I’ve spent the last two evenings at The Ohio State Fair. Butter cow, Sky Glider, all-beef weenie. I hope to go back once more, before it closes, so we can see the blue ribbon crafts of our fellow Ohioans. I love the Fair, even though it seems fashionable to dismiss. Whether you like the Fair or not (you snob), here’s a marketing story that might interest you.
The year was 1993. Former used-car salesman, Billy Inmon, the newly-deposed former director of the Fair, was staging a hunger strike in a pup tent on the lawn of the Ohio Statehouse. Mr. Inmon was protesting his dismissal from the Fair after his only year as director. He had been a colorful executive director, most celebrated and infamous for his daily exaggerations of the number of visitors to the Fair. It was as if he were counting toes, not people. No harm done. Most of us were simply amused. It helped us compete with Texas, the home of the nation’s largest state fair.
Meanwhile at The Ohio State Fair, Richard Frenette was the new executive director. He seemed like a businessperson, running a professional operation. Not interesting, but an accurate count of people through the gate.
At the time, Young Isaac shared a floor in an office building on the edge of downtown with the local office of the FBI. We also shared a bathroom. (There’s no greater natural laxative than the sound of the man in the next stall dropping his pants with the crash of a lot of metal hitting the tile floor. You go fast, so you can get gone fast.)
Anyway the G-men next door were friendly, once they realized that Young Isaac posed little to no security threat. One day, they came over and showed us these photographs from a freshly concluded investigation. They thought we would enjoy them, because they were quite beautiful in their composition and color. Problem was, as you can clearly see: they were bomb threats.
The postcards (front and back of each are shown; you can click on them to enlarge them) came one per day as the Fair started. The first one starts the threat with a big “B”…then “O”…”M”…B” — spelling “bomb.” And each contained an escalated threat that an explosion was coming.
First piece, front
With Mr. Inmon in his hunger strike, with the Fair a complex organization where surely not everyone is always happy, with a general public that (unlike today) includes some psychologically unhealthy citizens, Mr. Frenette’s office took these threats seriously. They showed them to the FBI, who also took them seriously.
Mr. Frenette’s family was moved out of their home, placed in protective custody, and given 24-hour death watch security.
A Rapid Investigation
Meanwhile, the FBI noticed that the sender of the threats had used a postal meter. Knowing that every postal meter is individually registered and the identification number is on each metered piece of mail, the FBI called Pitney Bowes and asked them to idenfity the meter. Pitney Bowes reported that the meter was in a mailroom at Sony headquarters in New York.
The FBI called Sony’s general counsel to inquire. The GC moved swiftly and was able to quickly return the FBI’s call, saying “Don’t worry. This is not a threat. And we are very sorry. It did indeed come from our mailroom, but it isn’t a threat. It’s a direct marketing campaign from our marketing people.”
If you have eagle eyes and a mind for pop culture, you might have seen the small double-K logo on the final piece of mail. You can see it at the top of the album cover on the right. It represents Kris Kross, a young pair of rappers who were scheduled to appear at The Ohio State Fair. Da Bomb was their new release. The direct mail campaign was designed by an idiot. Perhaps that’s not accurate. The direct mail campaign was designed by a visually sensitive artist who lacked any emotional intelligence.
Does it matter? I think it does. Mr. Frenette’s family was needlessly traumatized. I can’t image the fear I would feel if I were in the same position. I think the marketing folks respsonsible for this should have been criminally charged. (Perhaps they were.)
With the permission of the FBI, I’ve shown these pieces to students for the past 14 years. I believe it makes the case that artists need to understand the impact of their art. Legislative regulation isn’t necessary. But taste and education are. Otherwise, artists are being taught how to shoot guns, but not to aim. When that happens, someone can get hurt.