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It's amazing what you can get the media to do on a slow day
February 9, 2000
Mike Hensen, London Free Press
Pocock tries to woo Hallmark clerk Leslie McIlwaine.
A friend of mine, in a particularly sour mood, once opined that the
media was 95% lazy and 5% vituperative, with all its self-vaunted
honour and independence bound up in the 5%. At the time I thought
this far too cynical, and still think so. I'd say the media is only
75% lazy, 20% vituperative and 5% lucky -- with the honour and all
the independent thinking bound up exclusively in the luck.
Some other time I will attempt to defend the scientific reasoning
supporting this thesis, but for the moment I just want to deal with
an aspect of the laziness. The cleverest people in public relations
know perfectly well that if they do most of the work (i.e. research,
angle, catchy quotes, etc.) and pitch a client's tale the right way,
they can achieve in either the print or broadcast media most of what
they are hired to pull off. All they have to do is leave a little
room for a journalist's glaze in the lead paragraph and one or two
I exaggerate for effect, perhaps, but not much! Manipulating the
media for fun and profit is a growth industry. Just read the bulk of
business stories, travel articles or even movie reviews. And spare
me your outraged e-mails, dear colleagues -- I'm referring to "the
bulk," not your undoubtedly distinguished, award-winning exceptions
to the rule.
My favourite current example of a modest media feeding frenzy is a
clever personalized computer romance novel entitled Love's Next
Door. The brainchild of a young London, Ont., publishing
entrepreneur named Michael Pocock, it is "a Valentine-cum-birthday"
treat for your loved one. After filling in an amusingly detailed
questionnaire with details about your inamorata (hair and eye
colour, personality traits, best friend, worst enemy, pet animal and
so on), a basic novel is adjusted -- sometimes with more than a
thousand changes -- by Pocock's firm in less than two weeks. Presto:
a cute item published like a Harlequin romance paperback is ready to
dazzle your girlfriend or boyfriend.
Personalized books are not new. It has been possible for some years
to get children's books with a child's name included, but the range
of textual changes was severely limited. Pocock's cleverness is in
concocting a tale sufficiently ordered that it can withstand the
assault of all the changes and yet be an amusingly credible literary
offering. I don't mean it's literature -- just something capable of
getting on the Maclean's best-seller list.
Pocock himself is a natural entrepreneur/salesman with engaging
enthusiasm to spare. He reminds me of a younger David Chilton, the
author of The Wealthy Barber, who mined another successful
quasi-literary gimmick a few years ago. In both cases, the
promotional aim of these smart guys is never to be reviewed by
literary critics on literary pages or high-falutin' television and
radio. Instead, they targeted the "slow news day" or "off-beat
feature" crowd. Pocock's success in this regard is, well, dazzling.
He's only been at it a couple of months but he is already a "soft"
national item. Yesterday he was doing Valerie Pringle on CTV's
Canada AM, and he's already done gigs with CBC Newsworld, Citytv's
Breakfast Television, the Life Network and God knows what else. The
newspaper hits are impressive: articles in The Toronto Star, this
newspaper (twice after my column is published), The Toronto Sun, The
Calgary Sun (a full page) and, inevitably, The Globe and Mail's "Ms.
Libido" -- Leah McLaren -- did him up in journalistic gift packaging
10 days ago.
What does all this media "success" mean for Michael Pocock? It's
not entirely clear yet. He is just about to break into the U.S.
market, which he must if he wants his clever idea to really take
off. Early reports indicate a similar pattern to the one in Canada.
The Detroit News, the Cincinnati Post, and the Denver Rocky Mountain
News have all done features recently, and this early pattern will
probably spread. The scouts for the Rosie O'Donell Show are
sniffing, and Mike Pocock is running about as fast as he can. Even
as he madly pushes his little goldmine of a personalized romance
novel, he is expanding into the "interactive" publishing/television
world. Heaven knows, this handsome devil (he turns up on TV in a
dinner jacket and presents a rose to his hostess) may yet be able to
include you in a personalized, computer-induced guest spot on
In the meantime, he's going to experiment with some paid ads in a
few selected print outlets. I don't know why he bothers when you
consider what the McLarens (and Frasers) of this world will do for
Reprint courtesy of the National Post.