Packing It In

Life has changed a lot in the last 50 years. Technologically, we’ve gone from hard-wired telephones and physical communication modes to an unlimited universe of advanced electronic, mobile, and Internet devices. Despite all those technological changes in our lives, perhaps our societal attitudes have evolved even more.

Think of how dramatically our thoughts about gay rights, abortion, drinking and driving, privacy, climate change, public safety and other big ticket issues have been altered over that time.

If you’ve ever watched the television show Mad Men before, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Set in the early 1960s, almost every scene in the program involves someone either a) drinking alcohol b) cheating on their spouses or c) smoking in a venue where it would be prohibited today.

What brought the last point to mind this week was a photo I noticed of a diplomat sitting in the White House with then-President John F. Kennedy back in 1962. Tucked in the very corner of the photo, sitting inconspicuously on a coffee table, is a fancy glass case loaded with cigarettes.

To anyone born in the last 20-30 years, the thought of being able to smoke in the White House, let alone an airplane, movie theatre, doctors’ office, hospital or restaurant, is something totally foreign.

Today, it is not just illegal, it’s also socially unacceptable in many circles. Ostensibly, JFK was a cigar smoker in private and his wife Jackie was a heavy cigarette smoker but, even in 1962, this was not something generally acknowledged in public. However, that certainly didn’t stop the rest of North Americans puffing away wherever they pleased.

According to a 2013 University of Waterloo report on smoking, in 1965, over 62% of Canadian men were smokers and about 50% of all adults in this country smoked, the all-time peak in tobacco usage. Today, just 16% of Canadians are regular smokers and the number continues to fall every single year.

That’s a phenomenal change in less than half a century. Pressure by The Canadian Cancer Society, the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association and a variety of other public and private organizations has led to more and more restrictions on where people can smoke and what age you can buy cigarettes, along with packaging changes and warning notices, plus a whole bunch of other deterrents.

Health concerns have become better known. Workplaces have banned smoking. Governments have systematically bumped up “sin” taxes. The list of hindrances has grown to the point where smokers are not just a tiny minority, they’re ostracized for taking part in an activity that, in addition to being perfectly legal, continues to be a massive source of revenue for government, accounting for over $7 billion in tax revenue annually.

Most politicians wouldn’t be caught dead smoking a cigarette in public, partly because they know their political careers would likely be dead, too. In July 1984, I was working in the Press Gallery on Parliament Hill and found myself at a picnic one Sunday afternoon, chowing down next to Brian Mulroney, who would become Canada’s Prime Minister just two months later. Seeing the writing on the wall, he told me how he’d quit smoking a short time before that, as he realized how difficult being a smoker would be while holding the highest office in the country.

Barack Obama made a similar decision in February 2011 after 30 years of being addicted to the weed. And I’m sure thousands of other politicians made the same commitment, partly for their health, but mostly because it’s become a habit the majority of people not only don’t participate in, but actually frown upon, especially when it comes to the people they elect.

There’s an interesting article in the November 2014 issue of The Walrus by longtime magazine writer Lynn Cunningham about her lifelong attempt to quit smoking, part of which details her spending time in the Mayo Clinic’s Nicotine Dependence Centre.

After 50 years and numerous attempts to rid herself of the habit, nicotine had become a vice she knew she couldn’t overcome without serious help. Serious enough to travel to Rochester, Minnesota and pay $5,500 U.S. for the Mayo’s eight-day cessation program.

Cunningham talks about the lack of residential treatment options for those who simply cannot quit on their own – and the similar lack of public sympathy for cigarette addicts. Unlike other addictions for which there are numerous support groups available, she says reformed smokers rarely have such avenues.

She comments on the fact that many recovering addicts, especially alcoholics, are often chain smokers who don’t even consider smoking an addiction.

And she even talks about how many popular movies have been made about the struggles of quitting alcohol or drugs – when nobody would even think of making a blockbuster about someone who quit smoking.

“Popular culture basically doesn’t acknowledge smoking as a dangerous addiction, nor does it lend it the patina of romantic dissolution that might garner users more sympathy – or better treatment options,” writes Cunningham.

Last week, the Canadian Cancer Society said it is taking the “next logical step” by urging Health Canada to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes, according to a Canadian Press article.

It’s already the law in Australia, where cigarettes have been packaged in plain olive brown wrapping since late December 2012 and cigarette use has fallen sharply since.

The CP story says similar plans are in the works in Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and France. “Plain packaging is an important and logical next step for Canada to curb tobacco marketing, reduce smoking and save lives,” says Rob Cunningham, a senior policy analyst at the Cancer Society.

As more and more pressure is inflicted on Canada’s remaining smokers to quit the killer weed, it’s amazing to look back at the changes that have taken place since the 1960s. When the Non-Smokers’ Rights Association (NSRA) was formed in 1974, its founders had very modest goals. They hoped to convince a few people that smoking was bad for their health and, in doing so, make them consider the idea of quitting.

As Canada gets closer and closer to being a non-smoking society, the NSRA must look back and marvel at how boldly life has changed in their 40 years of existence. It’s just one example of the ways our lives in this country have evolved, but it’s a profound one.

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Deep, Dark Secrets From Advertising Land

In one of my life’s previous incarnations, I worked for many long years in the field of advertising or, as news people like to refer to it, “the dark side.”

Unlike news, which is supposed to be factual, balanced and neutral, advertising is often pretty much the exact opposite. In general, marketing is frequently built on a foundation of hyperbole, half-truths, exaggeration, dubious claims and a host of other not particularly savoury building blocks.

Need proof? Do what I do every month and check out the ‘Selling It’ section of Consumer Reports. You’ll find a showcase of the most devious and deceptive advertisements submitted by readers. Nothing brings a smile to my face like the blatantly absurd marketing methods used by some businesses.

Of course, the smile fades when you realize those same ads are also directed at you, me and hundreds of millions of other North American consumers and that, no doubt, some of us have already been wooed by their outrageous ploys.

After originally being trained as a journalist, I crossed over to the dark side almost three decades ago and discovered, instantly, the fine line that exists being truth and whatever the heck you call some forms of advertising.

Early in my career, I remember talking to a client who sold major appliances. He showed me two refrigerators, a bland white one and another one that was some kind of off-white colour. The price tags on both were the same, but the off-white model had a large sign indicating it was $100 off. Wow!

The retailer asked me which one I’d buy and, being the rookie advertising clown that I was, I pointed to the model that was “on sale.” He laughed at my ignorance, saying they were the same model, but that no one would buy the off-white version, so he had slapped the $100 enticement on it and, voila, naïve consumers were jumping at the chance to pick up the “sale” model. Ka-ching.

Oh, the lessons I learned over the next several decades. Although the idea of “bait and switch” was outlawed years ago in Canada, it still exists to this day. The idea is to advertise a low-priced model of – let’s say – electric cat polishers. Kitty lovers will swamp your store looking for the bargain polisher, only to be told that the retailer is sold out, but that he’ll give you a sweet deal on the “super deluxe” cat polisher. You know, the one that has the bonus bottle of fur enhancer or three extra speeds (fluffy, super fluffy and ultra meow). Ka-ching.

When the government tried to clamp down on the practice by saying you had to have at least one working model of something in stock in order to advertise it, one of my clients actually put locks and chains on their “working models” and, when customers asked for one, they’d claim it would take them at least an hour to find the key to unlock it.

In the meantime, Sammy Sleazeball, their top salesman, would spend the intervening time trying to upsell the customer on the features of the top-of-the-line – let’s say – cordless sandwich assembler. Ka-ching.

And it’s not just local retailers who try pulling the industrial-sized ball of wool over your eyes. It’s the national manufacturers, as well. Recently, I was in a grocery store looking at the tempting selection of bacon (mmmmmm, bacon).

At the same time, another intrepid shopper was loading his cart with $4.00 packages of smoked pork fat (aka bacon), which were “on sale.” Awesome. And not a bad price, right?

So wrong. In case you haven’t noticed, two of the major manufacturers of sizzling breakfast meat (aka bacon) have recently reduced the size of their products from 500 grams to a mere 375, roughly one third less than the original portion. I believe it’s called the ‘new convenient size’ or some such bogusness. I guess it’s convenient because everyone likes to go to the store more often to stock up on stuff, right?

Anyway, do the math. A $4.00 price on the smaller size was exactly the same as the $6.00 price on the standard size sitting next to it in the cooler. So, my bargain-hunting fellow shopper saved himself exactly – let me figure this out – nothing (didn’t even need a calculator to do the math). Ka-ching.

On the bright side, he now has a freezer full of very convenient sized packages of strips-o-piggy (aka bacon), so there’s that.

I could go on all day with dozens and dozens of similar examples. Marketing experts have a million ways to extract hard-earned dollars from your wallet and, at the same time, make you think you just acquired the bargain of the century.

Back in 1958, a fellow by the name of Sy Syms (born Seymour Merinsky) started a discount clothing chain called SYMS Corp in the United States and coined the brilliant phrase, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” Although Syms passed away in 2009, that time-tested piece of advice lives on today.

Along with the phrase, “If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is,” it shows that you really need to work hard, be skeptical, educate yourself, comparison shop and don’t believe everything you hear before you blindly purchase your next – let’s say – automatic lint baller.

Buyer beware. The dark side awaits.

Let The Games Begin

Years and years ago, Hasbro, one of the world’s largest toy and board game manufacturers, ran a series of television commercials promoting something called “Family Game Night.” At the time, I remember thinking what a cheesy way it was to pump up their fading board games like Monopoly, Clue, Life and Scrabble. Boy, was I wrong. Although the company has gone through some rough patches over the past few years, laying off large numbers of its American workers, the products it sells continue to remain popular.

Not only that, the company has also released four collections of Family Game Night video games for PlayStation, Wii and Xbox. On top of that, the idea was even spun off into a popular U.S. television series that has been running on The Hub (formerly Discovery Kids) for the past three seasons.

If you’ve forgotten the original concept, the idea was to gather your family around the table on one specific night each week to play board games. It sounds like something created by a desperate advertising company that had run out of new ideas to get people interested in games they probably already owned and that were sitting in the back of some dusty closet.

As hokey as the premise might be, over the past few years our family has actually gotten into the idea, although our game nights only occur maybe six times a year when the stars align perfectly and we manage to get a few of us in the same house together for an evening. That’s a rare event when your kids have their own lives and are all over the country doing their thing. Strangely enough, however, it’s now one of the events we enjoy most whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Family Nights at our household aren’t necessarily for the faint of heart. Things can get a little weird, especially as the evening drags on. Guests are sometimes involved – friends and other relatives – and that can take the bizarreness to some pretty epic levels. At times, the “game playing” can become an almost forgotten part of the actual Game Night, as the conversations and level of humour degenerate into some very strange territories. Usually, the whole event ends up imploding at some ungodly hour as we half-heartedly agree to call it a night.

In any case, it’s one of the few excuses we have to spend time together, other than the occasional mealtime or birthday celebration. It’s a crazy, busy world we all live in, one where planning get-togethers takes a backseat to all the other aspects of our lives. Nonetheless, it’s gratifying to know that holding one of these sporadic Family Game Nights can instantly re-bond us, giving us a chance to catch up on recent events, share some laughs and forget about all the other things that occupy our lives.

Unfortunately for Hasbro, I’m not sure many of the games we play actually come from any of their numerous companies, which include Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley, but they certainly deserve some credit for the original idea, I suppose. On the other hand, I’m sure we’d be having these Family Game Nights even if some guy on Madison Avenue had never pitched that particular advertising idea to Hasbro almost 15 years ago.

If you’ve never had your own Family Game Night, why not give it a try? Dust off some of those old games you never thought you’d use again – or pick up something new and different. You might discover it’s just the thing to bring your family a little closer together, even if it’s just for one night. Roll the dice and let the games begin