Driving our Society off a cliff

Nissan & National Geographic throw the advertising-editorial divide under an SUV.

Details here.

Why do we think this strategy is unsustainable? Because these sorts of projects leverage National Geographic’s existing brand equity without adding anything of value to it.

Put another way: A generation of television viewers will come to know National Geographic as a company that partners with Nissan, BMW, Budweiser, Coke, and a host of other multinational companies. In 10 or 20 years, people will not be saying: Remember those great National Geographic television specials with Jacques Cousteau and Jane Goodall? That brand halo will be gone. Instead, the National Geographic brand will be defined by advertising partnerships like the one above.

Good for Nissan, but bad for us.

The view from the driver’s seat of the new Nissan X-Treme might be exhilarating for the moment, but do these sorts of adventures take our Society where we want to go?

Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp is the majority owner of the National Geographic Channel, gets the last laugh.

Objective Nonsense (part 26)

Remember Chris Johns’ claim that National Geographic has “no agenda”? It was part of an Editor’s Note in which Chris insisted that in “a world of shrill voices and agendas, we at National Geographic are committed to an unbiased presentation of facts. … It’s what we’ve been doing for more than 120 years.”

Why would Chris make a claim which is demonstrably false? Here’s one theory: National Geographic once relied on members, not advertisers, for support. But now, with so many members leaving the Society, Chris is scrambling to shore up the “deal… struck between advertisers, publishers, and journalists”:

Joshua Benton

… The idea that journalists should be impartial in reporting news is a relatively recent one. “A lot of newspaper people treat it as one true religion, when it’s an artifact of a certain set of economic and historical circumstances,” says Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab. America’s Founding Fathers nurtured a vibrant, fiercely partisan press with no licensing of newspapers or policing of content. During the 19th century newspapers gradually adopted a more objective stance, for several reasons. By appealing to a wider audience, they were able to increase their circulation and hence their advertising revenue. Consolidation, and the emergence of local newspaper monopolies, also promoted impartiality. “When you are the only paper in town, you can’t risk pissing off liberals by being too conservative, or vice versa,” says Mr Benton.

With the professionalisation of journalism in the early 20th century came a more detached style of reporting. In effect, a deal was struck between advertisers, publishers and journalists, says New York University’s Jay Rosen. Journalists agreed not to alienate anyone so that advertisers could aim their messages at everyone. That way the publishers got a broader market and the journalists got steady jobs but gave up their voices.

Read the whole thing here.

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“Gave up their voices”? Yes, indeed.

 The Way We Were
(when membership mattered most):

NGM, May 1953

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The Way We Are
(as publishers chase “a broader market”):

Chris Johns & Terry Adamson celebrate NGM's new publishing partnership in the People's Republic of China. (2007)

Would a one-hour advertisement for BMW look any different than this NG Channel “documentary”?

Read the whole thing here.

Of course, as we’ve noted before, this BMW show — and the whole Ultimate Factories series — makes old-fashioned product placement look painfully naive. Why pay to appear in a few seconds of a TV show when, if your play your cards right, you can be the show?

Brand management done right

Dear John,
You seem to think that advertising, corporate sponsorships, and brand extensions
will be our Society’s salvation.

We don’t.
And we’re confident there’s another way.

Consider, for instance, the case of
Wimbledon, the oldest tennis tournament in the world….


June 27, 2011

All That Glitters Isn’t Sold:
Wimbledon’s resistance to corporate dollars
keeps it rich

by L. Jon Wertheim

Now that Wimbledon has started at the All England Club, we are being fed the familiar images of quaintness and gentility: players walking into the arena, their all-white attire contrasting with the green of the lawns; blades of grass standing militarily upright on Centre Court and, of course, the obligatory strawberries and cream. The cameras pull back, and we see fans taking afternoon tea; and then pull farther to show Big Ben and the London skyline.

Yet for its undeniable charms, so much of Wimbledon’s real appeal stems not from what you see, but from what you don’t see. You’ll notice that there are no corporate logos splayed on the playing surface. There are zero courtside billboards or rotating signs. No luxury suites with flat screens, stocked bars and carving boards to make the actual sporting event feel like so much background hum. During breaks in the action, note that there is no music, no sponsored dot races on the scoreboard, no unnaturally peppy cheerleaders or mascots air-cannoning T-shirts provided by still another sponsor. At no time will you hear the phrase, “Brought to you by… .” …

Wimbledon has a reputation for patrician elegance, even snobbishness. In truth, it’s the most populist and least mercenary sporting event going. On television it looks like a Victorian era garden party. On the grounds it more closely resembles a minor league baseball game.

A management consultant would spit-take his Pimms pondering how much money the tournament leaves on the table each year. In 2010, for perspective, tennis’s U.S. Open set a record for sponsorship revenue, with $60 million. …

Alan Mills, the longtime tournament referee, was once asked why the event bypassed so much revenue. He seemed confused by the question. It was pointed out, for example, that the U.S. Open took advantage of its real estate, going so far as to slather corporate logos on the umbrellas that shield the players from rain and sun during changeovers. He responded with a confused look. “If we did that, I suppose it wouldn’t be Wimbledon, would it?”

No, it wouldn’t.

Still, for all the money it passes up, Wimbledon makes out fine. The tournament doesn’t disclose financials but last year reported a “surplus” (never the gauche “profit”) of more than £31 million ($50 million). Who knows how much of that comes from the equity of tradition, from being singularly resistant to easy money? Maybe the moral for sports properties is this: Sure, you can make money from selling your soul. But there’s also value in hanging on to it.

Read the whole thing here.

Battle of the Brands

Tacroy, in our comments, makes this critical point:

If after acquiring ScienceBlogs NatGeo decides to begin exerting more editorial control over blog content than P.Z. likes, he will leave ScienceBlogs. Pharyngula was an independent blog initially, and there’s no particular reason why it couldn’t be one again. This is not without precedent; there was a rather large migration of ScienceBloggers after the Pepsi incident.

With a similar thought, here’s Glaucidium:

If Nat Geo decides to institute “civility standards”, they will lose other SB bloggers, over both their own freedom to post and in support of free Internet speech in general. All this will mean is that their blogs will continue to appear in other formats.

And Psychodiva:

if PZ were to leave Sciblogs then his followers will – well- follow him- and all the traffic he creates will go with him….

And Dolly Dagger:

If PZ leaves Science Blogs, SB will lose a great deal of traffic. Pharyngula [PZ Myers’ site at ScienceBlogs] is my 2nd stop of my personal day — I go on to other SBs from there.  I suspect I’m not the only one. Science Blogs will go down the crapper without PZ because many other Bloggers will follow as well.

What’s fascinating about this case — and why we continue to write about it — is it highlights what we’ve long feared: The executive team at National Geographic doesn’t understand — in its bones — that publishing’s center of gravity has shifted. That people like PZ Myers now have a voice, a platform, and an audience. And that people like Myers no longer need a branded microphone (like National Geographic) to be heard around the world. All they need is a laptop, a URL, and a distinctive, compelling voice.

PZ Myers

Does National Geographic (and its advertisers) need PZ Myers and the ScienceBlogs audience? Evidently so.

But does PZ Myers need National Geographic? Not so much.

In this case, PZ Myers is the brand that matters. Which, when you think about it, is breathtaking: One guy with a blog can potentially tell National Geographic — a highly regarded media brand with global reach — to, as PZ might say, “bugger off.”

Given these facts, we see three possible outcomes:

  1. Myers reluctantly agrees to tone down his rhetoric to suit the suits at NGS. But that would be serial brand suicide: Myers’ readers would abandon both him and ScienceBlogs, leaving NGS (and its advertisers) with a severely degraded blogging network, and Myers with a reputation as a sell-out.
  2. Myers insists on being himself, and refuses to talk pretty. He leaves ScienceBlogs, taking his readers, and perhaps other SB bloggers, with him. Which would leave NGS and its advertisers with a severely degraded blogging network, and a reputation as a media company that doesn’t get the internet.
  3. Myers is permitted to be himself (religious people are “idiotsandbatshit insane“; a journalist who PZ disagrees with has a stick up his ass“; and so on). But National Geographic keeps its logo & brand name buried in a dark, distant corner of the ScienceBlogs site.

Our bet? Door #3.

That way, National Geographic can still reap the ad revenue from PZ’s blog, but not have the NG brand tarnished by PZ’s profanity — or his worldview.

This strategy might have worked brilliantly 20 years ago. Even 10 years ago. But today? Much tougher, we think.

For as Weinergate reminds us all: There are no secrets on the internet.

Stay tuned…


Buying Eyeballs

If this report is accurate, then it should be an interesting marriage — especially given ScienceBlogs experience with Pepsi, and National Geographic’s experience with… well, with all the brands that have successfully blown up the advertising-editorial divide at NGS.

As for all you ScienceBlog bloggers out there: Be sure to review Robert Stone’s short-lived blogging relationship with National Geographic. Sad to say, his NGS engagement didn’t have a happy ending.

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UPDATE 26 April 2011, 8:30 am:
Check out this informative Storify, courtesy of Martin Robbins.

Get with the program, Spurlock

Morgan, Morgan, Morgan… your new movie — POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold — is clever, but it’s so last week.

The cutting edge isn’t product placement, or a movie totally financed by product placement. No. The cutting edge is product programming. The cutting edge is a TV show disguised as a “documentary” — but that’s really just a shameless shill. The cutting edge means products don’t awkwardly punctuate a program here and there, but totally consume it. Cutting edge is a program where the content & the advertising become One.

And no one has mastered the form better than your friends at National Geographic / News Corp / [insert corporate brand name — such as Jack Daniel’s — here]:

(Anyone know what advertisers, if any, sponsor episodes of Ultimate Factories? Because if National Geographic & News Corp are selling ads between The Ad — now that’s cutting edge.)

Rupert is laughing, but the joke is on us

National Geographic presents…

Jean-Francois van Boxmeer

It’s a huge honour for us that National Geographic has made this film about Heineken. It provides unique insights in the Heineken beer, brand and company, and shows the great people behind every glass and bottle of Heineken beer. It really illustrates that quality, entrepreneurship and passion are at the center of everything we do. When I recently saw a preview of the documentary, it filled me with pride that I work for Heineken and that I am part of the success of this company.”

— Jean-François van Boxmeer, CEO Heineken N.V.

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Who is taking care of the National Geographic brand?

Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp is the majority owner of the National Geographic Channel, seems to have his way with the NGS brand.

Any thoughts, John?

Posted Without Comment

Tonight on
Ultimate Factories: Coca-Cola

Tsunamis, Big Cats & Cupcakes

Donate To Save Big Cats VS. Watch Passively as a Human Tragedy Unfolds in Japan.

To: John Fahey, NGS CEO
Re: Priorities

Our Society is raising money to help big cats.

May we suggest that tsunami victims in Japan also deserve our Society’s support?

Every day, more than 200,000 people visit nationalgeographic.com, where you’ve posted tsunami pictures, tsunami facts, and promotions for National Geographic TV shows about tsunamis — all served up beside advertisements for discount cupcakes. But we don’t provide any information about how folks can help the people of Japan.

Why don’t you post a link, or a phone number, or list of organizations that are aiding the relief effort? By driving traffic to, say, the American Red Cross or Habitat for Humanity, we could support a very worthy cause at zero cost to the Society.

If lions deserve our Society’s help, so do people.

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UPDATE, 16 March 2011: We’re delighted to report that NatGeo News Watch finally posted Japan Needs Our Help, with links to various aid organizations. And now there’s also a link on National Geographic’s home page. It’s not prominently displayed, but it is there. Thank you, NGS.

NO NEW POSTS will be published here after February 6, 2014. THIS IS WHY.