Online media face tough financial decisions… but when it comes to accepting ads for products or companies we condemn, let’s not pretend we’re not supporting them.
By Meg White
It’s no secret that this has been a tough year for the news biz, particularly for progressive media. While we hear a lot about newspapers disappearing, there’s an undercurrent of despair heard in the appeals of progressive news sites. Anyone who gets e-mail updates from BuzzFlash or any number of our colleagues doing similar work can attest to this fact.
Different sites deal with the problem in different ways (if you’re new to us, click here for an explanation of how we do it). Appeals, fundraisers, search engine optimization schemes… and then there’s always advertising. It seems not a day goes by when there isn’t some new way to make money off of the white space on your computer screen.
In fact, Huffington Post just announced a way it plans to use Twitter, a micro blogging site that doesn’t even make money for its creators, to generate ad revenue. However, seeing HuffPo’s increasingly fluffy celebrity journalism appear next to an ad for an energy company talking about how green it supposedly has become is less shocking than what you might find as their most popular story (this morning we see Tara Reid’s Playboy pics fighting Tiger Woods’ wife for the top spot in that category).
But when a reader flees such fluff for a progressive bastion such as The Nation or Open Left, one doesn’t expect the whitewashing of notorious megacorporations to fill the margins surrounding fearless commentary and journalism.
For example, hovering above this important piece on Open Left about the individual rights of the corporation and the unprecedented powers that the Supreme Court is positioned to hand over to Corporate America is a banner ad for one of the top opponents of net neutrality: Comcast (see screenshot at right; you can click to enlarge in a new browser tab).
And it’s not just any ad. The Comcast ad trumpets the “infinite possibilities” of the cable conglomerate’s plans to acquire NBC, a possibility characterized as a potentially “disastrous” form of “runaway media consolidation” by the nonprofit organization Free Press.
The Nation has begun posting ads all over its site for Coca Cola Co (example at right, click to enlarge). The company launched its “Live Positively” campaign there, among other places, striving to repaint its image from junk food to being a part of a healthy lifestyle with serving size reduction, more obvious calorie information and more “lo-cal” sweetener options.
Coke’s greenwashing is a matter of legend. In an internal memo, the company admitted that its “water neutral” campaign was inherently “misleading,” “troublesome” and “impossible.” But that didn’t stop them from using it as an advertising tool. Is there any doubt that their “Live Positively” campaign is any different?
This is not just an ad campaign in the traditional sense. Coca Cola has a long legacy of exploiting third-world countries and paying them back with slave wages and toxic waste. They are trying to portray themselves as an asset to the international community as they continue to circumvent native water rights and bribe officials.
We’re not suggesting that advertising revenues in any way effect editorial content on these progressive sites. In fact, The Nation is now pasting its site with ads from credit card companies as it prints pieces criticizing their deceptive practices. We agree with Vice President Joe Biden’s advice to avoid questioning a person’s motives. Instead we question these sites’ judgment.
As a point of further clarification, it’s not just Open Left and The Nation relying on less-than-progressive megacorporations to keep their sites above water. These are just two examples we happened to notice because BuzzFlash staff reads — and admires — these publications on a regular basis.
Progressives and liberals often insist that they’re not affected by advertising. They’re too smart and too aware of it to fall prey. This may be a comforting thought, considering the amount of advertising we’re bombarded with on a daily basis, but it’s dead wrong.
Study after study after study reveals that online advertising works, even when we don’t click on the ad in question. As digital ads becomes more and more ambiguous, our brains have a harder time distinguishing between ads and editorial content when deciphering the flood of incoming cognitive traffic.
Coke is not stupid. These companies wouldn’t knowingly waste their money on ads that don’t work. The accuracy and detail provided by online analytics means that companies know ads work in a way that was never possible before with traditional forms of advertising. That old adage of not knowing which half of one’s advertising works is slowly fading in the digital age.
Furthermore, the lie we tell ourselves about the affect of advertising is a dangerous one. Jean Kilbourne, the author of Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel, notes that advertisers covet consumers who are cynical about the power of advertising (emphasis mine):
Much of advertising’s power comes from this belief that it does not affect us. As Joseph Goebbels said: ‘This is the secret of propaganda: those who are to be persuaded by it should be completely immersed in the ideas of the propaganda, without ever noticing that they are being immersed in it.’ Because we think advertising is trivial, we are less on guard, less critical, than we might otherwise be. While we’re laughing, sometimes sneering, the commercial does its work…
Advertising creates a world view that is based upon cynicism, dissatisfaction and craving.
Rather than dismiss the power of advertising, the Center for Media Literacy urges that we try to limit our exposure (emphasis mine):
What must change is how we see advertising in the context of the modern moment. We must recognize that its influence upon our lives and our well-being is in direct proportion to the amount of exposure in our lives, and that this exposure is an event unto itself, an experience separate from whether or not we respond to or believe individual messages.
While an ad on The Nation may not cause us to go out and buy the world a Coke, it certainly changes our impression of the company by association. One’s belief in the purity of one’s favorite blog works toward the whitewashing of those who advertise on said blog. There’s no doubt that, even if we are not absorbing the ad content itself, the mere appearance of “Coke” and “The Nation” on the same page causes our brain to associate the two.
Still, it seems entering into advertising agreements with some of the largest companies in the world isn’t enough to pay the bills.
Just this morning The Nation’s editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, sent out an appeal going after BuzzFlash and other progressive sites for printing the work of their reporters “without contributing a penny to support and produce the journalism we invest in.” While it’s true that BuzzFlash will link to articles on The Nation from our front page, that’s tantamount to directing our readers to The Nation’s page, as BuzzFlash editor Mark Karlin pointed out this morning (emphasis mine):
We don’t mind being called out by name by people who have a different opinion, but it’s another story when a publication you deeply admire slanders you. The fact is that we post headline links to “The Nation” stories from which they derive more hits because of our size, and they then can charge more money to the likes of Coca Cola and Discover Card for running ads for those corporations. BuzzFlash has never reproduced, copied, nor violated the copyright of any “Nation” article, and many of “The Nation” writers, including Jeremy Scahill whom vanden Heuvel mentions, read BuzzFlash and have been interviewed by BuzzFlash…
Furthermore, BuzzFlash is probably the largest non-book store seller of Nation Books on the web and plans to continue selling Nation Books, just as we plan continuing linking to “Nation” articles…
I personally revere the history and quality writing of “The Nation,” but Katrina vanden Heuvel doesn’t need to slander BuzzFlash.
It’s not becoming, and it doesn’t help the battle we all face as progressive publications: The other side has billions and we have nickels.
The Nation has been in touch with us, but is unable to officially comment because vanden Heuvel and other key Nation staff are on their annual seminar cruise. We’ll let you know if anything comes of that.
In the end, the entire online progressive community is struggling to get by. Different sites use different survival techniques.
But we need to be honest with ourselves about the effects of advertising and the responsibilities of progressive media outlets, both of which need to be factored into the “price” we pay for content.
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