A current fad in corporate America is to hire marketing firms to pitch stories to newspapers for everything from soup to wingnuts.
Typically, youre slaving over a hot computer, trying to turn the lead of a dull topic into gold on the printed page, when a call comes through with a brilliant story idea for Northern Express.
Heres an example.
Caller: Hi, Im calling from LadyStretch underwear for plus-size women with a great story idea about our new line of Mirdle undergarments for mega-sized men. I think it would be a wonderful story for your newspaper!
You (hardly believing your ears at your good fortune): Wow! What is it?
Caller: Well, you know how a lot of hefty men have issues with their big guts? The new Mirdle is a girdle for men... blah, blah, blah...
Paranoid types sometimes imagine that the government has some sort of control over newspapers to influence what gets into print. I remember a time about 10 years ago when a local guitarist refused to do an interview because he imagined that Northern Express was a front for the Traverse Narcotics Team and that I was an undercover cop. Obviously, that would be impossible, because it would mean quitting my other job at the CIA.
But increasingly, the truth is more insidious as corporations and their P.R. teams dream up new ways to hack the news.
A few years ago, we used to get calls from Cold Stone Creamery touting their latest ice cream flavor. The weird thing is that the callers sounded like girls in their early teens.
Um, have you heard about the new raspberry-cherry-walnut cheesecake ice cream flavor at Cold Stone Creamery? would be a sample call. We think it tastes really, really good and your paper should do a story about it.
The callers sounded like they were somewhere between 12 and 16 years old -- very earnest -- and sharing the news about the latest ice cream flavor in breathless tones. I dont know if the national Cold Stone Creamery company hired teenagers to make the calls, or if it was just some local kid, high on a sugar buzz, and taking it upon herself to chat up the new flavors. In any case, it was quite a stretch that we‘d do a story on the latest version of tutti-frutti.
In November, a personable woman who sounded like she was in her late middle-age called, asking if our paper was going to do a holiday gift guide.
Well, yeah, I said, we do a gift guide every year.
It turned out that this woman was from a public relations firm, pitching a story idea for Verizons new line of digital cell phones. Wouldnt it be great to have a full-page story on Verizon cell phones?
A few days later we were invited to write about a new t-shirt being offered by Dominos Pizza. Ixnay...
Ditto a guy plugging something called the Treasure Hunters Road Show.
It would make a fantastic story for your paper, he assured me, promising that the show is quite the big whoop-de-do. It had to do with some dealers traveling around the country buying up gold and silver jewelry, along with rare coins and collectibles like vintage guitars, toys and Civil War swords.
The Treasure Hunters idea sounded more like an ad than a story, and I told him so. Apparently, he took my advice, since their company purchased a full page advertorial in another paper the week of the big event.
Needless to say, its rather irritating to get calls from marketing firms off in New York City, Iowa or New Delhi, trying to masquerade their products as fodder for stories. Theres supposed to be an invisible wall between the editorial and advertising departments at a newspaper, where theoretically, we dont even know what goes on over there. But increasingly, I find myself in the role of a traffic cop, politely directing these PR people to the ad department.
These days, advertising is being woven into the fabric of our lives in inescapable ways. (And, yes, I know there are lots of ads in Northern Express -- just saved you the effort of writing a letter.)
Frustrated by TiVo technology that removes ads from your favorite TV shows, its said that next big thing for television producers will be weaving the ads right into their shows in an endless whirl of product placements. We also see more products popping up in video games and films.
At some point, I suppose that attractive people will be asked to rent out their rear-ends for ad space. Shapely young ladies could make a fortune advertising products for men, such as cologne, trucks and fishing tackle. Come to think of it, that sounds like a very good business opportunity in these trying times.
The Joke‘s On Me
One of the hazards of writing a weekly column is that of making predictions or blanket statements. So I should have known better in last week‘s column not to have claimed that the “War on Terror“ is finally over.
How was I to know that only a day after that gem went to press, some nut would try to blow up a plane from Amsterdam to Detroit?
On the other hand, a generation ago, such an incident would have been dryly reported by Walter Cronkite on the evening news, followed by a few newspaper articles and then America would have moved on.
That‘s not the case today, where the 24-hour cable news cycle demands feeding on such items and niggling them to the point of mass hysteria. You can‘t turn on CNN, FOX or MSNBC without seeing some talking head wringing his hands over fear that the sky is falling; and oh, by the way, also making the leap that President Obama practically pushed the bomber onto the plane.
What‘s irritating about the incessant fearmongering on TV is that it tends to have much of our nation quaking in its boots over the latest 24/7 crisis. The terrorists are certainly winning on that score, thanks to their fifth column friends on cable.
I‘d point out that only two months ago, these same cable worry-warts predicted that by now, millions of Americans would most likely be dead of the Swine Flu... but that would be tempting fate.