Two Tattoos: One a Brand, One ‘Unique’

In the news recently were several articles about two tattoos, each relating in someway to the Olympic Games that began last week in London. The first was about a branding tattoo being worn by a U.S. Olympic runner; the second about a “unique” misspelled tattoo on an American woman who participated in the Olympic torch relay.

Earlier this year, Nick Symmonds, the runner, auctioned for $11,100 the right to put a temporary tattoo of a twitter handle on his shoulder.  An advertising and design agency in Milwaukee won the e-Bay auction and has its branding message potentially seen by everyone who watches Symmonds during the 2012 track and field season, including his qualifying events for the Summer Games. He will compete in the games but must keep the tattoo covered, to comply with rules against displaying logos and branding during the games.

While promoting the brand of the Milwaukee agency, Symmonds also has been busy establishing his own brand, that of an outspoken opponent to these particular Olympic rules. “I’ve never had a problem speaking out about something that bothers me,” he is quoted as saying. “The biggest thing that rubs me the wrong way is that governing bodies want to control the space I feel I should control.”

In this case, his own skin and shoulder.

I, personally, don’t have any tattoos. Skin never seemed like a good writing surface to me. I prefer clean, 60-pound, slightly textured paper on which to write longhand, or white copy paper on which to pound out poorly typed words on the antique Corona typewriter that sits on a shelf near my desk, or a clean screen that readily pixelates the text I type on my Mac.

But skin doesn’t seem the right place for letters, words, and images—not because I mind the clutter it would cause. After all, my skin is covered with all kinds of marks and lines, including a half-inch scar caused by a piece of metal rocketed many years ago from an old pipe in our yard. My mother used put flowers in the pipe until my father and uncle decided to see what would happen if they set off a Cherry Bomb in it on the Fourth of July when I was five. The bomb destroyed the pipe, as we all stood around watching the fun. Then my mother, seeing the damage, said, “See what you did to my pipe?” and I, looking down, said, “See what you did to me?”

Not only do I not have tattoos, but I don’t know many people who have any, either; although, my father had one, a two-inch “R” on his left shoulder, a rendering of his first initial that he tattooed himself with a long pin tied to a wooden matchstick with a fishing line. One day when he was a teenager, he sat down, dipped the pin in India ink and began tapping away at his shoulder, wiping the blood as he went along, until he had an ill-shaped and definitely one-of-a-kind tattoo—his own brand. I always thought it was a good idea that he didn’t decide to tattoo his entire name, Raymond.  The tattoo remained intact and clearly visible until he died at 80, a few years ago.

But some tattoos should never become visible, even to friends and family.

Which is more embarrassing for the United States in the eyes of the whole world: for a U.S. Olympic torchbearer to have a misspelled word on an Olympic tattoo on her arm or for her not to have the spelling corrected when the error was pointed out to her?

I’ll vote for not having it corrected.

After all, once in a while, all of us make typos, try as we may to catch them before our work is published or, in this case (I’m not sure what word to use) posted, inked, printed, displayed. One mistake of mine that pops up often, but is usually caught by my proofreader, is using the word “do” when I mean “to,” as in a sentence such as “ I want do go.”

Nevertheless, one has to wonder how Olympics got misspelled as Oylmpics on the arm of Terri Peterson, an Atlanta resident who got the tattoo to celebrate being one of her company’s 70 employees to participate in the international Olympic torch relay. She recently carried the flame through Derby (in England) as part of the event.

Was she asleep when the artist started work? Was it misspelled on the design she chose, but neither she, nor her friend, nor the artist noticed the misspelling?

When the artist offered to correct the tattoo after the mistake was discovered, Peterson refused, saying she thought it was fine because it was unique like her.

One is right to question, though, how unique she is in the United States to not care if she spelled something wrong and then just sloughs off the mistake as being nothing important, like dead skin. I would think that flaunting our misspellings for the whole world to see is taking our brainlessness a step too far.

Equally, I would think we should be careful where we place our brand. Perhaps the shoulder of a rule-defying Olympian is the right place if your company is known as being on the edge. But I wouldn’t want to see the logo of my bank, my dentist, or my lawyer there. Nor would I think my father would have been pleased to see his personally crafted “R” anywhere but on his own shoulder.


Note: Unlike me, many writers—as shown in this piece on—consider skin to be a perfect medium on which to write words and draw art. Check out these writers’ tattoos: .

Crisis Communications at the Vatican

The Vatican, which has been subject to scandal for years, recently hired a senior communications advisor to help coordinate its communications efforts and serve as a press spokesperson. The primary responsibility of the role is to “formulate the message and then try to make sure everyone remains on message,” said the new advisor in a statement that, at first glance, makes the job seem easy, but which professionals know is one of the most difficult crisis communications tasks they ever have to face.

Chosen for the job was Greg Burke, a Fox news correspondent who has covered the Vatican for many years. He is the “first communications expert hired from outside the insular world of the Roman Catholic news media,” according to The New York Times. His background suggests that he has never—certainly not in the past 25 years—had any experience in crisis communications management.

The Roman Catholic Church is now confronting a major crisis: from ongoing accusations of pedophiles among its priests, which have to date led to settlements of more than $1 billion dollars; the release of secret Vatican files prompting the arrest of the Pope’s butler; this week’s sentencing of the first senior Church official in the United States for child endangerment for covering up sexual abuse acts by priests. With all these issues facing the Church, communications professionals have to wonder why the Vatican didn’t bring in a PR executive with strong experience in crisis management, one who could grasp the full scope of the issues, set strategies, and know how to execute them where necessary around the world.

This is the kind of person most corporate communications experts would recommend if their companies faced issues as severe as those now challenging the Vatican. They would not hire a newsman (unless he had a lot of crisis communications management somewhere in his background). Moreover, they might go beyond hiring a single person and enlist a PR agency with a worldwide staff to address the problems whose scope calls for message and media experts in specific locations besides Rome.

I’ve worked on both sides of corporate PR: inside companies, leading teams of communicators; and inside agencies, working with client staff members. Alongside me as my company handles a crisis, I want an experienced communications leader to craft the message and a number of well-trained people to spread that message through the right blog and Twitter posts and make it part of the coverage of every print and online media outlet we target.

The Unsuspecting E-Book Reader (Part 2)

(To read part 1 of The Unsuspecting E-Book Reader go to

A recent Wall Street Journal article discusses the growing trend for e-book devices to capture all kinds of private data from unsuspecting readers. According to the article, “Retailers and some publishers are beginning to sift through the data, gaining unprecedented insight into how people engage with books.” That data may be beneficial for retailers, publishers, e-reader makers, and even some writers, providing information to use for determining what kinds of books, at what lengths, with what video, audio and graphics added, might be bestsellers in the future.

Scott Turow, president of the Authors Guild and writer of Presumed Innocent, The Burden of Proof, and a half dozen or so other books, is one writer who likes the idea of knowing more about what his readers want. He says, “If you can find out that a book is too long and you’ve got to be more rigorous in cutting, personally I’d love to get that information.”

Personally, I wouldn’t mind giving it to him. But I don’t want my e-book gadget to grab it secretly, without my knowledge, when I think I’m reading his book for pleasure, when I’m unknowingly participating in data collection about all I do, think, and feel while reading that book.

Analysts say they are learning important things about the reader from those data. I’m sure they are. But I’m not so certain that what they think they’re learning isn’t wrong, or that from it, they’re not developing incorrect conclusions.

What, for example, did they really learn from my having read the electronic version of Stanley Fish’s nonfiction book, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One? And from my highlighting a number of sections and making a number of notes throughout the book?

Maybe they came to the conclusion that I care about sentences and writing. That’s true; I do.

But maybe they now think I’m a high school student having trouble with writing and am looking for help; so they’re recommending that the publisher put out a number of writing books aimed at that demographic. They’d miss the mark by a wide margin here.

While reading that book, I highlighted a section noting that in an Oscar Wilde novel a character explains why he doesn’t like memoirs. Wilde says, “They are generally written by people who have either entirely lost their memories, or have never done anything worth remembering….” Maybe from my highlight, they’ve determined that I’m over the hill and am quickly forgetting everything, and that I want to write my memoir before my memory is totally gone. They’d be wrong on a couple of accounts here, but I can’t remember which ones.

Recently I bought a used paperback book from Amazon for only about $3.95. (It was no longer in print. Why else would I be buying a second-hand book?). Had this book been available in an electronic version, and I’d bought it for $3.95, would the analysts have determined that I’m cheap and want to buy only cheap books, and then suggested the publishers cut their prices significantly?

What would they decide from my marginal notes in printed books if I made such comments on an e-book? Sometimes I just draw a single line beside a whole or partial paragraph; if it’s really important, I might draw two lines. Sometimes I just write a letter or two with no further explanation: “B,” “S,” or even “SS,” rarely “BS.” Sometimes I write long sentences; in others I just put something like, “App to B.”

Clearly, the analysts would be calling in the codebreakers to help figure out the key to what I’ve written. Surely, they would be thinking that getting this key to my notes would help them sell more books.

I doubt that it would.

A publisher’s goal is to sell—sell!—books. An author’s primary goal, as I see it, is to write a great book—whether a novel, a nonfiction company history or anything else—that tells the story he or she wants to tell in the way he or she wants to tell it. Later comes trying to sell it and make money. The reader wants to have an enjoyable experience and maybe learn something just for the fun of it, or perhaps to use that new knowledge for something beneficial.

But the reader does not read to have an intruder take private data, and then come to conclusions that could very well be wrong and misleading or, in any case, are made from information they should not have taken in the first place.

Announcing the Higgs Boson in Comic Sans

Scientists at the European research agency CERN announced recently that they had (or may have) discovered the Higgs boson, a new subatomic particle, which they believe gives mass to elementary particles.

This scientific discovery, which scientists have been looking for since around the middle of the last century, ranks among the most important in history, up there with the discoveries of gravity, of the earth’s being round, the theory of relativity, the TV remote control, and bacon & eggs.

The Higgs boson is so significant it’s often referred to as the “God Particle.” According to The New York Times, it’s “a key to understanding why there is diversity and life in the universe,” and without its force field, “There would be neither atoms nor life.”

With the announcement of such an important discovery, one would expect the news coverage and social media posts to be all about it’s meaning to the human race’s past and future. Much of it was.

But a good amount of the discussion was about the typeface used by the scientists in their slide presentation accompanying the announcement: Comic Sans.

This discussion was not positive.

Comic Sans was developed by Microsoft for a children’s comic package. It is hated by many type enthusiasts because, they say, it’s not a well-crafted typeface; it is, indeed, child-like; and, worse, it is a cartoonish font. Holly Combs, who founded the Ban Comic Sans movement, is quoted in the Guardian as saying “that using it in most contexts is a bit like turning up to a black-tie event in a clown costume.”

The announcement of the Higgs boson discovery is, for sure, a black-tie affair, if being “black-tie” means being the most serious of occasions.

That’s why the critics feel the typeface is completely wrong for the announcement. One tweet said, “Seriously, I’m not a fan of bashing Comic Sans…but presenting your god particle research with it is like playing J.S. Bach on a ukulele.” The goes so far as to ask how important we would have taken Newton’s announcement of the discovery of gravity if it had been made in Comic Sans. Another website asks, “Doesn’t the most important scientific discovery of this century warrant the use of a classier font?”

Perhaps something clean and clearly legible, like Helvetica, Georgia, Times New Roman. Or any other font whose appearance matches the seriousness and gravity of the message: the goal, one would think, of any typeface.

The Unsuspecting E-Book Reader (Part 1)

When you read a printed document, you take part in a private two-way conversation with the writer, a writer who has written a novel, a story, a poem, even a company’s white paper or bylined article, making his or her meaning as clear as possible, yet leaving it open to your interpretation. That’s the way it should be: just you and the writer, with no one intruding or listening in.

Such conversations, however, are no longer private if you’re reading a book on your electronic reader, whether it’s one from Google, Barnes & Noble, Amazon or Apple. Now, somebody is secretly noting not only the kinds of books you’re reading but how long it takes you to get through each one, whether you stop reading before the end, and what you highlight or bookmark on the pages (oops, I mean the screen) as you go through it.

Although I find the hard-and-inflexible and appliance-like feel of these electronic gadgets distasteful, I like using e-readers for the most part. We have both the Kindle and the iPad. On each, I quickly can get the feeling of reading a book, not hesitantly questioning whether the device is missing something important to the reading experience.

I don’t care for the smell of most printed books, so I don’t miss that about them when I choose an electronic book over a printed one. They smell stuffy to me. And I’ve never been a fan of old, dusty, used books, even though I’ve always thought it would be nice to have a collection of rare editions—new, rare editions, I would prefer. And I don’t like the idea of not knowing who owned a book before me and where it’s been lying around for the past number of years.

When reading printed publications, I like the feel of paperbacks more than hardcover editions. I like their flexibility and usually their size. But mostly, I like the way they feel inviting, as if they’re asking me to come in for a conversation and a cup of tea.

Last week, though, I bought a hardcover book (it’s wasn’t available in a paperback or electronic version) that had a great feeling. The paper was a pleasing off-white, with a slight tinge of green, not stark and jarring; the pages were comfortable, thick with just a slight texture; the spine lay completely open without a push, leaving the pages flat, not curved, for easy reading on my desk.

But the e-book works well for me, too. At least, it does until I think about some third party participating in my reading; some third party trying to figure out if I fit in to the demographic the publisher wants for the book; some third party more concerned about whether it can learn something from me beyond whether I’m enjoying the book, something that might help him help sell more books tomorrow.

(Read Part 2 of “The Unsuspecting E-Book Reader” at