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Nick Manning 

‘Truth Decay’: Why it matters to advertisers

‘Truth Decay’: Why it matters to advertisers

Nick Manning goes in search of the truth but finds only conspiracy theories, unreliable source material and deceptive content

This year saw the peak of ‘post-truth’.

‘Post-truth’ is defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

It was chosen as the Oxford Dictionary’s ‘word of the year’ in 2016, largely thanks to the swirl of disinformation around the Brexit referendum and that year’s U.S Presidential election, but it reached its apogee in 2020.

The convergence of Coronavirus, Black Lives Matter, gender identity issues, the ongoing Brexit debate and the most toxic U.S election imaginable has exceeded all prior records for the dissemination of false or misleading messaging, usually deliberately spread.

As the saying goes, the first casualty of war is the truth and although this year hasn’t thrown an actual conflict at the UK, the culture wars have been raging like wildfires with the complicated truth being drowned out by simple disinformation.

Most alarmingly, some governments in Western democratic countries have deliberately been using the same kind of dishonest communications tactics previously seen in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany.

As Goebbels observed, lies repeated often enough take on the appearance of truth. Or as Steve Bannon put it, politicians should “flood the zone with shit” just as Russia did after the Salisbury poisonings, even though it was pretty obvious what had happened.

The example set by the Trump administration is being followed elsewhere, even unto the deep recesses of Wellingborough, according to The Times.

As nationalism takes hold, loyalty to party over country leads to the ludicrous public denial by many Republican Senators of Biden’s win, thus deliberately shaking people’s belief in the voting system.

Trump himself crows about having achieved more votes than any other sitting President while describing the election as the most corrupt ever. This is cherry-picking on a grand scale.

Since 2016, the unrelenting rise of social media and messaging apps has magnified the spread of outright lies, half-truths and dishonesty.

YouTube, What’s App and Facebook in particular have acted as the channels of choice for disinformation, including for the age of COVID the 5G-blamers / anti-vaxxers / mask-avoiders and the proponents of QANONsense.

For some, the fact that conspiracy theories are published on the internet gives them the same legitimacy as true reporting, and bafflingly allows the followers of those theories to accuse the mainstream media (MSM) of a cover-up on behalf of a mythical ‘deep state’, Bill Gates or George Soros. They call it ‘research’.

Confirmation bias circulated virally is rife in a world where some people choose to believe a ‘New World Order’ YouTube video over any amount of proper journalism, or even the expertise of an epidemiologist.

In the face of so much deliberate dishonesty, proper journalism has struggled and the BBC has found it virtually impossible to deliver its remit of balanced coverage.

Well-researched long-form reporting no longer fits today’s attention spans. If journalism is the first draft of history, Twitter takes this to the extreme in near real-time and collapses attention spans into 280 characters.

However, it’s not all the fault of user-generated media.

it’s easy and idle to position this problem as being the so-called ‘MSM’ versus the people, as many politicians and biased commentators do to suit their own ends. The established media have become dangerously intertwined with social media and too often use it as source material.

For example, the Daily Mail published an article headlinedWhat they don’t tell you about COVID” which used incorrect and distorted figures based on a Twitter account from ‘The Statistics Guy Jon’. The offending tweet has since been deleted but the average Daily Mail reader won’t know that.

Likewise, The Sunday Telegraph reported that the lockdown tier system designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 ‘will cost the economy £900 million a day, according to a leading economic forecaster’, who turned out not be one after all and whose unreliable data was manipulated to suit the narrative.

Even the BBC fell into the trap of using ‘James’, a manufactured Twitter troll as a source for content regarding a Brexit march.

The so-called ‘MSM’ and social media have become intertwined like ivy slowly invading its host as they become inseparable.

Perhaps we should have some sympathy for the professional media organisations, who have seen resources dwindle and now resort to using social media as a source of stories in a race to the bottom.

The irony is, of course, that lies and half-truths have never been easier to debunk given the transparency that the internet brings.

A good example is the outstanding Bellingcat investigation into the Navalny poisoning; even the world’s most secretive state police organisation can be opened up by dogged reporting facilitated by the internet.

However, today’s politicians seem happy to live for the moment and argue the toss later; Boris Johnson described ‘no deal’ as potentially a ‘wonderful’ outcome; so would a trade deal be even more wonderful or less so?

All of this has significant implications for advertisers, for whom a healthy, reliable and benign media environment is crucial.

The ANA has announced that their word of the year is ‘pivot’, but in media circles it must surely be ‘attention’.

There have been a number of interesting developments in the understanding of how today’s audiences respond to media stimuli, especially the ground-breaking work of Karen Nelson-Field.

The industry is going back to basics in the face of people’s butterfly media habits, ad avoidance and the growth of subscription media.

There is a danger here. We know that people’s attention is heightened by salacious and sensational material; look at how the clickbait merchants use crude tactics at the foot of most webpages.

Car-crash media content attracts the most attention but is probably the worst place to advertise; people don’t want your brand to get in the way of their ‘doom-scrolling’ (another candidate for word of the year) and brands who gate-crash people’s hunger for content contribute to people’s increasing annoyance at ad bombardment.

Some digital publishers elevate the worst kind of content algorithmically to boost page traffic and this may be superficially attractive for brands; but history shows that advertising works best when not drowned out by its environment or obstructive to the viewer or listener.

Attention has always been the goal for advertising (how can it not be?) but not all attention is equal. Advertisers should understand the attention economy but attach themselves to the benign peaks of attention in all media, whether they be entertainment, passion-led or just great story-telling.

This year has seen an extraordinary boom in TV viewing with superlative content such as The Queen’s Gambit and The Undoing attracting massive audiences with high levels of attention.

The challenge for advertisers now is to be able to access those engaged audiences in ad-funded channels and navigate their way around the profound audience shifts as TV moves to a hybrid funding model. TV planning and trading will need to be reinvented, with attention a factor to consider.

There is plenty of good attention to go around but it has to be cherry-picked, and automated media buying isn’t good at selectivity. Programmatic trading has its issues in online display and could be highly problematic in TV.

And the truth matters. If advertisers insert themselves into deceptive or dishonest content, they can be judged by the company they keep.

‘Block lists’ alone won’t protect brands from being in the wrong places; curation of context will hopefully return as a discipline as third-party cookies disappear, but this will need media agencies to redirect more resource to the craft of planning and buying. This is more than ‘brand safety’; it’s an effectiveness issue.

And truthfulness in content is important, too. While very few advertisers actually mislead people, there are examples that bring the reputation of our industry down.

Regular readers of my Mediatel articles may recall that I have a bee in my bonnet regarding bitcoin scamsters who fabricate editorial around celebrities in pirated content (brazenly inventing fictional TV appearances, for example). The latest version of this has, as they say, ‘jumped the shark’.

Bitcoin Evolution (or variants thereof) recently advertised a fictional appearance by Marcus Rashford on TV where he supposedly promoted their get-rich-quick product, to everyone’s astonishment as usual.

This fake appearance, disguised to look real, was written up to say that Marcus stated that the Bitcoin company was backed by Mark Zuckerberg, ‘a claim we were not able to verify’.

So, the people who invented his fictional appearance said they couldn’t confirm a false claim that they had made-up. In fact, you couldn’t make it up.

The good news for my blood pressure is that the culprits fell foul of an investigation by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, who asked the broker (Finixio) behind these schemes to explain itself, eliciting a ‘dog ate my homework’ type of explanation.

However, they will be back and Google, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms who take their money will inadvertently connive in deception.

Meanwhile, ad fraud continues to grow like Japanese knotweed, with the organised gangs taking advantage of the record attention spikes this year to deprive advertisers and publishers of billions of dollars. So far, our industry has under-played this issue and not done enough to prevent it, relying on post-hoc detection, by which time it’s all too late.

This year saw a welcome development in this area with the merger of TAG and JICWEBS. This will hopefully lead to better news in the fight against the plundering of advertisers’ budgets.

Advertisers should acknowledge the need to associate their brands and products with an environment that takes advantage of the right kind of benign attention and an editorial environment that values the truth and strong, ethical content.

Yes, this means that media planning needs to be more considered and media placement more precise at a time when money’s too tight to mention and programmatic offers efficiencies.

Advertisers should work with media agencies to curate their environment, reward their media agencies for doing so while testing and learning the influence of such practices on effectiveness. It’s not rocket science.

In short, ‘truth decay’ isn’t just a major problem for the media channels, it’s become a headache for advertisers but one that can be alleviated with the right medicine.

For the health of brands and the advertising industry this is now vital.

‘Post-truth’ advertising is not an option.

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