Posts Tagged 'spokesmonster'

Licensing music for your online ad – how much will it cost?

This post originally appeared on Monster’s Blog. It has been edited slightly for clarity. Note that some of the information below may be out of date.
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Recently I created an animated ad for a local group-buying website. My company built the website in partnership with a local yellow page publisher.

As I finished the rough draft of the animation, I didn’t worry too much about the soundtrack. I figured our partners would want to make some changes to the voiceover copy. I went through my iTunes library, popping various jazz tunes into the background, and settled on a 1944 instrumental version by the King Cole Trio of Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love”:

I put the ad up on YouTube and sent the link to our partners for feedback. We heard back that they liked it just as it was. They instructed us to make the video publicly available on the website.

Now I had a conundrum. Because this version of the ad wasn’t really intended for public consumption, I hadn’t bothered to purchase the rights to the song. In order to fix the situation, I had to figure out how to license this piece of music.

You’d think that, with all these little companies (like us) churning out low-budget ads for YouTube, there would be lots of how-to guides available online to explain the process for licensing music. There are a few, but none of them answer the two most obvious questions:

How long is this going to take, and how much is it going to cost me?

First, some terminology. If you want to use a recording of a song in an online ad, you need to acquire two separate kinds of rights.

1. You need to license the song itself – that is, the intellectual property – from the song publisher. There are two main kinds of licenses available.

a) Mechanical license, which covers the manufacturing of CDs and such. You probably don’t have to worry about this one. What you need is a…
b) Synchronization license, which allows you to synch the song with moving images.

2. Additionally, you need to license the particular recording of the song, usually from the record company that released it. This is called a master use license, presumably because back in olden times you needed to borrow the actual master recording in order to make a copy.

Master Use License

I started by attempting to acquire a license for the recording by the King Cole Trio that I wanted to use.

Unfortunately, there is no central database where you can find out who owns the rights to a recording. You just have to poke around the internet and figure it out for yourself.

I was dealing with a pretty famous act, so it didn’t take long. On this Nat King Cole discography page I found that the record in question was cut in 1944 for Capitol Records. A little research revealed that Capitol, along with its song library, is now owned by EMI. Luckily, EMI has a fairly comprehensive online database where you can search and listen to (theoretically) every song in their library.

Except “What Is This Thing Called Love”. Many of Nat King Cole’s recordings from the mid-’40s are in the database, but not that one.

So on a Friday afternoon I called the Senior Vice President at EMI Music Publishing Canada and left a voicemail asking if she knew whether EMI owned the rights to this old Nat King Cole tune. She phoned me back on Tuesday and shared her email address so that I could send a more detailed request.

I emailed her first thing Wednesday and got a reply Thursday from Tonya, a Vice President at EMI’s licensing department in Hollywood. Tonya confirmed that,

EMI Recorded Music represents the above referenced master. Please advise how long the ad would run, i.e. 6 months, 1 year, etc. What is your price range please? We’ll do our best to work within your budget, this sounds like an interesting usage.

So I emailed back to explain that the ad wouldn’t really “run” for any particular length of time – I mean, it’s on YouTube, so it’ll be there forever, right? I said the ad would be embedded on the group-buying website for an indefinite period of time, presumably until they decided to redesign their site.

As for the budget, I went on, if this particular recording costs too much, Plan B is to buy some cheap royalty-free music from a stock music website for a hundred bucks or so. I concluded,

The video is about a minute long. There’s voiceover obscuring the music for virtually its entire length. So you can see why we can’t invest much in this. I love the song and it fits perfectly, but a generic up-tempo jazz piano tune would work nearly as well.

Sent off the email and waited.

Sensing that I had erred by being too vague, a week later I sent Tonya another message:

I’m afraid I avoided your question when you asked what my budget was. If it moves the conversation along, I’ll name a figure: $150.

If that’s insultingly low I apologize, but please reply with a ballpark figure that would be acceptable. As you can probably tell, this music licensing business is new to me. It would be nice to know, for future reference, whether I should attempt to pursue the rights to songs by well-known performers or just settle for cheap knock-offs from royalty-free music sites which are, at least, explicit about their pricing.

More time passed.

Synchronization License

Meanwhile, I was working on the other half of the song licensing equation.

This was a lot easier. In Canada, the rights holders for most songs can be hunted down via the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency, the CMRRA, which (to quote their website) “represents the vast majority of music copyright owners (usually called music publishers) doing business in Canada.”

When you look up Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love” in the CMRRA database, it tells you that Warner Bros. holds the rights.

(But notice the disclaimer at the bottom of the page:

This entry is for MECHANICAL licensing. The publisher names listed above may or may not also reflect the ownership of this song with respect to SYNCHRONIZATION licensing. Please contact CMRRA for further details about any territorial limitations for synchronization licensing purposes.

Oh, well. At least in Canada there’s a single place, the CMRRA, where you can go to enquire about mechanical and synchronization licenses. In the States, while all mechanical licenses are handled through the Harry Fox Agency, its website helpfully informs us that:

The Harry Fox Agency, Inc discontinued synchronization licensing services in June 2002. However, you may secure synchronization rights by contacting the publisher directly. You can search for publisher information using databases made available through the following third-party websites…

So have fun with that, my American friends.)

I sent a message to the CMRRA asking how much it would cost to acquire a synchronization license for the song, and inside an hour received a reply saying I should get directly in touch with so-and-so at Warner/Chappell Music, the publisher. After a couple quick messages back and forth, my request was forwarded to a young man named Brandon in the International Licensing department at Warner/Chappell in Los Angeles.

Within hours, Brandon emailed back to ask for my phone number and,

In the meantime, can you please send me the details of your intended use: product / term / website / storyboard / script / budget etc.

I replied the next morning with a link to the website, explaining that the video had gone live accidentally “as a result of miscommunication”. I added that our total budget for music licensing was only a few hundred dollars.

Brandon called me back that afternoon. “A few hundred dollars,” he said, “is not going to happen. For a big name songwriter like Cole Porter, for the type of usage you describe, an international license would run somewhere in the neighbourhood of 15 grand. And I’d still have to clear that with the Cole Porter estate.”

15 grand. Suddenly I understood why the lady from EMI hadn’t bothered to get back to me. I guess to her I’m like some yokel who wanders into the Jimmy Choo boutique on Rodeo Drive and asks to see their selection of Crocs.

I was a little shocked when Brandon dropped that $15,000 figure on me. Not so much by the amount, but by the fact that an online ad in a tiny market like Saskatchewan is treated, for the purposes of music licensing, no differently than an international ad campaign.

Explaining that at this point I was just picking his brain to satisfy my own curiosity, I offered Brandon an alternative scenario. “What if this were a TV spot limited to a particular geographical area – say, the province of Saskatchewan – and a particular time period – say, six weeks? Would that be less or more expensive?”

In that situation, he explained, a figure of $5,000-$10,000 might be acceptable.

“What if instead of Cole Porter, the composer had been someone less famous?”

Even for obscure artists, he said, the low end for synchronization licenses was in the $5,000 range.

I thanked Brandon and told him that I’d get the spot taken down right away. “Would it be alright if it waited till tomorrow?” I asked.

That would be fine, he said. He was very nice about it.

Q. How long is this going to take, and how much is it going to cost me?
A. 2 days, circa $15,000.

Master Use License, again

At this point I’d given up on ever hearing back from Tonya at EMI Publishing. So I was surprised a couple days later when this message showed up:

We have heard back from the Nat King Cole estate. The master use fee for this recording would have to be substantially higher, in the tens of thousands.

Tonya said she would put me in touch with a colleague at EMI who would pitch me some “great Blue Note jazz recordings (both master and publishing) at a competitive rate.”

By this time I’d already taken down the original ad and put up a new version with a royalty-free soundtrack. So the polite thing would’ve been to thank Tonya and tell her I was no longer in the market. But I was curious to see what the colleague would recommend, so I stayed mum and waited.

The next day, an EMI Program Manager from New York emailed me a link to a “pitch page”, where I could download and listen to a selection of a dozen mid-century jazz classics similar in feel to my preferred Nat King Cole tune. Some of the suggestions were pretty good. I tried dropping them into the video to see if they’d work:

I emailed back:

At first listen, Hank Mobley’s “The Turnaround”, Benny Goodman’s “Dizzy Fingers”, and Chet Baker’s “Jumpin’ Off A Clef” seem like they’d make good fits. Could you give me estimates for those three?

And got a reply the same day from an Assistant Manager, Music Resources:

Taking your low budget into consideration, I’d ballpark the fee at $1,000 MFN with master ($2,000 all in for each song) for one year of internet streaming and $750 MFN with master ($1,500 all in for each song) for 6 months of internet streaming. Let me know if either of those options would work for you and I can secure the rights and get a license in place when you want to use them.

(MFN, in this context, stands for Most Favoured Nation, which doesn’t have anything to do with nations. It’s explained here.)

Notice that the $1,500 “all in” quoted by the EMI Assistant Manager, which includes both licenses, is much lower than the $5,000 that Brandon, at Warner/Chappell, said was the very low end for synchronization licenses alone. Did Brandon deliberately blow me off? Did I misunderstand, or just ask the wrong question?

As you can see, I’m not much wiser than I was in the beginning.

Q. How long is this going to take, and how much is it going to cost me?
A. 17 days, from $1,500 to “tens of thousands”.

The Royalty-Free Option

So that’s why, instead of music from the King Cole Trio, our ad is scored to a gypsy jazz tune called “Tabac” by Jeremy Sherman, from the royalty-free music website Here’s the final version:

Q. How long is this going to take, and how much is it going to cost me?
A. Less than 1 day, $100.95.

(…But the above total doesn’t reflect the psychic cost of having to sift through hundreds of cheesy smooth-jazz compositions on a half-dozen different royalty-free music sites in order to find one acceptable substitute for the song I really wanted in the first place.)

Ads that pretend to be art.

This post originally appeared on Monster’s Blog.
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A few days ago Jason Kottke linked to this list of The Best Magazine Articles Ever, a whole month’s supply of first-class procrastination material. It’s an excellent resource, though predictably heavy on stuff from the last twenty years or so: the late David Foster Wallace gets six (well-deserved) entries, while Tom Wolfe gets only two, and Joan Didion doesn’t even make an appearance.

Yesterday I found myself reading “Shipping Out”, Wallace’s 1996 Harper’s article about his adventures on a seven-day luxury cruise of the Caribbean. He describes an “odd little essaymercial” by the author Frank Conroy that appears in the cruise line’s promotional brochure. The essay is “graceful and lapidary and persuasive”, but “also completely insidious and bad”:

In the case of Frank Conroy’s “essay,” Celebrity Cruises is trying to position an ad in such a way that we come to it with the lowered guard and leading chin we reserve for coming to an essay, for something that is art (or that is at least trying to be art). An ad that pretends to be art is – at absolute best – like somebody who smiles at you only because he wants something from you. This is dishonest, but what’s insidious is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill’s real substance, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair.

This upsets me, because my great respect for Wallace makes me fear there’s something to his argument, which I would otherwise wave off as the predictable anti-consumerism of the Adbusters crowd.

Here’s my view. We’re all in agreement that King Lear is a work of art and that the latest Mountain Dew ad isn’t. In between, things get fuzzy. Is an indie film like The Kids Are All Right art? What about the current number one movie in North America, Inception? What about Spike Jonze’s 30-minute short film I’m Here, sponsored by Absolut Vodka? What about those Old Spice “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” clips that went viral not long ago?

Wallace’s comments imply that there’s a straightforward heuristic one can use to differentiate art from non-art. I don’t think there is one. I think there are elements of art, craft, and commerce in all the works mentioned above.

Having experience in both advertising and art-for-art’s-sake, I can identify only one real difference between them: advertising is way harder. When you’re making art you have to please yourself and your audience – and if you don’t mind being a starving artist, you can settle for just pleasing yourself. But when you’re making an ad, in addition to pleasing your audience, you have to sell them something.

It’s tough. You have to think about every word and every image from two totally different perspectives. It’s tempting to compromise on one side or the other – weaken the pitch to make the ad more entertaining, or toss out the entertainment and focus on the selling message. But there can be no compromise. If your ad isn’t pleasing, your sales pitch will flop. But if your ad is pleasing and your sales pitch still flops, that’s it. You’ve flopped.

That’s why most advertising is so terrible. It’s not because marketers are hacks. It’s because it requires exceptional talent to make a good ad. I haven’t made one yet. I keep on trying, because it’s a challenge, but also (let’s face it) because I have to – marketing is the only career where a semi-talented writer like me can make a decent living. If I decided to join the righteous ranks of the artists, I’d be living in a cardboard box within a year.

From the excerpts Wallace supplies, I’d say Frank Conroy’s “graceful and lapidary and persuasive” Caribbean cruise essay is an unusually good ad. Did Conroy get any satisfaction from the assignment? In a footnote, Wallace reports that he got in touch with the author to ask him how he got into the “essaymercial” biz. The reply: “I prostituted myself.”

What would happen if all the talented writers in the advertising biz quit prostituting themselves and became artists? There would be a whole lot more mediocre novels sitting unread in people’s desk drawers. There would be a whole lot more undernourished authors living in their parents’ attics. And there would be just as many ads – only they’d be that much worse than they are already.

I wish David Foster Wallace were still alive to have this disagreement with.


Edmund Burke, Agile thinker.

This post originally appeared on Monster’s Blog.
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When visitors find out that my company follows the Agile software development process, they invariably ask, “What would the 18th-century political philosopher Edmund Burke think of Agile?”

When this question comes up, I laugh and quickly change the subject to David Hume, with whom I feel on firmer ground. But I’ve been reading Burke lately and may finally be able to answer this pressing question.

First some background. The Agile Manifesto spells out the principles of Agile design, which favours:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation.
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.
  • Responding to change over following a plan.

Agile is usually contrasted with the so-called “waterfall” method, whereby a plan is conceived by the bigwigs at the top of the org chart, then tumbles down to the folks on level two, who add their contribution before sending it down to the peons on level three, who pass it on to the schnooks on level four, and so on, until it arrives at the bottommost level, by which time the bigwigs have all been fired and their replacements have started work on an entirely different plan.

In an Agile environment, the bigwigs work alongside the peons on cross-functional teams that plan, design, and implement one or two small improvements at a time, in a series of short intervals called sprints, lasting a week or two. At the end of every sprint, a working piece of software is released, and the team pauses to consider the results and to set objectives for the following sprint.

Edmund Burke was a parliamentarian, pamphleteer, and the foremost English critic of the French Revolution. He’s sometimes smeared as a reactionary, but in fact he was a gradualist, who favoured measured change within a constitutional framework over all-encompassing plans dreamed up in a philosopher’s salon.

In Reflections on the Revolution in France he spells out the superiority of the gradualist approach:

[I]n my course I have known, and, according to my measure, have co-operated with great men; and I have never yet seen any plan which has not been mended by the observations of those who were much inferior in understanding to the person who took the lead in the business. By a slow but well-maintained progress, the effect of each step is watched; the good or ill success of the first, gives light to us in the second; and so, from light to light, we are conducted with safety through the whole series. We see, that the parts of the system do not clash. The evils latent in the most promising contrivances are provided for as they arise. One advantage is as little as possible sacrificed to another. We compensate, we reconcile, we balance. … From hence arises, not an excellence in simplicity, but one far superior, an excellence in composition.

Of course, by its very name, Agile would seem to be in conflict with the precepts of gradualism. The whole point of Agile is to allow for rapid adaptation to changing circumstances.

But that apparent conflict is an illusion, as Burke’s history teaches us. The French Revolution was the quintessential waterfall project, in which a small group of visionaries, untroubled by any practical concern for how governments and economies function, arbitrarily rewrote the entire body of their nation’s laws. Their plan, so elegant in the abstract, fell apart at its first collision with the reality of human behaviour. The inalienable Rights of Man gave way to factiousness, bloodshed, and tyranny. Almost a century passed before a stable French republic emerged.

In software terms, the French Revolution was a flashy new release that was so buggy and unpopular that it bankrupted the company.

Meanwhile the British, by an Agile process of small fixes and improvements, continued their “slow but well-maintained progress” toward universal democracy. Even now the Brits don’t have a written constitution, and they seem generally untroubled by the deficiency. You could say they favour “responding to change over following a plan”.

It might seem like a paradox, but Agile is a gradualist approach. Edmund Burke, it turns out, would approve.

Coming soon: Montaigne on Flash versus HTML5.


Please remain calm, we’re trying to entertain you.

Originally published on Monster’s Blog.
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Every once in a while I’ll get an email from my father drawing my attention to some online advertising campaign that he thinks I’ll find interesting. I imagine it’s his way of encouraging me: “Hey, son, it’s not only your crazy company trying to promote itself on YouTube – real businesses are doing it too!”

Thus was I recently directed to FedEx’s new YouTube campaign starring Fred Willard (whom you know from movies like Waiting For Guffman and Best In Show, and of course as the CEO of Buy N Large). Willard stars in a series of mock infomercials (directed by Bob Odenkirk, of Mr. Show fame) called 1-2-3 Succeed! They’re pretty funny.

Despite being covered in the business section of the New York Times, the campaign hasn’t exactly caught fire. As of Tuesday evening, none of the videos has been viewed more than 10,000 times. These are Spokesmonster-like numbers; it’s nice to know I’m competing on the same plane (if not quite at the same salary) as Odenkirk and Willard. But despite the slow start, I hope the ads are a success. Not for FedEx’s sake, but for the sake of the advertising biz.

I’m not saying the future of the advertising industry rests on the success or failure of this one campaign. I just think they’re good ads, and I’d like to see more like them. But take a look at some of the comments on FedEx’s YouTube page:

[T]his type of humor is low-brow and incompatible with the sophistication that consumers expect from FedEx.

Throw it away and start over. Not funny or informative. Worst FedEx ad campaign ever….

This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen. The marketing group at FedEx that put this out should be on the chopping block. Dumb, stupid, boring, and won’t bring any customers to FedEx so is therefore a waste of money. I think I threw up a bit in my mouth these are so bad.

…Not that it’s hard to find YouTube commenters to say mean things about your video. But the early response reminds me of other innocuous ad campaigns that backfired – like those Microsoft ads with Jerry Seinfeld that everyone hated so much. Or this reviled Motrin ad from last year. Why is it that when advertisers try to be a little inventive, they often enrage as many customers as they amuse? Meanwhile, there’s no penalty for being dull and predictable. We don’t even notice the boring ads – they pass through our buzzing brains like busboys through a fashionable restaurant, eyes down, trying not to draw attention to themselves. Every once in a while one of the busboys dares to give us a smile, and we respond by lashing him with our walking sticks.

I can understand why people dislike Microsoft, and I can therefore understand how those people might dislike the Seinfeld Microsoft ads. What’s strange to me is that those same people seemed to dislike the Seinfeld ads much more intensely than they did all of the far more banal ads that came before and after it. You’d think Microsoft would have gotten some credit for trying something different, but it seems that people resented the attempt much more than they resented the ad itself.

“How dare you try to entertain us,” they said. “Go on about your unseemly business, just don’t make us look at you.”

We citizens of the mass-consumer age have a fraught relationship with the advertising industry. It surrounds us – we swim in it like the ocean – and maybe these ads frustrate us not because we really think they’re that bad, but simply because we notice them at all – and for a few seconds they remind us how far we are from dry land.

Cartoon news.

I won’t keep you long. This is just a quick update to announce:

I just finished a new promotional cartoon for my employers. Ordinarily I don’t use this blog to talk about work-related stuff, but I happen to be fairly proud of this cartoon. Maybe it’s just cos I like the music (by Louis Armstrong, with a little Bix Beiderbecke over the closing credits).

MyFrontSteps presents “Goin’ Viral”

Meanwhile, a nice Aussie fella named Derek recently interviewed me for his crossword / Scrabble website Why would a site for word nerds want to interview me? Because last year I brought an unsung genius named Garson Hampfield to the attention of the crossword community. You can read more, and watch the cartoon, here:

Michael A. Charles interviewed on


Selling sunrise.

This post originally appeared on Monster’s Blog.
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Springtime is here – even in the Canadian prairies. It makes a big difference, waking up to sunshine rather than chilly darkness. This morning my alarm went off at 7:30 and I was glad to see that it was already full daylight outside. I lay in bed for a while and thought about the word “sunrise”.

The sun doesn’t really rise. It stays where it is, and the rotation of the earth causes us to fall out of shadow and into the sun’s light. The word “sunrise” reflects an ancient, intuitive, pre-Copernican conception of how the universe works. But it’s the perfect word. You couldn’t possibly do better.

Let’s say you’re in marketing and your boss asks you to develop a pitch for a new feature. “People on our side of the planet are tired of this constant darkness,” your boss might say. “Electricity bills are through the roof. Plants aren’t growing. We’re always bumping into things. So we’ve decided to rotate the earth once every 24 hours, so that for 12 hours out of every 24, this side of the planet will get direct sunlight.”

“What a great idea!” you say. “What are we calling it?”

“Well,” says your boss, “that’s where you come in.”

So you sit there spinning your globe, trying to come up with a good, concise, marketable description of this new feature.

Hemispheric illumination shift?

Rotational shadow escape?

Sunward earth turning?

Ugh. A PR campaign can probably be built around sunward earth turning to convince people of its benefits. But who’s going to get up at 5 AM to watch it happen?

There are two components to marketing. First, you need to make a complicated new thing seem straightforward and familiar to an audience that probably isn’t paying much attention.

Second, you need to make it – for want of a better word – beautiful.

I’ve been trying, in the Spokesmonster cartoons and on this blog, to get across the benefits of a service that offers a lot of great features – some of them hard to explain in ten words or less. Hopefully I’ve been making a bit of progress. But I still haven’t come across that magic phrase that makes everything clear and beautiful.

spokesmonster sunrise

On being offensive.

To the long, long list of Newfangled Things Whose Popularity I Don’t Understand must be added another: Twitter. I signed up a couple days ago because my company, to promote its new online reputation management service, recently created a Twitter account, and it may soon be my responsibility to “tweet” our “followers”.

It’s not a responsibility I look forward to assuming. But anyhow. On Twitter the other day I noticed a tweet from a friend of a co-worker concerning the Spokesmonster cartoons. I can’t find it now, but it said something like, “That’s the funniest, most offensive ad campaign ever!”

What does it mean, this word “offensive”? What does this person mean when he writes that the cartoons are both funny and offensive? Is he actually offended by them? I doubt it, or he probably wouldn’t find them funny. I assume he means that some other unenlightened clown out there probably finds them offensive.

But where are these unenlightened clowns and exactly how are they offended? This is a question I’ve asked before, and I’ve never gotten a satisfactory answer. When the first Spokesmonster cartoon, for a brief moment, in an obscure corner of the internet, stirred up a tiny flurry of controversy, it was alleged that the cartoon was offensive. But except for one commenter who declared that he or she, as a proud hillbilly, took objection to the reference to inbred “hill folk”, no-one actually said they were offended. They were outraged on behalf of somebody else.

Then there was the almost-controversy, narrowly averted, that I didn’t quite provoke with a recent blog post. In regard to the third Spokesmonster cartoon, a friend had written to tell me that he found the tone off-putting:

The word “Skankmaster” comes up, which might raise some eyebrows with investors. Annie Anklebiter slithers and hisses at the camera in a threatening way. The Reichschancellor is funny except his voice sounds like a dangerous pedophile. And then Shelby, our main character, snaps at the girl’s finger and bites yours, and you say the F-word.

The next day, alongside a sketch of the Reichschancellor, I posted to the Spokesmonster blog:

I got my co-worker Dave to record the Reichschancellor’s voice. But apparently Dave’s too nice a guy, because his delivery lacked the necessary tone of quiet menace. So I re-recorded the voice myself. A friend said the Reichschancellor “sounds like a dangerous pedophile”. I choose to take that as a compliment.

In my innocence, I thought my meaning would be obvious. I only meant that I took my friend’s comment as a compliment on my voice acting: I was trying to sound creepy, and apparently I had been successful. It has since been pointed out to me that hasty readers might misinterpret “I take that as a compliment” to mean A) that the Reichschancellor was meant to be a pedophile, and that I was flattered that my friend had picked up the reference, or even B) that I was endorsing pedophilia.

I got an email from my boss telling me to take down the pedophilia reference tout de suite; I complied; and that was that. I have no problem with my employers determining what is and isn’t appropriate on a company website. Still, in an email thread with some friends of mine, I argued about the definition of offensive. Some of my friends thought my comment was a mistake because it could be misinterpreted. Others thought that the mere mention of pedophilia violated a taboo, and even if it had been more clearly written, my comment would still have been unacceptable on a promotional blog. One friend suggested that, even if he wasn’t meant to be a pedophile, the character of the Reichschancellor was a bit touchy, because when people think “Reichschancellor” they think “Hitler”, and you shouldn’t crack jokes about Hitler.

Someone else mentioned the message that pops up in StepRep when a search comes back empty: “No results yet! But don’t worry, our worker monkeys are slaving to get you relevant results.” The topic of slavery is a little sensitive, my friend said. Aargh, I replied.

What was missing from all this discussion of offensive subjects was a single person who actually claimed to be offended. Everyone was worried about what someone else might think. Everyone was trying to read the minds of people whose existence they couldn’t be certain of.

An analogy. A record executive gets a tape from a hot new band. (My analogy is set in the distant past, like the 1980s.) He clunks the tape into his stereo and gives it a listen. He hates it. He buzzes his secretary. “This band is fucking terrible,” he says. “Make up a contract. They’re going to be huge.”

If he’s good at his job, the record executive doesn’t need to actually like the acts he signs; he just needs to have an ear for what the chumps will buy. But wouldn’t you put more faith in a record executive who shares his audience’s tastes – someone who actually likes the records he sells?

Like musical taste, offense is a highly personal thing. It’s perfectly good business to worry about what other people are going to think. But I wish people would be more explicit when they say this is offensive.

Do they mean, I am offended?

Or do they mean, The chumps aren’t going to buy this?


On negativity.

[Y]our thoughts on the sex of your drawings are boring and naïve, take a first year psychology class and leave the hard thinking to someone else.

–commenter on the Spokesmonster blog

I’ve been on the internet long enough to know that people who may be perfectly polite to strangers they meet at a party or in a bar will say outlandishly hostile things to strangers online. It’s not that they feel like they’re protected by some kind of Cloak of Invisibility; the commenter above left his or her email address. It’s just that the internet is a coarse environment. It doesn’t require a first-year psychology class to realise that if you hang out with smart, well-spoken people, you will become smarter and better-spoken, while if you hang out with the commenters on, you will become a snarky negative bastard. I can lament this coarsening effect, but if I want to keep my sanity and still participate in the modern world, I had better get used to it.

But there’s a difference between insults that are merely moronic (my favourite comment on Garson Hampfield: “Typical Jewish bullshit!”) and the ones that hint at some kind of withheld intelligence. What’s aggravating about the “boring and naïve” comment is that there may be some truth to it. I never studied psychology – never went to university at all – and there’s probably a lot I could have learned from it that would have given my rambling speculations on the gender of stickmen greater dimension. I would be happy to be taught something new. It’s possible the commenter really has some insight to share. But he doesn’t share it – just says, “Your ignorance is too obvious to bother explaining. Seeya!” Very unhelpful.

Similary unhelpful (I apologise for going back to this yet again) were most of the comments on AgentGenius about the first Spokesmonster cartoon. After a round of monster-bashing, Benn, the originator of the thread, finally intervened to say,

What I find interesting is no one is being specific as to why it should or shouldn’t be changed. Are we being polite, or do we just not like it because it isn’t pretty?

(But Benn, what do you mean, “it isn’t pretty”?)

I don’t quite see how comments like “This is really really bad. Really bad. Nothing good about it at all so nothing salvagable. Scrap scrap scrap” qualify as polite, but I was interested, too, to see what, specifically, the complainers were complaining about. Some of them were obviously offended by the “hillfolk” reference. Others seemed to be irritated by the lack of specific information about the service (it not having been made clear that the cartoon was a teaser for a product that was still early in development). But still, I was baffled by the intensity of the negative reaction. It just seemed disproportionate. Was there, as Benn implied, something the critics were holding back, something that was obvious to everyone but completely mysterious to me?

I worry about this kind of thing a lot, and here’s why: I sometimes think that I might be a little autistic. My interpersonal skills are, to put it mildly, underdeveloped; my tastes are a little obscure; I’m far more comfortable with a book than I am with most humans; when people speak of common sense I often think, maybe so, but it’s not common to me.

People who are at ease with other people, I think, must be more certain of their shared sense of normality, of what is held in common. They can disregard a critic who says, “It’s obviously bad”, because they feel they already have a grip on what’s obvious and what’s not. I can’t really do that. What is and isn’t obvious is not obvious to me.

It’s tough to be a critic, though. Most of the things we feel strongly enough about to bother criticising, we do so precisely because our objections are so immediate that they can’t even be articulated. Do I need to tell you why a line of dialogue like this one (from Dan Simmons’ The Terror) is badly written?

“Cook is preparing roast beef tonight, my darling. Your favorite. Since she’s new – I am certain that the Irish woman was padding our accounts, stealing is as natural as drinking to the Irish – I reminded her that you insist that it must be rare enough to bleed at the touch of the carving knife.”

It’s just – bad. Unrealistic. That little aside about the Irish – forget about whether the character would really say it, just look at the way it’s phrased. People don’t talk like that. Isn’t it obvious?

Well, no, it’s not. If people don’t talk like that, how do they talk? If they don’t talk like that now, isn’t it possible they did talk that way back in the 1840s, when the novel is set? Even if they never did talk like that, what about all those movies and books I love where the dialogue is even less realistic? How do I account for those?

All those questions can be answered, but only with a lot of hard work. And as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m a pretty lazy guy. Speaking to other lazy people, all I’d ask is that if you’re going to go negative, put in that extra bit of effort. Reason, argue, explain. You might think you’ve already made your superior intelligence apparent to all. I’m sorry to inform you – you haven’t.


As an example of criticism whose vehemence is all out of proportion to its subject, here’s Andrew Orlowski ranting in The Register about Malcolm Gladwell:

He’s better known for his Afro than any big idea, or bold conclusion – and his insights have all the depth and originality of Readers Digest or a Hallmark greeting card.

On one of Gladwell’s speeches:

Gladwell blathers at great length about an obscure market researcher called Howard Moskowitz. Who? On his own website, Howie calls himself “a well-known experimental psychologist in the field of psychophysics”. Yet Gladwell describes Moskowitz’ market testing of varieties of soup as if he was an unsung genius of the 20th century.

All this takes up 15 minutes, but it’s so repetitious and predictable, it seems to take about three times as long. (So much for the dazzling oratory Guardian leader writers admire.)

That “so much for the dazzling oratory” sums up the “my point is too obvious to waste time explaining” school of criticism that I so dislike. For those of us who enjoy watching Gladwell speak, his gift is precisely that he can make fifteen minutes on market testing varieties of soup seem compelling. Obviously it’s not as compelling to Orlowski. But the words “repetitious and predictable” – let alone the contemptuous “Who?” with which Orlowski dismisses the soup-tester – don’t triumphantly prove the critic’s point; they barely begin to make it.

I happen to agree with Orlowski’s larger argument, that Gladwell’s driblets of scientific wisdom often seem meagre in comparison with the vast apparatus of anecdote and digression required to render them down. But one doesn’t read Gladwell for the science, any more than one reads Dickens for his political platform or Chesterton for his religious conclusions. I’d put them into the category of writers for whom the journey is the destination.


Why can’t I let this subject go? I wrote more on the Spokesmonster mini-controversy here.

Stickman Jack.

Originally published on Monster’s Blog.
spokesmonster blog header

I’ve got a funny job. For the last two weeks I’ve been doing nothing but drawing cartoon monsters. I’ve spent entire days with my feet up on my desk, pad and paper in my lap, doodling snail ladies and lizard rappers. For the longest time I had no idea where this was taking me. Maybe I was using the doodling as an excuse to avoid doing more productive work. But all these monsters will be going into the next Spokesmonster video, so I figure I haven’t been totally wasting my time.

I just did a tally of my completed monsters. I’m up to eighteen now. (Many of these are just drawings that will be flashed onscreen for a moment or two, but some of them have been broken down for limb movements and facial expressions.) Here’s the thing: I’d like there to be roughly as many girl monsters as there are boy monsters. But I’m already out of whack. I’ve got twelve boy monsters, only six girl monsters.

Why is it so much easier to come up with male characters than female characters? I’m not the only animator with this deficiency. Look at the old Disney or Warner Brothers cartoons. Disney had Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck, but they were stuck in minor supporting roles. Warner Brothers had Bugs Bunny in a dress – that’s about it. The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park all have girls in them, but I’d reckon there are ten male characters for every female one.

Why aren’t animators more interested in drawing female characters? Perhaps they’re limited by a sense of decorum. You needn’t have seen too many episodes of the Simpsons to summon up examples of Homer being dropped from great heights, having heavy weights dropped on him, or losing his pants. Those things just don’t happen to Marge or Lisa. If the definition of comedy is inflicting pain or physical humiliation on your characters, and if our culture is uncomfortable with seeing women brutalized in those ways, that’s a powerful disincentive to drawing female cartoons. Why use Daisy Duck if we can’t clunk her over the head for laffs? We’ll just use Donald instead.

But I wonder if the gender disparity doesn’t derive from something more fundamental. Look at the design of the male and female icons on bathroom doors. The male icon is a simple stick figure. The female icon is a stick figure with a dress. Boiled down to their most basic forms, the woman requires more lines to draw than the man.

male and female bathroom icons

I’ve noticed in my own drawing that it takes longer to design a female character than it does a male character. With a girl monster I have to worry about hips and boobs and hair and making sure the facial features look feminine – I don’t mean attractive, I just mean that you want your girl monster to actually look like a girl. The cheap way to do this is to give her lipstick and long eyelashes. Or you can be a bit more subtle in the shaping of the jaw and the placement of the eyes, so that makeup is unnecessary. Either way, it takes a little extra work. And I’m a fundamentally lazy guy.

With a boy monster, you just hack out your basic human figure and you’re done – it’s a boy.

For some reason, by default, cartoons come out male.

Why is this? Obviously, there’s a long and complicated history behind the iconography of maleness and femaleness, and much of that history occurred back when women weren’t in a position to complain about what the men were painting on bathroom doors. But those bathroom icons reflect something other than centuries of sexism. Maybe stick figures are assumed to be male for a reason: the basic male shape really is composed of simple straight lines, while the basic female shape is made up of more complicated curves. Maybe it’s not just sexism that skews my monsters male by a ratio of two to one, but physiology.

If my speculation is correct, the pro-male bias appears at the very earliest stage of the creative process – the stage where the cartoonist, chair leaned back, feet on desk, idly doodles on a scratchpad. If every doodle starts as a male, then of course the cartoonist will wind up with a gallery of male characters.

Maybe I’m making an assumption, though. When women doodle, do their doodles come out female?


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

Michael isn't on LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter and won't be on whatever comes along next. If you need to reach him here's his contact info.

Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker