E-letter: Simple rule to prevent backfire

I grouse quite a bit about mass marketing. It deserves it. All it has accomplished so far, besides making a few people rich, is to focus society on its lowest common denominator.

Kerry Knudsen

H.L. Mencken noted this phenomenon back in 1926: “No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

Of course, at that time mass marketing was barely a seed compared to the jungle of promotions aimed today at our families, our companies and our kids. In 1926, the cinema was making its transition from silent to talking movies, or talkies, and the surface of its potential for mass impressions had been barely scraped.

That is not to say the potential was not noticed. Halfway around the world, the Bolsheviks had seized and secured power, in 1918, Fanni Kaplan tried to assassinate Lenin and Lenin launched the Red Terror, credited with killing up to 1.5 million people in his attempt to send a broad message.


Lenin did not miss the significance of the movies and the talkies. Shortly before his death in 1924, Lenin observed, “of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important.”

He went on to note: “Pictures of a propaganda and educational nature should be checked by old Marxists and writers, to avoid a repetition of the many sad instances when propaganda with us defeated its own purpose. Special attention should be given to organizing film showings in the villages and in the East, where they are novelties and where our propaganda, therefore, will be all the more effective.”

Socialism and labour unions are seldom far from each other, in theory or in practice. In Canada, likely our top publicly funded socialist magazine is Canadian Dimension, which is also openly sponsored by the Canadian Auto Workers and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

Here is what Canadian Dimension says about itself: Canadian Dimension is Canada’s longest standing magazine of the Left. Published in Winnipeg four times a year, Dimension describes itself as a magazine “for people who want to change the world.” For 53 years CD has provided a forum for debate, where red meets green, feminists take on socialists, socialists take on social democrats, whites hear from aboriginals, activists report from all corners of Canada, trade unionists report from the front lines, campaigns make connections, and the latest books, films, websites, CDs, and videos are radically reviewed.” It goes on to say it, “acknowledge[s] funding and support from Manitoba Culture, Heritage and Tourism; the Department of Canadian Heritage – Canada Magazine Fund; and the Manitoba Arts Council.”

Lenin saw value in the cinema as propaganda in 1924, and shortly thereafter the American Mafia sent Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel to California to bring the movie/talkie unions under mob control. At that time Siegel’s reputation had preceded him, as he had been a hit man for Lucky Luciano’s Murder, Inc. As a killer from Back East, Siegel was sent to Hollywood to set up various other rackets, including prostitution and illegal gambling.


Around the time Siegel arrived in Hollywood, so did Jim (Jimmy) Stewart (Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life). According to sources at the time, nobody dared to offend Siegel. But Jimmy Stewart didn’t share the cautious approach to Siegel that others took.

According to Michael Munn, in Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend, “Bugsy Siegel had a thing for Jean Harlow. Jim was very fond of Harlow. They had had a bit of a fling, and Siegel wanted his fling with Harlow. But Jean wasn’t having any of it. One day Siegel came to Jim and said, ‘Jean’s a good friend of yours. How about you tell her to go out with me.’ And Jim was furious and said…, ‘Why don’t you go to hell…?’

“So Siegel came to Jim – and Bugsy was really quite charming, the way Jim told it – and he said, ‘Look, Jim, …’ And Jim said, ‘It’s Mr. Stewart to you.’ And so Siegel said, ‘Look, Jim, if you don’t stop bad mouthing me, I’ll have to do something about it.’ And Jim like a fool said, ‘Then go right ahead, Mr. Siegel….’

Siegel turned up for Jean Harlow’s funeral, after she died of uraemic poisoning, aged 26, in 1937. Jim saw Siegel weeping. Siegel told him, ‘I really was fond of Jean.’ Jim answered, ‘I’m sorry for your loss. But it doesn’t change my opinion of you. And if I ever get the chance, I’ll see to it that you and your kind are driven out of this town.’”

It’s hard to imagine Michael Moore in that role. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anybody currently in the PR maelstrom known as cinema or media in that role. I’m not saying they don’t make people with a steel spine any longer. I’m just saying they are not visible in media.

I am always curious about the different formulae underlying screenplays. They once had a message. In fact, Stewart said, “I have my own rules and adhere to them. The rule is simple but inflexible. A James Stewart picture must have two vital ingredients. It will be clean and it will involve the triumph of the underdog over the bully.”

Once in a while we see a film come along that has a message and gets good attendance. The Passion of the Christ was one. But, for the most part, the screenplays are all the same: pretty girl; good guy; bad guy; blow stuff up; sex. To be fair, there is usually some sex in the first third, just to establish a reason why the good guy bothers. In all, though, it’s mass appeal for the lowest common denominator.


The twist, here, is that your customers are not in the bottom third of society. Most of them are the tax payers, not the tax receivers, and most of them would be horrified to know they are supporting Canadian Dimension.

And, if it’s true that your customers are not among society’s bottom-feeders, then it’s also true that many, most or all mass-marketing fads have the potential of backfiring – of “defeating its own purpose,” as Lenin said.

People are not targets, as the purveyors of hits, opens, landing pages and pop-ups will have you believe. Solid, educated, working people still respond better to value, efficiency and quality when they have the choice.

Jimmy Stewart knew this, just as he knew you cannot kneel to a thug. Treating people with respect was his calling card and his fortune. “Never treat your audience as customers,” Stewart said, “always as partners.”

Lenin died in 1924 from complications from being shot in the neck four years earlier. Siegel died from being shot five times or so in the head.

Jimmy Stewart died at the age of 89 at his home in Beverly Hills, California, with his final words to his family being, “I’m going to be with Gloria now.”





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