watch your mouth!

Posted on August 07, 2008 by Priya Tuli

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Pungent. Fiery. Fearsome. Seething. Incendiary. Why would anyone want to eat something that first stops them breathing for up to three eternities, then makes their eardrums explode and eyes bug out as it blows their brains clear across the room?

Because it’s addictive. You eat it and die. Slowly. And then you come back for more. You forget what happened the last time. Or maybe you remember, but you want more all the same.

Diverse culinary traditions across the world seem to nurture various versions of this peculiarly masochistic phenomenon, but today I shall limit myself to just three: Japanese Wasabi, Bengali Kasundi and Sri Lankan Kochi.

First, Japanese wasabi, the traditional accompaniment to sushi, and don’t be fooled by appearances. Innocuous, green and docile-geisha looking, it is guaranteed to clear your sinuses even if they’re already clear, thank you. Wasabia japonica (Miquel) matsumura is a rhizome, which is ritually prepared by grating it against a sharkskin grater, which is actually not made of sharkskin. So what does it taste like? For not even a close approximation, I’d suggest a really sharp and unforgiving European horseradish. And you know what that can do to the unwary. For those who don’t touch sushi, and have therefore never encountered wasabi, all I can say is, get a life. But remember, with wasabi, less is more. And even then, be ready to have your grey matter exit from the top of your head and ricochet across the ceiling.

In Bengal, East India, a similar blow-your-brains-out effect is achieved with mustard kasundi. A devastatingly potent accompaniment made from innocent-looking mustard seeds, ground to a paste with salt, chilli, garlic and raw mango, it packs the kick of an enraged mule. Moments after your first taste, you will exhibit symptoms reminiscent of severe anaphylactic shock. Your entire body will be seized by a rigor and appear flushed; profuse sweating will ensue as your blood rushes to the surface of your skin in an attempt to regulate the internal thermostat and cool it down before it goes permanently on the fritz. Breathing becomes difficult; speech, of course, is not even a remote possibility.

Then there’s the ubiquitous chilli, a staple in most Asian countries, which comes in a glorious array of colours, shapes, and sizes. From tiny ones the size of your pinky fingernail, to plump medium-sized ones that look like juvenile peppers, to wicked, thin spindly ones six inches long. They come in a range of colours: vicious green, violent red, incendiary orange and every shade in between. Some are even black! The ones I refer to are the tiny little Sri Lankan ones, which come in various shades of green, red and sometimes black, and are even more vicious than the famous Thai bird chilli. One tiny bite of Kochi, and your lips swell up, your mouth is on fire and nothing is going to put it out for a long time, until finally your tongue goes numb. And we’re not even talking about what happens when you go to the loo next morning.

So back to the question: why would people want to eat stuff that causes them such extremis? Masochism aside, it’s a part of the Eastern tradition, I suppose; we relish a bit of bite to our food, and if sometimes it bites us back, well, so be it. Meanwhile, I’m planning a fiery chilli-infused curry dinner for tomorrow. Anybody want some?

‘Real’ work

Posted on July 13, 2008 by Priya Tuli

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When I first joined the workforce, around the year dot, I was so immersed in the novelty of it that I didn’t have much time for introspection. That, and the fact that in your twenties, you’re too busy living life to contemplate or introspect; such ponderous pursuits are best left to the geriatric brigade.

A few years down the line, however, I started to suspect that the work I was doing had no ‘real’ value. My benchmark for comparison was my immediate family, most of whom are medical professionals.

They deal with real problems, I’d be thinking; their work is important, it’s about saving lives. My grandfather was in public health. My father, paediatrician and family doctor, dealt on a daily basis with really sick children, and often their really sick siblings and parents. My brother and sister-in-law, both oro-maxillo-facial surgeons, have had some really horrific trauma surgery cases to deal with.

Real lives, real people, real work. And sometimes, real life-and-death situations.

As against that, there I was, in advertising. The heady, fluff-&-froth business of selling dreams, lifestyles and products that people didn’t really want, but we helped convince them they needed. Perhaps I grew old before my time, because I remember spending a great deal of it on the geriatric pursuit of pondering the validity of what I was doing. And more often than not, grappling with a work-induced ethical dilemma or two, thrown in for good measure. Like, should I really be getting a fat paycheck for sitting in an airconditioned office and doing rubbish like this, when the man fixing the road in front of our office in the heat of a relentless Indian sun, subsists on less than a dollar a day?

False premise, false pitch, false work?

I eventually concluded that we can’t all be doctors; some of us had to be the patients, too. And I accepted that while the medics might be the ‘real’ doctors, we were the ‘spin’ doctors. And that the work I was doing did have value, just a different sort of value. Like telling consumers about our client’s product or service so they could make an informed choice.

Then I hit the ‘cynical’ years, which generally happens at 30-something, and realized that we can convince ourselves of the validity of anything, to justify why we do it.

That said, there was no denying the high of belonging to the ad frat. As Jerry Della Femina once famously said, advertising is the most fun you can have with your clothes on. If you’ve been in advertising for at least 25 years, you would have read his bestselling book, From those wonderful people who gave you Pearl Harbour (1971), the clever title of which was actually a tagline proposed for his client, Panasonic, during a brainstorming session. Of course he was kidding, and fortunately his Japanese client seemed to have caught the humor, or that story might well have ended very differently.

Stories that end very differently are a recurring theme in advertising. So is the song with the ‘killkillkill’ refrain, a favorite with ad agencies. Why? Because the client is top dog, and the client knows it.

One of the unwritten rules of the game is that clients can get away with making insane demands and agencies will have to hop to it, or risk losing the account. This is a fairly ancient tradition, and has outlived blue-chip clients and hot agencies alike. It is still the top-rated rule of them all.

Although not every client is an ogre, I'm convinced the perfect client-agency relationship simply does not exist; it’s just another myth, like the perfect marriage. The primary focus of pitching for business has changed from bagging a new account to desperately trying to hang on to an existing one, because everybody’s trying to get in bed with everybody else. So when clients call for their incumbent agency to join a pitch, it’s like telling your spouse, “We have a great relationship, nothing has changed; but I sometimes wonder what I’m missing out on, and what it might be like if I switched partners, you know, just to see what it’s like.”

So, kicking and screaming, the incumbent agency joins the pitch, in a desperate bid to retain the business. What else is there to do?

Then comes that agonizing hiatus between pitch and signed contract, which is probably what drives ad execs to the brink. All that time to obsess over the horrific prospect of losing the pitch, of not being the ‘it’ agency or creative team any more. Of the damage that would do to the Q2 numbers. Not to mention how it would impact the outcome of the next performance evaluation and paid vacation someplace exotic, if the agency doesn't make the cut. All in all, it's an edgy way to live.

If they were to do a market research on antacid sales, I'm sure they'd find that ad execs account for at least 80% of total offtake.

Seriously though, after more decades in the business than I care to mention, I have finally come to the conclusion that the real work we all have to do eventually, is on ourselves. Which is what I’ve been focusing on lately. I’ve detoxed my liver, had my chakras cleared, learnt how to breathe from the stomach and seriously contemplated giving up smoking. I am currently considering giving away all my worldly goods, and taking up a vow of silence. Or celibacy. Or both. Nothing permanent, mind you, just toying with the idea and wondering how long I could make it last. Around as long as a pitch, I’d imagine…

2 O2 or not 2 O2?

Posted on July 05, 2008 by Priya Tuli

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Well. Today I made a sucker out of me again. I bought myself a carton of those dinky little bottles of “oxygen-enhanced” water, you know the ones? I remember thinking, oh wow, extra-oxygenated water, that must really be good for you, after all every cell in the body needs oxygen, and considering how much I rob them of with the smoking, I should do them a favor by drinking gallons of this precious elixir.

But wait. You remember your basic physics from school, yes? Where every molecule of H2O (water) = two molecules of H and one molecule of O? So now, you tell me something. When you add more oxygen to that equation, it isn’t H2O any more, it becomes H2O + O. So is that H2O2, or H2O3? Who knows, because isn’t oxygen O2 anyway? So technically, it isn’t water any more. It tastes like water, it looks like water. But chemistry equations don’t lie; if there’s more oxygen in it, that changes the entire molecular structure. So what does that make it, then, apart from just another marketing gimmick? I have no idea.

So first, I did a quick spot-check, an informal survey if you like, at the supermarket water shelf. Rows and rows of oxygen-enriched brands, touted to oxygenate every living cell in your corpus and afford them plenty of combustion-enhancing, metabolism-boosting oxygennnn!

There was this guy checking out the same bottles as I was, assiduously reading the small print on each one.
“Have you tried these?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” he answered, “I’ve tried most of them, but this one is new.”
He was fondling the same sort of bottle I was, I think we were both seduced by the shape.
“So, is it good stuff? Do you feel any different, I mean all that extra oxygen?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” he says, “I feel fresher, it gives me more energy.”
Uh huh, I’m thinking, don’t want to go there, buddy.
“And it tastes different. Better than ordinary water,” he adds.

This much is true, I found out later; it does seem to have a more clean, honest, water taste than the ordinary, and therefore cheaper, brands.

My decision is made; I buy a carton of the stuff and as I head over to the check-out counter, I’m reminded of that whole other buzz over oxygen bars, some years ago. Another fad that zoomed into favor for a brief moment in time, and then went up in a puff of, ahem, smoke. But not before several oxygen bar owners had built themselves a nice little retirement fund. This is the thing about fads; you come up with a new idea, market it as a new trend and if it catches on, you’re made.

So marketers are speculators too, in a way, as they need to measure the pulse and the moment, estimating it accurately enough to make a killing on the supermarket shelf. Most often, for limited trajectory products, services or brands, it has to be that initial push, supported with an intense publicity blitz, that makes the mirthful trip to bank a reality for the investor. Quickly now, before someone comes out and questions the premise and the bubble bursts.

And so, I am a sucker. You’d think I’d know better, with nearly 3 decades in the marketing milieu, but I am as susceptible as the next person to whatever new spiel some overpaid copywriter has thought up, to justify yet another product or service to dupe ever-gullible consumers with. In fact, I’m currently on an aggressive conversion binge, insisting that everybody I know must try this new brand of extra-oxygenated water. And by now I’m so full of O2 that you’d better not mess with me!

Anyone here speak Klingon?

Posted on June 21, 2008 by Priya Tuli

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Until today, I had no idea that Google offers Klingon as a language option on its search page. Then of course, I discovered they also offer Hacker language, and Interlingua, the ‘common language for international communication’, which must be a mishmash of several unsuspecting bonafide languages crudely lumped together any old how. This one begs further research, so I shall do the needful and report back to you at some point in the dstant future.

But meanwhile, to get back to Klingon, did you know there are actually people out there who conduct entire conversations in this fictional alienspeak? A language complete with its own grammar, syntax and vocabulary, Klingon was created by Dr. Mark Okrand, a trained linguist, for the Star Trek series. I didn’t watch a lot of  episodes, and have no interest in learning Klingon myself, but in case you’re one of those who is fluent, here’s the perfect job for you:

PORTLAND, Oregon (AP) -- Position Available: Interpreter, must be fluent in Klingon.

The language created for the "Star Trek" TV series and movies is one of about 55 needed by the office that treats mental health patients in metropolitan Multnomah County.

We have to provide information in all the languages our clients speak," said Jerry Jelusich, a procurement specialist for the county Department of Human Services, which serves about 60,000 mental health clients.

"There are some cases where we've had mental health patients where this was all they would speak," said the county's purchasing administrator, Franna Hathaway.

County officials said that obligates them to respond with a Klingon-English interpreter, putting the language of starship Enterprise officer Worf and other Klingon characters on a par with common languages such as Russian and Vietnamese, and less common tongues including Dari and Tongan.

Okay, so that one is from way back in 2003 and they’ve probably filled the position, but it is still my favourite job vacancy ad!