Posts Tagged ‘Advertising’

Know your enemy

datePosted on 19:46, December 4th, 2011 by Lew

The image above is “scientifically formulated to enhance [women's] perception of men who drink Molson [...] a perfectly tuned combination of words and images designed by trained professionals. Women who are exposed to it experience a very positive feeling. A feeling which they will later project directly onto [men who drink Molson].”

That’s not my analysis; it’s what the creatives who developed the ad said about it, in another ad. The first ad, the one you see above, ran in Cosmopolitan and was pitched at women. The ad from which the explanatory text was drawn ran in Playboy under the heading “Hundreds of thousands of women. Pre-programmed for your convenience.” The full analysis is here, on the Sociological Images blog.

The lesson is essentially that propaganda relies on market segmentation; messages crafted and pitched with accuracy and intent. If you read what you’re told to read, you’ll think what you’re told to think. Avoiding such a fate means embracing diversity of input, understanding your opponents’ arguments and their reasoning even if you disagree with it. To a large extent that means consuming their media. For a rounded perspective you’ll need, at least occasionally, to read sites like DailyKos and Free Republic, infuriating and interminable comment threads on The Standard and Kiwiblog, and SOLOpassion and Gates of Vienna and WSWS and the Wall Street Journal; listen to talkback, watch Fox News and pick up both Cosmo and Playboy from time to time, for the articles or whatever. This is obviously not an exhaustive list, but the point is: read, listen, watch and discuss promiscuously. Argue with those folks you disagree with; drink beer with them from time to time. Take them seriously. Insist that they take you seriously, and give them reasons to do so.

It might hurt; in fact, it often will. But it beats being a dittohead.

L

Edit to add: Anita points out that the Sociological Images post created a bit of a stir. They write:

Apparently the company has been getting calls from consumers and reporters regarding the Molson Cosmo/Playboy ads we posted about yesterday. It turns out the ad campaign is quite old (2002/2003) and they would like to distance themselves from it now.

As you would. Not clear whether they now regret the decision to run such ads, or whether it’s a pro-forma blowback response.

On Billboards

datePosted on 06:48, November 16th, 2011 by Lew

To state the bleeding obvious: the coordinated actions of a group of Green activists to deface National party billboards is bad form. This is not so much because of the defacement itself (that’s bad enough), but because of the scale and extent of the organisation by members and representatives of another political party, and one which claims to be a good electoral citizen.

The method of defacement — stickers with snarky slogans, mimicking National party campaign material but conveying opposing messages — was clever, well-executed, and the slogans might arguably be true, but that doesn’t excuse the offence against our democratic loix de la guerre, such as they are. That having been said, I would not be so concerned if it had been undertaken on a smaller scale, had been less organised and more “organic”, and particularly if it had not been coordinated and undertaken by members of a rival parliamentary organisation that stands to gain a zero-sum advantage from National’s embarrassment. A certain amount of public-sphere critique and satire is to be expected within a democracy, and at times that means having to tolerate a little vandalism. But these actions crossed well beyond what most people would consider reasonable.

Fortunately for National, and unfortunately for the Greens, this sort of transgression brings its own punishment, and the episode should be a clear lesson to all political parties that dirty tricks of this nature aren’t on (or, more cynically, if you’re going to go there, you need to outsource it). This goes double for the Greens, whose political brand of good-faith, play-the-ball-not-the-man politics would have been ruined if this were seen to be an integral part of the Green strategy. It seems not to have been seen that way, and I think this is largely due to the exemplary response by Russel Norman (and to the best of my knowledge, other senior Greens), coming clean as early as possible (only a few hours after co-leader Metiria Turei urged the Prime Minister to do likewise regarding the “teapot tapes”), and offering the time of Green party volunteers to repair the harm done. This shows excellent faith and genuine respect for the democratic process, and in an ideal world such a response would also be its own reward — though in reality a public opportunity to demonstrate such a commitment may not be worth as much as a dose of (in this case, justified) outrage. It is a black mark against the Greens’ institutional competence that such a stunt could be arranged so close to the leadership, but this shouldn’t be overstated. In general they are pretty good, and given the size, diversity and ideological fervour of their activist community, that this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often is itself quite remarkable.

An unrelated observation regarding National party billboards: most days I travel between Kapiti and Wellington, and on the weekend for my sins I drove to Palmerston North and back. Leaving aside the demographic changes between electorates, it puzzles me that the National billboards are erected in such a slapdash manner. If you’re going to have a billboard campaign setting out an ordered list of priorities, why on earth would you not stage the billboards in order following peak traffic flows so as to establish a coherent, narrative communication platform? Perhaps they have attempted this, but some billboards have been knocked over, obscured or whatever. But I have been able to distinguish no clear patterns, and it seems a missed opportunity.

L

Stop/Go

datePosted on 20:13, November 9th, 2011 by Lew

National’s initial Stop/Go TV ad is a pretty good one. Clean, to the point, not bogged down in detail but jampacked with symbolism:

Toby Manhire, writing on The Listener‘s excellent new website, has already done the analysis so I’ll quote him:

Red STOP Labour sign-guy looks a bit tense, uncomfortable, slouchily off-centre. His fist is closed, zip sloppily undone, and look at the state of those shoes.

He looks like he might just call in sick tomorrow because he feels like it, even though the country’s economy will suffer, while he just lies around, stuffing his face all day.

Green-blue GO National sign-guy looks comfortable but focused. Shoes are good. Sensible. He’s a little unshaven, but that’s because he’s a bit like the All Blacks, don’t you think? Like John Key is a bit like the All Blacks.

Check out the clouds, too. Fluffy, familiar things above Green-blue GO sign-guy; grey, foreboding, riskier bastards above that Red STOP man.

It can be no coincidence, what’s more, that the shadow GO Blue Green GO sign GO the All Blacks sign guy casts a shadow pointing where? The centre, people, the centre of the road.

But hang on a moment. The symbolism of a lazy Labourite and a clean-cut Tory is laid on a bit thick — and the scruffy old Labour guy looks just a tiny bit “ethnic”, if you know what I mean. Moreover the whole Stop/Go metaphor is a bit trite — trite enough that it was the basis for a satirical diary piece by David Slack in December last year:

And If you think about how traffic control actually works, the metaphor has coherence problems. Last night, Anna Hodge tweeted the following observation, which in hindsight seems so obvious:

Also, does National understand road works? Or fairness? You need sign-holding dudes with both GO *and* STOP to keep traffic flowing.

Um, quite. For some to go, others must stop (at least until we get reef-fish-inspired traffic management systems.)

Anna’s tweet generated a bunch of responses as the narrative of the ad began to unravel. Mine was that if you’re at the front of the queue, only the GO sign matters; others were about the size of your SUV, the increase in inequality between north- and south-bound traffic flows, and the fact that Stop and Go signs are the same sign, just viewed from different angles.

Aaron Hicks remarked that the STOP sign at road works means that there’s actually work going on, a point you’d have thought might be clear to a government undertaking such an aggressive roading policy. And did the green of the go sign hint at a National alliance with the Greens? But they’ve spent the last decade and a half telling us that the Greens’ green means stop so green is basically red, and now their own green (not even a Blue-green!) means go?

The more you think about it, the more tangled and incoherent the narrative gets. And yet for all its flaws the ad works. It relies on people not thinking too hard about it — upon audiences swallowing whole the top-level symbolic material Toby described, making what Stuart Hall called a hegemonic reading of the text. In Hall’s model the second audience position is a ‘negotiated’ reading — such as Toby’s analysis itself, which recognises the hegemonic aspects of the discourse but doesn’t necessarily accept them, and the third position is ‘contrary’; consciously reading against the text’s hegemonic meaning — what Anna did, as did those of us who responded to her observation.

A lesson from this is that reading a tightly-encoded text counter-hegemonically is hard work. Audiences are not sponges or “sheeple”; they will often take a negotiated position, but in general such a position doesn’t prevent the text from having some impact. This illustrates a point of strategy that my regular readers must be bored tears with by now: you can’t rebut a text like this head-on with wonkish facts and figures. Dry details about Labour’s record and plans on economic progress wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference to the effectiveness of this particular ad, for two reasons: first because the hegemonic material doesn’t lodge in the head, it lodges in the guts (it’s truthiness, not truth); and second because such a rebuttal implicitly accepts the framing of the original text, and that framing is half the payload. But subverting the paradigm, man, that’s where the action is.

I’m not suggesting a comprehensive strategy to counter the National party campaign could be composed around a response to one 15-second ad, but if a counter-strategy was to be composed, that’s how you’d do it. Don’t berate people for accepting the hegemonic position, or for negotiating: find ways to make them see it in a different light.

L

Depiction of masculinity in rock radio.

datePosted on 17:10, December 2nd, 2010 by Pablo

As I flip through the NZ radio airwaves I have been much humoured by the depiction of masculinity in advertising on rock radio (for purposes of definition, that is FM radio stations that feature AC/DC, Metallica, Tool, Shihad and other old and new bands that play up tempo, guitar driven, blues derived sound. This does not include Lady Gag, Madonna, boy and girl bands, Justin Beiber, Millie Cyrus, rappers and their ilk). Some of the imagery conjured in these ads is funny but disturbing, and I realise that the depiction is concocted by advertising companies selling product to a 15-35 year old male demographic. But three things stand out about the depiction of ideal NZ men in these ads.

The first is that the general thrust of the ads is framed as a negation or antithesis of an extant others–metrosexuals and women. These are not moccachino-sipping, quiche eating, emo or poncy little dog carrying (in a man purse!) financial advisors or lawyers. More implicit than explicit, the intimation is that these are mates, dudes, fun-luvin’ rascals that have to live on the edge of a PC world. But the positive message (such as it is) is sublimated under the representation of what it is not. The majority thrust of the bottom line is a negation. These are not post-modern poseurs or dandies, and they do not want to relate to chicks other than at a primal level.

The second noteworthy aspect of the ads is the objectification of masculinity. Men’s identities lie in the commodities they prefer (consumer non-durables, mostly): utes and V8s, rugby, some more rugby, league, more league, cheap alcohol, cheaper beer, red meat (ideally hunted, then cooked on a bbq), fishing gear, racy magazines, grubby clothes, stereos and farm equipment. They do not wear cologne.

The third and perhaps most interesting aspect of the depiction is its representation of “manly” values. Men are mates; hard drinking, carousing, happy go lucky, staunch (especially when drinking), fast driving, opportunistic and impulsive horn dogs working hard on the ladies. Nowhere in the depiction are there notions of honour, valour, courage, sacrifice, sincerity, solidarity (except with mates), humility, basic intelligence and knowledge of current global affairs, or interest in the needs of women, children and the family. That is a bit odd simply because the early 20 to 35 male demographic is the one that is reproducing the most (presumably a manly trait), has young families, is starting careers and otherwise has the burdens of post-adolescence crashing down on it. Yet the values being reified appear adolescent.

I have seen this type of representation on rock radio programming in Florida and Arizona. In those cases the demographic was male 15-23, simply because the size of the population allows that age group to sustain specific types of commercial music programming. I presume that there is an Ozzie variant. NZ has its own, over a wider age range.

The success of advertising campaigns based on this type of symbology appears to lie in the deep unhappiness of 15-35 year old NZ men with the evolution of society. It speaks for a desire to not only be rebellious adolescent in social perspective, consequences be damned.  It also speaks to a desire to be in another era that, however mythological represents the antithesis of NZ society today. The question is: was there ever anything remotely close to this depiction in NZ historical reality?  If not, what explains the appeal of these ads? And if it is true that there is a deep antipathy to the current social order, what does that say about prospects for assimilation of this demographic? In other words, what are the prospects of these angry and nostalgic (mostly Pakeha) young men, if indeed the advertising thrust is a window on their souls?

(Of course, I defer to Lew for a more professional interpretation of the subject).

Incidentally: The Gruen Nation

datePosted on 15:34, July 5th, 2010 by Lew

While I’m on the topic of Australian politics, the news that the team behind ABC’s The Gruen Transfer will be producing a series of episodes on the upcoming federal election campaign, during the campaign.

For those who’re not familiar with it, the show is named for Victor Gruen, the architect who designed the now-ubiquitous shopping mall to disorient patrons and sap them of their agency — at which moment the “Gruen transfer” is said to have taken place. It’s a frank weekly look at the nuts and bolts, tricks and traps of advertising, fronted by comedians, tricksters and advertisers themselves and you can watch it on the ABC website.

Of course, the techniques employed to sell soap or soft drink or summer holidays can be and often are equally applied to politics — the howls of those who would rather pretend it were otherwise, that politics is somehow different notwithstanding. So during the campaign is the very best time to air such a look at how the same techniques apply to political marketing. Well done ABC. I’d love to see such a thing here. This is the machinery at the sharp end of democratic consent-manufacture.

(And for interest, here’s a long article about Gruen and mall design from The New Yorker.)

L

Death is not the end

datePosted on 16:54, November 25th, 2009 by Lew

A curious post from Marty G at The Standard, who asks: “as newspapers die?” This is part of a wider debate about the future of the media, which I’d like to expand beyond just newspapers. As a caution to those who would conflate ‘newspapers are dying’ with ‘the media is dying’, I would suggest that the demise of the mainstream media is, in words incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated. Fundamentally this comes down to the following:

1. If people care about it, it can likely be profitably monetised.
2. If it can be profitably monetised, big business will eventually come to dominate it.
3. The existing newsgathering infrastructure, brand authority, networks, subscriber bases and institutional expertise are still held almost exclusively by big business.

Big business may not be good at innovating, but it is very good indeed at buying innovation and covering the last mile. That’s what it’ll do, and in some cases, what it’s doing already.

There will be changes — in terms of how content is created and distributed, to the revenue model and in particular to the specific media consumed — but fundamentally the mainstream news media will continue to do what they do, which is tell people what they need to know.

The media do not predominantly provide consumers with a good — news or information or something to wrap fish and chips in or something to watch while eating dinner) — rather, they provide a service — a filtering system which sieves out and highlights the things which people need to know to function in their social and professional and ideological worlds. There’s already more news and information out there than anyone can possible pay attention to. We all have our preferred filtering systems — The Standard and Kiwipolitico are two; who you choose to follow on Twitter is another; whether you wake up to Morning Report as I do or Marcus Lush or The Rock or Southern Star, you’re relying on those sources to give you the information you need to function competently in your world that day, and in the days to come. This is the Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery principle: “If you can’t find it at Ralph’s, you can probably get along (pretty good) without it”. At present, mainstream media filtering models are more advanced than they’ve ever been — but extremely crude by comparison to the sorts of models employed in new media.

Adopting the filtration models which are being developed in new media will require media companies to adopt some of those media forms, and abandoning the old forms. To take one thing (there are plenty of others) which newspapers, radio and television don’t really do at all: interactivity. So we’re going to see things become more interactive, and that interactivity become part of the filtration system. This is how Google’s advertising functions: your usage choices are a source of data about you, and that data is a pretty good predictor of what you’ll click next. That’s good for advertisers, because it offers them a chance to sell you stuff you might want, and it’s good for you, because of all the zillions of pieces of media out there in the world, it allows a media provider to better determine which are more likely of interest to you.

We’ll also see much more device integration, and in particular the development of e-reader hardware which acts and behaves like paper, and the development of news products which use that hardware to mimic newspapers in function — providing the visual grammar of headlines, columns and images on a broadsheet or tabloid page, a form which is very highly developed and so well-understood as to barely be considered a semantic form any more (like continuity editing, or 4/4 time) — but which is almost entirely absent from existing internet news media. I understand that Apple Computer has on order a couple of million high-resolution low-power 10-inch touchscreen LCDs to make a next-generation reader device for market in the next 12 months or so.

But these things are largely cosmetic. Overall, the fundamental nature of the media market will not change. Some of the big companies might die or fall apart, but they’ll be replaced. It won’t be independents and startups for ever, and there will never be a persistent community-of-knowledge citizen-journalists-ruling-the-roost utopia such as many in the blogosphere so desperately wish for (because it would allow them to quit their jobs and get paid for doing this full-time). The main reason for this is that news costs money, whereas opinion (i.e, 90% or more of bloggery) is mostly free but is reliant on news. The money for the news machine comes from the interesting fact that, in the commercial media industry, the ‘product’ and ‘consumer’ are the reverse of what most people think they are. The ‘product’ is not programmes or articles or news (that’s a service); and the ‘consumer’ is not the person reading, watching or listening. That person — you, and me, and everyone else who consumers the media — is the product, and the consumer of commercial media services is the advertiser whose products you also consume. The media, by functioning as an effective filtering system, serves you up content you want and serves up your eyeballs, earholes, networks and ultimately your wallets to advertisers who pay the media handsomely for doing so. Everyone wins — or at least, everyone goes away thinking they’ve gotten a good deal. This model, at a fundamental level, is not under threat, because there is no other ready means of monetising news. That’s not to say it will always be so. It’s possible that a media business model will emerge which doesn’t rely on advertising, but one way or the other, someone is paying, and if it’s not the advertisers paying for you, then in all likelihood it will be you paying for yourself. How much would you pay? Would that be enough? These are real questions, because talk might be cheap, but news ain’t.

L

A useful press release generator, or three

datePosted on 22:32, March 5th, 2009 by Lew

DPF’s post mentioning MediaCom, which allows you to get/send press releases via NZPA feed, reminded me of this, which I’ve been meaning to post for awhile. The reason PR companies need to spam people with press releases is because at a basic level they’re so easy to write that almost any idiot can hack one out in half an hour, and so people do. If you’re someone who relies on them, by the time you’ve read the title and the first three paragraphs in order to figure out whether the press release has anything relevant for you, its writer has already won.

Not to say that writing good press releases is easy – far from it, writing genuinely good press releases is extremely hard; so hard that very few people actually can, and even for those people it can seem futile because nobody knows whether your press release is any better than all the rest of the guff which is clogging their intertubes until they’ve read the title and the first three paragraphs. If you’re a CommsTart,* this is a very important skill, however, because by writing good press releases you give the overworked, underpaid minions of the Corporate News Machine a labour-saving device, and if you can consistently write to spec they will gladly shortlist your releases for pre-publication, sight unseen, because they don’t have time to read the title and the first three paragraphs because … well …

That stuff in them there press releases ends up in your media. I don’t have it to hand (Kate, can I have it back?), but I seem to recall that very thorough Cardiff University research commissioned by Nick Davies’ for his excellent book Flat Earth News found that no more than 12% of articles published in major British papers were entirely free from material published by someone’s PR department or agency. In my work as a media analyst, if I actually want to find out about a major issue I go to Scoop and try to triangulate the facts from everyone’s press releases before I bother with the actual end-user media outlets. It’s rare they can tell me something the stakeholders’ CommsTarts haven’t already.

These facts – it’s easy to do badly, hard to do well, indispensable and ubiquitous – are not lost upon the wags of the media world, who have taken delight in lampooning this most cherished aspect of their craft. There are lots of press release generators out there. Most are good for a black bit of fun – this by one of our few remaining satirists Lyndon Hood only deals with the the one topic of child abuse, but it has good bones.

For the 80th birthday of AdNews, the Sydney office of Clemenger BBDO made this handy visual self-congratulatory press release generator:
adnews80thclem
(From commercial-archive.com.)
They know their stuff: this remains one of the best ways of quickly and efficiently putting together a quality press release – chop all the information up into bits of paper and arrange it so it flows, with just (barely) enough glue to keep people reading. Remember: the title and three paragraphs, and you win.

If you want industrial-strength, this one is made of much sterner stuff. Written by a computer programmer back in the Nineties and endlessly hacked on since, it and its variations will generate a dense blob of impressive verbiage – Bush-speak, web jargon, whatever you want. If fed the right source material, it would probably generate a halfway-competent press release.

It goes the other way, too – David Slack, in homage to George Orwell and Christopher Ketcham, created a DuckSpeak Translator which, if fed media-ready prose, would deliver you a lot of QUACKs and perhaps (if you were very fortunate or the author was very clever) a few actual words and even an idea. The DuckSpeak Translator is sadly no more, brought to its knees by the fact that David allowed any old idiot to add phrases to its vocabulary, so that by the time I got to using it sometime in 2006 it was so thoroughly clogged that you could put anything in and get nothing back but quacks – which may have been the intention after all. I think the project should be revived with a clean database, and phrases only admitted to its vocabulary if they have been taken cleanly from some rich source of such matter – such as the Hansard, or press releases. That’d be something worth quacking about.

L

* I use the term in gender-neutral reference to anyone whose work is tarting up their client’s self-interest so it can be mistaken for news.

Edit: Heh, the `or three’ on the end of the title was an afterthought added without reference to the previous post, which also contains it :)

Ansell’s talents underemployed

datePosted on 21:29, February 17th, 2009 by Lew

John Ansell, author of the famous and fabulously effective 2005 National party billboard campaign, has been blogging since September last year. As a political communication geek, I kept an eye on his site for the first month or so, but unfortunately neglected it before he published a lot of proofs of material – billboards, banners and newspaper ads for the ACT campaign, and a couple for National, many of which I’d not seen. His services were not in high demand for the 2008 election, but I think they should have been. Regardless of whether you agree with the policy positions these advocate, the point is to convey a message, and I think these do that job admirably. The parties currently outside government have a great deal to learn from those in government in this regard.

Click on this one, my nomination for Most Outrageous NZ Propaganda Image of 2008, for the whole lot. They’re worth it.

Just try to imagine the outcry if it had been hung from the Ghuznee St overpass.

L