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A raw “moment.”

The Academy Awards are hard not to watch. One just feels compelled to share “Hollywood’s Biggest Night.” And I was no exception, although, I must say, I was not so much riveted by the show as buzzed by it. Having the TV on, the family with me, a half-assed dinner being consumed. Telling the kids to shut up so we can hear who won. Them not listening. Them saying, “like, who are all these old people?” Um, sweetie, that’s Robert Duvall. Sean Penn. Michael Keaton. Emma stone they recognized. And because I share a house with four ladies eyes were on the clothes and hair.

It’s a palpable buzz.

One thing I noticed in the coverage and after-coverage was the pointing out of “moments.” When Neal Patrick Harris sent up Birdman by taking the stage in his undies. When John Legend emotionally sang and totally delivered the evening’s best song, Glory. The perspiring, young writer of The Imitation Game beseeching all of us to ‘embrace our weirdness.’ All those Latinos up on stage for Birdman. 

The definition of “having a moment” has got to be winning an Academy Award. I remember winning a few big advertising awards… how giddy I felt stumbling up to the stage. Of course I was drunk –I always was drunk- but I still remember those moments. I can’t recall a thing I said and that’s just as well.

I believe in moments. Life is a puzzling journey. We mark the trail with moments: Graduation. New Job. Closing a deal. Or is it a drama? Fair metaphor as well. In this case moments are like plot points: Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back. Babies are born. People die. There are countless plot points to every life. Pretty cool way to look at it.

No wonder so many brands try to own them. It’s the perfect hash tag for the Academy Awards, if not life itself: #Moments

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But it does mean you’re human…

If you’re not willing to read all of Russ Douthat’s brilliant article from the New York Times, here’s the first paragraph:

Of course it had to escalate this way. We live in a time of consistent gutlessness on the part of institutions notionally committed to free speech and intellectual diversity, a time of canceled commencement invitations and C.E.O.s defenestrated for their political donations, a time of Twitter mobs, trigger warnings and cringing public apologies. A time when journalists and publishers tiptoe around Islamic fundamentalism, when free speech is under increasing pressure on both sides of the Atlantic, when a hypersensitive political correctness has the whip hand on many college campuses.

And then Kim Jong-Un took offense at a low-brow comedy (The Interview) and took down the movie studio that produced it. Humiliated them anyway. Which was deeply sad, funny and troubling all at the same time. Those emails were priceless. Undermining a company not so much.

However you look at it, 2014 was the year of being offended. In big ways (Black Lives Matter) and in myriad small ways (U2 forcing an album upon us), America got offended. Over and over again. Whether you listed right (Fox News) or left (CNN), everyone was upset at someone. More so than usual. Way more.

Among the many ironies is that popular culture (in particular our movies and television shows) can be viewed as the egregious button pushers. The not-even-seen The Interview is but the latest “film” to push decency into the cellar and keep right on digging. From Rogen’s turn in Neighbors to the unbelievably crude machinations of Workaholics, sacred cows have been tipped. Herds of them. Frankly, the years leading up to The Interview were what led to The Interview. Borat. Bridesmaids. East Bound and Down, The Hangover. Amy Schumer. Girls. Louis CK. Bad Grandpa. And those are just some of the good ones. My point. There was nothing left to satirize besides North Korea! Last year we were agog at Miley Cyrus. “Twerking” was runner up to “Selfie” as word of the year. How quaint that seems now.

Is being offensive and/or being offended (take your pick) part of human nature? It must be. Because we can’t stop.

Concurrent to all this silliness, and where it got heated and continues to roil, is in this country’s dismal relations between races. All races. Between immigration issues with Mexico, the killing of unarmed black men in Ferguson and New York, beheadings by ISIS, genocide in Syria, espionage by North Korea and now even Cuba (again) the global melting pot is boiling over. Getting offended has become violent and grotesque and anything but funny. Malicious cops. And malicious cop killers. We have become so offended by one another we’ve taken to the streets: spectating, protesting, looting and maiming. The mob rules. The genie is out of the bottle… and Tweeting. The inmates are running the asylum… and posting on Instagram.

This is why The Walking Dead is so popular. We are them.

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Recently, I was asked by a colleague to take down a Facebook post because it apparently offended someone in the office. I had offered a less than politically correct view on the hot button issue regarding the tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri and the continued fall-out surrounding it.

Reluctantly, I removed the post. Not because I rethought my position and came to the conclusion I was wrong. Nor was I particularly upset that my post offended someone. Many people were supportive of my opinion, likely more. Rather, I took it down because I determined that my role as an officer of the company took precedent over my personal opinions. Said another way, I put my professional reputation and currency ahead of my social reputation and currency. It would not be the first time. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve always put work ahead of personal matters.

Yet, the event has continued to bother me. A lot. Partly because of the post’s emotional weight (which I won’t go into here) but also because I feel like a coward for removing the post. After all, it was on my personal Facebook page. Though hardy benign, the post was not racist or classist or sexist or, in my view, “ist” in any way. It was merely a provocative take on current events, which I feel is totally valid on social media. I would not and did not post the piece on LinkedIn or on any of my agency’s forums.

Still, I realize work and personal life have converged like never before. People as well as companies have become like one thing. If a CEO Tweets something inappropriate her company takes it on the chin. People will judge the firm as they judge the person.

Back in the day, the artist and his art existed separately. For example, T.S. Eliot was an “on again, off again” anti-Semite but people (even Jews) appreciated and studied his poetry. There are countless such examples, historical and modern. Recall director, Lars Von Trier’s recent controversial comments at Cannes and the subsequent hit he took to his career. He did not stand down and he paid dearly for it.

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TS Eliot. Poet. Hater?

As I said, I know my controversial Facebook post was not hateful. However, I do not doubt someone who disagreed with it might interpret it (and me) as hateful. Therefore, I took it down.

In 2014, we are all learning (and struggling) with this. Some play it safer than others. And while I think playing it safe is often the equivalent of being dull as a bag of dirt I did not want to risk my company’s reputation and my place in it. Would you?

I have always worn many hats: husband, father, brother, son, citizen, officer, employee, Christian, Jew, drinker, non-drinker, author and so on. In the age of social media, knowing which hat to wear and when is increasingly difficult.

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For the refuge it provides…

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I’m compelled to speak about gratitude. After all, gratitude is the very definition of giving thanks. Many of us (myself included) often experience a lapse in gratitude. We get caught up in the business of work and the mostly silly dramas that govern our lives.

I once heard a parable that I’d like to paraphrase here:

Every day a group of men set out to forage in the savannah by their village. They ventured far in order to get to the forest and its abundance of resources. At the half way point of their journey existed a lone, large tree in which they took a break to rest and eat lunch. “A shame this tree,” one man said. “It has no fruit for eating.” The others agreed. “And its wood isn’t suitable for building either…”

And so on they complained. What the men failed to realize the great benefit the tree provided. In fact, the old tree was a refuge. Seemingly barren, it provided shelter from the noonday sun without which their journey would have been infinitely more treacherous. This critical benefit was lost on the men. As was the unity this resiting place fostered.

I recall a company meeting at my previous agency. We’d had a tough year. Morale was low. The employees were skeptical about their agency’s future. Many used the setting as a forum to voice their complaints: Management was inept, they cried. Our clients are bound to mediocrity. Woe is us!

During my turn to speak I told the story about the old tree. Though our agency was, in fact, beleaguered I wanted us to appreciate all that we had: jobs, community and a place to voice our grievances freely and without fear of reparations.

In some respects I was talking to myself. I shared many of my fellow’s misgivings but I wanted healing words. Not apathetic ones. We’d had plenty of those already. Change was needed. And change would come. But on that day I needed gratitude. I worked for one of the greatest advertising agencies in the world. It had been hobbled but it was still there. Despite our weakened position, so were we.

That first winter for the pilgrims was a brutal one. Many did not make it. Yet, a precious few did. With help from the Indians, they not only survived the second winter; they thrived. Despite their many hardships the frail community held a great feast. The rest is history.

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What are you scared of?

In Eula Biss’s new book, On Immunity: An Innoculation she writes about fears, rational and otherwise, associated with vaccinating ourselves against terrible diseases. It’s a good read, a lot more interesting and scary than you might think. However, it was a tangential paragraph about fear in general that I bookmarked for later consideration:

“We do not tend to be afraid of the things that are most likely going to harm us. We drive around in cars, a lot. We drink alcohol, we ride bicycles, we sit too much. And we harbor anxieties about things that, statistically speaking, pose us little danger. We fear sharks, while mosquitos are, in terms of sheer numbers of lives lost, probably the most dangerous creatures on earth.”

Biss provides more context as well as fascinating quotes around the topic but you get the idea. We are scared of remarkable things but are indifferent to mundane items that are, frankly, far more dangerous to us. For example, every spring entire football stadiums are emptied out because of lightning spotted in the area. The rarity of being struck by lightning is more or less a cliché yet we fear it excessively. Of course, we don’t question authorities for taking such precautions. But I am struck by certain ironies, perhaps not so obvious. Consider that in those same football stadiums countless cups of beer and nachos are zealously sold and consumed even though alcoholism and obesity will, in fact, kill thousands of people in this country ever year; and a lot of them probably at those very ballgames that were postponed do to weather.

I know very well the tendency to do things that are bad for me despite knowing full well they are bad for me. When I drank, the fear of poisoning myself to death was not present; not like the fear of being struck down by a lightning bolt. To different extents, all humans are like this.

I can’t help but wonder what role popular culture and, in particular, advertising plays in this potentially dangerous mega-quirk of our thinking. Advertisers pummel us with enticing messages about alcohol, cars, soft drinks and fast food.

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Fear of flying but not bacon…

Sexy women slobber over bacon double cheeseburgers inviting us to join the “mile high club” referring to piles of bacon. Bud Light proudly states it’s the beer for those who are “up for whatever.” Ad nausea, literally and figuratively.

The theme for this blog is, “we make you want what you don’t need.” I came up with that more as a provocation regarding the sins of envy and gluttony. Is it possible many persuasive communications are even more insidious? Over time do many of them actually cause us to allay otherwise rational fears for our emotional desires?

Of course they do. Caveat Emptor!

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