Month: August 2009

It’s Certifiable

I’ve been noticing more and more lately the “empty” words and phrases in advertising.  Of course, the very fact that it’s in advertising makes it suspect…they’re trying to get our money so a dose of skepticism and buyer-beware attitude is just smart.  And I know they’ve always been there, but maybe I’ve been bored lately and paying closer attention.

When we speak we often make grammar errors or say things that we later realize were wrong or of incorrect style or just silly.  Print is a different thing in my opinion.  Especially advertising.  Advertising goes past the eyes of many people before it sees the light of day.  There are more opportunities for questions to be asked, for modifications to be made and for the message and meaning to be analyzed.

A word that has caught my interest lately is “certified”.  You can buy a “certified” used car and you can buy it from a “certified”  sales professional/sales consultant/customer service representative/High Priest.  Plants are “certified” to grow and thrive.  Sellers “certify” their products.

What does all this mean?  What body is doing all of this certification?  Or are they being really extra-super sly and just saying they gave these people and products a “certificate” — a piece of paper with some decal on it — and that makes for a certification?  I suppose in court that would pass muster, but they’re messing with us and we know it.  I don’t like to be messed with.

If someone is a Microsoft Certified Server Administrator that means something.  They studied/took classes and passed a standard test that everyone with that certification must pass.  There’s a testing body that administers the testing and holds people to a standard.

But if you are a “certified used car salesperson”…what school did you go to?  What training did you take?  What independent organization tested your knowledge of the subject and bestowed your certification?  Or was it sales manager Bobby explaining to you where the keys to the cars are kept and what margin to shoot for and what your commission will be and how to play with the numbers of a prospect’s trade-in?  Was that the certification process?  Or was there really NO certification process at all and the people making the commercials just threw out the word because it sounds official and comforting?

I fear it is the latter.

I’ve never seen schools advertised where I could get all of these certifications.   If I wanted to pursue a new career selling home electronics and I wanted to be a “certified home electronics specialist”, what community college offers that training?  Where are the tests administered?  How much do they cost?  For how long is the certification valid?

I suspect it’s all a lot of hooey.

And if those begonias are somehow taking a test and being certified I want to see that!  I can’t figure out how their branches can hold onto a Number-2 pencil in order to complete the test….

Fill ‘er up!

ReceiptBelieve it or not, dinosaurs did not roam the earth the last time Americans experienced the full-service gas station fill-up.  And by “full” service I mean that they pumped your gas.  There was a time when they would check the air in  your tires and your oil level, but I think those were just lightly-disguised ploys to up sell the driver on a quart or two of 10W-30.

With apologies to New Jersey and Oregon where full-service is the law, most fill-ups in this land are pump-it-yourself.  For a while, when gas stations were phasing out full-service, you had your choice:  park at the pumps nearest the building and you’d get your gas pumped for you; park away from the building and the joy was all yours.

I remember the arguments that people had about this change.  Some liked it because they wanted to fill and be on their way.  Others were against it because now they would be the ones getting petrol burps on their skirts.

Along with full service was a special dialect that was used to make your gasoline order.  This special way of speaking has has all but evaporated.  In days past you would hear drivers shout “Fill ‘er up,” meaning fill the tank full.  Or you might here “Give me five worth,” meaning once you’ve given me five dollars’ worth of gas, stop.  It reminds me of the style of banter one would hear at a farm auction:  “Who’ll gimme five, five, five, five for this whosie-whatsis…do I hear five, five, five?”

With the fill-yourself model you had the privilege, after finishing the dirty deed, to walk into the store and pay for the amount on Pump 7.  I always wondered how long that would last.  I mean, upon seeing old Frank over there filling up his little lawnmower gas can at Pump 3, how easy would it be for one to prance in to the store and pay Frank’s two-gallon bill and then drive away?  That would leave the young felon behind the counter wondering who pumped the 25 gallons on Pump 7…and Frank looking stupid.   At $3 an hour, that little escapade would have eaten up said felon’s earnings for the day.  He probably made up the difference by stealing beer and selling it to the 10-year-olds gathered out back…so let us not feel too awfully sorry for him.

The next big change at the gas station was the inclusion of plastic processing equipment right in the pumps.  I think this is one of the best consumer benefits to come along in years.  With a card reader at the pump the customer could now buy whatever quantity of whatever grade gasoline they wanted and pay for it with a credit or debit card right at the pump.  Faster.  More efficient.  And it allowed the customer the opportunity to avoid the delicious Klondike bars calling their name at the cash register inside.

So today was gas day for the ole Hemi pickup.  I count myself lucky when I can make it a full week in the mountains between fill-ups.  It’s a major financial transaction and one that is not one of the high points of my life.    But today I had a thought (it does happen).

For years we bought gas with some consideration for the amount of cash we had on our person.  If you had five dollars (or in today’s economy, $30), you might fill your tank to that amount, even if that didn’t fill the tank.

Similarly, wanting to be as efficient as possible, rounding up was (and is) very popular.  If the pump shuts itself off at $27.83 we often squirt and spurt our way to an even $28 (even though they tell us we’re killing our cars and whales by doing so).

When we were using cash that sort of made sense.  We wanted to be in and out and on our way.  We didn’t want to force the poor kid at the register to have to make incorrect change.  It was a good thing.

But now it seems everyone is using plastic of some sort or another.  The gas station I used today in particular was quite busy.  It takes a while to pump 25 gallons so I had plenty of time to people-watch.  (I am convinced that they’ve decreased the flow rate so that we are forced to stand there longer and listen to the ads for the stale doughnuts on sale inside).  Without exception everyone that went inside to pay was getting something in addition to gasoline.  Most of them were buying water to drink.  But the majority of clients during my visit were paying with plastic at the pump.

I had that thought in mind when I was getting ready to top off to an even dollar amount…when it struck me!  Why am I doing this?  I don’t have to worry about change.  Whether I make it an even $59 or $58.93 I’m going to be on my way in exactly the same amount of time.  Why do I still try to make it an even amount?  It’s silly and stupid!  Much like my own self!

I mean, when you go to Olive Garden do you keep adding appetizers and desserts trying to make an even amount?  At the shoe store?  At the Piggly Wiggly?  Of course not!  You buy what you want, you pay and then you proceed with your sad life!!

So I decided to start today, being a little more sane and little more wise and a little less captive to habits.  I am not going to round off my gasoline purchases.  I won’t!  So the truck has gas and it cost $58.93.  Period.  Done.  End of story.

(Just for the record, I could have gotten that last $1.07 in there…I could have if I wanted to).

Give a hoot


Back in the 1970s, if my memory is up to the task, there was a nationwide advertising campaign that featured an owl exhorting the message “Give a hoot, don’t pollute.” The owl was named Woodsy.

There was also a series of adverts featuring a Native American crying about the way Americans were polluting the land.

Of course today we have the very strongly-worded messages on our McDonald’s waste: “Please dispose of properly.” Who could ignore such a threat from the Hamburgler? Certainly not this fast-food junkie.

For most of my life I didn’t give litter much thought. I came from a family that more or less picked up after itself. When I was a rotten kid it didn’t occur to me to toss my Quarter Pounder foam box out the car window.

Litter as a scourge on society didn’t occupy many of my brain cycles until a little more than a decade ago when I moved from my native Michigan to Norfolk, Virginia. I moved to the steamy swamp of Virginia for a job. A great job, mind you, but up until this past February when I moved to the mountains of Utah, the state of Virginia and I never became close, personal friends. I disapproved of the weather in Virginia (I still do, in fact). But one of the first things I noticed back in the winter of 1999 while in Norfolk for the job interview was the litter. Trash. Everywhere.

Norfolk is purported to be the largest naval port in the world. It sits on the Chesapeake Bay. Ocean. Wildlife everywhere (even though much of it is creepy, crawling, bitey and stingy). And along with all of that nature-ness was paper, trash, bottles, cans and plastic bags. Along the roadways. In the culverts. Blowing across fields. Ankle-deep in parking lots. It was such a contrast from Michigan that it really made an impression.

During my time in Virginia it never improved. I can’t say it got any worse, but it didn’t get better. I talked about this state of affairs with a good friend of mine who was a military veteran (I was one of three non-vets within a 100-mile radius of said Navy base — I am convinced that they let me live out of pity). He had spent much of his military time in Germany, known the world over for public parks that sport picnic tables that are clean enough for light surgery. Certainly the German culture (Germany being where my people originate) is one of control, order and “rightness”, so perhaps it’s simply in the water. But my friend noted that his vision of litter and pollution was perhaps tempered by years in Germany because every place he went compared poorly to his experience of German order and cleanliness. How could it not? Those Germans are some fine people. And they know some amazing things to do with cabbage and sausage.

But back to Virginia. Or, rather, let’s get the hell out of Virginia, which is what I did a few months ago. I am now in Provo, Utah. I am at the base of the Wasatch mountains. It’s a desert climate. It’s mountainous. It’s a dry heat as I oft-say. But today it struck me, while out for a drive, it’s clean. Sure, there’s some litter, but I notice it even more starkly here because it is certainly not common. When I see a Wendy’s bag or a plastic grocery store bag I think “Ooops, someone must have dropped that.” In Virginia I was racking another round into the chamber to deal with the weasel that blatantly tossed their crap into my ecosystem. I’m sure there are weasels here in the mountains, too, but the general state of cleanliness here cuts them a lot of slack from good ole Mr. A.

So what’s the difference? We’re all Americans. We’re all in the melting pot. Perhaps it’s the inherent natural beauty of Utah that makes people think three or four extra times before tossing their crap out the window. But what explains Michigan? Oh, don’t get me wrong, Michigan has its own version of amazing natural beauty, especially the closer you get to Canada.

I think here in Utah the answer is the mountains. They are a visual representation of God looking over everyone’s shoulder. You don’t dare do something too blatant, that mountain’s looking!

In Michigan I think it was bottle laws. A reach you think? Yeah, it is. But in Michigan every consumable “bottle” (Coke, Pepsi, Dew, water, etc.) requires that a deposit of ten cents be paid at time of purchase. Later you return the empty container to the store and you get your dime back. So even if Dudley Dufus tosses his empty bottle of sugar water out the window, some 12-year-old boy is going to come along on his bicycle with visions of getting rich one dime at a time.

I think the general mentality of holding onto those bottles carries over to other waste. People think about their garbage. They’re more likely to hold onto their trash because there might be some money in it.

I’m not advocating that everyone have a bottle law. It’s a huge undertaking. Stores are required to collect the deposit. Stores must accept the dirty, stinky empties. An entire industry has developed to create automated return robots that accept your empty, crush it and give you a receipt good for cash to buy Budweiser on your way out. So it’s expensive for society to do this. (And I’m purposefully ignoring the costs of trucking the empties to some remote villa where they are, if propaganda is to be believed, recycled into artificial heart valves, Cheetos and other fine goods). And who knows, maybe the net result isn’t that great. I imagine that the carbon footprint to create those return-your-empty-here robots is pretty huge. They use electricity. They are broken every other minute. But the green spaces are greener.

The key to keeping our earth all clean and tidy? Grow mountains. Great big snow-capped ones. Do your part — plant a mountain today!


Auto insecurity

Car Lock

I have been quite fortunate during my lifetime to have had almost no experience with crime. Sure, I’ve set fire to a couple of abandoned warehouses, who hasn’t? But I haven’t been the victim of major theft nor violence.

So perhaps my experience in the area of personal security means I should keep my trap shut on the following observations, but I’m not gonna.

During my formative years (which ended last Tuesday), cars had locks on their doors that required the pushing or pulling of a knob. Rare wealthy folk had locks that were operated by electricity and other forms of witchcraft. But for the most part, when you got out of your car at the Kmart, you pushed the knob down and the door was locked.

And we liked it. It was easy. At a glance you could tell if the door was locked or unlocked. And even if you had the electric locks, the principle was the same.

Seemingly overnight the remote radio-controlled locks came on the scene. One might be tempted to think that they are a frivolous luxury meant to appeal to the blue-hair set, quick to show off their new Pontiac in the hopes that Mabel might mistake it for a Mercedes. But I think these remote controls are terribly useful. If you live in a climate with nasty weather, like my native Michigan, getting the doors unlocked without having to fumble with a key and break the ice that has formed over the key-hole, is more than a mere convenience. The use of the remote control unlock feature has saved countless fingers and noses.

The handy remotes also have the ability to unlock the trunk which is another great advantage to modern life. And finally, these devices have the panic button which sets off the alarms, horns, lights and other annoyances that go totally ignored. Of course, when you set them off accidentally everyone looks your way and thinks “What an idiot.” But when the hoodlum has his machette at your throat everyone goes deaf and dumb in an instant. So the jury remains out on the usefulness of that feature.

But what I fail to understand is the logic, if indeed it exists, behind making the car “chirp” when using the remote to lock the car. Sure, I’ve just pressed this button and I’m not sure if the car “heard” me and actually locked the doors. And since I’m carrying my life savings in small bills, flying around in the back seat, I want to make damn sure those doors are locked. And the fact that I’ve left my two-year-old son in the car to guard the cash isn’t good enough — I want the doors locked!

Of course this irritation isn’t new. It’s been going on for years. But today I was sitting in my truck, in a large mall parking lot, and over the course of 10 minutes, nearly a dozen people parked, got out of their vehicle and started to walk away. They then pointed their remote device (this “pointing” action always amuses me…like they’re afraid they may innadvertently lock the car NEXT to theirs) and press the “lock” button. The car horn sounds off! How are other drivers supposed to nap with all that racket going on? Why? WHY? We have enough pollution, of all kinds, we don’t need the horn to honk to tell us we’ve locked the car. Flash the lights if you need some cue that the task has been accomplished. But don’t alert the mother ship every time you press that button!

And isn’t it interesting that, it would seem, every auto manufacturer on the orb has come up with the same brilliant method? It doesn’t matter if you have a $9,000 Hyundai or a $40,000 Lexus — press that “lock” button on the keyfob and you’re going to be jolted with annoying noise.

Now, I could simply blame the manufacturers for bad design. And I do. But I blame my fellow upright-walkers more. You’re getting out of your car. Your hand is on the “open-the-door-thingy”. What else is RIGHT THERE? What’s the other closest control? The locks! And they’re electric! And they are in the form of a simple button/lever!! Why not just lock the damn doors!? It’s quiet. You can hear and see them function. You can know they’re locked. You pretend to be smart, intelligent and thoughtful.

Oh, yeah, right. Sorry ’bout that. I wasn’t thinking.