The era of instant fame

Many of us make decisions all day long, most of which will forever dwell in obscurity, but any one of them could suddenly light up the internet


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In 1973, John Z. DeLorean left GM to form his own car company. He had risen from poverty to the pinnacle with one success after another. He transformed the Pontiac division from producing boring cars to sporty cars like the GTO, Firebird and Grand Prix. He became quite famous and very popular, a celebrity hobnobbing with the world’s glitterati.

Although he knew automotive manufacturing, starting a new company took a lot more than he envisioned. He didn’t have cars for sale until 1981 – a very costly series of delays. The DeLorean, as the car was called (it’s the car featured in the movie, “Back to The Future”), was a stylish sports car with gullwing doors.

Unfortunately, it did not sell as well as he had hoped, and the company sank deeper and deeper into debt. By 1982, DeLorean was desperate and needed to raise cash immediately. He got involved in a cocaine deal, and was arrested. The company collapsed right after.

He had some really good lawyers, who used an entrapment defense and got him off, but everybody knew he was guilty. He went from being an admired icon to a disgusting pariah overnight. Life magazine did an article on him, and his then-wife, Cristina Ferrare, explained how they had lost all their friends, even the long-term ones, many of whom were celebrities. “They won’t even take or return our calls!”

Throughout his career, DeLorean had done a lot of things right, but all it takes is one big mistake like this one.

On May 28, a 3-year-old boy somehow got into the gorilla cage at the Cincinnati Zoo. The 450-pound gorilla, Harambe, seemed fascinated with his new toy and started playing with him, to everyone’s horror. Zoo officials shot and killed the gorilla to save the boy. They claimed tranquilizing the animal was not an option because it takes too long, and even an accidental tap from the gorilla could have killed the boy.

Years ago, most of us would never have heard of this unless we lived there. It would have been local news, but almost immediately cyberspace lit up, not just with the story, but with the criticism. 

The zookeepers may never have wanted to become famous or infamous, but it happened anyway. The animal rights groups showed no mercy, and of course the parents of the little boy were investigated, but no charges were brought.

Target department stores, Barnes & Noble and other retailers recently announced gender neutral washrooms in support of transgender people. And cyberspace lit up again. Some people support it while others are calling for a boycott. I can’t help but wonder if the marketing folks at these establishments are more than a little worried.

In the case of DeLorean, he was already famous when he got into trouble. He was newsworthy, front-page material, and the media carried the story very prominently right through its conclusion. DeLorean had nowhere to hide. He lost his company and most of his assets, eventually declaring bankruptcy.

What’s different today is that, with platforms like Twitter and other social media, any of us can become instantly famous, and we don’t even have to do anything wrong. Just do something that upsets someone with a following and the rest is history.

If you do something really good, this could actually be quite beneficial. Unfortunately, the bad stuff tends to get a lot more publicity than the good stuff.

Even good decisions can be misconstrued. Andrew Carnegie emigrated to this country as a penniless Scotsman. He became one of the richest men in the world by making steel.

If you’ve never been in a steel mill, it’s not a pleasant place to work. Even so, there was no shortage of workers as the wages drew people from the farms and other jobs. Carnegie added profit-sharing to make things even better for them. I remember seeing a documentary that accused him of reducing wages during hard times. He didn’t reduce wages, but when his profits disappeared, there were no profits to share. Somehow that never made it into the documentary.

Many of us make decisions all day long, most of which will forever dwell in obscurity. Even so, we need to be aware that any one of these could suddenly light up the Internet. 

In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “Whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching.”  

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or RonBourque3@gmail.com.

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