The Internet Can Make You a Chump—Forever!

Trouble is, the Internet is rife with misinformation and if you get caught advertently or inadvertently propagating this nonsense in a report, memo, article, letter or book, you will look like a chump. If your careless work finds its way onto the Internet, it will follow you to the grave.

Limbaugh Taken In: The Judge Was Not Loaded for Bear

PENSACOLA, Fla. — Anyone listening to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show Tuesday could be forgiven for thinking that Judge Roger Vinson has the federal government dead in his sights … Apparently, Mr. Limbaugh had fallen prey to an Internet hoax … On Sunday night, and again Monday morning, someone identified only as “Pensacolian” edited Judge Vinson’s Wikipedia entry to include the invented material. The prankster footnoted the entry to a supposed story in
The Pensacola News Journal. The article—like its stated publication date of June 31, 2003—does not exist. The same person who posted the information removed it on Tuesday afternoon, Wikipedia logs show.
—Kevin Sack, The New York Times, Sept. 15, 2010

When I started out as a copywriter, novelist and non-fiction writer, research meant endless clipping of newspapers and magazine articles, schlepping down to a local library to spend hours chasing down leads in books, magazines and scrolling through endless reels newspapers on microfiche. Today, what took five days at the library can be accomplished in 20 minutes from any computer in the world with Internet access.

Trouble is, the Internet is rife with misinformation and if you get caught advertently or inadvertently propagating this nonsense in a report, memo, article, letter or book, you will look like a chump. If your careless work finds its way onto the Internet, it will follow you to the grave.

In the world of research, separating out the bogus from the true takes work.

Example: The Bill Munro Quote
W. Carroll (Bill) Munro was a neighbor of my father’s in upstate New York. A big, gruff, hard-drinking iconoclast, he penned three novels in the 1950s, went into advertising in the era of “Mad Men” and wound up as vice president and marketing director of Pepsico.

Once during a heated discussion in the 1960s at a Saturday night barbeque, Munro snarled a wonderful aphorism that stuck in my brain: “Imitation is the sincerest form of collective stupidity.”

In 2004, I used it for the first time in my book, “PRICELINE.COM: A Layman’s Guide to Manipulating the Media” (which sold a total of 15 copies, so not a lot of people saw it). On Aug. 31, 2006 I used it in my Business Common Sense e-zine, and have used it several times since—in my “Famous Last Words” column in Target Marketing and on Twitter.

If you put that line in quotation marks and Google it, you’ll get 12 hits. Four of the entries are mine, while the other 8 are by complete strangers to me who picked up the quote and used it with attribution to Munro. Never heard of any of them, but here they are:

I am the only person in the world who heard Munro say this. Yet, not one of the eight checked with me to see if it were real or pure fiction. One of these characters picked it up from me and the others most likely picked it up from that guy or each other.

For all anybody knows, Munro and his line could be made up out of my head—pure fiction—yet business people are quoting it to their readers as if it were fact.

When something is repeated often enough in a number of venues, it becomes the truth.

It is the same principle as a forged Picasso painting. As it is bought and sold over the years, it acquires a longer and longer pedigree—so-called provenance in the art world—and after years in the marketplace, it becomes the real thing, no questions asked, even though it’s an out-‘n’-out fake.

Rule No. 1 for the Web: Beware of Provenance
There’s this guy I know in Phoenix—a political extremist, who forwards to me the most scurrilous, inflammatory stories that validate his pet hates with comments that always say, “OMG!” or “See, I told you so!”

However, when I put a phrase from his diatribe in quotation marks and paste it into Google, I get bunch of cuckoo entries from bloggers, screamers and nut cases, who have picked up the story and repeated it verbatim from each other. The busy little Google spiders capture this fiction and add it to the vast maw of data out in the ether. A couple of Google entries, and it fogs the mirror. With six entries it grows legs. Fifteen Google entries turn it into a living, breathing monster that becomes harder and harder to disprove.

Can it be found on the website of a legitimate newspaper, broadcast station, wire service or commentator? Nah.

Eventually it may show up on the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s, honchoed by widely respected gumshoe journalist Brooks Jackson, who will do in-depth research and expose the story for what it is—a load of crap.

By then it’s too late. It will have made its way into the speeches and writings of the extreme Left or extreme Right, nobody having bothered to check it out.

The Wikipedia Trap
School and college students are constantly being nailed for turning in papers with facts (and frequently plagiarized copy) lifted verbatim from the highly-touted Wikipedia—the online source of all knowledge that describes itself thusly:

Since its creation in 2001, Wikipedia has grown rapidly into one of the largest reference websites, attracting nearly 78 million visitors monthly as of January 2010. There are more than 91,000 active contributors working on more than 16,000,000 articles in more than 270 languages. As of today, there are 3,417,066 articles in English. Every day, hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world collectively make tens of thousands of edits and create thousands of new articles to augment the knowledge held by the Wikipedia encyclopedia.

Trouble is, many of the volunteer editors and writers have their own agendas and are dishonest propagandists. The Rush Limbaugh silliness (see “IN THE NEWS” above) is the most recent. Below are three of the entries in the dossier of Wikipedia flimflam entries in my private archive.

• Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales was caught red-handed changing his own Wikipedia biography 18 times, which included deleting his co-founder, Larry Sanger.

• “Political operatives are covertly rewriting—or defacing—candidates’ biographical entries to make the boss look good or the opponent look ridiculous.” —Shannon McCffrey, Associated Press

• “WikiScanner revealed that CIA computers were used to edit an entry on the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. A graphic on casualties was edited to add that many figures were estimated and were not broken down by class. Another entry on former CIA chief William Colby was edited by CIA computers to expand his career history and discuss the merits of a Vietnam War rural pacification program that he headed.” —Randall Mikkelsen, Reuters

The list of mis- and disinformation uncovered in Wikipedia is lengthy and embarrassing.

In 2007, the Middlebury College History Department banned the citing of Wikipedia as a research source.

Make a note to do likewise.

Otherwise, you can get caught with your pants down as Rush Limbaugh did.

Not a pretty image.

Takeaways to Consider

  • Wikipedia has enormous value as a starting point, a lead generator and perhaps a wiring diagram.
  • Never trust Wikipedia as the sole source for your research—on anything.
  • The only thing worse than no information is bad information.
  • Before hitting the “Publish” button, make sure it is not the opinion—stated as fact—of a wacko zealot or prankster that has been endlessly repeated by other wacko zealots and pranksters.
  • Go with it only if you can find it in a reputable source—AP, Reuters, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Huffington Post, TIME, The Economist, etc.
  • And go with it only if you have seen it for yourself in that original, reputable source. And preferably two of them.
  • Download it from that source—including its URL—and file it away in your private archive in case you are called on to defend it.
  • If you are caught assigning truth to a bogus story or quote by a wacko zealot, you are a chump. If you cite one or more reputable source that have repeated the story as fact—and can prove it with the URLs—you are off the hook (unless that source has printed a retraction).

Web Sites Related to This Edition
Limbaugh taken in by Wikipedia Hoax

Brooks Jackson’s

Wikipedia founder edits his own bio

Political dirty tricksters manipulate Wikipedia

CIA, FBI computers used for Wikipedia edits

Congress caught making false entries in Wikipedia

Middlebury College History Dept. bans citing Wikipedia as a research source

The New Rules For Judging ‘Quality’ In Published Content — 1

The New Rules For Judging ‘Quality’ In Published Content — 2

Do You Know Where Your Customers Are?

Imagine people sitting in a bar boozing at 8:00 a.m. It’s OK. Most of these morning drinkers work the night shift and this is their cocktail hour. Could these be some of your customers?

Imagine people sitting in a bar boozing at 8:00 a.m. It’s OK. Most of these morning drinkers work the night shift and this is their cocktail hour. What’s more, they want their TV news during prime time when they are having breakfast and getting ready to go to work.

Meanwhile, sometimes I cannot sleep and get up at 4:00 a.m., walk the dog, make coffee, scan the headlines. Alas, the printed newspapers are ipso facto yesterday’s news. What happened overnight?

From The New York Times, August 31, 2010:

Stations in Boston, New York, Washington and other cities are adding 4:30 a.m. newscasts this month, joining a backward march that started in earnest a few years ago. And those are not even the earliest. One station in New York, WPIX, will move up its start time to 4 a.m. on Sept. 20.

In catering to the earliest of the early risers, stations are reacting to the behavior patterns that are evident in the Nielsen ratings. Simply put, Americans are either staying awake later or waking up earlier — and either way, they are keeping the television on.

In the past 15 years, the number of households that have a TV set on at 4:30 has doubled, to 16 percent this year from 8 percent in 1995. At 11:30 p.m., by comparison, when most local newscasts end, 44 percent of televisions are on, up 10 percent from the levels 15 years ago.

-Brian Stelter
“TV News for Early risers (or Late-to-Bedders)”

Do you know your market and how, when and where to reach it?

Takeaways to Consider

  • Marketing guru Axel Andersson bought a small mail order study course in Germany after World War II and turned it into the largest “distance learning” organization in Europe. Axel retired to Florida, a millionaire many times over. When he would come to Philadelphia to consult, he insisted on staying at the Clarion Suites. Why the Clarion Suites—emphatically non-deluxe lodgings in the middle of Chinatown? “Certainly I could stay at a four-star hotel,” Andersson said. “But first of all, I get a suite with a living room where I work and a bedroom where I sleep. Secondly, the price is very reasonable. And thirdly, I see real people! At the Marriott or the Four Seasons, I would be among people just like me. I see those people everywhere. You can’t learn anything from them!”
  • “If you are a marketer, take the bus, subway, train or streetcar to work. These are the real Americans that you want to reach with your messages.”
    —Axel Andersson
    Direct marketer, founder of the Axel Andersson Akademie, Hamburg
  • “Listen to the murmur of your market. Create feedback loops in your database environment so that you can record what your customers and prospects are saying about your products, your service, your company and your competition. There is no more valuable source of information.”
    —Don Jackson
    Direct marketing insurance consultant

Web Sites Related to Today’s Blog
TV News for Early risers (or Late-to-Bedders)

Beware Publicity Hounds

Two stories about publicity hounds smacked me in the face and got me to wondering what would happen if an employee or associate of mine got into the business of self-promotion for the sake of self-promotion to the detriment of the company or society.

My private electronic archive of news stories contains nearly 50,000 items, indexed and cross-indexed, going back five years when I started my e-zine, BusinessCommon

The point of the e-zine is to take current news stories and connect dots that trace back to the reader’s business, career and life.

Such was the case today when two stories about publicity hounds smacked me in the face and got me to wondering what would happen if an employee or associate of mine got into the business of self-promotion for the sake of self-promotion to the detriment of the company or society. The two publicity hounds:

Kristin Davis, Candidate for Governor of New York
I first became aware of Eliot Spitzer’s blonde, buxom madam when she was ranked #1 in New York Magazine‘s story titled “The Greatest Tarts in New York History (An Illustrated Guide).”

The lede: “New York’s latest famous tart is most likely destined to be a footnote to the Eliot Spitzer scandal. . .”

Davis is not a footnote. She’s announced for Governor of New York, and somehow I am on her fershlugginer e-mail list, even though I moved out of New York State in 1970.

Today’s press release irritated the hell out of me on two counts:

* Davis “called for the repeal of the pension of any public official who resign their office in disgrace to face legal charges. Davis held a press conference outside former Governor Spitzer’s apartment at 985 Fifth Ave.” The press release continued:

“Why should we pay a billionaire who disgraced his office and his State?” asked Davis who served four months on Rikers Island after being convicted of promoting prostitution and before becoming a women’s rights advocate. Davis did four months in prison while Spitzer was not indicted or charged with a crime.

Suddenly the thing became all about her, rather than saving money for the citizens of New York.

* Re-read the mangled syntax: “. . .called for the repeal of the pension of any public official who resign their office in disgrace to face legal charges.”

-“. . . any public official who resign their office. . .” (should be “resigns”)

-“their office in disgrace” (a single public official does not resign “their” office. It should be “his” office-or “his or her office.” Personally I despise “his or her” and would simply use “from office.”)

Desirée Rogers, White House Social Secretary
The story in today’s New York Times that caught my eye was Peter Baker’s piece titled “Obama Social Secretary Ran Into Sharp Elbows.” It described the internal White House struggles of an unhappy Desirée Rogers, a long-time buddy of the Obamas, who became social secretary, screwed up big time, was fired and whined that her side of the story “had been lost in the swirl of hearings, backbiting and paparazzi-like coverage.”

I knew two prior White House social secretaries: Letitia (Tish) Baldrige (Jacqueline Kennedy) and Mary Jane McCaffrey (Mamie Eisenhower)—both classy, extraordinarily efficient and wonderfully hospitable people who did their jobs to perfection by staying in the background and allowing POTUS and FLOTUS to shine.

I first became aware of Desirée Rogers from the 3,700-word story in the April 30, 2009 issue of the glossy Wall Street Journal magazine, WSJ. How could anyone not be aware of this stunning woman staring out at you from the cover wearing a black designer dress, her ringless left hand placed front and center on her shapely knee and a come-hither look that said, “Hey, guys, I’m not married.”

Rogers positioned herself as “Brand Obama” and hobnobbed in the fashion world, where she was frequently photographed in borrowed outfits and six-figure jewelry.

I was frankly bothered by her. Whatever anybody thinks about this new president and his wife, it cannot be denied that they hit the ground running and are working their butts off, while this smoky bimbo was upstaging them.

When the Obamas threw their first state dinner, Desirée Rogers failed to set up a secure screening operation and attended the affair as a guest.

The eyebrows of TV viewers were raised when a glam couple sashayed hand-in-hand past the assembled press corps—he in de rigueur black tie, she in a stunning diaphanous red and gold sari-like outfit—where they paused for photographs and then beetled off for the pre-dinner reception.

Most of our raised eyebrows were for the drop-dead gorgeous blonde, but the eyebrows of a few media insiders shot up to their hairlines when they recognized Tareq and Michaele Salahi, a couple of crazed publicity hounds and world-class phonies from Virginia horse country.

The following morning, the two people in charge of the affair, Desirée Rogers and Secret Service chief Mark Sullivan, discovered they had been made to look like chumps by an outrageous pair of rapscallions.

Rogers, Sullivan and the Salahis were invited to testify before a House Homeland Security subcommittee. The White House, in violation of its promised transparency, exercised the old separation-of-powers ruse and Rogers failed to show. The Salahis also were no-shows.

That left an abject and humiliated Mark Sullivan to take the fall and be subjected to withering examination by the members of congress. “It’s the Secret Service’s job to take a bullet for the president,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA), “but not the president’s staff.”

It was really O.K., the committee was assured by Sullivan, because the couple had passed through a metal scanner that would have detected the presence of non-plastic firearms. “I’m confident that there was no threat to the president,” Sullivan reiterated many times in many ways.

However, the caper had a sinister side when it was pointed out that the couple could have emptied their pockets and purse of anthrax, killing 337 of the most important people in the world—including the president and the next two people in line to succeed him, Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

This would have elevated the president pro tem of the senate, 92-year-old Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, to the presidency of the United States.

Some takeaways to consider:

* Don’t change the subject of a press release and turn it into a vehicle for personal redemption.

* Get someone who knows the English language to go over the spelling, syntax and punctuation of all documents released to the public, so you don’t look like an incompetent jerk.

* If you find publicity hounds on staff that are getting too big for their knickers—and are becoming the face and brand of your company—don’t wait for a screw up or real damage. Assemble a paper trail and can them.

The Yin and Yang of Dealing with Good and Lousy Customers

For years I used to quote the statistic that a satisfied customer will tell three people, while an unhappy customer will tell 11 people. This was B.I. (before the Internet).

Today, an unhappy customer can go online and reach tens of millions of people around the world with an angry message.

One of the most fascinating figures in modern retailing is Bradbury H. (Brad) Anderson, a Northwestern Seminary dropout who went to work for a small midwestern music store called Sound Music. Over the years, Anderson turned the little shop into electronics behemoth Best Buy, with 1,400 stores across the United States and Canada, $45 billion in sales and 155,000 full- and part-time employees.

The corporate philosophy of most giant retailers is to drive every possible consumer into the store with TV advertising, cents-off coupons, mail shots, special newspaper offers and all the other bells and whistles of marketing wizardry.

But Anderson saw that many of these giants were performing poorly.

Several years ago in analyzing Best Buy’s customer file, he discovered that of the 500 million customer visits a year, 20 percent—or 100 million—were unprofitable.

So he hired on as a consultant Columbia Business School Professor Larry Selden, author of “Angel Customers and Demon Customers: Discover Which Is Which and Turbo-Charge Your Stock.”

It was Selden who came up with the revolutionary theory that a company is not a portfolio of product lines, but rather a portfolio of customers.

Direct marketers have operated on that premise since the 1920s.

Selden divides customers into “angels” and “devils.” Angels are the desirable customers who buy stuff and keep it—the kind of folks worth doing business with.

“The devils are its worst customers,” writes Gary McWilliams in his Wall Street Journal account of Best Buy. “They buy products, apply for rebates, return the purchases, then buy them back at returned-merchandise discounts. They load up on ‘loss leaders,’ severely discounted merchandise designed to boost store traffic, then flip the goods at a profit on eBay. They slap down rock-bottom price quotes from Web sites and demand that Best Buy make good on its lowest-price pledge.”

As with direct marketers, Best Buy carefully analyzes its customer base, spending time and money to lure the angels into the store and eliminate promotional efforts to the devils. It is also enforcing a 15 percent restocking fee for bad actors.

Unlike direct marketers, Best Buy cannot keep these sleaze balls out of its stores. But it can make life difficult for them while, at the same time, giving excellent service to its good customers.

On the other hand, when you have 155,000 employees, not all are smooth schmoozers or judges of people and absolutely “go by the book.” The result, nice folks can have miserable customer experiences and tell the world.

Satisfied Customers vs. Angry Customers
For years I used to quote the statistic that a satisfied customer will tell three people, while an unhappy customer will tell 11 people. This was B.I. (before the Internet).

Today, an unhappy customer can go online and reach tens of millions of people around the world with an angry message.

What triggered this story was the following e-mail forwarded to me last week by a long-time colleague that directly relates to Brad Anderson’s customer angels-and-devils policy.

Dear friends:

I received several copies of this email. My own take on dealing with retailers like this: Use a credit card.

Best Buy has some bad policies…. Normally, I would not share this with others. However, since this could happen to you or your friends, I decided to share it. If you purchase something from Wal-Mart, Sears etc. and you return the item with the receipt they will give you your money back if you paid cash, or credit your account if paid by plastic.

Well, I purchased a GPS for my car, a Tom Tom XL.S from ‘Best Buy’. They have a policy that it must be returned within 14 days for a refund!

So after 4 days I returned it in the original box with all the items in the box, with paper work and cords all wrapped in the plastic. Just as I received it, including the receipt.

I explained to the lady at the return desk I did not like the way it could not find store names. The lady at the refund desk said there is a 15% restock fee for items returned. I said no one told me that. I said how much would that be. She said it goes by the price of the item. It will be $45 for you. I said, all you’re going to do is walk over and place it back on the shelf then charge me $45 of my money for restocking? She said that’s the store policy. I said if more people were aware of it they would not buy anything here! If I bought a $2,000 computer or TV and returned it I would be charged a $300 restock fee? She said yes, 15%.

I said OK, just give me my money minus the restock fee.

She said since the item is over $200, she can’t give me my money back!!!

Corporate has to and they will mail you a check in 7 to ten days. I said ‘WHAT?!’

It’s my money! I paid in cash! I want to buy a different brand. Now I have to wait 7 to 10 days. She said the policy is on the back of the receipt.

I said, Do you read the front or back of your receipt? She said well, the front! I said so do I. I want to talk to the manager!

So the manager comes over, I explained everything to him, and he said, Well, sir, they should have told you about the policy when you got the item. I said, No one has ever told me about the check refund or restock fee, whenever I bought items from computers to TVs from Best Buy. The only thing they ever discussed was the worthless extended warranty program. He said, Well, I can give you the corporate phone number.

I called corporate. The guy said, well, I’m not supposed to do this but I can give you a $45 gift card and you can use it at Best Buy. I told him if I bought something and returned it, you would charge me a restock fee on the item and then send me a check for the remaining $3. You can keep your gift card, I’m never shopping in Best Buy ever again, and if I would of been smart, I would of charged the whole thing on my credit card! Then I could have canceled the transaction.

I would of gotten all my money back including your stupid fees! He didn’t say a word!

I informed him that I was going to e-mail my friends and give them a heads up on this store’s policy, as they don’t tell you about all the little caveats.

So please pass this on. It may save your friends from having a bad experience of shopping at Best Buy

It’s true! read it for yourself!!

Takeaways to Consider

  • As a result of this letter, I will think twice about ever shopping at Best Buy.
  • If this letter was forwarded—and re-forwarded—around the world, tens of thousands of wary prospects will drive right past Best Buy make a point of shopping at Wal-Mart, Target or Radio Shack.
  • It is assumed that you analyze your customers every which way to Sunday. The simplest formula in the direct marketing community is recency-frequency-monetary value (RFM). (Other highly sophisticated systems are available and should be looked into.)
  • Divide customers into quintiles, with the top quintile being your caviar and cream.
  • The bottom quintile is very likely costing you money.
  • The object of marketing is to move customers in the second quintile into the first quintile, the third quintile customers into the second quintile and so on.
  • In direct marketing, it is relatively easy to control the bottom quintile by marketing to it with less frequency, but keeping the addresses current so you can make money off of list rentals.
  • In retail, the bottom quintile is a nightmare. It’s tough to keep undesirable customers out of stores. One possibility is to divide the bottom quintile into its own quintile with the bottom two-fifths—the serial returners and shysters whom you do not want as customers—dealt with firmly.
  • This must be handled with great delicacy. Otherwise consumer activist groups can get on your case and create a flurry of poor publicity.
  • When you go to, you will find that Best Buy owns it and has turned it into a sales pitch for its products and services.
  • You may want to own the following URLs: www.[YourCompanyName] and www.[YourCompanyName] and follow Best Buy’s example.
  • It used to be axiomatic that a happy customer will tell three people; an unhappy customer will tell 11 others. Today, with the Internet, an unhappy customer can tell the entire world.

Two Words That Wrecked an Otherwise Superb e-Sales Pitch

When creating a sales effort, put yourself inside the head of your prospect and see what he or she sees.

[NOTE: All names and numbers have been changed to protect the inept.]

“Always see a salesman once,” said my first boss and mentor, children’s book publisher (and ace salesman) Franklin Watts.

The reason is obvious: you never know when (1) the guy has something to make you rich or (2) he is so good that you should hire him.

During 50 years in business, I have been receptive to reasonable blandishments from strangers by phone, letter, in person and—in recent years—e-mail.

James O’Malley called me and said that during this recession, many companies were having trouble getting paid. He said that his firm was employed by a number of direct marketing companies to collect overdue receivables and asked if I could use his services.

I gave him my usual line, “I’m a ‘see’ guy, not a ‘hear’ guy. Could you e-mail me some information?”

O’Malley said he would. Did I have any outstanding receivables currently that would require his services? I said that I did not, but who knows what the future would bring.

Five minutes later I received the following e-mail from James O’Malley:

your new Legal & Collection firm

Wednesday, July 1, 2009 11:02 AM


“James O’Malley”


Message contains attachments

BSM 2009 EMAIL Packet (James O’Malley) PC.doc (42KB)


We spoke today about protecting your company on current and future collection issues. Our collection ratios are more than double those of in house attempts, OR competing attorneys and collection firms, and many times we can collect within 3-5 business days. Attached please find the information you requested regarding our firm, along with a placement form.

Please get together the exact amount, invoice number, and date of invoices as soon as possible.

We are excited about the opportunity to help dramatically increase your cash flow. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me at the number below.


James O’Malley
Client Services Manager

So far so good, I thought, as I clicked on the attachment. I believed James O’Malley cared about me, wanted my business and spent serious time trying to woo me. After all, he called and asked for me by name and immediately followed up with a personalized e-mail. This was a thoroughgoing professional sales effort that made me feel important.

“It’s a basic tenet of selling,” wrote the late copy guru Bill Jayme, “that in the marketplace as in theater, there is indeed a factor at work called ‘the willing suspension of disbelief.'”

The attachment—which arrived in Word—was three pages. The first page was a memo from James O’Malley describing the history of his company and why I should use his services. Page two was a description of precisely what services O’Malley’s firm could provide. And the third page was a form for me to fill out to get the ball rolling.

Alas, the first page was NOT a personal memo to me from James O’Malley. Here is how it read:

To: Potential Client

From: James O’Malley

As mentioned, the attachment was in Word format, which means he could have spent an additional two seconds replacing “Potential Client” with “Denny Hatch” and closed the loop, making me believe that he was talking exclusively and personally to me.

Instead of a highly professional personal message, O’Malley threw an e-pie in my face, saying in effect, “Yeah, I’m sending this to a lot of people. You’re a big boy. You understand.”

In short, he broke the spell and triggered what Hemingway called my “shockproof, built-in shit detector.”

In addition, the following two sentences in the memo are grammatically incorrect:

>>Our combined 75 years of experience, professionalism and dedication to our clients, allows us to exceed all industry standards and provide you with the most expeditious results. <<

(The verbs—”allows” and “provide”—should agree.)

>>By utilizing our vast resources, as well as our investigating techniques to determine the debtor’s financial condition, provides us the information needed to best collect the account. <<

(The first word should be deleted.)

Admittedly, these are small details, but they indicate sloppy preparation. Would I trust these careless people to be in direct contact with my customers and clients—those folks who hopefully will be paying their bills on time once this damned recession is over and long after O’Malley’s services are no longer required?


Click on the image below to enlarge.

Zicam’s P.R. Crisis and the Mixed Message

In a P.R. crisis, do not give out mixed messages.

In yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer, I was struck by a full-page ad for Zicam, a cold remedy I had never heard of. The headline and text were set in bold white sans serif type reversed against a bright red background.

I immediately dismissed the ad without reading it. It was typical poor design and copy out of the pharmaceutical industry that often doesn’t know good advertising from bad.

Whereupon I came across an AP story by Matthew Perrone titled, “FDA says Zicam nasal spray can cause loss of smell.”

I noted this and then found the same full-page ad in The New York Times. Clearly the company was going through a P.R. crisis—something always worth studying and learning from. You never know when the egg will hit the fan and you will wind up on the wrong side of a lawsuit.

When I got upstairs to my office, I went online to and was immediately faced with a video starring Bill Hamilton, a middle-aged man wearing a shirt with open collar, who is CEO of the company Zicam.

Click on the “PLAY” icon, and Hamilton delivers a calming, personal three-minute message from the heart that explains what has happened, guarantees Zicam’s promise of absolute compliance and openness in dealing with the FDA and reassures the viewer that everything is going to be okay once all the facts are out. His lede:


My name is Bill Hamilton. I am the president of Matrixx Initiatives, makers of Zicam Cold Remedy products.

As you may have heard, the FDA has asked you to stop using our Zicam Cold Remedy Gel Swabs and Zicam Cold Remedy Nasal Gel.

The FDA did this since some consumers reported that they lost their sense of smell after using these two products.

Your safety has always been-and will continue to be-our number one priority at Zicam.

Our company—and I personally—would never market a product that we didn’t believe was safe.

That said, we want to work with the FDA, and so we have voluntarily withdrawn these two products from retailers’ shelves.

Note how Hamilton does not hide behind the faceless, CYA “we, us and our.” Instead, Hamilton—who delivers the entire three-minute message in a single smooth take—comes off as a straight arrow, competent, caring guy who is the face of the company and in charge. (“Our company—and I personally—would never market a product …”)

What’s more, the talk sounds like Hamilton wrote it. For example:

We believe the cumulative scientific and medical evidence shows that our products are safe and efficacious. And there is not credible evidence that Zicam Cold Remedy Nasal Gel or Zicam Cold Remedy Gel Swabs causes you to lose your sense of smell.

“Efficacious?” I had to look up the word (“marked by qualities giving the power to produce an intended effect”). No scriptwriter would use that word talking to consumers; I was made to believe that this was his word and that all of these were his words.

The people that wrote and produced this video are masters of correct communications. This is textbook correct P.R.

The Print Effort: Just the Opposite
At the end of this blog is an illustration of the full-page broadsheet newspaper ad that ran in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times and presumably other publications nationwide. Here are the headline and text:




As our millions of loyal users know, Zicam Cold Remedy products are specially formulated to shorten your colds so you don’t just feel better—you ARE better, sooner. We’re proud to have helped so many millions of you. In fact, over a billion doses of Zicam have been sold over the past decade.

We firmly believe in the safety and effectiveness of our products. Based on the FDA’s recommendations, we have voluntarily taken two nasal products off the shelves until we can resolve this issue. However, 17 products in our Zicam family are still available at every major retailer across the country.

This includes a full line of oral cold remedy products—in many forms and flavors—that deliver our amazing cold relief benefit.

You can learn more at You’ll also find a coupon there so you can try one of our oral products. So whenever you feel a cold coming on, rest assured you can still have Zicam on hand.

©2009 Zicam, LLC

What’s wrong with this design and copy? Everything!

1. Red is a hot color. Red implies danger. It is jarring. It screams, “READ THIS! SOMETHING IS WRONG!”

2. The copy and design breaks the rules of advertising as articulated by the legendary David Ogilvy:

  • “Set your headline, and indeed your whole advertisement, in upper and lower case. CAPITAL LETTERS LIKE THESE are much harder to read, probably because we learn to read in lowercase. People read all their books, newspapers and magazines in lowercase.
  • “Keep your opening paragraph down to a maximum of 11 words. A long first paragraph frightens readers away.”
  • “Serif type is easier to read than sans serif type.”
  • “Never set your copy in reverse (white type on a black background) and never set it over gray or colored tint. (The old school of art directors believed that these devices forced people to read the copy; we now know that they make reading physically challenging.”)

Ultimately, this is cheerleading pitch for Zicam with a passing mention of two products being pulled off the shelves with no reason why (possible loss of sense of smell). As a result the addled Zicam user is left to fear the worst: cancer, heart problems, blindness, diminished hearing, loss of hair.

Worse, the ad fails to state precisely which two products have been recalled, tarring the entire Zicam line with the same brush of mediocrity and danger.

When you finish reading the ad, the implication is: “You bought ’em, you own ’em and baby, you’re screwed.” By contrast in Bill Hamilton’s video, it is made very clear that a full refund is guaranteed or, if you prefer, the unused nasal remedies can be exchanged for other Zicam products.

Finally, what should have been a personal letter to readers from Bill Hamilton that reflects the care and love he has for Zicam users and for his company, this atrocity is unsigned, unemotional and fear mongering.

This was a case of the big P.R. guns being trained on the video and YouTube message and the rest of the effort turned over to smartypants amateurs.

Last time I looked, the YouTube message from Bill Hamilton had 305 views, while the Inquirer and the Times weekday editions have a circulation of 288,000 and 1.039 million respectively.

Contrary to popular myth, print still matters.

And the well being of your customers is more important than your product line.

According to the June 24, 2009 edition of The Wall Street Journal:

In 2006 Matrixx settled with over 300 consumers who sued, claiming Zicam nasal gel destroyed their sense of smell. In addition, on June 16th, the day of the FDA’s warning, Matrixx stock plunged 70%, from $19.74 to $5.78.

HULU.COM: An Intriguing Advertising Opportunity

Hulu is a fascinating Web site. Not only can its content be riveting to the viewer, but also represents a highly efficient medium for advertisers, enabling them to close the loop and measure actual ROI.

When I read that Hulu is drawing huge audiences, I went to the Web site and clicked on a movie—”Abel Raises Cain.” It is a 82-minute documentary about professional hoaxer Alan Abel, who was famous in the late 1950s for dreaming up and publicizing the “Society of Indecency to Naked Animals” with the mission of clothing naked animals. Over the years he has duped the media and made talk show hosts look like chumps and generally made a hilarious nuisance of himself with a slew of nutsy-fagen schemes, many of which are chronicled in this film.

This unique Web site offers full-length television shows and motion pictures; viewers remain on the site for a long time, sometimes a couple of hours—a boon for advertisers.

I sat through the entire film, which was presented with “limited commercial interruptions.” The TV-type commercial advertisements ranged in length from 10 to 30 seconds. Among the advertisers:
“Angels and Demons” (upcoming Tom Hanks film)
Nestea Green Tea
Honda Insight
Healthful Cat Food, Purina
Sprint Now Network
Swiffer Cleaner
Coldwell Banker

Returning to “Abel Raising Cain” on another day, I found additional advertisers:
American Chemistry Council
BMW Z4 Roadster
Toyota Prius
Panasonic Viera
Plan B Levenorgestra

At the end of this blog is a screenshot snapped during the BMW commercial. As you will see, the moving picture area takes up about half the computer screen, leaving a blank area above. At upper left is the film title, running time and the number of stars by reviewers. At upper right is a small response box that shows the car, the BMW logo and the headline:
The all-new Z4 Roadster
An Expression of Joy.

In light gray mousetype are two words: “Explore now”—the hyperlink to more information.

Once the commercial is finished and the film resumes, this little box remains on screen until the next commercial interruption. Then the next commercial’s response box stays on the screen. For the advertiser, this represents his presence onscreen for far longer than the 10-30 seconds allotted in the commercial.

Further, Hulu combines the razzle-dazzle of action-packed TV commercials with the advantage of direct marketing. The prospect clicks on the box, the advertiser has a record of the response to that commercial and that venue. This closes the loop: ad — response to ad — further info requested — and (hopefully) sale. The advertiser can do the arithmetic, measure the sales and determine whether the ad more than paid for itself or whether it was a financial loser.

This is far more valuable than running an ad on old-fashioned TV and hoping that people (1) have not left the room for a potty break and (2) will remember the thing when they are at the car dealer or supermarket.

What a direct marketer would do differently:
1. The response box at upper right is tiny compared to everything else going on. If Hulu wants happy advertisers, it should at least double its size, so that it is immediately obvious what to do.

2. The advertisers must make a terrific offer—something Free, for example—so the movie watcher is impelled to leave the film and go for the freebie. Or download a $500 certificate. With the tiny box and mousetype, these advertisers seem almost ashamed to ask you interrupt your movie to see what they have to offer. “Learn more” or “Explore now” in teeny-tiny light gray mousetype is not a compelling call to action.

3. My sense is that Hulu may be a tremendously efficient and relatively low-cost medium for testing TV commercials. Run an A-B split where one viewer gets the A commercial and the next viewer gets B and so on. The commercial that wins—gets the most responses—becomes control and is rolled out on TV, in movie theaters and anywhere else … until it is displaced by new commercial that tests better on Hulu.

With the Hulu model, razzle-dazzle TV-type commercials are combined with an immediate direct response mechanism. Trouble is that it is obvious the advertisers are allowing the general agencies that created the great commercials to handle the direct marketing element, which they know nothing about.

Old rule: never use a general agency for direct marketing.

But do spend some time at Hulu and think through how you might use it—either for sales or for testing.