Political Marketing and Consumerism in Our Balkanized Web Democracy

Great piece by my esteemed colleague Jim Meskauskas yesterday, on the benefit that the interactive marketing industry can derive from decisions like the one made by CBS recently, to reject certain kinds of advertising. There are many ways that the Web has become the most egalitarian and at once diverse media of all, of course. And reading his piece certainly brought that point home to me.

Reading another one this week sort of scared me because it serves as an example of what happens when experts leverage the same media characteristics. I'm talking about Ken Auletta's Fortress Bush - How the White House Keeps the Press Under Control in the Jan. 19th issue of the New Yorker.

Auletta reports that the Bush administration has treated the media unlike any administration in history. That is - the media is not a necessary "checks and balances" evil that needs to be fed constantly. It is merely another special interest group, and not one that represents the voting public. The Bush administration runs its media enterprise much like I would counsel my clients to run theirs, were I a more cynical sort: i.e. the media is a vehicle for strategic messages only. Control those messages and their delivery, and you're ahead of the game. Never cave, even if The New York Times is one of the outlets to which you've never granted an in-depth interview.



Taken as a pair, these two pieces make great book ends on the old saw about how the rest of the world views American culture. That is, our media and culture are driven by consumerism first. They are not driven by actual news or any notion of enlightened self-interest about our civic or commercial leaders beyond the bottom line. That is - when we have something to sell, shill, or advance, we'll do so in the name of democracy. It's why we were in Vietnam then. And it's why we're in Iraq now.

Please understand - these are not my views. This is, however, how much of the world views the US. It's a big reason why "they" hate us. (You can substitute whichever group you wish for "they.") As I, and others, have written, the divide between old ways of looking at media and how media works today is widening due to increased consolidation by the giants. We all know that TV was popularized here in the US because of the opportunity it created to broadcast marketers' messages right into our living rooms. The Web has taken that shotgun-style consumerism and made rifle bullets from each of the 24 pellets in the shotgun shell, driving more precision and accountability into each campaign.

But, that's just the consumerism part. What about the news? What about what's going on in the world beyond our comfort zones? Sure, the Web may very be the grail for marketers precisely because of how it parses its audience. But, what will be the effect if the Web continues to become the information medium of choice for people? At the risk of sounding like Ted Kaczynski, won't this balkanize our country and erode communities even further than they have been eroded in the last generation? Has the Web subverted this as well?

After all, as Jim reported, the spot that CBS rejected for the Super Bowl will find a receptive audience on the Web. The gang's all here - it's just that they're all talking primarily just to one another on sites that advance their brand of thinking.

Whenever I think about this, I think about how difficult the job of regulators has become in the digital world. How would you like to be the one who decides when paid content has to be called such in arcane special interest Webzines, let alone in Search results?

Do consumers know that that Kiehl's pays for it when their products are acclaimed by one of the characters in the WB's Gilmore Girls? That's one rule that's been relaxed lately as something of a subtext to the aforementioned media consolidation. As a result, product placement opportunities will become far more pervasive in the coming years as a result, say some analysts.

On the Web, where far more successful marketing is of the Pull variety, in which the user self-selects before the marketers' messages arrive, than of the Push variety, how do you regulate marketers' messages? The user has already self-selected, no? The very thing that makes the Web a better media for marketers' targeted messages is what makes it harder to convince those who don't think the way you do that they should reconsider.

In other words, for preaching to the choir, and selling them songbooks, there's one place to go first and it starts with www. For converting others to your way of thinking, or for strategically expanding markets? I'm not sure there's any media remaining for that job, except the original natural search - as is being executed so well by this Administration. It's called PR.

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