You Are So One-Track: Kids Squeeze 10.75 Hours of Media into 7.5 Hours Every Day

In a feast of content consumption with Houdini-like overtones, today’s multitasking youth find a way to overclock their daily intake of various media at a rate of 143%.  These numbers come from a study of media’s effects on America’s youth released last week by The Kaiser Family Foundation.  Over the past five years, daily media consumption by eight to eighteen year olds rose by an hour and seventeen minutes to seven hours and thirty-eight minutes: roughly the length of a typical workday.  Of course, childrens’ media consumption does not take weekends and Holidays off.

The sheer volume of watched, heard, read and gamed material is staggering.  Even if it is all intellectually vapid, the scale of consumption boggles slower minds like mine.  In fact, it’s arguably far worse if most of that content is intellect-free: the mental hard drive is decidedly finite and clogging it up with tripe like the names of every Autobot or the Jonas Brothers’ astrological signs seems unconscionably wasteful.

Consumption of almost every type of media is up over the ten years of the study, with the glaring exception of magazines and newspapers.  But before you let that bum you out too much regarding our nation’s future, the time spent reading books has actually increased over the past ten years.  Granted, it’s only twenty-five minutes a day, or less than ten percent the amount of time devoted to television, but it’s still reading.  And candidly, in a footrace between The Last of the Mohicans and GTA San Andreas, bet on the glock-wielding digital homies to win everytime.

The one definite upside of this information?  If your kid ever tries to weasel out of chores with an “I’m too busy” excuse, the facts are on your side.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

J.D. Salinger Died Today.

Jerome David Salinger, who introduced the voice of ironic detachment through Holden Caulfield back in 1951, long before David Letterman brought it into our homes on a late-nightly basis, died today in the same seclusion he’d lived in for the past fifty years.  I didn’t know him and still haven’t read any of his short list of other writings aside from The Catcher in the Rye. Still, this news feels sad and personal.  And it reminds me of a story from the Fall of 1983, when I was a Senior at Notre Dame…

Source: J.D. Salinger's photostream,

source: J.D. Salinger's photostream,

In that last year, I lived off campus with three roommates.  Brian was our hilarious and arch class president, Mike the rough-edged country boy brainiac and George was just know as “The God.”  Seriously, that’s how people referred to him; he was one of those genetically-gifted guys who looked like an Abercrombie and Fitch model (though that reference was still decades away), earned ridiculous grades, and played every sport with effortless ease.  Other than that, he was totally ordinary in a ‘one of the guys’ manner.  By contrast, I was a cartoonist for the school newspaper, so the two of us were on slightly different social footing.

But that changed when George had to write an application essay for the University of Cincinnati Medical School.  Like Aesop’s mouse, I suddenly had something to offer George the lion; I liked writing and was happy to help him out.  My big idea for the piece was simple and brilliant and to his credit, George embraced it at once.  We dashed off that essay and it was in the mail the next day.

Unfortunately, the admissions office at Cincinnati took a different view of my idea.  Now maybe he didn’t get turned down just because of that essay, but he didn’t recycle it for his Ohio State application, where he was later accepted.

So when the admissions officers opened George’s application and got to the part where he was asked to outline his personal history and describe why that made him consider a career in medicine, they probably were not expecting to see the opening sentence from Salinger’s masterpiece:

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

I still believe it was a brilliant essay opener.  So thanks.  And godspeed Mr. Salinger…

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79


The U.S. Takes the Slow Lane On The Information Highway

The web traffic eggheads at Akamai just released another report on the state of broadband that shows how far behind US speeds lag compared to other developed countries.

In the Fall of last year, we connected at an average speed of 3.9 Mpbs, which put us 18th on their global list.  Worse, we actually dropped one place since 2008.  So who’s kicking our butt online?

South Korea blisters at an average of 14.6 Mpbs and even Romania–previously only known for freakishly-disciplined preteen gymnasts–beats us handily with their 6.2 Mpbs.

For the average user, these slower speeds merely mean a longer wait as that YouTube clip loads, but more seriously, these numbers cripple the advancement of telemedicine and other bandwidth intensive pursuits.

There is one place in America where our broadband speed blazes like Usain Bolt: advertising.  Two years ago, the average speed claimed was 9.6 Mpbs–well over twice as fast as the actual average.  Of course, every one of those ads no doubt featured the weasely out “up to” alongside their published speed.

Every community wrestles with the challenges of infrastructure repair, but given how nascent this technology is, we shouldn’t be this far behind already, should we?

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Life Is A Test, And These Days It’s REALLY Multiple Choice

You know, about the time I realized that we were already four years into the US Mint’s ten year program of releasing five state quarters a year, I also concluded too much choice can really mess you up.  Convenience stores along the Indiana toll road have six full sections of soft drink options.  An October 2009 Netcraft website survey tallied up 230,443,449 websites.  Bruce Springsteen rather famously cited fifty-seven channels and nothing on, but that was back in the dark ages of 1992.  Today he’d be off at least by a factor of ten.

Too much choice can paralyze people.  It’s why so many of us use news and content aggregators to try to corral the vast internet into something usable.  It’s why high end clothing stores never feature racks of clothing.  And it well might explain why Roper insists 92% of our purchase decisions are driven by recommendation.  In a world of endless options, searching for the very best of anything can lead to an awful lot of spinning.

The graph above, which I first noticed on Buzzfeed after they picked it up from a charmingly offbeat blog called weathersealed, slams home the notion of too-much-choice in living color.  The ever-splintering shades chart the chronological expansion of Crayola colors, from the original eight in 1903 to today’s 120 shades.  If this doesn’t blow your mind, your world is too black and white.  I mean, just look at all those purples.

I would make some crack about today’s kids having it so easy.  But honestly, I’m not sure that’s true.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

re: Out of Touch TV Executives – Exhibit A

The whole Leno/Conan/Tonight Show sideshow of the past couple of weeks has inevitably started settling down.  Still, this clumsy episode provided the general public a glimpse of the decision-making and strategic skills of the braintrusts at network television.  Even a casual reading of the various stories revealed the corrosive aspect of huge profit margins on cogent business leadership.

I’m old enough to remember when Jay Leno truly was funny.  My wife and I saw him at the Park West in the mid-80’s and he was the Bruce Springsteen of comedy, working for three side-splitting hours.  His material wasn’t particularly dangerous and he didn’t work blue so he seemed a natural for national TV.  But Leno proved too apt a pupil; at the behest of the network, his style mutated into fawning sycophantism.  The result was too depressing to watch.

The same fate befell Conan during his short term on The Tonight Show.  His trademark silliness seemed muted somehow, his joyful good-natured anarchy toned down, at least until his final week when it reappeared brilliantly as he gleefully pretended to blow NBC’s money on silly comedy bits.

Why do network executives insist on putting condoms over their comedian’s material?  Why must they squelch the original voices that earned the big contracts in the first place?  Of course it has something to do with protecting the bottomline, of insulating the network against angry local affiliates and outraged sponsors, but there is definitely something more.

When you’ve spent years out in Burbank, sniffing your own exhaust (along with another six lane’s worth during your morning commute), you lose touch with reality.  Consider this mind-boggling quote from Jeff Gaspin, chairman of NBC Universal Television Entertainment.  In his bit of highly-published spin, he claimed Leno would be competitive immediately because his image wasn’t hurt much.  After all, “…Middle America doesn’t have any clue what’s going on behind the scenes.

Wow.  Really?

Could someone please tell “West Coast” Jeff that we Middle Americans have access to this odd little platform called the internet and that, like some kind of magical box, it delivers news and information to us almost instantly?  And the internet’s news is unhindered by the legal limitations of network news, so it’s far juicier, far more salacious and far more behind-the-scenes than even Access Hollywood or Entertainment Tonight.

Forget YouTube, forget illegal filesharing, forget pirated cable as the primary reasons network television is in trouble.  Those are merely symptoms.  The real source of the issue is far simpler.  TV network executives don’t respect their audience.  And as any advertising professional can tell you, the quickest way to lose a client is to demonstrate disrespect for them.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

A Nation of Unlocked Doors, Digitally-Speaking

We’ve all heard the stories about the Norman Rockwell days of yore, when people never locked their houses and left the keys in the ignitions of their parked cars.  How quaintly unimaginable all that seems today.

And yet a recent study from security software manufacturer Imperva claims that 20% of all web users choose simple, easily-guessed passwords to protect their data.  The top five from a list of 32 million stolen by a hacker last week and briefly posted on the net?

  1. 123456
  2. 12345
  3. 123456789
  4. password
  5. iloveyou

Ruh-roh.  With automation, hackers can try the top hundred passwords in less than thirty-seconds, and suddenly have access to all your precious data, which in my case, largely amounts to disorganized contact lists and old Molly Hatchet mp3’s.

Look, I’m notorious in the office IT ranks for my steadfast refusal to change my password but since I’ve yet to find mine on any of these lists, I’ll take shallow consolation from that and keep putting “Flirting With Disaster” at risk.

When it comes to passwords, longer is better and multiple versions are better.  That said, as I recently learned from a brain supplement ad, cognitive brain function diminishes with age, so you gotta be careful how crazy you go in pursuit of security.

Sure you can write them all down…but where do you stash that list?

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Have You Ever Heard of Nolan’s Cheddar?

Probably not.  But maybe you’ve seen this ad somewhere on the web.  It’s a spot for a cheese billed as “Seriously Strong” and “Award Winning Cheddar Since 1859.”  Over :90 rather amusing seconds, we watch the adventure of a mouse as he plays with fire by eating cheese off a trap, falls victim to the spring arm, and then battles back mightily.  Three different music tracks score this narrative: The Carpenter’s “Top of the World”, the Doors’ “The End” and Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.”  These songs have all been licensed before, but the fiscal audacity of a small cheese company springing for three recognizable tunes boggles the mind.

The thing is, it just doesn’t make sense: even before blowing billions to buy Cadbury, Kraft Cheese couldn’t have afforded all those music rights, let alone some local cheese brand.  And it made even less sense when YouTube scrolled up an ad for Survivor’s hit single as the piece played.

Of course, it didn’t make sense because there is no Nolan’s Cheese.  But there is a John Nolan.  And he makes animatronics and special effects for films.  You know, like this viral one that you just watched.  Which won’t sell a pound of non-existent cheese but well may garner work and inquiries for Mr. Nolan.

I still haven’t figured out if or how he secured the music rights, but I do envy his freedom in operating within the still relatively wild and lawless world of digital video.  As advertisers, we could never do anything like this.  I mean, you try doing this kind of thing for a client in regular advertising and you know what happens?

The cheese stands alone.  In court.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

File Under “Mixed Signals”–the Simmering Kids and Eyeglasses Controversy

In my daily scanning of internet ephemera that I justify under the catchall heading of ‘keeping tabs on the culture,’ two items popped up yesterday that my cerebral cortex couldn’t reconcile without massive cognitive dissonance.

First, an item posted on MediaPost’s Center for Media Research, presented a new study conducted by an eyewear client that found–perhaps not surprisingly–very positive benefits to wearing glasses.  Beyond the obvious enhancement of visual acuity, kids consider other glasses-wearing kids to be ‘smarter’ than non glasses wearing kids.  The 6-10 year olds surveyed also considered the glasses-wearers more honest but otherwise, didn’t judge them about their appearance positively or negatively.

Hmm…  All these findings constitute incredibly-favorable survey results for a seller of childrens’ eyewear, but that’s not what created the cognitive dissonance.  No, the problems arose when hours later, this concise item popped up on Buzzfeed, explaining that hipster glasses were officially no longer cool.

I can’t process both points of view and so, for the time being, my synapses will no longer be holding hands.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Chicago Visionaries: Daniel Burnham, MLK and Fr. Chris Devron

His biggest installation (the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1892) is long gone except for a few city parks and his Flatiron Building graces another city but architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham lives on in the minds of many Chicagoans for this famous quote:

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.”

Anyone who toils in any remotely-creative endeavor knows the honest insight of his adage, even if we so rarely seem to live it.  In these times of economic uncertainty and shaken confidence, when fear runs roughshod through the collective national psyche, commissions retreat toward ‘smaller plans.’

But not always.  On Martin Luther King Day yesterday, my wife and I attended the dedication of Christ the King College Prep on Chicago’s West Side with our younger daughter (the older one had to study for finals).  There, amidst the economic blight of West Jackson Boulevard, shines a brilliant new high school designed by John Ronan Architects on a site that long held vacant, boarded-up tenements.  It is a 100,000 square foot jewel sparkling through the heavy smog of diminished hopes and long abandoned expectations.  This is the twentieth inner city school built on the innovative Cristo Rey model of local businesses collaborating with private education.  CtK students work at Chicago-area companies five days a month to offset a major part of their annual tuition while gaining critical exposure to the corporate world.  These students attend longer school days and work through a longer school year and in the end, nearly 98% of these graduates do go to college.

This stunning new facility is the responsibility of Fr. Chris Devron, SJ; a good-humored, deeply-dedicated guy with an easy going charisma.  He lives in the same West Side neighborhood Dr. King moved to in 1966 to highlight the plight of the poor and expose injustices like racial steering.  And Chris has taken a similarly committed path, graduating from Notre Dame in ’89, then earning a dizzying array of degrees from Loyola University, Weston Jesuit, Harvard Divinity and Xavier in New Orleans.  He’s worked in Harlem and Brooklyn, earning a long list of honors he never bothers to mention.

But he will talk about his dreams for the Austin neighborhood.  He’ll tell you how the need is overwhelming; despite the 14,000 high school age youth in the area, local schools have only 7000 school spaces.

Yesterday, his dreams officially came to life with singing and dancing and prayers and celebrations.  But amidst all the joy, I was thunderstruck by a casual mention that this state-of-the-art school cost $28 million…

–and they still have $17 million left to raise.

Now I understand the Jesuits have built a business on education and incredible acts of faith, but this singular example of steadfast courage blows my mind.  And yet if it bothers Fr. Chris, he’s strong enough to shield any uncertainty.  As he said when they broke ground a year and a half ago, “”Today, it is the power of hope that breaks ground to create Christ the King.”  He is unwavering in his faith that the money has come and will continue to come, despite the conventional wisdom that investing money in this neighborhood is a foolish waste of resources.  And because he believes, so do we.

It’s so easy to let faith in our dreams lapse, but that faith must be protected.  Dreams fuel innovation, they power change and growth and heart-stirring accomplishments.  Like lifting a lost neighborhood on your back and carrying it until it can get back on its own feet.

Big dreams cost big money, but first and foremost, they demand time and commitment.

And faith.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79