Monday, March 16, 2009

What's Up With That? #72: Sci Fi? I thought you said Hi Fi

In what must surely be one of the most ludicrous marketing gambits of all time, the Sci Fi Channel announced today that it is rebranding itself as "Syfy."

Umm... what?

According to Bonnie Hammer, president of Sci Fi's — excuse me, Syfy's — parent company, NBC Universal Cable Entertainment, "We couldn't own Sci Fi; it's a genre. But we can own Syfy."

Gotcha, Bonnie. Glad you've got your priorities in order.

Fanboys, geeks, nerds, and other societal rejects will be relieved to learn that Syfy (the channel) will continue to present Sci Fi (the genre), and that most of it will suck swamp water, in keeping with the channel's long-standing tradition.

In related news, the Food Network revealed today that it, too, is changing its name, after network executives discovered that "food" is a generic term for "stuff you eat." Henceforth, the channel will be known as the Guy Fieri Network.

Said a spokesperson, "We can't own food. But we can and do own Guy."

Also, FOX is reported to be searching for a pithy, trademarkable brand, now that evidence has come to light that "fox" is actually a small, furry, dog-like animal that lives in the woods.

More on this development is forthcoming.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sign of the twin-tailed mermaid apocalypse

This is wrong in so many way that it's impossible to calculate:

Starbucks is now selling instant coffee.

Everyone into the bomb shelter. The end is near.

As the late Fred Sanford might have said...

"Hold on, Elizabeth! I'm comin' to join you, honey! With a venti nonfat decaf instant mocha latte in my hand!"

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Monday, February 02, 2009

The Swan Tunes In: Super Bowl XLIII commercial post-mortem

It's been something of an SSTOL tradition to recap the best commercials from the Super Bowl.

But a weird thing happened this year...

The game was actually better than the ads.

That is in part to the credit of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals, who delivered a whale of a show (congrats to Coach Mike Tomlin and his crew for the last-minute, come-from-behind victory over a team no one — including your Uncle Swan — thought could even compete with them). It's also a sad commentary on this year's Super Bowl ad crop, which was, to put it politely, lacking.

In fact, before I sat down to review the spots online this morning, only one had insinuated itself into my memory — the truly bizarre ad featuring washed-up celebrities Ed McMahon and MC Hammer. That was memorable not for its persuasive power, but for its sheer breathless lunacy: Hammer and his "gold medallion showing me wearing a gold medallion!" and Big Ed with his gold-plated toilet.

Among the few other highlights:
  • I was entertained — and baffled — by Pepsi's testosterone-fueled spot showing manly men enduring all kinds of physical punishment with a casual "I'm good." (I confess that I don't understand the whole Pepsi Max concept: Diet cola for men? What, too much estrogen in Diet Pepsi?)

  • NBC gave us a clever house ad for its online video service, starring Alec Baldwin in a scenario inspired by Men in Black. (I always knew those Baldwin brothers were aliens.)

  • The most exciting ad of the bunch was Audi's slick, dialogue-free chase sequence with Jason Statham reprising his Transporter film role.

  • The "best storytelling" award goes to's documentary-style take on the life of a nerdy young man who succeeds at everything he attempts, but who can't buy a car without the aid of a certain Web site.

  • Doritos offered a couple of decent spots: the one involving the "magic" crystal ball was funny, and another in which the protagonist's fantasies become reality every time he crunches into a Dorito (a female pedestrian's clothes disappear; an ATM spews cash) was predictable, but well-orchestrated.

  • NBA star Carlos Boozer played Big Brother to a gaggle of cute kids for Not as splashy as most of the ad fodder, but warm, fuzzy, and authentically charming. Best of all, it made a solid selling point about the product — something too many of the high-ticket Super Bowl ads forget to accomplish.

  • And, though I'm not a Conan O'Brien fan, I did chuckle at the goofy Bud Light spot that featured Conan as the reluctant star of an absurd Swedish commercial.
As usual, the Budweiser Clydesdales wore out their welcome — one ad showcasing these handsome animals is fine, but four or five get old quickly. Also as usual, served up a pair of tasteless, sexist trifles designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator (arrested-adolescent males who've been swilling beer all afternoon) and rile up the feminist crusaders.

But enough about the commercials...

It's Boss Time.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band cranked up the best Super Bowl halftime since Prince took the stage a few years back. The Boss and Company delivered a fun, upbeat, energetic set, weaving together a couple of classic favorites ("Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," "Born to Run") with the title track from his latest album. (Asked in a pregame interview why he had finally decided to accept the Super Bowl gig after more than a decade of refusing the NFL's invitation, Springsteen was characteristically forthright: "I've got a new record to promote.")

The production pulled out all the stops — fireworks, a five-piece horn section, and a gospel choir for the finale. All the fluff couldn't mask the raw power of Springsteen's music, nor the joy that he and his bandmates (including Clarence Clemons, who worked it out on saxophone and cowbell; guitarist Miami Steve Van Zandt, looking aged and road-worn; and Bruce's wife Patti Scialfa, who stepped forward for a backing vocal spotlight on the final number) still derive from their music after 35 years.

I'd have gladly ditched all of the fancy advertisements, and just let The Boss play during the commercial breaks.

That's why they don't let me run the show.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Swan Tunes In: Trust Me

Following on the award-winning critical success of AMC's Mad Men, TNT is serving up its own spin on the daily lives of advertising executives in its new series, Trust Me. I checked out the premiere episode the other night, and I have to say that I was surprised and impressed.

Having worked as a freelance advertising copywriter for the past six-plus years, I was curious to see whether Trust Me captured what I believe to be the essential characteristic of the industry: That all advertising people are insane.

And yes, they've got that pretty well nailed down.

In its lead roles, Trust Me casts a pair of actors whose work doesn't usually interest me: Eric McCormack (formerly the gay half of Will and Grace) and Tom Cavanagh (late of Ed, which enjoyed a moderately successful run, and Love Monkey, which didn't). They're a Felix-and-Oscar team of ad creatives: McCormack's Mason McGuire is the graphic artist and the steady, level-headed one; Cavanagh's Conner (who doesn't appear to have another name — the sign on his office door reads simply "Conner") is the copywriter and the wacky, unpredictable one.

When their creative director dies suddenly, Mason is promoted to his position, threatening the delicate balance of his working partnership with Conner. The duo also encounter conflict from Sarah, a newly hired superstar copywriter brought in to shake up the firm — she's played by Monica Potter, who looks as though she'll be even more annoying here than she was on Boston Legal. (In this role, Potter's irritating quality is character-appropriate. When Sarah attempts to persuade her former boss at her previous agency to take her back, he tells her, "I think I'm going to hire someone I don't hate.")

Although I've never worked on staff at a major ad agency, Trust Me accurately reflects the dynamics of most of the agencies I've come to know. Again, that basically means that all ad creatives are nuts. Trust Me plays that angle more directly for humor than does Mad Men, which leans to the dramatic. Specifically, much of the comedy derives from Conner's foibles — he's an only-slightly more mature version of the Tom Hanks character in Big, an overgrown adolescent whose childish behavior is offset by his creative brilliance.

As noted above, I'm not a fan of either Cavanagh or McCormack, but they're well-cast — and ideally matched — here. Their supporting cast, in addition to Potter, includes Griffin Dunne, who improves anything in which he appears, just by showing up. The show's debut script displayed a deft hand, employing that over-the-top comic reality that worked so well in the early seasons of Ally McBeal. (This isn't a David E. Kelley production, but it has some of the flavor.) If the writers can sustain the quality, Trust Me could join Mad Men as a perennial award contender.

Uncle Swan gives Trust Me four tailfeathers out of five. I recommend giving it a look-see.

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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Gimme dat wine

It's true — you really can find just about anything on the Internet.

Had I doubted this truism, the presence of not one, but two Web sites devoted to the cheap, alcohol-fortified wines favored by Skid Row denizens — the folks we used to call "winos" back in the day — would convince me.

Bum Wine — you really can't get less politically correct than that — focuses its attention on "the Big Five" wines targeting the habitual drunkard: Cisco, MD 20/20, Night Train, Wild Irish Rose, and the legendary Thunderbird. The site couples hilarious commentary ("If you like to smell your hand after pumping gas, look no further than Thunderbird") with the results of decidedly unscientific tests ("Some of our researchers indicated that [Night Train] gave them a NyQuil-like drowsiness, and perhaps this is why they put 'night' in the name").

Among the evaluative information to be found at Bum Wine: Thunderbird is the worst tasting of the Big Five, but Cisco (a product of which I was heretofore blissfully unaware) is to be preferred for its intoxicating qualities. MD 20/20 — or "Mad Dog," as it's known in certain circles — generates the highest degree of internal warmth for the consumer.

The writing style at Bum Wine reminds me of Las Vegas on 25 Cents a Day, a terrific place to get unvarnished information about the absolute cheapest eats, lodging, and entertainment in America's favorite vacation destination. I'm reasonably certain that the two sites are unrelated, however.

In case Bum Wine is just a mite too refined for your tastes, there's Ghetto Wine, which mostly forgoes the witty commentary in favor of a photographic record of the Big Five, as well as past and present products of similar ilk — including Fred Sanford's beloved Ripple. (Children of the '70s will recall that Fred recommended a mixture of ginger ale and Ripple, a concoction he dubbed "Champipple.")

Being a teetotaler myself, I can't attest to the veracity of the data on either of these sites. I'm also a bit incredulous that the folks most inclined toward the consumption of fortified wines conduct their market research online.

I do, however, recall a summer job during my high school days, when I was employed as a stock clerk at a gas station mini-mart. One of my chief responsibilities was replenishing the refrigerated case in which the beer and wine were displayed. Our tiny shop did a land-office business in T-Bird (along with slightly less toxic, but equally cheap, potions such as Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill and Annie Green Springs Country Cherry) that summer.

I can't shake the feeling that somewhere in the Great Beyond, Fred Sanford is raising a paper cup of Champipple in salute.

As the venerable radio jingle used to trumpet: "What's the word? Thunderbird!"

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Santa's little helper

Still struggling to come up with that last-second Christmas present?

Have a stocking or two yet lacking a bit of stuffing?

Can't figure out what to give the man or woman who has everything?

Is that what's bothering you, bunkie?

Just remember this simple three-word phrase, and all will be well:

Everyone loves Money.

Your Uncle Swan included.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

I vote for free coffee!

In our litigious world, no honorably intentioned deed goes unpunished.

Just ask the people at Starbucks.

Last week, Starbucks announced a promotion that would provide a free cup of coffee on Election Day to every customer who told the barista that he or she had voted. The company pitched the deal aggressively via viral marketing, as well as through a spot that aired on NBC's Saturday Night Live.

Then came the call from the government.

Federal law forbids offering people any form of incentive to vote. Apparently, "incentive" can be broadly construed to include a tall cup of Pike Place Roast.

Rather than incur the wrath of The Powers That Be, Starbucks has decided to make the offer of free coffee open to everyone, including nonvoters.

The good news is that now all Americans — including convicted felons on parole, and anyone too lazy, conflicted, or forgetful to have registered to vote — will be able to drop by the Sign of the Naked Fish-Tailed Lady tomorrow and slug down a tasty snootful of gratis Joe.

Make mine Biden.

Not the plumber.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

A little music, Now and Then

One of the things that I hope our regular readers appreciate is that we don't often attempt to sell you stuff here at SSTOL.

We don't have ads on this blog — I'm not criticizing blogs that post ads, mind you; I'm merely observing that we don't — and I don't take up your valuable reading time by pitching products at you nonstop. Oh, sure, on occasion I'll mention a coffee I enjoy drinking or a great book that I've read, but I don't get a kickback if you run over to Starbucks or Amazon and buy something. We're just friends sharing information.

Today, however, is that rare day when I hope to persuade you to spend a few bucks. Fifteen, to be precise.

My chorus, Voices in Harmony — winners of a third-place bronze medal in International competition this past July 4th — is announcing the release of our debut CD, entitled Now and Then.

The album features an even dozen songs performed by northern California's premier men's a cappella chorus (it says so right on the CD jacket), spanning six decades of American popular music (it says that, too).

As added bonuses, the CD includes one cut each from two exceptional quartets: Realtime, the Barbershop Harmony Society's International Quartet Champions in 2005; and Late Show, whom I predict will be International Champions sometime in the not-too-distant future. (Memo to Late Show: I accept cash.)

Here's the track list:
  • Happy Together
  • Beyond the Sea
  • The Way We Were
  • Pieces of Dreams (Little Boy Lost)
  • Hey Good Lookin'
  • Surfer Girl (performed by Late Show)
  • There Used to Be a Ballpark Right Here
  • This Is Some Lucky Day (with a guest appearance by Realtime)
  • And So It Goes
  • Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
  • With a Little Help From My Friends (performed by Realtime)
  • Diane
  • Little Pal
  • In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town
As I've mentioned in this space previously, Now and Then was recorded at Lucasfilm's world-famous Skywalker Ranch, which means that the audio quality is nothing short of phenomenal. If you close your eyes and listen attentively, you can hear Wookiees trilling (or whatever it is that Wookiees do) on the low notes. Even if you've heard a cappella choral recordings before, trust me — you've not heard a blend quite like this. (Even my thoroughly average singing couldn't muck this up.)

Sadly, as much as I love every SSTOL reader, I can't afford to buy you each your own copy of Now and Then. (Unless your name is Donna and you live in Stephen King's backyard, in which case, yours is in the mail.) The good news is that for a mere fifteen simoleons (plus a nominal shipping and handling charge), you can buy a copy your own darn self. And I highly recommend that you do.

So skedaddle on over to the Voices in Harmony order site and slap down your plastic. (While you're there, you can listen to some enticing preview tracks from the album.)

Tell 'em your Uncle Swan sent you, and our ace fulfillment staff will... I don't know... wave a lightsaber over your CD before they mail it. Or something. Who cares? Just go buy one. You'll be gloriously ecstatic that you did. (We will, too.)

And may the Force be with you.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Here in my car, I feel safest of all

I'm not the automobile maven in our household; my wife KJ (the proud owner of a 2009 Subaru Forester) is.

I do, however, have automotive thoughts on occasion. Usually, on my weekly two-hour drive to San Jose for chorus rehearsal.

From yesterday's Great Trek, for example...
  • In various locations around the Bay Area, I noticed several enormous charter buses with Mercedes-Benz logos on their noses. I had no idea Mercedes-Benz made buses. How have I not noticed this before? And why are so many of them on the road tonight? Was there a sale?

  • When was the last time I saw a Buick Reatta? The only person I ever new who actually owned a Reatta was one of my preacher friends. His was stolen.

  • What kind of desperate multilevel marketing flack must you be to stick a plastic business card dispenser on the tailgate of your car? The kind of desperate multilevel marketing flack who hawks this stuff, I guess.

  • Do people who drive a Nissan Rogue tend to misspell the name of their automobile the way illiterate dweebs in comic book fan forums misspell the similarly code-named female X-Man? I've often wondered whether "Rouge" had the mutant power to turn other people's cheeks cherry red.

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

In a world without the Movie Trailer Guy...

Shocked, stunned, and saddened I am this morning to learn of the death of voiceover superstar Don LaFontaine, better known to millions of television viewers and movie attendees as "the Movie Trailer Guy." He was 68 years old.

LaFontaine's booming, gravelly, sonorous-yet-compelling voice graced literally hundreds of motion picture trailers and advertisements during his lengthy and lucrative career. And when I say "lucrative," I'm not just tossing around random adjectives. LaFontaine was recognized by the Screen Actors Guild as the single busiest actor in the history of the union, meaning that he fulfilled more contracts for acting work — and yes, voiceovers are acting — than any other member of SAG, an organization whose membership is 90 to 95 percent unemployed at any given moment.

The guy was so huge in the industry that he was driven in a chauffeured limousine to his voiceover jobs. Now that's stardom.

LaFontaine's celebrity grew to the point that Geico Insurance recently featured him on camera in one of its quirky commercials, in which he stood at a microphone in a woman's kitchen, providing his trademark commentary behind her tale of "Geico to the rescue." It was a fitting affirmation of the ubiquity LaFontaine had achieved in 21st century American popular culture.

Around our house, we often referred to LaFontaine as "the 'In a world...' guy," because so many of his trailers began with that trademark phrase... "In a world where evil triumphs..." "In a world where man fights for survival..." "In a world where life is cheap and death is expensive..."

The irony of LaFontaine's passing at this particular moment in time is that I've been listening to his work extensively in recent months. I haven't discussed this here much (if at all), but I'm currently studying voice acting, with a view toward a new career as a voiceover artist. Because LaFontaine resided at the pinnacle of the profession, I've been reviewing his demo reels (along with those of dozens of other voice actors) to learn the subtleties of his inflection, expression, and timing.

What I soon learned is that while LaFontaine was blessed with a magnificent natural instrument — you can't just pop over to Wal-Mart or Target and buy a voice like that — it was his skills as an actor that gave him transcendence. He understood how to turn a phrase perfectly, how to lean into (or back away from) a word to enhance its meaning, how to add character or clarity to his tone at just the right time and in just the right way. At the end of a Don LaFontaine trailer, you wanted to see that movie — and getting you to buy tickets was, after all, the man's job.

A few years ago, LaFontaine teamed up with four other voiceover artists who specialize in film trailers (John Leader, Nick Tate, Al Chalk, and Mark Elliott) for a fun bit of business entitled "Five Guys in a Limo." This hilarious short film offers both a clever slice of self-parody by LaFontaine and his colleagues, and a dramatic testimonial to the evocative power of the human voice. If you've never seen it, dash over to YouTube this very second and check it out.

In a world where true talent often struggles to be heard over the cacaphony of mediocrity, Don LaFontaine was The Voice. I admired his work. And I'll miss him.

(This post is not yet rated.)

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Death by Frigidaire

I nearly dropped my cup of Butter Pecan when I read this...

Irv Robbins, cofounder of the Baskin-Robbins ice cream chain
, has departed for that giant freezer in the sky.

Robbins launched his tongue-chilling empire in 1945, when he opened his first ice cream parlor in Glendale, California. A few years later, he teamed up with his brother-in-law Burton Baskin to start the company that bears their names. (They flipped a coin to determine whose name came first.)

Baskin-Robbins quickly became the pioneering frozen dessert franchise operation, paving the way for franchising efforts in other areas of fast-food service. That "golden arches" thing, to name but one.

When his partner Baskin died in 1967, Robbins sold the company to United Fruit Co., although he continued on the payroll for another decade or so. These days, Baskin-Robbins belongs to the parent corporation of Dunkin' Donuts — is that a match made in hypoglycemic heaven, or what? — and boasts more than 5,800 shops internationally.

Although Baskin-Robbins' trademark is "31 Flavors," they've offered over a thousand varieties of ice cream at one time or another, from the perennial vanilla and chocolate to seasonal specialties (for example, our household favorite, Baseball Nut, a vanilla-raspberry-cashew concoction that resurfaces every spring) to such promotional gimmicks as Shrek'd Out Chocolate Mint and Casper's Red, White and Boo.

Here's a sweet irony: Robbins's son John, the author of such books as Diet for a New America, The Food Revolution, and Healthy at 100, is one of the world's most prominent advocates of veganism and natural, plant-based foods.

That's right, Junior: Dad paid for three squares a day, plus clothing, shelter, and college education, by selling frozen sugar and butterfat. And the man lived to be 90. Meanwhile, you're jumping on camera with Morgan Spurlock to bad-mouth your father's legacy.

King Lear said it best: "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!"

I'll raise a double scoop of Nutty Coconut to that.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

What's Up With That? #61: Worst Effen branding concept ever

Most people who know me at all well know that I don't drink alcohol.

Therefore, the following statement should not come as a surprise to anyone:

I do not want any Effen Vodka.

If you were thinking of giving me any Effen Vodka — say, as a token of esteem for a blog post well done — please keep your Effen Vodka to yourself.

And, while I respect your right to drink all the Effen Vodka you want (assuming that you're of legal drinking age in your jurisdiction), please don't drive after you've had your Effen Vodka. I don't want to see you injure anyone — including yourself — while under the influence of Effen Vodka.

I trust that I have made my position on this Effen Vodka as clear as... well... Effen Vodka.

Thank you.

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Monday, March 31, 2008

Another year, another 162 games

In the immortal words of baseball scribe Thomas Boswell, time begins on Opening Day.

For the 50th Anniversary edition of the San Francisco Giants, it might not be long before fans begin wishing that time had stopped.

More than any team in recent memory, the 2008 Giants resemble the 1985 "Real Grass, Real Sunshine, Real Baseball" squad — an assortment of has-beens (aging hurlers Vida Blue and Mike Krukow, second baseman Manny Trillo), never-weres (St. Louis-import first baseman David Green, starting pitcher Atlee Hammaker), and untested rookies (oft-injured third baseman Chris "The Tin Man" Brown) that posted the first (and to date, only) 100-loss season in San Francisco history. (In 2007, the Giants went 71-91.)

With the departure-slash-forced retirement of 43-year-old home run king, perennial All-Star, and federal indictee Barry Bonds during the offseason, the Giants lost their one legitimate superstar. In the Bondsman's absence, the focus will be directed to the Giants' starting rotation — with the $127 Million Man, former Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito, leading a gang of young guns — and the Giants' new center fielder, Aaron Rowand, a free agent addition from Philadelphia.

Beyond that? Well, there's not much "there" there at AT&T Park.

Let's review the 25-man roster with which the Giants begin the 2008 campaign today.

Starting pitching

Without question, the strength of the team, at least three-fifths of the time. The Giants' winningest pitcher from last year, Pepperdine alumnus Noah Lowry (14-8, 3.92 ERA), will miss at least the first two weeks as he recovers from surgery. That still leaves the G-Men with three solid starters: Matt Cain, who's ready to explode into All-Star status any second now; Tim Lincecum, the surprise find of 2007; and the aforementioned Zito, who weathered a rocky first year in the National League, but was impressive during the last month of the season and seems primed to return to form this year.

After the Big Three, the rotation will round out with Kevin Correia, who has seen major league time with the Giants in each of the last five seasons but has yet to establish himself, and Jonathan Sanchez, a hard-throwing kid (62 strikeouts in only 52 innings) with serious potential. (Potential = "He hasn't done anything yet.") Correia and Sanchez will duke it out in the early season to see who'll remain in the starting five once Lowry returns.

Relief pitching

In a word: Egad.

The Giants practiced bullpen-by-committee in 2007, and this season promises more of the same. The team is high on Brian "Beach Boy" Wilson, who beat out Brad Hennessey for the closer role late last season. Beyond Wilson, though, the San Francisco relief corps is a motley crew: holdovers Hennessey, Jack Taschner, and Tyler Walker — mediocre journeymen all — and a slew of newcomers ranging from one-time minor league phenom Merkin "Don't Call It a Pubic Wig" Valdez to 39-year-old Japan League import Keiichi Yabu, whose only major league experience came with the Oakland A's four years ago, and who pitched in the Mexican League last season.

Put it this way: Anything after the fifth inning could be a real adventure.


Bengie Molina — possibly the slowest runner in baseball — was the Giants' unlikely offensive hero in 2007, driving home a team-high 81 RBI. Molina will be called upon to replace Bonds as the Giants' cleanup hitter this year. Behind the plate, Bengie's a defensive liability, but an exceptional signal-caller who works effectively with the pitching staff.

Backing up Molina is career minor leaguer Steve Holm, who outplayed the incumbent second-stringer, Eliezer Alfonzo, in the Cactus League.


This will be interesting.

The Giants have no experienced first baseman (Dan Ortmeier will get a shot at winning the full-time job), an over-the-hill second baseman (Ray Durham, who hit a pathetic .218 last year, but has been on fire this spring), a shortstop who has never played at a level above Single-A (Brian Bocock, filling in for the disabled veteran Omar Vizquel), and who knows what at third base (incumbent Pedro "Pete Happy" Feliz was shown the door in the offseason, leaving the Giants with aging journeyman Rich Aurilia and switch-hitting prospect Eugenio Velez as the available options).

Whoever ends up playing around the horn, I'm not seeing much — if any — offensive muscle here. And defense at the corners, especially if converted outfielders Ortmeier and Velez get most of the starts, could be horrific.


If the Giants are going to score runs, they'll have to get most of them from this group.

Newcomer Aaron Rowand comes to the Giants off a Gold Glove-winning, career-best season, and will be counted on to provide a spark both at the plate (.309, 27 HR, 89 RBI, .515 slugging percentage) and in center field, where he'll be the best defensive player the Giants have boasted at that position since the days of Brett Butler.

Flanking Rowand are right fielder Randy Winn, probably the Giants' best all-around hitter, and the dilapidated Dave Roberts in left. Manager Bruce Bochy will want to spread the playing time around to youngsters Fred Lewis (.287 in 58 games) and Rajai Davis (.282 in 51 games), both of whom showed intriguing potential (see definition above) in limited 2007 action.


First in your hearts, last in the National League West.

Let's just hope they avoid passing the century mark in the loss column.

Last word

The Giants' marketing department continues its history of embarrassingly dreadful advertising taglines (i.e., "Hang In There!") with this season's laugher, "All Out, All Season."

Considering the anemic offense with which Bochy will be completing his lineup card, those words could prove frighteningly prophetic by the campaign's end.

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Nothin' says lovin' like a McMuffin in the oven

Let's all raise a glass to the late, great Herb Peterson, who changed the course of American cuisine forever.

Who's Herb Peterson?
you ask.

Why, the inventor of the Egg McMuffin, of course.

Peterson was a McDonalds franchise owner in Santa Barbara (and a former VP of the advertising firm that held the McDonalds account). In the early 1970s, Peterson, who was partial to eggs Benedict, decided to create a sandwich based on his favorite breakfast fare. His moment of genius: slap a fried egg, a slab of Canadian bacon, and a slice of good old American cheese between the buttered halves of an English muffin, and viola! A handheld simulation of eggs Benedict, perfect for dining on the go.

The Egg McMuffin spawned an entire menu of breakfast items at Mickey D's, including its close cousin, the Sausage McMuffin (like an Egg McMuffin, only with a sausage patty instead of Canadian bacon); the similar McGriddle (like a McMuffin, only with a maple-flavored, waffle-like pancake in place of the English muffin); Breakfast Burritos; and a host of scrambled egg and hotcake combination plates.

Other fast food chains quickly followed suit, leading to such quizzical creations as Jack-in-the-Box's Breakfast Jack (like an Egg McMuffin, only served on a hamburger bun instead of a muffin) and Burger King's Croissan'Wich (like an Egg McMuffin, only... well, you figure it out). Even Starbucks eventually got into the act, although the company recently decided to phase out its line of breakfast sandwiches because baristas complained that they were "too smelly." (The sandwiches, not the baristas. Although I imagine that some of the more bohemian espresso-slingers occasionally get a mite funky also.)

Peterson's brainchild also led to one of the funniest bits of scripted comedy ever produced. On National Lampoon's 1977 album That's Not Funny, That's Sick, a Mister Rogers spoof character named Mr. Roberts (played by future mockumentarian and Mr. Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Guest) interviews a fuzzy-brained bass player (played by future Not Ready for Prime Time Player and Scarlett Johansen costar Bill Murray) in typically inane Fred Rogers style:
Mr. Roberts: Can you say, "Egg McMuffin"?
Bassist: Eggamuffin.
Mr. Roberts: I like the way you say that.
At the time of his passing on Tuesday, Herb Peterson was 89 years old. I once ate an Egg McMuffin that had been desiccating under a heat lamp at least that long.

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Swan Tunes In: Super Bowl XLII commercials

At least the game was exciting.

Since the last vestiges of the 49ers dynasty are more than a decade in the rear-view mirror, in recent years I've mostly watched the Super Bowl to check out the commercials.

It's a good thing that Super Bowl Extra-Large Plus Two turned out to be a tightly contested, down-to-the-wire funfest, because this year's Super Bowl ads? Weaker than that Vitamin Water that Shaq the jockey was hawking.

These were the most memorable of a largely forgettable collection:
  • Bud Light: Man Breathes Fire. Any commercial that involves singeing a cat scores in my book. You know how I feel about cats.

  • Tide To Go: Job Interview. For my money, this one did everything an ad is supposed to do: it caught my attention; it stuck in my memory; and most important of all, it made me want to buy the product.

  • Budweiser: Rocky the Clydesdale. Yes, it was cute and hokey, but I loved the horse who finally made the Budweiser coach-pulling team after umpteen attempts, with a little help from his friend the Dalmatian.

  • Planters Nuts: A Dab of Cashew Will Do Ya. A homely woman rocks the pheromone boost she gets from rubbing cashews into her pulse points. This one was all kinds of creepy and weird, but it worked for me.

  • Coca-Cola: Macy's Parade. Three giant balloons get into a fight over a bottle of Coke. Charlie Brown wins. I'm not sure it made me want to slug down a Coke, but it was funny and unique. Plus, it's Charlie Brown, man. Charlie Brown rules.

  • SoBe Life Water: Thriller. Naomi Campbell zombie-dancing with animated lizards to the King of Pop's venerable classic. At least Michael didn't put in an appearance.

  • T-Mobile: Charles Barkley Out-Parties Dwyane Wade. The Round Mound of Rebound still has the magic. Comedy gold.
There were, of course, far more spots that I didn't find amusing or compelling:Wake me up in time for the next Super Bowl. Or better yet, for the Iron Man movie.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

See you later, Dr. Gator

Let's all raise our glasses in memory of James Robert Cade, MD, who died today of kidney failure at age 80.

Who's James Robert Cade? you ask. To which Uncle Swan replies: Only one of the most important figures in the history of modern athletics.

Dr. Cade, you see, was the man who invented Gatorade.

In 1965, Dr. Cade, a member of the medical school faculty at the University of Florida, was asked a seemingly imponderable question by one of the university's assistant football coaches, Dwayne Douglas: "Doctor, why don't football players wee-wee after a game?" (We used euphemisms like "wee-wee" in 1965, children.)

Cade researched the matter, and discovered that football players sweated off as much as 18 pounds of water weight during the average three-hour contest. The good doctor reasoned that it might be possible to develop a supplement that would replenish the fluids and salt the players perspired away, thus improving their stamina and overall health.

Cade and his staff went to work brewing up their magical potion. After several less-than-successful attempts, they hit upon the formula we now know as Gatorade — named, of course, after the Florida football team, not in honor of any reptilian ingredient in the concoction itself. (Or so Cade said.)

And thus, an industry was born.

The University of Florida, incidentally, collects a royalty on the name Gatorade from the manufacturer, PepsiCo — an arrangement that has netted the school more than $150 million over the decades. Righteous bucks, as Jeff Spicoli would say.

Personally, I find the flavor and mouthfeel of Gatorade and similar "sports drinks" repellent. But you can't argue with $7.5 billion per year in gross revenue.

Dr. Cade, I'm sure, would drink to that.

One final note: The people at Pepsi would like to assure you that Dr. Cade's death from kidney failure is not directly attributable to 40-plus years of drinking Gatorade. At least, that's the company line.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Please don't squeeze the Whipple

My next visit to the bathroom won't be quite the same...

Mr. Whipple has passed away.

If you're of a certain age, you can't help but recall those incessant commercials for Charmin toilet paper from the mid-1960s through the late '80s, in which bespectacled grocer George Whipple uttered his trademark catchphrase: "Please don't squeeze the Charmin!" Of course, once Mr. Whipple wrapped his clutching fingers around a package of that delectably pillowy bathroom tissue, he could never help getting his own squeeze on.

The actor behind the Whipple, Dick Wilson, died this morning at age 91. The British-born Riccardo DiGuglielmo grew up in Canada, and moved to the U.S. after serving in the Canadian Air Force during World War II. As an actor, he used his mother's maiden name to avoid being typecast in ethnic Italian roles.

Instead, he was typecast as a fussy merchant with a fetish for groping toilet paper. I suppose that's better, in some ways.

Wilson played numerous non-Whipple roles during his seven-decade acting career. He was a frequent guest star on Bewitched and Hogan's Heroes, and appeared in dozens of other sitcoms and TV dramas over the years. Wilson even turned up in a Cheech and Chong movie. (Rumors that he rolled a doobie out of Charmin proved to be erroneous.)

Although Procter & Gamble put Mr. Whipple out to pasture in 1985 (ads featuring Whipple continued in repeats for a few years thereafter), Wilson made a brief return to the character in 1999, when a retired Mr. Whipple returned to the supermarket to sell an upgraded version of Charmin.

Dick Wilson, I'm dedicating my next flush to you.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Tuesday turkey trot

Uncle Swan here, blazing through a barrage of lightning-quick thoughts, observations, and emotional outbursts. Steady as she goes, Captain.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

You bet your sweet Biffy

Today, as KJ and I were driving home from her daily radiation treatment, we found ourselves on the freeway behind a white pickup with Texas plates — notable primarily because we live in northern California, where we regard Texans as an alien species — and a sticker in the rear window touting a Web site:

What in the wide, wide world of sports, we asked ourselves, is a Biffy? A gardening tool? An online utility? Buffy the Vampire Slayer's gay cousin? Our minds boggled at the possibilities.

Needless to say (note to self: if it's needless, why am I saying it?), we fired up the Dell and looked up the site the moment we arrived at home.

Oh, my stars and garters.

It's a bidet.

For those of you unfamiliar with this uniquely European plumbing fixture — that would be everyone here who somehow missed seeing Crocodile Dundee — a bidet is a water-based personal sanitation device used for cleansing the nether regions after elimination.

To put it more bluntly, it's a butt-washer.

Apparently convinced that American rectal hygiene leaves something to be desired, the folks at Biffy have set themselves to the task of marketing a bidet accessory that can be mounted to a standard toilet, instead of as a stand-alone appliance in the European tradition. The Biffy site describes the operation of the unit in graphic detail:
When you are sitting on a toilet seat your bottom is perfectly positioned for thorough bidet cleansing. The toilet seat supports your cheeks while your body weight presses down, spreading your cheeks apart and exposes your bottom parts to the cleansing rinse of the Biffy. In just a few seconds fresh water rinses your bottom completely, like a bidet, only much better for your body and your health.
I don't know about you, but I just don't care to think about my "cheeks" in quite that way. I guess I'm just anal like that.

So to speak.

By the way, you simply must check out the Biffy promotional video, accessible from the Biffy home page. (No, you deve, it doesn't show anyone actually using the device.) Trust me, you haven't lived until you've heard a toddler telling you how much she loves her Biffy. (Frankly, everyone in this video seems just a little too cheery about the whole business for my taste.)

Me, I'm sticking with good old T.P.

It's the American way.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Tagline jungle

Back in 1990 — when we were still wrestling with the consequences of having one President named George Bush — Dudley Moore starred in a pretty funny comedy called Crazy People. Moore played an ad executive who suffers a breakdown and, while institutionalized, resurrects his career on Madison Avenue using outrageously blunt campaigns dreamed up by his fellow mental patients. (Example: "Metamucil: It helps you go to the toilet so you don't get cancer and die.")

I don't know what made me think of it, but last night as I was driving the 95 miles home from chorus rehearsal, I recalled this movie and decided that the time had come to revisit its concept. There are any number of companies who today could benefit from a dose of Crazy People-style promotion. Besides, insanity more or less summarizes my entire career to date as an advertising copywriter.

The product of my noodling thus far:
  • Denny's: At three a.m., nothing else is open.

  • Taco Bell: You can't handle real Mexican food.

  • Microsoft: There are still a few dollars that Bill Gates doesn't have.

  • Kellogg's: Creating hyperactive sugar addicts since 1906.

  • Wal-Mart: When you leave the trailer park, you have to go somewhere.

  • Costco: If one is good, twelve are better.

  • MasterCard: Because you're our slave, that's why.

  • Apple Computer: Revenge of the Nerds was nonfiction.

  • Spam: 1.2 million Hawaiians can't be wrong.

  • 7-11: Thank you for not shooting the clerk.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

The Swan Tunes In: Super Bowl ads

For those of us mortals who look forward to the Super Bowl more eagerly for the commercials than for the game, Super Bowl Extra-Large-Plus-One came something of a cropper. This wasn't exactly a stellar year for the ad agencies, who annually bring out the big guns for the Big Game. I'd forgotten most of the spots already by the time I sat down to compose this post. Lucky for you, I took notes.

As an advertising copywriter, I tend to view the splashier commercials with a gimlet eye. A commercial should have as its primary aim two goals: (1) imbedding the sponsor's brand inescapably in the mind of the viewer, and (2) fostering an intense desire to purchase the sponsor's product or service. An ad that accomplishes either goal has earned its money. One that does both is golden.

Sad to say, most of the Super Bowl spots focus on a third objective: entertainment. The problem is that entertainment is the job of programming -- in this case, the football game. If all an ad does is entertain the audience, without selling either the brand or the product or both, it might as well be a show, and not an ad. Few things are a more pointless waste of money and creativity than a clever commercial that everyone in America talks about, but no one can recall who the advertiser was or what product they were selling. You might as well set three million dollars (production cost plus airtime) on fire.

So let's examine a random sampling of Super Bowl commercials using the SwanShadow Scale of Advertising Effectiveness (a maximum of ten tailfeathers possible):

Pizza Hut: Jessica Simpson bolts the red carpet for some Cheesy Bites.
I have no love for Jessica Simpson — an unattractive, talent-free bimbo, in my not-so-humble estimation — nor for Pizza Hut, which serves the nastiest pizza of any of the major chains. This ad, however, does a good job of reinforcing the brand, and making the product seem appealing. Seven tailfeathers.

Blockbuster: The Blockbuster bunny and gerbil attempt to order videos using a mouse. The furry kind.
One of the more memorable and effective spots of the day. The mouse gag makes a strong mental connection with the online service. More importantly, the spot breaks away from the humor to solidify the sales pitch, rather than trying to make the gimmick do all the heavy lifting. Nine tailfeathers.

Doritos: A guy and girl meet disastrously cute.
Clever idea — this was an amateur submission generated by a "make your own Doritos ad" contest. For me, though, as clever as the piece is, its value is ruined by all of the violent misfortune. Unless I'm selling insurance or auto body repairs, I don't want people associating my product with car crashes. Six tailfeathers.

Sierra Mist: When you can seize the soft drink from my hand, Grasshopper, you will be ready to leave. Most of the blogosphere is raving about the other Sierra Mist spot starring comedians Michael Ian Black and Jim Gaffigan, in which Black's middle manager fires Gaffigan's bizarrely coiffured employee. For me, that spot was more about the sight gags than the soda. This one, with Black playing a martial arts teacher and Gaffigan his hyperaggressive student, works better at selling the product, while still bringing the funny. Eight tailfeathers. (The "hair" ad only gets six.)

Snickers: Two macho men share an inadvertent kiss over a Snickers bar. This was probably the funniest ad of the day. It did not, however, make me want to eat a Snickers bar. Instead, it made me want to hurl. Not because of the implicit homoeroticism (borrowing heavily from a famous bit in the John Hughes film Planes, Trains and Automobiles), but because the idea of having food in my mouth that has been in someone else's (I don't care whose) turns my stomach. I can't imagine anyone viewing this ad and thinking, "I sure would like a Snickers right about now." Three tailfeathers.

Bud Light: Carlos Mencia turns an ESL class into a beer commercial.
Alcohol ads are always a valuable test for me, since I don't drink. This spot makes effective use of humor — and ethnic humor at that; tricky in any venue — in reinforcing the Bud Light brand. There's a reason why Anheuser-Busch, which I'm told by my beer-drinking associates makes a mediocre product at best, sells so much beer: Their ads consistently underscore their brand identity, to the degree that even a teetotaler such as myself knows who they are. (I always wonder: If Budweiser is the King of Beers, is Bud Light the Queen of Beers?) Eight feathers. (Another Bud Light spot starring Mencia lost the branding message in the punch line. Only four tailfeathers for that one.) Jungle lemmings.
Who thought this would be a good idea? A noisy, chaotic commercial featuring office workers in a jungle environment being attacked by unseen marauders, ending with the entire cast (or CGI versions of same) running off a gigantic cliff. I'm not sure from watching this ad what the product is, or what I'm supposed to think about it — other than that it has something to do with blowdarts and mass suicide. Yuck. One tailfeather... but just barely.

Emerald Nuts: Robert Goulet messes with your stuff.
Easily the most peculiar ad of Super Bowl Sunday — although less inflammatory than the Snickers spot — this one is just plain freaky. It didn't make me want to buy nuts, only to think that the creatives at Emerald's agency of record are nuts. Two tailfeathers, for sheer audacity.

Nationwide Insurance: "Federline! Fries!"
We rip on K-Fed quite frequently here at SSTOL, but this commercial is actually well done. I would have made the connection between the humorous body of the ad and the sales pitch more cohesive, but all in all, this was worth the money Nationwide spent on it, for the pop culture buzz alone. Seven tailfeathers — would have been eight, but KJ used to work for Nationwide, and she's still a mite peeved.

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Save the planet, and pass the chicken wings

The Seminoles are buying the Hard Rock Café.

Not the Florida State University football team. The actual Seminoles.

With approximately $965 million socked away from their existing gambling ventures — including Hard Rock Casino Hotels in Tampa and Hollywood, Florida — the Seminole Tribe of Florida is purchasing the entire Hard Rock franchise — lock, stock, and memorabilia. It's the first time a Native American tribe has bought a major, name-brand corporation.

In the buyout package, the 3,300-member Seminole Tribe will receive title to 124 Hard Rock Cafés, four Hard Rock Hotels, two Hard Rock Casino Hotels, and two Hard Rock Live! concert venues. Not included is the Las Vegas branch of the Hard Rock Hotel, which was sold to another outfit earlier this year.

Apparently, there's no truth to the rumor that the Hard Rock's previous owners, the London-based Rank Group, threw in the remains of Elvis to sweeten the deal.

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Monday, October 30, 2006

Getting your Phil at

I just caught the new commercial for the Internet dating service

Here's the setup: A waitress at a sidewalk café daydreams that a parade of eligible bachelors is marching down the street in front of her. When she snaps out of her reverie, she's actually pouring coffee all over her customer, who just happens to be Dr. Phil. The good doc tells Princess Head-in-Clouds that she's got every quality a man should want — looks, personality, brains. All she needs now is — you guessed it — a little guidance from

A few problems here:
  1. If you've ever seen Dr. Phil's show — you might as well admit you have — you know Dr. Phil isn't the kind of guy who would lightly blow off getting hot coffee dumped in his lap. He'd be all up in that waitress's face about her lousy relationship with her father, or something.

  2. Dr. Phil's reassurance of his would-be dating queen rings hollow. Maybe you do have looks, personality, and IQ. But you're a waitress at a café. That's one step up the economic chain from slinging fries at Mickey D's. You're working for minimum wage and tips, while you're hoping to score with a captain of industry or a neurosurgeon. Time for a reality check, sweet cheeks. Try hitting the books for that GED and a real career, then we'll talk.

  3. The punch line of Dr. Phil's pitch amounts to the most ludicrous guarantee in the history of marketing: If doesn't find your Mr. or Ms. Right in six months, you get six months of service free. Let me see if I understand this correctly. will hook you up with one loser after another for half a year, and the consolation prize is another six months of dates with the losers they send you. What kind of freakazoid restitution is that?

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Love that chicken!

Yesterday in my little corner of suburbia, a Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits franchise opened.

That subterranean rumble you just felt was your Uncle Swan doing his happy suppertime dance.

The arrival of a new fast food outlet may not seem like a big deal to you, but at our house, the advent of a local Popeyes unleashed a celebratory vibe equalled only by a Giants division championship. Prior to this, the closest Popeyes was located 30 miles away in Vallejo, just down the pike from Six Flags Marine World — a lengthy run for a quick bite of fast food, though we made that run more than once. Now, Barry Bonds could practically hit a fastball from our front door to the home of tasty deep-fried poultry, buttery biscuits, and such faux-Cajun side dishes as red beans and rice.

A bit of Popeyes trivia: Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits wasn't named for the spinach-chomping cartoon sailor of the same name. The founder of the chicken joint named his restaurant after Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, the New York City police detective played by Gene Hackman in The French Connection. (The real-life "Popeye," whose actual name was Eddie Egan — he later parlayed his French Connection fame into a modest career as a Hollywood character actor — wasn't named after the sailor either. Go figure.)

It wasn't until a decade or so later that Popeye the Sailor became the company's advertising icon. That relationship, sad to tell, was severed a few years back, when the restaurant chain decided to go for a slightly more upscale tone in its marketing, focused more on the chain's New Orleans roots and Cajun-style fare.

I don't think they cook the chicken in Olive Oyl, either.

(Hee! I crack me up.)

And yes, for reasons unknown to me, the chain does, in fact, omit the apostrophe from its name. Probably just to bug me.

Or perhaps to exact revenge for the "Olive Oyl" joke.

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Monday, August 07, 2006

That's what a hamburger's all about

Esther Snyder, the cofounder of the In-N-Out hamburger chain, died over the weekend. She was 86. (Always an ironic age at which to pass on.)

For those of you not blessed to live in California, Nevada, or Arizona, the name In-N-Out Burger probably means nothing to you. For many Left Coasters and Southwesterners, however, the very mention of In-N-Out sends salivary glands into hyperactivity.

Started by Mrs. Snyder and her late husband Harry in suburban Los Angeles in 1948, In-N-Out may be the largest — and perhaps last — family-owned fast-food chain in America. The company has always been doggedly independent, both in its business philosophy — the privately-held chain only recently topped 200 outlets, a paltry number compared with such contemporaries as McDonalds and Jack-in-the-Box — and in its menu — in an era of burger joints hawking Chicken McNuggets and deli sandwiches on ciabatta bread, In-N-Out still serves nothing but hamburgers, French fries, and drinks. Period. No chicken, no fish, no salads, no frou-frou.

In-N-Out Burger's claims to fame are legion: its "off-the-board" menu options; the secretive nature of its founding family, who refuse to make public reports of sales figures or profits; the spectacularly bad personal fortunes of that same founding family (Harry Snyder died of lung cancer just as the company was beginning to expand outside its Los Angeles base, while both Snyder sons died six years apart in separate accidents after taking over control of their parents' company); the cryptic religious references that appear on its product packaging. To its fans, however, In-N-Out is famous mostly for tasty, freshly prepared (the fries are cut from whole potatoes on the spot) food.

Insiders well know that, although one can't order an entree other than a burger at In-N-Out, said burger can be obtained with numerous "secret" preparations that don't appear on the published menu. (These options are, however, preprogrammed into the cash registers, so the counter staff can charge appropriately.) For example, ordering a burger "animal style" means that the inside of the bun is coated with mustard and grilled, and the sandwich topped with cooked onions (as opposed to the standard raw) plus an extra dollop of Thousand Island dressing. (I'm told that you can order fries "animal style" also, though I have no clue why you'd want onions and salad dressing on fries.) Hefty eaters can belly up for a "2x4" (a double cheeseburger with a total of four slices of cheese) or a "4x4" (four beef patties and four cheese slices, informally known as a cardiologist's nightmare). The carbohydrate-averse can call for a "flying Dutchman" (a double cheeseburger without the bun) or a burger "protein style" (a beef patty wrapped in lettuce).

Thanks to the religious convictions of the Snyder family, In-N-Out food is served in packaging subtly adorned with Bible references, usually in an unobtrusive location, such as the underside of drink cups. It's an interesting paradox for a burger joint whose name sounds like a crude innuendo. In fact, for years a common sight on California highways was an In-N-Out Burger bumper sticker with the first and last letters of "Burger" removed. I haven't seen one of these in a while, suggesting to me that either the joke got old or the company quit giving away bumper stickers. I'm not sure which is the truth.

When I was active in chorus, our rehearsal night carpool frequently stopped at an In-N-Out for dinner on the way home. I'm not a big hamburger fan — my usual order at a burger chain is a fish sandwich, if there's one on the menu — but if you like your beef on a bun, I have to admit that In-N-Out does a pretty solid version. (I'm not as enthusiastic about the fries — prepackaged and processed or not, McDonald's still beats every other chain's fries all hollow.)

The drive-through line at our local outlet — the northernmost In-N-Out on the California coast — often wraps around the building, so they must be doing something right.

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Sunday, July 30, 2006

The idea of North's

A sad note from Medford, Oregon, gateway to Crater Lake and birthplace of Lisa Rinna:

The original J.J. North's has closed.

J.J. North's Grand Buffet was once a thriving chain of all-you-can-eat restaurants — the kind of place you folks of Scandinavian extraction residing in the upper Midwest call a smorgasbord. The sort of joint where you walk in, grab a tray, and proceed to pile plates high with bland-yet-filling steam-table fare until you can barely walk. Back in the day, the chain went by the name J.J. North's Chuck Wagon, before new ownership took the business — if not the dining experience — slightly more upscale under the "Grand Buffet" moniker.

Years ago, we had a J.J. North's here in Santa Rosa. It was a prime location for Sunday after-church luncheons because the price of admission was cheap, the grub was plentiful, even the pickiest child could find at least a few items to consume, and you could usually shove enough tables together to accommodate a party of almost any size. Our daughter KM loved it because of the self-serve ice-cream station, if for no other reason.

Then, one day, without advance warning, our J.J. North's closed its doors. (Much like the sudden departure of the Medford outlet, or so it seems.) We showed up one evening, our mouths watering in anticipation of crisp fried chicken and mounds of fluffy mashed potatoes, and it was gone. "Lost our lease!" proclaimed the hand-printed sign taped to the front door. We hoped that meant the management might perhaps reopen in another local venue, but they never did.

My funniest memory of J.J. North's involves the night we discovered our house had been sold. About a year earlier, our friend Tom the realtor had helped us move out of our cramped upstairs apartment into a comfortable two-story townhouse condo owned by one of his clients. On this particular evening, we arrived at North's to find Tom and his family already there. We greeted them in the usual way, but Tom barely spoke to us. Later, we discovered the reason — his client, our landlord, had only that afternoon decided to sell our townhouse. Tom was struggling to muster up the courage to tell us we had just 30 days to move.

A few J.J. North's Grand Buffets survive, scattered here and there throughout California, but the North family long ago sold the franchise to a larger company. The original Medford outlet was the last restaurant remaining under the control of old J.J.'s heirs.

In a dash of irony, one of the key factors in the Medford North's closure appears to have been competition from a nearby HomeTown Buffet — a huge chain founded by a former staff member at the Medford North's restaurant.

That's gratitude for you.

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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Cheese, whiz, and other excretions

Please lower your napkins to half-mast...

the inventor of the Philly cheesesteak sandwich has died.

Loath as I am to speak ill of the newly deceased, and as great a devotee as I am of the cholesterol-ravaged, carbohydrate-overloaded concoction with which he is credited, I must nevertheless question the supposed genius of one Harry Olivieri, who with his brother Pat opened the first cheesesteak joint, Pat's King of Steaks, in the 1930s.

My quibble with Mr. Olivieri? Two words: Cheez Whiz.

I'm sorry, King of Steaks (or is it Brother of King of Steaks?), but you can't put Cheez Whiz on a sandwich and call it a cheesesteak.

Cheez Whiz is not cheese.

It may, on the other hand, be whiz.

Which leads us to the dubious wisdom (no pun intended) of the Kraft Foods people in giving a semi-liquid yellow comestible a name that includes a colloquialism meaning urine.

But I digress.

According to Kraft, Cheez Whiz is a "processed cheese food product." The concept of cheese food confounds me. As a proud dog owner, I understand dog food. It's what we feed our dog. I understand cat food and fish food as the pet store staples customarily fed to cats and fish, respectively. I therefore must proceed under the presumption that "cheese food" is not cheese, but rather a product to be fed to cheese.

Who wants to put that on a sandwich? Not I, said the pig.

Provolone, on the other hand, is entirely another story. Only a barbarian — or perhaps one of those darn Etruscans — would put anything other than authentic provolone cheese (notice: not provolone "cheese food") on a cheesesteak sandwich.

Even if the guy who made the first one used that funky, viscous, Day-Glo stuff from a jar.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

What's Up With That? #33: You can't overlove your innuendo

It's been on the air for more than a year now, apparently without protest. Which may suggest that I'm the only person in America who's creeped out by that pedophilic Fruit of the Loom underwear commercial.

You know the one I mean.

Tell me there's nothing uncomfortably eerie about grown men dressed up like fruit — in the literal sense of the word — singing longingly about "a boy in pure white briefs" (the boy in question being perhaps ten years old in the video), concluding with the line, "You can't overlove your underwear."

And the title of the ad is "Ripe for the Pickin'." Puh-lease.

What ad agency concocted this spot — NAMBLA?

Actually, it's The Richards Group, a billion-dollar agency based in Dallas, which represents top-shelf companies ranging from Hyundai to Home Depot. They ought to know better. (I suppose I've just shredded my chances of ever writing copy for them.)

And before you ask, no, it's not just the man-boy thing. The ad would be no less hackle-raising if the apple guy was crooning about prepubescent girls in white cotton panties. Or if an adult woman dressed like Carmen Miranda sang the praises of skivvies-clad minor children of either gender. It's the subtext that matters.

The infernal thing is, that jingle is awfully darned catchy. I find myself wandering absent-mindedly about the house, extolling in song the joys of pederasty.

It's icky. That's all I'm saying.

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Holy vermicelli, Batman!

After many long years of geographical estrangement...

Rice-A-Roni is once again the San Francisco treat.

(The other San Francisco treat, you deve.)

When Quaker Oats ("There's nothing better for thee than me") bought Golden Grain, the company that made Rice-A-Roni for decades, they downplayed the product's San Francisco connection, eventually ditching the familiar jingle and cable car imagery altogether. For people who aren't from around here, I suppose the name San Francisco evokes certain... umm... images, shall we say, that not every company wants associated with its merchandise.

But never underestimate the power of a catchy advertising slogan to rise from the dead.

I actually like Rice-A-Roni, as an occasional side dish. When KJ and I were first married, it was practically a daily staple. We don't serve it very often anymore — our daughter isn't a fan — but I always keep a box or two handy in the pantry. Because every now and then, those old comfort foods from your childhood just taste like love, don't they?

It's interesting to note, however, that although I have consumed dozens of meals in San Francisco over the years...

...I've never eaten Rice-A-Roni there.

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Sunday, June 25, 2006

No mushroom, but a fun guy nonetheless

They say you never know what you've got until it's gone. These words were never more truly spoken than when it comes to the life of one Warren L. Simmons, who died over the hill in Napa last week.

Simmons is probably best known in the Bay Area for being the mastermind and motivating force behind Pier 39, one of San Francisco's premier tourist attractions. He also founded the Blue and Gold Fleet ferry service, which provides the only transportation to Alcatraz, the former federal prison located on an island in the middle of the bay.

But until I read his obituary, I had no idea that Mr. Simmons also started the Chevys restaurant chain.

I love me some Chevys.

As franchise restaurants go, Chevys is about as good as it gets in the field of Americanized Mexican cuisine. The chain's tagline is "Fresh Mex," and they live up to the slogan, serving food created with fresh ingredients actually prepared in their restaurant kitchens rather than prefabricated. ("No cans in our kitchen!" proclaims the menu.) Chevys makes its own excellent salsa, guacamole, and tortillas right on the premises. In fact, as you await your order you can watch the tortillas springing to life on a giant Rube Goldbergesque contraption called "El Machino," located smack-dab in the middle of the dining room.

You will not be served better chips and salsa in any restaurant north of the Baja Peninsula than you'll get at your local Chevys. The combination of hot, thin, lightly crispy chips and fresh, tangy salsa can be so tempting that you're likely to fill up before your entree arrives, unless you have either a bottomless gullet or willpower like a monk in a harem.

I highly recommend the fuego-seasoned shrimp fajitas. If you order some, save me a doggie bag.

Ironically, there isn't a Chevys on Pier 39. Warren Simmons sold the waterfront complex of shops and restaurants five years before he opened the first Chevys. (He later sold the restaurants too. Chevys today is owned by the Pepsi-Cola Company. Don't even think about trying to order a Coke.) There is, however, a Hard Rock Cafe, assuming you enjoy that sort of thing, as well as a Bubba Gump Shrimp Company that serves some of the most lackluster, insanely overpriced seafood on the planet. If you decide to eat at the Pier — and if you're on a budget, or just hate paying for outrageously expensive meals, I suggest you dine elsewhere — try Neptune's Palace instead. (The most consistently enjoyable and affordable restaurants Pier 39 ever housed, the quirky Alcatraz Bar and Grill and an outlet of the local Chinese eatery Yet Wah, both closed years ago, I'm sad to report.)

Thanks for all the good times, Mr. Simmons. The next time I go to visit the sea lions at Pier 39, or scarf a Super Chevys combo plate, I'll raise my Diet Pepsi to you.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Take me out to the Corporate Sponsorship Naming Rights ballpark

Being that yesterday was my half-birthday (43 and a half, Nosey Parker), KJ took me to AT&T (until recently SBC, née Pacific Bell) Park last evening to see my beloved San Francisco Giants take on the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (easily the most ludicrous locational moniker since the local NBA franchise moved from San Francisco to Oakland and became the Golden State Warriors).

Thanks to Giants starting pitcher Matt Cain, it was a whale of a game. Cain held Los Angeles-slash-Anaheim hitless until two outs deep into the eighth inning, at which point the Angels' Chone Figgins (who inexplicably pronounces his given name "Shawn") smacked a single to left-center field to break up the no-hitter. Fortunately, the G-Men scored two runs in the first inning — thanks to an RBI double by Barry Bonds and a run-scoring groundout by Steve Finley — that held up for the victory.

Random goodness occasioned by our evening at the old ballyard...
  • Good to be here: For those of you living in parts of the world where you can't easily drive to take in a game at the Giants' gorgeous home field, now dubbed AT&T Park, I pity you. Don't move here, mind you — Lord knows the Bay Area is crowded enough. I'm just telling you what you're missing.

  • Good eats, San Francisco style: Gordon Biersch garlic fries are the eighth wonder of the culinary world, and moving up fast.

  • Good help is hard to find: On my journey to the concession stand to purchase my Louisiana hot links and Diet Coke, I waited several minutes for the counterpeople to finish yakking before a supervisor prodded them to take my order. That's not characteristic of AT&T Park, where the guest services are usually excellent. Both the links and I got a little steamed.

  • Good fun: The guy who plays the Giants' mascot, Lou Seal, deserves a pat on the flipper. I'm not a big costumed-mascot fan, but Lou (who goes by the name Joel Zimei when not dressed like an upright pinniped) gives the fans a great show without getting in the way of the main attraction.

  • Good grief, that's expensive: Paying $25 to park your car at the ballpark sucks. I'm just saying.

  • Good to know he's still alive: On our way to our seats, we saw veteran Giants broadcaster Lon Simmons heading for the press box. I think Lon called the first baseball game Abner Doubleday ever staged.

  • Good job on the mike: Renel Brooks-Moon, the Giants' public address announcer (one of the few women in the country so employed), always lends an air of freshness and class to the ballpark experience. You go, Renel.

  • Good hands: When Jose Vizcaino (second base), Omar Vizquel (shortstop), and Pedro Feliz (third base) are playing together, the Giants may have the most quietly brilliant defensive infield in baseball.

  • Good newz: When rookie catcher Eliezer Alfonzo joins three aforementioned gentlemen in the lineup, the Giants also field the highest quotient of "Guys Whose Names Include a Z" in baseball history.

  • Good advice: Alfonzo needs to stop trying to throw runners out at second base. His scattergun arm, which accounted for the Angels' only run of the game, sucks worse than $25 parking.

  • Good idea, well executed: The Giants' new online system that allows season ticketholders to sell their unused ducats on the team's Web site earns a gold star. KJ and I picked up spectacular seats for a reasonable cost just the day before the game. We were also able to avoid the lines at the Will Call window simply by downloading and printing our tickets at home. Sweet.

  • Good for the neighborhood: There's now a wonderfully appointed, clean and well-lighted Borders bookstore right across the street from AT&T Park, just in case you ever arrive at the yard early and have some time to occupy.

  • Good memories: The new statue of Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal outside the ballpark's south gate looks spectacular. And what a thrill it is to look out over the right field arcade and see the sweet swing of Willie "Big Stretch" McCovey across McCovey Cove.

  • Good that she has something to fall back on: The young Latina woman hawking Ben & Jerry's ice cream bars in our section had the least lucrative vendor assignment in the park. Selling frozen anything in the upper deck on a San Francisco evening is a lost cause. Not for nothing did Mark Twain once opine, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." At least this particular vendor was kind of cute. Not that I noticed. Or bought any ice cream as a result.

  • Good time: Was had by all. Including yours truly.

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Saturday, June 10, 2006

Wendy won't give you a Biggie anymore

Wendy's, the fast-food chain known for their square hamburgers and human fingers in their chili, is dropping the terms "Biggie" and "Great Biggie" in reference to their gunboat-sized French fries and drinks.

Mind you, the elephantine drinks and fries at Wendy's will still be as "big" and "great big" as they've always been. Only now, the former "Biggie" will be designated as "medium," and the "Great Biggie" will be "large."

This is exactly the same sort of sophistry engaged in by Starbucks, where small is "tall," medium is "grande," and large is "venti," whatever the heck that means.

Somehow, I don't think Wendy's founder, the late Dave Thomas, would approve.

Dave was all about the Biggie.

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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Worst. Campaign. Ad. Ever.

It's Primary Election Day here in sunny California. I will, however, happily avoid the local precinct. As permanent absentee voters — a status we opted for during KJ's battle with breast cancer six years ago — we accomplished our civic duty last week.

The fact that I've already cast my ballot won't prevent me from taking a jab at what has to be the most poorly thought-out campaign ad since Lyndon Johnson's infamous "Daisy" spot in 1964 — the one in which the little blonde girl picking flowers in a meadow gets obliterated by a nuclear mushroom cloud because too many people voted for Barry Goldwater.

The offenders here are the handlers of Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor Jackie Speier. For the benefit of you non-Golden Staters who may have forgotten, Ms. Speier, today a member of the California State Senate, began her career in politics as an aide to Congressman Leo Ryan. Ryan, the only member of Congress in U.S. history to be killed in the line of duty, was murdered during the People's Temple massacre in Jonestown, Guyana, back in 1978. Speier, who accompanied Ryan on his fateful investigative mission, took five bullets in her own body, but survived. (Obviously.)

One of Speier's current TV spots begins with a graphic description of Speier's injuries at Jonestown, notes how she was left for dead in a South American jungle, and talks about how her indomitable spirit helped pull her through that tragedy to where she is today. Then the candidate herself comes on, and announces, "To see what I'll do, you need to look at what I've done."

Ummm... what you've just told us you've done, Jackie, is get shot five times and abandoned on a tarmac runway in a tropical rain forest.

Do you really want to do that again?

For what it's worth, I voted for Ms. Speier anyway. But I sure hope she's wrong about the other thing.

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Drink up, Hulkamaniacs!

Taste this, America...

A company known as Bliss Beverage is marketing an energy drink to be endorsed by professional 'rassler and reality TV star Hulk Hogan.

Hulk Energy, as the potent potable will be branded, is a spinoff of Socko, which sounds vaguely like something that might have been swirling in the punchbowl on an episode of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.

According to the official press release:
"Hulk Energy powered by Socko" has been specifically designed to deliver an impact of energy fortified with Taurine, vitamins B12, B6 and Horny Goat Weed to help endurance while increasing mental awareness without unwanted carbohydrates.
I don't know about you, but I'm always worried that I'm not getting enough Horny Goat Weed in my diet. Nothing in the press release indicates what, if any, anabolic steroids will be included in the Hulk Energy recipe.

An interesting side note: One of the marketing geniuses who dreamed up Hulk Energy is Jason Hervey, a former child actor best remembered as Wayne Arnold, Fred Savage's older brother on The Wonder Years. Nice to see he grew up and made a success of himself...

...selling Hulk Hogan energy drinks.

Forget I said that.

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Monday, February 06, 2006

Stupor Bowl Xtra-Large

The Super Bowl is boring.

Yeah, I said it.

Too often, the NFL's championship game is a one-sided blowout. In the non-blowout years, we get closely contested but hideously played games like yesterday's Super Bowl XL.

Holy cats, that was one ugly football game.

A few random jottings...
  • Speaking of ugly, who designed the Seahawks' uniforms? Anyone with even a modicum of fashion sense knows that an outfit in which the shirt and the pants are identical colors looks ridiculous. The guys from Seattle looked like they were wearing baby blue nylon pajamas.

  • If you're going to have instant replay, at least have a replay official who can see the monitor with clear vision. The call on that phantom touchdown by Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger was insane. Stevie Wonder, who rocked the house during the pregame show, could have seen that the ball never broke the plane of the goal line until after Roethlisberger was down.

  • The NFL simply must invest the money in full-time officials. Far too many games are decided, completely or in part, on inaccurate calls by the zebras. The pass interference penalty that cost Seattle a touchdown was another grotesque example of clueless officiating. If you take away the points the Steelers were awarded on the non-existent TD, and give Seattle back all the points of which they were robbed by the referees, Seattle — as horribly as they played — would be football's world champions today.

  • I didn't particularly care which team won this year, but I was happy for longtime Pittsburgh head coach Bill Cowher and his retiring superstar running back, Jerome "The Bus" Bettis, and sorry for former 49ers assistant Mike Holmgren and his quarterback coach, Jim Zorn. Zorn was the only football player whose poster ever hung in my college dorm room. I wasn't a Seattle fan — I just liked knowing that somewhere out there was a left-handed quarterback whose last name sounded like a character in a Robert E. Howard sword and sorcery novel.

  • I hope when I get to be his present age in another 18 years, I have half the energy of Mick Jagger. Too bad Mick still can't get no satisfaction, but they have little blue pills for that now.

  • About the Stones, though: Do we really need to see craggy-faced semi-cadavers in their sixties prancing about on a public stage? And why do we keep getting British musicians for the Super Bowl halftime show? (Paul McCartney was the headliner last year.) I'll bet they don't hire Van Halen or Springsteen to play at the English soccer or cricket finals.

  • Usually the Super Bowl is all about the commercials, but I didn't see a single one that impressed me this year. The Dove Soap spot promoting positive self-image for young women offered a quietly powerful message, but to the wrong audience. They might as well have aired that ad on closed circuit TV at Hooters restaurants. I thought the costly Diet Pepsi spots with Sean "Just Call Me Diddy" Combs and Jay "Last Comic Standing" Mohr were insufferably lame.

  • Speaking of Jay Mohr, how does a weaselly dweeb like that land a fiancee like Nikki Cox? She must have a jones for obnoxious comedians — her previous boyfriend was Bobcat Goldthwait.

  • Tangentially related: Congratulations to Super Bowl color commentator and former Oakland Raiders head coach John Madden on his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Madden and his fellow inductees Warren Moon, Troy Aikman, Harry Carson, Rayfield Wright, and the late Reggie White comprise a worthy Canton freshman class.

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Monday, January 30, 2006

What's Up With That? #29: Hey, babe... care to see my Whopper?

First Hootie, now Hooters.

This just in, by way of The Superficial: That creepy Burger King and actress-model-Hooters spokeperson Brooke Burke have apparently made a love connection.

I'm warning you — the first one who makes a wisecrack incorporating the phrase "hot beef" is going to get a time-out.

You know, of course, that these human-mascot relationships never work out. But it could be even stranger. The Burger King could be hitting on Darius Rucker in his Brokeback Mountain cowboy outfit.

I just wonder...

Does the King let Brooke have it her way?

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