Harry Potter, Jon Franzen and the new marketing paradigm

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On the "today" show last Monday morning, Katie Couric looked into the camera and spoke these words with a straight face: "What is it about `Harry Potter' that has captured the hearts of a nation?"

Ooh, Katie, pick me, pick me! I know the answer: The most relentless, extended, overwhelming, inescapable marketing assault ever unleashed anywhere on the globe in support of an entertainment product.

I suspect Katie knew the answer as well. Especially since she had flown to England the week before and walked around London's Kings Cross Station asking commuters where she could catch the Hogwarts Express, the fictional train that carries Harry Potter and his friends to wizard school. This was for an NBC News special, "Harry Potter: Behind the Magic."

Forget magic. To borrow a tagline once used to promote this publication: It's all about marketing.

Now before someone sends me a bag of Bertie Botts' ear wax-flavored jellybeans, I want to point out that I've got nothing against Harry Potter. At my daughter Molly's prodding, I read the first J.K. Rowling book days before the movie premiere-and kind of enjoyed it. I also took my kids to see the film the day after it opened. It was a screening, but we would have gone the first weekend regardless, assuming we had been able to find tickets. The movie was also thoroughly entertaining, if long-the result of Ms. Rowling's insistence that the screenplay adhere painstakingly close to the book. (There's an artistic debate here I'm neither qualified nor inclined to engage in.)

I am a harsh critic of marketing that masquerades as entertainment, such as when the plot of a network sitcom is written primarily to meet a marketing goal and only secondarily to entertain its audience. But there's a new phenomenon emerging as ad and entertainment types plot the convergence of their disciplines: Marketing that doesn't mask its intentions, but proudly presents itself-to a complicit audience-as entertainment.

When "Today" interviews the stars of a new film on consecutive mornings for a full week, as a professional skeptic I often wonder if the appearances are related to an undisclosed promotional tie-in. Or maybe the "Today" producers simply recognized the commercial appeal of the film and rode its coattails.

In either case, the practice nauseates me. But lately I'm beginning to think that maybe it doesn't matter. It's not because my anger is useless against the awesome weight and ubiquity of such marketing efforts. Instead, maybe it really doesn't matter so long as the audience sees the marketing orgy for what it clearly is-and either willingly participates in the manipulation or rejects it.

There's not a single person who tuned in to the Victoria's Secret lingerie show on ABC who wasn't aware it was nothing more than an hour-long commercial for the intimate-apparel chain, timed to the holiday shopping season. Yet 13 million people tuned in. Those who didn't want to watch didn't. Similarly, when I think "Today" has gone over the top, I change the channel.

In Jonathan Franzen's novel "The Corrections," a college student refuses to accept her professor's criticism of consumerist society. He hates an ad campaign for an office-equipment manufacturer that consists of vignettes that follow the lives of a group of co-workers, one of whom dies of cancer. "The evil consists in the detachment of the signifier from the signified," the professor rails. "A woman crying no longer just signifies sadness. It signifies: Desire office equipment."

"Bullshit," the student responds, and notes that the campaign empowered women. "Why is it inherently evil to make money?" she asks.

Franzen is no stranger to marketing in the guise of entertainment. His ambivalence to Oprah Winfrey's endorsement of his novel exposed the book to a broader audience than an appearance on her daytime talk show would have. The pseudo-flap also increased the value of his National Book Award win. As Steve Martin, who hosted the awards, noted from the podium: "The National Book Awards are the highest honor a book can receive and still remain obscure." Not true for Franzen. He gets the award. And he gets to keep the Oprah sticker on the cover.

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