Here’s what ‘crass’ looks like:

There are some days you just don’t use as a theme for any kind of marketing initiative. No need to dwell on why – I’m sure we all know where we were and what we were doing when it happened, and have all of the horrific images etched permanently on our retinas – but today is most definitely one of them.

Apparently, unless you’re AT&T. This showed up in their Twitter feed earlier today:

crass

Classy, isn’t it? Not surprisingly, there was something of a backlash on Twitter and elsewhere; also not surprisingly, AT&T very quickly pulled the tweet and issued an “apology”:

ATT

This “apology” itself, though, makes entertaining reading. Look carefully – they apologise to anyone who felt the tweet was in poor taste, and what that means, unfortunately, is that the apology is crashingly insincere. “I’m sorry you feel I offended you” and “I’m sorry I did something offensive” are not the same thing.

At the very least, the person who came up with the concept of the original tweet must be a real piece of work, as must whoever came up with the lame fauxpology when they saw the backlash. It probably won’t, but I really hope this costs AT&T at least some customers. It deserves to.

Edit 12/9/13

…and apparently AT&T’s CEO agrees – or at least, is disturbed enough by the online backlash that it’s dawned on him that the original mealy-mouthed apology-that-isn’t is not really good enough. This morning, he provided a second apology in a post to AT&T’s consumer blog:

We’re big believers that social media is a great way to engage with our customers because the conversation is constant, personal and dynamic.

Yesterday, we did a Facebook post intended to honor those impacted by the events of 9/11. Unfortunately, the image used in the post fell woefully short of honoring the lives lost on that tragic day.

I want to personally express to our customers, employees, and all those impacted by the events of 9/11 my heart felt apologies. I consider that date a solemn occasion each year, a time when I reach out to those I was with on that awful day, share a moment of reflection for the lives lost and express my love of country. It is a day that should never be forgotten and never, ever commercialized. I commit AT&T to this standard as we move forward.

–Randall Stephenson, AT&T Chairman and CEO

That’s better, and a lot less culturally tone-deaf than the lame tweet posted yesterday. I don’t like the use of ‘impact’ as a verb (it’s not technically incorrect, but it’s inelegant; there are better ways to convey the same meaning), and it would be nice if someone who has risen to the level of CEO of a very major corporation could spell ‘heartfelt’, but it’s a reasonable effort. You will, however, note that he’s stating that 9/11 is a day that should “never, ever [be] commercialized” less than 24 hours after his corporation was widely mocked on Twitter for publishing an image that attempts to wring commercial capital out of 9/11. Possibly his attitude yesterday was not the same as his attitude today. That photograph, and the fauxpology that followed, did not spontaneously emerge from a vacuum. That photograph took planning; somebody had the idea, someone else signed off on it, probably more people still were involved in creating the actual image. The CEO sets the tone within a corporation; if any of those several people, or their superiors, “consider[ed] that date a solemn occasion each year”, they wouldn’t have put the image out there in the first place.

You’ve seen the news. Now would you like some cheese?

 

Yes, in case you hadn’t heard, there is a royal baby. Or should that be Royal Baby? Since I don’t really approve of the concept of ‘royalty’, my personal response is somewhere between ‘that’s nice’ and ‘meh’, so I’m not one of the people dancing in the streets outside Buckingham Palace wearing coordinating Union Flag underwear. I think everybody is relieved about that. I know I am. ANYway… along with a royal baby, of course, we’re inevitably going to have a long line of people hopping on the marketing bandwagon in the hope of making a quick buck by flogging cheap tat with the baby’s name on it. Most of the stuff they’ll be peddling will be crap, just about all of it will be completely tasteless – but some of the ads, it goes without saying, will be hilarious.

Step forward Pizza Hut, who emailed me this gem today:

pizza hut prince

 

Yes, this is absolutely real. It is not photoshopped or otherwise altered in any way. And it’s tacky beyond belief, obviously.  The £8.60 price point (£8.60 – 8lbs 6 oz, geddit?) is a particularly lovely touch. In a week in which ten thousand entrepreneurs are all going to do their level best to stretch the definition of ‘crass’ to breaking-point, we may already have a winner.

 

Brainless in Seattle

Or rather, in Bellevue, WA, if we’re being picky.

Various media outlets are reporting, this week, that the not-yet-under-construction Tateuchi Center, a new performing arts complex in Bellevue, is planning to implement a policy which allows mobile phone use apart from for voice calls during performances. The complex’s executive director, a Mr. John Haynes, is quoted by the New York Times as saying that texting and tweeting via smartphones is “the wave of the future for the people we worry about attracting… simply forbidding it and embarrassing people is not the way to go. So we are wiring the building in anticipation of finding ways to make it work over time.”

One might wonder why Mr. John Haynes, who appears, based on these comments, to have little respect for either audience members or performers, has picked a career path that culminated in the executive directorship of a performing arts complex.

The thing is, there’s no way of using smartphones in a darkened theatre, even for things other than voice calls, that won’t somehow be disruptive for other patrons. Mr. Haynes talks, elsewhere in that New York Times piece, about perhaps offering patrons small screens to phone users to dim the light from their mobile devices, but the flaws in this plan are easy enough to spot – it’s hard to see how this would work with something like the iPhone, where the (very bright) LCD screen is also the user interface, and any masking device that blocked light coming from the screen completely would render the smartphone unusable anyway. I don’t even understand the mentality of wanting to use a smartphone during a theatrical performance. I’m no luddite; I have a BlackBerry, I text, I tweet, I’m on Facebook and all the rest of it, but when I’ve spent money on a ticket I want to give my attention to the performance, not to the screen of my mobile phone, and I certainly don’t want to engage in any kind of behaviour that might disrupt the performance in any way for the people sitting around me. When I go to the theatre (or the cinema, or a concert, or whatever), my phone is switched off when I enter the building. It’s just basic good manners.

At the last several shows I’ve attended, distracting light from someone’s phone screen, at some point, has been visible during the performance. And it is distracting, more than you’d expect. There’s a reason you sit in the dark, with the only bright lights coming from the stage: it focuses your attention. Glimpsing the light bleeding from some selfish idiot’s mobile phone screen, even from several rows back, pulls you out of the moment. And if people in the audience can see it, it’s more or less a certainty that the people on the stage can see it too. Using a phone during a performance is rude, selfish behaviour; it may be behaviour that’s becoming more and more common, but that doesn’t mean it should be legitimised.

I freely admit that my personal ideal solution to mobile phone use during a theatrical performance – a Monty Python-esque giant anvil being dropped from a great height onto the head of the offender – is not practical. Clearing up the blood spatters from the walls would put a strain on a theatre’s maintenance budget, the carpets and upholstery would probably be ruined, and manslaughter carries serious criminal consequences including jail time. Putting offenders in the stocks outside the theatre and letting the rest of us throw rotten fruit at them, however, also has a certain appeal, particularly if we let people film the fruit-throwing on their smartphones and post the footage to youtube as a warning. Since these kinds of direct punishment are not an option, however, I will vote with my wallet. If a theatre close to where I live made public that they’d adopted this kind of policy, as far as I’m concerned, it would have precisely one effect: I would stop buying tickets to their shows.

Rotten Apple

Or, My Trip to the Apple Store. On the enjoyment scale, it did not rate ten out of ten.

[Edit – there is more to this story. Apple subsequently made amends, spectacularly. I’m leaving this post up because first impressions count, and the impression of Apple that I received yesterday was absolutely dreadful, but the company is clearly extremely concerned that it shouldn’t be perceived as being in any way arrogant or unhelpful. So… the story that follows here is why I got angry, and there’s another post detailing what Apple did about it.]

My nephew has an iPod. Unfortunately it doesn’t work; for some reason, it won’t charge. We’ve tried charging it via several different cables and a docking station, but it stubbornly refuses to suck up any power. It’s not just sick, it’s deader than Kerry Katona’s music career. Since I’m in Manchester city centre more often than anybody else in the family at the moment, my brother asked me if I’d take it back to the Apple Retail Store from whence it came and see if they could send it away to be fixed. It sounds simple, doesn’t it? It should have been simple. It wasn’t.

So, anyway, this particular tale of joy commences – and, actually, ends fairly abruptly – at the Apple Store in the Manchester Arndale. I walked in at about 3.30pm, and started heading towards the back of the store to talk to someone about the dead iPod. As always in an Apple Store, there were a lot of people hanging around playing with the MacBooks/iPads/iPods on display, but the staff appeared to be – well, the opposite of busy. I was stopped, about a third of the way towards the back of the shop, by an unfriendly young woman in a blue Apple T-shirt who asked me what I was looking for. I told her I was bringing back an iPod that wasn’t working, and this is where the experience started to become surreal. She asked me if I’d made an appointment. I hadn’t. When I told her I hadn’t made an appointment, her charming response, delivered with the most sarcastic inflection possible, was “You did know you had to make an appointment, didn’t you?”

Given that I’ve never in my life been asked to make an appointment in order to return a defective item to the shop it came from, that would be a no.

This charmless young woman then moved to a nearby MacBook, brought up a blank screen (!), and told me that there were no appointments available at any point for the rest of the day… at 3.30pm on a Monday, when the store wasn’t busy, with four-and-a-half hours left until closing time. I was, let’s say, a little surprised at this; when I started to say that all I wanted to do was return a defective product, that I wasn’t expecting anyone to fix it on the spot, and that I was prepared to wait, she cut me off in mid-sentence and started in with a lecture, delivered in an inappropriately hectoring tone, about how she couldn’t let me see someone – you know, for the three whole minutes it would have taken them to package the broken iPod up in a jiffy bag and send it away to be fixed – because it wouldn’t be fair to let me jump the queue in front of customers who had had the presence of mind to make appointments. And this in a shop in which approximately 60% of the visible staff were standing around chatting. I’ve put in my years working in retail, and I certainly don’t begrudge people taking advantage of a quiet period to slow down a little – I know what Saturdays are like on a shop floor – but this wasn’t a Saturday, the staff weren’t visibly busy, and I object to being told that nobody is available to help me when that very, very obviously is not the case.

ANYway. Apparently, it’s very difficult for Apple’s staff because they sell so many products – at least, that’s what Ms. Charm-of-Pol-Pot tried to tell me. Two kinds of laptop, three kinds of desktop, four kinds of iPod, iPads, iPhones, Apple TV and a few peripherals. As my nephew would say, big whoop. Compare that to, say, John Lewis, a full-line department store with thousands and thousands of product lines that sets the gold standard when it comes to customer service, and that does not, as far as I know, force you to book in advance if you need to bring in a faulty item they sold you so that they can send it away to the manufacturer to be fixed. I wouldn’t have minded so much if this woman had been remotely conciliatory, or even vaguely pleasant, instead of entering the conversation with an attitude so enormous that it probably needs to be housed on its own planet. Since I obviously wasn’t going to get anywhere, and since she didn’t appear to feel disposed to let me finish a sentence, I left – fortunately, in the middle of one of her sentences, which saved me from another thirty or so words of her spectacular condescension.

I am, obviously, in awe of Apple’s outstanding commitment to achieving excellence in the field of customer service.

I love my iPod. Or rather, I love my iPods, there’s one in a dock next to my bed and another one residing permanently in my backpack. It’s beautifully designed, easy to use, and I love the fact that I can carry thousands and thousands of pieces of music with me wherever I go. I’m sure, at some point, I’ll buy another one – I’d like one with larger capacity, and I don’t know of anybody who makes a better music player. And while my nephew’s iPod seems to have perfected an impersonation of the dodo, my two, so far, have been absolutely reliable.

I’ve also, for years, licked the steam off Apple’s laptops in various shop windows – again, they’re beautifully designed, and I have several friends who are absolutely devoted to them. And I’m intending to replace my laptop next year (it’s currently three years old, so by next year it’ll be time to start thinking about upgrading it), and I have to say that this afternoon’s experience does not exactly encourage me in the direction of buying a MacBook.

Here’s the thing: Apple sell design as much as performance, and they position themselves as offering premium products. For certain types of device, like music players, they dominate the market, but that can’t be said of every product line they sell, and some of the things they sell, like MacBooks, are significantly – as in a sum that’s in three figures – more expensive than equivalent Windows-based products that do essentially the same job, only a little less seductively. Part of that premium, sure, goes on design (both in terms of the look of the machine and the feel of the user environment), but part of the premium, equally, supposedly goes to pay for a certain level of service.

And yet this company, apparently, is so monumentally arrogant that it demands – unlike any other retailer I’ve ever encountered – that you make an appointment to take one of their products back to the shop it came from to get it sent away for repair, and their store management, on the evidence of my delightful experience this afternoon, can’t be bothered to train their front-line customer service staff to deliver even the most minimal level of courtesy. Unemployment is up, we may well be heading for a double-dip recession, consumer spending is flat, and yet when I attempted to take a relatively expensive luxury item back to the Apple Store where it had been purchased, the first and only staff member I had any contact with acted as though she was doing me some kind of favour by even deigning to speak to me, and sent me away – despite the fact that the shop was neither full nor busy – with the broken item still in my coat pocket because I hadn’t telepathically deduced that I needed to perform some kind of arcane online booking ritual before I entered the store.  On the bright side, I suppose, it’s lovely for her that she feels so secure in her job that she doesn’t have to bother with piddling little inconveniences like being pleasant and helpful to her customers.

Doesn’t exactly encourage you to get out your Visa card, does it?

Civilisation

The price of bread has shot up recently. Have you heard? It’s all the fault of the Jews.

You just did a double-take, didn’t you? So did I. That was the thrust of a conversation I overheard a couple of days ago. The conversation was not taking place at, say, a rally in Nuremberg in 1936. The two participants were a married couple in a Co-op supermarket in suburban Greater Manchester, and they were not whispering. In the interest of accuracy – and only in the interest of accuracy, since it demonstrates how absolutely repellent and stupid these people must be – the gentleman’s exact choice of phrase was “fucking Jews”. In public, loudly, in a busy supermarket on a Sunday afternoon, within earshot of, well, anybody else who was shopping there, which included a number of families with children.

In the same week, we’ve seen a surprisingly minor furore erupt in the press about the Unholy Trinity – Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond – and their witless, racist evaluation of a  Mexican sports car.  The BBC’s apology managed to be both grudging and startlingly insincere, citing a long-standing British tradition of humour based on national stereotyping – because, really, what could be funnier, edgier or more worth defending than three white, overpaid, conservative motoring journalists poking fun at people with a different skin colour who are poorer than they are? Only comedian Steve Coogan, writing in the Observer, has, as of this writing, responded to the incident with the venom it deserves, pointing out at some length and in some detail precisely why the moronic racial stereotypes paraded onscreen by Clarkson, May and Hammond are not remotely funny.

Coogan’s piece is startling in the way it thoroughly, systematically demolishes the three presenters – he doesn’t just cut them off at the knees by pointing out the absolute childish vacuousness of passing off offensive racial stereotypes as ironic humour on an internationally-syndicated television programme, he kicks them when they’re down by pointing out how much the onscreen dynamic between them resembles two wimps (May and Hammond) hiding behind a school bully (Clarkson). It’s a devastating hatchet job, but it misses a trick: Top Gear is shown on the BBC, and is therefore funded by the licence fee.

Yes, that’s right. We’re paying for these idiots and their crass, schoolboy attempts at “humour”, to the tune of £145.50 per household per year.

The thing is, the racist comments on Top Gear and the racist comments in the supermarket are twin symptoms of a common disease. Casual racism, in this country, is widespread, fed by hysterical headlines about immigration, Muslims, asylum seekers and all the rest of it in the Daily Express, the Daily Mail and the like (sorry, I won’t link to them – I’m not wearing latex gloves and I don’t have a paper bag handy). It’s sobering to note that during our last general election, when Gordon Brown referred, in private but with a lapel microphone still live, to a woman he’d met on the campaign trail who had confronted him with a borderline-racist question about Eastern European migrants as “bigoted”, our national media – more or less all of it, including the broadsheets – crucified him and deified her, despite the fact that, given her line of questioning, “bigoted” was a fairly accurate description.  It was also sobering, during the last general election campaign, to note the absolute reluctance of any politician from any party to get up and say, unequivocally, that immigrants who are here legally, work hard and pay their taxes – in other words, the vast majority of them – make a positive contribution to our nation and our society, which of course sends an absolutely poisonous message to immigrants who are here legally, work hard, pay their taxes and all the rest of it. Immigration has become a toxic subject – all the more so, unfortunately, when the immigrants under discussion have any skin colour that’s further up the colour chart than light pink. And that’s without getting into things like BNP campaign leaflets, which are offensive on a level that actually makes me feel physically ill. During the recent by-election campaign here, one dropped through my letterbox bearing the charming headline ‘YOUR DAUGHTERS ARE NOT HALAL MEAT’. These people got something over 2,000 votes.

And, of course, when this stuff is splashed all over the front pages of “newspapers” like the Mail and the Express, which enjoy very wide circulation (largely because they pander shamelessly to the most bigoted fears and prejudices of their base demographic), when our politicians routinely characterise immigrants (and by ‘immigrants’ they mostly seem to mean people with darker skin than theirs) as scroungers, and when racial stereotypes are apparently considered fair game as a source of humour by the presenters of one of our more popular television programmes, it’s not at all surprising when you hear someone spout the sort of foul, offensive racist crap I heard at the supermarket on Sunday, and do so quite matter-of-factly and in a public place. I’m not saying, of course, that Top Gear caused the moron I met in the supermarket to spout racist bullshit in public – actually, thinking about it, ‘moron’ is too kind, he had the sort of intellect that makes an amoeba look like Stephen Hawking – but the casual acceptance, espousal and even endorsement of racist attitudes as a source of headlines (the gutter press) or humour (Top Gear) at least gives the impression that it’s somehow once again acceptable to say outrageously racist things in public. And, certainly, in this part of the country, in a town in which seething tensions between different ethnic groups lie very, very close to the surface, you don’t have to look very far to find the kind of attitude I encountered on Sunday. The letters page in the local newspaper is usually a good place to start.

Well, sorry, we’re all to blame. One of our national characteristics, true, is that we are, as a group, somewhat reticent. We’re often reluctant to stick our heads above the parapet – with good reason, since confronting the kind of brain-dead thug who would seriously attribute the rise in the cost of a loaf of sliced wholemeal to any specific ethnic or religious group is likely to result in, at the very least, a stream of obscenities and insults – so we say nothing, ignore it, and hope it goes away. It isn’t going to go away because by saying nothing, by not standing up and saying loudly and clearly that such attitudes are vile, hateful, offensive and thoroughly unacceptable, we’re effectively giving permission for public hate speech.

I told the oaf in the Co-op to shut up. I’m apparently a fucking cunt who’s going to get his fucking head kicked in. The Co-op staff, of course, just stood there and gawped, as did my fellow citizens, most of whom had looked shocked and appalled as they heard this semi-evolved chimpanzee spout the kind of putrid filth that wouldn’t have been out of place at a Third Reich campaign meeting. I suppose this ape could have hit me, although from his point of view, in a busy supermarket where there were both witnesses and security cameras, that could have ended up being some kind of own goal – and in any case, he probably didn’t have quite enough coordination to breathe and scratch himself at the same time, so the likelihood of his a) finding his fist and b) getting it to connect at any kind of velocity with any part of my person was probably relatively remote. Nevertheless, I imagine it might have been more prudent to keep myself to myself. I heard one person – shamefully, a member of the supermarket’s staff – say loudly that I was making too much of a fuss.

Sorry, no. The profoundly sad thing about what happened when I went shopping on Sunday is precisely that versions of that experience, in today’s Britain, are not at all unusual. They’re not at all unusual because most of the time we don’t make enough of a fuss. We’re de-evolving rapidly into something quite unpleasant – a society in which casual racism is not shocking, common courtesy no longer exists, and the words ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’ have apparently replaced the comma and the semi-colon. Those of us, myself included, who stand on the sidelines tut-tutting at the offensive behaviour we see in the streets every day are complicit, because we allow it to happen. Unless we learn to stand up and say no, we are effectively giving permission, but by standing up and saying no, we put ourselves in the firing-line.

That’s not a world I want to accept. It’s 2011. We’re supposed to be civilised. We’re supposed to be better than this. We pretend that we’re better than this.

We aren’t.