. Why would that particular fucktard write my employer and not me? Well, obviously, to harass me by encouraging my employer to fire me, or at least lean on me to silence me.

I didn't see the letter, so I have no way of knowing whether it was my liberal political bias that infuriated the writer, or whether it was the generally atheist and foul-mouthed nature of some of my 'rantier' columns that triggered this cowardly and un-American personal attack.

The manager of the store where I work seemed a little unsettled by even having to raise the subject. I got the feeling that this was something that had been discussed at the head office, and that maybe corporate counsel had weighed in. If that was the case, they'd certainly realize that there's nothing in this blog that could possibly be interpreted as hate speech, or seditious. Although Missouri (the state in which I reside and work) is a so-called right-to-work state (it would more accurately be called a employer's-right-to-fire state) and the company could legally have fired me on the spot, I imagine that the company realizes that firing an employee for exercising his right to free speech is not going to generate a wave of positive press.

I should point out that I've written some highly-politicized posts, and I've written posts in which I named my employer, but that my employer was never cited in any of those volatile posts. Nothing I've written about my employer could be interpreted as particularly negative.

So the fucktard in North Carolina had to read some post that infuriated him, and then dig through the blog to find some other post in which I mentioned my employer by name. Then, said fucktard had to figure out how to contact my employer and craft a letter which had the intent, obviously of either silencing me or punishing me for my views by getting me fired.

Nice, eh?

I should say that, thus far, my employer has been careful not to say "Don't write any more of that stuff," or "You're on report,"  or anything like that. In fact, the only thing I was told was, "You're entitled to your opinion."

I volunteered to remove any direct reference to my employer by name, and in fact have gone back through earlier posts and redacted the company's name. That makes it hard to even write about working, but then I had a brainstorm. Obviously, I have a bit of a potty keyboard when I'm writing here on; I figure, joke you if you can't take a fuck.

But when I used to make a living writing for other sites and pubs, if I had to insert swearing (for example as part of a direct quote) I used to replace the offending words with symbols drawn from math or other alphabets, the way comic book artists sometimes fill a speech bubble with swirls, exclamation points and daggers to indicate a character is swearing without running afoul of censors.

For example, I'd insert fake words like 'Ƒü©≮' or '$#!+'. People knew that those character strings meant 'insert swear word here' but had no idea they specifically meant 'fuck' or 'shit'.

It occurred to me that I could do the same thing vis-a-vis the name of my employer. If I insert this character string - ₮Ʀ@Ƌ’⋲® √⦰⋲$ - in place of my employer's name, people will know they should insert the name of some grocery store in there, but won't have any idea which specific business I'm referring to. I mean, those characters aren't even part of the regular English alphabet.

Let me make this clear: I love ₮Ʀ@Ƌ’⋲® √⦰⋲$. It's a great company that's built a great business by making grocery shopping fun and providing solid values to customers. Really, it's a shame I have to keep their name a secret now. I have a smile on my face every day that I walk in there. I work my ass off, even when assigned the most thankless tasks in the store, from processing spoiled food to cleaning the toilets. I have huge respect and admiration for the brand they've built, and am constantly fascinated by what I learn from them. I like my co-workers and enjoy my customer encounters. I have every reason to think that most of my customers support my employment and enjoy dealing with me.

That said, the writer in me is sorry that ₮Ʀ@Ƌ’⋲® √⦰⋲$ didn't actually just fire me once they'd mentioned the letter complaining about this blog. I mean, every now and then I write a motorcycle-related post read by several thousand people, but my political rants are typically read only be a few hundred people. Firing me for the content of this blog would be a public relations dream come true for me, and guarantee many thousands of new readers for my non-motorcycle writing. I guess, strategically, if the company was going to fire me, it 'should' have fired me for some other reason and never mentioned the letter, since now that I know about it, it opens up a host of First Amendment issues, to say nothing of a possible suit for libel (or do I mean slander?) against the sender. But I have no reason to think the company will fire me, or even really disagrees with what I've written. Why should they? It's all true.

Who is the North Carolina fucktard anyway? That's the interesting question. I'll definitely take legal steps to get the letter - if ever/as soon as - the fucktard gets the 'satisfaction' of getting me fired. I highly doubt that I'm the only target of this fucktard, and I imagine many similar letters have been sent. I imagine that even if the sender's information was redacted, I could eventually identify the sender by finding matching letters elsewhere on the web.

I doubt, in fact, that the North Carolina fucktard is really an individual fucktard. I'm too good at arithmetic and probability to think that amongst the few dozen readers of my typical political posts - many or most of whom agree with me - there's some individual reader who disagrees so violently that they'd go to that much trouble to silence me. It's possible, I grant you, but not likely.

It's more probable that some group like the Koch brothers have funded a group of kochsuckers who, using tools like Google Alerts, are searching the web for people like me, and then engaging in an organized harassment effort. If you were going to conduct such an effort, North Carolina would be a good place to base it, since it is an American Taliban stronghold.

Either way though, whether that letter was written by a lone nut job, or whether it was part of an organized fatwah, my only real comment is this...

Intolerance is un-American.

Oh, and by the way, Ƒü©≮ you.