Certifiably Unreal

I find ads that insult the intelligence of their intended audience to be distasteful.

A new ad from the Certified Financial Planning Board of Standards features a formerly dreadlocked DJ pretending to be a financial planner. The CFP Board is a non-profit certifying and standards-setting organization that administers the CFP certification program and oversees more than 70,000 financial planning professionals in the U.S.

I’m a fan of the CFP designation. Having spent nearly 18 years on the corporate side of the financial planning industry, I think this message is an important one. Yet, the dancing-DJ-impersonating-a-planner premise strikes a sour note.

A television commercial is a re-presentation—a constructed message that never presents “reality.” In this case, it is very carefully constructed to fit in a 30 second timeslot and be maximally persuasive.

On the one hand, the CFP organization makes one think and raises a valid point about how anyone can claim to be a financial adviser. Their designation helps ensure a standard of quality and ethics in financial planning professionals that earn the right to be “certified.”

On the other hand, the fact that they refer to the adviser as really being a “DJ” is a half-truth. He’s also a professional actor with a pretty lengthy resume, according to the IMDB. To be sure, he can be both an actor and a DJ. And, he also could be a CFP-certified financial professional. Nothing about being a DJ and having dreadlocks precludes that.

some textIs it funny that everyday people were fooled by a well-groomed and scripted actor in a suit? Since he was doing an act, he also could have pretended to have a CFP designation, for that matter, as well as the SEC Series 7 designation required for brokers to sell securities. Give him the right script, and even experts would be fooled.

The concern is that while CFP Board has a laudable message to convey, this “reality” scenario was scripted and edited specifically to fool the subjects in the ad (I have my suspicions that they may have been actors as well, but there isn’t an IMDB for listing actors in television commercials). Nonetheless, just like any other “reality” TV show, what is presented is a carefully constructed message, far from reality.

Subsequently the message rings less true than it should. Rather than inspiring an honest epiphany in the consumer like the Pepsi Challenge did decades ago, this ad just makes the viewer feel dumb. I don’t think that’s funny.

Refrigerators With X-Ray Vision Want To See What You’re Hungry For

Our 16-year-old Amana refrigerator is starting to show its age, and we’ve recently started to think about all the options for replacing it. So much has changed in home appliance technology, and I’m the most intrigued by this “smart” model from LG with a networked, touch screen computer that helps manage the family food and grocery comportment.
LG Smart Fridge

Some academics have begun to argue that the primary commodity of commercial media has shifted from mass audience attention to individual and inferential data culled from one’s online identity and activity. This “net” of personal data collection and analysis now extends from the desktop to the smartphone to the growing realm of networked devices we are becoming increasingly reliant on. Even your fancy new Internet-connected, wifi-enabled refrigerator can generate data that can be monetized.

Mass media advertising has always been low in efficiency, with the main bargain skewed in favor of the audience through free entertainment and information product. Today, the terms of this bargain are being rewritten. Instead of broadcast entertainment, news and information (delivered at scale and driven to a certain level of quality by competing for audience attention and advertising revenue), we find an emerging ecosystem of social media applications and devices that are increasingly defining a new social contract. Taken together these technologies comprise a new commercial medium that becomes more valuable to advertisers as we use it. Beyond monetizing human attention, the medium seeks to monetize total human involvement: Attention + Activity + Identity (what you see, what you do and who you are). McLuhan

Recently, while doing some media theory research for the current course I’m teaching, I stumbled across a fascinating online video of Marshall McLuhan giving a talk in 1974. Such discoveries are often little treasures of prescience, and this one is no exception, as he somehow reaches out of the past to describe media effects being experienced in this present moment.

Another strange effect of this electric environment is the total absence of secrecy. No form of secrecy is possible at electric speed. At electric speed everything becomes X-Ray. – Marshall McLuhan

Next time you look in the refrigerator, your refrigerator may also be looking back at you and providing a valuable data stream that is sold to commercial interests. Your lengthy and often unread end user agreement may even specify that all this data is generated anonymously, and is, therefore, benign. Yet, how important is it that some unseen and unknown commercial entity doesn’t know your specific name or even your SSN if they do know where you live; what you like to eat; the age and weight of you, your spouse and your children; what you all like to do online; what you watch on TV; where you travel in your car; and ultimately every byte of behavior and preference data a human being can generate each day? What’s in a name when the rest of you is worth so much more money?

Concerning the Object and Subject of Love

It’s been both fascinating and annoying to have the past two weeks of social media chock full of advertising promoting the 50 Shades of Grey film and articles upon articles of critiques, commentaries, film reviews and denouncements. The novel and the film have become the object catalyzing strong reactions, as well as a means for bloggers generate social media currency and expand their audience. The web analytics for this phenomenon are off the chart (249 million Google web hits on the title alone). Lord knows what this poorly reviewed flick will net at the box office given the marketing, hype and hysteria it has generated.

This certainly makes writing a blog post of my own the pot calling the kettle black. Yet, at the risk of being accused of clickbait, I stumbled upon a couple of references spanning Martin Buber and C.S. Lewis this week that linked a key idea of human relationships and communication to 50 Shades and made it worth sharing in the form of a post.
This past Sunday Bruxy Cavey, teaching pastor at The Meetings House in Toronto, gave a teaching on Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well from John 4:10. While I highly recommend the entire message, toward the end Cavey provided an easy-to-understand overview of Martin Buber’s I & Thou—admittedly better that some of the times I have attempted to describe this in my communication classroom. The basic idea is that there are two modes of relatedness between people: one of relating to the other as an object, a means to an end; and one of relating to the other as a subject, through what Buber describes as dialogue—the “inter-human.”
Having been reminded of the I & Thou concept while listening to The Meeting House podcast on my drive to work, I was struck by a correlation to this C.S. Lewis quote from The Four Loves in an article I came across in my social media feed (reposted from a blogger previously unknown to me):

Sex is a sensory pleasure; that is, an event occurring within one’s own body. We use a most unfortunate idiom when we say, of a lustful man prowling the streets, that he ‘wants a woman.’ Strictly speaking, a woman is just what he does not want. He wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus. How much he cares about the woman as such may be gauged by his attitude to her five minutes after fruition (one does not keep the carton after one has smoked the cigarettes).

In many ways, 50 Shades’ Christian Grey is a metaphor of the kind of alienation that is all too common in a culture where more and more of our relationships subsist in mediated, even titrated, human contact. We shun the openness and vulnerability required for I & Thou relationships in favor of connections where we can control the outcome and get what we want. Christian Grey’s need for a “contract” with his submissive partner is the ultimate symbol of a thoroughly objectified relationship—which is quite honestly the relational position where such abuse and exploitation occur, as Lewis points out.

This is why I feel it is important to recognize the great potential for all of us to lose our ability to relate to one another as subjects rather than objectified means to an end when more and more of our interpersonal communication is digitally mediated to afford us more control, novelty and less vulnerability. Research is showing a lower readiness for first-hand encounters as people gravitate to simulations or personal technologies that afford relational control.

On Valentines Day 2015 it is helpful to reflect on the temporality and exhaustibility of objectified love and the perpetual nature of love comprised in the I & Thou of two subjects. Let the 50 Shades conversation in the culture cause us to embrace a higher love, just as Jesus related to, and with, the Samaritan woman and called her to an eternal life of the same:

Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

TV News, Authenticity and its Discontents

The stunningly fast descent of NBC News anchor Brian Williams over a gross embellishment of his 2003 reporting of the Iraq invasion, has prompted a very public discussion between media professionals and the public about journalistic integrity and personal branding in an image-driven medium. Here we have the oldest of news mediums (the Stars and Stripes newspaper) scooping a story by closely following the socially mediated conversations of their core audience (U.S. troops and veterans) in a new medium (Facebook and Twitter) that ultimately serves as a corrective of network television news media.

some text

Some have noted that the public esteem for the giants of television news past (the Walter Cronkites and the Edward R. Murrows) has been irreversibly damaged by the more recent prevarications of Dan Rather and now Williams, not to mention the increasingly dominant partisan media of cable news. In addition, the concreteness of television’s visual image, which in the past naturally lent itself toward audience perceptions of authenticity, has been superseded in the hyper-real era of Photoshop, CGI, reality television and advertising saturation for younger generations of the audience with a highly developed sense of the inauthentic (and even cynicism).

Unrelated to the Williams story, Maker Studios’ chief content officer Erin McPherson, speaking at the Interactive Advertising Bureau Annual Leadership Meeting in Phoenix on Monday, said this about advertising to millennials: “The new authority is authenticity.” For McPherson, this statement was about old brands taking the risk to allow new media content creators, the kind Maker Studios fosters, to communicate about brands authentically in order to cultivate greater brand loyalty through their strong audience relationships.

I couldn’t help but take her statement, “the new authority is authenticity,” and comment on the challenge this presents to network television news in cultivating younger audiences. Perhaps more than any other major news network anchor in the past decade, Williams had managed to build a new audience among millennials–owing to his winning personality, engagement with popular culture and compelling storytelling. It turns out, however, that there may be little difference between the plying of his story craft and the army of Photoshop “artists” that create hyper-real super models in today’s advertising. With word today of Williams’ six-month suspension from NBC, his road to reclaim audience trust should be paved with authenticity. The question is, what does authenticity look like now?

Serial Draws New Attention to Podcasting

In his book, Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky states, “Communications Tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.”

Perhaps the timeframe for getting boring has become shorter in the digital age. The Email forwarding of web articles, for example, became the key medium mobilizing Catholics around the Boston Globe‘s investigative coverage of Catholic priest abuse scandals in the early 2000s.

This also may be the case with podcasting, where the much-hyped emergence of the technology in the mid 2000s had faded into the background noise of social media–until recently.

some text
Serial, the hit podcast from the creators of This American Life and WBEZ public radio in Chicago, may have prompted a dramatic turn in the prospects of it’s central figure, currently serving a life sentence for murder: Serial’s Adnan Syed Will Get a Chance to Appeal His Conviction.