Famous Last Words: The Novelist’s Eye and “What If ...
I encourage everyone to write a novel. It doesn’t matter whether the finished product is any good—let alone publishable. It’s the experience that’s important. The novelist has to come up with a plot, create characters, give those characters challenges and invent believable behavior patterns and thought processes to deal with them. Like a chess player, the novelist must think many moves ahead, create mental scenarios and play a continual game of “What if …”
In the 1960s and 1970s I wrote three novels that I was lucky enough to get published. The exercise of completing a novel gave me the equivalent of a Ph.D. in thinking that has been enormously valuable in all of my life’s endeavors.
For direct marketers—indeed for everybody—playing the “What if …” game is crucial. A few examples:
1. Many years ago, the marketing department of a major airline decided to write personal letters to couples who had flown to Hawaii and suggest they try a vacation in Florida, which would give them warm water and sandy beaches at a lower cost and less time in the air.
“Dear Mr. & Mrs. So-and-So,” the unctuous letter began. “All of us at [company] were delighted that you chose [airline] to fly you to Hawaii and back last [month].” There was one small problem with this letter campaign. In many cases, the lady with Mr. So-and-So was not Mrs. So-and-So. Nobody played “What if …”
2. The new do-not-call list exempts charities and politicians. In the days leading up to election day, I received an avalanche of telemarketing calls—most of them touting judicial candidates. All were pre-recorded. I was not only interrupted, but also felt roundly insulted. Finally, I noted which campaign called and made sure I voted for the opponent. These political hacks who run the campaigns would not know “What if …” if it landed on their heads.
3. This past November, a mayoral election took place in my hometown of Philadelphia. The incumbent, John Street, is an old-time Democratic pol and former president of the City Council.
Street’s opponent was Republican businessman Sam Katz, who lost in a squeaker four years ago by fewer than 10,000 votes. This year the race was predicted to be closer, because Katz had amassed millions of dollars in cash to spread around on the big day to be sure of getting out the vote. One month before the election, John Street announced that the office of the mayor of America’s fifth largest city had been bugged. The listening device had been planted by the FBI in what was claimed to be an ongoing investigation into corruption in City Hall.
A brilliant public relations campaign by the Democratic organization convinced the electorate that the bug was ordered by President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft (whose Justice Department is responsible for the FBI), who wanted to ensure a Republican would be elected. In a stinging rebuke, Democrats and Republicans alike held their collective noses and re-elected John Street by an 80,000-vote landslide (58 percent to 42 percent). Nobody in the FBI, regardless of their intent, played “What if …”
4. In 1944 and 1945, my parents decided to winter in a rented apartment in Manhattan. I was enrolled in the fourth grade of the tony Allen-Stevenson private school on the Upper East Side. That summer I went to the Allen-Stevenson camp in the Adirondacks. That was the end of Allen-Stevenson in my life. Or was it? Allen-Stevenson tracked me down, and this past fall started hitting me up for money.
Do you think Allen-Stevenson would have the wit and grace to send me a personal letter saying it was delighted to find me and give me news of the school … and then lay a guilt trip on me about how much the school must have contributed to my success in life and would I be interested in giving something back? Uh-uh. Without one jot of emotion or creativity the school started sending me its standard fundraising mail. What if … after a gap of 49 years you started getting direct mail from a school you attended for one year? Would you give? I mean c’mon.
Denny Hatch is the author of: “PRICELINE.COM: A Layman’s Guide to Manipulating the Media,” “Method Marketing,” “Million Dollar Mailings” and (with Don Jackson) “2,239 Tested Secrets for Direct Marketing Success.” He is a freelance direct marketing consultant, writer and designer. Hatch can be reached at email@example.com; or visit any of his Web sites: www.jackcorbett.com, www.methodmarketing.com, www.pricelineandthemedia.com.