Saturday, November 28, 2009

Death be not public.

A few months back, Katie Couric did a story on stalkers. The narrative quickly honed in on a particularly tragic incident. A young woman was being harassed, followed and spied upon for months by a man she barely knew. He ultimately tracked her to her apartment. The poor girl managed to get away and was running down the street, screaming into her cell phone for the 911 operator to send help, when the stalker chased her down and shot her dead.

A horrible incident, made all the more grizzly by CBS' decision to play the 911 tape. You could hear the panic in the poor girl's voice, and then a shriek, and the sound of gunfire. The senseless, violent death of a private citizen, forever frozen on tape and made public for our evening's entertainment. I felt my stomach contract against my spine. The tape was shocking and literally made me nauseous. It didn't take me long to conclude that the network's decision to air that 911 call was sickening as well.

Prominent in the news these days is the Toyota recall. The issue is a floor mat, prosaic but deadly. It can get wedged under the accelerator, which then jams in the floored position. The car hurtles ahead at high speed and the brake can't override it (an additional problem, this one apparently electronic - way to go, Toyota). Several people lost their lives in separate incidents, including an entire family. As their car hurtled down the highway, they too called 911. On the tape, you can hear the dad yell that he can't stop the car. His wife and child wail in terror as he shouts for them to pray – they're coming to an intersection. And then you hear the family cry out and moan as they crash, and presumably, die. I know this, of course, because CBS played it for us.

I'm all for freedom of the press. Sometimes, graphic evidence is necessary to get a story across. Sometimes, the evidence is the story, as in the cell phone-captured footage of the last moments of Neda Agha-Soltan, the young Iranian woman killed by government thugs in Tehran. The video exposes the criminal excesses of a regime interested primarily in perpetuating itself, at the expense of whomever. The Neda video is gut-wrenching, but it's news, as is the fact that Neda has become a symbol and martyr for the Iranian political opposition.

In the case of both the stalker victim and Toyota accelerator tragedy, the graphic audio is not essential to getting the story across. The stalker story is a feature, conceived, compiled and edited at the network's discretion. There was no competing news outlet waiting to scoop CBS and play that 911 call first. The network made a supremely tacky choice to treat the public to a little snuff audio. The Toyota recall is a major story that affects Toyota and Lexus owners all over the country (including yours truly - I am yanking that lethal floor mat out of my Prius, pronto). The fact that there were fatalities is relevant to the news story. The graphic final moments of the ill-fated family are not. What if you were a friend or relative of one of the victims? Would you want to hear your loved one's final moments on the national news?

People should be informed that their car could potentially kill them. Women need to learn how to protect themselves against stalkers. But I fail to see what the airing of these tragic 911 tapes contributes to the public's infamous "right to know". And I am sorry that the stalker victim, the desperate father and his family have had their right to privacy violated from beyond the grave.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Experienced Blues

In my nomadic advertising career, I've toiled in countless categories. I have sold airplane wheels and brakes to airlines, car insurance to the military, facial hair remover to African American men, pots, pans and vacuum cleaners to the lady of the house, paint to do-it-your-selfers, fruit-scented shower gels to women under 25, hospitals to women over 55, bipolar meds and antidepressants to legions of unhappy people of all ages and sexes...the list goes on and on. I've engaged in consumer, B to B and relationship marketing. I have changed markets and changed focus and changed clients and changed the way I think and write. I maintain this is all valuable and good. The truth is, people get stale working on the same account. Especially advertising people, who tend to be on the ADD side of the attention spectrum.

But since I've been back on the freelance beat, I have learned that what used to be called experience is now considered baggage. The market today praises verticality above all else. You must be a Yahoo maven, a supermarket specialist, an expert in make up and skin care products. Don't even bother calling unless you've spent at least five years toiling on packaging for canned fruit, preferably pineapple. OK, so you've worked on websites for a dozen different small businesses, but have you written one for an HR outsourcing service? I didn't think so. Next!

There are a lot of unemployed copywriters out there, and if advertisers wait long enough, they can get someone with exactly the experience they think they need. But guess what? That doesn't guarantee a thing. You want someone smart and strategic. Someone who will ask you about your target and your competition. Someone who can distill your information down to its essence and give it a little kick. Someone who is down to earth and makes your insane deadlines every time. Category experience is gravy. Yes, there are a few categories, such as tech and pharma, that take a while to absorb, but good writers get up to speed pretty fast, at least where writing for the consumer is concerned. (If you're writing to the trade in tech or pharma, then you DO need a special skill set. These gigs call for technical writers.)

I think we writers have fed into this mindset, because we try to market ourselves vertically. Maybe it gets you a gig or two, maybe it doesn't. Pretty soon, you are pigeonholed. Clients categorize you and so do agencies. If an agency gets a new piece of business and can't afford to hire, they'll reassign someone from another group and upload them on the category, no problem. But if they're hiring a new writer, candidates are required to have done plenty of time in that exact category. The question is, should that be enough to clinch the deal? And how many better candidates are left floating in cyberspace, their resumes filtered out of contention?