Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Open Unhappiness

I haven't seen a more offensive advertising since Donald Trump last opened his mouth. Mistakenly thinking that its role in society is to do good, Coca-Cola Mexico came up with a campaign to "open your heart" and "break prejudice". Which is fine. We don't listen to someone like the Pope when he exhorts us to do the same, but if Coke says it, the entire Mexican nation is sure to follow through. After all, it is a known fact that Mexicans drink far more Coke than water.
In the commercial, a bunch of young white models, all behaving in slow motion, get into a hipstery looking truck, and, supremely enamored of their own munificence, arrive at an indigenous Mixe village in Oaxaca to spread their self-congratulatory, privileged joy. There, instead of bringing education, jobs, better housing, opportunities, water, curiosity, respect, understanding, equality, any sort of practical help, or simply begging humbly for forgiveness, they unload coolers filled with ice-cold Cokes and, armed with plywood, "build" a hideous Christmas tree made of Coca-Cola bottles that happens to look like a deformed Coke bottle and which says something like "let's keep the unity" in the Mixe language.
According to The Guardian, where you can still see the spot, there were calls to take this preposterous garbage off the internet, for the expected reasons: patronizing the Mixe people, and by extension all the indigenous cultures of Mexico, while encouraging their consumption of a drink that can only hasten their tooth decay, their diabetes, and their death.
To me, this, although true, is not the biggest problem. I love Coke and will love it until it causes my untimely demise. In my case, the demonization of its sugar content falls on deaf ears.

Forget about the tone-deaf impropriety of a foreign company that peddles what many people consider syrupy poison telling Mexicans how to deal with their "prejudice".
Forget about the absurd appropriation of a Christmas tree by discarded product.
Forget the wholesale contempt for the original religious and cultural traditions of the indigenous Mexican peoples.
Forget about the imposition of Christmas, consumerism, cavities and Coca-Cola by a bunch of insufferable rich twats pretending to "give back" while they look down on the "indians".
Forget, if you can, the plywood.
What makes one retch is the abject cluelessness of an ad that preaches against prejudice while completely avoiding the vast majority of Mexicans, who are neither resplendent white specimens nor indigenous people.
Where are the people who represent most Mexicans, not just the ones at the very top and the very bottom of society? Where's the working class? Where's that mythically expanding Mexican middle class everyone talks about? In short, where are all the other brown people?
As is traditional in Mexican advertising, they don't exist. They are rarely, if ever to be found in a commercial.
This ad is no different from the great majority of ads in Mexico, which, unless they are public service announcements, almost exclusively cast people who seem to have arrived recently from Scandinavia or the tonier confines of Buenos Aires. But in this case, for maximum absurdity and bitter unintended irony, it also stars, probably for the first time in the history of Mexican corporate marketing, a number of forsaken natives, and not even this fact could make the advertising agency, the casting agency, the director and the client consider representing all the rest of the actual people who drink their beverage, and who are hounded every second of their lives by the racism the ad purports to fight.
People who deny that Mexican society is predicated on the most enduring, insidious racism need to be subjected to an endless loop of this ad, like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange.
So do the people who made it. Ad infinitum.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Airbnb, Or The Limits of Advertising.

Perhaps you have seen the Airbnb ad at your local cinema where a comely young woman travels the world, staying in wonderful houses, (with pools!) surrounded by lovely people who soon become like family and take her to karaoke bars in Tokyo. Or the one about a baby peering out a window, a blatant rip-off of Terence Malick's Tree of Life, poetic mumbo jumbo included. Their new campaign concept is "Is Mankind?" Well, to judge from my own personal experience renting from Airbnb, the answer is "no".
Airbnb's marketing and advertising make it sound like their business proposition, in which total amateurs supplement their income by becoming innkeepers overnight is about community, sharing and humanity. And perhaps it is, in a few miraculous cases. But there is a chasm from here to Pluto between Airbnb's aspirational imagery and the reality of the business. And I think this sets both hosts and guests up for bitter disappointment. This gulf between the ads and reality reminds me of those cigarette ads from the fifties in which doctors endorsed smoking Lucky Strikes for good health.
It's all about managing expectations. People point out to me that making a buck from strangers by renting them your house is not new. Before Airbnb, people did it through Craigslist and other channels. But because there was no marketing, people were ready to expect ghouls, both as hosts and guests. Nobody expected veritable angels of mercy to descend on a property. After some back and forth to make sure nobody involved was a card-carrying psycho, you hoped for the best and braced for the worst. Airbnb provides a well-organized platform to do the same thing. However, they have also decided to brand themselves as the paragon of human kindness, and this is where expectations are squashed.
Now, I don't know about you, but for the life of me, I will never understand what people like about staying in the houses of strangers. Give me a hotel: clean, well managed, with a good mattress and decent towels, and I'm all set. You say: "oh, but it is generic, it is anonymous". Anonymous makes me horny. I hate bed and breakfasts. I have nothing to say to total strangers early in the morning. I don't want to use someone else's bathroom, much less have to make the bed and wash the dishes. Is this so hard to fathom? Hotels are expensive, I know. But their price includes not having to do all of the above: a fair deal, as far as I'm concerned. 

The first time I rented on Airbnb, I found a very hip-looking house in Mexico City for a trip with friends. We wrote the host telling him that we wanted the house exclusively for ourselves. We were six people. He said yes. When we arrived, the house was not only falling apart, and dirty, but there were other guests staying in what were supposed to be our rooms. We ended up moving to a hotel.
The second time I rented was a three-month lease on behalf of an employee. The employee quit before his contract was over and when I asked the host to cancel the reservation, he completely ignored me. He had over $7000 in his pocket and was indifferent to my pleas to resolve the situation. I involved Airbnb, which ruled that I was responsible, and all I could do was appeal to the host, so I had to pay for the full stay. Then lo and behold, after the guest left, the host tried to shake me down for $1200, claiming damages: three burned pots that needed a vigorous massage with a Brillo pad, and similar pathetic stuff. Airbnb ruled that this was wear and tear covered by the insurance and I was not liable.  I must say that Airbnb was swift and professional in getting involved. That host was a vulture.
I have since erased my profile from Airbnb.  Next time, I'm going to a HOTEL, where they know how to deal with guests because that is what they do for a living. Who needs the aggravation?
My point being: most regular people have no business in the hospitality business. They have no idea what it entails. I bet that many of the hosts for Airbnb could care less about being kind to humanity, and are just happy to make some dough. This gets exponentially complicated by the fact that they are opening their houses to total strangers - people who may be nice, or not; who may have horrid hygiene habits, or not. 
I wonder if this new campaign isn't an attempt to remind people of the better angels of their nature, because Airbnb must be drowning in disputes. They posted their baby video on Facebook, a piece of schmaltz specifically crafted to elicit tears of gratitude for being alive, yet most of the comments are bitter complaints about everything: hosts, guests, the system, the reviews: human pettiness all around. This makes me suspect that Airbnb thinks it can coax people to behave themselves by waxing poetic. I'd prefer something more realistic.
It behooves Airbnb to stop the cute hipstery nonsense. Are you a cheap bastard who won't stay in a hotel? Well then, buyer beware. What you get for that is: amateurs. As for the hosts, it's not enough to put out a clean towel and call it a day. You have to be hospitable, and also not lie about the state of your place and its size. You have to be someone who enjoys making people feel at home. Otherwise, find another way to make a quick buck. Go stand on a corner, or become an Uber driver.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Suis Je Charlie Hebdo?

#Je suis Charlie Hebdo; #Je ne suis Charlie Hebdo. Hashtag slogans are corny, no matter what the cause. If at first they may spark a quick burst of solidarity with the human catastrophe du jour, by the second time you see them, they are already stale.
The minute #JeSuisCharlieHebdo took the internet by storm as a kneejerk protest against the despicable murders in Paris of the satirical magazine's cartoonists, staff and one Muslim policeman (#JeSuisAhmed), many pundits took to clarify that they were not Charlie Hebdo. For Charlie Hebdo's particular brand of satire is indeed mostly leaden, offensive, and unfunny. To me, unfunny is the most offensive fault of comedy, its most unforgivable sin, because it is usually tone deaf, mean spirited, and many times, deeply corrosive. Totalitarian governments have always used unfunny humor for nefarious ends. The sense of humor of the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Mao was to deride, stereotype and dehumanize people. Often, they did this through caricature. Totalitarians don't tend to have a funny sense of humor. They have vitriol, which is not funny. They can viciously deride others but tolerate no jokes about themselves. So it is with fundamentalist islamists. They are totalitarians: they abide no dissent. Punishment means death.
Those who are now bravely stating that they are not Charlie Hebdo complain about the offensive nature of the magazine's cartoons, about the fact that they cross a line, are racist, are a part of the mainstream media (this apparently is some sort of sin, even though it is an independent magazine with a modest circulation), and aim to offend the most downtrodden sector of French society, in this case, poor, unassimilated, discriminated Muslims who are there as a result of French colonialism. According to those who are not Charlie, the sin of Charlie Hebdo's brand of humor is that it is exclusionary, racist, and hateful. This may be true, but it is no reason to die for.
The difference between Charlie Hebdo's heavyhanded satire and that of, say, the Nazi regime, is that the magazine felt it was involved in a fight to preserve and exercise their right to be offensive; to use, and even abuse their freedom of expression guaranteed under the law. What is permitted as free speech in France may be debatable, and perhaps in the future, open to change. The French obsession with insisting that their citizens be no different clings on to an idealistic notion of a secular republic which seems increasingly unattainable, as in reality, communities in France are not only very different but alienated from one another. These are crucial questions for how France deals with its ethnic and religious minorities. But this is also not a reason for the murder of these people.
Those wounded by Charlie Hebdo's humor could resort to a number of responses, from angry letters to the editor, to legal recourse, to disseminating funny or unfunny cartoons about French liberals themselves; God knows there's plenty of comic material there. These brainwashed, ignorant idiots opted for murder.
My problem with the train of thought that focuses on Charlie Hebdo's morally suspect humor is that it provides a slippery slope towards virtually blaming the victim. The French government had asked the magazine to stop publishing inflammatory drawings, the magazine had been threatened with violence before; hence, they had it coming. This is dangerous thinking because it detracts from the fact that in no universe is publishing offensive cartoons about anything a justification for murder. If we become inured to the abject absurdity of killing someone for their opinions, we will cease living in a free world. We might as well welcome back the Inquisition.
All those who start their harangues assuring us that of course they in no way justify the killings and then go on to blame France, the white man, colonialism, racism, and in effect, the offensive cartoons, may have a point. But they are mis-assigning blame. The blame lies squarely with islamist terrorist groups that recruit the criminal and most desperate elements in Muslim communities to terrorize the world for their own political agenda. If these kind of arguments take hold, someone can arrive at the conclusion that the Jews who were shopping at that kosher market in Paris when they were taken hostage had it coming to them because Israel, and Gaza and, you know the drill. Or that the people who died in 9/11 deserved it because of America's imperialist, idiotic foreign policy. No. Nobody deserves terror.
Another false moral equivalency troubles me. Some complain, rightly, that when 16 Europeans get killed everybody has a fit, but no one cares about over 200,000 Syrian dead or whatever other large number of non-white human beings are being currently traumatized elsewhere. Certainly, this is a good opportunity to remind everyone that islamic fundamentalism is killing and terrorizing far more innocent people in Africa and the Middle East than French citizens in Paris, but the comparison is uneven. The reason for the massive outpouring of shock and outrage at the Charlie Hebdo's murders stems less from us callously caring only for our our own, than from the infernal disproportion, the chilling insanity of killing someone over some drawings. It hits closer to home, not because we are indifferent or racist, but because most of us do not live in war ravaged countries, in hellish situations that rage on for years for which our outrage has muted into helpless despair. I do not argue with the fact that we should be equally tormented by every injustice that takes place in the world, but this brutal attack was shocking. People reacted with shock. Why are we being taken to task for our outrage?

The democratization of opinion in the internet has brought us a new kind of creature: the hectoring social media commenter.  The comfort and anonymity of our screens now serve as our own personal bully pulpits. Some use their virtual soapbox to spew the vilest defamatory commentary. Racists say vicious things in forums with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Antisemites are already claiming that the attacks in Paris were orchestrated by the Mossad. On a thread online, a commenter declared that she could bestow no sympathy to the cartoonists, but that she felt for their families. Who is she, God? What kind of senseless, asinine posture is that?
Among liberals with a conscience, the fashion is to be offended by everything and to accuse everything and everybody of racism. In this cacophony of opinion, everything is equally racist. If someone decides to dress up as a geisha and they don't happen to be Japanese, that is decried as racist cultural appropriation (a particularly insidious academic term that drives me crazy). Wearing a geisha costume to a party is equivalent to saying that Blacks provoke their own deaths by not obeying the law. What happens then is that the actual meaning and manifestations of racism get watered down and equalized with irrelevant, politically correct whining.
Because the persona we project publicly on the internet is who we wish to be, rather than who we really are in our innermost hearts -- flawed, prejudiced and far from saints -- online, people become moral crusaders. Apparently, on the internet people have never had a contradictory thought; prejudice has never crossed their minds. Most of us are guilty of harboring prejudices, but all we hear online is a chorus of insufferable self-righteousness.
I am not Charlie Hebdo because there are wittier, less toxic ways to champion freedom of thought, belief and expression. But I am Charlie Hebdo because I should not live in fear of a violent death for expressing my opinions, offensive as they might be to anyone.