It’s easy to imagine how a company moves to variable pricing. They follow the money. They test into it. They realize that the buying behavior of shoppers varies from day to day and hour to hour. Their analytics tells them that someone using Safari has higher average purchases than someone using Firefox. They know that visitors that come to their website after visiting certain websites are more or less price sensitive than if they come from other referring sites. And sometimes, they’ve even learned that it pays to increase prices based on repeat visits. In other words, on some sites, the best price you’ll ever get is the first one they show you. Shop around, come back, and you’ll pay more. (Sort of like a car salesman, who knows that if you come back, he’s got you, and he doesn’t have to lower his price to make the sale.)

Then a marketing manager or someone in the sales department makes the case that they can improve profits by harnessing all of this data into a variable pricing strategy. It’s hard to argue with the data.

So the company invests in a pricing engine or builds its own pricing algorithms and institutes variable pricing. And guess what? Profits go up. Sales go up because shoppers are getting deals created with their buying habits in mind. After all, it is an accepted rule of Internet marketing (and direct marketing before it) that the more relevant and personalized the offer, the better the response. And milking every extra dollar out of a sale (or, in some cases, many extra dollars) increases profits.

A slam dunk, right?

Anybody who remembers the relevance of that phrase knows where I’m going with this.

Pricing may seem like a commodity, but in fact, it is part of brand identity. As is the relationship a buyer has with a brand. And just to be clear, a retailer is a brand, too. Sure, Target sells brands, but it is also a brand. People shop at Target as opposed to Wal-Mart for many of the same reasons that they choose Land’s End over Old Navy.

If you found out that the person next to you in line paid less for the same sweater at Land’s End than you did, how satisfied with Land’s End would you be?

Some shoppers will be so upset they’ll never come back. And others will find out how to get the lower price, and then make sure they do that from now on.

Let’s call the first shopper a Brand Shopper. And the second a Price Shopper.

Price Shoppers are smart. They find coupon sites. They find discount codes. They follow blogs and Twitter feeds that promise to find and deliver the best prices. Some of them use bots or apps to notify them of the best prices on specific retailers and shopping aggregators.

And in many cases, price shoppers know that brand distinction isn’t as important as it used to be. As Seth Godin famously said, most products these days are “good enough.” In other words, the upcharge for a top brand isn’t always worth it, and price shoppers often know that.

If you are courting price shoppers, then you’re always in a pricing war where the shoppers are as well-armed as you are… sometimes better. And the competition can almost always undercut you… unless you’re the rock bottom price, in which case, you’re not varying your prices anyway. You’re Wal-Mart.

With variable pricing, price shoppers learn when to buy, and when not to buy. The profits you initially expected from this major segment wither away.

Now let’s look at Brand Shoppers, the core of your business. Your house list, so to speak. They love you. They swear by you. They only wear/drive/eat you. But it turns out, brand is about more than just quality, or value. Brand is emotional. Brand lets people willingly buy inferior products out of love, or a sense of belonging, or even habit. In other words, brand is like a relationship, the human kind.

And nobody likes to feel cheated on, or duped, or lied to, or made a fool of. When they do, they dump you like a bag of bread that’s gone moldy.

So what happens to your brand loyalists when they find out that you’re playing fast and loose with pricing and they get no benefit for being a loyal customer? Even worse, what happens when they find out that you’ll give a better discount to someone who’s never bought from you before, rather than they, who sing your praises, evangelize your brand to all who will listen, and buy whatever new product you throw at them?

So yeah, variable pricing looks great from inside the bubble. But can someone please explain to me the value of a brand in a world where we’re made to feel like chumps if we don’t outsource our shopping decisions to mindless shopping bots that always find us the best prices, regardless of source, regardless of emotion, regardless of loyalty?

Like I said. Slam dunk.

Eddie:  Say, was you ever bit by a dead bee?… I bet I been bit a hundred times that way.
Slim: You have? Why don’t you bite them back?

In the light of recent events, I can’t help but thinking that this exchange between Eddie, played by Walter Brennan, and Slim, played by Lauren Bacall, in the classic film “To Have and Have Not”*, casts an interesting light on the litigious society in which we live. Permit me to explain…

You see, a couple of weeks ago, I was bitten by a dog.

Yes, me. Someone who had never met a dog that didn’t like me, and has had a couple of my own. Someone who has been referred to by my wife as big old shaggy dog as she has watched me happily roll around on the ground with slobbery newfound friends.

In this instance, my wife and I were walking in NYC and met a dog owner with a beautiful 2-year old female Newfoundland (my favorite breed). We did the standard NY thing, and asked if it was okay to pet the dog. The owner said, “Yes, she’s friendly and she loves being petted.” As I reached down to pet the dog, she lunged, tearing open my lip and my hand in an instant.

After much shock, blood, and a couple of cab rides we ended up at Beth Israel’s emergency room, where the staff and an on-call plastic surgeon did an amazing job of repair. (Even with 20 stitches, you can barely see the scar, although the shock of being bitten by a dog is still resonating through my soul, as I give dogs on the street a wide berth and contemplate a shift in my own personal alignment with the universe.)

Before we headed off to the emergency room, though, we reassured the owner, who was shocked at her dog’s unprecedented actions, and no doubt terrified that we would report the dog, that we would not in fact report the dog. My wife and I are both animal lovers, as well as vegetarians (okay, pescatarians), and wouldn’t want our actions to cause a dog to be put to sleep. And yes, if the dog ends up attacking someone else, we know we bear some responsibility for that.

But in my mind, had we not stopped to pet the dog, the attack would never have happened. Who knows why it decided to attack me when it had never attacked anyone else? Maybe it thought it was protecting her. The owner is covering all medical expenses, bought a muzzle for her dog the next morning, and is getting the dog behavioral training. There was no chance of rabies or other complications, as the dog had had its shots literally less than 2 weeks earlier, which she proved by emailing us copies of the records that weekend.

Other than the attack itself, what surprised me most was the response from my friends and business associates, who overwhelmingly thought we should not only have reported the dog, but sued the owner. And while only a few of them brought up the notion of future victims, most felt it was a lost financial opportunity.

I’m not knocking them, by the way. We hear it all the time, that we live in a litigious society. People have the right to use a system the way it advertises it should be used.

In an interesting, coincidental confluence of legal events, I also recently had the chance to opt out of signing a contract which might have cost me the ownership of a book I’ve written. Thanks to the advice of a close friend, combined with the opinion of an Intellectual Property attorney, I chose not to sign the contract.

But what stuck with me most was something the IP attorney said. He said that many contracts are just as bad, and that frequently the creator has no leg to stand on in negotiating a better contract, because the people on the other side of the equation have the power. As he said, if you have another option, take it.

Thankfully, these days, the little guy has many other options.

First of all, self-publishing is a much more valid solution than ever before. From Radiohead’s self-released, pay-what-you-want album In Rainbows, which changed the music paradigm and still made money, to self-published authors like Amanda Hocking, who made over two million dollars on her own before eventually being picked up by a major publishing house, the keys to the kingdom are no longer exclusively held in the hands of the self-proclaimed kings.

Second of all, social media is coming into its own in a big way in terms of raising public awareness. And if you don’t think so, look at the impact of social media from Twitter to YouTube to Facebook in three stories currently in the news:

  • The 85 million plus views of KONY 2012, the YouTube video about indicted Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony, where according to CNN journalist Anderson Cooper, mainstream media’s coverage of Kony over the years was unable to gain any traction at all.
  • The shooting death of Trayvon Martin, whose family, along with their supporters, used social media to fan the otherwise dying flames of attention into a Federal Justice Department investigation and nationwide coverage.
  • The “Etch-a-Sketch comment by Mitt Romney’s campaign staffer, which only really became an issue for the mainstream media after rising as a trending topic on Twitter, according to CNN’s Howard Kurtz, host of the CNN program Reliable Sources, which focuses on the news media.

But back to the issue at hand.

The current personal crisis of faith I’m going through as a result of both being bitten in the face by a dog that loved people and narrowly missing being bitten in the ass by people I thought had my best interests at heart is more about my own complacency than anything else.

My favorite quote from Thomas Jefferson is, “Our own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable for, not the rightness, but the uprightness of the decision.”

We are the only ones responsible for our own lives and our own actions. The day we entrust that responsibility only to contracts and laws and those who manipulate them, the day we decide to play along and get what we can rather than what we should, is the day we cede control of our lives, our Fortunes and our sacred honor to systems that not only have no honor, but shouldn’t be expected to.

I know why those systems want to obscure that fact and encourage us to play along. But can somebody please explain to me why we silence our inner voices when they try to remind us of the truth we know in our hearts?

* If you’ve never seen To Have and Have Not, you’re really missing a great movie. It’s based on a novel by Ernest Hemingway, with a script by William Faulkner, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Walter Brennan, and the dialogue is some of the best ever. Here’s the full exchange:

Eddie: Say, was you ever bit by a dead bee?

Beauclerc: I have no memory of ever being bit by any kind of bee.

Slim: (interjecting) Were you?

Eddie: You’re alright, lady. You and Harry’s the only one that ever…

Morgan: Don’t forget Frenchie.

Eddie: That’s right. You and Harry and Frenchie. You know, you got to be careful of dead bees if you’re goin’ around barefooted, ’cause if you step on them they can sting you just as bad as if they was alive, especially if they was kind of mad when they got killed. I bet I been bit a hundred times that way.

Slim: You have? Why don’t you bite them back?

Eddie: That’s what Harry always says. But I ain’t got no stinger.

As Internet marketers, we learn all about reducing stress and anxiety in the user experience. We put “VeriSign Trusted” certificates on our websites. We us HTTPS and put tiny lock icons all over the place to assure our visitors that their information is safe.

This isn’t a new concept. Businesses have always known that reassuring their customers and earning their trust is a critical component of the sales process.

Trust is why we our parents felt reassured when they saw the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” on products from spray starch and dishwasher detergent to cake mixes and cereal. And trust is why we all feel a little more comfortable when we see that a company has been accredited by the Better Business Bureau.

But are we right to trust The Better Business Bureau? What exactly do their ratings mean, and how does a company get rated?

According to their own website…

BBB Accreditation

BBB has determined that COMPANY NAME meets BBB accreditation standards, which include a commitment to make a good faith effort to resolve any consumer complaints. BBB Accredited Businesses pay a fee for accreditation review/monitoring and for support of BBB services to the public.

BBB accreditation does not mean that the business’ products or services have been evaluated or endorsed by BBB, or that BBB has made a determination as to the business’ product quality or competency in performing services.

And from their explanation about grading:

BBB letter grades represent the BBB’s opinion of the business. The BBB grade is based on BBB file information about the business. In some cases, a business’ grade may be lowered if the BBB does not have sufficient information about the business despite BBB requests for that information from the business.

BBB assigns letter grades from A+ (highest) to F (lowest). In some cases, BBB will not grade the business (indicated by an NR, or “No Rating”) for reasons that include insufficient information about a business or ongoing review/update of the business’ file.

BBB Business Reviews generally explain the most significant factors that raised or lowered a business’ grade.

BBB grades are not a guarantee of a business’ reliability or performance, and BBB recommends that consumers consider a business’ grade in addition to all other available information about the business.

So, according to the Better Business Bureau itself, “BBB grades are not a guarantee of a business’ reliability or performance” and BBB accreditation “does not mean that the business’ products or services have been evaluated or endorsed by BBB.”

So why should we care about a BBB rating? What is the actual value of being accredited by the Better Business Bureau?

Back in November 2010, ABC news reported on a scandal at the Los Angeles BBB, where a group of business owners accused the BBB of “running a “pay for play” scheme in which A+ ratings are awarded to those who pay membership fees, and F ratings used to punish those who don’t.” To prove the point, they paid $425 to the LA BBB and obtained an A- rating for a fictitious company they created called Hamas, named after the Middle Eastern terror group. The ABC News investigators even went to the organization with 2 small business owners and were told their grades of C could be raised to A+ if they paid $395 membership fees.

Picture of the Better Business Bureau A- rating for Hamas, a known terrorist organization

Photo courtesy of http://www.bbbroundup.com

Of course, you can’t find the BBB rating of Hamas anymore. And the BBB investigated the LA BBB for violations and actions they claimed did not follow their policies. On Dec. 22, ABC News reported that William Mitchell, the CEO of the LA Chapter of the BBB resigned amid that ongoing investigation by the national headquarters.

But if you think that the questionable ratings ended there, you would be sorely mistaken. Here are some other companies and their ratings as of 2/18/12:

  • Monsanto A+ (2 complaints closed within the last 3 years)
  • BP America, Inc. A+ (16 complaints closed in last 3 years, BBB knows of no significant government actions involving BP America, Inc.)
  • Charter Communications Inc. A+ (5527 complaints closed in last 3 years, 1488 closed in last 12 months)
  • Citi A- (6383 complaints closed in last 3 years, 2,539 in last 12 months, multiple government actions)

In case you don’t know who Charter Communications is, they were Business Insider’s Worst Company in America 2010. Monsanto is widely considered to be one of the worst environmental criminals in the US, and was the company upon which George Clooney’s movie, Michael Clayton, was based. Citigroup is, well, Citigroup, and just agreed to pay the U.S. $158 Million to settle mortgage fraud claims, which is in addition to the $1.8 Billion Citigroup has to pay the Justice Dept. as part of the $25 Billion mortgage loan settlement from the nations top lenders.

But for me, the real kicker is BP America’s A+ rating, with only 16 complaints in the last 3 years. 16 complaints? No significant government actions? For those of us with short memories, the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank on April 20, 2010, triggering the worst oil spill in history. Since then, the Justice Dept. has investigated the spill, as has the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and President Obama issued an Executive Order establishing a bipartisan National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. No significant government action indeed.

Just to summarize: you can claim to be an organization that blows up buses full of innocent women and children and get an A+ rating from the BBB. You can engage in fraudulent business practices to the point that the U.S. government fines you nearly $2 Billion dollars and you can get an A- rating from the BBB. And you can poison the Gulf of Mexico, destroying the ecosystem and eviscerating the fishing and tourism industries of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida and get an A+ rating from the BBB.

Can someone please explain to me why anybody should ever trust a BBB rating?

Let’s do a little roleplaying. Pretend you’re a kid. Say, 5 or 6. And you’ve been playing, and you’re thirsty, and mommy has just come back from shopping, so you ask mommy if you can have some grape juice, and she says yes.

So you go to the bag of groceries and find this bottle of Fabuloso. Looks like grape juice. Different brand than Welch’s, but mommy always buys different things depending on what’s on sale that week. You’re pretty sure you’ve heard the word on the label. You think it means really cool.

So you twist open the top… it’s hard, like some caps are, but you get it. And you pour some into your favorite sippy cup. And you only spill a little on the counter and a little more on the floor. And then you drink it… and it burns going down, and you cough, and your tummy feels like it’s going to explode… and then you pass out, vomit, and choke to death on your own vomit, all before mommy finishes unloading the car.

Well, that was fun. Luckily, it was just roleplaying. No 5 year old would ever drink cleaning fluid, right? Especially not when it looks like this…

Fabuloso multipurpose cleaner: brightly colored, fruity smelling, and packaged in bottles that look like soda or sports drinks

Pretty bottles all in a row. Delicioso? No, Fabuloso!

Oops. Yes, my friends, that is a picture I took today of a supermarket shelf full of Fabuloso in all its glory. What beautiful packaging! What clever branding! What a great idea! Let’s make our multi-purpose cleaner look like a sports drink or juice and smell like one too. Cleaning is yucky, but everybody likes Gatorade.

What the heck were they thinking? And by the way, if you don’t think anybody would actually mistake Fabuloso for a sports drink or juice, check out this article in The Roanoke Times from 2006 that cites research by a physicians group that documented 94 cases of accidental ingestion in the first 6 months of that year in Texas alone. According to the article, many of the cases were children under 6 years old.

Perhaps that’s the most amazing thing to me: Fabuloso, which is made in Mexico, has been on the market in the US looking pretty much just like this since 1997, and according to Colgate, meets the standards of the U.S Consumer Product Safety Commission. (To be fair, they added a child-safety cap in September of 2006. And everyone knows how foolproof those are.)

Somebody at Colgate Palmolive made the choice to color bottles of Fabuloso like sodas or juice drinks. Somebody made the choice to package them in plastic bottles that look just like a sports drink. Somebody made the choice to make them smell fruity. And somebody made the choice to name them Fabuloso, which sounds absolutely… delicious.

So can someone please explain to me why didn’t someone else with half a brain and an ounce of common sense try and stop them?

I’ve heard old timers talk about how when they were kids they didn’t have TV to deaden their imaginations. They had radio, and their minds needed to fill in the spaces between the words with a world of their own imagining.

I could never really understand their objections. After all, I had TV, but I also had books, shelves upon shelves of books, and I was used to filling in the spaces.

But I finally have my own “when I was knee high to a grasshopper, things were different” speech. Which is good, because I was worried I wasn’t going to turn out to be a grumpy old curmudgeon, but now I can rest easy.

When I was young, we had this toy called Lego. Now before you rush in to say, “We’ve got that now” I’m gonna stop you right there. The Lego you’ve got isn’t the same Lego we had. You’ve got prefabricated, pre-digested, specially formulated snap together reusable plastic model kits.

Now I’m not knocking plastic kits. I built more than my share. When I wanted to build a Boeing B-17G or a ’57 Chevy Bel Air, I bought a model of it. But when I wanted to let my imagination soar, I reached for my Legos and built whatever I could dream up. My “men” were the little single peg pieces, and we didn’t get that many of them. In terms of purpose-built pieces, my Lego had ‘em, too: wheels, with removable tires so the wheels could be pulleys. And none of that stopped me from building space ships and airplanes and bridges and buildings.

Please don’t get me wrong: I would have sold my sister or my dog to get one of the Death Star or Millennium Falcon Lego sets they make now, or the Lego people with arms that move and hands that can hold things. But I couldn’t possibly have realized then what I’ve long since come to understand: give a kid a set of instructions and he learns to assemble, but force a kid to imagine and he learns to create.

And the thing I am most passionately proud of about myself is my ability to create.

Can someone please explain to me what we are teaching our children when all their toys are branded, with back stories and personalities, when we’ve replaced their imaginary landscapes with realistic fantasies played out in pixels on ever-present screens, and when even their Lego comes with instructions and pieces that can only ever fit in one, rather limited, way?

Do you use artificial sweeteners? I don’t, but I’ve been around enough people who do to know that they don’t say, “Pass the Equal.” Right? People say, “Pass me a pink.” or “Are there any yellows in there? No, then I’ll take a blue.”

Until recently, if you asked for a pink, you got a Sweet’N Low. Request a blue and you got Equal. And tell someone to pass you a yellow and you got Splenda. But just the other day I was in a restaurant with my family and when my mom asked me for a blue, which I dutifully handed her. As I did so, though, I noticed that all three packets – blue, pink and yellow – said NutraSweet on them.

That seemed wrong to me. And to my mom. And so I did a little research. The yellow packets, normally Splenda, are expected to contain Sucralose (sucrose combined with chlorine – yummy!) and not aspartame or sugar. The pink packets, normally Sweet’N Low, are supposed to be made of saccharine. And the blue packets, normally Equal, are usually made of Aspartame (derived from aspartic acid and phenylalanine.)

But in that restaurant, the yellow was a blend of cane sugar, ace-k (acesulfame-K), aspartame and neotame. The pink was actually saccharine free and contained ace0k and neotame. And the blue was a blend of Aspartame and ace-k.

Many people who use artificial sweeteners do so for health reasons. They may be diabetic, and need to avoid sugar. Or they may be on a low-carb diet, and have read that aspartame can damage the brains of people on low-carb diets. And they may not be paying very much attention as they reach for that little yellow packet that is now full of things they are trying to avoid by choosing a “yellow.”

Now who would go ahead and play fast and loose with the colors on artificial sweetener packets, and why?

Turns out it’s a partnership between Domino Sugar and NutraSweet, who have developed a brand of sweeteners intended to steal market share from their competition. Who cares if some innocent old lady who forgot her reading glasses grabs a couple of yellows and ends up in a diabetic coma?

The packets began showing up in restaurants and other food service locations first, long before normal consumers could buy them, which meant that the average consumer was unaware the new products even existed. And if you don’t think Domino and NutraSweet were counting on that, think again. According to NutraSweet CEO Craig Petray (as quoted in “A Bitter Sweet Battle Stirs Up Confusion: The Sugar Caddy Wars” on allbusiness.com), “We decided to go into each category — each color — and develop a product that was unique and better…Our goal is to shake everything up a little bit and see what consumers prefer…There are just four colors out there. How many colors are there in a rainbow?”

So is this good business or bad branding? Brilliant packaging or deceptive misrepresentation? Can “Let the buyer beware” absolve a company of deliberately camouflaging a product to look like a different product when the consequences to consumer health can be serious? And more importantly, can someone please explain to me where the FDA or the Consumer Protection Agency are in all of this?

I have a friend named Jay. He’s the kind of guy you want with you when everything goes to hell. If there were a zombie apocalypse, I’d want him by my side. He’s handy. He’s capable. He understands how things work and how to fix them when they don’t. He’s not afraid to confront what he doesn’t know, and find a solution. He’s a man of action, of knowledge, of science and mathematics… in other words, a rational human being.

He’s also a man who embodies the ideal of “being of service” to those around him. Although he, like so many others, evacuated New Orleans when Katrina forced him to, he went back to help. Prevented from staying, he ended up in Mississippi, where he joined a crew and helped with the rescue, recovery and reconstruction there.

And while Jay is clearly a man who has faith in himself and his own abilities, he is also rational enough to recognize his limits… and what he needs to do to overcome them. He joined a swift-water rescue team back in New Orleans so that the next time disaster struck, he’d not only be in a better position to help, but he’d be a first responder, and nobody could tell him “it’s not your job to help…get over there with the rest of the victims.” But even that wasn’t enough for Jay. He realized that he could be more useful if he expanded his skill set, and that meant EMT training. To get it, he joined a medical unit in the Army Reserves.

Now you’ve got to know that Jay isn’t an 18 year old. Even though he is over twice the age of most recruits, Jay not only held his own in basic training against younger men in their peak condition, but he rose to the top, winning competitions, promotions and recognition.

In fact, he did so well that he got noticed. And as we speak, he is in Afghanistan, the first member of the first Reserve medevac unit ever to go into combat, where he is the combat medic on a Blackhawk chopper, rescuing wounded soldiers and civilians in support of the 1st Air Cavalry Unit (the one from “We Were Soldiers”). He was supposed to have a three week breaking-in period, but instead, they threw him onto a chopper as soon as he arrived, and he’s been flying virtually non-stop ever since.

So why am I writing about Jay? Because it’s the first day of the new year: the day that, while we may successfully hide from introspection every other day of the year, forces us, by immersion, peer pressure, natural progression or the need to buy a new desk calendar, to look back on what we accomplished in the previous year, and what we’ll do with our lives in the year, and years, to come.

This new beginning (as if every other day of the year can’t also be a new beginning!) comes amidst anxiety, concern, and even fear about the stability of our institutions, our financial wellbeing, our environment and for many of us, our livelihoods.

And while there are many people out there praying for guidance, out of work or stuck in lives and jobs that aren’t the ones they want, I suggest to them that the answer doesn’t lie in prayer or in faith in something outside of themselves.

The answer lies in faith in themselves, in their own abilities and in their own strength to move forward from this moment under their own power, in a direction that they determine for themselves.

I know countless examples of people who, in the midst of this crisis, or of their own personal crises, used the opportunity to start new and become the people they always wanted to be. People who have started second careers in their thirties, or forties, or fifties. People who have gone back to school as adults and become doctors. People who have been downsized, reorganized or shown the door and have responded by starting businesses, going back to school, getting out of dodge and pursuing their art, or seizing the opportunity to travel the world as they’ve always dreamed. And people who are still fighting for their dream, not giving up, not listening to the nameless, faceless “they” that tells them they aren’t good enough, that their ideas can’t change the world.

When somebody tells you to have faith in a higher power because we are merely human, transitory and inconsequential; when somebody tells you that you are at the mercy of institutions, the powers that be, or the irresistible currents of history; when somebody tells you to accept your lot in life, your position, or your status: I say to you instead that all you need is faith in yourself and a rational assessment of where you want to be, what you’re capable of, and what you need to take you there.

And to all of you in my life who serve as examples of what a life lived with faith in yourself can look like (even those of you who also simultaneously have faith in a higher power), I say thank you for the inspiration and the reminder.

Can someone please explain to me why anyone would want to surround themselves with people who do any less?

I may be late to this party, but a friend of mine just turned me on to The Johnny Cash Project.

It’s an amazing example of crowdsourcing, billed as “A unique communal work, a living portrait of The Man in Black.” Basically, artists get to draw an image of Johnny Cash to be integrated into an animated music video of Cash’s song, “Ain’t No Grave.” For me, one of the coolest aspects is that because people are constantly adding new content, the video is always changing. And you can choose to view the video by watching Highest Rated Frames, Director Curated Frames, Abstract Frames, Realistic Frames, and more.

I highly recommend checking it out. And thanks to my friend, surfer, homeopathic physician, and killer folk music artist Acoustic Apothecary, for sharing this with me. (Check out Acoustic Apothecary’s You Tube videos here.)

But of course, I’m not here simply to bring you the new and interesting (at which I’ve failed miserably given that this has been around awhile). I think there’s a much more important issue at stake here: who owns a creator’s work, and what rights does the creator have as to it’s reproduction and use.

I have written before about who actually owns a creator’s work (please read my posts about Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and The Who’s My Generation). In this instance, while “Ain’t No Grave” is Johnny Cash’s final studio recording, this video is posthumous.

Because it was created with the support of the Cash Estate, I’m sure all the legal bases have been covered. But what about the moral ones? (Including whether his estate is the right authority to make that decision, when its interest in continuing to make money on his creativity may be in conflict with its responsibility to protect the integrity of his legacy? For more on this, see my post, “I See Dead People…”.)

Specifically, would Mr. Cash approve of his fans collaborating with him on his last song? Is he the kind of artist who would have micro-managed every aspect of creative interpretation, as many do, or is he the kind that would willingly allow fans to play in his creative playground, as a growing number of transmedia creators are doing?

Companies and brands face this dilemma whenever they decide to allow their customers to create user-generated content. There have been disasters, like the Chevy Tahoe crowdsourced commercials, and successes, like the Doritos Super Bowl ads.

But what about artists? How do artists feel about covers? Some, like Prince, are against them, and even take their battles to court. Others, like Lady Gaga, who clearly understands the power of social media, are thrilled to death, and tweet about fan videos she finds and likes.

In other words, different creators make different choices about who can use their work, and how. And I believe it is their right to do so.

So, as much as I love The Johnny Cash Project, and as much as I am personally in favor of letting fans play in my own playground (which I am currently developing as part of my “Spirit In Realtime” science fiction series I’m writing), can someone please explain to me whether you think it’s okay to steal and use a dead man’s song for any purpose, even that of celebrating his life?

Question: When is a 50% off sale not really a bargain?

Answer: When a company has jacked up their prices first.

In the days before the internet and smartphones that let you scan a bar code and get competitive prices instantly, it was common practice to jack up prices before putting them on sale. Customers who didn’t do their homework (and this kind of homework was much harder back then) would think they were getting a deal, when they really weren’t.

Even today, this practice is widespread enough that Bob’s Discount Furniture has cut a swath through the discount retail furniture business by offering everyday low prices and comparing themselves to the trumped up sale prices at their competitors.

But this latest scam by FTD combines 21st century tech with 20th century chicanery.

If you haven’t heard, FTD offered Groupon users a $20 Off Coupon for Valentines’s Day flowers. According to CNN Money, nearly 3,300 users signed up for the deal. Sounds good, right? Sure, except that it turns out that FTD sent these Groupon users to a separate landing page with prices that were higher than their regular prices. The high service and shipping charges depleted the savings further, so the claimed 50% off was virtually negated. And to add insult to injury, the flowers wouldn’t even be delivered until after Valentines Day.

Groupon cancelled the offer and FTD has already taken down the offending landing page.

Now I’m not a big fan of Groupon to begin with, at least from the marketing side of the equation. I’m sure there are bargains to be had for shoppers, but the jury is still out as to whether companies that use Groupon are making any money. There have been many successful Groupon campaigns, but the abrupt and often unmanageable influx of business, frequently by Groupon members who rarely if ever convert into loyal customers for the retailer, combined with the cost of the promotion and rev share with Groupon, often leads to failure. Some Groupon retailers are getting burned, like Posies Bakery & Cafe who blogged about their negative Groupon experience back in September. Or Gregg Gibbs, whose Chicago Bagel Authority netted $15,000 for $80,000 worth of food, according to this article in the Chicago Tribune.

But regardless of whether you like Groupon or not, FTD is the real culprit here. According to TechCrunch, the coupon only worked if you went through the Groupon link. Going to the regular FTD site landed you on a page where the $50 Groupon flowers were sold for $40. So FTD knew what they were doing. They deliberately increased the price shown to Groupon members. And they charged a service fee.

Can you imagine the marketing meeting where FTD discussed this plan? What were they thinking? Didn’t anybody at the meeting point out that if at any point anybody went to FTD via any path other than the Groupon link, they’d see a different, cheaper offer?

Can someone please explain to me why FTD thinks their customers are cyber-savvy enough to use Groupon, but too stupid to spend a couple of seconds clicking around to check out the actual value of the deal?

A financial crisis brought about by foreign wars and financial mismanagement and malfeasance. An administration, desperate to meet the demands of the people and stay solvent, forces through legislation that is opposed by many in the government and by the people. The first lady, when told that the people had no bread, replies, “Then let them eat cake.” (Well, technically Brioche, though it turns out the quote itself was probably just made up by a tabloid journalist, in this case, some hack named Rousseau.)

I’ll bet you thought I was talking about the current United States, until the bit about the cake, right?

The point, continuing from my last post, The four R’s: Reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmatic and Revolution!, is that revolutions, be they French, American, or educational, share similar characteristics and causes. And the French Revolution provides the recipe for this week’s post.

How many of you have read the article, “In Florida, Virtual Classrooms With No Teachers” in The New York Times? You’d remember it if you had: it’s the one about the high school students in North Miami Beach who walk into their first day of precalculus class in their senior year to find that their teachers had been replaced by… computers.

No, this is not a scene from my cyberpunk science fiction novel Spirit in Realtime. (Shameless plug — I’m still looking for a publisher! Tweet me: @jlsimons) It’s the sad reality for over 7,000 students in the Miami-Dade County Public School system.

You see, in 2002 Florida passed the Florida’s Class Size Reduction Amendment, which limits the number of high school students  to 25 students per classroom for core classes like math and English. It also limits 4th-8th grade classes to 22 students and pre-K-3rd grade to 18.

In order to meet these legally mandated limits, Florida has instituted what it calls e-learning labs, which are not legally restricted. In these virtual classrooms, students have no teachers, merely a “facilitator” who takes care of any technical issues that may arise. Supposedly, the facilitator is also present to make sure students “progress,” but I’m betting their primary raison d’etre is to keep the kids from going Office Space on the computers… and each other.

Now I’m not against virtual classrooms. Quite the opposite. I think they satisfy a growing need and, when approached properly, can outperform the real ones.

For instance, Mashable cites a US Department of Education report from 2009 based on 50 independent studies: “the agency found that students who studied in online learning environments performed modestly better than peers who were receiving face-to-face instruction.”

The world of online and virtual education is blossoming. I can watch a free lecture on the Special Theory of Relativity by Yale Professor Ramamurti Shankar on Academicearth.org along with dozens of other lectures and full courses in philosophy, biology, chemistry, literature, physics and more filmed right in the classrooms at MIT, UC Berkeley, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton, NYU, Columbia, and other leading colleges and universities.

I can learn anything from basic math to differential calculus, with the French Revolution and “The Role of Phagocytes in Innate or Nonspecific Immunity” thrown in for fun, from Salman Khan of The Khan Academy, a non-profit dedicated to their “mission of providing a world-class education to anyone, anywhere.” They’ve delivered 37,295,405 lessons (according to their website) and count Bill Gates as one of their most vociferous supporters. You can watch Salman and Bill talking about The Khan Academy below, and I promise, I didn’t tell Bill what to say at all. (Thanks for the support, Bill. The check is in the mail.)

The point I’m making here is that I can choose to watch those lectures and lessons, not that I am forced to watch them. (Which is good news, because I can’t tell a phagocyte from a Lymphocyte, and, in all honesty, the entire subject makes my brain hurt.) When students have the liberty to choose online education, and the motivation, there are no limits to what they can learn.

The students in Miami had no choice. Their parents had no choice. Some of them didn’t even know about the virtual classrooms until the day they walked in and saw the computers.

To quote the Times article,

Alix Braun, 15, a sophomore at Miami Beach High, takes Advanced Placement macroeconomics in an e-learning lab with 35 to 40 other students. There are 445 students enrolled in the online courses at her school, and while Alix chose to be placed in the lab, she said most of her lab mates did not.

“None of them want to be there,” Alix said, “and for virtual education you have to be really self-motivated. This was not something they chose to do, and it’s a really bad situation to be put in because it is not your choice.”

At 15, Alix already knows something that school administrators do not. Or worse, they know, but they don’t care. Or even worse, they know, they care, but they have no choice based on the new law.

Bingo! Again, quoting the Times article:

School administrators said that they had to find a way to meet class-size limits. Jodi Robins, the assistant principal of curriculum at Miami Beach High, said that even if students struggled in certain subjects, the virtual labs were necessary because “there’s no way to beat the class-size mandate without it.”

So, to sum up, an overwhelmed bureaucracy struggling to do its job comes up with a solution that seems to solve the problem, at the expense of the very people they were supposed to be helping. And the students are forced to eat virtual cake.

And not all of them, just some of them. Where is the equality in that? The fraternity? Will a college looking at these students give special consideration to the differing quality in instruction they received compared to students, some in the same school, who had an actual teacher to explain a difficult concept to them? Will their grades be asterisked? And what will the long term impact be on a student who repeatedly ends up in virtual classes in, lets say, English, starting in 7th Grade in one of the six middle schools using e-learning labs in Miami and continuing through senior year? Will the “facilitator” be able to awaken within that student a love for the rhythm and rhyme of good writing, the heart and soul of a poem, the nuances of meaning in serious prose? Or will we leave it to HAL9000, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey:

“I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you.”

Then again, maybe not.

Can someone please explain to me why an education system that can exile students to virtual classrooms during the time they are most in need of nurturing, guidance and, for want of a better word, teaching, shouldn’t be overthrown?  To the barricades, citizens. (More to come…)

Full Disclosure: My client, StraighterLine, is one of the disruptive and revolutionary forces actively engaged in changing education by offering self-paced, online college courses at ridiculously low costs. My relationship with StraighterLine is the reason I have been following developments in the field of education. While I am otherwise compensated for my marketing efforts on behalf of StraighterLine, this series of posts is not one of those efforts. The post is mine and I am in no way being compensated for writing it.