Hype, hype, hooray! Essay: It's not the medium anymore. It's the message. And the message is: Buy.

December 23, 1996|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Two days till Christmas, and the meltdown is upon us. In less than 48 hours, we'll get a chance to catch our breath amid piles of torn wrapping paper.

But only for a day. The after Christmas sale is coming, then Evita, then the Super Bowl. And, there's still time to see "101 Dalmatians" before it hits the $1.50 theater in South Baltimore.

Forget what you've heard about this being the computer age, or the information age. This is the Age of Hype. And Christmas is its high season. The holiday's religious foundation is almost lost under the piles of wrapping paper, mistletoe and 25 percent off sales notices. It needs its own ad agency to get our attention.

Everywhere you turn someone is trying to sell you something. The pitch comes on all frequencies, on all sides. (Remember Crazy Eddie's screaming, in-your-face ads? His prices were INSANE!)

"Everybody is out to sell something. So you hype it," says Ray Browne, editor of the Journal of Popular Culture. "It has an underside which really is not very healthy. It causes people to lie and believe lies and to be conned. Everybody now is out to con somebody."

And nobody believes anybody. The result is not less hype, but more hype. We're practically under siege. Advertisers know we're not paying attention. We hit the mute button as soon as the commercial starts, toss the ad circulars without a glance.

Still, they come, pleading, cajoling, shrieking in their attempts to find the right psycho-emotional button to push.

You'll look thinner or younger; you'll be happier than you've ever dreamed. Life as you know it will end. Advertising has always promised Shangri-la. What's different now is the extent. There is no escape.

'Special' mail

You pick up your mail and find an official looking envelope waiting for you. It screams, I'm not some CAR-RT SORT piece of throw-away junk mail! I'm from the Records of Authorization/Disbursement Division!

"Registered Document Enclosed" is stamped across the front in red. Bold black letters warn of a $2,000 fine or five years in prison or both for anybody who keeps this letter out of your hands. It's all designed to do one thing -- get your attention. Why else would you put "registered document" on an offer for a vacation plan?

The registered document represents hype at the low end of the scale. At the high end, there's "Evita."

By now, you'd have to be living in a cave not to know of Madonna's starring role in the big screen version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical about Evita Peron. Publicists started the buzz months ago. The CD came out weeks ahead of the movie. Tickets for the Jan. 1 opening are already on sale. The release is becoming an event. The hype machine is in high gear.

Professor Douglass Noverr, who teaches in the American Thought and Language department at Michigan State in East Lansing, loves this type of hype.

"There's the element of identification. People like to identify with exciting events and to be involved in them, to anticipate them, whether it's a sporting event or a new product, or a rock group ZTC on tour," he says. "Basic human needs. That's basically what hype involves, activating, engaging and accelerating basic human needs, the need to be a part of something."

"Evita" is big-time, multimillion-dollar hype. It blankets the known world, inspiring one breathless story after another in the media, the proud handmaiden of hype. There are stories about the advance tickets, about the fashion, about Madonna and, of course, about the hype.

"It's like a political campaign," says Erwin Ephron, of Ephron, Papazian Inc., a New York advertising consulting firm. "You have a limited time to make the sale, so you have to make sure everybody knows you're opening."

But there's no guarantee the hype will pay off. A million thumbs down beats two thumbs up from Siskel and Ebert any day. If the first wave of moviegoers shrug, all the breathless reviews in the world won't keep a flick off the fast track to oblivion.

Sensational flops

Hollywood flops are legendary. "Heaven's Gate" cost $36 million to make and only grossed $3 million back in 1980. Seven years later, "Ishtar" struggled to earn $14.3 million but cost $66 million.

Some advertising textbook must suggest that he who screams loudest gets heard. But the mid-1980s saw one of hype's biggest failures. Coca-Cola thought it was on the right track when it introduced New Coke.

The company spent $4 million on taste tests and research. The testers said the company had a winner on its hands. All systems go! Another $70 million went into the advertising, the buildup, the hype. The world was prepped for a new taste sensation.

Talk about a bomb. The backtracking started in a New York minute, proving you can't sell what people won't buy.

Of course, if people want what you're selling, you can spend millions and have one of those events Noverr loves.

That's what Bill Gates did.

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