Category Archives: media

Suggested Reading: The Economist

If you aren’t already a reader of The Economist, I strongly urge you to try it. Financially conservative, socially liberal, truly international in scope, it’s one of the best magazines and news sources in the world.

It can be hard to find on the newsstand in much of the US; in Silicon Valley, travelling away from my home subscription, I could rarely find the latest issue. Once, heading out on vacation, I eagerly snapped up a copy in an airport somewhere. As I was standing in line to pay for it, the woman behind me looked over my shoulder and gasped: “You actually read that?!?” – as if ordinary mortals could not be expected to understand such a magazine.

Don’t let the title put you off. The Economist manages to explain difficult concepts and situations in clear, elegant language, and with a wry, dry, very British sense of humor. Agree or don’t with its politics, but read it – you’ll be in good company (in several senses).

Product Placement

Amazon, always the pioneer, is experimenting with Amazon Theater, a series of short films freely available (including for download) on I noticed these a few weeks ago, but didn’t get around to watching any til today, back for my nth Christmas-shopping visit, when Chris Noth caught my eye. Always happy to look at him, so let’s watch this film, “Tooth Fairy.” Hmm. Multi-racial family. How nice. How PC. Typical American movie house – huge, full of stuff. (Since I’ve been living in Italy, that’s something I notice. I was distracted during “Thelma & Louise,” thinking: “Why do they have so much junk in their house?”) But these people have a LOT of stuff, including a den with a drum kit and foosball table. A rich family, evidently. Pool, balcony full of hanging plants, and a security guard driving around at night.

Okay, cute little movie, nothing special, I didn’t laugh. Then the credits roll. “Director – somebody Scott. Starring – Chris Noth. Cast in order of appearance: Cookware – Calphalon Tri-Ply…” Huh? The other human actors are listed below the cookware, interspersed with t-shirts, kitchen stuff, and tools. Each product name is a link to the appropriate Amazon page where you can buy the item (Chris Noth is also a product).

Product placement is common in movies and TV shows with contemporary settings – part of the reason I like costume drama is that it gives me a break from the barrage of advertising. I suppose Amazon has merely taken the trend to its logical extreme, by giving the products equal billing with the actors. I wonder how the actors feel about that. At what stage in your career can you be assured of being listed above, say, a socket wrench?

As a small rebellion against the inescapability of advertising in modern life, I have started peeling the labels off shampoo bottles etc. as soon as I get them home. Now at least I can take a bath without the packages screaming at me. So if you have occasion to take a bath or shower at our house, you’ll have to read the backs of the bottles to determine which is the shampoo, liquid soap, bath foam, etc.

Dec 7, 2004

John Francini responds:

Part of the reason that places like Amazon, and advertisers in general, think they need to do this product-placement nonsense is very simple: the TV audience is becoming highly fragmented. 30 years ago in the US there were exactly three commercial TV networks, plus PBS. If people watched a program aired nationally, they watched it on one of those three networks. It was effectively a “captive” market for advertisers: they could reach tens of millions without breaking a sweat.

Now, as you know, it’s substantially different: my cable system has some 200+ channels, and the audience is fragmented in many different ways. There are very few programs in the US that pull the kinds of audiences that advertisers used to see regularly – the Superbowl, and maybe the late stages of the baseball playoffs and the World Series (which certainly did this year, with the Red Sox breaking the Curse.)

The audience is also getting much better at tuning out the noise of advertising. So, in this incessant battle, the advertisers are trying new tactics, such as product placement in shows, or producing shows themselves. (BMW, for example, has a highly successful miniseries that’s only available on the Net. It seems to be aimed straight down the middle of their target audience, and hits it dead on.)

And of course, in the typical American supermarket, packaged goods makers do their last bit of screaming at the customers, in the form of ever-more-splashy graphics and loud labels. Why? Because while all these brands are struggling to rise above the visual noise of a crowded marketplace, we’re tuning it all out.

In fact, until you brought it up, I hadn’t even thought about how loud some of the packaging is – I’d tuned it all out long ago. It seems marketers have been visually screaming at us for decades. One local Boston example: Fenway Park, where the Red Sox play, has the fabled Green Monster. Did you know that, as recently as 1947, the wall wasn’t green, but was off-white and covered with a dozen or more ads? And the highways and byways of American roads were far more littered with billboards than they are now? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

National Differences in Olympics Coverage

Yes, I know the games ended a while ago, but I’m only now getting to see the part I actually care about – the equestrian events. It seems that local television in each country concentrates on those events at which the locals are expected to excel, and Italy didn’t expect much from its horsemen. On one of the Internet discussion boards that I frequent, someone who was vacationing in Italy during the Olympics remarked that, watching from Italy, she saw sports she’d barely even heard of, such as water polo.

Fortunately, my dad lives in England, where the BBC can be relied upon to show every minute of anything horsey, with the bonus of very knowledgeable commentary – you can learn a lot about horses and riding just by watching and listening. Dad very kindly recorded many hours of video for me, which I am now enjoying. The outcomes are even a surprise to me, since I made no effort to read about the results while the games were going on.

I don’t care much about the results anyway – I’m not watching to see which country wins. After all, nationality has become a rather legalistic concept at the Olympics. We saw most of the march-in during the opening ceremonies, and I was amused that a few countries had been invented (or re-invented) for political convenience, while a number of athletes were competing on behalf of countries to whom they had no ties except sponsorship and brand-new citizenship. This being the case, what does it mean to say that so-and-so country got x number of medals?

Equestrian competitions are no exception; the “nationality” of any horse-and-rider pair seems to be a matter of definition. The best horses are bred in a handful of countries (notably France) and exported worldwide. Top trainers work all over the world: one man (British? – I didn’t catch the name) was mentioned as having built up the Saudi Arabian team for the Olympics four years ago, and this time around he was working for Korea. Many of the riders had spent significant portions of their careers training and competing in other countries, and several had changed passports. All this takes the edge off any nationalistic pride one might be tempted to feel.

I enjoy watching horses, period, and to watch these champions moving so beautifully and clearly loving what they were doing was a thrill. Another thing I like about equestrian events is that they are the only ones (as far as I know) where men and women (and mares, stallions, and geldings) compete on an equal footing, and age is actually an advantage for both horse and rider – experience counts in precision events such as show jumping and dressage.

On the subject of national pride: at least here in Lecco we have a genuine local hero, Antonio Rossi, who got his start at the local Canottieri (canoers’) club, and went on to win two gold medals in Atlanta and one in Sydney, in canoeing. He still lives in Lecco, where he works as a member of the Guardia di Finanza (tax police), of all things. I haven’t quite understood how it is that all of Italy’s military and police forces have their own athletic teams in various disciplines. The Italian equestrian team included the Chimirri cousins, one of whom is a police officer, the other a carabiniere – both looking smart in their official uniforms with braid and insignia.

See also

Italian Hostages in Iraq

The Italian hostages in Iraq don’t seem to be getting much media attention outside of Italy. This evening’s news here is that they have been shown on Al Arabiya television in an apparently-recent video, accompanied by a message from the kidnappers that: “We will show good faith and free them if you sympathize with our cause, show solidarity, and react publicly against the politics of your prime minister with a massive protest against the war in your capital city.”

Well, uh, actually, massive protests of this type happened over a year ago. Berlusconi was not moved then, nor is he likely to be now, nor should he be – now. No matter how ill-conceived this war was from the beginning, we are now stuck in Iraq, probably for many years to come. Pulling out, as far as I can tell, would only lead to civil war and far more Iraqi deaths. Bowing to the demands of hostage-takers will only increase the chances of more people being kidnapped. I’m sorry for these guys and their families (Rossella‘s English teacher is Stefio’s first cousin), but, no matter how fine a line you care to draw between “security consultant” and “mercenary,” they surely knew what they were getting into.

Est, Est, Est

“A policeman called the deaths of six females and three males, all believed to be children of Marcus Wesson, the largest mass killing in the history of Fresno, Calif.” NYT

I should certainly hope so. Just how many mass killings have there been in Fresno?

The media’s obsession with superlatives has infected us all. We can no longer have just a heavy snowfall or rainfall or whatever – it has to be the heaviEST since… whatever date you can find. The biggEST terrorist attack in Europe since WWII. The longEST winning streak since 1997. The warmEST day since last Tuesday. Which makes every event seem more dramatic than most events actually are.