Jerry Lewis: social media pioneer?

As we head into Labour Day and the annual Jerry Lewis Telethon, it’s a question that popped into my head.

Not because MDA was one of the early organizations to live stream a broadcast. Nor because their website features Facebook, emotional videos, Twitter and a tote board with a live countdown to the show.

No, this goes back further than that – to the way slapschtick comic Jerry Lewis took on a cause that was close to his heart and lent his celebrity, energy and time to build an engaged community around it. And the approach he used reminds me a lot of social media.

Here’s why:

  1. He started small and built a community – the telethon began in 1955 and raised $600,000 (I got that from the MDA twitter feed). From there it grew to a ‘Love Network’ that spanned North America.
  2. He’s in it for the long haul – Lewis says he’ll keep raising money till they find a cure – and 55 years later no one would question his commitment.
  3. He understands relationships – look at the way he kibbitzes with the doctors and researchers, sponsors and celebrities. And more importantly, look at the respect he gives the folks (mostly kids and their famillies) who are affected by neuromuscular disease.
  4. He interweaves local and global –  whether it’s a grassroots fundraising event or a high profile charity concert, a small business donation or a corporation’s big cheque, hometown TV personalities or Vegas stars – everyone feels a part of the story.

The organization has grown, created ambassadors and helped many people. And it’s not surprising they’ve embraced social media too. In many ways, they were there from the start. I hope they beat their goal again and find a cure for muscular dystrophy. So tune in, laugh, cry and think about giving to this worthy cause. And follow the conversation #MDATelethon.

By the way, the telethon is also one of my favourite TV experiences. You can read about that here.

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Biting the Bullet

The Magic Bullet, that is; the ‘personal, versatile countertop magician’.

I finally succumbed to temptation and ordered one.

I picked it up from the post office earlier in the week. I was expecting my new Visa card and was more than a bit surprised to see the two oversize white boxes, bound together like the machine and I soon will be.

The outside was emblazoned with the product name and the bold promise: It does ANY job in 10 seconds… or less.

ANY job! No wonder it’s magic.

I mean this is no ordinary blender. It’s a solution to all of life’s problems. Hell, it does pretty much anything. Short of money? The magic bullet sends two machines, so if times are tight, you can sell one. Out of quick meal ideas, there’s a mouthwatering booklet full of them. I’ve yet to try them on a news release or PR plan, but I’m sure the results would be just as good.

I’ve been a fan of the Bullet show for a couple of years now. What an extravaganza! It tells the story of a couple whose motley array of party guests stay the night and turn up in the kitchen the next morning, hungover yet ravenous. And the hosts proceed to do their culinary prestidigitation and satisfy everyone’s rather selfish tastes (though I wonder how many heads are aching from that incessant magic buzz).

I have a confession (if you haven’t already guessed): I watch infomercials. Usually in the middle of the night when I have the flu and am unable to sleep. And in my achy feverish state, nothing seems so hopeful as the life they portray. Whether it’s for a thorough cleansing by Dr. Ho, some one-size-fits-all fitness system, the songs of the name-your-decade hosted by a grizzled former icon of that same decade, it doesn’t matter. They soothe me. Offer me hope and dreams of a more perfect existence. And more than once, I’ve lifted the phone to place a call that I am convinced will not only cure my virus, it will lead me to salvation.

From a communications perspective, I think infomercials do a really good job. Each has its own memorable and entertaining story. They stick to their key messages which are polished till they gleam. And they’re always delivered by a knowledgeable (about one subject anyway) spokesperson; smoothly and, if you’re in the right frame of mind, believably.

And yes, they keep it simple – sometimes too simple. (They’re also repetitive and generally lack artistic merit.)

But for me their biggest triumph is that they play commercials for the commercial within the commercial; ad nauseum. And we accept it. Treat it like a play within a play, but with a 1-800 number instead of subtext.

From the outside looking in

Sometimes it feels like Canada is decidedly second tier. By that I mean there are often cool new products launched in the U.S. that aren’t readily available on our side of the border. We hear about them, read about them, see what they do. We covet them but just don’t have the access.

Today’s Toronto Star lists several of these technologies including: the iPhone, Kindle, Amazon’s book reader which I really want to try, and streamed TV series.

Intellectual property negotiations aside, this is somewhat of a nostalgic situation for me.

Growing up in pre-cable Winnipeg, there was a time when we were relegated to three television stations, CBC, CTV and KCND (really just a transmitter in Pembina, North Dakota that was loosely affiliated with ABC and later switched to CKND, our Global station).

So while we heard about lots of great shows, and especially ‘The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson’, we couldn’t actually watch them unless we ventured to the U.S. or to one of our larger metropolises (Montreal, Toronto) that had the actual stations in closer proximity.

We were even late getting some movies. The Exorcist, for example, opened in Winnipeg a couple of months after its Christmas release, but long after the infamous head-turning scene had been written about ‘ad nauseum’.

And really, it’s this second tierism that made me want to leave Winnipeg in the first place. I dreamed of living at the centre of all things new.

So here I am happily ensconced in the country’s largest city and I find I’m in a similar situation with regards to certain tech gadgets. Only this time, I have no great exit strategy.

And I wonder if waiting a little longer for things is simply part of our national heritage and makes us a little more patient, more cautions, more reflective…Makes us Canadian.

Go Bombers go…

‘Everybody loves a clown…’

‘…So why don’t you?’ So sang Gary Lewis, live from Vegas, introduced by a father who was beaming with pride.

Yes, it’s that time of year again. The real end of summer (for as long as I can remember): the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon.

Where else can you see Norm Crosby deliver his malapropisms, Gary Lewis sell (this) diamond ring, a ventriloquist who uses Jerry as his dummy and of course, Ed MacMahon, a bit shaky though his voice is still booming, calling for a timp?

It’s a very worthwhile cause and has raised so much money and even more awareness for the debilitating disease and Jerry’s kids. They just hit $39,000,000 so far at 1:45 pm ET. And if you happen to be reading this, I hope you’ll think about giving.

But as a piece of entertainment, the Telethon is unsurpassed. It spawned the genre. Seamlessley blends big business and showbiz (on the same stage).

And it’s all we have left from the grand tradition of Vaudeville variety that was transformed to the early days of TV to Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson to good old fashioned showbiz where pretty much anything goes. It’s my parent’s world: classy tuxedoed performers in nighclubs, good natured joshing and lots of maudlin sentimentality. Hey, it works for me and always takes me back.

So thanks Jerry. For all the good work. For keeping up the tradition. For carrying on.