Category Archives: Reporting

A Burning Hot Marketing Spot: How Burning Man Moved from Counter to Corporate

My blog post for Ministers of Design

Burning Man, the festival in the Nevada desert, oft-presented as the ultimate celebration of counter culture has undergone a bit of a transformation. The “playa” has now, for better or worse, becoming the playa-ing ground of some big-time tech players.

Once a year, tens of thousands of people (dubbed “burners”) gather in the Nevada Desert to create Black Rock City, a temporary metropolis dedicated to community, art, and all things DIY.

Along with the hippies, however, also came the CEOs and the venture capitalists. Now, you might be wondering, how can a place that is supposed to be devoid of any sort of cash or barter transactions become host to business wheeling-and-dealing.

Among the 68,000 attendees are some unexpected names – Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk. It is not a rare sight to behold wealthy techies arriving, via private jets, to luxury desert camps fully staffed with cooks, masseuses, and assistants.

Burning Man’s founders are not exactly fearful of these new playa-ers–after all, they often fund the massive art installations and the festival’s nonprofit pursuits.

“What we’re seeing are many more of the Fortune 500 leadership, entrepreneurs and small startups bringing their whole team,” said Marian Goodell, Burning Man director of business and communications.

But what other way to describe what is taking place than “gentrification?”

“Anyone who has been going to Burning Man for the last five years is now seeing things on a level of expense or flash that didn’t exist before,” said Brian Doherty, author of the book “This Is Burning Man.”

For those with money to spend, there are camps that come with “Sherpas,” who are essentially paid help. “The tech start-ups now go to Burning Man and eat drugs in search of the next greatest app,” says Tyler Hanson, a “Sherpa.” “Burning Man is no longer a counterculture revolution. It’s now become a mirror of society.”

So, if you can grit your teeth and close your eyes (not just to the sand in the desert), Burning Man might just be the next frontier for some surreptitious networking and deal-making…you know…like the cool kids do it. Hippies meet hipsters; hipsters meet hippies.

Tinder Takes a Swipe at “Dating Apocalypse” Characterization

My blog post for the Ministers of Design Blog

Tinder, the dating app, took umbrage at a recent Vanity Fair article that pointed a finger squarely at the app for precipitating a “dating apocalypse” and replacing romance with hook-ups and…well, insipidness.

The piece by Nancy Jo Sales posits that Tinder has created a culture of one night stands, hook-ups, and a general commodification-cum-free-for-all in the world of relationships.

Not exactly controversial news there, however, more noteworthy is Tinder’s Tweetstorm response to the article–one more reminiscent of a jilted lover than of a brand with Tinder’s global reach. Case in point: “Little known fact: sex was invented in 2012 when Tinder was launched.” Neither funny nor particularly much of  a zinger. Or even more pathetically: “Next time reach out to us first @nancyjosales… that’s what journalists typically do.” Umm, actually, no, Tinder–journalists interview users of the app, not the company…typically. As she aptly pointed out, “@Tinder not clear: are you suggesting journalists need your okay to write about you?”
Even worse: “It’s about meeting new people for all kinds of reasons. Travel, dating, relationships, friends and a shit ton of marriages.” We get it, Tinder, you are so hip, you can drop the s word in an official Tweet, but the “come at me, bro” is hardly business speak.
So, in the battle of Vanity Fair vs. Tinder, I would argue that Tinger’s pathetic swipe at the magazine fell shortly. If they were a romantic interest, no one would have swiped right on them. Seriously.

Sensing their own Tweetstorm was about to create a storm of a different kind, they offered this spineless apology: “While reading the recent Vanity Fair article about today’s dating culture, we were saddened to see that the article didn’t touch upon the positive experiences that the majority of our users encounter daily. Our intention was to highlight the many statistics and amazing stories that are sometimes left unpublished, and, in doing so, we overreacted.”

Moral of the story: get better social media directors, Tinder.

VICE’s New Channel for Women Aims to be the New Face of Feminism

My post for the Ministers of Design Blog

VICE, the magazine and online platform that has long be THE platform for all things subversive and hip (and arguably, wryly hipsterish), is launching a new channel Broadly, described as a “women’s interest platform that will feature original, reported stories on pretty much everything from a female perspective with online videos and articles.” By women; for women.

Tracie Egan Morrissey, a veteran editor at Jezebel, brought the idea of a site telling stories from a woman’s perspective to Vice cofounders Shane Smith and Suroosh Alvi last year. “I pitched them this idea,” she says, “and they hired me on the spot.”

At launch, Broadly has “Ovary Action,” a show about the war on women’s reproductive rights; “Style & Error,” a show about women’s fashion, like the iconic power suit; and an interview series called “Broadly Meets,” featuring prominent women like Rose McGowan and Virginie Despentes.

To avoid the terrible trolling that usually besets anything even remotely related to women on the web, Broadly will have no comments section: “When women are speaking online, it’s such a lightning rod for every angle—other feminists are telling you you’re not doing feminism properly, MRAs are coming in and calling you a fat whore,” Morrissey explains.

Vice tends to skew to a rather masculine audience, even if a lot of the readers are female too, but with swagger-ific coverage of things like the Atlanta Twins, porn stars, and Action Brosnon, it’s not exactly Gloria Steinem’s oeuvre either.

“Young women—millennial women—are really smart, are really well educated, and they want this kind of news,” Morrissey adds. “It’s fun to be distracted on Twitter with bullshit here and there, but covering abortion rights and the things happening to women right now is really, really, really needed.”

So how does Broadly intend to deal with the dreaded “feminazi” label or even more the point, the commodification of feminism as “girl power.”  “I think if you’re a woman, and you’re not a feminist, then you’re an idiot,” Morrissey says.

So, here’s to Broadly–the broad news sources for us broads. With its grrl power, rather than “girl power,” ethos, Vice’s “better half” looks to be off to a riotous start. Follow Broadly on Twitter at @Broadly.

Girls With Gluten–Chew On This Grain of Thought

My post for the Ministers of Design Blog

Sales of products with a gluten-free label have doubled in the past four years. Market research firm Nielsen estimated that sales of products with a gluten-free label have doubled in the past four years, rising from $11.5 billion to more than $23 billion. Marketing efforts have certainly played a role–Chobani Greek yogurt and Green Giant vegetables, for instance, added “gluten free” labels onto products that never contained gluten.

Survey data gathered by Packaged Facts in July and August of 2014 showed that more than a third of consumers said a gluten-free/wheat-free label claim is an important factor when they are shopping. A quarter of the survey respondents also said they had purchased or consumed food products labeled as gluten-free in the three months prior to the survey.

Packaged Facts estimates the market for gluten-free foods will exceed $2 billion in 2019.

Yet, less than 1 percent of the population has celiac disease. Approximately 6 percent are gluten intolerant, yet almost 30 percent of American adults are trying to avoid gluten. With Gwyneth Paltrow and Zooey Deschanel extolling the virtues of a grain-free lifestyle, it is no surprise the public is eating it up as the key to better health. It’s generally not. Consider that a Glutino Original New York Style Bagel has 26 percent more calories, 250 percent more fat, 43 percent more sodium, 50 percent less fiber and double the sugar of a Thomas’ Plain Bagel.

And then there’s the cost. The Glutino bagel costs 74 percent more than the Thomas’ bagel. Nabisco’s Gluten-Free Rice Thins cost 84 percent more per cracker than Nabisco’s Multigrain Wheat Thins. As one researcher put it, “The[se] foods can be significantly more expensive and are very trendy to eat, but we discovered a negligible difference when looking at their overall nutrition.”

So, will this gluten-free obsession ever crumble!? Girlswithgluten.com are working against the (gluten-free) grain to separate the wheat from the chaff. Their Instagram account is replete with girls gloriously indulging in all things doughy and delicious. Then there are others who tag themselves with the #hotgirlseatingpizza. About time somebody subvert America’s latest diet obsession and revel in utter gluten glory! Their clever t-shirt slogan “Free Gluten” should be able to bring this group some well-deserved bread.

Blog Post for Yoga District’s Blog

NotForgotten

“Nothing in this shelter makes more sense, makes me understand my purpose more, than to kill bugs on a homeless man’s flesh, to dress him well in donated, cast-off clothes, to see him the next day laughing besides a burning barrel.” Nick Flynn in Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
If home is where the heart is, what happens when you don’t have a home? Well…you are not the heart-less one; if we don’t offer our hearts to you, we are. Having a home is so central to one’s existence–in a practical sense but even more so in an emotional sense. Root-less, place-less…and love-less…recognition-less. 
It’s almost as though having no address condemns you to oblivion; dooms you to live in the shadows, unable to be located. Lost… The homeless are ubiquitous, yet utterly invisible to us, wraith-like as they present themselves to us out of the peripheries of life we choose to pretend doesn’t exist. “That’s someone else’s lot; not mine.”
The vent that his father sleeps on in the winter is no less a prison because it has no walls: “The blower is a room of heat with no walls. My father stands in this room, an invisible man in an invisible room in an invisible city.” He has “plenty of places to go, but no place to be.”
Nick Flynn’s metaphor of standing in one place, if you are lost, so you may be found is especially poignant when he adds, “but they never tell you what to do if both of you are lost, and you both end up in the same place, waiting.” He continues, “I see no end to being lost. It isn’t a station you reach but just the general state of going down.”
SOME seeks to help people, at least temporarily, even if for one night, be visible…be seen…be humanized…and be welcomed. This is why I am teaching a benefit class for them. When I was little, I read “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen and it always stayed with me. A man in Dupont Circle sometimes holds a up a sign,”Please help. You could be in my shoes one day.” He is right.
My dearly-beloved friend Jeffrey Prosser (and the DJ for Yoga District’s NYE class in 2013) recently left us, far too soon. He always spared some change…and some heart. I want to honor his memory and help SOME continue their work so no one stays lost…or forgotten.

The Humble-Bumble Beginnings of a Bee-Loved Brand

My latest blog post for Ministers of Design

A little more than a week ago, the bearded beekeeper and co-founder of Burt’s Bees, Burt Shavitz, passed away. “Burt Shavitz, our co-founder and namesake, has left for greener fields and wilder woods,” the company wrote.

It all started with candles. Shavitz had a honey-making business in Maine when he teamed up with Roxanne Quimby in 1984, who used his leftover beeswax to make candles that she sold at a craft fair.

The candles were a hit — they made $200 at their first fair and $20,000 after a year, according to the company. The pair launched a business together, soon expanding to personal care products like lip balms and soaps.

The brand’s signature and best-selling product, its beeswax balm, was introduced in 1991.

Hold on…how did a bee-loving, business-hating Maine hippie start one of the most beloved cosmetics brands?  Burt Shavitz was not interested in lip balm or moisturizer and definitely not big business. His passions were bees, his golden retrievers, nature…

In the documentary Burt’s Buzz, Shavitz says, “There was no company. My bees were the company. My truck was the company. My chainsaw was the company.”

Then in the summer of 1984, he gave a hitchhiker named Roxanne Quimby a ride. What followed…well, a history of thumbs up and thumbs down. Quimby essentially created the business.

Shavitz and Quimby eventually parted ways and not happily, after the business moved from Maine to North Carolina and grew exponentially. In 1999, she bought him out for $130,000, according to The New Yorker. She later sold most of her share to a private equity firm for more than $140 million. She reportedly gave Shavitz $4 million. “If Mr. Shavitz had held onto the stake he traded to Quimby for $130,000, it would have been worth about $59 million,” the New York Times wrote in 2008.

Burt’s Bees was sold again to the Clorox Company for nearly a billion dollars in 2007. Today, the products are sold in over 50 countries. Shavitz was compensated for the use of his image on the label, and he was paid to make special appearances to promote the brand.

“In the long run, I got the land, and land is everything.  Money is nothing really worth squabbling about. This is what puts people six feet under. You know, I don’t need it.”

In his typically wry way, he commented on the company takeover, “Except for the fact that they’re from Clorox, they’re nice people.”

The reluctant face of Burt’s Bees was an intensely private man: “A good day is when no one shows up and you don’t have to go anywhere.”

And this is the story of Burt, who made sharing the hard work of his bee friends some of his beeswax.

Chobani’s “Love This Life” Campaign Courts Controversy

My latest blog post for Ministers of Design

Chobani’s latest ad, part of their “Love This Life” campaign, is certainly high on the cheesy content (apropos for a dairy brand, no?). When I first started watching it, the message I got was “this poor soccer Mom has such few sensory enjoyments in life that she is supposed to be thrown into near-orgasmic paroxysms of delight upon the consumption of yogurt…in some exotic locale straight out of Eat, Pray, Love.” No, seriously–see for yourself. Yet, the “stunning reveal” at the end of the ad–that the ever-ubiquitous snoozing husband is, in fact, a wife is meant to somehow make this edgy!? Confusing, yes; controversial, hardly. It’s yogurt, for Pete’s sakes. Hardly transformative.

Yet, of all of the other “Love This Life” ads, I would say this one is probably the least confusing. Take a look at the 90-second anthem spot, created by Oppermann Weiss. “This is a modern American story,” Chobani CMO Peter McGuinness told Adweek. “It’s a family, and we don’t know what happened with them. Something happened that involved the kids. And then they work through it as a family. And they come out of it stronger and better and closer.” Ummm, OK…I would probably describe this more like a riff on Blue Valentine–a tinge Southern gothic and not even a smidgeon…yogurty. So, how is it that this ad is supposed to convince me to buy Chobani!?

“The point is, Chobani doesn’t see a pretend world—the world of most yogurt commercials. It sees the real world. And when viewers see the authentic, real-life moments in the ads, they may be more inclined to believe the realness of the brand.

It’s an approach that almost turns Chobani into a lifestyle brand—if you buy the lifestyle here, you well may buy the products, too.” Eureka! The so-called lifestyle brand–if I am able to relate to the “realness” and “authenticity” of the lifestyle portrayed in the ads, I am to immediately assume that also translates to Chobani’s “real” and “natural” products. Interesting.

What is a lifestyle brand, you might ask. Lifestyle Brands, associate themselves firmly with a particular way of life. They deliver strong social benefits through which a consumer will be able to subconsciously answer the question, “when I buy this brand, the type of people I relate to are…” They create a sense of belonging or disrupt the status quo. So, Nike aligns people who want to push their limits. Club Med connects those who wish to communicate; The Body Shop, those who value nature.

A lifestyle brand will almost always originally connect with young consumers and represent change. Brands such as Apple, Virgin, and Nike initially grew from a youthful community before convincing more people that adopting them would amplify their personal ethos or identity.

So, to get back to the same-sex couple in the ad. They are a part of “modern American stories.”

“For us, it’s why not [feature a same-sex couple]—not why,” said Chobani CMO Peter McGuinness. “There’s nothing new here, per se. Inclusion and equality has been and is foundational and fundamental to the company.”

Fair enough. In conclusion, gay couples are just as vulnerable to cheeziness and schmaltz, apparently. Sorry to be such a cynic, but see the ad and tell me that it is not cringe-inducingly saccharine (despite the seemingly low sugar content of that particular yogurt). I would dair-ily appreciate your thoughts.

One Cookie (Campaign) That Didn’t Crumble

My latest blog post for Ministers of Design

In last month’s issue of Real Simple magazine (my go-to source for D.I.Ying by household cleaners…kidding not kidding), I chanced upon an ad that grabbed my attention for a lot longer than a second–a true marketer’s dream, indeed. “First the cookie. Then taking on new adventures.” The picture underneath was of a blissfully in love African-American couple, who appeared to be riding a bicycle with a wicker basket in front. Idyllic; check. Perhaps the French country-side…or Portlandia would have been apropos settings.

Innocuous enough, yet I was thoroughly perplexed by this ad. What do cookies have to do with new adventures!? A confusion-causing conflation!

On a practical level, yes, one probably needs to fuel one’s body for new adventures. I, for one, however, would not plan my vacation adventures around the presence or lack thereof of cookies. Clearly, I am in the “I Threw It On The Ground” minority!

The cookie ad was for DoubleTree by Hilton hotels and it has yielded some pretty sweet results for the chain. DoubleTree has been giving a warm chocolate chip cookie to every guest upon check-in since 1986. “At DoubleTree by Hilton, we believe that no matter where you are or what you are doing, cookies have the power to make you smile. It’s the reason we’ve welcomed guests with a warm chocolate chip cookie for more than 25 years,” said John Greenleaf, global head, DoubleTree by Hilton.

The cookies are so popular that one can even order them online. For May 15, the National Chocolate Chip Cookie Day (yes, there is such a holiday!), DoubleTree gave a cookie to anyone who visited a hotel, with or without a reservation.

Ketchum has been the PR brains behind this sweet reward-reaping program, generating an ever-evolving campaign that included things like a Cookie Careavan, which traveled country-wide and various impression-yielding hashtags like #cookiecare and “Where in The World is the DoubleTree Cookie?” Facebook campaign. In 2012, there was the “tell-me tree,” where people could tweet the things they most want to get when traveling using the #littlethings hashtag.

What is the confection connection? Why is this campaign so successful?Are cookies really that important to people when traveling!?

“It’s something that seems to transcend all cultures — a chocolate chip cookie,” according to John Greenleaf, the global head of DoubleTree. Consumers look at DoubleTree’s signature cookies as a symbol of the brand’s “care” culture.

No matter how poor or how superb a guest felt about a particular DoubleTree Hotel, s/he often talked about the cookies.

Apparently, this is one small touch that yielded no small crumbs for DoubleTree by Hilton.

Post on Veganism for Yoga District’s Blog

My post on veganism

“Eat socially. And I don’t mean eat with other people necessarily, but rather eat with other people in mind. When we make decision as to what to eat, it impacts a lot of people. And of course the environment, which impacts us all. If we choose to eat food that has taken less land, water, and fossil fuel to create, and produces less C02e, it will be better for us all. So plants. Eat plants.”–Brendan Brazier

If every American dropped one serving of chicken per week from their diet, it would save the same amount of CO2 emissions as taking 500,000 cars off the road.

Chickens, turkeys, pigs and cows are collectively the largest producer of methane in the U.S.

It takes more than 2,400 gallons of water to produce one pound of meat.

1 pound of wheat takes 25 gallons.

Raising animals for food uses 30 per cent of the Earth’s land mass… that’s about the same size as Asia!

Source: Infographics by The Mindful Word

The statistics go on and on, but really…let’s talk about being a vegan. Let’s *really* talk about it! The prevailing view people have of vegans is that we are are proselytizing lot, perching on some sort of a moral high ground of sanctimoniousness and telling everyone who will listen of our impossible-to-please palates. Or that we are sitting there constantly wondering what we *can* eat…because there is nothing for us to eat.

They might even call us vegangelicals! (ha, here I go with the puns again). The truth is that’s one really broken stereotype. So is that the one that you can’t take us out to dinner anywhere. Don’t worry–we play surprisingly well with others (although, don’t show up at said dinner in a fur coat. We will have problems!)

Let me share a little bit about my gastronomical journey. I grew up eating meat–I am Bulgarian, what did you think!? But I also grew up on a farm, where I saw what it takes to put that meat on a plate and where the animals were always treated with thoughtfulness and care. I never had any illusions about exactly what happens to an animal before he/she provides sustenance to you. One day when I was in my 20s, I decided to go vegetarian just on a whim, wanting to “minimize, downsize, and simplify.” The month I had given myself as a trial period quickly passed and eating meat was no longer something I had any desire to do. Transitioning was easy–I had always done a lot of cooking and I simply cooked all of my meals, not being concerned at all about what I could and could not find in the store. Fast forward several years–now let me preface this by saying that no, I am not so naive that I make lifestyle choices based upon the viewing of a documentary, I assure you. But watchingEarthlings, easily the most violent and grotesque movie I have ever seen (yes, it trumps Requiem For Dream in that department), made me so violently ill that I stopped eating dairy. Now, do I have an issue with this documentary? Oh, most definitely! It is exploitative, biased, and…runs like a snuff film. Yet, did it turn me away from eating dairy? Was it my Requiem For An Animal Product Diet, if you will? Sure.

There are so many reasons to transition to a vegan diet–ethical, animal right-based, environmental, health, cost-saving and you will find the people who are vegans espouse the very spectrum of these reasons. There is no “vegan” type. If there is anything that is most definitely true about it, it is that it certainly is a *mindful* way of eating, even on the most literal, basic level. But moving beyond that, I feel that rather than getting bogged down on whether your bread contains honey, veganism is about switching off your auto pilot when it comes to what you put inside your body. It’s about considering how you *can* make a difference on a global scale with your very “small” personal choices.

Veganism is not about a Draconian, impossible-to-follow lifestyle of privilege and entitlement. PETA will not come knocking on your door if you ate an egg and fell off the vegan wagon once (although, I sure hope it was a cage-free happy chicken, for your sake!)

To me, it’s a true return to our roots. Literally. For eons, our ancestors have been eating plants, nuts, and berries (Paleo diet converts, if you want to argue this, come to my workshop! I will do my best to disabuse you of our ancestors as meat eaters myth :). Finding those plants made us grow socially–it taught us to cooperate, to spend more time together, to watch out for each other. This is why veganism is often called the “kind diet.” It’s about being kind to your tummy, being kind to all of kind, not just our fellow Sapiens.

Food for thought, no?

vegan 1011 Veganism for Beveganers: Why a Plant Based Diet IS For You

If you’re interested in adopting a plant-based diet, join Toni on Saturday, April 25 at Yoga District 14th Street for our two hour Vegan for Beveganers workshop (in honor of Earth Day!).

Professor Akbar Ahmed Presents Findings from “Journey into Europe” Project

My article
Also published in Stoner’s Journal

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University’s School of International Service, recently reported on findings from his fieldwork in Europe over the past two years and gave a preview of his upcoming book and documentary.

Journey into Europe is Ahmed’s fourth project in a series of award-winning books published with Brookings Press. The series explores relations between the West and the Islamic world after 9/11. Ahmed is one of the world’s leading authorities on contemporary Islam.

His first book in the series, Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization, examined what Muslims thought of the United States and the West through fieldwork across the Muslim world. The second book, Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, showed how Americans perceived Islam and Muslims. The third book, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, explored the tribal societies on the periphery of nations.

The next volume, Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Empire, will examine the historical relationship between Europe and the Muslim world, the contemporary challenges posed by increased immigration from the Muslim world, and the new pressures of security, globalization, and multiculturalism.

Dean James Goldgeier moderated a panel on February 11 that included Associate Professor Randolph Persaud, director of the Comparative and Regional Studies program, Distinguished Historian in Residence Michael Brenner, director of the Center for Israel Studies at AU, and Professor Tamara Sonn, the Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor in the History of Islam at Georgetown University.

Journey into Europe explores the intersecting issues of the increased immigration of Muslims to Europe and the growing number of right-wing parties in Europe. The study also clarifies common misconceptions about European Muslims, for instance, the idea that they subscribe to one cultural community.

Ahmed described an “ominous, threatening landscape in Europe.” His perception of Europe’s role as the “mother continent,” its large Muslim population, and continued tensions between Islam and the West make this project timely and important in contributing to “healing a fractured world,” he explained. As an anthropologist, he noted that his project is both practically-grounded and academically-minded.

Ahmed noted that the Muslim community in Europe is not united. “It is divided along ethnic, sectarian, political, and national lines,” he said. “The monolith of ‘Muslim communities’ does not exist as such as there is far too much diversity.” He noted that there are indigenous Muslims who are native to Europe and non-indigenous Muslims, including immigrants in France, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

Persaud noted that European Muslims are increasingly living in a “third space” that neither fits the traditional notion of the Middle Eastern Muslim or the notion of “Orientalism” seen in colonial times. Thus, many Muslim immigrants find themselves in a state of limbo, said Ahmed, even those who have lived in Europe for a long time, such as the Pakistanis in the United Kingdom.

The project’s scope–and engagement with a wide spectrum of Muslim experiences in Europe–makes it a very timely and cogent endeavor.