A boring and monotonous modern day PR gimmick used by the many stalwart agencies around London these days is the peddling of research results. Occasionally, these do have an impact and a point, but the more credentials PR presentations I see, make me realise this is the only way people know how to generate a tiny two word plug for their client.
The history of publicity shows that this research tool has often been used to generate column inches, but if you look back at Paul Macnamara’s career, one could see that it was integrated to create a 360 degree stunt. Macnamara’s work at Selznick Studios produced a great example of this.
David Selznick had retained George Gallup to do research on his latest movie, Duel In The Sun and how the ad campaign was progressing. George was hounded with memos from David Selznick about ratings, and in particular on how Jennifer Jones rated against other big stars. She rated very well and David wanted to use those ratings with the press with Gallup’s name as the source.
However, the agreement was that the studio publicity department couldn’t use Gallup’s name in any kind of story. Paul Macnamara, Selznick’s head of press, went to George Gallup one evening and over drinks suggested that a ‘rumour’ about something might be far more effective than a blaring billboard saying the same thing. Gallup thought the idea was good, but didn’t know how one would implement it. Paul reckoned the best rumour-mongers or “carriers” were bartenders, barbers, beauty shop owners and taxi drivers.
The two men decided to target bartenders first, found the names and addresses of various bartenders over town and sent a letter to each bar tender pretending they were “Sam” or “Dave” etc and writing as if they knew the bartender really well. The letter would give an account of “Sam” or “Dave’s” trip to Hollywood and would also ask that the bartender make sure “Sam” or “Dave’s” brother got to hear about his trip. The letter would be written with slightly bad grammar, some spelling mistakes to add to its authenticity. It would read along the lines of: “I’ve been here for three weeks so far, I’ve met some cool chicks but haven’t scored yet. Still hoping!! Yesterday I went to a film studio, not a big one, but it was called Selznick Studios. I hadn’t heard of it but they’re shooting a film called Duel In The Sun which cost millions of dollars. While we were walking around we saw Jennifer Jones all dressed up in costume. She’s well stacked and playing the star in the picture.
“She has to do a sex scene at the end which might cause trouble in the Breen office (whatever that is). We saw Herbert Marshall too, he’s got a wooden leg. Did you know that? What’s more they’ve just been shooting a scene where a man nearly got killed or did actually get killed. They’ve been keeping it really secret, nothing’s in the papers or anything, even my friend didn’t know exactly what went on and he works there! But one of the big stars like Gregory Peck or someone was to blame for what happened. But it’s so hushed up it’s mad. Anyway, having a good time here, it’s not such a big deal being on a film set, but I’m glad I’ve done it. Be sure to tell my brother when he next comes into the bar…”
Paul Macnamara and Gallup worked on this letter to get it just right. They wanted the bartender to keep it and maybe show it to other people in the bar. Then one of Gallup’s people would go to one of the targeted bars, talk to the bartender, tell them that their brother had gone to Hollywood and hadn’t sent one letter home and how he wondered if he’d hooked up with his friends. Obviously the man from Gallup knew that the bartender would have received the letter already. And so it would go….
However, one bartender showed his letter to a customer who happened to be a stringer for Associated Press. He was intrigued by a studio trying to cover up a death on set and called the AP office in New York and told them the story. He then called the AP man in Hollywood who called Paul Macnamara who then fiercely denied the story.
The AP man refused to believe Paul and wouldn’t let him get off the phone. He then called David Selznick himself. Paul hadn’t warned Selznick about the letters because he knew David would ham it up and ruin it, so when David got the call, it worked perfectly. David was confused, tried to get the AP off the phone and convinced the AP guy that he was covering something big up. That night the big story in Hollywood was that somebody had been killed on the latest Selznick picture Duel In The Sun. Paul Macnamara spent weeks denying it and got miles of space in the process, all carrying the name of the movie.
The original letter sent out to all the bars had been read by many customers all over the area targeted. When Gallup took a special poll in the area, it was found to be several points ahead of the national average. It was enough for Gallup to recommend that the studio put the idea into national use and so Selznick Studios divided the country into several zones, developed different “carriers”: bartenders, barbers and taxi drivers etc. The original AP man, still thinking the studio had really covered something up, went to the police , but they had better things to do and it wasn’t taken any further.
The one dimensional research idea is now a pale and ghostly image of the way research was used back in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Perhaps modern day PRs should consider that before he or she plunders his / her clients budgets.