Jon Reed Goes Off On... mocking ads
Wednesday, April, 23 2008
McDonald's: The Economy is Going to Hell, Grab a Cheeseburger
McDonald’s is running a “dollar menu” commercial that on one level is a very well-executed illustration of the value proposition (if not the nutritional value) of so-called fast food. But on another psychotic level, the commercial is downright apocalyptic, disturbing all the moreso because so few people are disturbed by it. Let’s put it this way: if the American Empire falls in the next fifty years, and I expect it will unless an American company discovers a cheap petroleum substitute and gains control of it, this thirty second McDonalds spot could be preserved and referred back to as a sort of time capsule of our own unapologetic self-destruction.
Let’s rundown the scenario: a group of spiffy stockbrokers is hanging about the cubicle, engaging in airhead banter about how bad the dollar is doing (“the dollar is terrible, the dollar is pathetic,” etc), but making sure to keep a joking tone, as if to make light of how much America is leveraged by countries such as China, and how utterly irreversible this situation is - though the fictional employees in our commercial make light of the abysmal value of the dollar like you would a rainy day, with the implied idiotic possibility that sunny economic skies will somehow magically appear tomorrow - nevermind that a McDonald’s hamburger just doesn’t taste as good after your house gets foreclosed because your company had to let you since they had to “wrongsize” because a gallon of gas now costs four cheeseburgers.
The most ominous thing about this cube conversation? Since no one to my knowledge has been enraged by this commercial besides myself, you wonder if the typical American has any idea that the water is going to boil soon and we are the lobster, and by “typical” I mean any educated American with an Internet connection who can easily step back from American Idol and edumacate themselves about basic economic trends. On the other hand, most of us know what it means to pay five times what we used to for health care, so maybe there are others out there who are as worked up about this commercial as I am.
At any rate, the punchline of this commercial, if you haven’t guessed, is that the dollar is still worth something because, you guessed, it, you can still buy a McDonald’s double cheeseburger for a buck off the “Dollar Menu.” This leads to a turnabout amongst our financial analysts, who, when confronted with a colleague chomping on a McDonald’s burger, decide that “the dollar is strong...the dollar is good!” Now, I will concede it’s a corporate culinary miracle that you can get that kind of meal, mystery meat or not, for so cheap. And maybe it’s ok that eating a steady diet of double cheeseburgers will take a good chunk off our collective lifespans? After all, who wants to be alive when gas costs $20 a gallon and people shoot you on sight to siphon out of your tank?
Listen, it’s a swell commercial, well scripted and well executed. I’m sure it will sell some burgers and maybe even make some people crack a smile. But the question is, if you are on a bus and it is headed off the side of a cliff, should you be smiling and adjusting your high definition television set, or should you be trying to bust your way to the front of the bus and try to get your foot on the breaks? According to McDonald’s, you should just fill up on cheeseburgers and settle in for the ride. The only problem is that dollars aren’t worth pennies when your dreams of a better future go up in a pile of inflation-fueled wreckage. You can pile up a thousand double cheeseburgers and it isn’t going to ease that fall. Well, I gotta go, I’m super hungry and the only place that’s open is the...McDonald’s drive through. Thank god I still have a few dollars left.
Tuesday, March, 25 2008
Verizon Mobile Sports: Disrupting a Dinner Date Near You
Verizon is running a clever series of commercials right now for its ESPN-driven sports update service, where you can get all kinds of sports scores and highlights right on your cell phone. On the surface, it seems cool for the so-called sports “nut” - if you want to get your sports updates wherever you are, why not give it a try? It’s the backstory that I find both amusing and a little repugnant. The amusing part? ESPN first tried to launch this service on its own, with its own phones and service, and suffered a rare, humiliating commercial failure. There’s definitely something funny about seeing ESPN’s marketing turd all shiny and new with Verizon’s name and logo trying to cover up the warmed-over smell.
The second aspect, the repugnant part, comes into play with the idea that it’s somehow cool or appropriate to sneak peeks at your scores and highlights in the midst of all kind of formal occasions - in the case of the two commercials I’ve seen, company meetings and baby showers. It may seem harmless to promote such behavior, but anyone who has ever tried to give a presentation while some attention-deficit-disorder douchebag pounds text messages to vague social prospects knows that this kind of technology is nibbling away at the last remaining social conventions. I know this: if I see some glory days fraternity brother cheering when Alex Rodriguez manages to luck into a clutch hit in the middle of a talk I am giving, I’m gonna step away from my PowerPoint and pound his phone into shrapnel.
It’s great to have the convenience of updates, but is it too old-fashioned to wonder whether this makes us better human beings? If you can’t wait till you get home to find out whether the Sox left a runner stranded on third in the sixth, then you probably have a personality defect. The constant barrage of incoming information makes us terrible listeners, lacking focus for the people and projects that deserve our time and attention.
I watch and listen to a lot of sports, and if I don’t see a need for such a service in my life, it makes me wonder about the headspace of the people Verizon is marketing to. Of course, this problem is hardly limited to sports. I’ve been out on social occasions where someone got involved with a text message in the middle of a one-on-one conversation with me, without even bothering to excuse themselves or apologize. I guess it’s possible that I am such a terrible conversationalist that people are doing this out of social desperation, but I’m going to hold onto the illusion that it’s worth it to listen to me.
At any rate, whether I am worthy of focused conversation is irrelevant. What is relevant is that I’m not going to put up with it. The first person who checks their Verizon score update in the middle of a dinner date with me gets to contend with the bill all by themselves. They can watch the highlights all they want while I drive off in search of someone who still prefers human contact to constant childish stimulation.
Tuesday, August, 28 2007
The Word From Alpine - Our Brand is More Important Than Your Music
We know that corporations are obsessed with branding. Whenever they can send someone in an empty suit with an oversized check to get in front of a camera and shake the hand of someone who has just done something that has nothing to do with corporate business, they will. We know that the networks are slicing up every possible buying opportunity within sporting events, thereby making the event itself a constant stream of name brands.
And of course corporations seize every opportunity to do this kind of branding, sponsoring “calls to the bullpen” anytime a pitcher coughs up some runs, “safe at home” any time a runner scores, and every possible sponsorable event within an event - and this despite the fact that large companies have nothing whatsoever to do with the skills required for feats of individual athletic accomplishment. But that’s another rant already written. We now take the association for granted, but that doesn't mean it's not absurd. Wouldn't it make nice sociology to force athletes to compete living solely on the products that sponsor them? It would be great fun to watch fat athletes who live on McDonalds, Snickers and Vitamin Water compete. Call it the Red Bull Olympics.
Raising objections to this type of branding is probably futile given how few people are bothered enough to vote with their wallets and eyeballs. But I recently saw this branding project taken to a whole new level by Alpine.
I decided to cash in my penny jars and finally replace my broken down car stereo with a new Alpine iPod deck. It was a pretty stupid purchase financially, but I just couldn’t resist the ridiculous fun of being able to scroll through my iPod and rock out to my playlists while driving.
The deck has lived up to every expectation. But there’s one “hello from your corporate friends” glitch. On the deck’s large face plate, Alpine has ample room to show the artist, song, and album title for the track that is playing. However, for just about every song/album/artist, even those with short names, the titles are cut off halfway through. Why is that? Because Alpine only used half the screen to show the titles. And why is that? Because Alpine decided to use the entire other half of the screen to show me the fucking Alpine logo!
In this history of corporate branding, this may be the first time I can recall a product actually sacrificing important functionality to blow their own redundant horn. Ummm, guys - I already bought your product. Do I really need to be constantly reminded about Alpine’s massive presence in my life? In fact, there is room on the top of the face plate to run an Alpine logo, and I would have had no objection. Being able to read the song titles would have put me in a fine, tolerable mood.
Maybe my car passenger would enjoy staring at the Alpine logo or would enjoy it subliminally, though the last passenger in my car had to ask me the name of the song that was playing because they aren’t used to reading half-finished song titles. To take an awesome feature - showing me song titles, artists, and albums, and render it almost useless for the sake of a corporate logo - that’s downright apocalyptic. Whichever marketing “suit” gleeked on an otherwise beautiful product should have to wear a tie every day with my picture on it.
Now, full disclosure: there may be a possible way to get rid of the logo. I haven’t found it, but it’s possible deep in the guts of the system I can change that part of the display, maybe with the help of that teenage hacker that busted his iPhone loose from AT & T. I doubt it, but if I can remove the logo, I will update this entry.
Alpine seems to think it solved this space problem through a scrolling function that sometimes shows you the full song title by scrolling back and forth at some random, whimsical interval. But while you’re driving, you’re generally more concerned with the cell phone chatting driver swerving in front of you than you are with waiting for a song title to decide to scroll by. Scrolling is a fancy feature that would be completely irrelevant if not for the technical gymnastics needed to display a logo half as large as the entire display.
The logical conclusions of this type of branding intrusion are a fun-filled mix of corporate noise and public safety hazards. How about a Toyota logo across the front windshield of a car? Or an informative “your Internet connection is brought to you by Verizon, your broadband and entertainment company” banner across the computer screen of an air traffic controller?
Right now, the only line in the sand seems to be about that far. But as long as safety is off the table, anything is brandable. Still, I look forward to playing my car stereo for you. Did I tell you it was made by Alpine?
Wednesday, March, 28 2007
Dance Your Way Through "Lost" with ABC
You're watching an intense episode of "Lost" on ABC. Suddenly your attention is distracted, not by the outside world, but by ABC itself, as they slip in a not-so-subliminal - in this case an animated jig of two people dancing that skirts down the edge of the screen, but just for a couple of eye-catching moments! How intriguing! How fun! ABC is fun! Now, you have no idea why the tiny people are dancing while John Locke is blowing up a submarine, but then a little voice in your head reminds you that ABC is pushing "Dancing with the Stars" again. Dancing is cool. Therefore, I will get up from this gripping episode of "Lost" and look up the time for "Dancing with the Stars" online. On-screen clutter is not exclusive to ABC. Each morning during the news, my local CBS affiliate slaps a homemade, ill-fitting Dunkin Donuts decal on the screen. Cram it in there! We won't mind the clutter. In the YouTube age, I can accept the importance of a transparent network logo for copyright reasons. I'll even put up with an enormous "winter storm is comin' down on your ass!" banner when the local weather team needs to pay some bills by cashing in on pending bad weather real or imagined. But more and more, we're seeing the unwelcome insertion of sponsor logos (doughnuts anyone?), and when it comes to sports, we're seeing the sponsorship of everything that isn't nailed to the court, including the sponsorship of timeouts, free throws, and so-called "game summaries." Perhaps the silliest thing? Listening to damned-if-you-do announcers like Dick Enberg, who doesn't know how to speak without gravitas, reading in-game promos for soon-to-be-cancelled shows: "She was an Ivy League graduate with an nose for a good story. He was a serial killer with an axe to grind. Find out what happens immediately following the game." I won't even get started on the pleasure of seeing my favorite sitcom stars, like little Ducky from "Pretty in Pink" (a.k.a Jon Cryer of "Two and a Half Men"), sitting courtside during a game sponsored by his network. I just love hearing Ducky break down a zone defense. If I miss some of the game action due to the what-a-coincidence-there-is-a-celebrity-from-our-network-in-the-stands interview, then so much the better. Maybe the best solution is just to combine the shows. Merge "Lost" and "Dancing with the Stars," merge "CSI" and "The Amazing Race." No need to invade one show to plug the other when they're on at the same time!. Dance with the stars of an airline crash. Investigate the murder of a bad reality TV show host. Double your audience, double your ad rates. Sign my eyeballs up! Whatever demographic I represent, we'll be there.
Wednesday, March, 07 2007
Ask Your Doctor if Your Pharmaceutical Company is Right For You
Is your life all it could be? Are you sleeping only seven and a half hours when you'd love to make eight? Are you a man with a "weak stream" that has to piss more often than you'd like? How would you like to take care of these little problems in exchange for unknown long term consequences and a few mildly inconvenient side effects like delirium, nausea, and mild diarrhea? If that sounds good, then all you have to do is follow these helpful instructions: the next time your doctor invites you over to their place for iced tea on the veranda, the two of you can casually review the various drugs available that might allow you to alleviate the nagging angst of modern life. It's the most common line in commercials today: "Ask Your Doctor if 'Wonderdrug' is Right for You." Is there anything more infuriating than this casual assumption - the absurd premise that the average American has the kind of sit-down relationship with their doctor where they can casually chat about the designer drugs now available? I have a better health care plan than most, and if I called my doctor to ask him if Technoniftydrug was right for me, he'd start by asking, "What did you say your name was again?" And when I do get in to see him, there's generally a more pressing problem to talk about than whether I want to trade weak streams for wet dreams. It's a Brave New Pharmaceutical World, where the "haves" are busy talking to their doctors about why their erections last six hours after taking something they never should have put in their body in the first place, while the rest of America sucks it up and tries to live with problems that will deteriorate if they don't get access to care they can't afford. Of course, the pharma companies are just one piece of a flawed puzzle, and some of them have pretty innovative programs to help folks in hardship situations get the drugs they need. But for now, I think we've seen enough clip art models smiling through television sets as they pantomime a superior lifestyle granted to them by a fantasy drug that they only obtained through an equally fantastic doctor, the likes of which we've never met in real life, even while pharma companies frantically attempt to reassure us otherwise.
Thursday, November, 30 2006
In Defense of Tom Cruise
Tom Cruise has a marketing problem. Never in my life did I imagine composing a defense for an egomaniacal scientologist (a word that deserves no capitalization), but the knuckleheads piling on this guy are forcing my hand. Don’t they realize in an age of stiffs and soundbites, finding somebody who’s up for jumping on Oprah’s couch and making fun of therapy addicts is no easy trick? Was I the only one in America that wanted a swig of whatever Tom was drinking? And then all the do-gooders pointed to Paramount, who released him because of his supposedly unsavory behavior. Yeah, sure, bring on the obituaries. For a couple weeks, all the high-minded Hollywood insiders claimed his career was ruined. They went on gossip shows to righteously note that Tom Cruise had not managed his public image properly and that it was going to cost him, using as evidence that Mission Impossible III only made a measly $250 million in profits. But before the gloaters could finish gloating, Tom Cruise went on to sign a movie production deal with MGM that gives him as much control over his films as any actor in Hollywood. While researching this blog entry, I learned that Cruise has reached a level within scientology where it is revealed that our problems are caused by brain implants aliens installed in the human race millions of years ago. Thus the objection to psychiatry – can’t do much about your hang-ups when an alien on a couch somewhere is maneuvering you with his remote control unit. Yeah, Cruise is crazy, but he's good crazy – break-the-monotony crazy, “turn on the TV and finally see someone who isn't looking over at their PR person before they say something” crazy. I’d play it loose too if I was honeymooning with Katie Holmes on a private island and running Hollywood despite a huge computer chip in my head. All the talking heads wringing their hands over Tom’s unpredictable behavior can now move on to analyzing the dissolution of Pamela Anderson’s marriage. As for me, I’m signing up for Tom Cruise’s play-it-like-I-feel-it lifestyle instruction seminar. If this is what they teach in scientology, maybe I need to spend some time with L Ron Hubbard after all. And I’m not going to touch the talent question, except to say that Tom’s appearance in a number of classic movies (as well as in some bold experiments and some all-time beautiful cheese) is not an accident. People who think Vince Vaughn or Ashton Kutcher or one of the Wilson brothers could have pulled off “Born on the Fourth of July” or “Rainman” or “Risky Fucking Business” might want to consult their copy of Dianetics for reprogramming tips. But I don't have an issue with people who hate Cruise and his movies. What bothers me is how one opinion of a person can quickly gel as the establishment media bats the same dumb take back and forth until it calcifies into total acceptance. It’s laughable to claim that Cruise is languishing on the fringes because he had the balls to step out from behind the handlers who were constantly spinning his image so he could spend a couple of memorable months acting like a complete idiot. Going nuts on Oprah is certainly a lot better than walking that thin line of anti-Semitic flirtation and rabid support for strange causes that Mel Gibson is trying on for size. But I’ll take Mel’s colorful oddness over the bland “huddle with my handlers and make some contrite statements” approach that even Britney Spears has adopted. We need more people who don’t give a shit that Paramount and Gillette and Verizon are no longer interested in borrowing them for product endorsements. Unfortunately, Cruise has now transitioned his sister (who acted as his publicist during this meltdown period) into a role managing his charities. He’s now secured a well-regarded publicist to run his affairs. This means the unscripted moments are likely behind us. It won’t be long before Tom is back on Oprah, sitting between her and Brooke Shields, wiping a pre-arranged tear from his eye as he apologizes for hurting Brooke’s feelings and making light of psychiatric care. I can only hope that when he’s done, he’ll lean over, rip off his headplate, and show us that computer chip shining inside. Tom, don’t back down brother, we’ve got enough nice boys to fill a million churches with phony converts to dull corporate meekness.
Tuesday, November, 21 2006
Bob Davie, BCS Apologist and Corporate Shill
Once upon a time, you could have an opinion and call a sports broadcast. Now you can have "opinions," as long as you remember to endorse the establishment viewpoint and shill all the companies who are willing to pay millions to leech off the unscripted excitement of a sports broadcast. It's gotten to the point where you can't have a conservative viewpoint and be perceived as anything but a bread-is-buttered suckup. Take the example of "commentator" Bob Davie, who used the stage provided by the biggest college football game in five years to make his tired case for the BCS. Perhaps Bob truly believes that the BCS is the right solution. But because there's no way he could get away with criticizing the BCS during a big-time football broadcast, we have no way of taking his pro-BCS opinion seriously. It doesn't help that his argument in favor of the BCS is as used as a soggy diaper. Therefore, we are left with the unavoidable conclusion that Bob Davie is a BCS apologist and a shill. There were so many things wrong with Bob's muddle-headed "college football doesn't need a tournament" monologue that it's almost not worth slogging it. Short version: Bob tried to defend the BCS by claiming that if there was a tournament, Ohio State and Michigan would be resting players and thus we'd be deprived of this regular season classic. Um, Bob, what if a playoff system was structured so that the winner of the conference got home field advantage? (a significant edge - just ask the Michigan players) Or what if only the top four teams got to play an extra game, so if you didn't finish in the top four in the polls, you were out of luck? There's many different playoff scenarios that could compel coaches to keep their players on the field. Oh that reminds us Bob, do college basketball teams rest their players in conference tournaments before March Madness? One of the problems with being a shill is that you start to think you don't need to put forth a well-thought viewpoint. I've heard some effective arguments in favor of the BCS, but Bob's plug wasn't one of them. Of course, mocking the idiocy of the BCS is easy. What's tougher is getting these shills out of the booth. In truth, it's not their fault. If they went Howard Cosell on us and injected broadcasts with big picture awareness and sprinkles of thoughtful indignation, they'd be replaced by new analysts built by Home Depot. It's amazing that Brent Musberger and pals can even remember all the products and services they are now required to integrate into their increasingly commercialized banter. On a lighter note, I'm glad that Pontiac is now sponsoring the game summary, I'm not sure what I would do with myself if the game summary wasn't underwritten. Reset the game, sell the starting lineup, auction the free throw, sell out the slam dunk. Name the field, label the stadium, sell the turf, sponsor the coin flip. Bend over backwards, insert corporate tool, become soulless loser. I'd say we need a new line in the sand, but I don't think we can even see the ocean anymore. We're buried in our own complicity. Those who want to fight this are viewed as malcontents. Strange, I never thought of myself that way. I just thought I was someone who loved to watch live sports events without being constantly bombarded by the enormous presence of companies I was already fully aware of.
Wednesday, September, 27 2006
Classmates.com: Fear the Mullet
The most idiotic ad campaign on the web? Classmates.com. Preying on the not-so-nice reality that most of us would gladly trade our current lives for a letterman's jacket and a motorbike, the classmates.com marketing play is all about sentiment...("She married who?") Classmates.com wouldn't even exist if people didn't have an underlying disgust with their water cooler lives and the lumps on the couch they married. But all those folks in those adorable black and whites have turned into lumps too. Soon we'll all be that way unless we get off the couch and do something. Logging our out-of-shape asses onto the Internet and paying someone to help us stalk someone we once projected our adolescent fantasies onto isn't going to get it done. I'm actually a big fan of high school reunions. Every single reunion I have attended has changed my life in some way. But the idea that we need a third party corporation to help us find our classmates is absurd. Google does a lot of it for free, and a private investigator can lend a hand with the rest. The biggest problem with tracking down old friends is that by and large, the ones you've lost touch with are the ones you're supposed to lose touch with. That kind of drift is natural - fighting it just leads to awkward "he's changed" encounters. The thing is, whenever you go to a real-deal reunion, what you find is always surprising. The people you were closest with back in the day aren't necessarily the ones you "click" with now. I always leave a reunion with new friends I didn't even know in high school. But classmates.com isn't about meeting new people - it's all nostalgia marketing: find the one that got away! Let me save you the trouble: you don't want the one that got away. Trust me, they have settled into a life more dreary than you ever wanted to know. And if for some reason they are doing great, it's because they are doing GREAT - married, kids, good job, nice pets. So go ahead, log onto classmates.com, put on some Dan Fogelberg, grab that old stake, and drive it further into your heart. The past is powerful stuff; we should engage it on our own terms, on our own time. Classmates.com is a clever business, but I'd bet my mullet that it's broken a lot more hearts than it's helped.
Friday, August, 25 2006
Polo Geek Alert: Selling Out is Now Cool
A few entries past, I wrote that selling out to corporations was actually becoming "cool." Even as I wrote it, I thought I went too far. But thanks to Peter McBride, we now know that I didn't go far enough. Forget about doing that "corporate tool" contest, and for that matter, forget about the "sackless man" competition - Peter has 'em both locked up. Our boy Peter was waiting in line for a tattoo, and since the guy ahead of him was wearing a Polo shirt, Peter decided to get a Polo right on his chest. Give Peter credit. It's hard to stand out as a chump in a world of chumps. Peter, ya chumped out, bro! Peter is young and dumb as a post, so it's not fair to ride him as one of the four horsemen. But check this out: tattoo artist Gaje Pou, quoted in the piece on McBride by Lee Hudson Teslik, says that it's increasingly common for folks to have a corporate logo inscribed on their bodies. According to Pou, this practice "is becoming more and more acceptable." We are nearing that inconceivable day when "corporate is cool." Truth be told, I was thinking of getting a tattoo also. But unlike Peter, I was looking for an image that might give me a bit of bravery on those days when I am floundering in a gutless world. Maybe I should get a tattoo of me knocking McBride off a horse and cramming a polo stick in his craw. If it's true that an act of bravery strengthens all of us, it's also true that an act of cowardice weakens us. I'm not going to deny it: McBride's decision was demoralizing. Not just because it was stupid, but because Peter is in step with where the world is headed, and I'm not. Peter's Polo is one more sign that I'm off track, walking around with an unflattering chip on my shoulder and missing happy hour again. In junior high school, guys wearing Polo shirts threw me into a pool. Peter gave me a different kind of cold shower. But I like it here on the fringes with the dreamers and the freaks. If nothing else, our tattoos are superior. Peter's worst move? He didn't even arrange to get paid by Ralph Lauren for branding himself. Ah, to be on a date with Peter, unbuttoning his shirt for the first time, wondering if he is wearing some kind of Ralph Lauren skin undershirt, then realizing you date PoloMan. Admittedly, my life is shaping up as tragic drama. But at least it's not a fucking commercial.
Wednesday, June, 21 2006
FIFA World Cup Ratings Fizzle With Coke
Picking on FIFA's World Cup ranking system is bad sport, but it sure is fun to pile on sometimes. Going into the World Cup, FIFA had the U.S. team ranked fifth in the world. Those without a financial stake in U.S. soccer understood that the U.S. was no better than fourth in their own four team group. FIFA, as it turns out, is sponsored by Coke, and far be it from me to imply that FIFA pumped up the U.S. team in order to make Coke's marketing job easier, but I'm not the first to cast that particular stone. As DJ Colin Cowherd said, our U.S. soccer team is full of "lunchables" and "mini-me's," basically the most talented athletes in America who are five foot eight and under. The first goal the Czech Republic scored on the American team reminded me of tetherball in elementary school, playing against the tall kids who would casually reach up and swat the ball where they wanted, or in this case, head the ball in the net. The U.S. team rebounded from their early loss to play their undermanned hearts out against Italy. It's just a shame that if they don't advance by beating Ghana that they will be considered failures. Beyond the fizzy Coke hype, the U.S. team had its work cut out for them in a really tough draw. As for those who are impatient for the U.S. to rise to the elite level of Germany or Brazil, pull up a chair and start reviewing retirement brochures. By the time you're riding through a gated community on a large tricycle, it's possible the U.S. team will compete at that level - or maybe not. I'm with Cowherd on this one - we're never going to win the World Cup unless soccer becomes the most popular (and lucrative) sport in America. Until that point, basketball and football will continue to snap up the best athletes, and we'll watch Lebron James and Michael Vick do their thing while our lunchable guys strain for head balls with gigantic Europeans towering over them. Soccer has always been a short man's game, but you still need some height and athleticism - not to mention obsessive dedication - to compete at the World Cup level. Far from being underachievers, our American teams are doing about as well as we should expect - though we do have a right to expect a grittier effort than we saw against the Czechs. FIFA could do their part by setting the proper expectation level and lowering U.S. in the rankings to fifteen or so - and that's on a good day.