August 31, 2008

The ad is a lie

Filed under: advertising, airlines, travel — Rakesh Agrawal @ 12:18 pm

While watching the Olympics, I was struck by a gorgeous animated ad. A lobster conducts an orchestra of other sea creatures playing Gershwin. As soon as I recognized Rhapsody in Blue, I knew it had to be a United Airlines commercial.

The beautiful ad is in stark contrast with the product being advertised. We all expect exaggeration in advertising, but for the most part the product doesn’t even exist. I’m not talking about cramped seats or the fees for everything but using the toilet; the ad is one of several new commercials for United’s new international first and business class.

United’s premium products have significantly lagged their competitors, especially when compared with foreign competitors. Virgin’s and British’s business classes are much nicer than United’s first. United’s new product is a significant step forward.

The problem is that most of United’s international fleet hasn’t been reconfigured for the new product. If you buy the advertised product, chances are you’ll get the older, vastly inferior product. According to the FlyerGuide Wiki, only 11% of the fleet has been reconfigured:

Completed aircraft: 11 out of 96
Completed B747-400s: 4 out of 29
Completed B767-300s: 7 out of 21
Completed B777-200s: 0 out of 46

Good luck getting the 180-degree flat bed seats they talk about in the Butterfly and Moondust ads. There is no way to ensure that you’ll get the new product. Veteran frequent fliers play guessing games on FlyerTalk’s United forums. While you can improve your odds based on picking the routes or studying seatmaps you’ll only know for sure when you step on the plane. There is a way to ensure that you don’t get the new product: buy a business class seat on a 777. None of those have been converted.

United deserves credit for making the ads easily available online, something more companies should do. The clip of the Heart commercial includes a “making of” commentary by Dennis Cary, United’s SVP of Marketing and behind the scenes interviews with the artists.

As art, the ads are some of the most creative and visually engaging ads I’ve seen; they’re downright stunning when viewed in HD. If they do their job and gets people on United’s planes, there’s a really good chance they won’t be crossing the oceans on United again.

Desi shoutout: According to United’s description, Moondust was animated by an Indian. “Ishu Patel, an Indian-born and Canadian-based animator, used his world-renowned back-lit technique in which a thin layer of plastic modeling clay is applied to a glass plate that has a 1000-watt light positioned beneath it and an animation camera above it.”

See also:

About these ads

August 27, 2008

The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!

Filed under: geotagging, google, journalism, local search, maps, media, newspapers, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 10:52 pm

I’ve long advocated that news organizations geotag the news. But I’ve been skeptical of automated systems for doing this. Google News recently provided a terrific example of what can happen when you use entity extraction for such a task:

Where in the world is Georgia?

Where in the world is Georgia?

In this case, reported by Valleywag, Google is comically wrong. But even when Google is roughly right, the map is often there just for the sake of having a map. The location information is often not very precise or isn’t really relevant.

For example, this story about a Yankees game puts Yankee Stadium somewhere near City Hall. Stories about national issues are often datelined New York or Washington because the reporter happens to be sitting in one of those two cities.

For individual story pages, an inaccurate map isn’t the worst thing in the world. But when you plot many of these stories on a map, they become worthless. In Google Earth, you can get a layer that provides geotagged news from The New York Times. I’ve seen pointless geotagging such as a story titled “U.S. Moves Toward International Accounting Rule” geotagged as being in the “USA”. (Which Google Earth plots in Oklahoma.)

There are many cases where geocoding makes sense and provides users a real service:

  • Restaurant reviews
  • Crime stories
  • Event listings
  • Travel stories

In each of these cases, the location is a critical part of the story. The minimal extra effort involved in geotagging these stories would significantly increase their shelf life and usability.

August 25, 2008

All the news that’s fit to tweet

Filed under: journalism, media, newspapers, social networking, twitter, web 2, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 9:11 pm

On board CalTrain 369 possible fatality near San Bruno

Local, local, local. It’s the new mantra for news. I was reminded of this last week after the train I was riding in struck a pedestrian. The event was insignificant to all but a few hundred, maybe a couple of thousand, people.

There were lots of questions from the people on the train: What happened? Did we kill someone? How long are we going to be delayed? There were also a key question for others who use CalTrain: should I get on the train or find another way home?

Given the small number of people affected, this isn’t the type of thing that makes the local TV news. The Bay Area, being what it is, has a new answer: Twitter. An unofficial CalTrain account allows citizen journalists to share information about what’s going on. Readers can get the news on the Web or by text message.

This kind of real-time journalism has its challenges — initial reports can be wrong. In my own account, I relayed what we heard from the conductor: On cal train that hit someone. Possible fatal.” The first report on the CalTrain account asks, Can someone confirm fatality at milbray?” Another report from the field (presumably from someone at the station), said the opposite of what the conductor was telling us: “ambulance is now gone. man is ALIVE. police+firemen still here.”

But these kind of errors occur in mainstream media as well, such as the erroneous reports that most of the Sago mine workers were still alive.

People use Twitter to write about mundane news items: power outages, fires, etc. While they might not be Newsworthy, that are incredibly important to the relatively few people that are affected by them.

Twitter could become the police scanner of our times. As Twitter becomes location aware, it would be possible to detect where something happened by looking for unusal spikes in activity around a location. Even without that, the Chicago Tribune has used Twitter to break news.

Twitter is also getting attention from mainstream journalists. The Washington Post’s media critic, Howard Kurtz, writes about Twitter use by journalists such as Slate’s John Dickerson at the Democratic convention.

August 20, 2008

How’s the weather out there?

Filed under: geotagging, google, maps, social networking, twitter, web 2.0 — Rakesh Agrawal @ 3:20 pm

One of the things that takes getting used to living in the Bay Area is the many microclimates. Temperatures and conditions can vary dramatically within a few miles.

I was deciding whether to head out to the Beach Chalet, a microbrewery and restaurant on the Pacific Ocean, on Sunday. They’ve got a great back yard with Adirondack chairs and live music. It’s a gorgeous place — on a sunny day. Unfortunately, it’s located in one of the foggiest parts of San Francisco.

Before trekking all the way to the other side of the city I wanted to know whether it was sunny there. Could social networking help?

I decided to post the question — to noone in particular — on Twitter:

Wonder if it is sunny there. My question posed on Twitter.

Within 10 minutes, I had my answer:

Its Not.

Of course, this particular experiment is likely only to work this well this quickly in the Bay Area, where it’s easier to find a Twitter user than a newspaper reader.

How else could I find the answer? Google now has geo-coded Webcams in Google Earth. Find where you want to be and check to see if there’s a camera. Click and you’ll get your answer. In the case of the Beach Chalet, it’s often this:

No, I didn't just paste in a white image. This is a view from a webcam near Ocean Beach.

No, I didn't take a picture of a white wall. This is a view from the Cliff House webcam near Ocean Beach.

August 17, 2008

NYT pays tribute to the best fake political team in television

Filed under: journalism, media, television, video, YouTube — Rakesh Agrawal @ 4:19 pm
Jon Stewart on his first post-9/11 broadcast

Jon Stewart on his first post-9/11 broadcast

The New York Times ran a great profile of fake news purveyor Jon Stewart this weekend. According to a 2007 Pew poll, Stewart was tied with real newsmen Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, Andersen Cooper and Dan Rather for #4 as the journalist they most admired.

The Daily Show is my go to source for television news. Stewart and his crew do a much better job than “real” journalists on calling politicians on their hypocrisy. The Times profile barely touches on Stewart’s agenda-setting effect; it isn’t uncommon to see hypocrisy exposed on his show get called out later in more traditional news shows.

Stewart is as tough, if not tougher, on journalists. His media criticism is often sharper than that of Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz. (Kurtz frequently uses clips from The Daily Show on his CNN program Reliable Sources.)

The show has also changed my expectations of the late night talk show. I find that I’m disappointed when the interview segment is an actor, instead of an author or politician.

The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are ahead of many in the old media when it comes to presenting video content on the Web. After a slow start, this year’s upgrades to the Web site show that they really get the new world of audience interaction and content delivery. Full episodes of each show are available the day after broadcast. You can scroll back through previous episodes. Videos can be embedded on Web sites. Want to see that clip everyone is talking about? The search feature lets you easily find it. You can even find shows going back years. Unfortunately, there’s no way to get video from a specific date years ago.

The Times could learn from them. The nearly 3,000 word story includes two pictures and not a single video. The author describes a few segments, including an extended description of Stewart’s first post 9/11 broadcast, which scream for video. (The video is available on

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