Seven Deadly Rabbit Holes

Here’s something I wrote while working on my Master’s Thesis, which is probably not relevant enough to include in the final draft. Nonetheless it makes for a good read. Seven is a magic number for the right brain.

According to Jungian author Christopher Booker, there are just seven basic plots in storytelling. You can plot out the steps in these stories, bit by bit, whether it’s plucky David armed with nothing but his slingshot against Goliath, Alice running down a rabbit hole, or sassy Carrie Bradshaw outwitting the Abu Dhabi government in Sex and the City 2.

All stories follow these rules. The most masterly storytellers play with the form — sometimes enough to disguise it: Joyce, for instance, or Virginia Woolf. That’s a sign of genius and proof of the adage, you need to know the rules to break them.

Now consider: there are also just seven notes in the [western] musical scale before you’re back at the tonic (the same note an octave higher or lower). However, no one would tell you there isn’t infinite space to play within those seven notes when you add meter, harmony, assonance, dissonance, silence and so on. The greatest jazz masters like Monk or Coltrane were accused of changing the form, which is another way of saying playing with it — which is one syllable from saying playing within it.

There are seven deadly sins. No one in their right mind would ever claim there aren’t infinitely creative ways to sin. (Take a bow, Mister Trump!)

Here’s an interesting bit of trivia my father-in-law, a renowned psychologist and memory expert, once told me. When Bell Labs were designing the still relevant and working North American phone system, the psychology of the day suggested that seven is the peak number of facts people can retain in a clump. Gosh, we just love our sevens and live our entire history within their seemingly finite parameters!

Being Careful For What You Wish For


Willy Wonka’s factory without all the horrid child-killing? Mecca with alcohol? How would you describe your bucket lister?

The following is an earlier draft of a story I wrote for AutoTrader. Here’s the original but I wanted to share the below because of the nature of the article. It was about the closest you can get to wish fulfillment without beginning the story with ‘Once upon a time’. But upon completing the draft I decided it was too much about the fantasy — an all-expenses-paid opportunity to record at the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama — and not enough about the car.  So, take it away, Past Steve . . .

Of Apathy, Fantasy Fulfillment and the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid

05/04/16: It’s nearly midnight, I’m half drunk and touching — with my fingers — the master recording that Gregg Allman made earlier this week. Yes, that Gregg Allman and this week. Ten minutes earlier, I was recording in the same vocal booth he’d sung in three days prior. Five minutes later, my friend Peter and I are holding decades-old recordings by Otis Redding, Wilson Picket, Clarence Carter — they were just lingering on another shelf.


Vintage recordings by the ‘Wicked’ Wilson Pickett, the great Aretha Franklin and the faabulous Liza Minnelli just linger on the shelves like old socks.


In the control room, the master of the session Gregg Allman completed 3 days ago … just sits there. Don’t pinch me..

OK, I’m not half drunk, but wholly so. Still, in the words of the surprisingly not dead Slash, “that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.” Don’t pinch me.

Welcome to what may be the most fractured story you read this year.

GM USA invited eight automotive writers including two Canadians, all hobbyist amateur musicians of varying levels of talent and polish, on a magical mystery tour down part of the Gold Record Road in the heart of the South. The PR team would only say the trip begins in Nashville and culminates with “a big surprise you’ll love” during a visit to Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

It’s hard to explain what a visit to Muscle Shoals’ famous studios means to a music enthusiast. Mecca with alcohol? Heaven with electrified harps? Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory without the creepy child-killing? This was bucket-list stuff.

Somehow, my name accidentally got on the list and I greedily accepted the invitation before they could rescind. I sort of “knew” it had be the opportunity to record; anything else would be a letdown after such a teasing intro. My mind was swimming. Oh and, by the way, “you’ll be driving the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid,” they’d said.

“We are storytellers,” Joe Jacuzzi from GM explained, 13 hours earlier.

Press trips always begin with a presentation by the hosts. “The trouble Chevrolet has been facing and fighting lately is public apathy. We need to get our story out there.” Actually, it’s a good story they have. Chevrolet has rethought and re-launched all of its products within the last three years, five of them this year alone. And all these new products sell for less than last year’s models while delivering more perks and better performance.

Now you may wonder: Why would an auto vendor want to tell stories when what they need is to deliver sales? Good question. It’s been proven (as much as it can be with studies of the brain) that humans learn from narrative. Storytelling is how we passed wisdom on and survived as a species; so no wonder we love them. When a marketer’s story touches you, you’re more likely to remember the product when it’s time to purchase.


Consider the musical and cultural implications.


A bullet hole for authenticity. As Rod Stewart sang “Every picture tells a story.” And as Joe Jacuzzi told us, “We are story tellers.”

So what is the story here, I wondered? The Chevrolet brand does feature deeply in American pop culture to be sure, especially music. This trip was a musical journey into the very heart of Americana where Chevrolet traditionally lies. But I never pictured Rapid Roy the Stock Car Boy in a Spark on Sunday afternoons, nor Don McLean driving a Malibu to the dry levy. The citizens of Muscle Shoals and Malibu do both factor heavily into the American music scene but the respective cultures clash. (Try saying “Malibama” without smiling.)

Then it hit me: American music, especially rock and roll is, by definition, a hybrid: “a thing made by combining two different elements”. Rock and roll, one of America’s greatest gifts to the world after Chia Pets and Slinkies, is a hybrid of traditional black and white musics: blues, gospel, country and bluegrass. This idea for a story could work just fine.

But it wasn’t needed. Once we got in the car for the drive to Muscle Shoals, I realized it’s a damn good car that speaks for itself.


Do you agree that this draft doesn’t talk enough about the car?

The 2016 Malibu looks more European than traditionally American.

We got the Malibu Hybrids out onto the road out of Nashville, heading south. This is territory where rock and roll was born of country and the blues. Elvis would’ve driven some of these roads. Several of us stopped at Hank Williams’ farm, which is now owned by Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. I’d call it a once-in-a-lifetime experience but had just been here driving the Chevrolet Cruze, which looks like a kid brother of the Malibu, two weeks before. I even took a few similarly posed photos.

The Malibu Hybrid is a comfortable and quiet ride. Which was great for listening to music with the sunroof open and the blessed southern sunshine pouring in. If it had been cold, I could’ve experienced an interesting feature, uncommon for the price. The thermal recovery system takes heat that would typically leak out the exhaust pipe and use it to warm the cabin. That’s just the heat. You won’t asphyxiate.

The powertrain borrows ideas from the new Volt but is not the same. The 1.8L 4-cylinder engine is larger than the Volt’s 1.5L and smaller battery housed and cooled in the trunk. It’s small enough that you can put the back seats down and make use of the space.


We wrote and recorded a song about an auto junketeer whose life was rolling along like a Chevrolet until it all went bad.

The transition between electric and gasoline powered drives isn’t noticeable unless you’re looking for it. In fact, it’s not meant to feel like a hybrid at all. Driving the Alabama highway on my last miles into Muscle Shoals, the mind meanders like the Tennessee River. I start singing along to the radio, appropriately playing Lynyrd Skynyrd as though we’d requested it, “’cause I don’t feel like a hybrid, and this ‘brid don’t never change.” OK, so it ain’t Shakespeare but . . .

Speaking of the actual meaning of hybrid, this car includes a regenerative braking system and regular, umm you know, brakes. You can maximize the efficiency of the former by getting to know the cruise control well at highway speeds. It also warms up your fingers for playing music at the end of a day’s driving. I slowly rolled into the Shoals Hotel parking lot, breathless with anticipation and as giddy as a maiden on her wedding night.

The Producer knows Sheryl Crow, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban and … me.


“So I was saying to Sheryl Crow the other day ‘Don’t pinch me.'”

This town hasn’t assumed its own value as a tourism draw yet; a pity, because the music that’s come out of here — the population is 9,000ish — rivals LA and New York. There are two famous recording studios in Muscle Shoals. A bus takes us first to 3614 Jackson Highway, The Swampers’ legendary space where the Stones recorded Brown Sugar and Wild Horses. It looks like a tiny, down-on-its-luck legion hall. Next, Fame Studios, Rick Hall’s musical Shangri la, isn’t much more impressive, looking like a suburban burger shack that had its last bath in 1978. Their neighbourhoods feature clapped out plazas with gun stores and pharmacies side by each. (Get your schizophrenia meds and ammunition in one trip!) “Want to see inside?” we’re asked.

“Of course, but what are we doing here?” I ask the GM team, who smile back, excited to let the secret out very, very soon. First, dial the clock back 24 hours.


Frank Rogers has recorded with Keith Urban, Brad Paisley and, now, me.

No one blames you for not trusting all you read on the Internet but, according to Wikipedia, Frank Rogers’ “work has resulted 39 Number One songs, over 70 Top Twenty songs and multiple RIAA certified multi platinum, platinum and gold records.” He couldn’t possibly need the money, so we surmise that he must really want to work with us. On this trip’s opening night, we meet him in Nashville over a private dinner and learn that we will not be leaving the room till we’ve composed a new song together — because songs are stories and we’re all storytellers.

Somebody suggests an ode to a character who exists only on Facebook called Frank Bacon, an amalgam of all the worst traits you find in junketeering auto journalists. You can picture it. He brings an empty thermos into business class and leaves flights with it filled. He invents diet restrictions to drive publicists insane. In our story, inspired by his favourite childhood nursery rhymes and teen movies, he comes to breakfast, “demanding curds and whey”. Three hours and several gallons of expensive whiskies later, we have a draft of the Ballad of Frank Bacon who “wants you all to know, he was disappointed with the quality of blow”. It was getting confusing having two Franks in the room — both of whom enjoy far better lives than us, even if one was fictitious — and Frank Rogers wished us a splendid trip to Muscle Shoals the next day.

Back to the present: “Oh my, is that the piano Alicia Keys was playing in the documentary?” I ask. The engineer confirms it. Here in Studio 2, which is decorated in a style best described as ‘70s suburban-basement-cum-treehouse, we will record The Ballad of Frank Bacon, produced by (oh, come on, stop it!) Frank Rogers who has just walked in the back door.


The piano bench is still warm from when Alicia Keys was sitting on it.

It’s all too much. Aretha Franklin recorded here. Percy Sledge, Etta James, Linda Rondstadt, Art Garfunkel, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart, even Tom Jones and the Osmonds recorded here. Now we will. I will.

And I swear the piano bench is still smouldering from Alicia’s perfect rump when I sit down to butcher a scale.

Five hours later, we’re finished recording but it will take weeks to process all that’s gone on here tonight — and that has nothing to do with the deliciously constipating effect of the mounds of Southern barbecue we enjoyed around 8pm outside in the parking lot. My friend Peter is glowing like a newlywed on the morning after. What he writes will be his last piece for the recently right-sized Toronto Star Wheels section. “It’s good to go out on a bang,” he agrees.

Extra goodies for your Malibu Hybrid dollars

Your Malibu Hybrid includes a rearview camera, MyLink Radio System with 7” touchscreen, compatibility with Adroid Auot and Apple CarPlay and the ability to turn your car into a Wi-fi hotspot (explained here).

Another feature to make anyone with a sense of humour smile is the Teen Driver, whose unique key for your son or daughter (let’s face it: son!) triggers a modified driving experience. Teen Driver mutes the radio until seat belts are done up. It issues an alert when your teen exceeds a civilized, preset speed and piles on the interventionist safety technologies. Best of all, it sends parents a “Report Card” that no doubt provides many teachable moments for families. The parent of two young drivers in me doesn’t disapprove — but when I was a kid this feature would’ve been called the Narc and about as un-rock-and-roll as you can get.

– By Steven Bochenek

PS. The story was written two months ago. GM actually did release a ready-for-prime-time recording of the song. If you’d like to hear and read along with the lyrics, email and I’ll send it free. Just remember the composers and players were amateur and immature.

6 Surefire Cures For Insomnia

Among the only things more annoying than listicle headlines, like the above, is the word listicle itself. Having just turned 50, it puts me in mind of uncomfortable visits to the doctor.

Anyway . . .

I’ve been debating (with myself) whether to share this link to a major assignment in a course I recently took for my Master’s degree. Unlike the physical Steve, I’m rather shy online (doesn’t anyone else loathe the phrase ‘your personal brand’?) and will probably never be at home in this share-everything-out-loud culture we’re sprinting into as a species.

That discomfiture probably has to do with how I was raised. I wasn’t a model student in high school. A diagnosis of profound ADHD in my adulthood answered a lot of questions. (The original and less scientific explanation was laziness and willful ignorance, bless them!)

Anyway, to make a long story longer and simple one confusing, I’ve always written well but it’s only been in the past year that I ever thought I could be an OK student. However, I’ve been scoring marks in the high 80s in all my courses so far and received a 95% on this project. So my diagnosis is, what the hell, may as well share it and see if anyone cares.

(Given that the aforementioned debate was with myself, you get to decide whether I won, lost or tied.)

First, as we say in the academy, some background: The course was called Learning Theory and Program Design and unless you’ve undertaken an Inter-disciplinary Master’s in Communications and Education, it may not be all that exciting for you. Mind if you’re having trouble sleeping, this may be just your cup of chamomile.

The project is a thorough re-visitation of a course within this course, through another course. (Potheads, rejoice! That sentence is not an error.)

We were assigned, as part of this education-design set of lessons, to take another class, but something hobbyish a la yoga, knitting, pole-dancing, etcetera, and review it in some interesting way. My proposal was to repeat the main lessons, ideas and exercises within each of the course’s seven units — all through the lens of yoga lessons.

(NB: Actually there are only six entries, not seven sections, because the first unit was thoroughly introductory, meeting and getting to know people in my group-work assignment. It turns out, as you’ll see in unit five, that learning is a social activity and — with this revelation — I’ve come to hate group work much less.) Anyway . . .

To my surprise, the proposal was approved! As say surprise because I was up front about my motives. Remember my context: A week into this course, I had reluctantly returned to Canada, solo (albeit briefly) after nearly a year in Lombardy, Italy. I knew that the yoga classes would help me adjust and possibly work off some of the pizzocheri lingering behind my belt.

It’s a ton of information, review and observation. To make it a little less dull, I chose to present within a blog. There are six entries, one for each unit and, as with many blogs, for accurate context you should start at the bottom of the pile in the past. So start here then go here.

Sleep well, my followers, connections and friends, sleep well.


Oh, sure. NOW You Give Me the Award!

Welcome back. It’s been months since my last update, so I hope you didn’t wait up. I left beer in the fridge for you, so it couldn’t have been too hellish.

Congratulate me. I won the 2014 Canadian Auto Journalist of the Year award. Well, the runner-up spot. (Always the Brideshead and never the Downton Abbey.) But it’s still a pretty big honour. Sadly, I couldn’t attend the Automobile Journalists of Canada (AJAC) banquet this year where they announce the awards and everyone who doesn’t win feels like a heel. (I’ve been twice before and remember.) I was too busy packing.

I have moved to Italy. My wife got a great job here in Milan. Our kids are away at university. I can write from anywhere. So this was the perfect time. Besides, it wasn’t like this auto journalism thing was going anywhere.

Thanks, God. You rock my world with irony.

I’m still offering freelance marketing to clients from anywhere on the planet. And if you need a car reviewed, please ship it to Milan and send me an email.

American Hustle: Oscar Ads in 90210

Who markets better than the Academy Awards? Consider. It’s a 3-hour ad most of us seek out to view! Then, after seeing the ad, we dutifully hurry out to ‘purchase’ its products. Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 1.48.46 PM  Fact: Each year, just before Oscar voting, film distributors lobby very hard for their nominees, spending heaps on B2B advertising to influence Academy members. In early 2008, I got to experience some of it up close.

Our family was visiting friends who, for work reasons, had been shipped to Beverly Hills (and, yes, their zip code was that one Jason Priestly and Shannen Doherty made infamous).

So many members of the Academy live in 90210 that the studios simply do DM drops to every house there, trolling for votes.

You should’ve seen the pieces: dimensional, beautiful and fully budgeted. One stood out, though. Remember Ratatouille, a cartoon about a talking rat who makes bouillabaisse and coq au vin? It was shortlisted for Best Animated Feature but its direct mail was as award-worthy as any I’ve ever seen.

Riffing on the clichés of traditional French cuisine, it was dressed up as a fancy menu. The letter openly addressed the reader, ‘Cher Academy Member’. And the reader’s choices on the menu? All the reasons to vote for Ratatouille. The client got their laundry list of bullets in a format that encouraged long over-the-top-funny copy. Things like ‘a feast for the eyes, drizzled with spicy nuance and a truly satisfying finish’… you know.

It makes you wonder what concept/formats landed on 90210 porches this January: • a Bible for Philomena? • a stack of 20s for Wolf of Wall Street? • maybe Captain Philipss personal log! And just imagine what sordid ideas were left on some copywriter’s floor, flogging American Hustle.

No, I didn’t try to write off the trip as a business expense — though I am 25 Years a Copywriter.



Writing Money Porn

Congratulate me. The piece I wrote for YYZ Living (it’s a magazine, not those campers living at TO’s airport since the cold snap struck five days ago) was published. Delayed a few months, it’s nonetheless a solid article sitting prettily in of those magazines you find in expensive hotels — and, yes, airport lounges. In short, it’s money porn. I’ve had ads in these, but never articles. Feather, meet cap! More below …

Screen Shot 2014-01-10 at 1.38.50 PM The article’s about decadent Montréal during Formula One race weekend. This already hip city gets positively dirty for three days every May. Primarily a European pastime, F1 is playtime for the ultra-rich and its annual tour only has two stops in North America. Neither is, nor will either ever be, Toronto. Interestingly, décadent also translate to falling apart. Appropriate given the place’s politics and infrastructure. (Not that TO’s a model of good governance but you’d hardly call us decadent.)

Two years running, I was lucky enough to experience F1 with the so-called One Percent, hosted by the Infiniti-Red Bull team in their F1 Paddock, directly upstairs from world champion Sebastien Vettel’s garage. Which is cleaner than your spa. My first year they won the series. This year they also won Montreal. Storybook stuff with fine Champagne.

The final article wasn’t exactly what I’d submitted but most made it to print unedited. Can’t read the PDFs below? The software makes it impossible print the article. Simply click on the following link, then use the tools at the bottom to jump you to page 71. Sorry to put you through such perdition:  Enjoy!

Screen Shot 2014-01-10 at 1.44.28 PMScreen Shot 2014-01-10 at 2.10.49 PMScreen Shot 2014-01-10 at 2.11.05 PM

“Hey, this marketing stuff works.”

Apologies. The last blog update, about a well received Canadian Cancer Society brochure I wrote, was 5 weeks ago. I know, I know. What about my personal brand, trending numbers and what about the children?!

Screen Shot 2014-01-09 at 5.16.48 PM Well, remember that old saw about the cobbler’s kids being the poorest shod on the street? That’s how it is with many marketing people. We’re too busy doing others’ marketing to put shoes on our children.

Or something like that.

Worse, though, are those who do market regularly but just blabble jargonsphere. “Our meta-optimized SEO social guru synergies are granular and results-oriented!” Which is inevitably followed by “Let’s talk!”

Yet just after my last update, below, the same Cancer Society called and hired me to write another piece because — wait for it — they liked the writing.

What a refreshing reminder: it’s actual communication combined with a well-timed push that makes it rain. Not just the constant push of noise. Put that in your 2.0 user-generated tagcloud and incentivize it.

For your free copy of the brochure, email

Using Our Decluttering Powers For Good

Ever notice how all advertising workers call all others’ work ‘clutter’? Indeed, this industry jargon’s become so entrenched, it’s less cliché than dogma. Or mantra. Let’s recite it: “Our work breaks through their clutter!” Congratulations, you’ve just attended 10,000 advertising pitches.

Well, it’s late November here and the holiday fortissimo is deafening. While my work is breaking through your clutter, I don’t feel too guilty. My children have shoes and the house is still heated. Besides, this brochure for the Canadian Cancer Society just came online. (Read more below.)

Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 8.10.14 AM

The brief was specific: 16 pages and an encouraging concept that wouldn’t overwhelm readers with reproachful lashings of advice. Change is hard, though. Even one change at a time. Still, so how to instill all this useful advice?

“How about gradual and simple changes, introduced month by month?” I suggested. Over a year (12 pages, 1 for each month — note the seasonality of the pictures) we’d coach readers to assimilate scores of better habits, in stages. The concept provided a reason to group loads of topics into manageable sections, then left 4 pages for covers, intro and closing. Clutter-free!

The final result makes me feel good and I’d like you to read it. For your free copy, contact:


Babies, weddings, puppies, celebrities and … pardon?

David Ogilvy loved research. He also loved a tipple. Dave knew that when you create work reflecting people’s interests, they’ll look at it. Makes sense.

His interviews with consumers — aka research — led him to conclude that people will look at pictures of babies, weddings, cute animals, royalty and … wait a sec. Royalty? It was the early ’60s; forgive him. Today he’d surely say celebrities.

But there’s no quick save for this last one: Mr Ogilvy believed people are keenly interested in, ahem, trains. Maybe he meant travel and its concomitant glamour. Shedding the quotidian drudgery with the capricious possibilities of the moment and all that.

Or maybe it was just the tipple.

Then again, above ad for GAMMEX surgical gloves (tell all your surgeon and chief nurse friends to hurry out and buy lots) ticks the babies box. Seems DO was right. There are two more ads coming soon. One woos readers with celebrity, if you consider the nerd-cachet of brain surgery. And the other? Well, let’s just say we can always use trains next year.


May? Students’ll Be Switching Majors

Ask any 20-something how important video is to the online experience these days and he’ll probably ignore you, distracted by an online video experience. Ask him how often he’s changed career directions and his parents may ask you to leave.

Hence this introductory video written for BOLD Design of Toronto. Their client is a provincial service offering ‘pathways’ between and through Ontario colleges and universities, ideally shortening the distance between where the student is and where she ultimately sees herself.

The extra creative challenge: a government-backed effort, the concept had to marche en français. Luckily the ‘hats-you-wear’ metaphor translates word for word to Canadian French as <<porter plusiers chapeaux>>.