Lowering The Standard of British Journalism

May 30, 2018

For the few years a long time ago in the 1960s when I was a Tube-riding office worker, enduring the forty-minute commute each way, I read a lot of newspapers; my evening solace was the London Evening Standard . It was the right size for a cramped transit car, a tabloid, but with 60 or 70 pages of solid material. I read a ton of theatre, movie, and book reviews, nearly always completed the cryptic crossword, and kept in touch with sports and business. I was very fond of it, and it was one of the things I missed when I came to Canada in the 1970s.

These days, I read online a couple of British papers every day, but I haven’t looked at an online edition of the Standard for a long time. I vaguely remember being disconcerted by the appointment as the Evening Standard’s editor of George Osborne who had been Finance Minister throughout the socialism for the rich, austerity for the poor years of David Cameron’s bitter regime.  But then I forgot about it.

Until this morning that  is, when I found this incredibly detailed article confirming that Osborne’s business model for the Standard is selling PR as news for a price.  The Standard

“has agreed a £3 million deal with six leading commercial companies, including Google and Uber, promising them “money-can’t-buy” positive news and “favourable” comment coverage … The project, called London 2020, is being directed by Osborne. It effectively sweeps away the conventional ethical divide between news and advertising inside the Standard…

As part of the sales pitch at the Evening Standard’s West London offices, would-be partners were told to expect campaigns that will “generate numerous news stories, comment pieces and high-profile backers”.

London 2020 involves six “themed projects” running for two years. These include politicised initiatives on clean air, plastic pollution, schools and workplace tech and a project designed to address London’s housing crisis. The six 2020 “partners” have each paid half a million pounds to head projects that will be sold to Standard readers as “improving London for the benefit of all.”

According to one insider: “What was being offered was clear – theatrically constructed news, showing everything good being done. “

Not everyone was buying into this scheme. “Some companies, including Starbucks, walked away from the Evening Standard’s pitch, rejecting the offer of paying to boost their reputations through tailored news and comment.” Starbuck’s executive was very clear in his rejection: ”

“Buying positive news coverage is PR death…something you might do in Saudi Arabia, but not here. This wasn’t right for us. We do engage in advertorial [a hybrid mix of advertising and editorial] but that’s just marketing. We don’t need to buy our reputation.”

This is a long read, but well worthwhile.

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Grabbing Our Attention

May 6, 2018

I am usually a very fast reader, but it has taken me a few weeks to get through Tim Wu’s “The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble To Get Inside Out Heads“.  The time it took had nothing to do with lack of quality; far from it: it takes time to digest the immense amount of fascinating information that Wu packs into every illuminating page of this history of advertising and other attention-grabbing industries for the last 200 years.

To begin, Wu walks us through the invention of posters in Paris, the introduction of the New York Sun, the wily ways of Clark Stanley — the original “snake oil” medical miracle salesman — and the hugely successful World World One conscription propaganda — “Uncle Sam Needs YOU.”  He then engagingly introduces us to the inventors of modern advertising — Claude Hopkins, George Creel, and Sigmund Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays.

The story of attention grabbing moves onto the modern era with the invention of radio.  Wu reminds us that in those idealistic days, it was believed that advertising should stop at the household door. “The family circle,” opined Printers Ink magazine, “is not a public place and advertising has no business intruding there unless invited.” Herbert Hoover, talking about the wonder of radio, wrote in 1922 that it “is inconceivable that that we should allow so great a possibility for service, for news, for entertainment .. to be drowned in advertising chatter.”  But those high  principles were quickly overridden when NBC agreed to take $1 million from Pepsodent to sponsor the Amos ‘n’ Andy show.

Not only did Amos ‘m’ Andy brings us radio advertising, it was also the precursor of all future soap operas, sitcoms, and invented prime time. The show broadcast at 7:00pm each evening, and was so popular other businesses — hotels, restaurants, and movie houses — changed their schedules to match the radio show.

Wu tells a riveting story about the development of radio and how it became a personal battle between “General” David Sarnoff of NBC (who wanted to use radio content to sell radio sets) and William S. Paley of the upstart CBS who countered with “quality” content.  But as Wu shows persuasively it was the Third Reich that developed radio into a medium so powerful that “80 million people were deprived of independent thought” and made them “subject to the will of one man.”

After the war, television became the prime attention grabber:

“… the lights were usually turned off for viewing, and there was little or no conversation. One only got us to change the channel. ‘We are our suppers in silence, spilling our food, gaping in awe’ said one woman in 1950.”

Wu covers the first ratings systems (the inventor of which bemoaned their misuse), the invention of the remote control (originally designed to mute commercials), the age of advertising’s Motivational Research, the game show frenzy, and the scandals that ended them).  We may have gotten some classic entertainment, but in return, as Vance Packard’s 1957 masterpiece “The Hidden Persuaders” noted “manufacturers, fund-raisers, and politicians are attempting to turn the American mind into a kind of catatonic dough that will buy, give, or vote at their command.”

With the coming of cable, Fox and others chased audiences they they believed had fallen through the cracks of mainstream network broadcasting. Diversity was the war cry, attention was both more scattered and more available, and advertisers loved it.

Part three of the book deals with “the third screen” — computers and online services.  Wu covers this in depth and tells a good story about how some of the early visionaries hated advertising but, in a myriad different ways, were sucked into showing it everywhere.  Attention became even more ubiquitous:

“by 2000, change had come … Millions of people — soon to be hundreds of millions and then billions — were now spending leisure time logging in, catching up on email, attending to other business, or chatting to strangers.”

Online check-in had become a constant ritual. And each check-in allowed advertisers to reach us, and for the tech giants to know us more intimately than even our lovers.

The book closes by remarking on the “fourth screen”, the mobile phone without which it seems most cannot live. Check-ins are now essentially constant. The mobile phone

“would become the undisputed new frontier of attention harvesting in the twenty-first century, the attention merchant’s manifest destiny. From now on, whither thou goest, your smartphone goes too, and of course the ads.”

Wu quotes Mark Manson:

“This is life now: one constant never-ending stream of non sequiturs and self-referential garbage that passes in through our eyes and out of our brains at the speed of a touchscreen.”

But does any of this matter?  Clearly it does. Wu ends his book with a chapter on the election of Donald Trump as US President.  Trump, he says, is “determined to be a president who rarely, if ever, disappears from the public view.” He cares “maybe most of all about being the centre of national attention and about his ratings.”

One hundred years ago, Edward Bernays wrote that without political advertising, the public “could very easily vote for the wrong man or want the wrong thing, so they had to be guided from above.”  The election of Donald Trump may well prove that quite the opposite is true.

I know I haven’t done justice to what is a marvellously observed, erudite, funny and thorough history of a subject that has come to dominate our lives.  It is well worth the read.


Compton Cowboys: Guinness

September 20, 2017

For a long time now, Guinness has been just as good at producing commercial ads as it has been at brewing beer. Here is their latest effort that exemplifies that.


Ads Displaying Great Abilities

September 6, 2016

Here are three wonderful TV commercials from the UK. They are designed (with huge success) to play off people’s view on disability.  They are all brilliant.

“Back in June, Channel 4 announced that Maltesers and ad agency AMV BBDO had won its Superhumans Wanted competition, which offered £1 million of the broadcaster’s commercial airtime to a brand that featured disability in its ad campaign. … In keeping with the ‘Look on the Light Side’ theme established in earlier Maltesers ads, they see characters taking a humorous look at awkward and embarrassing situations, which in these new ads have all been inspired by real-life stories from disabled people. Check out the three spots below:


Reason #220 NOT to use Facebook

August 26, 2016

 

No facebookEven though their own research shows that 80% of users react negatively if an ad’s sound is turned on when a video starts, that is exactly what Facebook is planning to happen now.

According to a story in Consumerist, the current default is to have the sound OFF, but Facebook wants to change that in case you miss any of the important advertising messages FB’s paymasters are sending you.

You will soon have to specifically switch the sound off because, of course, advertisers are more important than members’ convenience.

 

Previous Reasons NOT to use Facebook

 


One-Hit Marketing

August 5, 2016

There are times when the human ability to spot an identity niche and to exploit it for personal profit simply astounds even me.  According to the Sun newspaper:

“McDonald’s trials a ‘walk-thru’ for weekend party animals who are too drunk to drive. An outlet in Llandudno, North Wales, has opened a lane for pedestrians to serve hungry diners straight out of a nearby nightclub in the early hours … The restaurant rolled out the trial last weekend, sparking a frenzy with sozzled customers with late night munchies.”

It seems to me that if the drunks simply walked into the restaurant and stood in the normal service lanes, that would be exactly the same experience (and warmer in winter).  But far be it for me to pooh-pooh marketing initiatives that rebrand regular activities and present them as profit centres, even for one-off events.

This is probably just a local PR stunt, but the fact it can get global coverage overnight these days is what is both so exciting (about the power of social media messaging) and so concerning (about the power of social media messaging).


How Brexit Won — An Ad Man’s View

July 21, 2016

The always useful Creative Review has an article up right now about how the Leave campaign won the recent UK referendum through more direct, single-minded, and emotionally appealing branding than the Remain side.

VoteLeaveRed

Rob Coke notes the Leave campaign’s positive use of active verbs, direct imagery, and the colour red especially when compared with the mixed messages in cold blue of those who wanted to stay.

This is an excellent review of just how branding can be made to work. Recommended as a teaching aid for anyone running a campaign.