While I was in the middle of writing about writing, I realized there was a book on my to-read list that addressed the same themes, but from opposite angle: not the writers getting stuck in a bad system, but the PR people and ad buyers who shape their terrible financial and creative incentives. I’m reviewing Trust Me, I’m Lying six years too late, but in my defense Holiday published half a decade too early. He describes a trend as it grew, but the right time to talk about it is when it peaks.
Holiday is a marketing genius. You may not think so if you look at his record as of the book’s publication date: he helped take American Apparel’s online sales up by a third in three years, for compound growth of 14% at a time when e-commerce in general was growing… in the mid-teens. And he ran the marketing campaign for I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, a movie based on a New York Times bestseller that did $1.4m at the box office against a $7 million budget.
But consider this: after a record like that, Holiday got a $250k advance to write a bestseller about marketing. If that’s not marketing genius, I don’t know what is.
I’m being unfair here, in both dimensions. While American Apparel is the rare company to go bankrupt despite basically selling sex, it was always going to be be an uphill climb. Fashion is a hard industry, and fashion appealing to young people is especially tough. Holiday had his work more than cut out for him, since his boss was a nonstop PR disaster. And the apparel itself was notoriously minimalist. Minimalism doesn’t sell itself, and it’s admirable to merely hold one’s own while successfully inventing new ways to sell it.
And what about the Tucker Max movie? Movies are also a difficult business, new franchises especially so. Look at the top 20 box office grosses of the 2018, and what do you see? Eleven franchises and sequels; seven movies based on books, comics, or video games; and two original ideas. You can view I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell as $5.6m of R&D to determine that Tucker Max’s appeal didn’t translate well from books to movies (who knew the coveted frat boy demo preferred the written word? Maybe the problem is that they don’t serve beer in theaters). Holiday now describes it as a “cult hit”, but that’s hard to verify. Personally, if I were an amoral marketer, I’d edit the Wiki of any movie I was involved in to say it was a “cult hit,” — who’s going to check? How?
(Holiday, incidentally, says he judiciously uses fake Wikipedia edits to hype his clients. The trick is: make an unsourced edit before your PR blitz, hope a journalist cites the factoid from Wikipedia as a fact, and now you have an authoritative citation — it’s citogenesis in action!)
I found Holiday charming, despite all that. One of us is the other’s evil twin (not sure which); we’re both college dropouts who got into marketing and then escaped into something equally but differently abstract.
Trust Me, I’m Lying is a marvelous act of bridge-burning. Holiday excoriates everybody — PR people (for pumping dubious stories), journalists (for running them, replete with headlines about BREAKING NEWS that isn’t really news), editors (for holding their writers to unrealistic traffic standards and no factual standards), readers (for fueling the whole thing with their clicks). He blames everyone for building a system in which being first is prized far above being right, and where entertaining falsehoods have a wider reach and a longer lifespan than boring truths. Like Liar’s Poker, Full Metal Jacket, and The Paper Chase, the book is ostensibly a warning but actually a winking glamorization of what he warns about. Who can read a story of running an ad campaign, vandalizing your own ads, and then using the vandalism to inspire a fake boycott — and not want, at some level, to copy it? It’s a lucrative brand of practical joke.
Holiday’s thesis is basically the economic argument I made in my don’t work as a writer piece: writers get paid for clicks, not quality, so there’s a race to the bottom. What he emphasizes is less the paycheck-squeezing aspects of this, and more the morally corrosive ones: if you have a story that’s too good to check, checking your facts is a liability. Holiday is torn between being frustrated by this and being eager to exploit it: he likes it when his ginned-up controversies (fake ads that never ran, “BANNED” ads that get widespread free distribution) get his clients lots of pageviews; he’s frustrated when leaked emails and sloppy business journalism threaten his employer’s survival.
When you read a news story, it’s helpful to visualize two things: a half-empty newsroom with flickering fluorescent lights and stained carpets, and a PR company headquarters where everyone has gleaming Macbooks and elaborate hairdos. There’s a huge power imbalance, and it favors people with an economic interest in making the news function as much as possible like an ad. In the past, there have been stable states where this works out: trade magazines, for example, mix advertising, editorial, and advertorial, and everyone understands there’s an agenda. And Vogue was always more about the ads than the content. But those norms evolved over decades, and then exploded in popularity online; when a disease meets a vulnerable new population, bad things happen.
The disease metaphor is a potent one: it’s not a coincidence that people describe popular stories as “viral.” The typical blogger has to constantly change things up to stay contagious, exactly like the flu. But there’s value in the opposite niche: changing a few people’s minds and being impossible to dislodge. So, more like rabies, or tertiary syphilis. Think of Gwern, or Joel Grus, or Put A Num On It, or Patrick McKenzie, or Chris Stucchio. The articles have a slow incubation rather than an explosive epidemic, but people will still be reading and thinking about them in ten years.
Holiday cites a study that shows that popular stories inspire an emotional reaction. At the time the book came out, that was fair: there weren’t a lot of popular writers on the web who didn’t traffic in nonstop outrage. You can win without rage, though; Slate Star Codex and Robin Hanson have built brands from being a certain kind of abstract neutral observer, where they figure out what the discussion is really about and gently correct both sides. While Holiday thinks this stuff doesn’t work because it doesn’t offend people, there is actually a whole community devoted to trashing this kind of writing. Why anyone would voluntarily spend their time acting like an Ayn Rand villain is beyond me — I didn’t know that the corollary of “life imitates art” is “the lives of bad people imitate unusually bad art,” but there you go.
If Holiday had published his book in 2017, rather than 2012, he would have had a better news hook (although most of the interesting points about the 2016 election get subsumed into partisanship — anyone with an opinion on What It Really Means is assumed to have an opinion on Who Is Really Right). He’d also have a bigger, more lucrative target to go after.
But he’d be publishing at the peak, when the trend reverses, rather than when it’s just getting steam. This is traditional, of course; there’s a reason the Economist cover is such a good contrarian indicator; things get the heaviest media coverage when they’re the most out of whack, and sooner or later things revert to normal. What’s changed since 2012 is that the channels people use to find news have consolidated, so the owners of those channels have a real incentive to shut down malicious players. We saw this with desktop software in the early 2000s, and we’re seeing it again today: if you do something that gets clicks today but makes the social stream or search results page a worse source of information over the next five years, expect to get penalized by platform owners with a long time horizon — and now, the people with long time horizons are the ones in charge.
All of us believe shared falsehoods. That’s not a bold claim about any specific thing people think circa 2018, just a general truth: every generation in history believed some things you currently think are false, so either we’re the first generation to get it right, or shared errors are part of the human experience. Did the rise of click-driven mass media help, or hurt?
In the short term, it definitely hurt. Rumors are more optimized to spread now; they evolve, but they’re also intelligently designed for maximum spread.
But in the long term, the world’s brief experience with a ubiquitous dishonest media panopticon may be beneficial. When I read the book, one thing I got from it was that being honest and thoughtful is a good way to differentiate yourself. On the Internet, there isn’t much competition. If you’re writing a corpus of work that goes in the metaphorical trash the next day (or the next hour), you care about maximizing outrage. But if you’re creating a corpus that you’ll keep building on and referencing, you’re stuck with your misconceptions. What you write now is a foundation for what you think later, and if you’re not careful the whole thing will topple over
I end up buying Holiday’s explicit message: the hustle for traffic is not a good game to play, and it’s hard to win. I’m not sure how bad for society it really is, though.
Some forms of deception are fun when we’re all in on them. Everyone knows that bodybuilders are not as strong as strongmen; they just look really, freakishly muscular. The point of bodybuilding is not to lift heavy weight; it’s a contest to see who can look the most like a balloon animal with a road atlas tattoo. There’s an amazing scene in the documentary Generation Iron, where a bodybuilder celebrates his contest performance by hugging his personal trainer. When she steps away, she’s covered in fake tan paint.
At one level, this scene reveals how artificial all the proceedings are: these guys are pretending to be strong, and they’re even temporarily pretending to be tan. But at another level, it’s a fun game that everyone gets. We all know they’re not what they look like — looking, not being, is the point. But it’s an exaggeration of something real. Bodybuilders ingest supraphysiological doses of compounds that are analogs of substances the body itself produces: testosterone, growth hormone, insulin, creatine. And they really do lift heavier weights than scrawny people. They’re fakers, sure. Fake, but accurate.
The media campaigns in Trust Me, I’m Lying are something like that. Tucker Max really was transgressive. Holiday had to fake a boycott, but it only worked because people found Max worthy of boycotting. Marketing American Apparel as clothing for attractive young hipsters is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ultimately, all marketing is about faking something into being true; a marketer who is skilled at lying is like a weird riff on King Midas, where every falsehood he creates makes itself true.
So, I’m still not sure I trust Holiday. But he might be one of those characters who transcend trust; he’s engaging in kayfabe, not completely earnest discourse. He’s still a pro wrestler, but he’s letting the audience in on the story. In the end, it’s just as fun to watch.