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Sixfold: A crowd sourced literary competition

Are you a copywriter who has dreams of publishing legitimate (i.e. non-marketing) prose or poetry? Then take a look at This outfit puts on regular literary competitions you can enter for the very reasonable fee of $5, plus a commitment to read and critique 18 fellow competitors’ work.

Entries are submitted via the web, and each is assigned to a panel of judges (there are controls in place so you don’t critique your own work). You receive six stories in each of three rounds with no author identification. As a critic, you rank the stories from 1 (best) to 6 (least-best) and write a brief explanation of your vote. I found this a challenging and stimulating assignment.

In the first round, it was pretty easy to identify stories that would rank toward the bottom but harder to determine the order toward the top. But you have to take this seriously because only the top two move on to the next round, and the writer of the story will have access to your critique and know how you voted. It’s a (mostly) transparent process, like Yelp for writers.

Again in the second round, you read, critique and rank six stories and the top two move on to a third round. In the third round, the highest-ranking work gets a $1000 award and the top 15 get publication in the quarterly Sixfold Journal. At this level the writing is very, very good for the most part and I felt challenged to be very clear in my critique. I needed to have a reason for placing the work where I had, and I had to explain the reason in a way that was useful to the author.

After the competition ends, you have access to a complete list of the entries ranked in judging order. You can read the stories, and click through to whatever bio info the author has provided. More important, you have (password protected) access to the votes and critiques on your own entry and the more rounds you made it through the more critiques there will be. I was fortunate to get to the third round (I placed #20, just out of the running for publication, among 265 entries overall) so there were lots of critiques and some were very useful. Specifically, there were enough criticisms of the way I chose to end my story that I’m going to go back and fiddle with it.

The one thing I didn’t like, though I understand the reason for it, is that participants have the opportunity to be as anonymous as they wish both in their critiques and their entries. You can hide your work, or your name, or both, in the publicly available results. This allows a writer to submit a work to gauge acceptance without publishing it. It also allows an established writer to submit anonymously. 5 of the top 15 stories are currently listed on the results page as “Document [number]” and aren’t available to be read. Most of the lower ranked stories are anonymous in the results, suggesting that a new author was simply looking for feedback which is entirely legitimate.

As a contestant, I’d like to know the identity of my reviewer so I can read their work and understand any inherent bias or perspective. It’s frustrating that User 2707 gave me a 1 (which, confusing, is the worst ranking for tabulating score, meaning I was 6 out of 6 in his rating) and said simply, “Thanks for letting us all read your story! I enjoyed it.” Would he/she have been so dismissive without the protection of anonymity? There were also some reviewers whose critiques were not available; I got a ranking but not an explanation. It’s a glitch in the system, I assume

All in all, the positives far outweigh my concerns, and I’m a big fan of Already thinking about what to enter for the July competition.

Bad news for Southwest Airlines frequent flyers

This morning I discovered that the new SWA reservation system automatically cancels you if you book two flights out of the same city on the same day. For example, I’m going to be on the west coast in July but don’t know whether I am coming home directly or continuing on to SNA. So I booked flights for both and now SWA has cancelled my return to ALB because it was the more expensive ticket. After 30 minutes on the phone with customer relations, the SFO-ALB leg has been reinstated and the SFO-SNA cancelled. I will now book the latter on another airline.

I was notified of the cancellation by an automated email, no explanation, which arrived in the middle of the night with a new mystery confirmation number. The long conversation and time on hold has produced the above information, which the rep says has always been in the contract but is only now being enforced. She says the people most affected are “tiered” passengers (frequent flyers) who often make multiple reservations and later cancel one. Exactly.

This flexibility is the precise reason I have been flying SWA. I am paying for the ticket and I understand if I forget to cancel the money is gone. It seems like a fair and straight up business transaction. I pointed out to the agent that I am one of the lucky ones because I took the trouble to research this; a lot of folks are going to show up at the airport and discover they don’t have a ticket because they thought the automated email was an error, they didn’t see the email, or they didn’t make the reservation on the web.

Any recommendations on a carrier with lots of coast-to-coast itineraries out of ALB?

Does ScoreIt teach you to write like Stephen King?

Food for thought: I recently received an email from Bowker, a service that provides ISBN numbers to self-published authors. They have a new product that allows you to compare your prose to that of successful published writers and find out who has a style and genre close to yours. The software is ScoreIt, and it has a hefty price tag of $99. If they’d let me do one match for free I might have tried it but as it is I will just opine about something I know nothing about.

Let’s say ScoreIt tells me I write like Stephen King, and that my story of teenage mishaps is closest to his horror works. What am I supposed to do with that information? I suppose I could advertise my work with phrases such as “if you liked Carrie, you’ll love Teen Troubles!” And certainly I can use it for the elevator pitch to prospective agents in which you tell them your writing is like Stephen King crossed with Herman Melville (for argument’s sake I’m presuming that’s a secondary match). Is either of these worth $99?

What I’m worried about is that ScoreIt is going to make writers try to train themselves to write more like Stephen King. They’ll pore over his books (and the reports from ScoreIt which I presume have granular detail on shared vocabulary, sentence structure etc). And it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of developing their own voice, they will indeed write more and more like someone else.

Of course, I used Stephen King as my straw man for a very good reason. He has a completely different voice from book to book, depending on topic and presumed audience. And he explains his craft and technique quite fully in On Writing, a standard textbook in college writing courses. The $10 or so that costs you on Amazon would be a better investment, methinks.

What the pool guy can teach us about selling freelance creative

I’ve recently moved into a house which, two owners ago, was tricked out with all the bells and whistles available in the early 1990s. Most of these tchotchkes have fallen into disrepair and must either be abandoned (like the in-wall coax cabling throughout the house) or gussied up. This has caused visits by a stream of spa guys, pool guys and sprinkler guys and I’ve noticed something interesting and consistent in the way they address my wife and me which can help in selling freelance creative.

“See the three holes in the top of that sprinkler head?” says the sprinkler guy. “That’s a Toro. They require a special tool to open the head, so you have to call a service to do it for you. I’ll replace all those with Rainbirds you can adjust yourself.”

“This is junk,” says the pool guy as he turns the handle on the filter tank. “$125 for a new one.” Water starts to ooze out. “Look at that.” As the gaskets become saturated, the leaks stop. “Well, maybe it’s good for one more season. But keep an eye on it. If you lose your prime [which for some reason is what they call pressure in the system] then your pool will become filled with algae.”

What’s happening in both these instances is that the contractor is sharing a do-it-yourself tip to make me, the client, feel in control while simultaneously instill fears, uncertainties and doubts that I’ll actually be able to do it.

“Write like you talk,” you might tell a client who thinks they can do their own copywriting. “Short sentences, no more than 10 words on average but break those up with an occasional one- or two-word sentence. Paragraphs no longer than five lines, but break them up with an occasional one-line or even one-word paragraph. And your vocabulary should be plain English. No words over ten characters if possible.”

Now who’s going to remember all that? The guy is going to dutifully write it down, and possibly try it, but will quickly abandon the effort and call you. And you may well be able to ease your estimate a bit higher because they now have more appreciation of your craft.

This is why I shake my head at creatives who present their work as a black box and refuse to open the kimono and explain what they’re doing. The more you tell them, the more they will respect and trust you, and the more likely they are to hire you to do it for them. Now I’ve got to go down in the basement, because the last owner loved to tinker with his sprinklers and I’m pretty sure he had one of those special Toro tools.

How to interpret “illogical” market testing results

From time to time I’ve made analogies between marketing and home shop experiences and pointed out the simple wisdom that can be found through working with your hands. So bear with me for a moment here as I wind up to a theory on illogical market testing results.

Cindy and Chris at Northside Service Company were miracle workers in bringing my 25-year-old NuTone intercom system back to life. However, when all was said and done there were some glitches. You are supposed to be able to push a button to initiate a call from a remote unit, the recipient is able to talk hands free, and you as the initiator can continue to talk by pressing a button each time you want to speak.

My system wasn’t working like that. You could initiate a call and hear another person and they could hear you, but after that first time you pressed the button subsequent presses did nothing; the signal didn’t go through. There was another issue, minor but consistent across the system: the “end call” button which returned you to whatever you were doing beforehand (like listening to FM radio) didn’t work.

This one-and-you’re-done setup worked fine for summoning kids to dinner or answering somebody who pressed the doorbell. And standing at a wall intercom and talking back and forth in your own home seemed a little Austin Powers-ish. Nonetheless, I wanted to get to the bottom of this.

Through testing I found ONE remote intercom system, out of 16, that worked as it was supposed to. You could press and release that talk button and continue to communicate, and the “end call” button worked as it was supposed to. So I took it apart. And it turned out it was mis-wired. Two wires going to terminals marked “red” and “red/white” were reversed.

I tried mis-wiring a second remote and it, too, began to work properly. I thought about the master controller and what might be wired incorrectly. No schematics are available after a quarter century, certainly not on the NuTone website. Perhaps I made a mistake when I took out the pull connectors to send it in for repair. But I was pretty careful and the pull-off single wire connectors were grounds, so they should not affect the electrical switches.

My guess is that something deep within the system was mis-wired at installation and the original owner put up with it the entire time they lived in the house. There is no other logical explanation because the problem began with an illogical mistake. It takes only a minute or two to remove a remote from the wall and rewire it, so that’s what I’m going to do with the remaining 14 remotes. I’ll also put a note inside the housing of the main controller for a future owner of the house.

Getting to the marketing analogy, many many years ago I worked on a test mailing that involved a bunch of shredded U.S. currency visible through a window in the outer envelope. The product was a newsletter on reducing your taxes, and the message of the involvement device was that you might as well be tearing up your own money for all the unnecessary taxes you’re paying. This test was a disaster. The numbers indicated that absolutely nobody had opened the package and considered responding.

And that was odd. The involvement device may have been a bit sensationalist and there were probably some quirks to the copy, but it followed a solid platform related to the features and benefits of the publication we were selling. I could accept a terrible result of responses that were 20% of the control’s, but 0%? Something is wrong.

My hunch is that somebody at the mail house (or possibly the post office, but less likely since that would be a hanging crime) took a fancy to my gimmick and simply appropriated the few thousand pieces involved in the test. Illogical and far fetched, but can you give me a better explanation?

Happy April Fool’s Day, by the way, but the above is no joke.

Why Cadillac “Dare Greatly” campaign doesn’t

While many brands made a political statement with ads on the 2017 Super Bowl, Cadillac saved theirs for the (surprisingly non-political) Academy Awards telecast. “We are a nation divided. That’s what they tell us, right?” the ad begins. “But what they don’t tell you, what doesn’t make the news, is this: We carry each other forward.” And we have a series of clips of Americans supporting or carrying others, sometimes literally.

Next we go to a montage of historical figures standing next to their Cadillacs. “No matter who we are, or what we believe, or where we come from, we’ve had the privilege to carry a century of humanity,” the ad continues. The “carry” metaphor is not very subtle, but it speaks well to Cadillac’s history as a symbol of having made it. I grew up in a suburb of Dallas with a very eclectic population mix—from college professors to poultry distributors, and from aristocrats with a long southern heritage to first generation immigrants.

Some folks thought owning a Cadillac was a way to show off your prosperity; my Uncle Jim bought a new one every year. But others would never own a Cadillac because it was not appropriate to be so ostentatious. I suspect the new Cadillac campaign is speaking to the first group. You may live in fear of deportation, you may belong to an ethnic group that is the subject of hate crimes, but if you have money for the down payment at least you can drive a nice car.

As it wraps things up, Cadillac stretches its metaphor a bit too far in my opinion. “But maybe what we carry isn’t just people. It’s an idea. That while we’re not the same, we can be one. And all it takes is the willingness to dare.” And we close with the Cadillac logo and the tag line, “Dare Greatly.” (The tag is not new, but was introduced with this campaign a couple of years ago.) Again, what we’re talking about is bourgeois prosperity. It’s the same kind of daring that might cause you to go for it with a nicer anniversary gift or a pricier steak than you had planned because, hey, this is America and you can. It’s really not that daring, but maybe it hits the Cadillac buyer’s sweet spot.

The branding continues to veer off course with the next spot, “Pioneers”. “We’ve always been dreamers. We’ve been a symbol of the future…. A standard… a star. But our past is just that, past. What lies ahead is in our hands.” And the ad goes on to introduce concept vehicles including self-driving and electric Cadillacs. The drivers in these vehicles are younger, much younger.

The third ad, “Pedestal”, starts with a vehicle literally on a pedestal surrounded by gawkers. A well-dressed 30ish woman comes forward, mesmerized. “We know how it feels to be treated like a trophy. Driven to awards shows… parties… and across so many silver screens…. But a Cadillac is no trophy, no museum piece. This is our future, and it will inspire every car that follows…. Intermission’s over. This is how we drive the world forward.” And now the mesmerized woman is behind the wheel while multiethnic pedestrians gawk at her good fortune.

The problem here is that Cadillac is trying to transform its brand and appeal to a new audience, yet its history is the reason for its cred. They should have done what Lincoln and Chrysler did, in high concept campaigns of the past. Tell your story, then shut up. The campaign can continue with product-focused features and performance ads, and buyers will connect the dots.

I’ll close with Electro Cadillac, presumably a current owner, who says much the same thing in a comment under the YouTube “Pioneers” video:

“I can’t believe this… This commercial is basically telling you that all the achievements and great cars that were made in the past, history (which, let’s be honest is much better than the weak plastic bullshit we have today) let’s just throw all that in the garbage… I enjoy driving and all this ‘futuristic’ crap is getting on my nerves with every single day going by…

“One thing that is fundamental guys, Cadillac hear me out: You can’t beat the old school. Those flimsy plastic bumpers will never compare to those good old chrome steel ones.

“And here is another thing. I am watching the Oscars as we speak, and your Escala commercial says this: ‘Our cars will never be like before’. Well that means that you’re not going to be Cadillac anymore.

“Here is a new slogan for you: There is no future without the past.”

Celebrity athletes free to express their political opinions? Now that’s scary.

When Under Armour’s CEO Kevin Plank described Donald Trump’s business-friendly attitude as “a real asset” to the country, the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry told The San Jose Mercury News, “I agree with that description, if you remove the ‘et.’” The sneaker brand promptly terminated its relationship with the popular MVP, explaining that “we don’t care who you are, you don’t disrespect the office of the President of the United States.”

Except that’s not what happened.

Plank took out a full page ad in the Baltimore Sun (Under Armour is based in Baltimore) to explain that “in a business television interview last week, I answered a question with a choice of words that did not accurately reflect my intent.” He then reached out to Curry as well as actor/wrestler Dwayne Johnson and ballerina Misty Copeland, who had also criticized him, to make sure they understood. And Steph Curry is still with Under Armour and presumably free to speak his mind.

In the past the conventional wisdom, and certainly the preference of marketers who pay for their endorsements, was that celebrity athletes should stay out of politics. (Celebrity actors are, of course, a different story.) Why risk offending millions of people who might boycott your brand as a result in the same way that Trump supporters are now boycotting Nordstrom’s and T.J. Maxx? But the flip side is that, when young people put on a pair of Steph Curry sneakers, they’re not just wearing shoes. They’re paying extra for identification with a brand that stands for ability, brilliance, success through striving and just plain coolness.

If that brand lets the celebrity add a political perspective, it may be brave and ballsy but it may also be coolly calculating. Think about the rationalizations that might be made by Midwestern white kids who continue to wear Curries. Maybe they’ll say, “hey, I appreciate a guy who’s complex and able to live with contradictions… like me.” Or maybe they’ll take Curry’s example as a license to form their own opinions and think for themselves. That’s scary, and exciting.

Note: this post heavily draws from a long and thoughtful piece which appeared in the New York Times on February 26, “Celebrity Endorsers Turn Political, and Keep Their Deals”. Please read that piece, by Zach Shonbrun, for more perspective.

Thank you internet! Thank you Chris and Cindy Peters for fixing my NuTone intercom!

NuTone IMA-4006 controller

My NuTone IMA-4006 Music Intercom. Not only did they rebuild the control unit, Northside Service Company cleaned it up so it looks like new.

I recently moved into a house that has a NuTone IMA-4006 Music Intercom system installed. You can press a button and be heard in another room (or from the porch if you are ringing the doorbell) and also play music throughout the home. I know that sounds quaint in these days of earbuds and instant messaging, but there is a remote unit in every room so it was pretty hard to ignore.

The most recent owners, who lived here for 15 years, had never tried the NuTone intercom system. I experimented by turning a few knobs and got nothing but hum. But at least there was power. Was it possible the system could be restored to working condition? My local NuTone service center said “we don’t know anybody who works on them anymore.” So it was off to the internet.

A search quickly put me in touch with Northside Service Company, a factory-authorized NuTone Service Center in San Ramon, CA. Their site features dozens of links to videos, manuals and articles to help you make the most of your obsolete equipment. I filled out a web request form and a few minutes later the phone rang. It was owner Chris Peters, calling to discuss my system. It turns out that the remote units rarely fail so if I would send him my control station he would rebuild it at a cost that was not cheap, but far less than buying a comparable system today or taking out all those speakers and patching the holes walls.

I disconnected the many wires following Chris and Cindy Peters’ very clear step by step video, then packed it up according to another video of instructions. A couple of weeks later, I got the unit back along with a bag of parts that had been replaced. Not only did they rebuild the unit, they replaced the doors that cover the controls and often break off (the hinges are no longer available so Northside had them custom manufactured) and at my request added an A/V jack and sent me a couple of new lighted doorbell buttons.

It took me a few days to get up the courage to re-install the unit and test it, but I did and everything works as advertised. I’m back in business, feeling very much like a wired denizen of the early digital era.

This is a story that could not have happened without the internet—which helped me find Northside Service Company, and enabled Chris and Cindy to build a site that was incredibly useful and also showed me they knew what they were doing. But the capper was the personal service. I mentioned that Chris called me immediately when I submitted a request. (It was on New Year’s Eve as I recall.) When I had a question about an extra wire during re-installation he answered me by email within an hour. This is a business model many other specialized service providers (copywriters come to mind) can learn from, and emulate.

Super Bowl FSIs (2017 edition): it’s a home run! Oh, wait…


Kick Off

Let’s kickoff some savings with our Super Bowl FSIs!

It’s been a full two years since we checked in on the newspaper supplement coupons that appear the Sunday before the Super Bowl, wherein advertisers contort themselves to refer to the event without using the actual name, which is licensed and which license is heavily enforced. The world has gone through painful gyrations in the past 24 months. Super Bowl FSIs? Not so much.

Looking at this year’s batch, the big news is that somebody actually paid for the right to use the term Super Bowl, as in “Super Bowl Savings Spectacular” at the top of the SmartSource FSI. Unfortunately, Dollar General immediately drops the ball by inviting us to “Kickoff the Savings!” Team, the verb is “kick off”, two words. “Kickoff” is a noun.

I like to think of FSIs as the last bastion of old-school copywriters with shaking, nicotine-stained fingers who would rather forego their morning whiskey than come up with an original thought. Hence the tired headlines like “Get Your Game Day Going” (Blue Diamond almonds) and “Stock Up for the Big Game” (Pepcid antacid). What does it actually mean to “Snack Like a Pro on Game Day” (Oikos yogurt) or “Cheer on the Crunch” (Carvel ice cream cakes) or “Blitz Your Taste Buds with Flavor” (HeluvaGood dips)?

Super Bowl Cliche Headlines

Are these headlines creative, or what?

I did see some promising rookie plays like Texas Pete’s “Go for the Game, Stay for the Drama” (I assume that is what happens when the hot sauce and fried food hits your intestines) and French’s “Spice It Up This Bowl Season” (bowls of dip, get it?) and José Olé’s “Make Your Crowd Go Wild” (taquitos and dip in stop motion as they tumble toward the floor, presumably hurled by an unruly partyer).

Rookie Super Bowl Headlines

A completed pass and a fumble by the rookie squad

However, with NFL ratings in decline it’s entirely possible this new crop of scribes has no idea about or interest in pro football or sports in general. How else can you explain Drake’s Cakes “Your Lunchbox Game is Strong” or Bush’s Beans’ “Our Lineup Completes the Gathering”? Just try serving up a bowl of beans to your beer-swilling spouse and her loutish friends and announcing, “Honey, I’ve brought some beans to complete your Super Bowl gathering.” She’ll drop kick you into the next county, and rightly so.

Aeromexico “Borders” ad gets it done

Whichever side you’re on (and I am on the side that hopes America comes to its senses before it’s too late), you have to agree the Aeromexico Borders ad is great advertising. The payoff at the very end is magnificent.

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