The most postmodern-philosophical passage from the May 16 New Yorker

The overriding impression I carried away from my … visit was that, although it all comes back to taste at PepsiCo, the physical sensation of tasting has been so thoroughly mediated by advertising and packaging that no one knows anymore where the physiologoical experience ends and the aspirational experience begins. It’s hard to guarantee the “same great taste” in a scientifically advantaged product when no one is sure just what that taste is.

– John Seabrook, on PepsiCo’s attempts to reduce salt and sugar levels in its snacks without changing the taste. (The article is available online for subscribers only.)

Adventures in Entertainment-Publicist Bamboozling: Black Swan and the Governator

The new Entertainment Weekly has a couple of hilarious reminders that the entertainment business — including most of the publications that cover it — is primarily a publicist-driven hype machine. Join me for the first installment of a potentially semi-regular feature, Adventures in Entertainment-Publicist Bamboozling. (And yes, I still get Entertainment Weekly. I also watch movies on a circa-2003 CRT TV.)

Natalie Portman did the Black Swan dancing :: Tom Cruise did his own stunts :: Avril Lavigne wrote her own songs

One of my favorite show-business lies is the “[big star X] did [obviously untrue feat Y]” claim, used to establish a star’s talent, grit, or authenticity.

Via EW, I see that we have a new entry in this storied marketing approach: the “Natalie Portman did basically all the dancing in Black Swan” claim. Apparently Portman’s body double Sarah Lane is causing problems for this strategy, pointing out that Lane — a professional ballet dancer rather than a dilettante actor — did the dancing:

“Of the full body shots, I would say 5 percent are Natalie,” says Sarah Lane, 27, an American Ballet Theatre soloist who performed many of the film’s complicated dance sequences, allowing Portman’s face to be digitally grafted onto her body. “All the other shots are me.” …

“They wanted to create this idea in people’s minds that Natalie was some kind of prodigy or so gifted in dance and really worked so hard to make herself a ballerina in a year and a half for the movie, basically because of the Oscar,” says Lane.

I haven’t seen Black Swan and don’t really care whether Portman did the dancing. But despite Darren Aronofsky’s defense of Portman, I would bet a lot of money that Lane is telling the truth. This is just how the entertainment hype machine works.

My favorite example of the phenomenon was the mid-aughts hyping of then-teenager Avril Lavigne as a totally real pop star who totally wrote her own songs!!! (Even though professional songwriting teams and session musicians clearly wrote the songs and played the music.) Edward Jay Epstein describes another example in The Big Picture, his terrific 2005 book detailing the marketing-and-publicist-driven reality of today’s Hollywood. It’s worth quoting at length:

The studio begins its marketing effort as soon as a project receives a green light. … The principal awareness instrument that the publicists have at their disposal, obviously, is the public reputation of the film’s stars. As part of their arrangement with the studios, the stars effectively allow the studios to use their reputations to publicize their films. To this end, the studios script “back stories” that merge the stars’ activities, real or invented, with those of the characters they play in the films. …

Consider Mission: Impossible II. … A back story was … scripted in which [Tom] Cruise was seen to be indistinguishable from Ethan Hunt, the acrobatic hero he played, via the claim that he, and not a stunt double, had done the free falls, fire walks, motorcycle leaps, and other perilous stunts that Hunt did in the movie.

This back story was keynoted in a publicity short, Mission Incredible, shown on MTV and other cable channels owned by Paramount’s corporate parent. Made in the style of a documentary in which the crew and cast of Mission Impossible are interviewed, it has the director, John Woo, expressing great fear that Tom Cruise would plunge to his death in leaps across mountaintops or be incinerated in fire scenes. Woo states, at one point, “Tom has no fear. I prayed for him.” In another publicity short, Woo says, “Tom Cruise does most of his own stunts, so we did not need a stunt double.”

In the actual production, there were at least six stunt doubles for Tom Cruise’s part. Even if Cruise had possessed the skills and training to the stunts himself, and even if the studio was not to object to the delays in shooting this conceit might cause, the insurance company, which insured Cruise as an “essential element” of the production, would not have allowed him to risk so much as an ankle sprain, much less his life. As far as this publicity script diverged from reality, however, it served its purpose by providing a plausible story for the entertainment meda — “Tom Cruise is Ethan Hunt,” and a tag line, “Expect the impossible again.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Surefire Comic Book Hit!!!

The Black Swan tale doesn’t reflect on EW as a publication. Alas, their cover-story exclusive on Arnold Schwarzenneger’s post-governor plans is a bit more embarrassing.

The big news is that Schwarzenegger is teaming up with comics legend Stan Lee to develop the Governator, “a sunglasses-wearing superhero with an Austrian accent who’ll be at the center of an ambitious, kid-friendly multimedia comic-book and animated TV series codeveloped by no less a hero maker than Stan Lee.”

If this story were more than a publicist-hatched marketing plan, it might have pointed out that:

  • Stan Lee’s main contributions to comics and pop culture came in the 1960s and ’70s. His later career does not inspire breathless fandom.
  • The pinup drawing of the Governator — featured on a fold-out cover — is straight out of the Rob Liefeld school of bad ’90s comics art:

  • This photo of Schwarzenegger and Lee couldn’t be more staged:

  • The idea is terrible! Here’s Stan Lee: “We’re using all the personal elements of Arnold’s life. We’re using his wife [Maria Shriver]. We’re using his kids. We’re using the fact that he used to be governor. Only after he leaves the governor’s office, Arnold decides to become a crime fighter and builds a secret high-tech crimefighting control center under his house in Brentwood.” Um, have they focus-grouped this? Do they really think Maria Shriver and gubernatorial experience resonate with kids?

I’m happy to be proven wrong; kids have made successes out of far worse artwork and concepts. But Schwarzenegger’s publicist deserves a huge bonus for getting an EW cover out of this lame plan.

The creepiest sentences in the Feb. 14 New Yorker (so far)

[David] Miscavige’s official title is chairman of the board of the Religious Technology Center, but he dominates the entire organization. His word is absolute, and he imposes his will even on some of the people closest to him. According to Rinder and Brousseau, in June, 2006, while Miscavige was away from the Gold Base, his wife, Shelly, filled several job vacancies without her husband’s permission. Soon afterward, she disappeared. Her current status is unknown. [Scientology spokesman] Tommy Davis told me, “I definitely know where she is,” but he won’t disclose where that is.

– Lawrence Wright, “The Apostate.” (Emphasis added. See also this previous post on Scientology’s Dear Leader complex.)

Unexpected sentences from the Jan. 31 New Yorker

I thought of Ironhead last month as well, while standing in the lobby of the InterContinental Hotel, where a special meeting of the league’s Head, Neck, and Spine Injury committee was convening in one of the function rooms. Bert Straus, an industrial designer with a background in bathroom fixtures, dental-office equipment, and light-rail vehicles, was showing off a prototype of a new helmet called the Gladiator, whose primary selling point is that it has a soft exterior.

– Ben McGrath, “Does Football Have a Future?”  Emphasis mine: I love that there are industrial designers who specialize in bathroom fixtures, dental-office equipment, and light-rail vehicles. This guy must be pretty unique to know about all three. (Also — interesting article.)

On February 11, 2004, he made a presentation to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, at Fort Detrick, Maryland, the Army’s premier laboratory for biodefense research. Hours later, a researcher at Fort Detrick accidentally stuck herself in the thumb with a needle while injecting mice with the Ebola virus. Ebola has gruesome symptoms that often cause the victim to bleed to death; there is no licensed vaccine or therapeutic drug to stop it.

– David E. Hoffman, “Going Viral” (subscriber-only). Emphasis mine: How can you work with live Ebola virus and not a) wear mithril gloves, or b) be extra careful so you don’t inject yourself with Ebola??? (Another interesting article.)

The ‘game mechanics’ misnomer: Why gamifying the news is so challenging

Chris O’Brien of the San Jose Mercury News has launched NewsTopiaville, an interesting project that will “explore how game mechanics can be applied to reinvent the way we produce, consume and interact with news.” The project is ambitious, interesting, and worthwhile.

But I want to clarify something about the term “game mechanics,” which I think is being misused — or at least oversimplified — in the gamification discussion. Without understanding the term’s fuller context, there’s a risk of masking the challenges of gamifying the news.

In the gamification discussion, “game mechanics” typically refers to (in O’Brien’s words) “features like leaderboards, progress bars, rewards, badges, and virtual goods.”

These are indeed game mechanics; I would categorize them as “motivational” or “psychological” mechanics.* (UPDATE: See footnote for another definition.) They can be a big part of what makes people keep playing a video game — what makes us want to play for just five more minutes (which inevitably turns into two hours) to reach the next goal.

But motivational mechanics are not the only kind of game mechanics.

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Groupon Stores is another big blow to local news organizations’ revenue hopes

Figuring out how to better serve local businesses and connect those businesses to readers is a big part of local news organizations’ hopes and ideas for making money online.

Facebook’s Deals platform, announced in November, was a blow to these hopes. Now Groupon has piled on with its Groupon Stores platform.

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Data journalism needs to be more than external data sets

Paul Bradshaw has a good column at Poynter about how the increasing availability of data will force journalists and news organizations to change:

Data journalism takes in a huge range of disciplines, from Computer Assisted Reporting (CAR) and programming, to visualisation and statistics. If you are a journalist with a strength in one of those areas, you are currently exceptional. This cannot last for long: The industry will have to skill up, or it will have nothing left to sell. …

So on a commercial level, if nothing else, publishing will need to establish where the value lies in this new environment, and where new efficiencies can make journalism viable. Data journalism is one of those areas.

Journalists should read and heed everything Bradshaw writes. But it’s important to make sure the discussion of data doesn’t get too narrowly confined to external data, without considering how journalism itself fits holistically into the data-centric future.

The big challenge for news organizations isn’t just how to better ingest, analyze, and present extant external (if sometimes hard-to-access) data sets. Inculcating a new skill set industrywide may be non-trivial as a matter of scale and institutional-cultural inertia, but at least that skill set is pretty well defined.

Rather, the trickier and less-addressed challenge for news organizations is how to turn the raw materials and finished products of non-database journalism into data.

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