Happy (in a somber way) Veteran's Day. If you're a young American aged 17-24, you might consider honoring the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform by joining the United States Army yourself! Sounds good, no? We all know the Army has been having some recruitment problems lately, what with the hopeless wars we're fighting and the psycho Commander in Chief and the excellent chance of being blown up. But the Army has decided to shift its sales pitch in order to lure you youngsters in. By talking more about Iraq!: They're adding a webcast called "Straight from Iraq" to their website, where soldiers will tell you the real deal about life in the desert war zone. Presumably not too real, though. They're also supercharging their marketing plan with the following changes: - More internet, less "sponsorships of professional rodeos." - The voice of Gary Sinise! - New commercial: "young workers in business attire suddenly start climbing walls. 'This company is filled with dreamers,' Mr. Sinise says." You'll have to join the Army to know how it ends! Of course, all of this is very much deck chair/ Titanic. If more people join the Army it will be because they can't get a job anywhere else since our economy collapsed. And if the Army was smart it would have one simple selling point: "Bush is gone." [NYT]
Jesus Christ, while you weren't paying attention Disney has been busy insinuating itself into every niche of your consumer lifestyle. Do you consider yourself a fashionable person with fancy urban tastes who would never be caught dead wearing the winking Goofy sweatshirts and Tinkerbell baby-tees that are so popular in America at large? Better check your labels. Disney is determined to be included in your style, at all costs! The Death Star-like company is branching out, launching "exclusive" fashion lines that are only sold at upscale stores, home furnishings, and other products designed not for those people who love Mickey Mouse. Repeat: you may own a Disney product that does not have Mickey Mouse on it.
The Jesusphone is no longer just for privileged white folks. "The strongest growth in users is coming from those earning less than the median household income, particularly since the launch of the iPhone 3G." So says a report from ComScore, which concludes that "lower-income mobile subscribers are increasingly turning to their mobile devices to access the Internet, email and their music collections." Awesome. Now I can buy an iPhone 3G without feeling I'm being extravagant. But I can't shake the feeling this study was secretly paid for by RIM. (Photo by r.f.m II)
This economic downturn has, surprisingly, not killed the "branding" industry, which exists for the sole purpose of allowing graphic design majors to soak clueless corporate behemoths out of millions of dollars for what amounts to a few tweaks of a computer design template. We salute you, brand consultants! You are the hustlers of a new generation. Pictured is the inanimate, non-dynamic, old Pepsi logo; and after the jump, the "more dynamic and more alive" new logo that Pepsi just rolled out at a cost that will eventually total hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide:
Neel Kashkari is the intense young man tapped by the Treasury Department to lead our nation's financial bailout. The national media could paint only the most basic picture of him: a high-achieving Republican ski bum who rose quickly from Wharton to Goldman Sachs to, today, a position of national import. But guess what, friends: we have obtained Neel's 1991 senior high school yearbook page. Yes, the same page that a former teacher at Neel's school told us truly reveals his egocentric, douchebag nature. And it is epic. Rush quotes! Bush quotes! And the infamous Ferrari! Luxuriate in the awesomeness of our savior:
Although companies can measure how many TV commercials, radio commercials, and internet ads you're exposed to, it's just not enough. What about snatches of radio ads overheard through the windows of passing cars—do they affect your shampoo-buying habits? When you were at the gym and walked briskly past a television showing a "Synecdoche, New York" preview—did you write any Philip Seymour Hoffman fan fiction in the following six months? These details are important. Luckily one firm has figured out how to make your cell phone snitch on you to the marketing Matrix: A company called IMMI is perfecting software that goes in your cell phone and catches every snippet of audio you're exposed to, then automatically determines which ads you heard. And more!
Who's to blame for this mess? That's what the American people want to know, right? Nobody wants to hear about intricate economic factors that combined in unforeseen ways to predicate an economic collapse. We want scapegoats! The media, politicians, and plain old dumb people on the street who don't know what the hell they're talking about have all picked out their favorite villains in this national crisis. We take a look at the top ten, after the jump:
Unpatriotic dissenters are expressing doubts about Neel Kashkari, America's new young bullet-headed money whiz who's been tapped to lead this great nation out of the pit of financial despair. How dare they! It was almost humorous how little anyone knew about the 35-year-old AC/DC fan when the Treasury Dept. assigned him to lead the massive bailout earlier this week. But now we know more about: his family! His politics! His hobbies! And his wall art:
Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a class action case accusing the tobacco industry of fraud for its marketing campaign aimed at convincing the public that "light" cigarettes are safer. This just shows you how far we've come: 50 years ago, we would have had to call the Supreme Court to determine which brand has the smoothest flavor for your T-Zone"! Coincidentally, the New York Public Library is now holding a huge exhibition of hi-larious old cigarette ads. With doctors! Babies! Blackface! And other outrages! In honor of our nation's justice system, the 15 best are below:
The economy's in trouble. Have you heard? Banks would be much happier if you hadn't, but alas, that dude who was repossessing your car probably said something about it. So now our financial institutions are faced with their toughest challenge: deciding what kind of ads to run. They can't do anything about the actual economy—your money is toast. But maybe they can make you feel better about it! Does JPMorgan Chase see a smile on your face? Yes, JPMorgan Chase does! There are a few different strategies. Some, like failed failure WaMu, use humor, along the lines of "We've dragged our dessicated carcass to a safe place now. LOL!" Others are going for the old "reassure you despite all evidence to the contrary" tactic:
This is reportedly the (real) first post-collapse ad from failed bank WaMu, and it's very... direct? "WaMu has a bright new future, thanks to the stability of JPMorgan Chase (and their nearly trillion dollars in customer deposits). [ETC.]" says the fine print. The failed institution deserves credit for confronting its massive failure. Although the ad would have been more appropriate in grey. Do not fail to click to enlarge. [Change Order via AgencySpy]
The Wall Street Journal abandoned its restrained front page design just in time. The staid business newspaper has captured the month's growing financial alarm—and contributed to it—with dramatic headlines often stretching across all six columns of the front page. The growing point size of the headlines is a graphic measure of the gathering crisis. The first splash headline came on Monday 15th September as Lehman Brothers teetered. Since then, the Journal has given the panic treatment to eight more front pages, most recently in today's dire summary of the news: Bailout Plan Rejected, Markets Plunge, Forcing New Scramble to Solve Crisis. The month (and the Jewish year) is over. But it's not the last time newspapers will break out the big fonts. Click for high-definition version of the collage.
Everyone wants to figure out what happened to the market last fortnight! Which is why the week of September 14 marked the highest ratings in CNBC's nineteen year history, the New York Times reported today in a story about how people keep tuning in to the business news network looking for answers on What It All Means only to get hooked because CNBC anchors have no idea What It All Means. It is all just moving so goddamn fast! (Like um, while I was getting a picture for this post, the House voted down the bailout package, what do you know…) Between the squawking and spinning and bank failing, no one had a chance to acknowledge the real ideological shift underway among just about everyone who bothers thinking about that sort of crap. Listicle time again! I read all the deep, probing stories over the weekend about What Actually Happened And Who Profited Off That so you wouldn't have to.1. "Profit" is kind of a scam. Profit, as they say in the business, is the "bottom line."* But when every financial institution in America can follow a decade of unprecedented "profits" with the threat of Universal Abject Ruin, you have to conclude the whole damn "bottom line" is bullshit. Yesterday the NYT ran a story about an obscure unit of the insurance company AIG that generated shitloads of profits in the boom years. It generated shitloads of profits because it sold "credit default swaps." Credit-default swaps protect the principal paid on a bond in the case of a default. AIG made shitloads selling them in the boom years because a lot of other guys on Wall Street were making shitloads of money rolling up mortgages into bonds, and a guy from Morgan Stanley called up a guy at AIG named Joseph Cassano, told him about these rolled-up mortgage security deals, and asked if AIG would be interested in getting into the business of insuring these mortgages in much the same way AIG insured the houses said mortgages had been taken out to buy. Because Morgan Stanley would totally buy that insurance! Goldman Sachs would also be interested. A few crafty hedge fund guys were interested too. Later that "interest" would yield a profit bonanza for the guys who were smart enough to load up on them! But first the profit bonanza's was AIG's. By 2005, this unit of AIG generated three and a quarter billion dollars revenue. And you know what the operating profit margin on that revenue was? Fucking 83%. Eighty-three percent. That is after they paid everyone's salary and Blackberry bills and sleeper-class airfares and five-star hotel rooms and for all their office supplies. AIG shared the wealth with employees more, of course. At the end of the day people who worked in that unit brought home between a third and 44% of revenue. Forty-four percent!!! That is literally unreal. Isn't the whole point of having an "insurance" company that you save money like that to have on hand for disaster? What sort of insurance company makes an record-breaking profit the same year they're on the hook over a billion dollars for a record-breaking natural disaster? (An insurance company with a freakishly profitable near-impossible-to-understand unit that does not report to any insurance regulators, for one!) Well anyway, Goldman ended up putting as much as twenty billion dollars "on the line" with AIG's CDS-es. Twenty billion dollars is just over a billion dollars less than Goldman gave out in Christmas bonuses last year because, in stark contrast to most other banks on Wall Street, Goldman had been so smart and prudent and visionary and bought CDS-es early and booked record profits. In any case, now Goldman was worried about AIG. Goldman stock could plummet if AIG went under! And Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein must have told his old boss Hank Paulson that, because Hank invited Lloyd to be the only investment banker in attendance at a special meeting two weeks ago about the fate of AIG. Hank saved the insurer, and while they were at it they made some sort of arrangement for Goldman and Morgan - the guys who hatched this whole plan in AIG's head to begin with! - to become "holding companies" that would be protected by the FDIC. This effectively eliminated investment banking, and one hopes, some of the heady profit margins with which it was once synonymous. 2. Because the system - like CNBC itself! - is rigged to reward fear of commitment. On CNBC this announcement was met with a lot of talk about how investment bank stocks would no longer "justify" their huge price-earnings ratios because, as real banks instead of specialized "investment" banks, they wouldn't be able to continue to take such big risks and generate the same grotesquely large profit margins they once did. There is something seriously warped about that mentality, though. If you watch CNBC you probably buy into the notion that profits are somehow "the bottom line," that the pursuit of profit makes everything more efficient, that profits create jobs and therefore salaries should more closely track the "bottom line," and if everything ran more "like a business" then employees would be more "accountable." Maybe you buy into this notion because it seems rational; maybe you buy into this notion because it takes so goddamn long at the DMV, but whatever the case, if you are watching CNBC now, it might dawn on you that they are too panicked trying to relay to you all this pressing urgent information to give you the real story, which is that all those assumptions about profits and the bottom line and accountability get turned completely on their heads when it you impose upon them the term limits of the fiscal year and everyone gets to cash out. Nowhere is our national fear of commitment more readily apparent than our willingness to allow Hank Paulson to pay no taxes on a half billion dollars in Goldman stock options to take a government job for three years because we are so wary of investing such faith in an entrenched bureaucrat, only to have him hit us up for a line of credit when all that fear of commitment results in a whopping expression of our collective fear of commitment. 3. "Demand" is also a construct. A corollary to the "profit" construct is the "demand" construct. A story: the other day my friend the NYSE trader was ruminating on the absurdity that the defining buzzword of the subprime mortgage crisis was "tranche." Yeah, why does everyone pronounce it funny? I wondered. Because it means 'slice' in French, he told me. When you are selling bonds assembled from the foggy promises of ignorant unskilled people to pay ever-increasing fees to ensure their continued residences in shitty overpriced tract homes in eastern San Diego for thirty fucking years - unskilled people who at best work themselves in real estate - it helps to pretty up the sales pitch with pretty French verbiage. On the front of today's Wall Street Journal "Marketplace" section are two stories on top of one another that form a neat little parable about the nature of demand. One is about how fast food chains like McDonald's and Panera Bread are worried about the credit crisis because Bank of America and other banks have suddenly tightened lending to people whose plan to make money depends on opening evermore McDonald's and Panera Bread locations. Just below this story is another story about how food makers like Campbell's, Kellogg and Kraft are excited about the credit crunch, because it enables them to make the pitch to American consumers to spend more money on "value" foodstuffs such as Frosted Flakes and condensed soup, and those kinds of foods have huge profit margins because of course they are actually a terrible value to consumers, but that doesn't matter as long as some ad agency is being paid eight figures to come up with a folksy campaign reminding Americans what great "value" they're getting. Whatever the outcome of the credit crunch, the only logical takeaway of the two stories goes, Americans will continue eating junk. Which reminds me: I could go for a tranche of pizza right now! But the point is, demand is highly manipulable, and we are the masters of manipulation. We've convinced ourselves that if a lower-profit margin-generating division of a company is sold to a Japanese company or simply discontinued it is because that division — and thus the country — is "moving up the value ladder." In the market's ceaseless quest to ascend the value ladder America has, of course, left behind such resilient, and also arguably valuable, industries as the manufacture of sophisticated computer chips and the construction of half-billion dollar oil tankers and probably soon car manufacture, for Asians to occupy themselves working on. 4. Good people will be punished. Good people are always punished. Just ask the Jews. The Asian countries, of course, are concerned about this. Just because they work six day weeks in sweltering assembly lines doesn't mean they aren't addicted to our demand. China keeps living standards artificially low to maintain high employment, and they build up excess reserves they have to invest it in our iffy financial system, and Chinese people are aware of this, which is why the government faces angry internet retaliation back home when those investments suffer, as they did when Blackstone stock started crashing a few months back. Which brings me to the Jews. As any Chinese person could tell you, the Jews have long been associated with a knack for making money. But many Jews also pursue relatively unprofitable jobs, like running for Congress. Much has been made of the need for Congress to vote on a bailout package before the Jewish holidays, because there are 43 Jews in Congress, almost all of them Democrats, and as Barney Frank so wryly noted last week "It's a well-known rule; God will only hear your prayers if you're in your congressional district." Barney can say that because he is of course himself Jewish. Anyway, this morning on CNBC Charlie Gasparino was trying desperately to hammer home to viewers that Barney Frank was largely to credit for getting the bailout package done in time to save Wall Street. (Uh, or not!?!) Other anchors kept cutting Charlie off. As Frank himself just told the Washington Post, "You don't get credit for a disaster averted." You also don't get credit for holding your nose and doing the politically unpopular thing and trying to avert disaster if you did not have the votes to avert disaster because everyone hates everyone. However, Barney Frank does get credit for being funny just now. Sigh. 5. And despite the protestations of contrarian pundits it is hard to believe some sort of disaster was/is not at hand. Because in a story on the Lehman bankruptcy today, the Wall Street Journal noted that the Tuesday morning following the announcement the London Interbank offered rate, the interest rate at which banks offer one another overnight loans, the interest rate to which some $300 trillion in contracts are anchored, rose from 3.11% the day before to 6.44% and "even at those rates, banks were balking at lending to one another." The two guys who actually calculate the Libor have not been on CNBC to my knowledge, but I bet I can tell you what they were thinking when they went through their spreadsheets that day: "Holy Fuck." (And maybe also: "Why again do we securitize mortgages? Isn't the one book read by everyone in the entire finance industry sort of about how that was a bad idea?) In any case, nothing on CNBC managed to be quite so startling as this story. Maybe because they've desensitized everyone with their incessant re-loop of Jim Cramer's prescient freakout clip.
We're not even officially in a recession, and already the culture czars over at New York have dubbed the economic crisis precipitated by our financial system's collapse The Greatest Depression! Such hyperbole, I know! So what makes the tag feel so goddamn right? Other than the fact that I think it is really great I don't have to write about subprime celebrities anymore? I found five things that are basically all the same thing and formed a little listicle!1. Because money is overrated! We know this. We know it so well. And just to prove it we pay billions of dollars to science to prove it to us, year after year after year. And yet. As a society we totally live and die (no not really, we just act like we live and die!) by the tiny nuances of the trajectory of the aggregate of all the flows of all that money, as if it Really Totally Matters. We do this, obviously, because we're obsessed with making comparisons - am I at least doing as well as last year? Am I really smarter than his last girlfriend? Shouldn't I buy a house now that all my friends are doing it? - because it is just so much easier than the Is This Bringing Me Joy question that seems so totally sappy and sentimental we find it to be a hilarious joke when some little Third World country like Bhutan pragmatically invents a Gross National Happiness Index because no one actually thought of that first. But as the Times reminds us today:
Tom Brokaw of all people has a funny column in today's Journal about all the distressed assets 'Main Street' types would like to sell Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. For instance, Barney "Big Un" Baumgartner of Wyoming — a real person, I checked — is offering an 80% stake in his gambling debts and taxidermy business for $1.8 million. The column is labeled 'humor' as if the Journal needs to remind you it does not find the actual bailout to be a joke. But they are are alone in that respect! Because the great untold story of this column the Journal can't tell you because they don't use swear words is the brand-new awesome website BuyMyShitPile.com, wherein average U.S. Americans are offering to unload their most illiquid investments — like this attractive house, Hank's for $269,000,000! — at what they believe to be fair "Hold To Maturity" prices or whatever. Our favorite shit after the jump:
Could the current US economic meltdown destroy expensive coffee shops, as penniless consumers abandon Starbucks in order to huddle in unheated apartments brewing cheap coffee filtered through a sock? Folgers sure hopes so! The middlebrow coffee roaster is about to debut a big new ad campaign, hoping that now that your retirement fund has evaporated, you'll be interested in a lower-cost coffee experience. And hold onto your threadbare hats, newly poor caffeine addicts: Folgers has just made the "biggest innovation since the launch of decaf":