Excerpt from the new Amazon almost best-seller
Media Collusion: Journalism and Marketing Experts Share the Secrets of Sneaky Advertising, Targeted Persuasion, AI and Tracking, Political Deception and Coercion, and Dishonest News
If you were born between 1930 and 2000, you were forced to deal with some of the most striking media changes known to any generation that preceded it.
Some of this change had to do with technological, tool or equipment changes. I was born in 1968. My parents typed on manual typewriters when they were growing up – you know, the kind with the lever mechanisms that strike with a beautiful snappy micro-thud. They dictated notes to cassette tapes that were transcribed by secretaries and transcription services.
I typed on an IBM Selectric typewriter that had a wonderful spinning ball in it that was fast at punching up the characters. Most of my classmates used these throughout the late 70’s and early 80’s.
I got my first computer when I was 9, because my dad was an early PC programmer. This was 1977. The computer was the Apple II+, which was the 2nd generation, basically, one removed from the garage-hacker Apple I.
If you were born past 1988, you probably don’t remember much about times without the internet, which came into widespread prominence in 1992-1993 with the Mosaic browser (or earlier if you had access to academic labs).
Word processing with something like Microsoft Word or Wordstar (throwback) was still very similar to throwing a piece of paper into a typewriter, adjusting the margins and then hammering out the document. Spell check and cut & paste, however, brought things to a whole new level. You could sprint with a document then edit it later without having to stop and correct things with Liquid Paper. Digital cut & paste made editing and reworking documents even easier (this feature would gain even more significance when the web opened up a world of other resources).
Pre-internet research involved going to libraries and looking things up in physical books, then getting that information into a word processing document manually. It was time consuming to say the least, and we didn’t have access to “global search.” I’m not talking about search engine searches yet. Global search was a concept that came out of early CD-ROMs. These were the pre-DVD discs that typically held 700MB of data. Almost a Gigabyte. Encyclopedia-style publishers put all kinds of reference materials onto CD-ROMs and later read/write DVDs. The idea that you could search a huge volume of texts and images with a keyword was the big breakthrough.
Simultaneously, the young internet was emerging along with its ability to search articles, documents and other academic archives via tools like AltaVista, Excite, Infoseek, Ask Jeeves and Yahoo!. Google (and later Bing) would replace all of those.
These days, important search technology developments are happening around helper devices like the Amazon Echo, Google Home, Siri and Google Now. Interestingly, since the commercialization of the web, which started in the mid to late 1990’s, another important search tool has come into prominence – Amazon. If anyone is searching for a product these days, they often skip Google and head straight to Amazon, since Amazon carries almost every product in the world, and Amazon Prime members can get products shipped free with their subscription to the service. This is a problem for Google. Alexa voice search and Google Home’s “ok Google” functions are becoming critically competitive.
The commercialization of the web, by the way, took slowly and now allows everyone to find, order and get products delivered via phone, tablet and desktop browser. This wasn’t always the way it was, and it took a long time for people to get used to trusting e-commerce sites with their credit card or banking info. E-Commerce sites also took quite a long time to get to their current level of competency and ease-of-use. Some still suck, but it’s generally easy for anyone with some simple web development skills to set up a highly usable shopping cart system and e-commerce site. It took roughly 20 years to get us to this trusted online shopping state.
Google’s YouTube needs to be discussed, as well. It’s the #2 “search engine” in the world behind Google. More and more, people start their web searches with YouTube, and while it’s technically not a web search engine, we often treat it as such. This is especially the case when we’re looking for ways to do things (like cook, solve software problems, or figure out features in programs like Photoshop) and when we’re looking for entertaining, funny or newsworthy videos that we’ve heard about. People look for product reviews and product comparisons on YouTube, as well. It’s not really searching the whole web, but it could be argued that it’s searching almost the entire web of video content. By the way, “according to a report by Defy Media, about 63% of millennials would try a product or brand recommended by a YouTube personality, compared to 48% who said the same about a TV or movie star.” (Fortune Magazine, April 18, 2018)
So, what does all this have to do with media? Why are media and commerce so tightly linked?
If you look at the history of advertising, it evolved as a media-product partnership. Most general media publications like newspapers and magazines, financed their operations with advertising. This included radio and TV programming, which historically were a little different than print publications. We’ll get into more of that later when we discuss the FCC and broadcast licensing. Also, when we mention internet publications here, we’re now talking about everything, including YouTube channels, blogs, SoundCloud pages, Instagram accounts, Facebook pages, subscription sites, and on and on. Some of these are financed by advertising, some are funded by donations and subscriptions, and some are totally free and ad-free. The free ones are often supported by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other types of non-profit organizations. Examples of these include the Ford Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the American Red Cross, Planned Parenthood, MoveOn.org, and United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Now, with the internet, commercial interests and digital publications (everything web) are even more tightly integrated and more loosely policed. Back in the days of regionally monopolistic newspaper publications, for example, editors went to great pains to separate what was reported in the publication from what the advertisers were doing (sometimes compared to the separation of church and state). This line blurred when specialty and trade magazines started to tie article content to advertiser interests. You see this quite often in community magazines that promote local shopping, food, entertainment and other lifestyle articles. There’s a known “pay-to-play” model where advertisers get editorial coverage when they purchase ads. It’s part of the ad buy package. Sophisticated, serious newspapers didn’t do this, but the magazines went all in on this trend. It was a great way to make a local publication profitable while promoting local businesses. My first introduction to this was when I was writing a business column for a local Orange County, California magazine called Coast Magazine. The job was to go out and interview local businesses then write up cute stories about them for the Bizz Buzz column. Each business that advertised in the magazine was granted one Bizz Buzz interview and publication. That’s paid editorial. You get a perk – a snappy ego-column focused around the business’s owner written by a budding journalist – thrown in with your expensive ad buy. It’s a bit disingenuous for the readers, however. When I wrote the column, I reviewed the business in glowing terms. Same with the restaurant and gallery reviews. They were all paid advertisers, so there was no way a negative comment or tip was ever going to make it into those pages. The original owner of that magazine had a philosophy, by the way, which fit very nicely with the business model: If you don’t have something good to say, don’t print it.
Let’s backtrack a little bit and talk more about the recent history of publishing technology. When we talked about the Gutenberg press, we mentioned how difficult and time consuming it was to set type, deal with ink and print documents in large quantities. When Apple was a young company, they created a computer called the Lisa which would eventually evolve into the MacIntosh. The first Mac computers were a breakthrough for the publishing world. Those computers offered users fonts, typesetting tools, and layout tools in digital form – making previous physical layout and design practices obsolete. The term used for this was “desktop publishing,” where the term desktop meant desktop computer or PC. If you’re interested in printing, there were all kinds of other developments along the way, like photocopying and mimeographing, that you can look into. Wikipedia has a great entry on all of it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_printing
So, the Apple Macintosh computer could be considered the first chink in the armor of the traditional publishing model. That model includes radio, TV, theater and Internet. The “democratization of publishing” enabled via desktop publishing would evolve along a hockey stick graph as computers, printers, storage devices, software, cameras, cell phones, and networking (eventually the Internet) evolved.
Here’s how it looks:
(one to many)
(many to many)
Nothing changed about the human experience itself. We still have the same senses and skills required to view all this new content. We’re readers, watchers and listeners. But the delivery systems and availability of content changed. With the many to many model of the internet, choice increased along with the number of voices, the intensity and crudeness of ideas, the effect of virality, and a whole host of other unintended consequences. The very interactivity of web discourse allowed the viewer to participate in the TV show to some degree. Comment posts and live discussion involved audiences over the network.
One interesting outgrowth of this phenomenon was how the practice of “trolling” so common on the internet made its way into old school programming like local broadcast newscasts (Trolls criticize, disrupt and generally bad-mouth posts and other comment threads online). You can see all kinds of broadcast troll videos on YouTube. A lot of them involve breaking into live broadcasts with vulgar or sexually explicit outbursts on camera. This kind of behavior wasn’t previously common, and it was likely not considered civilized or appropriate for public display. Internet trolling practices paved the way for it, however, and the internet’s archiving of the events encouraged them even more. It was quite a remarkable thing to behold.
So, what has changed? What’s the difference between the old and new formats?
Traditional Broadcast & Publishing
Audience/readers have no commenting control (outside letters to editor pages).
Audience participates in the message via direct feedback/commenting and click, share, like, retweet popularity signaling. Sentiment signaling is also tracked via various web tools.
Large corporate organization develops and manages content development. This takes lots of time, preparation, research and expensive equipment and staff.
A mix of large, medium, small and micro-entities right down to an individual with a camera in a basement who produces content, sometimes spontaneously.
Entities are directly connected with and responsible for what kinds of advertising they publish and allow. Sales teams have direct relationships with the advertisers. Ads are often created by publishers, as well. They have the design teams available, for example, to develop ads for businesses.
Publishers often don’t know who is advertising on their pages and in what specific geographies and markets. Google actually controls this. E.g. some major publications had to pull Google ads because they realized way too late that Google was running ads counter to their editorial policies on web pages and YouTube channels.
Advertisers have influence over programming (direct and indirect).
Advertisers have influence over where their ads show up based on keyword, demographic and geographic data. Psychographic data also come into play. Advertisers can pick what kind of person they want their ad to be placed in front of. There’s also some thinking that they can pick what state of mind that person is in. The Facebook and Google models drive this. Advertisers may or may not know or realize where their ads are running, especially when they’re doing large ad buys that span the web (banner ads, display ads, sidebars, etc.).
Publishers guard and inflate subscription numbers and viewership/listener confirmation is difficult to track and validate (Nielsen ratings). Stacks of magazines go unread at coffee shops, for example.
Bots and click farms give false impressions of the popularity of specific content and the ads within.
A bot is a script or computer program that automates human behaviors across the web (clicks, likes, re-Tweets, etc.).
A click farm is a group of people on computers that manually does the same things a bot does.
Advertising displays at “point of sale” (POS), on billboards, in relevant contexts (at a baseball game, for example), on buses, in the sky, wrapped around automobiles, in products (cereal), in meals (Happy Meals), in movies and TV shows (product placement), and more.
Web and mobile ads display in relation to contextual changes. Advertisers can buy targeted ads and/or “push” ads that appear when specific behaviors or geographical events transpire on mobile networks – in a mobile Facebook feed or another installed phone app. Amazon can show an ad when a person is at a Best Buy, for example. Geofencing is the name for this concept. Ads also follow you around the web based on products and topics you’ve looked at. This doesn’t always work well. You’re sometimes hit with ads about something you’ve already purchased.