Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE DON'T TELL THEM ANYTHING
I saw a video podcast recently that made reference to a book all about 'information overload' that evidently had quite a discussion of advertising and ad pollution. The quote from the book referred to ads as a type of 'information smog.' Not having read the book as yet, it's not quite clear to me that this is a good description, except insofar as smog makes it difficult to see and smells bad. If the author's point is that advertising is not information, then we may not be so far apart. My position is that advertising is fundamentally anti-information. In other words, advertising is one of the dubious technological gifts of the second world war; it is propaganda.
But let's be semi-methodical here, and test this idea. First of all, let's try retreating to the dictionary and see what we get. I like to use an Oxford's English Etymological Dictionary (OEED), and here is what it says about propaganda:
- "committee of cardinals charged with the foreign missions of the church; systematic scheme for the dissemination of a doctrine or practice..."
It's both fascinating and somehow unsurprising to see a catholic church connection to the origins and meaning of the word. For 'advertising' the participle was not listed, but 'advertise' was:
- "take note of; direct the attention of; give notice of"
So advertising would be the act of taking note of, directing attention to, or giving notice of something. By this definition, a stop sign is advertising. I smell a public relations person, don't you?
It's true enough that most of what we could call early advertising was simply about attention-getting. Effectively, this is the butcher's, that's the baker's, the religious pantomime will be this afternoon. This was reasonably useful, and not necessarily a bad thing. In fact it was a key means of providing information in towns and cities to a population that was not yet widely literate and was spread beyond the easy range of word-of-mouth information sharing. But what we call advertising now has little to do with these uses, except in the highly specific sense of 'diverting attention.'
What we typically call 'advertising' now is in fact a systematic scheme for the dissemination of the one true faith: consumerist patriarchy. It follows three rules that should be familiar to anyone who has encountered a used car salesperson – or a cell phone company representative.
- Never shut up.
- Never tell the customer anything that could be challenged later.
- Never respect the word no.
Capitalism and democracy both are optional, although less democracy is usually assumed to make propaganda more effective by cutting off other sources of information. Whether this is actually true is debatable, because not only is it incredibly difficult to absolutely control information, it's impossible to absolutely control what people think. (An excellent source of more information on how advertising, capitalism and democracy intersect in the current socioeconomic state of the world is Naomi Klein's book No Logo.)
However good or bad propaganda may be considered, there is nothing about the OEED definition that demonstrates that advertising is anti-information. Propaganda or the most basic 'look here' sign is actually providing information even if it's wrong. 'Anti-information' is a term that doesn't just imply no content, it implies something that drives out or overrules content. This is a much bigger claim.
Probably the most striking feature of advertising currently is that nothing is actually any good, even previous products in the same series from the same company. Nothing at all. A new one is always better, always new and improved, even if the only change you can find is the old one is green and the new one is blue. But ads are never just about the product. They are about your life, which is always lacking, you always need a new thing to fix it up, a bit like an old jalopy. If you'd just get the new and improved laundry soap, your laundry will smell and feel like it was dried on a line in the country. This will of course neutralize the fact of your real life in a big city with a smog problem. If you buy that brand of alcohol, you'll be the life of the party, as opposed to the effect of the brand you drink now that merely makes you drunk. Or become a success by emulating the purchasing habits of your betters, rich, white, mainly male individuals.
There's no real information about any of the products such ads are meant to sell. Instead there is an entire compressed narrative meant to pluck the chords of human insecurity so that ideally you don't think about the product at all. You think about what it will do for you, whatever it is, and how to get it. Ideally, you'd find the ads so compelling that you would pursue whatever the most persuasive ads tell you to. But don't expect to see this spelled out in any ad; after all, that's potentially litigable, so, for heaven's sake don't tell the potential customers anything! Subtlety is their mantra. And if the product doesn't have the implied effect, well it's like medication, different ones work for different people.
If that's not anti-information, I don't know what is.
But of course, according to what most of us were taught in high school, surely this is ridiculous. North America is a free market, and that means supply and demand. Supply responds to demand. Demand can't happen if nobody knows about the supply, and no one can tell good products from bad products without additional information. That's what advertising is for. If there is no demand for a product, it isn't profitable to make it, so production of it stops and producers move on to other things. This sounds reasonable on its face. The trouble is, the shifts in the nature of advertising since world war two and its omnipresence suggests that rather than a free market with a working negative feedback mechanism, we have a glut of products that almost no one wants or needs. Manufacturing is keyed to produce these products specifically because they are perishable and can be made at rock bottom costs and sold for tremendous profits. The trouble is, people simply won't buy most of the stuff. So advertising began to mutate into something to convince people to buy things that were shoddy, cheap, and unwanted. Needed items are gimmes.
As of November 2008, few human creations are as obnoxious and intrusive as advertisements. Ads are placed on the doors of stalls in public washrooms, the ceilings of buses and trains, even the sticks that separate batches of groceries at the supermarket. They are projected onto the ground at train stations, programmed to literally "pop-in" the middle of articles you read on the web. Right now so-called 'free newspapers' are the new rage, filled with ads including ads masquerading as articles, purveyed by people who will literally step in front of you and try to force you to take one. It seems like the permissible number of commercials per hour of programming on television increases every year. Corporations spend fortunes on anthropologists and psychologists to help them make more effective ads, and aim their ads at younger and younger audiences.
The implications are obvious. The ads don't work. Or if they do, they don't work for long. It's probably one of the craziest arms-races ever, this desperate corporate run against the human brain. We've managed to survive all this time by being able to figure out what is relevant and what is useful, and then ignore the rest. So when people express frustration with the ads that are everywhere, far from experiencing overload, they are experiencing information anemia. Their information needle gets painted yellow and thrown into an advertising hay stack. Under these circumstances, people can and do give up, but that doesn't mean they give up and buy. They give up and return to old fashioned word of mouth and making their own purchasing choices for their own reasons. I've observed this trend among a wide range of people I know, not a few of whom have complained about advertising and then gone on to say that they are exhausted and broke from having too much stuff. The stuff is a burden, so much so they are getting rid of it and thinking harder before they purchase something. I should add that among these people are indeed folks who can fairly be described as fully faithful members of the capitalist church, and they are making such statements as clearly as anyone you would be inclined to call 'granola.'
Obviously I'm a web nerd, so it's easy to point to manifestations of backlash against advertising there, from software that prevents ads from loading to RSS feeds. Yet this is far from a new phenomenon. The almost instant popularity of VHS in North America likely had more than a little to do with reaction against the level of advertising on television, as has the rapidly shrinking traditional newspaper and magazine markets. The magazine and newspaper publishers claim that they need more ads to pay the bills, which must evict content from the publication since it isn't going to get more pages (anti-information again). It doesn't seem to have occurred to any of them that more relevant information might just improve circulation in established publications, or at least nobody seems to have tried it. What a radical idea!
The first part of this essay discussed advertising and argued that it has converged with propaganda to become a type of anti-information. Advertising is not the only medium to have passed through this type of convergence; newspapers that were not necessarily conceived specifically as propaganda instruments have been on the convergence path at least as long as advertising has. The convergence stretches beyond the model of consent manufacture developed and successfully applied by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, because newspapers have effectively been colonized, and are now being overrun, by advertising. Research into the various factors that result in changes in newspaper circulation and subscription numbers suggests that newspapers have fallen victim to a "death spiral" rooted in the fact that their editors and publishers have become convinced they shouldn't tell us anything, and that they can't afford investigative journalism.
Mind you, if you read what many newspapers say about this, you will learn that the causes are quite different. It's the fault of the internet, where you can get up to the minute news for free, and anyone can write articles on what they consider news. I recently stumbled over a statement by a respected foreign correspondent sneering with remarkable venom at bloggers who had the gall to have an opinion and write about news without a degree in journalism. While it is certainly true that newspapers are facing stiff competition from bloggers and other alternative news sources, low or no costs supposedly made possible by cheap web tools and lack of journalism credentials simply don't explain the decline of newspapers. No, it wasn't "the internet," although it is true that a factor in the decline of newspapers does relate to the inadequate response to the impact of the classified advertising dollars being swept up by various online listing companies, craigslist being among the most infamous. And if the high quality work of independent bloggers is demonstrating that the journalism school model has slipped almost wholly into credentialism to keep the club doors nailed shut to most, that is another issue.
Using alternative news sources involves some degree of brainwork and precious time, which renders it free only in monetary terms. Not every blogger has something intelligent to write, and not every alternative news source is robust enough to be trusted. Recommendations, ratings, citations, and a bit of monitoring are all needed to pull the wheat from the chaff. Meanwhile, many established newspapers can rely on their reputation and their own advertising to draw readership. If people can be persuaded to do this just because the alternative news sources are free, low cost, or donation-funded, psychologists and marketing firms should be figuring out how to do experiments and focus groups wholly online to cut costs and be more effective. Although, the truth is that they don't need to spend good money after bad to learn what works. They used to do what works, before newspapers became yet another investment vehicle.
Still another explanation trotted out by newspaper representatives is that people, especially "young people" which seems to mean anyone younger than the newspaper editors and publishers, are apathetic. They don't care about the news, they're too busy on facebook or other asocial media, watching television and playing videogames (they couldn't care less, but they're great multitaskers). These are the same people who "can't be bothered" to vote. They don't care about the world or the society they live in. It would be unreasonable to say apathy has nothing to do with the decline of newspaper readership, but it hardly seems reasonable to say apathy explains it all either. Let alone that yes, this is a caricature, not a real description of younger people than the establishment figures in the newspaper business.
The trouble with the apathy hypothesis is that many of the same people who are supposed to be so apathetic are the ones turning to alternative news sources. They donate money to keep those sources afloat, recommend them to others, and write reams of comments and letters. Why, many of them are the founders, producers, and contributors to those news sources. The catastrophic quality of television and radio news in now such that many of them have dropped those sources all together, and that has changed in the years since I first drafted and published this essay. But when you dig beyond the sensationalist "internet killed the newspaper star" and "young people couldn't care less" claims, you soon find that the newspaper industry has been frantically studying a much more effective explanation. Newspapers are in trouble because they are suffering a severe and growing credibility crisis; colloquially only lawyers and politicians are rated lower. Credibility headaches come from a failure to provide information and slipping into convergence with propaganda.
One of the studies I encountered in my research for this essay is called "Anatomy of a Death Spiral: Newspapers and Their Credibility" by Philip Meyer and Yuan Zhang. It was genuinely fascinating, but less for its analysis of how credibility relates to circulation and subscription numbers than for one of the data transformations the authors applied. They found that in general, older people and people of colour are more skeptical about what the read in the newspapers, and they deemed this to be a factor that would skew their analysis. So Meyer and Zhang "corrected" the data for this source of skepticism. Apparently they couldn't believe that the apparent correlation between the experience of oppression and/or longer life experience (ageism is an important source of oppression) and greater disbelief in the trustworthiness of newspapers was meaningful for their study. I can't help but wonder if they had noticed a strong correlation between sex and skepticism towards newspapers, whether they would have corrected for the offending sex, which would most likely be "female."
Newspapers and newspaper-like publications actually have a remarkably long history. The very earliest such publications were likely Chinese, if you restrict the question to items printed on paper or paper-like materials. No one was especially measuring credibility then, but the blur between what can be considered bald propaganda and newspapers is almost as old. Even so, the credibility of newspapers appears to have been fairly high until after people began to react against the power of the churches. Things really began to go downhill once radio and television came along, at least in the so-called "western world." Newspaper industry surveys a decade ago have found that people rate numerous television and radio newscasts and news programs as more credible than newspapers. Since the television and radio iterations have slipped down the credibility scale, and not just with "young people," with everyone. Evidently the outrageous lies propagated to drive the war on Iraq and crass, and the vicious behaviour of media celebrity stalkers has not helped matters. We are encouraged to forget that a major part of what made Diana Spencer and Dodi Fayed's death in a car crash triggered by their attempt to flee stalker-photographers was shocking not least because it revealed that the photographers were stalkers in the first place.
Newness didn't necessarily give radio and television credibility alone, people typically respond to new information sources with more rather than less skepticism. A newscaster builds credibility based not just on the information they convey, but also on their body language. We read body language all the time, and it includes gestures we make with both our bodies and our voices. It is an additional information channel that we have evolved to use to sort out who we should believe and how much we should believe them. We should not underestimate how newscasters are trained, and now the style of training typically taken by anglophone members of the profession is also undergone by people who speak other languages. The next time you watch or listen to a newscaster online, listen to the way they modulate their voices, and if watching as well, note how they hold their bodies and how often they blink and when. Their technique is not necessarily about manipulation – it is at least if not more likely training to ensure that they are reading from a teleprompter is not too obvious. In any case, radio and television have more "credibility information channels," and now their online reflexes in pod and video casts, than newspapers do, and can potentially overcome a credibility deficit more easily, at least in the short term.
In my research on the history of newspapers, I learned that for a long period before world war two, "yellow journalism" was predominant in North American newspapers. "Yellow journalism" is sensationalist, scare-mongering, potentially even violence-inciting headlines and stories that downplay real news for attention-diverting material. The lure of yellow journalism is presumed greater profits via printing on cheaper paper that oxidizes rapidly, hence turns yellow, and increased sales of sensationalist stuff. Interestingly, yellow journalism fell out of favour around world war two, as dreadful rumours and stories of nazi persecution of Jews began to filter back to north america. Based on my definition of anti-information, material that provides no information itself and cancels out information, yellow journalism qualifies for the label. Over the past five to ten years, there has been a move back towards yellow journalism, especially in the form of an expansion in tabloid-format newspapers based a fairly square page shape with no central horizontal fold, higher picture to text ratio and greater use of colour. The term yellow journalism itself is not returning to use, not because the phenomenon's resurgence is unrecognized, but because of the racist connotations of the term.
"Credibility" isn't just about looking and sounding believable; you still have to tell the truth if your credibility is going to be more than ephemeral. Newspapers are probably at the height of their credibility curves when they are perceived to be willing and able to reveal and verify truths that influential figures like politicians or CEOs might prefer to have kept firmly covered up. In the long term, investigative journalism and general journalism focusing on real news (e.g. social issues, the economy) appear to correlate with newspapers getting the bills paid and increasing their readership and circulation. The sticky part here is "long term."
Since newspaper publishers became corporations or were absorbed into corporations, and legal decisions declared a corporation's sole duty was to make money for its shareholders, the long term has been driven out of the equation. In the short term, forfronting sensationalist headlines, puerile celebrity stories, and sports can generate more revenue right away. But like advertising, it wears off. Newspapers have been making up revenue shortfalls due to sales losses with more advertising, placing themselves in an awkward position. It's difficult to pursue investigative journalism when the investigation might make an advertiser uncomfortable. Newspapers are also becoming far more partisan, becoming entrained via editorial policy with specific political parties or ideologies, while purporting to cover "all sides of the story." This corresponds to the common working definition of propaganda, and it can do serious credibility damage outside of the party faithful. Obviously that is no recipe for readership expansion.
Meanwhile, the grade level of newspaper text has been dropping, slipping from grade nine, the rating quoted in my grade twelve social studies textbook, to grade six today. The articles are far shorter, and the belief of certain media analysts in the miniscule attention spans of so-called "generation x" means sentences are shorter, and so are the words chosen to write them. Beyond banner headlined pieces, articles now appear to be fitted in around advertising rather than vice versa, so that if an article is split across at least two pages, the article sections are typically at least ten pages apart. I think it is far more likely that the new reduced length and grade levels are about making space for the advertising, with next to nothing to do with the putative reading levels of the hoped for reading audience.
All together, these developments make reading a newspaper an unpleasant and frustrating experience. By nature they are printed on cheap paper with cheap ink, so it can also be a messy one. It hardly seems worth it to do the work to get through the advertising and the non-news to get to the meaty stuff. And then the meaty stuff is turning out more and more often to be spam rather than real meat. Adding insult to injury, even if you never buy a newspaper, you'll get plenty of advertising for free, because the mail carrier stuffs your mailbox full of "bulk mail." At least on television or the radio it's possible to change the channel. There's no point in buying a newspaper if you expect it to give you real information, and it doesn't. To add insult to injury, as well as evidence that the people making the decisions in mainstream newspapers have lost their minds, the online versions are now nearly as bad as their rapidly degrading physical counterparts. Unreadable without ad blockers, often repeating the same six to ten article headlines three times on the landing page of their sites. Then there are examples like the guardian, which is now openly acknowledging which articles are funded by one of a handful of execrable rich men's foundations that those men use to launder their wealth and avoid taxes. Only a fool would take such articles seriously due to severe bias in the first place. And of course, they get pride of place over articles that actually provide information.
- 'Pop-in ad' is my term for advertisements that literally appear on top of the web page you were trying to look at, blocking the content and apparently impossible to dismiss. I remember which sites have them in order to avoid them.
- However, when it comes to "real information" things seem to have gotten even worse, alas. I effectively went onto a news-less diet some years ago because of a paper suggesting that this would be of help reducing stress and feelings of helplessness and depression. For my own part, I must endorse the idea, because that is what I have found. It is also worth reading Rolf Dobelli's article Avoid News: Towards a Healthy News Diet. He is making many of the same points as I have here, though his additional comments about neuro-plasticity and news supposedly destroying our capacity to read longer form text put me into leery mode. A lot of claims are hung on neurological studies or the reputed results of neurological studies, which may be repeated in quite reputable non-scientific sources. Which is not to say that Dobelli is wrong or reporting inaccurately, just that personally I would need to learn more about the evidence for his point there.