The Buzz Machine

We're A Nation Of Buzzaholics, Addicted To Word Of Mouth About The Latest Thing In Books, Movies-- Even Taco Bell Ads. What's Buzz? What's Hype? Plus: Newsweek Picks The Top Buzzmakers Of The Moment.
 
 
 

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HARRY KNOWLES KNOWS fake buzz when he reads it. Founder, proprietor and guiding geek behind the Ain't It Cool News Web site, Knowles has become moderately famous for trafficking in movie buzz. His wired network of 500 movie moles leaks secrets from closed sets, test-audience reviews, studio gossip. All of which spreads advance word of mouth on new movies to some 400,000-a-week Cool News junkies hooked on the site. They tell two friends--and they tell two friends. The result: buzz. Because Knowles knew ""Titanic'' would be huge when everyone was calling it a bomb and that ""Armageddon'' wouldn't live up to its hype, PR people now try to plant fake buzz (a.k.a. hype) on his site. It never works. Why? ""Because they're painfully anal-retentive,'' he says. ""They can't misspell anything, and then they try to circumvent that with words like "rad'.'' They tried with ""Lethal Weapon 4''--but it was a stunt too dumb even for that movie to pull off.

Fifteen hundred miles from the bedroom in his dad's Austin, Texas, home that is Knowles's global headquarters, Tina Brown's recent exit from The New Yorker to start a new magazine for Miramax made page 1 of The New York Times--with above-the-fold play usually reserved for Bosnia or interest rates. Why? Because Brown, too, is a buzzmaker. But the buzz saw has a double edge. Richard Johnson, editor of the New York Post gossip column ""Page Six,'' reported the backlash within days of Brown's jump. ""The initial buzz was very good, and then reality sank in when you find out that she's going to have to get everything approved by [Miramax co-chairman] Harvey Weinstein,'' says Johnson, a major arbiter of buzz. ""So she's just another development girl.''

Live by the buzz, die by it. Not only inside the New York-D.C.-L.A. media axis, but, increasingly, beyond, among the civilian population of what obnoxious buzzmakers sometimes refer to as ""flyover country.'' Out there, ""Bridget Jones's Diary,'' presidential peccadilloes, butterfly hairpins or Microsoft stock is created and consumed by mall rats, viewers of E!, talk-radio addicts and nosy Netizens with alarming velocity and in rising volume. Buzz greases the great conveyor belt of culture and commerce, moving everything from movies to fashions of the body and mind faster and faster. Usage of the word ""buzz'' in The New York Times is up from 114 times in 1993 to 490 this year--and it's only July. Assuming doorbell and bee references remain constant, this increase suggests that buzz has replaced ""word of mouth,'' ""rumor'' and in some cases ""spin'' (the manipulation of buzz) as the buzzword of the moment.

Buzz is not hype. Hype is PR, manufactured buzz. (""Godzilla.'') Real buzz is organic. (The last book you recommended.) It can spread in two ways, by trickling down from the chattering classes or bubbling up from the chattering masses. Charles Frazier's epic Civil War novel, ""Cold Mountain,'' was the buzz in publishing circles but hardly expected to be a best seller. ""Everyone said "Cold Mountain' was too literary for the mass audience,'' says Frazier's agent, Leigh Feldman. ""But 1.6 million people have read it.'' PR people desperately try to get their clients a plug by ""media elite'' mavens like Don Imus (who made the novel ""I Was Amelia Earhart'' a hit), Charlie Rose or Broadway booster Rosie O'Donnell, who, like Oprah, is less elite but extremely influential in spreading mass buzz.

""I've been in the buzz this past week,'' says Michael Kinsley, editor of Slate, a Web zine published by Microsoft that devotes much of its content to what Kinsley calls ""meta news''--news about the news. Kinsley buzzed himself last week in an e-mail detailing how New Yorker owner S. I. Newhouse offered him Brown's old job, then took it back. ""The definition of buzz is what people are talking about in the world of media,'' he argues. It's true that magazines, including NEWSWEEK, are eager to be part of the buzz (and are instead sometimes part of the hype). But it's not just the media: James Cramer trades in financial buzz on his Web site, The Street.com. Cramer both covers the market and manages a market fund, a controversial combination. Controversy, however, is essential to buzz. ""I have buzz only because it's instant analysis that Wall Street really wants now,'' says Cramer. Wall Street has always relied on buzz; Cramer has merely sped it up. Knowles attributes the acceleration of buzz transmission to his and Cramer's chosen medium: the Internet. ""I'm beginning to see people react real quickly,'' Knowles says of opening-weekend ticket sales. ""It used to be that Saturday was bigger. If a movie's bad now, I'm seeing a lower Saturday.''

The more buzz disseminates through nontraditional channels, the more ad and PR people want to harness it. Hennessy cognac's ad agency paid hip, attractive twentysomethings to hang out in bars ordering its client's brand. Jonathan Bond of Kirshenbaum Bond and Partners ran this ""under the radar'' campaign (which ended in January). It worked: he claims his ""live commercials'' helped bump sales up 40 percent. A few months ago, the hip-hop star Puff Daddy stopped in at a small New York club and bought drinks for 3,000 people. ""The buzz that created about how cool Puffy was was just phenomenal,'' says Robin Austin, a street-marketing executive who witnessed the stunt.

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