The Protagonist of ‘Anomalisa’ Is Truer To Life Than You Ever Imagined

Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, which he co-directed with animator Duke Johnson, hit Blu-ray this past week, where I’m hoping people will finally discover it. My favorite movie of 2015 opened in 573 theaters at its widest, and I don’t remember seeing a single ad for it. It won awards, it came from an acclaimed writer/director, and still it was nearly impossible for people outside of the major markets to find. The month it was released, Dirty Grandpa opened in 2,912 theaters. A few weeks later, Fifty Shades of Black, which I think Marlon Wayans wrote on a napkin during his limo ride to the set, opened in 2,075. Are lifelike stop-motion puppets really that tough a sell? Perhaps.

Anomalisa‘s protagonist is a middle-aged man named Michael Stone. Stone has arrived in Cincinnati (the pushy cab driver urges him to visit the zoo and try the chili) to give a talk on customer service. Stone, we learn, has written an inspirational book on customer service, entitled How Can I Help You Help Them?

Stone has made his career giving boilerplate business advice like “Always remember, the customer is an individual. Just like you. Each person you speak to has had a day. Some of their days have been good, some bad, but they’ve all had one. Each person you speak to has had a childhood. Each has a body. Each body has aches…”

The speech Stone keeps trying to practice in his room begins “It is my privilege today to talk to you about customer service, what it is and why it’s an essential component of any successful business enterprise. The front line of every customer department is the group of folks who interact directly with the public. The telephone representative at corporate headquarters, the retail associate on the floor of the regional store, the guys or gal…”

The running joke is that, despite the hilariously vague nature of all his businessy advice and catchy aphorisms, Stone repeatedly meets fans who tell him his book “raised productivity by 90 percent.” The other irony of his position is that the guy who advocates treating everyone as an individual has become unable to differentiate people. They’ve all start blending into one.

Now, a curious thing happened to me after I saw Anomalisa. I started seeing Michael Stones everywhere. It turns out, the internet is full of guys making (or trying to make) careers out of dispensing advice even more vague and patronizing than “the customer is an individual.” I think it was my podcast partner Bret who first turned me onto him, and I don’t know how he became aware, but one such real-life Michael Stone is Tod Maffin, a Canadian social media guru or some such, who tweets articles like “CHECK IT OUT: The evolution of hashtags. Are you incorporating them incorrectly?”

That article was written by one of Maffin’s colleagues, and that’s the other thing I found about real-life Micheael Stoneses: There seems to be an infinite number of them. Another article Maffin recently tweeted was written by Dan Gingiss. Here’s a sample Dan Gingiss tweet:

One article Gingiss wrote, tweeted by Tod Maffin, was entitled “How Twitter’s Recent Changes Affect Customer Service.” Here’s a sample of that:

In the coming months, tweets that begin with a user’s handle will become visible to everyone. This is a big change from today, when a tweet that begins with a user’s handle is visible only to the sender, the recipient, and anyone following both parties. […]

On one hand, this is good news for those of us who’ve been evangelizing customer service on social media for years, because it creates a brighter spotlight on brands and their successes or failures in this space. It’s therefore good news for brands like the ones we’ve featured on the Focus on Customer Service podcast, who have prioritized social care, hired and trained outstanding teams of customer service agents, chosen the right technology, and established clear processes that allow them to scale the operation. […]

As Jay Baer reports in his new book, Hug Your Haters, customer expectations for customer service in social media are rising quickly. The study he conducted with Edison Research concluded that only 40 percent of social media complaints are addressed, even though the same study revealed that responding to complaints increases customer advocacy, while not responding decreases it by more than two-fold.

The tone of most of these articles — and again, there seems to be an almost infinite number of them — is essentially a book report written by a seventh-grader from another planet upon visiting earth. But even more so than the tone, the revelation of Dan Gingiss’ article (even that name sounds like something an alien would choose to fit in at a marketer’s convention — which is where Dan Gingiss’s Twitter background pic was apparently taken) is that there exists: 1. A “Focus on Customer Service Podcast” and 2. a book called Hug Your Haters. Which is apparently about customer service.

Once again, I followed the links further afield. Jay Baer, who apparently wrote Hug Your Haters, has a Twitter bio that describes him as “The most re-tweeted person in the world among digital marketers.”

Here’s a description of his book:

Hug Your Haters will make you money, save you money and completely change the way you look at customers.

You probably think you’re pretty good at customer service. After all, 80% of companies say they deliver superior customer service.

But guess what? Only 8 percent of their customers agree. […]

Now, customer service is a spectator sport. Are you prepared?

Probably not, as one-third of all customer complaints go unanswered, most of them online and in public.

The catchy aphorisms, the meaningless statistics, the urgent tone… IT’S MICHAEL STONE TO A T! “You see, the way to business better is to business well, and definitely be nice and not mean while maximizing profits and minimizing debt.”

Going back to Jay Baer’s Twitter page, his most recent tweet was a link to an article written by Drew Himel, “the founder and CEO of OpenNest, a digital marketing and strategy agency that helps brands make digital experiences more human.”

“That helps brands make digital experiences more human.” They’re a little like pick-up artists, if pick-up artists’ clients were actual non-human entities like brands and corporations. Here’s a snip from Drew Himel’s article:

 You need to offer high-quality content that makes an impact with your customers during each interaction. Use content tailored to your audience, and remember that your conversation is more than just a sales pitch; it’s the start of a relationship between brand and consumer. […]

As technology advances, consumers are becoming experts at blocking out content that appears fake or gimmicky. Tech-savvy consumers want a relationship with a company that is built on trust, not sales tactics, and consumers don’t want to wait for that trust.

Amazing. Just from following the links to each other, it seems I could find at least 10,000 branding experts whose Twitter bio is some variation on “author, speaker, dad, avid [sports team] fan and definitely a real human person.”

Another recent Tod Maffin tweet, “The millennial generation is a powerful marketing demographic. Here’s why.”

That one was written by Kim Speier. “Inbound Marketing Specialist @mainstreethost. Love the Bills, Sabres, Pirates, & Pitt Panthers.”

Here’s a snip from that article:

At the surface, it’s easy to think that the Millennial generation can be generalized into simple categories. They don’t go anywhere without their smart phones, they’re obsessed with social platforms like Snapchat and Instagram, and they’re more open-minded when it comes to social issues like climate change. […]

While many Millennials haven’t hit their peak purchasing power due to student loans and starting a family, they are certainly heading that way, and brands realize the importance of getting in front of them early. But marketers should take care in making sure that they aren’t alienating other groups of consumers in the process.

Focusing too much on a mobile-first mentality, over-appealing to Millennials’ tech-driven nature, and straying completely away from traditional marketing mediums could indicate that you are solely focused on targeting younger generations, which might make perceived outsiders rethink their brand loyalty.

That last paragraph especially sounds like a suicide note.

“But wait,” you might be thinking, “don’t I need some facty-sounding statistics to really back this up?”

Oh, it’s got those too:

The most significant benefit to attracting a Millennial audience is their potential long-term value to a brand. However, a common misconception is that they aren’t brand loyal because there are always new and improved products entering the market.

In reality, 1 in 5 Millennials say that they would willingly choose the same brand as their parents, just for different reasons (e.g. social media, mobile presence). So maybe this group isn’t as disloyal as marketers think.

Oh boy, another outbound link! Let’s follow it, shall we? That one goes to “Marketing to Millennials: Cultivating and Maintaining Brand Loyalty (Part 4 of 4),” written by Natalie Staines.

Tying together the behaviors and community-centric mindset of Millennials with their perpetual need to connect and share information is why part three of our series focuses on a specific approach marketers can take to grab the attention of Millennials. The Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is an experiential and emotional approach to marketing that helps drive awareness and social engagement through brand experiences that one simply cannot miss. […]

Brand affinity may decline as Millennials reach the older end of the spectrum (27-33 yrs)

-For this reason, finding ways to maintain brand loyalty is key; remembering birthdays and life milestones and making sure your brand can transition and ‘age’ with this audience will help sustain its long-term place in their world

Fifty-six percent cite financial changes as a reason to switch brands

-This is a broad statement meaning if a brand changes its price they may switch or if their own financial circumstances change they may switch…why buy generic when you can upgrade to name brands?

Of 7 industry categories, 59 percent of Millennials reported being most brand loyal to mobile phone providers and 56 percent to clothing/shoe/accessory brands

That is a lot of intense research to demonstrate such insights as “wish your customers happy birthday,” and “price is a factor in purchases,” and “six out of 10 millennials are brand loyal to several vaguely defined categories of brands.”

How deep does this rabbit hole go? Surely I could spend all day, possibly all month, following links to articles full of vague customer service advice written by vaguely human-seeming “experts” in social media, inbound marketing, B2B communication, etc. At first I honestly thought we were being catfished, or that this was an elaborate art piece. I’m still not convinced that’s not true, but if it is, it goes much deeper than I can imagine anyone digging without a small army of helpers.

All of which is to say: everyone who hasn’t should definitely see Anomalisa. Not only is it a great movie, you’ll come to see it in a whole new light once you realize that isn’t absurdist satire, but a terrifyingly current tale torn from the headlines of contemporary marketing gurus.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.