The financial crisis as PR tool

By Felix Salmon
July 2, 2010
The Zeroes, by Randall Lane, has a big white sticker on it: EMBARGOED, it says, until Tuesday June 29. It's all part of a big PR campaign by Lane and by his publisher, Portfolio / Penguin: the idea is that there is hot breaking news in the book, somewhere.

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There’s been an awful lot of weird and unusual PR surrounding The Zeroes, by Randall Lane. My copy has a big white sticker on it: EMBARGOED, it says, until Tuesday June 29 — as though there is hot breaking news buried somewhere in the book. (It’s definitely not in the Vanity Fair excerpt, which came and went with barely a ripple of notice.)

Lane himself maybe hit on a slightly newsier story with an excerpt at the Daily Beast, where he’s “editor-in-large”, whatever that’s supposed to mean. In an article timed to coincide with the book’s publication, Lane talks about Lenny Dykstra, who may have made some slightly sleazy deal with a small company in California:

In the late winter of 2008, an entrepreneur named Richard O’Connor, who had become Dykstra’s favored adviser, introduced him to Shannon Illingworth, the founder of a publicly traded company called Automated Vending Technologies, or AVT, and the two quickly cut a deal. O’Connor told me that on March 25, 2008, Illingworth gave Dykstra roughly $250,000 worth of AVT stock in exchange for plugging the company on Cramer’s website, TheStreet.com, and promising to provide a personal introduction to Cramer.

This is a bombshell of utterly minuscule proportions, especially since Dykstra disclosed his long position in his column. And neither Lane nor O’Connor are particularly reliable sources when it comes to these things: Lane happily admits to lots of reasons why he has an animus towards Dykstra, while O’Connor, according to Teri Buhl, owes AVT $37,569.82.

But this non-story is getting a new lease of life — even making the New York Post — thanks to a threat from AVT to sue Lane for defamation. And lo, the lawsuit has now appeared — complete with an utterly stupid claim for $100 million in damages. Here it is, from Illingworth via Buhl:

AVT vs. Lane

This is basically all bluster and bullshit, written in particularly bad legalese which doesn’t even seem to have been proofread. There’s lots of talk of “untrue and false statements” but at no point does the plaintiff, AVT, bother to actually say what those libelous statements might be, nor how they might have caused anything like $100 million in damages. (The market cap of AVT is just over $30 million, and it hasn’t moved significantly in months.)

Whenever anybody launches a substance-free lawsuit with a stupidly huge number like $100 million attached, you know that they’re mainly interested in publicity. But this is where things get weird: why would Illingworth and AVT want to give free publicity to the book they claim is libeling them? And why would they carefully time the lawsuit so that it coincides exactly with the publication of the book?

I’m sure that both sides are loving whatever extra publicity they can extract from this lawsuit and I feel a little bit sleazy adding to that publicity myself. This is one of those spats you don’t particularly want either side to win. But I guess the good news is that we’ve come through the first tranche of serious and important crisis books and now we’re seeing the second tranche, where the crisis is used as an excuse for failed hype merchants to try yet another desperate attempt at self-promotion. The sleazy and litigious side of the American Dream, it seems, is impervious to crisis. Maybe in fact it thrives on it.

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