Raises Consumer Pulse

The voice crackling over the computer speakers sounds like it belongs to an older man. "I'm just amazed at hearing something like this in today's America," he says, hesitant, sounding genuinely mystified. "I would really encourage the folks listening to this to read the Gospel, and wonder why you'd start a company like this. Folks like us pray for folks like you."

It's among the least vitriolic responses to Andrew Novick and his website, which boasts an entire section devoted to hate mail. A sampling of the less compassionate voicemail missives:

"Why don't you guys just kill yourselves and put each other out of business?"

"You guys are sick."

"You people are losers. You're all gonna go to hell."

Those critics have failed to shut down the site (although other callers have threatened to report the venture to the Better Business Bureau). In fact, Killyourself, Inc. will launch a revamped version of the site this week. The Denver-based company, which sells T-shirts and bumper stickers, will expand its product line to include watches and other themed paraphernalia. It's hardly a retreat for the company once accused of "selling suicide to teenagers."

Logical/Illogical Conclusion

Novick seems bemused by the response his site's message provokes. At a local restaurant, the '92 University of Colorado engineering school grad sports a tattered T-shirt, shorts and huge, thick glasses with black frames. He's affable, slightly geeky, and apparently unfazed by the ill-tempered backlash engendered by the Kill Yourself campaign. Novick doesn't seem bitter or hardened, just amused at how upset people can get over a website and some T-shirts.

In fact, it was a T-shirt that launched Novick's venture in the early 1990s. "The origination of the idea came from my partner and I discussing 'Kill Your Television' campaign stickers," he recalls. "We didn't know who it was, but we just found that to be so offensive. We got to talking about it, and about how advertising, the media, everyone, is just projecting their morals, their demands, their ideas, their marketing ploys out at people. Now if you said, 'I killed my television,' then fine, then you're projecting something about yourself. But as soon as you start trying to tell other people what to do, to me that's when it gets offensive."

So Novick and his friend, co-founder Kent Roper, decided to launch a counteroffensive. Every day we're bombarded by images telling us what to do, and it seems to work: We eat at McDonald's, wear Tommy Hilfiger and, if we still have enough energy after all of that consumption, we Just Do It. To Novick and his friend, an obvious question arose: Will people really do anything a T-shirt tells them to? "To us, it was just taking things to their logical/illogical conclusion," he says.

Novick and Roper printed up T-shirts and small stickers for themselves and a few friends. The idea was to shake people out of their media-saturated consumption-zombie state. Says Novick, "If people see the shirt, they say, 'Well, I'm not going to kill myself. What are you trying to do?' That's the reaction. Well, at least they realize that they've just been told to do something. Someone just told them to do something that they're not going to do. It's just a first step in the healing process of complacency in society."

The first stage of their anti-apathy crusade was a stickering campaign. "The stickers were black on clear, pretty small. So we'd just put them all around. Just kind of a pseudo-subliminal message. It's just funny, the lengths to which people would go to remove them. They'd be scratched out and scraped off. People really worked to remove them."

When they first made the shirts, Novick and his partner didn't have any entrepreneurial designs. But soon, they found themselves beset by a completely unsolicited demand: "Some people really liked it. They found it humorous or witty. We just made them for ourselves, and then people would ask, 'Where can I get those?' So we started selling them."

There are layers of irony here. The "Kill Your Television" T-shirt that spurred Novick's sarcastic response was itself a cry to arms against the very thing Novick decries: the power of media to tell you what to do and what to believe particularly when ownership of the almighty media is concentrated in the hands of three or four outrageously powerful companies. So a couple of engineering grads with too much time on their hands crank out some T-shirts and stickers in a think-for-yourself protest of a think-for-yourself message. And the tees sell like hotcakes, bought mostly by kids who don't think much about media or messages. They just think, you know, that it's funny.

Throwing Raw Meat

Referential, often infuriating entertainment was nothing new to Novick; at the time Killyourself began to take off, he and his friends had just closed shop on a successful local band called the Warlock Pinchers. The basic premise behind the band, he explains excitedly, was to make people mad. And luckily for him, getting people into a self-righteous stir wasn't too difficult. As Novick remembers, "Most of our songs were about people we hated. You know, James Dean, Morrissey, Gary Coleman well, I kind of like Gary Coleman, but we were making fun of him Alan Alda, Jerry Garcia."

The Pinchers made fun of everybody; their favorite target was Tiffany. "We did very few covers, but one of them was of 'I Think We're Alone Now,' except it was called, 'I Think We're Tiffany.' It was all about being Tiffany and dressing up like her."

This was no ordinary tongue-in-cheek parody. It bordered on obsession. The band's stage props included a giant Tiffany head that shot fireworks out of its eyes. Novick and his friends issued a bogus press release claiming that the band was being sued by Tiffany, which Novick says the local media gobbled up (it finally fell apart when some less-lazy-than-average reporter went to the effort of calling Tiffany's management company, which had never heard of the Warlock Pinchers). Straight-faced, the band blamed the snafu on "our manager, Wil Wheaton" the actor then best known as the child lead of Stand By Me.

The Pinchers disbanded in 1992, when Novick says the band had about peaked in terms of popularity. Sales of the band's records have actually not changed much since their heyday eight years ago, thanks in part to Napster, where their music is still quite popular.

Virtual Something

With their band days behind them, Novick and Roper had time for a new project. When demand for their hara-kiri products spiked, they pooled funds and incorporated Killyourself. By this time, in early 1996, another huge player was gaining acceptance and popularity on the media landscape: the World Wide Web.

For the two new executives, the web offered some exciting possibilities. "When the web stuff started happening, you wouldn't believe that if you typed something into a search engine, your page comes up. Then you get all these ideas. The possibility for exposure is just huge," says Novick. Soon, Killyourself, Inc. became

The website did deliver incredible exposure and a bevy of angry calls from parents, many of whom ordered him to remove their children's names from his mailing list. Novick honors those requests, but he doesn't believe his site is the nihilistic influence his detractors claim. "It's very easy to blame T-shirts and catalogs," he says. "To me, if I had kids, I think you've got to expose kids to certain things and talk to them about it. If your kid gets this catalog, why don't you discuss it with him? Ask him, 'What do you think about suicide?' Instead of just getting all irate about it and shielding him from reality."

In fact, Novick says he makes an effort to talk to the people most offended by his site. "I actually talked to this woman who had intercepted the catalog that her son had ordered. We talked for 45 minutes and had a great conversation. By the end of it, she said she was going to talk to her son about the catalog, and what he thought about it."

But not every run-in with critics has gone so well. Last year, a local television news affiliate launched an "investigative report" (the investigation in this case consisted of calling the number on the catalog and asking for an interview with the eager Novick, who thought a story on the nightly news might be good for business). "When they came out and talked to us, Cathy Hazouri and the cameraman were really cool," Novick recalls. "They laughed at our merchandise and the catalog. She asked me who we sold our stuff to, and I said that I didn't know, because we don't collect demographic information, but if I had to guess I'd say it was probably people in their late teens and 20s."

Novick had a bad feeling when ads for the feature appeared in the newspaper: "Selling suicide to teens?" Angry talking heads vigorously denounced Novick and his icky postmodern sense of humor. The reporters interviewed parents and psychologists, who confirmed that yes, telling emotionally fragile people to kill themselves is a bad thing. Novick can see the humor in the report: In some ways, there's nothing funnier than people who don't get an elaborate joke. And a helmet-haired talking head makes for a great straight-man.

But there's also a little bit of frustration that people think he really wants to encourage what he calls "the most personal decision you could ever make.", he insists, is not at all about suicide.

But people seeing the site for the first time, without knowing Novick or his history, can be forgiven if they don't get the joke. Most people aren't that media-savvy anyway, and not everyone shares Novick's macabre sense of humor. The site doesn't do anything to accommodate these folks. Nowhere is there posted a summary of the founders' geeky, ironic take on media. And there are plenty of people out there who might make a similar contribution to cyber-culture with a straight face. The site does little to draw attention to its ironic nature the most prominent decoration is a logo featuring a razor blade, a pistol and a swinging noose but, of course, it is irony. Nothing kills a joke like an explanation. Novick doesn't think his subject matter's emotional resonance should make it a sacred cow. Like any other byproduct of human activity, suicide should be open for discussion. "Suicide is a horrible thing," Novick says. "Nobody would subscribe to it. But it happens. It's part of society, just like murder, or presidential election years."

Big Business

Meanwhile, he's busy working on expanding his little corner of counterculture, lining up deals with T-shirt manufactures and merchandise distributors. The new site rolls out this week, and Killyourself's founder expects a flood of orders. There's also a new development: For the first time, the company's reach might extend beyond the shadowy realms of the catalog-and-online order world. "We're also talking about distribution in chain stores. If you had asked me that five years ago, I would have said, 'There's not even a chance.' I wouldn't even ask them. But there seems to be some interest there," Novick says. In a rare moment, Novick actually seems discomfited. "That's a whole 'nother weird thing, the shock value. Everything is kind of being accepted now, kids wearing all sorts of crazy stuff. I find it shocking myself. I don't know how I feel about that."

There's nothing like a real mass-marketing campaign to suck the authenticity not to mention the intelligence out of a message.

Novick shrugs. "It's worth a try. We'll see what happens."

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