Monday, April 27, 2009

Bold Names

It occurred to me as the fascinating albeit terrifying story about the so-called Craigslist Murderer began to unfold this week that Philip Markoff has something in common with Scotland’s Susan Boyle: Instantaneous, world-wide name recognition in the blink of an eye. For two very different reasons, both Markoff and Boyle became over-night sensations whose Q ratings (the rating of one’s overall “fame”) blasted through the stratosphere like a NASA Space Shuttle.

Sadly, the public is introduced to people like Markoff through real-time, mass media obsession with much more frequency than to the Susan Boyles of the world: For every Miracle-on-the-Hudson hero like Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger, there are 20 Bernie Madoffs. And it seems that when a true hero like Captain Richard Phillips pops onto the scene, the public is given a kind of gift; an opportunity to identify with someone who seems just as regular as you or me but for a specific set of circumstances that results in mass awareness and genuine admiration.

Here is the thing about Susan Boyle: Her story is authentic. Despite what some of my more cynical friends have to say about her, there is no way, despite all the PR and marketing savvy entertainment companies have developed over the years, that Susan Boyle could have been manufactured. And because of the massive growth of media portals over the past decade, we all came upon her in ways that seemed tailored to our individuality: YouTube and the New York Times; Twitter and The Today Show; FaceBook and Another interesting by-product of the Susan Boyle phenomenon is that her story sometimes connected us with people who were not previously on our radar. I have a friend who heard about Susan in the beauty parlor by the client of her hairdresser who had recently had a baby and was feeling very sheltered and disconnected from the world until she found Susan on the internet. According to my friend, the woman’s enthusiasm in sharing the news of Susan Boyle’s astonishing audition for “Britain’s Got Talent” was just as powerful as the evidence of Susan’s talent itself. Even Simon Cowell would be impressed.

When I heard about Philip Markoff earlier this week, I knew to prepare myself for the hundreds of follow-up stories that would be filed in the days to come. Sure enough, the media, in all their shark-in-the-water frenzy, sliced and diced the story with cold precision. There was the reporting of stolen underwear and the Gray’s Anatomy textbook-cum-automatic pistol hiding place; the preppy image of a pre-med fiancĂ© juxtaposed against the portrait of a woman-hating psychopath killer. The coverage overwhelmed the senses and demanded that we PAY ATTENTION! Even as we wanted to look away, Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster gives and eloquent defense of the website’s safety policies in an interview this morning with The Today Show’s Matt Lauer.

So, we are left to wonder when the next heroine or villain will bump Markoff and Boyles off the proverbial front page and what that will feel like. It seemed as if Susan’s 15 minutes were about to be challenged earlier this week when another “Britain’s Got Talent” contender, 12-year-old Shaheen Jafargholi, came along and was christened by the world media in interview after interview. Not so fast! – a new video has suddenly (and miraculously?) emerged of Boyle performing 20 years ago pumping new life into the Susan Boyles news cycle. Similarly, today’s Markoff news was about the 24-hour suicide watch under which he has been placed has propelled his story into its sixth day. Let’s hope the next overnight sensation will be more Boyles and less Markoff; we could all use some more of that right now.

Posted by Jeff Smith, CEO

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