The story of 'IT' shows that hype can hurt more than help

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"IT"? Bulls-t.

Sorry, but I couldn't resist. The hoopla stirred up in otherwise restrained places over an unnamed invention of dubious merit serves as a reminder that P.T. Barnum is not only alive and well and living in our souls, but that he co-exists with the very suckers he so masterfully exploited. The good news for marketers-and we are all marketers, aren't we?-is this: As long as there's a news hole, it doesn't take much to fill it. The danger (which I will get to) is that the fleeting fame will become a lasting flame, leaving you with permanent scars.

Let's put "IT" in perspective. "IT" is an unknown gizmo by an obscure inventor that's to be the subject of a book by an unimportant writer, for which a minor publishing house paid an insignificant advance after hearing it praised by several failing businessmen.

To be more specific, "IT," a.k.a. Project Ginger, is the invention of one Dean Kamen, the developer of such worthy doodads as the insulin pump and a stair-climbing wheelchair. A freelance writer named Steve Kemper proposed to write a book about "IT." His proposal, according to press reports, said nothing specifically about "IT," but averred it could change urban life, be bigger than the Internet, and make PCs, by comparison, look like Tootsie Rolls. Bolstered by reports that Jeff Bezos, the founder of the deteriorating Amazon.com, had laughed at its ingenuity and that the pompous Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr had invested in "IT," Harvard Business School Press-whose current hot titles include "Inside Chinese Business: A Guide for Managers Worldwide" and "In Good Company: How Social Capital Makes Organizations Work"-offered $250,000 (1/28th of Sen. Clinton's advance) for Kemper's book.

Yet despite Project Ginger's insubstantial provenance, the would-be book set off a veritable "IT" parade. Propelled by a gossip item on Inside.com (a news site with a keen understanding of the media's hot buttons), the venture ignited an explosion of attention. IT was featured on the front page of the Washington Post's Style section, in reports on MSNBC and CNBC and in newspapers stretching from Seattle to London.

A publisher's dream and an author's fantasy, right?

Wrong. Hype per se isn't a bad thing, but, like prescription medicine, you've got to know when to use it, lest you overdose. In this case, the hype was a wasted effort that immediately generated a counter-reaction that has already damaged many of the characters in a tragicomedy with the curious aroma of "Sweet Smell of Success."

The Harvard book, after all, isn't due out for a year or more. Advance publicity this far in advance is worthless for sales. Worse, the publisher, having pumped its balloon, has prompted its deflation. The expected second-day stories have appeared, en masse, with the news that Kamen's invention may be nothing more than a clean-fueled scooter. Having signed up a book on such a flimsy subject without first investigating the facts, Harvard Business School Press looks naive-like a hick who just bought the Brooklyn Bridge.

Kamen, through no fault of his own, comes off as a wacky inventor. By inviting or accepting the hype, Kemper, the freelance writer, has risked alienating his subject, who seemed none too pleased with the media deluge, calling the inflated expectations about "IT" "beyond the mere whimsical." Kemper's agent, Washington literary representative Rafe Sagalyn, may be the Sidney Falco of this saga-the likeliest leaker of the proposal, according to the Boston Globe, and someone who doesn't understand the limits of hucksterism. As for the news shows and newspapers (like the Hartford Courant) that fell for the hype-hey, this way to the egress!

All the players would have been better off had they taken a cue from another book about an invention, "The Soul of a New Machine." Published two decades ago, the work painstakingly chronicled the development of a mini-computer. Its subjects were relative unknowns, and its author, a serious writer named Tracy Kidder, made few promises about the value of their handiwork. The book appeared with little fanfare. Kidder won a Pulitzer Prize, "Soul" became a best-seller and the book is still in print.

Too bad there's not one of those born every minute.

Copyright January 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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