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Incredible Deception: Using Research to Drive New Media Adoption

Posted by Doug Garnett May - 20 - 2011 - Friday

Here’s a surprise. Facebook hired a PR agency, Burson-Marsteller, to smear Google… Oh wait. Facebook says they were just placing unflattering articles about Google privacy concerns. And there’s a tiny bit of outrage.

Why is it only a tiny bit given the depth of the scandal? Perhaps because deception is fundamental to the new media business. Oops. Did I say “deception”. That word is a bit loaded because deception is in the eye of the beholder.

And, that’s why it’s so effective. There are always excuses where a company can claim a deception is purely accidental or simply the result of good marketing (unless you have the Facebook emails).

Mark Twain knew deception’s power: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Today, new media propels the lies through 10 to 20 full earth orbits before the truth touches its laces.

And it’s exactly the new media investment ecosystem that knows best how to leverage the ability to deceive with…new media. Although told in highly creative forms, there’s really only one lie that new media teams use: new media will kill old media.

They suggest it everywhere and have caused it to become so prevalent in the Bay Area that even Farhad Manjoo couldn’t avoid passing along this lie in his book “True Enough” – after he had spent 200 perceptive pages looking at how we mislead ourselves.

I’m going to continue looking at this in a post that’s a bit long for my taste. But this is a critically important issue.

The most concerning new media lies are told with research. Using research in PR takes advantage of a blind spot in media.

Most journalists have at best a cursory familiarity with research. As a result, they don’t feel qualified to evaluate whether research is valid. So when a company makes a research based claim journalists feel obligated to cover it and will always state the theory that “it’s backed up with research” – especially if there are statistical error limits reported. (Those +/-3% numbers make anything believable.)

Fortunately, in politics Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com does excellent work commenting on misleading, skewing, and other deceptions with research. There is no equivalent in media and advertising. But Byron Sharp’s blog is beginning to challenge flakey advertising research.

This is a good development because research manipulation preys on the market at a vulnerable point – while they are attempting to rely on data to accurately understand rapidly evolving market forces.

Unfortunately there is a disaffected group who want nothing more than to throw out the “old way” and replace it with something new. Groups like this drink deeply from deceptive research because they aren’t really interested in truth – just finding ways to justify their ideas.

Create the Research Answer You Want. There are a wide range of options that create mis-leading research. One particularly insidious ploy works like this:

- Articles are placed that claim something (e.g. “TV is dying”).

- Research is done among the people who have read those articles and, quite surprisingly, this research finds those people “believe” TV is dying.

- The research is put out and it will show things like 90% of marketers “believe they should shift” their money out of TV.

Notice what is missing: reality. In fact, the key to brilliant use of this research is to ask marketer’s opinions and avoid tracking facts media facts (ad spending, ad effectiveness, reader engagement, etc…).

Those of us in the TV business know this work well because this type of research deception has been used against TV regularly. And, here, opinion doesn’t reflect reality. TV has been attacked since the 1980s when VCRs were going to kill it — but didn’t. And in this decade with the theory that DVRs would kill TV ads — but solid, trustworthy research shows that DVRs not only haven’t hurt advertising, DVR’s seem to have made it more effective.

Yet despite these truths, research lies support ad agencies who quite often claim TV is a dying medium. Fortunately for our economy, it’s not.

Twitter was a particular beneficiary of this type of work. It wasn’t until earlier this year we found out that Twitter reaches an exceptionally tiny portion of the US population. But the press hype created a marketing opinion shift that implied Twitter was much more significant than it really was.

Bandwagon Research. Another deception through research leverages the human urge to become one of the popular crowd and may have played an important part in Republican party actions that led to the election of Scott Brown to the Senate from Massachusetts.

I don’t know what actually happened in Massachusetts. But let’s take the hypothetical case and assume a candidate is behind, but not too far. A survey is crafted which is designed to show that the candidate is leading even though they aren’t (it’s easy to create this type of research).

Carefully timing the release of this survey will get independents and moderates to switch their votes and jump on the bandwagon. This can cause the election to swing and eliminate any opportunity for an opponent to respond.

This research is always “statistically” valid – but statistical validity doesn’t equal truth. Statistics in research never look at the validity of the questions being asked and can’t detect manipulation through cleverly wording the questions.

As one example of misleading with research, consider this study: http://www.strongmail.com/pdf/SM_Trends2011.pdf

Note that this study compares “advertising” with email. Wow. That’s like comparing answers between “will your company increase R&D spending?” and “will your company buy more binder clips?”

Then it reports headlines showing exceptional email strength. Except the fundamental comparison is flawed. And even if it weren’t flawed, the headline is meaningless when you really think about it. The 25% who will increase advertising will mean hundreds of times more money than the 65% who will increase email spending. The business opportunity is with advertising and not email.

But media won’t walk away from a study like this – or the headlines it generates. Instead they’ll use it to imply new media success and old media failure.

Study by study, the deception is nothing to worry about. But multiply this one study by the thousands more just like it and you have an entire industry jumping into wasting client money. And all the while, this research use is embraced by a group of people hungry to build agency bookings, make billions on IPO’s, drive their careers to new heights or become pundits.

As long as I’m on a roll,another deceptive practice in new media is the “look how big” comparison. Here’s one I heard at a Google presentation:

“Lady Gaga posted a music video and got 95 million views in a year. Just think about it, only 500,000 people are watching MTV.”

Let’s look at this. Lady Gaga is 1 in a million. And, her numbers ARE big – but they’re driven to those heights because of nearly non-stop coverage in the…wait for it…traditional media.

Still, let’s consider the MTV comparison. The Google presenter implied the internet is more powerful than TV. Bull.

In terms of viewer minutes, Lady Gaga’s videos got about 385 million viewer minutes in a year. In only a single day, MTV accumulates nearly twice as many viewer minutes. And in a year, they accumulate 700 times more. Note also that Gaga is the extreme example driven by excessive traditional media.

Consider also that MTV’s viewer minutes include advertising which means the ability to charge hundreds of millions of dollars each year for those viewings. Lady Gaga’s economic power? Hard to calculate. But, nowhere near the economic power of MTV.

And that means that we learn absolutely nothing about the value of online video from this example. But that’s not what our Googler said.

A Rampant Problem. I cannot comment fully on the intent of the people behind all this mis-leading research. A portion of the research error comes because many new media advocates lack the training to think clearly about research.

Regardless of intent, it is sad that the majority of media surveys mis-lead in ways like these. Certainly the media world is changing and that means we desperately need good research that shows the truth about this change. Too bad that the rarest of rarities is quality research about new media.

Copyright 2011 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved


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Doug Garnett, DRTV and Technology Industry Expert

Doug Garnett is founder and CEO of DRTV agency Atomic Direct and a leading expert on innovative uses of DRTV, infomercials and other in-depth TV and non-TV messages to build brand and drive sales.

Doug has been working in and around the technology field for 27 years. After starting in aerospace, he spent 5 years selling and marketing supercomputers. Since shifting to advertising, his clients have included AT&T, IBM, Apple, Disney Mobile, Ugobe, Presto, and Netpliance.

Doug sits on the editorial board of Response Magazine, is an adjunct professor of general advertising at Portland State University, and is a member of the Jordan-Whitney Greensheet Panel.

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