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The Consumerist

Why You Should Rethink Buying Gift Cards This Year

Sat, 2014-11-22 00:04

(Patrick Carlson)

Yeah, about that Borders gift card… (Patrick Carlson)

Giving people gift cards has many advantages: you can take a loved one out to dinner from hundreds or thousands of miles away, or you can buy someone new clothes or shoes without guessing at their size. However, gift cards and prepaid debit cards aren’t always the one-size-fits-all gift option that they seem to be, since they can have some serious drawbacks.

Our merry elf colleagues down the hall at Consumer Reports put together a list of reasons why you should reconsider giving gift cards this holiday season, and here we’ve combined their advice with some of our own.

People don’t want ‘em. In a poll, only 37% of Americans said that they really want to receive gift cards this year. Me, I like gift cards, but that’s because I feel obligated to spend cash gifts on useful things, and a gift card to Sephora is, by definition, permission to go buy something frivolous. Maybe it depends on the retailer: a card to your favorite local sandwich shop is more personal than a card to, say, Subway or Walmart.

The funds aren’t protected. If a company goes out of business, you’re left with a nice scraper to remove frost from the outside of your car, and that’s about it. Readers holding KB Toys gift cards, for example, failed to notice that the company was going out of business, and lost their money. Your Borders, Circuit City, and Sharper Image cards? Useless. Also, if a store employee fails to activate a card correctly, you could be stuck with the blame, or at least in for an embarrassing gift-giving experience and a fight with Walmart.

They’re limited. Even if a company is still in business, do your research and make sure that a store is actually available where the recipient lives. Drugstores where I live sell AMC gift cards even though there isn’t an AMC movie theater within 150 miles, because gift card selections are standardized.

There are fees. This applies to prepaid debit cards more than store gift cards, but beware of loading fees for prepaid gift cards, and dormancy fees on all types of cards.

No dispute protection. Credit cards and many debit cards offer you extra warranty protection and the right to dispute a charge within two months if something goes wrong with your purchase. Gift cards do not.

Why gift cards shouldn’t top your holiday shopping list [Consumer Reports]

Amazon Signs 17-Year Lease On Manhattan Building That Is Totally Not A Store

Fri, 2014-11-21 23:22

Amazon's new neighbor. (Joel Zimmer)

Amazon’s new neighbor. (Joel Zimmer)

More than a month ago, there were reports that Amazon planned to rent space in Manhattan across the street from the Empire State Building to expand its own empire into brick-and-mortar retail. While Amazon has signed a lease on space in that building that includes ground-floor retail, the company says that it is not going to use that space. Nope.

An Amazon spokesperson told Bloomberg News that the space does not represent an expansion of Amazon into real-life selling. “We have leased this building primarily as corporate office space and we intend to sublease to other tenants the ground-floor retail space,” she explained. The building was once a discount department store called Ohrbach’s, and is now mostly office space. There are currently clothing stores in the retail spaces: if the speculation about Amazon opening a retail store was false, presumably they would stay and sublet from Amazon.

It wouldn’t be a bad idea to have an Amazon Store in such a high-traffic area. Maybe if tourists and influencers could get their hands on a Kindle Phone, the company could sell the rest of them. Saying that the space won’t be a store doesn’t rule out using some of the building as warehouse space for popular items to help the company pull off same-day delivery.

Amazon Leases Office Space on Manhattan’s 34th Street [Bloomberg]

There’s A Bus In England That Runs On Human Feces – And Food Waste

Fri, 2014-11-21 22:49

bio busIf you’re looking to take part in an adventure not unlike one you’d see on The Magic School Bus, then you might think about hitching a ride on the bus fueled by bio-methane gas, which is produced using materials most of us can’t get rid of soon enough — fecal matter and food waste.

The Bio-Bus, which made its first trip this month, seats 40 passengers and can travel up to 186 miles on one rooftop tank of waste fuel.

“Not everything we flush goes to waste,” a YouTube video of the new bus explains. “The Bristol sewage treatment works uses food waste and sewage to power 8,300 home everyday.”

While producing power for homes is an admirable concept, GENeco – the company behind the initiative – decided to take things a step further by hitting the road.

GENeco’s video explains that the amount of biomethane gas it takes to produce one tank for the bus is roughly the same amount produced annually by five consumers.

A one-way trip to Bristol Airport from Bath city center – the bus’ dedicated route (about 20 miles)– is estimated to take the biowaste produced by one person annually.

Do we smell a new payment system for public transit? Okay, probably not, but it might be something to consider down the road.

And while a ride on the “poo-bus” sounds unpleasant at first, riders don’t have to be worried that their commute will be stinky. The process to create the biomethane gas actually removes impurities, including odors.

[Via Mashable]

Kitten Escapes New Mexico Home On Halloween, Shows Up 2,300 Miles Away In Maine

Fri, 2014-11-21 22:42

(Portland Press Herald)

(Portland Press Herald)

There is nothing more suited for a Friday afternoon than a heartwarming tale involving a lost kitten finding her way home against all odds, so I will go ahead and accept your thanks in advance. The starring cat of today’s story escaped her home in New Mexico during Halloween trick-or-treating, only to reappear in Maine a few weeks later.

Because cats can’t talk, it’ll likely forever remain a mystery how six-month-old Spice traversed the 2,300 miles between her home and Portland, ME, where he was found in a duffel bag outside a thrift shop, reports the Portland Press Herald.

He’s now safe at a Portland animal refuge after her three-week odyssey, after she was identified by her microchip. A passerby helping a man lift furniture he was dropping off at the thrift store noticed the duffel bag on the street. He brought it inside and set it down, and saw that the bag moved.

When he opened it, Spice popped out, as well as kitty litter and cans of food. He didn’t know what to do so he took him home on Nov. 5. Spice acted up, and her adoptive family brought him to a local shelter, where her microchip revealed her true home.

The shelter says the woman was confused when they called her to let her know Spice had been found in Maine.

“She said, ‘I don’t know anyone in Maine. I haven’t visited Maine,’ ” a shelter rep explained.

Spice is in fine health after whatever ordeals she may have gone through, but it’s unclear when she’ll go home, if at all — her owner wants her, but can’t afford to have her flown across the country. The shelter can’t afford to foot the bill, either, so Spice will stay put for now.

“We’re going to do everything we can to reunite her with her owner,” the shelter rep says.

Furry mystery pops out of duffel bag: A feline from (far) away [Portland Press Herald]

FCC Proposes Some Consumer Protections As They Inch Closer To Killing Off Copper Landlines

Fri, 2014-11-21 22:39

(.sanden.)

(.sanden.)

Phones are wireless, consumers are cutting back, and copper is expensive: all are reasons why the big phone companies want permission from the FCC to walk away from old-fashioned landline networks and to keep moving toward an internet-based future. The FCC tentatively agrees, and voted 3-2 today to take another baby step in the process that will end up making the nation’s century-old copper landline network obsolete.

Formally, the FCC adopted a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) that sets down the broad strokes of the commission’s requirements for the next steps in what’s known as the IP transition (where voice service moves from copper wires to internet protocol). The key areas the FCC’s proposal addresses are:

  • Protecting consumers’ ability to call 911 from their home phones in a power outage
  • Requiring transparency to consumers about the transition to new tech
  • Making sure new tech actually works before old tech is allowed to be discontinued
  • Preserving competition among services that use and rely on copper networks when those networks are shut down

The commission also clarified that carriers will need to seek approval to discontinue “legacy” service based on “the practical impact of its actions,” rather than based on existing regulatory fine print. The declaratory ruling “ensures that there will be a public process to evaluate a proposed discontinuance,” or, in English, guarantees that companies like Verizon and AT&T can’t just disappear landline phone service overnight all at once because they said so.

The specifics of the proposed rule put forward today address several areas of consumer concern. Verizon in particular has been accused in the past of permitting their copper-wire networks to degrade in order to push consumers into adopting VoIP services whether they want to or not.

The FCC and consumer advocates have also voiced concern about the ability to contact emergency services in a power outage. Copper-wire landline phones still work in most outages, but internet-based phones need to rely on a backup battery with a much shorter lifespan.

Today’s vote was the latest step in a long process that the FCC has been moving through for some time. In January of this year, the commission approve limited regional tests replacing old-fashioned landlines with new tech to see how they went. That process is still underway.

The NPRM adopted today doesn’t change anything yet. First, like every FCC rulemaking, it has a pleading and public comment period to go through. Then the commission gets to work crafting and voting on a final version of the rule.

Commissioner Ajit Pai, one of the two dissenting votes against the NPRM, said that “The commission has no business micromanaging each change a carrier makes to its network,” and argued that concerns about consumer harm are a “Chicken Little” baseless, unproven claim that the sky is falling.

However, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler disagreed, pointing to Verizon’s response to rebuilding — or rather, not rebuilding — damaged service in New York in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

“This is not a hypothetical issue,” said Wheeler. He added, “Technology transitions will be speeded up by technology neutral rules that promote, preserve and protect … the set of values that consumers have rightly come to expect from their networks.”

Pizza Hut Thinks That Old Italian People Hating Its Pizza Is A Good Thing

Fri, 2014-11-21 22:07

pizza_dudePizza Hut is trying some new crusts and toppings in an attempt to coax Americans back under its formerly red roofs. We sent a colleague to try them out, and she reported back that the 21 varieties of new toppings and crusts she tried were nice, but not spectacular. Therefore, Pizza Hut has apparently turned to reverse psychology to sell their new offerings.

That’s the only logic that we can see in this marketing campaign based around a taste test with the elders (who may or may not be acting) of an unnamed Italian village. The message to take home seems to be, “These old farts don’t like the idea of jeggings, mobile pizza ordering, or the idea of pretzel pizza crust, so you probably will, because they are old and you are nothing like them!”

We will find out soon enough whether Pizza Hut’s flavor explosion is successful in reaching young, sriracha-loving consumers. The footage with the elderly Italians has also been sliced down into smaller ad chunks, so get ready to see this campaign on television or on streaming sites, where young people actually are.

New DoD Protections Aim To Keep Shady Businesses From Taking Advantage of Military Members

Fri, 2014-11-21 21:48

military

Members of the military — particularly younger members from lower-income backgrounds — are too often the target of shady, predatory businesses looking to take advantage of their youth and inexperience with finances. The Military Lending Act offers some protections, but these operators find ways to get around the law. On Friday, the U.S. Dept. of Defense took steps to eliminate some of those exploitations by creating reforms to the current military discretionary allotment system.

According to the Department of Defense, the policy changes [PDF] will prohibit servicemembers from using new allotments to purchase, lease or rent personal property, including vehicles, appliances and consumers electronics, effective January 1, 2015.

Currently, the military discretionary allotment system allows servicemembers to automatically direct a portion of their paycheck to financial institutions or people of their choosing. But often military personnel using the allotment system instead of other automatic payment options end up losing out on certain legal protections.

Existing allotments and those made for the purpose of savings, insurance premiums, mortgage or rent payments, support for dependents, or investments will not be affected. The changes do not apply to military retirees or Department of Defense civilian employees.

The new regulations are intended to eliminate the aspect of the allotment system most prone to abuse by unscrupulous lenders that prey on servicemembers.

Consumerist reported on one such company earlier this year, when the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau took action to stop USA Discounters from taking advantage of underpaid soldiers by charging exorbitant fees, suing them when they feel behind on payments and skirting the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA), which gives active duty servicemembers the right to defend themselves but does not specify where lawsuits must be filed.

The retailer, which has locations near 11 military bases, advertised its always-approved credit offers to members of the military with bad credit or no credit history as a way to entice them to purchase items such as computers and televisions.

Officials with the Department of Defense say the new rules will significantly improve protections for all servicemembers and their families, while not significantly reducing the flexibility to use allotments for a number of legitimate purposes.

The changes were directed by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel following an interagency review conducted in response to major enforcement by the CFPB, the Dept. of Defense says in a new release.

Officials with the CFPB called the reforms a “critical new protection” for military personnel.

“In recent years, the allotment system has been used by unscrupulous companies that prey on servicemembers as a quick and secure way to get paid. Many of them have even required payment by allotment,” explains Holly Petraeus, CFPB director for servicemember affairs. “Today’s announcement will help prevent future abuses by addressing the problem at its source.”

Since its creation after the recession, the CFPB has recovered more than $98 million for thousands of consumers through multiple enforcement actions against entities whose businesses were largely premised on receiving payments from servicemembers, often through the military allotment system.

Earlier this week, the CFPB issued a reminder to service veterans of their rights to have some of their student debt forgiven, but warned that if they pursue the option they must be vigilant in checking their credit reports for inaccurate information.

Under federal law, veterans can seek federal student loan forgiveness if they receive a 100-percent disability rating by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the CFPB reported.

“We are concerned that, in some circumstances, when veterans are able to discharge their student loans due to their disability, they may experience damage to their credit report if their student loan servicer provides incorrect information to the credit bureaus,” the blog post warned. “These mistakes, if uncorrected, can result in a negative entry on their credit report that makes it harder and more expensive for these disabled veterans to get credit, buy a car or take out a mortgage.”

Pear Industry Super Psyched That Rick Ross Is Sharing His Love Of The Fruit With The “Young And Hip”

Fri, 2014-11-21 21:42

(themikepark)

(themikepark)

While you might not have seen a Vine from last month wherein rapper Rick Ross praises the pear for its contribution to his recent weight loss, sending a shoutout to “all the pear,” there’s one group that pays close attention to all things pear, and it is pretty darn excited that such a cool guy is talking about the fruit.

Modern Farmer says that while a USA Pears spokesperson says there hasn’t yet been an uptick in sales from Ross’ endorsement — shoppers often react to trendy products in pop culture by running out to buy them — the group is pleased as punch by the fact that it’s social media impressions are on the rise. Since the Vine was first posted, Ross’ fans have been touting the power of the pear and giving USA Pears props on Twitter especially, with people competing to outdo Ross’ show of affection.

Getting young, cool people to pay attention? It’s a marketing dream.

“On behalf of our 1,600 pear growers from the Northwest region, we are pleased that Rick has mentioned the health benefits of pears,” the USA Pears spokesperson told Modern Farmer. “Overall, we could not be more pleased with our message being delivered to a new, young and hip demographic.”

Your move, prunes.

Here’s the Vine (turn sound on at the bottom), but spoiler alert — Ross says a naughty word:

Shoutout to All The Pear: U.S. Pear Farmers Thankful to Rick Ross [Modern Farmer]

Court Bars FCC From Diclosing How Much Comcast, DirecTV Pay Broadcasters

Fri, 2014-11-21 21:29

(Great Beyond)

(Great Beyond)

Last week’s last-minute legal battle between just about every major TV broadcaster and the FCC came to quietly disappointing conclusion this morning, with a federal appeals court refusing to allow the government to share confidential details about the mergers of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, and DirecTV and AT&T.

For those coming to this story late, here’s the “previously on…” version:

The FCC is currently scrutinizing these two mergers and had decided to make confidential information — most importantly, the contracts that the pay-TV companies have with TV networks — available for private viewing by lawyers for parties with a direct interest in the deals.

The broadcasters asked the FCC to please rethink its position, arguing that this data is highly confidential and could damage their businesses.

A slim majority at the FCC said no, arguing that the disclosures “will aid the Commission in the expeditious resolution of these proceedings.”

And so the broadcasters — CBS, Disney, Fox, Time Warner, Viacom, Univision — asked a federal appeals court in D.C. to issue a stay preventing the FCC from going through with its plan. The court agreed last Friday, but gave the FCC the chance to make its case before ultimately deciding on whether to make the stay permanent pending judicial review.

Thus, on Monday the FCC filed its response [PDF], arguing that the broadcasters had failed to show that they would be likely to prevail in court on the merits of its claim.

The Commission points out that the networks are not challenging that this information is relevant to the merger review process or that the FCC should have access to it. They just want to block participating third parties from seeing it.

“Given the need for access, Petitioners’ challenges to the protective orders are doomed to failure,” writes the FCC.

One major concern by the broadcasters is that the confidential information would be shared with people beyond the scope of the FCC order, but the Commission claims that its directives “contain multiple safeguards against unwarranted disclosure” and that the broadcasters’ “fears are without any basis.”

The networks offered to provide anonymized documents that would omit the most sensitive data, but the FCC says it determined that this would result in too many redactions and would be “unrealistic and inappropriate.”

Finally, the FCC tried to make the claim that the broadcasters had failed to show that they would suffer irreparable harm by revealing this confidential information to select individuals under controlled conditions. If anything argued the response, a stay would harm consumers and slow the review process.

“Staying the order pending appeal will materially disrupt the current schedule for the Commission’s expeditious review and resolution of the proposed mergers,” concludes the response, “and by itself, could impact the outcome of these applications. Delay would inevitably prolong the regulatory uncertainty associated with the applicants’ business plans, and thereby disserve the public interest.”

In the end, the court settled the matter with only a couple of sentences.

“Petitioners have satisfied the requirements for a stay pending court review,” reads the order [PDF]. “The agency has access to the relevant documents at issue in this matter and can continue to evaluate the proposed merger during the stay.”

This last sentence is of significant importance as it means that the FCC is allowed to use the documents for its own investigation without having to wait until the appeals court rules on the case. Had the court kept the Commission from these docs while the appeal was pending, a decision on these mergers may have been delayed.

Texas Postal Worker Accused Of Delivering Meth On His Mail Route

Fri, 2014-11-21 20:43

(frankieleon)

(frankieleon)

While it might be convenient to tweak one job to allow for working a second at the same time, delivering methamphetamine while out on the postal route is the kind of thing that gets you arrested. A Texas postal worker attempted that kind of illegal multi-tasking, police say, dropping off drugs while doing his mail rounds.

The 39-year-old veteran mailman is facing felony narcotics charges after state investigators and the Drug Enforcement Administration looked into his doings for the last 10 months, reports the Smoking Gun.

Law enforcement received tips that narcotics was being sold from the mailman’s home as well as from the USPS truck he drove on the job. Investigators say he was in his mailman uniform and driving his route in that vehicle, while they watched him delivering meth as part of their surveillance operations.

A raid on his home last week resulted in police seizing $17,000 worth of meth.

Mailman Charged With Distributing Methamphetamine While On His Texas Delivery Route [The Smoking Gun]

Square CEO Says Company Will Accept All Forms Of Payment, Even Apple Pay

Fri, 2014-11-21 20:24

square

While Walmart and other major retailers are deliberately holding off on accepting Apple Pay because they are developing a competing mobile payment system, there are plenty of small businesses who want to offer Apple Pay but don’t want to invest too much in the equipment required to accept it. The folks at Square, which turns your smartphone into a card reader, hope to remove that roadblock early next year when they start enabling clients to accept Apple Pay.

CNN Money reports that Square founder Jack Dorsey announced the move as a way to help businesses accept all forms of payment, even the newest kid on the block.

“We’re not building a credit card,” Dorsey tells CNN. “We’re not building a payment device. We’re building a [cash] register, and this register accepts all these forms of payments.”

Before Square can begin accepting the payment option, it will have to rework its hardware. Square allows businesses to accept credit card payments on iPads and iPhones with the help of an attachable device, but isn’t comparable with Apple Pay just yet.

Square’s inclusion of Apple Pay comes after some retailers including Walmart and CVS have said they won’t accept the payment method. Instead they’ve chosen to stick with CurrentC, the retail industry’s own payment system.

Square will soon accept Apple Pay [CNN Money]

Boston Market: Official Caterer Of People Stuck At Work On Thanksgiving

Fri, 2014-11-21 20:17

boston_marketOne company has definitely benefited from the trend of retailers opening before dinner time on Thanksgiving Day: Boston Market, the restaurant chain that serves fast casual poultry and traditional side dishes year-round. The chain does plenty of rotisserie chicken and mashed potato business year-round and has always been a popular spot for quick dinners and catering on Thanksgiving, but its catering sales have increased for the last few years.

The company told CNN that on Thanksgiving 2013, it catered meals for about 362,000 people who are working at traditional mealtimes. These included people in traditional 365-days-per-year jobs like health care, hotel, and utility workers, and a growing number of big-box retailers including Walmart, Best Buy, and Target. A Boston Market executive credited the increase in business to “the new shopping trend” of opening earlier on Thanksgiving Day.

Boston Market says that it hires 2,000 seasonal workers for the peak poultry season of Thanksgiving through Christmas. This raises the inevitable question of what Boston Market feeds to its employees who are working through the holiday. We can make a few guesses, but they would probably prefer a pizza. The pizzeria, of course, could then order dinner for its employees from Boston Market in turn. I think that’s called “economic growth.”

Boston Market feeds over 300,000 Thanksgiving Day workers [CNN]

93-Year-Old Woman Celebrates 75th Anniversary Working For The Same Company

Fri, 2014-11-21 20:05

(Associated Press video)

(Associated Press video)

She might be eight years younger than the 101-year-old man who’s worked for the same lighting company for 73 years, but at 93, an Alabama woman outstrips his number by two years, as today she celebrates 75 years working at a Birmingham jewelry store.

Frances started working at the family-owned Bromberg & Co. (one of the nation’s oldest family-owned retailers, the Associated Press notes) on Nov. 21, 1939, when she was hired to polish silver. She’s stayed ever since.

“Frances is a remarkable person,” said Bromberg’s President Rick Bromberg, saying she’s still a valued employee who contributes to the bottom line. “She is the longest-serving employee in the history of our company, including family.”

When she started working there she made $8 a week, and was later transferred to gift wrap. Cut to 1970, and Frances was in charge of the company’s multimillion-dollar jewelry inventory.

“Anything I wanted to do in the store I started going it,” she said. “I’d go move from one department to the other because I just like going around in the store and looking at the pretty things.”

The company held a celebratory breakfast for her this morning on her workiversary.

She says she’d like to keep working as long as she can.

“Last year I thought I was going to have to give up because of the fact I broke my hip several years ago, had knee surgery and all those things,” she said. “But I snapped back every time.”

93-year-old woman marks 75 years with same company [Associated Press]

The Most Expensive Blue Diamond You’ll Ever See, But Never Touch Sold For $32.6M

Fri, 2014-11-21 19:07

This 9.75-carat blue diamond set two world records when it was auctions for $32.5 million dollars at Sotheby's Thursday.  (Sotheby's)

This 9.75-carat blue diamond set two world records when it was auctions for $32.5 million dollars at Sotheby’s Thursday. (Sotheby’s)

In the past, Consumerist has reported on some high-priced, heavily sought-after auction items –– there was the most valuable stamp that sold for $9.5 million and the world’s most expensive bottle of whiskey priced at $628,205. But combining those two winning bid wouldn’t even get you close to half of the $32.6 million someone bid to win a blue diamond at Sotheby’s Thursday night.

Forbes reports that the $32.645 million winning bid for the 9.75-carat fancy vivid blue diamond set two records: the highest bid for a blue diamond and the highest price-per-carat for any diamond ($3,348,205 per-carat).

The diamond, which was from the collection of heiress and philanthropist Rachel Lambert Mellon, also shattered its high estimated bid price of $15 million.

“From the moment I saw this diamond, I knew that it would be one of the most important stones that I will ever have the privilege of presenting at auction,” Gary Schuler, head of Sotheby’s Jewelry Department in New York, tells Forbes. “Mrs Mellon’s diamond absolutely deserves the place in the record books that it achieved tonight.”

In all, seven bidders spent 20 minutes trying to win the pear-shaped diamond. The gem ultimately sold to a Hong Kong private collector, who named it “The Zoe Diamond,” Forbes reports.

The previous high-bid blue diamond record holder sold for $24.3 million at Christie’s in London in 2008. The earlier per-carat auction record of $2.4 million per-carat was set by a 14.82-carat fancy vivid orange diamond at Christie’s in Geneva in 2013.

My colleague Chris says I can’t run a story about blue diamonds without including this:

Bunny Mellon’s Blue Diamond Sells For More Than $32.6 Million, Sets Two World Auction Records [Forbes]

Expect To See More Ads Pretending To Be Editorial Content

Fri, 2014-11-21 19:01

This lovely story -- which grossly overestimates my affection for kale -- is currently sitting at the top of the Buzzfeed homepage. Expect to me 34% more of this kind of crap in the coming year... You were warned.

This lovely story — which grossly overestimates my affection for kale — is currently sitting at the top of the Buzzfeed homepage. Expect to me 34% more of this kind of crap in the coming year… You were warned.

At the same time as Google is looking to give some sites a way to make money by not running ads, advertisers are ramping up their spending on ads that look like editorial content and can’t be avoided with any ad-blocking plugin.

We’ve written before about the prevalence of so-called “native” advertising — sponsored articles dressed up to look like it is part of the editorial content of the site you’re reading — and the many ways in which sites disclose (or obscure) that the story is bought and paid for.

But in spite of the fact that consumers don’t need another listicle (paid for by Naked Juice) about the benefits of chia seeds, or posed photos of a food website’s editor showing off the latest Gap clothing, or advice from Converse on how to be more creative, AdAge reports that many of the country’s biggest advertisers, including GE and Ford, plan to increase the amount of money they spend on this nonsense.

In all, advertisers are expected to spend $4.3 billion (yes, that’s a “b”) in 2015 on native advertising, a 34% increase over the amount wasted this year on stories written by Boeing about submarines and Toyota-sponsored lists about people who “Elevated Their Transportation Game,” which are four words that vaguely sound like they might mean something when strung together.

To make it easier to shoehorn in this alien content, advertisers are even paying for some sites’ editorial staffs to create these story-length ads.

But these advertisers might be tossing billions of dollars into the abyss as native advertising poses a huge risk with the chance of little reward.

Unlike traditional advertising, which tries to get as many eyeballs on an ad as possible, native advertising is usually very targeted to a specific audience. GE can run the same dishwasher ad on countless sites, but it can only choose one or two places to post its advertorial quiz. If that fails, the campaign is sunk.

Which is why so many of these native ads use clickbait headlines and appear on sites that every friend of yours from high school can’t stop linking to on Facebook. Not only does this increase the odds of the ad being shared, but as we recently pointed out, it also further obscures the fact that the content is sponsored.

Native advertising also gets around plugins that block online ads from being served up on web pages, so while all those banners, GIFs, and videos in a site’s sidebars might be stopped by your plugin, you’ll still be faced with some story about Depends from Kimberly-Clark.

That said, some folks, including my colleague Laura, say that the Ad Detector plugin for Firefox and Chrome does do a decent job of flagging these sponsored stories so that you don’t waste your time clicking on them.

McDonald’s Worker Accused Of Sticking Glass In Cop’s Big Mac In 2005 Wins $437K

Fri, 2014-11-21 19:00

(SarahSphar)

(SarahSphar)

It’s the end of a long story that started back in 2005, when a New York City police officer said he bit into shards of glass in his Big Mac after picking up food from the drive-thru a McDonald’s in the Bronx. An 18-year-old cashier confessed to the alleged crime, and the officer sued the franchise for $6 million. But the worker recanted his confession and was later acquitted of charges related to the incident, and the officer settled for $15,000 back in 2009. It was that settlement that paved the way for the cashier to fight back against the city, arguing that the officer made the whole thing up to sue the city for money. He’s won a settlement with NYC himself, nabbing $437,000 for his efforts this week.

The worker was acquitted in 2010, after his defense team argued that he had been under pressure from four detectives at the time, which is why he felt pressured to confess. And after the police officer settled with the city, it allowed his lawyer to get his hands on the depositions from that time and uncover crucial inconsistencies in the story, reports the Associated Press.

Previously, the worker had tried to argue that it was a fabrication, but the case was dismissed in 2012, a decision that a lower state appeals court upheld. But then, the New York State Supreme Court decided to hear the case earlier this month, leading the city to offer him the settlement this week.

“I was thrilled when I found out,” the now a 28-year-old said.”I really thought this wasn’t going to happen.”

His attorney said the depositions showed inconsistencies within the officer’s story of that night, where the cop claimed he’d driven away and bitten into the glassy burger. After that he’d stopped to take care of his canine partner, before calling his superior and heading to the hospital.

Despite what he’d told other officers, medical records from that ER visit show that there were no apparent symptoms of swallowing glass, the worker’s attorney argued, and that the officer’s claim that he’d talked to his family doctor later about finding glass in his stool weren’t true — the doctor testified that the conversation never happened.

Restaurant workers also testified that the worker had been a half hour late the night of the incident, and wasn’t even on duty when the officer bought his Big mac. Somehow that information never made it into the police report, the lawyer says.

Now, almost 10 years later, the workers says he’s happy to finally have some closure.

“It’s not fair what they did,” he said. “It makes a lot of good officers look bad.”

For more background on the story, check out this 2010 piece from the New York Times.

McDonald’s worker charged in glass-in-Big Mac case wins $437K [The Associated Press]

Dish Customers Get Cartoon Network, CNN Back After Month-Long Blackout

Fri, 2014-11-21 18:21

adventuretimeJust hours after averting (for now) a blackout of CBS-owned stations in 14 markets, Dish Network has made nice with another of its foes in the broadcasting world, ending the month-long blackout of Turner channels like CNN, HLN, and the Cartoon Network.

It’s a temporary peace at best, as the end of the blackout doesn’t mean that the two parties have reached a deal. Instead, Dish and Turner have agreed to temporarily extend their previous agreement while they continue to hash out new terms.

This means that CNN, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, truTV, TCM, HLN, CNN en Espanol and Boomerang are coming back to Dish subscribers’ screens, and that rumored potential blackouts of Turner-owned TBS and TNT are off the table.

During the blackout, Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen didn’t help ease tensions between the two sides when he publicly questioned the importance of CNN to a pay-TV company’s lineup.

“Twenty years ago, CNN was a must-have channel, but it’s not a top 10 network anymore,” said Ergen at the time.

Why Big Companies Spend So Much Money On Washington: It Works Even Better Than You Think

Fri, 2014-11-21 18:10

(darrenleno)

(darrenleno)

That money talks in Washington is conventional wisdom for a reason. Corporations, industries, and a handful of extraordinarily wealthy individuals spend big bucks on campaigns and on lobbying not for fun, but because they expect to get something back in return. And while adding up all those expenditures is comparatively straightforward, finding out who gets how much back has been harder… until now. A new study finds that billions of dollars might go into D.C., but trillions are coming back out.

The Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit, released a study this month they call Fixed Fortunes. In their research, the Foundation looked at six years of campaign and lobbying spending by the nation’s 200 largest corporate spenders (“the Fixed Fortune 200″), and compared it to the favorable returns those companies get.

The numbers are as depressing as they are large. In total, the 200 organizations spent a combined $5.8 billion on federal lobbying and campaign contributions. Corporations (or the people who run them) might be avaricious, but they’re not stupid: nobody spends that much without getting a solid return from their investment. And so they do: together, over the same six-year span, those corporations received $4.4 trillion in federal business and support.

In a rough sense, for every dollar they spend on Washington, the biggest companies in the U.S. are getting more than $750 back. With outcomes that good, it’s no wonder spending on politics keeps going up.

The returns from the feds take all kinds of forms. Sometimes lobbying results in policies and industries more favorable to a company’s long-term interests, but sometimes it also means actual cash in hand in the form of loans, grants, or lucrative contracts:
For example, the federal government issued contracts to purchase goods and services that totaled a little more that $3 trillion during the period; companies among the top 200 corporate political givers won $1 trillion of that, a third of the total. The Treasury Department managed $410 billion in loans and other assistance issued under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, created by Congress to cope with the 2008 financial crisis; of that amount, $298 million, about 73 percent, went to 16 firms among the Fixed Fortune 200. When the Federal Reserve took extraordinary measures in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, it funneled nearly $2.8 trillion through 29 Fixed Fortune firms. The companies that participated the most in politics got huge returns.

The companies come from all sectors, the Foundation reports. Finance takes about a quarter of the slots, with 48 businesses far and away making the largest number of campaign donations time and time again. Of the other three-quarters, 28 fall into communications and electronics, 21 in healthcare, 13 in defense and aerospace, 13 in agribusiness, 11 in “energy and natural resources” (mining, oil, etc), and 7 in transportation.

The “Fixed Fortune 200″ gave to roughly a quarter of all Congressional incumbents (approx. 144 members) in each election cycle, the Foundation found. The same group also accounted for roughly 1% of all lobbying clients (there are over 20,000), but for more than a quarter, 26%, of all lobbying spending.

The Foundation looked at a six-year span — 2007 through 2012 — specifically because they wanted to include spending both before and after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling. In that case, and again in 2014′s similar McCutcheon ruling, the Court held that when it comes to politics, money is protected speech and therefore spending can’t be limited. The ability to buy your way into a favorable political outcome, therefore, is protected.

The Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, also found that influence is only tantamount to corruption if it reaches cartoon-villain levels of obviousness. Since nobody is handing over giant burlap sacks with dollar signs printed on the side in exchange for mysterious briefcases, it’s all above-board and legal.

Spending, meanwhile, continues to increase. Candidates, their campaigns, the parties, and donors spent about $1.5 billion (with a B) on the 2014 midterms. That’s on top of the $3.24 billion spent on formal lobbying last year, and the $2.4 billion and counting spent this year.

In the six-year span covered by the Sunlight Foundation study, General Electric was the biggest overall spender, to the tune of over $151 million. GE, in turn, received $23.5 billion in federal business and $19.6 billion in federal support during that same time period.

However, GE was nowhere near the biggest recipient of federal business, which the Foundation defines as including government contracts and some other transactions. That honor goes to massive defense contractor Lockheed Martin, unsurprisingly, with $204.2 billion of business from the feds. Fellow defense and aerospace contractors Boeing ($187.9 billion) and Northrop Grumman ($88.6 billion) were right behind.

The biggest recipients of government support (“including loans, loan guarantees, grants, and money advanced to companies in the aftermath of the financial crisis”) were, again unsurprisingly, all banks. Citigroup received $503.4 billion of support, followed by JPMorgan Chase with $485.6 billion and Bank of America at $457.1 billion.

You can browse the full table, or download the data set to do your own analyses, by clicking here.

Fixed Fortunes: Biggest corporate political interests spend billions, get trillions [Sunlight Foundation]

You Can Now Share Tweets Using Twitter’s Direct Messages

Fri, 2014-11-21 18:00

(SarahMcGowen)

(SarahMcGowen)

Though it might seem like a feature that should’ve been in place already, the ability for Twitter users to share tweets of interest via the platform’s direct messages option is something the company just rolled out this week.

Now when you see a specific tweet that you want to share privately, there are options other than simply retweeting it or quoting it within Twitter, Twitter says in a new blog post. Sharing tweets within Twitter? What a novel idea!

On the Twitter site, Tweet Deck and iOS and Android Twitter apps, users can click on a tweet in their timeline and select “Share via Direct Message,” which will beam the link straight to the friend of their choosing.

Before this change, users would have had to copy the URL of the specific tweet and paste it into a direct message, an extra step that again, one might think Twitter would’ve remedied before now, seeing as sharing within Twitter is just logical.

Why have a messaging function if not to share the content from that same platform easily? Oh right, for famous people to accidentally not understand what they’re doing and send private messages on their public timelines instead.

Amazon Reportedly Launching Hotel Booking Site In 2015

Fri, 2014-11-21 17:58

(Natasha L.)

(Natasha L.)

Consumers preparing to go on vacation might peruse Amazon for the necessities: sunscreen, rafts, hiking backpacks –– you name it and the online retailer probably has it. Unless, of course, you were looking to book your lodging. But that’s about to change now that the e-tailer is reportedly gearing up to launch its own hotel-booking service that would compete with the likes of TripAdvisor and Booking.com..

Skift reports that Amazon is poised to launch Amazon Travel, a site dedicated to booking at independent hotels and resorts near major cities, around January 1.

The site’s initial rollout will reportedly feature a selection of hotels within a few hours of New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

Citing representatives of three independent hotels, Skift reports that Amazon’s aim with the new service is to create a marketplace for independent and boutique hotels that might not have the marketing power afforded to larger chains or online travel agencies.

Amazon did not respond to Skift’s request for comment on the new venture.

Of the hotels that Skift spoke with, two had already signed on with Amazon, while the third was giving the proposition “heavy consideration.”

According to the hoteliers, properties would load their room types, availability, pricing information, and photos into an Amazon extranet and would pay a standard 15% commission to Amazon for the prepaid bookings.

When a consumers decides to book with the hotel, Amazon sends the property an email notification and the hotels update their calendar on the extranet.

The properties would receive their payments from Amazon for the booked stays in two installments and could attempt to negotiate a lower commission rate, Skift reports.

One hotelier tells Skift that Amazon used TripAdvisor ratings as part of their criteria for selecting properties to participate in the new service. He says the e-tailer would only use a few properties per destination and those hotels would have to be rated four stars or above.

So far, it appears that Amazon Travel would only be focusing on hotels, but could eventually add flights and other travel accommodations.

A hotelier that already signed on to the service, says they were persuaded to do so by Amazon’s enormous customer base.

While Amazon Travel might offer similar hotel options to other travel sites like Booking.com, Skift reports that Amazon’s model is significantly different.

Although both sites would use an agency/commission model, Amazon appears to be starting with prepaid bookings. Booking.com generally offers a pay-at-the-hotel model for consumers.

For that reason and the fact that one hotelier said they would have to wait for two payments from Amazon, Skift envisions it could be difficult to persuade hoteliers to join the new service.

However, by targeting a large niche market – independent and boutique hotels – Amazon is setting itself apart from the competition which largely focuses on large chain properties.

Robert Cole, a hotel consultant with RockCheeta, tells Skift that Amazon’s presence in the hotel market will likely shake things up.

“A key will be if Amazon can create a great user experience and drive traffic,” he says. “Travel is a big global market without shipping/logistics costs. Thinking special Amazon Prime deals are a no-brainer when running at scale”

Skift reports this isn’t Amazon’s first time entering the travel market. In 2001 and 2006 the company partnered with Expedia and SideStep, respectively. In the partnership with SideStep, the company created an Amazon travel store offering flight, hotel, car and vacation package searches.

Exclusive: Amazon to Get Into Hotel Booking With Launch of Travel Site [Skift]

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