FOR: JOHN MAPPIN
The past four months has been something of a breakthrough period at Independent Local Newspapers. Late last year this newspaper group isolated, discovered and named the primary lie that has been perpetuated by the modern news and media industry for more than 200 years. The Lie probably originated way back in ancient history with the scribes and it was almost certainly put to use before that.
This Lie has become so pervasive and accepted by modern society, and is so much a part of our lives that even the most intelligent and wise men of our time have come to rely on it as a truth. The Lie has even become one of the most popular “everybody knows” sayings in media circles. Accepted as biblical truth.
Editors have built their reputations on it and tabloid hacks and respected journalists from the oak panelled boardrooms of the most conservative and respected broadsheets have come to accept it – even rely on it – as a stable reference point.
The Lie, like an ingrown toenail, has become an increasing pain to its host and, while initially that pain has not even appeared to slow the host from the host’s viewpoint, the host has indeed been disabled by The Lie. It is fair to say that the host has failed to notice the limp. The limp has slowed to a shuffle and it has become clear that if The Lie had not been exposed then the host would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of its days.
The burden was indeed vast and the consequences were enormous. However, it sometimes takes a child to point out the simple things in life.
That The Lie was observed and communicated with unprecedented clarity in the pages of a simple local London newspaper and has since ricocheted around the world is perhaps interesting to some. It may indeed be one of the great miracles of life and of our times. But, in reality, The Lie could have been named as such in any publication. Indeed we have discovered that there are many who are aware of The Lie as a lie.
The Lie is simply stated as “bad news sells”.
However, The Lie can be instantly corrected by the simple truth that “good news sells”. Will someone then please introduce us to the person who really wants to buy bad news in the morning and read it in their newspaper? Will someone please also show us to the advertiser who thinks that bad news will sell a good product? Who out there really believes that if the world is about to end the first thing consumers will want to do is, say, rush out and buy a new Apple Mac? For hundreds of years the media has operated from the viewpoint that bad news sells.
But it is simply not true. Good news sells and positive news in newspapers makes most advertisers more money than bad news ever has or ever will.
It is no secret that advertisers are looking for the greatest possible return on their investments.
Who wouldn’t be? They are looking to sell their product or service and they hope that when they advertise in a publication that the reader will respond favourably to the product or service advertised. But the mood of the reader at the point of contact has everything to do with the decision of the reader to buy the product or service.
Naturally there are a few commercial interests that think they win when the news is depressing. Companies that sell anti-depressants might be one such example of that. Such businesses, or those who run them, think that their survival is assisted by the ratio of threat perceived by man. But when all the available facts are scrutinised, this too proves to be another big lie.
Any perceived short-term advantage by such people racks up such long-term consequences for them personally, that they would almost certainly shudder with terror when confronting them. The greatest secret in this universe is to love in spite of all possible invitations to hate.
At Independent Locals we are fully aware that good news sells and we know for certain that The Lie that bad news sells is on its way out for good. There will always be some solid old die-hard hacks, editors and media barons who cling to the old melodies for a while. But the truth has a most interesting effect on a lie.
To exist a lie must, by its nature, be an alteration of time, place, form or event. Therefore a lie must always occur later on the time line than a truth. Supply the truth and the lie, which will inevitably come later on the time line, blows or vanishes.
But once The Lie has been so exposed, it can never again be quite as solid or harmful to mankind as it has in the past.
John Mappin is chairman of the Independent Local Newspaper Group
AGAINST: PAUL CLOUT
How many people bought a paper they normally wouldn’t have on September 12, 2001? How many people tuned into the TV or radio news for hours during the working day immediately on hearing of the World Trade Center tragedy? It is undisputed that bad news sells.
Gregg Easterbrook sums it up well in his book The Progress Paradox (2003): “If you present something as scandalous or dangerous or frightening, that’s more compelling than a story about something that’s gone well.”
I have to admit that I didn’t read this book, and I must thank Google for providing such an appropriate quote. But I have my own opinion on why bad news sells. Genuine bad news is different from the majority of people’s day-to-day experiences, and can affect their psyche so much more than good news can.
Most days, there is not a major bomb scare in London, so, if this non-event were to be reported in the media, I’d consider this as simply the norm, and wonder why it was necessary to tell me, however nice it is to know that no-one’s life was threatened by terrorism for a day.
Many people take the general prolonging of their existence as a given, and so when they find out that nothing happened to affect it, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise, and therefore isn’t deemed newsworthy.
Headlines to this effect wouldn’t attract much attention. When the privilege of a safe passage to work, or a timely arrival (depending on how you look at these things) is threatened, then people will sit up and take notice.
But a direct effect on people’s lives isn’t the only way bad news sells. The majority of us don’t ever expect to be a football star in a prostitute scandal. Britain revels in schadenfraude.
It stems from jealousy, I suppose. We’re all happy to see their expensive cars and houses, and listen to them on talk shows. But perhaps we feel much better about our less glamorous lives when we see celebrities get caught doing something they shouldn’t be doing. It helps us realise that their lifestyle doesn’t make for a happy ending all the time, and that they’re not better people than us.
The same is true with disasters, but in a different sense. Maybe we feel fortunate on discovering a horrible accident has occurred without taking our lives, or that of someone we know. It gives you a certain appreciation for your life, however short-lived the feeling.
People will try to rationalise particularly shocking events too, using information provided by media coverage, even if it sometimes doesn’t give an answer. The proliferation of digital media has been partly because of the public’s demand for regular information updates, with people checking news sites for the latest details – BBC’s website was overloaded after 9/11 and crashed.
There are instants where bad news, in a PR sense, has boosted the product it criticised.
A more blasé attitude would mean fewer people exposed to stunts/ads, and they’d be less successful.
When Club 18-30 created a ‘furore’ by releasing creative containing sexual innuendos – girls suggestively drinking from overflowing beer bottles, ‘Beaver Espana’ – this overreaction only served to help the ads reach even more of its audience, most of whom would appreciate the humour.
During a stay in Australia, I witnessed a seemingly laid-back country’s media harp on about Vodafone sponsoring a streaker, so much so that the official spokesperson for said company struggled to apologise publicly without laughing and rubbing his hands with glee at the PR they’d received.
Huge stories though, can, in turn, have huge consequences for advertising campaigns.
To use 9/11 as an example again, increased news minutage resulted in there being less commercial airtime, and TV campaigns losing ratings. Any programmes/films with inappropriate content were cancelled (apparently Spiderman was postponed owing to a helicopter crash scene), and advertising planned around these would be disrupted.
Press ads were pushed much further back into the papers, and airlines, for one, lost millions of pounds cancelling advertising across all media.
Whatever the effect on advertising, bad news sells, and often not at the expense of the advertiser.
All advertisers want more reach within their chosen media, and bad news attracts people.
If everyone wanted upbeat news, Hello! would sell more copies than The Sun.
Would so many people watch EastEnders if the more dramatic stories were something along the lines of the never-divorced Den and Angie Watts, cheating at bridge against Pauline and the still-alive Arthur Fowler?
Paul Clout is an account executive at Starcom Mediavest