Dynamist Blog

The Aesthetic Imperative Comes to Wal-Mart

MSNBC's Allison Linn reports, with before and after pictures: "From the wood and metallic design touches to the occasional greenery, the intent is clear: Wal-Mart wants to be thought of as a pleasant place to shop, not just a massive warehouse for snapping up bargains."

UPDATE: MSNBC reader comments suggest a lot of people think Wal-Marts need more customer service staff and more frequent cleanings.

UPDATE: Peter Hoh explains why he prefers Target. One comment that echoes those posted on the MSNBC site: "Line length at checkout is a big deal. Bigger than price, as far as I'm concerned. When a Target store has long checkout lines, I can tell that managers are trying to scramble to remedy the problem. I never get that sense at Walmart." Wal-Marts are, I suspect, traditionally organized for customers who have more time (or patience) than money. Maybe they'll change that along with the decor.

Who's Spamming the Pajamas Poll?

I personally wonder how meaningful the poll can be, even as a measure of PJM readers' attitudes, as it gets less and less new and exciting. But apparently some people think it's worth spamming for their favorite candidates. You libertarians at Boeing should find a better use for your time.

Beauty Is

20070205_104_350x263.jpgMy latest Atlantic column is the result of seeing one too many Dove commercials suggesting that every woman is beautiful (provided she uses the right thigh cream, of course) and that any teenage girl who has doubts about her gorgeousness suffers from low self-esteem. (Link is good for three days.)

I'm sure the article will enrage many readers, since lots of people seem to believe that recognizing the excellence of others requires denigrating oneself. But it shouldn't be any more offensive to say some people are more beautiful than others than to say that some people are taller, or smarter, or more agile than others. The genetic lottery isn't fair, and the truly beautiful are genetic freaks. Nor do I see how pretending that everyone is beautiful or, worse, that beauty is the same as personality or character or goodness makes for more happiness. You certainly won't fool teenagers with the former lie--they take their cues from each other, not Oprah--while the latter one is likely to backfire, giving undue moral weight to physical appearance: "If you really had a nice personality, people would think you're beautiful. If they don't think you're beautiful, there must be something wrong with the inner you."

Dove has gotten a lot of positive press from (Miss Black Tennessee 1971) Oprah Winfrey's enthusiastic endorsement of its campaign. What you rarely hear is that Dove is paying for that support. In a WSJ interview published October 5, 2005 (online only if you pay for it separately), Silvia Lagnado, who was then Unilever's global brand director for Dove, said, "Just last week, we started a relationship with Oprah. We are sponsoring her show. She mentioned the Dove products on the show and had the women in our ads in their underwear on the show." (Emphasis added.) I'm sure Oprah really does like the ads, but I doubt that the "Dove girls" would be on the show without Unilever's advertising checks. Dove also just happened to choose Oprah's best friend, Gayle King, to receive the first Dove Real Beauty Award.

And how effective are the ads at actually moving Dove products? Here's a bit of business reporting that wound up on The Atlantic's cutting room floor:

After it rolled out the U.S. campaign, sales of [ Dove's] health and beauty products jumped 12.5 percent, to $535 million in 2005 from $476 million the previous year, according to Information Resources Inc., which tracks consumer packaged goods. That's impressive--except it isn't clear that the campaign is the cause. For the same period, competitor Olay's skin care lines enjoyed a sales increase of 24.5 percent, to $386 million from $310 million in 2004. The comparison is inexact, but it's safe to say that 2005 was a good year for the whole category.

New products probably had more to do with growing sales than did high-profile advertising.

Take a Nap--It's Good for Your Heart

Or so they say. Now for my afternoon snooze...

One of the nice things about the free-agent life is that I can work at night, go to bed late, and take naps--a much better rhythm for me than the normal workday.

Reclaiming the Desert

Yesterday's NYT featured a report on how farmers in Niger have reclaimed land that was threatening to become permanent desert. Given the inaccurate photo caption about planting trees, I expected to read about a foreign-aid program that provided seedlings. Instead, it turns out that the farmers figured out what to do the old-fashioned way--by using their powers of observation and what they had on hand.

Severe drought in the 1970s and '80s, coupled with a population explosion and destructive farming and livestock practices, was denuding vast swaths of land. The desert seemed determined to swallow everything. So Mr. Danjimo and other farmers in Guidan Bakoye took a small but radical step. No longer would they clear the saplings from their fields before planting, as they had for generations. Instead they would protect and nurture them, carefully plowing around them when sowing millet, sorghum, peanuts and beans.

Today, the success in growing new trees suggests that the harm to much of the Sahel may not have been permanent, but a temporary loss of fertility. The evidence, scientists say, demonstrates how relatively small changes in human behavior can transform the regional ecology, restoring its biodiversity and productivity.

The new attitude toward trees also changed local customs and institutions and, eventually, official law.

Another change was the way trees were regarded by law. From colonial times, all trees in Niger had been regarded as the property of the state, which gave farmers little incentive to protect them. Trees were chopped for firewood or construction without regard to the environmental costs. Government foresters were supposed to make sure the trees were properly managed, but there were not enough of them to police a country nearly twice the size of Texas.

But over time, farmers began to regard the trees in their fields as their property, and in recent years the government has recognized the benefits of that outlook by allowing individuals to own trees. Farmers make money from the trees by selling branches, pods, fruit and bark. Because those sales are more lucrative over time than simply chopping down the tree for firewood, the farmers preserve them.

Note that the behavioral change came first and was ratified by law--a process that is more likely to succeed than a new property-rights regime imposed from outside. This success story is a good example of what William Easterly calls "Searchers" (versus "Planners") in The White Man's Burden, which I reviewed in the NYTBR.

More on that Light Bulb Bill

After the original puff pieces, California's proposed incandescent-bulb ban is getting some journalistic scrutiny. The SF Chronicle's Matthew Yi used the old reporter's trick of looking for comment from the obvious other side to ferret out these objections:

"It may not be rocket science, but it actually comes pretty close when it comes to making lighting products that are acceptable and safe," said Earl Jones, a senior counsel for GE's consumer and industrial division. "There are technology challenges to get them done by 2012."

One example is the small chandelier light bulb that is in the shape of a candle light, he said. Currently, there is no compact fluorescent replacement that is similarly shaped. Another challenge is dimmable compact fluorescents, which are difficult to make without having them flicker or create a low-humming buzzing sound if the switch is not turned up all the way.

Besides, more people are replacing the warm glow of the incandescent bulbs with the cooler compact fluorescents anyway, and lawmakers should let consumers vote with their wallets, Jones said.

"The market is already transitioning and transforming itself, and for the legislature to come in and dictate, or try to change that pattern with five years' notice, is just wrong," he said.

And Sac Bee columnist Steve Wiegand raised some obvious problems with making a common household item illegal:

Do you really want to open up a light bulb black market, where Californians are clandestinely purchasing incandescent bulbs via shady Internet sites, or driving to the border towns of Arizona and Nevada to buy bulbs, along with cheap cigarettes and fireworks?

Do you really want to make college students and others whose lives tend to be transitory have to pack up fragile light bulbs each time they move because they are too costly to leave behind?

And aren't there are other issues more worthy of heavy-handed government intrusion? How about banning the sale of all tobacco products instead? What about making it a felony to drive more than 250 yards with the turn signal on? Why not a substantial fine for 12 items in the 10-items-or-less line?

It's likely these well-intentioned-but-you-should-mind-your-own-business light bulb proposals won't go anywhere, unless it's in the form of a legislative suggestion.

That's good. Because when incandescent bulbs are outlawed, only outlaws will have incandescent bulbs.

Kate Folmar's one-sided original report in the San Jose Mercury News is looking more and more like an embarrassing press release. Judging from the reader comments, it's not hard to find objections.

And the Winners Are...

ghost rider 2.jpg

Thanks to everyone who emailed reasons you should get passes to Ghost Rider. I'm sorry we couldn't accommodate everyone, but even big-time radio stations have to ration their passes. The winners are...

John Tabin, who wrote:

I should totally get a Ghost Rider screening pass.
1. I both blog and write professionally, so I'll definitely squeeze a review out of it one way or another.
2. In the past I've enjoyed dumb action movies starring Nicolas Cage, like Con Air and The Rock, so there's a better-than-even chance it'll be a good review.
3. When I saw the Ghost Rider trailer and expressed interest in seeing the movie, my wife suggested waiting for it to come to cable. If I have a screening pass, nothing can stop me from seeing it in theaters.
4. If I don't get a pass, it can only be interpreted as a blow to The Future, and a victory for Its Enemies.
5. I have both Substance and Style.

And David Noziglia, who wrote:

There are two reasons it would be a good idea to give me tickets to see this movie.

The most important reason is that I just forgot our anniversary, and I could really use a special treat for my wife. It would especially help if it didn't cost too much money, for the reason below.

Not that I'm looking for sympathy, but the second reason is that I have just been laid off from my job at SAIC, and I need something to get my mind off the situation and help me recharge while I am looking for a new position. I can't think of anything better for that than going to a movie to laugh at Nicolas Cage overacting in a rediculous situation, while the film makers get the whole idea of the Ghost Rider completely wrong.

I will, however, be willing to pay for dinner afterward.

Laughter is the best medicine, no?

Again, thanks to all the entrants, and to Sony for the chance to give away freebies.

And for you trivia buffs, I recently learned that Eugene Volokh was in a journalism class with Nicolas Cage at Beverly Hills High. Maybe they should send some guest passes to the Volokh Conspiracy.

Kidney Blegging and Kidney Blogging Cont'd

Arnold Kling has a friend who needs a kidney, type O or A positive. Arnold, who has been ruled out for medical reasons, is looking for a donor or information on a paired exchange that would allow his friend's husband (type B positive) to give to someone else in exchange for a donation that would suit his wife.

Paired donation could significantly increase the number of kidney transplants, and there have already been some remarkable successes. But it could also be illegal. Federal law prohibits giving someone "valuable consideration" for an organ donation, and what could be more valuable than an organ to save a loved one? A bill, H.R.710, introduced by Reps. Charlie Norwood (R-Georgia) and Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) would explicitly exempt paired donations from the prohibition. The bill is currently in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. If your representative is a member, particularly of the subcommittee on health, please write to him or her urging that this bill be expedited. A similar bill died last year, despite little opposition. A Senate version is sponsored by Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Kit Bond (R-Mo.).

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