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'Harry' and hype

Is 'Potter' phenomenon symbolic of our emptiness, a really good read, or both?

Harry Potter fans rushed counters at bookstores nationwide last week after the much-hyped release of the fourth book in the series  

July 13, 2000
Web posted at: 5:55 p.m. EDT (2155 GMT)

In this story:

'A tribal sense of belonging'

'People do feel hollow'

Thrill seeking with Harry?

Promoting the trend

Good read, bad read

Which Harry school?


(CNN) -- Sure, the "Harry Potter" series by author J.K. Rowling has many positive points.

Among the most popular: Anything that gets kids to choose reading over violent video games must be a good thing. For that matter, anything that pulls adults away from the lobotomy of reality-television must be a good thing, too.

Is hype harmless?

Yes, it's a mindless diversion
No, it's symptomatic of our marketing-obsessed society
View Results
How well do you know your Harry Potter basics? Try your hand at this quiz

But the way in which fans -- young and old -- responded to the marketing of the release of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" this past weekend is certainly, at the very least, a statement on our hype-obsessed times.

The marketers built it, and the buyers came in force, lining up at midnight to be among the first muggles on their block to know the ending to book four in the seven-part series. In fact, as the "Harry Potter" release date drew closer, for many people it became less about buying a new book and more about being a part of something much bigger, an Event That Will Be Remembered.

"Is it dumb?" asks Dr. Alan Entin, president of the media psychology division of the American Psychological Association. "Sure, it's dumb. But they line up for records, too. So it's no more dumb than that.

"It's just sort of the eagerness and the thrill of the new, the adventure, the hunt. People want to say, 'I got mine!'"

'A tribal sense of belonging'

It's not the first time people have caught the man-made wave of media hype and trends. As W.H. Auden wrote, "What the mass media offer is not popular art, but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish."

"The Blair Witch Project"
The incredible success of "The Blair Witch Project" was partly due to clever marketing and hype  

But the advent of the Internet seems to have broadbanded the speed with which we cycle and recycle our media trends. From grunge music to "The Blair Witch Project," this past decade of high-speed information access has allowed streams of hype and buzz to create a river of all-the-rages. And nothing is sacred; even the old is new (witness the comeback of swing).

Much of it is directed at young people: Beanie Babies, Pokemon, Teletubbies, boy bands, coming-of-age pop queens. But adults are also guilty of buying into the latest new media thing. Witness Microsoft's Windows 95 frenzy, the brief Tom Wolfe "A Man in Full" era, and our obsessions with TV shows like "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" and "Survivor."

There's a never-ending supply of media for our choosing, and we not only want to own the popular forms, but base some part of its identity on it, according to Dr. David Murray, director of the Washington-based organization STATS, which monitors scientific and social research in media.

"We want the tribal sense of belonging," says Murray. "We get it through products we share."

'People do feel hollow'

But with all Big Hypes comes the Big Backlash, and there are grumblings from outside Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry about the possible negative connotations of our response to this whole "Harry Potter" thing.

Issues of "Harry-as-Satan" thrown aside, the real question is, why do we become consumed with the latest trend? What happened to individuality? And in this particular case, how can reading en masse the adventures of a fictional 14-year-old wizard-in-training bring us satisfaction in our all-too-real lives?

According to Murray, we buy into hype hoping to give meaning to our own existence here.

"People are hungry for stimulus from something external to provide validation to them, that they matter, that the times they live in are meaningful," he says. "Who wants to think it's old humdrum everyday, nothing's going to change, my time isn't very important, my life isn't very important? Let me go buy a toy, let me get excited about the new movie, let me be fashionable, let me be current."

Entin agrees.

"People do feel hollow and a lot of anxiety and then they project it outwards and they want to focus on something external," he says. "People focus outwardly because there's nothing inside and they become anxious about that."

Thrill seeking with Harry?

Even more, people use trends or objects of hype to mark time, according to Murray. An example: NBC's "Dateline" offers a trivia question each show allowing viewers to guess the year that certain events took place, with historical happenings placed alongside pop culture flashes. In other words, when we hear a song or see an old movie, we can identify it with a place in our existence as much as we can an actual event.

When "Dateline" recalls the year 2000, they might say, "It was the year 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire' stole our hearts, CBS's 'Survivor' stole TV ratings, and scientists sequenced the human genome."

Windows 95
Five years ago the release of a computer operating system became a can't-miss event  

"Trends are markers on an otherwise empty sea that looks rather bleak in any direction," says Murray. "We don't know where we're going, we're not navigating very well, but, yeah, there was the hula-hoop and then there was Pokemon. We're getting some markers out there. We can tell we're making progress."

If Murray's vision sounds depressing, Entin offers another view. He says most of us live highly predictable lives -- We work or go to school during the week, get other things done on the weekends, maybe even enjoy ourselves a little. When the newest style of clothing or the latest movie or a hot new book comes out, we latch on to it as a way to make our lives exciting.

"In a way it's part of a thrill-seeker mentality," Entin says. "Maybe you're not going to bungee-jump or free-fall out of an airplane, but going out at midnight to get this book might be the closest you come to something like that."

Promoting the trend

Of course, the whole marketing scheme worked like a charm. Sure, "Harry Potter" fans would have bought the book no matter what (Time magazine's Paul Gray called it "the most annoying and unnecessary marketing campaign in publishing history"). But when publishers Scholastic Inc. and Bloomsbury implemented a Christmas-in-July marketing theme (Don't open until that very special day!), millions bit -- book, line, and page marker.

That includes the media, tabloid and traditional, which began covering events leading up to the release, as well as coverage of those events, and coverage of the coverage (and perspective pieces like this article).

When a newspaper "broke" the news of the book's title, it became a top story. When a little girl accidentally received an early copy of the book, she was soon an international news item.

Clearly, the media acted according to the publishers' plans. They took the marketing reigns and promoted "Harry Potter" to people who might have never thought twice about reading a kids' book.

Jim Naughton, who is director of the Poynter Institute, a media school in St. Petersburg, Florida, says the media is merely doing its job.

"I think it's natural for the media to reflect on, and as a result of that, help promote any kind of a trend," says Naughton. "Part of the media's obligation is to look for things that are of interest and trend-worthy. When we do that, we can't very well do it while putting the trend down. So it has the natural effect of feeding whatever frenzy is there."

Good read, bad read

Besides, "Harry Potter" has many positives, remember. Kids are reading.

Roy Peter Clarke, who teaches writing at Poynter and has penned his own series novel that was published by The New York Times Syndicate, has read the first three "Harry Potter" books and preordered the fourth.

"I have in my mind this image of a young person with a flashlight in bed and creating a little tent out of the bed covers and reading late into the night past his or her bedtime," says Clarke.

He believes the hype surrounding the latest Rowling release is well deserved.

"I think 'Harry Potter' ranks very high" in children's literature, he says. "I want to put it with J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. I think it's very much a part of the British story-telling tradition for children.

"It reminds me of the energy that was said to have accompanied the arrival of a Charles Dickens chapter or novel to America," he says.

Don't tell this to Harold Bloom. The famed literary critic dismantled "Harry Potter" on the PBS interview program "Charlie Rose."

"I think that's not reading because there's nothing there to be read," Bloom said on the show. "They're just an endless string of cliches. I cannot think that does anyone any good.

"That's not 'Wind in the Willows,' " he said. "That's not 'Through the Looking Glass.' ... It's really just slop."

Which Harry school?

There seems to be three prevailing schools of thought regarding "Harry Potter" hype:

  • Rowling's work is all good, and the hype surrounding it is indicative of just how important and entertaining it is. She will go down in history.

  • All the hype surrounding Harry is merely a reflection of our own insecurities. Soon, the next media trend will come along and Harry will go the way of the Rubik's Cube (perhaps including its retro comeback).

  • Who cares?

  • Certainly, the next "Harry Potter" will bring more hype, and more debate.

    "We all want to bask in the reflected glow of media-dom and celebrity-dom," says Entin. "And we think having the latest 'Harry Potter' book on the first day, or the equivalent, makes us special. And that's pretty empty."

    "Basically, it's a good story, but after that you've told your story. Then what? Is that all there is?"

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    July 10, 2000
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    Columbus gives direction to 'Potter'
    March 29, 2000
    Harry Potter's girl trouble
    January 13, 2000

    Scholastic: Harry Potter
    Warner Bros.: 'Harry Potter' movie Web site
    Harry Potter Web site
    The Unofficial Harry Potter Fan Club
    Random House Audio: Harry Potter

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