Email newsletters remain a great way to get peoples’ attention

by Paul Sullivan of Breakthrough Communications

All the current talk about social media usually centers around Twitter, FaceBook and YouTube, and the old standby e-newsletter is increasingly overlooked.

Because it has been around for what seems like forever, e-mail doesn’t get the respect it deserves among marketers these days, but it’s still an incredibly powerful communications source.

Consider: According to Email Marketing Reports, the world’s Internet users send out 247 billion emails a day.

In the time it takes to read this sentence, 20 million emails will be sent.

And if you think email usage is on the wane, think again. The Radicati Group estimates there are 2.9 billion email accounts in 2010, growing to 3.8 billion by 2014.

According to a May 2010 survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 62 per cent of American Internet users go on line everyday to read and send emails. And if you’re like me, you do it 30 times a day from desktop, laptop and mobile.

So, email remains the most ubiquitous form of communication on the planet. If you want people to read your magazine, you have a pretty good idea where to find them: reading their email.

Email newsletters remain a great way to get peoples’ attention. They are relatively easy to put together and by using a mail program such as Constant Contact, you can comply with the best practices governing email communication, which prevents your work from ending up in the junk mail folder, at the same time giving you the power to monitor the number of people who opened, responded or rejected your newsletter.

Think about your e-newsletter as an online shop window, where you’re able to display the unique contents of your editorial vision and voice, a sampler of all the good things available in your magazine, both on your website and on the newsstand.

Of course, there are e-newsletters and there are e-newsletters. Fortunately, Min’s e-newsletter of 2010 is a magazine newsletter we can all learn from. It’s called Talk of the South, and it’s the twice weekly e-newsletter of Garden & Gun Magazine, which also gets my award for weirdest magazine title yet.

G&G, says Min, gets it. Successful social media is powered by word of mouth, and one of the most powerful peer-to-peer recommendations has to be: “Did you see this?” Talk of the South is a “Did you see this?” machine, and fascinating stories about Southern living are its product.

You owe it to yourself to visit Talk of the South if only to ogle the photo of the cheeseburger featured in “The Most Southern Restaurant Ever”. At least take a look before you start in on your New Year’s health and resolutions.

Don’t be surprised if you find yourself contemplating a pilgrimage to Charleston, South Carolina to visit Husk restaurant and devour one in person.

The content of Talk of the South is not repurposed from the magazine, which means the first time anyone sees it is when it turns up in the Inbox. The voice is that of a friend who has discovered something wonderful and just has to share it with you, preferably over a pulled port sandwich at Husk. Unlike too many e-newsletters, Talk of the South is not some half-hearted utilitarian effort, but always features a big, gorgeous magazine photo, with a story synopsis that invites the reader to drill deeper into the magazine site. It’s an invite that’s tough to resist.

A completely different approach, but one that’s equally catchy is CNET’s Cheapskate and his Deal of the Day. When you get hundreds of emails a day, it’s easy to miss some or let them fall through the cracks, even the ones that make it past the spam filter. But I defy any red-blooded male (or female for that matter) to resist the following subject line: “Get a 50-inch plasma HDTV for $668 shipped.” (Read more)

The Cheapskate understands that everyone wants a bargain, and it makes sense that people who sign up for email newsletters are particularly receptive to tech deals, so a tech deal alert of the day makes sense for that audience.

E-newsletters encourage email users to interact with your web site on a periodic basis, and work particularly well for maintaining the loyalty of current readers. But they also work for drawing new customers especially when you have a built-in team of “Have you seen this?” advocates who will forward links to their like-minded friends and colleagues.

It’s a simple enough editorial imperative. Be it a cheeseburger to die for or an incredibly cheap 50-inch HDTV, all you have to do is come up with a topic that will promote word of mouth and will get people beating a path to your magazine or your advertiser. According to Min, the Talk of the South has led so much traffic to featured e-commerce sites “it’s burned a few servers and saved a few small businesses.” Not the least of them being Garden & Gun magazine.

As you’re building your word of mouth e-newsletter, make sure to keep a couple of tips in mind.

The subject line has to capture the reader’s attention. “Get a 50-inch plasma HDTV for $668 shipped” fits that criterion nicely.

Respect the spam filter. Avoid unnecessary punctuation. Exclamation marks, all capital letters, trigger words such as “free” and “weight loss”, and spelling mistakes will get your email consigned to the junk file.

In terms of content, keep it useful and accessible. If you open a channel with your readers, then assault them with subscription and advertising messages, they’ll close it pretty quickly. Education – how-to articles, tips and exclusive industry reports – identify you and your brand as an expert. And if you get the voice right, you become that magical word of mouth magician: the expert friend.

The expert friend is even better than the expert, because he or she understands you better, and recommendations come with empathy, enthusiasm and relevance.

Like this one. For all you dog lovers out there, have you seen this? It’s Talk of the South’s Good Dog photo contest. Check out Molly, the winner of the Dogs Being Dogs Category in G&G’s Most Popular Photos of 2010 newsletter.

Now that’s an effective marketing campaign. Some dog, too.

The Art of the Sound Bite

by Martin Livingston of Breakthrough Communications

The essential ingredients of any presentation, whether it’s a speech, podcast or media interview, are key messages – those essential points you want your audience to take away from the story.  But giving a presentation or landing an interview means nothing if you don’t have anything memorable to say.  Making your points stick requires coming up with quotable quotes or catchy sound bites that evoke vivid images and engage your audience.

How do you develop a punchy sound bite to support your key message?  By using one or more of the following techniques to bring your points to life:

Analogies and Metaphors : Analogies and metaphors are powerful tools for painting distinctive visual images that stick in someone’s mind.

One of my favourite quotes was coined during the 1987 stock market crash, when one commentator aptly stated “predicting the market bottom was like trying to catch falling knives.”

A BC mining executive interviewed by a Business in Vancouver reporter about the chronic skills shortage facing the industry skilfully made his point with the sound bite: “We’re living on the fumes of our talent from 15 and 20 years ago.”

Lamenting on her lingering fondness for the political arena, B.C. Liberal Leadership candidate Christie Clark told BC Business Magazine that leaving politics was like breaking up with a boyfriend.  “In the first six months after you leave, you still remember the reasons why you left.  And then a couple of years down the road … you’re thinking, God, that guy was great! I miss him so much!’  And you pick up the phone and dial.”

In all cases, the speaker effectively employed an analogy or metaphor as a hook to get their point across.

Bold Action Words: All too often, interview subjects water down the impact of their statement by prefacing their comments with “I think” or “I feel.”  When you talk, be direct.  Use colourful words expressing action and dynamic verbs that paint a picture or express action to get your point across.

Emotion: People respond better to emotion than factual information. One of the best ways of connecting with an audience is by building bridges to their emotions.   U.S. President Barack Obama tugged at the heart strings of Americans during a recent memorial service for victims of the tragic Arizona shooting.  Referring  to nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green, Obama poignantly recounted the innocence of the young victim with the passage:  “If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today.”  Take a page from Obama’s book.  Identify your audience’s emotional  triggers and engage those emotions with anecdotes and colourful sound bites people can relate to, so your words resonate in the hearts and minds of the audience.

Clichés: The much maligned cliché may seem corny, but it has a way of sticking in people’s minds particularly if you add a twist to it.  Commenting on a political opposition party’s internal problems and inability to capitalize on the crisis facing the government in power, one pundit pointed out that the opposition party ” seemed intent on snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”

Organizers of the 2011 RBC GranFondo Kelowna cycling event, which followed the highly successful RBC GranFondo Whistler, used a clever twist to the cliché “on the heels of” when announcing the Okanagan event  by proclaiming “On the wheels of the inaugural RBC GranFondo Whistler last month, organizers are now turning their attention to another BC cycling hotbed – Kelowna.”

Numbers: Numbers  are also useful for putting a message in context as long as you convey them in a manner people can relate to.   Telling a reporter that 69,000 Canadians die each year from heart disease just doesn’t have as much impact as  stating “Every seven minute in Canada, someone dies from heart disease or stroke.”

Similarly, most people simply can’t relate to the enormity of “millions” or “billions.”   If you’re talking about large numbers, put it in terms people get, such as “The city generates enough waste each month to fill three football stadiums.”  Numbers can be particularly challenging when discussing technical topics.  If you’re talking about levels of contamination in parts per billion, for instance, follow it with an example that’s easy to grasp such as “That’s the equivalent of adding half a teaspoon of salt into a Olympic size swimming pool.”

Rhetorical Questions: A rhetorical question, posed for its persuasive effect without the expectation of a reply, can also make a strong impression.  An individual talking about the difficulty in getting information from government may state:  “Disclosure of records from City Hall has become glacially slow.  What are they trying to hide? ” which encourages the listener to consider what the obvious answer to the question must be.

While sound bites are useful, don’t overuse them.  Try to state your thoughts in complete self-contained sentences keeping  your key messages simple and succinct. Sparingly sprinkle your interview with catchy sound bites at appropriate junctures to highlight important points.  Practice being sound bite savvy and you’ll spark more life into your presentation and leave a lasting impression with your target audience.

What we’re reading: What Palin Needed to Say After Giffords’ Shooting

Published on FrumForum by David Frum

The shooting in Arizona shocked the nation into grief – and presented Sarah Palin with an immediate political problem: her now-notorious gunsight map.

Palin scrubbed the map from her Palin PAC website, and then issued the following statement on her Facebook page: “My sincere condolences are offered to the family of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims of today’s tragic shooting in Arizona. On behalf of Todd and my family, we all pray for the victims and their families, and for peace and justice.”

Then, as Palin came under a barrage of criticism, Palin supporters stepped forward to offer defenses. The gunsights were not really gunsights. The criticism of Palin was unfair, even “obscene.”

And of course, Palin and her supporters had some justice on their side. Obviously, Palin never intended to summon people to harm Representative Giffords. There was no evidence that the shooter was a Palin follower, and in short order it became evident that he was actuated by a serious mental illness. Whatever you think about Palin’s “don’t retreat, reload” rhetoric, it could not be blamed for this crime.

So – argument won? No. Argument lost.

Palin failed to appreciate the question being posed to her. That question was not: “Are you culpable for the shooting?” The question was: “Having put this unfortunate image on the record, can you respond to the shooting in a way that demonstrates your larger humanity? And possibly also your potential to serve as leader of the entire nation?”

Here it seems to me are the elements of such an answer.

(1) Take the accusation seriously. That does not mean you accept the accusation, nor even that you explicitly acknowledge it. But understand why people – not all of them necessarily out to get you – might feel negatively about this past action in light of current events.

(2) Express real grief and sincere compassion. “My condolences are offered” is not the language of someone whose heart is much troubled.

(3) Be visible. They’re laying flowers at the congressional office of Gabrielle Giffords. Any reason you can’t join them?

(4) Join the conversation. You have often complained about out-of-bounds personal comments directed toward you (eg, David Letterman’s). Now try to show toward others the same empathy that you demand from others. Innocent as you feel yourself to be, try to imagine how it must have felt to be Giffords during this past campaign season: guns showing up at her rallies, her offices vandalized, death threats – and your map as the finishing touch. Imagine how her family must feel. Speak to them.

(5) Challenge your opponents. In the past hours, many people have cited President Obama’s (borrowed) line about bringing a knife to a gun fight. They have a point! At the same time as you publicly commit to raise your game, invite your political opponents to raise theirs. Instead of deflecting the blame, share it.

(6) Raise the issue of mental health. Remember how you were going to be an advocate for children with special needs? Can’t more be done to intervene to help potentially dangerous schizophrenics – and to protect society from the risk of violence? (Read this by Dr. Sally Satel to start your thinking on the subject. ) The best way to underscore that Loughner was not motivated by Tea Party ideology is to remind them of what did impel him.

(7) Think what you would like – not your supporters – but your opponents to say about you. “She was tough, but never a hater.” “No matter how strongly she disagreed, she was always gracious.” “I might not agree with her answer, but I could see she had thought hard about it.” Then, having thought about it, go be that person.

(8) Last: suppose you were president right now. The country would want you to say something about this terrible crime. What is that something? Say it now.

Of course, Palin has yet to give the answer called for by events. Instead, her rapid response operation has focused on pounding home the message that Palin is innocent, that she has been unfairly maligned by hostile critics. Which in this case happened to be a perfectly credible message. And also perfectly inadequate. Palin’s post-shooting message was about Palin, not about Giffords. It was defensive, not inspiring. And it was petty at a moment when Palin had been handed perhaps her last clear chance to show herself presidentially magnanimous.

Should have kept hands off petting zoo

Urban Compass by Paul Sullivan published in Metro Vancouver

Whose idea was it anyway? What kind of person thinks it’s a good idea to shut down a kids’ petting zoo?

I don’t suppose it matters, now that the Stanley Park Children’s Farmyard has been shuttered, and all of its 122 piglets, bunnies, lambs, chicks and llamas have been dispersed to the barnyard equivalent of homeless shelters, but who would do such a thing?

Sorry kid, we’ve run up a $250,000 deficit. We have to shut it down.

Right. Here in a city where no one blinks at a $458-million roof for a stadium, where the mayor’s fancy-schmansy dedicated bike lanes cost $25 million.

Speaking of $250,000, that’s what it cost to prop up a dead tree further along Stanley Park Drive. Now we have the Zombie Hollow Tree that looks like kindling from hell and no bunnies for the kids.

Somehow we managed to save the Bloedel Conservatory from these blockheads, but we weren’t fast enough to keep the kids’ petting zoo alive. I mean, why preserve a place that fosters infant delight and kindness to animals when you can spend that money on slot machines for the new casino that will engulf the Plaza of Nations, that other vestige of old-fashioned thinking about racial harmony and global co-operation?

I’m starting to wonder if the park board should be called the anti-park board. When it’s not trying to shut down the conservatory or the kids’ petting zoo, it is solemnly slashing the budget for flowers. Who needs flowers anyway?

Of course, it may be that the little politicians are just being bullied by the big politicians. Gregor Robertson looks around for a little spare cash and steals the park board’s lunch money so he can build another concrete barricade right in the middle of a busy street, just to see what happens.

Still, someone is responsible. Someone said: “Let’s shut down the kids’ petting zoo.” It was bad enough that everyone else went along with it. Obviously, not all the sheep are in the barn. But I feel sorry for the person who started it. Has that person never been a kid? Never cuddled a bunny?

That person needs to get a life. In fact, that person should visit all the daycares in town and explain to the little kids why it was such a good idea to shut down the petting zoo.

It won’t save the petting zoo, but it might save a couple of flowers in time for spring.

What we’re reading: Americans Consuming More News, Thanks to the Internet [STATS]

Originally published in Mashable/Tech, by Lauren Indvik

After falling off in the late ’90s, news consumption in the U.S. is on the rise again thanks to the availability of news on online and mobile channels, a new study from the Pew Research Center has revealed.

A survey of 3,006 adults found that while consumption of traditional news has decreased modestly (less than a third said they’d read a newspaper the day before, compared nearly half a decade earlier, while consumption of radio news fell from 43% to 31%, and TV remained steady), the number of people who claimed to have gotten news from an online source in the last 24 hours rose from 24% to 31% over the last decade — 44% if you include mobile devices, e-mail, social networks and podcasts. Only 9% said they received news from Internet (Internet) and mobile alone.

Despite online media’s significant growth, those numbers will seem surprisingly low to those who get the majority of their news online. I have personally only purchased one newspaper in the past decade, and that was to scan a full-page ad Adobe took out in The Washington Post for Mashable (Mashable). It seems I’m not alone in that respect, as a mere 8% of adults under the age of 30 said they had read a print newspaper the day before they were surveyed.

Online Adding to Rather Than Replacing Traditional News

Significantly, online news is not replacing other traditional news forms (three quarters of those surveyed said they got their news yesterday from traditional media, and 36% said they absorbed news on both digital and traditional platforms) so much as providing additional outlets. As Americans adopt new technologies for accessing news, they consume more of it.

Although Americans are still averaging 57 minutes of news time from TVs, radios and newspapers per day, the same as they were a decade earlier, they are also spending an additional 13 minutes reading news online, increasing total news-reading time to 70 minutes each day. That doesn’t even include time spent perusing news on cellphones or other digital devices.

Significantly, the availability of news online and on mobile devices does not mean that more people are ingesting news — 17% of Americans still do not access news on a daily basis, the same as a decade earlier, the report found. Rather, those who already consumed news are simply consuming more of it.

Although one might expect the younger demographic to be fueling the increase in online news consumption, it’s actually those in the 30-64 age range that are pushing the growth. Fourty-four percent of those between 50 and 64 said they got news through one or more digital outlets yesterday, comparable to the 18-29 group at 48%. Unsurprisingly, only 23% of those 65 and older said they had accessed an online news source the day before.

Print News Consumption Continues to Decline

Printed newspapers experienced the sharpest decline in news readership over the past decade. Only one in four of those surveyed said they’d read a printed newspaper the day before, down from 30% two years ago and 38% in 2005. The number of online newspaper readers continues to grow, however, offsetting the overall decline in readership. Seventeen percent said they had read something on a newspaper’s website yesterday, up from 13% in 2008 and 9% in 2006, meaning that collective readership is situated at 37%, just two percentage points less than two years ago, but down 6% from 2006.

However, these numbers do not acknowledge those who accessed newspaper content indirectly through secondary sources, such as blogs, aggregators or search engines.

By and large, newspaper readers tend to be older, although the study found that the readership of some of the major national newspapers, including USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and especially The New York Times bucked this trend. More than half of the readers of USA Today and the WSJ are less than 50 years old, while 67% of the NYT’s readership is under 50. A whopping 34% of the NYT’s readers are younger than 30, more than a tenth above the national average of under-30-year-olds in the U.S. The report cites the news organization’s aggressive online strategy as the primary reason for its popularity among young adults.

Additional Findings

Pew uncovered several other interesting tidbits in its study, including the fact that significantly more men (50%) than women (39%) get news on digital platforms; but men and women are equally likely to get news via social networking sites, such as Twitter (Twitter), although most Facebook (Facebook) and Twitter users say they “hardly ever” get news there.

In addition, more consumers (33%) are regularly using search engines to get their news, up from 19% two years ago. And although 31% of adults access the Internet through mobile devices, only 8% claim to get news from there on a regular basis.

What do you think of the findings? How have your news consumption habits changed over the last decade?

What we’re reading: Internet Surpasses Television as Main News Source for Young Adults [STUDY]

originally posted on Mashable/Tech, written by Meghan Peters

The Internet is now the main national and international news source for people ages 18 to 29, a study from the Pew Research Center reports.

In 2010, 65% of people younger than 30 cited the Internet (Internet) as their go-to source for news, nearly doubling from 34% in 2007. The number who consider television as their main news source dropped from 68% to 52% during that time.*

Of all 1,500 American adults surveyed, 41% say they get their national and international news from the Internet, up 17% from 2007. Sixty-six percent cite television — down from 74% — indicating the trend is spreading among other age groups.

Forty-eight percent of those ages 30 to 59 cite the Internet as their main news source, up from 32% in 2007, while television went down from 71% to 63%. Though the number of those in the 51 to 64 age group who consider television their main news source (71%) is about the same, those who turn to the Internet (34%) is nearly equal to the number who cite newspapers (38%). The amount of people 65 and older who get their news from the Internet has risen from 5% to 14%, but television remains the chief source for 79% of respondents.

These numbers fall in line with the rise of the personalized news stream online. Both Facebook’s news feed and Twitter (Twitter) launched in summer 2006 but didn’t catch on until 2007. Both sites have seen explosive growth since 2008. Tweet counts have increased from 5,000 daily in 2007 to 90 million daily in 2010, while Facebook (Facebook) went from 30 million users in 2007 to more than 500 million users today.

In addition, the television viewership culture has shifted in the past few years. Between media streaming services on the web and, more recently, Internet-TV connection devices like Roku and Boxee (Boxee), people have more viewing options than ever before. With the ability to personalize what news and entertainment you consume, these television watching methods have become more desirable for many.

Which is your preferred news source? Internet or television? Tell us in the comments below.

*Figures add to more than 100% because respondents could volunteer up to two main news sources.

Let’s tone down the resolution ambition

Just Saying by Paul Sullivan published in Metro Canada

“Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbours, and let every new year find you a better man.” – Ben Franklin

I’m not sure if Ben Franklin invented New Year’s resolutions, but he invented everything else, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt.

Every year, I go looking for a better man to take my place, but for some reason I can never find one, so I try to improve on the current model: Paul 2.0.

Of course, I’m not the only one. Most of us are unwrapping our 2011 calendars with the same sense of deluded optimism. And if our optimism doesn’t seem deluded now, I’ll check in again on Dec. 31 and see how you feel.

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the top five New Year’s resolutions are: 1. lose weight; 2. pay off debt; 3. get in shape; 4. eat right; and 5. reduce stress.

All admirable goals. If you’re like me, you’ve probably achieved each and every one.

For example, I have no trouble losing weight. And even less trouble putting it back on again.
I pay off debt like crazy. I’m never without debt to pay off.

I’m in shape. Pear shape.

I eat right. And left. And sometimes with both hands at the same time.

And I reduce stress by overeating, retail therapy, and taking to the couch, preferably all three at once.

I can’t figure out why Paul 2.0 is so elusive. I have the blueprint, and if that doesn’t work, every talking head on the planet knows how to keep my New Year’s resolutions. All I have to do is …

Maybe it’s not you or me after all; maybe the resolutions are unrealistic. (Maybe? Have you ever met a successful resolution keeper? I didn’t think so.) We need less ambitious resolutions.

So, this year, I resolve never to turn left without signalling. I resolve to tie a double knot so my shoelaces don’t come undone. And, as a bonus resolution, I’m going to put the toilet seat back down.

Now these are resolutions that have a chance of being kept. If you think they lack a certain, um, resolve, let’s compare notes again Dec. 31 and see who kept what.

Let’s give the Father of All Resolutions the last word, this time on the whole idea of resolutions:

“Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.”

Next year, I might try that.

Olympic flame ignited patriotism

Just Saying by Paul Sullivan published in Metro Canada

You could write 2010 off as another year when bad things happened to good people.

That’s how it started, with the earthquake in Haiti, which gets more than its fair share of terrible disasters, natural and otherwise.

Meanwhile, bad people continued to do bad things: Hugh Hefner’s engagement to a woman 60 years his junior, for example. Or Lady Gaga’s meat dress: One giant leap for bad taste.

But 2010 was different enough to warrant a footnote in Sullivan’s Brief History Of The World. It all started with the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

The U.K. media were primed to slam dunk Vancouver right from the get-go. The Economist routinely picks Vancouver as the best city in world, which mystifies Londoners who have yet to hear the bad news about the British Empire.

It didn’t look good for the home team, faced with a tragic accident, melting venues and broken down buses. “The worst Olympics ever!” crowed the London crowd, prematurely, it turned out. By the end, John Furlong and VANOC had composed a triumph: Canada won a record number of gold medals; it stopped raining and Vancouver lifted its veil to an enchanted world. And if you believe Furlong, the Games broke even.

Furlong has earned the right to be believed. While the jackals were barking, he rallied his troops to overcome opening jitters. What started as the worst will be remembered as the best, and how’s that for a turn of events?

Canadians, even jaded hockey millionaires, dug deep into their reserves to come up with the performances of their lives. But speaking of deep, how about those Chilean miners? Somehow, 33 men survived 69 days buried deep under 700 metres of rock. Just writing the words sends chills up my spine. All 33 survived and emerged, dignity (almost) intact despite overwhelming media scrutiny. If that’s not a triumph of the will, I don’t know what is.

Magic comes in threes: Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, took on the might of the American Empire, which, while weakened by the foibles of Hugh Hefner and Lady Gaga, is still a formidable outfit. Assange struck a blow for freedom of expression, honesty and transparency, and seeing as the U.S. government is founded on those principles, at least in principle, there’s not much it can do. Except maybe try to get him convicted on trumped-up sex charges in Sweden.

I can hardly wait for the sequel. 2011? Bring it on.

One belief unites us all: Who doesn’t love a festival?

Just Saying by Paul Sullivan published in Metro Canada

’Tis a few days before Christmas and the Grinch is on the prowl.

Turns out the Grinch is a team at Simon Fraser University that has published the following anti-Christmas research: “Identity moderates the effects of Christmas displays on mood, self-esteem, and inclusion.”

According to the professors and their grad student Grinch accomplices, their research shows that “the pervasive presence of Christmas displays in December makes people who do not celebrate Christmas feel like they don’t belong, and it harms their emotional well-being.”

For those of us struggling to breathe under a seasonal avalanche of Bing Crosby, this is nothing new, but the closer you look at the actual experiment, the more you have to ask: Don’t these guys have anything better to do?

Here’s what they did — they put one group of students in a lab decorated with a 12-inch Christmas tree and another group in a lab with no tree. Then they asked them how they felt.
Subjects didn’t know they were in a study on the psychological effects of Christmas trees, but were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their mood. Moods varied depending on the presence of the tree and the background of the respondents. In the presence of the tree, Sikh and Buddhist respondents felt less sure about themselves and felt excluded from the university. Christian students reported a more positive mood.

Putting aside questions about the research (maybe 12-inch plastic trees are culturally depressing. Maybe Sikh and Buddhist students require much bigger trees to feel good?), this just encourages the brand of self-righteousness that blights the yuletide season annually.

Some killjoy kicks Christmas out of the mall in case someone might feel excluded. And now, they’ve got research to back them up. “Studies show …” they’ll proclaim, ignoring the fact it’s one study and one tree.

I wonder what would happen if the team put its subjects through the Halloween test. Or the Thanksgiving test. At some level, they’re all religious festivals, but they are also festivals.
I’m in favour of festivals. Thanks to multiculturalism, we keep adding them to the calendar: Hanukkah, Kwanzaa; Diwali; Narooz. If we keep this up, we can have a parade every day of the year. And how good is that?

The point is to use festivals to include people, not exclude them. We all believe different things, but if there’s one belief that unites us all, it’s simply this: Festivals are fun.

So, without prejudice, I offer the following greeting: Merry Christmas! (And happy holidays to everyone, even professors).

Vancouver and Toronto take different paths

Urban Compass by Paul Sullivan published in Metro Vancouver

This is a tale of two cities.

One is Vancouver, which wants to be the greenest city in the world. The mayor and his team of Visionaries are busy building homeless shelters, dedicated bike lanes and community gardens. They encourage residents to raise chickens and even keep bees at city hall.

Toronto, on the other hand, is going thataway. New Mayor Rob Ford considers cyclists “a pain in the ass” and the moment he was sworn in cancelled a vehicle levy, declaring “the war on the car” over. Ford has told more than one protester to “get a job,” and the only bees are in his bonnet, at least according to his critics.

Not too long ago, Toronto had, in David Miller, a mayor who was pretty much indistinguishable from our own Gregor the Good. Not that it seemed to do Toronto much good. A recent report shows the middle class is being squeezed out of Canada’s biggest city and low-income residents have increased to 53 per cent of the population.

The issues are much the same in both cities — only the well-heeled can inhabit their gleaming towers. At the same time, there are fewer well-paying jobs, so working families have to move to Maple Ridge or Langley near Vancouver, Brampton or Orangeville near Toronto. Everyone else ends up in substandard housing. Or on the street.

Rob Ford’s response to all this is to assemble a giant time machine and take everyone back to 1970, where cars ruled the road and the standard response to social unrest was: “Get a job.”

Here in Vancouver, it’s full speed ahead. We can’t get any more progressive, but that won’t stop us from trying.

So we have this giant, national social experiment and I hope I’m around long enough to see how it turns out. I just have to be careful when stepping off a downtown curb. Those bicycles are silent and deadly.

Who knows? Mayor Ford may be right — he’s certainly right wing — maybe the antidote to crime, homelessness, unemployment and other forms of urban decay is to “get a job.”

Or maybe the genie has been out of the bottle too long, and if we’re going to combat pollution, alienation, hopelessness and poverty, what better champion than the man from Happy Planet?

I get the feeling that it won’t be too long before the answer comes our way.

I just hope I’m in the right city at the right time.