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Update: Groupon has pulled the controversial ad campaign described here.

I’m a big fan of Christopher Guest. He has wrote and directed several great films, popularizing the “mockumentary” genre. This is Spinal Tap is one of his highly-acclaimed films. He has also directed many commercials, some of which feature his regular troupe of actors, those appearing in films like Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman. Chris was behind the 2010 census commercials, which also appeared during a Super Bowl.

This year, Christopher Guest directed the controversial Groupon ads. In spots that begin as if they were promoting celebrity-endorsed charities, the actors reveal that the sentiment behind their appearance is related to saving money on a frivolous deal. Saving 50% at a Himalayan restaurant may be a great deal for those who have the money in the first place, but perhaps setting the audience up for a sincere plea to help the people of Tibet was tasteless.

Groupon, its ad agency, and Guest developed a series of commercials playing on this theme. In addition to an ad featuring Timothy Hutton in a Himalayan restaurant, Cuba Gooding, Jr. feigned saving the whales in favor of saving money on a whale-watching excursion and Elizabeth Hurley began to impress upon the Super Bowl audience the importance of stopping deforestation but changed direction to extol a discount on Brazilian waxing.

Usually, Christopher Guest’s offensiveness is lighthearted or silly; the juxtaposition of the idea that celebrities often use their voices and popularity to bring attention to an important issue with the idea that you can save a few bucks off of your exotic dinner could be too dry for a mainstream audience. I think the subject of celebrity endorsement is perfect for a guest-style mockumentary — or at least a Saturday Night Live sketch (Guest has written many), but in the ad agency’s attempt to entertain a mainstream audience, they missed the mark by far.

Here are some reactions from Twitter:

  • “I feel bad for poor Timothy Hutton. That will probably kill what is left of his career.”
  • “For shame, Timothy Hutton, for shame.” (@SeanCamoni)
  • “First person to make me a ‘Timothy Hutton Hates Tibet’ t-shirt wins my undying appreciation.” (@mattsinger)
  • “I don’t think the @groupon spot was in poor taste. They just reminded people of something in a way they didn’t wanna be reminded. With humor.” (@JoeWescott)

What do you think of the ads? Here is the first commercial, featuring actor Timothy Hutton:

Whatever you think of the commercials, Groupon succeeded in getting the country talking about its brand. I write about saving money here, but this may be the first time I’ve mentioned Groupon on Consumerism Commentary. I’m not normally a big fan of the concept of “saving money by spending it;” this and other couponing tools are generally just an excuse for people to buy things they don’t need anyway.

Overall, the set of commercials this year was a big disappointment. The most I’ll say is that the Darth Vader commercial was cute, but I don’t remember what car brand was featured, so it was not nearly as effective as Groupon’s ads. This year, I didn’t particularly care for either team in the game, so I was hoping for some better entertainment between the plays. The half-time show was disappointing from a technical standpoint, and the commercials were neither innovative nor entertaining. What did you think?

(Continue reading for the other Groupon commercials featuring Elizabeth Hurley and Cuba Gooding, Jr. or provide your response below.)

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In the movie Clerks, the convenience store cashier, Dante, occasionally takes a break from manning the counter. Rather than ensuring every customer paid for his or her items, he leaves a sign: “Please leave money on the counter. Take change when applicable. Be honest.” Dante believes customers assume they are being watched and will leave the correct amount.

While this scenario is just a movie, the upper-scale fast food chain Panera is experimenting with a similar approach. The company may not have been inspired by Clerks; more likely, they are taking a page from museums or parks where admission may be free but the facilities list a suggested donation. At one location in Missouri, Panera is taking the “non-profit” approach. The idea is customers pay what they can for a meal, based on the suggested price. In theory, rich people pay more and poor people pay less — or nothing at all.

According to the restaurant, 60% to 70% of customers pay the suggested price, 15% pay more, and 15% pay less or take their meals for free. The store does not seem to be attracting the area’s poor in large numbers as one might expect from an establishment offering basically free food, like a soup kitchen.

The store has not covered its costs yet, but the management expects it will within months. “Non-profit” doesn’t mean that the company doesn’t earn money above its expenses. An organization needs to make money to survive. Is a non-profit fast food restaurant a sound business idea? If you are a business owner, would you take the chance of giving your services for free by allowing your customers to pay what they wish?

Panera is taking the chance, relying on honesty and on the kindness of rich strangers to subsidize the poor or those who just don’t want to pay. They will be opening more of these restaurants where diners are free to leave as much or as little as they want in exchange for their meals.

Photo: bgottsab
Panera to open more pay-what-you-wish restaurants, Christopher Leonard, Associated Press, June 2010

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Ninety-three years is a long time to live. My paternal grandmother was that age when she passed away this past Saturday. I attended her funeral, a graveside service, earlier this week. She lived in Florida, but she was flown up to Long Island to be buried with her husband, who died in 1968.

A couple of weeks ago, my maternal grandmother entered hospice care, with the doctors offering a prognosis of days or weeks, maybe months, due to Parkinson’s disease and, I believe, complications after hip surgery. She lives in California and is in her mid-eighties, and since receiving the news I’ve been mentally and logistically planning to travel out to the west coast at any time with one day’s notice.

I was then surprised when I heard from my father this past weekend that his mother had also entered hospice care. While my mother’s mother continues to have bad days and somewhat better days but is surviving, my father’s mother passed away after one day. My family in Florida held a ceremony for her on Monday, and more family in New York was on hand on Tuesday for the burial. This quick pace is not uncommon; Jewish funerals typically occur quickly, without a wake or viewing.

Occasions like these often bring together distant relatives who have been out of contact, and this Tuesday was no different. It was great to see relatives and friends of the family I had not seen in decades and meet other friends and relatives.

I wasn’t involved in the financial aspects of this event, but it was apparent that a funeral can be a very expensive event. Despite the morbidity of the though, a funeral should be financially planned. In our case, the plot was purchased a long time ago, when prices were surely much lower than they are now. In my grandmother’s case, I would imagine the transportation from Florida to New York was the most expensive part of the day.

How much does a funeral cost?

The National Funeral Directors Association conducts a survey every year or so to gather information about the cost of funerals across the country. As you would imagine, the costs increase every year. The 2006 survey produced these averages for itemized funeral services:

Item Price
Non-declinable basic services fee $1,595
Removal/transfer of remains to funeral home $233
Embalming $550
Other preparation of the body $203
Use of facilities/staff for viewing $406
Use of facilities/staff for funeral ceremony $463
Use of a hearse $251
Use of a service car/van $120
Basic memorial printed package $119
Subtotal without Casket: $3,940
Metal Casket $2,255
Subtotal with Casket: $6,195
Vault $1,128
Total Cost $7,323

The cemetery where my grandmother is now buried also has a yearly fee for keeping the plot tidy but has an alternative option for “perpetual care.” Perpetual care is a one-time fee, currently $2,000 at this particular cemetery, that covers trimming the hedges and other landscaping.

The Federal Trade Commission requires funeral directors to provide itemized prices for all services related to the funeral, so make sure you ask as many questions as possible.

Planning for a funeral

In 1968, when my paternal grandfather died, the average total funeral cost was $708; in 2006, the average total cost was $6,195.

One of the best ways you can help those you leave behind afford this expense, if you can manage to help, is to set aside money to care for the events surrounding your own death. In the real world, there are many things that can get in the way of this planning such as the cost of health care. Even though there are often financial obstacles as you age, any consideration will help your family.

The first thing you could do, if and when you have settled down to live in a certain area, is purchase a plot in a cemetery that fits your family’s tradition or religion. Buying the plot in advance will save money down the road as the cost of plots and practically everything else associated with a funeral increases at a rate higher than inflation.

If it is not offensive to you, or your religion, cremation is a less expensive option. Consider cremation if this is aligned with your personal values.

Don’t forget to comparison shop. If you want until it’s too late, there may be pressure to make decisions quickly. This increases the chances of spending money unnecessarily.

For those looking to cut costs on a funeral, Christopher Solomon has suggestions for planning a funeral for $800 or less.

Coming to terms with mortality

I never said William Shatner is a great singer. His first album, The Transformed Man, established his status in music history as not a great singer. But paired with Ben Folds for the more recent Has Been, he came up with the poignant “You’ll Have Time,” which reminds us all that we are going to die at some point. “Live life like you’re gonna die, because you’re going to…”

There’s never been a better reason to stop procrastinating.

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In addition to the Bill in the U.S. House that may see a vote as early as next week, the new rules by the Fed that won’t go into effect until July 2010 (unless voluntarily by individual banks), and yesterday’s meeting between the president and 13 top bank executives in which he urged them to act less like predators, there’s one more bit of news about credit cards this week.

From Bloomberg.com:

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd and Senator Chuck Schumer, saying credit-card providers are “aggressively” raising interest rates, asked the Federal Reserve to immediately limit interest rate increases on existing balances.

We’ve previously reported on the recent aggressive tactics of credit card companies:

So you can be sure we’ll keep a close eye on this latest request of the Federal Reserve. Does it comply with the spirit of the “free market?” Absolutely not. Will it save many Americans from tipping over into bankruptcy or homelessness? We might just find out.

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FDIC Might Be Underfunded: Should You Withdraw Your Money From Banks?

by Luke Landes

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the federal organization that insures that customers do not lose deposits held at banks when those banks run into trouble, is finding itself in trouble. For years, Congress hasn’t allowed the FDIC to collect insurance premiums from banks, bowing to the strong banking industry lobby. Now that banks have ... Continue reading this article…

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Senate Amendment to 2009 Stimulus Bill: Moratorium on Foreclosures

by Luke Landes

As Barack Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus plan makes its way through Congress, the Senate is taking the opportunity to modify the bill with the intent of providing assistance to the lagging housing market. Rather than allow the market to continue correcting itself, the government would like to encourage consumers to jump into the market, allowing ... Continue reading this article…

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Carnival of Debt Reduction #141: Enemies of the Doctor

by Luke Landes

Welcome to Consumerism Commentary for the 141st edition of the Carnival of Debt Reduction! This carnival is a traveling showcase of the best articles about the process of eliminating debt. Submissions are normally accepted from one week prior to the release of the edition and come from various blogs. The theme for this week is ... Continue reading this article…

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Getting Paid $100,000 to Watch TV and Blog

by Luke Landes

One lucky guy is getting paid $100,000 for one year to be the Vice President of the “Dukes of Hazzard Institute.” This position was created as a contest by Country Music Television to hype The Dukes of Hazzard television show on the Internet. Here’s the original “job posting.” Basically, the job’s responsibilities include watching reruns ... Continue reading this article…

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