Saturday, February 28, 2015

Stouffer’s mac and cheese TV commercial by JWT New York is remarkably terrible

Hey everybody, let’s talk about this breathtakingly shitty commercial, called “Breathe,” from Nestlé’s Stouffer’s, promoting their high-saturated fat, low-taste macaroni and cheese frozen dinners:


The spot, a part of a campaign by J. Walter Thompson New York that seeks to boost weakening frozen food sales, begins with a teenage girl eagerly talking about her day with her parents, both of whom appear to be annoyed that their daughter is talking to them.

“They ran into Jeff and Ash—like, literally ran into him,” the girl recounts, as the father shoots a why-the-hell-is-she-talking-to-us look to the mother, who in turn flashes an insincere smile while not even disguising her lack of interest in her child. The daughter continues—“So awkward! He spilled a little soda on his shirt!”—as a voiceover plays over her:

This story had 30 minutes left, until Kim realized that Stouffer’s mac and cheese is made with real cheddar, aged to perfection for six long months. When you start with the best cheddar, you get the best mac and cheese.

The daughter is so enraptured by the hundreds and hundreds of milligrams of sodium in her serving of hastily-microwaved food-like substance that she stops chattering about stupid teenage girl nonsense like her thoughts and feelings and the people in life about whom she cares. The father, ever the smartass, asks her, “So what about Jessica?”—to which the daughter replies, “What about her?” And just like that, Operation Get My Daughter to Stop Sharing Things with Me is a resounding success.

This ad, ostensibly targeting parents who value dinnertime as a family event, is such a complete misfire that so thoroughly misunderstands its audience that I’m genuinely curious if JWT took some side cash from Kraft to bungle it. The reality is, parents who at least make an effort to make at-the-table, TV-free family dinners a thing want to listen to their kids talk about what’s on their minds. It is, in fact, the whole damn point of a family dinner. The problem isn’t that their teenagers are sharing too much; it’s that teenagers are sharing too little or nothing at all.

Here, the daughter is happily going into detail about her life—and true, it does sound like inconsequential, high school cafeteria minutiae. But it’s clearly important to her, and when someone—especially your own child—trusts you enough to share, the least you can do is be kind enough to listen without making faces. Besides, if your kid learns that you can’t be trusted to care about small stuff, why would she trust you with the big stuff?

In short, JWT at some point pitched a commercial that essentially said, “Stouffer’s: For terrible parents1 who want their kids to shut the fuck up,” and Stouffer’s inexplicably said, “OH MY GOD, CAN WE SIGN UP TWICE?” Well done, all.

* * *

Okay, I know I bang the gender critique gong more often than I intend on this blog, but watch another commercial in the campaign, called “Cell Phone”:


A teenage girl is looking at her cell phone. When she takes a bit of her lasagna, the purported deliciousness of her unit of food causes her to put her phone down. A voiceover explains: “As Katie puts her cell phone down for the first time all week, she realizes that Stouffer’s lasagna is topped with fresh cheese that browns beautifully. Fresh cheese and a touch of aged parmesan is [sic] what gives us our irresistible flavor. When you start with the best blend of cheese, you get the best lasagna.” Her cell phone buzzes; her parents look at their daughter expectantly; the daughter ignores the phone and says, “What?”

First of all, there’s some seriously mixed messaging here: in the first commercial, the parents are trying to stop their daughter from talking to them; in the second commercial, the parents are trying to stop their daughter from talking (or texting, I guess) to her friends. Which is it? Or do parents who serve Stouffer’s just want their kids to stop talking to everyone? Geez, get your pitch straight, guys.

But more importantly, why are they picking on teenage girls here? Look, I’m not saying that Stouffer’s is a part of some conspiracy to make the world into a phallocratic dongtopia or anything2, but two commercials in the same campaign that are predicated on stopping teenage girls from talking? Two commercials in the same campaign that presuppose teenage girls just talk about silly, unimportant stuff? Pretty lame, especially if we’re trying to get girls to Lean In or Step Up or Speak Out or what have you.

(It’s worth noting that ConAgra’s Manwich has a similar, and far superior, ad campaign by DDB West based on a lot of the same ideas, including a spot in which Manwich stops a teenage girl’s texting. The key difference is that, in Manwich’s ads, the parents actually seem to care about and enjoy the company of their kids—sons and daughters. And of course, they’re narrated by Ron Fucking Swanson.)

* * *

And as long as I’m taking swipes at Stouffer’s, take a look at the Nutrition Facts for Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese, as presented on its website:


“Serving Size: 2. Servings Per Container: Not Given.” This is the opposite of helpful.

Just as confusing, despite each serving (which we know is exactly two somethings) containing 6 grams of saturated fat, the label still goes on to say that the product is “[n]ot a significant source of Saturated Fat.” Is this why Stouffer’s feels no shame about how unhealthful its foodesque offerings are—in their world, 6 grams of saturated fat apparently rounds down to insignificant? Huh.

Yes, yes, I know—this is probably the result of some sloppy coding. But still, get it together, Stouffer’s.


1I intentionally avoided making the comment that, if you’re feeding your kid frozen garbage, you’re probably a terrible parent anyway, so this ad knows its intended audience all too well—which, to be fair, would be an amazing defense of JWT’s incompetence here. But that’s not cool; plenty of parents would love to cook healthful meals for their kids, but they work two jobs and live in a food desert and are barely making ends meet and thus, Stouffer’s from Walgreens could really be the best of a limited set of bad options. Plenty of horrible parents make home-cooked meals for their kids; plenty of genuinely wonderful parents hate the fact that they’re feeding their kids frozen meatloaf and are working really hard for long hours to make sure they won’t have to in the future.

2There’s no need for a conspiracy; it already is, amirite ladies? No? Fine, whatever, I have mac and cheese and lube and pictures of a sexy Raccoon Mario girl, I don’t need you.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A note on Valentine’s Day


Generally speaking, it’s easier to be kind when people are kind to you. You worry less about your kindness being wasted or unappreciated, and you don’t fret about being taken advantage of when you can see your kindness being returned, even indirectly.

People talk about how one small act of kindness can have a lasting impact or how you get the love you give, and a lot of that does sound like motivational poster horseshit or Western culture bastardizing Eastern theology.

But to be charitable, I think this is all they mean—being kind to people helps them care for others fearlessly. It helps people overcome some of the insecurities and worries that stop them from exercising their selfless, compassionate, empathic impulses and lets them, at least for a moment, tap into a better part of themselves.

And it’s one of the purest acts of love to help someone have as many of those moments as possible.

Have a happy Valentine’s Day. Be kind to people. And go get laid maybe.

No, you don’t understand! It’s a consumer protest! I swear I’m not a terrible boyfriend!


I mean, it makes sense from the retailer’s point of view: the store advertises an item at a discounted price, but you need a reward card to get that price. It’s free, the retailer assures you, and you can earn points! So you sign up, get some discounts, and maybe even get a coupon worth a few bucks after you’ve accumulated enough points.

In exchange, you’re letting the retailer compile a very specific (and creepily accurate) consumer profile on you. By analyzing your spending patterns—what you buy, when you buy it, how often you buy it—companies can figure out a lot about you: your relationship status (frozen dinner for one tonight?), your income (do you buy the store brand or the name brand?), your family situation (how many diapers do you buy?), your health issues (picking up another Abbreva and a home HIV test?), your sex life (stocking up on condoms and Plan B?), your sexual orientation (you’re a girl and you’ve purchased the last five issues of Maxim?), and who knows what else.

Better still, all that information is attached to a specific name, phone number, and address—and all this information is easily exportable to an Excel spreadsheet for the retailer to sell to another company for the right price.

In response, many people sign up with “dummy” accounts with fake names and phone numbers. Or, since many retailers let you use your card by punching in your phone number, some type in their area code plus “867-5309” (and claim that they’re named Jenny), which has almost certainly been registered by someone.

My (admittedly ineffectual) protest has been to buy products that I don’t need whenever I have coupons that make such products free or nearly free, just to screw with the profile they’ve made for me. It’s completely futile, I know, but it makes me feel a little better.

Sometimes, though, it leads to awkward, dissonant purchases. I guess what I’m getting at is, I’m pretty sure the cashier at Walgreens now thinks I’m a terrible boyfriend who’s planning the Worst Valentine’s Day Ever.

Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, KY Ultragel

Guys, they were free. Don’t be judgey.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

I took a photo of Florida in February

I had a beach day! And I took this photo!
Ours may be a ridiculous state, but it sure is pretty.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Slovakia’s gay marriage referendum: an exercise in game theory and ballot design

A genuine Slovak portable ballot box.
(Photo: Lišiak/Wikimedia Commons)
Voters in Slovakia rejected three referenda asking voters to ban same-sex marriage, adoption by same-sex couples, and compulsory sex education yesterday.

Referenda in Slovakia are only legally binding if 50 percent of eligible voters—in this case, 2,205,765 out of 4,411,529 voters—actually cast a ballot. So while more than 90 percent of people who voted on the ballot questions voted “yes,” voter turnout was less than 22 percent. With insufficient turnout, the referenda won’t take effect.

This was the strategy adopted by LGBT activists in Slovakia: rather than asking voters to vote “no,” they urged voters not to cast a ballot at all. It’s a sound strategy, because—assuming everybody who wants to reject the referenda is on the same page—voting “no” can only improve the chances of the referenda passing.

For convenience’s sake, let’s say there are exactly four million eligible voters in Slovakia. If 1,999,999 voters vote “yes” on a referendum, and nobody votes “no,” the referendum is rejected due to insufficient turnout.

But if 1,999,999 voters vote “yes” and one person votes “no,” the referendum passes.

In fact, the theoretical smallest number of “yes” votes required for passage in this example would be 1,000,001—assuming 999,999 people voted “no.”

In the case of this past vote, it looks like Slovaks who wanted to reject the referenda were on the same page and mostly stayed home instead of voting “no.” But there’s an interesting bit of game theory involved with deciding whether to stay home or to cast a “no” ballot:

Assuming you think your fellow referendum-rejecters are completely rational, it’s obviously best to stay home and not vote at all.

But if you think enough of your referendum-rejecters haven’t thought it through and will show up to vote “no”—enough to push turnout over 50 percent but not enough to make up 50 percent of those who do vote—then you need to show up to vote “no,” so that the “no” vote has a fighting chance of winning.

But then if you don’t necessarily think referendum-rejecters are stupidly going to vote “no,” but you think enough referendum-rejecters think that enough referendum-rejecters are stupid enough to vote “no” and will subsequently vote “no” themselves, then you need to vote “no” as well. Which is bananas, right?

And there’s another wrinkle to this, too. These three referenda are bundled together on the same ballot. If blank responses—that is, checking neither “yes” nor “no”—count toward the turnout tally, that may explain why those who voted “no” did so: it’s not stupidity, but rather, a split ballot. They may have very strongly wanted to vote “yes” on one question (say, banning compulsory sex education) but weren’t in favor of another (like banning same-sex adoption). Since they’re contributing to the turnout even if they leave the adoption ban question blank, they decide to vote “no.” Which is yet another factor in the game theory calculus for referendum-rejecters—are there enough ballot splitters to push turnout over 50 percent?

In this particular ballot, the questions deal with related topics, and there’s a good chance that “yes” voters will vote “yes” for all three, and “no” voters will do the same. But there’s plenty of opportunity for monkeyshines in this setup—what if the questions were phrased differently, like asking voters to ban same-sex marriage (so that the “no” vote is the pro-LGBT vote) in one question and approve same-sex adoption (so that the “yes” vote is the pro-LGBT vote) in another?

Or what if they bundled together unrelated questions that could scramble voting coalitions? I don’t know anything about Slovak politics, but if this referendum system were in place in the United States, it’d be hard to figure out the correct strategy if the ballot questions concerned, say, mandatory vaccination, gun control, and marijuana legalization.

In any case, it highlights a quirk of democracy—that the way you let people vote can play a huge role in how that vote ends up. An ideal voting method is one in which no game theory is required as a voter; you merely express how you feel without worrying about what other people are doing.

But that rarely happens. As a result, it’s worth remembering that who’s designing our ballots can be just as important as what’s on them.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Well, I guess I own pizza underwear now

Look what arrived in the mail today, just in time for Valentine’s Day!


On a completely unrelated note, is there a way to make my credit card company text me a riddle or something that I would have to solve before they authorize any purchases made between 2 AM and 4 AM just to make sure that I’m actually fully awake and capable of making sound sartorial decisions? I’m asking for a friend.

* * *

Actually, what fascinates me most about my new pizza underwear is this warning label.

"Not intended for children 14 years of age or younger. Non nestiné aux enfants de 12 ans ou moins."

I don’t know what’s more confusing: the fact that this underwear has a minimum age requirement for some reason, or that the age requirement inexplicably drops by two years if you happen to speak French.

(They probably meant to write “non destiné,” not “non nestiné.”)

* * *

I am, of course, joking when I say that my new pizza underwear arrived just in time for Valentine’s Day, because I’m afraid I am once again single and bitter and going to shame-eat a lot of hamburgers this Feb. 14.

But I’m thinking, what if I happen to be wearing my pizza ‘pants on a date that goes particularly well? Ideally, I’d be with someone who shares my enthusiasm for pizza-themed undergarments, and the night will go splendidly.

It’s just as plausible, though, that my ridiculous underwear could put the brakes on the evening. I’m not sure what I could say to make things better, but, as is usually the case, I certainly know what I could say to make things worse. Here are five, in descending order:

5. You know what they say—even when it’s bad, it’s good.

4. Look, it may start off as a Totino, but I swear it becomes a DiGiorno once it’s heated up.
3. “Thirty minutes or less”? I’ll come in half that time, guaranteed.

2. I know you drove all the way out here, but I can’t promise a big tip.

1. You might want to dab it with a napkin first.

Before you judge me, I would like to point out my restraint by neither going for any sausage or pepperoni double entendres nor making any references to “Papa John’s” sounding vaguely phallic. And I didn’t even mention the fact that Pizza Hut kind of rhymes with “piece of butt” if you slur it.

On second thought, judge me; I guess I deserve it.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Can I declare “jackass bankruptcy”?

Instead of having to constantly apologize to all the people to whom I’ve been a thoughtless jerk, can I just declare “jackass bankruptcy”?

Like, can I just make it known that I’ve probably been a jackass to a bunch of people and I’m sorry and it’ll just save us all a lot of time if we just started over with everybody?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

I felt for the sad, lonely, ethereal fox on the recent episode of Adventure Time


“I wonder if being a sad loner gives you more raw materials to form song ideas. Is that where creativity comes from? From sad biz?”

— Finn the Human, Adventure Time