The Revival of Yellow Journalism

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In the 1890’s, two newspapers, New York World and New York Journal, were pitted against one another in a fierce competition to sell as many newspapers as possible. In an attempt to gain the advantage and sell millions of papers, New York World’s owner, William Randolph Hearst adopted two techniques.

the-yellow-kid-2

First, he created articles and headlines (especially on the front page) that featured sensationalized, exaggerated, and melodramatic information.

Second, he hired an artist named Oatcault to create a full page and full color comic called Hogan’s Alley. The comic’s main character was a poor orphan boy who wore an over-sized yellow night shirt. The comic was used as social and political commentary, and the character soon became known as the yellow kid.

Not willing to accept defeat, New York Journal’s owner, Joseph Pulitzer, adopted the same two techniques. Sensationalized stories and full page color comics. In fact, he even went so far as to hire Oatcault, the creator of the yellow kid, right out from under the New York World.

It wasn’t long before this media battle was dubbed the competition of the yellow kids and the writing style became known as yellow journalism[zotpressInText format=”[%num%]” item=”{JB277W75}”][zotpressInText format=”[%num%]” item=”{SZKTJGTS}”].

If you kill it, they will come.

After reading through the debate between Jason T. Wiser and Ryan Hanley [zotpressInText format=”[%num%]” item=”{9IHC5TIA}”] about his article on the death of generalists, I began thinking about how much of Content Marketing is just sensationalized, exaggerated propaganda designed to draw in the traffic. The first several paragraph’s of Hanley’s original article (Google Has Killed the Generalist and No One Cares [zotpressInText format=”[%num%]” item=”{VFNZIVGP}”]) are nothing more than this, as is the entirety of it’s overall topic. He opens his piece with the following monologue:

Are you a generalist? That’s too bad. Actually, I should say, “I’m sorry.” I’m sorry that you’re not going to be able to be a generalist anymore. I’m assuming that since you’re still creating content online as a generalist than being a generalist must have worked for you at some point. Unfortunately that day has come and gone. Google has killed the generalist.

He essentially took on an issue that has been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and proclaimed that he had the definitive answer on it.

the-death-of

This is but one very recent example among millions of articles written to boldly proclaim the death of something: the death of the generalist, the death of blogging, the death of an era, the death of a niche, the death of “death of” posts…

With almost only one exception, every post proclaiming the death of something is being written for the sake of sensationalism and the traffic that results from it. The one allowance I would make to this rule would be in the instance of a company, product, or service actually being discontinued like Twinkies (which have thankfully been resurrected).

As a side note, I like Ryan Hanley a lot. I just don’t like sensationalist “death of” articles.

Propaganda, Yellow Journalism, and Modern Content Marketing

As I’ve been reading through “Propaganda” by Edward Bernays [zotpressInText format=”[%num%]” item=”{Z8PZ9BI8}”], and growing my understanding of Propaganda through other research, my eyes are becoming blurred to the lines that separate propaganda from marketing. Many of the tactics and strategies that I was taught in the military (I currently specialize in Psychological Warfare for the U.S. Army Reserves.), I see being used every day by marketers, both online and on traditional platforms. Yellow Journalism is but one of dozens of manipulative tactics I see being used.

Nazi Propaganda

In it’s original usage, the word propaganda simply meant the distribution of information in an effort to influence people’s belief’s and behaviors. In 1828, Webster defined propagandism as “The art or practice of propagating tenets or principles [zotpressInText format=”[%num%]” item=”{MNDTVIFV}”].” In fact, several hundred years ago, the Catholic church created a council of cardinals and bishops that was called the the Sacred College de Propaganda Fide (The College of Propaganda). They were responsible for educating and equipping missionary priests.

Later, most notably during the first and second World Wars, the term began to take on the negative connotations that it now bears. Of course, when we think of it today, we think of lies, misinformation, manipulation, and other dark concepts.

In the broad, generic sense, we could place the same original definition of propaganda onto the terms marketing or advertising: Distribution of targeted information in an effort to influence people’s beliefs and behaviors (buy my product).

What I see is the concepts of marketing and advertising taking the same road trip down the path of manipulation and through the woods of sensationalism. To become more effective, and to win the battle for attention online, people and corporations resort to manipulative headlines and information.

Here are a few things to watch for as you consume content both online and off that may indicate yellow journalism:

  • Sweeping generalities being boldly proclaimed to be absolute in nature.
  • Overt attempts to create emotional responses rather than simply reporting facts.
  • Absolute statements that make no reference to situational context.
  • Promises of easy, quick, or instant success
  • The use of extremes like “all”, “always”, “never”, “only”, etc.
  • People who self-proclaim themselves as some type of authority figure: expert, authority, ninja, guru, etc.
  • Content that makes bold claims that essentially force you to need their services (e.g. 10 Reasons You Cannot NOT have SEO).
  • Circumstantial information that may or may not apply to your own circumstance.

The Moral Conundrum of Content Marketing

Let’s return to the New York papers competing for sales. The two newspapers weren’t satisfied with the growth from their domestic yellow journalism campaigns. They wanted more.

They began sensationalizing and exaggerating the conditions in Cuba in a calculated effort to push the U.S. into going to war with Spain. Hearst, the president of the New York Journal, is quoted as saying the following in a telegram to one of his photographers, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll provide the war!” [zotpressInText format=”[%num%]” item=”{JB277W75}”].

Of course, yellow journalism was only one of many factors that drew us into the Spanish-American war.

But just as you are hopefully beginning to see, it’s far more than just the news media that profits from this skewed type of information pushing. Corporations, marketers, advertisers…they’re all in it to win it at any cost to the consumer.

I think it’s fair to say that we all find it deplorable that someone would intentionally use sensationalism, lies, exaggerations, and hyperbole to push an entire nation to war for profit.

Imagine a scale from one to ten. Ten is a marketer attempting to influence an entire nation to go to war for their profit. Zero is the reporting of honest, unbiased, objective facts and information. The question is, how far is a marketer allowed to climb that scale and still be in good taste ethically?

Yellow Journalism of the Spanish-American War

The Use and Misuse of Authority or Expertise

In his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini talks about the use of “authority” or “expert” figures (which I find those terms allowable when referring to actual experts like doctors) as one of the six most powerful weapons of influence [zotpressInText format=”[%num%]” item=”{TXTZQDDP}”]. The mental triggers that they elicit create a powerful force to getting people to believe what you want them to believe.

In another article by Cialdini featured in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he portrayed the results of several experiments that demonstrated that even if you have a strong understanding of this principle, you are still very likely to not only believe what an advertisement portraying an authority figure has to say, but even people pretending to be an authority figure (like someone who plays a doctor on television) [zotpressInText format=”[%num%]” item=”{Q36BZWJT}”].

As an example, he pointed out that the president from the television show West Wing was interviewed about presidential proceedings and presidential authority on national television. Talk about authority!

Bernay’s nailed it right on the head when he surmised that the thoughts and opinions of the masses rely heavily on the influence of marketers, companies, and the media. Consider the following quote:

Universal literacy was supposed to educate the common man to control his environment. Once he could read and write he would have a mind fit to rule. So ran the democratic doctrine. But instead of a mind, universal literacy has given him rubber stamps, rubber stamps inked with advertising slogans, with editorials, with published scientific data, with the trivialities of the tabloids and the platitudes of history, but quite innocent of original thought. ~Edward Bernays [zotpressInText format=”[%num%]” item=”{Z8PZ9BI8}”]

Also, since expert got brought up, I do believe that their can be such a thing as a social media expert. But qualifications for real expert status, in my mind, would include no less than a masters degree in communications, marketing, social psychology, or something similar, and a portfolio of dozens of highly successful clients. In no other industry on the planet, are people referred to as experts who do not have similar qualifications on their resume.

Conclusion and Group Discussion

I’ve learned a lot more from observing the style of content that people create than by actually listening to the style of content they tell you to create. Pay attention and you’ll be surprised what you can learn simply by watching how others work.

If their way of writing content using these tacky methods is driving traffic and dollars, then are they actually doing it right by doing it so wrong?

Sources Cited

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  1. September 3, 2014

    Ryan Hanley said:

    Nick,

    Very good stuff. You definitely make a lot of good points and you’ve certainly done your research.

    I don’t know if I would necessarily classify my article as sensationalist, but I definitely wrote it in a way that was meant to provoke emotion and commentary, which is exactly what it did. I can only speak for own work, since I’m not nearly as versed in the history of journalism as you are, but I try to walk the line of Provocation, Inspiration and Education.

    People want to be excited when they click a link. I try my best to give them that excitement while also providing solid information and guidance on how to win the battle for attention online.

    It’s obvious for some I crossed the line with this article. I’m sure it won’t be the last time.

    Either way this is excellent stuff.

    Hanley


    • September 5, 2014

      Nicholas Cardot said:

      Great response, Ryan. Thanks for being such a great sport about this.

      The main goal of the article was to ask the question, where do you draw the line? Where does it go from being effective marketing to being straight up manipulation? And you’re response, “I try to walk the line of Provocation, Inspiration and Education” answered it perfectly. That’s certainly a line that every marketer, blogger, or person aspiring to any level of online presence needs to walk.


  2. September 4, 2014

    Padraig O Raghaill said:

    Very interesting reading the take from your perspective, and a tactical mind, a refreshing look at internet marketing.

    Sensationalism is everywhere in media, here is no different, we see it throughout click bait titles, and opening paragraphs with intent of controversy.

    Although controversy for the sake of it I do not always see the value, as you mentioned in liking of Ryan, although the article is purposely written to invoke emotion.

    What I find distasteful, and Ryan pretty much with his own words has backed up the fact, is he wrote it not from a position of knowledge but from a position of controversy. Controversy is fine if it is based on fact, unfortunately the article in question was leaky at best.

    So what happens to the author? I respected and read a bit of Ryan’s work but after that article and the next “creatives win’ you are left with only the thought of traffic pimping. Now we have another writer that is more interested in engagement for the sake of it, instead of engagement for thought provoking topics such as this article.

    Sensational, exaggerated headlines are going nowhere and content that is purposely incorrect is going nowhere, which makes it easier for some that have a better intent to gain traction. If I personally had one issue with nearly all so called marketing people online, is their constant XYZ shinning bullet, there is no magic pill to business and marketing but one thing is for sure. It requires multiple tactics across multiple mediums online and offline & anyone who writes incorrect content for the sake of traffic, should be given a wide berth.

    Good marketing will take into account all tools available to us today, and strategically worked into an ultimate plan, you cannot separate capabilities, all capabilities are in a room together and discuss the tactics to proceed, an example in your world Nicholas might me the war room.

    First article I have read of your Nicholas cannot see it being the last
    Regards
    Padraig


    • September 5, 2014

      Nicholas Cardot said:

      I agree with you about controversy. There’s nothing wrong with it if it has a purpose. But when done only for the sake of controversy then it becomes a very tacky way to manipulate the ebb and flow of traffic into your website. I think that’s what you called traffic pimping. Great phrase, by the way.

      And you are so spot on with your concepts of magic pills versus holistic strategy. Quick tips add very little value to a business that does not have a top-level plan of action in place.


  3. September 4, 2014

    Dustin W. Stout said:

    Somewhere in here lies the conundrum of storytelling. A great storyteller knows that in order to get the reader’s attention the character must have a clear stance. Wish-washy isn’t interesting, and walking the politically correct line of “cover all my bases, don’t make anyone mad” doesn’t make for good stories.

    Safe is boring. Middle ground is uninteresting. And nobody cares about a character that doesn’t take a bold chance.

    Telling a good story means taking big chances. Sometimes, in order to find the right balance of a thing, you need to go as far in each direction as possible.

    Derek Halpern is notorious for taking bold, extreme stances. I immediately think of a recent message Derek wrote about using pop-ups. If I recall correctly he said, ‘If you’re not using pop-ups, you’re an idiot’. To which my response was, ‘Anyone who uses pop-ups is an idiot’.

    Not everything is cut and dry, but sometimes you have to make a choice which side of the road you’re going to take. The point remains though, good storytelling requires bold choices.


    • September 5, 2014

      Nicholas Cardot said:

      I agree. And I think much of what you said is a very solid elaboration on Ryan’s point that we “try to walk the line of Provocation, Inspiration and Education.” But the question, whether in story telling or headline writing is at what point do our methods cross the line from marketing to manipulation. Let me share with you an interesting example of story telling that I’ve shared before.

      In the movie 300, throughout the movie, the voice of a narrator is heard. At the end of the movie, you realize that it wasn’t actually a narrator. It was the man who had survived the battle retelling the story to the Senate, to the city, and to the army that he then commanded. It’s then that I realized (and most who saw the movie probably never realized this) that movie itself was not portraying giant beasts and other larger than life events taking place that battle. It was simply portraying the concept that ACCORDING TO THIS MAN’S STORY those monumental events took place.

      Of course, he was telling that story with a purpose. He wanted the Senate to appropriate troops to fend off the oncoming horde of Persian invaders. In that case, it’s fair to assume that he exaggerated the facts because he genuinely wanted to save his city and the people in it. His intentions were pure even if his tactic was slightly shady.

      So in our marketing is it okay to stretch stories a little bit like the man in 300 in an effort to bring a greater level of awareness to our brands, our products, or our services? Certainly we want to create excitement, take stands on issues, and appear as bold, creative people. But again, when does it cross the line?


  4. September 8, 2014

    Joey Giangola said:

    Nicholas,

    As Ryan and Dustin have already mentioned, a lot of interesting points have been sprinkled into the marketing air.

    Also love to see the fearless question nature of the post.

    One area of your thesis that I might ask you to question further is the definition of an expert.

    The one you laid out relies heavily on the validation of an over price, paint by numbers education that would have me question that experts decision making ability to gain that expertise in a disconnected environment from the one it will actually be taking place in.

    The tradtional definition of education is quickly changing, if it hasn’t fully already, your only limited by your ambition and dedication. Not what school you can get into or afford.

    To the point doctors have become nothing more than biological mechanics.


    • October 13, 2014

      Nicholas Cardot said:

      I understand your qualms with the paint by numbers education system. I dropped out of DeVry because the level of education was so pitiful that I was bored to tears. I’ve taken other classes at a community college that were brutally difficult to soak in all of the materials and pass the exams. Our exams for one class for example, was always a written essay that was usually 5 or 6 pages long without any notes or anything to rely on. You either read all the material, and examined your notes thoroughly, or you would get an F.

      My point being that the ‘education’ industry certainly comes in many forms and I agree that some degrees are meaningful and some are just pieces of paper. Having said that, you can be an expert without going through the education industry. I have a friend, for example, who is a highly successful lawyer who has never been to law school. He self-studied his way to passing the bar, and now, I pity the fool who stands across from him in a court room. But…having said that, he put in the time to educate himself (through reading, research, etc.) to a level that was equal to or above and beyond a traditional education. Otherwise, how would he have passed the bar.

      I would also say that he is the exception to the rule. I was being very generic in my concept of expert in the article. The main point I was trying to drive home is that everyone and their grandmother tries labeling themselves at some type of expert in social media. Someone might create a successful online presence for one company, for example, and now they tell folks they are an expert to try to strum up more business. The term is being grossly misused by many people.

      Real experts have many, many case studies. They have lots and lots of research and experience under their belts. And they are deeply educated whether by the education industry of via self study.


  5. September 18, 2014

    Jenny said:

    Great article and an interesting point of view on sensationalism in internet marketing


  6. September 4, 2016

    julissecret said:

    very good article




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