Top 10 work movies

The nominees for this year’s Academy Awards feature whimsy and fantasy, wartime adventures and family dramas. These movies may be praiseworthy, but they largely lack any perspective on the things that occupy most viewers’ daily lives: impersonal cubicles, tedious commutes, the chances of promotion.

We, therefore, have assembled an alternate list of deserving films that offers a peek into what it is to be a worker, striving for career advancement and negotiating all the hurdles along the way. And be warned, we’ve got some dark horse picks that you might not have even considered “work” movies, so make sure you click all the way to the end.

This list was published on Salary.com on February 23, 2012. Visit Salary.com to see the entire list.

Must-flee TV

Sexism? Check. Glorified greed? Check. Annoying avians? Double check. Yes, this year’s 10 worst television ads manage to incorporate all the old favorites.

It may not be possible, however, to pinpoint precisely what qualities transform a run-of-the-mill bad commercial into something truly terrible. A willingness to offend large swathes of the viewing public seems to be part of the equation, as does a general lack of concern for whether a spot makes much sense.

But perhaps, what is true of the best ads is also true of the worst: Creating them just requires a certain kind of genius.

And so, without further ado, I give you the 10 worst ads of 2011:

10. The product: Klondike mint chocolate chip bars

The ad: Shlubby everyman Mark agrees to listen to his wife for (gasp!) an entire five seconds, a feat that earns him a Klondike mint chocolate chip bar and the attentions of two ladies in tight, short dresses. “I did it! I did it!” he exults, as his wife sits on the couch, looking confused.

Why it is horrible: Men dislike marriage! Women should wear short skirts and bear frozen treats and not, you know, talk! The insulting gender assumptions — about both men and women — are transparent, heavy-handed and profoundly trite.

9. The product: Dairy Queen

The ad: A leering, mustachioed spokesman extols the virtues of Dairy Queen’s ongoing quest for excellence. The company turned soft serve into the Blizzard, he tells us, and the full-sized Blizzard into the miniature version of the frozen treat. It also upgraded garden-variety rabbits into “old-fashioned shaving bunnies.” Why? Because at Dairy Queen, “good isn’t good enough.”

Why it is horrible: Quirk can work, but only when an ad strikes precisely the right tone. Dairy Queen, it is safe to say, did not. The spokesman’s attitude is so aggressively lecherous that it doesn’t make me want a Blizzard, it just makes me feel vaguely dirty about the Blizzards I have previously enjoyed.

8. The product: Target’s 2-Day sale

The ad: A woman in a red tracksuit, blond hair pulled into a tight ponytail, “trains” for Target’s two-day Black Friday sale: She does curls with fully loaded shopping baskets, runs sprints in the aisles of the store, and gives herself a pep talk in front of the mirror, assuring herself that “You will win this.”

Why is is horrible: Though this same spot came in at #7 on the 2010 list, it is back by popular demand. Upon hearing I was compiling this list, my friends and family brought up this ad with a speed, consistency and vehemence (the words “annoying” and “obnoxious” came up more than once) that made it impossible to ignore.

7. The product: State Farm insurance

The ad: As Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers shakes hands with his local State Farm insurance agent, a couple come up to thank the agent for performing a “discount double check” on their policies. At the same time, they make a gesture with their hands as if tracing belts around their waists. Rodgers identifies the move as his touchdown dance; the couple scoffs at his claim that he is a quarterback. The ad ends with a frantic cheese-hatted man knocking on the front window of the office, yelling Rodgers’ name and making the abdominal gesture.

Why it is horrible: This commercial makes me think that State Farm signed Aaron Rodgers as a celebrity spokesman but then couldn’t figure out what to do with him. How could Rodgers’ celebratory touchdown move conceivably represent a careful search for discounts? And if the main joke is supposed to be that the couple fails to recognize the famous athlete, why end the spot with a character who clearly knows exactly who Rodgers is (if not what his move represents)? Nothing about this commercial makes sense; it makes the list for its sheer incoherence.

6. The product: AFLAC

The ad: The AFLAC duck is joined by people, a pigeon, some frogs and a worm to perform what I will loosely describe as a rap about the benefits of the insurance product.

Why it is horrible: If you’ve seen this commercial, then four words of explanation should suffice: “Major medical, boy, yeah.”

5. The product: Summer’s Eve cleansing wash and cloths

The ad: This ad is titled, “Hail to the V,” and if you know what Summer’s Eve is, then, yes, “the V” is what you think it is. It is, the commercial tells us “the cradle of life … the center of civilization.” These tributes to, sigh, “the V” play over a backdrop of epic scenes: an ancient civilization cheering its ruler, men fighting as the damsels for whom they battle watch from the sidelines.

Why it is horrible: This ad purports to be about empowerment, about stirring women to love and respect their, um, anatomy. Why? Well, because “men have fought for it, even died for it.” And if men care about it that much, then you probably should too. And how should you care? By worrying that it is gross and unseemly and needs special products to care for it.

4. The product: Pepsi MAX

The ad: A young pair sits in a restaurant on a first date. As she looks at him, she wonders how much money he makes, if he’ll lose his hair and if he’s The One. As he looks at her, he thinks about how much he’d like to sleep with her. That is, until the waiter serves the young lady a Pepsi MAX, at which point the calorie-free cola becomes the new object of the gentleman’s lust.

Why it is horrible: What makes this spot truly troubling is the fact that it was one of the winners of the “Crash the Super Bowl” contest, which awards promising user-generated content with an ad slot during the big game. If the creators of this sexist cliche are what pass for exciting new talent in the ad world, then the industry is in very serious trouble.

3. The product: Lexus

The ad: A husband and wife — clearly an urbane, affluent pair — head out of their apartment on the way to some social engagement or other. As they ride down the elevator, the Lexus holiday theme song starts playing. The man’s ears perks up. He gives her a glance that says, “Really?” Her look responds, “Yes. Aren’t I awesome?” They emerge from the elevator to the sight of a shiny new Lexus, replete with — you guessed it — a giant red bow.

Why it is horrible: Perhaps 99.9 percent of those who view this ad would never consider buying their spouse a car for Christmas. Most of us would incur wrath rather than delight if we unilaterally chose to spend $50,000 of household income on a surprise luxury car. And there is something insufferably smug about the way the ad assumes the little Lexus jingle incites raptures in all those who hear it.

2. The product: eBay

The ad: A family gathers around the piano to sing “The 12 Days of Christmas.” When day number 5 comes around, a teenage girl sings that she would like “five new tops,” then goes on to explain, in sing-song detail, that last year’s gifts simply weren’t up to standard and that she really hopes everyone stuck to her list this year. Aunt Carla storms off in disgust.

Why it is horrible: Yes, overly earnest holiday ads can be cloying, but eBay goes a little too far in the opposite direction by defining “Christmas spirit” as behaving like a grasping brat, insulting your relatives and ruining everyone’s caroling.

1. The product: Groupon

The ad: In Groupon’s first ever Super Bowl ad, scenic shots of the Himalayas appear, as a voiceover by Timothy Hutton intones gravely about the dangers facing Tibetan culture. But, he informs us, they still whip up an amazing fish curry, that he got for a low, low price because of a Groupon deal he got! No, really. Groupon glibly and dismissively taunted efforts to preserve the heritage of Tibet. On TV. During the Super Bowl.

Why it is horrible: It kind of speaks for itself, doesn’t it? In fact, the spot was so universally reviled that it was pulled less than a day after its first airing.

This story appeared in the Cape Cod Times on December 11, 2011. Read the original at Capecodonline.com.

Best-selling author of ‘Liar’s Poker’ turns his attention to Wall Street

Ten years ago, few people were familiar with terms such as “subprime mortgage” and “credit default swaps.” Fewer still understood how they worked and the astounding potential they had to undermine the country’s entire financial framework.

It is those perceptive few who did understand — and the journey their insights took them on — that Michael Lewis (“The Blind Side,” “Liar’s Poker”) chronicles in his latest book, “The Big Short.” He focuses on the leaders of three small financial companies, all of whom realized early on that something was profoundly awry with the subprime mortgage business and the way the loans were being packaged and sold off to investors. Lewis traces the men from their first inkling that something was very, very wrong on Wall Street to their reactions when the economic meltdown proved them very, very right.

He begins by introducing his main characters: Steve Eisman, the tactless skeptic who regularly alienated more conventional bankers; Michael Burry, whose Asperger’s Syndrome makes him both awkward and obsessive; and brash and boastful Greg Lippmann.

The portraits Lewis paints of these men are appealing, threaded through with colorful anecdotes and telling, well-written details. At a Japanese dinner during a conference in Las Vegas, for example, Eisman double-dips his edamame as he talks with an investment manager “with a Wall Street belly … the discreet, necessary pouch of a squirrel just before winter.”

Lewis follows these figures (and several others) as they discover the weaknesses in the subprime machine and figure out how to exploit them by buying credit default swaps, essentially insurance policies that pay off if the mortgages go bad. We watch as they wait anxiously to see if their bets (the “big short” of the title) pay off.

Lewis works with a fine brush, parsing each move, outlining each actor’s emotions as the markets evolve, detailing the reactions of the financial mainstream to the unconventional and pessimistic ideas pushed by these outsiders.

As he goes, Lewis — who worked as an investment advisor for Salomon Brothers in the 1980s — also provides a basic course in mortgages, securities and the machinations of the bond market. His explanations are lucid and helpful, guiding the uninitiated through a complicated tale of balance sheets and market movements. At one point, when Lewis explained the nature of the synthetic collateralized debt obligation, I even scribbled in the margins “My mind has been officially blown.”

What is troublesome about Lewis’ account, however, is the way he describes — or fails to describe — the moral dimensions of his characters’ actions. He gives full vent to their moral indignation at the careless ways of many big Wall Street banks. After the conference in Las Vegas, Eisman and his associates wonder “Do (subprime bond traders) deserve merely to be fired, or should they be put in jail?”

And Lewis repeatedly shares his subjects’ thoughts about their own heroism. Lippmann, Lewis writes, saw these investments as a battle between the “Wall Street machine” and “his noble army of short sellers.”

The problem is that even the short sellers were, undeniably, also cogs in the machine. Investment firms made money by letting Eisman and Burry and their ilk buy insurance on subprime loans. In some cases, the very insurance bought by those on the short side was repackaged into new securities and sold yet again to overconfident investors. Lewis acknowledges as much when he writes “Wall Street needed (Eisman’s) bets in order to synthesize more of them.”

And yet the book raises no questions about the ethics of making deals that kept the gears of the machine spinning. Lewis indulges his subjects’ moral righteousness but ignores the ethical dimensions of their own choices. Near the end, when one man hints at moral uncertainty, he is quickly dismissed.

That is not to say that the two sides of this matter are ethically equivalent; in a situation as complicated as this financial crisis, there are no easy answers.

But “The Big Short” would have been a much stronger book had Lewis at least asked the questions.

This review was published in the Cape Cod Times on May 16, 2010. Read the review and an excerpt from the book at CapeCodOnline.com.