How Not to Promote Your Company

While I am sure the following story is not reflective of this company as a whole (and I refuse to link to this specific advertising agency, lest they be encouraged), I offer this parable of how not to promote your company.

The whole thing started some weeks ago — on August 12, to be precise. I received an email from Valerie Leclercq of The Night Agency, a small advertising company. Valerie apparently had confused my address with “” and she was pitching me on an advertising method that involved displaying a large banner along the side of a building. As regular readers know, I am about as much a fan of advertising as I am of lima beans. In short, the most effective way to get on my bad side is to bombard me with unwanted advertising, just as the unthinking Valerie, who wasn’t even professional enough to double-check her recepient address, managed to do.

Neverthless, I sent back the following response, ccing Steve Hall (the intended recepient) over at


Thank you for the link to a product from your company, but I’ll have to pass. Advertising that defaces a building, whether obtrusive or less so, is still advertising. Why does the building even have to have advertising at all? What of the people behind that poster who won’t be able to see out into the street during the period that the banner is up? I don’t understand how making advertising more deceptive is somehow better, nor do I understand why you think my site, which has criticized rampant advertising on several occasions, would be interested in this sort of thing.

Perhaps you intended to contact adrants instead of edrants. My site deals predominantly with literary issues and is, in fact, quite against defacing the world we live in.

Nevertheless, I’m forwarding your email onto my more advertising-happy colleague in the blogosphere.

All best,


I didn’t receive a response back, although the good Mr. Hall did offer me a hearty one-line snicker.

And then yesterday, Valerie deigned to contact me again, reproducing the same sin that . She sent me an email with the subject line “hello there champion” that included a file with a virus in it (which my two antivirus programs immediately deleted). It read as follows:

Hi Edward,

Just curious what you’re going to say about this. No need to forward to Steve Hall. He got it awright

Think of all the people you could iss off with just one ost (ooops must have dropped the P again…)

[URL deleted]

hey, no bad feelings


[file with virus attached]

It seemed clear to me that “dropping the pee,” so to speak, meant trying to infect my computer. This was indeed the ultimate in viral advertising!

Of course, Ms. Leclercq made an unfortunate mistake. She didn’t know that she was dealing with a very methodical man who follows up.

I managed to track down Scott Cohn, one of the main people behind the Night Agency, and gave him a phone call this morning. I told him who I was and asked him if Valerie was in his employ. He said that she was. I then told him that Ms. Leclercq had sent me an email with a virus in it and whether this was the kind of impression that his company liked to convey. Cohn told me that Ms. Leclercq was “more of a snail-mail person,” that she wasn’t particularly tech-savvy and that she often got “a bit excited” about promoting her work. This kind of behavior wasn’t like her at all. That may be the case, I said, but all of this email was unwanted and possibly vituperative. And was this really the way he wanted to promote his company? To Cohn’s great credit, he apologized and offered to look into the email in question. And because of this, I give Cohn and the Night Agency the benefit of the doubt.

This still, however, does not undermine the following:

1. Unwanted emails were sent to the wrong people, thus creating a very bad impression in my mind.
2. Despite a clear response from me expressing my lack of interest, Ms. Leclercq, on company policy, again sent unwanted emails to the wrong person, possibly with a virus.
3. Person who received unwanted email, fueled by a sense of justice, then publicly wrote about the incident.

Now let’s say Ms. Leclercq had done something as simple as, oh say, visiting “,” unearthing the obvious fact that it’s a literary blog, not an advertising blog. Let’s say that Ms. Leclercq had asked around the office, “Can you confirm the name of that advertising blog for me?” Let’s say that she would have written an email apologizing for the email. Would any of this have happened? Probably not. I certainly wouldn’t have written about it here. But whether through hubris or ignorance (or a little of both), Ms. Leclercq couldn’t even perform the basics of professionalism and the Night Agency, which appears to be doing something a bit different in the advertising world, would not have created such a bad impression.

Everyone makes mistakes. But I have to ask: If the Night Agency is willing to employ such airheads at their office, what kind of dunces do you think they’d employ for your client?

Agism Going Down at the Dailies

There’s two extraordinary stories from Romenensko. The first deals with political commentator Jim Witcover, who at 78, had his column at the Baltimore Sun reduced his frequency, with the sun cutting his salary down to a third of its previous rate. When the year on the contract renewed, the Baltimore Sun then sent a termination notice by overnight mail. Could it have been Witcover’s anti-Iraq stance or the fact that he was older?

The second item concerns this memo from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which offers a retirement package to those “who are 50 ages and above as of November 1, 2005.”

With both of these stories, there seems to be a clear and resounding message here. If you’re a journalist, even a syndicated columnist, getting up in years, don’t expect to be respected. Don’t even expect to be treated with any polite exit procedure. With newspapers already facing possible threats from major advertisers looking for a “younger, lowbrow” demographic, rather than an “older and elitist one,” could it be that newspapers are panicking and taking this attitude too much to heart?

[UPDATE: The Baltimore-based Live by the Foma offers his perspective on Witcover’s career and how it ties into the Baltimore Sun‘s legacy.]

New Yorker Hits a New Low

Earlier this week, Maud Newton voiced her concerns about the direction that the New Yorker was heading, specifically focusing on the August 22, 2005 issue, which features a sole sponsor — Target.

While Maud has already pointed to the waning editorial content (perhaps best recently represented by Ken Auletta’s uncritical puff piece on morning talk shows, “The Dawn Patrol,” which appeared in the August 8/15, 2005 issue.), I’d instead like to dwell upon the insidiuous design.

I’ve been a subscriber to the New Yorker for years, but I have never seen advertising that has gone out of its way to blare out editorial content like this. Below are three samples from the latest issue. Note the way that the red in the advertising is of a brighter hue than the red in the headlines. Note also the way that Target has appropriated the New Yorker’s classic art deco look for its advertisement, only to invade this design motif with its odious red targets.

I think, between this and the Auletta piece, this is a clear signal that a magazine which once prided itself on sophistication, lengthy articles addressing multiple sides of an issue and clean design is now more concerned with whoring itself out to publicists and advertisers.

David Remnick oughta be ashamed of himself.

[RELATED: Advertising columnist Lewis Lazare weighs in and he isn’t happy. He calls this issue “[a] 90-page publication where it is almost impossible to discern any line of demarcation between Target’s advertising and the New Yorker editorial product.”]

Product Placement in Fiction

I’m not completely against describing products and cultural minutiae in fiction, but I have a distinct problem with the way Tricia Sullivan does it in Maul. This fascinating novel, an interesting cross between hard science fiction, riot grrls gone wild and cyberpunk which has yet to pick up a U.S. publisher, deals with a two-strand narrative. In the distant future, a Y-virus has wiped out nearly every male on the planet, leaving male clones (taken from existing tissue) to carry out a simulated program that involves teenage girls battling in a mall. Sullivan’s novel is stacked to the nines with ideas. In fact, as if channeling Kathy Acker’s ghost, it opens daringly with a girl masturbating with a gun and somehow manages to elude heavy-handedness. It’s truly the work of a writer to watch.

However, Sullivan’s too obsessed with girls wearing Red Hot Chilli Peppers T-shirts or handing over a Snapple. Okay, Tricia, we get the consumerist angle. It’s clear enough by the title. But why would Sullivan choose bands like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers who have long lost their lustre in the present among the teenage crowd. Why not take a speculative fiction environment and create brand new companies? Isn’t that a good deal more fun?

But even more infuriating is how these pop cultural asides get in the way of Sullivan’s fascinating effort to explore feminism. The product concentration detracts from the intellectual expose and dates the book almost instantly. Which is interesting because it was published in 2003.

Conversely, Richard Yates’ fiction (which I’ve finally begun reading after Lizzie threatened to have several Young Republicans remove one of my testicles) hasn’t dated at all. Even a story like “A Glutton for Punishment,” which deals with a 1960s-1970s corporate environment (and should date), still packs an emotional punch, while achieving a startling purity. I suspect that it’s because Yates avoids product placement and uses sparse terminology (“cubicle” is mentioned once) to describe his environments. He is more concerned with what a character is feeling, the look on another person’s place, the heat of a room, etc.

I used to believe that this so-called literary product placement was of value in fiction. The immediate example that came to mind was an image from a Stephen King novel that I can’t immediately recall: something along the lines of a Skippy peanut butter jar filled with coins. The image’s startling presence, however, has more to do with the effort to remove all the peanut butter from a jar and use it as a piggy bank.

The problem with using brands as shorthand for character attributes is that, when we’re considering the perseverance of fiction, today’s telltale brand could be tomorrow’s failure. (Who can’t chuckle at the Pam Am flight seen in 2001, which immediately undermines its future?) I’m inclined to believe that unless fiction involves a specific time and place, on the whole, brands really don’t belong in literature.