Maker’s Mark illustrates the importance of thinking BEFORE you act

CATEGORY: FoodDrinkIn case you haven’t been tracking along, the folks at Maker’s Mark (which is owned by Beam, Inc.), faced with more demand than they could meet, recently announced that they’d be lowering their alcohol by volume (ABV) from 90 proof to 84 proof. You won’t even notice, they assured us.

The backlash was swift and loud. Makers Mark customers pitched a hissy fit, and at least one marketing analysta (Roger Dooley, writing at Forbeswondered if the company had committed “brand suicide.”

Do you really want to go on the record as saying the palates of your customers are so unrefined that they can’t tell the difference when the whiskey is diluted? In reality, in blind taste tests most people probably can’t tell the difference between similar colas, beers, whiskeys, etc. Nevertheless, brands still strive to maximize their taste differentiation. Can you imagine Coke saying, “We could change our formula a little, or even put Pepsi in our cans, and not many of our customers would notice.”?

To their credit, MM leadership today changed course, announcing in a public letter that:

…effective immediately, we are reversing our decision to lower the ABV of Maker’s Mark, and resuming production at 45% alcohol by volume (90 proof). Just like we’ve made it since the very beginning.

Good for them. The thing is, we shouldn’t over-congratulate them because this was a butt-stupid mistake to start with. Dooley had commented on their missed opportunity last Thursday:

Maker’s Mark could have used their looming shortage as an opportunity to make their brand stronger. If they encountered sporadic shortages for a period of years, they could raise prices and leverage the scarcity to take the brand up a notch in prestige.

And all he was doing was stating what every smart marketer in America knew instantly: you never give people less. If the choice is between raising prices or cutting portions, for instance, raise the prices. Customers may not like it, but they react worse when they find themselves getting less for their money. Psychologically, when you do so you are taking something away from them.

Same thing with the MM trainwreck. The shortage was arguably even good news from a brand perspective because the unanticipated shortage (whatever that may say about your forecasting operation) emphasized the demand for your product. You could have responded with something like this:

Wow, folks, you like our product so much that you bought more than we expected. It’s going to take us about five or six years to get caught back up because we will not sacrifice the quality of our fine whiskey, no matter how much it costs us. In the meantime, we’re grateful to our customers and salute their discernment.

Instead, you miss the obvious opportunity, you violate the customer’s trust, and you dilute your brand by far more than the three percent you’re cutting the ABV in your now somewhat less prestigious liquid refreshments.

Given that Makers Mark had committed the gaffe, today’s announcement was precisely the right move. But there was no excuse for the mistake in the first place. Now, thanks to a moment of unfathomable stupidity, they’re faced with the challenge of restoring their tarnished reputation.

Maybe Makers Mark will be just fine. Maybe this won’t even register a blip on their sales numbers – time will tell. In the meantime, though, the company’s need to understand what they have done. Leaving the product as is, running a new ad campaign, dumping money into PR aimed at assuring us that everything is hunky-dory, none of that can undo one simple fact: a few days ago, they announced to the world that they can water down their whiskey with no noticeable impact on quality.

That’s a hell of a brand promise, and it’s a bell that you can never unring.

Think. Act. In that order.

The “what if” question: a writer who loves poetry rants about poetry (and democracy gone astray)

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature2The truth is that I have never really cared for most of the American poetry canon. Yes, there are exceptions. If you count TS Eliot as an American (and since he was born in St. Louis, you kind of have to), then he was my favorite (although, since he abandoned the US and went to Europe, I also wound up reading him in Brit Lit back in college). Elizabeth Bird was wonderful. Stevens and Williams, of course. There’s Audre Lorde, Mary Oliver and Charles Wright, whom I tend to view as the best poet alive. But other than that? Eh.

Which sets me rather apart from other writers of my generation, I realize. Nearly ever American poet I know seems to have grown up with the Modern US tradition. The founding father of American verse was Walt Whitman, and the most powerful recent influences all seem to have been Beats: most famously this list includes “anti-academic” poets like Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Snyder and Cassady, as well as Burroughs and Kerouac, who were better known for their fiction. (I can never quite figure out where Bukowski belongs in this equation; he wasn’t formally part of that circle, I don’t think, but his literary ethos certainly seems pretty Beat-ish.)

When you read contemporary poetry, these voices shine through, whether they’re being more or less directly ripped off by lesser lights or whether the influence takes the form of a more sophisticated background ambience in “street” poetry (or even less directly, filtered through hip-hop, in spoken word). It’s even there in what is now characterized, somewhat dismissively, as “academic poetry.”

I may be painting with broad strokes here, and I’m aware that, as Voltaire decreed, “tous les generalizations sont faux, y compris celui ci.” It’s also worth noting, as Dr. Johnson countered, that “nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature.” With these edicts in mind, I’d suggest that I’m probably not far off the general truth of the matter.

For better or worse, American poetry has been informed from the beginning by the same pragmatic ideological underpinnings as everything else in our culture. The elite universities of Europe, working within more or less rigid class structures, established the foundations of Western intellectualism and asserted the value of knowledge for its own sake. Meanwhile, those who came to the New World insisted that the products of human intellectual endeavor be practical and of observable value to the community. We’re the ones who concocted the idea of the land grant university, for instance.

The ultimate institutional expression of utilitarianism in American education is found in the Morrill Land Grant Act.  The original Act of 1862 initiated a movement which saw a second Act in 1890 and 1994 legislation aimed at developing educational resources on Native American lands, and has to date resulted in the chartering of over a hundred public universities in all 50 states and several territories.

In more complex terms, the land-grant movement is the expression and diffusion of certain political, social, economic, and educational ideals.  The motives typically attributed to the movement involve the democratization of higher education; the development of an educational system deliberately planned to meet utilitarian ends, through research and public service as well as instruction; and a desire to emphasize the emerging applied sciences, particularly agricultural science and engineering.

Expressed cynically, the thinking here is that knowledge is only of use if you can do something with it, and that something is usually going to be assessed, at some point along the line, in terms of its revenue potential. If you, like I, have had your knowledge dismissed as mere “book learnin’,” you’ve experienced the idea in its most reactionary form.

Not that American poetry has more commercial potential that its European counterpart, of course. The way this ethic is expressed in our art is through a more aggressive alliance with the “common man.” Class doesn’t exist in the US, allegedly, and celebration of our democratizing principles is foundational to the history of our verse, beginning with the American Romantics (which is when things really kicked into high gear. (I mean, I guess we can talk about Colonial poets if you like, but do you really think the shadow of Edward Taylor looms especially large over the contemporary landscape?)

The patron saint of American verse is unarguably Walt Whitman, and just for fun, Google “Walt Whitman working class hero.” Turns out he founded the lineage that would later spawn everyone from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen. He was the rarefied essence of Americana, “one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist, no stander above men or women or apart from them, no more modest than immodest.”

The American Romantic experience stands somewhat in contrast to the English version. Wordsworth and Co. didn’t spend a lot of time exalting the importance of class divisions, but it’s also true that their Romanticism emerged from and was tinted by a more overtly class-driven and intellectual context. Wordsworth’s ideas of democracy seemed to prefer natural man living in harmony with the natural order, an organic and contemplative state that we might see as more intellectual and abstract than partisan and activist. (Although, it must be admitted that Byron, in his support for the Luddites, was a rather vocal rabble-rouser.)

Over time, the inherent obsession with applied democracy has led to a distinct “leveling” effect in the US. The rise of Whitman’s progeny, the Beats, occurring concurrently with the coming of Postmodernism, established a radical egalitarianism in our literature, to the point where it’s anathema to fault a writer for style or discipline or lack of quality. All voices are equally valid, and to insist on any measure of talent or ability is elitism.

Okay, okay. I’m pushing the envelope there, I know. Even the most committed street-level e-zines don’t accept everything without reading, I suppose. But understand: when you are rejected, no matter the publication or editor, the reasons are usually couched in terms of “not quite what we’re looking for.” It would be unacceptable to tell even a Vogon that his or work was drivel. This isn’t merely about good manners, either. There are many, many writers out there who need to stop it right now, but they are told at every turn how important it is that they keep it up. If they torture a roomful of people for five minutes every Tuesday at open mic night, they receive the same round of applause that the best poet in town gets.

This is America. This is the democracy of literature. Quality is an elitist concept and questioning someone’s validity as an artist verges dangerously on intellectual neo-fascism.

Damn. I did it again. Sorry.

To say that Americans don’t read a lot of poetry is to engage in understatement bordering on the absurd. While part of this is a function of an education system that doesn’t prioritize the arts (and truthfully, barely understands them at all), it also has to be said that much of what we “ought” to be reading is banal and mundane. All too often our poetry sets the bar on the lowest peg and still manages not to clear it. Mind-numbing public displays, such as Richard Blanco’s recent exercise in inaugural tedium don’t help. But in truth, Blanco’s poem, uninspired and pedestrian though it was, was par for the course. It was an archetypal exhibition of what’s wrong with our academic, workshop verse in a leveled culture: timid and too far removed from the grit of the real world, yet desperate in its impotent pawing after street cred – the moral equivalent of a Pat Boone record featuring a drop-in by Lil Wayne.

That’s the one extreme, and the other is the undisciplined “street” poet who knows what real life looks like up close and personal, yet who has onboarded the anti-intellectual ideology of the Beats. There’s something elitist about craftsmanship. Forget revision – that’s for the guys with elbow patches. If a poem takes more than a few minutes from concept to completion, it’s devoid of authenticity.

(A caveat: I hate to pound on this stereotype too hard. I actually know a writer who works in just this way and who manages to do it well. Very well. In fact, I have published this writer and am proud to say it’s one of the best things I have ever had the privilege of offering to S&R’s readers. So it’s possible. But just because one writer in a million can do it doesn’t mean that the other 999,999 are off the hook for their slothfulness. And be forewarned – if you accuse me of erecting a straw man here, I’m coming to your house and dragging you to the next open mic night I attend. And you’ll sit through every minute of it. Then you can come back and tell all of our readers if you still think I’m making it up.)

Here’s the “what if” question I allude to in the title: what if, instead of Whitman, William Blake had been born on Long Island on May 31, 1819? What if he, instead of the Godfather of Lowest Common Denominatoring, had been the founding father of American verse? How might our tradition have been different? What if, instead of a vaguely partisan obsession with the idea that all humans are staggeringly (and equally) talented artists who need to be heard, our tradition had instead been built on the apocalyptic potential of the soul? What if our legacy had been founded on the ambition of language instead of a deep, abiding suspicion of anything longer than two syllables?

What if poetry were something other than pedestrian, workaday prose with artificial linebreaks?


By now, I have probably made clear that I’m an insufferable elitist, an anti-democratic, peasant-bashing neo-Tory. Except that I am one of those common men so celebrated by Whitman. I grew up working class in the South, and the gods know how many young boys and girls throughout history, born into similar conditions in societies that believed in keeping the lower classes in their place, were denied the opportunity to pursue the artistic impulses that plagued their souls.

I am rather vehemently in favor of everyone getting a shot. On a level playing field. But our culture is ill-served by the Postmodern, hyper-democratic ideology I describe above and by how it is understood and implemented in our arts.

I’d argue instead that my point here goes to the essence of democracy properly understood. In a perfect democracy, everyone, regardless of race, class, gender, creed, etc., is equipped with the tools they need to succeed at the highest level and against the most demanding criteria. True democracy isn’t about grade inflation. It doesn’t accept ineptitude and laziness, shrugging, giving up and reclassifying it as “excellence.” (It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!)

That’s not democracy. That’s paternalism. It’s condescension and pandering, and it makes us all weaker, whether we like poetry or not. Why? Because our literature tells us a great deal about the rest of the society, which increasingly pays lip service to excellence while enabling (and assuring) underperformance. When our system sets us up for failure then stands and applauds, it’s giving us a gold star for showing up. When it treats the best and the worst as though they’re the same, it destroys external incentives to achieve.

Yep. Poetry tells us a lot about ourselves, whether we’re paying attention or not.

Mountain Memoirs: An Ashe County Anthology – love letters to a place…

Mountain Memoirs (cover photo courtesy, Main Street Rag Publishing, Ashe County Wordkeepers)

Back to the 2013 reading list with this entry – an anthology put together by the local writer’s group, the Wordkeepers, where I live: Ashe County, North Carolina. The book, Mountain Memoirs: An Ashe County Anthology is just that – an anthology. So first we’ll talk about what that is, then we’ll talk a bit about the book.

Truth is, now that I think about it, Mountain Memoirs is something more than a mere anthology, something at the same time more intriguing and  more discombobulating: an olio. Its eclectic nature makes it both enjoyable – and a little challenging – for the reader.

I came to this book expecting a wide variety of material – and I was not disappointed. There is poetry, experimental fiction, personal essay, anecdote, local history, and, certainly, memoir. The collection is bracketed by pieces by well known authors Lee Smith (short fiction) and Clyde Edgerton (a poem). And there is a collection of anecdotes by well known NC public television host D.G. Martin in the middle.

But it is the lesser known writers who deserve special note here. An essay by Ron Joyner, a “heritage fruit” apple farmer (and philosopher of sorts) could hold its own with the likes of Wendell Berry. A memoir by Rebecca Gummere on a her short sojourn in Ashe County during a failing marriage is better than any memoir you’ll have recommended to you by Oprah – and more honest, too. These are well written pieces that shine.

There are other pieces (recollections by Edith Pierce Jones, Sam Shumate, Fran Cook) that offer the flavor of growing up in the mountains – being, as one writer terms them, one of the “Olds.” There are explanations from former “flatlanders” (Julie Townsend, Becky Stragand, Barbara Lawing) of what drew them to chuck life elsewhere and come to the place once known by the name “The Lost Province.” And there are attempts at rhapsodizing the experience of what the world’s oldest mountains most powerful allure is – nature (essays by Scot Pope, Kimberly Perzel, Janice Pittard). Local history comes in the form of poetry (Mikael Goss), biographical sketch (Diana Renfro) and historical essay (Gene Hafer).

There’s even some reflection on what it means to live in such a place – through gentle, mostly humorous anecdote (D.G. Martin), but also through clear-eyed if forgiving critique (Chris Arvidson) and even some wishful thinking (Nicole Osborne).

It is, for anyone interested in western North Carolina (or life in the Appalachians generally), an enjoyable read. Some of the writing is uneven, but the sincerity and bigheartedness of the writers shine through.

This is clearly a group of love letters to a place. And love letters always deserve reading.

XPOST: The New Southern Gentleman

Rand Paul states strong case for hereditary nature of insanity

On one hand, you have to admire the Paul family, Ron and Rand. They’re smart, principled and courageous, willing to take unpopular stands on politically dangerous positions like legalizing marijuana or repealing opposing portions of the Civil Rights Act or getting rid of Homeland Security. It’s foul to suggest repealing gutting the Civil Rights Act, in whole or in part, but it is courageous. And they have ideas on a limited role for government that deserve a hearing.

If only they weren’t batshit crazy and dangerous as a wolverine in a sleeping bag.

They’re crazy in big ways, espousing overly simplistic and foolishly naïve solutions unworkable in a modern economy. And they’re crazy in little ways, as when Ron appeared on a radio show with a neo-Nazi pop group (although that sure turned out weird; check this out). Or when Rand became the first American politician in history to stiff Meet the Press.

Now Rand has done something even odder. While Mario Rubio delivered the mainstream GOP response to President Obama’s SOTU, Rand delivered the Tea Party rebuttal, following in the footsteps of such famous rebuttalists as Sarah Palin and Herman Cain.

This whole idea of a separate rebuttal is the stuff poli-sci dissertations are made of. First of all, the idea that there’s a GOP response and a separate Tea Party response underlines that there has always been and will always be a schism in the Republican Party. Second, it’s interesting that now even Mario Rubio is not pure enough for the Tea Party. Even Mario, who was originally elected as a Tea Party candidate and has one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate, has lost his luster now that he’s been embraced by the upper crust of the Republican Party.

The only reasonable conclusion is that the GOP not only needs to give up trying to bring the Tea Party into the mainstream, because they don’t want to be brought, they also need to give up on moving the mainstream to the Tea Party, because for every step the GOP takes toward them, they take a step backwards. Either the Tea Party is cleverly luring the GOP farther and farther to the right and won’t be satisfied until everyone in the party wears brown shirts and talks with a Sergeant Schultz accent, or they simply don’t want to be assimilated.

Perhaps they like being aggrieved outsiders. That’s their identity. That’s who they are. Then again, perhaps they’re smarter than we think they are not to trust the trust-fund billionaires who have purchased GOP franchise rights. This would not be the first time the well-born made concessions to the common man, only to rescind them at the first opportunity. In 1381, young King Richard promised change to the rebels led by Wat Tyler. As soon as the siege mob dispersed, he reneged and led an army in savage reprisal, saying:

You wretches, detestable on land and sea; you who seek equality with lords are unworthy to live. Give this message to your colleagues. Rustics you were and rustics you are still: you will remain in bondage not as before but incomparably harsher. For as long as we live we will strive to suppress you, and your misery will be an example in the eyes of posterity. However, we will spare your lives if you remain faithful. Choose now which course you want to follow.[i]

It’s certainly not hard to imagine Karl Rove or any of the moneyed set that now owns the Republican Party giving this speech. So maybe the Tea Party is right to keep their distance.

Still, it’s hard to fathom why as a politician, Rand Paul would agree to give the response. Yes, Rand, you’re a true Tea Partier, in on it from the very beginning. We get that. But doesn’t the fact that you’re following in the footsteps of Sarah Palin and Herman Cain tell you anything? You really think following their lead will get you anywhere? You’d be safer walking blindfolded down the middle of the fast lane on I-5 at midnight wearing black clothes.

And don’t you get the math of trying to position yourself to the right of Mario Rubio? Look at it this way. If American politics was the Rose Bowl field, and the fifty yard line was where the American people are, then the Republican Party would be positioned at the ten yard line. And the conservative wing of the Republican Party would be positioned at the goal line, and Mario would be positioned on the inside edge of the end line. In other words, there is no way to be to the outside Mario Rubio and still be inbounds. If you want to position yourself to the right of Mario Rubio, you have to move your campaign to Paraguay. Or Texas. Or somewhere like that.

But then again, you’re Rand Paul. You guys don’t march to a different drummer, you’ve got your own orchestra playing in your head.

[i] Schama, Simon, A History of Great Britain 1, BBC, 2000. P. 218.