I’ll add to that headline: Donald Trump wouldn’t just light his own house on fire if that’s what it took to get some press and a crowd.
He’d do it after getting the job of fire chief. After half the town burns, Trump would pull a Russell Crowe.
Because that’s what he sees his job: entertainer-in-chief, not commander-in-chief.
Governing is Complicated and Boring to him. His tweet about Joe Biden being a boring ratings disaster as president, now, that’s telling. This is what matters to him: ratings, not results. Trump doesn’t solve problems. He’s hard-wired to create new ones.
It’s why he loves giant rallies and the ability to move the press with constant tweets.
And this is why Trump continually generates controversy, even when it hurts him. He believes in the theory that there’s no such thing as bad press, and that worked for him to generate name ID and coverage when he was a real estate developer. You can make a living selling overpriced condos and fake Trump University degrees if millions of people know your name. Doesn’t matter if 90 percent of people think you’re a buffoon–10 percent of millions of people is all you need.
Politics is different. Name ID can get you through a crowded primary, but it doesn’t help you run a country.
This is why I never look at Trump’s weird moves as three-dimensional chess. He’s doing what he knows, picking weird fights to get maximum media coverage even though (1) as president, he naturally gets more coverage than any person on earth, and (2) many of these battles are insane and counter-productive.
There’s nothing smart about picking a fight with Bubba Wallace and defending the Confederate flag when everybody is going the opposite direction: NASCAR, the state of Mississippi, the leaders of the military, voters.
If it generates press, owns the libs, and makes his base happy, he does it. Goya beans, marching neo-Nazis, kids in cages, travel bans–the list is endless. I don’t have time to type all the horrors.
So what changed?
The COVID pandemic, economic crash, and protests against police violence all hit at once this year. They exposed Trump’s incompetence in the face of a single real crisis, much less three simultaneous ones.
When times are good, sure, people like to be entertained and diverted. You can dominate the headlines with fights about the Confederate flag or whatever.
But if the nation is on fire, with the economy in shambles from the pandemic, people dying, and the largest civil rights protests in history, that’s what will dominate the press and the minds of voters. They won’t be distracted, no matter how shiny the object. Only a spectacular fool would try to divert attention from those pressing issues.
After years of this, he won’t change. Maybe he can’t. Clearly, he doesn’t want to, no matter how many advisors tell him it’s not working.
I think Mary Trump has it right: Donald Trumps is still a damaged little boy, the kind of kid who will swear at the Thanksgiving table and knock things over because he’s incredibly desperate for attention.
It’s not a brilliant political strategy. Any fool can make a packed room full of people turn around and pay attention.
Walk into a Safeway and throw a tantrum–about masks, QAnon conspiracy craziness, flat-earth theories, whatever–and kick over a carefully stacked pyramid of Coors Light and tortilla chips. With cell phones turning every person into a mobile, worldwide TV studio, you could easily go viral doing that sort of trashy nonsense. The shares and retweets might go crazy.
But it doesn’t make you a media savant.
And it’s not a good habit for an elected leader who’s supposed to be solving problems, especially when millions of people are out of work or infected with a deadly virus.
Nobody wants to pay money to see a movie that stinks, a book that you can’t get past Chapter 1 or an album where every song hurts your ears.
You want quality. I want quality. Everybody wants it.
But you can’t pitch quality.
And you can’t package it.
So unless you’ve got something else — a quirk, a hook, a unique twist — quality alone won’t get you anywhere.
It won’t get people to look, listen or read in the first place.
So let’s pitch and package random, made-up things. Why? Because it takes practice and because you’re too close to your own stuff to do it right. And because it’s fun.
First up: two different bands.
Band A is a trio: drummer, guitar and bass / lead singer. They’re all recent music school graduates in their late twenties. They’re serious, seriously talented, good-looking and ready to break out. Let’s say they play a lot of punk rock and post-grunge.
Band B looks like a sure-fire loser. They’re all five years old. College degrees in music? Try “Hey, we’re potty trained, and we know our ABC’s.” They don’t know how to read music, write music or understand music theory like the other band. The guitarist knows one trick: crank up the distortion and make it loud. But they know the rough melodies and words to three different Metallica songs, and they do a cover of ENTER SANDMAN that’s close enough to be damned funny.
Here’s a real-life example of this sort of thing. A ton of people — 383,000 plus — have watched this kid sing, DON’T BRUSH MY HAIR IN KNOTS while her brother or neighbor kid banged on the drums.
Alright, here’s your homework: Write a one-sentence pitch for each band. Four words, if you want to ace this. Six words if you feel like a Cheaty McCheaterface.
Do it now. Find a piece of paper or fire up Word and do a pitch for each. Don’t even think about it.
I’ll go find silly videos on YouTube about swamp monsters in Louisiana or whatever.
OK, time’s up. Let’s compare pitches.
My best shot at the music majors: “Nirvana minus flannelly angst.” Four words, and I’m sort of cheating by turning flannelly into a word. Hard, isn’t it? You can’t get anywhere saying any kind of variation on, “This band, they’re really, really good.”
My pitch for the kids: “Kindergarteners cover Metallica.” Three words. Doesn’t have to be poetry here. Are you going to click on a link that says “Nirvana minus flannelly angst” or “this band is amazing?”
No. Not when there’s another link that has five-year-olds playing heavy metal?
Who wins the quality test? The serious music majors, by a mile.
Who wins the pitch and packaging test? The little kids who play bad covers of heavy metal. It’s so much easier. I would have to kidnap reporters to get them to cover our post-grunge band of music majors.
Could I get free ink and airtime with the Heavy Metal Monsters of Hillman Elementary? Absolutely.
Next: two different books
Our quality book is a literary masterpiece that will make you cry while snorting coffee through your nose, then take a fresh look at life and possibly quit your job and join a Tibetan monastery. It’s about a middle-aged man who works in a cubicle farm and lives in surburbia with a wife who’s on industrial amounts of Prozac and a teenage daughter who’s too busy thumbing her iPhone to notice who provides her with food, shelter, clothing and a VW Passat with only 13,000 miles on it. The hero’s life changes when he gets mugged on the way home. Also, a mime is involved, and a janitor who lives in a shack but says witty, wise things before he gets hit by a train.
The other book is a cheesy sci-fi novel with horrible dialogue. The premise: dinosaurs didn’t die off after some asteroid hit. They were smart. Really smart. And they left the planet in a fleet of spaceships to escape Earth long before that asteroid screwed things up for millions of years. Now they’re headed toward earth. And they want their planet back.
Ready? One sentence pitch for each. Four words.
OK, let’s see what we’ve got. Here’s my instant, no-thinking pitches.
Literary book: “Hell is a cubicle farm.” Five words. More of a title than a pitch. It sings to me, though, in a small, squeaky, off-pitch voice.
Sci-fi nonsense: “Space dinosaurs invade earth.” This is a kissing cousin to “Comet will destroy earth,” which has been the basis for about six different movies, including five by Michael Bay, with the other one starring Morgan Freeman for some reason, despite the fact that Morgan Freeman has ZERO CHANCE of flying up in a space shuttle with Bruce Willis and that dude who is an old college buddy of Matt Damon to blow up the comet, asteroid or whatever with nuclear bombs.
The bottom line is, quality is one thing. In the end, it’s probably the most important thing.
Yet nobody will read your masterpiece, listen to your amazing album or see you act like no actor has acted in the history of acting-hood if they don’t get hooked by your pitch and packaging. They have to know you exist first.
Quality isn’t a pitch. “You should see that movie — it’s really good” doesn’t work. Your friends and family will ask, “What’s it about?” and if you don’t have four words to explain it, to give them a pitch, then forget it.
The next time to read a book, see a movie or listen to a great new song, think of four words.
How would you package it? What could you possibly say, just to your friends so they could see it, but to a reporter or a TV producer?
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 Snooki (real name: I don’t care) have flaws and quirks? Oh yes. She and every other member of Jersey Shore had a solitary talent: creating constant drama, if not fiery train wrecks.
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? You can’t say that. 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 wall-to-wall coverage about the Kardashians, who really need some alone time before we beg Elon Musk to send them all on his first manned mission to Mars.
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 the most readers choose? — is a lot more fun. 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 average people would 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. Flaws and quirks let 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.
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.
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 / fingerpainted portraits of dogs dressed like Elvis, I’m home free.” Not after you do the math. 1 percent of 15,000 + 22,000 = 370.
Packaging is so important that it actually subverts true talent.
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, things they believed 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. You and I can’t do that.
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 .01 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, yet those opinions actually don’t matter at all to the people who matter most, which is you and me, Joe and Jane Consumer, who actually buy the movie tickets / books about sparkly vampires (please don’t) / and music singles on iTunes.
The only opinions that truly matter are the uneducated ones.
We don’t care that professionals in the music industry say Madonna and sixteen other pop divas 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 and professional athletes who put out albums that objectively stink. Yet they sell far more copies than they should simply 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 who will toil in obscurity.
A great package (name ID, flaws, quirks, drama) + poor talent beats the heck out of great talent + poor packaging (no name ID, no flaws or quirks, no drama).
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, probably for the first time. There’s all kind of talent hiding around the corner that you never see.
An easy example: go to your county fair in the summer and check out the arts and crafts displays. I shoot photos and know enough to be dangerous and listen, I was really impressed by all the kids who won ribbons for photos. Then I scooted over to the adult photo winners. Mind blown. Great shots, including a bunch people took all over the world. But you’ll never learn their names or see their work.
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, 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 who was on Survivor: Some Island Where It is Hot. 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 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’re lucky to get ONE sequel, and that means people see the first movie and see the sequel about two years later. If you’re insanely lucky, there’s a third movie, at least another year or two after that.
This is why TV is king.
First, because instead of once a year with a movie, people can see you every week.
Second, 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.
Not accidentally. Automatically.
Sure, they talk about movies and books on the radio when I drive to work, but mostly, they’re talking about TV shows.
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 and bring them back, repeatedly, to sing on later seasons and such.