July 2, 2015
June 30, 2015
Did you know that The Croods was a bigger box-office hit than The Sound of Music? It’s true, writes Jordan Ellenberg in The Wall Street Journal (6/27/15). The Croods was a 2013 film that took in $187 million, compared to just $150 million for The Sound of Music. This is based on “unadjusted dollar value,” which of course renders the comparison meaningless. It is one of any numbers of examples of how numbers, when stripped of context, can be misleading with involving “any actual falsehoods.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo engaged in one such sleight of numerical hand when he cited his state’s 6.2% unemployment rate as evidence that “New York is on the move.” What he left out was that the overall US unemployment rate was 5.9%. In a similar vein, Vani Hari (The Food Babe) in 2011 warned readers that airplane cabin air is not pure oxygen, that it is “sometimes almost 50%” nitrogen.” This might sound alarming, except that “the natural proportion of nitrogen in the Earth’s atmosphere is 78%.”
A study of American college students grabbed headlines because 35% said that getting rich was a high priority — “the highest proportion in the developed world.” However, the news reports omitted any mention of other questions in the survey that place American students in a less materialistic light. “In the era of data journalism,” Jordan writes, “truth is not enough.” If left unchecked, “we’re going to be reading a lot of data-driven stories that are true in every particular — but still wrong.”
May 15, 2015
If you buy something in a presidential candidate’s online store, you are actually selling yourself. That’s because selling stuff is less valuable than the information collected about the buyers, reports Vanessa Friedman in The New York Times (6/25/15). For starters, any money given to a campaign is considered to be a donation, and federal regulations require everyone who makes a “purchase” to disclose not only a name and address but also an employer, occupation and retirement status. Even more important, selected items “can reveal whether you are a beer drinker, a sports fan or what cellphone you use.” “It is all about learning who your supporter base is,” says Marshal Cohen of NPD Group, who adds that the information is “worth its weight in gold.”
Supporters are “segmented into very specific streams that will be organized into fund-raising buckets and targeted communications,” not unlike the way “a large or midsize fashion chain” would segment its customers, according to a former Obama political merchandise designer. The Obama plan was “to come up with new proposals for products every week for different personality types: What would your sister want to buy? Your mother? Your uncle?” The modern link between retail and politics was in many ways forged by the 2008 Obama effort. “We knew we had a brand that was different,” says Joe Rospars of Blue State Digital, a mastermind of the Obama digital strategy. “In a world where you are relying on small donors for your margins, you have to press for every last advantage.”
Such advantage can be elusive, given the imperative that all goods be made in the USA. This has stymied the Santorum campaign, which is no longer offering the candidate’s “famous sweater vests” because it “could only find one American manufacturer” and didn’t want to risk angering customers/voters with a perpetual backlog. The American-made issue hasn’t stopped the Rand Paul store, however, which sells cellphone cases mostly made in Asia. A spokesperson explains that backers should be free to “take their brand support with them however they choose.” Cellphone cases may be extra important to the Paul campaign, as it is targeting Millennials. Popular Hillary Clinton products meanwhile include “a Future Voter onesie” and a tote bag “with the H logo printed all over the front, like so many Fendi Fs.”
April 24, 2015
The anthem of the American civil rights movement is steeped in centuries of folklore, reports Margalit Fox in The New York Times (5/8/15). Indeed, the “opening bars” of We Shall Overcome recalls the hymn O Sanctissima, “first published in the 1790s. (Beethoven would write a setting of the hymn in the early 1800s). A version of the melody — recognizable by modern ears as We Shall Overcome — was published in the United States in 1794” as Prayer of the Sicilian Mariners.
The song as we now know it didn’t really come together until the mid-1940s, when it “was taken to the picket lines by striking tobacco workers.” The strikers brought the song, then known as We Will Overcome, to the Highlander Folk School, a “wellspring of the civil rights movement,” where it “quickly became a favorite of the school’s musical director,” Zilphia Horton. Guy Carawan, a folklorist and activist, who died recently at age 87, later reworked the song with Zilphia and fellow folk singers Pete Seeger and Frank Hamilton.
The song was largely unknown when Guy performed it at a civil rights gathering in 1960, but it caught on immediately, and became “the musical manifesto that, more than any other, became the ‘Marseillaise’ of the integration movement,” which is how “The New York Times described it in 1963.” Having served “variously as a religious piece, a labor anthem and a hymn of protest,” We Shall Overcome “had woven in and out of American oral tradition for centuries, embodying the twinned history of faith and struggle.”
February 4, 2015
Think of Teddy Roosevelt the next time you drive through a drive-thru, suggests Thomas V. DiBacco in The Wall Street Journal (4/16/15). The 26th US president, in 1906, issued an executive order intended to “transform the English language” via simplified spelling. TR, along with industrialist Andrew Carnegie “looked at spelling reform as efficient and cost-cutting, meaning that newspaper, magazine and book sizes could be reduced, as could class time devoted to spelling.” The extra letters in English and French spellings were a special target.
At the time, some streamlined spellings “were already in use, including ‘arbor,’ ‘ardor,’ and ‘clamor,’ (instead of arbour/ardour/clamour) or ‘judgment’ and ‘acknowledgment’ (without the silent ‘e’).” Others were a tougher sell, such as ‘blest’ instead of ‘blessed’, ‘kist’ rather than ‘kissed’ and ‘past’ instead of ‘passed.’ TR also sought to drop the extra ‘r’ on ‘purr’ and consolidate the “combined letters ‘oe’ as in ‘subpoena’” into just an ‘e.’ Transforming ‘tonight’ into ‘tonite’ and ‘though’ into ‘tho’ certainly have enjoyed some staying power.
TR’s executive order (one of 1,081 he issued during his tenure) “directed that all publications of the executive department adhere to the … new spellings for 300 words delineated in his order.” He said his goal was “to make our spelling a little less foolish and fantastic.” In the other branches of government, the Supreme Court ignored TR’s guidance, while the House of Representatives issued a resolution “urging that all government documents” stick with standard orthography. TR “immediately withdrew his executive order.”
November 5, 2014
William F. Buckley Jr. was the "patron saint" of Red Wing brand peanut butter, reports David Segal in The New York Times (1/14/15). Mr. Buckley developed a passion for peanut butter while in boarding school, as his father would always include a couple of jars of the spread in a bi-weekly care package. Years later, as editor of the National Review, he wrote about peanut butter, identifying Skippy as his favorite brand. (link) Douglas Manly was running a rival brand, Red Wing, at the time, and, on a lark, sent Buckley a jar and a note.
Buckley sampled Red Wing and thought "he had found paradise on earth in a jar with a yellow cap," says Christopher Buckley, a son. So devoted was Buckley to Red Wing that he agreed to speak at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new peanut roaster at the company’s plant. Among other things he said that if Red Wing were served at US-Soviet disarmament talks, the peanut butter would cause the Soviets to "give up their assets, communism and Karl Marx." Red Wing thanked him with a lifetime supply, sent every six months, with the label, Buckley’s Best.
Exactly why Buckley preferred Red Wing isn’t known, but Douglas Manly suspects it was because it was fresher than other brands. Ironically, Red Wing was developed as a knock-off of Jif, as a private-label brand. "We worked on it until employees who were part of a taste panel could not tell the difference between Red Wing and Jif," Douglas says. Sadly, the Red Wing plant was acquired and closed by ConAgra in 2013, although ConAgra says it will continue to use the recipe to make the butter for Wegmans, Price Chopper and others.
September 10, 2014
"As politics has gotten more scientific, the campaigns have gotten worse," writes David Brooks in The New York Times (11/4/14). David attributes this to a "data-driven style of politics" that’s "built on a philosophy you might call Impersonalism. This is the belief that what matters in politics is the reaction of populations and not the idiosyncratic judgment, moral character or creativity of individuals. Data-driven politics assumes … that the electorate is not best seen as a group of free-thinking citizens but as a collection of demographic slices."
Data-driven politics "puts the spotlight on the reactions of voting blocs and takes the spotlight off the individual qualities of the candidates. It puts the spotlight on messaging and takes the spotlight off product: actual policies. It puts the spotlight on slight differences across the socio-economic spectrum and takes the spotlight off the power of events to reframe the whole mood and landscape. This analytic method encourages candidates across the country to embrace the same tested, cookie-cutter messages." They "sacrifice their own souls."
This contradicts the very nature of politics, inherently "a personal enterprise. Voters are looking for quality of leadership, character, vision and solidarity that defies quantification. They "don’t always know what they want, but they look to leaders to jump ahead of the current moment and provide visions they haven’t thought of." Trust is built "not through a few targeted messages but by fully embodying a moment and a people. They often don’t pander to existing identities but arouse different identities."
September 10, 2014
The late Truett Cathy got his start making sandwiches from chicken rejected by Delta Airlines, reports Kim Severson in a New York Times obituary (9/8/14). The only thing wrong with the chicken was that the pieces "were either too large or too small for the airline’s food trays." So, Cathy "began experimenting, frying breaded chicken in a cast-iron pan with a lid, the way his mother used to," and making a simple sandwich of it, on a "soft, white buttered bun with nothing more than a couple of pickles for garnish."
He named his creation "so that a nation just falling in love with fast-food hamburgers might better understand his product: Chick-fil-A was meant to suggest a chicken steak. As malls came to the south, Cathy opened a Chick-fil-A at the Greenbriar Mall in Atlanta. It was a pioneering effort to put fast food in shopping centers." In so doing, he became "one of a handful of Southern entrepreneurs who in one lifetime took small, hometown companies to a global level." As of 2013, "Chick-fil-A had more than 1,800 restaurants."
If Cathy is famous for something other than his chicken sandwiches, it is his Christian faith, and the extent to which it guided his business practices — "he was at once a hero and a symbol of intolerance. Many admired him for closing his outlets on Sundays and speaking out against same-sex marriage. Others vilified the chain as a symbol of hate." The company has since stopped "funding most of the groups that were at the center of the storm," but continues to provide "for scholarships, camps and foster care." Truett Cathy was 93.
August 27, 2014
Jim Dyke is marketing bottles of wine like candidates for political office, reports Jennifer Steinhauer in The New York Times (8/27/14). Clearly, we haven’t come very far from the days when it was roughly the other way around. (image). Jim is a former Republican Party spokesman who maintains a consulting practice that included a winery. This led to a connection with Gustavo Gonzalez, "then the head red-winemaker at Robert Mondavi, and the two thought about building a winery."
The challenge wasn’t so much creating "a portfolio of distinguished wines," but rather making sure people knew about it. "Just because you have a fantastic candidate doesn’t mean you can win," says Jim, using a likely metaphor. "My misunderstanding was I believed the quality of the product alone would take care of itself and that there really wasn’t much to do but have people taste it," says Jim. "The reality is that distributors are already carrying products that are already well known."
To overcome this, Jim went to his inside-the-beltway connections, placing his wine at popular eateries like the Capital Grille. But his ultimate play was a stunt based on a report that wine ages differently when stored under the waves — something about the consistent, cold temperatures and gentle rocking. Supposedly this breaks down "tannins more quickly," producing a kinder, gentler wine. Whether that’s for real is a question, but it has gotten Jim’s wine — called Mira — some name recognition, and case shipments are headed up.
August 21, 2014
Amid the rise of Big Data is a decline in reliable research, reports David Leonhardt in The New York Times (8/26/14). "The declining response rate to surveys of almost all kinds is among the biggest problems in the social sciences," David writes. "It’s complicating our ability to understand how people live and what they believe." This is evident in the Labor Department’s jobs report, which some believe has "become less accurate over the last two decades, in part because of this rise in non-response."
The response rate of the jobs report (about 89%) is actually relatively high compared to, say, political surveys (9%). Both are down, however — in the 1980s the jobs report response rate was 96 percent, and in 1997 "the response rate to a typical telephone poll was a healthy 36 percent, according to Pew." Another issue is "rotation-group bias," which occurs when the "government surveys people for four consecutive months, gives them eight months off and then surveys them for four more months."
The problem is that, over time, "the kinds of answers that people give — or the kinds of people who respond — change." The result is "people who aren’t working are less likely to report being available to work and having looked for a job in the previous four weeks, which is the definition of unemployment." Other limiting factors are the rise of caller ID, the decline of landline telephones and falling trust in the government. In general, it appears that changes in American telephone habits will require using new technologies and methods to collect information.
March 19, 2014
Foxes are "more wily and flexible learners" than hedgehogs because of their childhoods, reports Alison Gopnik in The Wall Street Journal (8/20/14). The difference between the two animals — whose traits are often ascribed to people — was defined by the Greek poet Archilochus, who said: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." (Archilochus apparently knew one thing but didn’t know how to make it rhyme.) The concept was later popularized by Isaiah Berlin, an Oxford philosopher.
Berlin ultimately decided his observation was oversimplified, but recently, psychologist Philip Tetlock "studied expert political predictions and found that foxy, flexible, pluralistic experts were much more accurate than experts with one big hedgehog idea … In tribute to this finding, the statistics whiz Nate Silver chose a fox as the logo for his website." Biologist David MacDonald, meanwhile, suggests the fox-hedgehog difference is, well, biological: "Hedgehogs develop their spines — that one big thing — almost as soon as they are born."
This makes them independent within six weeks, compared to fox cubs, who "are dependent for six months." Where hedgehog dads take off after mating, fox dads "help bring food to the babies." Not only that, they bring still-alive prey "and the babies play at hunting them." They "practice and develop the flexible hunting skills and wily intelligence that serve them so well later on." So, where hedgehogs quickly adapt to one environment, a combination of parental protection and play teaches them to "cope with a changing world."
March 5, 2014
"Too many people don’t know what the [heck] a cartoon is about," says cartoonist Pat Oliphant in a Wall Street Journal piece by Ann Landi (3/18/14). "You’re not doing your job if you’re not [ticking] people off," he explains. With that in mind, one of Pat’s recent cartoons depicts New Jersey Governor Chris Christie "as the outsize emperor Nero, with one arm resting on the George Washington Bridge and the background filled with shady-looking mob types." (image) "Chris Christie just came up out of nowhere," says Pat. "He was a real gift."
Then there’s Pat’s cartoon of "Hillary Clinton as a bosomy feline with a wineglass full of cream next to her cushion," (image) and his depiction of Barack Obama "as an Easter Island statue." (image) "I found him very enigmatic and stone-faced," Pat says. "You just couldn’t penetrate him." About his oeuvre, Pat says: "Politics is very boring … The people are all the same now. They’re all bastards now, but it’s what’s kept me going for so many years." Now 78, Pat has been at his craft for 60 years, having won "virtually every award in his field, including a Pulitzer Prize."
Pat doesn’t see much future in his craft, though: "It’s a dying art because nobody knows what to do with it anymore," he says. "Stirring up the animal was always the fun part, and now you’ve got timorous publishers and editors who shy away from controversy because it affects the bottom line." But he continues to sharpen his edge, drawing three cartoons a week, such as a relatively recent "sketch of Anthony Weiner, flashing the goods to a mob screaming in horror, titled, ‘Some Minor Distractions’." (image) His cartoons and other work currently are on display at Gerald Peters Gallery in New York.
January 24, 2014
There’s not much Mark Penn‘s Microsoft colleagues won’t say about him as long as they can say it anonymously. As reported by Nick Wingfield in The New York Times (3/4/14), Microsoft’s newly appointed chief strategy officer — perhaps best known as the Clinton family’s pollster — has both supporters and detractors. "Some see him as a thoughtful adviser who rubs hidebound colleagues the wrong way by presenting them with useful data … that runs counter to their intuition. Others say he massages his data … to bolster his own preconceived ideas."
"I wouldn’t say they’re cooked numbers, but they’ve certainly been spiced," says one nameless critic. Another said Penn was "not a warm and fuzzy guy." Several others reported that he said "don’t trust your gut" at a Microsoft meeting where "he made it clear his approach would be heavily reliant on data." The real flashpoint, according to still more icognito employees, was "his willingness to use negative advertising" to go after Google, via the Scroogled campaign, which skewered Google’s privacy policies.
Clearly, these Microsoft employees jealously guard their own privacy, but many thought the Scroogled campaign was both "tacky" and ineffective. Penn, however, points to research that it successfully raised doubts about Google. Most important, he has the support of apparently the one executive at Microsoft willing to go on record about him, its new CEO, Satya Nadella, who says Penn’s data-driven approach will be applied not only to advertising, but also "new product ideas" as well as "overall areas of strategic investment."
January 17, 2014
Brian Chesky says occupancy tax laws need to catch up with the "sharing economy," reports Andy Kessler in The Wall Street Journal (1/18/14). "There were laws created for businesses, and there were laws for people," Brian says. "What the sharing economy did was create a third category: people as businesses." This matters to Brian, the co-founder of Airbnb, "a web service that lets travelers book couches, beds, rooms, houses, boats and even castles on a nightly basis." Its business model is based on the idea that anyone can rent their residence.
It matters because, in New York State, the law bars "private citizens from renting an entire apartment for less than 30 days." The law, passed in 2010, was intended "to crack down on slumlords who run illegal hotels in apartments," not necessarily an online venture that "could do to hotels what Amazon has done to bricks-and-mortar bookstores." By year’s end Airbnb says it will have booked more overnight stays than the Hilton and InterContinental hotel chains." Naturally, this has caught the hospitality industry’s attention, along with the scrutiny of New York’s Attorney General.
Brian says this focus on "protecting New York’s 14.75% occupancy and sales tax" has it all wrong, "that rather than taking away income from the city," Airbnb "bring a significant amount of business by encouraging visits by tourists who might not be willing or able to afford the city’s daunting hotel rates." He says the goal is not to avoid the tax: "We want to streamline the process for hosts to pay occupancy taxes … (but) you have to change the laws first, adding: "Don’t kill something wonderful before knowing what it is." Airbnb currently is valued at $2.5 billion, and lists 500,000 properties in "more than 190 countries."
August 22, 2013
If his father’s speaking style was "roses," then Andrew Cuomo‘s is "nuts and bolts," reports Erica Orden in The Wall Street Journal (1/8/14). Depending on your political persuasion, he might be more nuts than bolts. However, as Andrew explains, the difference is between speeches that are about politics and those that are about policy. "I’m doing government speeches," he says. The objective is "to strike a nonpartisan tone – a departure from his father’s often heated rhetoric and evocative imagery." (video) The reason, he says, is that the rhetorical flourishes are "very costly from a governmental point of view."
Andrew writes his own speeches, first "seeking ideas and advice from policy advisers and other staffers to create an outline" and then writing "a draft longhand. He revises it as many as 10 times … before winnowing it down to a handful of ‘trigger’ words or phrases that he transfers to a notecard." He neither practices his speeches nor uses a teleprompter. "You don’t need more than four, five, six words or phrases," he says, explaining that "he uses the notes ‘like an accordion’ to prompt him to expand on specific topics."
As Andrew describes it, the flow might go something like this: "Let me explain to you why this budget is a good budget. We need a tax cut. Let me communicate to you why this is the appropriate tax cut. Let me explain to you property taxes as opposed to personal-income taxes." He says this is painful because he’s more comfortable with emotion – so, he always tries to connect with his audience on some emotional level first. (video) After a speech, he checks with friends, family and others in the audience to find out "why there was a murmur in the room or why attendees failed to stand or clap."
January 30, 2013
Encroaching "corporatism" may be impeding America’s "entrepreneurial culture," suggests Robert J. Shiller in The New York Times (8/18/13). Robert, a Yale economics professor, cites a new book called Mass Flourishing by Columbia economics professor Edmund S. Phelps. Corporatism is a "political philosophy in which economic activity is controlled by large interest groups or the government." The concern is that once corporatism "takes hold in a society … people don’t adequately appreciate the contributions and the travails of individuals who create and innovate."
Whether America is becoming corporatist is open to debate, but Robert thinks President Obama’s drive for government-created "innovation institutes" points in that direction. The institutes, the president has said, would get "businesses, universities, communities all to work together to develop centers of high-tech industries all throughout the United States." He cited a "public-private partnership that he helped start in Youngstown, Ohio," to develop 3-D printers, as a model (link). The problem with this, says Robert, is that "successful companies aren’t usually started this way."
According to a McKinsey study, "from 10,000 business ideas, 1,000 firms are founded, 100 receive venture capital, 20 go on to raise capital in an initial public offering, and two become market leaders." Based on this, "it is easy to doubt … that the odds are favorable for a Youngstown 3-D printer center." On the other hand, Robert likes Obama’s "new crowd-funding initiative," that is "all about finding and mobilizing people who really understand specific, hard-to-prove ideas for important investments." Ultimately, however, he thinks the "system’s success depends on subtle cultural factors," not direct government involvement.
January 21, 2013
Chris Hughes is a 29-year-old entrepreneur who hopes to make profits from a 98-year-old magazine, reports Christine Haughney in The New York Times (1/28/13). “We’re holding onto the heritage of the magazine while trying to make it more responsive to what people are interested in and how they read in 2013,” says Chris, a Facebook co-founder who purchased The New Republic last year. His plans involve a mix of features and media platforms both new and old.
From an editorial standpoint, the magazine now combines re-runs of classic articles from the past, such as “Edmund Wilson’s dispatch from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inauguration," and lighter fare from the pop-culture present, including “topics like electronica and the HBO series ‘Girls’.” A revamped web site and new app meanwhile offer “audio versions of articles and the ability to let users read pieces on multiple devices, continuing on one at the spot where they left off at the other.”
Both subscriptions and newsstand sales are up under Chris’s watch, however Time magazine’s Fareed Zakaria, a former New Republic intern, questions the venture’s moneymaking potential. “My impression is the goal here is not to make money, but to make an impact politically, culturally, intellectually,” he says. Chris admits that magazine margins aren’t as big as they used to be, but insists his plan will fly because people will still pay for content. “It’s going to take us a couple years, but profitability is our goal,” he says.
January 21, 2013
Much of Abraham Lincoln’s literary genius was in his “acute understanding of the power of negation in language,” reports Douglas L. Wilson in The Wall Street Journal (1/17/13). In part, this was because “dogged opposition was his lot in the major political struggles of his life,” specifically his opposition to “the expansion of slavery and the destruction of the Union, a resistance which gave his negative constructions a moral focus.” For example, as he once wrote: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”
He also made good rhetorical use of “the antithesis,” in his 1858 US Senate campaign against Stephen A. Douglas, when he proclaimed: “With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” Lincoln often used negation “to emphasize restraint — what is not to be claimed or not to be done.” Of his presidential oath, he wrote: “I could not take the office without taking the oath. Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using that power.”
His most famous use of negation, ironically, was in the affirmative, in the Gettysburg Address: “We can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground.” And: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” And most of all, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” In his last great speech, the Second Inaugural, Lincoln powerfully expressed a positive through a negative in four famous words: “With malice toward none.”
December 13, 2012
“In the collector community, the inaugural is a stepchild,” says Joe Levine of the Presidential Coin & Antique Company, in a Wall Street Journal piece by Ellen Gamerman (1/19/13). It’s not hard to see why, when a pair of “commemorative socks, emblazoned with a ’44’ in honor of the 44th president,” is among the souvenirs available as President Obama takes the oath of office for a second time. Other items include “ribbed tank tops for dogs,” along with a variety of “documents, medals, posters and more quirky souvenirs.”
That’s not to say that certain inauguration day artifacts — “like a letter from George Washington thanking Congress for its congratulations on his inauguration” — don’t command big bucks. Sotheby’s sold the letter for $362,500 in 2001. A “silvered brass shoe buckle” believed to commemorate Washington’s second inauguration sold for $6,573, and “a medal bearing Teddy Roosevelt’s profile from 1905 designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, is often valued at more than $20,000.”
In some cases, items “presented as instant heirlooms may not hold up in value,” such as “a limited-edition American eagle sculpture” marking Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration. Originally sold for $1,200, they can be had today for as little as $350. Programs, invitations and even inaugural tickets that seem like they ought to have value, typically do not. Perhaps the most valuable inaugural artifact of all time is an “autographed manuscript” from Lincoln’s second inauguration. It sold for $1.3 million in 1992, and contains the four famous words: “With malice toward none.”
November 14, 2012
Michael Fertik is collecting your personal data so he can help you keep it from marketers, reports Natasha Singer in The New York Times (12/9/12). Michael is founder of Reputation.com, which, since 2006, has attracted some $67 million in venture capital to create a “data vault” that enables consumers to control which marketers get what information about them. The basic service, priced at $99 a year, can also remove personal details “from databases maintained by various information resellers” and install software “that blocks web tracking by 200 data brokers, advertising networks and ad trading platforms.”
Michael describes himself as “Jewish, lefty, pinko” and says he created Reputation.com because “something was wrong … when you go into a bank and an insurer that you may get offered different rates than the next person, but you have no idea when you go on the internet that your options, the offers you get or whether you get a coupon, have been defined 20 steps before you get to a site.” With Reputation.com, consumers agree “to store their data in the vault and share some of it with selected companies in exchange or benefits like cash, coupons or status upgrades.”
Reputation.com has already “amassed files on millions of Americans” and has “several hundred thousand paying customers.” It is not yet making a profit. David Vladeck of the FTC is not a fan of the concept. “Having to pay a fee in order to engage in a retrospective effort to claw back personal information doesn’t seem to us to be the right way to go about this,” he says. Both Congress and the White House, meanwhile, are looking into regulating data-mining activities. Reputation.com also must convince marketers that its “vault has more valuable information and consumer insights than an ordinary data broker.” But Michael believes he’s on the right track because, as he says, “it’s your data.”
It may have been information and technology as much as gender and ethnicity that told the tale of the 2012 election, reports Jim Rutenberg in The New York Times (11/13/12). It appears that the Obama campaign may have outmatched the “galvanized and incredibly well-financed” Romney camp with database-driven media buys and targeted messaging. While Republicans were still battling it out in the primaries, Democrats compiled “so much information about the electorate that it knew far more about which sorts of voters were going to turn out — and where — than the Romney campaign and public pollsters.”
The result was a system known as “the Optimizer,” that developed “ratings based on the political leanings of categories of people the Obama team was interested in reaching, allowing the campaign to buy its advertising on political terms as opposed to traditional television industry terms.” The data were drawn from the campaign’s own email list, as well as “Facebook and millions of door-to-door discussions conducted by volunteers in swing states.” The system ranked voters based on their likelihood of voting for Obama, and then used Nielsen and cable-box data “to figure out what sorts of programs likely and undecided voters were liable to watch, and when.”
Media buys included late-night shows like Jimmies Fallon and Kimmel, as well as ESPN “and, most surprisingly, TV Land, a basic cable network devoted to re-runs of old programs.” According to Jim Margolis, an advertising strategist, TV Land was a fit with “lower-information voters” who “may not be as political, and may not be deciding until later.” Traditionally, campaigns segment purely by demographics, “advertising most heavily in news and pre-prime-time game shows, where the most reliable voters can generally be found.” The “Optimizer” was explicitly designed to make a marginal difference in a close election, exactly how the 2012 campaign turned out.