by E.F Nicholson
Whether we like it or not, our ever increasing participation in the world of consumption allows us to be sliced and diced by advertisers into increasingly sophisticated demographic wedges. The advertising and brand-awareness industry adopt “cradle to grave” strategies that aim to massage the public through every demographic group, squeezing the maximum amount of money from us at each stage. Corporations getting into the minds of their target audience is big business. A huge amount of thought and planning goes into how those interactions take place and the impact they have on the consumer.
Companies like Coca-Cola and McDonalds invest massive amounts of money to accessing their key demographic and building their brand loyalty. Yet it is interesting to note that even if you are someone who dislikes Coke for its unethical dealing, would never eat McDonalds for similar reasons, are an educated professional that actually has genuine interest in the betterment of the planet and have some passion about justice and equality, these personal qualities also make you a unique demographic ripe for targeting. For some corporations, a citizen’s sense of disenfranchisement and cynicism presents just another opportunity to exploit for further financial gain. Twenty two years ago, Rage Against the Machine put out the hit “Killing in the name of.” Signed by Epic records, a subsidiary of Sony, their “Fuck you” anthem, intended to resist the system, was in fact enriching the very said system. Corporations are perfectly OK with citizens yelling out “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me”, as long as they can make money from it. Anti-status-quo or progressive sentiments don’t spare people from the reach of advertising’s hungry appetite for attention and money. Indeed, “progressives” are actually a very important and lucrative demographic that companies will pay big figures for the opportunity to inoculate in their own inane product narrative. A bigger seller of access to this unique and lucrative demographic is the Guardian Media group. The Guardian media group promotes itself to its loyal readership
“as the modern, progressive, exciting challenger to the status-quo..”
I remember myself in my early 20s feeling some smug pride as I rode the tube in London reading my copy of “The Guardian”. Back then, I identified myself as a “Guardian reader” and saw the paper as expressing my idealism and my political views. Coming from Brisbane, Australia, where literally every single newspaper, national and local, is owned by the Murdoch press, to me The Guardian was a breath of fresh air. It seemed a rare voice, along with the Independent, to provide real news and some actual progressive view of global and current affairs. Over time I grew out of this identification, but I am sure there are still millions who haven’t realised that the Guardian, like any other brand, targets our sense of trust and identity in the pursuit of profit.
What this creates from an advertiser’s point of view is a very loyal and committed demographic group whose trust and loyalty to the newspaper can be exploited. So, somewhere along the line, you begin to ask “Is the desire to be a voice of progressive and independent journalism a genuine one, or does it represent a carefully crafted image that is more concerned with attracting lucrative advertising contracts than about informing the public?”
My view is that it while it may be a bit of both, the latter determines what gets published. If you click on the link in the advertisers’ section inside the Guardian website, you immediately see how their loyal readership is sold to the advertisers. The advertisers’ packages start off with an introduction about what The Guardian is all about (emphasis added).
Passionately committed to quality journalism, photography and design, the Guardian is the most modern and vibrant newspaper in the country. The Guardian’s vision is to offer independent, agenda-setting content that positions us as the modern, progressive, exciting challenger to the status-quo. The Guardian is consistently innovative, actively encouraging debate and exerting influence. The Guardian’s brand stands fundamentally for taking a fresh approach: we are modern, individual and sometimes unconventional. Healthily sceptical, but not cynical, the Guardian is confident, intelligent and investigative.
This definition creates an immediate cognitive dissonance. The paper has to strike a tricky balance between presenting itself to its readership as a progressive voice, a “challenger to the status quo” and doing so in a way that it still creates an “advertiser-friendly environment” for its advertisers.
The Guardian will challenge the status quo as long as it’s not the part of the status quo that upholds a corporate-controlled mass media and the capitalist ideology that goes with that. It will be sceptical but not cynical about issues as long as those issues don’t threaten to damage their advertiser-friendly environment. This combination of trying to have progressive journalism and trying to ensure an advertiser-friendly space must create immediate limits on how progressive the newspaper really can be. Can journalism that doesn’t fundamentally challenge the capitalist model which is at the root of inequality and the destruction of the planet really be called “progressive”? It’s like the old joke, “what looks like a frog, has eyes like a frog, had a face like a frog, but isn’t a frog”? Well, it is a picture of a frog. So, too, with the Guardian: we get a picture or an image of progressiveness but not actual progressiveness.
As one digs further into the paper’s advertising material and research, a picture begins to emerge of an advertising paradigm that seeks to appropriate and incorporate “ethics” and “political awareness”, both themes Guardian readers identify with. These, in turn, become hooks to draw the readership into a safe and trusted space where advertisers can engage in their manipulative brand indoctrination. In fact, advertisers are encouraged by the Guardian to hijack both personal and media narratives to create a new generation of brand loyalists. In the “Advertise with us” section the content below is being used to inform potential clients of the Top 10 future opportunities that advertisers can exploit
With money not being able to buy happiness, there has been an increased focus on personal well-being. “Mood of the Nation” research found that brands had a role to play in improving people’s level of happiness by being ethical, empowering people to be more active and unexpected acts of kindness. In 2014, we will see more brands differentiating themselves from competition by influencing how people feel.
The paragraph is a study in contradiction: its logic is that while money can’t buy happiness, material possessions and purchases (“brands”) from companies that pretend to care can raise the readers’ (sense or illusion of) happiness.
A section of the follow-up article in the paper’s Advertising: Digital Media Trends blog titled “The brands are coming to make us all happy” goes on to celebrate the notion that “brands can influence consumer happiness” as follows:
This is certainly taking off in the digital world, from apps such as Kiip which allow brands to reach users during moments of elation (imagine Coca-Cola offering you a voucher after completing a particularly tricky level on Candy Crush Saga) to more tangible products, such as the mobile phone case ‘Feeling Skin,’ which glows to indicate the mood of your friends’ messages. This all seems to be heading in one direction and start-up company Affectiva may be the first to offer a glimpse into the mobile advertising future. Their Affdex product could enable real-time emotion tracking to be built into your mobile phone camera, so if you turn your nose up at a McDonald’s ad, it could change to show you one for KFC instead.
Needless to say, a truly progressive media outlet would be lambasting this type of intrusiveness, not promoting it. Instead, in a disturbing indicator of the dominant agenda, the Guardian’s journalist positively praises corporate intention to exploit every key emotional moment, hijack every spontaneous bit of happiness and use it as an “in” to sell their ‘ethical brand’. “My dad just died.” Aww, poor thing, here is some Kleenex. “I really like that girl.” Maybe you need to try our deodorant. “I think I am going to kill myself.” Before you do, you might consider this legal firm to help you write your will.
This entirely cynical model promotes the idea that each and every moment of our lives is a financial opportunity for advertisers to connect with and extract profit from. The Guardian, which presents itself as a bastion of progressive journalism, shows itself a champion of this model of brand indoctrination and emotional manipulation. In reality, then, the Guardian is selling the status quo, not challenging it.
Guardian Media can’t have it both ways. It can’t appoint itself as the voice of independence and progressiveness while serving the sociopathic needs of large corporations and pimping out its readership to one of the most insidious and destructive forces of the last century. As Medialens.org succinctly point out in one of their pieces on The failure of the Left
Imagine the impact of reading an article on climate change by a Monbiot or a Jones and then turning the page to an American Airlines advert for reduced-fare flights to New York. Or imagine turning to the front cover of a colour supplement that reads:
‘Time is running out… Ski resorts are melting… Paradise islands are vanishing… So what are you waiting for? 30 places you need to visit while you still can – A 64-page Travel Special.’ This concussive car crash of reality and illusion – of calls for action to address a grave crisis alongside calls to quit worrying and embrace the consumerism that has precisely created the crisis – delivers a transcendent message that the crisis isn’t that serious, things aren’t that bad.
We need progressive voices and we need independent ideas which are not co-opted by or partnered with advertisers. When we see it in the starkest light, the Guardian’s Chardonnay activism puts them in the same destructive camp as Fox News and other Murdoch press. Although the Guardian may appeal to readers with a different political ideology and although the paper, in its conceit, may view itself as much more highbrow than Fox News, its prevailing message is the same: “Relax, buy things, buy more things, because everything will be ok.”