Easy Money

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Not too long ago I received an email solicitation for money from an old acquaintance. A breast cancer survivor, Patty (her real alias) proposed to ski across the middle of the Greenland ice cap with three other female cancer survivors to "raise breast cancer awareness."

Though it was easy to see how the proposition might work — give me money and the cure for cancer will be one step closer — I couldn’t connect the "awareness" dots.

How does "awareness" actually help the struggle against cancer? Those who have it are already aware, and those who don’t have it know someone who’s had it, and are, therefore, also aware. That covers pretty much everyone. I know, the reasoning goes something like this: the more people are aware that cancer exists, the more they are likely to donate money for research, so cancer will be cured sooner. But this is tenuous and specious sophistry at best. If cancer research is the objective, why not just solicit funds for that, and skip the arctic junket? What Patty really wanted was one more great adventure in her life, and she didn’t want to pay for it.

Actually, I was envious. Adventure junkies (of whom I am one) are driven to ever more outrageous accomplishments. It gives meaning to our lives. It’s what we live for. Transcending our own abilities doesn’t always put food on the table, but it builds “human capital” (in the words of Thomas Sowell) — capital that recharges our energy and creativity, capital that can be invested in future endeavors. But these adventures cost money. Last time I checked, climbing Mount Everest cost over $70,000. Put that on your resume.

I’d faced this before. Contemplating crossing sub-arctic Canada from Great Slave Lake to Hudson Bay along the Thelon River in kayaks, my partner (a journalist) suggested we raise funds by "doing it for charity" — any charity that deigned to associate itself with us. I asked her how the accounting would work. She responded that the funds would first be used to pay for our expedition; then whatever money was left over would go to the good cause. We’d solicit media coverage, write up our trip account, get it published, and donate the receipts (if any) to our charity.

Yeah, right.

Our incentives didn’t align with the still-unchosen charity’s. Our primary objective was crossing Canada above the 60th parallel: raising money and awareness for a generic "good cause" was just a way to finance our trip. To me, it seemed dishonest to flip the two and pretend that our charity was our primary objective while our trip was a self-imposed hair shirt to show dedication to the cause. So, in a spirit of greater transparency, I suggested soliciting commercial sponsorship from companies whose products we could use and who would actually benefit from supporting our venture through ads and testimonials. After all, I couldn’t — with a straight face — declare that I was kayaking the Thelon for Jerry’s Kids when I was actually doing it for Miller’s Adult: me.

Kelty, Hormel, and L’Oreal responded. They sent a tent, two cases of tinned meat, and assorted cosmetics. (Our pitch to L’Oreal had been that outdoorsy women also use cosmetics. They bought it.) In the big scheme of expedition funding, this was chump — albeit honest — change: we were very grateful and never failed to mention them.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not against charity (with the caveat that charity, either with someone else’s money or at the expense of one’s own needs, is no virtue [while stinginess with one’s own property is no vice]). And I’m a firm believer in the libertarian value of uncoerced, private funding. Additionally, my heart always skips a beat whenever I think of Terry Fox, the cancer amputee who attempted to run across Canada with a 1970’s-era prosthetic leg, in unimaginable pain, come rain or shine, and in a constantly deteriorating condition, to inspire people to donate funds for cancer research. Fox’s only motivation was to cure cancer: he literally ran himself into the grave in a heroic act of total dedication. It was about the only thing left he could do.

I turned Patty down, telling her I needed my money for my own inspiring adventures, wished her luck, and congratulated her on her gambit.

She responded that I was small-minded, and that it was people like me who were what’s wrong with modern society.

Patty’s expedition succeeded in crossing a notable portion of Greenland’s ice cap but met with defeat for the usual reasons: weather, personal conflicts, equipment failure, less-than-perfect conditions, etc. — all understandable. Still, I can’t help but think that perhaps a bit of the wrong motivation had something to do with the failure.




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The E-Trade Baby Blues

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When I was in college I learned about a theory called “the cultural contradiction of capitalism,” which claims that capitalism calls upon the public to assume two conflicting personas. As producers, people must be rational and responsible; but as consumers, they need to be irrational, carefree, and gluttonous, so they will buy as much as possible.

I recently recalled this theory while watching one of the incredibly annoying “E-Trade baby” commercials on television. The E-Trade baby’s message is that investing is fun and easy and, by implication, even a toddler could handle it. Although I am an aspiring lawyer, I do have some degree of background on investment advising, and I consider this message absolutely irresponsible. Investing is difficult. To beat the averages and outperform the indexes (which is the only sensible goal for day-trader-type, individually managed investing accounts such as E-Trade sells), an investor needs brilliance, discipline, and a ton of luck.

Investing without understanding how to research stocks is like gambling your life savings at a casino. A rational strategy for saving for retirement would include buying index mutual funds and highly rated bonds with gold or gold-related stocks as a hedge against inflation. Picking individual stocks (even supposedly “safe” or large-cap stocks such as IBM or Microsoft) is too risky for someone investing retirement savings. It is mathematically impossible to predict future stock prices accurately enough to eliminate the risk that your portfolio will be wiped out by bad luck or short-term swings on precisely the day when you need to dip into your savings. Stock-picking is not suitable for any investor unless you spend several hours each day researching your stocks. But actively managed investing for mainstream America is what the E-Trade baby sells.

Many Americans learned the dangers of Wall Street investment when the recent recession ate their portfolios. And Wall Street is a symbol of capitalism for the American public; when retirement accounts go down, Main Street always blames Wall Street. This happened in 1929, when the stock market crash started the chain of events that led to the Great Depression and the New Deal. It happened recently when the so-called Great Recession instigated the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act.

My own opinion is that a fool and his money are soon parted. The American investing public believed that stock prices and real estate values could never go down, and that the principle of “more reward requires more risk” did not apply. The public got what it deserved. But although I blame the investors, it is undeniable that Wall Street, from Goldman Sachs to Jim Cramer to E-Trade, promoted itself as an easy, riskless way for mainstream families to make money and save for retirement. The investing public’s “irrational exuberance,” to quote Alan Greenspan, can only help Wall Street to make money. Vast fortunes are made by investment banks when stock market bubbles inflate. Wall Street is partially to blame.

What I am trying to get at here is that even though libertarians love capitalism, we do not have to love everything that results from the profit motive. My favorite movies are the original Star Wars trilogy. But George Lucas, desiring to milk as much money from his franchise as possible, has produced several re-edited versions, each more atrocious than the last, and also filmed the pathetic “prequels.” Similar stupidity was behind the decision to film “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” as two separate movies instead of one, dooming the two movies to artistic ineptitude. Generally, whenever a novelist or movie studio produces something good that people like, sequel after sequel follow, for no other reason than to make easy money and feed off the brilliance of the original.

Even though libertarians love capitalism, we do not have to love everything that results from the profit motive.

From a different angle, consider the widespread use of “intro rates” to persuade people to buy cellphone or cable TV services or six-month intro rates on credit cards. Are consumers so stupid that they don’t plan more than six months ahead? Ads full of colorful sights and sounds and subliminal associations but empty of facts and information about why their product is superior are the rule on television, not the exception. The stupidity of the public makes advertising easier. It is easier to sell car insurance by building a brand image around a jingle or a cartoon character than to produce a product that can be objectively demonstrated through scientific testing to be better than its competitors. Ads paid for by businessmen are a huge part of what shapes American culture and the American media — which helps explain why American culture is so strongly slanted in favor of shallowness, stupidity, and irrationality (though this is not a complete explanation, but merely one piece of the puzzle). America is full of instances in which businessmen appeal to consumers not on the basis of reason and logic but through gimmicks and psychological manipulations. Judging by the widespread success of ads like the E-Trade baby, many members of the public make some horribly irrational choices, in their consumer goods no less than their political beliefs.

You can’t blame capitalism for the fact that people make bad choices. Consumer irrationality is not a valid excuse to strip people of their freedom to choose. Wall Street gives us a far higher standard of living than any of the Soviet states ever achieved, and capitalism is the only system with a proven track record of prosperity and progress.

Nevertheless, the moral of this story is that the profit motive has a dark side. I know that some would say that the desire to make easy money by appealing to irrationality is not actually in any businessman’s long-term rational self-interest. I completely agree. Yet it is natural for people to seek to make money as easily as possible, and we see what results. Instead of blindly insisting that the profit motive can do no wrong, we should take the more refined approach and recognize that the fault lies with the people themselves, not with freedom as an economic system.

So I support the profit motive — but supporting the profit motive does not mean supporting everything that results from the profit motive.




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Much More Than Moore

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The hardest part of making a film is not writing the script, hiring the cast, choosing the locations, planning the shots, or editing the footage down to a moving and entertaining feature that tells the story in under two hours. The hardest part of filmmaking is finding the funding. It takes money to make a movie. Lots of money.

Ideally, the consumers (moviegoers) should pay for the product (the movie on the screen). And ultimately, they do, $10 at a time. But filmmakers need money upfront to make the product. Piles and piles of money. This is just Capitalism 101 for libertarians, and it makes me stare in disbelief when Americans glibly criticize the capitalist system for being corrupt and selfish. What could be less selfish than deciding to forego current consumption in order to invest in someone else's dream?

From the earliest days of filmmaking, films have been financed in several ways: using personal funds, either from one's own pocket or that of a rich friend or relative; applying for business loans; studio investment; and selling product placement. In recent years, product placement has become increasingly important as a way to fund the burgeoning cost of producing a movie, where a million dollars can be considered little more than chump change.

Morgan Spurlock, the new darling of the political-agenda documentary, exposes the process of selling embedded advertising in his new film, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, which opens later this month. But, as I said, product placement is nothing new. From the start, radio programs and TV shows were "brought to you by" a particular sponsor; product placement was simply a way of getting the product into the show itself. Today product placement is a multibillion-dollar undertaking. Also called "co-promotion" and "brand partnering," this marriage of convenience provides money for the movie makers and brand recognition for the product. According to the documentary, businesses spent $412 billion last year on product placement ads, from the Coke glasses placed in front of the judges on American Idol, to the Chrysler 300s driven by Jack Bauer on 24 (after Ford withdrew its F-150s), to the kind of phones that Charlie's Angels carry.

The film is informative, intelligent, and laugh-out-loud funny, largely because of Spurlock's dry, self-deprecating humor as he goes about looking for sponsors for his film, which is simply a movie about Spurlock looking for sponsors for his film. Where Michael Moore made his mark in documentaries by humiliating his subjects through ambush journalism, Spurlock is gleefully upfront about what he is doing, treating his subjects with seriocomic respect and appreciation.

We all know we're being had, but he does it so openly that he makes us enjoy being had.

Spurlock doesn't just walk into business meetings unprepared, and beg for money. He does his homework, as good filmmakers (or any salesperson) should. He begins with a psychological evaluation to determine his "Brand Personality," which helps him identify what kinds of products would be a good fit for his film. Not surprisingly, his brand personality is "mindful/playful," so he looks for products whose makers think of themselves as appealing to consumers who are mindful and playful. He arrives at meetings with high quality storyboards and mockups to make his pitch. He listens carefully to the producers and accommodates their concerns. After all, if their needs aren't met, they won't fund the film. They are his consumers as much as the ticket buyers at the multiplex will be.

The film is liberally peppered with products, all of them described, worn, eaten, or presented with Spurlock's respectful glee. We all know we're being had, but he does it so openly that he makes us enjoy being had. Even his attorney is a product placed in the movie; after discussing a contract, Spurlock asks how much the consultation will cost him, and the attorney replies, "I charge $770 an hour. But the bigger question is, how much is it going to cost me to be in your movie?" (I wrote the attorney's name in my notes, but I'm not repeating it here. He hasn't paid Liberty anything to be mentioned in our magazine . . .)

Spurlock likens his movie to a NASCAR racer, and accordingly wears a suit covered in his sponsors' logos for interviews. The official poster shows his naked body tattooed with the logos, with a poster board of the film's title strategically placed across his crotch.  (Nudity sells, but I guess his manhood didn't pay for product placement.)

The film is funny but also informative. Despite Spurlock's gleeful presentation, he offers many serious ideas about product placement in movies and about advertising in general. For example, he discusses the potential loss of artistic control when the sponsoring company wants things done a certain way. This isn't new; Philip Morris reportedly told Lucy and Desi they had to be seen smoking more frequently on "I Love Lucy," the most popular show of the 1950s, and they complied. A filmmaker has to weigh the money against the control, and decide how much to compromise.

Truth in advertising is also discussed. Spurlock visits Sao Paolo, Brazil, where outdoor advertising has been completely banned by a new "Clean City Law." Now store owners rely more heavily on word-of-mouth referrals for new customers, which may indeed be a more honest form of testimonial, but highly inefficient — and inefficiency is generally passed along to consumers in the form of higher prices. In the film, local Brazilians glowingly praise their ability to "see nature" now that the billboards are gone, as Spurlock's cameras pan to the high-rise buildings that overpower the few shrubs and trees in the downtown area and block the view of the sky. Subtle, and effective.

Spurlock also interviews several people to get their opinions of truth in advertising. Ironically, one of the interviewees has bright magenta hair taken from a bottle, another has the unmistakable ridge of breast augmentation, another is wearing a sandwich board advertising a nearby store, while a fourth is pumping gas at the chain that has made a brand-partnering deal with Spurlock. Once again Spurlock is making gentle fun of his subjects, and we laugh gleefully along with him. (But I'm still not willing to reveal the name of the gas station until they pony up with some advertising money for Liberty.)

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold may not be the greatest documentary ever made, but it is mindful and playful, like its maker. If it comes to your town, don't miss it.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," directed by Morgan Spurlock. Snoot Entertainment/Warrior Poet, 2011, 90 minutes.



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