No, I'm not referring to Willie Sutton's famous response when asked why he robbed banks. I'm talking about our "free" press (a.k.a. media), and the larger lesson contained in Mr. Sutton's honest reply.
Case in point: Last week the whole country became caught up in the duel between Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and CNBC's Jim Cramer. Stewart had taken issue with a CNBC correspondent who, in an ill-advised live-TV rant, blamed our economic woes on the over-leveraged "losers" whose mortgages were in default. Sensing a true people-who-live-in-glass-houses moment, Stewart took off on CNBC as a bunch of jock-carrying wannabes who do more to feed the beast than tame it. Jim Cramer, by association, became the de facto poster boy for a network that has always been longer on style than substance.
My problem with all of this is that when Stewart had Cramer and CNBC squarely in the cross hairs, his shot went wide and missed the mark entirely. The only question Stewart needed to ask was the one that would have revealed the only answer that counts: What would your advertisers -- you know, those trusted bedrock institutions we just bailed out to the tune of a trillion bucks -- do if you told the truth?
Speaking of shots, it doesn't take an Einstein to figure out who calls them at CNBC (the same guys who call them at Comedy Central). So, when Stewart had Cramer right where he wanted him, why didn't this self-appointed protector of the masses simply tell it like it is and go after the sponsors who underwrite this blatant abuse of the public trust? Sure, he danced around the issue, but that only made it worse. He stopped just short of biting the hand that feeds him -- the same hand that ultimately feeds Jim Cramer et al. I guess he figured there was no sense defaulting on the mortgage to his own glass house.
For my money, the only sober reality to emerge from this shameless demagoguery is a better understanding of the real cost of our "free" media. When our global economic meltdown is reduced to a cheap ratings ploy between two comedians, we're in big trouble, right? Actually, no. In fact, it all becomes clear once you realize that Christopher Dodd and Barack Obama are the two biggest individual recipients of campaign cash from AIG. Who are Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer to let the truth get in the way of a good story? Why shoot them? They're just the messengers.
Advertisers have always called the shots, which in its own perverted logic, makes perfect sense. After all, it's not commercials between programs, it's programs between commercials, and always has been. That's why soap operas were and are more soap than opera and why Star-Kist preferred tunas that tasted good over tunas with good taste.
This diatribe notwithstanding, let me get off of my high horse (before I fall off) by suggesting that -- while legions of spreadsheet-driven quants labor day and night to wreck the marketing industry forever and drive consumers deeper and deeper into smaller and smaller digital retreats -- there is one online advertising model that still gets it. It's called Vidsense, a totally contrarian alternative to the digital status quo. Vidsense takes a giant step back to the future by using the proven power of popular video content as bait to lure prospects to an advertiser's home turf where a single agenda -- the advertiser's -- prevails. Taking its cues from the golden ages of radio and TV (back when advertising actually worked), Vidsense doesn't put ads in front of people. Vidsense puts people in front of ads. Imagine that! Hmmm, maybe those soap guys were onto something.
With a billion+ channels all competing for the same eyeballs, targeting your audience has become a fool's errand. It's like trying to teach a pig to read. It doesn't work and all you do is piss-off the pig. Doesn't it make more sense to do your talking in your own showroom? With Vidsense, it's still all about tunas that taste good, because that's where the money is…
About Mike Einstein and the Brothers Einstein
Mike Einstein is one-half of the Brothers Einstein, a creative strategy and branding boutique. The Brothers Einstein work with select rapid-growth clients to help define and execute healthy brand strategies in a toxic media environment.