Getting Bitch-Slapped by the Invisible Hand

Adam Smith first talked about the invisible hand in 1759. He was looking at the divide between the rich and the poor and said, in essence, that “greed is good.”

Here is the exact wording:

“They (the rich) are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society.”

The effect of “the hand” is most clearly seen in the wide-open market that emerges after established players collapse and make way for new competitors riding a wave of technical breakthroughs. Essentially, it is a cycle.

But something is happening that may never have happened before. For the past 300 years of our history, the one constant has been the trend of consumerism. Economic cycles have rolled through, but all have been in the service of us having more things to buy.

Indeed, Adam Smith’s entire theory depends on greed: 

“The rich … consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements.”

It’s the trickle-down theory of gluttony: Greed is a tide that raises all boats.

The Theory of The Invisible Hand assumes there are infinite resources available. Waste is necessarily built into the equation. But we have now gotten to the point where consumerism has been driven past the planet’s ability to sustain our greedy grasping for more.

Nobel-Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, for one, recognized that environmental impact is not accounted for with this theory. Also, if the market alone drives things like research, it will inevitably become biased towards benefits for the individual and not the common good.

There needs to be a more communal counterweight to balance the effects of individual greed. Given this, the new age of consumerism might look significantly different.

There is one outcome of market driven-economics that is undeniable: All the power lies in the connection between producers and consumers. Because the world has been built on the predictable truth of our always wanting more, we have been given the ability to disrupt that foundation simply by changing our value equation: buying for the greater good rather than our own self-interest.

I’m skeptical that this is even possible.

It’s a little daunting to think that our future survival relies on our choices as consumers. But this is the world we have made. Consumption is the single greatest driver of our society. Everything else is subservient to it.

Government, science, education, healthcare, media, environmentalism: All the various planks of our societal platform rest on the cross-braces of consumerism. It is the one behavior that rules all the others. 

This becomes important to think about because this shit is getting real — so much faster than we thought possible.

I write this from my home, which is about 100 miles from the village of Lytton, British Columbia. You might have heard it mentioned recently. On June 29, Lytton reported the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada  a scorching 121.3 degrees Fahrenheit (49.6 degrees C for my Canadian readers). That’s higher than the hottest temperature ever recorded in Las Vegas. Lytton is 1,000 miles north of Las Vegas.

As I said, that was how Lytton made the news on June 29. But it also made the news again on June 30. That was when a wildfire burned almost the entire town to the ground.

In one week of an unprecedented heat wave, hundreds of sudden deaths occurred in my province. It’s believed the majority of them were caused by the heat.

We are now at the point where we have to shift the mental algorithms we use when we buy stuff. Our consumer value equation has always been self-centered, based on the calculus of “what’s in it for me?” It was this calculation that made Smith’s Invisible Hand possible.

But we now have to change that behavior and make choices that embrace individual sacrifice. We have to start buying based on “What’s best for us?”

In a recent interview, a climate-change expert said he hoped we would soon see carbon-footprint stickers on consumer products. Given a choice between two pairs of shoes, one that was made with zero environmental impact and one that was made with a total disregard for the planet, he hoped we would choose the former, even if it was more expensive.

I’d like to think that’s true. But I have my doubts. Ethical marketing has been around for some time now, and at best it’s a niche play. According to the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals, the vast majority of egg buyers in Canada — 98% — buy caged eggs even though we’re aware that the practice is hideously cruel.  We do this because those eggs are cheaper.

The sad fact is that consumers really don’t seem to care about anything other than their own self-interest. We don’t make ethical choices unless we’re forced to by government legislation. And then we bitch like hell about our rights as consumers. “We should be given the choice,” we chant.  “We should have the freedom to decide for ourselves.”

Maybe I’m wrong. I sure hope so. I would like to think — despite recent examples to the contrary of people refusing to wear face masks or get vaccinated despite a global pandemic that took millions of lives — that we can listen to the better angels of our nature and make choices that extend our ability to care beyond our circle of one.

But let’s look at our track record on this. From where I’m sitting, 300 years of continually making bad choices have now brought us to the place where we no longer have the right to make those choices. This is what The Invisible Hand has wrought. We can bitch all we want, but that won’t stop more towns like Lytton B.C. from burning to the ground.

Why Our Brains Struggle With The Threat Of Data Privacy

It seems contradictory. We don’t want to share our personal data but, according to a recent study reported on by MediaPost’s Laurie Sullivan, we want the brands we trust to know us when we come shopping. It seems paradoxical.

But it’s not — really.  It ties in with the way we’ve always been thinking.

Again, we just have to understand that we really don’t understand how the data ecosystem works — at least, not on an instant and intuitive level. Our brains have no evolved mechanisms that deal with new concepts like data privacy. So we have borrowed other parts of the brain that do exist. Evolutionary biologists call this “exaption.”

For example, the way we deal with brands seems to be the same way we deal with people — and we have tons of experience doing that. Some people we trust. Most people we don’t. For the people we trust, we have no problem sharing something of our selves. In fact, it’s exactly that sharing that nurtures relationships and helps them grow.

It’s different with people we don’t trust. Not only do we not share with them, we work to avoid them, putting physical distance between us and them. We’d cross to the other side of the street to avoid bumping into them.

In a world that was ordered and regulated by proximity, this worked remarkably well. Keeping our enemies at arm’s length generally kept us safe from harm.

Now, of course, distance doesn’t mean the same thing it used to. We now maneuver in a world of data, where proximity and distance have little impact. But our brains don’t know that.

As I said, the brain doesn’t really know how digital data ecosystems work, so it does its best to substitute concepts it has evolved to handle those it doesn’t understand at an intuitive level.

The proxy for distance the brain seems to use is task focus. If we’re trying to do something, everything related to that thing is “near” and everything not relevant to it is “far. But this is an imperfect proxy at best and an outright misleading one at worst.

For example, we will allow our data to be collected in order to complete the task. The task is “near.” In most cases, the data we share has little to do with the task we’re trying to accomplish. It is labelled by the brain as “far” and therefore poses no immediate threat.

It’s a bait and switch tactic that data harvesters have perfected. Our trust-warning systems are not engaged because there are no proximate signs to trigger them. Any potential breaches of trust happen well after the fact – if they happen at all. Most times, we’re simply not aware of where our data goes or what happens to it. All we know is that allowing that data to be collected takes us one step closer to accomplishing our task.

That’s what sometimes happens when we borrow one evolved trait to deal with a new situation:  The fit is not always perfect. Some aspects work, others don’t.

And that is exactly what is happening when we try to deal with the continual erosion of online trust. In the moment, our brain is trying to apply the same mechanisms it uses to assess trust in a physical world. What we don’t realize is that we’re missing the warning signs our brains have evolved to intuitively look for.

We also drag this evolved luggage with us when we’re dealing with our favorite brands. One of the reasons you trust your closest friends is that they know you inside and out. This intimacy is a product of a physical world. It comes from sharing the same space with people.

In the virtual world, we expect the brands we know and love to have this same knowledge of us. It frustrates us when we are treated like a stranger. Think of how you would react if the people you love the most gave you the same treatment.

This jury-rigging of our personal relationship machinery to do double duty for the way we deal with brands may sound far-fetched, but marketing brands have only been around for a few hundred years. That is just not enough time for us to evolve new mechanisms to deal with them.

Yes, the rational, “slow loop” part of our brains can understand brands, but the “fast loop” has no “brand” or “data privacy” modules. It has no choice but to use the functional parts it does have.

As I mentioned in a previous post, there are multiple studies that indicate that it’s these parts of our brain that fire instantly, setting the stage for all the rationalization that will follow. And, as our own neuro-imaging study showed, it seems that the brain treats brands the same way it treats people.

I’ve been watching this intersection between technology and human behaviour for a long time now. More often than not, I see this tendency of the brain to make split-section decisions in environments where it just doesn’t have the proper equipment to make those decisions. When we stop to think about these things, we believe we understand them. And we do, but we had to stop to think. In the vast majority of cases, that’s just not how the brain works.

The Problem With Woke Capitalism

I’ve been talking a lot over the last month or two about the concept of corporate trust. Last week I mentioned that we as consumers have a role to play in this: It’s our job to demand trustworthy behavior from the companies we do business with.

The more I thought about that idea, I couldn’t help but put it in the current context of cancel culture and woke capitalism. In this world of social media hyperbole, is this how we can flex our consumer muscles?

I think not. When I think of cancel culture and woke capitalism, I think of signal-to-noise ratio. And when I look at how most corporations signal their virtue, I see a lot of noise but very little signal.

Take Nike, for example. There is probably no corporation in the world that practises more virtue signaling than Nike. It is the master of woke capitalism. But if you start typing Nike into Google, the first suggested search you’ll see is “Nike scandal.” And if you launch that search, you’ll get a laundry list of black eyes in Nike’s day-to-day business practices, including sweatshops, doping, and counterfeit Nike product rings.

The corporate watchdog site ethicalconsumer.org has an extensive entry on Nike’s corporate faux pas. Perhaps Nike needs to spend a little less time preaching and a little more time practicing.

Then there’s 3M. There is absolutely nothing flashy about the 3M brand. 3M is about as sexy as Mr. Wood, my high school Social Studies teacher. Mr. Wood wore polyester suits (granted, it was the ‘70s) and had a look that was more Elvis Costello than Elvis Presley. But he was by far my favorite teacher. And you could trust him with anything.

I think 3M might be the Mr. Wood of the corporate world.

I had the pleasure of working with 3M as a consultant for the last three or four years of my professional life. I still have friends who were and are 3Mers. I have never, in one professional setting, met a more pleasant group of people.

When I started writing this and thought about an example of a trustworthy corporation, 3M was the first that came to mind. The corporate ethos at 3M is, as was told me to me by one vice president, “Minnesota nice.”

Go ahead. Try Googling “3M corporate scandal.” Do you know what comes up? 3M investigating other companies that are selling knockoff N95 facemasks. The company is the one investigating the scandal, not causing it. (Just in case you’re wondering, I tried searching on ethicalconsumer.org for 3M. Nothing came up.)

That’s probably why 3M has been chosen as one of the most ethical companies in the world by the Ethisphere Institute for the last eight consecutive years.

Real trust comes from many places, but a social media campaign is never one of them. It comes from the people you hire and how you treat those people. It comes from how you handle HR complaints, especially when they’re about someone near the top of the corporate ladder. It comes from how you set your product research goals, where you make those products, who you sell those products to, and how you price those products. It comes from how you conduct business meetings, and the language that’s tolerated in the lunchroom.

Real trust is baked in. It’s never painted on.

Social media has armed consumers with a voice, as this lengthy essay in The Atlantic magazine shows. But if we go back to our signal versus noise comparison, everything on social media tends to be a lot of “noise,” and very little signal. Protesting through online channels tends to create hyper-virtuous bubbles that are far removed from the context of day-to-day reality. And — unfortunately — companies are getting very good at responding in kind. Corrupt internal power structures and business practices are preserved, while scapegoats are publicly sacrificed and marketing departments spin endlessly.

As Helen Lewis, the author of The Atlantic piece, said,

“That leads to what I call the “iron law of woke capitalism”: Brands will gravitate toward low-cost, high-noise signals as a substitute for genuine reform, to ensure their survival.”

Empty “mea culpas” and making hyperbolic noise just for the sake of looking good is not how you build trust. Trust is built on consistency and reliability. It is built on a culture that is committed to doing the right thing, even when that may not be the most profitable thing. Trust is built on being “Minnesota nice.”

Thank you, 3M, for that lesson. And thank you, Mr. Wood.

The Profitability Of Trust

Some weeks ago, I wrote about the crisis of trust identified by the Edelman Trust Barometer study and its impact on brands. In that post, I said that the trust in all institutions had been blown apart, hoisted on the petard of our political divides.

We don’t trust our government. We definitely don’t trust the media – especially the media that sits on the other side of the divide. Weirdly, our trust in NGOs has also slipped, perhaps because we suspect them to be politically motivated.

So whom — or what — do we trust? Well, apparently, we still trust corporations. We trust the brands we know. They, alone, seem to have been able to stand astride the chasm that is splitting our culture.

As I said before, I’m worried about that.

Now, I don’t doubt there are well-intentioned companies out there. I know there are several of them. But there is something inherent in the DNA of a for-profit company that I feel makes it difficult to trust them. And that something was summed up years ago by economist Milton Friedman, in what is now known as the Friedman Doctrine. 

In his eponymously named doctrine, Friedman says that a corporation should only have one purpose: “An entity’s greatest responsibility lies in the satisfaction of the shareholders.” The corporation should, therefore, always endeavor to maximize its revenues to increase returns for the shareholders.

So, a business will be trustworthy as long as fits its financial interest to be trustworthy. But what happens when those two things come into conflict, as they inevitably will?

Why is it inevitable, you ask? Why can’t a company be profitable and worthy of our trust? Ah, that’s where, sooner or later, the inevitable conflict will come.

Let’s strip this down to the basics with a thought experiment.

In a 2017 article in the Harvard Business Review, neuroscientist Paul J. Zak talks about the neuroscience of trust. He explains how he discovered that oxytocin is the neurochemical basis of trust — what he has since called The Trust Molecule.

To do this, he set up a classic trust task borrowed from Nobel laureate economist Vernon Smith:

“In our experiment, a participant chooses an amount of money to send to a stranger via computer, knowing that the money will triple in amount and understanding that the recipient may or may not share the spoils. Therein lies the conflict: The recipient can either keep all the cash or be trustworthy and share it with the sender.”

The choice of this task speaks volumes. It also lays bare the inherent conflict that sooner or later will face all corporations: money or trust? This is especially true of companies that have shareholders. Our entire capitalist ethos is built on the foundation of the Friedman Doctrine. Imagine what those shareholders will say when given the choice outlined in Zak’s experiment: “Keep the money, screw the trust.” Sometimes, you can’t have both. Especially when you have a quarterly earnings target to hit.

For humans, trust is our default position. It has been shown through game theory research using the Prisoner’s Dilemma that the best strategy for evolutionary success is one called “Tit for Tat.” In Tit for Tat, our opening position is typically one of trust and cooperation. But if we’re taken advantage of, then we raise our defences and respond in kind.

So, when we look at the neurological basis of trust, consistency is another requirement. We will be willing to trust a brand until it gives a reason not to. The more reliable the brand is in earning that trust, the more embedded that trust will become. As I said in the previous post, consistency builds beliefs and once beliefs are formed, it’s difficult to shake them loose.

Trying to thread this needle between trust and profitability can become an exercise in marketing “spin”: telling your customers you’re trustworthy, while you’re are doing everything possible to maximize your profits. A case in point — which we’ve seen repeatedly — is Facebook and its increasingly transparent efforts to maximize advertising revenue while gently whispering in our ear that we should trust it with our most private information.

Given the potential conflict between trust and profit, is trusting a corporation a lost cause? No, but it does put a huge amount of responsibility on the customer. The Edelman study has made abundantly clear that if there is such a thing as a “market” for trust, then trust is in dangerously short supply. This is why we’re turning to brands and for-profit corporations as a place to put our trust. We have built a society where we believe that’s the only thing we can trust.

Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England and the former governor of the Bank of Canada, puts this idea forward in his new book, “Value(s).” In it, he shows how “market economies” have evolved into “market societies” where price determines the value of everything. And corporations will follow profit, wherever it leads.

If we understand that fundamental characteristic of corporations, it does bring an odd kind of power that rests in the hands of consumers.

Markets are not unilateral beasts. They rely on the balance between supply and demand. We form half that equation. It is our willingness to buy that determine how prices are determined in Carney’s “market societies.” So, if we are willing to place our trust in a brand, we can also demand that the brand proves that our trust has not been misplaced, through the rewards and penalties built into the market. 

Essentially, we have to make trust profitable.

The Deconstruction of Trust

Just over a week ago, fellow Insider Steven Rosenbaum wrote a post entitled “Trust Is In Decline Worldwide.” He quotes from the Edelman Trust Barometer Report for 2021. There, graph after graph shows this decline. And that feels exactly right. The Barometer “reveals an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world.”

Here in the ad biz, the decline of trust is nothing new. We’ve been seeing it slip for at least the last decade.

But that is not a universal truth. Yes, trust in advertising is in decline. But trust in brands — at least, some brands — has never been higher. And that is indicative of the decoupling we’re seeing between the concept of brand and the practice of advertising. One used to support the other. Now, even when an ad works, it may be stripping the trust from a brand.

This decline in advertising trust also varies from generation to generation. An Ofcom study in the UK of young adults 16 to 34 found that 91.6% of all respondents had little or no trust in ads. The same study found that if you were looking for trustworthy sources, 73.5% would go to online reviews or recommendations of friends.

One reason for this erosion in trust is that advertising has been slumming. Social media advertising is the least trustworthy channel that exists. The vast majority of us don’t trust what we see on it. Yet the advertising dollars continue to pour into social media.

Yet more than ever, we want to trust a brand. The Edelman Report shows that business is the most trusted institution, ahead of NGOs, government and media. And the brands that are rising to the challenge are taking a more holistic approach to brand management.

More than ever, brands are not built on advertising. They are built on consumer experience, on ideals and on meeting promises.  In short, they are built on instilling trust. Consumers, in turn are making trust a bigger deal. Those aged 18 to 34, that very same demo that has no trust in advertising, is the first to say brand trust matters more than ever. They’re just looking for proof of that trust in different places.

But why is trust important? That seems like a dumb question, but it’s not. There are deeper levels of understanding that are required here. And we might just find the answer in southern Italy.

Trust to the north and south of Naples

Italy has an economic problem. It’s always been there, but it definitely got worse after World War Two. It’s called the Mezzogiorno Problem.

Mezzogiorno means “noon” in Italian. But it’s also a label for the south of Italy. Like many things in Italian culture, it can make even problems sound charming and romantic. It has something to do with being sunny.

Italy has two economies. The North’s economy has always been more robust than the South’s. Per capita income in the Mezzogiorno is 60% of the national average. Unemployment is twice as high. Despite repeated attempts by the government to kickstart the economy of the South, the money and talent in Italy typically flow north of Naples.

The roots of the Mezzogiorno problem go to a not totally surprising place: a lack of trust. Trust is also called social capital. And southern Italy has less social capital than the North. Part of this has to do with geography. Villages in southern Italy are more isolated and there is less interaction between them. Part of it has to do with systemic corruption and crime. Part of it has to do with something called Campanilismo — where Italian loyalties belong first to their family, second to their village or city, third to their immediate region and, lastly, to any notion of belonging to a nation. People from the South have trouble trusting anyone not from their inner circle.

For all these reasons, the co-ops that transformed the agricultural industry in the north of Italy never gained a foothold in the South. If you were to look for an example of how low trust can lead to negative outcomes for all, it would be hard to find a better one than southern Italy.

But what does this have to do with advertising? That begins to become clear when we look at the impact trust has on our brains.

Our Brains On Trust

Neuroeconomist Paul J. Zak has found that trust plays a key role in the functioning of our brains. When trust is present, our brain produces oxytocin, which Zak calls the trust molecule. It literally rewards our brain when we work together with others. It pushes us to cooperate rather than be focused exclusively on our own self-interest. This is exactly what was missing in southern Italy.

But there’s another side to this: the dark side of oxytocin. It can also cause us emotional pain in stressful social situations. And these episodes tend to get embedded in us as bad memories, leading to a triggering of fear or anxiety in the future.

We have to think more carefully about this question of trust. The whole goal of advertising is simply to get an impression to the right person. I suspect most marketers might define an unsuccessful ad as one that gets ignored. But the reality might be far worse. An ad that is shown in an untrusted channel might cause an emotional deficit, leading to the creation of future anxiety about or animosity towards a brand.

Once this happens, the game is over. You now have a Mezzogiorno of marketing.

The Ebbs and Flows of Consumerism in a Post-Pandemic World

As MediaPost’s Joe Mandese reported last Friday, advertising was, quite literally, almost decimated worldwide in 2020. If you look at the forecasts of the top agency holding companies, ad spends were trimmed by an average of 6.1%. It’s not quite one dollar in 10, but it’s close.

These same companies are forecasting a relative bounceback in 2021, starting slow and accelerating quarter by quarter through the year — but that still leaves the 2021 spend forecast back at 2018 levels.

And as we know, everything about 2021 is still very much in flux. If the year 2021 was a pack of cards, almost every one of them would be wild.

This — according to physician, epidemiologist and sociologist Nicholas Christakis — is not surprising.

Christakis is one of my favorite observers of network effects in society. His background in epidemiological science gives him a unique lens to look at how things spread through the networks of our world, real and virtual. It also makes him the perfect person to comment on what we might expect as we stagger out of our current crisis.

In his latest book, “Apollo’s Arrow,” he looks back to look forward to what we might expect — because, as he points out, we’ve been here before.

While the scope and impact of this one is unusual, such health crises are nothing new. Dozens of epidemics and a few pandemics have happened in my lifetime alone, according to this Wikipedia chart.

This post goes live on Groundhog Day, perhaps the most appropriate of all days for it to run. Today, however, we already know what the outcome will be. The groundhog will see its shadow and there will be six more months (at least) of pandemic to deal with. And we will spend that time living and reliving the same day in the same way with the same routine.

Christakis expects this phase to last through the rest of this year, until the vaccines are widely distributed, and we start to reach herd immunity.

During this time, we will still have to psychologically “hunker down” like the aforementioned groundhog, something we have been struggling with. “As a society we have been very immature,” said Christakis. “Immature, and typical as well, we could have done better.”

This phase will be marked by a general conservatism that will go in lockstep with fear and anxiety, a reluctance to spend and a trend toward risk aversion and religion.

Add to this the fact that we will still be dealing with widespread denialism and anger, which will lead to a worsening vicious circle of loss and crisis. The ideological cracks in our society have gone from annoying to deadly.

Advertising will have to somehow negotiate these choppy waters of increased rage and reduced consumerism.

Then, predicts Christakis, starting some time in 2022, we will enter an adjustment period where we will test and rethink the fundamental aspects of our lives. We will be learning to live with COVID-19, which will be less lethal but still very much present.

We will likely still wear masks and practice social distancing. Many of us will continue to work from home. Local flare-ups will still necessitate intermittent school and business closures. We will be reluctant to be inside with more than 20 or 30 people at a time. It’s unlikely that most of us will feel comfortable getting on a plane or embarking on a cruise ship. This period, according to Christakis, will last for a couple years.

Again, advertising will have to try to thread this psychological needle between fear and hope. It will be a fractured landscape on which to build a marketing strategy. Any pretense of marketing to the masses, a concept long in decline, will now be truly gone. The market will be rife with confusing signals and mixed motivations. It will be incumbent on advertisers to become very, very good at “reading the room.”

Finally, starting in 2024, we will have finally put the pandemic behind us. Now, says Christakis, four years of pent-up demand will suddenly burst through the dam of our delayed self-gratification. We will likely follow the same path taken a century ago, when we were coming out of a war and another pandemic, in the period we call the “Roaring Twenties.”

Christakis explained: “What typically happens is people get less religious. They will relentlessly seek out social interactions in nightclubs and restaurants and sporting events and political rallies. There’ll be some sexual licentiousness. People will start spending their money after having saved it. They’ll be joie de vivre and a kind of risk-taking, a kind of efflorescence of the arts, I think.”

Of course, this burst of buying will be built on the foundation of what came before. The world will likely be very different from its pre-pandemic version. It will be hard for marketers to project demand in a straight line from what they know, because the experiences they’ve been using as their baseline are no longer valid. Some things may remain the same, but some will be changed forever.

COVID-19 will have pried many of the gaps in our society further apart — most notably those of income inequality and ideological difference. A lingering sense of nationalism and protectionism born from dealing with a global emergency could still be in place.

Advertising has always played an interesting role in our lives. It both motivates and mirrors us.

But the reflection it shows is like a funhouse mirror: It distorts some aspects of our culture and ignores others. It creates demand and hides inconvenient truths. It professes to be noble, while it stokes the embers of our ignobility. It amplifies the duality of our human nature.

Interesting times lie ahead. It remains to be seen how that is reflected in the advertising we create and consume.

Analyzing the Problem with News “Analysis”

Last week, I talked about the Free News problem. In thinking about how to follow that up, I ran across an interesting study that was published earlier this year in the Science Advances Journal. One of the authors was Duncan Watts, who I’ve mentioned repeatedly in previous columns.

In the study, the research team tackled the problem of “Fake News” which is – of course – another symptom of the creeping malaise that is striking the industry of journalism. It certainly has become a buzzword in the last few years. But the team found that the problem of fake news may not be a problem at all. It makes up just 0.15% of our entire daily media diet. In fact, across all ages in the study, any type of news is – at the most – just 14.2% of our total media consumption.

The problem may be our overuse of the term “news” – applying it to things we think are news but are actually just content meant to drive advertising revenues. In most cases, this is opinion (sometimes informed but often not) masquerading as news in order to generate a lot of monetizable content. Once again, to get to the root of the problem, we have to follow the money.

If we look again at the Ad Fontes Media Bias chart, it’s not “news” that’s the problem. Most acknowledged leaders in true journalism are tightly clustered in the upper middle of the chart, which is where we want our news sources to be. They’re reliable and unbiased.

If we follow the two legs of the chart down to the right or left into the unreliable territory where we might encounter “fake” news, we find from the study mentioned above that this makes up an infinitesimal percentage of the media most of us actually pay attention to. The problem here can be found in the middle regions of the chart. This is where we find something called analysis. And that might just be our problem.

Again, we have to look at the creeping poison of incentive here. Some past students from Stanford University have an interesting essay about the economics of journalism that shows how cable tv and online have disrupted the tenuous value chain of news reporting.

The profitability of hard reporting was defined in the golden age of print journalism – specifically newspapers. The problem with reporting as a product is twofold. One is that news in non-excludable. Once news is reported anyone can use it. And two is that while reporting is expensive, the cost of distribution is independent of the cost of reporting. The cost of getting the news out is the same, regardless of how much news is produced.

While newspapers were the primary source of news, these two factors could be worked around. Newspapers came with a built-in 24-hour time lag. If you could get a one day jump on the competition, you could be very profitable indeed.

Secondly, the fixed distribution costs made newspapers a very cost-effective ad delivery vehicle. It cost the newspapers next to nothing to add advertising to the paper, thereby boosting revenues.

But these two factors were turned around by Internet and Cable News. If a newspaper bore the bulk of the costs by breaking a story, Cable TV and the Internet could immediately jump on board and rake in the benefits of using content they didn’t have to pay for.

And that brings us to the question of news “analysis”. Business models that rely on advertising need eyeballs. And those eyeballs need content. Original content – in the form of real reporting – is expensive and eats into profit. But analysis of news that comes from other sources costs almost nothing. You load up on talking heads and have them talk endlessly about the latest story. You can spin off never ending reams of content without having to invest anything in actually breaking the story.

This type of content has another benefit; customers love analysis. Real news can be tough to swallow. If done correctly, it should be objective and based on fact.  Sometimes it will force us to reconsider our beliefs. As is often the case with news, we may not like what we hear.

Analysis – or opinion – is much more palatable. It can be either partially or completely set free from facts and swayed and colored to match the audience’s beliefs and biases. It scores highly on the confirmation bias scale. It hits all the right (or left) emotional buttons. And by doing this, it stands a better chance of being shared on social media feeds. Eyeballs beget eyeballs. The gods of corporate finance smile benignly on analysis content because of its effectiveness at boosting profitability.

By understanding how the value chain of good reporting has broken down due to this parasitic piling on by online and cable platforms in the pursuit of profit, we begin to understand how we can perhaps save journalism. There is simply too much analytical superstructure built on top of the few real journalists that are doing real reporting. And the business model that once supported that reporting is gone.

The further that analysis gets away from the facts that fuel it, the more dangerous it becomes. At some point it crosses the lines from analysis to opinion to propaganda. The one thing it’s not is “news.” We need to financially support through subscription the few that are still reporting on the things that are actually happening.

Why Free News is (usually) Bad News

Pretty much everything about the next week will be unpredictable. But whatever happens on Nov. 3, I’m sure there will be much teeth-gnashing and navel-gazing about the state of journalism in the election aftermath.

And there should be. I have written much about the deplorable state of that particular industry. Many, many things need to be fixed. 

For example, let’s talk about the extreme polarization of both the U.S. population and their favored news sources. Last year about this time, the PEW Research Center released a study showing that over 30% of Americans distrust their news sources. 

But what’s more alarming is, when we break this down by Republicans versus Democrats, only 27% of Democrats didn’t trust the news for information about politics or elections. With Republicans, that climbed to a whopping 67%. 

The one news source Republicans do trust? Fox News. Sixty-five percent of them say Fox is reliable. 

And that’s a problem.

Earlier this year, Ad Fontes Media came out with its Media Bias Chart. It charts major news and media channels on two axes: source reliability and political bias. The correlation between bias and reliability is almost perfect. The further a news source is out to the right or left, the less reliable it is.

How does Fox fare? Not well. Ad Fontes separates Fox TV from Fox Online. Fox Online lies on the border between being “reliable for news, but high in analysis/opinion content” and “some reliability issues and/or extremism.” Fox TV falls squarely in the second category.

I’ve written before that media bias is not just a right-wing problem. Outlets like CNN and MSNBC show a significant left-leaning bias. But CNN Online, despite its bias, still falls within the “Most Reliable for News” category. According to Ad Fontes, MSNBC has the same reliability issues as Fox.

The question that has to be asked is “How did we get here?”  And that’s the question tackled head-on in a new book, “Free is Bad,” by John Marshall.

I’ve known Marshall for ages. He has covered a lot of the things I’ve been writing about in this column. 

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” 

Upton Sinclair

The problem here is one of incentive. Our respective media heads didn’t wake up one morning and say, “You know what we need to be? A lot more biased!” They have walked down that path step by step, driven by the need to find a revenue model that meets their need for profitability. 

When we talk about our news channels, the obvious choice to be profitable is to be supported by ads. And to be supported by ads, you have to be able to target those ads. One of the most effective targeting strategies is to target by political belief, because it comes reliably bundled with a bunch of other beliefs that makes it very easy to predict behaviors. And that makes these ads highly effective in converting prospects.

This is how we got to where we are. But there are all types of ways to prop up your profit through selling ads. Some are pretty open and transparent. Some are less so. And that brings us to a particularly interesting section of Marshall’s book. 

John Marshall is a quant geek at heart. He has been a serial tech entrepreneur — and, in one of those ventures, built a very popular web analytics platform. He also has intimate knowledge of how the sausages are made in the ad-tech business. He knows sketchy advertising practices when he sees them. 

Given all of this, Marshall was able to undertake a fascinating analysis of the ads we see on various news platforms that dovetails nicely with the Ad Fontes chart. 

Marshall created the Ad Shenanigans chart. Basically, he did a forensic analysis of the advertising approaches of various online news platforms. He was looking for those that gathered data about their users, sold traffic to multiple networks, featured clickbait chumboxes and other unsavory practices. Then he ranked them accordingly.

Not surprisingly, there’s a pretty strong correlation between reputable reporting and business ethics. Highly biased and less reputable sites on the Ad Fontes Bias Chart (Breitbart, NewsMax, and Fox News) all can also be found near the top of Marshall’s Ad Shenanigans Chart. Those that do seem to have some ethics when it comes to the types of ads they run also seem to take objective journalism seriously. Case in point, The Guardian in the UK and ProPublica in the U.S.

The one anomaly in the group seems to be CNN. While it does fare relatively well on reputable reporting according to Ad Fontes, CNN appears to be willing to do just about anything to turn a buck. It ranks just a few slots below Fox in terms of “ad shenanigans.”

Marshall also breaks out those platforms that have a mix of paid firewalls and advertising. While there are some culprits in the mix such as the Daily Caller, Slate and the National Review, most sites that have some sort of subscription model seem to be far less likely to fling the gates of their walled gardens open to the ethically challenged advertising hordes. 

All of this drives home Marshall’s message: When it comes to the quality of your news sources, free is bad. As soon as something costs you nothing, you are no longer the customer. You’re the product. Invisible hand market forces are no longer working for you. They are working for the advertiser. And that means they’re working against you if you’re looking for an unbiased, quality news source.

Amazon Prime: Buy Today, Pay Tomorrow?

This column goes live on the most eagerly anticipated day of the year. My neighbor, who has a never-ending parade of delivery vans stopping in front of her door, has it circled on her calendar. At least one of my daughters has been planning for it for several months. Even I, who tends to take a curmudgeonly view of many celebrations, has a soft spot in my heart for this particular one.

No, it’s not the day after Canadian Thanksgiving. This, my friends, is Amazon Prime Day!

Today, in our COVID-clouded reality, the day will likely hit a new peak of “Prime-ness.” Housebound and tired of being bludgeoned to death by WTF news headlines, we will undoubtedly treat ourselves with an unprecedented orgy of one-click shopping. And who can blame us? We can’t go to Disneyland, so leave me alone and let me order that smart home toilet plunger and the matching set of Fawlty Towers tea towels that I’ve been eyeing. 

Of course, me being me, I do think about the consequences of Amazon’s rise to retail dominance. 

I think we’re at a watershed moment in our retail behaviors, and this moment has been driven forward precipitously by the current pandemic. Being locked down has forced many of us to make Amazon our default destination for buying. Speaking solely as a sample of one, I know check Amazon first and then use that as my baseline for comparison shopping. But I do so for purely selfish reasons – buying stuff on Amazon is as convenient as hell!

I don’t think I’m alone. We do seem to love us some Amazon. In a 2018 survey conducted by Recode, respondents said that Amazon had the most positive impact on society out of any major tech company. And that was pre-Pandemic. I suspect this halo effect has only increased since Amazon has become the consumer lifeline for a world forced to stay at home.

As I give into to the siren call of Bezos and Co., I wonder what forces I might be unleashing. What unintended consequences might come home to roost in years hence? Here are a few possibilities. 

The Corporate Conundrum

First of all, let’s not kid ourselves. Amazon is a for-profit corporation. It has shareholders that demand results. The biggest of those shareholders is Jeff Bezos, who is the world’s richest man. 

But amazingly, not all of Amazon’s shareholders are focused on the quarterly financials. Many of them – with an eye to the long game – are demanding that Amazon adopt a more ethical balance sheet.  At the 2019 Annual Shareholder Meeting, a list of 12 resolutions were brought forward to be voted on. The recommendations included zero tolerance for sexual harassment and hate speech, curbing Amazon’s facial recognition technology, addressing climate change and Amazon’s own environmental impact. These last two were supported by a letter signed by 7600 of Amazon’s own employees. 

The result? Amazon strenuously fought every one of them and none were adopted. So, before we get all warm and gooey about how wonderful Amazon is, let’s remember that the people running the joint have made it very clear that they will absolutely put profit before ethics. 

A Dagger in the Heart of Our Communities

For hundreds of years, we have been building a supply chain that was bound by the realities of geography. That supply chain required some type of physical presence within a stone’s throw of where we live. Amazon has broken that chain and we are beginning to feel the impact of that. 

Community shopping districts around the world were being gutted by the “Amazon Effect” even before COVID. In the last 6 months, that dangerous trend has accelerated exponentially. In a commentary from CNBC in 2018, venture capitalist Alan Patricof worried about the social impact of losing our community gathering spots, “This decline has brought a deterioration in places where people congregated, socialized, made friends and were greeted by a friendly face offering an intangible element of belonging to a community.”

The social glue that held us together has been dissolving over the past two decades. Whether you’re a fan of shopping malls or not (I fall into the “not” category) they were at least a common space where you might run into your neighbor. In his book Bowling Alone, from 2000, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam documented the erosion of social capital in America. We are now 20 years hence and Putnam’s worst case scenario seems quaintly optimistic now. With the loss of our common ground – in the most literal sense – we increasingly retreat to the echo chambers of social media. 

Frictionless Consumerism

This last point is perhaps the most worrying. Amazon has made it stupid simple to buy stuff. They have relentlessly squeezed every last bit of friction out of the path to purchase. That worries me greatly.

If we could rely on a rational marketplace filled with buyers acting in the best homo economicus tradition, then I perhaps rest easier, knowing that there was some type of intelligence driving Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. But experience has shown that is not the case. Rampant consumerism appears to be one of the three horsemen of the modern apocalypse. And, if this is true, then Amazon has put us squarely in their path. 

This is not to even mention things like Amazon’s emerging monopoly-like dominance in a formerly competitive marketplace, the relentless downward pressure it exerts on wages within its supply chain, the evaporation of jobs outside its supply chain or the privacy considerations of Alexa. 

Still, enjoy your Amazon Prime Day. I’m sure everything will be fine.

Bubbles, Bozos and the Mediocrity Sandwich

I spent most of my professional life inside the high-tech bubble. Having now survived the better part of a decade outside said bubble, I have achieved enough distance to be able to appreciate the lampooning skills of Dan Lyons. If that name doesn’t sound familiar, you may have seen his work. He was the real person behind the Fake Steve Jobs blog. He was also the senior technology editor for Forbes and Newsweek prior to being cut loose in the print media implosion. He later joined the writing staff of Mike Judge’s brilliant HBO series Silicon Valley.

Somewhere in that career arc, Lyons briefly worked at a high tech start up.  From that experience, he wrote Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start Up Bubble.” It gives new meaning to the phrase “painfully funny.”

After being cast adrift by Forbes, Lyons decided to change his perspective on the Bubble from “outside looking in” to “inside looking out.” He wanted to jump on the bubble band wagon, grab a fistful of options and cash in. And so he joined HubSpot as a content producer for their corporate blog. The story unfolds from there.

One particularly sharp and insightful chapter of the book recalls Steve Job’s “Bozo Explosion”:

“Apple CEO Steve Jobs used to talk about a phenomenon called a ‘bozo explosion,’ by which a company’s mediocre early hires rise up through the ranks and end up running departments. The bozos now must hire other people, and of course they prefer to hire bozos. As Guy Kawasaki, who worked with Jobs at Apple, puts it: ‘B players hire C players, so they can feel superior to them, and C players hire D players.’ “

The Bozo Explosion is somewhat unique to tech start-ups, mainly because of some of the aspects of the culture I talked about in a previous column. But I ran into my own version back in my consulting career. And I ran into it in all kinds of companies. I used to call it the Mediocrity Sandwich.

The Mediocrity Sandwich lives in middle management. I used to find that the people at the C Level of the company were usually pretty smart and competent (that said, I did run across some notable exceptions in my time). I also found that the people found on the customer facing front lines of the company were also pretty smart and – more importantly – very aware of the company’s own issues.

But addressing those issues invariably caused a problem. You have senior executives who were certainly capable of fixing the problems, whatever they might be. And you had front line employees who were painfully aware of what the problems were and motivated to implement solutions. But all the momentum of any real problem-solving initiative used to get sucked out somewhere in the middle of the corporate org chart. The problem was the Mediocrity Sandwich.

You see, I don’t think the Bozo Explosion is so much a pyramid – skinny at the top, broad at the bottom – as it is an inverted U-Shaped curve. I think “bozoism” tends to peak in the middle. You certainly have the progression from A’s to B’s to C’s as you move down from the top executive rungs. But then you have the inverse happening as you move from Middle Management to the front lines. The problem is the attrition of competence as you became absorbed into the organization. It’s the Bozo Explosion in reverse.

I usually found there was enough breathing room for competence to survive at the entry level in the organization. There were enough degrees of separation between the front line and the from the bozos in middle management. But as you started to climb the corporate ladder, you kept getting closer to the bozos. Your degree of job frustration began to climb as they had more influence over your day-to-day work. Truly competent players bailed and moved on to a less bozo-infested environment. Those that remained either were born bozos or had “bozo”ness thrust upon them. Either way, as you climbed towards middle management, the bozo factor climbed in lock step. The result? A bell curve of bozos centered in the middle between the C-Level and the front lines.

This creates a poisonous outlook for the long-term prospects of a company. Eventually, the C level executive will age out of their jobs. But who will replace them? The internal farm team is a bunch of bozos. You can recruit from outside, but then the incoming talent inherits a Mediocrity Sandwich. The company begins to rot from within.

For companies to truly change, you have to root out the bozo-rot, but this is easier said than done. If there is one single thing that bozos are good at, it is bozo butt-covering.