Friday, April 27, 2007

Brave New Online World: Marketing, Advertising and Spin

Let's put to rest some cherished illusions:

The major media can be trusted to fearlessly dig for the truth, even if it runs counter to its advertisers and corporate owners' interests

Blogs/websites which accept advertising are unsullied "new media" sources

The first illusion has been threadbare for some time (decades?), but the wholesale surrender of independent skepticism has become painfully obvious.

The quagmire which we were promised would not be a quagmire was marketed to the media and the American public with all the depth and finesse of a multi-million dollar media "buy" (advertising lingo for the integrated purchase of print, broadcast, radio and Internet advertising and PR promotion), and as Bill Moyers has documented, the media bought it hook, line and sinker: Buying the War.

Here's a mea culpa from the Washington Post: A Media Role in Selling the War? No Question.

you won't see any apologies from Fox News, because they're always right, regardless (pun intended), just as they won't be admitting they led the cheerleading of the housing and stock bubbles which will soon give their viewers a taste of financial "shock and awe."

Does anyone actually believe print media's dependence on real estate and retail advertising has no influence on editorial content or spin? Any 12-year old can connect the dots between a media which repeats the wholesale manipulation of reality "spun" by the government's and Realtors' gussied-up "data," and their financial dependence on "healthy" real estate and retail sectors supported by consumers willing to borrow and spend.

Here is a bit of inside knowledge sent in by a frequent contributor regarding the April 24 entry, "Media Disconnect":

"Great post today. You are more correct than you know. Back in 2000 a friend of mine at Army Intelligence (stop chuckling) informed me that the media houses were hiring MI (military intel) (okay you can chuckle a little bit) but the purpose was highly classified. Why would the government classify something the private media is doing? That is all I can say."

Correspondent R.D. sent in this equally thought-provoking item:

"With regard to today's 'Media Disconnect' I would like to share a story: A few years ago, a close friend of mine was stuck at home in Atlanta with a brief illness. He is a Senior Producer at a major news network. I happened to be passing through town and spent the night at his house.

In the morning, over coffee, he told me he would let me listen in on his conference call if I promised to stay quiet. It goes without saying, that it is bad form or unethical to allow an outsider to be on the line when other participants are unaware of you presence, but we are close friends and he knew I would find it fascinating.

I don't have anything really shocking to share about the experience except to say I found it a bit chilling. I have never forgotten the call and how I felt about it ever since for one particular reason: There must have been 15 different Producers or Executives running through the days news in a conference room explaining their status on each story.

The tone of the conference call was jovial and cynical with an occasional joke about how they knew how predictable a particular story was going to be. Why it disturbed me so much is that the process didn't allow room for disagreement or challenging of any take on a story. The Executive Producer running the meeting was setting the tone and each Producer seemed to be programmed on an acceptable approach. There was no discord, there was no debate.

Day after day, I watch the mainstream television media and see certain stories never make it on the air. The executives at these networks have programmed their employees with what is acceptable and it was clear to me from the conference call that day, that you might have a long career if you toe the company line.

Chilling is the word. But sometimes a media "buy" can be so laughably fantastic that one wonders who approved the campaign. I speak of the latest blitz by the loveable folks over at the Mortgage Bankers Association. I've taken the liberty of doing a light edit on a recent full-page glossy ad from the Mortgage Banking Association, adding a slight touch of reality to their self-serving defense of subprime lending:

Now that we've enjoyed a good laugh--those guys at the MBA should be writing for TV, haha-- here is a story which should have been a headline on page A-1 but which got buried or not reported at all: Madrid stock market falls as housing bubble bursts. Author John Kinsella (see links on the right sidebar) reports from the continent:

"Yesterday as you certainly know the Madrid Stock Exchange practically exploded with housing and construction firms losing up to 13% in one day’s trading. Spain has been building more homes than other country in Europe and the bubble is of huge proportions. This was just Act I.

I mentioned Hendaye last year and these last weeks I have seen in the San Sebastian area housing construction has rocketed. The interesting thing is I planned to invest in a bigger apartment nearer the beach and I met several realtors, they all told me the same story, nothing is selling, the market has stalled, mainly because the buyers have been priced out of the market.

So I have put off any plans for the present. I followed the whole Madrid debacle on Spanish TV and though the government has tried to calm things down, the house price collapse and that of connected industries has begun. The major banks were also losers with a fall of 3% to 5% on Tuesday. This has alarmed the Brits who are big buyers in Spain."

Will the implosion of Spain's housing and stock market bubble have an effect on world markets? Certainly not--because as "bad news," it's not being reported except as snippets on wire services such as Bloomberg.

On to the love affair between the blogosphere and advertising/marketing.

Although Google currently has a warm and fuzzy rep (don't you just love those crazy young billionaires Sergei and Larry?) as a highly profitable but basically benign juggernaut of search and advertising, I predict that Google will soon be recognized as a force not unlike Microsoft: uniquely profitable and uniquely pernicious.

Lest you think I should be adding (rant) tags here, please consider the implications of this story from the Wall Street Journal (subscription required but you can read it at your local library--I hope): Search Engines Seek to Get Inside Your Head.

"Search engines have long generated the same results for queries whether the person searching was a mom, mathematician or movie star. Now, who you are and what you're interested in is starting to affect the outcome of your search.

Google Inc. and a wide range of start-ups are trying to translate factors like where you live, the ads you click on and the types of restaurants you search for into more-relevant search results. A chef who searched for "beef," for example, might be more likely to find recipes than encyclopedia entries about livestock. And a film buff who searched for a new movie might see detailed articles about the making of the film, rather than ticket-buying sites.

The company plans eventually to offer personalization based on a user's Web-browsing history -- including sites people visited without going through Google -- when users agree to let Google track it. Also, within three to five years, Google will start serving up personalized ads to searchers, says Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president for Search Products & User Experience.

Another possibility: reflecting a user's interest in watching videos or searching inside books."

Where do you think the default will be set on your permission to "let Google track it"? Hmmm... boy, this is a tough one. Sure, you can opt out--if you can find the "opt out" button or link.

I don't care if they keep "the consumer's" (that's you) identity "protected"--the issues are: what if you don't want individualized ads? Who benefits from this barrage of advertising aimed at you? And what does enabling that barrage do to the source's credibility--i.e., the blog hosting the Google ads?

Now the general view is: ads on "corporate" sites--bad. Ads on blogs--benign. Wait a minute. How can ads on corporate sites be pernicious and the same ads on blogs be benign?

Lest you think there is no chance of us noble, unsullied-by-ubiquitous-marketing blogger types being influenced by evil corporate marketing and spin, read this from BusinessWeek: "Polluting The Blogosphere: Bloggers are getting paid to push products. Disclosure is optional."

"You can't believe anything you see or read," complains Ted Murphy. "You think those judges on American Idol want to drink those giant glasses of Coke?"

It's funny to hear him say this because Murphy, who founded a Tampa-based interactive ad agency called MindComet, also runs a side business that pays bloggers to write nice things about corporate sponsors -- without unduly worrying about whether or not bloggers disclose these arrangements to readers. (A scan of relevant blog searches strongly suggests that, often, they don't.)

The piece goes on to say bloggers are paid $5 to $10 for "praising" the object of a media "buy"--without disclosing they were paid to do so. Hey, I will denounce, decry, mock and belittle any ad campaign for free! And if you don't believe me, well, you need a prescription of Zombiestra (TM)

The Marketing Machine views all media outlets, even a small blog, as a pipe to channel their "message" and every citizen as a "consumer" of media and their products/services. Google is a profit-making juggernaut because it pipes ads directly to millions of pages and tracks tens of millions of "consumers" web "experience." Combining seemingly benign "search" to the trillion-dollar frenzy to pipe directly into consumers' eyes, ears and minds is not benign.

You've been "assimilated" if you discount the pernicious effects of marketing on credibility and the "web experience" of visitors. What if you don't want your "web experience" cluttered with a bunch of hidden marketing and all-too-visible advertising? Sorry--you don't have that option.

The usual excuse--and make no mistake, it is an excuse--is, "oh, we all just ignore the ads." If this is so, then why is Internet advertising exploding? Are marketers and spin-meisters dumb enough to expand what isn't working? I think not.

What surprises me is how little resistance is offered to this worldview that relentless spin, marketing and advertising--and please note all three are simply shades of the same color--green--have no effect on the experience of those visiting those sites.

To reiterate what is posted elsewhere on this page: I accept no advertising or marketing. I post links to books and films I recommend on, and if you buy said film or book on Amazon I receive a small slice (1-3%). (You can usually borrow the book at the library for free, but you'll have drawn some benefit--for free--by reading other readers' reviews and comments.) I receive no money for you clicking on the link. A thousand readers can scan the online readers' reviews (the feature I value) and I receive nothing. Amazon provides a forum for other readers' opinions and that is worth the link in my opinion.

I also provide a link to Amazon gift certificates because I have found these to be an easy-to-send and well-received gift. I also receive a small slice (3%) of these sales. In a similar fashion, I have a link which enables buying physical gold, something else I believe in. That I get a commission should you buy something via these links is clearly stated. I also provide links to buy my novel I-State Lines which I also believe (despite a complete lack of evidence) has some merit. D

oes posting these links and recommendations make me part of The Machine? Perhaps to some visitors it does; in my view, these are services which I value and recommend, and that's quite different from serving up ads from Google which are selected by Google to match the profile of the site's content or the visitors' "preferences," and being paid to do so whether I value the product or service being marketed or not.

What I would welcome is a flinty-eyed look at marketing's reach and influence on the Web. If that skepticism extends to my own site, fine. If my readers worry that the links to books I recommend on Amazon are affecting my choice of topics and coverage, then I would blow off the links. What's important is the dialog between "media source" and its "consumers," and the willingness of the "media source" to forego advertising as a way of protecting credibility and the experience of its visitors.

There are two alternatives to selling advertising or hidden marketing: subscriptions (usually called "premium content") or donations. Since I don't have any "premium content" (if I could tell you how to make a million bucks, I would just make the million bucks myself and give you the secret for free), I have--at readers' suggestions--tried the donation alternative. If you like what you find here, then you can donate the equivalent of a subscription (cost of one movie and a medium popcorn at a theater: $12)--or you can read it for free. Either way, your readership is appreciated.

Thank you A.C.H. ($15) for your generous donation. I am greatly honored by your support. All contributors are listed below in acknowledgement of my gratitude.

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