Late & Great: Herb Schmertz

The New York Times: “Herbert Schmertz, an aggressive and innovative public relations man who, as a Mobil Oil executive, pioneered the use of company-written ‘advertorials’ during the energy shortages of the 1970s, died on Wednesday in West Palm Beach, Fla. He was 87 … In addition to urging Mobil to go on the offensive at a time when Big Oil was being demonized, Mr. Schmertz had the company engage in image enhancement by association. He arranged for the company to sponsor the PBS series Masterpiece Theate when it began in 1971 as well as Mystery! and other public television programs later.”

“Critical of the news media, Mr. Schmertz advocated what he called creative confrontation — a markedly different approach from that of most companies, which tried to do their influencing behind the scenes … in October 1970, Mr. Schmertz began buying space on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times to express the company’s views in essay form. Sometimes the essays responded to the news of the moment; other times they addressed broader issues, like mass transit. They advertorials appeared in other newspapers as well, and Mr. Schmertz made scores of television appearances.”

“Although few public-relations specialists today would take as abrasive a tack as Mr. Schmertz sometimes did, the modern media landscape is full of advertiser-influenced or controlled content that calls to mind his early forays into advertorials. On his retirement from Mobil in 1988, he was asked to name his greatest achievement.” He told the New York Times: “I think that Mobil has made it respectable for companies to have views, opinions and philosophies and to express them.”

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Late & Great: Fred Bass

Quartz: “Fred Bass, co-owner of New York’s massive used bookstore, fondly known as the Strand, died of heart failure Jan. 3 at 89. Bass transformed his father’s modest store into the four-story bookshop immediately recognizable to New Yorkers and tourists today: The store on Broadway, with its red-and-white awning over $1-book carts lining the southern-facing exterior.”

“There are two basic things a good bookstore can provide: The delightful maze of human-curated shelves, or the satisfaction of efficiently getting the book you’re looking for. Amazon has done its part in taking away business from the bookstore chains that have excelled at the latter, like Borders and Barnes & Noble. The now Everything Store once sold nothing but books, and one way it’s done so successfully is by offering deep discounts. The Strand, though nowhere near as ubiquitous as Amazon.com, has been able to tout dizzying volume at the same time it’s maintained a beloved shopping experience.”

“What Amazon has done well—sell its vast inventory to you for super cheap—Bass did first. And with tote bags. Nearly all the store’s books are sold at a discount, ranging anywhere from a couple dollars off a new title to less than a $1 for a classic or a book that’s run its course … Today clutching one of Strand’s 100 or so bag designs is a proud display of reader identity.”

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Late & Great: Johnny Hallyday

“He was an idol, in other words, blasphemy incarnate. His death is that of a god who was in fact mortal. People say they can’t believe he is dead, simply because their belief in him, their faith in him, will not die. Many people never believed that Elvis died. The same will happen with Johnny.” – French philosopher Raphaël Enthoven on the phenomenon that was Johnny Hallyday (from The New York Times)

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V8 & Mr Peanut: Iconic Brands No More?

YouGov BrandIndex: “Two of the most well-known legacy supermarket products — V8 Vegetable Juice and Planters Peanuts — show significant declines in multiple consumer perception metrics over the long-term … From 2013 through the present, both of these brands have suffered their own distinct issues, and one big shared one: millennials.”

“Both V8 and Planters Peanuts are seeing their levels steadily eroding over the past four years, almost entirely brought down by millennials. 94% of all consumers were aware of V8 in January 2013, slipping down to its current 85%. Planters took a steeper drop of 17 percentage points, dropping from 95% down to 78% over the same time period … Millennials change the picture entirely, especially for Planters Peanuts: V8 is down 14 percentage points (from 86% awareness to 72%) with the younger crowd, and Planters Peanuts sees a 32 percentage point fall (from 83% awareness to 51%).”

“V8’s Value and Quality perception with overall consumers has also been falling steadily since 2013. Except in this case, instead of millennials, adults 50 and over dominate the growing negative numbers behind these two metrics, perhaps having been priced out of purchasing the vegetable juice. Consequently, Purchase Consideration by boomers of V8 has declined as well: the juice went from 43% of adults 50 and over considering buying V8 the next time they were purchasing a beverage to 33% now.”

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Late & Great: Arthur Cinader

The New York Times: The late Arthur Cinader “decided to start J. Crew in the early 1980s while running the Popular Merchandise Company, a business, founded by his father in Rye, N.Y., that used a catalog to sell affordable clothing and home furnishings directly to consumers … The new venture took the word “crew” from the water sport and affixed a J in front because it was thought to be graphically appealing … Mr. Cinader empowered his daughter, Emily Scott, to conceive of the company’s aesthetic and oversee the design of its apparel while he focused on the financial side of the business and on marketing through the J. Crew catalog.”

“J. Crew opened its first store at the South Street Seaport in Manhattan, followed by stores in San Francisco, Chestnut Hill, Mass., and other places. The segue proved successful, and by the mid-’90s the company had several dozen stores collectively generating revenue in excess of $500 per square foot … The success of the company owed much to Mr. Cinader and Ms. Scott’s scrupulous focus on their target demographic: affluent, high-achieving people who wanted to signal a certain pedigree with their fashion choices, but not one so stuffy that they would think twice before associating with it.”

“Articles in the business press over the years have described J. Crew’s niche as one notch below Ralph Lauren and one notch above retailers like Gap or the Limited. While the company’s first catalog featured photographs from the Weld Boathouse at Harvard, J. Crew marketed itself to the man or woman who might have attended any college or university and simply wanted to evoke a hint of the Ivy League.”

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Late & Great: Lotfi Zadeh

The New York Times: “Lotfi Zadeh, the computer scientist and electrical engineer whose theories of “fuzzy logic” rippled across academia and industry, influencing everything from linguistics, economics and medicine to air-conditioners, vacuum cleaners and rice cookers, died on Wednesday at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 96 … Emerging from an academic paper Mr. Zadeh published in 1965 as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, ‘fuzzy logic,’ as he called it, was an ambitious effort to close the gap between mathematics and the intuitive way that humans talk, think and interact with the world.”

“If someone asks you to identify ‘a very tall man,’ for instance, you can easily do so — even if you are not given a specific height. Similarly, you can balance a broom handle on your finger without calculating how far it can lean in one direction without toppling over … Rather than creating strict boundaries for real world concepts, he made the boundaries ‘fuzzy.’ Something was not in or out, for example. It sat somewhere on the continuum between in and out, and at any given moment a set of more complex rules defined inclusion.”

Fuzzy logic “could provide a way for insurance companies to assess damage after an earthquake, for instance. Is the damage serious, moderate or minimal under company rules? Fuzzy sets could help … The method could also help build machinery and electronics that gradually move from one state to another, like an automobile transmission, which shifts smoothly from first gear to second, or a thermostat, which flows just as smoothly from hot to cold. Hot and cold need not be precisely defined. They could exist on a continuum.”

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Solo Cups: How They Stack Up

The Washington Post: “The red Solo Cup is an elegant piece of technology … what many take for granted as simply a cheap, disposable beverage holder is the result of careful, beautiful engineering by people such as Robert Hulseman,” who passed away, at 84, on December 21, 2016.

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“Before the invention of the Solo Cup as we know it, it was often difficult to remove one disposable cup from a whole stack … One of the Solo Cup’s distinguishing features, according to the patent, was the curved lip of each cup … When several cups were stacked together, the lips would ‘engage’… and rest upon each other, keeping one cup from sinking too tightly into the next.”

However: “When cups like these were subjected to crushing forces from various angles, the bottoms could warp in ways that actually made it harder to separate the cups … This is how the plastic Solo Cup gained indentations or divots in the base that made the bottoms more rigid and allowed for more air flow between each stacked cup, which allegedly had the side benefit of helping the cups come apart.”

“It’s often said, incorrectly, that the lines found on some Solo Cups were intentionally designed to mark appropriate serving sizes for different types of drinks, such as beer, wine and liquor.” In fact: “The lines are meant to enhance ‘functional performance’ and help keep your fingers from slipping.”

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Late & Great: Jens Risom

The New York Times: “Jens Risom, the Danish furniture maestro who helped bring midcentury modern design to the United States through his work with Knoll Studio, died on Dec. 9 at his home in New Canaan, Conn. He was 100. Defined by sharp Scandinavian lines and fused with the rustic aura of Shakerism and American arts and crafts, the armless, affordable chair that became Mr. Risom’s signature in 1942 was one of the first mass-produced modernist furniture pieces introduced in the United States and not Europe.”

“Materials were hard to come by during the war, so Mr. Risom designed a chair with simple wooden legs and for upholstery used nothing other than surplus parachute straps. The surprise was that Mr. Risom’s creation — one of 15 pieces he designed for Knoll’s debut collection, and perhaps too humble to ever be described as a masterpiece — was almost comfortable enough to sleep in.”

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“What resonates about it is that it’s not fancy,” said Wendy Goodman of New York magazine. “To Ms. Goodman … there was a certain logic to the way Mr. Risom went to the United States and helped remind people there about the beauty of its unfussy design history.” She observes: “Maybe it takes someone coming here to do that, because he romanticized the freedom and the openness of America, and that’s what’s so wonderful about his furniture.”

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Late & Great: Richard Trentlage

The New York Times: “The Oscar Mayer Wiener Song had its beginnings in September 1962, when Richard Trentlage … learned that Oscar Mayer … was sponsoring a contest for a wiener jingle … Inspiration struck when he remembered one of his sons, using a term for someone who is cool, talking about a friend who was a ‘dirt-bike hot dog’ … ‘I wish I could be a dirt-bike hot dog,’ his son said.”

“When the jingle was first heard on a Houston radio station in 1963, listeners, thinking it was a pop tune, requested that it be played repeatedly … The song became part of the fabric of American culture.”

“Mr. Trentlage’s melodies, lyrics and tag lines were practically a hit parade in the advertising world, many of them with the mental stickiness of flypaper; among others, he wrote ‘McDonald’s is your kind of place’; ‘Wow! It sure doesn’t taste like tomato juice,’ for V8; and ‘Buckle up for safety, buckle up!’ (sung to the tune of ‘Buckle Down, Winsocki’) for a National Safety Council seatbelt promotion.” Richard Trentlage died September 21, 2016, at 87.

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The Death of The Dodge Dart

USA Today: “What went wrong with the Dodge Dart? … The Dart was supposed to signal a fresh start for Fiat Chrysler … Less than four and a half years later, the Dart is a footnote. Few people other than Dodge dealers are likely to notice when production ends this month … The Dart was the wrong car, at the wrong time, from the wrong brand. It launched into headwinds that would slow a great car, and the Dart was far from great … there was never a moment when the Dodge declared itself to be the best car in its class. It was not the clear leader in any area that drives customer demand.”

“Fiat Chrysler made it easy for customers to ignore the Dart, launching the car with ho-hum fuel economy and performance. Even in an era of low gasoline prices, claiming the best fuel economy generates headlines and gets buyers’ attention … Rather than delay the Dart, Fiat Chrysler hamstrung its new car with suboptimal gearboxes. For the first several months, the Dart was only available with a manual transmission — a disaster in the U.S., where automatics account for more than 90% of sales. When the automatics arrived, they were a Hyundai-built six-speed and a Fiat six-speed that used dual-clutch technology Americans generally dislike.”

“What does the Dart’s failure say about Fiat Chrysler’s future? Not much … Dropping the Dart frees Fiat Chrysler to concentrate on more popular and profitable vehicles … There’s no denying, though, that Fiat Chrysler committed the cardinal sin for an automaker: It began selling a car it knew, or should have known, was not ready.”

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