The Ever Shifting Face of Outreach Media (And Why That’s Not a Bad Thing)

Outreach using media tools has a long and storied history (which we won’t be going into here). And though it is often addressed using the overly simplified maxims of Marshall McLuhan – especially his now (in)famous reductio ad absurdum pigeonholing of the modern solipsist media state through the phrase “the medium is the message” – outreach media, or advertising, actually has a far more complex structure than people give it credit for. And it’s not the dark side of media that people make it out to be.

And that’s largely because media and outreach media aren’t really the same thing at all. One is simply a function of the other’s existence.

Media itself can be readily defined as a tool for, or means of, communication. It enables complex interaction and the flow of information across diverse lines. Arguably, the most powerful benefit of the rise of instantaneous media output in the last century has been the ability to deliver real time news. And for all the damage that particular development has done to both the credibility of journalism and the ability to render an objective opinion in the wake of so much emotionally driven drivel, it does create the ability of the consuming body, i.e. the market audience, to absorb an extraordinary amount of information from any number of available sources. It creates a glut of input, true, but it also does something very important: it allows us to choose how we interpret the world around us, and more importantly choose from whom we will gather our information.

The rise of not just independent media, which has always been an element of the media landscape but has had far less influence or access to distribution in the past (reaching a far smaller audience, and thereby keeping it relegated to the status of “independent media”), but of citizen media has had a profound change on the way media is processed and accessed.

The citizen on the ground, with the cellphone camera or other instantaneous capture tool, who creates a media storm by capturing a stream of images of an earthquake, or flood, or other disaster in progress becomes the eye of the storm in a proverbial hurricane of media attention – without ever being the actual focus. The captured images are what we focus on, not the provider.

And those individuals who are in the right place at the right time are a far more immediate, far more effective conduit for that story or event than the news media that eventually picks it up and runs with it. Indeed, those photos can be on the internet, distributed – free of charge – within minutes. The ability to control the flow of information is eroding bit by bit, maintained only by the ways in which internet and other media access is controlled by government bodies and service providers. But, of course, any good underground movement knows how to get around censorship and information blackouts :)

This flash point distribution of information is actually, tangentially, related to what Larry Niven was predicting with his 1973 novella “Flash Crowd”. The story is often cited as an example of the dangers of instantaneous teleportation, but it has a far more immediate relevance to the way in which instant media creates information overload and source point convergence for remote viewers across multiple mediums (radio, television, the internet, etc.).

We do glom onto new media stories with a seemingly rapacious hunger, we just don’t all relocate to the point of the story via teleporters. We scry it from afar instead.

And a variant of the same thing has happened with outreach media, or advertising.

Grass roots development of media outreach – people creating their own advertising or outreach for their projects instead of turning to “professional advertising agencies”, and doing their own fundraising via agencies like KickStarter, has begun to create a very different field in which salable products emerge and flourish, and independent media, as well as independent production, gains a fascinatingly firm foothold in a world that has always marginalized them.

I’m hesitant to use the term “revolution” outright – partly because every time something vaguely new comes along in terms of access capability there arises a thunderous cry of “Viva la Revolucion!” from every corner of the internet – but we certainly seem to be moving towards a radically new landscape in terms of the way in which we process and utilize media.

Now, strictly speaking, outreach media, or promotional networking and/or interfacing, is not a form of media, but is achieved through media exposure and availability. For decades (one could argue longer, but the term decades is more readily defensible) North American media conglomerates have held the opinion that the best way to sell a product was to first create a demand for it. That does work on one particular fundamental level: the avarice of the consumer. But that’s not a sustainable basis for selling products.

Indeed, it denies a very simple truth about the majority of humanity: at heart, most of us are magpies. Show us something shiny and we will give you our attention. Until something more interesting comes along.

And that’s not even a disparagement of the way we exist as a species. It’s simply the case that we are easily fascinated by something new. We’re hardwired to be adaptive learners. Attention, followed by interaction and adaptation is the progression that allows us to create new neural pathways as we age, so it’s only natural that the intrusion of a new element into our environment produces a shift in our visible attentions.

In light of that it’s not necessary to create a demand for a product. Simply show the product to your audience and do nothing. Curiosity alone will have the vast majority of that audience lingering over the product, waiting patiently to be told what it is. And why. A single can of beer alone on a pedestal in a white room with no visible contours or defining edges, and no other visual input being broadcast over a short period, is a far more effective marketing tool than the tried and true scene of having a good time with other drunken people in the great outdoors while half naked women parade around. Not that that doesn’t sell beer – history has proven that it sells a lot of beer – but the former strategy works far better for one very simple reason: the audience has nothing else to focus on. This is also why static advertising (most strongly, but not solely, typified by print media) is a better outreach tool than a stream of visual media: a single strong image demands immediate focus, whereas a continuous stream of input requires associative processing, which requires familiarity with, and affinity for, all the elements you are presenting. It’s why most commercials don’t register with 100% of an audience – there’s always an element that doesn’t speak to someone in the viewing group.

Now, one can, technically, argue that the static shot creates a larger chance of failure because that’s the only thing the audience has to associate with. But, again, by that very virtue, that image is all there is. Even if that image is vile, repulsive, or offensive, the audience is stuck contemplating it, which doesn’t always create a demand, but does uniformly generate recognition of the product – which is as much as, if not more, important than demand.

Put more simply: one is instantaneous, and creates an immediate imprinture; the other requires participation, and audience input.

The misunderstanding of the failure of an audience to ken to the second type of advertising (sustained bombardment of sequential visual and/or voice input) leads to two assertions:

First, that “the audience is lazy”.

Second, that “the audience has an increasingly short attention span”.

Neither point is true.

For the first: the audience isn’t lazy; the product isn’t engaging, or is couched in too many conflicting and/or parallel notions to make a strong enough impact to speak for itself or create intrinsic – rather than forced – demand and/or desire.

For the second: the notion that we are, generation by generation, possessed of shorter attention spans is not an accurate assertion. We process information faster, generationally, because we are advancing in disturbingly rapid technological terms. And as biological computers we mirror the changes we are engendering in our technological aids. That leads to a rapid advancement in processing speed, which leads to being done with one task and moving on to the next far faster than has always been the norm. And, of course, outwardly, what is actually a crackerjack processing capability appears to be restlessness, indifference, or apathy since newer generations seldom stay with one task for very long. But it’s not universally the case that the members of that generation are abandoning the first task; they’ve already learned what they need from it and are moving on to the next adaptive tool or experience.

And, because that newest generation has moved into the mainstream, it’s affecting everything from the ground up, and two very different things are happening:

One, traditional outreach media methods are becoming more sophisticated to keep up. Traditional media is upping its game to make sure it can hold on to that incredibly desirous market share. Case in point: the following traditional piece of video advertising has the production values of a Hollywood movie, but it’s a book trailer:

That book trailer is paced like a film trailer, and shot like one. It uses a very common, very familiar structure to draw in your attention, and hold it. It’s also riddled with tropes, a (probably unintentional) reinforcement of the very ugly notion of adolescent female insecurity, and the notion that a young girl’s life should ultimately revolve around a guy. Hey, it worked in Twilight, right?

Now, compare that book trailer with this one (which was produced in house):

Did you note the difference? Slower pace, no tropes, and an appeal to one’s curiosity as opposed to relying on overused visual shortcuts.

And book trailers aren’t the only thing shifting. Take this video for a KickStarter project to find funding for the post production of an independently made film (which I can’t seem to make embed properly, so you’ll have to click on the link to go see it).

Again, it’s an intelligent, unrushed conversation with the audience. No buzzwordskey terms, or catchphrases. Instead it’s a conversation, a presentation of merits, and an appeal, from the people who created the product rather than an advertising agency.

And, again, the production values aren’t exactly suffering for not being produced by a “mainstream” production studio/environment.

We spend so much time talking about the necessity of change that every once in a while it’s nice to see it in action, gradual or no.

And who knows? We may yet find that this shifting onus on outreach as conversation leads not only to better methods of outreach as we go along, but a better discussion as well.

Viva la Revolucion.

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