Tuesday, 4 November 2008

The profitability of moral panic

The first episode of The Hollowmen was an absolute cracker, based on a childhood obesity scare - war had to be declared on this new menace to our society. In the end, combating fat kids came down to a marketing campaign, which is always great news for local media. I am starting to believe that the only thing underpinning the share price of our local media companies is the market for moral panic.

I spent a few months working for the marketing manager of a government agency. This bloke was quite despondent, because his job largely involved approving designs for posters, and at that time, not many posters were being produced. His budget was minimal. His creative juices were not being taxed. He used to walk into management meetings with the latest copy of some marketing magazine or another and point to a league table of advertising expenditure, and lament the fact that our agency was not up there in the top 10 big spenders on advertising.

He was miserable because he was not being given a chance to blow our money on TV advertising. He got to place the odd ad in the print media, but for marketing people, you aren't anybody until you've had some ads on TV. When these marketing types do the cocktail circuit, the big swinging dicks are those that have the grooviest, most repeated and most expensive ad campaigns on TV. No, scratch that. The ads don't even have to be groovy. The whole campaign just has to cost a lot, regardless of how good or useful it is. Government marketing managers are insanely jealous of other marketing managers that get to buy a lot of airtime, and they lust after the day when they can ring up an advertising agency and announce that they have $10 million to spend on a campaign. It's what they live for.

I remember this clown so well because I was working on a project that also required posters, and we had our own budget for producing them, and we had our own ideas about how they should look and where they should go. As far as we were concerned, they were nothing to do with him, but so desperate was he for some more money to spend, he tried to commandeer our project. You know things have reached a low ebb in the public sector when managers in grey cardigans are fighting over scraps of money like dogs over a bone. We won, but it so poisoned the atmosphere that when the project finished, I had to move on because this guy was absolutely out to destroy my career, and that of those I had worked with. The other guys all split as well, knowing full well he was out for revenge.

Some years down the track, he got his wish and went on to spend millions on TV ads. They were quite controversial, and it was not long before the whole campaign was scrapped, and that agency has hardly run a TV campaign since. I think they were so traumatised by the whole affair that they decided never to stick their heads above the parapet ever again.

But that is not the case with lots of other agencies, especially those in the field of health and public safety. They can spend like drunken sailors without anyone ever saying a harsh word, because they are doing it "for the children". How can you object to a TV commercial that is designed to save lives?

Well, I can certainly object to it. What would you prefer - that the RTA spent $10 million on a TV campaign, or $10 million on asphalt and concrete that improved our roads and made them safer? I'd rather see the money spent on filling in pot holes, rather than filling in time slots around the 6pm news.

The problem with these marketing types is that if you go to them with an issue, their solution is an advertising campaign. If you told them that our biggest problem was spending too much money on TV commercials, they'd commission a commercial that warned government marketing managers about spending more money on commercials! They're mad.

They have it in their heads that it is more important to shape our perceptions than to try to alter our reality. For instance, if our hospital emergency departments are having trouble coping, they'd come up with a warm and fluffy ad showing nurses and doctors in soft focus trying desperately to save kids that have drowned in a swimming pool or been hit by a car, rather than spending more on actually enlarging the departments or providing more beds or doctors or machines that go "ping".

I form my opinions of government agencies from direct contact with them. I have never had contact with ASIO for instance, so my opinion of them is neutral. I don't think about them as being good or useless, because I've never dealt with them. They're like a restaurant - a critic might write a good or bad review about a place, but in the end, the thing that counts is what the experience was like for you. A good review of a bad restaurant is unlikely to encourage you to tell your friends that the place is great. If they ask what it was like, you won't read a review to them from the newspaper - you'll tell them how you were treated.

Which is why I personally think most public hospitals are crap 90% of the time, and that our state schools are in dire straights. I've had direct experience of both as a customer. The Teacher's union wants us to believe that state schools are great. I don't know what planet the teachers are on, but it's not Earth. Putting up warm and fuzzy signs on the fences of state schools with statements like "Public education - growing our community" does nothing to counter the many bad experiences that I have had dealing with teachers as a parent. Do they really think that a slick marketing campaign will change my mind about their useless behaviour?

But I should stick to the topic, which is moral panic.

Moral panic is good for business - if you happen to work in the area of selling advertising. The media is very good at manufacturing moral panic, and it wouldn't surprise me to find that it is now a major topic at editorial conferences each week. If advertising sales are flagging, the best way to boost them is to scare the government into throwing money at a problem.

Next time you see any sort of government sponsored ad on a billboard or on radio or on TV, just consider this - it's only there because a Minister crapped their pants, and the campaign is only designed to cover up the smell of poo in their undies.


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Ubique of Perth said...

"Machines that go ping" - just love that description.