As Dave Weigel reports in a tart blog post today, conservative author and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza recently managed to pull off an impressive marketing feat.


Conservative commentator and best-selling author Dinesh D’Souza. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

D’Souza and his lawyers claimed that despite the hit status of his new book and movie, “America,” Google was deliberately downgrading the project in its search results and Costco had removed the book from shelves for politically motivated reasons. The result? Google bumped “America” up in the rankings and Costco restocked the book.

Of course, as Weigel explains, “D’Souza’s book, like his movie [which made $2.75 million in its first weekend], is no runaway hit. According to Nielsen’s Bookscan, which tracks sales, D’Souza’s latest has sold 23,000 copies. That’s not bad — my publisher would call it a win if my upcoming book sold that much in a month — but it’s 139,000 fewer copies than Ben Carson’s latest, ‘One Nation,’ has sold.”

D’Souza can get away with this not just because claims of political oppression work – neither Google nor Costco wants to be on the receiving end of conspiracy theorizing – but because it has become increasingly hard to define what constitutes a hit in any area of pop culture.

It is one thing to say that a monster blockbuster like “Avatar” or an absolute runaway best-seller like “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a hit. It is quite another to figure out where the border lies between hit and modest success.

Movies like the kaiju spectacle “Pacific Rim” that underwhelm in the United States can blossom at the international box office. Bulk purchasing can vaunt a book onto bestseller lists, giving it the appearance of widespread cultural impact. And in television, the cratering of broadcast network ratings has created new and lower standards for success, while the rise of outlets like Netflix that can declare a show a hit without revealing how many people watched it at all has created considerable confusion.

For entertainment industry executives, these vexed circumstances make doing business difficult, whether you are trying to figure out which mix of content to green-light, or trying to make the case for your relative reach to advertisers. FX president John Landgraf told television critics at the summer press tour two years ago that we ought to demand some sort of numbers from Netflix and Amazon that we could use to compare the apples and oranges of serialized storytelling. Other executives have taken up the call.

But in the past week, D’Souza’s conduct has given us a vivid illustration of why the rest of us ought to care about whether or not a television show, movie or book counts as a hit. Combining claims of political persecution with assertions of cultural influence turns out to be a powerful way to get large corporations to give you the tools, including shelf space and search rankings, that can help you make that sham influence real.

One way to stop this sort of action would be to cast a gimlet eye when people with every interest in gaining publicity start claiming martyrdom. But another would be to try to figure out, even in a shifting, multi-platform environment, what is genuinely a phenomenon, and what executives and creators merely wish counted as a hit.

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.