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Lessons in Marketing: A Look at the Cafe 50s Calendar

January 5, 2012

I live right around the corner from Cafe 50s, one of those gimmicky old timey diners oozing with nostalgia for more innocent times. They’ve got tableside oldies jukeboxes and servers in silly 50s costumes. The food’s not very good, but I can recommend the Sputnik. You’ll need to ask for your fries well done, or they come out of the kitchen limp and cold.

One of my main reasons for visiting is to pick up a copy of the Cafe 50s newsletter, a four page xeroxed labor of love filled with corny jokes, trivia questions and endless pitches to return for another greasy meal. By far the oddest feature is the monthly calendar which pairs important dates in history with the daily specials. Some of these juxtapositions are truly bizarre.

February 5th: 1968 France escalates the war in Algeria. Sweet potato pancakes…YUM!

February 6th: 1953 The New Soviet Encyclopedia says Israel does not exist. Magician: Zach 11am-2pm

February 9th: 1950 Senator Joe McCarthy claims he has a list with 205 communists in Govt. Kids eat FREE w/ Adult meal.

November 4th: 1956 Soviet tanks crush popular uprising in Hungary. Fish & Chips only $8.97.

November 19th: 1950 Red Cross announces it will no longer label Blood Donations with “race of donor.” FREE MAGIC: David. FREE a la mode with all slices of cake and pie.

These odd attempts at spinning history into marketing opportunities, and their terse economy of language, remind me of some of the corporate Twitter follies we’ve witnessed in the past year. Fashion company Kenneth Cole got in trouble last February when their social media rep used the Egyptian revolution to promote their spring collection.

Microsoft was busted for shameless opportunism twice, first for using the Japanese earthquake to promote brand awareness for Bing and next for using the death of Amy Winehouse to promote sales of her music at their Zune site.

Even sex toy maker Fleshlight got in on the action, offering to send Seal Team Six a complimentary case of its male masturbation sleeves as thanks for shooting Osama bin Laden in the face.

As more companies invest in social media, I predict we’ll see many more incidents of corporate Twitter FAIL. Social media is one of the few growth industries and there are jobs aplenty for a generation who’ve cut their teeth on Myspace, Facebook and Twitter. Taking risks and capitalizing off the ephemera of the daily feed, these guerilla marketers will have a hard time detecting the line between clever piggybacking and crass opportunism. Even if they step over that line, they’re guaranteed to generate controversy for their brands, and thus more free publicity. I doubt that the Kenneth Cole marketing drone behind that Cairo tweet is going hungry.

What’s truly entertaining about the Cafe 50s calendar, by contrast, is its total ignorance of propriety in marketing around world events. Its author doesn’t even know there is a line to be crossed. What does the French war on Algeria have to do with potato pancakes? How do Kruschev and Stalin sell a fresh fish dinner in 2011? We’re already there for the strawberry shakes so why are they reminding us of the Panama Canal riots of 1959? Who knows?

In an odd way, the Cafe 50s calendar defeats the nostalgic atmosphere the restaurant tries so desperately to evoke. Rather than draw us back in time to a kitschy replica of the 50s, it confronts us with The Cold War, the Red Scare, racism, colonialism and other social ills of the era.

The well-paid charlatans of social media hijack the hashtags, hoping to distract us from history in the making so that we’ll click through to their crappy products. Meanwhile, the Cafe 50s calendar intrudes on our fantasy 50s comfort food with the blunt facts of history. It’s like a surcharge. A tax on our nostalgia.

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