Sunday, May 6, 2007

Consumers aren't stupid

A staring contest, earlier today

For those unfamiliar with the Herald Sun, perhaps the best way to get a feel for the type of paper it is is via its nickname, the "Herald Scum", or "The Scum" for short.

The chief reason for this moniker is, i think, not so much its unrelenting right-wing bias (a characteristic of all News Corp media organs, including The Australian, which engenders nothing like the same disgust) but its undisguised contempt for its readership.

Unlike The Oz, the Scum doesn't make even the faintest of nods in the direction of journalistic objectivity or balance. The paper doesn't so much blur the line between editorial and news as it does take an exact note of the line's location and dimensions, carefully paint over them with a thick slime of xenophobia, homophobia, anti-intellectualism and anti-union sentiment and stand gloating beside them, smug in the assumption that its readership will be too stupid to notice. No story is too complex to oversimplify, no adjective too blatantly biased to employ.

Yet for all its misguided "i-mentioned-the-war-once-or-twice-but-i-think-i-got-away-with-it" arrogance about its readers' inability to detect its agendas, on Thursday the Scum credited them with greater cognitive ability than most marketers ever will.

In order to try and steal some of the centre ground back from ascendant Labour Leader Kevin Rudd, PM John Howard had suggested that he would mitigate one of the more doctrinaire clauses in the new Workchoices legislation.

The Scum led with a two-word headline:


On the face of it, it's a pretty simple headline. But it in fact demands the reader to bring a great deal of information with them in order to make sense of it.

First of all, the reader has to get the analogy between an electoral race and a staring contest. It's not a particularly obvious connection because, taken on its own, it's not a particularly relevant metaphor (Howard's not really backing down to Rudd, per se).

In order to completely get it, you have to be familiar with the history of that metaphor's use. Ideally, you have to know that, almost forty five years ago at the resolution of a nuclear standoff between the USA and the USSR, someone at the higher levels of the US government (i've seen the quote variously attributed to JFK, RFK and Secretary of State Dean Rusk) described the Russian backdown thus: "we were eyeball to eyeball and the other guy blinked".

That's some fairly obscure knowledge to assume of a mass audience.* No marketer I've ever met would do it.

And that raises the question: are we,as a profession, more patronising than the Herald Sun?

*You probably don't actually have to know the whole story, but you do have to be familiar with the reference as it has translated in pop culture, as in, for example, the title of former Pepsi CEO Roger Enrico's book about the cola wars.


Charles Frith said...

A good post. Although it's worthwhile commenting that while in the main News International have a right wing bias bordering on pathological hate mongering. Rupert Murdoch has no problem siding with the left when his agenda is being fulfilled. The problem with most media watchers is that they define the media between the right and the left, when really slap bang in the middle is MONEY. Money has no ideology and it's important to recognise who owns and controls messages when money and power is present.

The Sun newspaper gave a full backing for Blair in 1997 against the right wing Tory government of the day and it's fair to say that even the Guardian is self censoring over many issues. Much as I love their work.

Here's a link to a New Yorker article of Murdoch cutting media deals with both the right and the left to keep News International growing as a media force.

Dividing and rule is often why those on the right and left don't understand much of how this world ticks.

This is why the internet is such a good leveler of opinion. Nobody owns it, well not yet anyway. A good media post otherwise :)

Anonymous said...

yes, we are condescending twats.

LuckyJim said...

To be fair, people will read a newspaper article to make sense of a headline they don't get; they're unlikely to extend the same level of trust to an ad, so ad headlines increasingly have to explain themselves.

writer said...

I take it you don't read the Herald Sun!

Anyway, how is PM BLINKS evidence of right-wing bias? To me it just reads like the PM has relented under pressure; a sign of weakness.

Cleaver said...

It's not evidence of right-wing bias.

I'm not contending it is.

What I'm saying is that the Herald Sun, which is a paper renowned for treating its readers like fools, in this instance credited them with fairly sophisticated interpretive skills, certainly more sophisticated than advertisers ever do.

I think my point is something along the lines of: "if The Scum is pitching stuff higher than we are, maybe we're pitching stuff unnecessarily low."

writer said...

You're over-analysing, Cleaver. The meaning of PM BLINKS is patently, obviously, plainly, ridiculously understandable, irrespective of some arcane usage of the phrase in the past.