The red-caped mascot created by the Magazine Publishers of America has upset some of the association's members-and not because they are worried about the dental health of media buyers to whom the Captain handed candy last week. (He was also handing out fliers detailing research on magazines' effectiveness and accountability.)
One of the Captain's first feats, it seems, was to strengthen an old fear among publishers: that the MPA is tone-deaf when it comes to marketing. Not since "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart skewered the magazine business at an MPA-sponsored event have publishers groaned so about their industry's attempts at self-promotion. Of course it must be said that, as usual, none were prepared to break rank and put their names to their remarks, while several big names were willing to come to the superhero's aid.
"It does not reflect the realities or the possibilities of the publishing industry," said one senior magazine executive who works closely with the MPA. "The creative execution is out of touch and an insult to our clients."
A publisher at another company said the cavalier comic-book approach didn't fly with him either. "The challenges facing the magazine business are serious," he said. "To do a promotion that's just plain silly is maybe not the best way to go."
A senior media buyer called Captain Read's visit to his office a "non-event" last week. "Personally I found it to be infantilizing, particularly at a time when magazines are struggling to convey relevancy," he said. "Why not have magazine editors or celebrities who grace the covers of magazines as the superheroes?"
Many a superhero has been misunderstood, and the MPA's boy wonder already has an identity problem. It turns out that, contrary to almost everyone's impression, the superhero's name is not pronounced Captain REED, which suggests a literacy advocate, but Captain RED -- suggesting that magazines are, in fact, consumed by readers.
Some MPA members' beef with the accountability crusader goes beyond his name, and has more to do with the fact that they weren't consulted about his creation. Though an executive at every big publishing house was -- or was supposed to be -- advised of the approaching Captain Read, many said they heard nothing about the character until they read about the $50,000 campaign in The New York Times.
The Captain, naturally, has his supporters. Ray Warren, president, Carat Media Group USA, sees some merit in the effort: "The idea of creating an icon that can get some attention is a good thing."
"It helps the industry's image among media buyers and advertisers," said Jack Kliger, president-CEO, Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S. and chairman of the MPA. "And I'm sure it will be a shot in the arm for our sales reps, by presenting an important message about magazines in a fun way."
Knowing his business as well as he does, Mr. Kliger noted that disagreement over Captain Read was inevitable. "I'm also sure it will be discussed and heatedly debated within our industry -- which, considering the diverse products and passions we create, can be expected to continue to act like one big, happy, competitive, bickering family."
An MPA spokesman said the character reached more than 1,000 media executives just last week, distributed more than 1,000 handouts with new research on magazine performance, and posed with countless smiling media agency staffers. (See the pictures at magazine.org.)
Another magazine executive who works closely with the MPA responded to Captain Read complaints this way: "It's a fun one-time initiative. People need to lighten up. It's summer and it's hot. Can't we all have a sense of humor?"
Even if we don't laugh with the Captain, most agreed he was not the biggest deal in the world. "I've been through this a million times before," a senior magazine executive said, citing everything from an earlier industry mascot named Maggie who appeared in 1988 to a recent print campaign set in the future, showing people reading magazines in wondrous settings like bathtubs that hover in the air. "I expect Captain Read to be about as effective as Maggie, which was not effective," the executive said. "Although I don't know if it will be any less effective than the floating bathtub."