Friday, November 26, 2010

Remembering the Astro Zapper

Many well-known campaigns started as ideas by public-relations agencies to bolster sales for or otherwise bring attention to clients.  The seemingly ubiquitous Butterball Turkey Hotline began as a Thanksgiving PR program suggested for Swift.  Changing the batteries in smoke detectors at the beginning and end of Daylight Savings Time originally was first and foremost a way for Duracell to sell more product. 

Television news stories on dangerous Christmas toys are running already, with groups including the Consumer Products Safety Commission and W.A.T.C.H. (World Against Toys Causing Harm), started by a trial attorney, providing lists of offenders.  These toys provide great visuals news assignment editors love – sharp toys, loud toys, toys kids can swallow – and enough dire warnings for appeal to parents and grandparents at holiday time.  My first big public-relations campaign was one of these dangerous toys lists, which was hardly scientific but effective nonetheless.

In the early 1980s, before the explosion of dangerous toys publicity, the Illinois Optometric Association (IOA), through its PR agency, published a Dangerous Christmas Toys List.  It obviously pinpointed toys that could damage a child’s eyes, particularly ones with sharp points or shooting projectiles.  My assignment: compile the list and publicize it in newspapers, television and radio.  To make up the list, Janet and I walked the aisles of a local Toys “R” Us and picked out toys that combined action (dart guns and the like) with snappy names (Astro Zapper is the only one I remember).  None were made by big-name toy companies and, in retrospect, these small-time operators probably rejoiced about the free publicity.  This arduous research probably took an hour at most; because the project was on a flat fee, there was no incentive to pile up billable hours.

After writing and distributing the news release with the list, I selected a date for staging toy demonstrations at Chicago television stations.  The team was the president of the IOA and two children – my daughter, almost 4, and an older boy, the son of one of the administrative assistants.  Three of the four major television stations carried the story, as did the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times.  I enlisted local optometrists for TV appearances in St. Louis, Peoria and other cities across the state, where the success rates were good.

My “Surviving the Firing Squad” post described my initial foray into public relations with the worst agency in the city after ten years in the more genteel publishing field.  Management let me take my daughter to lunch for her time (but didn’t pay for it).  After that it was back to work and more media calls.  If you haven’t guessed already, the day I would hand in my final report on The Most Dangerous Christmas Toys of 1981 I instead was handed my pink slip . . . four days before Christmas, with my family out of town (and they knew that).  I’ll not rag about these low-life individuals here, for that could be grist for another post.

So the next time you view a news story on the virtues of doing this or that, look beyond and see if you can find the publicity angle.  Sure, not having your house burn down because the smoke-detector batteries went dead is a good thing, but this only started because a PR agency wanted to generate work, please a client and increase billing, while the client wanted to sell lots of batteries under the guise of consumer safety.  A former boss once described our business as “Doing good work and getting paid for it.”  Pretty much sums up these campaigns.

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