December 3, 2016

Jell-O: A Processed Food Icon Struggles to Retain It's Relevance in the 21st Century

As recently as the mid-1980's, one of the twentieth-century's biggest, supermarket food brands was still a very common staple in many American homes (the top-selling gelatin brand was Jell-O, although rival brands popped up including Royal which is now part of the Jel Sert Corporation's offerings after changing hands a few times, as well as various store brands and a few now-defunct brands).  Gelatin sold in the U.S. is a coagulated protein/collagen substance (that comes from cow and pig hooves and bones, which otherwise would have been a discarded byproduct of meat production).  But as a processed food, the cooking element comes when people add fruit or other ingredients to powdered gelatin mixes.  In addition to fruits like pears, oranges, peaches, etc., and people soon discovered that various other types of foods like marshmallows, olives, peas, carrots, cut celery, tomatoes, radishes, onions, tunafish, shrimp ... pretty much any food you could imagine, could become encased in Jell-O!  Hence, the Jell-O "salad" was the embodiment of this.

Origins of Jell-O

Jell-O's origins actually began just before the twentieth century began.  In 1845, Peter Cooper dabbled with and patented a product which was "set" with gelatin. Suffice it to say, it never really "jelled" with the American public. Then, in 1897, Pearle Wait, a carpenter in the small town of LeRoy, New York was making a cough remedy and laxative tea in his home. He experimented with gelatin and came up with a fruit-flavored dessert which his wife, May, named Jell-O. He tried to market his product but he lacked the capital and the experience. In 1899 he sold his formula to a fellow townsman for the sum of $450.  The product, and the brand, changed hands a number of times more, before becoming a stand-alone company.  But around 1902 or so, ads for Jell-O began appearing in publications like Ladies Home Journal magazine.

Around that time, the product changed from being a hand-packaged business to a highly-mechanized factory, and at that time became one of LeRoy, New York's most important industries.  In 1964, Jell-O left its upstate New York hometown to make its way in the wider world.  Now, Jell-O brand gelatin is reportedly manufactured by Kraft in a plant in Dover, Delaware as of 2015.  But a Jell-O Museum still exists in Jell-O's hometown of LeRoy, a few minutes off of the New York State Thruway but that's pretty much all that remains there aside from a few boxes of Jell-O sold in the local stores.  But the company's search for new products and unique advertising and merchandising breakthroughs developed a phenomenal record for this product.  On December 31, 1925 the Jell-O Company, Inc. was sold to what was then known as the acquisition-crazy Postum Cereal Company, Inc. by exchange of stock, thereby becoming the first subsidiary of a merger that would eventually become General Foods Corporation, which would later be merged with Kraft by tobacco company owners at Philip Morris and then, later, spun off as Kraft Foods, only to be merged with Heinz foods in a merger orchestrated by private equity managers.

Utah's Peculiar Role

Strangely, gelatin desserts are especially popular in the state of Utah.  Utah food culture, if one can call it that, can basically be dubbed Mormon cuisine.  One of the reasons for its popularity in that state is gelatin salads are relatively inexpensive to make, and homemakers are able to make them as colorful and interesting as they can to brighten up the dinner table – it's a way to be creative on a budget.  It may well be that's a reason Jell-O remains so popular in Utah, since that state is more religiously homogeneous than most other states, and has a great deal of Latter Day Saints' (LDS) activities like church potluck suppers that drive the product's usage there.

The love of Jell-O resonates so deeply there that in 2001, Utah narrowly beat out Iowa in annual Jell-O consumption, when state officials elected Jell-O as the official state snack and even named Bill Cosby, who was the brand's longstanding spokesman back in the 1980's, as an honorary Utah citizen (this was likely before Mr. Cosby's sex abuse scandals became common knowledge).

A Packaged Food Giant Emerges

Jell-O's development mirrors the beginning of one of American packaged foods' giants.  Along with that business came some very effective marketing of the product itself.  As noted, by the 1950's, American homemakers were eagerly buying processed foods to save themselves hours of prep time in the kitchen.  It was viewed at that time as modern convenience and a way of improving one's life by making the laborious task of cooking a bit easier.

Processed foods now constitute, plus or minus, about 70% of what most Americans eat.  In recent years, the term "processed food" has become a synonym for unhealthy foods, often junk foods.  To some degree, that's true.  However, virtually ALL of of the food and drink we consume is processed to some extent.  Any alteration to foods, such as cooking, is a process; hence, in the modern diet, it's nearly impossible to find someone who consumes a wholly unprocessed diet.  In addition, many foods when unprocessed are simply unpalatable and/or indigestible.

But there are various degrees of food processing, ranging from minimally-processed foods (such as canned beans, fresh baby carrots, or a head of lettuce one buys in the produce aisle at the supermarket) to ultra-processed (such as cookies, dried pasta, chicken nuggets, for example).  Typically, the more processed a food, the less nutritious it becomes.  Most highly-processed foods are characterized as having very high energy density (packing lots of calories in small volumes of food), low in vitamins and other nutrition and their consumption is usually aided by extensive ad campaigns. Ultra-processed foods are also usually confectioned out of refined, nutrient-depleted ingredients.  Their over-consumption has been associated with obesity and various other ailments worldwide.  Some processed foods have even been described as 'edible, food-like substances' since they actually contain ingredients which are edible, but aren't really food!  For example, the Twinkie dessert cake (see http://goo.gl/RUlww7 for my post on that), contains ingredients which are actually MINED, not grown or farmed as one might expect just to provide one example (see http://www.twinkiedeconstructed.com/ for more information)!

Processing food in itself is not really the problem that is faced by public health experts; rather it is the degree of processing and the displacement of otherwise nutritious ingredients with less-than-nutritious or even harmful ingredients instead, sometimes to an extensive or even exclusive degree (usually by adding a lot of salt, sugar and fat), that concerns public health professionals.

Regardless, as noted, food processing was not always seen as the pariah it is today.  Following World War II, food processing was rightly viewed by housewives of the day as a big time-saving miracle, and it did make many housewives' lives vastly easier.

I've written about various food products, such as Pillsbury Space Food Sticks (see my post at http://goo.gl/mq56s4), and cereal (see http://goo.gl/m8wpb0) in the past.  However, as I've written in some of my other posts on food (catch my post on the "Dead Celebrity Cookbook" at http://goo.gl/50BQEh), once upon a time, a majority of Americans ate meals they (or someone in their household) actually cooked for themselves, rather than simply reheated already-prepared food in a microwave oven, in a skillet, ordered for delivery, or took prepared food home from their local supermarket, or any variation of this theme.

Today, cooking is something that many people watch celebrity chefs do on TV (and occasionally amateurs who have considerably less skills in the kitchen, just ask anyone who's ever watched Worst Cooks in America on Food Network if you need proof), but don't do much of themselves.  It's not that Americans can't cook, it's that our busy lifestyles make it far less practical today, combined with the convenience of buying something that's ready to simply heat up.  While celebrities cooking was probably more of a publicity ploy back in the 1950's through the 1970's, historically, that responsibility often fell on the stay-at-home housewives who cared for the home, children and made sure meals were on the table for their husbands when they came home from work.

But that whole idea of gender-specific roles went out the window in the 1970's, when a combination of factors including stagflation resulted in a mass of women entering the workforce not necessarily by choice, but by economic necessity, plus widespread divorce that impacted Generation X, and the women's lib(eration) movement, all of which pretty much made stay-at-home housewives an anachronism of days long passed (check out my post about a woman who gave modern feminism one of its anthems at http://goo.gl/cYgDPF).  Some tried to follow it as closely as they could, but the American family of that era more resembled One Day at a Time's Ann Romano's family (see my post on her at http://goo.gl/DSznq) more than it did Leave It To Beaver's June Cleaver's 1950's idealized version.

Jell-O: A Miracle of Processed Foods

All of this brings me back to my topic du jour: the food product many of us know by the brand name Jell-O.  As already noted, there are/were competitors, including Royal gelatin and My*T*Fine puddings, both of which are now made by The Jel Sert Company, as well as many generic store brands, and as I'll note later in this post, even Kosher (and also halal) and vegan/vegetarian versions of the product) aren't very easy to find.  But Jell-O pretty much set all the standards by which all competitors followed, at least in the last century.

As noted, Jell-O has a long history in the U.S., having been introduced back in 1845, and it was one of the most successful processed, packaged foods sold from the 1950's through the 1970's.  My own great grandfather once ran (his part ended in 1926) one of the many companies General Foods had acquired over the years.  General Foods as it was known for a number of years and would later become part of what is now known as Kraft (a spinoff called Modelez International separated the massive baked goods and cracker/cookie business including Nabisco), although General Foods itself was considered one of the best consumer goods marketers in the post-World War II era in the U.S.

General Foods Corporation's logos

In many important respects, General Foods' marketing was superior to even Kraft's.  General Foods (as noted above, was known at one point as the Postum Cereal Company before taking the General Foods' name, which would later be sold off; today the cereal business persists and is known as a stand-alone company called Post Cereals) used creative recipes to market its products, and quite successfully I might add, catch my cereal post at http://goo.gl/m8wpb0 for some more examples).

Ladies magazines of the day (think of titles like "Ladies Home Journal" and "Good Housekeeping" just to name a few, for more see https://goo.gl/xqqBNn for details) featured various recipes for using the processed food products -- initially in articles, then later in advertising inserts, while supermarkets often featured free recipe cards near the products themselves in racks found in the aisles of the stores and maybe even product demonstrations in stores (today, retailers like Costco still deploy this).

The company's many recipes were featured in newspapers, magazines and sent via direct mail.  I won't bore you with a long company history, although you can catch a few relevant pieces of its lengthy history HERE and HERE and HERE or https://www.scribd.com/doc/248082864/General-Foods-Corporate-Timeline in case you're curious.

As already noted, General Foods was previously considered, along with several other companies like Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, General Mills, Kellogg, and Unilever, as a master marketer and a king of the supermarket aisles.  Even today, a number of the company's drink mixes remain on the market and are still being sold by Kraft including Kool-Aid and Crystal Light, and Maxwell House Coffee remains a marquee brand for the company.

Other big General Foods' brands include Minute Rice (and Minute Tapioca, where the brand name originated), and Jell-O gelatins and puddings endure under Kraft ownership, although other products have morphed over the years.  For example, Dream Whip instant whipped topping mixes, Kool-Aid and Crystal Light drink mixes are still sold by Kraft largely in their original formats, as are Cool Whip frozen dessert toppings, Stove Top instant stuffing and others.  But the company discontinued brands such as D-Zerta sugar-free dessert mixes (re-branding them as sugar-free Jell-O, which was probably a good idea).  Other brands that company created still exist today, even though they're not necessarily under the same corporate umbrella anymore.  These include cereals including Grape Nuts, Alpha Bits, Honeycomb, Cocoa Pebbles and Fruity Pebbles, and Birdseye frozen vegetables to name a few.

To understand the reason for their marketing success, just imagine all the time-savings all of those modern, processed foods provided for a housewife of the day.  Instead of cooking for hours, they could cook a meal in considerably less time (remember, this was at least 25 years before the microwave oven would be introduced).  It's little wonder why General Foods was so incredibly popular (and successful) back in the day.  Alas, all of that kind of ended when women had more to do than just prepare meals for the family; they actually had to bring home the bacon, too.  Their priorities shifted.  To be sure, Kraft has been pretty good at identifying trends and adapting to them for the times.  For example, back in the 1990's, the company recognized hardly anyone was still at home cooking anymore, so they repackaged prepared Jell-O gelatin and puddings into refrigerated items people could buy for consumption at home already-made; today the company sells products like prepared Jell-O gelatin and pudding cups which can typically be found in the dairy aisle of supermarkets in the U.S..  The Jell-O brand endures largely because of those innovations or migrations from the company.

The Wonders of Processed Foods in Your Kitchen, With Help from General Foods' Chefs

1959 General Foods Kitchens Cookbook
As noted, from their marketing machine of the 1950's through the 1970's, the company employed a large team of chefs who were tasked with developing recipes that people could make using General Foods' large portfolio of processed foods.  That era was really known for "better living through chemistry", with new and inventive processed foods that were convenient to use.  In 1959, the company even published a hardcover cookbook entitled "General Foods Kitchens Cookbook".  General Foods took full advantage of this, and the company developed hundreds of (or more) recipes for suburban housewives to show off their culinary skills while stretching their family's food budget. While some of these recipes were actually quite good; others deservedly belong in the culinary trash heap of history.

Today, I'm going to talk about some of the less memorable aspects of Jell-O.  Most obvious, perhaps, is the Jell-O mold, one of the biggest creations of the brand that endures, albeit not at the same level it once enjoyed.  To be sure, some people still regularly make Jell-O molds (Does your local Tupperware dealer sell them anymore?  What, no Tupperware dealer?!  Welcome to 2016!), and these tend to be desserts or sweetened side-dishes rather than the meals themselves.  But some did try to change that paradigm, by creating "meal" recipes out of gelatin.  There are some, let's just call them, questionable (gross?) variations of this theme, including a 1938 recipe for Sauerkraut Jell-O, which can be found in print in the cookbook "Mama's in the Kitchen: Weird and Wonderful Home Cooking 1900-1950" if you're really interested, but if you visit http://goo.gl/Bbj5XS someone has saved you the trouble of getting the actual cookbook from where this recipe was found, plus the recipe was reduced in size (its better to sample this recipe first before making enough to feed an army!).  This points to a broader vision of using processed foods like Jell-O to make the household chore of cooking for one's family easier.

At its extreme, just imagine that back in the 1950's and 1960's, when supermarket shoppers could actually buy vegetable-flavored gelatin mixes!!  Jell-O flavors like celery, seasoned tomato and mixed vegetable were on sold on store shelves across America.  These weren't just desserts, they were meant to be part of the meals themselves!  They were molded Jell-O salads that featured fish or meats, vegetables, etc., although the recipes sometimes contained the term aspic rather than Jell-O or gelatin.  Modern variations use the term too, and often rely on Knox unflavored gelatin rather than sweetened, fruit-flavored varieties commonly sold today.

Today, while a few original Jell-O flavors remain (lime, for example), many other flavors have largely come and gone, although they may remain in certain geographic areas.  As noted, remember that plain Knox gelatin mix remains on the market and the cook can add whatever flavors they might imagine, including celery if that floats their boats.  A few, like pistachio Jell-O pudding mixes are still around, although even those are harder to find on supermarket shelves nowadays (many only carry vanilla and chocolate and those may even be the retailers' own store-brands), although creative chefs can find the products available for sale online and mailed to them, that takes time and you usually pay for shipping, too.  Not all of the original products remain; for example, D-Zerta sugar-free whipped topping mix, which was a non-dairy dessert topping (at least before assembly by the cook) that someone could make at home (it was also made with gelatin as a main ingredient) are no longer sold, although the sugar-laden variety known as Dream Whip remains on the market.  Enterprising cooks have created their own versions of these products (see http://goo.gl/Z5CyG5 for example) and some are quite good, but the idea of using processed foods to save time does kind of go out the window when one has to recreate the processed food products used in various recipes at home.

These days. Jell-O has some major problems of its own.  In 2012, an article entitled "Jell-O can't stop slippery sales slide" pretty much summarized the situation (see it on CNBC at http://ow.ly/B67y306MyWM for more).  It simply isn't as popular as it once was, and the assembly part of the product required of the cook is a big reason.  True, ready-made varieties of Jell-O gelatin and puddings (such as Jell-O Temptations) sold in the dairy aisle are out there and seem to be doing reasonably well, but the classic boxes of powdered Jell-O gelatin and pudding mixes on the supermarket shelves tend to be more slow-moving in today's era.  Also, the ingredients are full of many of the things modern shoppers try to avoid, including a cheap alternative to sugar called high-fructose corn syrup which surveys show shoppers would rather avoid, as well as bright, artificial colors which are another thing shoppers would prefer not to be in their food.

As the article noted: "Part of the problem is that people have become more finicky about what they eat. They're increasingly seeking out foods they think are natural or wholesome, and Jell-O's bright reds, greens and blues may inadvertently serve as warning signals to moms about the artificial dyes they contain." The second ingredient listed for the prepared Jell-O gelatin cups is also high-fructose corn syrup, a cheaper sugar substitute that more and more people are shunning, so their marketing machine may still be asleep at the wheel!

Nutrition more broadly is another issue. Jell-O has long positioned itself as a "lighter" alternative to cakes and pies (as one slogan went, "There's always room for Jell-O"). But the trend now is toward foods that claim some sort of benefit, such as protein and fiber.

"Even for those who have fond memories of eating Jell-O, the problem is just that — it's a treat associated with the past.”

Whether Kraft, which is now divested of many products including the big portfolio of Nabisco cookies and crackers (spun off to a new company called Mondelez, noted above) that dominated so much of its marketing budget for years can turn things around remains to be seen.  To be sure, bloggers using unflavored Knox gelatin have emerged online and I would think Kraft should be encouraging more of such activity, but turning Jell-O into a trendy product when so many people still associate it with Bill Cosby who hasn't endorsed the product in years is yet another challenge for the brand.

Today, some enterprising 21st century people went through their grandmother's old recipes (many came directly from the companies, including inserts found in magazines or even microwave ovens of the day) and made cookbooks from stuff housewives once got for free.  I'll bet they never dreamed their great granddaughters would be able to sell this stuff, but they are doing it now.

Some of the most humorous food inventions from those days are actually kind of vile.  Check out some photos of ads from Jell-O in the post below, or at https://flic.kr/s/aHskPPayoG:

Odd Jell-O Salads

It's logical to ask why would someone would want to put vegetables and canned foods (Shrimp? Spam?  Yep ... they were all in Jell-O recipes back in the day) in gelatin nowadays?  It seems a bit of a stretch.  Although a number of bloggers have gone on record having tried some if not all of the recipes they uncovered from a generation ago.  My personal favorites are the cookbook entitled "Hello, Jell-O!" and "Jell-O: A Biography - The History and Mystery of America's Most Famous Dessert", with the latter one being more of a history book than a recipe book, and almost all are sweetened recipes for Jell-O rather than using the product in other ways.  Each has their merits, but for those simply not into eating gelatin, the history book might be the better choice.  Check them out at your public library.

With all of this in mind, if you adhere to a Kosher (similar to halal) diet which requires that the gelatin be made from an animal collagen other than pork (so beef gelatin can be Kosher, even if its not vegetarian), or you're a vegetarian or vegan (by the way, there ARE variations of gelatin made from plants, usually referred to as agar powder, which is actually made from seaweed, but getting those things may cost you, and the consistency [and preparation]), gelatin options may not be exactly the same and aren't sold by Kraft.  Some natural food purveyors do sell these alternatives.  But if Kraft is really serious about taking the brand into the 21st century, they might look at selling, Kosher, halal, vegan and vegetarian versions of the product, knowing that the old, 19th century versions are now having more trouble finding consumers, even if they are still popular in Utah.  But for a brand that once sold salad-flavored gelatins (including tomato, mixed vegetable and celery flavors), I would think such innovations really shouldn't be especially problematic, but what do I know?

November 7, 2016

MTV Classic's Introdution

This summer (in August 2016), there was news (see the Rolling Stone article at http://rol.st/2aN2igZ for more), that Viacom's beleaguered MTV unit would do something it had never done before: admit that it was aging.

Well, not exactly.

What Viacom did was intended to be a nostalgic look at MTV's role as a cultural vanguard in American youth culture.  In reality, the media company was trying to recreate that feeling as much as it was trying to reuse old programming that MTV had developed.

Remember, in 2011, Nathaniel Brown, then an MTV executive said:

"MTV as a brand doesn't age with our viewers," explained Nathaniel Brown, [then] senior vice president of communications for MTV, who confirmed that there were no plans for an on-air MTV celebration. "We are really focused on our current viewers, and our feeling was that our anniversary wasn't something that would be meaningful to them, many of whom weren't even alive in 1981."

Catch the media conglomerate's TV commercial at https://youtu.be/MNzS1Hk-sLs for more on the introduction of MTV Classic.


The real challenge is that this is "classic" network is geared mainly towards MTV's second iteration (not its first, hence the term "classic" is kind of a misnomer), with original MTV programs like the animated cartoon Daria, Beavis & Butt-Head and Pimp My Ride, all of which usurped the network's first generation of programming which consisted almost exclusively of music-related content including music videos and concerts.

Unfortunately, the youth of 2016 looks quite different from youth of 1990, not to mention the youth of 1981.  Much of the content today is on-demand and watched from mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, on channels like YouTube, where some of the most successful content is actually created by young people themselves.  That makes MTV's recent introduction of "MTV Classic" far from a guaranteed success with the core youth demographic.

NPR had an interesting story on the news at https://n.pr/2asPkXx:


It's an acknowledgement of sorts (marking MTV's 35th anniversary), but it's unclear just how successful the launch will be (heck, the youth of today are more cord-cutters than any group in history, check out this Mashable article at http://on.mash.to/1ojqRXL for more) doesn't even subscribe to cable (though they may get it if they still live with Mom & Dad), so its unclear just how successful MTV's recent move will be, but who knows?!

Regardless, this isn't stopping the media giant from trying.

November 3, 2016

S&H Green Stamps

Andy Warhol created several of his now-famous prints of them in 1962 (and another in 1965), one of which sold at a Sotheby's auction in 2013 for $6,875 (it previously belonged to Bernie Madoff).

The TV sitcom The Brady Bunch even featured an entire episode about them (Episode 15 from Season 1, entitled the "54-40 and Fight") which aired on January 9, 1970.  I'm talking about S&H Green Stamps.  In that Brady episode, the Brady's learn that a trading stamp company is going out of business. A fight breaks out over who should get all of the saved stamps, the boys or the girls. If the girls get them, they plan to buy a sewing machine, but if the boys get them, they want to buy a row boat.  In the end, they build a house of cards to determine who gets all of the trading stamps, and the girls win the contest, but they end up using the stamps to buy a color television set that the entire family can use (thanks to a little encouragement from Mrs. Brady).

The Brady Bunch in the "54-40 and Fight" episode









I recall going to the Green Stamps redemption center with my aunt in the 1970s when S&H announced the Green Stamp program was ending, or at the very least that redemption centers nationwide were closing.  At the time, the center looked similar to the one depicted in The Brady Bunch.  We ended up getting an electric fondue pot.

The Brady's called them "trading stamps", although I think most Americans knew them better as Green Stamps.  I'm referring to Sperry and Hutchinson's (S&H) Green Stamps (although S&H stamps were pink-colored in the UK).  The company then known as Sperry and Hutchison Co. was founded back in 1896 by Thomas Sperry of Cranford, New Jersey and Shelley Byron Hutchinson of Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Andy Warhol's 1962 print "S&H Green Stamps"
Indeed, Andy Warhol's art was depicting the famous S&H Green Stamps, not some generic trading stamps.  The stamps were somewhat similar to the kind sold in the U.S. Post Office (indeed, S&H once boasted that it issued three times as many stamps as the U.S. Postal Service).  They were essentially paper coupons with a gummed backing, cut into perforated squares and usually with a unique, colorful design and some serial numbers printed on them.  S&H Green Stamps were colored green except for the big red "S&H" logo in the center and a unique serial number of each stamp, presumably to control fraud.  Also, Green Stamps could not be used to mail any letters.

Historians have observed that by 1957, there were some 200 trading stamp companies in operation in the United States.  That meant that S&H Green Stamps weren't the only variety on the market back in those days, but they were certainly the largest and most successful, operating nationwide with extraordinary brand recognition.  Other trading stamps included Gold Bond, Gift House, Triple-S, Plaid Stamps, King Korn, Blue Chip, Top Value and others.  (see http://www.studioz7.com/stamps.html for more detail)

Several Different S&H Green Stamp Designs

Wikipedia reports that series of recessions decreased sales of green stamps and the stamp programs of their competitors. The value of the rewards also declined substantially during the same period, requiring either far more stamps to get a worthwhile item, or spending much more money for an item that was barely discounted from the price at regular retail stores, which created a general downward spiral as fewer and fewer people saw the stamps as worth the effort anymore.  Then, in 1972, the company was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court for violating the unfairness doctrine. In Federal Trade Commission v. Sperry & Hutchinson Trading Stamp Co., the court held that restricting the trade of the stamps was illegal (in other words, people were free to give or sell their stamps to others).

Sperry and Hutchinson was sold by the founders' successors in 1981. In 1999, it was purchased from a holding firm by a member of the founding Sperry family.  At that time, only about 100 U.S. stores were still even offering Green Stamps.  Eventually, with the rise of the internet and the world wide web, the company modified its practices, and it started offering "greenpoints" as rewards for online purchases.  But the program is nowhere near its peak in popularity of the early 1970's, and there is plenty of competition, mainly from the retailers themselves who used to rely on S&H to operate the stamp program on their behalf, only they are managing loyalty programs for themselves.

What exactly were trading stamps such as S&H Green Stamps, and how did they work?  Well, the Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger described it this way:

"How cool was this: after you paid for groceries or gasoline you didn't just get change, you received stamps that could be redeemed for things you wanted!

This is not a tall tale told by parents or grandparents -- like walking two miles to school in waist-deep snow (up hill, both ways) -- it's exactly how S&H Green Stamps worked. "


The "currency" were the stamps themselves, usually pasted into coupon books which made it easier for cashiers at redemption centers owned and operated by S&H or the other trading stamp companies to count the number of stamps accumulated (one book, such as the one pictured above, was worth a specified number of stamps, in this case 1,200 stamps) and being redeemed.  Consumers could also get catalogs from S&H (or other trading stamp companies) showing the merchandise and how many stamps were required to get each item.

In other words, S&H Green Stamps were pretty much just predecessors to more modern electronic loyalty programs like Starbucks Rewards (although electronic, those points can only be used at Starbucks), or a newer program called Plenti Rewards being promoted by several companies including American Express, Nationwide insurance, Rite Aid drugstores, Expedia, Hulu, Macy's and ExxonMobil.  Outside the U.S., collaborative rewards programs are even more successful, including the popular AirMiles (https://www.airmiles.ca/) program in Canada.

Loyalty programs have been popular forever by retailers of all varieties.  For example, your local coffee shop, deli or dry cleaner might have a "punch card" system where they mark each purchase, and once you've accumulated a certain number of purchases, you might receive a free cup of coffee, soup, sandwich or free item to be dry cleaned.  It seems loyalty programs never die completely, but managing the outstanding rewards liability is a skill, and not every program is successful at managing that aspect.  For example, U.S. airlines have rightly been criticized for devaluing their "frequent flyer" programs with excessive blackout dates, restrictions, limitations, etc.  They've also added new fees for checked baggage.

Others have migrated from rewarding purchase frequency to rewarding the dollars actually spent with the airline (Delta Airlines was the first to modify its program this way, but most observers believe that all are likely to move in the same direction).  Starbucks, too, received some unfavorable press (see https://www.buzzfeed.com/venessawong/starbucks-changed-its-rewards-and-people-are-not-happy for more) for modifications it made to its reward program in 2016.  However, for retailers of any kind, they want to encourage loyalty, frequency AND spending.  But once a program is already in place, changes usually result in some customers being unhappy.  Finding the right balance is key.

As for trading stamps like S&H Green Stamps, those seem unlikely to return.  But S&H Green Stamps earned their rightful place in American folklore because the program had grown SO big.  Whether programs that rival Green Stamps' size emerge in the future remain to be seen.

November 1, 2016

A Gen X Perspective on the U.S. Presidential Election of 2016

I've always argued that generation lines are fuzzy (see one post at https://goo.gl/DPruQP for more).  At best, generations describe more of a common mindset.  The Wall Street Journal reports (see http://on.wsj.com/29CoIAC for the article) some commentary by Neil Howe, who along with co-author William Strauss, used the term "Millennials" in their book "Generations: The History of America's Future 1584 to 2069."  By Mr. Howe's estimate, Gen X is a group defined by parental divorce and indifference, and the date ranges in birth from 1961 to 1981.

"The old joke is that it [Gen X] was the first generation born when people took pills NOT to have children," he said. "Much of the culture turned actively anti-child.  The giant genre of the 60s and 70s was child-devil horror movies."  The U.S. fertility rate hit a low thanks to the intro of the birth control pill in the 1960's, plus the divorce rate accelerated to unprecedented rates, so children born into that era have been described as one of the least-nurtured groups in American history.

But Gen X doesn't wallow in self-pity as Baby Boomers and Millennials sometimes do (listen to some Boomer music or watch some of their movies if you need proof), rather Xers grew up fending for themselves, and learned that the ONLY institution we could depend on was ourselves.  Hence, long ago, Gen Xers developed an independent spirit and can-do attitude, and became more than capable of taking care of ourselves.  Boomer parents didn't do a great job looking after Xers as kids, and government was close to useless with an ineptitude caused by a complete lack of funding and public support.

Less anyone get the wrong idea, that's not to say that Gen X is explicitly anti-government, but our perspective most visibly manifests itself in outright Gen X hostility towards government infringement upon people's individual rights.  That's one reason why Gen X has led the way (and become quite good at navigating how to succeed) with issues like bans on same-sex marriage, restrictions on voting rights or police brutality going unpunished.  This means that not only did Gen X make marriage equality happen nationwide (Jim Obergefell, whose name is associated with the supreme court case that made it legal nationwide is a Gen Xer who was born in 1967), but they also see right-wing attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement as oppressive, and Gen X has learned to successfully use the courts to overturn many attempts at voter restrictions that Republicans have implemented.

Voting restrictions have lost in the courts in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Texas, Indiana and elsewhere, although its unclear whether all are complying.  The Republican party has been under a U.S. Supreme Court consent decree in place since 1982 because of previous voter intimidation efforts in New Jersey back in 1981.  Donald J. Trump has been actively encouraging vigilantism among his supporters by claiming the elections are "rigged" against his candidacy.  The Trump campaign's questionable "poll-monitoring" vigilantism (most often targeting racial minorities who tend to vote for Democrats), with supporters who call themselves "vote protectors" complete with phony, semi-official looking I.D. Badges that could be generated by vigilantes online at websites like stopthesteal.org which now threatens to extend the original decree against the Republican National Committee for another 8 years because it may held in contempt of that decree.  Slate is reporting (see http://slate.me/2fa0JMJ for more) that on October 1, 2016, U.S. District Judge John Michael Vazquez demanded that the Republican National Committee (RNC) provide certain documents in 24 hours.

Anyway, back to the actual campaigns.  The appeal of the campaign slogan "Make America Great Again" from Republican Presidential nominee Donald J. Trump means absolutely nothing to kids who grew up when Xers did (or later), which could be a major problem for his candidacy.  Zilch.  Nada.  Zip.  It's all just empty words that doesn't mean anything.  Make no mistake, this is really a generational perspective, only the Baby Boomers-led campaigns don't quite know what to make of it, but its clear that Gen X and Millennials aren't quite necessarily rallying around that message.

For Gen X kids, most of whom were born in the late 1960's and 1970's, Mr. Trump couldn't have chosen a more irrelevant slogan, so he shouldn't be surprised if few of us are rallying around his candidacy.

I was born in April 1969.  The Baby Boomer Summer of Love and Woodstock all took place a few months afterwards.  The joke among many Gen X kids is that we weren't at Woodstock, but at least a few of us were likely conceived there!  But Gen X doesn't look back at those days with reverence, but a sense of having missed the big party.  We Gen Xers didn't get to celebrate, but many of us feel like we got stuck with the hangover.  Gen Xers were raised in the least child-friendly era in U.S. history.  Not only did more than half our parents get divorced when we were kids, but most of our mothers entered the workforce even if they didn't get divorced.  The latter issue wasn't completely their fault.  The OPEC oil embargo played a role, as did stagflation, but the point is that our childhoods were probably best remembered by waiting in long gas lines and inflation gobbling up our allowances so it wasn't worth as much a week later.  Oh yeah, and the Iranian revolution in 1979, during an era when America was making enemies around the world.  We also grew up amid racial riots, following the Stonewall riots and a "white flight" out of the cities, as well as hearing endless stories about how horrible Vietnam was, yet we have zero first-hand knowledge of any of that.  We don't understand what you're talking about when you say "make America great again".

That said, our parents were smart enough not to implement another draft, although that didn't stop them from sending troops to Grenada, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.  While Boomers had free love in the 1960's, when we Gen Xers came of age, we were taught that HIV could kill us, but what did they try to teach us?  Abstinence, like that's ever worked.  Making matters worse, they screwed us when came to education financing.  Gone were the days of being able to attend college tuition-free in some Western states.  Oh, and because so many Baby Boomers defaulted on their student loan debts, Congress re-classified student loan debts the only type of debt that could NEVER be charged-off in a bankruptcy court -- thanks for that, Boomers.  Once again, you got the party, but left the hangover for your kids.

I don't think there's really all that much from the past that Gen X kids really want to return to.  We grew up watching TV shows from the early 1970's fail at racial integration, at least initially. From our perspective, those days are best left in the past.

I acknowledge that neither political candidate is exactly loved, in fact, both the candidate the  GOP nominated and the nominee that Democrats elected BOTH have the highest disapproval rates in the history of Presidential elections.  Mrs. Clinton should not presume we are "with her" even if she is preferable to her opponents.  Both candidates also represent only the Baby Boomer generation of politicians, which is a problem.  While we may yet see other Boomer candidates in coming elections, their days of leading the country are thankfully nearing their natural end, and that won't happen a moment too soon from many Gen Xers' perspective.  Politico recently observed that (see http://politi.co/1K9zu1t for the article) Baby Boomers in Congress have given us nothing but years and years of gridlock; yet research shows Gen Xers will be more productive.  It's time to step aside Boomers.  Let Gen X lawmakers like Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin (a lesbian) or New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (an African-American) have a chance to change a Congress best known for a culture wars and gridlock into something better as a "gift" from Baby Boomers' time in power.  We want a government that works for the people who elected them, not special interests who bought and paid for many of your campaigns.

The Boomer experience at the gas pump in 1960 vs. the Xer experience in 1973











Important Points of Comparison between Baby Boomers and Generation X:

Baby Boomers
Gen X
Rosa Parks' refusal to move to back of bus
Jonestown mass suicide
First nuclear power plant
Three Mile Island, Exxon Valdez
Kennedy elected, then assassinated
Watergate scandal, Nixon resignation
Cuban Missile Crisis
Iranian hostage crisis
First moon landing
Space Shuttle Challenger disaster
Stonewall riots
Gay Marriage bans ruled unconstitutional
Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed
Rodney King beating

October 23, 2016

Viacom's "Gen X Today" Research

Viacom International Insights, part of the global media conglomerate Viacom, home to such channels as MTV, TVLand and Nickelodeon (among others) has conducted an extensive international study, called Gen X Today, which asks what's become of global adults ages 30 to 49, and offers a more in-depth picture of what their lives are like now.

While Viacom has several blog posts about the recent  research on Generation X available on its websites (see http://blog.viacom.com/2016/10/gen-xs-unconventional-approach-to-relationships-sex-career-and-life-viacom-international-insights/ for a place to start), the findings are perhaps best shared in a 10-minute documentary which can be found at http://internationalinsights.viacom.com/post/gen-x-today-the-documentary/.

In the 10-minute documentary (see below), you'll hear in their own words what participants from the Gen X project had to say about their lives – especially their relationships, careers, and interests.

To better understand Gen X, Viacom surveyed over 12,000, conducted a quantitative survey of people ages 30 to 49 and 18 to 29 (for contrast) across 21 countries, spanning every region of the globe (Viacom hosted a series of intimate dinner discussions and ethnographic interviews in 8 countries). This was supplemented with qualitative Gen X research that included asking them to document their lives through photos, dinner gatherings to talk about their lives, and time spent in their homes in 8 cities around the world.  Viacom says it believes theirs to be the most wide-ranging study of the Gen X demographic to date.

The reason?

Because Gen X grew up with Viacom's channels and continues to be very important to the company. Worldwide, Viacom says it reaches well over 180 million Gen Xers.

Viacom correctly observes that while Millennials rather than Gen X are usually associated with the world of technology and social media, and acknowledges that there are many notable Gen Xers among the tech and social media trailblazers whose work is still shaping lives around the globe today:
  • Google: Larry Page, 43 / Sergey Brin, 42
  • Twitter: Jack Dorsey, 39 / Biz Stone, 42 / Evan Williams, 44
  • Uber: Travis Kalanic, 39
  • WhatsApp: Jan Koum, 40 / Brian Acton, 44
  • Spotify: Martin Lorentzon, 47
This is just one area where Viacom found that Gen X was the source of socio-cultural shifts sometimes credited to Millennials, most of whom were not even old enough to create the technology companies that they are so closely associated with.  In fact, no baby in diapers ever created a social media network.  In fact, it was Gen X who created each of these things.  Viacom's research shows that it was Gen X is the force behind many recent socio-cultural transformations more often associated with Millennials.

For years, the world watched Millennials with fascination.  But Gen X came of age with social media and interactive screens, and they have been credited with countless transformations of what it means to be an adult.  As it turns out, while the world was focusing on Boomers, Millennials and Post-Millennials, Generation X quietly reinvented what it means to be an adult.  Importantly, Gen X is not dependent on the technology it invented, rather sees them are tools that enhance their lives, but does not define their existence.  This is a generation that can still hold an actual conversation on the telephone, not just rely on truncated text messages that eliminate all the subtle nuances that make human interactions so great.  One reporter (likely a Baby Boomer) for the Knoxville News Sentinel (see her article at http://knoxne.ws/2eZczMb for more) observed "You can still get a Gen Xer to talk to you on the cellphone, for example, but you might as well forget it and just text the Millennial" which says a lot.  From social media participation to flexible work arrangements to the acceptance and normalization of a wider range of relationships, one thing is clear: Gen X did it first.

One of the more interesting findings is that as Gen X approach mid-life, they're managing to avoid midlife crises. While earlier generations became overwhelmed with responsibility, stymied by regret, or unsure of their identities in their middle years, Gen X have unwittingly stumbled upon a remedy.

Yet importantly, during this time, media and advertising have targeted Gen X with tired and unimaginative messages based on antiquated ideas of adulthood—including the three milestones of homeownership, marriage, and children.  So, how did one generation go from young iconoclasts to conventional married homeowners in 20 years?  They didn't.  It quietly reinvented each life-stage and put its own stamp on each one.

The rebellion that once defined their youth has transformed into a radical acceptance of who they are. They're not struggling to follow a script.  They don't want to be anything they're not.  They're living life in their own way.  And they don't give a f*ck about what others think.  That's a pretty radical change from the way that Baby Boomers approached middle-age, often associated with mid-life crises and regrets.

The primary link to the Gen X research can be found at http://internationalinsights.viacom.com/categories/research-studies/gen-x-today/ and is worth a visit if you're interested in learning more about this important demographic group.

The relevant, 10-minute documentary can be viewed below, or at https://vimeo.com/186259937 .

October 14, 2016

Vincent Price: One of America's Best Scary-Men

He had a long film career (having appeared in more than 90 movies) that earned him 2 stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: one for motion pictures, and another for TV.  Actor Vincent Price was born to a wealthy St. Louis, Missouri family (his father was the president of a candy company) and he traveled through Europe prior to studying at Yale and the University of London before ultimately becoming an actor. He made his first screen debut in 1938.  Although his film career spanned many genres including drama, mystery, thriller, and comedy, and he also had many TV appearances and several stage performances as well, by the 1960's, he was working almost exclusively in the horror film genre, and to a somewhat lesser extent, teen films.  The fact that he worked in the horror genre really did not bother him at all.  But the reason he was so popular in horror movies could be because of his very distinctive voice.

Vincent Price's work in horror films is very well-documented.  Mr. Price's final movie was Edward Scissorhands (1990) with Johnny Depp, which although not technically a horror movie, was nevertheless a dark Tim Burton movie that fits the Halloween genre.  As noted, his distinctive voice really made him a favorite in the horror genre.

Most Gen Xers likely remember Vincent Price for two items he worked on:

Vincent Price and him as  Prof. Whitehead on The Brady Bunch

1.  His appearance in two episodes of "The Brady Bunch" back in 1972 when the entire Brady family went to Hawaii.  He played deranged archaeologist Professor Hubert Whitehead (the episodes were "Pass the Tabu" and "The Tiki Caves").

The "Tiki" Sound Effect from The Brady Bunch can be heard below, or at http://www.bradybunchshrine.com/bradybunch/Sounds1/bbtiki2.wav:


2.  Perhaps one of his shortest works also became one of his most famous, as the man who voiced the eerie monologue in the late Michael Jackson's 1983 hit song "Thriller."  Mr. Price admitted to talk-show host Johnny Carson that when he agreed to do the voice work for "Thriller", he was given a choice between taking a percentage of the album proceeds or being paid a flat $20,000. He chose the $20,000; his career was already well-established at that point, so money wasn't really a huge issue. When Mr. Carson suggested that Vincent Price could have done a lot better if he'd chosen album proceeds, he laughed amiably and said "How well I know!" Considering that more than 110 million copies of the album had been sold to date, Mr. Carson was correct.

The words to that famous monologue are as follows:

Darkness falls across the land
The midnight hour is close at hand
Creatures crawl in search of blood
To terrorize y'all's neighborhood
And whosoever shall be found
Without the soul for getting down
Must stand and face the hounds of hell
And rot inside a corpse's shell

The foulest stench is in the air
The funk of forty thousand years
And grizzly ghouls from every tomb
Are closing in to seal your doom
And though you fight to stay alive
Your body starts to shiver
For no mere mortal can resist
The evil of the thriller!

(cue maniacal laughter)

That music video, released in 1982, is a classic, not only because the single was certified platinum on the Billboard charts, but also because the video was an unprecedented 14-minutes in length and showed Michael Jackson in a Halloween-themed performance directed by John Landis that was really more like a mini-movie.  Vincent Price’s monologue is a key part of that video/movie.  Check it out below, or at https://youtu.be/sOnqjkJTMaA:



Vincent Price's Death at Age 82 in 1993

Vincent Price passed away on October 25, 1993 at the age of 82 (see http://nyti.ms/2dvW3UN for the obituary).  His obituaries stated that as a result of being a lifelong smoker, Mr. Price was suffering from emphysema, although his official cause of death was lung cancer, so evidently, he was dealing with both ailments by the end of his life.

About Vincent Price's Personal Life

Mr. Price was married three times.  His first marriage, with former actress Edith Barrett, produced his only son, named Vincent Barrett Price. He later married Mary Grant Price, and they had a daughter named Victoria Price, on April 27, 1962.  She was reportedly named Victoria after Price's first major success in the play Victoria Regina.  Mr. Price's last marriage was to the Australian-born actress Coral Browne, whom he married in 1974.  Ms. Browne appeared with Vincent Price (as one of his victims) in the film Theatre of Blood (1973).

Over his lifetime, Mr. Price denounced racial and religious prejudice as a form of poison and he claimed that Americans must actively fight against it because racial and religious prejudice within the U.S. fueled support for the nation's enemies.  Perhaps not surprisingly, he was also a longtime supporter of gay rights and was one of the most vocal celebrity opponents of Anita Bryant's vicious anti-gay activities back in the 1970s, a position that was only solidified after his daughter came out as a lesbian.

Vincent Price's Sex Life?

Vincent Price himself was long rumored to be gay in Hollywood circles, or at the very least, bisexual (meaning he had sex with both women and men), with something of a preference for having sex with other men.  Perhaps the best example came from author, former Hollywood escort and hookup connection Scotty Bowers, who in his tell-all book published in 2012 entitled "Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars" (co-written with Lionel Friedberg, see http://nyti.ms/2dyh8u5 for the review), asserted:

"I tricked with Vinny [Vincent Price] for years. Sex with him was pleasant, unhurried, gentle. There was what I can only refer to as a kind of refinement about it. It was erotic, tantalizing, fulfilling. High class stuff all the way."

Bowers added that Vincent Price and his wife Coral Browne didn't have a sex life for years, noting that he was sleeping with Price.  In reference to Price and Browne's marriage, the book says "She worked primarily in England and although she was a dyke—I know because I would fix her up with many tricks with young women in future years—the couple were devoted to one another.  They had virtually no sex life together but they cared deeply for each other."

All of this is kind of left to the imagination since the people (except Scotty Bowers) are now deceased, but the man who was once one of America’s favorite scary men (Vincent Price) apparently had a colorful life, both on on-screen and off!

October 7, 2016

Pop Culture Reunion: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

In celebration of Halloween which is coming in just a few weeks, I'd like to acknowledge the cultural impact of a b-movie known as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, especially on younger Baby Boomers and Gen X kids.  About a year ago, NBC's Today Show featured a reunion of some cast members from The Rocky Horror Picture Show movie (specifically, Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon, Tim Curry, Meatloaf and Patricia Quinn) for that film's 40th anniversary.  That can be found at the end of this posting.  The movie originally premiered in movie theaters in 1975, and was based on the 1973 musical stage production The Rocky Horror Show that ran on London's West End.  The movie was originally panned by critics, and wasn't exactly a box office smash (if fact, it bombed at the box office), yet it soon saw new life as a cult classic, far surpassing all original forecasts.


The Rocky Horror Picture Show soon became known as a midnight movie when audiences in the 1970s and 1980s began participating with the film at the Waverly Theater in New York City in 1976. Audience members returned to the cinema frequently, and talked back to the screen and began dressing as the characters, spawning similar performance groups across the U.S.  Movie theater owners started to see the movie as a money-making opportunity which filled the theaters after hours, and happily obliged by running the show on a weekly basis.

Barry Bostwick & Susan Sarandon as Brad & Janet Majors
The story centers on a young engaged couple (played by Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) whose car breaks down in the rain near a castle where they seek a telephone to call for help (this was in the days before mobile phones). The castle was occupied by strangers in elaborate costumes celebrating some kind of annual convention. They discovered that the head of the house was Frank N. Furter (portrayed by Tim Curry), an apparent mad scientist who actually was an alien transvestite who created a living muscle man he named Rocky (played by Peter Hinwood) in his laboratory. The couple was seduced separately by the mad scientist and eventually released by the servants who took control.

Tim Curry as Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show movie

This was hardly a mainstream plot or storyline for the early 1970s, as it featured open bisexuality, transvestitism and other subjects that were previously considered taboo topics to be addressed in polite company.  But teens and adults alike took part in the Rocky Horror Picture Show experience and it became something of a right of passage for most kids of that era, plus the film more than broke even, having become quite profitable.  Of course, cult film participants were often people on the fringe of society that found a connection and a community at the screenings.  But the film also made stars out of the actors and actresses who were in the show, with Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick and Tim Curry starring in more films they might never have been considered for if it weren't for Rocky Horror.  It also brought the band Meatloaf success in record sales, again thanks largely to the movie.

Some audio clips, including some radio spots for The Rocky Horror Picture Show can be listened to below, or at http://www.rockymusic.org/mp3scat/rhps/.


Remakes of one sort or another have emerged over the years, both on stage and on television.  For example, the TV show "Glee" which ran on Fox television had a Rocky Horror episode with many of the movie's musical numbers.  However, there's also news that Fox, which copied the live broadcast production of various live plays like The Sound of Music which ran on NBC, has an entire episode dedicated to bringing The Rocky Horror Picture Show live to TV audiences on October 20, 2016, and it will feature transgendered star Laverne Cox (of "Orange Is The New Black" on Netflix) as one of the stars.  The irony, of course, is that Fox television and the movie unit then known as 20th Century Fox which released The Rocky Horror Picture Show are very different animals from Fox News.  According to a report dubbed  "On Fox News, The Gay Marriage Revolution Has Not Been Televised" the network instead tried to ignore the fact that gay marriage was being legalized in states across the country http://mm4a.org/1h9YcAa; apparently Fox News caters to a homophobic audience that was fed a steady diet of horror stories about same-sex marriage in years past.  In any event, now is probably a good time to share the Today Show's cast reunion for Rocky Horror below, by visiting the Today Show's website at http://on.today.com/1HhjqDZ or the Today Show's YouTube channel at https://youtu.be/qcdg65-O7ns:

September 29, 2016

Does Anyone Remember Tabitha Soren?

For those of you with short memories, or were simply too young to remember it because you were still in diapers at the time, Tabitha Soren began her celebrity career as a 19-year old NYU student featured in a video from The Beastie Boys "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!)", a lame video from a one-hit-wonder back in the late 1980's, although she became much better known as a reporter for what was formerly known as MTV News as the face of MTV's "Choose or Lose" campaign.














The National Geographic channel, which ran a multi-part series on Generation X relatively recently, had a relevant clip on MTV News Rocks the Vote which is worth watching (see below), or at https://youtu.be/ehvnzfHh2n0:



Technically, the MTV election campaign began a couple of years earlier and was known as "Rock the Vote" with TV commercials from Madonna and other popular figures.  Check out this commercial below, or by visiting https://youtu.be/2dnwvegQ7JI:



MTV soon realized that their network had some relevance on the elections, and what started as a few commercials morphed in subsequent years, becoming "Choose or Lose" when Tabitha Soren (she was likely named after the character that actress Elizabeth Montgomery made famous in the smash sitcom from the late 1960's-early 1970's "Bewitched", catch my posts at https://goo.gl/olfrdW and https://goo.gl/iKsTG for more) became MTV's primary reporter on the elections at that time.  I uncovered a clip on YouTube which provides a flashback of some of that coverage (which can be seen at https://youtu.be/QQyuJ4t8kRw).

However, the MTV "Choose or Lose" campaign with Ms. Soren officially began in 1992, just as Generation X was becoming a key part of the American electorate.  (In 1992, for example, I was 23 years old and living on my own in the Bay Area, but very much ready to exercise my voting rights.)  Famously, at a town hall symposium sponsored by MTV that year, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton was asked whether he'd ever tried marijuana and he famously replied, "I didn't inhale".  Whether that brought masses of young people out to vote isn't very well documented as Tabitha seems suggest today, but it seemed to be a clear sign that the era of total Baby Boomer dominance of the elections was thankfully coming to an end.)

These days, Soren is a married mother of three kids, and she works professionally in photography.  But on August 18, 2016, she re-emerged in the world of politics with a contribution to opinion section of The New York Times entitled "Hillary Clinton and the Ghosts of MTV" (see the piece at http://nyti.ms/2b5OUGs for more).

Frankly, I was a bit puzzled on the message Tabitha was trying to communicate (she was a reporter who was on MTV back in the day, never really a journalist, folks) in her opinion piece.

She does say "The pretense of a lot of political coverage today is that it aims to improve and edify our civic life. The reality is that it's just whoring for attention" and I generally agree, but I don’t think the same is true for all candidates, just Mr. Trump.  For example, in addition to Mrs. Clinton, former governors Gary Johnson and his running-mate Bill Weld were (are) somewhat viable Libertarian candidates who aren't "whoring for attention" as Mr. Trump seems to be.

Although these days, Bill Clinton's wife Hillary is running for President of the United States, and seems to have a decent chance of winning because her opponent is a former reality show star who largely refuses to stay on script even though he's no longer running in the Republican party primaries speaking to voters who like his racist, misogynistic, xenophobic message, therefore he should not presume the rest of the electorate will follow his nativist and frequently racist messages that remain too short on the kinds of details that intelligent voters like me want and deserve (also, why is he the ONLY Presidential candidate in many decades who refuses to release his tax returns?).

But to suggest that elections are entertainment as Tabitha is suggests to me that she chose wisely by pursuing photography, since her coverage of the election issues in 2016 doesn’t really rock my vote!

September 22, 2016

Where Is She Now: Lynda Carter

DC Comics is one of Warner Brother's many properties, and competes with rival Walt Disney Company's 2009 acquisition of Marvel Comics, although the consensus is that Warner hasn't capitalized on its comic book franchise as Disney has.  Regardless, DC comics gave us some truly enduring and impressive super heroes, among them: Wonder Woman.

Lynda Carter circa 2016
Most Gen Xers remember Wonder Woman from a combination of watching "Super Friends" (catch my post on that at http://hgm.sstrumello.com/2012/05/super-friends.html for more background) on Saturday mornings as kids which featured the recurring character (indeed, Wonder Woman was a founding member of the Justice League), and then a successful TV show called "Wonder Woman" that aired on ABC television from 1975 to 1979.  The lead character in the show (and her secret identity, Diana Prince) was played by Lynda Carter, a former beauty pageant winner from Arizona (who was crowned Miss World America in 1972).  Ms. Carter got her start in Hollywood with appearances on such TV shows as "Starsky and Hutch" as well as a few "B" movies.

Unlike earlier movies about Wonder Woman from that era, including the 1974 made-for-TV movie Wonder Woman which starred the blonde actress Cathy Lee Crosby (who later served as a host on ABC's reality television show "That's Incredible!" from  1980 to 1984), the consensus seems to be that Lynda Carter's depiction as Wonder Woman was more likable and believable, probably for her looks, but also because of the actress' adoption of the character.

Ms. magazine's inaugural cover of Wonder Woman
In some ways, Wonder Woman is the most peculiar of all comic book characters.  She emerged in an era when comic books targeted and were consumed primarily by boys, so Wonder Woman likely emerged in response to societal criticisms that there weren't any female super heroes.  But Gloria Steinem, founder of Ms. magazine was responsible for the return of Wonder Woman's original super hero abilities. Offended that the most famous female superhero had been depowered in depictions of her, Steinem placed Wonder Woman (in costume) on the cover of the first issue of Ms. (1972).  Warner was also an investor in Ms. magazine — which contained an appreciative essay about the character.

But the character known as warrior princess of the Amazons also endured her to male comic book readers, plus her secret super "powers" which included a tiara, bullet-proof bracelets, and golden lasso all of seemed to have endeared the character to both gays and lesbians, and in the "Super Friends" cartoon, she also had an invisible jet airplane.  That makes the Wonder Woman character truly unique in the world of entertainment.

Although there has been periodic talks of rebooting Wonder Woman for television, none have gone anywhere, as Warner just can't seem to do much of anything big with its comic book assets in the way Disney has with Marvel's assets.  But Lynda Carter has guest-starred (as the President of the United States) on the successful TV series Supergirl, which will air on The CW in 2016 (see http://bit.ly/28N7vTR for the news).  The 1975-1979 TV series is available on DVD, and has started to emerge on some streaming services, but has also started to appear on television again (on Me-TV).

An interesting route to take might be online, but again, Disney seems to have succeeded more with that channel than Warner has.  Perhaps that's because Viacom was married to older channels under the leadership of Sumner Redstone, while the rest of Hollywood routinely mines emerging channels for content, and older stars re-establish themselves there (the late Joan Rivers, for example, had a YouTube show called "In Bed With Joan" http://hgm.sstrumello.com/2013/02/joan-rivers-from-adventures-with.html, and Richard Simmons has paid big bucks to an agency to help him build a following online http://hgm.sstrumello.com/2015/12/richard-simmons-former-fitness-guru_18.html).  Now that Mr. Redstone has stepped down (his family basically forced him out), we might see some more creativity from Warner that we had not seen previously, perhaps with the character portrayed by a South American or Asian actress.

But the ABC TV series Wonder Woman (which again, ran from 1975 to 1979) remains an enduring favorite, especially among Gen Xers and a large variety of subgroups.

Where is Lynda Carter today?

Well, a number of programs have reconnected Ms. Carter with her TV audiences over the years.  For example, in 2006, Australia's "Where Are They Now" program ran an entertaining segment with her, which can be seen on YouTube at https://youtu.be/8qC5STLg_LM (or below):



Then, in 2013, former talk-show host Oprah Winfrey interviewed her for her "Where Are They Now" segment which airs on the Oprah Winfrey cable network.  Lynda Carter revealed that she lives in the Washington, DC area (Potomac, MD to be precise) these days, and the reason she and her husband moved there was to be away from Hollywood, where she kind of suggests that people are judged more for how much money they have, rather than for their accomplishments.  She feels that she, her husband and her children are better off where they live now.  Have a look below, or by visiting https://youtu.be/0p2IFuRWLaM:



But, in typical Oprah interview style, Oprah probes deeper, and Lynda Carter revealed her previous struggles with alcohol abuse (see https://youtu.be/JbcibRnLXiU for more details), although she had already revealed that with a People magazine interview in 2008 and she has been sober since 1998.



Of course, several years have passed since both of these clips were recorded, but the Hollywood paparazzi and press continue to follow Lynda Carter, although they don't seem to be finding much "dirt" that Ms. Carter hasn't already revealed about herself.  Now, at age 65, Ms. Carter and her husband are eligible to collect Medicare and Social Security, although her husband is CEO of a company, so he may not be ready for retirement yet.

In her free time, in addition to taking care of her family (both her kids are over age 25 now, and no longer live at home), Ms. Carter remains a longtime advocate and supporter of breast cancer charities, she supports pro-choice rights for women, as well as full legal equality for LGBT people.  On the latter point, she has been the Grand Marshal for the Pride Parades in Phoenix, AZ as well as New York City and her adopted hometown of Washington, DC.  The main message seems to be that Lynda Carter has bonded with many groups of people over the years, she seems very proud of that fact.

The Australian clip perhaps best summarizes (towards the end of the clip) Lynda Carter's perspective on future Wonder Women, noting that she is certain others will play the role in the future, but she hopes that future actresses will have the same "accessibility" as she managed to give the character.

August 25, 2016

Gen X is an "Underappreciated Influencer" According to Goldman Sachs

Although I live in New York City, I've never been a really big fan of Wall Street investment banks for many reasons.  For one thing, they aren't really big employers, its just that they pay the handful of people who work for them obscene amounts of money (in good years, at least).  But the typical employees remind me a lot of the character Patrick Bateman portrayed by Christian Bale in the 2000 movie "American Psycho" ... a pompous investment banker who rambles on about Whitney Houston's first album and pays high-price hookers to have sex in front of him before he murders them and many, many others.  The fact is that all banks, including investment banks, earn money by selling money for a higher price than they pay for it, and Goldman isn't unique in that regard.  But consumer lending is very tightly regulated, while the same is not true for investment banking, although competition does help regulate prices somewhat there.  Oh, yeah, and Wall Street made some big bets that failed and crashed the world economy in 2007-2008 and came to taxpayers for a bailout, which is why Goldman Sachs is becoming more "banklike" while others, including GE decided to get out of the banking business altogether.

As The New York Times reported (see http://nyti.ms/2bQ932b) :

"The years since the financial crisis have not been particularly kind to Goldman Sachs's moneymaking machine — not that anyone is weeping for the company or the people who work there — despite an improving economy and record numbers of corporate financings and mergers and acquisitions."

Goldman has basically acquired its way into the consumer banking business by buying GE Capital Bank (now known as GS Bank, see the news story about the acquisition from GE at http://nyti.ms/2caS9Q2 for more).  But GE actually acquired that part of the consumer banking business from the insurance giant MetLife back in 2011 (see http://on.wsj.com/2bJsJpG for the news), though GE made some improvements, among them offering much higher-than-average interest rates on savings and simplifying the online banking interface which resulted in the deposit base growing from $7.5 billion when GE bought the unit to $16 billion when it sold the business to Goldman Sachs five years later.  One competitor is now known as Synchrony Bank, which has both a consumer lending business as well as a deposit business that GE spun off a few years ago, mainly because the business was too big to find a lender that could both afford it, and that regulators would allow to buy the business.  So far, Goldman Sachs has kept the consumer deposit business going largely as GE did, although its not without competition in the online banking space, including companies like Synchrony, AllyAmerican ExpressCharles Schwab, State FarmDiscover, Mutual of OmahaNationwideTIAA and others.  Most offer a pretty good deal on deposits, certainly much better than your local bank is offering, although I think Goldman's offering is one of the better ones around.  The company will get into consumer lending a bit later this year with a business its calling Marcus (see also http://nyti.ms/2bHPKKY and http://bit.ly/2dmOaxG for more), named after one of the company's founders.

Anyway, on August 13, 2016, Goldman Sachs' investment bank unit shared some interesting analysis about Gen X, claiming:

All eyes are on Millennials, Baby Boomers and increasingly Gen Z, but according to Goldman Sachs Research's Hugo Scott-Gall, Gen X is an underappreciated influencer when it comes to the economy. Already responsible for around 30% of U.S. spending, "Xers" are going through their peak consumption years, with different spending priorities than the Boomers that came before. Scott-Gall explains the implications for the auto industry, real estate, and more.

A video can be seen on the page noted above, or on their YouTube channel (or below):


Goldman Sachs says that they define Gen X as people born between the years of 1965 and 1980.  You can download the Adobe Acrobat version of their report HERE.

Really, these observations should be apparent to everyone, but evidently have escaped the notice of enough people that Goldman Sachs analysts think that its investors should beware of Gen X.