In 2000, I read a column by Gene Weingarten in the Washington Post which I saved somewhere because it was the funniest thing I’d ever read. Someone just sent me a link to a collection of the best journalism of 2009. One particularly searing piece was by Gene Weingarten, so I searched for this and have just re-read it. It seems trite compared to the subject matter of Weingarten’s piece on a child death. But it is still one of the funniest and cleverest columns I have ever read and I would like to salute it. In the interests of nothing, here it is. Copyright Weingarten and the Post (though probably just the Post).
BELOW THE BELTWAY
By Gene Weingarten
The wastebaskets of the Washington Post newsroom fill up each day with relentlessly chirpy mail from PR people alerting us to important news, such as a new line of home furnishings that “makes accessorizing rooms easy and fun with decorative pillows from . . .”
Actually, I am looking at exactly that news release, which I rescued from a trash bin along with a dozen others. Blatantly commercial items like these never get published in big, influential newspapers. But PR people — bless their indefatigable hearts — keep sending these items in, tiptoeing that taut tightrope between optimism and desperation.
Just how desperate are they? I designed an experiment to find out. Now, I know some of you might call this experiment cruel. However, others might call it very cruel.
I explained my proposal to Lisa H. Morrice, 44, a PR agent from California: I will write glowingly about her client’s pillows if she will tell me something really humiliating about herself that I will also print.
(A colleague of mine had been skeptical of this gambit: PR folks may be desperate, he reasoned, but they have their dignity.)
Just how glowingly, Lisa wondered.
Very, I said.
“My husband dumped me for a younger woman,” she said.
At this moment, I gave my doubting colleague a cheerful thumbs up.
“She was a blonde,” Lisa continued. “A secretary. And I’m not ugly! And . . . ” Lisa showed no signs of stopping, until I informed her she’d made the cut.
Lisa represents Houles, Europe’s largest manufacturer of trimmings, fabrics and decorative accessories. Houles has a new line of richly colored, lavishly textured pillows that, in my professional judgment, provide an exciting, affordable ensemble for any living room or den. They’re available locally at Calico Corners in Rockville.
Tom Coyne, 31, of Coyne Public Relations in Fairfield, N.J., was representing Nabisco recently at a publicity event to introduce Mini Oreos. He had rented a 70,000-pound cement mixer to dump Mini Oreos into a minivan through the sunroof. (Don’t ask.)
Tom explains: “So, anyway, I’m a pretty big guy . . .”
He is on speakerphone. A co-worker yells: “Portly!”
“I’d classify myself as husky, not portly,” humphs Tom.
“Anyway. My pants are a little snug, and I jump off the back of the cement mixer and I completely blow out my pants. My backside is exposed. Tighty whities. I immediately go into my ‘Hey, I blew out my pants,’ walk, trying to hide it. But there are 50 little boys who we brought there to eat cookies and milk, and they all start pointing and laughing.”
I observed that writing about this event won’t be all that embarrassing, since Tom’s co-workers already know the story. True, Tom said: It’ll come as a surprise only to all the top corporate honchos at Nabisco, his biggest and best client.
Sold. Tom represents In the Company of Dogs, a premium specialty catalogue and Web site (inthecompanyofdogs.com) that makes stylish cold-weather apparel for dogs, including the phenomenal Muttluks, which are $ 40 water-resistant booties.
Erin L. Hagenbuch of Caster Communications in Providence, R.I., invited her boyfriend’s parents over for a meal. Only 23, proud of her competence and eager to make a good impression, Erin tried to make her home beautiful — washing, cleaning, even refinishing the wooden furniture. Everything went splendidly until dinner was over. Mom ‘n’ Dad attempted to leave the table but found themselves fused to the too newly varnished chairs.
Erin represents RBH Sound Inc. of Layton, Utah, which has introduced the C-6100SE, a “truly unique” series of in-wall loudspeakers that eliminate detrimental acoustic effects while remaining unobtrusively concealed in the wall. Available for only $ 3,500 a pair, these speakers can be ordered through www.rbhsound.com.
Samantha Lee Joos, 24, is a PR specialist from Pittsburgh. While attending an industry luncheon recently she was seated next to a PR big shot, someone she hoped she might someday approach for a job. Samantha was on her most dignified behavior.
A package of her papers spilled to the floor. Gallantly, Mr. Big bent to retrieve them. They were scattered, so he had to slowly gather them up.
Unfortunately, Samantha had been in a hurry, and grabbed the wrong package. This was lavishly illustrated material belonging to an Internet client of hers, advertising his products.
One was something called the Ouchless Whip.
One was an intimate cylindrical object for use by women, made of Pyrex so as to be “dishwasher safe.”
And one was a product for men called . . . well, I can’t tell you what it was called. It was a play on the name of the product Aqua Velva.
Samantha represents the Intromark Invention Catalog, which can be ordered at 1-888-438-1747. This catalogue contains such items as flexible golf tees, a battery-operated scouring toilet brush and a lucky wishbone to hold lottery tickets to your refrigerator door.
In all, I phoned 15 PR people, nine of whom leaped at the chance to mortify themselves in print in return for a few meager lines of positive ink for their clients. (I chose only the most embarrassing). One Atlanta publicist told me an elaborate tale about the time he came to work as a deejay at his college radio station and was so inebriated he threw up on the air. When I asked him the name of the school, he began to hem and haw, and finally admitted he had made the story up. Understand this: He was ready to debase himself for something he didn’t even do.
My final tale involves Alicia Levine, 28, a PR person for Pan Communications in Andover, Mass. Alicia listened to my pitch, then said she’d think about it. I took that as a no, but she eventually called back, whispering furtively so her co-workers couldn’t hear. She spokerealfastlikethis.
“In my sophomore year of college I was on an intramural basketball team, and I was up late the previous night, too much partying, and there were about 100 or 200 people in the stands and as I got out on the court, I had those Velcro pull-off pants? And I pulled them off? And I realized I forgot to put underwear on.”
Not so bad, I observed, since she was wearing trunks, right?
Long pause. Very quiet:
“I was butt naked from the waist down.”
Wow, I said.
“I got a standing ovation,” she said.
I had promised that my enthusiasm for the commercial products in this column would be directly proportional to the humiliation the PR person had to endure.
Alicia represents MuseumShop.com, the world’s largest online store of museum and cultural gifts. MuseumShop offers a fabulous array of one-of-a-kind products, perfect for Christmas gifts. My favorite is Chess Nuts, a limited-edition chess set created from nuts and bolts and encased in a leather-wrapped box, available at the insanely low price of $ 125. In my opinion this store represents the pinnacle of human achievement.