Rolling Stone, Groupon Show The Viral Benefits of Historical Inaccuracy

Apr 11 2014, 8:19am CDT | by

Rolling Stone, Groupon Show The Viral Benefits of Historical Inaccuracy
Photo Credit: Forbes Business

null What a great man was John Hancock, whose bold signature graces our Constitution.  His legacy matches that of one of our greatest Presidents, Alexander Hamilton.  Discuss.

Who cares if these facts are wrong?  As long as people are talking about your company, they are talking about your company.  

This week, Americans were greeted by another historically inaccurate advertisementThe cover (I use the term advertisement to accurately describe its intended use) of Rolling Stone features a nude, partially exposed Julia Louis-Dreyfus with the Constitution preamble printed on her back, below which bears the signature of John Hancock, the largest autograph on the Declaration of Independence.  In short, Rolling Stone, you have the right era but the wrong document.  Hancock signed his name large so that George III could read it, and thereby ensured his fame, but he did not attend the Constitutional Convention, where that document was drafted. Constitution it was not. Declaration it was.

But no matter. Nudity, controversy, and virality are a tough match for history.   After all, as Groupon.com taught us earlier this year, Alexander Hamilton was a President of the United States.  An advertisement that company put out for Presidents Day identified him as such, and people who use and do not use Groupon, including this writer, were talking about it for days. Never mind that Hamilton never held this position.  He served as George Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury and though rumors abounded of his tinkering with American presidential politics, he never even ran for the position.

In both these cases, the story, replete with moral outrage from the Twitter-sphere, went viral, generating the desired attention.

These inaccuracies are likely (successful) publicity stunts.  How can a large company, with writers, editors, and consultants, make such a mistake, when there are so many layers of proofing and checking and re-checking?  Probably it could not.  Requests for comment elicit generally tongue in cheek responses, such as Dreyfus’s tweet that she was “in a drunken stupor,” a reference to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

Groupon later dropped the pretense.  ”Most Presidents’ Day promotions make people fall asleep, so we wanted to do something different that was in line with our brand and sense of humor that got people talking and writing about Groupon,” a spokesperson wrote in an email to the Chicago Tribune.  It was funny, but was the joke on us?

The consequences of such an “error” must seem minuscule to a company in comparison to the benefits of water cooler gossip and thousands of links to your site.  Who cares really?  Most Americans grasp on the intricacies of history is weak anyway.  With this being the case, how many people talking about the story will care that John Hancock’s signature is below the wrong document?  In 2007, a US Mint poll showed that only 7 percent of those surveyed could name the first four Presidents in order. A later poll by Marist was not more encouraging. Misleading ads, whether intentional or otherwise, do not help clarify the collective confusion.

And you, reader, who might be tempted to form an opinion about this “controversy,” do you know John Hancock?  Here are 5 things you might not have known about our former “President”.

- Yes, he was a President but not of the United States.  Hancock was President of the Continental Congress and also the Marine Board (see image for proof) during much of the Revolutionary War;

- Hancock was a wealthy shipping merchant in the colonies, in fact one of the wealthiest men in America.  He had much to lose by openly advocating independence;

- Like Mitt Romney, he was Governor of Massachusetts (twice);

- One of his closest friends, Samuel Adams, was also a Massachusetts Governor.  These two men were hated by the British crown more than most, and a special bounty was placed on their heads.  Had the colonists lost, they surely would have been first to the firing squad;

-  Hancock was not only the largest signer on the Declaration of Independence. He was the first.

But these are just facts.  Now let’s all talk about Rolling Stone’s new cover.  There’s a half naked famous person and she’s got the Constitution on her back.  And below that is the most famous signature in American history: John Hancock.  Tell your friends…

 
 

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