Thursday, May 14, 2015

In defense of American tourists

I came perilously close to buying this T-shirt and making it a permanent part of my official international travel wardrobe:

The T-shirt is sold, appropriately enough, by the fine folks at struggling teen mall retailer and purveyor of amusing pizza-themed underwear American Eagle Outfitters, and the “All ‘Murican” refers only to the wearer of the shirt and not the shirt itself. (The shirt is “imported” per its product description, manufactured in what I’m sure are humane and not-at-all sweatshop-like conditions in a country whose workers are treated fairly and unexploitily1.)

And despite it appealing to the hipster-asshole side of me that likes things drenched in irony, I decided against it in part because wearing that shirt abroad is basically akin to wearing a shirt that says “I’M OBNOXIOUS, PLEASE MUG ME” emblazoned across the front.

But mostly I decided against it because I felt like I’d be reinforcing all manner of American tourist stereotypes: loud, inconsiderate, closed-minded, and zealously patriotic to the point of xenophobia.

Here’s the weird thing, though—the only people I’ve ever heard complain of obnoxious American tourists are other Americans, usually as a way of signaling that they’re among the few “good ones” and not the one of the plebs in Hawaiian shirts who boarded in Zone 3 and will make a beeline for the nearest McDonald’s as soon as they land. (I’ve also heard it from Canadians, but—I mean this with affection and respect because I have nothing but genuine love for our northern neighbours—we basically think of you guys as nice Americans with poutine.)

And while I don’t doubt that there are many non-Americans who find us annoying, the perpetuation of this stereotype feels a little bit like haughty yet insecure Americans trying to prove their worldly bona fides by shitting on their fellow countrymen—or, at least, their poorer, middle-American countrymen. This isn’t just elitist; it seems to be factually inaccurate.

Consider this: I’m sure there are plenty of Americans who are disrespectful and disdainful of other cultures, but those people generally don’t travel internationally. Hell, they don’t even get passports—only around 40 percent of us have one, despite the American passport being among the most powerfulif not the most powerful—in the world.

That’s not to say that, if you don’t have a passport, you’re uncultured ‘Murican swine; for instance, while the $135 application and execution fees for first-time passport applicants aren’t oppressive, they’re not nothing, and could very well represent a hardship for many families in a tight financial spot. But getting a passport is an affirmative step that at least suggests an interest in broadening one’s horizons and meeting people who aren’t like you.

Plus, consider how notoriously overworked the average American is and how few vacation days we get. (And consider a pervasive corporate culture that guilts employees who actually use their vacation days for anything other than sick days—and even then, are you sure you can’t wash down a couple of Advils with a bottle of Purell and come in for a few hours?) When an American—especially a working- and middle-class American—wants to travel abroad, it’s kind of a big deal: we’ve made the decision to cobble together several paychecks and our meager PTO not to do the easy thing (Las Vegas, Disney World, etc.) but to visit someplace new and unfamiliar that takes us out of our comfort zones. That’s kind of a weird thing for an asshole tourist to do.

What is fair, though, is saying that many of us are less sophisticated travelers. But to deride American tourists for that is like going to a Planet Fitness and laughing at fat people at the treadmill. Yes, I get it—we look hopelessly lame in Old Navy tees and cargo shorts2; our working knowledge of other countries is gleaned largely from Roadblocks and Detours on The Amazing Race; and we speak only one language because our high school only required two years of French, and even then, we squeaked by based on what we learned from Muzzy3.

But there’s a lot that’s great about American tourists. We’re friendly and warm and whatever your accent is, we’re instantly charmed by it. We’re excited and enthusiastic about everything, and we don’t bother pretending we’re not. We might not know your language, but we spent the plane ride over Googling how to say please and thank you and how are you doing? and, damn it, we’re going to do our best to make that work before moving onto pantomimes. And because of our country’s ridiculous labor laws, we tip absurdly well. We may be annoying sometimes, but I think there’s a lot to love about us.

My personal conspiracy theory is that this “obnoxious American tourist” stereotype is just a way for some Americans to keep the rest of us away from the world, sort of like how some folks don’t want their favorite band to become too popular. And the sad thing is, it works—at least some of those 60 percent of Americans who don’t have passports have to be people who’ve been told that the rest of the world will hate them so they don’t even bother. That’s bullshit.

So, my fellow Americans: stop with this stereotype. Stop repeating it—it’s not self-deprecating; it’s condescending, because you know you’re not talking about yourself when you say it. Stop fearing it—it’s not true, and there are plenty of places who will love to have you.

But most importantly, stop letting it flourish. There’s an easy way to stop it, and that’s by going abroad and being a counterexample. Plenty of American qualities make us natural travelers if only we’d just go. We’re curious, polite, adaptable, and a little brave—so let’s go. Worst comes to worst, there’ll probably be a McDonald’s when we get there.

* * *

I know this is a defense of American tourists, but can I take a moment to defend tourists in general? I never really understand why people complain about tourists visiting their town, or why so many bumper stickers and hacky cartoonists so frequently express a desire to murder visitors with guns.

Robert Ariail/Spartanburg Herald-Journal

When a tourist visits, what they’re basically saying is, “Hey, I think your city is so cool that I’m going to use what little spare time I have to check it out, and I’m going to pump all this sweet money into your local economy. Hope you don’t mind!”

And no, I don’t mind. I’m glad you’re here. Enjoy the beaches, y’all, and don’t forget there are PubSubs at Publix if you get hungry. I might be biased, though—people from out of state tend to be better drivers than Floridians, so, if nothing else, the roads feel safer when they’re here4.

1Not an actual word.

2This was an actual outfit I wore. A lot. In my defense, Italy’s pretty damn hot and everybody done scared me about muggers.

3Or Dora the Explorer, for these damn latter-millenials with their youth and their Instagram and their damn 21st century Nickelodeon.

4For the purpose of this moment of empathy, I’m not counting snowbirds as tourists. Those people will kill you.

Running a kindness deficit

When people use the phrase “kindness deficit,” they usually mean “a lack of kindness”; e.g., “Our society is experiencing a kindness deficit.”

People are free to use the phrase however they want, of course, but I don’t like that definition. First, it makes the phrase kind of unnecessary (just say “a lack of kindness,” right?), but more importantly, it ignores some of the nuances in using the deficit analogy.

Here’s a better definition: Just like a budget deficit occurs when a government spends more money than it takes in, a kindness deficit occurs when a person gives more kindness than s/he receives.

This is a more serious problem than someone merely not getting enough kindness. When people realize they’re giving much more love than they’re getting, they regret it. They feel stupid. They correct it by slowly closing their heart. They swear to never make the same mistake again.

And then the world becomes that much shittier.

It’s our job—all of us, collectively—to do what we can to prevent each other from regretting being kind. Look, we’re not personally responsible for rescuing every single human being, but we need to catch people when we can—when we see that the universe is kicking someone’s ass who doesn’t deserve it; when we see someone normally prodigal with their love start to be stingier with it; when we see the spirit and warmth start to fade from someone’s eyes.

It’s easy to talk a big game about wishing the world was friendlier and kinder and more wonderful, but this is what we can do to make it so. It’s one of the worst things in the world to make some regret being kind; corollarily, it’s one of the purest, most genuine acts of love to make someone feel good about it.

So yeah. We don’t even have to make them break even or anything. Most people don’t mind running a kindness deficit just as long as the deficit isn’t large enough to make them throw up their arms and say fuck it all. We just need to catch people when we can: large things are nice, but small things—a compliment, a candy bar, a hug, a thoughtful note—can nudge a deficit towards manageable and buy enough time until someone else more qualified can take over.

Human beings are warriors against misery, and we should be on the same team.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Fallon’s Quicken Loans ad: Sign a 30-year mortgage or be an un-American pussy, brah


For one fleeting moment, I thought Quicken Loans’s “Buy In” (or “#BuyIn”) TV commercial, the work of Minneapolis, Minn.-based agency Fallon, was a magnificent, self-aware satire of unscrupulous lending, the devaluation of patriotism and courage, and terrible advertising in general when the voiceover actor informed us that:

None of this makes rational sense. It only makes American sense.

It turns out that it was none of those things. The commercial is as sincere as it is boneheaded, which I suppose is its own sort of magnificence. They’re right, though—no part of this ad makes rational sense.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s start with the text of the voiceover, delivered with the sort of cocky, vaguely bullying cadence you’d expect from, say, a creepy dudebro in his late twenties super-seriously pressuring his buddies to stop being pussies and just hook up with that drunk girl at a high school kegger:

The American Dream is terrifying. American history is the history of the scary thing being the exact thing we have to do: cross that ocean, walk on that moon, fly. None of this makes rational sense. It only makes American sense. 
Here, the hard things show us who we are. Leaving your job to start your own thing. Having a kid when you still feel like a kid. Signing a 30-year mortgage on a home. Scary? Sure. But no match for our colossal self-belief. We’re supposed to do scary. Without scary, we don’t get to be brave. Buy in.

No, seriously.

* * *

Art Steiber, the vice president of marketing and sponsorships at Quicken Loans, told Ad Age that the campaign is specifically intended to assuage the fears of would-be homebuyers after the housing and financial crises of the last decade. And I get it; the economy’s improving, and there are undoubtedly people for whom homeownership is feasible but are understandably apprehensive about pulling the trigger.

But let’s remember that the subprime mortgage crisis was precipitated by predatory lenders hoodwinking consumers into taking out loans that they couldn’t afford and should have never been offered. The apprehension felt by consumers that reverberates years after the recession isn’t merely a marketing challenge for Quicken Loans to solve; it’s the hard-won wisdom that many people had their lives ruined for us to learn. Indeed, that fear is a good thing; it’s the final line of defense before you get pressured into making a bad decision.

It’s unseemly for Quicken Loans to dismiss that fear so cavalierly—and, worse still, make ignoring that fear some sort of virtuous deed. Buying a house shouldn’t be some brave, capricious decision that doesn’t make rational sense; it should be the result of a sober, dispassionate, realistic analysis of your financial situation and your personal goals.

This commercial, in fact, reminds me of an infamous ad from Century 21 in 2006, just before the housing meltdown. That spot—called “The Debate”—features a wife who’s bullying her husband into buying a house while their real estate agent joins in on the bullying via speakerphone. The tag-team pressure tactics work, the husband agrees to buy the house, and it’s supposed to be a happy moment—until, presumably, they defaulted on their loan a couple of years later and had to move into his in-laws’ basement. It’s pretty heinous:

Fuckin’ Suzanne and her research.

What Quicken Loans is trying to do is tell consumers not to trust their instincts. They’re dressing it up in patriotic imagery and the themes of courage, but the message remains the same: ignore the part of you that’s telling you to think this through and do it. Advertising does this all the time, of course, and it’s easy to laugh it off when we’re told to Call Today, Don’t Delay for infomercial ephemera. But when the same technique is applied to buying a house instead of a Slap Chop, just a few years after the destruction of so many people’s personal wealth stemming in part from imprudent house-buying, it’s some kind of appalling.

* * *

Let’s take a moment to recognize how wonderfully misguided this passage from the voiceover is:

American history is the history of the scary thing being the exact thing we have to do: cross that ocean, walk on that moon, fly. None of this makes rational sense. It only makes American sense.

Let’s ignore that they’ve glossed over a lot of American history with “ocean, moon, fly.” (And we’ll ignore the fact that the chronology is off; I’m pretty sure we were flying before moonwalking, both literally and otherwise.) I love that their misguided appeal to American exceptionalism included the implication that “rational” and “American” are antonyms.

More seriously, though, that passage is factually inaccurate: all those things did make rational sense. Finding efficient trade routes, beating the Soviet Union in the Space Race during the Cold War, and traveling quickly between faraway places—what parts of any of those things are irrational? Quicken Loans gives away the game inadvertently here; they know that, for many people, buying a home is an irrational decision—based more on ego and appearances than what’s best for them financially—but they try to downplay that irrationality by falsely claiming other things were irrational, too.

I don’t blame them, of course; more honest copy would read:

American history is the history of the scary thing being the exact thing we have to do: Plessy v. Ferguson, the Vietnam War, KFC Double Downs. None of this makes rational sense. It only makes American sense.

But it doesn’t quite have the same effect.

* * *

Not to belabor the point, but not everybody needs to own a home. And more importantly, not everybody needs to aspire to own a home.

One of the creepier things about the commercial is the way it presents homeownership as a necessary component of living the American Dream and, by extension, being a true American. Reinforcing the idea that there’s one single ideal life to which we should all aspire is pretty pernicious; it leads to disappointment, crippling debt, and a perpetual cycle of acquiring things to fill an ever-expanding hole in your soul.

A lot of advertising is predicated on making products seem like universal desires; it’s easier to convince somebody to want a product if they’ve already been conditioned to accept that product as something they’re supposed to want. But forced conformity is bad for us all. Don’t get me wrong; if someone chooses to want their little box made of ticky-tacky, then that’s fine, and I’m not judging—as long as it is indeed their choice and not the choice of societal pressures and terrible TV commercials.

(The commercial also presents “having a kid when you still feel like a kid” as a noble thing to do, which is also pretty messed up—being a parent isn’t for everybody and arguably isn’t for most people, and those who choose to become parents should probably at least feel like young adults before popping the little ones out—but that’s a rant for another day.)

* * *

But here’s the part of the ad that annoys me the most: they’re commodifying courage. Or, more bluntly, they’re trying to convince us that buying shit is an act of courage.

Advertising has long tried to convince us that buying shit is a legitimate form of self-expression. In lieu of developing a personality, the clothes and the cars we buy can convey that for us. In lieu of making actual choices in our lives, we can sate our need for freedom by choosing from different, mostly identical brands of cola with varying caloric content. I know, that’s nothing new or revelatory.

But there’s something grotesque about an ad like this one that tells us that, in lieu of actually doing something courageous, we can just buy something really expensive. I’ve seen a lot of ads attempt to commodify all sorts of things—love, charity, hope, security, etc.—but I’m straining to think of an ad that explicitly said, “Be brave, buy this thing.”

Sen. John McCain has talked a lot about “defining courage down”—that is, devaluing courage by using it to describe all manner of acts that aren’t genuinely courageous. While McCain’s courage credentials are impeccable1, I disagree with some of what he says; I think he defines courage too narrowly, which unfairly cheapens some of the acts of everyday, mundane bravery that are rarely applauded. Where I think he and I would have no quarrel, though, is saying that buying shit is not courageous, and the idea that it is will simultaneously make people less able to recognize actual courage and less inclined to do actually courageous things.

People have to do genuinely courageous things all the time, and not necessarily in the big, taking-bullets, rescuing-people-from-a-fire sort of way; they move to new cities, they start and end relationships, they follow their dreams and help others do the same. It’s gross to see courage so nonchalantly trivialized. Fuck off, Quicken Loans.

* * *

It’s perhaps unfair to talk smack about an ad campaign without saying what I would’ve done differently. So just spitballin’ here, but maybe something like this?

We know buying a home can be scary. We remember what it was like seven years ago. 
Buying a home might not be right for everybody, and it might not be right for everybody right now. But we’ve come a long way since 2008, and if homeownership is something you’ve been thinking about, it may be worth taking another look into it. 
Talk to your financial advisor. Talk to your family. Figure out what your goals and resources are. And if you decide that buying a home is right for you, we want to help. Call us when you’re ready. Quicken Loans. USA, all the way, numba one.

Okay, it’s not my finest bit of copywriting, but better, right?

1All right, fine, but can we at least agree that his courage credentials were impeccable pre-Palin?