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On The Flip Side
by Michael Munger

Discussing Advertising And Censorship Issues
September 26th, 2000

In the spirit of last week's column, I wish to discuss the issue of advertising and editorial a little more this week. I say only in its spirit since I am not commenting on Chiat/Day or Apple this time, but on advertising and its situation as a whole.

[Before we start: The folks from MacAddict denied that there were any "unusual requests" from Chiat/Day in the reported situation. Meanwhile, Chiat/Day said that it directed questions at MacAddict and Macworld to clarify their position on rumors and speculation. I am rather skeptical. Charles Moore (from Applelinks) rightly pointed out last week that the long delay in getting a response from Chiat/Day and MacAddict leaves reasonable doubt to think that these answers contained some spin doctoring. In short, to anybody who will say that I overreacted in last week's column, I wish to say that despite the official reaction from the parties involved, we may not know the entire truth. Especially in a world where Apple DID crack down on some sites for different types of content disliked in Cupertino.]

I read an article in the print edition of a popular (and free) Montreal weekly named Ici Montreal. The interview featured author Frédéric Beigbeder from France. Former publicity agent for a prestigious French firm, the man pounded on the publicity and advertising industry with his book titled 99 Francs.

He admitted that while he contributed to the world of advertising as an agent for a big firm, he had seen enough and wrote a novel to illustrate how things go in that superficial universe that creates all kinds of ways to sell anything. He deplores methods used to convince people to buy, has a problem with the quality of products, and he hates the attitude displayed toward the customer.

At the same time, he disapproves of a new unofficial advertising policy in France, that of the advertiser having the right to approve the content of publishers or TV producers before and while doing business with them. In essence, if you do not comply with their demands, they take their advertising dollars elsewhere.

This is a frightening thought, especially considering a publicity agent went public with what he witnessed instead of remaining quiet to collect his paycheck. His firm fired him for "serious mistakes" shortly after the publication of 99 Francs, by the way. The novel sold in enormous quantities in France and had quite an impact...

I know from experience - since I heard the following with my own ears - that at least one site where I collaborated used to have a "no negative reviews" policy. Why? To make sure that no potential advertisers would ever take offense because of a negative product review and refuse to advertise on the site. Fortunately, this policy changed at the mentioned site later on.

Nevertheless, the thought of self-censorship to keep advertisers coming is not a positive one. Why would anyone have to please to get advertising dollars? The basics of advertising dictate that companies have to find where their public is, in large numbers if possible. Then they choose to do business with those publications, TV networks, or other media outlets since this is the right way to reach their markets. What does content have to do with it?

Are we in such a sanitized world that finding your public at the right place is not enough to advertise? Companies and firms have to stick their nose in the content now? What for? Making sure that nobody, including independent voices, will dare to create content judged inappropriate or to express negative comments about the company?

I received e-mail a few months ago about a site named BlueOvalNews. This independent voice brings news and critical writing about Ford vehicles... and a Ford dealer named McDonald Ford advertises on it! Why? Because despite independent writing - you can witness it on the site - this dealer probably realized that he reaches a good number of potential buyers there.

This is how advertising works and should keep working.

It makes no sense for any advertiser to stick his nose in the business of a publication or a TV show or a Web site. When money situations are tight like on the Web, financial pressure such as a deliberate lack of (or pulled) advertising can be lethal. Just the thought of alienating one of the rare sources of income can give shivers to anybody. This can force people to make content decisions against their will.

It has a vicious indirect effect, that of threatening financial viability of an independent organization. It forces self-censorship, which is one of the worst ways to restrict your own speech.

According to the author of 99 Francs, Frédéric Beigbeder, this "we have to approve your content" trend exists in France. I know from experience that it has an impact on some Web sites. I also know that in today's society, political correctness and other extreme strictness in morals make quite a few people allergic to almost anything that is not pure enough to them. Enough to distance themselves from anything going beyond sheer purity.

Such an attitude gets advertisers to try controlling everything they can, to make sure that nothing escapes from their watch. Just in case a negative comment against them or anything breaking stereotypes may appear. Oh my! How bad! Poor babies!

If such is your desire, you can easily link all of this to any company that may have control freak tendencies, especially when facing the fact that independent press does exist and will not shut up just because it does not please to the corporate suits. After all, independent publishers are usually not afraid to slam you or to give you credit when you deserve it. This is their way to be fair toward you, their readers and to apply ethics in their profession.

Whether we talk about publisher content or other mass media content, it is wholly unacceptable that in some countries, advertisers want to have nothing less than their way. It is even more unacceptable if an organization folds and accepts to let the advertiser have the upper hand.

None of us, whoever we are (or whatever we do) in any circumstance of life, should let others have the upper hand on us.

Your comments are welcomed.

Michael Munger is a French Canadian living in Montreal. He discovered the Mac in 1994 while studying journalism, the profession he loves and practices. He also studied history and communications. In addition to his work at The Mac Observer, he authors the iBasics tutorial column at Low End Mac, and cofounded MacSoldiers in 1998.

You can find more about him at his personal Web site.

You are welcome to send me your comments or you can post them below.

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