Why the Guardians faux progressiveness is more destructive than it appears.
By E.F Nicholson
Whether we like it or not, our ever increasing participation in the world of consumption, allows us to be sliced and diced by advertisers into increasingly sophisticated demographic cages. The advertising and brand awareness industry, pervasive and almost omniscient, adopt “cradle to grave” strategies that aim to massage you through every demographic group, squeezing the maximum amount of money from you at each stage. Corporations getting into the minds of their target audience is big business. A huge amount of thought and planning goes into how those interactions take place and the impact they have on the consumer.
Companies like Coca-Cola and McDonalds invest massive amounts of money dedicated to access their key demographic and build their brand loyalty. Yet it is interesting to note that even when you are someone who dislikes Coke for its unethical dealing, would never eat McDonalds for similar reasons, you are an educated professional that actually has genuine interest in the betterment of the planet and have some passion about justice and equality, that theses personal qualities also make you a unique demographic ripe for targetting. For some corporations, a citizen’s sense of disenfranchisement and cynicism is just another vein to tap into and exploit for further financial gain. Twenty two years ago, Rage Against the Machine put out the hit “Killing in the name of.” Being signed by Epic records, a subsidiary of Sony, meant their “Fuck you” anthem to resist the system was, in fact, enriching the very said system .It’s like they are OK with citizens yelling out “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me”, as long as they making money from it. Anti-status quo or progressive ideas don’t exclude people from the reach of advertising’s hungry appetite for attention and money. Indeed, people considered “progressives” are actually a very important and lucrative demographic that companies will pay big figures for the opportunity to inoculate in their own inane product narrative. A bigger peddler of access to this unique and lucrative demographic is the Guardian Media group.
The guardian media group promotes itself to its loyal readership “as the modern, progressive, exciting challenger to the status-quo..”
There is a more detailed version of this below but I took out this one line as I really think sums up how the Guardian wants readers to perceive it.
That image or branding is often absorbed as being true. I remember myself in my early 20s feeling some smug pride as I rode the tube in London reading my copy of “The Guardian”. The image I was presenting was “Look I’m smart and a progressive person, can’t you see I am reading The Guardian.” Back then, I identified myself as a “Guardian reader” and saw the paper as expressing my idealism and politics. Coming from Brisbane Australia where literally every single newspaper, national and local, is owned by the Murdoch press, The Guardian was breath of fresh air. It seemed a lone voice, along with the Independent, that provided real news and some actual progressive view global and current affair. Over time I grew out of this loyal identification but I am sure there are still millions who haven’t realised that the Guardian, like any other brand, targets our sense of trust and identity in the pursuit of profit.
What this creates from an advertisers’ point of view is a very loyal and committed demographic who, by advertising their product or service in the Guardian, can exploit the trust and loyalty created by the Guardian brand. So, somewhere along the line, you begin to ask
“Is the desire to be a voice of progressive and independent journalism a thing in of itself, or is it a carefully crafted image that is more concerned with attracting lucrative advertising contracts than about informing the public?”
My view is that it may be a bit of both. Yet I think it’s more of the latter that dominates what gets published. If you click on the link in the advertisers section inside the Guardian website, you immediately see how their loyal readership is sold to the advertisers.
So the advertisers’ packages start off with an introduction about what the Guardian is all about. My emphasis added
Passionately committed to quality journalism, photography and design, the Guardian is the most modern and vibrant newspaper in the country. The Guardian’s vision is to offer independent, agenda-setting content that positions us as the modern, progressive, exciting challenger to the status-quo. The Guardian is consistently innovative, actively encouraging debate and exerting influence. The Guardian’s brand stands fundamentally for taking a fresh approach: we are modern, individual and sometimes unconventional. Healthily sceptical, but not cynical, the Guardian is confident, intelligent and investigative.
This definition creates an immediate cognitive dissonance. They have to navigate a tricky balance between presenting themselves as a progressive voice, a “challenger to the status quo” for their readership but to do so in a way that it still creates an “advertiser friendly environment” for their advertisers.
So it will challenge the status quo, as long as it’s not the status quo that upholds a corporate controlled mass media and the capitalist ideology that goes with that. It will be sceptical but not cynical about issues as long as those issues don’t threaten to diminish their advertising friendly environment. This combination of trying to have progressive journalism, which still ensures an advertiser can use the space, must create immediate limits on how actually progressive it really can be. As progressive journalism that doesn’t fundamentally challenge the capitalist model that is at the helm of inequality and the destruction of the planet, can it really be called “progressive?” It’s like the old joke, what looks like a frog, has eyes like a frog, had a face like a frog, but isn’t a frog? Well it is a picture of a frog. So at the Guardian, we get a picture or image of progressiveness but not actual progressiveness. For the reader they are being told they are receiving progressive commentary and status-quo-challenging journalism, when in fact they are just getting one particular end of an establishment friendly spectrum. Like ordering the salad at McDonalds and feeling really good about how healthy you are.
As you dig further into their advertising material and research, a picture begins to emerge of an advertising paradigm that seeks to appropriate and incorporate progressive ideas of “ethics” and “political awareness.” These themes that readers identify with become hooks to draw its readership into an safe and trusted interface where advertisers can engage in their manipulative brand indoctrination. Advertisers are encouraged by the Guardian to hijack both personal and media narratives to create a new generation of brand loyalists. In the “Advertise with us” section the content below is being used to inform potential clients of the Top 10 future opportunities that advertisers can exploit
With money not being able to buy happiness, there has been an increased focus on personal well-being. “Mood of the Nation” research found that brands had a role to play in improving people’s level of happiness by being ethical, empowering people to be more active and unexpected acts of kindness. In 2014, we will see more brands differentiating themselves from competition by influencing how people feel.
So this is basically saying yes, money can’t buy happiness but we can make money from creating the illusion that we are helping to improve their happiness by buying stuff from companies that pretend to care. Wow, another great reason to advertise in the Guardian.
Then it presents a disturbing development in the direction of future advertising as an opportunity to salivate and rejoiced over.
his is certainly taking off in the digital world, from apps such as Kiip which allow brands to reach users during moments of elation (imagine Coca-Cola offering you a voucher after completing a particularly tricky level on Candy Crush Saga) to more tangible products, such as the mobile phone case ‘Feeling Skin’, which glows to indicate the mood of your friends’ messages.This all seems to be heading in one direction and start-up company Affectiva may be the first to offer a glimpse into the mobile advertising future. Their Affdex product could enable real-time emotion tracking to be built into your mobile phone camera, so if you turn your nose up at a McDonald’s ad, it could change to show you one for KFC instead.
A truly progressive media outlet would be lambasting this type of intrusiveness, not promoting it. Instead, in a disturbing indicator of the dominant agenda, it is sold as an opportunity. As if advertisers aren’t entwined enough in our lives, advertisers now plan to exploit every key emotional moment, hijack every spontaneous bit of happiness and use it as an “in” to sell their “ethical brand.” “My dad just died” Aww poor thing, here is some Kleenex tissues. “I really like that girl”, maybe you need to try our deodorant .“I think I am going to kill myself” – Before you do, you might consider this legal firm to help you write your will.
This entirely cynical model of life, promotes the idea that every person, at each and every moment of their life, is a financial opportunity for advertisers to connect with and extract from.This bastion of progressive journalism, behind the scenes is the champion of this model of brand indoctrination and emotional manipulation. Of course, it is couched in terms of “clients needs” and “personal well being” but this language is nothing more than a thin moral cover for wholly dubious advertising practices. In reality, the Guardian is selling the status quo, not challenging it.
So Guardian Media can’t have it both ways. It can’t appoint itself as the voice of independence and progressiveness, while serving the sociopathic needs of large corporations and pimping out its readership to one of the most insidious and destructive forces of the last century. As Medialens.org succinctly point out in one of their cognitions “The failure of the left”
“..Imagine the impact of reading an article on climate change by a Monbiot or a Jones and then turning the page to an American Airlines advert for reduced-fare flights to New York. Or imagine turning to the front cover of a colour supplement that reads:
‘Time is running out… Ski resorts are melting… Paradise islands are vanishing… So what are you waiting for? 30 places you need to visit while you still can – A 64-page Travel Special.’
This concussive car crash of reality and illusion – of calls for action to address a grave crisis alongside calls to quit worrying and embrace the consumerism that has precisely created the crisis – delivers a transcendent message that the crisis isn’t that serious, things aren’t that bad.
Therein lies the fundamental conflict with the very nature of what is considered progressive media working in lock step with advertisers and corporate agendas. Every advertisement we are exposed to tells us that everything is ok, that there is no need to panic, just reach into your wallet and make your next purchase. When it IS actually time to panic, it’s time to stop buying shit we don’t need and seriously examine the kind of society we live in before humanity is wiped off the face of the planet.
We need progressive voices and we need independent ideas but as soon as those ideas get co-opted or partner with advertisers, they instantly become compromised. The wider and most critical issues of our times, such as climate change, global warfare, inequality and poverty must be diluted and side-lined to ensure the space remains advert friendly. When we see it in the starkest light, the Guardian’s chardonnay activism puts them in the same destructive camp as Fox News and other Murdoch press. Although the Guardian may appeal to a different political ideology and in its haughty conceit views itself as so much more highbrow then Fox News, the prevailing message is the same “Relax, buy things, buy more things, because everything will be ok” When we all know it’s not going to be OK. It isn’t OK. The public need a radical call to action if humanity stands any chance of survival, not a better rate of car insurance or membership of the new Guardian club, which I have no doubt in the future will be sold as another exclusive demographic to be whored to the highest bidder. Advertising is like an intellectual venereal disease and any publication that has it driving its business inadvertently spreads that STD and all the negative impacts that go with it. It’s not the most charming of analogies but sadly it’s true.
21 thoughts on “Why the Guardians faux progressiveness is more destructive than it appears.”
Just don’t participate. Pretty simple actually.
Agreed but there are millions who do participate and feel pretty good about it.
It’s a hard row to hoe, but it can be done. Second-hand shops, farmer’s markets, these are all out there for us to patronise if we really want to.
true, I like that “row to hoe” 🙂
Very insightful & interesting – thanks. A lot of food for thought there.
(Just a few typos at this stage which I’m sure you’ll spot when re-reading… but if you’d like me to point them out, just let me know…)
Hey Stevie, any typos you see please let us know, after 50 re-reads i just miss stuff.If you could send them to firstname.lastname@example.org that would be great.Thanks for the positive feedback 🙂 EF
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No worries – have whizzed it over on email 🙂
Interesting article. One of the main obstacles to a free press is the money needed to start a media company. Advertising is essential for every newspaper so they can never truly offend the people who advertise with them.
I have often thought about how progressive speakers are virtually excluded from intelligent debate on TV or in newspapers. So often the only left wing voices come from entertainers, comedians and musicians.
I do not believe there is a conspiracy to undermine progressive thinking but certainly, when the opinions only come from people of the entertainment world, progressive ideas can be portrayed as fantastical and foolish.
As you point out with your comment about Rage Against the Machine, there are many people making money from these ‘radical’ entertainers so there is no attempt to silence them. It seems to me that a progressive voice does not offend anyone when it comes from an entertainer because the consumer can simply dismiss the artist, and their message, as rubbish or annoying or unfunny, etc., which is a perfectly acceptable reaction to any form of entertainment.
I think the problem is that allowing entertainers to air their opinions allows the media outlets to say they are delivering a wide and varied set of political opinions when they are not.
“A truly progressive media outlet would be lambasting this type of intrusiveness, not promoting it.” Hell yes.
I heard on NPR the other day someone talking about how soon your TV will show you ads specially tailored to you and what ‘they’ know about you and your preferences. Sick, man. Companies with a true service mentality can’t also be focused on mind control.
Buy less stuff.
Yeah I agree Allison.What seemed like some fucked up dystopian sci-fi by stealth creeps into how we interact.I was hearing similar thing with google glasses.That you go into a store with them on and the wifi picks up your profile and displays the products in the store most suited to you needs.I think these things can be sold initial as convenience and high tuned client care but door they enter often isn’t the room they end up.Yeah i am all behind the “buy nothing day” this coming November, a worth cause to get behind http://www.buynothingday.co.uk/ At least you know they are not going to try rope you into buying something 🙂
Sorry Allison are you in the USA?
for the us https://www.adbusters.org/campaigns/bnd
Fucked up indeed, there’s no other way to say it. What scares me even more is what you reference which is people are so quick to blindly accept this on the micro and macro level as the way it is – ‘well it’s progressive, it’s cool, it’s neat’ – yeah well maybe, but are you sure you are still thinking for yourself? It takes a good deal more street smarts these days to step back and be able to trust yourself – that what you are spending time doing and buying is mindful, aligned.
I am indeed in the USA and thank you so much for turning me on the Buy Nothing Day – I dig 🙂
Thanks! Really enjoying your work here.
Reblogged this on Giulio Sica.
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A brilliant analysis. Spot on!
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Thanks Giulio for the positive feedback.Looking through their “advertising with us” material it’s hard not to be somewhat cynical, as they really push the demographic of their “progressive audience” as such an amazing opportunity for advertisers.Then to say your are this leading progressive voice,that’s challenging the status quo, followed by salivating how ripe their audience is to be sold stuff , makes it all look fairly disingenuous. Then seeing this Guardian membership they have started I can’t help thinking access to that will be sold as an even more “loyal niche” to be milked. Anyway Giulio, hope you have great xmas and new year, lets see what 2015 brings 🙂
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I’m a battle-weary commenter of Guardian articles – mainly on women’s issues. Your article pretty much hits the nail completely on the head as far as my perception of the publication’s ‘support’ of feminism goes. The commissioning of articles which are divisive, antagonistic and at times a rather loose interpretation of what feminism is actually about, mixed in with articles of a much more serious nature, to be served up to an audience composed apparently mainly of anti-feminists, whose comments, most of which are in blatant contravention of the site’s own community standards, are allowed to stand, leaves no option but to seriously question the true nature of the publication’s ‘progressive’ embrace of all things feministic.
Just a smidgen of common sense is required to strongly suspect that feminism is one of those topics which pretty much guarantees a temptingly high level of traffic, most of which, if consistently moderated in accordance with their own rules and regulations, would be reduced to a much, much smaller number of commenters genuinely interested in discussing the issues, and therefore much less appetising in terms of sell-able publicity space.
Now, I realise they have a business to run, but surely to God there is something profoundly unethical in exploiting what is fundamentally a human rights cause for profit, exposing its supporters to abuse without intervening, and – scariest of all – actually contributing massively to the re-generation and consolidation of attitudes which are in diametric opposition to the ideology they claim to support?
Thanks Missen, for the insightful contribution .I wholeheartedly agree with what you’re saying. I think basic that Guardian by its very nature brings about cognitive dissidence by naming themselves as progressive, status quo challengers and then on the other offering an avenue of larger corporate client to sell their brands. I think you said it well then you wrote “ actually contributing massively to the re-generation and consolidation of attitudes which are in diametric opposition to the ideology they claim to support? “ As that’s it ,you can’t have it both ways, even though they try their best to do so. Therein lies its biggest disservice to progressive voices, creating the illusion they offer something different, rather than just one end of the same spectrum. The fact in the end the guardian supported the Iraq war should really says it all.
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