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July 15, 2010
News You Might Not Want to Use
 
Now that marketers and agencies create content, are we replacing real news?
 
Recently, a friend and I were discussing the nature of information and truth in today’s world. Or rather, the fact that no one can agree on the facts anymore.
 
We, as a culture, place increasingly less trust in media, government, science, industry, leaders, teachers, clergy, and pretty much any other cornerstone of society. If we do have a sense of trust, we trust only those sources that enforce our already-held views of things. Climate change, evolution, economics, health and disease issues, even historical events -- you name the topic: Just swing a chicken, and you’re bound to hit a skeptic.
 
What does this have to do with advertising? Plenty. Because now marketers are becoming sources of trust and authority -- and using all sorts of media tactics to do it. Ad agencies can either play a key role in this or hang on for a bumpy ride to irrelevancy.
 
We’ve moved from beyond just making and releasing ads to filling the media pipelines with all sorts of information. Whether it’s one-way communication or two-way dialogue, brands are putting more authoritative voices out there, with very little real accountability for the quality or accuracy of them.
 
Think about it: How many brands have ads that attempt to lure you to a Web site to “get the facts?" How many marketers sponsor sites, e-newsletters, videos, or plant stories in the news media to get their agenda across?
 
I read recently about an environmental information Web site whose main sponsors where multinational corporations. That doesn’t automatically dismiss the validity of the content, but it does make you wonder a little. Since that news and information, or the overused “C” word -- content -- spiders out everywhere, to blogs, social media sites, old-school newspapers, and other sources, it’s simply impossible to know whether there’s any credibility to it or who’s accountable for it.
 
If you’re developing anything at all for clients beyond traditional print and broadcast ads, I’ll bet you’ve come across this client desire to push more information out to a semi-receptive public.
 
I’ve had any number of clients who desperately wanted to communicate some form of message like “trust us, we’re experts.” Some wanted to project an air of impartiality in their business category, or to use the catchphrase du jour, they wanted to be “thought leaders.” Yet they rarely wanted to take strong positions, or use powerful language to communicate the positions they were comfortable taking. These “thought leaders” simply never had any interesting, well, thoughts. You can guess how compelling their messages turned out to be.
 
Some brands, however, are locked in a battle to win consumers. The battle becomes even more heated when it’s a product under serious criticism. Take high-fructose corn syrup, a cheap sugar substitute you’ll find in foods in every section of the grocery store. Many scientists believe high-fructose corn syrup affects our bodies differently than refined sugar, but the folks who manufacture HFCS will argue otherwise -- on TV, in letters to the editor, and even on Twitter. The debate pits scientist against scientist and expert against expert, many of whom have their own agendas to push.
 
One of my favorite quotes comes from author Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.” In a world where facts are malleable, brands can step in and dictate the facts. We don’t believe experts anymore. We don’t know what qualifies someone to be an expert. Frankly, the door is wide open for marketers to exploit this -- because we don’t even trust our news media to tell us the truth. They tell us a version of the truth.
 
Advertising hasn’t had a credibility problem because it generally hasn’t had any credibility. Not to say it’s completely bull----, but when consumers see advertising, they know the drill -- they’re getting sold a point of view from the company that’s paying for it. Now, with branded content, news and information Web sites wholly sponsored by companies, the lines are getting murkier.
 
Brands manufacturing their own “news you can use” also means there aren’t a lot of rules and objectivity to adhere to, so we have plenty of chances to advocate for a company or its products. For an advertising agency willing to immerse itself in a client’s business, it’s a ripe opportunity if the agency is willing to hire the right people who understand how to put those types of programs together.
 
There’s also a risk: A world full of self-proclaimed experts and brands that proclaim ultimate authority will not actually have any credibility. When you attempt to establish an air of authority so quickly, it can vanish just as quickly. Think of how many brands launched strong “manifesto”-like ad campaigns only to let them disappear months later.
 
But since advertising agencies need new sources of income and want to build more trust with clients, I think you’ll see more ad agencies get into the news, information, and content business, particularly as new campaigns have more interactive and social components. A lot of it is traditional PR work -- but advertising and PR hasn’t always played well in the same sandbox. Many ad agencies won’t let PR firms take over a huge chunk of potential revenue.
 
It’s going to be incredible. Even if it’s not credible. 


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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 


Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

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