Why it matters what we call our media

28 Mar 2017  |  Geoff Copps 
Why it matters what we call our media

The digital revolution has expanded and challenged media owners' identity, writes Geoff Copps. Should their naming choices embrace tradition or innovation?

“One ought to recognise that the present [situation] is connected with...language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.”

So wrote George Orwell in 1946. Orwell has enjoyed something of a revival in recent months, as people seek to make sense of recent political upheavals in the West.

Following US presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway’s use of the phrase ‘alternative facts’, Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four leapt up the Amazon bestseller list. Commentators everywhere have made use of Orwellian concepts such as ‘newspeak’ and ‘doublethink’.

The opening quotation is from Orwell’s celebrated essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, which has much to say about the relationship between language and power.

What’s in a name? I thought of Orwell when I heard about a speech given by the UK’s largest commercial broadcaster at Mediatel’s Videoscape event last month.

Chris Goldson, ITV’s director of creative works and commercial marketing, sought to restate the case for television advertising by revisiting the language commonly used to describe it.

He spoke of the misunderstandings and missed opportunities perpetuated by terms such as ‘AV’, ‘content’ and ‘wastage’. He ended with a stark and simple statement addressed to advertisers and agencies: “We make television”.

Let’s stop for a moment and think about this. How, as an industry, have we reached a point where a TV executive feels it necessary to make a statement such as this? It’s less Orwell’s Ministry of Truth; more the Ministry of the Bleedin’ Obvious, surely?

Clearly, something is up. To find out what, I’d like to dip into the recent history of media language usage. What follows is a partial account; but I hope it will show how the latest ITV salvo is part of a broader pattern spanning the last couple of decades.

At end of the 90s, a sudden increase in UK internet penetration left media owners scratching their heads. What language was appropriate to describe their expansion on to new digital platforms?

In March 1999, The Sun - Britain’s most popular newspaper with a circulation of almost 4 million - joined the ‘free ISP’ rush of the time. The Sun launched a new online version, called ‘CurrantBun.com’ (a reference to the paper in Cockney Rhyming Slang).

A year on, this was changed to ‘Bun.com’; later still, their website became ‘The Sun Online’. Now it is ‘The Sun’, with a masthead identical to the print title.

Many media owners have been through a brand journey of this kind, as they have sought to define themselves in new digital environments. My point is that it’s never been obvious how to proceed.

The digital revolution has expanded and challenged media owners’ identity. Should their naming choices embrace tradition or innovation?

Another pivot for the newspaper industry came in 2012 when the Newspaper Marketing Association rebranded as Newsworks. At the heart of this rebrand, led by ex-journalist Rufus Olins, was a redefinition of the product: the name ‘newspaper’ was replaced by ‘newsbrand’.

This new term better reflected the range of platforms and activities that Newsworks members covered. The rebrand has been a success.

The recent Shift conference, now a fixture in the UK media calendar, showed the unique appeal and fascination that newsbrands hold. But the success inevitably risks a demotion of the tried-and-tested term ‘newspaper’.

What emerges from all this is a pattern of renaming in the face of change. We see this pattern in other media.

In online environments, the radio industry has largely abandoned the term ‘radio’, settling instead for ‘digital audio’ - a definition that encompasses both ‘live’, location-specific, DJ-anchored stations from Global and Bauer, and pure-play services such as Soundcloud and Spotify.

James Whitmore, managing director of the outdoor planning currency Route, has also pointed out how ‘posters’ are now referred to as ‘classic OOH’.

Highlighting other such examples (including ‘newsbrands’), he writes with dismay about “the battle for language” and questions whether it’s really wise to “rip it up and start again”.

To anyone who thinks all this bother over language is ivory-tower nonsense and only the hard numbers matter, I’d say: you’re kidding yourself.

This point lay at the heart of ITV’s argument. Chris Goldson highlighted the term ‘video’ as an unhelpful catch-all term for the output of broadcasters, digital entities and amateurs.

As he said, ‘video’ is not a medium as such; rather, it encompasses a range of outputs whose transmission, editorial and production values differ greatly. Against a background of agencies bringing teams together into AV units, ITV’s fear is that all ‘video’ will come to be seen as equal.

Finally, consider current attempts to better define the likes of newspapers, magazines and television at one fell swoop. What terminology should we use? Should we call them ‘traditional’ or ‘legacy’ media - or something else?

Many media owners - ITV and Route included - are championing ‘proven’, a canny choice. For now I prefer ‘long-established’, but that doesn’t quite capture it either: it’s too long-winded.

Looking back (and isn’t hindsight a fine thing?), long-established media of all stripes have perhaps too readily accepted new terminology - terminology that often contains within it new under-acknowledged biases.

After a period of adaptation, many are now seeking to recover what has been forgotten or misplaced.

It’s not that I object to neologisms: they’re a valuable and necessary part of the innovation process (indeed, this article contains two borrowed phrases originally coined by the English language’s greatest neologiser: can you spot them?)

But we must be careful. It is the job of comms agencies to be media-neutral, to create the best plans for their clients.

To meet this challenge we must overcome hidden biases in the language to make truly evidence-based decisions. We must not prematurely amalgamate media of different types, or allow some media to be crowded out of the debate.

In short, we must not take for granted the language we use. Language is the ground zero of understanding, the basis that underlies our decision-making.

As Orwell argued, slackness of language “makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”. This applies to media as much as it does to politics or literature.


Geoff Copps is head of research at Mediabrands Marketing Sciences

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