Wednesday, January 17, 2007

New and Improved

There is a show biz legend that it was a movie, namely the production of James Jones' "From her to Eternity," which gave the marketing world the concept of new and improved. It was said that Frank Sinatra, whose voice was changing and whose teenage fans had grown up and were no longer buying his recordings in large numbers, wanted a role in a major motion picture so he could launch a new career as a serious actor. (Mario Puzo wrote a fictionalized version of this story in The Godfather, in which he claims a Sinatra-like singer gets the part because the Godfather makes a the film's producer an offer he cannot refuse, to say nothing of what he does to the producer's horse.) Whatever the truth was, Frankie got the role, won the Oscar for best supporting actor of 1953, and went on to have an even larger career as an adult entertainer. According to the legend--and for all I know, the legend may actually be true--this is the one major notion, this idea of making a comeback as something different, that governs modern advertizing and public relations and yet does not come from the offices of Madison Avenue. Wherever the idea of new and improved was thought up, it has given the lie to F. Scott Fitzgerald's dictum that there are no second acts in American public life.
The key to making new and improved work is making sure the person or thing being brought back is much different from the person or thing it was before. In the case of a product, the change may be wroght simply by new packaging and a small physical change, thus Tide detergent can become the New Tide by adding some new chemicals and going into a new box. (There is an implication here that the old version of the product was not very good at what it did before the change took place, and there is therefor a second implication that the consumer buying the new product might have some reason to dislike the old version.) Although the change has to be noticable, or else a company may have a fiasco, as Coca Cola did when they brought out New Coke, a soft drink whose only innovation was a taste that was rather like that of Pepsi. People in the public's eye have to do more; they have to become, to some degree, the opposite of what they were before. Bill Clinton--and, yes, our politics are mostly public relations--was able to come back from the off-year defeats of 1992 by declaring the era of big government was over and by becoming the champion of welfare reform. Richard Nixon made a comeback in 1968 by presenting himself as a veteran, level-headed statesman, and no longer the political warrior had been in the previous decade. I have long felt that even the racist ex-Klansman David Duke could have had a successful career, if he had but renounced everything he had proclaimed before and had become a born-again liberal, thus making himself the enemy of everything he had once been. (Whether his heart had to change is another matter. But then, did Mr. Clinton's and Mr. Nixon's hearts really change?)
Which brings me to that shining example of a man who re-invented himself again and again with breath-taking agility, that cultural icon we should all celebrate: Sonny Bono. Blessed with no discernable talents (but owning more brains than I dare say anyone ever credited him with), Mr. Bono was able to have a profitable career that lasted for as long as he lived, while other truly gifted entertainers burned themselves out in a few years. Sonny got his start as a producer of pop records, then made himself into a faux hippie while he sang top forty tunes with Cher. Later he and his soon-to-be ex-wife would be the family-friendly hosts of a wildly popular TV variety show. Later Sonny would become the lovable loser and bit role actor in the "Airplane" movies and on D-grade TV shows. He ended his life as a much beloved Republican congressman. If he had not been killed in a ski-ing accident, it is not beyond the realm of possibilities that old Sonny could have re-invented himself into a wildly popular president, maybe as Democratic one. Perhaps, had he won the presidency soon enough, an aged Frank Sinatra could have sang at Sonny's inaugeration ball.

1 comment:

R. C. A. O'Neal said...

I wonder whether the only alternative is CLassic and Stale.