May 22, 2008

Truth and lies in media marketing

by Brian Turner

Seth Godin makes a point that great marketers tell great stories – great stories form the basis of their great marketing.

But at no point has “truth” ever been a compulsory element of that story-telling – certainly judging by past performance of marketing, not least with regards to engaging media.

It’s a method that has long been embraced in public relations – that of trying to make positive aspects gain feature coverage, spin bad press into good press, and get coverage of stories.

Governments, the military, other public bodies, and private business have long made this a part of their marketing policy.

The aim has rarely been to tell truth, as much as project a particular interest in a controlled manner.

Media control and manipulation

Politicians exaggerate their achievements, mislead their voters, and bury bad news when they can.

The military carefully control and restrict communications channels, so that only their sanitised briefings can be regarded as fact, and spin what they have as much as they can.

And corporate PR has never been interested in distinguishing between truth and lies – the whole remit is to spin public perception of their interests.

Of course, we haven’t even got into the sales aspect of sales and marketing, which is focused solely on getting cash out of pockets. Truth in the sales message is disposable.

None of this seems to faze traditional media – press releases form the basis of news stories, public relations spokespeople provide the context for writing it, propaganda is routinely reported on without change or comment.

Remaining reportage is routinely given over to stories which are fabricated – ranging anywhere from harmless entertainment pieces to outright libel.

And ads fill the spaces in-between on the sole basis of having been paid for, rather than the advertising claims are true, decent, or properly representative of actual facts.

It’s not just a problem restricted to the media – it’s an issue inherent within modern society that truth has become a commodity to shape and trade with.

Is it any wonder then that one of the rallying cries of social media was to wade through this and find objective truth among the subjective spin through the process of citizen journalism?

Yet the sad fact is that social media sites have become nothing more than news aggregators – usually sourcing the same big main sites they are critical of.

The only unique dimension they add is to allow commentary from anybody willing to provide it, and this means that further interests are served as they try to manipulate it.

Marketing and media manipulation

Spinning lies as truth is not restricted to public relations agencies, though – it’s been an inherent part of marketing for as long as I’ve observed.

I was speaking to Neil Gaiman last year and he mentioned walking into a bookstore, part of a national chain, and pleased to see that his new book had made the Top 10 bestseller list.

Until his agent told him that the slot had been paid for.

It’s long been railed at that editorials – whether magazines, newspapers, or blogs – are bought and sold for marketing purposes.

I know my corporate clients pay journalists to write nice things about them in national newspapers.

In addition, press agencies routinely try and provide stories which may not be inherently true, but true only to a point as much as serves the party’s interests.

And if all that wasn’t bad enough, the media routinely creates and distributes content that is fabrication, speculation, and plain sensationalism. It even runs under its own designation of “tabloid journalism“.

News: reliant on self-interested communications

No US tanks in Iraq!

I have a number of news publishing interests, and I am routinely contacted by press agencies seeking to correct “errors” in the reporting.

Sometimes it’s a clear issue of a writer misunderstanding, misqouting, or confusing figures.

Sometimes it’s a clear issue of the press agency trying to spin information to their advantage.

Last July, I had a spokesman from Northern Rock call me up, quite angry that suggestions of sub-prime exposure in an article I published. A couple of weeks later, the company was crippled by sub-prime exposure and had to be nationalised by the government.

Another time, I received a legal notice via FedEx from a New York lawyer – apparently, we had published a reference to a certain high-profile individual as facing a fraud suit by the New York Attorney’s office. The lawyer wanted the reference removed because the person had not yet been found guilty.

I called the attorney’s office from the UK, got my facts straight, then removed the reference to alleged fraud – instead replacing it with his actual conviction record, which was probably more impressive.

The bottom line from all this is clear – media are a gamed community, sometimes publishing outright untruths for entertainment value, for the sake of a story, or because they are reliant on communications from self-interested parties telling half-truths or even face-saving lies.

The internet as a media outlet

Google was a links-driven search engine

Recently Lyndon Antcliff announced that he had produced a piece of linkbait for online media, only for offline media to take it up in spades.

As linkbait, it succeeded brilliantly – but the story was fabricated, and for this Lyndon was pilloried for “deceiving” the media.

What some people don’t seem to realise is that “fabrication” is an inherent part of link baiting.

While some genuinely interesting content may naturally make it’s way to a website for social media marketing, let’s face the truth: this is often artificial content outside of the site’s normal remit, and built for no other reason than to game social media. Entertainment is prioritised over truth.

In a world where journalist’s use Digg stories as a their sole reference, and make no effort to substantiate the facts, the only people being duped if these stories are carried to the wider world are the journalist’s readers, and the journalists themselves are to blame.

Lyndon’s recent linkbait worked so well because it tapped into a tabloid vein that tabloid writers were happy to draw from.

But as already covered, media exists to serve self-interested parties, and truth has never gotten in the way of a good sensationalist story.

So should internet marketers be telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

Search marketers – manipulating the web everyday

The irony is that it was people within the search marketing industry who were vocally critical of Lyndon’s linbait.

These are the same people who game Google for SEO purposes, push down negative reports on clients as part of Online Reputation Management, game social media for traffic, and all in all – manipulate the internet according to their own set interests.

Therefore when search marketers complain about others manipulating the web and or media, at best it can be described as hypocrisy, at worst, plain ignorance about the influence of marketing on media, whether offline or across the internet medium.

Truth and lies in media marketing

Anyone with a hint of cynicism, social conscience, and general awareness of the state of the world will see the influence of marketing agendas is rampant in media.

How far should our own roles online embrace this?

In the capacity of marketers, marketing agendas must be served, and that means any adherence to truth becomes entirely relative.

Clients pay marketers to serve their interests, and marketers either accept any individual project remit and move on.

That doesn’t mean to say that marketing is inherently about deceit, or that internet marketers have no morals.

But let’s be clear that all marketing requires some degree of spin, and the degree from truth that this spin takes will always vary accordingly.

Moral decisions to accept or reject are personally made, and marketing decisions do not adhere to objective standards of “truth”.

I have my own moral standards that I apply to my work.

I won’t take on certain types of business, work with companies that provide poor customer experience, or engage in marketing methods where I believe people may be hurt in some way: physically, emotionally, financially, spiritually.

I know other marketers have their own standards, and this will vary from individual to individual.

I think it’s important that when condemning marketing manipulation we do so on its relative merits.

There’s a big difference between the US military bombing a wedding party and claiming it to be a terrorist group, and a tabloid newspaper publishing a fabricated story intended to humour.

As a point of idealism, we should be aware of our place of individuals to shape and change the world for the better.

But we also need to be grounded in realism, and that where immediate work priorities have to be made, they have to be made in context of the conditions, aims, and requirements.

After all, all marketing is spin. You can either accept or reject that.

At the end of the day, that remains the only truth.

Discuss this in the Internet Business forums

Story link: Truth and lies in media marketing


4 Responses to “Truth and lies in media marketing”

  1. Lyndon Antcliff on May 22nd, 2008 10:35 am

    Best write up so far on this issue.

    Storytellers are crucial to the marketing mix and good ones get amazing results and can charge high prices for their work.

  2. Gregor Spowart on May 22nd, 2008 11:59 am

    What a well thought out and well written piece of writing.

    The outcry against Lyndon has been interesting to follow – I suspect that The Sun newspaper couldn’t care less about whether that or any other story in their newspaper is factually accurate. It gave them a story to stick in their newspaper without them having to expend any effort.

    I’m not entirely sure why people in the SEM community were so upset about this whole thing. Were they upset that they were duped or were they upset by proxy on behalf of other people? Think of the children!!! Or were they upset that they have never managed to achieve such success?

    Thank you for exploring the wider picture and the effect that marketing has on our ‘completely impartial’ media.


  3. john andrews on May 23rd, 2008 6:14 pm

    Thanks Brian. This is an excellent example of why blogs are better than aggregator sites. It is also an excellent example of your briliance in this field… no one could have put this together so quickly unless they had a team of collaborators or were deeply insightful about this Internet marketing industry. Kudos.

    I’m sure JillDanRand Associates will now say I agreed with you that marketing is about lying.. which I do not. But that’s how it works, isn’t it? Frame the issue as you need to, in order to influence your audience? And that is what you are saying here, right? That it’s not new news but old news?

    I don’t blame people for choosing to live blindly. Reality is often distasteful. In my view, they also miss much beauty, which is the reward for accommodating the ugliness. But, when you push your beliefs onto others, you enter a different realm and take on additional responsibilities. It’s so much like religion, eh?

    Poor Lyndon, even after all these years in SEO world, wasn’t rewarded enough by the system and felt the need to talk about his success. A classic tragic flaw…will we see tarnishing of or the raising of the GoogleStick to complete the Tragedy?

  4. Brian Turner on May 26th, 2008 12:00 pm

    Thanks for the comments – and indeed, I’m surprised by the hostility that erupted. If marketers aren’t spinning something, then what are they doing?

    I think partly it’s because not everyone is familiar with the situation, but I remember when the SEO known as “hulk” was rumbled with a major fake story a few years ago.

    However, Alek provided detailed traffic breakdowns on sources – useful. He also donated money earned from charity – good.

    I wonder if had Lyndon done similar, the reaction would have been significantly different?

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