Hear me now and believe me later in the week:
- flaws and quirks beat absolute perfection
- the package matters more than the product
- without legs, you are dead in the water
And now I’ll prove those three things to you with one word, a word that you will definitely recognize and understand.
Here’s that word: SNOOKI.
Does the Snooki (real name: I don’t care) have flaws and quirks? Oh yes. Her flaws may be uncountable by modern science.
Conventional wisdom is that talent trumps all. This is America, right? The cream rises to the top. No way will somebody like Snooki get magazine covers.
HOWEVER: Just a few miles from the Jersey Shore are 5.82 bazillion Broadway actresses who have more talent, beauty and brains in their pinky fingers than Snooki and all her castmates combined. Some of these Broadway stars approach perfection, being triple threats who can sing, dance and act while looking like supermodels.
Talent alone, though, doesn’t make them into stars.
Are they hidden gems? Not so much. They’re on Broadway, seen by millions of locals and tourists in one of the biggest media markets in the world.
If the people who place all of their faith in the viral power of the Series of Tubes were right, all that overwhelming talent plus a few tweets and YouTube videos would be launching people from Broadway into the stratosphere, week after week.
Except that doesn’t happen.
Instead, we have People covers of Snooki getting pregnant and in-depth interviews about Basketball Wives or whatever.
Let’s figure out the how and why of this. Then let’s put our evil knowledge to use.
Flaws and quirks beat absolute perfection
In the old days, back when we had these things called “papers of news,” some papers ran an interesting contest. Out of a page full of photos of pretty women, the game was picking not your favorite, but the photo you predicted OTHER READERS would choose.
Much more interesting. In the first case, it’s your preference. Maybe you like blondes with short hair. Who knows? Who cares?
The second question — which photo will readers choose? — is quite good. It takes brainpower.
And it’s the same game played by Hollywood talent scouts, music industry execs, literary agents and model agencies. Put yourself in the shoes of a diverse audience, young and old, city slickers and cowboys. Now bet your career and livelihood by picking not who you like the best, but who you think PEOPLE YOU DON’T KNOW will pay money to like.
With the old newspaper contests, readers went with quirks and flaws. If there was only one redhead on the page, picking her was smart. Because she stood out.
Think about some of the most famous supermodels. Lauren Hutton had a big gap between her teeth. Cindy Crawford had her mole.
When everybody seems equally perfect and wonderful, a little quirk or flaw makes them interesting, lets them stand out from the crowd and gives the audience somebody to identify with, because average Joe and Jane Sixpack aren’t perfect, either.
A related idea is that quirks and flaws — even train wrecks — attract attention.
If you’re perfectly talented and perfectly balanced and sane, you’ll never make the news for (a) getting married and divorced every 72 days, (b) having spats with other stars, (c) being arrested for being a drunken idiot or (d) going into rehab.
Robert Downey, Jr. is the perfect example of this.
Downey is a supremely talented actor. If he had a perfect personal life, you might hate him. You’d want to see him brought down to earth off his pedestal of perfection. On the other hand, if Downey was drinking Charlie Sheen‘s tiger blood nonsense, you’d dismiss him as an idiot. Instead, people admire Downey for getting clean and sober, because everybody loves a redemption story. He still has an edge — plus flaws and quirky charm — but he’s no Sheen, who’s turned into a punchline.
Contrast also works. If you see somebody who looks great, it raises expectations. Time after time, an ugly duckling has shown up on stage at Britain’s Got Talent, underwhelming anyone watching until they opened their mouths and MADE PEOPLE CRY.
Here is Paul Notts, who definitely played the part of the ugly duckling. And the crowd loves him.
The package matters more than the product
The average person in the 1970s was exposed to about 500 ads per day. Today, it’s up to 5,000 ads per day, all professionally designed by Don Draper to persuade you that yes, you have to buy that widget RIGHT NOW.
It’s no exaggeration to say that a 1 percent response rate isn’t failure at all. That’s pretty dang good.
If the pros are happy to get something like 1 percent, don’t think that you are somehow immune from the mathematics. Your package has to be amazing to break through all that clutter.Because people are more media savvy than ever. They have to be. If people weren’t such hard targets, they’d blow the mortgage money on a garage full of Shamwows, Fat Magnets and DVD’s of the Brazilian Butt Lift.
This is why you can’t think, “I have 15,000 blog readers and 22,000 Twitter follows, so if they all buy my book / album / black velvet portraits of dogs dressed like Elvis, I’m home free.” Because 1 percent or less is far more likely.
Packaging is so important that it actually subverts true talent. I’ll let somebody smarter than me explain.
Malcolm Gladwell tells a great story in BLINK about classical musicians in professional symphonies. Used to be, the conductor watched people try out. Then he picked who’d be first violin and all that.
For the sake of fairness, symphonies switched to having musicians play behind a screen. You couldn’t see who it was. What they sound like is all that mattered anyway, right?
This little change turned classical music upside down.
Conductors freaked out, because they were picking women for manly instruments like the tuba, stuff that women couldn’t possibly have the strength or lung power to play.
Also, some people looked terrible when they played, but sounded great.
Other people were good-looking and looked great when they played, but they actually sounded bad, when you couldn’t see them.
The screen turned off the connection between our eyes, our ears and our brain.
It’s the same thing that happens when you’re sick and can’t smell. Food tastes entirely differently. Taste isn’t all in the tongue.
Here’s the other thing: a conductor can tell the difference between a room packed with world-class violinists, but you and I can’t. A professional food taster can tell you insane things about packages of Oreos, down to which factory produced the additives and flavorings. A scout for the New York Jets could talk to you for hours about how Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are totally different quarterbacks, but to you and me, all we know is they’re both really good and that Peyton has a younger brother who looks like he’s still 12 and plays for the New Jersey/A football team.
The intricate technical details about how each quarterback handles seven-step drops when facing a corner blitz, well, that’s beyond our ken.
Sidenote: I don’t even know if “ken” is a word anymore.
The point is, when we’re talking about the top 1 percent of talented people, doing whatever those talented people do, the package is more important than the product.
That’s because the professionals who pick winners and losers do have strong opinions, often about technical, high-level stuff, but those opinions actually don’t matter at all to the people WHO MATTER MOST, which is you and me, Joe and Jane Consumer, the people who’ll buy the movie tickets / books about sparkly vampires (please don’t) / music singles on iTunes.
The only opinions that matter are the uneducated ones. That’s the trouble.
We don’t care that professionals in the music industry say Madonna and sixteen other pop princesses have weak voices. Our eyes are hooked up to our brain, which also communicates with our ears. The whole package matters, not just the voice. So the showmanship of Madonna makes her a star when a zillion other singers, with better pipes, fail.
Unlike the symphony tryouts, there is no screen in real life.
You can take it further. There are all kinds of actresses, including Lindsey Lohan and Selena Gomez, who put out albums that sell. It’s because their name ID is crazy high. They know how the publicity game works. And so they get more attention, and sales, than musicians with far more talent, toiling in obscurity.
A great package + poor talent beats great talent + poor packaging.
The same is true of actors, writers and artists. This is why obscure artists suddenly sell all kinds of paintings and such when they die. Their name is finally in the news. They’re getting exposure and attention.
People finally see the package, and that leads to them looking at the product for the first time.
Without legs, you are dead in the water
Though I kinda sorta hate reality TV, it is the best possible laboratory for testing evil theories about media and publicity.
The structure of different reality shows makes stars out of people like Snooki and Kim Kardashian while denying fame and fortune to other people with more actual talent and potential.
Here’s why: legs.
Survivor is one of the original reality TV hits, and you probably remember the first guy who won it, the naked man, David Hatch, right? (I am not certain about his first name, and yes, the Series of Tubes would tell me, but I believe “naked man” and “Hatch” is close enough.)
Hatch was an interesting villain, and villains stick in our head better than heroes. But aside from getting in the news for going to prison (train wreck!), Hatch pretty much disappeared.
Same thing with Rupert, a bearded pirate hero full of mirth and charm who was on Survivor: Some Island Where It is Hot. A great character. Should have been a star. But except for some kind of Survivor All-Star thing, Rupert also disappeared.
Why? Because the structure of Survivor doesn’t give anybody legs. Except for the rare times they bring back people for a second go, you are one-and-done.
Jersey Shore, Basketball Wives and even the crazy stuff on Discovery (Mythbusters, Storage Wars, Southern Men Who Put Their Hands Into Swamps to Catch Man-Eating Catfish) have given us breakout stars not because those people are far more talented. It’s because the structure of those shows gives them legs.
They aren’t one-and-done. The people on those shows are on the Glowing Tube season after season.
And it is no mistake that we’re talking entirely about the Glowing Tube so far.
Movies are typically one shots. Unless you’re in a crazy successful series like STAR WARS or HARRY POTTER, a movie doesn’t typically have enough legs to get you even to Snooki status. You need movie after movie for that.
This is why TV is king.
Why? Because unlike all other forms of media, the Glowing Tube automatically generates all kinds of extra coverage in newspapers and magazines, blogs and radio, social media and regular old water cooler BSing.
Sure, they talk about movies and books a little on the radio when I drive to work, but mostly, they’re talking about TV shows. Mad Men, Survivor, American Idol.
So let’s look at American Idol for a second. Actual talent. Big exposure. But it’s one-and-done, right? That should blow my evil theory out of the water.
Except the producers of American Idol understand that their newborn and freshly hatched stars needed steady exposure. They understand the need for legs. So after the season is over, not only does the winner (and some also-rans) have albums released in a hurry. They also send the winner and runner-ups on a big long concert tour.
The reverse is not true. Being in the newspaper or on the radio doesn’t automatically get you on TV.
Are there exceptions? Sure. Scott Adams and the comic strip Dilbert are a great exception. He writes best-selling books now. He had some kind of Dilbert cartoon on TV. This, however, is rare.
Being on a TV show, season after season, makes you a household name. TV exposure has launched some of the biggest movie stars (Michael J. Fox, George Clooney, Tom Hanks and 16.9 zillion other people I don’t need to name).
Recurring guest spots on Oprah have generated entire careers for Dr. Phil, the Dog Whisperer, Dr. Oz and 283 other people I’m not listing.
The next time you’re at the doctor’s office, pick up a copy of PEOPLE or US and count how many photos and articles feature (a) Hollywood actors, (b) pop stars, (c) reality TV stars versus (d) authors, reporters, cartoonists, politicians, dentists, plumbers or radio hosts.
I put a lot of people in (d), and even then, (d) won’t add up to much. If I were truly evil, I’d make it unfair by saying “authors not named J.K. Rowling or Stephen King.”
So: this is complicated, but not rocket science.
- Flaws and quirks give people a hook, a way to stand out. Instead of saying, “You know, the pretty supermodel” or “That singer, the one who sings well,” you can say, “The amazing model with the gap between her teeth” or “That ugly British frog who sings opera that makes you cry” and PEOPLE GET IT.
- The package is what people see first. If they never see it, you have no chance. If a great product is wrapped in bad packaging, you have no chance. And yes, a bad product in amazing packaging will beat true talent and brilliance. So work on the packaging, no matter what type of artist you are. Then work on it some more. Because you will live and die by the package.
- Exposure is great, but you need legs. Even if you’re on TV, which is the King of All Media, and which automatically generates coverage in all other forms of media. Yes, Internet Boy, the Glowing Tube is even more powerful than the Series of Tubes. Sorry. All true.
Related reading for people who enjoy seeing conventional wisdom get all blown up, Michael-Bay style:
- The Twitter, it is NOT for selling books
- Forget the Twitter: free ink and airtime are your MOST DANGEROUS WEAPONS
- Using free ink and airtime to BUST THROUGH
- Why blog hits DON’T REALLY MATTER
Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.