14 June 2008

Grits at the Ritz

Audio geeks of yore used to build their custom stereo systems from expensive German-made components, and the finishing touch was a placard that said something along the lines of:

Das Machinenwerken ist nicht fur Gefingerpoken
und Mittengrabben by das Dumkopfen.
Ist easy Snappenspringen und Blowenfusen
mit Poppencorken und Spitzensparken.
Das Rubbernecken Touristen keepen
das Hands in das Pockets und watch
der Blinkenlights.

People thought this was incontinence-provokingly funny. Not the Hogan's Heroes German, but the fact that it was printed! And not just printed, but printed in a Fraktur-like typeface that looked like a real WWII German poster.
I call it grits-at-the-Ritz humor: An expensive, elaborate delivery system makes you think you're going to get something important and valuable, and then--wham! You get a plate of grits. Or a stupid fake-German sign.
In the vinyl-record era, when people saw anything set in type, they assumed it was important, because typography and printing required machines that cost a small fortune and took years to learn how to use. The folks who made novelty-shop tchotchkes knew they could get a laugh by contrasting the important-looking printing process with the dumb gefingerpoken gag.
You don't see the gefingerpoken sign on audio systems anymore, and not just because it's too big to hang on an iPod. Anyone can set type and print a sign now, using machines that cost a few hundred dollars and require virtually no training. In the 21st Century, setting a joke in type doesn't make it funny.
But grits at the Ritz is the idea behind a whole new class of entertainment, from The Real World to EBaumsWorld. We're so accustomed to the broadcast media bringing us "professional" entertainment, we can't help but laugh when we see somebody being a total dork on television!
But YouTube and its ilk are changing all that. Amateur-grade video is becoming the default, and when that happens, the media will lose their ability to bestow importance on the message (or make it funnier). We won't be able to leverage the Ritz-iness of media to make audiences pay attention to our grits, so we'll have to make better messages.
The most powerful example of a medium conferring importance on its content is books. It's at the core of how I define publishing mojo: "For centuries books have been the vehicle for the best that human culture has to offer. . . . publishing mojo [is] the conviction that what we are making is valuable, and deserves all the care and creativity we can muster." Every 21st-Century publisher's mission statement should include learning to create value in a world where value is no longer derived from the laborious book manufacturing process.

01 June 2008

Go ahead, show 'em your a__

At the 2007 conference of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), Anne Valentine, the president of SmartCatalog, gave some suggestions on how to reduce the cost of printing course catalogs. Most were just common sense (cut your page count, use lighter paper, get competitive bids), but one was practically heresy to many of the admissions staffers in the audience. Don't just spend less, she told them, sell advertising and make your catalog pull its own weight.
Anne had uttered the unmentionable A-word. To accept advertising is to wear the scarlet letter of intellectual prostitution.
I was reminded of Anne's session by an article in the May 29 Rolling Stone, "Rock's New Economy: Making Money When CDs Don't Sell." For the baby boomers who launched Rolling Stone, the rock music brand was defined by flipping off the corporate suits. When John Sebastian sang a McDonald's commercial, millions wailed, John, you were at Woodstock! How could you sell out like that?
That was then. Now, writes RS reporter Fred Goodman, "Album sales are down 25% since 2000 . . . but smart artists and managers are finding new ways to reach fans and make money." Goodman cites a six-figure deal that "paired Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' 'Killing the Blues' with the TV ad for American Living, Ralph Lauren's new clothing line for JC Penney." The dude from Led Zep is pimpin' for JC Penney? Total bummer!
That self-righteousness is starting to erode. Some of the players in the emerging media matrix (PublishingMojo, May 17) have traditionally been paid by advances and royalties (books, movies, and music), while others (magazines, newspapers, television, and radio) have sold advertising to let audiences get the content free, or at least cheap. As long as book, movie, and music consumers had to shoulder the entire cost of the delivery module (book, DVD, CD), the publishers and studios could claim that the absence of advertising was proof of artistic integrity.
But free-or-cheap content is now the norm, and like college admissions officers, the royalty-driven media have to question the reasons they still resist advertising:
  • They have an overdeveloped sense of fairness: If I say yes to Pete's Pizza, how can I say no to Sadie's Strip Joint and Gus's Gun Shop? It's easier than you think. The First Amendment doesn't guarantee anyone the right to use your vehicle for their ad.
  • They fear conflict of interest, real or apparent: What if Acme Auto Service threatens to pull their ad unless we give them the maintenance contract on our fleet of vehicles? Do what any other businessperson would do: Either call their bluff or give them the contract.
And the publishers and studios may not have to sacrifice as much integrity as they think. After all, the gold standard of journalistic objectivity in the US is The New York Times, and they print all the advertising that fits.