Friday blog rescue: Professor Deborah Blum on snow and poison

This past week our friends and colleagues at East Coast universities have been slogging through wave after wave of wet snow.  Professor Deborah Blum, our resident prize-winning science journalist and popular author, had an interesting take on the situation a few days ago over at her blog Speakeasy Science, inspired by her latest book, The Poisoner’s Handbook:

We live everyday in a colorless, odorless, easily ignorable swirl of carbon monoxide.  Produced through the incomplete combustion of carbon-loaded  fossil fuels,  it wraps around us,  drifting from the exhaust pipes of motor vehicles, from coal-fired plants, from wood fires, from our backyard grills packed with charcoal briquettes. Fortunately for us, the gas is absorbed and diluted by the oxygen-packed atmosphere.

But there’s too much about a big snow storm that can concentrate the gas. People, desperate for heat, put their backyard grills into their homes. Others fire up their rarely used gas generators or heaters. In homes, rooftop snow blocks flues and vents, sealing the lethal gas inside. And there’s more. Snow clogs the exhaust pipes of vehicles, causing carbon monoxide to back up into the passenger area of the car. The National Weather Service warns, in fact, that if you are in a car that gets stuck in a snowback, you should run the engine for heat at intervals of ten minutes or less.  Some experts argue that you shouldn’t the engine at all – better to be cold than inhaling a very risky gas.

What makes carbon monoxide so dangerous? It’s strongly attracted to proteins in our blood that normally carry oxygen. As a result,  carbon monoxide pushes oxygen molecules out of the way as it muscles into the blood stream. The result is a chemical suffocation, marked by dizziness and confusion, in worse cases ending in coma or death.

Check out the full post for more.

Don’t look now, but the media people are taking over the advertising business.

It would seem, based on popular culture, that the advertising business is all about the creative.  Indeed, as noted in a post here earlier this week, over 100 million people tuned into the Super Bowl, as much for the ads as for the game.  Consider one of the most-mentioned things about those Super Bowl ads:  the price.  Was it worth $3 million for one of those :30 ads?  Hard to say; that would depend on the advertiser’s media strategy.

Three times in the past two weeks I have been approached by undergraduate students in the J-School who said they hoped to land a job as advertising media planners.  As one who spent a few decades as a media planner, I couldn’t be happier.  For too long, it seemed media was next to no one’s preferred ad agency job.  For whatever reason, media planning — the mix of art and science that guides the strategic deployment of advertising dollars –still seems to be overlooked or flat out dismissed by young people looking to enter the advertising business.  And yet, in the 21st Century advertising industry, it’s not the creative product that gets all the attention from clients.

Clients care most about making their money work as hard as possible.  How hard that money works is closely tied to the media strategy, which is why these days the media strategy informs the creative strategy instead of the other way around.   Broad-based, mass reach media is rapidly becoming a wasteful marketing luxury, and simply shoveling a budget in the direction of the television networks doesn’t cut it anymore. Media plans are far more targeted, measurable, transactional, experiential and flexible.  Advertising is about changing behavior, and nearly all behavior is circumstantial to some degree.  It’s the job of the media strategist to find the optimal circumstances to try to change that behavior.  The best ad in the world won’t sell a damn thing if it isn’t exposed to the right person at the right time in the right circumstances, whatever those may be.

Given the increasing importance of media strategy and its precise execution, it’s no surprise that media agencies are growing and diversifying while traditional advertising agencies are withering.  Client relationships with media agencies are more stable than relationships with their creative counterparts.  Creative assignments may be divvied up among several shops, but media planning and buying tends to be consolidated with viable long term partners.  To the entry-level advertising job seeker, this should make media strategy and execution a whole lot more appealing, especially since that’s also where the job growth seems to be.

Core media planning and buying functions — what the old agency model lumped into the “media department” — are only one part of the today’s media agency model.  Specialty media agencies have emerged to handle a wide variety of client media needs, often at the expense of traditional creative agencies.  A look at Omnicom’s OMD Media network provides a good example.  Among OMD’s strategic business units are agencies that specialize in sports marketing, entertainment marketing, digital direct marketing, branded entertainment, programming and content creation, and search marketing to name a few.  These are media agencies that lead the development and implementation of media-driven ideas, sourcing and managing ancillary support elements (like creative) along the way.  Clients have come to realize that while it may be fun to make TV commercials, the vast majority of their marketing dollars are spent on media, not creative.  Clients are focused on the money.

If I had my way — which I don’t… yet — I would like to see our J447 course, Strategic Media Planning, be required of all students who wish to major in advertising.  Since it’s not, I can only suggest most enthusiastically that if you are an undergraduate, and you think you want to work in the advertising business,  be sure to take J447 and learn as much as you can about media strategy.  Don’t stop there.   Read the media trade publications and web sites.  Develop opinions about media campaigns you admire.  Know what goes into a good media plan, and be able to identify media strategies that miss the mark.  Recognize that nearly anything can be a media opportunity… and not just by slapping an unsightly ad on it.  Be knowledgeable about industry leaders and innovators.

In today’s world of rapidly converging media channels, user-generated content, and multi-platform entertainment options, creative is no longer the undisputed king of the advertising hill.  Clients have limited marketing resources and great expectations.  They place a very high value on feeling confident they are spending their advertising money wisely and effectively.  And that money is entrusted to the media strategists.

Monday debate: Superbowl advertising

I must admit, as one of the roughly 100 million viewers of the Superbowl, I count myself as one of the audience members who is more interested in watching the nearly-$3-million-per-30-second advertising spots than the actual play on the field.  The customary media narrative about Superbowl advertising starts with the breakthrough Apple “1984” advertisement for the Macintosh — directed by Ridley Scott, feared by company executives, aired only once, and subject to nearly constant buzz and reverence afterward, despite Apple’s consistently low operating system market share over the subsequent twenty-five years.  From that moment on, Superbowl ads became the epitome of fun, brand-building mini-movies, according to the conventional wisdom.

Did this year’s ads live up to the hype?  Writing in the New York Times today, Stuart Elliot points to the use of nostalgia in the game’s commercials (not to mention the halftime show) and laments “the belief along Madison Avenue that tough times call for familiarity rather than risks.”  But for this week’s Monday debate I offer a different critique of Superbowl advertising originally posted on AlterNet, a progressive independent media aggregator with a stated mission to “inspire action and advocacy on the environment, human rights and civil liberties, social justice, media, health care issues, and more.”  In “Half-Naked Hot Chicks and Beer: The Sexist Guyland of the Super Bowl Beer Commercial,” AlterNet contributing writer Vanessa Richmond argues, “the land of beer is a fun and raucous place” full of demeaning gender and sexuality stereotypes:

It’s a land where drunkenness, laughing, burping, irresponsibility, pranks and rule-breaking reign supreme. There are no awkward silences, no need to speak in words, no need to remember to say or do anything in particular or face the consequences. Heck, there are no consequences. It’s a world where women have fun entertaining men. It’s an escape from the tyranny of work and manners, from the ill-fitting harnesses of the digital age on our inner human cave animal. Can’t you just hear the whole nation sighing in relief?

Richmond challenges the depiction of both men and women in such ads as disturbing if not downright harmful. But she also argues that today’s ads incorporate a “wink” to female viewers even as those ads insult these viewers — a necessary compromise given the Superbowl audience demographics and the potential sales at stake:

They know women are in the game now, and are figuring out ways of keeping them drinking too. Women account for 25% of beer consumption, and almost half of the Super Bowl audience. Given that almost 96 million people watched last year’s Super Bowl, the second-most-watched broadcast ever, that’s a lot of women. According to Forbes, even back in 2005, 10 million more women watched the Super Bowl than the Academy Awards.

There’s a lot of money at stake too. The average 30-second spot sold for $2.5 to $2.8 million this year and Anheuser-Busch (which makes Miller Lite) has spent $311.8 million advertising at the event from 1990-’09.

Some marketing wonks suggest those precious dollars should cater more to this valuable co-ed audience. Marketing expert Gerry Myers points out that most Super Bowl ads are aimed at males, yet most money is spent by females.

I expect many of us in SJMC will be using the Superbowl as a timely media example in class this week.  Take a minute to check out Richmond’s complete article and then weigh in below — what do this year’s Superbowl ads say about our culture, and the way the consumer advertising industry understands, reflects, and molds our culture?  Pointers to other articles, videos, resources or discussions on this topic are welcome too.

Friday blog rescue: Professor Robert Drechsel on media ethics

Today on the web site of the Center for Journalism Ethics, SJMC professor and media law expert Robert Drechsel reviews the controversial decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down a federal law that prohibited corporations from spending general treasury funds to advocate the election or defeat of political candidates. Dreschel argues that the ruling reveals the limits of libertarianism on political speech issues.

When the U.S. Supreme Court uses the power of judicial review to strike down a major federal statute and in the process overrules two of its own recent precedents, it’s significant news.

When every justice who votes to do so was appointed by Republican presidents critical of judicial activism and advocating a limited role for the judiciary, it’s bigger news.

When the decision gives major First Amendment rights to business corporations — themselves entities created by government — it’s even bigger news.

And when the decision explicitly grants those corporations the right to spend as much corporate money as they please on communication designed to get certain candidates elected or defeated, it’s a blockbuster.

This, of course, is precisely what happened on Jan. 21 in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission when the Court by a 5-4 margin struck down a federal law (and by logical extension any similar state laws) that prohibited corporations from spending general treasury funds to advocate the election or defeat of political candidates. In doing so, the Court overruled a 20-year-old precedent to the contrary and a seven-year-old precedent that had explicitly upheld the constitutionality of the very law now being struck down.

Read more and feel free to comment below.

Communication, loss and the death of Neha Suri

Technology has the power to make you feel connected and disconnected all at once.

En route to teach a seminar in Florida this weekend, I received a kind message from one of my former students that another J-School major, Neha Suri, was ill. The warmth and support in the posts I read on Facebook and CaringBridge reflected the depth of the girl I knew from class. Everyone prayed and hoped for her recovery because it was too soon to lose her kindness and spark.

I felt the sense of community surrounding Neha, her family and friends in a time of worry. Sitting before a computer, I felt connected to students a little over a thousand miles away.

When we learned of Neha’s death, that distance seemed to stretch to a million miles.

No communication pipeline, despite its power, can substitute for being with these kids and saying how sorry I am that sadness has hit them this young and how unfair it is to lose a friend so quickly, without a chance to say goodbye or thank you. As media contacts began to stream it, I wanted to be with them to say this was their moment to speak or not speak, to remember their friend to the public or grieve her loss in private.

As students and family gather at a memorial service this afternoon, I cannot stand with them. I can sign online guestbooks, add comments to stories or post memories to digital walls.

But those 21st century options are pale substitutes for standing with a mother and saying, “I knew your daughter. And it was indeed my honor.”