GALACTIC HYPE-STORM SPAWNED BY 'STAR WARS' PREQUEL HAS A PRICE

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I couldn't care less about the newest installment of the "Star Wars" franchise.

There, I said it. Somebody had to. The hype, the buildup, the manipulation, it's all too much. When I recently turned down tickets to the New York premiere of "Phantom Menace," you would've thought I had declined a private audience with the Pope. People literally gasped when I told them. "How could you . . . ?" they sputtered incredulously.

It was easy. I didn't want to go.

That's not to knock the movie, which I probably will see eventually in a theater or on home video. Like millions of others, I loved the original "Star Wars" films, the first of which was released when I was 10 years old. I even own the trilogy, although the tapes have never come out of the box.

So, no, I don't have a problem with the film itself. I do have a problem with manufactured hype of a magnitude that's never before been seen, and with the willingness of the public and media to swallow and regurgitate it.

I'm not naive at all about the power of public relations in the marketing mix. In some cases, free media clearly does more for a product's success than a paid media budget ever could. (The Tickle Me Elmo craze, ignited when the furry monster received a big, wet on-air kiss from talk show host Rosie O'Donnell, comes to mind.)

The spin cycle isn't always a bad thing. Even if I thought it was, the trend is irreversible. Next time you're in Barnes & Noble, count the number of best-sellers with Oprah's Book Club stickers on their covers. Advertising Age even publishes a monthly column, SPINdex, that quantifies the value of publicity.

Sergio Zyman, the colorful former Coca-Cola marketing czar, is a big proponent of free media. One of the things that stunned me most about his new book is Sergio's contention that the New Coke fiasco actually was a victory. Talk about spin!

Sergio did talk about spin when I met with him in New York earlier this month, and about his belief that intense media coverage of New Coke reinforced Coke's bond with consumers. The media, he said, "gave us $150 million in free advertising."

Isn't that manipulation? "You guys in the media manipulate," Sergio shot back. "You are talking to consumers every day. Are you objective? Maybe. But you're objective with the amount of information you have. So what we need to do as marketers is provide you with information to influence how you talk to consumers."

I'm willing to concede that point -- to a point, anyway. But the "Star Wars" buzzkrieg is so far over the top as to be shameful. And, in the end, it's hurting the brand. The core difference between ads and publicity is that with paid media, the company footing the bill controls the message delivered to consumers. With free media, the message is filtered and the marketer has no control over the final product. (That's one reason for the popularity of custom publishing and infomercials.)

In "Star Wars' " case, the tidal wave of hype grew so large it crashed in on itself. Expectations were so high that when the movie turned out to be, well, just a movie, critics came away disappointed. Expectations were so high that when the film pulled in only(!) $62 million in its first weekend, and some people bought tickets without camping for days in front of the theater, there was a faint whiff of failure in the coverage.

But "Phantom Menace" will hit profitability at an earlier box-office threshold, in part because George Lucas spent so little money on advertising and marketing. The reason Lucas was able to save those pennies was (all together now) because he got tens of millions of dollars in free publicity.

The "Star Wars" craze was so out of control TV Guide didn't even bother to pretend there was a TV hook to its cover story. Newsweek ran a package of stories dissecting the hype -- a package splashed on its cover and across a dozen inside pages. This column does the same thing on a smaller scale.

So I guess it's impossible to battle buzz. When you rail against it, you only