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Breaking Up AmericaAdvertisers and the New Media World
By Joseph Turow
University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1998 Joseph Turow
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOur excerpt is from chapter five, Signaling Divisions. In this chapter Turow discusses the techniques used by print, broadcast, and online media to appeal to a segment of the available audience-branding techniques that attract a desired segment of the audience and repel those who are not desired. A cable network personality is shaped through signature shows, while advertising agencies use "versioning" to appeal to segments of the public.
Cable network executives intended the largest noise in their branding arsenal to come from signature shows. From a channel's standpoint, they were a little like an especially forward magazine cover, only with sound and motion. A signature program is a series created expressly for a particular programming network as an explicit on-air statement to audiences and advertisers about the personality of the network. The concept emerged during the 1980s, and by the mid-1990s every video network was struggling to maintain at least one signature show. Cable executives were acutely aware of the programs that stood for themselves and others. In the mid-'90s, Beavis and Butt-head and The Real World were among the series that stood for MTV; Ren and Stimpy, Double Dare, and Clarissa Explains It All were the Nickelodeon network's signature shows; Crossfire was one of CNN's contributions to building its personality; while Talk Soup and The Howard Stern Show were E!'s main personality statements.
The advantages seemed obvious. Properly crafted signature shows sparked publicity for the network in other media outlets that reached the target audience. They got people in the target audience talking with one another about the network. The publicity and "word of mouth" encouraged regular tune-ins to the network-a phenomenon TV people called "appointment television"-with the result that viewers stayed around to sample other shows. The hoopla around a successful signature show also encouraged advertisers to pay more attention to its network. Moreover, it created a sense of excitement among advertisers that had already bought time, especially when at least some of their commercial spots were placed around the series itself.
People in the cable business believed that successful signature shows had to carry an attitude that telegraphed for what and for whom their network stood. Sometimes, ideas about the preferred audience was simply part of the program's subject. The Discovery Channel's Invention and A&E's Biography program were examples of flagship series that by their very existence in the center of prime time signaled that those networks stood for an upscale, highly educated audience. Similarly, by being rooted in suburbia Clarissa Explains It All and several other live-action comedies on Nickelodeon telegraphed the upscale nature of its preferred audience. In addition, they, Ren and Stimpy, Double Dare, and a few other signature shows continually acted out a generational theme that one Nickelodeon producer said was at the base of its programming: "It's kids against the adult world."
Yet to a number of highly competitive cable network executives during the mid-1990s the subtlety of signature shows such as Double Dare and Biography was out of touch with the competitive environment. To them, standing out with an attitude meant creating a series with such a fix on separating its audience from the rest of the population that it sparked controversy among people who were clearly removed from the "in" crowd. The resulting publicity across a wide spectrum of media would, they argued, virtually guarantees sampling by the target audience. E!'s marketing director pointed out that executives chose radio star Howard Stern for a network signature program because on radio he reached the age demographics that E! coveted and because his outrageous jokes about politics, race, and celebrity would undoubtedly place the network in the spotlight and draw viewers with lifestyle interests that resonated with E!
The classic example of this "in your face" approach was MTV's animated Beavis and Butt-head. Centering on two social misfits who spent their time commenting grossly on rock videos and getting into trouble, the series was a nonstop parade of violence and aggressively stupid sexuality-what most parents and other authority figures considered highly objectionable in adolescent behavior. Far from hiding the program, though, MTV showcased it, using it at the beginning and end of its evening schedule. In this role as the network's prime-time bookends, the series tagged its channel with a hard-edged anti-authority personality that MTV's programmers associated with adolescents and young adults who did not watch much TV and whom the network's advertisers were seeking to embrace. Pressure-group anger at the show, far from endangering it and its image, probably served to reinforce it in the eyes of its target audience. In the words of the Los Angeles Times, "Say what you will about the moronic duo, they've helped to cement MTV's identity with viewers and advertisers."
Lee Masters, the CEO of E! who had also headed MTV in the past, asserted that he knew of no cable network that intended to antagonize segments of the population when it developed signature programs. The goal, he insisted, was simply to "stand for" the target audience amidst a crowd of channels. He acknowledged, however, that in the process of doing that a series might very well alienate viewers who would not feel part of the network's demographics or lifestyle.
And yet a look at advertisements of cable networks to potential sponsors shows that the idea of pitting one group against another for monetary gain was actually at the forefront of their minds. Those by ESPN International and Comedy Central were particularly direct in heralding their super cores' lifestyles in that way. ESPN's showed a blurred photo of a soccer player overlaid by a design that recalled the crosshairs of a rifle. "A handful of guys cannot be reached through ESPN," the headline stated. "But they're all geeks who wouldn't buy your product anyway."
In Comedy Central's ad, a man in a business suit stood in a court room, back to the camera, with manacles tying his hands. Judging by the hands, the man was white. The headline of the ad read "We're proud to say that when the average Comedy Central viewer is convicted of a crime, it's most likely to be a white collar crime." Below the photograph were lines citing the network as having "the highest prime-time concentration of adults 18 to 49 with an income of over $60,000"; the "best educated 18 to 49 audience in commercial television"; and "the highest concentration of 18 to 49 professional managerial viewers of any network." The copy did not say what the picture and headline strongly suggested: Comedy Central's target audience was white.
The bluntness of Comedy Central and ESPN International was at the far end of a continuum, but other video networks made their messages nearly as direct. One wonders what, if these lines reached the general public, that public would think regarding the portrayals of viewers and (especially) non-viewers. Today, such ads would probably be rejected as too controversial for promotional materials on the channels themselves. But with increased competition leading programmers to constantly push the envelope of acceptability to be noticed, who knows?
In 1995 Village Voice writer Leslie Savan saw explicit attempts to divide groups from one another in the advertisements that populate different formats. "The same firm, through different product campaigns, can proselytize for women's rights and run ads on Rush Limbaugh," she wrote. "They are part of a new culture that sponsors rebellion, that provides the conflict that our society ... would grow bored without. The right mix of love and hate on the knuckles creates just enough tension to enable both sides to make a lot of money."
It is an exaggeration to suggest that the mid-1990s saw a trend to explicitly encourage social conflict in advertisements. Savan is perhaps more correct in suggesting that the heated competition over audiences in the 1990s caused many of the biggest advertisers to have fewer qualms than ever before about placing their ads on media formats that might raise hackles among social activists. The marketers' hope seemed to be that such critics would not learn of their separate, often niche, targeting activities. If controversy did become public (such as when it became well known that Ivory-pure Proctor and Gamble was a major sponsor of tabloid-television talk shows), the gamble was that good public relations and crisis management would help the firm ride the problem out.
Savan was also on target in recognizing that with the growing fractionalization of media, advertisers began to realize that they could imbue a product with multiple images and so send different images to different audiences. Doing that, they often implicitly reflected and exploited social divisions through casting of ads, ther tone, and their placement on formats aimed at audiences that could relate to the casting and tone.
If the wrong audiences knew the purposes behind the ads, it might startle them. For example, Saturn automobile's Hispanic American agency conducted research showing that while Mexicans responded favorably to ads featuring Cubans, Cubans rejected Mexicans as opinion leaders. The agency decided to flow with this prejudice. Saturn management agreed that TV commercials for Miami, where many Cubans live, should exclude the Mexicans.
The creation of slightly different ads for different audiences became during the 1990s a trend that warranted its own term: versioning. Advertisers used the technique to achieve different tones when aiming at different slices of the children's market. Typically, they edited the same basic commercials differently depending on the amount of violence and quick-cutting that different broadcast or cable outlets would allow for certain age groups. Somewhat more varied were advertisements designed to reflect race and ethnicity. Executives at black, Hispanic American, and Asian American agencies often argued that their customers would respond best to persuasive messages only if created on their terms. To that end, the agencies created highly targeted ads designed to resonate with the most relevant demographics, psychographics, and lifestyle characteristics of their group. Coordination between the general agency and the minority agency ensured that the basic campaign theme was not totally different. Still, the ads spoke to the groups with images of distinct lifestyles.
Taking versioning even farther, some marketers developed entirely different campaigns for distinct audiences, with editing and casting decisions designed to exploit their understanding of different audiences' different worldviews. That was the idea behind an MCI ad campaign that aimed to speak to Generation X. The long-distance company's executives worried that their broad-based campaign aimed at baby boomers might not be connecting with the cohort that followed them. The company therefore decided to create a relatively inexpensive series of ads that would run on such GenX cable networks such as MTV and VH1.
To carry it out, the copywriter and art director on the project, GenXers themselves, chose three somewhat off-kilter incidents in the lives of young adults into which they expected people of their age cohort could project themselves or their friends: a couple getting married under water, a male Xer in a tattoo parlor, and a young man at a professional baseball game catching a foul ball with his popcorn cup. At the end of each vignette, a voiceover that reflected the age target asked, "So what have your friends done since you last spoke to them?"
If the MCI GenXers' departures from the norm sound bland, that was purposeful. According to the copywriter involved on the project, MCI was nervous about associating itself with topics that might spark controversy. Tattooing and marriage underwater were about as iconoclastic as the firm would allow. Consequently, language, quick-cut editing, and music had to carry the job of signaling Generation X sensibilities. A director who could project an MTV feel in the visuals and sound was key to creating the package, the copywriter said. He used the tattoo vignette as an example. "It was everything, from the music to the style, the scenario, what's happening. The way it's shot, the way it unfolds before you. Even though it's a basic guy lying on his stomach getting a tattoo, if you had taken three totally different directors, it would have come off as three totally different messages."
The MCI case is more evidence that marketers varied in how explicitly controversial they dared to be in their ads to attract their audience. Subtly, though, the MCI GenX ads did perpetuate a media-wide announcement that twenty-somethings were virtually a different culture, best left alone in their own media dens. This sort of partitioning by age was being duplicated in countless ways across a wide gamut of age, income, racial, and categories. Market-driven excitement about category slices within categories was encouraging the creation of formats and commercials that pictured a society so split up that it was impossible to know all the parts. In that context, commercials such as MCI's, placed amid compatible formats, might well be saying, "Better stay with with your own kind; it's less confusing and more fun." Said over and over again to different groups visiting different formats and the cumulative message might well be of a society so divided that it is impossible to know, or care about.
Excerpted from Breaking Up America by Joseph Turow Copyright © 1998 by Joseph Turow.
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