Ordinarily, my abdomen is not crimson. Ordinarily the color of my abdomen, and pretty much everything else, is bone white -- like porcelain, only, you know, hairier. When I stretch out on the beach, I look like the opening of a CSI episode.
But not now. Because today I wished to give my five-year-old diving lessons, and I do not know how to dive.
Wait, wait. Don't think I just tried to fake it for the kid. No, I consulted a nearby lifeguard, a bronze teen adonis who patiently explained the technique and demonstrated a few elementary versions from the pool deck. I carefully observed.
"OK," I said. "Got it."
Looked pretty simple, after all. All I did was mimic little Johnny Weismuller: I put my arms out in front of me, my biceps hugging my ears, my hands joined at the thumbs. I knelt at pool's edge, kept my head down and pushed off with my legs, making sure I extended them fully and pointed my toes as I followed my clasped hands into the diving tank.
Whereupon I hit the water like a pancake flipped on a griddle. Flop! You'd be surprised how much noise one pallid belly can make.
"That's not how the teenager did it," my daughter observed, which is why Santa won't be coming to our house this year. And why I look like I've been attacked by a midget with a steam iron.
I mention this not to boast about how intrepid I am as a sportsman and tutor. The moral of this tale is that watching is not the same as learning, and mimicking is not the same as duplicating. It's a lesson apparently lost on Wal-Mart and its agency GSD&M, Austin. In some sort of hokey joint promotion with Sony, Wal-Mart wished to capture some of the excitement attendent to MySpace.com and other social networking sites. The retailer also wanted to get teenagers and preteens to consider Wal-Mart at back-to-school time -- a tough sell for most Americans 1) aged 10-18 years old, 2) with a functioning nervous system. Kids are pretty hip to how hip Wal-Mart pretty much isn't.
Enter then The Hub, schoolyourway.walmart.com, which tries to capture the feel and cachet of MySpace by letting actual teens submit videos and commentary about their owns lives and styles -- as long as the material promotes Wal-Mart's keen fall fashions. They even provided four samples from four actual kids (who also happened to be actors filmed at God-knows-what-expense, with God-knows-how-many grownups milling around the set). Here's what one exuberant Hubster had to say:
Shopping will be my number ONE hobby this fall. I am going to be the most fashionable teen at school! I'll be on the lookout for the latest fashions. From leggings to layers, to boots and flats, big belts and headbands! I'll be looking for it all! Layering is SO IN right now. Hobo bags are also in style. OH! And big sunglasses! WHOO!! I don't know where to stop! With all of the new clothes I'll be getting, the kids at school will be begging me for fashion tips! No, sweetheart. You'll be begging them for forgiveness.
And so should Wal-Mart be, for insulting its target audience with such a nakedly superficial and dishonest attempt to cash in on the digital zeitgeist. The Hub is not only phony in tone and style, it also reneges on its implicit promise to be a Hub for networking. Not a word or pixel goes up on that site without approval by Webmaster Smiley Face and his phalanx of lawyers.
All of which is quickly apparent to the very audience the advertiser most covets. WHOO! That's how the world's biggest retailer not only flopped but belly flopped.
As we shall see elsewhere in this chapter, listening is not about registering and reflexively reacting. It's about absorbing, analyzing and offering a considered response. Which is the start of a conversation.