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How advertising ruined publishing

How advertising ruined publishing Sean X

Publishing is quite possibly the most important invention in the history of man, and few of us truly comprehend how monumental its impact has been. So incomprehensible it is to imagine life without it, that life as we know it would not exist. It is not merely about having transferrable forms of communication to enrich the lives from one generation to the next. It is more profound than that. It enables knowledge transference from one village to the next, from one country to the next, and from one's mind of centuries past to convey knowledge through time. Religion and science owe their schism to publishing -- for without it neither would exist.

None of us would be here today. I would not be writing this. You would not be reading it. We would all be cretins banging our heads against caves. You would not be you without publishing. You would instead be a shell of opportunity, inhabited by addled moths bouncing around your brain -- an empty carcass of stupidity and promise unrealized.

With publishing -- a deep and unending knowledge transference through messages, art, news, and books that cascade into memes and permeate the planet -- we were enriched beyond measure. Until the internet came around. Or more precisely -- the model with which the internet has been monetized.

It is our greatest accomplishment, and now our greatest failing. This is how you all destroyed the fabric of modern society.


For eons, publishing meant "pressing" one thing into another thing to leave an imprint, be it books, tablets, ink and scroll, or a hand outline on a wall. It was an indentation in life that existed and persisted beyond that moment. Content no longer fell to the ground as soon as it came out of our mouths, or wafted eerily in the wispy air of nothingness. Before the technology of publishing -- save for the transference of the spoken word -- it was always in the present moment, and that is where it died. Technology enabled publishing that caught a moment in the present and transferred it beyond that instant of communication, to stretch that singular thought across time.

Publishing produced a new type of editorial content designed for knowledge transference, and it fed our souls, sustained us, and enriched us so we could better ourselves and our fellow man. Publishing was powerful, sexy, informative, and deep. It taught us how to think and look at the world, and the lens we chose to look through was as varied as the publishing we consumed. A fiery blast furnace of brightness that cleaned our bodies and refreshed our minds -- or even facilitated a deviant thought that reached to the very darkest parts of our souls.

In an abstract sense, publishing knew that its editorial content was powerful, so a line was drawn between editorial and those who wished to feed off of its marrow. It would always remain separate from advertising, for the need for separation was viewed as so great because it ensured that we could come together and bond as a society around important topics.

For what would be the harbinger of truth without that separation? It was a civic duty beyond measure to keep it that way.

Internet advertising happened

And then the internet happened, or more precisely -- internet advertising. Previously, even with the insidious nature of advertising, the editorial side of publishing was able to beat the ugliness back. Sure, there were advertorials, and other stealthy forms of advertising in the traditional world but the inherent inflexibility of the mediums they occupied allowed laws to slowly adapt to prevent them from running away with truth.

Sure, as each new one popped up they stole truth for a while, yet the corrective forces of society ensured that they would not take over. They prevented the breaches in the separation of editorial and advertising from doing too much damage.

Yes, there were ads in newspapers, but they were separate. There were ads on television, but they were bookends on programming. The programming of long form content had to be of quality (if sometimes dubious at best), because you would not tune in otherwise -- and thus the value to advertisers would be diminished.

Information is not knowledge

Then, the speed with which the internet was able to cascade information changed the publishing industry into yesterday's news. Overnight everything about long form content became stale. And as if by some magic circumstance, television learned from the internet and reality programming was born. Out of what? A writer's strike protesting incomes they were receiving from long form content transferred to the internet. And the television executives learned that they could produce reality programming at half the cost of traditional program, scrap the writers, and get the same advertising income. Quality lent way to voyeuristic pleasure as our aspirational selves were usurped by the fascination with shame inherent in reality programming.

It seems that as the internet brought us closer together, but not in a way where we connect as humans. We threw stones at glass houses and danced with glee, alone, surrounded by a crowd of anonymity. The internet exploded.


From Kim Kardashian's boobs, and pornstars without makeup, to tweets that get people fired, sexism in video game culture, gender bias lawsuits, and a dress -- it's all sex, shame, violence, and voyeurism. Facebook walls filled with the diametrically opposed ideas of aspiration in the form of kittens with inspirational quotes, and click-baited inflammatory horror of ISIS. And we are all less because of it.

And we click, and continue to click on that which expresses our lowest selves. None of those links and the stories that drove them are important. Some of the "issues" are important, but the reporting structure of them has morphed into such fantastical representations of the truth that it is buried behind 27 ways to click-bait your customers, click for more, click here, click now. Ka-Ching! And the publishers bait and trap us into those clicks -- bartenders setting up shop outside an AA meeting and pouring drinks for those exiting hope.

Each day we feed this internet machine and it is run off of one thing -- advertising. We would not find it "normal" to watch boobs, beheadings, a police shooting, and sexism all in a day. And we wouldn't feel the need to pass along this information with commented shock, and a hint of repressed glee at having seen it.

This is a virus exacerbating and overwhelming actual quality content for banality. And overwhelming at such a rate that truth as content no longer survives. What we are left with is a precious few primary news sources that are rapidly degrading into the abyss.

The relationship of advertising and publishing

It is easy to have integrity as a company when your business model has a high profitability margin and is doing well. You can, in essence, afford the luxury of taking a hard line, even if it negatively affects your profit margin -- because you have a profit margin to work with. That margin, in essence, is your "integrity opportunity cost." That margin is the reason that you can afford to fend of detractors and convince investors that your course of action is the right one to protect your brand and grow.

For most of the history of publishing, the major news outlets had a wide integrity opportunity cost to work with. News operations were run at a loss and supported by the wider profitability of the rest of the content. This was always viewed as acceptable because of the societal good that was inferred, and the brand halo those groups gave to the wider outfit.

And then Craigslist came along, and eliminated one of the major sources of income for every major publication -- classified advertising. Yes, classified ads made lots of cheap simple money. And the integrity opportunity gap shrank.

And then, social media arrived and consumption shifted to a friend-based circular entrenched miasma of like-minded thought -- consumed from friends, strangers, and a peer-to-peer telephone game rumor mill gone amok. And the integrity opportunity gap was decimated.

Gawker, Reddit, Buzzfeed, and a slew of click-baited banality sprung into action. What changed was that the internet gave loud megaphones to those who had no business in the editorial business, and had no intent of being in the editorial business. Their charge was not to educate, nor inform -- nor was it even to entertain. They had no charge, just a profiteering desire to prey on people's worst fears, curiosities, or perversions to continually click though reams of pages.

Fed by advertising

We tried to get people to pay for content online. We tried with Slate, Salon, and other great online publications, but people were not buying. The model just did not translate.

And yet, even losing money, traditional media outlets and their publishing empires kept plodding along, shrinking on an emaciated diet of internet scraps. Their hard line against the mixing of editorial and advertising was fractured. Advertising looked into the mirror and convinced itself it was worthy, pretty, and meaningful, and slowly -- as if saying it every day for decades would twist reality -- that is exactly what happened. Reality fractured. Advertising masquerading as content infiltrated the castle of truth in the form of native advertising -- the final death blow to editorial integrity. Why even bother with attempting the truth?

There has never been a more insidious viral attack on the publishing industry's editorial integrity than native advertising. There is nothing native about it. It is a virus, a plague upon society and truth. Slowly the erosion and fracturing of media infiltrated publishing and content so as to seem that the divisions were no longer necessary. Most online publications for at least the last ten years had co-opted truth for page views. Now the wedding was official.

The wedding meant that truth was optional, a bygone byproduct of a dying viewership segment -- the publishing industry just didn't want to believe it. How could these places retain parity in a world where internet consumption was wildly exploding around them?

We were promised an internet that would usher in a new golden age of knowledge and bring society closer together. What we got was 47 pictures of Kim Kardashian's butt.

There is hope

I lied. If you want an article that is going to end on an uplifting note, this is not it. The boat that could have carried hope sailed long ago. As long as advertising is the fuel for internet publishing content monetization, hope does not exist. What is needed is substantive change. I have written before about content models that do not rely on advertising like HBO. However, those models will follow the entertainment preferences of a society, and as our society slowly crumbles around our content banality, they will eventually follow us into the abyss.

The only model I believe that could save the publishing industry is micro-payments. Scrapping advertising altogether and moving toward a pay-as-you-go content model. And that would only happen if digital currency had a higher penetration. People are riddled with shame, guilt, and neurosis. But if we have to pay to choose quality content, things could be different.

Advertising is the cause of modern society's collapse. We have to blame it on someone, so let me make the case for all of us in advertising. Those of us who hold up this behemoth of lies and deceit masquerading as helpful information, believe we do so with the intent of helping those around us "see the light" about our client's product. We work for food brands peddling hydrogenated oil and sugar water as if people that do not have these products will die. We pair an average-looking guy with the boobalicious bombshell in beer commercials as a con on our populace. We have designed a whole language around the nuances of deception -- natural, free -- words that have no legal meaning. In fact, we have convinced people that the need for these products is so great that if they do not own them, they will be a pale substitute of the human they could be. We buy products made with slave labor and advertise them to unsuspecting victims as we selectively ignore all the signs it is happening. And we click-bait a voyeuristic shame blame game as we comment-force our narrow view of truth through our limited vision.

The monetization of publishing content on the internet is broken, and we broke it. If you are in advertising or marketing, give someone a hug today, look them in the eyes, and apologize for what you did. We had a chance to help define the future of society in a positive light. To uplift everyone, and we not only failed but dragged the rest of them down with us. If you have an opportunity to uplift, do it -- just do not think that if you are in advertising that it is what you are accomplishing.

Sean X is VP of Acquisition Marketing at Creditera.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

"Grungy photo of feet with toe tag on a morgue table" image via Shutterstock.

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Sean X

2015, April 06

@andrew Good points on monetization. The music industry understands micro-payments, as does the mobile game industry for that matter. My point was that is editorial publishing, advertising has ruined truth. It is as if in listening to a Taylor Swift song on Spotify an algorithm replaced "I like" with "Taco Bell like" ... and then Spotify turned around and said "What's wrong with that?"

I have no vested interest in micro-payments. It was just never given a shot. Check this out... At least someone is giving it a try. http://www.engadget.com/2015/04/06/winnipeg-free-press-pay-per-click-paywall/

Commenter: Sean X

2015, April 06

@peter love your last line. "It is the whore nature of journalists which has killed publishing." ;)

They old school publishers lack of insight screwed it up to begin with, because they could not get in front of the problem. I blame the internet for it enabled people's baser instincts to trump our ID with the speed of the news cycle. I blame internet advertising because the way the new publishing model is monetized encourages ID ignition and baser instinct clicking. I am one of the people at the beginning who could have fought harder for models that would have helped intelligent conversation survive.

I worked advising several national publishers on strategies to open up their pay walls. Alas those arguments went unheeded and we ended up with this mess.

Commenter: Andrew Boer

2015, April 06

I empathize with the sentiments of this rant.

Native Advertising does feel like a move in the wrong direction and an assault on "editorial integrity" - if such a thing exist. But the model itself also feels flawed, and I don't see how it sustains itself. It is a somewhat desperate tactic by publishers that might benefit first movers -- but once the tactic moves mainstream, it will offer little differentiation, and brands will move on to the next thing. (see GroupOn).

I don't agree with your conclusion that micro-payments are the answer. I suspect you have some cognitive bias that is leading you to see it that way -- or a vested interest in the success of that particular model.

It may be one solution. In music & film, content providers are leveraging a combination of micro-payments and batched subscription/streaming (iTunes + Spotify/Netflix). Others are integrate commerce and services directly into their businesses, instead of being an advertising platform for hire. And some will use advertising successfully while maintaining their integrity.

Because audience attention is harder than ever to capture, monetization is much harder. Publishing is really not about creating content, it is about building an audience. And audiences have moved down to the individual. But at the same time -- there is more great content than ever before.

Commenter: Peter Johnston

2015, April 06

Ah, the old-fashioned publishing person desperately trying to blame the internet.
But the ad-funded model came along with commercial television and the freesheet. Even the church newsletter (an advertising/PR piece if ever there was one).

The realisation that news was hard and it was easier to get celebrities to come to you and make "news" was also long before the internet.
And the manufactured news story to increase circulation also predates the internet.
The quotation. The soundbite. The quoting out of context. The honey trap.

The reality is that people like to know what's going on around them. They don't really care how up yourself you are while doing it. We made the artificial differentiation between "news" and gossip. Even between real news, planted news story (PR) and advertising. Sold the idea of integrity to journalists to try to recruit more and make it a career. And then we blurred them again.

Take any news source (online or off). Analyse the stories. 90% are planted - a writer trying to sell his book, a think-tank publicising their latest pseudoscience so they can fundraise for more, the Ministry of War trying to frighten us about Russia or terrorism so they can get their starwars or surveillance project funded. Journalists were happy to publish them all, so the line between news and advert became so fine as to disappear beneath the waves. Long before the internet.

It is the whore nature of journalists which has killed publishing.