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The Guardian and the purity spiral

03 Feb 2020  |  Dominic Mills 
The Guardian and the purity spiral

Why draw the line at just banning fossil fuel companies, writes Dominic Mills in his critique of The Guardian's decision. Plus: willy-waving political ads invade the Super Bowl

They say that a principle isn’t really a principle until it costs you money. To that extent, The Guardian’s announcement last week that it would no longer take ads from fossil fuel companies is an endorsement of that maxim, given that (on some estimates) it will take a hit of about £500,000 a year.

But it is a principle only up to a point, which I’ll come back to later.

By coincidence, the day I read the Guardian story I opened up my latest copy of the New Statesman, a weekly with broadly the same world view as the Guardian and a similar readership, to see a double-page spread from Saudi Aramco, the Saudi state oil company which recently went public. I’m not remotely interested in Saudi Aramco (hence I’ve no idea what the ad says), but I am interested in anything that funds the New Statesman and to that point I am supportive of its willingness to carry such ads.

Indeed, you could say that, providing the New Statesman and other media don’t follow suit, they may benefit from the fact that there is £500,000 of fossil fuel ads with one less home to go to.

Indirectly that money will support their ability to report on climate change and, if they so wish (and I firmly believe that publishers should always bite the hand that feeds) investigate or hold to account the big oil companies.

So, to be reductive about it, that £500,000 a year The Guardian has given up could have funded, say, six to eight journalists to do just that.

And here’s the point about principle. Why draw the line only at fossil fuel companies? Surely, you could say, their activities are demand-driven, and much of that demand comes from advertisers whose products and services also consume fossil fuel. That list would include car manufacturers, airlines and cruise holidays (where a passenger’s carbon footprint is three times larger than on land, and which dump crap and stuff into the oceans).

And guess what ads we saw in the Guardian the day it announced its fossil fuel ban? One for BA, one for Jaguar (ok, an e-car but the batteries etc etc), and one for an Antarctic cruise.

The Guardian’s defence on that — and I’m quoting a joint statement by ads boss Hamish Nicklin and interim CEO Anna Bateson — is this: “Stopping those ads would be a severe financial blow and might force us to make significant cuts to Guardian and Observer journalism.”

Thus, you might conclude, the principle of banning fossil fuel ads is so lightly held it’s not really a principle at all.

Which brings me to the concept of the purity spiral, the title of a Radio 4 series and explained here by its presenter. It’s a long piece, but in a nutshell it describes a modern-day phenomenon whereby, as described by Gavin Haynes, “a purity spiral occurs when a community becomes fixated on implementing a single value that has no upper limit and no single agreed interpretation. But while a purity spiral often concerns morality, it is not about morality. It’s about purity — a very different concept. Morality doesn’t need to exist with reference to anything other than itself. Purity, on the other hand, is an inherently relative value — the game is always one of purer-than-thou.”

I can’t help feeling that The Guardian has now put itself on the first step of the purity spiral.

Who knows where it leads, but one thing The Guardian hopes is that it will lead to more ad revenue. Here are Nicklin and Bateson again: “We believe many brands will agree with our stance, and might be persuaded to to choose to work with us more. The future of advertising lies in building trust with consumers and demonstrating a real commitment to purpose and value.”

Hmmm. There are at least three things you might take issue with there. One, how much purpose and value is The Guardian really demonstrating? Two, trust in the widest sense is underpinned by values such as open-mindedness, freedom of thought and a willingness to hear dissenting views — which might be expressed editorially or via the freedom to advertise. Three, advertising is not just about preaching to the converted, which is the route The Guardian appears to be heading down, but also to the unconverted.

Which is exactly where I sit on The Guardian’s stance and, ironically, a new advertising splurge by BP, including this print one for one of its solar farms.

It hasn’t changed my mind about BP, but I know something about it I didn’t know before. And I think solar farm reservoirs are an interesting idea. That’s advertising for you.

P.S. I see that the Co-op Bank has been fast on its feet with a tactical ad in this Monday’s (3rd February) paper saying: ‘Your paper’s getting cleaner. Now what about your money?’. Hat tip to MullenLowe and Hearts & Science for that.

Super Bowl: Trump v Bloomberg

There are many differences between the US and the UK.

The Super Bowl bonanza is one, an event where the nation is (almost) as gripped by the advertising hoopla that surrounds it as by the game itself. Our equivalents are Christmas and the World Cup, but they are dwarfed by the Super Bowl. This year’s featured no less than 77 brands, including six from Pepsi alone.

The second is political advertising, which is a free-for-all both in terms of budgets (no limits apply) and personal viciousness, and tends to be targeted on a state-by-state basis.

And so to last weekend’s game (won by the Kansas City Chiefs, if you’re interested), which featured ads both by billionaire Democrat challenger Michael Bloomberg and the man himself.

Here’s Bloomberg’s — costing about $10-11m for 60 seconds — which is unusual for the US in four ways: one, Bloomberg himself hardly features and is mentioned more in passing than anything else; two, it doesn’t mention Trump; three, it's not targeted in any way; and four, it stakes out Bloomberg’s territory in the somewhat surprising area of gun control. I say surprising because almost every politician who takes on gun control seems to come unstuck.

The ad tells the story of George, a young black football player dreaming of the big time, who was shot and killed. The film is narrated by his mother who hails Bloomberg as a man brave enough to take on the gun lobby.

It’s very different from standard US political advertising fare and, if you apply an advertising lens to it, is what you might describe as the first effort of a long-term branding campaign. A late starter in the race for the Democratic candidacy, Bloomberg comes without the support of the party machine (just like you know who in 2016). Most people will not know what he stands for. He’s after one thing: awareness.

If those are disadvantages, Bloomberg has one big advantage: money. Indeed, according to the Washington Post, the $10m the ad cost to a man estimated to be worth $60bn is like the cost of a pizza to the average American.

In what appears to be a tit-for-tat response, Trump bought two 30-second spots - one about his stewardship of the economy and the other the impeachment process.

US viewers meanwhile don’t appear to be too keen on political ads invading the Super Bowl — and who can blame them? — where they expect the commercials to entertain and charm.

This means they will most likely have a limited effect. I don’t expect either Bloomberg or Trump to care much, because for them this is as much about ego and willy-waving as anything else.

Mind you, some of that also applies on a corporate level to the rest of the Super Bowl ad fest too.

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26 Feb 2020 

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