Media's hunger for gimmicks makes it play in the hype game

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The phone rings. It's a producer from a national TV newsmagazine. "What do you think of the ad from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that shows the milk mustache replaced by foam and suggests quaffing a beer is healthier than downing a glass of milk?"

He's hit a sore spot. "It's a disgrace. Thanks to Calvin Klein and Benetton, every yahoo with a small or even non-existent ad budget knows how to extend its message by manufacturing controversy and getting free media exposure."

"You want to come on TV to rail against this trend?"

"You bet."

It's the circle of hype.

Manufactured news and the use of public relations as a marketing tool are hardly new. But the practice is spreading -- to the point where a good chunk of the content on any given TV newscast represents either a calculated marketing effort by a third party or a TV station promotion masquerading as news. ("Next up, meet the real-life hero who inspired the made-for-TV movie we're about to show you.")

The media should throw up a tighter screen to block out the bull. But most media outlets are grasping for gimmicks to attract and retain viewers' attention. Too often, those making the news decisions are quite content to play into the hands of the spin doctors, even join their little game with a knowing wink and a nudge. ("Blatantly manipulate our audience to help you sell more product? If it's a juicy segment, why not?")

Take a look at three stories in the news recently: Michael Jordan's retirement from the endorsement game; John and Patsy "Who us?" Ramsey's book tour; and the Twinkies shortage. On the surface, they have nothing in common. On closer inspection, they all represent brilliantly executed marketing strategies.

Jordan did the same thing with his sponsorship career he did with basketball: He got out on his own terms, before his talent and appeal flagged. Do you honestly think Gatorade would have been eager in 2001 to re-sign a spokesman many younger sports fans will barely have heard of? Jordan also made clear to potential corporate partners that they'll have to cough up equity for his endorsement.

As for the Ramsey talk-show tour, the most dead-on analysis came from, a Denver Webzine, which wrote, "Even the most impassioned naysayers would have to admit the marketing campaign surrounding their book about the case . . . has been absolutely brilliant, building for weeks before exploding in a publicity supernova of high-profile interviews." Katie Couric provided the mass audience and softball questions JonBenet's parents needed to portray themselves as victims. The "Today" show even helped close the loop via the Web. A transcript of the Ramseys' interview was interrupted by an ad promoting Barnes & Noble's Web site as the place to "find books in the news."

Then there are Twinkies, a lump of goo remembered by most as a sickeningly sweet childhood treat they wouldn't dream of consuming as adults. Yet a labor dispute between Interstate Brands, the maker of Twinkies, and the Teamsters turned into a publicity bonanza for the cream-filled cakes, boxes of which kicked up enormous clouds of dust as they suddenly flew from shelves on which they previously stagnated.

The New York Times (The New York Times!!!) devoted the better part of a page to a story headlined "Twinkie strike afflicts fans with snack famine." The Times even published a recipe for homemade Twinkies. "I haven't had them in a long time," said one woman. But, she said, "I would miss them if they didn't have them in the shops." Interstate couldn't have made a more media-savvy ad buy.

As a reality check, Ad Age's SPINdex survey tallied up media coverage of Jordan (who, full disclosure, appeared on our cover last week), the Ramseys and Twinkies to determine which best succeeded in the hype wars. The sponge snacks won easily.

Hmmm, maybe I can get booked on a TV show to complain about this.

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