TOC Please, hear me out Your Turn

March 11, 2012

"In a windowless room on the 10th floor of a Paris high-rise, a cohort of bleary-eyed government employees scans nearly every minute of nearly every show on nearly every major television network in France". Three centuries after Usbeck, Scott Sayare has penned a picturesque vignette for the pleasure of his readers back home (*).

Home in the instance is not in Persia but in the United States. Indeed when the topic is of no consequence to the latter, the New York Times likes to model its international bulletins on Montesquieu's letters (1). I admit the French electoral system offers an ideal target.

It begs the barbs of the wits. "By the admission of its own administrators, the system is stunningly complex". It is frankly exotic. How farther could rationed speech be from the American tradition of free speech? It is naively subversive. Shouldn't Democracy's representatives be bought by the highest bidder, pouring unlimited amounts of money into media campaigns? Or may meting equal time to each point of view free the voter's voice?

Rather than attacking the principle of the measure, Scott Sayare raises doubts about its practicality. "It seems perhaps quaint, if not absurb, in an era of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter - none of which [is] monitored - to say nothing of Web news outlets or the printed press."

There is no easy answer. Not when "there are unsolved questions over how best to organize and execute digital and social campaigns" (**). David Gelles speaks of marketing campaigns, not electoral ones, but we all know candidates must be packaged and sold as so many bars of soap.

I cannot claim credit for any great marketing acumen. Nor methinks can marketing specialists boast of a keen sense of eprivacy. So I count on their indulgence if I seem to invade their specialty with the same boorish manners they display when they wade into mine.

As quoted by David Gelles, "Maryam Banikarim, chief marketing officer of Gannett, the media company" gives us good guidance.

"People find it hard to realise marketing is a two-way conversation rather than a one-way pushing out". She cannot mean the latter mode has disappeared, "one-way, broadcast messaging of television, print and outdoor" is here to stay. She stresses however it must accept its relative decline as the Information Age provides consumers with tools which enable them to take the initiative.

The nature of consumer participation may be important to structure marketing. But one should realize consumers were active before online search and social networking came along. Nor should one forget the distinction between time and space based advertising remains as important as ever.

When one buys advertising space, one offers consumers an opt-in approach, as they can passively ignore both message and messager. On the contrary, achieving the same result when ads are inserted into a temporal medium requires a voluntary effort from consumers akin to an opt-out.

Despite the dizzying pace of technology, this is still true enough. Although easily distracted, I could ignore advertising the other day on the free, online service I was using. I cannot speak for my subconscious and my peripheral vision was quite aware of bouncing shapes eager to attract my attention, but both my eyes and my mind were focused on the clearly formatted search results I sought. I had neither need nor inclination to opt in.

Remote controls and other tools may enable today's consumers to zap television advertising as well. Yet, measured in clicks, this opt out imposes a heavy and unescapable load on the users, furiously paddling against the natural current of the channels they navigate.

From this angle, the French approach to political advertising makes complete sense. Opt-in media respect the freedom of all citizens to hear whom they want. Only opt-out media must be reined in, lest they enclose the XXIst century equivalent of the rotten buroughs of XIXth century England.

This segmentation also cast light on new media developments and, because the two are intimately connected, on eprivacy management.

On the one hand, some marketing executives are pining for the good old days of opt-out advertising. According to Jane Bird, "Sonali Fenner, joint head of account management at JWT London" envisions online banner ads in "richer, heavier formats [...], much more interruptive" (***).

There is clearly a niche for Internet channels, already used to stream a mix of music and ads. But, while technically possible, to impose a general opt-out atmosphere on an opt-in medium like Internet smacks of a Big Brother's mentality. No wonder it goes hand in hand with the use of NewSpeak and universal spying on users' privacy, fueled by this quasi oxymoron, "anonymized data gathered by cookies".

More promising is the recognition that success in an opt-in context comes from providing genuine artistic value. Recounting how blending an iPhone in his product went viral on YouTube, "Kels Goodman, Blendec's video producer" understands "why people loved it": "it was entertainment, not selling" (****). As April Dembosky soberly remarks though, "coming up with a video that taps in the cultural zeitgeist is an elusive task".

It is harder to reach brand recognition by attracting, rather than detaining consumers. But isn't what patronizing artists is all about? Privacy should not be threatened by this trend. Is Art? It remains to be seen who debases the arts for fame's sake the more, the patron or the independent artist.

Yet the higher challenge is to respond to consumers who opt in on an individual basis. Should it be welcomed on a public platform or handled as a private exchange? Should it involve a salesperson or a personalized process? How should it be reported for aggregation and analysis?

Ajay Makan thoughtfully asks "whether a social media strategy is primarily about keeping existing customers happy, brand management, or sales and marketing" (*****). Let me point out two relevant dangers. One is to ignore the role of individual recommenders in bridging public opinions and private actions. The second is the temptation to turn public forums into hidden privacy probes. What fits Facebook may risk consumer backlash.

As politic pundits know, are elected those who turn themselves into magnets for aspirations, not those who turn people into targets for messages.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ......... As Candidates Speak in France, The Meter Is Running, by Scott Sayare (New York Times) - Mar 8, 2012
  • (**) ....... Advertisers rush to master fresh set of skills, by David Gelles (Financial Times) - Mar 7, 2012
  • (***) ..... Banners set to become 'smart and sexier', by Jane Bird (Financial Times) - Mar 2, 2012
  • (****) ... Lights, camera, blender! How to create a hit, by April Dembosky (Financial Times) - Mar 2, 2012
  • (*****) . Is it about selling or service?, by Ajay Makan (Financial Times) - Mar 2, 2012
  • (1) see Montesquieu's Persian Letters in the wikipedia
March 2012
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