In Praise of Product Demos

Here is a tremendous commercial, one of my favorites in a long, long time.* When you look closely, it is little more than a hardcore, wall-to-wall product sell. Nonetheless, it is also massively entertaining. I don’t know what wonderfully twisted mind decided the best way to showcase the amazing features of an adjustable ladder would be Mexican masked wrestling, but whomever they are, they earned their paycheck this quarter…

The casting is perfect. In a time of unchecked political correctness, casting Will Rubio, who self describes as an actor//comedian/sexy Cuban, and encouraging him to lean hard into the accent gladdened my heart with its pure joyfulness. “The Ladder Luchador” also features a very liberal, nee Stooges-esque reliance on physical comedy. But if you pay attention, you’ll notice that every single physical gag is a product demo. And listen to those sound effects: the Foley artist had a hill of fun with this project.

At over three minutes long, this spot will never run on television, but it is currently earning hundreds of thousands of views on the internet. Not just through the Murphy Ladder Company and Home Depot paid media placements, but through impressions earned from a wide variety of news and entertainment outlets that are sharing it. That’s where I found it.

Most people don’t realize how hard this particular brand of dopey-ness is. Or how hard-working. Big congratulations to Provo-based social media agency Harmon Brothers, whose previous credits include Squatty Potty and Poo Pourri. Masterpiece Theater this ain’t, but it is very on point for today’s audiences. In fact, one posting on YouTube features a vertical aspect ratio for mobile phone consumption. Smartly done.

PS*: Yes, I’m serious. This is my favorite product demo in a long time. Like a truly loooong time. Before this, my favorite product demo spot goes back to Penn Tennis Balls, circa 1975.

“Urban Isolation:” a 6-Year-Old Skate Film for Today

This hauntingly quiet short film has been all over social media lately, often misleadingly described as “shot in LA during the stay at home order.”

It wasn’t. “Urban Isolation” was shot and edited in 2014 by Russel Houghten. The skateboarding filmmaker created it specifically for an 11-piece video project sponsored by RED and The Berrics. RED makes exceptional professional video cameras and The Berrics is a collaboration by professional skateboarders Steve Berra and Eric Koston dedicated to promoting the sport through web content and their indoor skatepark.

Six years ago, Houghten’s film earned a Vimeo Staff Pick and eventually became one of Vimeo’s ten best films of 2014. Yet its visuals of a lone skateboarder working highway, ramps, and urban architecture of daytime Los Angeles void of other people make it feel incredibly au courant. This is the same kind of eerie prescience found in Bill Gate’s 2015 TED talk on pandemics. But Houghten created his visuals through extensive post effects, not a government shutdown order. You can see a bit of his process in this behind the scenes video, also documented by RED.

I can’t explain why online trolls put such energy into knowingly misrepresenting things online. But in this case, at least it helped promote an interesting creative project. I hope you enjoy the piece.

First the Micks, Now the Gophs

Last week, I was impressed by the impact Colin Keogh and his organization The Rapid Foundation made by open-sourcing low cost, 3D printed ventilators to answer the global shortage during this coronavirus pandemic.

But I’ve just learned about another humanitarian working closer to home.

Using spare parts, Dr. Stephen Richardson and his team at the University of Minnesota has created a $150 solution to the ventilator crisis. Dr. Richardson is a cardiac anesthesiologist whose idea came from a simple concept; “how we could just automate using an Ambu bag…could we make a machine that could squeeze that for us?”

Ambu bags are widely available in ambulances for paramedics to force air into lungs and manually resuscitate patients. Dr. Richardson thought if they could find an automated mechanism to press the bag, and adjust it to control the volume and limit the air pressure being pushed into patients, they could create a low-cost hack to answer the crisis.

Starting with this widely available product, Dr. Richardson’s team cobbled together a working prototype from low cost parts within hours. On Sunday, March 15th, they hooked it up to an anesthesia machine.

And it worked.

“This is not a device that anyone would choose to use if they had a … super high-end alternative,” he said. But that’s not important now. Given the global ventilator shortage, sharing plans for a cheap alternative online so hospitals around the world can build their own is a godsend. And literally, a life saver.

Ugly, but effective like all good hacks.

Having worked directly with the U as a client, this is the kind of science they do regularly. The federal request arrived on March 13, when the university agreed to review and fund rapid response grants. A raft of their scientists started working immediately. That’s what research universities do.

Six days later, Dr. Richardson’s team successfully tested their fourth prototype on pigs, using pieces sourced from biomedical companies across the Twin Cities. And now they are scaling up for global production.

“People have just been working around the clock every day since Sunday morning, and we have a ventilator that I would be comfortable with someone taking care of me (with) in an ICU or in an operating room,” Dr. Richardson said.

Dr. Richardson’s team will share their latest prototype online tomorrow, Monday the 23rd. With any luck, they will be granted emergency use authorization from the FDA to speed their innovation into production. If that happens, the team will also provide their design for free on-line.

As we hear more of these stories about smart people working for the greater good, perhaps our country will return to the understanding that science, not ideology, saves lives.

Good News: Apollo 13 > COVID-19

Ron Howard’s 1995 movie Apollo 13 stands as a stirring reminder of the transcendent power of well-applied engineering. In one critical scene, Ed Harris playing NASA legend Gene Kranz learns of the imminent failure of the onboard CO2 filters. He eyes his engineers and admonishes them “Well I suggest you gentlemen invent a way to put a round peg into a square hole. Rapidly.”

In real life, a young Irishman named Colin Keogh is playing a similar role right now with the Open Source Ventilator project. The OSV is the latest initiative from The Rapid Foundation, a charitable organization Keogh co-founded at University College Dublin six years ago. The Rapid Foundation distributes 3D printing know-how to developing countries so people can apply low cost technology to solve problems.

In this case, the problem is daunting: the global ventilator shortage.

Low-cost robot designer Gui Calavanti launched the OSV on Facebook on March 11. Since then, more than 300 doctors, engineers, designers, nurses and venture capitalists around the world have contributed to the project. Major corporations like Accenture and Deloitte offered their R&D infrastructure for ideation and production, all in an effort to create a low-cost, rapid build solution using readily available materials and 3D printers.

And they’ve done it.

In one week, they’ve designed and built a working prototype they hope to get validated by Ireland’s Health Service Executive (HSE) next week for use on Covid-19 patients. The 3D printing uses Polylactic Acid (PLA), a non-petroleum-based bioplastic derived from corn starch that can be manufactured anywhere.

Their timing is remarkable. And a godsend in the face of this pandemic.

The independent, U.S.-based Society of Critical Care Medicine estimates the pandemic will create demand for 960,000 ventilators. These machines augment patient respiration in severe cases of Covid-19 where lung inflammation can quickly become viral pneumonia. Ventilators literally make the difference between life and death, but they simply weren’t available. Soon, they can be.

Much like Dr. Jonas Salk declined to patent his polio vaccine in 1952, this open source project continues that laudable approach making their solution available to all.

To Mr. Keogh and all the participants applying science and innovation in the service of humanity, slainte.

Sister Corita Kent: Uncredited Pop Art Pioneer

Perhaps fittingly for International Women’s Day, during a byzantine web search rabbit hole last night, I stumbled upon an image of an extravagantly-wimpled Catholic nun pulling silkscreens.

And that’s how I found myself introduced to and awestruck by the work of Sister Corita Kent.

That photo accompanied a list titled Some Rules for Students and Teachers. The notion of creative ‘rules’ makes little sense, but these feel oddly insightful. Created during 1967 and infused with the ethos of those times, they encourage embracing uncertainty, emphasize the work ethic, and encourage a mindset of being fully awake to everything.

The list came from an art course Sister Corita taught at the College of the Immaculate Heart in Los Angeles, Ultimately, they became the mantra for her art department.

But Sister Corita’s influence extended far beyond the classroom. She credited a visit to an Andy Warhol exhibit in 1962 for sparking her style of colorful, hand lettered words and phrases that mixed the religious and the secular, scripture and tag lines, corporate logos with social issues like poverty and hunger. Prolific and unabashedly socially conscious, her body of 800 serigraphs and small watercolors include covers for The Saturday Evening Post and Newsweek. True to the tenor of the times, her work bridges the gap between commercial and fine art, appearing on bumper stickers, t-shirts, even a massive natural gas tank outside of Boston. One particularly famous piece — “So far the crocuses have always come up” — even appeared on national billboards for Physicians for Social Responsibility. Her work still grace nearly 40 museums worldwide.

Today, art historians and the occasional retrospective exhibit have begun reassessing Sister Corita’s role as an influential player who propelled the Pop Art Movement by embodying it. She didn’t just comment with her art; she participated with it. She engaged. And she brought others along with her.

But despite all this, her place in art history almost disappeared. Neither male nor the typical expectation of an artist, her impact fell to the wayside, occasionally dismissed as novelty. Her vocation as a Roman Catholic nun only made her reputation doubly hamstrung by male domination. After 32 years of work and service, her run-ins with church hierarchy eventually led her to leave the order in 1968.

Happily, her art and faith endured the transition from Los Angeles to Boston, where she continued her work and activism, churning out messages of optimism, hope, and peace.

Today, if she’s remembered, it’s for these “Love” postage stamps from 1985:

A close up of a piece of paper

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The United States Postal Service eventually sold over 700 million copies of them. It was a high point for Sister Corita’s recognition as an artist.

Unfortunately, she was taken by cancer not a year later. She was only 67.

As we start a new work week fresh off the inspiration of International Women’s Day, it’s worth bearing in mind at least three of Sister’s rules:

  • RULE #4: Consider everything an experiment.
  • RULE #6: Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.
  • RULE #7: The only rule is work. If you work, it will lead to something.

Thank you, Sister. Happy Monday.

This Year’s Lasting Super Bowl Advertising Lesson

Now that the game is over and all the teasers and tie-ins have played out, that great arbiter of Super Bowl commercial rankings — USA Today’s Admeter — has declared a winner: Jeep’s charming and hysterical “Groundhog Day.”

Bill Murray killed it. So Jeep killed it. But Highdive? The agency that created this spot? They totally killed it.

Just not for the obvious reason.

Sure, their new spot is a note-perfect comedy gem, a meticulous recreation that adds wonderful new gags. It’s a spot we all wish we had done.

But just one year ago, Highdive was a relatively young startup agency with a handful of employees that somehow produced a :60 for the Super Bowl.

And their spot got savaged on social media.

Their ad featured a Dr. Martin Luther King sermon, artfully edited to highlight Ram Truck’s tagline “Built to Serve.” Critics cried foul, pointing out that MLK’s full remarks specifically argued against aggrandizing yourself by buying fancy cars. With Black Lives Matter very much in the headlines, their debut spot was roundly panned for being tone deaf.

So Highdive had their moment in the sun. And failed. Very publicly.

Many have written about the lessons of failure, about how much adversity can teach you for the next time. And all too many creative people lose heart when critics pounce, believing their chance is over, they missed, there will be no next time.

Happily, Highdive didn’t. And now here they are, just one year later, occupying the highest perch in the advertising landscape. They took the hit, learned from it, and bounced back with a vengeance.

And a groundhog.

Kudos to them. May many more good things lie ahead.

PS: One other lesson from this year’s ads? If you want a quick primer on how music shapes viewer emotion, pay attention to how the score and SFX of this one and this one generate inspiration and the start and stop of this one drives the comedy. Wonderful craftsmanship.

Branded UX … IRL

Marketers tend to consign User Experience discussions to digital executions. But last July, South Africa and Norway gave a sculpted bench as a gift to the United Nations that perfectly embodies branded UX.

As a physical piece, it is elegantly simple: a long, spare, gracefully curving, arc.

But as a User Experience, it is quietly effective; sitting down puts you in close proximity to anyone else sharing the bench.

“Best Weapon”: a gift from South Africa and Norway to the United Nations

And that’s exactly the point. The Norwegian design firm Snøhetta took their inspiration from a Nelson Mandela quote:

“The best weapon is to sit down and talk.”

Nelson Mandela, Mandela: The Living Legend, BBC 2003

Mandela’s words reflect the United Nations’ mission to maintain international peace and security. As an experience, “Best Weapon” is entirely on brand. And in these exhausting days of showboating, self-interested politicians posturing as leaders, this sculpture’s core human truth resonates in powerful silence.

An Enduring Testament to Noteworthiness

You might know it as a Hollywood landmark and an official Los Angeles Historical-Cultural Monument. The cylindrical mid rise peeks over the shoulders of DiCaprio and Pitt in Tarentino’s latest movie. And whether intentional or not, the Capitol Records building visually suggests vinyl albums stacked on a spindle.

The 63 year-old building’s architect Louis Naidorf repeats his protest that such an allusion was never his intention in a recent Billboard interview. His bosses didn’t tell him who the building’s namesake company would be; the then 24 year old Naidorf was simply told to design a 150 foot tall, 13-story building on Vine Street with work spaces of equal size and no corner offices. When Naidorf eventually learned the principle tenant’s identity, he worried his design might be considered a cheap, gimmicky stunt.

And at first, it was. The Capitol Records people initially passed, wanting a more traditional, rectangular building. But here’s where the story really resonates. Naidorf says the other tenant of the building, an insurance company, argued for his singular design. He recalls them advising the Capitol Records team “You’re not on Hollywood Boulevard, you’re up some damn side street and you’re only occupying half of the building and leasing out the rest. People won’t laugh at the building, but they will notice it and that’s damn good for leasing. Do the round one.”

“People won’t laugh at the building, but they will notice it and that’s damn good for leasing. Do the round one.”

Getting noticed rarely comes from expected solutions; noteworthy ideas spring from the new, the novel, the innovative. And anything new, novel, and innovative introduces risk.

Happily, the insurance execs recognized this and had more trust in Naidorf’s idea than their hepcat record label counterparts. They saw it wasn’t truly risk, but rather uncertainty. If Naidorf’s design came together, they would be leasing office space in a hot property everyone would recognize. And to them, that sounded good.

In the creative world, where ideas are the only currency, not pushing for the new, the novel, and the innovative is actually a far greater risk. Because safe thinking leads to the absolute worst outcome of all: disinterest. No reaction is more soul crushing than “meh.”

Naidorf set the rooftop tower off-center to further distance his design from stacks of wax.

With his very first professional project, Louis Naidorf crushed it. Looking back on his long and successful career, he seems to recognizes that. “It’s a sweetheart. I like the building. Sixty seven years is a pretty long time for a design to hold up.”

It certainly is. Your idea literally changed the landscape Mr. Naidorf. So glad they went with the round one.

The Data Confirms It: In a Contentious, Divided Society, Joy and Love Still Rule

I’ll admit. I’m a sucker for happy endings. I love those viral clips that demonstrate human kindness and thoughtfulness writ large. Nothing is as contagious as uncontrollable laughter.

Still, it’s easy to feel bummed out these days, particularly if you use social media. Most recognize how Facebook gamed our feeds to garner more attention, and in the process fiercely stoked polarization to the detriment of our democracy. It’s depressing to see how quickly even benign social media comments get weaponized into political spew. And political debate on the nightly news rarely elevates beyond schoolyard name-calling. Given this news environment, it’s only natural to consider our society as little more than a tumble of feral, clawing tomcats in a bag.

And then, right at the moment when hope fades, along comes a day-brightening bit of undeniable evidence proving the exact opposite.

Of the 3,019 emojis in the Unicode Standard version 12.0. the top two used are Face with Tears of Joy and Heart: 😂 and ❤️.

Those are the two symbols we reach for more than any other: emojis symbolizing happiness and love. Those are the emotions we express the most. And yes, I consider that very good news indeed.

We are so loving and supportive with our emoji

I realize emoji choices aren’t long on anger or division, but don’t harsh my mellow here. I like that we have a language predicated on love and support for each other.

Admittedly, I don’t use emoji myself. I have nothing against them and will frequently type “heart” or “thumbs up” but I prefer the written word. No judgment, just preference. And I won’t deny that strings of these colorful hieroglyphics brighten up many an Instagram response.

If you’re interested in seeing where your favorite comes in on the frequency count, visit Unicode’s Emoji Frequency page.

I’m simply going to enjoy this sunny Monday a bit more, knowing that perhaps we’re not all spittle-lipped hatebags after all.

I heart that. I heart that a lot.

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Go Kindness! Go Vols!

Peyton Manning.

Peyton’s my only connection to the University of Tennessee: my time on Gatorade and the joy of working with this underrated comedian who also happened to be pretty good at throwing a football.

And then this story happened…

UTshirts

It was “college colors” day at his Florida elementary school, and a fourth grade University of Tennessee fan didn’t have anything to wear. So he made his own, drawing “U.T.” on a piece of paper and stapling it to an orange t-shirt (I already love this kid and suspect he might someday make artisanal pocket squares in Brooklyn).

As can happen with attempts at creativity, his earnest design failed to impress the local cool kids who mocked his shirt over the lunch hour. This kind of cruel behavior always happens during lunch, doesn’t it? The teasing really upset him, which inspired his teacher Laura Snyder to share his tale on Facebook.

The universal nature of the boy’s story made Laura’s post go viral. And soon, some very astute, deeply human people at the University of Tennessee took note.

First, UT Interim President Randy Boyd sent the young man a care package from the student bookstore, insuring he would have plenty of Volunteer merchandise, both for himself and even some of those meanies who derided his homemade efforts.

Then the story really took off. News outlets across the country picked up the narrative. And having the right kind of reactive, social media savvy, the University in turn:

  1. Created t-shirts with the young man’s design, selling them online and donating the profits to anti-bullying organizations. This went super-viral.
  2. Offered the fourth grader a full ride scholarship to their university class of 2032, quieting the online yahoos criticizing them for taking advantage of the story.
  3. Dressed their 300+ “Pride of the Southland” marching band in the boy’s t-shirt during their game vs. UT Chattanooga.

We’re a painfully divided country these days, rife with finger pointing and name calling (thanks Russian troll army!). And yet as Americans, we are drawn to the well-meaning underdog. We will stand up for the unfairly criticized fourth grader. There are no sides, no partisanship in our support of a kid who was treated unfairly.

And that gives me hope for a better future ahead. At least when it comes to the University of Tennessee Class of 2032. You go anonymous kid, good on you.

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