Free-speech “confusion-in-advertising” continues unabated.

Sparring over the guarantees and limits of free speech seems to be growing rather than abating.

How controversial? The advertising rejected by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority as being too political for public display.

The most recent indication of just how much confusion there is on the topic of free speech comes in the form of a recently filed lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) – a public agency popularly known as the DC Metro.

The issue sparking the lawsuit related to a number of ads which the WMATA refused to display due to concerns over the advertising content being “too political for public display.”

Countering WMATA’s efforts to avoid “offending” its customers, the ACLU chose to sue on behalf of itself as well as three companies and organizations that includes:

  • Carafem – a healthcare network specializing in birth control and medication abortion
  • Milo Worldwide, LLC – the corporate entity behind the libertarian political advocate and “extreme commentator” Milo Yiannopolous
  • PETA Foundation (aka FSAP – Foundation to Support Animal Protection) – an animal rights/welfare organization

The lawsuit claims that WMATA refused to display advertising from these organizations for fear of offending some of the people who use its transportation services.

In announcing its intention to defend itself against the ACLU suit, a WMATA spokesperson stated:

“In 2015, WMATA’s board of directors changed its advertising forum to a nonpublic forum and adopted commercial advertising guidelines that prohibit issue-oriented ads, including political, religious and advocacy ads. WMATA intends to vigorously defend its commercial advertising guidelines, which are reasonable and viewpoint-neutral.”

On the point of whether the advertising in question is “issues-oriented,” there is sharp disagreement.

Gabe Walters, manager of legislative affairs for the PETA Foundation, emphasizes that “the government cannot pick and choose who gets to speak based on their viewpoint – no matter how controversial.”

A spokesperson for Milo Yiannopoulos echoed the PETA Foundation statement: “On this issue we are united:  It is not for the government to chase so-called ‘controversial’ content out of the public square.”

Considering the ads that were rejected, a case could be made that they’re hardly “controversial” on their face:

  • The Milo Worldwide ads featured a photo of Milo Yiannopoulos.
  • The Carafem ad copy stated simply “for abortion up to 10 weeks.”
  • The PETA ad showed a pig with the caption, “I’m ME, not MEAT. See the Individual. Go Vegan.”
  • The ACLU ad stated the First Amendment language verbatim.

The ACLU suit contends that none of the advertising in question negates any kind of fundamental right to free speech. Moreover, the abortion pill provided by Carafem is FDA-approved as well as accepted by the American Medical Association.

Even more problematic for the WMATA’s defense, at the same time the agency was rejecting the PETA ad, it approved one from Chipotle promoting a menu item made with pork.

The only difference between them according to the ACLU? The Chipotle ad sends the message that it’s good to eat pork, whereas the PETA ad says the opposite.

Looking at the contours of the lawsuit and the facts of the case, I think the WMATA defense is on pretty shaky ground, and for this reason, I’m pretty sure that the ACLU lawsuit is going to succeed.

Indeed, it’s somewhat distressing that such a suit had to be filed at all, because its point is the First Amendment and what it’s all about: protecting everyone’s speech.

That people are having to re-litigate the issue of free speech in 2017 speaks volumes about the level of confusion that has been introduced into the public sphere in decent years.

It’s time to clear the air.

Business owners give the lowdown on workplace — and their own — productivity.

The owner of a business is arguably the single most important employee on the payroll. As such, the findings from a recent survey of business owners conducted by The Alternative Board are revealing.

According to the survey, which was conducted in May 2017, the typical business owner reports having only about 1.5 hours of uninterrupted, high-productive time per day.

Four in five of the business owners reported that they feel most productive in the mornings. It stands to reason, then, that nearly nine in ten respondents reported that they prefer to get the most important tasks of the day out of the way first.

The majority of respondents reported that they are most productive working from the office, but nearly one-third of them reported that most of their work is done from their home.

A majority of the respondents also reported that they spend the biggest block of their daily time on e-mail activities.  Tellingly, less than 10% feel that this is the most important use of their time.

Asked to report on what factors are working against their employees achieving a high level of productivity in the owner’s business, these following four factors were named most frequently:

  • Poor time management: ~35% of survey respondents cited
  • Poor communications: ~25%
  • Personal/personnel problems: ~18%
  • Technology distractions: ~16%

Taken as a whole, these findings suggest that while there are certainly issues that affect business productivity, business owners have it within their power to improve time management, foster better communication between employees, and ultimately run a tighter ship.

More findings from the TAB research can be found on this infographic.

“I’m just so busy!” becomes the new social status signal.

In an era of almost constant “disruption” both socially and politically, it’s always interesting to hear the perspectives of people who devote their energies to thinking about the “larger implications.”

Author and MarComm über-thought leader Gord Hotchkiss is one of those individuals whose writings about the intersection of technology and human behavior are invariably interesting and thought-provoking.

His latest theory is no exception.

In a recent column published in MediaPost, Hotchkiss posits that the social status hierarchy of people may be moving away from “conspicuous consumption” and more towards the notion of “time” as the status symbol.

Hotchkiss writes:

“‘More stuff’ has been how we’ve determined social status for hundreds of years. In sociology, it’s called conspicuous consumption — a term coined by sociologist Thorstein Veblen.  It’s a signaling strategy that evolved in humans over our recorded history. 

 The more stuff we had — and the less we had to do to get that stuff — the more status we had. Just over 100 years ago, Veblen called those who significantly fulfilled these criteria the Leisure Class.”

Gord Hotchkiss

Looking at how social dynamics and social status are playing out today — at least in North America — Hotchkiss paints picture that is quite different from before:

“A recent study seems to indicate that we now associate ‘busy-ness’ with status. Here, it’s time, not stuff, that is the scarce commodity.  Social status signaling is more apt to involve complaining about how we never go on a vacation than about our ‘summer on the continent.'”

Interestingly, the very same research methodology that uncovered this set of attitudes in the United States was conducted in Italy as well. And there, the findings were exactly the opposite.

Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that in Italy, every employee is entitled to at least 32 days of PTO per year, whereas in the United States the minimum number of legally required paid holidays is … zero.

Looked at from another perspective, perhaps today’s social status indicators in North America are merely the Protestant Work Ethic in action, but updated to the 21st century.

Either way, the residents of Italy probably see it as a heck of a way to live …

The Connected Home

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the typical American home contains more than a few digital devices. But it might surprise some to learn just how many devices there actually are.

According to a recent survey of nearly 700 American adults who have children under the age of 15 living at home, the average household contains 7.3 “screens.”

The survey, which was conducted by technology research company ReportLinker in April 2017, found that TVs remain the #1 item … but the number of digital devices in the typical home is also significant.

Here’s what the ReportLinker findings show:

  • TV: ~93% of homes have at least one
  • Smartphone: ~79%
  • Laptop computer: ~78%
  • Tablet computer: ~68%
  • Desktop computer: ~63%
  • Tablet computer for children age 10 or younger: ~52%
  • Video game console: ~52%
  • e-Reader: ~16%

An interesting facet of the report focuses on how extensively children are interfacing with these devices. Perhaps surprisingly, TV remains the single most popular device used by kids under the age of 15 at home, compared to other devices that may seem to be more attuned to the younger generation’s predilections:

  • TV: ~62% used by children in their homes
  • Tablets: ~47%
  • Smartphones: ~39%
  • Video game consoles: ~38%

The ReportLinker survey also studied attitudes adults have about technology and whether it poses risks for their children. Parents who allow their children to use digital devices in their bedrooms report higher daily usage by their children compared to families who do not do so – around three hours of usage per day versus two.

On balance, parents have positive feelings about the impact technology is having on their children, with ~40% of the respondents believing that technology promotes school readiness and cognitive development, along with a higher level of technical savvy.

On the other hand, around 50% of the respondents feel that technology is hurting the “essence” of childhood, and causing kids to spend less time playing, spending time outdoors, or reading.

A smaller but still-significant ~30% feel that their children are more isolated, because they have fewer social interactions than they would have had without digital devices in their lives.

And lastly, seven in ten parents have activated some form of parental supervision software on the digital devices in their homes – a clear indication that, despite the benefits of the technology that nearly everyone can recognize, there’s a nagging sense that downsides of that technology are always lurking just around the corner …

For more findings from the ReportLinker survey, follow this link.

Brands tiptoe through today’s political minefields.

In 2017, not only is the United States politically divided into nearly equal camps, but it seems as though the gulf between the two sides is wider than it’s been in decades.

In my own personal experience, I haven’t witnessed political rifts this big since the anti-war era of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  But even then, that divide wasn’t so much on partisan grounds as on philosophical ones.

[And it wasn’t an equal divide, either.  Remember President Richard Nixon’s slogan about the “silent majority”?  It was — to the tune of a 61% Nixon victory in the presidential election of 1972.]

Historically, the people who manage product brands have adhered to a formula similar to that of distant relatives getting together for a holiday meal: avoid talking about politics and religion.  But in times where politics can overtake even the best-curated brands, that’s become more difficult.

Recently, international market research firm Ipsos studied the issue. It tested a number of well-known brands that have been the subject of “political” controversies.  Considering one measure – stock price – Ipsos found that there has been minimal impact on brand health when looking at the publicly traded brands that President Donald Trump has mentioned in his various late-night tweets.

But viewed another way, Ipsos found that there’s an ever-expanding emphasis on partisan politics. Americans have become more likely to combine their behavior as consumers with their ideological or partisan loyalties.  One measure is the spike in searches on Google for the term “boycott,” as can be seen clearly in this chart:

According to Ipsos, politically-minded boycotts appear to be having noticeable business impacts. Looking at around 30 publicly traded brands, those with the highest rate of consumer boycotts since the November 2016 election are the ones that experienced the worst stock market performance – by a factor of about -15%.

Prudent advice would be for brands to respond to the hyper-partisan environment by trying not to be drawn into ideological debates. That’s a smart move, as most of the brands Ipsos tested have a fairly evenly balanced mix of self-described Democrats and Republicans.

In such an environment, no matter which way a company might be perceived to be moving “politically,” there will be a substantial portion of its customers who object.

And object they do: As part of its study, Ipsos surveyed consumers on their boycotting behaviors.  More than 25% of the survey respondents revealed that they have stopped using products or services from a company because of its perceived political leanings.  And as Ipsos has found, the brands with the highest rate of recent consumer boycott activity have also experienced the worst stock market performance.

Trying to avoid becoming part of today’s sometimes-toxic political environment isn’t always easy for brands to accomplish. Even for brands that make a concerted effort, it is increasingly hard to predict what factors might drive a company into the limelight — or whether anything the company does or doesn’t do can control what actually happens.

Ipsos cautions that staying on the political sidelines isn’t as easy as it has been in the past. It has determined that political party identification now ranks as one of the most central aspects of how consumers organize their lives – and how they relate to brands as well.

To illustrate, Ipsos presents the cases of Nordstrom and Uber. Both companies feature customer bases that skew somewhat more Democrat, but with significant percentages of Republicans as well.  Since the 2016 Presidential election, both companies have experienced politically-themed PR incidents that were magnified on social media platforms, to negative effect.

Different groups reacted in different ways – Republicans turned off by Nordstrom (dropping Ivanka Trump’s clothing line) and Democrats turned off by Uber (Travis Kalanick’s involvement with Donald Trump’s economic advisory council).

But the end result was the same:  the brands’ reputations suffered.

In today’s environment, it seems as though assiduously maintaining a non-partisan, non-confrontational stance is still the best policy for maintaining brand strength.  But it isn’t a guarantee anymore.

Additional findings and conclusion from the Ipsos evaluation can be found here.

The great, disappearing retail store act.

What’s in store for retail? Maybe not much at all …

There have been quite a few news reports about store closings since the beginning of this year — many of them focused on big brands like Kmart, JCPenney and Abercrombie & Fitch.

But what about the retail industry as a whole?

Recently, GetApp conducted research among a more general group of U.S. retailers that run online retail operations as well as a physical stores.

Among this group of respondents, two out of three believe that they could be closing their physical stores within the coming decade and operating their business solely online:

  • Extremely likely to be running my business solely online by 2027: ~23%
  • Likely: ~43%
  • Not sure: ~17%
  • Unlikely: ~12%
  • Extremely unlikely: ~4%

If these figures turn out to be even somewhat accurate, the “retail apocalypse” some news organizations are talking about will have become even more of a reality than even the most hyperventilating journalists are predicting.

It certainly lends additional credibility to current narrative about the downward slide of shopping malls across the United States …

When it comes to city parklands, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul rule.

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Although I lived in five states prior to going away to college, I spent the most time in those formative years of my life residing in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota.

The city parks in both towns are major amenities. Indeed, you could say that the entire fabric of life in the two cities is interwoven with the park systems; they’re that special.  And my family was no exception in taking advantage of everything the parks had to offer.

So it wasn’t much of a surprise to find that both cities are at the very top of the list of U.S. cities with the best parks.

The evaluation is done annually by The Trust for Public Land, and covers the 100 most populous cities in the United States.

The major metric studied is the percent of city residents who live within a 10-minute walk of a park — although other characteristics are also analyzed, such as park size and investment, the number of playgrounds, dog parks and recreation centers in relation to city population, and so on.

In the 2017 evaluation, Minneapolis topped the list of 100 cities, helped by superior park access across all ages and income levels, as well as achieving top scores in park investment as well as the number of senior and recreation centers, plus dog parks.

In total, an incredible 15% of Minneapolis’ entire square mileage is dedicated to park space.

St. Paul was right behind Minneapolis in the #2 slot out of 100 cities evaluated. As visitors to the Twin Cities know, Minneapolis is blessed with seven natural lakes within its borders, whereas next-door St. Paul has just two.  Nevertheless, its commitment to parkland is nearly as strong.

Here’s how the Top 10 list of cities shakes out:

  • #1 Minneapolis, MN
  • #2 St. Paul, MN
  • #3 San Francisco, CA
  • #4 Washington, DC
  • #5 Portland, OR
  • #6 Arlington, VA
  • #7 (tie) Irvine, CA and New York, NY
  • #9 Madison, WI
  • #10 Cincinnati, OH

Several of these cities shine in certain attributes. San Francisco, for instance, scores highest for park access, with nearly every resident living within a 10-minute walk of a park.

Three cities (Arlington, Irvine and Madison), achieved Top 10 ranking for only the second time (all three first made it into the Top 10 ranking in 2016).

What about cities that appear at the bottom of the Trust for Public Land list? They tend to be “car-dominated” cities, where parks aren’t easily accessible by foot for many residents.  For the record, here are the cities that rank lowest in the rankings:

  • #90 (tie) Fresno, CA, Hialeah, FL and Jacksonville, FL
  • #93 (tie) Laredo, TX and Winston-Salem, NC
  • #95 Mesa, AZ
  • #96 Louisville, KY
  • #97 Charlotte, NC
  • #98 (tie) Fort Wayne, IN and Indianapolis, IN
Bottom dweller: A crumbling structure in a padlocked park in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Interestingly, one of these cities – Charlotte – leads all others in median park size (~16 acres). Of course, this likely means that residents’ access to them suffers because there are fewer small parks scattered around the city.

To see the full rankings as well as each city’s score by category evaluated, you can view a comparative chart here.

Based on your experience, do any of the city rankings surprise you? Is there a particular city that you think should be singled out for praise (or pan) about their parklands?