Accidental Activist

Nothing is Real

There's a fine line between news and advertising, but now it seems our news outlets are willing to trick us into believing what we read.

By Ben Bull
Published November 05, 2010

I sent my friend Phil a YouTube clip the other day. It was a scratchy hand-cam affair: An old lady is crossing at a Stop sign. Quiet residential street, bright sunny day. The road is clear. As she shuffles across you hear the loud squeal of car tires. Then a bumper emerges, stopping inches from the old Gran, engine revving impatiently.

The old lady freezes, then hoists her handbag high in the air and smashes it into the car bumper. Bang! Poof!

As we peer inside the car we see the air bag deploy, the owner splat back, then slowly unpeel himself from the rapidly deflating balloon. The man emerges from the car and throws his arms out in disgust. The old lady ignores him and shuffles away.

It's a great vignette, a cool clip: Revenge!

After Phil saw it he emailed me back: "It's fake. Stop being so naive. Nothing is real."

Product Placement

Phil used to work in advertising - graphic design. He knows all about cropping, colouring, how to wield an air brush - how to market an illusion rather than anything we might actually need.

His work has impacted his outlook on life. He told me one day, how much he hated the James Bond movie Casino Royal.

"Why?" I asked him, after declaring it the best thing since Goldeneye.

"Because of all the product placement," he replied.

I told him I hadn't noticed. He told me to watch it again. So I did, and he was right. Omega, Sony, Ford ... there's even a cameo by Richard Branson at the airport!

False Advertising

While product placement and phoney web clips are annoying, false advertising is far more sinister. Hamiltonians are all too aware of this delusion. As part of the 2010 Hamilton municipal campaign, Mayoral candidate Larry Di Ianni placed a cleverly crafted 'article' in the Hamilton Spectator (October 19, page A15).

Readers could be forgiven for thinking the advert was real. Another Di Ianni missive showed a photo of one of his backers, a retired police officer - but the photo was an older shot of him still in uniform. Subtle.

Then there was the "leaked" Di Ianni campaign poll press release, eagerly lapped up by the Spec. How is this news?

My friend Phil is right. I am a little naive. But it's hard not to believe most of what you see and hear.

Advertorials - With Comments!

The other day I was browsing The Mirror online when I saw an article about how to make $8,000 a month from home. The headline was lined up next to all the others:

It indicated the woman was from Toronto, so I thought I'd check it out. When I clicked on the link, I was taken to a career information website, 'Toronto Career Trends. WS Daily 6' featuring banners from NBC, ABC, CNN and the BBC. It looked impressive.

The article detailed the story of a 'remarkable' Mississauga mother who had found an easy way to make thousands of dollars - right from home! The piece was written by one of the career publication's journalists. It all seemed very interesting and, well - real.

There were even comments posted below it. "The timing of this couldn't be better, my wife and I are struggling too and this could be our answer." Said one. "Thanks for the info, I look forwards to receiving the Fedex tomorrow!" said another.

So much enthusiasm!

As I read more of the comments my Spidey senses started to tingle: "I just got my first check for $2800.00! How cool is that it took about two weeks for me to get the first check.

Hmm.

Pretty soon my suspicions were confirmed: "This is amazing! I wish I knew about this five years ago." Yeah, right.

Not so subtle, some of you may be thinking, but - hey! They had me for a moment.

Blurring the Line

Why would a reputable newspaper be posting these links as news items? And shouldn't there be some sort of disclaimer so I can easily distinguish between real news and advertising?

Of course, when I smartened up I realized The Mirror is probably mapping my IP address and placing Toronto based advertising on their 'news' page. Clever.

There's a fine line between news and advertising. We've talked on this site about the current newspaper model, which sells eyeballs to advertisers instead of news to readers. Now it seems our news outlets are willing to tease us even more, trick us even, into believing what we read.

Who knows how far down this road we'll go?

One thing is for sure: We need to be careful what we read, be careful what we believe. For myself I will try to always remember the cynical adage of my advertising friend: nothing is real.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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By mrjanitor (registered) | Posted November 05, 2010 at 14:00:40

This is a great post Ben, thank you for working on it. It brought me back to high school when I took what I thought would be a 'bird' course called Media Studies. That bird course turned into a life changer for me. Our teacher was discussing the very same issues you do way back in 1980. I can't look at a newspaper or even any media without seeing how I am being manipulated. I am forever thankful to that teacher (can't remember his name) for awakening me to media agendas.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted November 05, 2010 at 15:51:37

"Nothing is real."

A world-changing idea if there ever was one. Of course it's true, and I believe there's even a movie (Wag the dog?) which involves the faking of a war to take the public's attention off of the President.

True media trickery is typically much more subtle and minor, but it has a way of accumulating in a snowball effect that makes it just as bad.

Never trust what you read, double check it, do your homework, question it.

Whenever someone forwards me an e-mail, whether an uplifting story of how eagles go through a "metamorphosis" halfway through life that leaves them rejuvenated, or a warning about a potentially deadly mail-borne virus, I always double check it on www.snopes.com

Just FYI, don't trust snopes blindly either, check out the references on their pages, because there is at least one page where, when you check the references, reveals that one particular article is itself is a hoax, placed there as a caution so people learn never to be too reliant on any one source, no matter how trusted.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted November 05, 2010 at 16:10:56

I sincerely hope that your story is as fabricated as the "newsertisemnts" you describe, since it's 2010 and you shouldn't be falling for those fake-article-ad links in websites anymore, particularly since half the Web is trying to tell me it's from Hamilton and Burlington.

I even saw one that included a photo of French newscaster Mélissa Theuriau masquerading as the "reporter" behind the fake ad story - I wonder what she and her news network would say about people using her likeness like that?

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 05, 2010 at 16:32:28

Just FYI, don't trust snopes blindly either

Obligatory: http://xkcd.com/250/

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2010-11-05 15:32:44

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By MAB (registered) | Posted November 05, 2010 at 19:16:40

The first and last time I was tricked by altered videos pics visual media .. was in 2000 around when satelites could finally be purchased legally in Canada.

Anyway, there was this commercial where a minature hippopotamis, walked around the house, in the closet etc. I was taken with the fact they have actually bred a teacup sized hippo.
At the end of this commercial there was a dissclaimer by the government I believe, its been a while, that read to the effect,I had just been deceived and to educate your children about the exact nature of my own naivity.

From that moment, I realized the power and potential of "media reality manipulation."
The ever growing sophistication of this manipulation never ceases to amaze me.

Parents and teachers have big responsiblities to ensure our youth learn to discern.

I have a feeling they are already way ahead of the game..

Comment edited by MAB on 2010-11-05 18:21:37

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By Ty Webb (anonymous) | Posted November 05, 2010 at 20:28:25

I went on the Go Pro Camera website a month ago, now I see their ad following me every day since!

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By Andrea (registered) | Posted November 08, 2010 at 10:08:21

Here is a link to the mini-hippo ad...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YLG2JP0P5...

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted November 08, 2010 at 12:06:45

It is amazing how a little common sense goes a long way.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted November 09, 2010 at 00:06:30

My biggest beef is health-food/medical claims. How if you only start taking this pro-biotic enzyme THX-1138, all your life's problems will vanish(depression, tiredness, cancer etc). Not only does it give people a whole lot of horse-dung, but it destroys a lot of public faith in much more legitmate issues of nutrition and herbal medicine.

Also, I think a lot of people seriously overestimate how many people take these things seriously - the real story is how intuitively people know it's (high-nitrogen organic fertilizer), even if they can't articulate why. Advertising, PR, marketing, propaganda - it's all a constant battleground, and people often get a lot quicker as a result. All very fascinating, if somewhat pointless and extravagantly wasteful.

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By senior (anonymous) | Posted April 04, 2011 at 16:20:56

thanks for the well spoken comments from this site. I have been aware of media manipulation for some time now, you have to be observant though to see it. watching movies for the hidden advertisments from many big companies. its been going on for years but some are not watching closely enough then wonder why they have a sudden urge to go out and buy a certain product.
M A N I P U L A T I O N its all around us...........thanks for reminding!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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