If you didn't see Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on Sunday, we're here to help you catch up on your viewing. The main story was a very interesting one on eCommerce -- and more specifically, fulfillment warehouses. Though it doesn't deal solely with Amazon, nor do they say it's the worst example, Amazon is clearly the most visible of the genre, and so the focus of the story. It's informative, well-done and, as always, they find ways to make it very funny while describing how problematic the system is.
Sometimes in the word political, soul-crushing angst we have to go instead for froth on occasion, and if we're going to rant, we can do so with the comfort of knowing it really doesn't matter. It's just personal, not something that puts national security and world economics at risk. So, thank good for small annoyances!
I suspect that the Volvo TV commercial with the opera singer is fairly popular. After all, it's been on the air for six months at this point. That's the one that asks the question "Can you design an SUV for an aria?" and shows how classy the Volvo is because a Mozart aria from The Magic Flute" plays throughout.
Personally, it makes me nuts. I may be in the minority -- but it still makes me nuts. To be clear, I don't mind that while the public likely thinks it's such a sweet piece of music, in fact "The Queen of the Night" aria is sung by a murderous villain to her daughter,
Opera fans watching this commercial must cringe, if they’re not guffawing. That’s because the music on the soundtrack is no paean to grace and lovingkindness, but the homicidal signature aria of one of the most monstrous characters in the canon. As Michael Hiltzik wrote about the ad in the L.A. Times, "she’s one vicious specimen. Think Cruella de Vil times 1 million."
The German aria begins with the words that in English mean “The vengeance of hell,” and eventually get to “Death and despair flame about me. Hear, gods of revenge, Hear a mother's oath!” As she tells her daughter, the girl must commit murder or be "disowned, abandoned, destroyed -- forever.”.
But that's okay if people don't know what's actually be said. What you don't know can't kill you, as the expression goes, although if you're driving at 80 MPH and don't know a blind, cliff drop-off is just around the bend, I wouldn't rely on wise adages saving you. That aside, if people like listening to an aria, fine. It puts things in more of an odd perspective for those who do know the opera, but so be it.
To be clear, it's a fairly well-produced commercial, and from Volvo's history I assume that it's a fine SUV. What rubs me the wrong way is the performance of the singer, which (as I said) I suspect most people love, and certainly do from comments on YouTube. The singer, Emily Cheung, might be wonderfully talented, but she was given a light-hearted, almost sweet arrangement that -- to my ear -- makes the number thin and just on the good side of screechy. She's not straining to hit the notes (in what is a very difficult number), but they don't seem to come fluidly, and the result ends up sounding, as Hiltzik describes it, "chirpy." To me, it's like she's reaching to grab each note individually, rather than having them already deliciously filling her basket.
For the longest while, I've thought that perhaps it's just me. (Or me and Michael Hiltzik...) After all, the ad has been running for half a year with no end in sight. But then just the other day I received a premium gift for donating to a classical music radio station, WFMT in Chicago. It was a CD with a variety of classical selections -- including "Queen of the Night" from The Magic Flute. When it came on, I immediately sat up and thought, "Oh, okay, so it isn't me. That is how I thought it was supposed to sound."
Here's the ad --
And here's the full piece with Mozart's robust, portentous, brooding arrangement, and a vocal performance by Donna Robin (who's on the CD I received) that's rich, smooth and flowing. You don't have to listen to the whole thing (though may enjoy it enough to), but the first minute will suffice.
The only thing I'll add is the suggestion that, if they still sound pretty much the same to you, to go back again and listen once more to the Volvo commercial. The contrast, the thinness, I think, may be more striking now.
To be clear, people may still prefer or simply enjoy the more thin quality of the ad for its "sweetness." And if so, I get it. To me, after six months, it's gotten close to being fingernails on a chalkboard.
And that's largely the only reason I'm bringing this up now. If the ad had run for a month or two, fine, perfectly fine, God speech. But it's been six months, and I think it's fair to say that that's passed the statute of limitations for a TV ad...
When I moved recently, I had to cancel my Spectrum cable account and then get the new Spectrum system for my new address. There are many good things about the new system -- which is cloud-based -- though some options take far-too many extra clicks to accomplish which is a bit annoying. But that's not the point here: bottomline, some things better, some worse, fine.
The larger issue is that, being a new, cloud-based system, all the hiccups haven't been worked out yet. Like often getting an error message, "We're sorry, the program guide can't be accessed right now." Or the screen image gets all pixilated and becomes unwatchable. And other cloud-glitches.
By the way, lest you get the wrong idea, this isn't a rant about Big Cable, or technical support, or any of the normal complaints available to make about cable. It's about idiocy. I'll get to that.
So, to be clear, the problem here isn't that there are hiccups in a new system. I write about technology and understand that new versions of software do have bugs that need to get worked out. But -- what I also understand is that generally they get "worked out" during the beta testing program and before the product is released to the public to pay for. And though that's not the issue here either, being a beta tester AND paying a lot of money each month for the honor is not a good standard, and is the foundation of the point at hand.
Yes, there are annoyances, but I do get it. Life is full of annoyances, and I don't expect cable to be any different. I do have other expectations, though, and we're about to get to that.
A few nights ago, there was a bigger problem than usual. Again, not The Worst Problem in the World at all -- -- they took the system down in the late evening, rather than a more sensible 3 AM morning -- but a big enough deep sigh "final straw" to call Spectrum the next day to discuss my beta tester status.
I knew it wasn't the tech person's fault, and I was thoroughly polite. In fact, I explained all the things I liked about the new system, as well as a few of the bigger problems. Actually, I wasn't even going to mention the specifics, but the customer support fellow kept asking me, because he wanted to make a record of it. Good for him. In fact he did a good job. Mainly, I just wanted to make the point that Spectrum should never have released the system until it was ready and instead make subscribers the beta testers who pay for the honor. He understood all the problems, he'd heard of them from others, and understood too the issue of releasing the software before it was ready.
Now, when I make calls like this in the past, I tend to leave it there to see how customer service handles things. When I'm had problem with Spectrum in the past, for instance, they've always said they'd rebate the cost of service for that day of the problem. No, it's not much but they make the effort. Fine. Good for them.
This fellow was very polite, but clearly wasn't authorized to do more than ask questions and be polite. Finally, realizing this, I did what I almost never do. I said that having to pay A LOT to be a tester of a system screwing up A LOT, is not how things should be, and I thought it would be proper to get some sort of rebate for all the times the software isn't working.
And that gets us to the point. Yes, I know, it took a while to get here, but hopefully the ride was comfortable.
The short version (oh, now, I hear you cry, he inserts a "short version"...) is that the fellow had to go check with his supervisors what he could do. After about 10 minutes -- coming back on line every once in a while to thank me for my patience -- he said with great pride that he could offer me...a whole $10 rebate! Although (and this is the good part), he made clear very pointedly to make sure I understand that this is a One-Time Only Offer for the year. Yes, they would rebate that $10, but wouldn't be able to do so again until next year. "How was that?" he asked.
All I could do was laugh. Literally. I said I knew it wasn't his policy, and I appreciated all the time he'd spent on the line, and I thanked him for diligently checking to get that answer -- "But," I added, "You do know that that is ridiculous."
And it was ridiculous. It's not just that the amount is paltry -- honestly, I wasn't looking for a big pay day -- but the "one-time only" limitation was insulting. It's as if they're doing you a favor. Worse, it means when the system keeps screwing up, as it will, and already has, they're off the hook. And it doesn't take much effort to now that there is a wide range of things they could have done instead, including for just one example, offer a premium service for a month. It would cost them absolutely zero, and it could even make them money if you end up liking it and subscribing. But no, $10 one-time only rebate for the year. On a bill, for some people -- if they have lots of add-on premium extras, get their phone service and also mobile service -- of $4,000 to a year, I would imagine.
I knew that that was the resolution, and let the matter dropped. There was no need to continue the conversation, and I said goodbye and thanks, and then hung up.
Again, I understand software problems. I even understand using subscribers to test your software while telling them they're getting The Latest technology. And I understand that the tech glitches are only occasional, albeit steady. I have no huge issue with that. The benefits of cable are worth it to me. And I've pleased well-enough with Spectrum tech support.
But then I also understand dealing with tech companies, which I have done professionally for the past 20 years, writing my tech review column for the Writers Guild of America, and at one point the TV Academy. And $10 for a one-time only yearly rebate -- from a corporate monopoly -- is...ridiculous. Indeed, more to the point, it's foolishly short-sighted. And counter-productive, since it risks driving customers away who might be paying for ALL of Spectrum's services, not just having a TV hiccup.
Yes, I know, it's cable. Many people have far-worse cable problems. But this really isn't about "problems." It's that I'm still laughing at the "We can give you $10!! Once." And if we screw up again, it's on you.
But what makes me most annoyed it that I didn't reply, "That's okay -- you keep the 10 bucks. Spectrum clearly needs it more than I do."
This past Sunday on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the main story they covered was on opioids. It's the second time they've reported on the subject, though this time it was from the perspective of distribution companies but mostly the Sackler family that's behind the drug's growth.
The story is pointed, angry and very funny -- but it reaches it's peak with one of those twists that the Oliver team does so well, especially when they want to be scathingly snarky. And as clever and funny as that is, they ratchet it up a notch with a further twist that is laugh out-loud funny. Much as I want to explain why, I just don't want to give it away.
In fact, they then even make an additional bonus twiist, and all I'll say is that after you watch the video you can more about it here. It will be clear.
I don't want to say much about this before you watch it. I'll just note that although at its core it's an ad, beyond that It's lovely, smart, heartbreaking and wonderful.
Having watched it now, I'll add that you can find what's addressed here.
The main story on last night's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver seems an unlikely one -- a look at mobile homes. But it's very good, delving into to repellent practices in the industry -- done with solid insight, outrage and lots of humor.
On this past Sunday's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the topic of the main story was professional wrestling. It is not a subject I have any interest in, although happily the show took the one perspective I could tolerate -- trashing the owner of the WWE, Vince McMahon, quite an odious man. While I don't find professional wrestling the wonderful entertainment that Oliver does, I think they did a terrific, often very funny, but also blistering and at times even touching job at dealing with the problems McMahon has created for so many of his employees -- in large part because he's been able to get away with calling them independent contractors rather than employees, which they are.
My one quibble with the story was one aspect of McMahon's story which got totally ignored. I don't know if it was an oversight (and if it was, it's a major one), or they didn't want to go in that direction, but I think they should have. And it's that McMahon's wife Linda not only is a former Republican candidate for the Senate in Connecticut (which she lost), but she's been in the Trump cabinet for the past two years as head of the Small Business Administration. Only the other day, she announced she was leaving the post -- but to lead the major Trump for 2020 Re-election PAC, America First Action. Personally, I think that's important to at least have mentioned.
As I've noted here, every once in a while I get burned out writing about Trump and am happy to let others jump in and carry the ball for a few days. There are more than enough falling over themselves to chime in online, not to mention investigate (both in the judicial system and journalism) and report it all, so we're in good hands -- as the batteries recharge.
So, today instead I'll bring up something benign and of most worth locally, but which I've wanted to write about for a while, and this is as good a chance as any.
When I moved into my new home 2-1/2 months ago, a couple of things made me wary about the front door. The first is that while it had a great lock with a wonderful "snap" (that I love), it didn't seem to lock smoothly, which struck me as pretty important. Also, the door was set in a way that it swings closed and does so very fast, and then locks. As sure as the sun rises, I was absolutely certain I would lock myself out at some point. So, I made more spare keeps than usual and gave them to as many friends who live close by as possible.
The other day, the hinky front door got hinkier, and it became difficult to unlock. Not a good thing. Actually, it did unlock fine, just not smoothly, it became a two-handed job where you have to grab the handle and pull the door towards you, and turn the key at the same time. (I'm mentioned the door issue before closing escrow, but the inspector didn't seem to thing it was worth noting. Like a few other things I've had to repair.)
Though the door was passably okay, I thought it best to deal with it now, rather than later. And checked out Angie's List, which I haven't used much, but have had very good luck the couple times I have. And chalk up yet another.
If you live in Los Angeles, the fellow is David Leiderman at D Locks. Though he's based in the Valley, he'll go all over -- and as it happens, when I called he was in Santa Monica about 10 minutes away, and had just finished up his prior job. So, great timing.
He showed up fast, was very personable, explained everything well and in detail, has a great and wry sense of humor, and got it all fixed quickly and properly, at a very reasonable price. But the best thing is that I explained that I had another door issue -- that swinging shut fast thing. And even though it wasn't really a locksmith matter, other than the door locks when it closes, I said I wanted to at least mention it. And I'm glad I did, because it turned out he knew the issue and was able fixed it and in only about five minutes. At no charge.
(I had an odd moment a couple weeks later, when the lock wouldn't turn without much difficulty. David was very responsive, thought it was a minor, understandable issue that was explainable (short version, he thought it might be weather-related and described what why) but had an employee call me a few days later when he was in the area to come over. I wasn't going to be in then, so we put it off -- and the matter hasn't cropped up again in the past month. And all seems well.)
So, I now know of a very good locksmith if I need one. My only quibble is that he doesn't take credit cards, but that's not a deal-breaker. The wonderful service is what matters. And I like too that he's a licensed locksmith. So, if you're in L.A. and want to add a locksmith to your list of Home Service People to Call When In Need, you can find his website here, or call 818-209-0973. Or write David@Dlocks.net. Actually, it's worth checking out his website anyway, even if you don't need a locksmith right now or live in another city -- that's because he has a very information FAQ section with things to know about problematic locks and ways you might be able to fix some basic things on your own.
I've written about a few such business near me who provide great service at fair prices -- I write letters of complaint all the time, and I always figure that if I'm going to complain when things go wrong, I have a responsibility to praise those who do things right. So, I'm very happy to add one more to the book...
Last night's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver on HBO was wonderful from top to finish. Alas, the show only posts a video of their main story (which actually isn't all that much of an "alas," since it's great that they do so...), but not to worry, we'll deal with that in a bit. And as for that "alas" part, here is the show's fascinating, balanced and often hilarious look at jobs and automation.
A friend sent me an article on thrillist.com that rated all the Super Bowl ads, and he asked for my comments about them.
Though I’ve written TV ads, I’m hardly an expert. But (and this doesn’t make me an expert either), I’m named after a relative who was an expert. Really. Isadore James Wagner, and I’m Robert James Elisberg. That’s why I always write professionally as “Robert J. Elisberg,” as an homage to him. He was one of the “pioneers” in using singing commercials on radio. I have an excellent book on old-time radio, The Big Broadcast, sort of an encyclopedia, which has a section on commercials. They give about a dozen examples of famous radio jingles, and two of them are his. (One was used for many decades and even I got to hear it on TV, the “What’ll you have? Pabst Blue Ribbon” jingle.) He also gave Studs Terkel his first break on radio – and in Terkel’s two memoirs he always give Iz credit. When I read an interview with him giving credit to “That adman I.J. Wagner,” I ran to tell my mom, and she said, “Oh, yes, I know. When Iz died, Studs spoke at his funeral.”
A story about him and advertising which in a way relates to commenting on Super Bowl ads. Years back I was talking with an elderly screenwriter, David P. Lewis, who used to write ads in Chicago. I mentioned having a cousin who did that, I.J. Wagner. He said he didn’t know him, but worked at the agency where he had worked. The story is that when he got hired there, he was a know-it-all kid, and when he was told that one of their clients was Thomas J. Webb Coffee (very big in the Midwest at the time), and one of Iz’s big ads, David said he went on a know-it-all rant about how he hated the ad because it was so annoying. The supervisor went and got a rate book and let him read it – it showed that the ad was WILDLY successful and incredibly well-remembered. The point being, he realized, that you’re not writing art but trying to get the public to remember your product and then buy it.
(The ad – not one of his singing jingles -- was an annoying woman’s raspy voice calling out, “Morrrrrtimer!! Don’t forget to get the Thomas J. Webb Cofffffffff-eeeeeeeee!!!!”)
Before I looked at what Thrillist wrote, I passed along my two favorites. (I should add that I didn’t think most of the ads were all that wonderful, and there were the only two which, for me, leaped out. I liked others, but in fairness I didn't see all the ads, and the ones I did see didn’t strike me as great ads, just sort of fun.) My favorites were --
The NFL ad, promoting the upcoming documentary on the history of the NFL. It wasn’t really a “product” and didn’t make the point of what it was promoting all that great, but I just loved the ad.
The Microsoft ad for its usability features for disabled kids.
As a special mention, I liked the ad for Bubly soft drink with Michael Buble.
As for the Thrillist article, you can check it out here -- which has the added advantage of embedding all the commercials so you can watch the ones you missed list or check out those you did like again. My own comments aren't comprehensive, so I just skimmed the article, but these are my random thoughts, following the Thrillist order from worst to best.
And first of those is that their comments seem to be that if a commercial isn’t all that funny it should be downgraded. While I understand that to a degree if a commercial is trying to be funny, they seem to miss that the point of a commercial isn’t to be funny but…to sell a product. And sometimes being “too” funny is felt to detract from the product.
While they rated the Jason Bateman/Hyundai commercial as the worst, I thought it was wonderfully produced and great fun. However, I think it was a lousy ad for selling their cars. (In fact, I didn’t remember if it was for Hyundai or Honda.) So, I don’t know if that should make it it high on the list or low -- but definitely higher than "worst."
Their comment about how one of the reasons they didn't like the WeatherTech ad was because they felt the cellphone holider should be higher so that you could actually see the phone was idiotic. The whole point of the product is that so you keep your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. NO, they don’t want you looking at the phone.
I like the Stella Artois ad, though because I've never seen Sex in the City, and don't think I've seen The Big Lebowski in 15-20 years, I didn't quite get all the references, but I thought it was well-done and fun. And think that Thrillist missed the point of why it worked. And I liked, too, the quick but great use of "The Most Interesting Man in the World" -- not just because it was a nice addition and a tweak to another beer company, Dos Equis, but I suspect there was a bit of joyful comeuppance by the actor, Jonathan Goldsmith, who had been let go by the ad agency for being too old.
I didn't think the Pepsi ad with Steve Carell ad was all that effective in selling the product especially well, but I thought he was great fun in it.
Though I don’t watch Game of Thrones, I thought the Bud Light crossover ad with the TV show. was AWFUL. Not just because the two styles didn’t mesh, but Budweiser thought it was a great idea to have one of its iconic characters, the Bud Knight, get killed in a battle and then decapitated. Seriously????
I thought the Alexa ad was well-produced and fun, but thought it lost its focus on what it was selling. What I think they were trying to sell was how great and versatile Alexa is, and that it can do SO much, though some efforts were misguided because Alexa shouldn’t be used for that. A good point in theory, but it doesn’t come through properly, instead it looks like they’re saying Alexa doesn’t work well.
How weird that they describe the Mr. Peanut ad as “it’s all pretty stupid,” but rate it as #15.
I dislike the Verizon ads that have been running for the last few weeks – with the First Responders, and the tag line about how “They save everyone, and we make sure they got the call.” The ads themselves are good – but I hate the tag line. If the ad was the same and they ended with “Verizon salutes those who put themselves out to save others,” then that would be just fine. But to suggest that Verizon deserves to be part of the First Responder “team” and deserves part of the praise and thanks, simply because they connect the phone call is bothersome. Furthers, as far as I know, there isn’t an issue with any other service not being able to connect to 911 and First Responders. Besides which, how do we know that in these cases the call to the First Responders was made using Verizon service?? Maybe it was, but maybe not. Either way, though, they are NOT part of the team.
I can’t say that that Bo Jackson commercial for Sprint was very good, and they even say so, too, yet make it #11 best simply because they like seeing Bo Jackson!
Thrillist saying that “Obviously, it’s hard to get too outraged over a clip of Andy Warhol eating a burger” misuses the word “outraged.” I thought the ad was fairly effective in getting your attention, which is a critical aspect of any ad, though I can assure you there were people at our group who were indeed close to outraged by it, thinking it boring, a bit creepy and inexplicable. But at least them making it #4 made my point to those “outraged” folks that the ad was effective in getting attention and being remembered.
Okay, two of my favorite three made their top three, so I can’t complain about that – the Microsoft ad and the one for Bubly. Though I wouldn’t have put the Bubly ad #1. But – but – they completely ignored and left out the NFL promotional spot. Perhaps because it was just a “promotion” and not a tradition ad per se, but so what? It was great. And even if one didn’t like it, you at least include it!!!
And that they thought the avocado ad was the second best is bizarre. Among other things, it didn’t do much to sell avocados (focusing mostly on the unrelated, goofy antics of the humans) …which is the point of an ad.
Well, it’s all personal taste. And I admire that Thrillist took the leap to rate them all in order.
I think your recommended tag line for the Bob Dylan “Blowin’ in the Wind” ad is a perfectly good one for commenting on Dylan’s song, but not an especially good one for selling the product.
Robert J. Elisberg is a two-time recipient of the Lucille Ball Award for comedy screenwriting. He's written for film, TV, the stage, and two best-selling novels, is a regular columnist for the Writers Guild of America and was for the Huffington Post. Among his other writing, he has a long-time column on technology (which he sometimes understands), and co-wrote a book on world travel. As a lyricist, he is a member of ASCAP, and has contributed to numerous publications.
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