By Nick Harris
27 October 2010
The death of an octopus called Paul in a German aquarium has triggered a global surge in news coverage that underlines the vacuity of celebrity culture, the power of anything football-related to attract coverage, and the relentless march of clever PR.
Far from being a simple cephalopod that got lucky on a 256-1 chance of predicting eight two-option outcomes in a row (matches at the 2010 World Cup), it turns out Paul was / is a publicity stunt for a global entertainment conglomerate, the Merlin Entertainments Group (MEG).
The biggest single shareholders in MEG are Blackstone (one-time favoured financiers of the former Liverpool owner, Tom Hicks), while until recently another stockholder in MEG was Dubai International Capital, former bidders for Liverpool.
Among other MEG assets, the British-based organisation owns and / or controls the Sea Life group of aquariums, one of which in Oberhausen, Germany, latterly housed Paul, who has, incidentally, already been replaced with another octopus, originally called, errm, Paul. Touching.
MEG also owns Legoland theme parks in various countries, the Madame Tussauds chain of waxwork exhibitions, amusement parks including Alton Towers, Thorpe Park and Chessington World of Adventures, and the London Eye.
Paul the Octopus, who provided colourful if inane fodder for umpteen news and broadcast organisations during the World Cup, especially those with no rights to any live action in South Africa, was also credited with predicting correct match results for Euro 2008 games. It should be stressed that, contrary to some reports, that was actually a different octopus, and that the different octopus got other results wrong, but such facts shouldn’t get in the way of a good story.
Paul – and the Oberhausen aquarium and MEG – got lucky when Paul “defied the odds” to “pick” winners this summer. Since then he has been relentlessly marketed as a brand to make cash.
Ridiculous though it seems, he did indeed have his own “agent”, Chris Davis, who did 30 media interviews yesterday, including one during a “breaking” news special on BBC TV in a segment that lasted 5 minutes and 42 seconds. That ridiculous excuse for a piece of public service broadcasting can be viewed within this link. (Second piece of video).
So how on earth did Paul the Octopus get an agent? Well Davis, who has a stable of showbiz clients that includes TV magician Paul Daniels, Daniels’ wife Debbie McGee, former Wet Wet Wet singer Marti Pellow, former Neighbours star Mark Little, and actor Ken Morley of “Corrie” fame, has done PR work in the past for MEG.
“And there was a situation where the aquarium had 200 media people asking questions per day in the summer,” he tells sportingintelligence. “And they needed someone to handle it, so I became Paul’s agent.”
Cue some truly ridiculous stories about the octopus, including one that he would record an album of Elvis songs. Chris Davis insists the quotes in the piece linked here were fabricated.
True, however, is that books have been written or are planned about Paul, as are cuddly toys, an iPhone app, and a documentary by film company Cinema Vertige. Due for release in the new year, according to the news section of the firm’s website, it’s called Tentacles of Divination (The Extraordinary Tribulations and Fabulous Destiny of Paul the Psychic Octopus, Seer of Seers).
And it’s being made in association with . . . Merlin Entertainments Group, who own Sea Life, where attendances have climbed up to fourfold on the back of Paul stories. (Octopus, not Daniels).
Davis insists that conspiracy theories about Paul’s death are nonsense and says that a Chinese film-maker Jiang Xiao was just trying to cash in on Paul’s fame by renaming an unrelated work Who Killed Paul the Octopus?
As the already oft-repeated gag goes, this story still has legs – even if nobody can predict which way they’ll go.
Chris Davis says Paul earned “hundreds of thousands” of pounds since the summer, and “was heading towards being a brand worth £1m by January”. The profits will apparently go to a turtle sanctuary in Greece.
And the hugely valuable PR will go to MEG and its firms.
Final word to Chris Davis on Paul’s career: “I ink it’s all over”.