Monthly Archives: March 2009

False Choices

I have encountered the following argument over and over again: “the material that the media chooses to put or focus on is what the people want.”  It’s a very convenient little argument that follows the simple logic of supply-and-demand.  In other words, it is assumed that the supply exists for “x” media content because there is a “strong” (meaning it makes lots of money) demand that calls for the supply of such “x” content. Sometimes, the argument might take the shape of the following variations: “what is on the air is what gets ratings and so that means that what’s on the air is exactly what people want to see on T.V.” or the classic “what is broadcasted in the cable news networks is what attracts people’s attention and so the material that is on is just satisfying a need.”  My, the media must be so selfless and loving that they’re giving us what we need!  LOL.  If only! 

If you analyze the lines that that logic follows, you’ll realize that it is very much a circular argument: “I make available to the people what they want because that’s what the people want me to do.”  But how do I know that what I put on is what the people “want” or even “need”?  In addition, is the “want” a result of creating the perception for a “need”?  More importantly, what role have I had in creating the appearance of that “need”?  Is the “want” really what the people intrinsically “need”?  Look, I realize that we live in a world where the bottom line (profit maximization) is what trumps everything else most of the time and that’s just the reality of things.  Yet, saying that “that’s just the way things are” and leaving it at that is very much a conformist cop out and in my opinion, an excuse to stay irresponsibly un-engaged, doing nothing to change the status quo.  So in some ways, the media is right: we only have ourselves to blame.  So the change must literally start with each one of us.  Thus, the first step to do something about the matter (as much of cliche as it sounds), is to raise awareness within yourself and then pass it on to others. 

Let’s start with the assumption that profit-maximization is and should be the prime driver for every decision when designating something as “worthwhile”.  In the first place, that is a very materialistic argument, which runs counter to most religious traditions that humankind has ever developed.  If religious arguments are not your thing, then let’s consider economic theory.  The assumptions about profit-maximization come from the “neo-classical synthesis” in economic theory, which as economist Robert Kuttner challenges in his paper “The Povery of Economics” (appeared on The Atlantic Monthly, February 1985 issue), has resulted in many universities’ departments of economics “graduating a generation of idiot  savants, brilliant at esoteric mathematics yet innocent of actual economic life” because they are taught to follow deduction models rather than empirical ones.  In addition, Kuttner makes the following powerful declaration (by the way, I tried to see if I could find a link online to the “Poverty of Economics” paper but I was unable to; I got my copy from a collection that is in a text I own: Philosophies of Science: From Foundations to Contemporary Issues by Jennifer McErlean, 2000, pages 276-277):

The neoclassical model assumes that economic behavior is based on the concept of “marginal utility”: individual consumers express choices by continually calculating and refining their preferences “at the margin”-the point at which they have extra dollars of income or hours of time to spend-and firms likewise make adjustments at the margin to maximize their profits.  We know these things by assumption and inference: an indivual who did not maximize his well-being would be behaving irrationally, and a firm failing to maximize profits would fall by the wayside. 

The problem with the neo-classical model is that it assumes a universal frame where people will behave rationally, and as anyone could tell you, people don’t always behave in a “rational” manner (just look at the present economic crisis and the way fear and the financial networks’ sensationalism & misinformation campaigns oftentimes make the stock market volatile).  Kuttman put it best; he dictates that the “difficulty is that economic phenoma are neither so universal nor so predictable as physical phenomena”, which is the opposite of what many neoclassical economists would have us believe.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the neoclassical economic model is all wrong (that would be like saying that Newtonian Physics is no longer applicable just because Einstein came along with the Theory of Relativity); what I have a problem with is with reducing, explaining, and justifying all human activity and motivation in terms of self-interested “profit-maximization”.   

Bringing this concept of how assumptions are taken as “that’s how the world works” or rather “common-sense” in a world of many variables, let’s go over a few examples that defied “the way the world is supposed to work.”

Star Trek

The original show of the 60’s was actually cancelled because it had “low ratings” so would that mean that the show was something that the public did not want?  Judging from the eventual huge success of the show and the subsequent franchise that it spawned, the resounding answer is “no, the show was something that the public wanted!” What we’re leaving out are some of variables that at first we might not have taken into account like:

How effectively was the show promoted?  Was the show on the air long enough to develop an audience?  Did it have the support of influencial network executives based on personal, ideological, or political reasons?  Was it attracting advertising dollars and if it did, was the money managed effectively?  Did the show have any help from a popular lead-in show? Was there an audience for the show that went untapped?  etc. etc.

Progressive Radio

If you tune in to most any AM Radio talk show, you’ll most likely hear a staunch right-wing voice on the air.  Based on this, you might assume that no other perspective (independent, left-wing, progressive, or whatever you wanna call it) attracts ratings.  The right-wing hosts would have you believe that very same assumption-in fact they repeat that inaccuracy again and again in the hopes that it will become true (they must know that as far as marketing techniques go, if you repeat something often enough, it will become “true” or “common sense”).  The fact is that progressive shows both on Radio and now on TV, are becoming ever more successful.  Yet, radio shows with successful personalities that get huge ratings are being cancelled and silenced throughout the radio dial because of politically ideological reasons. Just take a look at how progressive radio talk show host Ed Schultz is continuously beating his right-wing counterparts on the ratings and yet has been cancelled in many markets because of the way idelogically conservative right-wing leaning stations or media monopolies control the market and thus have the power to put on the air only those voices that agree with their point of view. From Ed Schultz’s words himself:

Another perfect example of programming decisions being made that have nothing to do with “ratings” or “profits” but rather with purely irrational ideological reasons is that of hugely successful and HILARIOUS radio personality Stephanie Miller:

So much for always assuming that “what’s on the air is what the people want.”

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Filed under Economics, Media Literacy, Progressive Media Personalities

Neurologically-based marketing

I came across this via a newsletter from Air America Media.  Here’s the segment that appeared on “Break Room Live” with Sam Seder & Marc Maron.  It sort of reinforces what I already pointed out in an earlier post  of mine: that sometimes messages that are designed to discourage you from using a product (like the surgeon general’s health risk warnings on cigarette packages that Martin Lindstrom talks about in the video below), actually do the opposite, that is to say, that they encourage some people to use the product.  Gotta say, the Buyology book that Mr. Lindstrom wrote sounds really interesting … I only wished that it were a required text for our class so I could have an excuse to buy it (I’m on a budget) LOL. Below is the segment that appeared on Air America Media

Break Room Live: Sam Seder Talks to a Man Who Can Make You Pay

http://airamerica.com/blog/2009/mar/24/break-room-live-sam-seder-talks-man-who-can-make-you-pay

By Beau Friedlander

Martin Lindstrom is a marketing guru and author of Buyology. Lindstrom purports to warn us about the devastating efficacy of neurologically-based marketing. This is scary stuff, and to be honest, I’m not sure his research (some of it sponsored by big corporations) is cautionary or entrepreneurial, but it’s an interesting read and foretells the future of how worthless crap will be sold in the future:

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When negatives assert and reinforce

George Lakoff's work is the alternative to conservative messaging manipulator Frank Luntz.

George Lakoff's work is the alternative to conservative messaging manipulator Frank Luntz.

Let’s say that thinking of elephants is something that I want everyone to stop doing because for some reason elephants are bad for you.  So I go ahead and say “everyone: don’t think of an elephant!”; and so everyone cannot help but think of an elephant because I used the word “elephant.”  Ironic, isn’t? 

I must confess that ever since I discovered the book “Don’t Think of an Elephant”, I have been fascinated by the dynamics of how linguistic frames work and of the subversive power of negation.  The author of that book, linguists professor, George Lakoff, explains very clearly how the dynamic works.  He provides several examples, the most powerful of all being the one about how when President Nixon said “I am not a crook”,  Nixon himself sealed his fate because all that everyone remembers him by is how he was a “crook”.  In essence, he shot himself in the foot by using a negative that just reinforced what everybody was already thinking about him: that he was a crook. 

Last week in class we touched a little on the way negation in PR campaings work.  One example was how sometimes anti-smoking ads that are produced with the tobacco industry’s money are so ridiculoulsy over-the-top that one can’t help but feel a desire (specially if one is underage or just relatively young) to just rebel against the ad and pick up a ciragette to “stick it to the man.”  It’s a pretty clever ploy that the tobacco industry’s got going on. 

I’m also reminded of just how sometimes ineffective anti-drug ads are because they are so over-the-top and so ridiculous that they achieve the opposite effect of what they set out to do.  For example, the video below shows a dog talking.  Now, after watching this video, am I supposed to understand the message that there are better things to do than smoke pot or am I getting the message that I should start smoking pot because it’ll make my dog talk … and well, how cool would that be?! 

I cannot help but remember back to a Psychology textbook (sixth edition) that I read a few years back by Carole Wade & Carol Travis.  In a section titled “When Punishment Fails” about how Operant Conditioning (for the definition of what it is go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operant_conditioning) works in real life, the book lists these two (out of six) principles (page 249):

“*Punishment conveys little information: If it immediately follows the misbehavior, punishment may tell the recipient what not to do.  But it does not communicate what the person (or animal) should do…[extrapolating this concept onto the field of advertisement, one immediately can see that in order for a message to be effective, it has to tell the recipient what action he or she should take instead of just what not to do]. 

*An action intended to punish may instead be reinforcing because it brings attention.  Indeed, in some cases, angry attention may be just what the offender is after… [extrapolating this concept onto messaging, it highlights the importance of avoiding the use of negation and instead offer an affirmative message; Nixon could have said I’m a man of integrity, instead of his infamous I’m not a crook. In messaging, by bringing attention to the very same thing we are trying to stop or get away from, we actually reinforce it by putting a verbal magnifying glass on it]”

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Messaging tips for enviro activists

Let’s say you have volunteered for a positive cause because you are a firm believer that the well-being and safety of our ourselves, our families, our communities, and our world depends on the well-being of every other human being on the planet because, well, we’re all in this together.  Maybe you have even donated money to a nonprofit organization that tries to make the world a better place.  At times, you might feel like your positive contribution to society is really making a dent towards solving the problem.  You might even be an activist when the need calls for it and go join a protest or sign a petition.  Yet at the same time you might feel like your message is not getting across people or that it is not being communicated in the local newspaper or on the local TV newscast as it should be.  Powerful moneyed interests that might have as their only interest the maximization of profit without any regard to your community’s health in mind have whole PR/Marketing Relations teams working for them.  Indeed, you might feel like your side is facing a gargantuan foe with unlimited resources while yours struggles just to survive.  For this reason, it is always encouraging to run across PR/Marketing Relations people that choose to lend your side a hand. 

I recently discovered the site http://waterwordsthatwork.com that focuses on helping environmental activists win the message wars.  The person that manages the site, Eric Eckl, is a PR/Marketing Relations specialist whose focus is to help activists that fight water pollution become more effective at communicating their pro-environment message and thus become more successful at racking up wins for the good guys.  Here’s a still shot of the site:

"Water Words That Work" is a blog that explores how nature protection and pollution control become more confident and successful whenever they set out to change everyday citizens' minds and behavior.

"Water Words That Work" is a blog that explores how nature protection and pollution control become more confident and successful whenever they set out to change everyday citizens' minds and behavior.

Mr. Eckl has a section titled “The Method” that is just filled with invaluable information on what communicating techniques to use.  The Method lists four steps: 1) begin with a focus on behavior, 2) use photos/imagery that have familial wide appeal, 3) swap the shop talk (jargon) for words that resonate more with the public, and 4) Mr. Eckl even gives you a list of terms that you can use in your narrative to fit the occasion.

He gives very clear-cut advice: always offer suggestions on personal behavior (the action item).  In the case of water pollution, a suggestion might be to use a reusable non-plastic container instead of buying water in a plastic bottle that will only be used once and end up floating in the ocean as trash; join a beach cleanup; or maybe provide the public with instructions on who to contact to put pressure on a local official to do something about the water pollution.  As far as the use of imagery, Mr. Eckl recommends to use photos of seemingly average people (preferrably families) in action, doing something to combat water pollution instead of just using pictures of say, trash floating in the river with no people around.  The point of this is to get the message across that the action item is relatable to the average person and that, yes, even you can do something about it.  Perhaps the most powerful advice that Mr. Eckl gives is that one should choose the words one uses carefully.  For example, he recommends to avoid the use of words like “water conservation” and instead use “waste prevention” or ”efficiency measures” because “The public does not associate this term [‘water conservation’] with long term, institutional scale efforts. It associates it with short showers, brown lawns, and other personal sacrifices that are acceptable as a temporary emergency measure but not a real solution to a long term problem.”  Finally, as mentioned earlier, he even has a set of terminology to use for each appropriate occasion, like when you want to introduce your work, explain the importance of an item, encourage people to act, or ask for someone’s agreement.  For the complete list of terminology, be sure to visit: http://waterwordsthatwork.com/the-method/ it is a jewel of instructions in the sea of PR/Marketing techniques!    

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Filed under Environment, Framing, Marketing

PR Campaigns For Positive Causes

Plastic bags float in green slime in Compton Creek. The trash that flows through inland waterways eventually ends up in the ocean and on the beach.

Plastic bags float in green slime in Compton Creek. The trash that flows through inland waterways eventually ends up in the ocean and on the beach.

So I am really hoping that our Communications class starts to get more into techniques on how to actually craft effective media campaigns and messages.  While I am in support of attempts to educate people on the topic of how media impacts the public and a person’s psyche, I am anxious to learn what kind of actual techniques are used (like PR micro-targeting and specific examples of messaging techniques-what works and doesn’t work).  In addition, while I am critical of media uses that have harmful effects on the public, I also believe that media can be an extremely useful tool to advance positive impacts on society. 

I’d like to share an experience that I had last year with a PR campaign that I thought was very clever but was nevertheless quite damaging to the environment (hence why I’m anxious to learn actual PR techniques so that people like me can help counter messages that do that much harm).

As you may have heard on the news, there is currently a push to increase the use of reusable bags when one goes grocery shopping.  This is so the use of single-use plastic carry out bags is diminished.  The reasons why environmental groups want to discourage the use of single-use plastic carry out bags are many, but the bottom line is that these bags pollute the environment and kill marine animals.  For a list of fact on this issue, visit this page:

http://www.healthebay.org/currentissues/ppi/theneed_bags.asp

You can also watch this CurrentTV video that summarizes the issue pretty well:

http://current.com/items/89141407/plastic_is_murder.htm

One way to discourage the use of single-use carry-out plastic bags would be to put a tax on them (and on paper bags as well-since their use are no better for the environment).  For this reason, there have been several bills in the California legislature to make this tax on plastic bags a reality. 

Now, you might think “well that sounds all good to me so who would opppose it?”

Enter the all-powerful plastic and chemistry industry.  When the plastic industry got word of the legislative attempts to decrease the use of their precious plastic bags, they VERY quickly launched a massive radio, online, and billboard ad campaign to basically kill ALL legislative attempts at curbing the use of plastic bags.  Not only did they oppose the legislation, they crafted a misinformation campaign that was so effective that it had legislators up in Sacramento shaking in their boots.  The campaign revolved around this site:

http://www.stopthebagtax.com/

They even funded a “Save The Plastic Bag Coalition” if you can believe it.  Their angle was basically this: “politicians are insensitive rat bastards that want to tax you for using plastic bags that are already being recycled.”  Now, when you put it that way, who wouldn’t agree with the plastic industry, right?  Well, that’s exactly the point.

The level of deceipt in their pro-plastic bag ads was amazing.  First off, it wasn’t “politicans” that were behind the legislation, it was actual environmental and community groups-real average people that were pushing for such legislation because they were concerned about the health of their environment and of their communities.  Second, the idea that single-use plastic bags are actually being recycled is just plain false.  There is a small percentage that is being recycled, but it is basically so tiny that it is NOT making a difference.  That is why more aggressive steps-like the legislation that was being considered, are needed to address the problem.  For an explanation of the pro-environmental stance on what happened, check out these two posts:

http://spoutingoff.wordpress.com/2008/07/29/evil-incarnate/ 

http://spoutingoff.wordpress.com/2008/07/28/compton-creek-bags-slime/

Ultimately, the solution to the platic bag problem rests in the view that “we’re all on this together”.  It’ll take all of us to tackle this problem through educational efforts, volunteer activities like beach cleanups, recycling efforts like what some grocery stores are attempting to do, AND legislative efforts to discourage their use (like the tax on plastic and paper bags).  If you take one those elements out, we will probably NOT solve the problem effectively any time soon. 

After everything was said and done, I am wondering what kind of messaging techniques the environmental groups should have used in order to counter the misinformation campaign that the plastic industry launched against them.  This was definitely a battle of the big wealthy plastic industry with big pockets against the small tiny nonprofit enfironmental/community groups.  A tale of David & Goliath indeed; but in this case, Goliath (sadly) won.

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