Marketing 101: Send toys. Lots of toys

My job entails a great deal of sitting. Sitting and staring at a computer screen. Activity for me is moving the two fingers I use to type.

That means when a diversion pops up, I jump at it, and I would like to thank PR people for giving me a number of such opportunities.

Public relations workers, you see, are clever: they know that about 125 people contact me every day; they know most of those e-mails, voice mails and envelopes are completely irrelevant to my job; and they know this communication fire hose often makes me ill-tempered.

So they send gadgets and toys in order to draw attention to some announcement they believe warrants notice. Case in point: a while back Toronto’s Netron released a product called HotRod. To fire up a little extra interest, the company packaged the dry press release with a cool little remote-control car. It turns left and right, it goes backwards, it’s red, it came with batteries.

Being a consummate business professional, I immediately began running it around the office, skilfully zooming it in and out of cubicles and generally preventing others from doing their jobs. This ended when several co-workers simultaneously offered to “chuck the friggin’ thing out the window,” but it was good clean fun while it lasted.

Netron is not alone in sponsoring this type of creativity. IBM couriered me a top hat and a magic wand; Fishbowl Communications launched their company by sending out little glass fishbowls; Clarus sent out a Y2K countdown clock; I got a ViewMaster 3D viewer from Bell; last year Lexmark sent in a cool seasonal set including a beach towel, two plastic tumblers and beach bag (although the de rigueur tequila and margarita mix were MIA); some company mailed a card that played a loud Ta-Da when opened (I can’t remember who came up with that one, since my publisher took the card from me – I think he uses it to impress the sales staff); and on it goes.

The thing is, this stuff serves a purpose: it makes a dry press release stand out from all the other dry press releases. See, there’s an industry law that requires all press releases to begin thus: “Some Company, a worldwide leader in Some Really Important Market, today did Something Really Important that will leverage the company’s strengths in Some Critical Buzzword to provide Something Something.” Given this restrictive directive, the poor PR-types are pushed to extremes to differentiate their efforts – hence the toys.

But here’s the punch line: this whole freebie industry doesn’t affect our coverage in any way. We wrote about HotRod because it was a good story, and we didn’t write about IBM’s Magic Box because it was a marketing campaign and not news in and of itself. I am glad to report, though, that IBM did not waste its marketing dollars – I wore that hat around the office for a whole day.

Do me a favour, though: if you find yourself hanging out with some PR-types, don’t mention this column. I really need these diversions. As it is, the only reason I get up from my desk these days is to rescue my little remote-controlled car from the vengeful fists of co-workers.