Saturday, 18 November 2006


In the interest of avoiding authoring another paper on the history of astronomy, I submit the following for your distraction:

Theoretically, I suppose, we are all aware that there is a distinction to be made between the folks who create, um, actual stuff, and the folks who create ads to make people want to buy that stuff. But generally, we sort of assume that there's some kind of connection between those two groups of people. For example, one person might make a new car and another person will produce a commercial about that car. (Well, okay, they're not "one person" and "another person," they're corporations and agencies, but still.) Apparently, that's not how things work at all.

Elizabeth Merrick has been creating controversy lately in relation to her book This Is Not Chick Lit, an anthology of fiction by serious female authors who (since they are serious) don't write about shopping, high heels, or purses. Apparently, there is a raging debate in the blogosphere about this (whatever "this" is. I assume it has something to do with Sex and the City, which is feminist, because the women in it both like and have sex, and which must also be chick lit, because the women in it both like and have handbags). (So I'm informed.) Given Merrick's outspoken stance against "chick lit" and all the purses that literature implies, how can we explain this invitation to the book launch?

Is this supposed to be ironic? Look at the fine print: "During the special event, receive 20% off." Irony doesn't usually come with a rebate, does it? No, I think what happened was something like this:


So, who's the expected audience for this book of yours?

Upper middle-class socialite feminists like me.

Okay, perfect.

He (duh) hangs up the phone and dials MEL GIBSON-LIKE CHARACTER FROM WHAT WOMEN WANT.

Hey, Mel, let's prepare a launch for a bunch of rich women.

No problem, Alan Alda.

He hangs up the phone and turns thoughtfully to HIS ASSISTANT (A WOMAN).

Gee, what do rich women like? Hey, I know! Shopping.

On it boss! Ooh! Can there be purses right there in the invite?

Hee hee! The humorous possibilities are endless! Oh, the antics that will ensue! Too bad this is real life!

Sadly, this is not an isolated case. There's this website run by the "Parents Television Council," which, if you can't tell from the name, is one of those groups that makes long lists of what's wrong with television (see this). They've recently decided to turn off the search feature on their site, because sponsored links were promoting the very shows PTC criticized. For example, "a search for FX's Rescue Me would get you the headline "PTC Outraged Over Graphic Rape Scenes on FX's Rescue Me"—and a helpful link advertising: "Low Prices on Rescue Me. Qualified Orders Over $25 Ship Free." " What's a little funny is that it was PTC who decided to pull the search feature. Okay, granted, those ads are inconsistent with their message. Fine. But shouldn't it have been FX that pulled their ad from the PTC site? I mean, they're the ones being criticized. Even if "there's no such thing as bad press," isn't this a slightly different, insidious, unsettling form? A few years ago, when I was editor of my high school paper, Doug Vanderweide (an editorialist for our local paper) warned me that the job was not simply to balance positive and negative coverage of issues, but also to be aware of issue framing: the choices about which issues were being included and which excluded. That was the first time I understood the hidden power of editors, and at the same time, the role of corporate ownership and sponsorship in journalism suddenly became a bit clearer. Over the years, practical guidelines have arisen--in stories about GE, NBC discloses that GE is their "parent company", for example--but the issue has never disappeared. Maybe it has disappeared now, though, and on the internet advertisers and content editors no longer have to do the money-credibility dance. Maybe editors can be independent in their decisions about which story to publish--and what spin to give it. Maybe advertisers can just look at PageRank(TM) statistics and readership surveys to figure out where to place ads--without worrying about what relevance their ads have to the content, or the content to the ads. And that's great. Right?

Maybe what is really happening here is that all of this automates the old advertising checks versus balance-in-reporting equation. Clearly, computers make the advertising decisions. Statistically, I bet they're good at it. I bet the ads are just as cost-effective when they're splattered on pro and con reviews of their own or competitors products. That can be scary or comforting--maybe it indicates positive correlation between repeated exposure and likely purchase, regardless of positive or negative associations (scary), or maybe it indicates that people actually weigh evidence and make choices for themselves (comforting). In either case, though, issue framing is still present. If CNET never writes a story about Apple Computer, probably the computers will stop putting Apple Computer ads on the site. The editors know this, so they're probably going to continue to write stories about Apple Computer. The really scary part is that humans have been removed from the advertising side of the equation. Computers decide where to put the ads. We can intervene, but first we have to notice that there's a problem. If the Merrick and PTC stories are any indication, I'm not sure that's a job for humans or computers.

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