Oh Baby! Buzzing About Shiloh Pics

So what does a publisher get when the editors choose to purchase an "exclusive" piece of content? How about when it's baby pictures and the price tag is several million dollars? From a marketing perspective, People Magazine in the U.S., Hello! in the U.K., and New Idea in Australia invested to secure the rights to Shiloh Nouvel Jolie-Pitt's baby pictures in order to build tremendous buzz. Sure, print copies of People Magazine jumped off shelves, generating revenue. But enough to pay the tab for the rights to be the first to show the world Shiloh's plump baby lips? Probably not.

These bidding wars remind me of Golden Palace Casino's remarkable efforts to snap up all kinds of weird and wonderful stuff on eBay for promotional purposes. The online casino is the proud owner of dozens of offbeat knickknacks such as Jerry Garcia's personal commode, Pete Rose's corked baseball bat, and the Virgin Mary grilled cheese sandwich. The marketers at Golden Palace also grab unusual advertising such as, ahem, a woman's cleavage, the opportunity to tattoo a logo on someone's forehead, and billboard space on the back of someone's wheelchair. This and other offbeat stuff, all purchased on eBay, trigger tons of viral marketing buzz for Golden Palace. When they nabbed Shatner's kidney stone, for example, it seemed like every media outlet reported on the sale. (Great headline: "Shatner Passes Kidney Stone to GoldenPalace.com.") Despite chuckles, each story referenced Golden Palace Casino. At a mere $25,000, this foray into places no man has gone before was the marketing and advertising bargain of the century. Kudos to Shatner, too, who got his name plastered all over the place (and donated the cash to Habitat for Humanity).

I'm no copyright attorney, so I'm not in a position to comment on the legalities of what exclusive rights to Shiloh's baby photo actually comprised. But as a marketer, I watched as the People Magazine name appeared everywhere for a few days upon publication. On the cover of the USA Today delivered to my hotel room on June 8 was a thumbnail photo of the People cover (including the Shiloh picture) with the following two captions: "Jolie-Pitt baby pics unveiled" And "People gets photos after a fierce bidding war, will increase price for the magazine's issue out Friday."

The mad scramble to gain exclusive rights should be seen, in my marketing mind, as an effort to get the name People Magazine out there in a big way. For people who care about the celebrity scene, the magazine that "wins" this kind of bidding primarily wins recognition that "our publication is the biggest player;" revenue is secondary. So it strikes me as odd that the legal eagles at Time, Inc. tried to stifle the buzz and get bloggers to remove the images.

Gawker had a wonderful post called "The Battle of Shiloh" that included text of letters flying back and forth between Gawker and Time, Inc. lawyers. Gawker said, "within an hour of this morning's posting" of the baby photo, it received a letter from Nick Jollymore, deputy general counsel for Time Inc. "Gawker's posting of the Hello! Magazine cover with Angelina Jolie and Bradd [sic] Pitt is an infringement of Time Inc.'s exclusive rights to that photograph," the letter said.

I'm a big believer in copyright law and its protections. As a book author and magazine writer, I want my work read in the proper ways that ensures payment for my publishers and myself. I lived in Hong Kong for several years and have seen the other extreme: "Psst, hey mister, wanna buy copy Microsoft Office? $25 bucks! Good deal." I do the right thing, like using iTunes instead of pirate download systems.

I'm just confused about the Shiloh photos. Among those who care about celebrity offspring, this was one of the most anticipated events in some time—two beautiful actors breed. Adding to the appeal, the baby was born in Namibia. The public wants to see. People ran the photos first. And because it is an event in itself, other publications such as USA Today, Gawker, and the Boston Globe ran thumbnail size images as soon as they could. So why block the viral marketing buzz of the photos?

A few weeks later, Gawker ran an online poll. The question was "Did you buy the Shiloh issue of People?" 15.9% (500 votes) clicked "Yes, and I had it laminated." 84.1% (2652 votes) clicked "No, I hate cute babies." What a buzz-kill.