Contraception: worth talking about, but very quietly please

Obviously, sex sells. Ad breaks are full of it, explicit and implied – writhing perfume models, the jeans left grass stained by a hot date that only the right detergent can save, flirtatious chocolate-shilling sensualists – and basically that’s fine with me. If advertisers’ didn’t have sex, Christ knows what kind of terrifying methods they’d turn to instead for convincing us to buy stuff.

But in between the nudging, winking and occasional panting, wouldn’t it be nice if sometimes the message seeped through that sex is normal? Something you could talk about calmly, and even plan for – rather than just spritzing some body spray and hoping for the right result. That was the implication of the Department Of Health’s “Contraception: Worth Talking About” ad series. So how come this radio ad (below) has just been criticised by the ASA as too strong for the ears of under-16s?

It’s not explicit. It doesn’t even mention sex, and there’s no heavy breathing – not even a smutty pun. Just a mother and daughter talking about “the coil”, followed by a couple talking about “an implant”, and the message that you can get more information from a doctor or nurse.

At the very worst, a parent whose child heard this at 3:58 might be forced to explain that contraception is something grown-ups use when they don’t want to have babies. And the under-16s the ASA wants to protect from this blandly informative ad certainly include teens who are thinking about having sex, and who could use the encouragement to seek advice.

There is a weird belief that we can guide children to their 16th birthday without ever having to explain where babies come from, never mind how they can be avoided. It’s a dim-witted fetshisation of innocence, as any parent should know: children are curious, and they inevitably spend time with adults of (duh) child-bearing age. It takes a lot of misdirection and obfuscation to explain a pregnancy without answering questions about sex.

But plenty of adults are willing to squirm their way out dishonestly. It’s typical of this cultural squeamishness that an advert for information gets restricted. Eroticism and salaciousness are everywhere, but apparently nothing’s as harmful to children as the promise of a straight answer.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

Link the thing you hate

LinksBloggers don’t kill the thing they love: instead, they cascade potentially valuable attention onto the things they hate. Linking is part of online culture’s rhetoric of transparency. You’re inviting your reader to go back to the original, confirm your commentary, add to it if they wish to – giving credit to content you find praiseworthy, demonstrating your trustworthiness in handling something you oppose.

The problem is that both sorts of link feed traffic, and all traffic looks the same when traffic is what’s being measured, as with ABCe figures. The latest of these show the Mail’s website attracting the most unique visitors, beating the Guardian by about 200,000 users. And with the Jan Moir atrocity, the numbers for the Mail are likely to look even more impressive when October gets tallied up.

But that assumes that ABCe results are comparable to ABC numbers as a measure of audience engagement. I don’t think they are. Using a website isn’t the same as buying a paper: it’s more like flicking through a discarded copy you’ve found at a bus-stop. It requires no investment of money or identity. I use the Mail website, but I’m a Guardian reader. My politics, my interests, my tastes are not the same as the politics, interests and tastes of the person advertisers on the Mail website are presumably trying to reach – when, that is, the advertisers aren’t being jumped into pulling their ads by the negative publicity.

I suppose that, in theory, the Mail could sell the advertising around their most virulently illiberal content so that it would appeal to the outraged. Trailers for E4 shows. American Apparel. That sort of thing. But that would mean alienating a core audience who enjoy and agree with content like Moir’s, and that sounds like a pretty dicey strategy. I’m willing to credit most advertisers with the intelligence to know that a deluge of unhappy, agitated users won’t be taking away the warmest of feelings about a brand they see in the sidebar.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009. Photo by Ravages, used under Creative Commons license.

Sell sell sell

Up until the recent recession, it was advertisers who paid for most of your news. Not all of it – the cover price of the newspaper covered some of the costs, and of course there’s the BBC – but publishing was able to be a truly profitable business because of advertisers paying for access to readers. And the more trusted and reputable the journal, the more valuable it could be as a vehicle to advertisers.

Why does your English let you down?

Some of the most successful ads piggyback on a newspaper’s style like mutating parasites, to borrow even more of the hosts authoritative gloss. Earlier this week, the Guardian celebrated the “Does your English let you down?” ad, which has been running pretty much continuously for almost 50 years. “Initially the reader thinks it’s part of editorial,” says Bob Heap of the Practical English Programme: “We used to match the typefaces of the newspaper it was printed in.”

Advertisers can also pay for a newspaper or magazine to produce ad copy in the house style of the journal – advertorial. Whenever this appears, it should always be clearly marked out from the editorial, both to avoid misleading the reader and to protect the paper or magazine’s reputation from corruption. In Free, Chris Anderson compares this approach to the relevance practiced in online ads – which deliberately places ads next to content on the same subject – and wonders whether print editors are over-punctilious about distinguishing ads from editorial:

It’s also entirely possible that we in the traditional media business have it all wrong.Perhaps we are just flattering ourselves with our church-and-state pursuit of purity, and readers don’t care or even notice if a Sony ad is next to a Sony review. Perhaps they would even prefer that and it’s our writers who are the real obstacles, afraid that anyone might think that their opinion has been bought.

Chris Anderson, Free (Random House Business, 2009), pp. 138-9

What’s interesting is that Anderson doesn’t place any value on ad/ed separation as a way of preventing influence, only as a way of preventing the appearance of influence: as far as he’s concerned here, if the reader doesn’t perceive a problem, then there is no problem.

Advertisers, on the other hand, are very conscious of a relationship between the ad and the copy. The presence of illegitimate, ramshackle and unwholesome material has been cited as one of the reasons for the reluctance to sponsor YouTube; the same caution might be about to be extended to newspaper comments sections, as advertisers weigh up the high engagement seen in unmoderated comments sections with the fact that most of the engagement is with racist, vituperative loons.

But just because advertisers seem to agree with some of the principle behind the “Great Wall of China” which Anderson describes, they don’t all necessarily agree with his idea of best practice – and nor do all newspapers, it turns out, since the Express has been nailed by the ASA for running specious “news” copy on a bunch of dubious-sounding CAM treatments alongside adverts for the same products:

The ASA said the articles were “always and uniquely favourable to the product featured in the accompanying ads and contained claims that have been or would be likely to be prohibited in advertisements”.

“We considered that the average reader would have understood the entire page to be a feature on the product, no matter the distinct styles of the top and bottom of the pages,” said the ASA in its ruling.

“We considered that by using that approach the publisher and advertiser were intentionally attempting to circumvent the [advertising] code by asserting the top of the pages were not advertising.”

The Guardian, “ASA raps Richard Desmond’s Express Newspapers over advertorials”

(Interesting, as ever, that it falls to the ASA rather than the PCC to correct a practice in which the paper appears to be as culpable as the advertisers.)

Advertising still needs editorial, and editorial needs advertising as much as ever, but they can only have any value to each other if both maintain a basic propriety: whatever financial gain the Express and their advertisers took from this arrangement has probably been wiped out by the loss of reputation both parties brought upon themselves.

Edit 19 August: The ASA’s full judgement is here.

© Sarah Ditum, 2009

Newspaper classifieds: don’t blame the internet (but it’s still not good)

The Media Business classifieds graphThe Media Business online classifieds bar chart

Graphs taken from The Media Business

Newspapers might be having trouble retaining their classified advertising, but Robert G Pickard on The Media Business blog reckons that’s not solely down to internet competition, and nor is it certainly fatal. He offers two graphs (above, using data from Newspaper Association of America and the Internet Advertising Bureau) to prove his point:

The Internet certainly is taking some money from newspapers, but it isn’t the worst culprit. The real competitor is direct mail and home delivery advertising that have taken much preprint and display advertising from newspapers in recent decades by delivering better household reach. That was compounded by the significant reduction in the number of large retailers in the late 1990s and 2000s. The development of the recession in 2007 and 2008 is currently playing a major role because newspaper advertising—especially classifieds—is more strongly affected by recessions than other types of advertising. But recessions come and go and there is no reason to believe that an advertising recovery will not accompany an improvement in the economy. […]

The end for newspapers is not in sight and those who think that the $50 billion industry is going to collapse and disappear within a year or two because of Internet advertising are just not paying attention close enough attention to what is really happening across media industries.

Robert G Pickard, The Media Business, “The poor connection between internet advertising and newspaper woes”

Measuring the market value isn’t an especially good way to judge the effect of online competition on print ad spending: an online listing is cheaper than one in a newspaper, so every customer who deserts print for the internet will only take a small portion of their advertising spend with them. And while Pickard is correct when he says it’s not just the internet squeezing advertising away from print, it still seems to take a mighty squint to get these figures looking good for newspapers.

Classified advertising revenue for newspapers continues to plummet dramatically according to both graphs – whether or not that revenue is being diverted to online services, newspapers still aren’t getting it, and publications who have formerly relied on their small ads can’t depend on getting them back when the recession is through.

© Sarah Ditum 2009

No one likes to be called a racist

Not even the BNP. Which is why they’ve wrapped up their race hate message in a tissue-paper parcel of culture wars speak (with some BNP material aimed exploitatively at children) and done it so successfully that even some of their own candidates didn’t realise quite what they signed up for. Corinne Tovey-Jones, a BNP candidate in Worcester, says she was persuaded to join the BNP after her husband was made redundant, but after having her electoral statement rewritten to criticise the “anti-social behaviour” of “an unruly minority”, she has tried to withdraw her candidacy and is now asking people not to vote for her. She says:

I don’t want people thinking I’m racist when I’m not. My sister’s married to an Italian – how could I be? My mum and dad are religious – they don’t need the upset.

Of course, it’s a lot easier for people like Tovey-Jones to remain ignorant if the reporting they’re exposed to is the uninquisitive fluff I looked at last week rather than the sort of work the Manchester Evening News has been doing. MEN editor Peter Horrocks says:

We took the decision to expose more details on their policies and, when we tried to speak to the deputy leader, Simon Darby, to confirm the BNP’s manifesto in 2005, when it wanted all non-white Britons to leave the country, he essentially said ‘Yes’ but refused to talk about the issue any further. When you think about that, to try and suggest that in multi-cultural Britain we in effect ‘repatriate’ society, it’s just an outrage and we felt it right to bring details like that to our readers’ attention.

The BNP really don’t like having that sort of thing brought to anyone’s attention. In fact, they’re so unhappy with it, they’ve attempted to orchestrate a campaign against the  MEN’s advertisers. From the BNP’s email to supporters:

If enough people do this, the companies in question will moan and groan to the Manchester Evening News’ business directors, forcing a behavioural change vis-à-vis the editorial team and journalists. We are calling on all genuine British Nationalists to heed this call and complain to one of the companies.

The BNP knows that its views are unacceptable. They recognise that “racist” is one of the most dismally pejorative labels anyone can pick up, and they’ve made a distinct rhetorical choice to explicitly deny being racist while expounding policies based on tortuously-defined ethnic groupings. And in turn, that’s why it’s so important that journalists aren’t satisfied with the simplistic point and counterpoint journalism which lets falsehood glide through under cover of “balance”.

Obviously, I agree with the MEN’s stance – but more importantly than that, what they’re doing is good journalism because it gives their readers information they can’t get from the official source. Hopefully, the MEN’s advertiser’s will recognise the value of that, and the perfect worthlessness of bending to a marketplace of bitter bigots.

British johns for British working girls

Local papers are in a bad way. The pressure to cut costs at the expense of editorial has gutted them of their local content, and driven away their readers. And while circulation has collapsed, advertising has headed the same way – eBay, Craigslist and Freecycle have swallowed the market in classifieds, and now there’s a recession, companies are hacking back their publicity budgets. So it takes a brave business to make a principled decision about what advertising they will accept, and Newsquest won lots of admiring comments when they announced that they would no longer accept ads from the sex trade:

Andy Parkes, group editor of Newsquest’s south London papers, is quoted: “Despite operating in accordance with industry guidelines, the company has taken a decision to no longer publish adult services advertisements, either in print or on its websites. Increasing concerns regarding the appalling issue of human trafficking has been significant in this decision, which is effective immediately.”

So what’s a brave company like that doing running banner ads for the BNP on their websites? Maybe it wasn’t the exploitation of the sex trade that got to them. Maybe they were actually taking a stand against the illegal immigrants offering five-quid oral and taking British johns from British workers.

The BNP is a racist party. They might be legal, but all their policies aim to restrict rights on the basis of ethnicity: Newsquest is associating with a brand whose main values are “viciousness”, “stupidity” and “hate-mongering”, and lending them the legitimacy of trusted local titles.

Such stupidity should create its own punishment by repelling readers who abhor the BNP, hurting circulation and pushing your reader profile downmarket where even fewer legitimate advertisers will want to buy a piece of your hopelessly damaged newspaper. But just in case the Newsquest management is too dim to figure out cause and effect, email them and let them know why you’ll never be taking one of their hate-friendly trash-rags again.