At least he was honest…

The lottery has been trending, hasn’t it? No not the famous short story by Shirley Jackson. (If you haven’t read it you should.) Something about 1.5 billion dollars caught everyone’s attention. Biggest jackpot ever. A “call to action” if I ever saw one. Any direct marketer would salivate if he could generate the response that Powerball did. It made everyone and their brother a consumer. Unfortunately, offering two additional lines for $19.99 on your Family Plan just doesn’t have the same pull.

The fantasy of winning untold riches is at the crux of human desire. It drove countless throngs into the California wilderness looking for gold. A few found some. More died trying. Still, there was that chance…

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The Golden Ticket. It could be in that very next chocolate bar. But you have to buy the chocolate bar. Or hundreds of them.

Or you can rob a bank. Why is it we root for bank robbers in the movies and romance them in our history books? Because it taps into that same fantasy: Getting rich. Now. Safe crackers and masked robbers titillate us to the point where we overlook the criminality of it. Jesse James is revered as a folk hero and not the viscious douchebag he undoubtedly was. It’s not right but it’s true.

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“It’s my time.”

The dream to change one’s circumstances via riches is deeply human and more than a little sad. Obviously, if there’s a God in Heaven, He would prefer we not covet cash. Monetary enlightenment is an oxymoron. We are taught it is the root of all evil. That it corrupts. That the super rich are super assholes. Remember the “Occupy” movement? Down with the 1%.

And yet who didn’t buy a lottery ticket this week? I’m willing to bet millions of people who otherwise despise the 1% stood in line for a shot at becoming one. Perhaps these myriad hopefuls believe, upon winning hundreds of millions of dollars, that they would not become selfish snobs living only for pleasure and hedonism. One need only look at rock stars and pro athletes to see how that plays out. Sure, I’m generalizing (there are plenty of millionaires and billionaires who are great philanthropists) but you must concede the point: We are all willing to chance our integrity for the possibility of riches. It’s the American Dream.

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Money from heaven or the wages of sin?

Yesterday, I received a fairly substantial check from the good people at USAA insurance for a claim I filed over some jewelry belonging to my wife, which had come up missing after our big move from Chicago to San Francisco. Included among the lost pieces was my wife’s wedding ring. USAA was quick to cut a check, calling me a “stellar client.” Twenty-eight years I have been with them. I received the money in five days.

Here’s the kicker. The day before getting paid, on a whim, I’d elected to dig deeper into one of our still-unpacked boxes holding bric-a-brac, stationary and innocuous office supplies. And lo and behold, there it was: the lost treasure. Mind you, we had checked this box at least three times looking for those jewels. Obviously not hard enough.

Thus, I found myself in possession of both the jewelry and not an insignificant sum of money. In my shoes, I’m pretty certain most of you would count your blessings and return the money to the insurance company. Maybe not all of you. But most.

And I did return the money.

However, I would be lying if I said the decision came easy. I wrestled with the idea of keeping the cash. After all, I have a shit-ton of bills relating to my new life in the most expensive city in the United States. I also kept thinking about the premiums I’d paid USAA over the last 28 years –for cars, homes and personal property- all without ever filing a claim. Maybe this windfall was like a dividend check for all those investments?

Or stealing. Or lying. Or insurance fraud.

Yet, it wasn’t fear of reprisals that ultimately sealed my decision. I knew I wasn’t going to get caught. When I’d filed the claim USAA said my years of being a “model client” meant there would be no investigation.

In the end I couldn’t live with the bad behavior. I have lived with bad behavior and let me tell you it is a dreadful weight. It eats at your self worth, goading you into dark corners and evermore ugliness. I know this from experience. And yet I was still tempted. Insanity!

So why was the devil on my shoulder trying to rationalize keeping the money? I know right from wrong. And keeping the money would have been wrong. If I’m too dense to see that for myself then as a father of three young girls I need to set an example for them. Wrongfully keeping this money was a line I just couldn’t cross. Thank God.


“I want what you have.”
“Me too.”

I grew up under modest circumstances, living with my mother and brother on the first floor of a two-flat in the not yet gentrified Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. The Latin Kings and the Latin Eagles still called it their “hood.” We attended public schools, walking or taking the CTA to get there. I was mugged countless times for my lunch money, though by some miracle never had my ass kicked. I did, however, lose my first payday ever to a lanky gang-banger with a huge knife. Blade to my throat, he made me remove my pants so I couldn’t run for help. I was twelve.

My grandmother and mother emigrated here from France, requiring sponsorship to do so. I cannot know the hardship they experienced in Europe and was blissfully unaware of how tight our situation really was. My single mother worked in a scruffy boutique on Broadway selling trendy clothes to bohemians and drag queens. My father was becoming successful in advertising but hadn’t yet made his financial bones. I saw him on Saturdays. Eventually, my parents and even grandmother all improved their circumstances and we became upwardly mobile, even borderline rich.

And so while this nation (and the world) struggles through grave economic turmoil, political pettiness and financial fraud, relentless debate over the greedy rich and the mistreated poor, I can legitimately say I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum. And from this perspective I tell you that demonizing the rich is just as dopey as victimizing the poor. For the most part, neither is either.

I didn’t understand the bailing out of failed corporations any more than I get further taxing the wealthy to give their “fair share.” Both notions seem the same to me and equally wrong. It’s all so reactionary: the need for villains to explain hardship, the need for heroes to fix things. Pitting government against corporations is like fighting fire with fire. We all get burned.

There will always be the “haves” and “have-nots.” That’s the human condition. As the population relentlessly grows (7 billion now) that condition will continuously be stressed. It is human nature to want what we do not have and to resent those who have it, a defect of our species and a powerful one. Trying to mitigate that resentment by force never works. Not in the long run.

Fortunately, humanity is capable of altruism. Helping those in need is within our nature. And the rich are capable of it, without a gun to their head. Ask a Rockefeller. Or Bill Gates. Philanthropy is alive and well.

No, it’s never going to be enough but again that’s the human condition. This is our truth: for better and for worse poor people would behave just like rich people if put in their shoes and rich people would behave just like poor people if put in theirs. I think about that every time I see a broken man buying lottery tickets.

For a marketing perspective: Advertising Age

Wanting drives every advertisement ever made. Sometimes, it passes as “need” but let’s call a spade a spade. We want. And we want a lot. Whether it’s a new car or world peace human beings are defined by this unnatural urge. I say unnatural because wanting is not an impetus for survival. Animals need sustenance and they take what they can get. A Bear eats salmon when they’re running. Berries when they bloom. It does not crave one for the other.

When born, we are much like other animals. Helpless. Dependent on our parents. A baby needs food and it is given to him. Oddly, an infant remains this way far longer than any other creature. It takes an inordinate amount of time for us to become self-serving. But when we get there we arrive in style.

By the time we’re children, the wanting mechanism is in full flower. We want more than sustenance. We want Cheetos and iPads and Sour patch Kids. Our crying out of need becomes warped, narcissistic. As we get older we crave an ever larger, more expensive and baseless array of things. Want has taken over for need.

So utterly commonplace, the only time we hear about of want is when we are in church, listening to a dusty sermon on greed and gluttony or faced with those who are seemingly without it. Like the Amish. Buddhists. Or Sinead O’connor.

Which begs the question: Is ‘wanting’ a bad thing?

It’s tricky. Unraveling the ball of yarn to get from ‘want’ back to ‘need’ is no easy feat. Does one have what he needs in order to survive? If yes, then it’s everything after that that is in question. The defect (if it is a defect) becomes pronounced when we want better versions of what we already have (car, house, boobs) or when we want what we don’t have (two cars, Cartier watch, mistress) or what someone else has (all of the above).

Keeping up with the Joneses is nothing new. This is the ‘longing’ all of us in Adland cultivate and exploit every day. For without it what would be the point of marketing? Does advertising create it? I think so. Like the header on my blog reads: We make you want what you don’t need.

I’m no socialist. I’m not even Alex Bogusky. And I’m as culpable (if that’s the right word) as any of you. Likely more so. But when I observe my young daughters pining for all the stuff they see on TV, the Internet and, most poignantly, when visiting their rich friends I am forced to wonder about wanting.


A delight on Christmas morning!

On Christmas morning, after pillaging all the gifts under the tree, my girls retreated to the hardwood floors of our kitchen to let loose a set of miniature toy bugs they received in their stockings. The tiny critters operate via a batter-operated chip that vibrates them forward. At less than two inches long, they look (unfortunately) a lot like real roaches and silverfish scuttling across our kitchen floor. At the cash register, they were five or six bucks each. Guess what? My daughters played with them a full hour before even considering their other more elaborate, more technical, more expensive toys.

The lesson never gets old. Alas, it seldom gets remembered either. At least, not when it counts: on Christmas morning. I’m not talking about the true meaning of Christmas -although that’s certainly a fair discussion. I’m talking about the undisputable fact that kids don’t require anything like we think they do in order to be “happy” on Christmas morning.

If we’re lucky enough to have means, we adults inevitably abuse this privilege by assuming our children won’t be delighted unless they get a bazillion presents under the tree. Not only is this not true it’s a mistake that compounds over time. By lavishing our kids with gifts we teach them to be reckless consumers or worse yet to be selfish people. Yet, we don’t care. We want every Christmas to be special, or for that matter every Easter and birthday. While the old saw that they’ll like the “box it came in” better than the toy itself is perhaps naïve, the lesson isn’t: Kids like goofy shit.

Why don’t we ever learn? No doubt We in Adland are culpable. Have we not been preaching rampant consumerism forever? Somehow the American dream of a chicken in every pot has metamorphosed (pun intended) into a Lexus in every driveway. And it starts with our kids doesn’t it?

I’m proud this year that we didn’t go overboard. Yes, because of the recession but also because it wasn’t necessary. This Christmas was every bit as joyful as last years and in January my Visa bill will be oh so much better! I only have one question: how do I keep the children from bringing those crawling bugs to Grandmother’s house later today?