Thursday, 27 December 2018


The Fine Print

Advertising is my personal poll of the zeitgeist, accurate 19 times out of 20, plus or minus a few percentage points. There was a time when four out of five doctors were particular about their brand of cigarettes. When plastic wares and frozen foods were modern miracles and artificial fabrics never wrinkled. The war had been won and the road ahead was paved with the cardboard cartons of new-fangled consumer durables. Advertising is an era’s barometer.

Times and mores, along with the century, have changed, as they will. Luxury advertising has a small but growing demographic; people will always pay too much for stuff they don’t need if they can afford to. Companies that make leotards in Bangladesh, shoes in China and bottle our free municipal water for resale exhort us to Olympian heights of personal achievement. And the shiny, happy people depicted in print ads reflect an awareness of society’s diversity; there’s always room for a trans-gendered Muslim with a physical disability amid the buxom babes and the square-jawed white men enjoying their staged moment of commercial bliss.

But there are other signs of the times in contemporary advertising too, down at the bottom of the message near the logo and slogan. Years ago there was an address an interested consumer could write to for more information. The post office boxes in Battle Creek, Michigan or Chicago area code 60619 were replaced by more convenient toll-free phone numbers. These 11 digits soon began to share space with web addresses. The advent of wireless phones equipped with cameras led to an early indicator of the internet of things, QR codes or binary short-cuts. Shortly thereafter social media revived the always mysterious # symbol from the telephone dial thereby engineering a deviously insidious form of customer and brand engagement.

Progress is dizzyingly relentless. The advertising industry, like its sister, porn, is part of the technological vanguard, up to the minute or just a half second behind, always ready to exploit the latest and greatest as a vehicle for its white noise. I was reminded of this last week while perusing my latest issue of The Economist where I came across a full page, Christmas-themed ad paid for by the Salvation Army. 

The graphic was attractive, sort of Norman Rockwell filtered through a New Yorker cartoonist: ring that bell, put a penny in the drum… snow – a clever use of white space. WE CONQUER HUNGER WITH COMPASSION. LOVE HAS AN ARMY. The pair of headers were complemented by a combative hashtag: FightForGood. The ad’s execution touched me, so I lingered over it. Logo? Check. Slogan? Check. Toll-free number? Check. Website? Check. And then… Say what!? Right down there with the phone and the URL: “Alexa, make a donation to The Salvation Army,” a scripted digital assistant prompt and not to just any digital assistant.

Amazon has come a long way from simply distributing pre-existing books and music. Alexa is a fine example of its evolution. At the moment the AI tool seems pretty benign, assembling songs, lording it over household appliances and distributing alms to the needy. The day will come when it will be less passive and begin to make suggestions on behalf of advertisers. Ultimately, there aren’t that many steps between taking orders and giving them, a simple promotion will suffice. I suspect we’ll reach that existential chasm soon enough.     

Copies of my latest novel The Garage Sailor are still available and ready to ship. Get aboard at

Saturday, 22 December 2018


Wait a Minute, Please!

The Crooked 9 does not have a dedicated walk to the front door. Consequently Ann and I are diligent about keeping the driveway clear for the duration of Edmonton’s long, dark winters. I enjoy shovelling snow. It’s similar to mowing the lawn or raking leaves in that the result is immediately pleasing and apparent. I get as much thinking done performing those tasks as I do standing still and watching the blue jays, magpies and woodpeckers flit about in the firs outside through the window in our back door.

Edmonton has always been reluctant to come to terms with its latitude. When I initially moved here nearly 30 years ago, I was stunned that the City’s entire snow removal budget was habitually drained by the end of November, the solstice still some three weeks away. This year late fall and the first couple of days of winter thus far have been mildly vexing. Months of weather have been packed into a space of days: December’s snow, January’s deep-freeze, February’s thaw, the spring breezes of March and April’s showers.

In days like these in Alberta and on the eve of an election year, it’s best not to mention the mundane commonality of weather to a stranger at the bus stop. Accelerated climate change is an anecdotal elitist hoax. Accelerated climate change is last call for a lazy, one resource provincial economy to diversify. All I know is that there’s enough sand on our driveway to host a beach volleyball tournament although conditions in Edmonton in late December are not exactly ideal for bathing suits and SPF grease.

Last week mail to the Crooked 9 came bundled in a blue elastic band. My overdue issue of The Economist was not included. I was annoyed. The unaddressed direct mail flyers were iced with a yellow sticky note reminding Ann and me to keep access to our home safe. I figured the plea was generic. The pizza man and our newspaper carrier were able to negotiate our driveway in the dark. An Amazon Prime subcontractor from the subcontinent delivered a parcel which could not go to its true destination just yet; the gentleman wore cleats and a big grin. Visiting friends had not creased their skulls on the front steps.

Ann and I were on top of the insanely spinning freeze and thaw cycle. Still, I walked the front 40 with a pail of grit and an ice chipper. Our neighbour’s self-pruning willow had laid a mesh of twigs atop the receding snow and our driveway. The public sidewalk was sure-footed. I used an old yogurt container to scatter even more traction. The next day Canada Post dropped off a postcard telling us that delivery to the Crooked 9 was too dangerous a proposition. Ann and I wondered how they managed to summon the courage to inform us.

I was outside smoking and fuming when an area supervisor from the Crown Corporation arrived. He walked up the driveway to speak to me. He himself had delivered the pre-printed scolding earlier in the afternoon. Two visits, back and forth, up and down the driveway. I thought, Isn’t it ironic? Not like the rain on my three wedding days because that’s just coincidence or maybe pathetic fallacy at the most. I said, “We’re in a winter city and the weather’s getting weird. Just what exactly do you expect me to do aside from everything I can?” I was reminded of my final performance review at my last ad agency before I quit: What the fuck else do you want from me!? Since then I’ve found some peace shovelling snow, chipping ice and scattering sand. I never expected tsk-tsk from a public service.

And so I went back to work, I re-re-did what I had already done, done, done: optics, cosmetics, appearances. My back was not pleased although my mind enjoyed the travel once it had acquiesced to the Sisyphean futility of it all.

Two days later a Canada Post van sped up and down our street, skidding to a halt everywhere else, fulfilling the company’s mandate. Ann pulled on her boots and strode down to the end of the driveway. The postal carrier said to Ann, “Your driveway looked better yesterday and so I decided to bring your mail today.” Ann replied that we certainly appreciated the service. Ann noted that the postie was wearing flat-soled sneakers, fine footwear for Edmonton in an increasingly bizarre wintertime; just as I, naturally, would wear hockey skates on a snowbird beach.

Now, Ann was not raised as a Catholic, which is to say that my baby is a pagan. Cursing to Ann is a relatively new art and I carbon date it from the ascent of Neanderthal Tweeterdumbest to the Oval Office. Ann handed me my tardy Economist. She muttered, “Can you (expletive) believe that we pay that (expletive) person’s (expletive) salary?”

I said, “Yes.”     

Copies of my latest novel The Garage Sailor are still available and ready to ship. Get aboard at

Wednesday, 12 December 2018


Rallying Around the Brand

The scene is the exclusive executive departure lounge at a major Canadian international airport. Two super elite fliers with similar stories encounter one another for the first time. The alcohol is free and tongues are loosened.

Brand Manager One: Excuse me, is this seat taken? May I share your table? And I must recharge my phone.

Brand Manager Two: Eh? Oh, sorry! Let me move my stuff. Sorry.

BMOne: Hi, I’m Brand Manager Who Only Replies To Media Queries Via Email.

BMTwo: Pleased to meet you! How’d you guess my name?

BMOne: Funny old world, not funny ha-ha but funny nonetheless.

BMTwo: I could use a laugh or two myself these days.

BMOne: Who couldn’t? So… not to pry, but you work for whom?

BMTwo: Huawei Canada.

BMOne: Ooh. Well… you must be pleased your CFO got sprung from the joint on $10-million bail. Nasty stuff, violating trade sanctions and stealing intellectual properties, state sponsored espionage…

BMTwo: It’s always darkest before the red dawn.

BMOne: Excuse me?

BMTwo: It’s always darkest before the dawn. You?

BMOne: Me? I work for Tim Hortons.

BMTwo: Ooh. You know, I just read an unscientific study about the nature of litter in Canada. Apparently when it comes to strewn garbage, your brand’s at the top of the heap.

BMOne: Customers, eh? Can’t live with ‘em; can’t live without ‘em. Still, we serve coffee and treats, not the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army.

BMTwo: At Huawei we pride ourselves on providing our customers ‘A Higher Intelligence.’ That is to say a product of excellent quality at a competitive price. We also treat our employees and vested stakeholders with dignity and respect.

BMOne: Touché. So… campaign season is upon us, the holidays. What are you running?

BMTwo: We’re all in on hockey: ice graphics, rink boards, broadcaster call-outs, set decoration; like that. Seems to be the most reliable way to reach Canadian consumers and millennials don’t pay attention to the news. It’s all good. You?

BMOne: Hockey, eh? Been there, done that. This time we’re going for warm and fuzzy, human interest, real life, heart warming stories narrated by our customers and employees. A real calculated small town feel, everybody of every ethnicity and ability pitching in for the greater good. Similar to Huawei at home, I suppose? So... I bought heavy weight during hockey broadcasts, the usual standard operational Canadiana bullshit.

BMTwo: If it ain’t broke… Hope that works out for you again.

BMOne: Yeah, yeah, thanks. Likewise. Timmy’s has chewed up and spat out a lot of brand equity this year. There’s no maple sugar-coating that. Still… all things considered, it could be a lot worse for the likes of us and our ilk.

BMTwo: Like working in the White House?

BMOne: Yeah, or Brexit.

BMTwo: Or Assad in Syria.

BMOne: Or bin Salman in Saudi.

BMTwo: Sears, don’t forget Sears.

BMOne: Facebook.

BMTwo: Ooh, good one. We still leverage it though.

BMOne: Us too. A devil you know sort of thing.

BMTwo: Anyway, must run, they’re calling my flight. Nice chatting with you.

BMOne: Likewise. Happy next financial quarter!

Copies of my latest novel The Garage Sailor are still available and ready to ship. Get aboard at

Thursday, 6 December 2018


You Had a Friend

Modern times amaze and confuse me.

Our friend Netflix Derek who lives around the corner from the Crooked 9 underwent a surgical procedure this week. He is an active man and his ailment affected his quality of life for a significant period of time, months at least, probably longer. Upon diagnosis, and following the trickier part of scheduling his place in the health care system’s queue for treatment, just an hour or so under the knife set him right. He was home that evening.

Such is the miracle of modern medicine. It’s a bit like commercial air travel. I’m still dumbfounded that Canadians are able to traverse the second largest country in the world (by landmass) in a matter of hours.

I said to Ann, “I hope Derek has a speedy recovery.”

Because ‘Springsteen on Broadway’ begins streaming on Netflix a week this coming Sunday and our rabbit ears with their aluminum foil muffs can’t receive its signal.

Ann mentioned as a mere aside, “Did I tell you that Derek got rid of his landline?”

“He did? Well, what’s he use?”

“His cell.”

“His cell?”

Thoughts zipped through my mind, completely coherent but impossible to articulate in that nanosecond of neuron transmission: I don’t have a cell. I don’t send text messages. We still have a landline. Other friends text me; I pay the phone company to recite gibberish. How am I ever going to communicate with Netflix Derek again? Cell::landline, it’s like inserting a 45 or a cassette into a CD player.

“Derek texted me his cell phone number,” Ann said. “Maybe you should write it down in your address book.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Yeah. Yeah! I can still call Netflix Derek. He might even answer. I’ll wish him well and drop hints, angling for his Springsteen viewing invitation to Ann and me. Could work, this antiquated, quaint form of contact even as he’s adapted to new technologies swifter than I ever have or ever will.    

Copies of my latest novel The Garage Sailor are still available and ready to ship. Get aboard at