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Dealing with writer’s block

Early in my freelance copywriting career, I suffered three serious episodes of writer’s block. I no longer have any memory of the assignments or why I was stuck, but I have an intense physical recollection of each attack.

At the time I was living in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles, just below the reservoir. First time it happened, I decided I would pace around the park as a way to calm myself down. I remember a beautiful day, warm sun beating down, and me miserable because I got nothin’. I’d give myself a few minutes of strolling, then go home and sit down at the typewriter (yes, this was a while back), flail, repeat. I put on a lot of miles and probably got some sun damage that day.

During the second episode I got so agitated I could not eat. I was subsisting on peanut butter sandwiches at that time and I made one and cut it into bites and left them on the wraparound butcher block counter of the kitchen. Each time I passed I’d grab one of the bites and stick it in my mouth without looking. Some made it down, some didn’t.

The third must have been years later because I had a daisywheel printer (remember?) and my downstairs office. When writer’s block attacked, I decided I would just keep writing till I got it right. When I was finished, or maybe gave up, I pressed the print button on my Mac Plus (remember?) and page after page of virtual identical paragraphs spat out, a piece of evidence I still have posted on an office bulletin board.

I’m remembering this because I had a near-attack the other day, the first in many years. I was working on a large-scale, long term project (doing a new draft of my novel after it came back from an editor, to be specific) and I got to a part and realized it wasn’t very good. I started in, got stuck like a car with bald tires in snow, took a deep breath and backed off. Then, within a few hours, a number of short-turnaround paying projects came to life and I knew I would not return to the big project for a while. I also knew, from experience, that when I did return I would feel blocked.

So I gave myself an hour to return to the troublesome episode, and write through it. I actually came up with a solution that I think will work, but that was a bonus. The main thing was not to find myself greeted with failure and a problem when I next approached this project. I went through the black hole and came out the other side. The key to this technique was that I did not require the section to be any good. It simply needed to take my main character from point a to point b.

There’s another solution to writer’s block, which is to stop as soon as you feel it coming on. But this isn’t always possible when you’re on assignment. How about you? Am I the only one this happens to? If not, you might want to get my book. There are several ideas for curing writer’s block in there.

The USPS delivered my package!

USPS takes out frustrations on packages

The package as it finally arrived, not a little the worse for wear…


6 weeks after shipping to the wrong address, I got a text from the people who live at that address. They had the package, delivered this past weekend. A few hours, it was finally united with the intended recipient. The report: most contents were pulverized but nut butter and a jar of tomato jam were intact. Everything was covered in a strange brown powder, perhaps from what had once been chocolate biscotti.

Note the special tape: does it bother you as it does me that the Post Office has need for preprinted tape that says “RESEALED REWRAPPED IN THE U.S.P.S.”? You can see my original shipping label is intact, so they must have used box cutters to open it before resealing and rewrapping, then smashing many times, perhaps with trash compacting equipment, for good measure.

Thanks to the Postmasters and Postmistresses of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Bell Gardens and Richmond, California for delivering this Christmas miracle!

The USPS has eaten my cookies and drunk my maple syrup

UPS can send a package from one bulk mail center to another, but not deliver it

The latest news on my wandering package from the Post Office (click to enlarge the picture and read the complete itinerary)

When last we checked in on my missing package, and the Post Office fail after I used an old address, it was just before the New Year. I had filed a Package Intercept request, agreeing to pay a fee plus new postage if they would simply redirect the package to the appropriate address. In addition, I happened to be on my way to San Francisco myself and I mailed a letter to the current occupants of the address where I had originally sent it (to relatives who’d moved away some time ago) asking them to call me if the package showed up so I could come claim it.

Sadly, it was all for naught. The package got tantalizing close at a San Francisco post office down the hill from the erroneous address, then USPS decided it would be better to send it to ZIP code 90052 in Los Angeles. About the same time, I got an email informing me that, even though the USPS had the tracking number and the corrected address, there was nothing they could do so my Package Intercept purchase would be refunded.

The package was not welcome in Los Angeles so it was returned to the mail processing center in Richmond (northern California). They didn’t want it either so they sent it to Bell Gardens, a Los Angeles suburb. It was then forwarded to the original Los Angeles ZIP and from there back to Richmond. Of course, Richmond wanted no part of it and sent it back to 90052. Finally the package “departed” 90052 two weeks ago and has been in transit ever since, and presumably will be so forever more.

Good thing there was nothing irreplaceable in there. Just some cookies and maple syrup which, I have a feeling, have not gone for naught. Enjoy, men and women in blue. You’ve worked hard for your prize.

Brands get their (big) game face on for Super Bowl FSIs

Big Game FSIs 2015

How many ways can you say “Big Game”? Not that many, apparently.

The big day for football fans has come and gone. Of course, I’m referring to the Sunday before the Super Bowl when the newspapers are full of FSIs touting snacks of all varieties (except healthy) as super savory, fan favorites or a tasting touchdown without ever using the actual name of the event which requires an exclusive and very expensive license from the very litigious (unless you are a wife-whacking or child-whipping pro athlete, in which case you are exempt) National Football League.

Except… hardly any of the headlines are anywhere near as creative or alliterative as the descriptives I tossed together above. Take a look above… a majority of the ads have “Big Game” in some variation as their headline with only the lamest attempt to tie it to the product. We have two incidences of “big flavor for the big game” and one “big taste for the big game” along with “big game lineup”, “stock up for the big game” as well as “game plan” and the ever popular “game changer”. You’d think that copywriters have a vocabulary of 50 words, but that’s wrong because a lot of the non-Super Bowl ads in the same edition are very clever. (My personal favorite, “What the Yuck?” for a super strength detergent that gets the “yuck” out of deeply soiled clothes.) They are bored with this tiresome yearly charade and as a result get sacked for a loss, creatively speaking.

Super Bowl P&G ad

Look! A Super Bowl ad that says Super Bowl!

Interestingly, the words “Super Bowl” actually do appear, in a spread in the P&G Brand Saver. Their Gillette shavers, it turns out, are indeed an official sponsor. All the senior people were in the jet on the way to Phoenix (where this year’s game will be played) so the playbook was left in charge of a novice copywriter and a too-cute art director. “Smooth moves and fresh plays?” I don’t think so. And can you find the Roman numerals XLIX, for 49, hiding in the ad? Sadly, Ex-Lax is not a sponsor and this will be the last Roman-enumerated Super Bowl; we’re moving to 50 next year.

My prediction: Seahawks by seven.

One-of-a-kind at CES 2015

One of the pleasures of attending the Consumer Electronics Show is seeing new concepts making their debut for the benefit of prospective investors and manufacturing reps. Many of these are clustered in the “Eureka Park” area which, unlike last time I was here, was part of one of the main exhibit halls.

Easy Sim 3D

Easy Sim 3D quickly reconstructs an accident or crime scene.

Some products are very very niched yet seem like they’d be highly attractive to their intended audience. One example was Easy Sim 3D, a web application that quickly recreates a 3D representation of an event that can be viewed from multiple angles. It’s designed for news reporters. Then there was the GoTenna, an antenna that turns your phone into a homing device if you should be in trouble and out of cell range.

GoTenna

goTenna turns your cell phone into a homing device

But there’s also the “first case for your Mac charger”, probably first because nobody knew they needed it. The first ever handheld dashboard camera. And Belty™,  The New Belt Experience.

Mac Charger Case

Mac Charger case solves a problem you may not have realized you have

I wondered about the broad application of  Social Media Counter, one of those “visual radio” displays you see in restaurants that scrolls news headlines and sports scores, except this one scrolls your updated count of Twitter followers. Then there’s Smart Sine Food Minder, a collection of little radio equipped scales you put a carton of milk or other staple on; the scales know how much it’s supposed to weigh and send you a message when it’s running low.

Smart Sine Food Minder

Smart Sine Food Minder tells you when you’re out of something. The question is whether this is easier than a shopping list, and I fear not.

But I could be wrong. Or a buyer could be looking for exactly that niche kind of solution.

Witness the interest in Teddy the Guardian (watch the video), the sensor-loaded teddy bear that collects a wealth of information about your baby, then transmits it when you touch the bear’s paw.

You never know when the next big thing will come along in the form of something which you never imagined, but that now makes you say “of course!” That’s the magic of CES.

Smart homes and smart marketing at CES 2015

Oomi Smart Home system

What’s Oomi? Tell me why I should care.

“Smart homes” is a useful topic for a marketing review because, while it’s exciting (or maybe ominous) to think about gadgets turning out the lights, managing security or monitoring our baby’s heartbeat, it’s up to the marketers to tell us exactly what their specific products do. Witness a few examples, good and bad, from the recent Winter 2015 Consumer Electronics Show.

Smart Home famil

Generic smart home marketing

Oomi makes the mistake of thinking others are as interested in their product as they are. “What’s Oomi?” was the headline of their booth at the Showstoppers press event. Without a benefit or point of reference, it’s not likely many will stick around to find out. The subtext “the first smart home that’s actually smart” provides context but is too clever for its own good: I don’t know that there’s a perception of lots of smart home products that are stupid. It’s a solution for a problem that may not exist. And meanwhile, we haven’t learned anything about the product. (Like many others, it’s a set of modules that work together to handle various home automation functions.)

Not much better are a number of OEM booths I passed in the nether regions of the second floor in South Hall. By focusing entirely on technology, these importers make their systems generic. There’s a “home” graphic but otherwise they lean heavily on the “what” rather than the “why”. This is a common problem with marketing at the CES where thousands of new products and unfamiliar concepts jostle for attention simultaneously. In a few seconds as I stumble down the aisle you need to tell me not only what you are selling, but why I should care.

Teddy the Guardian

“Teddy the Guardian” baby monitor

For smart homes, it’s obviously about emotion, and the shoestring display for “Teddy the Guardian” does this very well. In fact, the signage doesn’t even say what the product is but the baby tcotchkes make a strong emotional appeal and you hang around long enough to find out it’s a teddy bear with all kinds of baby monitoring built in. There was a lot of interest in this one.

Four WeMo examples

Can I wemo that?

Finally, WeMo is a family of devices that monitor and automate activity in the home. Belkin created a mock home and then stuck devices all over the places with captions describing hypothetical problems and “can I WeMo that?” Compare this to Oomi, which seems to do the exact same thing, and you can see why Belkin’s marketing is so good. It’s a complete conversation that combines technology and the human factor and is fun to interact with as well. The booth was packed.

The Idiot of Things visits CES 2015 Las Vegas

Internet of Everything Now Open

Qualcomm’s takeoff on the Internet of Things

I saw IoT all over Las Vegas on buses and billboards, and asked a booth staffer for an explanation. She said it stands for the Internet of Things and then proceeded to explain what that meant. I already knew the concept, just not the acronym but too late; I felt like a clueless Luddite. Anyway, it is indeed the Year of the Thing at the Consumer Electronics Show with heavy emphasis on apps for connecting mobile devices to all aspects of your daily life.

Pet monitoring gadgets

Lots of pet monitoring devices at CES 2015

Over two days I saw many gadgets for monitoring every aspect of your fitness, or your child’s, or even your pet’s. You can buy an electric toothbrush that has Bluetooth that connects to an app to show you how effectively you’re brushing. You can control your home remotely or turn your car into a nerve center for managing what will happen when you arrive while hopefully not getting into an accident due to distracted multitasking. (As a car company executive pointed out in a keynote, one thing that has to be sorted out is liability when a self driving car gets into an accident.)

3D family

3D printing and printed 3D products are huge at CES. Here, your family miniaturized for posterity.

What’s hot this year, in addition to things? Drones, lots of drones. 3D printers, and products and services connected to 3D printing. Smart cars that can be controlled with hand gestures (Volkswagen), will park themselves (Hyundai) or run on fuel cells (several). Fitbits and other performance monitoring electronics on steroids, so you don’t have to be because your conditioning is so efficient and awesome. And endless lineups of 4k televisions and monitors, each more vivid and breathtaking than the last.

Drones, also totally hot

Drones, also totally hot

What’s not? 3D television. (I saw just one at the show, billed as the world’s largest glassless meaning you don’t have to wear goggles.) Google Glass is ice cold… again, just one showing. And very few laptops, tablets or conventional PCs…. This was a gadget show, and it’s fully returned to its roots as a “consumer” show with very little business spillover. (Microsoft, which had an enormous presence in years past, was behind closed doors with a single hospitality suite.)

I’ve got a few reports coming up over the next couple of weeks:

  • Some interesting “mobility experiments” described in the keynote by Ford President Mark Fields
  • Best and worst of CES: some niche concepts that fill a narrow but credible role and others that left me shaking my head
  • Marketing makeover: I look at how, and how not, to present the “smart home” concept based on examples from many exhibitors
  • A historical retrospective on CES—an institution that would seem to have no history, since it’s always looking for the next big thing
Google Glass

Google Glass, not hot

Stay tuned.

Why won’t the Post Office deliver my package?

My USPS tracking report

My package is sitting in the post office at ZIP 94124 and “scheduled for delivery” 11 days ago. Can someone help me get it to its destination?

A few years back, Canada got a new Postmaster General. He was presumably a political appointee vs. someone who came up through the ranks, judging from what he said at his introductory press conference. He was asked how he could improve mail service for business mailers and he replied to the effect of, “quite frankly, I don’t think it’s a very good business model to count on the post office.” Informed that thousands of direct mail marketers and mail order companies did exactly that, he quickly modified his remark.

I thought of that anecdote this past week while trying to track a package that I’d misaddressed and sent through Priority Mail. This is a great and reliable service that brings many of us back to the post office once per year at Christmas time. For $16 bucks or so, we can send a box of a fixed size but any weight and it will arrive in 3 days or so.

It was when my recipient didn’t get the package that I looked at my receipt and discovered my error: I’d sent it to an old address which was on file with my USPS account. I then went online and input the tracking number (tracking is included with the Priority Mail service) and found that it had gone out for delivery, presumably was rejected, then was forwarded from San Francisco to City of Industry in Southern California, where it had at this point been sitting for several days.

I tried to find a way to contact the post office on the website and eventually found a form I could fill out. I had to choose a reason and said it was an address change. (There was no choice for “I made a mistake on the address and I want to correct it.”) I actually got a call, in fact two calls, from the post office in response to this effort. But when I returned the calls the phone numbers rang forever; nobody was picking up and the post office doesn’t have voicemail.

By now my package, moving from port to port like the Ancient Mariner, had made it back to the Bay Area, giving me hope it would be redirected to the correct destination. But after it sat in Richmond for several days it made its way back to the post office for ZIP code 94124—the same ZIP code from which it had been dispatched to my original bad address.

At this point I filed a Package Intercept Request. The USPS website explains that it is a “request” rather than an “order” because “With USPS Package Intercept® service, you can seek to redirect a domestic item you’ve sent. If your item has not been delivered or released for delivery, you can request to have it redirected back to the sender’s address, to a Post Office™ location as a Hold For Pickup, or to a different domestic address. This service is available for packages, letters, and flats with a tracking or extra services barcode and all mail classes except Standard Mail® or Periodicals (other restrictions may apply). The Postal Service™ will make every effort to locate your item prior to delivery however; there is no guarantee for the service. [italics added]”

Now think about that. The package has a barcode, it has a tracking number, the postal service knows where it is, the post office knows the corrected address, and yet it hasn’t been delivered. How can this be? What good is a tracking number if it can’t be used for tracking?

You wonder why the U.S. Postal Service is, year after year, billions of dollars in the red as business drains away to Fedex, UPS and other for-profit carriers. Think about how responsive UPS was to last holiday’s shipping fiascos to make sure they wouldn’t happen again, and they didn’t. When those companies offer tracking services, you better believe they’ll work.

Maybe the project to track packages at the Post Office ran out of budget so they’re able to track a truck full of packages from one central location to another (note the ZIP code is the lowest sort level on the report; there are no actual recipient addresses). Maybe the person who was in charge of the tracking package got promoted, or retired, and the replacement wasn’t interested in the project.

For me as the customer, knowing my package is within a few miles of its destination, and yet not delivered, is far worse than simply giving it up as “lost in the mail”. If somebody in the Post Office is reading this, would you please take the package off the shelf and deliver it before the cookies inside get any staler?

Kohler how-to video might have been titled “why you shouldn’t buy Kohler bathroom fixtures”

You’ve replaced a toilet seat, right? It takes about five minutes: you unscrew the plastic nuts underneath, pull off the old seat, position the new one by poking the plastic bolts through the very obvious holes, secure it with new clean nuts and you’re done.

Well, if you have a Kohler one-piece toilet things are a little different. This video–which was MADE by Kohler, not an irate customer–tells you how to replace the anchors that hold the toilet seat in about (their estimate) 45 minutes. Mind, these instructions are just for the anchor…. you still have to put in the toilet seat and its bolts. And you have to buy a kit (Kohler sells it for $47 but you can get it for much less on Amazon) that includes the anchors and a bunch of specialty hardware to handle the difficult task of getting out the old anchor (which in my case was broken off in its hole) and stabilizing the new one while you compress it.

Take note as you watch the video of the sequence in which the washers go on the mounting bolt: first the flat washer, then the lock washer which is the opposite of the way it’s usually done. This means that after you seat the anchor and back off the mounting bolt, when you lift it off the toilet the lock washer will inevitably fall… into the toilet! At which point you have no choice but to fish it out by hand.

My teenager was impressed that a company has found a way to make money on its own design incompetence, but as he grows older he’ll learn. Google a bit and you’ll find Kohler is reviled among plumbers and any homeowner who’s ever had to work on their products and all swear never to buy Kohler again. I’m giving them my broken-off bolt award for “Worst User Experience of the Year”.

Second place, by the way, goes to my 2010 Prius for its left low beam headlight. The halogen lights in newer cars do burn out and need replacement, which on the right side is as straightforward as you might expect. But the left side requires taking off the bumper for access, giving you the choice of spending half the day on the project or paying the dealer $150. Nice move, guys.

Instead of protecting trees, Sierra Club turns them into advertising

Sierra Club Note Card Mailing

Sierra Club note card mail pack… that’s a lot o’ timber, podner!

John Muir must be spinning in his grave like a lamb on a campfire rotisserie. The organization he founded to “preserve the forests and other natural features” of the California Sierra Nevada Mountains has, in its most recent prospecting mailer, delivered a set of five two-panel note cards (complete with mailing envelopes) that must have taken out quite a swath of those forests.

Thinking about how many of these mail packs likely end up in the trash (or hopefully, recycling bin) unopened, it has to amount to a Giant Redwood-sized waste of natural resources. Hopefully it grates on the sensitivity of the target audience so it fails and they don’t do it again. Especially because the purpose of the mailing is not to protect the forests but wolves, who are being removed from the Endangered Species list presumably because they are no longer endangered.

I’ve been mildly irritated by previous Sierra Club mailings for their promotional nature but it wasn’t until today that I got rankled enough to dig into the mailing. A small notice that your gift is NOT tax deductible tipped me to go trolling on the web where, in spite of some excellent reputation management, it soon becomes clear that the Sierra Club you’re supporting is NOT the Sierra Club Foundation that spends 89% of its funds on worthy activities and gets high marks from charitywatch.org.

Sierra Club disclosures

Disclosures on the back of the reply form (which you send back). Click the picture to read the fine print.

Rather, “Sierra Club Founded 1892” is a PAC that spends almost half the money it receives on lobbying (this information is on the back of the gift form in the mail pack, which you are going to be sending back with your gift so it’s no longer in your possession). I took a picture of this document so you can see the budget breakdown, winsomely portrayed as a sectioned tree. I do see that 7.6% goes for “outdoor activities” which might be wilderness hikes, but might also be lobbyist picnics.

In short, I smell a polecat up this tree. If you’re looking for a year end tax deduction (which “Sierra Club” wouldn’t give you anyway) a better choice is Doctors without Borders which, while governments and NGOs dither about the fight against Ebola, is in Africa in force with boots on the ground. Grit your teeth as I did and check the “may we share your info?” box because it really does save them money if they can exchange lists, rather than renting them. Plus how else would you get on the list of other organizations and receive mailings like the one from the “Sierra Club”?

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