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Monday, March 23, 2009

27: Blog it! Dag-Gummit!

Earlier today, I was trying to think of what was on my mind - a rather unusual proposition to consider because shouldn’t one already know what he or she is thinking about? Somehow my confusion about this fact, thoughts of what I wanted to add to the crockpot today, my enjoyment of the book I am reading, and my latent desire for pizza (which is inexplicably being exacerbated by whoever made popcorn in the office), brought Book It! to mind. Do you remember this?

Book It! The program that uses pizza as an incentive to get kids to get excited about reading? And not just reading, but competitive reading. Reading as much as possible to out-read other students and earn stickers for display on a giant button to signify pizza-driven accomplishment. Thinking back on this program, I can’t help but think what a crock! And I do not mean this blog! (Though perhaps I should consider t-shirts with this phrase for self-promotion, especially if pizza-based incentives for reading this blog become financially unfeasible).

Has there ever been a more ingenious use of marketing right in school classrooms? You earn a free product by performing an enriching, good-for-you academic task. Wonderful! Only a truly negligent parent would not be excited about this program and the reading regularity it inspired in his or her child. And once a school embraces this program and hangs Book It! marketing posters up in a classroom to track the race for reading glory among its students, there is no WAY a child is not going to participate. I remember my Dad hating Book It! for the exact reason it is a stroke of evil genius – it forced him to take us to Pizza Hut.

What was he going to do, say, “No, we cannot go collect your reward for academic performance that everyone else in your class gets to do,”? He could not very easily, though he could accurately have argued that Book It! was a ploy rewarding students for something they should already be doing anyway to force parents to buy themselves pizza while their children ate free tiny pizzas. Nor could he very easily impugn the honor system that was, by my memory, the only thing used to confirm that books had been read by anyone at all. Clearly, we would not be fudging our book numbers as the good honest kids he was raising us to be, but really, anyone could were they so inclined to have an end to trips for free pizza, bring into question the integrity of this “reading competition” on the whole. Logic was no salve for fifth grade disappointment. My parents had no choice but to be supportive.
Ah the curse of procreation.

Once my brothers and I had read enough books to qualify for a personal pan pizza of literary greatness (and pepperoni, if so desired), the five of us would head for the nearest Pizza Hut, cram into a booth, and watch my parents try to accurately guess how much pizza should be begrudgingly purchased, and whether getting pop by the pitcher rather than the cup was a better value (and whether the monetary savings were outweighed by the negative impact of dinner-time Pepsi on our sleep, our teeth, our young bones). Even as we were congratulated by the waitress for being such great readers, we could not help but notice the wincing that accompanied the orders our parents made, “We’ll take two [wince] large pizzas, one pepperoni, one supreme, and a pitcher of orange Slice. Does that come with free refills? [wince].” Here they were, watching their children’s eyes light up at being given a treat for academic accomplishment while they themselves were spending money it pained them to part with as they’d surely rather squirrel it away for the future college education of these children, who would only get there if they maintained their interest in, and enthusiasm for, academic accomplishment – like this pizza program inspired.
What a sadistic marketeer the Book It! creator must have been! And what a genius. You simply cannot say no.

I do not think the thing that my parents found most galling about these Pizza Hut trips was the cost itself, actually, as back in the day Pizza Hut did have some pretty good deals where buying multiple pizzas worked in the diners’ monetary favor. The thing I know my dad hated most was the pizza itself. His main problem with Pizza Hut was that it was Pizza Hut. This was also unfathomable to our young minds, who had yet to develop taste buds sophisticated enough to recognize when something was so overly processed and artificially butter-injected that you should only be consuming it if you REALLY have the hankering for it or are egregiously hungover. For us it was WAY better than any of those square meals mom was servin’ up. No room for vegetables on that plate! The personal pan pizza was a kingdom of goodness unto ourselves. No sharing. No nutrition. No problems.

Poor Mom and Dad.

And even as I write this, the memory of the joy in the artificially butter-injected crust in each pizza hut pizza slice makes me kind of want to look for the closest giant red roof in L.A. and head in for a pan pizza of my own. (Maybe the jukebox would still have “Electric Blue”! ref day 3).

When I went a googlin’ to see if I could find a Book It! image that would speak loud and clear to the weighty emotional significance of the Book It! program, I was shocked to find that it was still going strong! Book It! 2009-2010 is ready to roll out to a school near you! How has the overall marketing-ness of this program as a means to sell pizzas not yet outweighed the benefits of reading? And really, I know I did read more during the program, but I don’t think the pizza incentive is what had the most impact on my lifelong reading habits (which again, are terrible, given my love of television).

Also, not to be a nancy-no-pizza or anything, but aren’t we looking for ways to combat the childhood obesity epidemic that is sweeping the nation faster than the P’Zone by delivery (order two and get a free 20 oz. Pepsi)? Is not-so-good-for-you food the best way to get kids to care about reading? Is there any way we can encourage activities that inspire both healthy lifestyle AND academic habits? (This is so daunting a task, actually, that a good bit of grant money is awarded to people each year who claim that they can do just that).

Now, mind you, I still bribe myself with cookies as a matter of habit, so let me be the first one to throw a pizza box at my outrage to knock me off of my high horse. I’m just shocked that Book It! has survived! And that its utility for education versus its utility to Pizza Hut is a relationship that has not been identified and studied by enough people that the program would cease to exist. It seems like it should be a leftover by now. Do you want a to-go box for that?

My family always did.

So when I looked around on the Pizza Hut Book It! program web site, I noticed a section for those who used to read. They even have found a way to exploit the nostalgia of Book It! for those who stumble onto their site. If you buy a t-shirt proclaiming your love of the old Book It! and your sentimental attachment to things of childhoods passed (again, I’m not above these feelings, I would wear one of these t-shirts were I given one for free), the Book It! program will donate a book to current students.

Spreading the gospel of reading in shirt and deed – Pizza Hut truly is, makin’ it great! The marketing genius rolls on, targeting an entire generation they already know they own in sentimentality to advertise that beloved truth on their physical persons, and even now, EVEN NOW they understand that the behavior – reward model works. If you buy this t-shirt, good things happen – kids get a book, which they’ll use in Book It!, which means they too may end up with an attachment to books, pizza, and the cheese-like crumbles that came on the breadsticks. The model is reversed
get YOURSELF a treat, because you’re old enough now, you’ve put in your time, we know you know how to read – and then receive the additional reward of feeling gratified by helping others learn (to love pizza and reading together forever)!
Genius. Pure evil, fabulous, moneymaking genius. Reading pizza reading t-shirt reading pizza.
Let the circle be unbroken!

Let it instead be sliced into triangle cuts, for consumption among friends and readers be they small, medium, or large.

If I were reading this, though I would be pleased to reach the end of a Pizza Hut tirade, I would want to know what book has me so enthralled currently, so I’ll share on the off-hand chance that someone gives a crap. It’s Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie. The book focuses on the main character’s all-consuming drive toward murderous revenge (no spoilers here, the book flap says as much). For a number of reasons, including the beautiful, poetic writing of the author, the story’s amazing travels across time and place, and probably the character’s unrelenting rage, this book is really resonating with me right now. Maybe when I finish, I will send my parents a gift certificate to another pizza establishment along with an anonymous apology in the attitudes of my new favorite characters saying:
Your day to avenge the wrongs wrought upon you by the hut has come. Go. Order a medium pizza with two toppings of your choice. Yes, even the fancy ones, though I think Dad hates sun-dried tomatoes. Go forth and read the menu, the newspaper, the cereal boxes. But whatever you do read, this pizza shall be far more rewarding than those you had to endure for the sake of my academic enrichment. Know that in the critique of the adult reading and eating world, the book of Pizza Hut has been panned.


  1. isn't he padma's ex? i guess he married her for the looks, not the brains :).

    i like this blog, though i don't have any memory of book-it! i'll have to ask my mom! i want some of those tiny square ice cubes, and the free cheese sticks at benson after-hours!

  2. i prefer to think of her as his ex, because i love him and not so much her, though i think he also likes to date young hotties.
    and really, that's kind of a victory for writers everywhere.
    so funny you mentioned breadsticks bc i can like, imagine the taste of the sauce! so delicious.

  3. i couldn't make it through shalimar. i thought it was contrived. like, i get it salman, you write analogous story lines about relationships that span time and cultures... it was clever in satanic verses, but it's getting old. and i love rushdie, but that book just did not do it for me. did you know they're making midnight children into a movie?