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"It's a pretty smelly thing, in my opinion." -- Charles Schwab, characterizing a proposal that Wall Street research be handled by an independent group funded by firms currently being investigated What happens when you try to reach America's top companies by e-mail? A lot of the time, nothing, says consulting firm CustomerRespect.com, which spent four months e-mailing the 100 largest corporations. A shocking 37% didn't respond at all--not even with automated form letters. It took three days or more for an additional 22% to answer, the study found. Says its author Donal Daly: "It was as if they were saying `Don't communicate with us. Ever."'

Researchers, who posed as customers, graded companies on the speed and quality of responses, site navigability, and ease in finding privacy policies. Overall, retailers did well (table). But results varied widely within industries. In this version of the Pepsi Challenge, Coca-Cola (KO) won hands-down--19th place, vs. 97th for Pepsi (PEP). "We are making changes as we speak," says PepsiCo spokeswoman Elaine Palmer. Top place Freddie Mac had fast, detailed responses.

Last-place Ingram Micro (IM), a large tech distributor, didn't respond to e-mail and buried its privacy policy, Daly says. Ingram's Jennifer Baier says the company's customers--mostly tech resellers--have password-protected sites unavailable to outsiders. "Our corporate site is not a fair representation" of how Ingram responds, she says. Fair enough, but maybe the study will make companies think twice--and respond. The next big battle in the copyright wars: Hollywood and the recording industry vs. Corporate America.

In a thinly veiled threat mailed on Oct. 25 to CEOs of the nation's 1,000 biggest companies, four top film and recording industry lobby groups warned that corporations could be liable for breaking copyright laws if employees use company networks to download and store music or movies illegally.

That's no empty threat, says Hilary Rosen, chairman of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the letter's lead signatory. This serves as "fair warning" that lawsuits could be coming unless the practice stops, the RIAA says. It has documented the rising use of company servers to store stolen music and wants to put a stop to it. High-speed lines make it easier for employees to download Eminem or the Dixie Chicks at work instead of at home. Says Rosen: "This has shown itself to be an increasing problem."

CEOs may want to take heed. The RIAA has racked up some impressive wins against copyright violators, including Napster. Most recently, it scored a $1 million settlement with Integrated Information Systems, a Tempe (Ariz.) company that had been running a server just for employee music swapping. Economists have unmasked a surprising culprit in the alarming rise of obesity in the U.S.: the crackdown on smoking and higher taxes on cigarettes--which cause more smokers to quit. Each 10% increase in the inflation-adjusted price of cigarettes produces a 2% increase in the number of obese people, other things being equal, according to economists Shin-Yi Chou of New Jersey Institute of Technology, Henry Saffer of Kean University, and Michael Grossman of the City University of New York. The reason is obvious, they say: "Individuals who quit smoking typically gain weight."

The trouble is, obesity causes even more chronic health problems than smoking, according to a study last year by RAND Corp. That's bad news, considering that the researchers say 23% of Americans are obese, up from 11% in the early 1980s.

"Only a cynic" would conclude that rolling back antismoking measures is the answer to obesity, Grossman says. What's needed instead, he says, is stronger efforts to get people to eat right. He's a self-styled populist who takes on Republicans, gun-toting conservatives, and those who don't share his left-leaning views. He's also one heckuva pitchman. In between talk-show appearances, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore has been e-mailing an estimated 100,000 folks a week in what has become one of the most aggressive e-mail campaigns in Hollywood history.

Prompted in part by a missive from Moore that starts: "Dear friends, fans and fellow evildoers," moviegoers have spent more than $2.6 million to see his latest film, Bowling for Columbine, which examines America's violent shootings and questions its gun laws. The take is impressive since the film opened on Oct. 8 in only eight theaters. MGM (MGM) is now expanding it to 150. In the years since Moore first struck a nerve with his 1989 film Roger & Me, he has developed the art of e-mail promotion, says his sister and spokeswoman, California lawyer Anne Moore.

He took to the Net in 1995 when Fox Entertainment wanted to cancel his show TV Nation, she says, noting that more than 50,000 faxes prompted by Moore's posted entreaties rolled in, giving the show a few more months of life. To promote his film--and his irreverent best-seller Stupid White Men...and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation--Moore taps his Web site, MichaelMoore.com, which he says logs 17 million hits a month, up from 70,000 earlier this year. The site urges such action as preventing "Bush's war" in Iraq and asks folks to sign up for his e-mail list. "Mike's a populist guy, and e-mailing is a populist way of communicating with them," Anne says.

This isn't the first time a small film has appealed to Netizens. This year's surprise hit, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which benefited from an e-mail blitz by Greek Americans, has grossed nearly $178 million and is still going strong. That's a target Moore can only dream of. Battered by the stock market and afraid of a housing bubble, investors are taking some of their money for a spin in an altogether different type of investment: collector cars. Despite a sorry economy, this market has been growing about 10% annually, to $1 billion this year.

And it looks as if it will keep motoring on. America's largest collector-car auction, the Barrett-Jackson sale in Scottsdale, Ariz., in January, which attracts 150,000 people from 19 countries, is already turning away cars for sale. The number of people signed up to bid is up 60% over this time last year. Craig Jackson, who runs the auction, is heartened by the interest--and the fact that 66% of his recent sales at other auctions are in the $20,000 to $75,000 range. In contrast, most money in the early '90s was chasing the highest-priced cars. He credits collector cars' rising popularity to nostalgia, the stability of the investment, and the fact that it's, well, "fun."

Jackson offers this advice to newbie buyers: First, decide what kind of car you'd like to take for a Sunday drive, then research its history, including whether it has its original engine.

Looking for the equivalent of a blue-chip stock? A '65 Mustang Convertible or '57 Thunderbird are cars with big appeal that also are plentiful enough to keep prices below $60,000. Those with a bit more cash can hunt down one of the six 1930/1931 Bugatti Royales for upwards of $12 million.

Yet it's muscle cars that are all the rage. Built in Detroit in 1964-71, they have relatively small bodies for their supersize motors. One, a 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle convertible, sold at auction last year for $172,000. Not a bad return on a car that cost $3,200 new.


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