Context and Distribution

A terrible and powerful story that first appeared a few weeks ago can be co-opted to illustrate the power of context as well as the importance of distribution.

By now I’m sure everyone reading this has seen the photo of the body of the little Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. At the time the photo appeared here, comparisons (in terms of probable effect on political and public opinion) were drawn with the famous photo by Nick Ut of the 9-year old Vietnamese child running down the road with napalm sticking to her naked body.

The Aylan Kurdi photo (in one or other variation) appeared on the front pages of many UK newspapers. It was incredibly impactful, of course. The photo was shown baldly, powerfully. What editorial there was there was very short and took little space. The majority by far of the space was taken up by the photo. Needless to say there were no commercial messages anywhere near it.

I wondered how the newspapers were going to deal with the story and the photo online. So I checked ‘The Independent’ – one of the few papers here to carry the most graphic of the photos.

The first thing I noticed was that the front page took between 1 and 2 minutes to load. I should say that I live in central London, within yards of a junction box and my broadband speed is pretty good. My laptop, where I did this experiment is one foot from my router.

The reason for the delay was easy to spot – numerous adtech suppliers processing my details and then loading images.

Once the page loaded the photo was certainly there, but surrounded by ads and promotional messages from the publisher. Right under the photo was a video ad for Bulmers Cider.

A couple of months ago Felix Salmon wrote a piece in ‘The Guardian’ called ‘Adtech is killing the online experience’

Salmon quotes an Apple blogger called John Gruber who: “..noted that a 537-word text post on the website iMore.com weighed in at 14 megabytes. (Fourteen megabytes of text should correspond to about 7m words, or about 10 times the combined length of the Old and New Testaments).”

No-one wants to wait for what seems like an age to receive messages they almost certainly don’t want to receive.

The photo of Aylan got its message across in the extraordinarily powerful way that it did as a result of appearing isolated on a physical page, without any distraction.

What the various digital channels did of course was give the photo legs. It distributed it far faster, far wider and far more effectively than any other method.

This combination of impact channel and distribution network is nothing new.

One famous war photographer used to flypost images from photos he had taken, and which had already appeared in his newspaper, to ensure they were more widely seen, and their impact more widely felt.

We are in danger of losing the shades of grading within these distinctions. Media forms are defined more and more by what are increasingly meaningless metrics connected to the distribution mechanism, and less and less by their context.

It’s an easy sell too. Any advertiser can understand that medium A has a billion more users than medium B. Why bother to understand what the metric actually means; let alone try to appreciate and put some kind of value on the power of medium A over medium B.

We’ve become an industry obsessed by numbers and nervous of creative thought, in any sense. And we’re the poorer for it.

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