Human Smoke

Nicholson Baker has long been one of my favorite writers. His wide-ranging work suggests that he is trivially obsessive, a serious bibliophile, and possessed of an imaginatively dirty mind — all traits I really admire. I’ m right now plowing through his new non-fiction study of the build-up to World War II, Human Smoke.

It’s a new form both for him and for history writing in general — it most closely resembles an oral history in that it consists of multiple voices heard in short vignettes, but most of the perspectives are from news sources or public speeches. The book details day-by-day the inexorable march to war over the decade preceding it, and the effect is like a bad dream of watching the horror unfold at an accelerated rate, and feeling powerless to stop it. Reading through the end of 1939 I found myself hoping, against all logic, that the cease-fire would hold and that war would be averted. It’s a strange sensation. I can’t recommend it enough.

The reviews I’ve seen have mainly stratified along the line of whether the book makes a case against the “good war,” but I think that’s reductive; the form itself works against any singular, monolithic reading. I’m convinced that anyone who takes up this book will find their perspective on the war challenged and widened. We complain often enough, and rightfully enough, that history only gives us 20/2o hindsight, but when we go back and take a look at what foresight offered us and we chose to ignore — well, that’s sobering.

Viral marketing now a pandemic

iMediaConnection is running a lengthy “Viral Marketing 101” sort of piece in their In Focus section, and it stands to contribute a good deal to the degradation of the term “viral marketing,” if not to the concept itself. Could we all please agree on a worthwhile definition of this concept before it gets flogged to death?

Too late. The article cites the ubiquity of advertising catchphrases like “Yo quiero Taco Bell” and “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” as examples of highly successful viral campaigns. Hmm, I do remember that cute chihuahua, now why is that? Could it be because Taco Bell paid Chiat/Day half a billion dollars to make sure that I would? Let’s say as a rule of thumb that if your viral campaign costs the equivalent of buying every man, woman, and child in the United States a meal in your restaurant, that ain’t viral marketing. It’s just marketing.

I’m being cranky about this and the article’s other top-down examples because I think marketers are in real danger of losing the point of viral marketing entirely. I agree with the basic premise that viral marketing involves brand messages getting passed along outside of a paid media scenario. But that’s not enough; by that logic, a Pepsi-emblazoned Frisbee (sorry, flying disk) being tossed around a park is a viral campaign.

I think the essence of successful viral marketing is that the message gets passed around because the marketer cedes control over what happens after the intial set-up. That means, inherently, that heavily promoted, tightly managed brands are going to have a tougher time succeeding in viral marketing than brands whose customers already have a sense of mutual ownership. That’s why the Quicksilver YouTube campaign cited in the article was a huge success, but similar such YouTube seeding efforts by mega-brands have been miserable failures.

The big brands can get there too. White Horse just won an IAC award for a User-Generated-Content campaign for Columbia Sportswear that let users deconstruct Columbia’s longstanding “Tested Tough” campaign with tough tests of their own. By ceding control of the brand promise to users who could (and did) come up with outrageous interpretations, the company got back more than it gave in user input, participation, and pass-along.

A doubt this word ever makes it into creative briefs authored for viral campaigns, but the key ingredient here is humility — the grassroots brand stays close to its roots, or the big brand stoops to conquer. It also helps to have great creative.

Is TV still the best place to advertise to TV viewers?

If, like me, you enjoy checking email while driving, it should come as no surprise that our compulsive multimedia-multitasking tendencies also extend to Web/TV cross-pollination, according to Harris Interactive’s latest study. Nothing particularly revealing about the first two items in this chart: you mean to say TV doesn’t fully occupy our brains? Stunning.


But the third item — the 19% related content surfing — now that’s interesting. In these cases, I think the Web is often providing a gloss or a deep-dive on TV content. You’re watching “John Adams” on HBO and can’t keep your Founders straight? It’s Wikipedia time.

As online media becomes more micro-targeted and contextual, this cross-pollination offers huge potential. Big brands spend billions trying to drive from TV ads straight to the Web, with limited success. Why? Because that would be counter-contextual: you’re not watching TV for the ads, you’re watching for the content. What if instead of buying all that TV time, marketers purchased related search terms and placed ads on relevant content sites only during key programming?

Example: there’s a show on Nat’l Geo about Greece. Your cruise line offers cruises to Greece. Instead of buying advertising during the show, you bet big on Greece-related keywords and display ads on related content sites only during and after the show. Ad-serving technology finally makes this level of dayparting possible. Think of how much efficiency you’d gain over a big offline buy. Has anyone tried this? I would love to hear how it went.

Also, Hemingway Was a Vegetarian

The thrilling new bloodsport of Memoir Debunking got another boost in popularity last week with news that fellow Oregonian Margaret Seltzer is not quite the recovering gangsta that her heretofore hotselling memoir “Love and Consequences” made her out to be.

The fact that a resident of Eugene, OR (Motto: Hemp Goes with Everything) managed to pass herself off as a Crip from South Central is a feat of literary ventriloquism that probably deserves some credit, were it not for the fact that the standards of literary quality for the memoir genre are already so low.

I don’t hold with those who say the publishers should be doing more fact-checking; the economics of book publishing simply don’t allow for it. But it would be nice if the fallout from all this memoir fakery was that publishers became more wary of this substandard stuff and public tastes turned more toward fiction. Real fiction, that is.

Martinis matter

I’ve long considered the degradation of the classic martini, as typified by the “-tini” suffix being applied to anything served chilled in a martini glass (appletini, chocolatini, zuchinitini), as one of the clear signs of the Decline of Western Civilization, alongside reality television. So I was glad to see one of my all-time favorite unrepentant boozehounds, Christopher Hitchens, sticking up for martini purity in an essay for the Weekly Standard. He may be wrong on the war, but he’s spot-on on the Vermouth Question. Face it, people, without the vermouth, it’s just cold gin. If that’s your thing, stick a bottle of Sapphire in the freezer and call it good.

On monsters

Obama adviser Samantha Power resigned last week after giving an interview in which she called Hillary Clinton a “monster.” It was the right thing to do, I think (the resigning, not the name-calling), but her exit from the national stage is still our loss: she brought a very nuanced view of foreign policy to the campaign, and she’s done a great deal to elevate the issue of genocide with her remarkable book A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide. She says she doesn’t really believe Clinton is a monster, and given the time she’s spent writing about the world’s true monsters, you have to take her at her word on that.