Wednesday 19 February 2003
It's the way you sell 'em
'Mugabe needs to stop fighting his bad image. There's nothing he can do about his villain status, so he should lean back and enjoy it'
I happened to be in London the other day, hoping to join the Countryside Alliance March in Favour of Congestion Charges for London, when who should I bump into near Shaftesbury Avenue but my old friend Adrian Wardour-Street? Adrian is at the cutting edge of the PR business; he makes Max Clifford look like Al Gore. He is normally the man who knows where the cresting wave is, so I greeted him affably.
He failed to react in any way. So I stood in his path and waved at him. Then he registered.
"Sorry about that," he said, pulling some invisible earphones from his ears. "I was waiting for a call to come through from Robert."
"Robert?" I said, trying to think of all the showbiz Roberts I knew. "Robert De Niro? Robert Carlyle? Bob Hope?"
"Robert Mugabe," he said. "Poor chap has finally realised he's got an image problem. Wants me to suggest a makeover strategy. Have you got time for a quick virgin spritzer?"
So saying, he pulled me into a nearby water bar, one of the new trendy watering-holes in London. This one was called Eau! What a Lovely Water! It turned out that a virgin spritzer is a mixture of half-still, half-fizzy water, or what we in the country call fizzy water gone flat. Still, the slice of lemon was lovely and fresh.
"How can you help Mugabe?" I asked.
"The same way I helped Osama bin Laden," said Adrian.
"What?" I said. "Make him live in a cave and produce bad promo videos?"
"No, no, no, no!" said Adrian. "Stop him fighting his bad image and make him go with it. Persuade him that there is nothing now he can do about his villain status, and to lean back and enjoy it. After all, bad guys last longest."
"How do you mean?"
"Think Castro. Think Gaddafi. Think Saddam Hussein. We keep hearing about how America is the last remaining superpower and can do anything it likes. I'll believe that the day they get rid of the enemies they have been trying to get rid of for 30 years. Do I also hear the name of Yasser Arafat? Do I hear Osama bin Laden?"
Eerily, at that very moment, his mobile rang, and when Adrian answered it, he said: "Osama! Osama, baby! We were just talking about you! Can you step out of the cave for a moment? You're breaking up... That's better... Yes, I'm looking into it. Yes, the money will be coming. Yes, that's worldwide, including repeats... Don't worry about a thing... Ciao, Osama..."
"What was all that?"
"Oh, you know what these showbiz types are like. Osama's the same. Video sales... royalties... listening-figures... he's always worrying."
"Osama bin Laden gets paid for those videos?"
"Not often, and that's what's upsetting him. He's asked me to look into the fees payable on all the news broadcasts of the videos he releases via al-Jazeera. Turns out he's due thousands of dollars, because each time they show his home videos, they should pay him. But the TV companies are so slow to cough up."
"I'm not surprised," I said. "For one thing, they're such terrible home videos."
"That's where you're wrong!" said Adrian. "They're just what the market needs. They're gritty, non-smooth, unpolished and therefore totally convincing. God, I had the most tremendous battles with Osama! He wanted full-colour, well-produced videos, with credits and copyright and even music. He thinks that because he can tackle the World Trade Centre, he should also make a professional job of videos. 'Look, Osama,' I said, 'nobody's going to take a slick terrorist seriously! Every film in the world these days is slick and empty! You've got to be different! What you have got to be is rough and from the heart! Tell people you hate them in colour and in focus, and they won't believe you. Do it in black and white with a wobbly camera, and they'll buy every word!' "
His phone rang again.
"Robert!" said Adrian. "Before I say anything else, Osama sends his regards and says he's taking the invitation very seriously... "
I left him to it, thinking that PR surely made for strange bedfellows.
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