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Sunday, August 15, 2010


The Unfortunate Jane

Words go in and out of fashion and one of the words that has disappeared at a time when I think it might be handy to resurrect it, is calamity. I like this word because while the dictionary definition is a sudden disaster, it has taken on a kind of wonderful nostalgic essence as well. And it is a funny word, like pickle – as in, we’re in one.

I am a stickler when it comes to finding just the right word. We have so many, why not use them all? For example, why have we been calling the disaster in the Gulf an Oil Spill? Did someone tip something over when I wasn’t looking? How does 4 million barrels qualify as a spill? How many rolls of Bounty paper towels, the quicker picker-upper, are needed to clean that up? 

I also think calamity has a specific value on the scale of disasters and points to the troubles of others. Consider the following true stories, to which might you apply the word calamity? 

Example #1: In February of 1987, Home Shopping Network begins selling telephones with oversized buttons.  Targeting their largely retired demographic, these phones allow the user to make a call without having to find their glasses, an early example of user-friendly electronics.

The phones are purchased from a grey market electronics manufacturer in Asia and are not UL Approved.  This is the off-brand electronics world in 1987.  Mrs. McGuire, a lovely retiree living in Kisamee, Florida purchases three of these phones for her home. All is well until there is, of course, a huge storm and the phone lines emanating from the home are hit directly by lightening.  This sends a jolt into Mrs. McGuire’s big button phones, which spontaneously combust and burst into flame. 

Mrs. M cannot call the fire department because all of her phones are on fire. The storm is quite fierce, Mrs. M is in her 80’s, and her closest neighbor is not home. Mrs. M’s home is destroyed.  She sues and receives an undisclosed settlement from HSN. 

Example #2: In 1987, Home Shopping Network gets a great deal on 100,000 rabbit skin jackets.  The jackets were a bargain because the curing process that the skins require was never finished.  To prevent the hair from falling out of the skins, viewers are told that each jacket needs to be put in a home dryer for at least 20 minutes, on high or hot.
The on-air hosts sell out the jackets in a matter of hours carefully explaining to shoppers what needs to be done to them before they are worn which is also contained in a flyer that goes out with every order. 

100,000 ugly rabbit skin jackets are shipped out of the fulfillment center, located several miles away from the HSN corporate campus.

100,000 bald ugly rabbit skin jackets come back to the fulfillment center two weeks later. Items sold on HSN at this time, are scheduled for airing based on the inventory in the warehouse.  The person who schedules the product sales (at this point in time, there were no segmented programs with specific merchandise) sees that there are 100,000 jackets now available to sell. They sold out so quickly the first time, let’s put them back on the air! 

The show hosts go back on, using the properly dried coats they have as samples in the studio and viola! 100,000 rabbit skin jackets are sold once again.  100,000 bald rabbit skin jackets are shipped out from the warehouse from the re-work center, which cleans up things like toaster ovens that come back with grilled cheese sandwiches stuck to the grill of the toaster. 

100,000 bald rabbit skin jackets come back, again. HSN writes off $3 million.

Example #3: In 1986, HSN rolls out across the country converting American televisions into retail shelf space. Over the course of nine months, UHF stations, all in major markets as well as cable affiliates will be carrying programming that will introduce a channel devoted to shopping into 40 million homes with an advertising campaign introducing the service to America.  There is no way to anticipate what the response of the market will be.

What I do know is that I am mailing 20 million pieces of direct mail and full page Ads are running in every major metro area newspaper offering $5 off the first purchase made.  TV commercials are being run where they are accepted.

As the responsible marketer that I was, I prepare an analysis of the advertising rollout and reach for Operations, which includes the phone room, where there are hundreds of operators waiting to take calls.  The Senior VP of Operations thanks me for the work and takes it to the President of the company.  The President decides he does not want to share the information with the company, which provides the phone service, GTE South.  He was paranoid about them disclosing the company’s plan to purchase the long neglected UHF Stations, which was one way of getting around the cable systems and creating awareness and demand in local markets for the programming, ultimately forcing the hand of the local cable service to carry the programming – a brilliant business idea.

The day the Ads and programming break in the Northeast, New York and Boston specifically, the whole Southeast corridor of the United States loses phone service for 12 hours.

HSN is unprepared for this and reacts by changing phone service providers. Never to leave well enough alone, the legal department creates a full page Ad that runs in The Wall Street Journal, with the headline “MCI saves the bears” with a picture of a teddy bear sold on HSN and copy about how they came in as heroes to the company.

Now flash forward 3 1/2 years later and I’m sitting in my office back in New York City, no longer working for HSN but still within the 18 month window of my employment contract which is threatening and intimidating and designed to be so.  The phone rings.  It’s an attorney for GTE who is counter-suing HSN for slander.  He’s heard I could be helpful.  How and why, I can’t disclose, but neither could I testify on their behalf and I let him know that.  He continued to call me up to the week before the trial. 

GTE ultimately didn’t need me.  They won the suit and were awarded $100 million for slander.  The Judge personally fined the President, who came to the trial draped in so much gold that he resembled King Tut, and Chairman of the Board.

I believe that all three of the above are calamities. They fit the bill because 1. They did not happen to me or anyone I know. 2. They happened a sufficiently long time ago. 3. They are worth retelling for their sheer entertainment value. These three elements qualify, in my mind, as essential to calamities.

If you are a relative of Mrs. McGuire, perhaps you feel differently, write back and let me know.

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