1. Instant Cello
We at the Five Dumbest Things research lab call your attention to an alarming trend in financial industry advertising: the cello. More precisely, women playing the cello.
The latest example: that touchy-feely
commercial running on TV, the one in which a dad waxes grateful that he's able to send his cello-playing daughter to the Juilliard School, thanks to the crackerjack investment advice he got from Morgan Stanley.
As an isolated phenomenon, there's nothing odd about the shots of his daughter playing the cello. But it isn't isolated. Why, just a few months ago we were watching an
ad featuring some woman playing the cello. And, starting only last month, buses all over Manhattan have been plastered with ads for the Italian airline Alitalia in which, next to the line "Let's Get Inspired," a raven-haired woman sits in a cobblestoned courtyard playing -- you guessed it -- the cello.
Hmm. Hmm hmm hmm. When it comes to advertising, we at the lab base our research on two fundamental truths. One, there are no accidents. With so many people involved in a commercial's production and so much money on the line, there's a reason for everything you see.
Two: Every commercial comes down to sex, and getting more of it. Especially the ones about cars, alcohol and money.
So why are women playing musical instruments in these ads? And why, out of all the instruments out there, are they all playing the cello? Why not a violin? Or a clarinet? Or the timpani? And is there a sex angle to this whole thing, or is that just a figment of our vulgar imagination?
Well, it turns out we're not the only ones wondering what's with the cello. The first stop in our research was New York's Mannes College of Music (no relation), where Susan Yarad, a violinist who works in the development office, told us she was wondering exactly the same thing. See, she went to college at the University of Texas at Austin with the actress who plays the daughter in the Morgan Stanley ad. The actress, says Yarad, is actually a violinist! And a great one at that. "If she's a violinist," wonders Yarad, "why didn't they have her play the violin?"
What the Cello?
Good question. Refraining, out of embarrassment, from telling her our sex theory, we ask Yarad if she has any ideas. Maybe it's just a visual thing, she says. A cello, because it's bigger, shows up better on a TV screen.
So maybe it's just us. We trade phone messages with Morgan Stanley, but never reach a spokesperson. An OppenheimerFunds spokesman, a little suspicious about where we're going with this, graciously declines to comment.
Yup. We're the ones with a dirty mind.
That's what we believed, of course, until we heard from Matt Haimovitz, a
globe-trotting cellist who teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Responding to the research lab's email inquiry, Haimovitz says he hasn't seen any of the ads in question. But, he writes, "I've always thought there is a humanlike or anthropomorphic quality to the cello. One talks about the cello body, back or neck and so on. ... There is something sensual or even erotic about holding such a body between the knees and coaxing a sound out of it."
Whoa! Stop there, buddy! This is a family publication!
As to why all these cellists are female, Haimovitz is unsure. "Perhaps," he asks, "the ads are targeting a male demographic?"
Maybe so. At this point, we turn to Alitalia for enlightenment. Why a woman? Why a cello? The spokeswoman there cuts to the chase: "There's nothing sexier," she says, "than a woman playing the cello."
Well, maybe it would be sexier if we could get a woman playing a cello in the back of a Lincoln Navigator as part of a Budweiser commercial. If
runs something like that, we'll let you know.
2. And We'll Have Fun, Fun, Fun 'til Your Daddy Takes Your Insulated Travel Mug Away
Working at the research lab means never having to say you're wrong. Instead, we like to say that occasionally our research is, uh, incomplete.
We make that point this week in reference to our recent report about the Internet service provider and competitive telco firm
. You know, the incredibly Fun workplace where the Fun Team is tasked with Fun duties such as giving employees CoreComm insulated travel mugs. With hijinks like that, we thought, they must be having some Fun at CoreComm.
Feed the Brats
Though we speculated that
the CoreComm memo we posted last week -- the one about the Fun Team and the insulated travel mugs -- was some sort of Dilbertonian hoax, numerous sources close to CoreComm told us, no, the correspondence was authentic.
But perhaps we didn't get the full story. Contrary to our suspicions, the Fun Team did not comprise members of management and HR staff. In fact, says a CoreComm executive who asked his name not be used, the Fun Teams in CoreComm's different offices are composed of employee volunteers. They're an open forum, says the exec, for employees making recommendations to management.
"Instead of management trying to decide what's best for employees, the Fun Team decides what's best for employees," says the exec.
Moreover, the purview of the Fun Team isn't just minutiae like lunchroom supplies, says the high-level CoreComm source. Fun Teams organize housebuilding days for Habitat for Humanity. They recommend Christmas gifts such as CoreComm jackets. They also request -- and receive -- recreational gear such as a TV, video game console, foosball table and punching bags (to let off steam after "those tough technical support problems"). To foster open communication, says the exec, there are monthly employee/management pizza lunches, though the exec adds, "Sometimes they don't want pizza. They want
brats. So we go out and grill brats."
It all sounded so good we were tempted to head out to East Lansing and start manning the phones at CoreComm. Until, that is, we kept getting emails like this one:
It is odd how when you are employed by a company you are really blind tohow funny a fun team is ... after a while you start to think that a fun team is a good idea. Now that I'm on the outside looking in, it truly is ridiculous that there is a fun team staff, but hey, at least I have my reversible CoreComm jacket I got from them for my Christmas bonus.
3. A Headache for Business
The most fascinating press release we read this week came from the Headache Institute, at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital here in Manhattan.
Coming to a Head
Headaches, apparently, have a much greater impact on business productivity than we ever would have guessed, had we ever guessed.
"The economic burden of headache is staggering," says Institute director Lawrence C. Newman, M.D., pegging the annual loss to U.S. productivity from headaches at between $5.6 billion and $17.2 billion. "More work time is lost due to headaches than to cancer, heart disease and mental illness combined," says Newman in his press release.
Well, that got our attention. See, it occured to us that people often die from cancer and heart disease. Um, wouldn't all the days missed from work take a hit on dead people's productivity?
"That's true," admitted Newman, once we got him on the phone. But if you're dead, he points out, "you're no longer employed."
Fair enough. From now on, when we talk about workplace productivity, we'll focus on the living, not the dead. Plus those people from CoreComm, wherever they fit in.
4. Personal Valet of the Damned
You know, it was only a few months ago that we were making fun of a Dumb product in
Back then it was the
Polara combination oven/refrigerator. Today it's the
Personal Valet clothes vitalizing system.
What's a clothes vitalizing system? Glad you asked. As far as we can tell, it's an appliance resembling a shallow refrigerator that Whirlpool trots out occasionally to show it's a forward-thinking appliance company with lots of cool stuff in the product pipeline. Merrill Lynch said two months ago that the company had forecast selling about 10,000 of these babies by year-end, but we're not so optimistic.
OK, OK, what a Personal Valet clothes vitalizing system really does, says Whirlpool, is get garments ready to wear by eliminating odors, reducing wrinkles and "giving your clothes a neat, clean look and feel." Sort of like how they are when you bring them home from the dry cleaner's.
Of course, there are a few teensy shortcomings with the Personal Valet. Unlike your dry cleaner, it doesn't actually remove "visible spots and stains," says Whirlpool. (The company doesn't mention what happens with invisible spots and stains.) It's not as good at removing wrinkles as "someone skilled" in ironing. It costs at least $1,000 and probably should be installed by a contractor.
Oh yeah, and before you fill your Personal Valet to its vitalizing capacity of one to three items of clothing at a time, Whirlpool suggests you "fixture" them with various accessories like the Body Shaper, the Sleeve Shaper, and clip-on weights.
Sounds like a job for the Fun Team!
5. The Andersen Japes
So forget what we just told you about the headache news being the best press release we got all week.
No, that honor goes to the one that arrived Thursday night, moments before deadline, from the fine folks at the
American Institute of Certified Public Accountants
Responding to the
Securities and Exchange Commission's
announcement Thursday of its proposals for fixing accounting-industry oversight, the AICPA industry group says it sure wants to achieve "needed reform."
But the AICPA says it believes the SEC "may have gone too far ... especially as it relates to standards setting."
Ah, yes. As if the AICPA is in any position to criticize the SEC's standard-setting expertise.
You'll remember, perhaps, that back in January the research lab took note of the
clean bill of health that
announced it had received from the AICPA. Andersen, the company said back then, "has been deemed to provide reasonable assurance of compliance with professional standards."
The AICPA's reasonable assurance of compliance already was looking Dumb five months ago. In light of subsequent events, it isn't getting any smarter.