Tomorrow I am speaking at the International Content Marketing Summit, albeit for only ten minutes. These are the people who commission and write editorial content to support brands, for example the free magazines produced by supermarkets, airlines and – perhaps surprisingly – even digital providers like Google. As the final speaker of the day, and having absolutely no specialist knowledge, I guess my brief is to be provocative and big picture.
I suppose there is a kind of spectrum in this content. At one end, there is basic information, which customers want and which has to be communicated in the best possible way. At the other, there is advertising which is not only intended to convince rather than inform but actually goes out of its way to make products and offers seem better than they are. Currently, my favourite example of the latter is the bank which is advertising its kindness in ‘giving’ savers £5 a month. The impression is that this is a gift from a big company to hard pressed families. In fact, it is a way of disguising, and making a virtue of, the fact that savers are receiving a nominal interest rate – like your boss saying: ‘instead of paying you a decent salary this month I am giving you a generous cash gift that is smaller than your salary’.
I’m sure someone told me that Duke Ellington once said ‘too much advertising stinks up the place’. I tend to agree. The sheer volume of basically tendentious content that is thrown at us every day – mainly, but not exclusively by the advertising industry – must surely be messing with our minds.
Yet, on the other hand, people aren’t stupid. We like brands and – as the brilliant anthropologist Daniel Miller has argued – our relationship to goods is more complex than the brainwashed possessive individualism that critics of consumerism often portray. Also, many people enjoy reading ‘advertorial’ content while being quite aware of its purpose.
So where does that leave me? Perhaps here: The French cultural critic Roland Barthes used the terms ‘readerly’ and ‘writerly’ to distinguish, respectively, between texts that are straightforward and demand no special effort to understand and those whose meaning is not easy to grasp and demands some effort from the reader. Implicit in this is that writerly activity is of more intrinsic value than readerly. But intention isn’t everything. We would probably all rather read a successful bit of readerlyness (we call it a ‘page turner’) than an unsuccessful attempt at writerlyness (we call it ‘pretentious claptrap’)
I want to suggest tomorrow a spectrum covering ‘producerly’ content and ‘consumerly’ content. At one extreme is content which serves the interests of producers but has no credible intention to assist the consumer in making a wise choice. At the other end is content which provides entirely disinterested advice to the consumer as a form of public service.
Again, there will be good and bad examples of both, but perhaps – and tell me, dear readers, if you think this is vacuous nonsense – the ethical code for the content marketing industry is to drive out extreme producerlyness and to seek to persuade clients to move as far towards consumerlyness as possible.