Before you watch the Super Bowl tonight, you could, should you be so inclined, head over to YouTube and watch a preview of an ad Kia will be airing during the game. The spot features the Victoria's Secret model Adriana Lima wearing very little and doing even less: She spends the entirety of the ad, hilariously and (one presumes) at least partially satirically, swaying, saying nothing, and waving a checkered racing flag. Very, very slowly.
Super Bowl commercials (the experience of, the economics of, etc.) used to be pretty straightforward: Advertisers would gladly pay tons of money for a slot during the game's broadcast because an ad aired during the game's broadcast was an amazingly efficient way of getting a message out to tons of people. That's still the case -- a 30-second space is going, this year, for $3.5 million, up from $3 million last year -- but the mechanics of the messaging are changing, and rapidly. Super Bowl ads are no longer simply ads, in the Traditional Teevee sense; they're campaigns that play out, strategically, over time. Instead of functioning as commercial broadcasts unto themselves, they're acting more and more like episodic touchpoints for an expansive cultural conversation.
In part, that's about marketers racing each other for relevance in an environment where marketing messages no longer need to be confined to TV. But it's a bigger story, too -- of communications, overall, breaking free of the boxes that used to contain them. One function of the media, traditionally, has been the regulation not just of information, and not just of entertainment, but of time itself. Our broadcast networks, in particular, have segmented time into neat little boxes -- 30 seconds here, 30 minutes there -- and populated them with sounds and images that entertain and (occasionally) edify us. They have plotted our days into grids, scheduling our experience and helping us to forget that, in fact, there's very little that's natural about a time slot.
Super Bowl ads have been pretty much the Platonic culmination of the gridded media system. They have operated on the assumption that a Big Event itself (the experience of, the economics of) is significant not just because of its content, but because of the community it convenes (111 million people!). The Super Bowl is time rendered collective and contained -- so of course marketers want to buy themselves a chunk of it. When better to make your pitch to the world than during the period when the maximum amount of eyes are focused on, effectively, the same screen?
YouTube, and social networks in general, encourage precisely the opposite marketing model. Rather than containing consumer attention, they disperse it. They take the typical 30-second ad spot and condense it to five seconds ... or expand it to five hours. Or both. Or neither. It doesn't matter, because digital spaces remove time as both a constraint and a value in commercial production, allowing for marketing that insinuates itself on its intended audiences much more slowly, and much more manipulatively, and potentially much more effectively, than its analog counterparts.
You'd think all that would be bad news for broadcast networks, with marketers trading YouTube for boob tube and abandoning the pricey Super Bowl altogether. Why buy the milk, and all that. But: Not only are marketers continuing to pay for something they could ostensibly get for free; they're paying more for it than they ever have before. They're still finding value -- millions of dollars worth of it -- in the connective consciousness that the Super Bowl represents.
And that's because, in a world of atomized attention, anything that can aggregate us is becoming more valuable than it's ever been before. Ads aired during the Super Bowl aren't just ads; they're Super Bowl ads. That branding will give them a spot -- and a continued life -- in Monday's write-ups of Sunday's best Super Bowl spots, and in all those "Super Bowl Ads: 2012" collections that will function as archives for future generations. Their context will make them more than what they are. And that will make them, implicitly, more engaging than they might be otherwise. Super Bowl ads, as my colleague Jordan Weissmann has pointed out, have been found to be 58 percent more memorable than regular ads. And while that's partly, sure, because those ads generally represent the best stuff that J. Walterand friends have to offer, it's also because the ads, aired when they are, adopt the warmth of assumed connection that convened attention can confer. I am watching Matthew Broderick as 110,999,999 other people do. There is something epic -- and rare -- about that.
So Super Bowl ads are increasingly valuable because the kind of mass-conscious event they're part of is increasingly rare. Mass-ness itself is increasingly rare. Overall, in the U.S., TV viewership is declining. Audiences are fragmenting. The Gladwellian connectors that used to bring us together -- Lucy, J.R., Oscar-- are departing, leaving individual impulse as the driver of our time. This is wonderful, and liberating, but introduces its own set of quandaries. TV Guide, after all, wasn't just a guide book; it was a framework. It was a power structure. It assembled us, effortlessly, within its neat little boxes. By limiting our experience, it also connected our experience.
No longer. Increasingly, we're looking to social networks rather than TV networks for our entertainment, for our information, for our sense of the world. And those social networks are fluid and box-less and limitless in a way that traditional media never could be. What happens to events themselves -- those shared moments of cultural connection -- in a world where time is unconstrained? Is a Super Bowl ad really a Super Bowl ad when I can watch it long before kickoff?
After more than a year of rumors and speculation, Bruce Jenner publicly came out as transgender with four simple words: “I am a woman.”
“My brain is much more female than male,” he explained to Diane Sawyer, who conducted a primetime interview with Jenner on ABC Friday night. (Jenner indicated he prefers to be addressed with male pronouns at this time.) During the two-hour program, Jenner discussed his personal struggle with gender dysphoria and personal identity, how it shaped his past and current relationships and marriages, and how he finally told his family about his true gender identity.
The show went to impressive lengths to explain unfamiliar concepts of gender and sexuality to its audience, although it didn't always go smoothly. Sawyer’s questions occasionally came off as awkward and tone-deaf, mirroring a broader lack of understanding by many Americans about the difficulties that trans people face. But Sawyer’s empathy also shone when explaining concepts like gender identity and transitioning to her audience—a rare experience on primetime American television. It was a powerful signal of how much progress the LGBT movement has made over the past twenty years, even though the T in that acronym still lags behind the other three letters in both social acceptance and legal protections, and in how much progress remains to be made.
In her new book No One Understands You and What To Do About It, Heidi Grant Halvorson tells readers a story about her friend, Tim. When Tim started a new job as a manager, one of his top priorities was communicating to his team that he valued each member’s input. So at team meetings, as each member spoke up about whatever project they were working on, Tim made sure he put on his “active-listening face” to signal that he cared about what each person was saying.
But after meeting with him a few times, Tim’s team got a very different message from the one he intended to send. “After a few weeks of meetings,” Halvorson explains, “one team member finally summoned up the courage to ask him the question that had been on everyone’s mind.” That question was: “Tim, are you angry with us right now?” When Tim explained that he wasn’t at all angry—that he was just putting on his “active-listening face”—his colleague gently explained that his active-listening face looked a lot like his angry face.
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
In India’s state of Uttar Pradesh, the village of Kannauj lies a dusty four-hour drive east of the Taj Mahal, the white-marbled wonder built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third and favorite wife. Empress Mumtaz Mahal died in 1631 giving birth to their 13th child. The Taj is Jahan’s grand paean to lost love. But he also mourned his queen in much more personal ways. For one thing, Jahan never again wore perfume. Fragrant oils—known in India as attars—had been one of the couple’s great shared passions.
Then and now, Kannauj was the place to fetch the fine scents—jasmine oils, rose waters, the roots of grasses called vetiver, with a bouquet cooling to the nose. Exactly when attar-making began there, no one is certain; archaeologists have unearthed clay distillation pots dating back thousands of years to the ancient Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley. But today, Kannauj is a hub of a historic perfumery that draws much of the town to the same pursuit. Most of the villagers there are connected to fragrance in one way or another—from sinewy craftsmen who steam petals over wood fires in hulking copper pots to mothers who roll incense sticks in the shade while their toddlers nap on colorful mats nearby.
Leon Trotsky is not often invoked as a management guru, but a line frequently attributed to him would surely resonate with many business leaders today. “You may not be interested in war,” the Bolshevik revolutionary is said to have warned, “but war is interested in you.” War, or at least geopolitics, is figuring more and more prominently in the thinking and fortunes of large businesses.
Of course, multinational companies such as Shell and GE have long cultivated an expertise in geopolitics. But the intensity of concern over global instability is much higher now than in any recent period. In 2013, the private-equity colossus KKR named the retired general and CIA director David Petraeus as the chairman of its global institute, which informs the firm’s investment decisions. Earlier this year, Sir John Sawers, the former head of MI6, Britain’s CIA, became the chairman of Macro Advisory Partners, a firm that advises businesses and governments on geopolitics. Both appointments are high-profile examples of a much wider trend: an increasing number of corporations are hiring political scientists, starting their board meetings with geopolitical briefings, and seeking the advice of former diplomats, spymasters, and military leaders.“The last three years have definitely been a wake-up call for business on geopolitics,” Dominic Barton, the managing director of McKinsey, told me. “I’ve not seen anything like it. Since the Second World War, I don’t think you’ve seen such volatility.” Most businesses haven’t pulled back meaningfully from globalized operation, Barton said. “But they are thinking, Gosh, what’s next?”
The editors of Smithsonian magazine have announced the winners of their 12th annual photo contest, selected from more than 26,500 entries. The winning photographs from from the competition's six categories are published below: The Natural World, Travel, People, Americana, Altered Images and Mobile. Also, a few finalists have been included as well. Captions were written by the photographers. Be sure to visit the contest page at Smithsonian.com to see all the winners and finalists.
This month, many of the nation's best and brightest high school seniors will receive thick envelopes in the mail announcing their admission to the college of their dreams. According to a 2011 survey, about 60 percent of them will go to their first-choice schools. For many of them, going away to college will be like crossing the Rubicon. They will leave their families -- their homes -- and probably not return for many years, if at all.
That was journalist Rod Dreher's path. Dreher grew up in the small southern community of Starhill, Louisiana, 35 miles northwest of Baton Rouge. His family goes back five generations there. His father was a part-time farmer and sanitarian; his mother drove a school bus. His younger sister Ruthie loved hunting and fishing, even as a little girl.
On Inauguration Day 2013, a few minutes after 12 p.m., Raffi Hovannisian stood before a massive crowd at Liberty Square in the heart of Yerevan, Armenia. Thousands of Armenians had gathered in the capital to cheer on their leader: “Raffi! President! Raffi! President!” The man before them was tall and dynamic, his fist thrown into the air like a high-school football star. He drew himself to the microphone and thundered over the crowd: “Armenia! Armenia!” The people whistled and cheered. Many of them did not notice that they were being surrounded by riot police with red berets, reinforced by special units of the armed forces.
At exactly the same time, a few kilometers up a hill, Serzh Sargsyan was taking the oath of office for the presidency of the Republic of Armenia. The entire government was in attendance—all the church leaders, too. The official results had been clear about the incumbent’s victory, with 59 percent of the vote. The man on stage was short, with silver hair and the disciplined expression of a military commander. He spoke solemnly about the challenges still facing the country: unemployment, poverty, emigration.
In a few weeks, millions of college students will enter the real world with dreams of finding work that's meaningful and challenging—and preferably lucrative enough to live roommate-free in a major city. As they embark on their job searches, recent graduates are frequently given the vague advice to "go out and network."
But what exactly should this networking entail? What does one say to a perfect stranger whom one has cajoled into "grabbing coffee," while also telepathically conveying one's desire for a job?
Science has one piece of advice, which is this: Ask them for advice.
Far from inconveniencing or annoying the advice-giver, research shows that asking for advice appears to boost perceptions of intelligence.
When healthcare is at its best, hospitals are four-star hotels, and nurses, personal butlers at the ready—at least, that’s how many hospitals seem to interpret a government mandate.
When Department of Health and Human Services administrators decided to base 30 percent of hospitals’ Medicare reimbursement on patient satisfaction survey scores, they likely figured that transparency and accountability would improve healthcare. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) officials wrote, rather reasonably, “Delivery of high-quality, patient-centered care requires us to carefully consider the patient’s experience in the hospital inpatient setting.” They probably had no idea that their methods could end up indirectly harming patients.