Ryan Holiday lies for a living. Last month, in the buildup to the release of his first book, the 25-year-old marketer revealed some big ones. Over several months, Holiday had used an online service that connects journalists with sources to con his way into a variety of articles. At Manitouboats.com he offered readers tips for winterizing their boats. On MSNBC, he claimed he was sneezed on while visiting a Burger King. For one reporter from The New York Times, he was a vinyl enthusiast.
The publicity stunt, Holiday says, was designed to prove that he could get the media to “publish anything.” It was also meant as a wake-up call to show people just how vulnerable the media is to manipulation, which just happens to be the primary theme of his book Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. The world of online media, he says, is especially rotten—full of link bait, trivialities and lies pushed by people just like himself. Reading his book, the young marketer claims, is the first step to restoring it.
When he’s not pretending to be sneezed on, Holiday is the marketing strategist for American Apparel, the made-in-the-U.S.A. clothing company that has become better known for its racy ads and the sexual harassment lawsuits levied against CEO Dov Charney than its workaday T-shirts. Holiday’s other big client is Tucker Max, a writer and self-described asshole who has built a career out of recounting stories about his most hilarious blowjobs and benders.
In Trust Me, I’m Lying, Holiday claims to reveal the tricks he’s learned working for these clients. It’s being sold as a handbook to the dark art of creating buzz in an online era, and Holiday makes big promises. “It is the first time that these gaps have ever been exposed, by a critic or otherwise,” he writes. “I’m going to show you every single one of these tricks, and what they mean. What you choose to do with this information is up to you.”
One secret to getting press, involves “trading up the chain,” according to Holiday. He begins by anonymously pitching a story, rumour or lie to a small blog—some under-staffed place without the resources or inclination to do much digging. With more anonymous fanning of the flames, that post becomes the source for a story by a bigger blog, which turns into a story for a gossipy site like Gawker. Eventually, mainstream papers begin reporting, if not on the item itself, then on the controversy around it. If nothing else, the illusion of newsworthiness becomes newsworthy in its own right.
In the book’s opening chapter, Holiday describes a typical campaign—an orchestrated protest in 2009 against an upcoming movie by Tucker Max. After personally defacing billboards for the movie with anti-Max stickers, Holiday sent a tip to a local blog under a fake name. He then alerted college LGBT and women’s rights groups to screenings, encouraging them to protest. Next he bought “anti-woman ads on feminist websites,” knowing the move would garner more coverage still. The end result was, in Holiday’s eyes, a resounding success (newspapers and blogs denounced Max as a misogynist, winning the film free publicity), even if in the real world, the movie was a failure. (It was roundly panned by critics and grossed just US$1.4 million at the box office.)
For campaigns like these, the phrase “media manipulator” seems a tad self-aggrandizing. A more appropriate title for Holiday would be “troll marketer,” someone who can create publicity by baiting people into outrage. Aspiring PR workers who buy the book hoping to pick up useful tips will likely be disappointed. The biggest lesson is one they probably already know: if you work for professional cads like Dov Charney or Tucker Max, it is eminently possible to goad bloggers into calling your boss a jerk.
Once you put aside the bold marketing claims, Holiday’s book is essentially a work of media criticism. His collection of insights, spread out over 200 pages and padded with a few score-settling attacks against specific bloggers might be lightweight, but that’s not to say he’s always wrong. Holiday rightfully calls out the page-view-hungry game of blogging in which writers are forced to churn out a dozen attention-grabbing posts a day regardless of whether or not anything truly attention-grabbing is happening. It’s an economy that creates incentives for some absurd and dangerous practices: the amplification of pointless political-horse-race coverage to meet the hourly demands of political blogs; the constant pressure to be first rather than be right; the proliferation of the salacious headline with the speculative question—“Is the Obama Administration Protecting Lizards at the Expense of Jobs?”
Ultimately, Holiday wants to have it both ways. The book is simultaneously positioned as both a how-to guide for aspiring manipulators and the heartfelt confessional of a young man who has exploited the system, made himself rich but now sees the hollowness of his victory. Holiday wants you to believe he is a crusader fighting for the public good, revealing the secrets he’s learned because he’s “tired of a world where blogs take indirect bribes, marketers help write the news, reckless journalists spread lies, and no one is accountable for any of it.”
It’s hard to take Holiday’s claims of altruism seriously. After years of lying to the media, he’s suddenly shocked—shocked!—that the media is full of lies. In this way, Holiday is the guy behind the fast-food counter who horks on your hamburger and then brings it to you, outraged and incredulous. “Can you believe this place?” he cries. “There’s spit in all the hamburgers!”
In the book’s conclusion, Holiday warns readers of the dangers of using his Trust Me, I’m Lying as a mere instruction manual. “You will come to regret that choice, just as I have,” he writes soberly. Perhaps mindful of sales, he then ads that “you will also have fun, and it could make you rich.”