S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 18 August 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
 

Brand Extortion

 

[Portrait of George Gilder, colorized from the original black and white for your pleasure.]

In recasting a bit of flimsy

columnist whimsy as Kurt

Vonnegut's pithy invalidation of

an MIT education, I was merely

hoping to pull off a piece of

performance-PR that might lead

to some Gilder-style speaking

fees - or at least a columnist

gig at Advertising Age. (Isn't

it time that someone replaced

that random-access name-puker

James Brady?) Alas, except for a

few Usenet posters, no one,

including the nation's

Internet-fearing, ink-trained

kvetches, seems to have gotten

the message.

 

[Portrait of Kurt Vonnegut, smoking by the window, colorized from the original black and white photo, for your pleasure.]

"How can I know whether I'm being

kidded or not, or lied to?"

Vonnegut complained to The New

York Times, summarizing the

media's mass misapprehension in

the plainspoken style that has

made him a favorite of former

comic-book readers everywhere.

"I don't know what the point is

except how gullible people are

on the Internet."

 

In fact, the rapid escalation of

the non-Vonnegut non-wisdom into

the biggest half-baked good

since the Neiman-Marcus cookie

recipe doesn't mean that

Internet users are any more

gullible than the population

at large. After all, the average

American's faith in the well-advertised

product means a willingness to

choose Coke over New Coke every

time, given the appropriate

labels. If the speech

proved to be Vonnegut's most

popular work in years, all that

means is that even despite

mid-career audience-solvents

like Deadeye Dick and Slapstick,

the Vonnegut brand is still far

more marketable than, say, the

Schmich brand.

 

Which is in no way meant to

denigrate Mary Schmich, the

Chicago Tribune columnist who

actually penned the "speech" in

question. Under her imprimatur,

it undoubtedly amused a few

thousand of her fans; in fact,

it was an old college friend and

sometimes Schmich-reader

currently mixing martinis for

Rush Street dipsomaniacs who

forwarded the piece to me, as

part of a long-running campaign

to convince me of the importance

of sunscreen.

 

Upon first read, I actually found

the article more Fulghumesque

than anything, if a bit

cosmopolitan for that particular

bromide dispenser. But it was

slick too, this Schmichiana, and

not without a little Vonnegutian

schtick animating its syntax.

And when the column's ad-homily

saccharine mixed with the potent

marketing narcotic of

all-purposed pundit Tom Peters,

well - that 's when the hoax

took shape.

 

[This is a picture of a banner of some sort with the words 'there is a you in team' inscribed. It looks like a lounge advertisement. I'm not sure what it is. I haven't read the copy following nor have I visited the site.]

Ensconced in the latest Fast

Company, Peters' chipper pep

talk on the virtues of

self-promotion is a remarkably

self-contained proof-of-concept:

the "world's leading brand when

it comes to writing, speaking,

or thinking about the new

economy" adds value to the most

conventional principles of

corporate ladder-climbing simply

by slapping his label onto the

hackage. If you (or, as Peters

would have it, You) or I had

written this rote exercise in

Marketing Guru Gee-Whizdom and

submitted it to Fast Company, it

would now be securely ensconced

in that hateful precursor of

imminent rejection known as the

SASE, and headed back toward

Loserville. But since it was the

best-selling Peters reciting

Sales 101 truisms - "Your

network of friends, colleagues,

clients, and customers is the

most important marketing vehicle

you've got" - his network of

friends and colleagues at Fast

Company rewarded him with the

August/September cover, nine

pages in the book, and even a

special-edition vanity URL.

 

Which, of course, Peters totally

deserved: Withholding any real

insights and adopting the

improbable tone of a Wharton

School cheerleader in an effort

to more boldly dramatize the

transcendent power of his brand

was a virtuoso media hack on his

part, and it made me want to

pull a hoax of my own. The

Schmich piece gave me the

opportunity to do so - it was

the perfect vehicle for taking

ghostwriting to the next level,

a concept I'd been contemplating

ever since reading an article in

The New York Times Sunday

Magazine a couple months earlier

that revealed just how few of

the books that make the Times'

best-seller list are actually

written by their "authors."

 

[This is a portrait of Larry Ellison, CEO and founder of Oracle, colorized for your viewing pleasure.]

That ghostwriting has become such

an aboveboard, thoroughly

accepted part of the publishing

industry, especially for

nonfiction, is fine with me. In

fact, my long-term writing dream

is to one day ghostwrite the

memoirs of software swashbuckler

Larry Ellison. What was

preoccupying me was the notion

that the practice of

ghostwriting was, to my

knowledge, mostly limited to

those authors whose primary

vocation wasn't writing. Why, I

kept wondering, should this be

so?

 

[This is a photo of Stephen King, posing. It was already colored so no colorization was necessary.]

Indeed, if a publishing company

discovers that one of its brands

- "Stephen King," say - is a

popular seller, should it then

depend solely on that inevitable

content bottleneck, the real

Stephen King, to deliver more

product to loyal customers

eagerly awaiting new pages to

turn? As prolific as King is,

wouldn't 10 authors writing

under his byline be that much

more prolific? If King's as

greedy and lazy as the typical

writer, he'd leap at the chance

to franchise himself in this

manner. And with publishers

doing most of the really

important brand-building these

days - i.e., distribution,

merchandising, publicity -

shouldn't they be allowed to

maximize their investments in

their best labels?

 

Of course, the downside to such a

scheme is the potential erosion

of authorial integrity: Diehard

fans might notice discrepancies

of voice from book to book.

This, ultimately, was the

concern that led to my

experiment, which, needless to

say, worked even better than I

had anticipated. The enduringly

popular Vonnegut brand, enhanced

by the notions of exclusivity

and topicality that the MIT

commencement speech pretense

afforded it, turned Schmich into

gold. Not only did the world's

wampeter-lovers believe it was

Vonnegut; they placed it amongst

his best work. Magazine editors

wanted to reprint it. Coppertone

was allegedly entertaining the

notion of asking the eminent

sunscreen advocate to replace

their famous flasher as the

company's mascot. Even the

novelist's wife was bragging to

her friends about his latest

masterpiece. Talk about bursting

the granfaloon of individual

genius.

 

My only regret, alas, is that I

ended up making an inadvertent

contribution to the

Internet-is-evil industry. While

it's true that word-of-mouse

dramatically amplifies the

efficacies of word-of-mouth, the

process in which "Vonnegut's

speech" was publicized was

essentially the same one that

led to the South Sea mania of

1720, or to the sudden

popularity of the phrase "What a

shocking bad hat!" in 19th

century London. (In the case of

Vonnegut, it should be noted,

the rapid distribution of the

speech was also aided by a

fortuitous congruency: The

warmhearted geeks who invariably

gravitate toward his work are

precisely the same people who

are most apt to share a "funny"

or "enlightening" email message

with you. Had I chose Phillip

Roth, say, or Norman Mailer, or

Margaret Atwood, or really any

other author save maybe Douglas

Adams, the results would have

not been nearly so dramatic.)

 

[Very cool 50s ad for Chevy.]

Before I slip into obscurity

again, then, please permit me to

make one final observation:

Schmich's original article was

available on the Web from the

moment it was published on 1

June, and yet for some reason no

one used this sinister

instrument to distribute it so

recklessly until it had the

Vonnegut brand attached to it.

Indeed, if it's true that we've

reached a point in our culture

wherein "the real truths of our

lives" are best expressed using

familiar corporate icons, as

Schmich's fellow columnist Bob

Greene asserts in his

soon-to-be-best-seller -

Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen

Nights - it shouldn't be that

difficult to discern the source

from whence the real "evil"

flows.




courtesy of Me™
 
 
 

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