Monday, November 10, 2003

Cyber-mob Rule

Jeff Jarvis thinks that the public uproar over the Reagan mini-series and CBS’s reaction is a bad thing. Really bad. The blogosphere is not acting like a pack-- it’s a herd that has become a "mob". Mobs are dangerous-- scary dangerous. All of us should be worried.

Stifle the gloating again, blog mob. For you may think this is good news -- ding, dong, the big media witch is dead... it's melting, it's melting! Or at least: The big guys are listening at last!
But it's not good news. It's bad for media, old and new. It's bad for the republic.

As a conservative, I distrust the mob. As a student of history, I also know that mobs do not appear spontaneously and that not every large gathering is an unthinking mob. Usually, before the herd can become a mob there must be some underlying grievances that those in power are unwilling or unable to address.

The first point Jarvis overlooks is that the uproar was not just pro-Reagan or conservative; it was also pro-truth and anti-lying. Conservatives often criticize liberal programming without calling for boycotts. The West Wing has been pumping out Clinton/Gore talking points for four years. It has been criticized (as I did here)but did not provoke widespread outrage. The Reagan mini-series was a special case because it used fictional events to create a portrait of the Reagans that was contradicted by real events.

If the mob was wrong-- if the mini-series was a well-done, fully rounded portrait with real merit-- then why didn’t CBS stick to its guns and broadcast it? They would have won praise for their courage and would have demonstrated that the critics were just trying to incite the mob.

Jarvis acts as though only the mob can censor or restrict programming. He is not that naive. Networks and studios make decisions everyday that shape what we see on TV. One reason conservatives were angry is that they knew CBS or Miramax will never fund a Clinton mini-series that is as shoddy, exploitive and dishonest as the Reagan drama. No one is going to base a prime time movie on Gary Aldrich’s book or The American Spectator’s reporting.

Terry Teachout was astute to highlight the role of new technology in shaping this controversy and its outcome. Those forces won’t go away just because CBS tossed the program to Showtime. The effects may not always be as visible as the Reagan-fireworks, but they will be real and long-lasting.

Most mass market advertising is designed to build and maintain brand equity. A large part of that equity is in the minds of consumers. It is not just that a car is more reliable or roomier-- it is also more refined, or cool, or the choice of smart buyers.

Much of our thinking about brands is fuzzy and confused. We have a hard time measuring what works, what consumers really think, how much knowledge customers have. Faced with such large unknowns brand marketers simply focus on putting their advertising in front of viewers/readers. In general, the demographic of the audience matter a lot; the nature of the programming does not.

Obviously, networks like this approach: sponsors do not worry too much about the content that surrounded their ads. Counting eyeballs by demo group is the main type of analysis.

This model is not eternal. In the early days of television sponsors owned and produced the programs. (Hence soap operas).

Nor are advertisers always indifferent to the vehicle that carried their message. The New Yorker’s prestige makes it attractive beyond its demographics while Penthouse struggles to draw mainstream advertisers despite its large readership.

Both advertisers and consumers are gaining more awareness about each other. Consumers used to know who advertised on shows they watched; now they know who advertises on shows they hate or which mock their deeply-held beliefs. Ironically, this "media awareness" is promoted by magazines like Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide-- places Jarvis used to work.

Advertisers always have exploited celebrity endorsements to help their brand (Nike-Michael Jordan). They know that when a celebrity gets into trouble there can be negative fallout for their product (Nike-Kobe). Now advertisers have to assess media buying decisions as potential endorsements with upside and downside risks.

For networks the problem is that the risks grow out of consumer's perceptions. Cozy arrangements between ad salesmen and advertising agencies can’t survive if the advertiser pays too much attention to customers and if customers tell advertisers what they think of the shows they sponsor.

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