“Advertising WAS The Cornerstone Of Free Speech & Democracy – What The F@ck Happened?”

“Advertising WAS The Cornerstone Of Free Speech & Democracy – What The F@ck Happened?”
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B&T’s regular contrarian columnist Robert Strohfeldt is back with another tasty attack. This time, he argues, the “advertising/free media” dalliance is under severe duress and that can’t be a good thing for anybody…

Advertising is a business, not a political or social movement. But no other business can lay claim to being a foundation on which freedom of speech and democracy were built. Sound a touch grandiose? A democratic society cannot develop and function without a free and independent media (as in not government owned and controlled) – the fourth estate.

Coined in 1787 in the House of Commons by Edmund Blake, it was at first used derogatorily. The other three “estates” were the clergy, nobility and commoners.

The initial role of journalists was to represent the interests of “the people” in relation to the political and business elites who claim to be acting in our interests. (Facebook has replaced journalists with an algorithm. If enough people on Facebook say the world is flat, this will be reported as fact. But facts and Facebook are becoming mutually exclusive.)

From this very narrow base, “the media” grew from just newspapers into magazines, radio and TV and entertainment (movies, variety, cooking, sport – the list goes on) became a mainstay of the programming/content, though news and current affairs have always held centre stage.

And how were all these different media financed? Advertising. Yes, it can be argued that a few powerful people controlled vast swaths of the media, but there were always a variety of opinions and stances taken and many media legitimately claimed independence between editorial and advertising and this divide was the measure of integrity.  (“Native advertisers”, please take note.).

Advertising, by accident rather than design, funded independent free media and by extension, free speech on which democracy is founded.

The internet, specifically, social media, has changed this model dramatically. And although the Google/Facebook duopoly claim they are technology, rather than media companies, it is advertising which is their lifeblood. Cut out the advertising revenue of both companies and they wouldn’t be worth a cracker. Being recognised as technology companies means they are not subject to the same laws and regulations that dictate how traditional media companies must operate.

As of March 2017, out of some 7.5 billion people in the world, 3.7 billion were connected to the internet, or 49.6 per cent of the world’s population. This is much higher of course in developed countries with the North America at 88 per cent, Europe at 77 per cent, Australia/Oceania 68 per cent. Africa has the lowest percentage at just under 28 per cent. (Source: Internet World Stats – Web Site Directory)

Facebook, according to Statista, is closing in on 2 billion active users – over a quarter of the world’s population. (And that figure is growing). Say what you like about concentrated ownership of traditional media, no one media proprietor or group had anywhere near that sort of coverage, or power.

There is nothing new in these figures and many would say, “so what, seen it all before”.  But it is obvious the consequences of these figures have been ignored.  As initially stated, advertising is a business, not a social movement. But like all businesses, we should consider the broader societal impact of our actions.

The relentless march of advertising dollars from traditional media to online has had many consequences. Not least of these is the impact on quality programming generally and journalism specifically.  As advertising dollars shrink (traditional media got into the unwinnable fight of CPM comparisons, it became all about quantity, not quality), the quality of content suffers and as the content quality suffers, audiences shrink and the vicious circle goes on. (Quality of content and programmes matter far more to audiences than media planners and buyers.) Advertising has never been the same since creative and media were separated. But that is another story.

I don’t have an exact figure, but Facebook is the primary news source of so many of its users. News produced by an algorithm, not news subjected to the rules and ethics of quality journalism. “Fake news” had its genesis in social media. If enough people believe something and post it, then it becomes “news” and people believe it. Lately we have seen a debate over whether the world is flat. Hopefully the vast majority of people around (as opposed to across) the world see this lunacy for what it is. But what about more complex issues such as “gender neutrality”. This is the theory that gender is a social construct, males are males and females are females because society takes a look at their genitals (well, not literally) and based on what is between their legs, they are treated as boys/men or girls/women and hence turn out that way. For anyone with even a modicum of science education, this ranks with the flat earth theory.

Sometime ago I wrote about our experience in 1994 with what was then called “the looney left”, who turned down around $4 million in free advertising in the movie The Lion King for The International Year of the Family. (The movie was sexist, homophobic and stereotyped minorities). The looney left has evolved into the “totally fucking crazy left” and thanks to social media (Twitter take a bow), grown to be highly influential.

Last year a few people were vocal about the dodgy numbers (and practices) of social media in general and Facebook, in particular. I have mentioned many times the fixation today’s marketers have on numbers – a focus on quantity, not quality. Yes, there are 2 billion active users of Facebook. Such a huge figure is irresistible to media planners, particularly when so much detail about each user is available. (Nearly as many “segments” available as people).

It seems that finally the ad industry (and clients) are questioning the validity and value of these numbers – not just the specific data provided by the various social media platforms, but the results obtained from online programmatic media buying. (Don’t know why clients are so upset about their ads appearing in pornographic websites. Before social media came along, pornography was a major reason for “public” usage of the web.)

All jokes aside, the basic “algorithm” by which all computers operate is:

Rubbish In = Rubbish Out.

This basic Tennent of all computing appears to have sometimes been lost in the rush to digital disruption. (And they are not called computers anymore, rather it is Artificial Intelligence. An appropriate name, with emphasis on “Artificial”.)

I often single out Facebook because they are by far the largest and most influential, but all social media platforms have questions to answer. Snap poached Anthony Pompliano from Facebook, in the lead up to their recent IPO. If you want to float a company, it is standard business practice to talk up the company, how fast it is growing and how rosy the future. – the brighter the perceived future, the higher the price each share will sell for. But there is distinct difference between optimistic forecasting and bullshitting. (The latter is frowned upon to the point of being a criminal offence and those responsible can expect their future to involve sharing showers with large tattooed men, or women, depending upon the gender of the responsible office holders.).

It seems Anthony didn’t read the script. He dared put his hand up and say “bullshit” about the claimed number of active daily users and percentage annual growth. He was fired for poor performance and being a disgruntled employee.

How accurate are these reports, I really cannot say? But in a sign of the times, the founder came in for heavy criticism for saying the app was “for rich people”. And he did not want to target poor countries. Not a wise choice of words, but it seems that manipulation of information to inflate the share price is nowhere near the crime of breaching political correctness. I mentioned previously that not all audiences, or Ms, have equal value. The higher the disposable income, logic has traditionally dictated the higher the cost per thousand. He wants to sell advertising to higher nett worth individuals. Bloody hell. Someone get a rope and let’s lynch the bastard! (What next, Porsche posters in Centrelink?)

Going back to my favourite advertising platform, Facebook, there have been reports on their strategy to win back the hearts and minds of media agencies.

Bringing in an independent umpire should be the number 1 priority.  In the US, they have promised to undergo audits by the MRC, though according to P&G it is a bit like pulling teeth. It’s happening, but slowly.

In Australia, it seems that a different approach is being taken.  I must be careful how I word this. There is an old saying that could be applied here – “There is nothing wrong. It is just a misunderstanding.”

I must hand it to Facebook. Their sales/propaganda campaign sets a new benchmark. If traditional media had taken a similar approach, they would not be in their current position.

There is no need here to repeat the many negatives Facebook have had thrown at them. (Marking their own homework, two-thirds of Australians not following any brands on social media, a lousy creative canvas, etc.)

So, how is Facebook going to address these concerns (As reported in The Australian Media April 24th)?

  • All expenses paid trips to head office for agency media teams based on continued client growth. (Maybe even meet Zuckerberg if you spend enough?).
  • Discounts and rewards linked to annual agency volume agreements.
  • Planners and buyers gaining “Blueprint Certification”, but after successfully sitting exams. (Love to see those exam papers).
  • Rebates linked to how many staff make the role of “Facebook Ambassador”. To achieve this highly-coveted title, they most work exclusively on Facebook. (Do they get a badge? Maybe an illustrated “hands on ankles”?)

How accurate is this article, it is hard to say with 100 per cent certainty. But the issue of media agencies acting in their own interests, rather than those of their clients has been headline news (real, not fake) resulting in enormous reputational damage to the industry. (Not just here, but in the US and UK as well).

So, whilst the industry is losing business to Advisory and Management Consulting firms, based on independence of advice, our media agencies are being signed up as Facebook distributors.

The advertising industry has always been viewed as a “bit different” by the business community, BUT it was where you went if you wanted big ideas.

Integrity was never an issue. Crazy bastards we may have been, but at least we were honest crazy bastards. (Well, there was no more corrupt behaviour than in any other professional service. There are always a few bad eggs.) And we could point with pride our role in the development of freedom of expression through independent media.

Like everyone else, disruption has shaken and upended the industry. But we didn’t have to lose our integrity with it. It is called Disruption, not Corruption!

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