Sunday, February 27, 2011

Funky Town

Setting the scene.

We live in a pretty funky part of town.  I hasten to add that it certainly wasn't funky when we moved here; we're not the kind of shallow, weak-willed, easily influenced fashionista types who will blow which ever way the fickle winds of street cred will take us.  No way! We moved here long before it was funky [admittedly because we couldn't afford to live in the funky area]. 

And now, with financial markets across the globe still clawing their way out of a deep, dark, self-inflicted hole, like us years before, the Funkies have found themselves with less spare change creating an awkward bulge in their ridiculous, low-wasted, black, drain-pipes, and they too have made the journey north to 'enrich' our living experience with their very own, incredibly-individualistic-and-yet-so-like-everyone-else-in-the-room brand of cool.

And because being Funky is all about being around other Funkies, they haven't just arrived in a trickle, but rather have lobbed, en masse, into the share houses of this historic, migrant, working-class suburb, and hot on their heels, a plethora of laid/peeled-back bars, second-hand clothing stores and, most noticeably, coffee roasters have exploded onto the streetscape.

It's the latter, growing out of just about any hole in the wall, closet, stairwell or similarly confined space with street access which has really made the biggest impact upon any local residents larger than a size 24 trying to squeeze their way down the sidewalk past bandy-legged, latte-sipping ├╝ber trendies (let alone trying to get through with a Hambones-sized stroller, or heaven forbid a disabled person might be allowed out of their home!) which is the main reason for this post.  So let's go for a walk and take a squiz...

Welcome to The Scene.

Without doubt, the avante garde coffee pad for local Funkies in this area is Cafe Stan [not it's real name].  Cafe Stan arrived on the scene very quietly about eight years ago, but became very noisy, very quickly, as word passed around the surrounding doss- and art-houses.  Cafe Stan's one of those places without any signage – it could be called Cafe Freddy, or Cafe Darren, or Cafe Sebastian for all I know, but it's 'known' as Cafe Stan, and that's all there is to it.

Cafe Stan's success, it should be noted, can without doubt be attributed to a fastidious commitment to really incredible coffee.  If you're after a blow-yer-head-off, tangy, single origin/estate blend, served with a fine, aromatic crema at just the right temperature, then this is your place.  But let's face it, when it comes to Funkies just wanting to be seen hanging-out with other Funkies, Stan may as well be serving up molten poo in a bucket, and word would still get 'round that this was THE place to be [seen].

Regular reader of this Blog will know that I am the kind of person who quite enjoys a fine brew just about as much as anything else I've had the fortune to experience, but even I have trouble summoning-up the courage to visit Cafe Stan for my 'morning' pick-me-up.  Why?  Well for starters, no one goes anywhere near Cafe Stan before about 11.30am.  The first rule of Funky is that you're no where near awake, sober and/or straight before 11.29, so it's all tumbleweeds and surly staff - who've obviously drawn the short straw at last night's vampire party – while the sun's in the eastern sky.

But from 11.31 onwards, the place is packed with a most eclectic bunch of [non-]personalities trying terribly hard to see what everyone else is doing without actually looking at anyone.  This is not an easy ask, I can assure you, when one is also straining every muscle and sinew trying to look incredibly cool and comfortable, while balancing on tiny, size 15-arse wooden boxes which only barely stand upright on their own.  If I didn't know better, I'd say Stan was completely taking the piss; pushing these tragically aloof, self-absorbed fashion victims to see just how far their humiliation could reach before they started to get some perspective.

Please allow me to offer an example by way of demonstration.  About two years ago, I found myself out and about alone, around midday on a Tuesday, and thought I might drop by for a long black, to see if Stan still had it going on, barista-wise.  But as I approached the stylised, peeling facade, I bottled out.  Why?  Well this is the gauntlet I faced having to run before I could even get to the door.

Wandering along the footpath towards Cafe Stan, despite it being a work day, I noticed that every one of the six wooden boxes were occupied, and as I approached, I clocked each one in turn;

Wooden box #1:  a lanky gentleman in fluorescent pink board-shorts (circa 1984), golf shoes with the frilly flaps hanging over the front, a leather vest (no shirt), a massive black moustache and a 1960s bikers flat-cap (think San Francisco 1987, or just Google the Village People).  This nit wit was not looking at the person sitting opposite him (who may or may not have been his companion), but did manage a judgemental sneer at the sight of my cargo shorts and runners.

Wooden box #2:  another lanky gentleman wearing checked shorts way up high on his waste (which, if the small wooden box hadn't been in the way, would no doubt have disappeared way up his jacksie), revealing very long, thin, white legs, and on his feet, a pair of Blundstone-style, slip-on work-boots ... SPRAY-PAINTED GOLD!  He was wearing a brown, checked golfers flat-cap (think Chevy Chase in Caddy Shack).  He did not look at me, nor did he bother to withdraw his outstretched stork's pegs, which I was forced to step over.

Wooden box #3:  A young woman in an altered, sequined 1920s cocktail frock, black GP army boots and with a silver-studded, black leather wrist-band, which just happened to match that of her companion, sitting opposite her.

Wooden box #4:  The presumed companion of Ms Charlston on box #3 was wearing nothing but a silver-studded black leather collar.  This individual was a short, ugly bull terrier, and like everyone else outside the cafe, was neither looking at its companion, nor anyone else.  It did spit-out a deep, guttural growl at my plain, blue t-shirt as I passed, however.

Wooden box #5:  Another woman, this time wearing what must have been a little girl's dress (all pretty flowers and frills), which she had managed to squeeze into with the aid of strategic slits across most of the panels.  She had green leggings protruding out the bottom, pink and purple leg warmers (Flashdance) and pointy, white flats on her feet.  Most extraordinarily about this lady (as if you needed more) was that she held her massive latte in one hand, and in the other, was trying to negotiate an early model e-reader, while trying to balance with only one butt cheek on the box (now e-readers might be like electric kettles in households nowadays, but I assure you, this phenomenon has been a rapid one – this crazy chick was leading the way).  Did I say crazy?  She tipped half her latte onto the pavement just where I was about to walk, and then spat in it!

Wooden box #6:  This kid almost certainly wasn't the Nutcase on box #5's companion, but probably chose to sit there with his NEWSPAPER just to demonstrate that he'd gone full circle and was now completely retro.  He was wearing super thin, black drainpipes, Dunlop K26ers on his feet, a tight, moth-eaten t-shirt featuring Bobby McFerrin (whose rumours of suicide must have been long-cold by the time this young 'un had even been born) and had massive, thick-rimmed Tootsie-style spectacle frames.  He was sitting closest to the front door, and talking very loudly on one of those massive, Motorola bricks from the early '90s.  As I approached the front step, ready to enter, he was screaming into the phone, "Yea-aah, he's wearing like, a pair of contemporary sneakers", after which he let out a very feminine, high pitched squeal of laughter, which caused the occupiers of both boxes #3 and #4 to start howling at a young Mum struggling to avoid on-coming traffic with a stroller out on the road (as the only way to get past the cafe's cluttered frontage).

At that point, I lost all courage and nerve.  I walked straight on past Cafe Stan and went and bought the guaranteed, worst coffee of all time from the next closest option; the last remaining takeaway 'restaurant' in inner Melbourne with an exclusive menu of deep-fried delicacies served straight to you from the glowing chamber of a greasy bain-marie – the eating place of choice for junkies down on their luck!

I know this is showing both my age, and how out of touch I have become with the young and funky, but I really don't know why Lipps Inc were so keen to get here.  Judging by the apparent way the Funkies spend all their time avoiding eye-contact and passive-aggressively competing with each other for wacky self-image supremacy, not to mention their outward disdain for anyone not considered anywhere near their league, Funky Town must be the loneliest place on earth!

Coming soon to a cafe near you ... well ... near me, anyway!  Pic:

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

TV and advertising: no respect for the market

Is it just me, or has TV advertising become completely tired and jaded lately?

Aside from the sharp suits, cool demeanours and sassy women of 1950s Madison Avenue, below the surface of TV's Mad Men, one can't help but be fascinated and appalled at the rapid growth of a wholly unsavoury and immoral industry designed to make shitloads of money through the blatant manipulation of people's thoughts and actions.

These advertising firms are the origin of things which have not only become commonplace in our lives, but have done so in such a way as to convince us that they've existed for ever.  Such as the fat, jolly, bearded fellow who "Ho ho hos" his way down the chimney every December, and whom a few of us can still remember was once known as Saint Nicholas.  It is a false assumption that he always wore red and white – even though this stylisation from the Coca-Cola 'family' can't be more than 60 years old!

Same goes for the 'age old tradition of sending greeting cards' – Hallmark's deliberate, massive scaling-up of an otherwise unnecessary 'tradition' resulting in a multi-billion dollar empire.  Or the introduction and subsequent integration into people's lives of a whole host of 'must have' products such as disposable nappies, frozen vegetables and paper towels.

It's true that this commercially-driven, mass brainwashing didn't happen without firm intent, considerable expense and subtatntial elbow grease, at least metaphorically.  The efforts which advertising agencies went to in order to understand their clients' markets was extensive, utilising focus groups, behaviour modelling, surveys and even illegal, hidden cameras and wire-tapping.  It's fair to say that these processes, honed to perfection in pursuit of the advertising dollar, are now available and utilised today to inform less morally corrupt enterprises such as customer service standards for community or government services, for international aid programs, for disaster and humanitarian responses and, I guess, for international espionage.  So while they are processes which can occasionally benefit society, they were definitely developed to generate masses of wealth.

But regardless of whether or not you agree with the motive, or the method, the intention of the advertising industry to learn about the wants and desires, behaviours and practices of the market is evidence that a certain level of respect for that market exists.  The market is not taken for granted, but rather the individuals and groups which comprise it are viewed as highly legitimate, and their thoughts and ideas important.  Sure, this desire to hear from, and understand them precedes a merciless attempt at mass brainwashing, but up until that point, there were great efforts made towards engagement and learning, and this is what is to be admired.

This is the way it has been for years, not only on Madison Avenue, but here in Australia, also.

And as a result, although we now better understand the evil intent, there have been some pretty wonderful, enjoyable and truly entertaining advertising campaigns over the years, not only from the hallowed agencies of Madison Avenue, but also from our own, home-grown pretenders.

Remember the Four-n-Twenty hot stuff ad from the 70s?  Fantastic ambience! – which could have only been possible through in-depth study of who eats pies, and why.  Interestingly, one of my favourite ads of all time was also from Four-n-Twenty, this time from the late 90s.  This was a tremendous demonstration of the advertising agency getting 'back to basics'; everything, including the slick Holden sliding past at the beginning, being clear evidence that it was developed after very close and respectful consideration of the market.

Australian Coke ads were also pretty great over the years, with their big 'blow-up things' over tropical shore lines, on which young people were having about the best time anyone could with their clothes on (although admittedly only barely on), demonstrating that the advertisers' knew what it was that people really want from their fizzy beverages.

Speaking of which, the Big M Girls were a leaf out of the old 'Sex Sells' book.  They were eventually retired to the mechanics' shop walls once the smouldering remains of the last bras sputtered out on the pavement.  But this vehicle boosted the sale of chocolate-flavoured milk to a receptive, even wanting market for decades.

These days, with the advent of u-toob and internet-based social marketing tools, advertising has taken an entirely new direction, with sometimes feature-length ads being developed using CGIs and other home-editing goodies and being spread throughout the world in seconds like supersonic viruses.  But again, someone has done their homework, and aimed this stuff just right.

So with consumerism at an all-time high, and the responsibility for worldwide economic recovery lying squarely on the shoulders of recognised, multi-national brands producing lots of shiny 'must have' stuff that nobody needs, why has the decades-old commitment to understanding the market and targeting advertising accordingly suddenly been dropped?

Or have we, the market, finally 'evolved' such that we are now so brain-dead that we will buy whatever shit is going, for no other reason than that it is there?  My case in point was a TV ad I saw tonight (during prime time, not at 3am) for a jewellery store; an attractive looking, female model in an expensive-looking evening gown opens a jewellery box and says, "This reminds me of Spain".  This is followed by close-ups of a couple of diamond rings and a necklace.

Hmmm ... why Spain?  No reason?  Yeah, that's what I thought.  Tck, tck, not good enough, Madison.  Lift your game or we, the market, might just decide to start thinking again, and decide that we really don't have need for the John Wayne commemorative plate set.

And while we're on the subject of the poor state of TV, a post I read today over at about the way reality TV promotes nasty, social hatred and bigotry, reminded me of how powerful those horrible, negative lessons can be when such programs go viral and global.

While facilitating public consultation with groups of community, civil society and government stakeholders about the new national health promotion policy in Samoa last year, one of the senior government officials, in complete honesty, asked me, as an Australian, to explain to the gathering about the benefits of "that great, nation-wide public health initiative on Australian television, The Biggest Loser", and to convince the audience to consider such an approach for Samoa.

"Yes, Your Excellency", I replied, "Indeed, public health research has shown that the best way to make obese people lose weight is to expose them to public ridicule by having them wear bikinis and work-out until they throw-up on national television".*  And with that, The Biggest Loser has been adopted as national health promotion policy in Samoa for the next ten years.

It is no wonder the US, through free trade agreements, are so keen to ensure that other nation's TV is rife with their content.  The unsuspecting can be so susceptible to political, social and even religious views and ideologies they see on The Box.  Very concerning indeed.

* - just to be clear, I said nothing of the sort!

The Big M Girls, keeping a nation hooked-up to chocolate milk for decades.  Pic: