Alain de Botton and Philip Seymour Hoffman
Nearly every paper underplayed the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman on Monday. But none got it as wrong as the London Evening Standard. The problem wasn't with editorial but with an advertisement on pages 26-27, under a feature about a new sculpture trail through the capital.
Under the heading 'Philip Seymour Hoffman's drug overdose eclipses interest in sculpture trail', it questioned the reader's fascination with the story and obsession with celebrity - and rubbished the feature above to boot, suggesting readers would 'barely notice it'. And so Alain de Botton capitalised on a man's death and denigrated the editorial content of the paper in the course of promoting his book about news.
Tuesday 4 February, 2014
What kind of man uses another man's death to publicise his latest work and hence promote sales?
Just over 24 hours ago, a friend sent a message asking if SubScribe had seen the advertisement on page 27 of the Evening Standard.
It was pretty astonishing. A half page of text full of presumption and assertion about the readers' feelings on learning of the actor's death.
It wasn't clear whether the text had been written by an agency or by de Botton - whichever, it seems to have reflected the style adopted in the book in which he addresses readers in the second person and writes of 'your obsession with celebrity'.
Twitter briefly caught fire, but the objectors were heavily outnumbered by people retweeting de Botton's words of wisdom :
"As adults, we try to develop the character traits that would have rescued our parents"
"Work begins when the fear of doing nothing at all finally trumps the terror of doing it badly"
He has found time again today to push out a few soundbites - which don't seem particularly insightful:
"Intimacy: the capacity to be rather weird with someone - and the knowledge that's OK with them"
(retweeted nearly 400 times)
"At the end of relationships it is the one who is not in love who makes the tender speeches"
Isn't that what is generally known as letting someone down gently?
So why is SubScribe devoting so much attention to him? Because he has written a book that goes to the heart of what this website is about: news. However brilliant or banal, it has to be read. Reviews so far haven't been kind, but since they've been written by journalists who are being told how to do their jobs, that is unsurprising. Ian Jack is certainly worth a read.
The publicity machine is something else. The round of chat shows and 'appearances' is as you'd expect. The Standard ad was innovative, but wrong on every level. And then there is the masterstroke: a 'news' website based on MailOnline, complete with sidebar of shame. The people it features are all the folk you'd see on the Mail site; the 'stories' are the same, too - but written from a philosophical angle.
The piece here about Philip Seymour Hoffman is gentle, sympathetic (and, to be honest, a little trite).
"Philip Seymour Hoffman was an ideal actor. He had great professional success but he wasn't glitzy or overtly glamorous...Then he was found dead in his apartment...We can only imagine the panic, sorrow, frustration and turmoil consuming him inwardly - while to the wider world he appeared a model of diligent accomplishment.
Hoffman's life and death presents us in a specifically tragic manner with a more general truth about the human condition: that there is often a terrifying gap between the public perception of someone's life and the inner experience."
Most of us are sufficiently aware of the world around us to know that we can't judge people from outward appearances, that we don't know what goes on behind their front doors. This could have been written about anybody. Indeed, that's the idea, to suggest wider truths from the specific. I'm not convinced. Sometimes news - journalism - does just that. A single incident can trigger an action or reaction to something that has been unnoticed or neglected and bring about greater good or ill.
But news is still essentially about the unusual; to produce a response beyond 'gosh' and to keep the eye on the page or screen, the journalist has to make the story relevant to the audience.
The pastiche Mail itself is an inspired idea. The ideas it projects are, however, a bit emperor's new clothes for me.
If it encourages people to think, it can't be all bad - but SubScribe recommends that journalists and readers look elsewhere for lessons in news values.
Hoffman's death used to advertise Alain de Botton book
Newspaper page planners are used to the dreaded 'win or omit' combination in which some watchmaker or after shave company will congratulate the victor in a big sports event - so long as the right player wins. These ads rarely show as much originality as topicality and usually consist of a giant picture of the star in question.
The all-text ad (I assume it's an ad, even though it isn't labelled as such) in today's Standard deviates from the norm in a number of ways. The most obvious is the extraordinary attempt to capitalise on a man's death. But, to steal a phrase from the text, the interest doesn't end there.
The copy glories in the seamy aspects of Hoffman's death. It makes assumptions - unpleasant assumptions - about the character, emotions and even personal circumstances of the reader, the person it is trying to sell to. You're deeply saddened. You crave gritty details. You're fascinated by the needle. You're horrified and relieved. You're glad you haven't suffered as he did. You are obsessed with celebrity.
Who says? Alain de Botton? I should dearly like to know his view of this effort.
How does this copywriter know that you have not suffered as Hoffman did? Do people with terminal disease, people who have had a lifetime dealing with disability, poverty, adversity, people mourning the recent death of a mother or son, not read the Standard? How will they respond to this material? Almost certainly not by pre-ordering the book on Amazon.
And what do Sarah Sands, the Standard editor, and her staff think of the assertion that their readers are so preoccupied with the death of someone they don't know that they will barely notice the story the editorial team has worked so hard to project?
In the review of the papers at the top of this page, SubScribe bemoans the ghastly shapes and design of current newspaper ads. This does not offend on either count. But it is nevertheless the most offensive ad in any newspaper today.
Twitter chorus of disapproval
Thanks to Paul Burston for alerting SubScribe to this ad. He shared it on Twitter and Facebook, prompting a stream of disbelieving tweets.
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The Standard ad text in full
"You're deeply saddened by the death of this beloved actor. You're quick to point out your love of his performances in Magnolia and Capote. But the dark truth is that your interest in this story doesn't end there: you also crave the gritty details of his demise.
You're fascinated when you read he was discovered in the bathroom with a needle in his arm. You pore over the reports of his lifelong struggle with addiction. Whilst each revelation horrifies you, they also provide you with relief.
Discovering that someone this accomplished also wrestled with demons suddenly makes your own life struggles far less troubling.
Whatever you're dealing with at this moment, at least you haven't suffered the way he did. This knowledge is so satisfying that you've barely noticed the article about a proposed sculpture trail in East London.
Why are you more concerned about an actor's death than an arts project that will transform your city's cultural life
Find out in Alain de Botton's new book, The News: A User's Manual, because the better you understand your obsession with celebrity, the better you understand yourself.
The News: A User's Manual is in bookshops and at amazon.co.uk on February 6th."
On the other hand....
To be fair, not everyone thought there was a problem with the advertisement. Some, like Paul Wright above, thought it was great.
Most of the Twitter discussion was about de Botton's television and radio appearances and the book itself, with disciples quoting his soundbites and proclaiming his talent and wisdom.
Many people were also enchanted by his spoof Daily Mail website, philosophersmail.com,
So, in the interests of balance, here's a taste of something from the site:
President Francois Hollande of France came to Britain to discuss aspects of nuclear defence and military cooperation with Prime Minister David Cameron. The talks were veiled in secrecy. There was mention of a £120m co-operation project on a new drone. But one aspect of the meeting was shared openly with the press. Cameron took Hollande for lunch in his local constituency pub, the Swan Inn in the Cotswolds village of Swinbrook, where they had a beer and some salt and vinegar crisps, then some potted shrimp, a rainbow trout and apple and raisin crumble.
Why are these minor details fascinating? Why is information about the smaller moments in the lives of leaders so often compelling? From a distance, this sort of curiosity feels offensive to an adult democratic sensibility. We're meant to know in our bones that our leaders are, of course, 'just like us'. We have it instilled in us that they are no better and, thanks to the news, we are daily versed in just how much worse they might be too.
PS: There's every chance that the ads on this page will turn out to be for de Botton's book.
Sometimes the fates are against you!