Current Affairs

Groupon's "Save the Money:" Clever Parody or Offensive Blunder?

So did ya'll catch the big game on Sunday? Of course you did! Two old-guard teams slogging it out to the end; great Super Bowl! And of course, if you don't care for the sport, there were the commercials. The Super Bowl commercial breaks are usually a foodie Sahara, dominated by the likes of Bud Light, Doritos, and Pepsi-Max, hawked by adorable puppies, and idiotic men being smashed in the head and/or crotch. There was one notable exception this year, however, as Groupon made its first foray onto America's premier commercial showcase.

I absolutely love this type of service. For those of you who are not familiar, Groupon (and similar services like LivingSocial) sells a deal-a-day for each of their individual markets, relying on a bulk of coupons sold to cultivate massive deals. One day it might be $25 for $50 worth of dry cleaning in Alexandria; the next, $100 for $225 worth of botox treatments in Dupont. Very often, these deals are for restaurants, and the savings are dramatic. While saving money is awesome, at the same time, the coupons will remind me of places I had want to go for ages, and buying the coupon gives me a financial incentive to go before it expires.

So anyway, back to the ads. Sunday night, over the course of the big game, Groupon aired a series of three ads under the banner "Save the Money." I'd go into detail, but many have you have probably seen them. For those who haven't, here is the one that caused the most hub-bub:

My first response, on seeing this last night, was dumbfounded shock. I mean, damn, it takes some major cajones to use the very well known, very real suppression of a an entire culture by a civil rights quashing Communist dictatorship to sell your product, much less to brush the significance of said oppression away summarily in the process. They used a similar tack twice further in the night, likewise parodying the "Save the Whales" and "Save the Rainforest" causes.

Groupon did not jump into this lightly. For these $3 million spots, not only did they commission the stars involved, but famed "Mockumentary" Director Christopher Guest was tapped to direct. On their blog, Groupon explains the concept as follows:

The gist of the concept is this: When groups of people act together to do something, it’s usually to help a cause. With Groupon, people act together to help themselves by getting great deals. So what if we did a parody of a celebrity-narrated, PSA-style commercial that you think is about some noble cause (such as “Save the Whales”), but then it’s revealed to actually be a passionate call to action to help yourself (as in “Save the Money”)?

"What if," indeed? Is a "passionate call to action to help yourself" using such loaded imagery really a great sales tactic? Nothing Groupon sells is remotely a necessity -- So is it more than just First-World white guilt that has me see these ads and wonder if I shouldn't stop frittering my money away on ephemeral yuppie crap, and instead use it to further some universally good cause? Like, say... human rights, or the environment? Hell, maybe I'll give that $30 I was gonna spend on that $60 spinning class to the Sierra Club, instead...

Mine has not been the only poor reaction to the spots. In response to the negative publicity, Groupon founder Andrew Mason posted on Monday evening that the whole affair was meant to call attention to the very charities they seemed to mock. To be fair, Groupon has put up a site encouraging donations, but I am still left with a bad taste in my mouth. Whatever way you look at it, Groupon was mocking someone -- either the bleeding hearts on the charitable side, or their shallow, facile customers -- and if the campaign was intended as some super-dry post-modern pastiche, it missed its mark, given its total lack of context.

So what do you guys think? Were these ads in very bad taste, or frankly brilliant parody? If you don't use Groupon, will you start? If you already do, will these ads effect how you deal with them in the future? 



The Food Truck Debate: One More Day to Have Your Say on 24 DCMR 5

DCRA_MAIN_LOGO The Great DC Food Truck Crisis of 2010 is coming to a head, people! What crisis, you say? Well, you've no doubt noticed your lunch options have gotten dramatically more diverse over the past year or so, and your afternoons more colorfully populated with mustachioed curry-men and bright pink cupcake mobiles. That would be the food truckers, and thanks partially to the growth of social networking, their numbers have grown exponentially.

But with growth comes growing pains. Existing laws concerning street vending pertain almost exclusively to stationary food carts, like the ubiquitous hot-dog stand, with a few safety standards for old-school ice cream trucks. These laws were put on the books at a time when mobile vendors of entire meals were not even a consideration. As such, there has been more than a little bit of head-butting and confusion, as the vendors stretch the existing laws to their limits, and local residents and businesses deal with the consequences.

On June 25th, the DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs proposed legislation to deal with the problem, and to formally codify food trucks in their present incarnation into the city statutes. As is customary, DCRA has published the proposed law, and has solicited input from the public. Originally, the intended cut-off date for comments was yesterday, but response has been so dramatic that we've been given an additional day to have our say!

If you have thoughts on the issue, you have until 5:00 PM TONIGHT to give the DCRA a piece of your mind. If you would like to read the legislation yourself, all 64 pages are available here for your perusal. I'll give you a moment...

Pretty exciting stuff, huh? I scanned the document myself, and found it to be mostly incomprehensible, as I am rather dim, and not a lawyer. Best I can tell, the law intends to designate zones where the trucks may operate freely in specific spaces assigned by lottery, demarcate areas where they are prohibited altogether, and to keep them mobile everywhere in between, stopping only when flagged, and staying only so long as there is a queue.

Most area food truckers are very much in favor of the legislation, and one group got together to set up yesontitle24.com, urging Washingtonians to speak up on the legislation's behalf -- take a look, and if you agree, there is a form letter you can send to lend some support.

Alternatively, the RAMW has some issues with the legislation, and has issued some suggested alterations, which you may see here. They make some reasonable requests to my mind, like a minimum distance from sidewalk cafes and active restaurants, and clarification of some of the vague language.

Whether you side with the truckers, the restaurants, or your own best interests, remember, you only have till 5:00 PM tonight to put in your two cents. All comments should be addressed to Mr. Helder Gil of the DCRA. His email address and the official DCRA posting notice are listed at the bottom of this column.

If you have any strong feelings yourself, and would like to sway fellow readers into action, please post a comment and let us know what you think! I am still undecided myself, and would appreciate the input.

OFFICIAL NOTICE RE: 24 DCMR 5 

Helder Gil, Legislative Affairs Specialist
Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs
1100 Fourth Street, SW, Room 5164
Washington, D.C. 20024

helder.gil@dc.gov


Help Change Maryland's Wine Shipping Laws in 2010!

Annapolis State House (Courtesy of Wikipedia) As many of you residents of Maryland are aware, the Old Line State takes a hard line when it comes to shipping wine. Lots of states have laws limiting the shipment of liquor to a private residences; many limit the amount one may receive in a year, some only permit intrastate shipment, and others levy a tax. At my old retail job, we often shipped to some of the more, erm, "questionable states," and had a pretty good success rate. Maryland, though, was on a very short list of no-no states, as their laws are downright draconian. Not only does the state forbid liquor shipping from out-of-state, but in-state liquor shipment of any kind is also verboten. And guess what? If you're caught, it's a FELONY, even for the recipient!

Sound a bit outmoded? Unjust? Unconstitutional, even? A lot of folks think so, and have pushed for legislation to have Maryland join the thirty-some-odd states that treat their citizens like responsible adults. In both '08 and '09 bills have crossed the congressional table, but thanks to tired old morals and some stiff opposition from the wholesaler lobby (which has much to lose, and lots of money to throw around) each has been summarily dispatched.

But grassroots support has been building, with several groups popping up fighting for the rights of MD drinkers, most notably the Marylanders for Better Beer and Wine Laws. Founded in 2005, the MBBWL organizes meet-ups advocates on behalf of Maryland producers and consumers. Thanks to their work and that of some allies in the government, it looks as if another bill might make it to the floor this session. But they need your help! The nice thing about issues like this is that an single individual can have a real impact. So what can you do?

Everybody:

  • Go to MBBWL's Petition Site, and take a few seconds to give your support. The group is hoping to gather 10,000 digital signatures in support of altering MD's antiquated and prohibitive liquor laws. They are well on their way, but could certainly use your help.

Maryland Residents:

  • Free The Grapes, a national advocacy group for free and open wine trade, has made petitioning your state legislators on this matter a breeze. Click on this link, and you will be taken to a site with all the digital details taken care of for you. Simply fill in your info, personalize your message as you see fit, and hit send, and your representatives in the House and Senate will soon know how you feel.
  • Take a look at MBBWL's event calander, and consider attending one of their meetups. On February 22nd, the group will be attending a House Economic Matters Committee hearing dedicated to this very issue. If you are passionate about the cause and live in the greater Annapolis area, take an afternoon off any make your voice heard.

On the scale of injustices in the world, this is, of course, a minor one. But if you are resident of DC or Virginia, where laws are more progressive, it will only take you a couple seconds to do your neighbors to the north a solid. And Marylanders, I know your state has as many problems as the next, but this is a inequity with a realizable solution just over the horizon. Not only do these laws hurt consumers and support big business, but they are also a huge detriment to your state's growing winemaking industry. Click those links and get yourself empowered!


How do you fight a MONSTER?

Twelve years ago, Matt Nadeau started brewing beer in his basement in northern Vermont. With a great deal of hard work, and apparently, some damn fine brewing intuition, Matt and his wife Renee built their brand, Rock Art Brewing, into a regional favorite. Fast-forward to early '09, Matt and Renee are running a thriving business, crafting award-winning beer, and employing seven people in the Morrisville, VT area.

Amongst Rock Art's most popular beers is the Vermonster, a hefty American barleywine created to celebrate RA's 10th anniversary, made with a pound of dried hops in every barrel, and sporting a healthy 10% abv. On September 14th, Matt received an email from a lawyer for Hansen Natural Brands — owners of MONSTER energy drink — commanding him to cease and desist all promotion, marketing and sale of the Vermonster, under threat of litigation.

Matt and Renee hold the Vermont rights to the name Vermonster, so where's the problem? Unfortunately, given the structure of the US legal system, it's in the courts, and it's big. Though several lawyers and other council have told Matt that there is no infringement issue, and that Hansen's claim that the beer will "dilute the distinctive quality of Hansen's MONSTER marks" is ludicrous, they have almost to a man advised him to give in. You see, even if Matt were to fight this in court and win, it is within Hansen's rights and ability to appeal almost ad nauseum, and once Rock Art finally throws in the towel, Hansen wins by default. At an estimated $65,000 per court appearance, the Nadeaus can hardly afford one trial, much less a half dozen.

So what's Matt gonna do? Well, with true New England grit, American pride, and that "Live Free or Die" spirit (yes, I know that's New Hampshire, just go with it), Matt is fighting it. In the man's own words, "It's principles at stake, it's liberty at stake, it's justice that's at stake, and I'm being told it's for sale. I don't buy it." Though his campaign is in its nascency, the story has gotten a good amount of media attention, with the source list growing every day. Many stores have boycotted the MONSTER brand, and with more attention, no doubt many more will follow suit.

So if you are a believer in the little guy (or, at least, a supporter of good beer over bubbly neon crap) and want to help Matt and Renee out, what can you do? First, watch the video at the top of this page, and send it to like-minded friends. Secondly, vote with your dollars; though I assume most of you aren't big fans of the energy drinks, if you are looking for a boost, go for, like, Red Bull, or something, not MONSTER. Lastly, use the powers of the interwebs to spread the word: Follow them @RockArtBrewery on Twitter and RT their messages, friend "Rock Art Brewery" on Facebook, and send letters of support to rockart@pwshift.com.

We lose more and more of our freedom to corporate interests every year, and in the face of such immense power and capital, who's to say how we can resist? Methinks Matt expresses it succinctly at the end of the video: "We run the show people, we run it all. We just need to talk and communicate and work together." That's an empowering message we could all stand to heed just about now.


"Food, Inc." Hits DC Theatres Tomorrow.

To most of you, the names Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food), and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) are familiar, and I imagine a lot of you subscribe to their respective philosophies. For you, Robert Kenner's new documentary "Food, Inc." will not prove terribly revelatory. If, however, you don't know these men and their works, are at all curious about the origin of your food, and dare to think what lies beneath the label, this film will leave you shaken.

Pollan and Schlosser (the latter a co-producer) act as guides, leading the viewer through a series of chapters, each focusing one of the pillars in the temple of modern American food, and the particularly dark shadows that they cast. Over a tight 94 minutes, Kenner takes the audience on a whirlwind tour of what's in their stomach, revealing a good number of hideous truths hidden "behind the veil." Built on the Michael Moore model of expose — explicit imagery, laced with irony, with constant factual context from an omniscient narrator — the film uses the most evocative elements of its source material to shock the viewer into a sense of disgust and righteous indignation.

Movie_poster-largeClassically American scenes of the pristine produce aisle and sanitized, plastic wrapped meats are interspersed throughout with scenes of horror — chickens collapsing under the weight of their own over sized bodies; crippled cows being forklifted into abetoires; helicopter shots of acres and acres of fetid, dung-filled feedlots; bleach-white, ammonia-treated hamburger being deliberately mixed into the general supply. The "pastoral fantasy" that Schlosser describes at the beginning of the film is quickly dispelled. As far as the meat industry goes, the pictures speak for themselves.

Probably more horrifying than the visceral imagery is the human element. The film leans heavily on the stories of several farmers, factory workers, and regular Americans whose lives have been devastated, whether they realize it or not, by the contemporary understanding of eating. Amongst the cast of characters is a Perdue chicken farmer (the only one who submitted to interview) who has become allergic to antibiotics thanks to the supplements she feeds her fowl, a family of four who eat at Burger King for breakfast, but can't afford vegetables, and a consumer advocate whose son died from infected meat at the age of three. There are a lot of bodies littering the road to cheap, abundant food, and "Food, Inc." lights them in a truly horrible aspect.

The most poignant personal story, and thereby the most moving sequence in the film, is a series of events surrounding Monsanto, one of the largest seed suppliers in the world. After creating Agent Orange, Round Up, and a series of other highly, um, "effective" chemicals, Monsanto got in the genetics game, and now owns the patent on the dominate corn and soybean varietals in grown in the US, which it monitors with surprising zealotry. Back before the advent of one-use, patented seeds, seed cleaning was a vital industry, allowing farmers to cull some reusable product from their hard-won harvest. So New World Order Monsanto takes on folksy seed cleaner Moe Parr — accused of "encouraging patent violation by cleaning seed" — and I'm sure you can just guess the result.

Of course, a documentary like this isn't really worthwhile unless it offers some solutions. Amidst the crooked politicians and unsavory businessmen, there are a few heroes. Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms brings sincerity and eccentricity to the film, discussing the importance of local, pasture-based foods while slaughtering chickens al fresco. Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm — one of the nation's largest producers of yogurt, and the leading organic brand in Wal-Mart — touts the necessity of organic farming, and speaks of the power of voting with one's dollars.

The end credits are preceded by a "Inconvenient Truth" style list of life-affirming, results oriented things that the viewer can do to make a difference, which unfortunately ring a bit hollow in the face of everything that came before. The film's major fault may be that it crams a lot of subject matter into its 94 minutes, making the problem loom very large, but without delivering much depth on any one particular topic. But while on the academic side, the food industry may be better covered on paper, it makes for a hell of a slasher film on the big screen.  If you've got a friend or loved one who could stand to lose his lunch, bring him over to Loew's Shirlington or Landmark E Street Cinema this weekend.


As If Taxes Weren't Enough, Now the Government is Taking Your Lunch!

Lunch is changing in this town, friends, and not for the better. Used to be that the muckity-mucks on Capitol Hill kept to their Prime Ribs, and their Palms, and left the "lesser" restaurants to us peons. Oh sure, Bill Clinton was known to jog to McDonalds now and again, but by and large, the realm of fast food stayed out of the political limelight. 'Course, that was last week, and habits must change with the pollsters' numbers. Keen to brand themselves as a kinder, friendlier, and folksier party (as if that were even possible), a group of GOP elite held the first meeting of the National Council for a New America at Pie-Tanza, one of Arlington's premier pizza joints. Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and other conservative luminaries, along with a slew of supporters and reporters, descended upon the restaurant last Saturday, stuffing the place with 100 or more people, filling it to capacity. No doubt, service was a bit slow.

Not to be outdone, on Tuesday, our illustrious POTUS and VPOTUS took time out from their busy schedule to visit Ray's Hell Burger... during the lunch rush, no less! (and ordered their burgers medium well -- for shame!) And those poor bastards stuck outside the yellow tape could do nothing but stare, hunger in their stomachs, hearts seething with hate.

Is this going to be a trend, I asked myself? In an effort to connect with all us "normals," are the bigwigs going frequent all our favorite casual eateries? Is Nancy Pelosi gonna take her staff to Pollo Rico for some yuca fries? Will Arlen Spector announce his return to the Republicans while popping peanuts at Five Guys? Is Justice Antonin Scalia finally going to come out of the closet at the counter of Julias Empanadas? We're proud of you, Your Honor, but that place just can't hold that many people!

Any way you cut it, regardless of quality, these places qualify as "fast food." People patronize them cuz they are busy --  I love ya Mr. President, but I only get a half-hour for lunch, and the clock is ticking. If this were to become sort of Capitol Hill fad... I mean, do you know how many congresspersons there are? Like, 500 or something, right? And with each bringing along an entourage of bootlicks, jesters, and official food tasters, they could shut down every quality fast food joint within the Beltway!

I tried to calm down a bit. Sure, this was all over CNN and the other 24 hour "news" channels, but no one was really paying it any mind. It was all gonna be OK. Then, what do I see on The Daily Show last night, but this!

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Where's the Chief?
thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
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Economic CrisisPolitical Humor

Ack! Why, Jon Stewart, why?! With the nation's number one source for fake news dedicating five whole minutes to this story --  and mentioning the establishments by name, for Christ's sake -- there is no way that other politicians are gonna risk missing a piece of the action! Hell, some less scrupulous establishments might even start courting these monsters! Three tacos for the price of two with proof of Appropriations Committee seat? Free large soft drink for cabinet members, with purchase of any soup and sandwich? Lunch would be ruined forever!

I beg you politicians --  you decent, moral, handsome stewards of democracy -- go back where you came from! The Caucus Room; Sam and Harry's; they need you, and your copious amounts of dollars. You work hard; kick back, take your time, order a Martini with your $70 porterhouse. Remember those baked potatoes at Ruth's Chris? Not gonna get that at The Italian Store, I tell ya what. (Stay away from the Italian Store, you hear me?!)

We know that deep down, underneath that pricey suit and viscous patina of lies, you are just like us, so stop trying to prove it! You've got the lobbyist money, so use it, and leave us to eat our pizza and burgers in peace, for your own good. Heed well this warning, men of power: nothing sparks revolution like low blood sugar, due to a lunch deferred.