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It's amazing what you can get the media to do on a slow day

John Fraser
National Post
February 9, 2000

Mike Pocock tries to woo Leslie McIlwaine 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 nasty sentences.

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 Friends.

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 nothing.

Reprint courtesy of the National Post.

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