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If one more person tells me they want something to “go viral” I think I shall retire to my chambers and weep softly until dusk.

“Go viral”? Please.

Take the Beatles. The Beatles didn’t hold a meeting in the 3rd floor conference room and decide, “Okay, we’re going to ‘go famous.’  Ideas, people?”

No. They became famous by roasting our minds with rock and roll. The mind-roasting came first, the famous next.

So, can we please retire the word viral? And perhaps, even temporarily, use that old stand-by term “earned media”? It may not be as poetic but it hits closer to the truth. It describes how a good idea earns its coverage by being cool enough that people actually talk about it and pass it on to friends.

This is basically the idea behind a notion (attributed to Crispin), that goes like this: “What is the press release of your idea?”

What a marvelous way to think about advertising. Don’t show me the TV spot. In fact, don’t show me any advertising ideas. Show me an idea worth advertising. An idea worth advertising. Such a key difference.

What is the press release of your idea?

Show me an idea that – on paper – is interesting. Show me an idea that is so fun, so unusual, so….so somethin’, that the idea is in and of itself worth tellin’ to a journalist.

Now that…. that is the way to get to some stuff that’ll “go viral.”

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A few additional observations on “viral videos”, if you please.

The word “viral” comes with some baggage, probably from its use in describing popular YouTube videos.

Here the word actually makes some sense, describing as it does the ex post facto popularity of a given video. What makes something popular is a subject that’s always intrigued me, so I recently studied several sites that rank the view-counts of popular online videos. The results were not encouraging.

Those of you who’ve seen the movie Idiocracy can probably guess where I’m going here. In the stupid future envisioned in this movie, the world’s most popular TV show was called “Ow! My Balls!” – a user-generated reality show full of accident videos, not unlike the worst of America’s Funniest Home Videos.

Well, a quick study of the view-counts revealed that if you want viewers, show animals. Show otters holding hands, show sleepwalking dogs, piano-playing cats, and prairie dogs givin’ the evil eye. Hot on the heels of cute animals is cute babies: talking babies, Charlie bit my finger babies, and laughing babies.

Wow.

Perhaps that ancient advertising maxim, the one about how effective ads need babies or puppies … perhaps it’s true? They sure get the most clicks. If it is indeed true, again I find myself getting weepy.

Also depressing was the popularity of videos featuring people misbehaving, getting hurt, or doing something embarrassing that we can all have a good laugh at. People having bike accidents, the swearing Winnebago salesman, the Star Wars fightin’ kid, the angry German kid screaming at his computer, the bad sportscaster (Boom-goes-the-dynamite), the mentally challenged Miss Teen South Carolina, and of course Christian Bale and Bill O’Rielly screaming at people off-camera.

These were the videos with some of the very highest view-rates. The world of Idiocracy? It’s here. Such were my thoughts as I inched along the ledge outside my office window looking at the street below.

Eventually, however, I crawled back in my window. There were enough encouraging signs to buoy my spirits. Like the popularity of President Obama’s YouTube message. Or Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture. Or Christian the lion meeting his old friends again. These too were some of the most viewed videos.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. All of life is a bell curve, isn’t it? For every  America’s Funniest Home Videos on television, there’s a Breaking Bad. Okay, maybe it’s not 50-50, but I just need to remind myself, “Walk towards the light. Walk towards the light.”

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(Article I wrote for the Los Angeles Times.)

My mother, a dyed-in-the-wool Minnesota Democrat, is sitting across the breakfast table from me. She’s reading the paper and comes across an ad for the big after-Thanksgiving sale at The Mall of America.

“How can people even go to that place?” she laments. “It’s just a … just a monument to Capitalism!”

She’s my Mom, so what can I tell her? I wish I could say, “Ma, that dress you’re wearing? Did you, um, grow it or something? And those shoes, did you … whittle those? No, you bought ‘em, Mom, with money, in a store. That’s capitalism … and it’s okay.”

Exactly why do so many people get disdainful of the idea of stores and buying things and capitalism this time of year?

The Thanksgiving dishes are barely in the sink and before the first boozy uncle can tether his blimp to the sofa and unbutton his Spandex to make room, everyone’s all “Christmas has just become so commercialized.”

Shopping is suddenly bad. And why? We’ve been coming out of stores all year long, teetering under Grinch-size piles of merchandise that would buckle a sherpa’s knees. Eleven straight months of spend-spend-spend, but have a turkey drumstick, watch a football game, and boom – the nation’s on the shrink’s sofa again going “Geez, aren’t stores bad? It’s bad to buy things, isn’t it?”

Everybody seems to have forgotten the long July 4th weekend and that 3-day AmEx bender we all went on at Home Depot. And when it was over, I don’t remember any hair-shirt whining about “Who can celebrate national independence anymore, what with lines this long to buy a grill? Kinda makes a fella forget what the Declaration of Independence really stands for.”

Didn’t happen.

But here we are again at that one time of year when our nation’s super-ego puts on its Self-Hatred Christmas Special, when the apologists line up to lament the excesses of one of the world’s strongest economies, and through it all we’ll hear one Scrooge after another puttin’ the spin on the Ghost of Christmas Past: “It wasn’t like this when I was a kid.”

Oh hush, it was exactly like this when we were kids. The presents were geekier, yes, and the lights on the tree were the big hot kind you could smell from upstairs. Other than that, it was exactly the same.

As a child of the ‘50s, I personally recall some serious merchandise worship happening under the tree. It may not have been an xBox I was opening, but don’t try to tell me I was on some higher spiritual plane as I ripped through the 1959 wrapping paper, my teeth gritted in full Merchandise Frenzy: “Shut up everybody! It’s a Daniel Boone raccoon hat and it’s mine!”

Let’s face it. Stuff is fun. And stores are where we get stuff. But the Puritanical gene, though recessive, still runs strong in America. A penny saved is a penny earned, but now it seems a penny spent is the top rung of the ladder straight down to hell.

But the fact is, ladies and gentlemen, ours is a species that runs on commerce. And whether your tribe happens to trade pelts or Euros, the rites of celebration have always involved a bit of excess consumption. At history’s very first ritual of celebration, I’ll bet Grandpa homo sapiens bought drinks for everyone in Olduvai Gorge, yelled “Kill the fatted calf,” and woke up a day later to a cave that was a complete mess.

Go ye forth, Americans, I say, and spend. Note I didn’t say spend without restraint, but spend without guilt. It’s part of life.

Personally, I’ll be doing much of my shopping online this year. And, yes, one day when I’m old I’ll be slumped in front of my son’s computer, grousing about my own Christmases Past. “Well, back when I logged onto amazon.com, I tellya, downloads happened just like that! And click-throughs took you right to the Christmas specials. And those damn pop-up ads let a man shop in peace!! I remember back when e-tailing meant something!”

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The kid sitting next to me here at the Atlanta airport has what’s clearly a pre-Copernican view of the universe. Unlike the 15th-century astronomer, this young man continues to believe the universe revolves around him and demonstrates this world-view by talking loudly on his cell phone.

Perhaps picking up his Dark Ages vibe, I too begin feeling medieval and entertain fantasies of pushing the rude young man and his phone into an Iron Maiden. Perhaps if I position him correctly inside the torture device, its interior spikes will impale both him and his phone. Otherwise I risk having his caller dial back and I know I’ll find the plaintive ringing inside the iron coffin equally distracting.

(I revise an old Onion headline: Harried Atlanta Traveler Murders Teen, Mentally.)

Like many, this boy has lost his sense of personal space. What else explains how he can blithely blather on with my ears plainly visible and in full view less than a yard away? Perhaps he isn’t rude and simply believes my ears inoperable. I briefly consider posting an “EARS ACTUALLY WORK” sign on my forehead, hoping this is the critical information the young man’s lacking, yet I doubt information is the issue.

And why affix blame to only this kid?

Even the airport authorities assume I have no personal space; no bubble; no interior life. The airport’s designers have courteously placed huge televisions blaring CNN from every ceiling panel with the implicit assumption that without constant stimulation my mind might turn inward on itself. And there, left to stew in its own solipsistic juices, and face-to-face with the bleak and lonely void at my center, the authorities assume I’ll bring an end my existential terror possibly with a spork from Popeye’s. While I appreciate their concern for my well-being, it turns out many of us actually do have an inner life and are content to exist with our own thoughts from time to time. A luxury I am denied – the young man continues to talk.

A curious wrinkle of the human mind known as Gestalt perception now comes into play. My brain’s circuitry automatically fills in the part of the phone conversation I cannot hear. I intuit what the other person on the line is saying and so begin to take part in a conversation I have no interest in nor was invited to join. He’s talking about quitting smoking and from what he’s saying I can tell his partner is giving him some bad advice. His caller has clearly just told him that nicotine is deadly. Since I am now a fully vested member of this conversation I feel within my rights to weigh in on the issue.

“No, it’s not the nicotine,” I say (inside my head), doing a mental butt-in-ski. “Jesus Christ, it’s the tars and 4,000 other chemicals in cigarette smoke that will kill you….or the Iron Maiden into which I am mentally pushing you, you rude little orc.”

But I say nothing. Instead, I don my noise-reducing headphones and try to drown him out.

Drowning. Mmmm. That’s another possibility.

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