Fantasy Journalism – How Buying Your Own Hype Can Torpedo News Marketing

Take a look at this ad for United Airlines. In the ad, the benevolent gate agents coyly whisk the starry-eyed customer to the gate where he whimsically boards his flight and gazes longingly at an enchanted rose perched fondly in the window. While it is a charming fantasy, this little hallucination is absurdly disconnected from the punishing cattle-car reality of modern-day air travel. The authentic experience would include the flight attendant requiring you to dump out the water, secure the glass vase in the overhead bin, and put the rose under the seat in front of you. Sit down, shut up and eat your peanuts.
These curiously self-delusional ad campaigns will typically show up when a well-meaning committee of managers is put in charge of the advertising. I’m sure that when the airline’s ad agency showed this spot to the United management team, it was a big hit. Why? Because this is the fantasy of the managers whose primary concern is the day-to-day logistics of running an airline. This is what the manager of flight operations wants to believe. It makes him feel good. It has nothing to do with the customer’s vantage point.
I see this phenomenon in news marketing all the time. A committee creates a marketing campaign that speaks to its own journalism fantasy. It creates ads that editors, producers, and assignment editors like. Typically, there won’t be any customers seen in the ads. The only people portrayed are heroic station personnel valiantly bounding out the door in a quest for the truth.
Unfortunately, television news is particularly prone to fall for this kind of self-deception. We are so passionate about the work we do, that we delude ourselves into thinking everyone must share our passion. For most people in the business, journalism is not just a job, it is a calling. The reason most of us put up with the long hours and low pay is that we see our work as an important social responsibility. We grew up on Woodward and Bernstein, and 60 Minutes. For most of us, it’s not just a paycheck, it’s who we are. You will rarely see a car salesman or business executive who comes to work each day with a fire in their belly to make the world a better place. Most car mechanics are not trying to improve the world one transmission at a time. The rules of journalism are not just benign work rules for us, they are a preeminent code of conduct that regularly spills over into our personal lives.
This is one of the most delightful things about my job as a news trainer. The participants never lack for passion. Training a room full of journalistic crusaders to write better leads is just a lot of fun. Unfortunately, this same fire in the belly can be a recipe for disaster when building a strategic customer-focused news marketing campaign.
If you examine the imagery that is used in most news image marketing, you will notice one group startlingly absent from the mix – our viewers. Most of the imagery is focused on our own process of creating the product each day. Most of the pictures feature our team and our facilities – photogs running with cameras, anchors urgently calling, news cars peeling out, weathercasters poring over maps.
Most advertising isn’t like this. While I’m sure the process of making a Nike shoe is fascinating, you won’t see Nike ads that feature images of workers stamping our rubber soles and cutting leather. As a matter of fact, you usually won’t see the shoes shown anywhere in the ads. This is because Nike knows that their brand image isn’t about the shoes. It’s about the customer’s feeling of tenacity and coolness when they lace up those shoes. Sure, Nike is proud of the quality of their shoes, but they don’t let their internal corporate identity distract them from the mission of their advertising – to build the customer’s vision of her own personal identity.
Titleist ads don’t explain the quality control process at their golf ball factory. They show a golf buddy’s look of admiration and envy when their friend wallops a 250 yard tee shot. Old Spice ads don’t talk about the careful crafting of the skin softeners. They show a strapping drop-dead handsome man with gorgeous women dripping off of him.
Like any proud parent, we think what we do is pretty cool. Because we believe so strongly in the importance of our work, images of speeding news cars, hard-driving producers, and stealthy investigative teams are like mother’s milk to us in the industry. Unfortunately, our audience does not share our passion for the minutia surrounding the inner workings of journalism.
Just like United Airlines, we have a distorted view of how our audience perceives us. Back in the 70s, TV journalism was one of the most trusted professions. People believed most of what we said without reservation. However, a Gallup poll shows that times have changed a lot. These days only 43% of the general public believe that TV news journalists are trustworthy. While doctors and pharmacists show up at the top of the most-trusted professions, TV journalists rank near the bottom, right down there with auto mechanics and lawyers.
TV advertising is unusual in another way too. Most TV ad agencies are in-house agencies. The promotion department is right down the hall. In-house agencies are more cost efficient and convenient, but there is a big reason why most major corporations don’t follow this model – loss of advertising objectivity. It is just too easy to start buying your own internal hype. When you socialize and work side by side with your client day in and day out, you can easily forget the priority of your advertising – the viewer.
What happens is that the promo team stops producing ads that motivate the customer, and starts producing ads that please friends and coworkers. It is only natural. When you brush shoulders with the reporters every day and get compliments on how many times they were in the last promo, the promo team tends to take heart. When they get kudos from the weathercaster on how well the promo showcased his detailed maps, they tend to want to use more of his maps in the advertising. Inch by inch, the promo team starts to forget that more shots of reporters or more shots of maps will probably just dilute the effectiveness of the advertising.
What happens is that we start to take the viewer for granted. If you work at a carpet store, your day is filled with one-on-one customer feedback on your product. However, most of us in TV do not have regular face-to-face interaction with our customers. They are an intangible hoard behind the lens. Most all of our audience feedback comes from sporadic research studies and the calls from viewers who are mad enough to phone the station to complain. Because the viewer doesn’t have an on-going voice within the station, it is easy to forget that their wants and desires should be the sole driving force of all the news advertising.
This advertising priority confusion is especially problematic when the people who make the product are also the people who approve the marketing message. We are proud of the job we do covering news each day. Our natural predisposition is to think that the advertising should focus on the exciting great things we do. There is a reason that Nike does not let the shoe plant manager approve the advertising. He would probably want commercials that showcase the fine quality of the shoes. Because he works so hard at quality control, he can’t imagine that everyone wouldn’t be charmed by endless pristine close ups of his shoes.
The same thing happens in news. Let’s say you have positioned yourself as the “on your side” consumer advocacy station in your market. All of your image promotion is squarely focused on empowering your viewers with information to shop smarter and protect themselves. Suddenly, a big downtown fire story breaks, and your news team moves heaven and earth to get the latest breaking reports directly from the scene. Let me tell you, you are proud of what your team did. Attaboys and high fives are everywhere in the newsroom. The team is so satisfied with what they did, and they want to tell the world.
Because the news team is so pumped up with their accomplishment, it is hard to imagine that the viewer would not be thrilled to learn all about the incredible breaking news feat too. Put all the normal promotion on hold, we must get a proof of performance spot on the air immediately. Problem is, you’re not the breaking news station. You’re the consumer advocacy station. As any outside ad agency would plainly tell you, doing this promo will dilute your brand position and distract from the unified image you’re trying to convey. The news director and most of the news management team is down in the promotion office asking “We did such a good job. You’re gonna do a proof, right?” Of course the in-house agency doesn’t want to disappoint the news managers they work with every day, so they cave.
Put your own news marketing advertising to the test. Gather up a reel of your news image promos. Next, turn down the sound and just let them roll. Now, keep score. How many shots of you are in there and how many shots of things that directly relate to viewers? If you do this same exercise with commercials in primetime you will find more customer shots and fewer product shots. Is your news image marketing a continual romp through self-congratulatory arrogance, or are your priorities firmly focused on the customer’s needs and vantage point?
Metal, rubber and electronics do not have intrinsic value for a car buyer. The customer buys that car because of the way it makes them feel while they are driving. While we are proud of our breaking news, doppler radar and investigative teams, these components do not have intrinsic value for our viewers. Just like consumer products, we must clearly attach a core emotional driver to these components. Showcasing product features is only one component of an effective news advertising campaign. If those components can’t resonate emotionally, you are showcasing meaningless features just to bolster your own ego.

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