We are living in a binary world. Black or white. Left or right. Hero or zero. Win or resign. We always used to decry the very idea of grey (our ex-PM, John Major was ridiculed for being ‘grey’) but right now the middle, the more tolerant, the compromise are all looking more and more appealing.

The media world fuels these divisions. Some hate, some love the BBC (often for the exact same reasons). To some, Fox News is a destroyer of all that’s decent, to others it’s a fearless speaker of truth. Your favourite newspaper columnist or radio talk show host may to you appear as a beacon of light challenging the status quo, but to others he or she is a bigoted idiot.

This last week alone we have had numerous examples of conflicting opinions. Coverage of the Prince Harry / Meghan Markle interview, the UK ex-editor turned broadcaster Piers Morgan’s views expressed on a mainstream TV show, and comment from the Society of Editors (‘the UK press is not racist or bigoted’ versus the opposite view expressed by a raft of, ahem, editors and journalists who make up their membership).

The media world is either ‘biased’, or reflects the true debate taking place in many countries.

As ad people, should we care that some of our TV stations, radio broadcasters, newspapers and websites are becoming so polarised? Should we mind if news is manipulated, with clearly fake stories being created to promote a particular interest or point of view?

Does it matter that the social media platforms continue to provide an outlet for extremist views and conspiracy theorists under the inviolate cover of free speech?

Or does the creation of a large audience justify anything?

And whilst there are clearly societal issues in play, what does the ad world have to contribute to this debate, if anything?

As media guys we do it often appears care about these things only through the lens of audience data.

You would be forgiven if you concluded that the only metric that matters is the ratings. Piers Morgan storms out of an ITV studio having been criticised on-air for his views but the next day he’s on Twitter boasting that his ‘work is done’ as for the first time his show, Good Morning Britain (GMB) beat its BBC rival in the ratings.

TV buyers justify their placement of client messages on this size metric. They won’t think too hard that an editorial context of confrontation and belligerence might have an adverse effect on the public’s perception of their clients’ brands.

And maybe they’re right, after all that word ‘might’ is doing an awful lot of work in that sentence.

This is what happens in a world driven by the single dimension of size, where the aim is to buy the biggest thing for the least money. And what if the biggest thing is toxic, damages the environment, drives people into poverty and ferments violence?

At a personal level of course we care, but professionally do we really? We buy eyeballs; what the owners of those eyeballs think or do is apparently of little concern.

Media placement is more nuanced than that. On the one hand it is an agency’s role to consider all options in the round, not just on the basis of the biggest audience. Context matters. But on the other advertisers have historically felt nervous about doing anything that could smack of interference in the editorial process.

If there is virtually no editorial process, as with the platforms then that dynamic shifts. Hence advertisers’ willingness to enter the contextual debate under the banner of brand safety.

It may be that I loathe and detest ‘The Daily Mail’ (actually there’s no ‘may’ about it), but at the same time I can recognise the undoubted fact that ‘The Mail’ attracts a sizeable and in many cases appropriate audience for my clients’ brands.

Both points of view can co-exist, indeed they have done so for years.

Many audience measurement initiatives, from the WFA, ISBA and the ANA on cross-media through to the efforts of the attention-measurers like Amplified Intelligence and Lumen are seeking to add nuance to the crude audience size metric.

As sections of the media polarise, the ability to recognise nuance, to consider the relevance of different attitudes and points of view becomes ever more important.

Should advertisers have a view on a channel’s suitability for its messaging based not just around audience numbers but taking into account that channel’s editorial policy? Should advertisers pay any attention to organisations like Stop Funding Hate?

Is the purity of editorial freedom, unencumbered by commercial concerns worth preserving, or should advertisers allow their decisions to be influenced by particular vocal interests?

Or should we revert to a simpler world in which we buy eyeballs and look the other way?

This is an overdue debate worth having.

  1. Nice call-out Brian 🙂

    In Advertising as in life, profit and social good are in conflict.
    The equilibrium depends on how much stock we put in reputation, and whether we’re exposing it. We always try to have it both ways!

  2. Thanks James. The media business is conflicted…

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