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I thought I’d go out in search of authentic Italian culture and cuisine at Richmond’s Italian Festival this weekend. Unfortunately, I found neither. To be fair, there were a few booths serving passable pasta, but even the Italian sausage was quite a bit less than passable and quite a bit less than Italian.

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Worse still were the booths serving Hamburgers, Hot Dogs and Virginia’s Finest Barbecue. How did these vendors miss the fact that this was an Italian Festival? Maybe because the organizers also seemed to have missed the point. As I passed the Judo demonstrations and Patric (Patricio?) Henry, I just gave up. I was glad to see one or two faces that looked liked they actually knew what a Cannoli is, but when Ron Moody and the Centaurs started playing beach music, I knew I had to go.

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Contrast this with my trip to Philadelphia last weekend. (I compounded the fun by taking Amtrak, which is its own cultural experience.) In Philly, there is an Italian Market area where you can still find off-the-boat Italian Culture and food. Just eavesdropping in the restaurant was un-freaking-believable! But they still don’t make Sfingi like my Mom. The moral of the story? If you’re going to celebrate a culture, get it right! If I want to pretend I’m experiencing a European culture, I’ll go to Busch Gardens Europe, in Williamsburg.

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Today, we had a powerful and timely talk by our guest speaker Ambassador Robert Seiple, the first ever US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom and current President of the Council for America’s First Freedom.

Ambassador Seiple helped remind us of the critical role religious freedom played in the formation of the US and the price we all pay when that freedom is taken for granted.

Our session ended with a challenge: An assignment to help promote religious dialogue and respect through a campaign aimed at the general public.

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Our class explored unfamilair cultures through dress and habits this week, resulting in revealing and amusing storytelling. We also exchanged personal cultural maps. Learning about the many ways our cultural identities intersect in our lives. A link to more photos will be posted soon.

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I like to get up close and personal with popular culture and my favorite obsession is with Advertising Icons. Americans know characters like Big Boy, Mr. Peanut, Mr. Clean, the GEICO Gecko and the Michelin Man (real name: Bibendum) better than their Senators or Congressmen. I’ve been collecting these characters for over 20 years and I’ve continued to buy them, even after pledging the entire collection to the Adcenter. (Look for an installation in the new building).

How well do you know you’re ad characters? You can look at some and vote for your favorite HERE. And while you’re there, check out the rest of the Advertising Week, 2007 site. The VCU Adcenter’s Rick Boyko, is on the board of the event and Adcenter students will be participating in the “Brand America” presentation.

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If you’re looking for a moving book that provides powerful insights into a number of cultures, you should read King of the World, by David Remnick. The book gives us a look into the world of one of the most culturally significant athletes of all time, Muhammad Ali.

Ali left a mark on sports, religion, race, and politics. He was a Muslim ally of Malcolm X who rejected his slave name and his Christian roots, an athlete who gave up his status as a world champion when he refused to go to Vietnam, and a diplomat who spread goodwill throughout the world and ultimately won the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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GEICO and its advertising partner, The Martin Agency, are no stranger to cultural references. Past campaigns have used icons like Little Richard, Charo and Burt Bacharach and their Gecko is climbing the ladder to the kind of fame enjoyed by seasoned icons like Tony the Tiger and Mr. Clean. (Though the lack of Gecko merchandise means it still holds no place in my advertising icon collection – are you listening Martin?)

On the heels all these story lines, comes Bedrock’s most famous family, the Flintstones. Turns out those rocks of Wilma’s have precipitated an investigation that reveals GEICO’s role in the family finances. Even more far fetched is the story of how Jed Clampett’s wealth didn’t come from “black gold” but from car insurance savings. You know, GEICO is pretty picky about it’s underwriting, so it’s hard for me to believe the Clampett’s truck was insurable. It would be easier to swallow that GEICO forked over out a big settlement on Mr. Drysdale’s policy after he bumped into Granny.

Regardless of the storyline, I have to give credit to Steve Bassett and the rest of the GEICO team for marrying culture and advertising in interesting ways. Now if only I could get Royksopp’s “Remind Me” out of my head.

Read more at Adweek:

We launched the Adcenter’s Cultural Exploration program with an overview presentation covering cultural topics from Buddhism to Star Trek to Burning Man to the Cosa Nostra. We had a “Crumbelievable” guest appearance by Stephen Colbert and followed it with a discussion of the Long Tail and cultural fragmentation. We talked about cultures we are born to (ethnic, geographic, family, etc.) and cultures we choose to become part of (political, social, career, etc.) and we talked about how in some areas, like religion, we are less likely to remain within one group.

Click to download: Introductory Culture Presentation

Most of us belong to many cultural groups. They give us a sense of identity and belonging. We enjoy common bonds, shared experiences and even language that is understood by others in our group. (Just ask a techie what “RTFM” means or ask a Trekie what race greets each other with “Qapla”, and be careful how you use the term “throw-up” around a graffitti artist.)

In this class, you are required to become a Cultural Explorer, using curiosity, empathy and courage to fully immerse yourself into new cultures, learning their habits, their history and their reason for being. Here is your primary charge:

Your Quest

  1. You and your colleagues will select a cultural world that is unfamiliar to you – a place you haven’t been before.
  2. You will immerse yourselves, actively participating, connecting with people, learning the language and the customs and exploring the value its members derive.
  3. You will develop a clear, focused and professional presentation about your exploration. You must make the presentation to your class, immersing us in the world you have explored. Do not treat the class
    as spectators, it is your charge to help us experience the culture as participants.
  4. You may take us anywhere practical. Or bring almost anything here.
  5. We are curious, so be prepared to answer all of our questions.

Other Assignments

For September 10

  • Team Project Selection
  • Personal Cultural Map: On one 11” x 17” sheet of paper, map each cultural group you belong to. Be prepared to share this information with your peers.
  • Cultural Uniform: Come to class dressed in keeping with a specific culture that you do NOT belong to.

For September 24

  • Book Presentation: Pecha-Kucha
  • What did you learn about the culture you explored? Help us to understand the motivations, values, customs, etc.
  • You will be selected randomly to discuss your book and report in class. Be prepared to answer our questions.