The 1960’s saw the dawn of the creative publicity campaign for television. The very best TV producers were alive to the concept of drumming up ideas to entice journalistic interest. Ever since the dawn of the TV age, the publicist Warren Cowan had cast his considerable professional shadow over the promotion of television.
There was a growing recognition that this legendary movie publicist was now the doyen of publicity scams for TV clients. Cowan’s creative thinking that had originally been developed for the movie studios and their stars like Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, Audrey Hepburn, Joan Crawford and Mildred Pierce, was now modernised to fit the TV executives’ agenda. The shrewd business partnership he enjoyed with Henry Rogers had freshly turned to the new medium of TV, to demonstrate their matchless authority.
The Hollywood dream machine had a history of using the stunt for much welcomed ink but now it was the turn of their TV descendents who now accepted that it was essential to extend the skill because without the oxygen of publicity, a TV format might not sustain success.
The energy to develop TV vehicles for sponsor dominated ad breaks was misplaced and had little confidence in the deft touch of a publicist’s hand. The industry had developed as a closed shop with many PR companies guarding a client base at the expense of creative thinking. Exposing a client to negative PR would be seized upon by an opposing shop. Instead of asking for larger fees, break away employees would start up and offer lower, keener fees as a means of attracting trade.
The fear and paranoia and the idea of loosing influence was a common theme. Whilst this mini PR meltdown was happening in the land of the publicists, the cumbersome behemoths of major Manhattan Avenue ad agencies were giving away their creativity to snare the ad placement revenue.
It was a familiar ambition that would become a stifling modus operandi. The shining exception, quixotically called in retrospect, the golden age of broadcast television, was the revolutionary spearhead Bill Bernbach, whose agency created the Volkswagen “Think small” and Avis “We Try Harder” campaigns.
A young, quiet man, Norman Beery, in his late twenties, had made quite an impact in his short career as a studio publicist by coming up with clever publicity stunts for unknown stars. Beery’s youthful exuberance had led to him tracking down the Star Trek creator, Gene Roddenberry at a party. He attempted to get Roddenberry to give him a contract to work on the first series of Start Trek. Roddenberry ignored his overtures, but then turned to Beery for help when promoting the second series of the Sci Fi hit.
Rodenberry was feeling the heat from the Monkees. The Monkees phenomenon was revered in TV land at the time; it had grown to be a ratings winner in its original series but the signs were ominous that there was something amiss. The Monkees had aired only two new episodes in its second series but had lost its prime time slot to Gilligan’s Island.
The success of the first series was not built upon. The plugging of the first three episodes of series one had been framed as a text book example of how to unearth a set of teeny bop idols. It was a PR Haiku, relying on brevity and simplicity.
The consistent messaging and endless glossy photographic portraits of Dolenz, the smiling circus boy, the geek Nesmith, the cute gormless Tork and the cheeky Beatleseque Jones, tattooed thousands of magazine and newspapers coast to coast. A reinvented wacky Keystonian majesty was played out as brand mantra that converted gullible pubescent girls with their tumbling nascent buffoonery. It was a ritualistic bubblegum offering that did not need a feast day.
Roddenberry was a devotee of fashions in the TV industry, but it was Beery who had originally highlighted the appeal of the Monkees’ lead singer Davy Jones to Gene, noting that the teenyboppers had taken a liking to Jones very quickly. He felt that if a character with a mop hair style was inserted into Star Trek, this Beatlesque twist to the show might appeal and generate curiosity. Provocatively, Beery turned the tables on his own proposition suggesting that any new character should be Russian.
This surprised Roddenberry who was fascinated to understand why not adding a Liverpudlian to capitalize on Beatle mania, was not the route to take. Beery believed that there was a far more stimulating scenario to play out, suggesting that the character should be a Russian, complete with a Beatle wig. It seemed crazy and illogical to make a Soviet Mop Top; America was still in the shadow of the Cold War paranoia. Handled properly, this was the very element that might deliver the ‘coup de gras’. Beery implored his boos that his campaign idea could encourage the press into developing a discourse.
Beery first engineered the groundwork to the scam by means of a series of clever fake letters to Pravda, the Communist Party Paper; planting a suggestion that questioned why no Russian comrades were portrayed in the series.
It was a mark of his genius that the campaign was started in the totalitarian organ, thousands of miles from America, especially when the show was not shown on Russian TV and a considerable number of the early episodes had pro Cold War metaphors. Clearly not the matter the old Politburo would be keen to embrace. But he figured that the Soviet Empire’s ego was gigantic.
Beery’s first letter claimed that the idea was a plot to undermine the Commie Space programme. Pravda obliged by writing an emotional editorial expressing unhappiness that there was no Russian on board the U.S. Enterprise. Beery got hold of the article and fed it out to various wire agencies that in turn syndicated it to papers and radio stations around the country. Now the nation was talking about the issue in the new series of Star Trek and various executives did interviews debating the subject.
Beery’s next move was to send a long letter to the minister responsible for cultural affairs in Moscow. Beery knew that the two opposing political systems were fertile ground for spreading mischief. The bourgeois decadence of American television was illustration of the fault line between the two civilisations.
The campaign was a huge success and propelled interest in Chekov as well as creating a youthful female fan base. The attention of this over an intense period prior to broadcast allowed Beery to use the Ruskie mop top on various press junkets over the following months. The show was always bound for superstardom but the hand of this Texan publicist must never be underestimated.