Tag Archives: Advertising

How They Made Us Doubt Everything

How They Made Us Doubt Everything
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
25 February 2021

“The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance”, Alex Carey noted in his seminal 1995 book Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: “the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.”

The Australian writer’s analysis is well illustrated by the engrossing ten-part BBC Radio 4 series How They Made Us Doubt Everything.

Presented by Peter Pomerantsev, author of the 2019 book This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, the series looks at how corporate public relations firms engineered doubt about the connection between smoking and cancer in the 1960s, and then used similar tactics to manufacture doubt about climate change.

The story begins in December 1953 soon after the publication of an article titled “Cancer by the carton” in the popular US magazine Reader’s Digest. The heads of the major tobacco industry companies hold a secret crisis meeting in New York, having hired John Hill, the founder of Hill & Knowlton, the world’s first international PR firm, to assist them.

“Because of the grave nature of a number of recently highly publicised research reports on the effects of cigarette smoking widespread public interest had developed causing great concern within and without the industry”, noted a Hill & Knowlton memo written a few days later, titled ‘Preliminary Recommendations for Cigarette Manufacturers’. “These developments have confronted the industry with a serious problem of public relations”.

Hill had made his name helping steel companies undermine trade unions and protecting big business. And, true to form, Hill & Knowlton put together the PR playbook the tobacco industry used to protect their profits – most infamously the 1954 A Frank Statement advertisement.

Appearing in nearly 450 newspapers and reaching an estimated 43 million Americans, according to a 2002 article in Tobacco Control journal, the advert emphasised there was no agreement amongst scientists on what caused lung cancer, and pledged tobacco industry “aid and assistance to the research effort into all phases of tobacco use and health.”

Ingeniously, Hill didn’t reject the science, but selectively used it to confuse the public. “It is important that the public recognise the existence of weighty scientific views which hold there is no proof that cigarette smoking is a cause of lung cancer”, he argued. Pomerantsev calls this the “White coats” strategy, with the tobacco industry using scientists often funded by the industry to call into question the work of independent scientists. “You undermine science with more science”, he notes.

A 1969 secret tobacco industry memo perfectly distilled Hill’s approach: “Doubt is our product. Since it is the best means of competing with the body of fact that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing controversy.”

It is now well understood the tobacco industry’s manipulation of the public delayed regulation and behaviour change, leading to hundreds of thousands of avoidable early deaths. However, years later the playbook was dusted down and put it into action again – this time by an oil industry whose profits were under threat from the public’s increasing concern about global warming. And the stakes were even higher than with tobacco, both in the scale of the threat to humanity and for the companies involved: in 2000 the oil company Exxon Mobil logged $17.7 billion in income, giving it the most profitable year of any corporation in history, according to CNN.

Shockingly, How They Made Us Doubt Everything highlights how Exxon knew about the dangers of climate change, and their role in it, by the early 1980s. Speaking to Pomerantsev, Exxon scientist Martin Hoffert explains he successfully modelled the link between burning fossil fuels and climate change in 1981, passing the results onto management. However, ignoring their own research, in 1996 Exxon CEO Lee Raymond stated “the scientific evidence is inconclusive as to whether human activities are having a significant effect on the global climate.”

This was likely part of Exxon’s broader strategy to confuse and manipulate the public about the reality of climate change. A 1989 presentation by Exxon’s Manager of Science and Strategy to the company’s Board of Directors noted the data pointed to “significant climate change, and sea level use with generally negative consequences”. Furthermore, the long hot summer of 1988 “has drawn much attention to the potential problems and we are starting to hear the inevitable call for action”, with the media “likely to increase public awareness and concern”. His recommendation? “More rational responses will require efforts to extend the science and increase emphasis on costs and political realities.” Discussing the presentation with Pomerantsev, Kert Davies from the Climate Investigations Center says it shows “they are worried that the public will take this on and enact radical changes in the way we use energy and affect their business.”

Indeed, by 1988 Exxon’s position was clear, according to a memo written by their Public Affairs Manager, Joseph M. Carlson: “emphasise the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the potential enhanced greenhouse effect.”

Similarly, in 1991 the green-sounding Information Council on the Environment (ICE) – which in fact represented electrical companies in the US – set out their strategy: “reposition global warming as theory (not fact).” Surveys commissioned by ICE recommended targeting specific segments of the population, including “older, lesser educated males from larger households who are not typically information seekers” and “younger, low income women”, who they believed were more easily influenced by new information. Thankfully, following an embarrassing leak to the New York Times, the organisation quickly folded.

Just as the public’s concern about smoking and health led to industry competitors working together to save their businesses, following the signing of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol committing states to reduce the carbon emissions, Exxon joined forces with Southern Company and Chevron to design a “multi-year, multi-million dollar plan to fund denial and install uncertainty.” This Global Climate Science Communications Plan noted: “Victory will be achieved when average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in the climate science”.

In many ways this corporate-funded climate denial propaganda campaign was hugely successful in its aims. Pomerantsev quotes the results of a 2016 Pew Research Center poll of Americans, which found just 48 per cent of respondents understood that the Earth is warming mostly due to human activity, with just 15 per cent of conservative Republicans agreeing.

And like the tobacco industry strategy of doubt, the fossil-fuelled PR campaign has undoubtedly confused the public in the US and beyond and delayed action on the biggest threat facing humanity, meaning perhaps millions of unnecessary deaths. However, there are reasons to believe the fossil fuel corporations are now losing the war.

Speaking to the Morning Star in March 2019, David Wallace-Wells, the author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, explained there have been significant shifts in US public opinion over recent years. For example, a 2019 Yale University/George Mason University survey found six in ten Americans were either “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change, with the proportion of people “alarmed” having doubled since 2013.

A January 2021 poll by the United Nations Development Programme – the largest poll ever conducted on climate change, with 1.2 million people questioned in 50 countries – confirms these hopeful results: two-thirds of respondents said climate change is a “global emergency”, including 65 per cent of respondents in the US.

Indeed, it is important to remember Democrat Joe Biden was elected to the White House after campaigning on what Nature journal called “the most ambitious climate platform ever put forth by a leading candidate for US president.”

Two important conclusions can be made from listening to How They Made Us Doubt Everything. First, while Pomerantsev himself has written extensively about Russian propaganda and disinformation efforts directed at the West, his BBC Radio 4 series suggests the main threat to the wellbeing of Western publics actually comes from Western corporate propaganda rather than Russian troll farms and cyberwarfare groups like Fancy Bear. And second, there is an ongoing struggle between corporate power and democratic forces across the globe – what former US Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards called an “epic fight”. The outcome could not be more serious: future generations will only inherit a liveable planet if we are able to successfully confront corporate propaganda and tame corporate power.

How The Made Us Doubt Everything is available to stream or download from BBC Sounds.

How Advertising Fuels the Climate Crisis: Interview with Tim Kasser

How Advertising Fuels the Climate Crisis: Interview with Tim Kasser
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
12 January 2021

With the climate crisis likely to be high on the political agenda this year – the UK is hosting the next round of United Nations climate talks in November 2021 – a new publication from the New Weather Institute think tank and the climate action charity Possible is well timed.

The report, Advertising’s Role in Climate and Ecological Destruction: What Does the Scientific Research Have to Say?, is written by Tim Kasser, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Knox College in the United States, and author of books such as Hypercapitalism (2018) and The High Price of Materialism (2002).

Ian Sinclair asked Kasser about the connection between advertising and climate change, the role of television and what governments and citizens can do to address the issue.

Ian Sinclair: How does advertising contribute to the climate and ecological crises we are now experiencing? 

Tim Kasser: Some industries have direct effects on climate and ecological crises. For example, the auto, oil, airlines, and many other industries release CO2 and pollution, and industries like agribusiness destroy habitat. Other industries have indirect effects on climate and ecological crises. For example, some banks provide financing to the auto, oil, airlines, and agribusiness industries. So, while the banks themselves don’t have a big direct effect on the climate or ecology, their actions support those industries that do have big direct effects. Our recent report suggests that advertising has similar indirect effects on the environment. 

The report presents scientific evidence for four pathways through which advertising indirectly causes climate and ecological damage. These four pathways include two products, beef and tobacco, that research shows are both damaging to the environment and whose consumption is increased as a result of advertising. The two other pathways we examine are materialistic values and “the work & spend cycle.” I’ll say more about those in a moment, but the main point for now is that research shows that both materialism and the work & spend cycle are increased by advertising and that both are associated with negative environmental outcomes. 

We suspect that there are other pathways through which advertising has indirect negative effects on the environment, but these were the four pathways that had the most solid scientific evidence behind them, and so they were the ones that we wrote about.    

IS: The report highlights the important role played by television in this process. What does the evidence show? 

TK: In many nations the biggest television channels are owned by for-profit companies whose revenue depends upon selling advertisements. The vast majority of those advertisements are designed to encourage viewers to spend their money on certain products (like pizza), services (like automobile repair), or experiences (like trips on a cruise ship). These advertisements almost inevitably suggest that a viewer’s life would be happier, safer, or better in any number of ways if the viewer would buy what is advertised. 

When people are exposed to these messages thousands of times per day, day after day, year after year from early childhood onward, the research shows that they come to prioritize the acquisition of money and possessions, or what researchers call “materialism.” Many studies show that the more that people watch television, the more materialistic they are. Further, experimental studies show that people become more materialistic after being exposed to the kinds of advertising messages they see on television, compared to being exposed to more neutral messages. 

Research studies with people of many ages and from many nations also show that when people are more materialistic, they care less about environmental damage, are less likely to behave in ways that help the environment (e.g., by recycling), and are more likely to behave in ways that hurt the environment (e.g., by owning petrol-guzzling autos and living in large homes). 

In sum, this body of research suggests that advertising on television (and elsewhere) has an indirect effect on climate and ecological degradation through encouraging materialistic values and goals. 

IS: The report also argues there is a link between advertising, a long hours work culture and the environment. Can you explain this? 

TK: As I said earlier, the primary goal of most advertisements is to convince people to spend their money on the advertised product, service, or experience. In order to spend money, one either has to go into debt or to earn money, and the way that most people can earn money is by working. Some studies document that the more that people see advertisements, the more hours they work. Researchers think that when people see a lot of ads they decide that working in order to earn money to buy stuff is more important than other options for one’s time, like relaxing, spending time with friends and family, or volunteering. 

The problem is that the research also shows that working long work is associated with more climate and ecological damage. There are two explanations for this. One is that when a lot of people work a lot of hours and make a lot of money which they use to consume stuff, that all “scales up” and creates a lot of ecological damage. The second explanation is that when people work long hours, they have less time to pursue more sustainable ways of life – it takes more time to ride one’s bike or take public transport than to hop in one’s car and drive somewhere.  Both of these explanations are probably valid. 

IS: Though the report doesn’t look at it, how do you think governments and citizens might reduce the negative effects advertising has on the climate and our ecology? 

TK: There are many governmental actions that could reduce advertising’s negative effects. I’ll mention just four that some governments have already tried. 

First, cities like Sao Paulo, Brazil and Grenoble, France place limits on where advertisements are allowed. Other cities could develop similar policies that only allow ads in commercial locations and that remove ads from public locations like highways, buses and subways, schools, parks, etc. 

Second, the nations of Sweden, Norway, and Brazil have each banned advertising to children. Other nations could develop similar policies to help the next generation from being socialized into the consumerist mindset.

Third, the nation of Hungary and the US state of Maryland have attempted to remove the tax breaks that advertisers currently enjoy. These attempts have received substantial push-back. But if other governments developed similar policies, they would not only obtain needed revenue, but they would make advertising more expensive and therefore potentially less desirable for companies. 

Finally, governments all over the world have banned certain types of advertisements for cigarettes, in the recognition that this product is extremely unhealthy. Similar policies could be put in place to ban ads that encourage consumption of environmentally-damaging products, like SUVs, and services, like airline flights.

Citizens can become involved by voting for representatives who support such policies and by petitioning their local governments to enact such policies. In their personal lives, citizens can use ad block apps on the Internet and unsubscribe from media that are replete with advertisements. 

Advertising’s Role in Climate and Ecological Destruction is free to download from http://www.badverts.org/reports-and-publications.

Natalie Nougayrède: a victim of the propaganda system she doesn’t think exists

Natalie Nougayrède: a victim of the propaganda system she doesn’t think exists
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22 February 2018

Last month Guardian columnist and leader writer Natalie Nougayrède wrote an op-ed examining propaganda in our supposed age of “lies and distortion”.

Focussing on “Russian propaganda” and “Russian meddling” in the West’s political systems, Nougayrède argued “citizens who live in an authoritarian, disinformation-filled environment deal daily with the reality of propaganda in ways we can’t fully experience, because we live outside of it.”

The former executive editor of Le Monde newspaper in France couldn’t be clearer: propaganda is what ‘they’ – Russia and other official enemies – do, not something the West dirties its hands with.

In actual fact, as the academics David Miller and William Dinan argue in their 2007 book A Century of Spin, sophisticated propaganda has played a central role in Western societies, particularly the United States, since the early twentieth century. US dissident Noam Chomsky calls this “thought control in a democratic society”.

As the “father of Public Relations” Edward Bernays explained in his 1928 PR manual: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society… it is the intelligent minorities which need to make use of propaganda continuously and systematically.” This echoes the thoughts of another influential intellectual of the period, Walter Lippmann, who believed the elite needed to be protected from the “bewildered herd” – the general public. How? By “the manufacture of consent”.

Indeed the term ‘Public Relations’ is itself a brilliant bit of spin, with Bernays noting: “Propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans… using it [in 1914-18]. So what I did was to try to find some other words. So we found the words Council of Public Relations.”

As the quotes from Bernays and Lippmann highlight, Dinan and Miller note “Public Relations was created to thwart and subvert democratic decision making” – to “take the risk of out of democracy”, to paraphrase the title of the seminal 1995 book written by Australian academic Alex Carey.

With the US and UK at the heart of the global advertising and marketing industries, and corporations funding thinktanks and huge lobbying efforts, today the general public face hundreds of thousands of talented professionals spending billions trying to influence their thoughts and actions.

For example, in 2013 The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg reported that between 2002 and 2010 conservative US billionaires had covertly provided $120 million to more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change. “Americans are now being exposed to more public relations than even before”, Sue Curry Jensen, professor of media and communication at Muhlenberg College, wrote on The Conversation website last year.

Western governments become especially interested in manipulating public opinion during wartime. In 1990 we had the confected story about Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait throwing babies out of incubators, masterminded by the US PR firm Hill & Knowlton. In the late 1990s Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service carried out Operation Mass Appeal aimed at gaining support for sanctions and war against Iraq. Stories were planted in the foreign media “with the intention that they would then feed back into Britain and the US”, British historian Mark Curtis explained in his book Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses. In 2002-3 the British government carried out a long campaign, complete with dossiers, sexed-up intelligence and dirty tricks at the United Nations, to persuade the British public to back the invasion of Iraq – what Curtis calls “a government propaganda campaign of perhaps unprecedented heights in the post-war world”. In 2011 the public was told that NATO’s intervention in Libya was essential to stop Libyan government forces massacring civilians in Benghazi. Five years later the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s investigation into the UK’s role in the conflict concluded “the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence.”

The military itself is a huge source of propaganda. In 2016 the Mirror newspaper reported the British armed forces employ 122 press officers and spends £41.4 million on press and public relations. Across the pond the Pentagon spends “nearly $600 million annually on public relations” in an attempt “to shape public opinion”, according to Chatham House’s Micah Zenko. It is likely US propaganda is directed at the UK population as well as the American public. For example, in 2010 Wikileaks published a US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) memo proposing how European support for NATO mission in Afghanistan could be sustained. Concerned that “indifference” to the war in nations like France and Germany “might turn into active hostility” the memo recommends “a consistent and iterative strategic communication program across NATO troop contributors”. This will create “a buffer” to future opposition, thus “giving politicians greater scope to support deployments in Afghanistan.”

“Afghan women could serve as ideal messengers in humanizing the ISAF [International Security Assistance Forces] role in combating the Taliban”, the CIA notes. “Outreach initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories… could help to overcome pervasive scepticism among women in Western Europe toward the ISAF mission.”

Though the liberal view is of a media that is cantankerous and highly critical of power, some basic facts suggest something else is going on. “Research indicates that as much as 75 percent of US news begins as public relations”, Curry Jansen notes. Investigative journalist Nick Davies confirmed similar figures for the UK press in his 2008 book Flat Earth News. In addition, in the US there are now five PR people for every reporter.

More broadly, Chomsky has long noted that mainstream news media play a key role in relaying corporate and government propaganda to the general public. In their book Manufacturing Consent Edward Herman and Chomsky highlight an “observable pattern of indignant campaigns and suppressions, of shading and emphasis, and of selection of context, premises, and general agenda” which “is highly functional for established power and responsive to the needs of the government and major power groups.”

Which brings us back to Nougayrède, who has been spreading fake news and propaganda about the West’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. In August 2015 she wrote in the Guardian that President Obama has “refrained from getting involved in Syria”, noting that “the US has this year found only 60 rebels it could vet for a train-and-equip programme”. In the real world mainstream newspaper reports had already noted the US (and UK) had been working with Saudi Arabia and Qatar to send in hundreds of tons weapons to Syrian rebels. Moreover, in June 2015 the Washington Post estimated that the CIA’s Timber Sycamore programme in Syria — “one of the agency’s largest covert operations” – was spending $1 billion a year and had trained and equipped 10,000 rebels.

Pushing for Western military intervention in July 2015, Nougayrède highlighted what she saw as the hypocrisy of the anti-war left in the West: “there have been no significant street demonstrations against the war that Assad and his allies have waged on Syrian civilians.”

Chomsky explored the laser-like focus many intellectuals had for the crimes of opposite states in his 1992 book Deterring Democracy: “Fame, Fortune and Respect await those who reveal the crimes of official enemies”, he noted, while “those who undertake the vastly more important task of raising a mirror to their own societies can expect quite different treatment.”

There are, of course, very real consequences for those criticising the government in authoritarian states, so it’s understandable why commentators living under oppressive governments might toe the party line. Nougayrède, on the other hand, continues her Western power-friendly crusade against the West’s official enemies freely of her own volition, no doubt thinking she is a questioning, adversarial commentator – a perfect illustration of the power of Western propaganda.

As George Orwell once said, “Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks the whip, but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns somersaults when there is no whip.”

You can follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter on @IanJSinclair.

“Truly independent”?: The Guardian and advertising

“Truly independent”?: The Guardian and advertising
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
3 March 2015

The Guardian’s public profile is shrouded in the journalism equivalent of American Exceptionalism. And nowhere is this delusional belief stronger than among Guardian journalists themselves.

“The Guardian is truly independent”, explains Jonathan Freedland, the Executive Editor for Opinion at the newspaper. “Protected by the Scott Trust…we have no corporate owner telling us what to think… we are free to pursue the facts”. Guardian columnist Owen Jones may disagree with Freedland on many issues but on this topic they sing from the same hymn sheet. “The paper is unique for being owned by a trust rather than a media mogul… I have never been prevented from writing what I think”, the Labour Leftist recently assured readers.

The problem with this self-serving argument is there are obviously more influences on the editorial content of a newspaper than just its ownership structure. For example, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model of the media highlights five filters that produce the elite-friendly reporting that dominates the Western press – ownership, advertising, the sources used by journalists, the flak media organisations can receive and the dominant ideology of the period.

Resigning last month as the Telegraph’s Chief Political Commentator, Peter Oborne exposed how the interests of corporate advertisers had influenced the newspaper’s news agenda, limiting embarrassing stories about HSBC. Oborne’s principled analysis chimes with the thoughts of the BBC’s Andrew Marr, himself a former editor of the Independent newspaper: “The biggest question is whether advertising limits and reshapes the news agenda. It does, of course. It’s hard to make the sums add up when you are kicking the people who write the cheques.”

For broadsheet newspapers, the sums are pretty telling, with advertising accounting for around 75% of their income.

Challenged by media watchdog Media Lens about the thickness of the ‘Chinese Wall’ between advertising and editorial at the Guardian, the paper’s most radical columnist George Monbiot retorted “If you have an example of the Guardian spiking a story on behalf of its advertisers, please send me a link.”

The Telegraph soon obliged, reporting how the headline of a 2014 Guardian article about Iraq had been altered to fit with the wishes of Apple, who had stipulated their advertising should not be placed next to negative news. “If editorial staff knew what was happening here they would be horrified”, the Telegraph quoted a “Guardian insider” as saying. Guardian columnist and former editor of the Times newspaper Simon Jenkins made a similar point in his response to the Oborne furore. Writing about the increasing influence of advertising on the layout and content of newspapers, he noted “Even the Guardian cannot be regarded as immune from such pressures”.

Despite this evidence, the focus on overt censorship is something of a red herring. First, because public arguments between advertisers and newspapers are extremely rare. The secretive relationship between the two has been well polished over decades of publishing. It’s rarely in the interest of either party that the partnership be exposed to the light of public scrutiny. And second, because the influence of advertising is far broader, subtler and therefore more insidious than the dramatic spiking of a single story.

James Twitchell, author of Adcult USA, explains the extent of the collaboration: “You name it: the appearance of ads throughout the pages, the ‘jump’ or continuation of a story from page to page, the rise of sectionalisation (as with news, cartoons, sports, financial, living, real estate), common page size, halftone images, process engraving, the use of black-and-white photography, then colour, sweepstakes, and finally discounted subscriptions were all forced on publishers by advertisers hoping to find target audiences.”

Just as fish probably don’t see the water they swim in, Guardian journalists seem unable to comprehend the journalism habitat they work in has been shaped by corporate advertisers.

But shaped it certainly has been. Since the renewed expansion of the Guardian’s US online presence in 2011 the centre of gravity of the newspaper’s online coverage and recruitment focus has shifted across the Atlantic. This shift was driven by commercial interests. According to Andrew Miller, the CEO of the Guardian Media Group, the move to the US was centred on a strategy to “increase the commercial opportunity of our readership”. Or as he put it later in the same interview: to “monetize the readership.” Two years later the Guardian’s website went global changing its domain to http://www.theguardian.com. Tanya Cordrey, the Chief Digital Officer at Guardian News and Media, explained why: “This will open up more worldwide commercial possibilities for us in markets across the globe, enabling us to offer our partners and advertisers increased access to our growing global audience.”

In early 2014 the Guardian signed a “seven-figure” deal with mega-corporation Unilever. The partnership established Guardian Labs, a “branded content and innovation agency” with 133 staff “which offers brands bold and compelling new ways to tell their stories and engage with influential Guardian audiences.” We certainly aren’t in Kansas anymore.

The Guardian regularly publishes sponsored content in the main part of the newspaper including a roundtable on sustainable diets funded by Tesco and a seminar on public health reform sponsored by Pfizer.

Indeed, what is the Guardian’s glossy Weekend magazine if not one giant advert? In 2013 the magazine’s blind date feature had one lucky couple jetting off to Los Angeles for the weekend courtesy of Air New Zealand. The previous October over 100,000 people marched in London in opposition to the most severe cuts to public spending since the second world war. On the same day the Weekend magazine thought it appropriate to publish an interview with actress Romola Garai accompanied by a photo shoot of her advertising a £5,800 dress.

All this is not to say the Guardian is worthless or shouldn’t be read. Far from it. There are many great writers doing brilliant work published in the Guardian – Monbiot and Jones among them – and many important news reports too. I buy the Guardian every day, and have even written for the paper a couple of times when they let me. What I’m arguing is we need to go beyond wishful thinking about Guardian Exceptionalism and seriously consider how corporate advertising and commercial interests influences, and likely limits, the breadth and depth of the editorial content of the newspaper.

This enlightening process is essential for positive social change. Because only once we understand the deficiencies of even our best media outlets can we begin to realise that radical alternatives are needed. And only once we have a clear understanding of what those problems are can we start to imagine what a better media will actually look like.

Advertising and the media

Advertising and the media
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
March 2010

According to former Guardian editor Peter Preston approximately 75 per cent of British broadsheets’ total revenue is derived from advertising.

Speaking at a Guardian debate last summer on Sustainability in advertising, the paper’s current editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger didn’t just accept the status quo – he actually celebrated it. Quoting Francis Williams’s 1957 book Dangerous Estate, Rusbridger argued that “it was advertising that set the British press free.” He went on to note that effectively “it was Wal-Mart that paid for the New York Times bureau in Baghdad.” Cynics among you may see pitfalls with this relationship, but not the Guardian’s editor-in-chief. “I’ve always thought if Wal-Mart was happy to pay for the New York Times bureau in Baghdad, that’s great … as long as Wal-Mart demands nothing in return for that support,” he said.

Sitting next to Rusbridger was George Monbiot, the most radical columnist at the Guardian. Monbiot took a more cautionary and self-flagellating line than his editor, arguing those who work in the media are “inconsistent and hypocritical” about the role of advertising. However Monbiot’s criticisms – that “advertising is a pox on the planet, rapidly driving us to destruction” – focused solely on the detrimental effect advertising has on a paper’s readers and society.

What both Oxbridge graduates failed to mention is the far more important – and far more worrying – relationship between advertising and the editorial content of newspapers. For starters Rusbridger seems to be unaware that the standard journalism textbook thoroughly debunks what it calls “the legend of the advertiser as the midwife of press freedom” espoused by Williams. In Power Without Responsibility media historians James Curran and Jean Seaton explain that the importance of advertising had a profound effect on the popular and radical press in 19th century Britain. Papers “that deepened and extended radical consciousness” like the Northern Star, Poor Man’s Guardian and Reynolds News “either closed down, accommodated to advertising pressure by moving upmarket, stayed in a small audience ghetto with manageable losses or accepted an alternative source of institutional patronage.”

This overarching need to attract affluent readers – and therefore advertising – is the main reason why the immensely popular working-class Daily Herald struggled throughout its history while the business-orientated Financial Times still exists today. Curran and Seaton also argue the power of advertising is one of the reasons why “the press has long been more right wing than the public it is supposed to represent.”

Turning to the present day, it is a truth universally acknowledged that those who dare to challenge journalists about the influence of advertising on editorial content will be ridiculed and roundly dismissed.

A few years ago I contacted the Eastern Daily Press querying why an advert for short-haul airline Flybe didn’t appear next to a report of a protest against the negative influence of the aviation industry on the city council. After all, the paper went to great lengths to position car adverts next to motoring editorial. Were adverts only placed next to similar news content only if the news content was positive, I asked? After dismissing my query as one based on “wild conspiracy theories” the then deputy editor signed off “we are a busy and sophisticated news operation, about which it is quite clear that you have not the slightest understanding.”

The problem for our dangerously self-assured deputy editor is that there is a plethora of evidence contradicting him. In 2005 Advertising Age reported that British Petroleum and Morgan Stanley had both issued directives demanding that their ads be pulled from any publication that included potentially “objectionable” content. “BP went so far as to demand advance notice of any stories that mention the company, a competitor of the company or the oil and energy industry in general,” it reported.

In my files I have a copy of a 1998 Coca-Cola memo which provides guidelines to magazine which Coca-Cola advertises in. Adverts should be placed next to “positive and upbeat editorial,” the memo reads, and never adjacent to articles that deal with “hard news,” “environmental issues” or “negative diet information (eg bulimia, anorexia, quick weight loss, etc).”

Some may dismiss these examples as atypical, but, as one anonymous editor told Advertising Age, there is “a fairly lengthy list of companies that have instructions like these.” Even Andrew Marr, the most establishment of Establishment journalists, gets it. “The biggest question is whether advertising limits and reshapes the news agenda,” he writes in My Trade, his personal history of British journalism. “It does, of course. It’s hard to make the sums add up when you are kicking the people who write the cheques.”

Occasionally this incestuous partnership breaks down, as it did in 2005 when Marks & Spencer pulled all its advertising from Associated Newspapers’ three main titles in protest at what it saw as negative coverage. But these public flare-ups are extremely rare, as one would expect of a largely unspoken and secretive relationship that has been honed over years and years of publishing newspapers and hiring journalists. “The most stupid boast in the history of present-day journalism is that of the writer who says: ‘I have never been given orders; I am free to do as I like.’ We scent the air of the office. We realise that certain things are wanted, certain things unwanted,” commented US press critic George Seldes about his fellow journalists in 1931.

A couple of caveats. First, it is important to remember that the press reliance on advertising is not an all-powerful censor, dictating the content of a newspaper. Rather it should be seen as an influential filter that shapes and limits the news agenda in a business-friendly direction.

The mainstream media is a large, complex entity with competing interests and therefore reports critical of advertisers have and will continue to be published. And there are principled and tenacious journalists such as Monbiot who will criticise the hand that feeds them – but they are few and far between.

Second, we shouldn’t forget that advertising is just one of many factors – corporate ownership, the educational background of journalists, reliance on official sources, the dominant ideology and the power of the public relations industry – that explains why the media acts as it does.

Yet it is clear that a press reliant on corporate advertising for its very survival will by definition always be compromised when it comes to providing accurate and objective information and analysis about the world we live in.

Only journalists whose professional integrity is called in to question by this link and the most naive fools will fail to follow the money and come to the logical conclusion. As US media analyst Robert McChesney succinctly put it, “So long as the media are in corporate hands, the task of social change will be vastly more difficult, if not impossible.”

Selling anxiety

Selling Anxiety
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
January 2009

Last summer, while sitting in the dark waiting for the new Indiana Jones movie to begin, I was subjected to the new Kellogg’s Special K ‘See if you can get slimmer for summer’ commercial. Soundtracked by Ken Parker’s sunny sing-a-long ‘I Can’t Hide’, the 25-second advert shows a young woman looking at her holiday snaps. The camera zooms in to the photographs themselves, and we see the woman wearing a red swimsuit. Uncomfortable with her weight she tries to cover herself up by moving behind objects around her, by jumping in the pool etc. It’s all very clever and very closely resembles the video for Fit But You Know It by The Streets.

As I happily guzzled the chocolate milk I had smuggled in to the cinema it suddenly dawned on me the very attractive woman in the advert – 5’10″ American model Juliana Fine I have subsequently found out – wasn’t actually overweight. In fact she had the kind of figure that makes other women green with envy and red-blooded heterosexual men do that unattractive leering face where their tongues loll out of their mouths.   On top of this there seemed to be no difference in Fine’s weight ‘before’ and ‘after’ she had taken the Special K summer challenge – that is two bowls a day for two weeks to see if you can get “slimmer for summer”.

This not only seemed to be a blatant con trick, but by preying on women’s all too often low self-esteem the advert has real social ramifications. For example, a 2004 Bliss magazine survey found the 2,000 teenage girls questioned had a shocking level of dissatisfaction with their own bodies, with 67 percent of respondents thinking they were overweight, while 19 percent of respondents actually were overweight. This disgust with their own bodies is no doubt the main reason two out of three girls under 13 questioned said they had already been on a diet and a quarter of 14-year olds said they had considered plastic surgery. The survey also gave a brief insight in to the relationship older women have with their bodies, with 90 percent of girls answering that their own mother had “an insecure body image”.

So what did Kellogg’s have to say for themselves?

After telling me they employ “a dedicated team of Dieticians and Nutritionists to ensure that all studies, formulations, marketing and advertising” of their products aligns with the “concrete principles” embedded within their corporate nutrition policy, Kellogg’s explained Fine had a BMI (Body Mass Index) of 25.1. So yes, with a person labelled ‘overweight’ if they have a BMI of 25 or above, Fine is technically overweight – by 0.1. But before you start chanting “who ate all the pies?” please bear in mind that Brad Pitt is also deemed overweight when measured by his BMI.

Kellogg‘s email waffled on: “Dramatic weight loss within the 2 week challenge period is neither expected nor advocated”. This is why “the model shown in the ‘after’ challenge shot may not appear significantly different.” This seemed a little vague to me, so I asked Kellogg’s to tell me 1) Fine’s BMI in the ‘after’ shots and 2) the dates when the ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots were actually filmed.

After nearly two weeks of waiting for a reply, I received a curt email explaining Kellogg’s “are unable to release any information on shooting times or the models BMI alteration in the aftershot”. What exactly are Kellogg’s hiding? Who’s willing to bet me that for reasons of time and money the filming took place at the same time, and therefore unless Fine has the metabolism of a particularly active hummingbird it seems highly unlikely she lost any weight between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots?

Special K’s ‘See if you can get slimmer for summer’ commercial is a perfect example of a corporation attempting to impose wildly unrealistic standards on women in an attempt to boost profits. If Fine needs to watch her figure, then so does virtually every women in the western world, and hey why don’t you try some Special K with your insecurity, Ms? This faux-fatness seems to be an increasingly common phenomena, much like the portrayal of so-called ‘unattractive’ women on TV – America Ferrera’s Ugly Betty who isn’t ugly at all, Julia Roberts playing the ugly duckling in the 2001 romedy American Sweethearts and ‘ugly’ sister Toni Collette in the Hollywood drama In Her Shoes, who, I for one, find far more attractive than Cameron Diaz.

By filming a professional model using a product she doesn’t actually need, Special K joins a huge beauty-based sub-section of the advertising industry. Think of the Clearasil commercials with the clear-skinned, confident teenagers narcissistically checking themselves out in the mirror, supermodel Claudia Schaffer fronting L’Oreal’s Wrinkle De-Crease advertising campaign and Davina-bloody-McCall talking to her ‘Mum’ on the phone about how great her bloody hair is. Along with Special K, these adverts often use pseudo-scientific jargon and (corporate sponsored?) ‘experts’ to hawk a product whose use leads to results that are either very difficult to quantify or completely non-existent. Does anymore really think Garnier Nutrisse being “enriched with fruit oils” make one bit of sodding difference to McCall’s hair? If so, surely Garnier Nutrisse could clearly explain what it is, without relying on the razzle-dazzle of pseudo-scientific and meaningless language?

In contrast, Dove’s ongoing ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ is often held up as a model of socially-conscious, women friendly advertising. According to the Communist…. sorry Dove Campaign Manifesto “real beauty comes in many shapes, sizes and ages” and therefore Dove, a subsidiary of the radical feminists at Unilever, aims to promote “a view of beauty that all women can own and enjoy everyday.” In case you have been on Mars for the last few years, rather than using professional models, Dove’s campaign features ‘real’ women of colour, women over 40 and women of varying weight – all happily frolicking in white bras and underwear, proud of their “real curves”.

So far, so right on. But before you get excited and throw away your copy of The Beauty Myth, consider the main product Dove’s ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ is selling: the Dove Firming range. “By combining the products in this range”, the Dove website says, “your skin becomes noticeably firmer while the intensive firming gel-cream is even proven to reduce the appearance of cellulite.” That’s right folks, real women might have curves but flabby, unsightly cellulite – that’s got to go. So while Dove’s campaign has gone some way to broadening the definition of beauty, the basic message remains the same: Beauty is central to a woman’s identity. And more importantly, women are not naturally beautiful, but are always in need of improvement which requires endless effort and the endless consumption of beauty products.

Arguably, despite the very real progress made by first, second and third wave feminism, the fixation on women’s physical appearance today is greater than it has ever been. Just think of the popularity of shows such as Extreme Makeover, Ten Years Younger, Cosmetic Surgery Live and The Swan. Indeed, it is important to remember certain industries have a vested interest in increasing women’s anxiety about their bodies and aggravating their low self-esteem. The list is long – the beauty industry, the diet industry, cosmetic surgeons, the fashion industry, advertising and women’s magazines. This is not some kind of grand conspiracy against women, simply an attempt to maximise profits. In the year of its launch in 2004, the BBC reported the Campaign for Real Beauty ad campaign had boosted Dove’s sales by a whopping 700 per cent.

This pursuit of the bottom dollar produces the tragically bizarre situation of products like Special K, and yes Dove too, being targeted primarily at women, professing to support women, but which are, in actual fact, running advertising campaigns that contribute to a culture that ultimately damages women’s mental and physical health.

Comedians and advertising

Comedians and advertising
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
October 2013

“Here’s the deal folks. You do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call forever. End of story. You’re another fucking corporate shill, you’re another whore at the capitalist gang-bang… everything you say is suspect.” That was the late, great stand-up Bill Hicks’s colourful takedown of comedians who advertised consumer products.

Hicks may have won the moral battle but he lost the war. Today, our television screens are chockfull of comedians selling stuff. Chris Addison hawking Direct Line insurance, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant mooning in a Microsoft training video, Peter Kay clowning around for John Smith’s and Peep Show’s David Mitchell and Robert Webb selling Mac computers – are there any comedians today not doing adverts?

“I don’t see what is morally inconsistent with a comedian doing an advert”, Mitchell told the Telegraph. “It’s all right to sell computers, isn’t it? Unless you think capitalism is evil – which I don’t. It’s not like we’re helping to flog a baby-killing machine.”

Mitchell, who has built his career on being a kind of smug, privately-schooled know-it-all, can’t seem to compute that you don’t have to be opposed to all of capitalism to have a problem with advertising. As US dissident Noam Chomsky explains, “in a market society” adverts would simply have “a description of the properties of the commodity because then you get what are called ‘informed consumers making rational choices’”. Instead, what we get in Mitchell’s corporate-dominated ‘capitalism’ “is forms of delusion because the business wants to create uninformed consumers, who make irrational choices.” With markets often saturated with near identical products, sales are made on an emotional, rather than factual, level – which is where Mitchell and Webb come in. Humour can make a bank seem “approachable, create an emotional bond and break through the clutter”, explained Marc Mentry, the senior vice president of advertising at the Capital One Financial Corporation, in the New York Times in 2011.

To be clear, Mitchell and Webb – and other comedians who front adverts – are involved in a planned deception of consumers, tricking them into making irrational choices so they buy consumer products. This creation of new desires drives the consumer society that is the key driver of the climate catastrophe that will soon be upon us. That Mitchell can’t join these very simple dots is testament to the accuracy of muckraker Upton Sinclair’s famous truism that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Considering the profound social and economic changes of the last 30 years, it shouldn’t be surprising so many comedians now see advertising as a legitimate part of their professional life. Comedy, television, film, academia – all have seen a broad decline in serious political engagement in the face of corporate ascendancy and its attendant neoliberal ideology. Out has gone class-based analysis unashamedly trying to make the world a better place, replaced by individualism, detached irony and what Suzanne Moore calls the “apolitical vacuousness” of postmodernism. From music to parliamentary politics, the idea that society should and could be fundamentally changed is as rare as a working-class Labour MP.

However, there are comedians who seem to have consciously chosen not to sell out. Stewart Lee, Josie Long, Chris Morris and Frankie Boyle have, as far as I am aware, never done any advertising. Although they are a diverse group of artists, all of their work shares a strong (progressive) political core. All, I suspect, take their responsibility as a comic and public figure far more seriously than Mitchell, Webb etc. And, importantly, all are unencumbered by the contract clauses that the advertising comedians will have signed stipulating they will not criticise the product they are flogging. All, in short, have a moral core. A political and social conscience. History, I’m willing to bet, will be kinder to them than to those who have used their comedy fame to sell us shit.

Metamorphosing from a butterfly to a slug: The Daily Herald and The Sun

Metamorphosing from a butterfly to a slug: The Daily Herald and The Sun   
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
15 September 2014

Today marks the 50th anniversary of one of the blackest days in British newspaper history. Though almost entirely forgotten, on 15 September 1964 the popular Labour-supporting Daily Herald newspaper was re-launched as The Sun that we all know and loathe today.

The Herald was founded in 1912 by a group of radicals including union leader Ben Tillett and Labour politician George Lansbury. Fighting to establish its name in an industry with prohibitively high capital costs, money was so tight in the early days that at one point the paper came out in pages of different sizes and shapes after some discarded paper supplies had been found. Between 1914 and 1919 financial troubles forced the paper to temporarily publish as a weekly to survive. Luckily, the paper’s politics were built on firmer ground. According to James Curran, Professor of Communications at Goldsmith’s, the Herald was a “freewheeling vehicle of the left, an important channel for the dissemination of syndicalist and socialist ideas”. It gave strong support to industrial action, the suffragettes and Russian Revolution, while opposing the First World War and its attendant conscription.

Taken over by the Trade Union Congress in 1922, the paper’s rebellious independence was neutered, though it continued to provide an alternative analysis and vision of society to the rest of the Tory-dominated press. In 1933 the Herald became the largest circulation daily newspaper in the Western world, topping two million copies a day, despite the hostility of the political class. However, the paper had an Achilles Heel – its readership was overwhelming working-class, older men with little purchasing power.

Why was this a problem? Ever since the repeal of advertising duty in the 1850s, newspapers had become heavily reliant on advertising revenue, as they still are today. Therefore, the key was to attract readers with money to spend. As Sir Charles Higham, the head of a large advertising agency, noted in 1925, “A very limited circulation, but entirely among the wealthy… may be more valuable than if circulation were quadrupled”. This cold economic reality was a disaster for the labour-orientated Herald. “Our success in circulation was our undoing”, Lansbury, then the Editor, said in 1919. “The more copies we sold, the more money we lost.” Previously, governments had tried to restrict working-class and radical publications by levying newspaper stamp duty and taxes. In contrast, Professor Curran believes the Herald’s problems with advertising highlights how “Market forces succeeded where legal repression had failed in conscripting the press to the social order.” The Guardian’s Readers’ Editor, who recently argued that it was advertising that led to the independence of the press, should take note.

After the Second World War, the Herald’s money problems continued, the paper moving from one crisis to another. These difficulties shouldn’t be confused with unpopularity. In the Herald’s last year of publication it had a circulation of 1.2 million, more than five times the circulation of The Times, and a readership of over 4.7 million – double the readership of The Times, the Financial Times and The Guardian combined. However, even though it achieved 8.1% of national daily circulation, the paper only received 3.5% of net advertising revenue.

In an effort to secure the future of the paper, in the 1950s the Herald’s management turned to market research (which found the paper had the most devoted readership of all newspapers). Informed by the results, the Herald was re-launched as The Sun in an attempt to diversify and ‘upgrade’ the readership – to produce a “more representative make-up essential to advertisers”, as an internal memo put it. Writing in his diary at the time, Tony Benn described the transformed paper as “appalling… basically the same minus the Herald political content.”

Increasingly commercial and politically directionless, the paper staggered on until 1969 when a then little known Australian newspaper owner called Rupert Murdoch bought it and the sexist, celebrity-obsessed, news-lite, Thatcherite Sun was born.

It was a hugely ironic ending for a paper that had been a consistent voice for the working-class and labour movement. Continuously undermined by market forces, Professor Curran notes it had the indignity of being of being “converted into a paper which stood for everything the old Daily Herald had opposed”.

The Herald’s loss is especially noticeable today. The majority of the national press continue to tack to the political right, and is far to the right of the general public on many major issues. Even The Guardian, generally considered the most liberal and left-wing national daily, has shown great hostility to trade unions on occasion.

So 15 September 1964 was a dark day indeed. Perhaps we should wear black armbands in remembrance next year?

This article was inspired by and largely sourced from James Curran and Jean Seaton’s Power Without Responsibility: The Press, Broadcasting and the New Media in Britain and Huw Richards’s The Bloody Circus: The Daily Herald and the Left.

*An edited version of this article was published on Open Democracy.

Gok Wan: A Revolutionary?

Gok Wan: A Revolutionary?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
July 2010

The US feminist poet Katha Pollitt once warned “When left, right and centre agree, watch out. They probably don’t know what they’re talking about.” Pollitt was unlikely to have had Gok Wan in mind when she wrote that, but I would argue the popular TV fashion guru is a textbook example of her cautionary advice.

For those not in the know, 35-year old Wan burst on to Britain’s television screens in 2006 as the flamboyant presenter of Channel Four’s How To Look Good Naked. Pulling in over three million viewers at its peak, the show professes to boost women’s body confidence by using fashion and style tips, rather than encouraging weight loss or cosmetic surgery. As Wan explains in the very first episode: “46-year old Susan Sharpe, like nine out of ten British women, hates her body. My mission is to show her how good she can look with her clothes on and off – without having to nip, tuck, crunch or starve.” By the end of the show the transformation is complete, with the once tearfully insecure Sharpe confident enough to do a naked photo shoot.
 
Wan has gone on to present five more successful series of How To Look Good Naked, as well as new shows such as Gok’s Fashion Fix and Miss Naked Beauty. Writing in The Times, Caitlin Moran breathlessly argues Wan is “a revolutionary” and “a public service”. Not wanting “to overstate his importance” she proclaims: “Now we have the vote, and equal rights legislation, it might well be that Gok Wan… is the most significant person in the lives of 21st-century women.”
 
Wan certainly pushes a lot of the right progressive buttons in a country where women make up 90 percent of the 1.5 million people with eating disorders and 91 percent of those who undergo cosmetic surgery.
 
But before you get too excited and throw away your copy of The Beauty Myth, shouldn’t we take a closer look at Wan’s message?
 
Noting there is “enormous pressure on women to conform to the body shape ideal”, the official Simply Gok Wan website argues “Some women are naturally thin, some are naturally curvy, and as long as both are healthy then who is to say one is more ‘ideal’ than the other? Beauty should be about diversity”.
 
So far, so right on. However, at the start of the first episode Wan explains: “I’ve got only four weeks to show my curvy girl how to lift those boobs, tone that tum and shape that bum.” What happened to beauty being about diversity?! Instead Wan boosts Sharpe’s self-esteem saying she has “curves to die for”, while simultaneously shaping her to fit the unattainable image of a beautiful woman. Am I the only person who sees the deep hypocrisy in this? So despite the faux-feminist rhetoric, like Nick Clegg’s ‘new politics’, Wan’s ideas on beauty are in fact highly conventional and conservative.
 
Throughout the half-hour show Wan continues to flip between playing the supportive gay best friend to reinforcing the destructive beauty ideal that his own official website argues leads to “depression, shame and guilt”.
 
“It takes pounds and inches off you… it slims you write down”, gasps Wan about a dress in the changing room. Elsewhere he explains that “If you are short and thin, this season’s super skinny trousers will lengthen your legs and make your bottom look pert.”
 
More importantly, while Wan is undoubtedly a step up from such hateful fare as Trinny and Susannah’s What Not To Wear and Ten Years Younger, the fundamental message remains the same: Appearance is, and should be, central to a woman’s identity. The assumption being that women are not naturally beautiful but are always in need of improvement which requires endless effort and the endless consumption of beauty products and fashionable clothes.
 
So when Wan asks Sharpe what her future plans are, she says she intends to buy “nice clothes, nice dresses, nice underwear, nice bags, nice shoes”. And if she gets stuck for ideas it just so happens Wan has his own “Sexy Shapewear” lingerie line, selling Super Slicker Knicker’s for £30 or Banger Booster’s for £33.
 
In The Equality Illusion feminist Kat Banyard argues that “viewing one’s own body as an inanimate object to be made pleasing to onlookers is inherently harmful.” As evidence she cites a 2008 Flinders University study that found even complimenting a woman who views her body as an object on her physical appearance can have negative consequences. “This apparently counterintuitive conclusion followed upon the discovery that the compliment focused these women’s attention on their body and led them to fell more ashamed of it”, Banyard comments.
 
Despite the very real progress made by first, second and third wave feminism, the fixation on women’s physical appearance today is greater than it has ever been. Wan may be a noticeable improvement on other makeover show hosts, but this shouldn’t lead to everybody suddenly losing their critical faculties. To do so would mean we miss the fact that although How To Look Good Naked is targeted primarily at women and professes to support women, in reality its deeply contradictory messages ultimately elevate a beauty ideal that continues to damage women’s mental and physical health.