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Media’s democratisation by new means: the death of advertising?

As an apparent democratisation of media is unfolding, the concept of the audience as a passive observer itself is being deconstructed. This can be observed in the recent marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton which, unlike previous celebrations of an ancient state ritual, was followed interactively by over two billion people across social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Google and YouTube. Viewers’ comments, shared ideas and thoughts were transmitted instantaneously across the globe.

These remarks were pertinent because they helped set the agenda of mainstream news outlets. This is evident in how the hitherto unknown sister of the bride, Pippa Middleton, became an immediate focal point of the event’s coverage as a result of her name becoming a trending topic on Twitter.

New media is arguably diffusing the power of information. New web-based platforms are not only increasing access to information, but actually enabling users to increasingly set the agenda of information. Websites such as YouTube and Facebook, which embody the key features of new media by enhancing the potential for interactivity and speeding up communication, empower virtual communities to prioritise content ranging from news items to entertainment videos.

The implication is that user generated music tracks and articles from established news sources share an equal potential of becoming publicised, therefore shifting the power from a relatively small group of people to a relatively large one. This would indeed pose a problem to advertisers, as branded content has to compete for attention in the same patchwork of information as editorial and user-generated material. Moreover, online communities that transcend nations seemingly blur markets for a traditionally country-specific industry.

Yet, underneath this problematic veneer, it remains questionable as to whether advertising is undergoing a fundamental shift. Google, for example, has monopolistic tendencies at odds with this democratised new media paradigm. As noted by John Harris from The Guardian newspaper: “In Europe, it controls around 90% of the online search market … [and] … In 2007 Google purchased DoubleClick, specialists in the technology whereby people’s web habits are tracked, and ads are targeted accordingly.” The sheer volume of its internet traffic means that it can differentiate its access accordingly, and through data processing its ability to hinder or prevent access to some sites whilst facilitating communication of others.

Google is, after all, a commercial enterprise. As Stanley Deetz, Professor of Communication at the University of Colorado, observes: “commercial organisations make decisions for the public, but rarely are these decision grounded in democratic processes”. In this light, its status as an information broker could potentially conflict with its own mission statement to “organi[s]e the world‘s information and make it universally accessible and useful”.

In an article entitled ‘The Death of Advertising’ (1994), the two scholars Roland Rust and Richard Oliver predicted an end to mass media as we know it today. This is because advertisers have historically acted as top-down communicators in control of information and communication channels, catering for a mass society, through forms of mass production and mass consumption, and facilitated by the constrictive nature of traditional media platforms such as print media, the television and the radio.

The primary function of traditional advertising in its co-involvement with mass media is to mobilise public support for the special interests of corporations. In doing so, the content of media can be manipulated by businesses. As advertisers want to maximise their yields, they become prone to backing only the most successful type of show, and therefore media outlets set out their agendas accordingly, often at the expense of original material.

Early adverts were characterised by the limited one-way communication enabled by the media platforms on which they were displayed. This is a crucial component of traditional advertising. Advertising continued to expand in a non-reciprocal relationship with its consumer throughout the twentieth century as posters, newspapers, the radio and television all negated the ability of consumers to interact fully.

For instance, the interface of a newspaper constrains the consumer purely to read the advert without a response to that medium (or at most writing a letter to the editor). Similarly, the television reinforced audience passivity through its pervasive approach of interrupting a broadcast.

With the innovations of the web, the old paradigm ascribed to traditional advertising has conceivably been rescinded. Through Web 2.0, consumers are now able to engage more actively in not only the consumption, but also the management of media culture, via new media channels and social networking sites: something not facilitated to the same extent by older media forms such as the newspaper and television.

Audiences have become what market researcher Thorsten Hennig-Thurau coins “writers of Wikipedia, directors on Youtube, retailers on eBay and reviewers on Amazon”. Even in developing countries, where the internet is not as well penetrated as in industrialised states, social media has had profound implications on society, as highlighted by the recent organisation of anti-regime demonstrations across the Arab world. Sites such as YouTube and Facebook exhibit a drive for consumer control that cuts right to the heart of the landscape that new digital media presents for advertising. Consumers are now actively involved in a co-operative ‘multilogue’, which seemingly sets a democratic agenda to media and social communication. As well as promoting the consumer’s autonomy, advertisers have to deal with a far more fragmented market space.

The fragmentation of audiences and empowerment of the consumers that is associated with new social media, as Christina Spurgeon (expert in media and communication) observes: “is not a threat to financing production of the global media and entertainment industries; rather, it is complementary”. As well as providing users with control over vast caches of information, the Internet is also an insatiable data-gatherer, and this can be used to the advantage of advertisers. Indeed, the recent move that Google made to build profiles of its Gmail users for advertisers is exemplary of this.

The new system developed, which scans emails to understand what users’ interests are through ‘signals’ of what content is most read and replied to, is handed over for advertisers to use.

This behavioural targeting, which can be essentially understood as the advertisers’ adaption to the mass conversational climate of the Internet, demonstrates how advertising supplements and congregates with mass media to produce new niche one-tone forms of conversational communication.

Web media invites us to share content and information because the advertising and media industries want this: they’re seeking to create brand engagement in a crowded transient market place. For users, this means that their web experience is interrupted by advertising and sponsorship content: pop up banners, product placement and virals are all characteristic of this advertising environment. Advertisers have found more intimate and intuitive ways of engaging with the new consumer.

Despite being cleverly modified to suit the Internet, these techniques all follow in the tradition of top-down advertising: adverts that have been refined to fit into the attention grabbing requirements of the Internet’s culture of distraction. Contracts with companies such as Google that own not only data processing businesses, but also social media sites, ensure that your adverts will reach their intended targets.

Furthermore, advertisements can blend into the fragmented online new media environments through websites such as BuzzFeed and SubvertandProfit. The former promotes branded content by presenting them as undifferentiated from editorial or user generated material, thereby increasing the likelihood of the material’s viralism.

Equally, SubvertandProfit allows companies to pay for exposure on social media platforms. By paying the website, it will enhance visibility of particular content by adding to its view count, likes, or recommendations. These new means are essentially an expression of the same traditional advertising method, i.e. the function for firms gain market authority through its brand to sell products.
The algorithms that enable advertisers to target their advertisements even more precisely through profiles built up from social media usage may actually reinforce the traditional view of advertising as chameleonic:  It follows audiences and markets to new platforms, adapting its format for each one, but retaining its fundamental power relationship.

Mediums of social communication are continually undergoing change: from print media, to the radio, to the television and now onto the era of the Internet. The Internet is fundamentally a familiar territory for advertisers as it embodies key features of old media: the visuals of the television, the sound of the radio and text from print media.

As underlined in Business Week’s August edition in 2004: “The mass media won’t disappear as a tool. Smart companies see the game today as making bold statements in design and wooing consumers by integrating messages so closely into entertainment that the two are all but distinguishable”.

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