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PUBLICITY PLOY SPAWNS ON-LINE URBAN LEGEND : ADDRESS BOOK.

Byline: Kitty Williams

It's the stuff urban legends are made of: Why not use the Internet to promote a book publisher's benevolent image?

Why not ask the on-line community to e-mail their fondest holiday memories to a special address? For every 25 messages, the publisher would donate a copy of a children's Christmas book, to cheer up sick kids in hospitals across the country.

Brilliant! Could lead to a public relations home run!

Naturally, many Internet-savvy people were suspicious of the request. As one member of an Internet news group wrote: ``I can't imagine why Houghton-Mifflin would want to be flooded with e-mail. If they want to give free books, then they can just do it.''

There was even speculation that they were trying to surreptitiously gather e-mail addresses for a future marketing blitz. Others thought that competitors might have launched the campaign deliberately to overwhelm HMCo's e-mail service.

I was sure it was a scam. I visited the HMCo home page, expecting to find an urgent plea to cease and desist - but not at all. Instead, I found a link to the Polar Express Share the Spirit Campaign Website. The page proclaimed the campaign over, 50,000 e-mails received, and 2,000 books donated. Visitors were invited to browse excerpts from e-mails received. How touching, I thought.

Then, the rest of the story began to materialize.

First, there was this newsgroup posting: ``The word that I have is that the program was real, but it has been maxxed out. H-M no longer wants email. Indeed, they may have become the newest Craig Shergold.''

(Craig Shergold was the English child diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1989 who wanted to be listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for receiving the most get-well cards. He got his wish in 1990 when Guinness listed him with more than 16 million cards; in 1991 he was successfully operated on at the University of Virginia hospital and is now a healthy 16-year-old whose cards keep coming. Guinness retired the category in 1992 when the total had reached 33 million; officials quit counting when they went over 60 million.)

On Dec. 12, 1996, a former HMCo employee wrote ``Although the promotion is/was real, PLEASE DON'T SEND THEM ANY MORE EMAIL. The mail gateway is throttling with the incoming mail. ``The lesson here is: don't do a marketing ploy without first consulting your Tech people.

We received an official response from Yuka Sugiura at Houghton Mifflin Interactive. They achieved their goal of 50,000 messages on Dec. 10 and shut down the e-mail address. They are, said Sugiura, still interested in messages.

``The campaign is not over as we are still accepting and posting messages sent via The Polar Express Share the Spirit web site (http://www.polarexpress.com). In addition, because we reached our goal so early, we'll be donating an extra 500 books to children's hospitals.''

I can only imagine what will happen to the Web site.

Houghton Mifflin Co

http://www.hmco.com/

Polar Express

http://www.polarexpress.com/

Urban Legends

http://www.urbanlegends.com

Craig Shergold

http://www.urbanlegends.com/classic/craig.shergold/

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Box

Box: ADDRESS BOOK (see text)
COPYRIGHT 1997 Daily News
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 6, 1997
Words:532
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