Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Advances in the Cohabitation of News and Advertising

There is nothing particularly new about the close relationship between the reporting of news and the advertising that pays institutions to do the reporting. Some of it is a matter of common sense: One does not run an advertisement for an airline in close proximity (spatial or temporal) to a report of any accident of a commercial passenger airplane. What seems to be more apparent, however, is the extent to which certain news stories end up having a promotional aspect that is so tightly coupled to the basics of journalism (5W1H: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?) that the target of promotion cannot be avoided. Consider the antics of Michaele Salahi and her husband Tareq, who was apparently willing, if not eager, to play along with her games. In her efforts to audition successfully for The Real Housewives of D.C., she allowed her life to be invaded by an active camera crew, which followed her to not only the entrance of the White House but also to a table at a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Awards dinner (where she also did not belong but had gained access by entering through the kitchen). One wonders how much of this was actually cooked up by Salahi herself, how much was motivated by suggestions from the Bravo Channel, and how much was instigated by Salahi's publicist Mahogany Jones. (Yes, if we are to believe Eileen Sullivan of the Associated Press, Salahi has a publicist; and that really is her name.) On the basis of Sullivan's report, Jones has been keeping busy:

NBC said Monday that the Salahis will be interviewed Tuesday by "Today" host Matt Lauer. The interview is scheduled to air in the 7 a.m. half-hour segment.

An appearance previously scheduled for Monday night on CNN's "Larry King Live" has been canceled.

A TV executive who spoke on condition of anonymity to publicly discuss bookings had told The Associated Press that the couple's representatives had urged networks to "get their bids in" for an interview.

All this could have begun by Bravo recognizing that they could promote their latest "reality programming" by turning it in "real news;" but it would appear that Jones has parlayed the ultimate gate-crashing stunt into a media feeding frenzy.

Nevertheless, this whole affair is one in which that coupling of promotion to news could not be more blatant. The world of Vance Packard's "hidden persuaders" is still with us; and many of them do their best work through subtle camouflage. Consider Rasmussen™ Reports. (That is how the name appears on their Web site, leaving me wondering whether or not president Scott Rasmussen had really succeeded in trademarking his own last name.) I knew that Rasmussen was in the polling business, but I did not follow his work particularly closely until this morning. This was when, while following news about the Senate health care debate on Yahoo! News, I encountered the headline:

41% Support Health Care Legislation, 53% Oppose

I was immediately curious as to whether these numbers reflected a shift in public opinion about reform itself or specifically about the direction that the legislation had taken.

Alas, the story itself, which was basically duplicated from the Rasmussen™ Reports Web site did not satisfy my curiosity very well, although it left me with the impression that this was opinion about the legislation itself. Part of the problem was that reading the story at either the original site or the Yahoo! News site was not a particularly easy matter. Beyond the usual problems of a Web page saturated with advertising, someone, perhaps Rasmussen himself, had made the decision to lace the text of the report with parenthetic promotions (which, obviously, I have no intention of duplicating here) for readers to become "Premium Members" of his service! One might say that Rasmussen was using a free version of a news story as a tease to build up his subscriber base. This left me wondering if he intends to market the results of a poll that determines how successful this effort has been!

My fascination with polling goes all the way back to my high school days. I even remember seeing George Gallup interviewed on Continental Classroom, and my term project for driver's education was a poll reflecting my fellow students' opinions about driving practices. I was never that surprised at Packard's revelations of how we were being manipulated, but I was intrigued by the mathematics behind it all. However, I could not imagine that eventually the mathematics behind the "consciousness industry" would be used to promote the practitioners of that industry themselves. I do not know if Rasmussen was the first to try this out-of-the-box thinking; but I doubt that he will be the last. My fear, however, is that what began as a coupling of advertising to reporting will now escalate to a more pernicious coupling of manipulation to measurement. Like the former coupling, the latter is hardly new; but it may assume stronger powers now that it can be advanced (or diffused?) through Internet channels.

No comments: