Saturday, October 10, 2009


How far can a dog run into the woods? was a favorite question of the American marketing professor and beer industry consultant, Robert Weinberg. “Halfway!” Weinberg liked to shout when his students couldn’t come up with the answer fast enough to please him. “Because then the dog is running out of the woods.”

To Weinberg, the dog represented a brand and the running was to illustrate that overexposure to the public isn’t in the brand’s best interest. If the brand becomes too ubiquitous, argued Weinberg, the result is public resentment.

Lately, I’ve been feeling that way about the singer, Ines. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m her fan. I think she’s beautiful, sexy, talented, and she’s probably a great ambassador for Estonia. But lately I’ve tired of seeing her. I open any magazine, turn on any TV channel, and there’s Ines, telling me why she helps deaf kids, why she doesn’t ride a bicycle in the city, why she works out at My Fitness or uses Sensodyne toothpaste (though the last could have been another omnipresent Estonian celebrity). No offense intended, Ines. I love you. But you’re running out of the woods.

Which is one reason I stick to writing. So far, I’ve avoided broadcast media, even though some of the appearance invitations are tempting and come from legitimate Estonian Public Broadcasting programs. A few television appearances probably wouldn’t put me in danger of being asked to talk on camera to a yeti doctor about the importance of dental hygiene, but I’m not taking any chances. (Although in case they pay handsomely, I’ve memorized the lines: I consider regular dental checkups and brushing twice a day to be of critical importance…)

Another reason I’ve tried to steer clear of broadcast media is that being witty on the page doesn’t necessarily mean you can be witty on TV. “Oh, it’s not at all a problem,” said one show host in an attempt to reassure me, “you’re great on the phone. You’ll be great on the air.” But I wouldn’t be great. I’d sweat enough under my armpits and between my toes that at best the studio would flood, and at worst I’d get an offer to do advertising for an antiperspirant (I consider the use of antiperspirant to be of critical importance...).

What I’ve come to understand is that in a small country the need for celebrities is no less than in a big country. The difference is that in a small country, to feed the media machine it’s necessary to operate under the assumption that if you do one media you can do them all. To me, this is like the Estonian Olympic Committee asking tennis-wonder Kaia Kanepi to fill a slot on the Olympic Greco Roman wrestling team, just because she’s an athlete and happens to be in Beijing. For better or worse, I simply don’t have the talent to be a television personality. I talk through my nose, and my thoughts tend to wander and return home after long periods of time—not exactly a skill TV producers are lining up to get.

The issue of my questionable talent aside, I’ve never been comfortable with broadcast media, especially television. The makeup you have to wear gives me a rash, and there is also the inevitable presence of other guests. Should the other guests include Barney the Dinosaur and not Toomas Hendrik Ilves, this has obvious consequences for one’s self-esteem. I once watched an episode of Terevisioon where a guest was interviewed about Estonian national security while an actor in a purple animal suit danced and played in the background. “If I were that guest,” I told my wife Liina, “I’d run over there and beat the shit out of that animal.” Liina replied that that wasn’t the Estonian way. “Okay,” I said, “walk over there and beat the shit out of that animal.” Liina just sneered and said I had a lot of learning to do.

I’m also not the most photogenic guy around. I’m not ugly, but I’ve never suffered from too much beauty, either, and I don’t want to be one of those pain-in-the-ass prima donnas who goes on TV and demands to be lit from the left side or, like I’ve heard Michael Jackson used to demand, requires a bathtub filled with Evian water in his dressing room.

And my Estonian language, which isn’t great to begin with, gets noticeably worse on television. My already strange accent gets even stranger. The few times I’ve tried television and later watched myself, I thought I came off sounding like an idiot. Liina has suggested it has nothing to do with the language.

Finally, in a land of so few television channels, I admit I live in fear that accepting one offer would pave the way to becoming a cheap media whore, the kind of guy who’ll do anything to see his own face on television. “Oh, get Vello,” producers might come to say. “He’ll do anything.” No disrespect intended, but deep inside my DNA I don’t have that gene which pulls me to fame like a moth to the light or a Tarand family member to a gameshow.

Part of what I have against the media in general (print included) is that all of us who participate in it are, to some degree, guilty of feeding the bullshit machine. Even the biggest media with the biggest budgets are not exempt from this trap, and despite CNN’s efforts, they’ve been only somewhat more successful at filling time than even Estonia’s worst television station. Regardless of what anyone says, there is simply not enough real news to fill a 24-hour broadcast, and the CNN “professionals” end up filling the air with so much nonsense, idiots with uninformed opinions, and blatant self-promotion, that I refuse to have it in the home. When I travel, I challenge myself by turning it on in the hotel room to see how long I can endure. Seven minutes is my current record, except for September 11th, 2001, one of the few times in modern history when there simply was no substitute for television.

Writers have other advantages which television personalities don’t. Working on the page gives us time to think about what we want to say and how we say it. If I want to play with a sentence and restructure it a dozen times, I’m only wasting my own time, and no guests sit around quietly suffering. (The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler once tried a “watch me write” live internet broadcast, though most people I know who tuned in soon tuned out in complete disgust, and Butler was promptly awarded the nickname, Robert Olen Butthole.)

You may think I’m taking myself too seriously and perhaps you’d be right. Going on television would give me something new to write about and it would “extend the Vikerkaar brand” (as a friend in marketing tells me I should do), and it might bring opportunities to earn money beyond writing. I myself don’t use Sensodyne (I’m a Blend-a-med man), but I do use Gillette products, and I like Snickers candy bars, A. le Coq beer, and Lay’s potato chips. Might there be a hairy man in a white jacket out there to interview me about my grooming- or junk food habits?

But I doubt I’m in danger of running out of the woods anytime soon. According to Liina, I’ve had my nose up against the first tree I saw for quite some time, examining the bark in great detail and writing essays which speculate about why the ants I see move the way they do.

Read this in Estonian in Postimees.