I Was Dr. Ads: My 45 Years in the Boston Media Trenches (V)

Part 1 (1975-1988) is here. Part 2 (1988-1994) is here. Part 3 (1994-1998) is here. Part 4 (1998-2008) is here.

Press release from WBUR on the Friday before Labor Day, 2008.

“Beat the Press” panelist John Carroll will beat a familiar path back to WBUR in the role of senior media analyst starting next week, announced Sam Fleming, managing director of News & Programming at Boston’s NPR news station.

Carroll, a regular WBUR commentator for more than 10 years prior to moving to WGBH-TV’s “Greater Boston” in the mid ’90s, will analyze electoral and print media during the presidential race, and following the election, he will dissect issues related to advertising, politics and culture.

“Our listeners have long missed John’s wry observations about media and advertising, particularly commercial messages peddled by candidates of all persuasions in the midst of elections,” said Fleming. “We look forward to his return.”

In addition to serving as a regular panelist on WGBH-TV’s popular Friday night program “Beat the Press,” Carroll was the executive producer of WGBH-TV’s “Greater Boston” for five years. An assistant professor of Mass Communication at Boston University, Carroll has won numerous national and regional journalism awards, including the RTNDA’s Edward R. Murrow award for writing, the National Press Club’s Arthur Rowse award for press criticism, and multiple New England Emmys for commentary and news writing.

Over the past 20 years, the Xavier University alum has also written extensively on advertising and the media as a regular columnist for The Boston Globe and Adweek magazine. He also spent nearly two decades as a creative director and consultant in the advertising industry.

Nice welcome home.

As WBUR’s newly minted Senior Media Analyst, I  produced regular commentaries for Morning Edition, starting with this piece about the decline of the English language in political speech.

Amazing to tell, America may go down in history as the first society ever to forget its own clichés.

It’s amazing because clichés have always been a culture’s common linguistic currency. And right now America’s linguistic currency is being devalued faster than dollars in Zimbabwe.

This year’s presidential election has provided lots of examples of what we’ll call Mangled Phrase Syndrome. Back in April, MSNBC’s First Read online political digest reported that “the [Barack] Obama campaign has launched an intensive registration drive across North Carolina that has reached a pitch this week.”

It used to be things reached a fever pitch, but obviously politics is a lot cooler these days.

The following month, Obama told ABC’s Nightline that House of Clinton consigliere James Carville “is well-known for spouting off his mouth without always knowing what he’s talking about.”

What is he, Moby Dick? I always thought “spouting off” included somebody’s mouth.

Then there was the New York Times piece headlined “Clinton may be hopeful, but Obama rolls on.” The story noted that delegate numbers overwhelmingly favored Obama, but the mainstream media continued to float Hillary Clinton’s presidential boat.

The Times piece asserted “None of this is to say that Clinton has run out of string.” Of course, “run out the string” is the traditional phrase, but maybe Clinton actually did run out of string. She was certainly fit to be tied often enough . . .

The Great Recession of 2008 was the start of a very bad stretch for daily newspapers in the U.S. During the next ten years, advertising revenue would suffer a knee-buckling 62% decrease, while newsroom employment would shrink by 47%. The local dailies were in no way exempt from that decline, as this piece noted upon the rollout of a redesigned Boston Globe.

When the Boston Globe debuted its newly streamlined format, an editor’s note said the changes were designed to help readers “better navigate the news and The Globe.” Real world translation: the changes are designed to help the paper better navigate the dismal financial news at the Globe.

But first, the revamped format, a sort of freeze-dried version of the local broadsheet. The major sections – Main News, a combined Metro & Business, and the Globe’s mainstay Sports pages – are essentially the same, only less so.

The real focus of the Globe redesign is their highly touted section “G” – a name oddly similar to the mother ship New York Times section dubbed “T.” “G” is a mashup of the formerly separate Living/Arts, Food & Arts, Style & Arts, Weekend, and Sidekick sections – although initially it seems to be less mashup than mishmash. 

Of course, that crazy-quilt impression could be attributed to a reader’s unfamiliarity with the new design. No mere passage of time, however, could possibly cure the helter-skelter renovation of the comics pages.

For starters, they changed the order of the comic strips, making mornings even more disorienting than they already are. Beyond that, the weekday comics now appear in color, which is at once unwelcome and unnatural. Daily comic strips are supposed to be black-and-white. That’s what makes the Sunday comics special.

Even less funny, though, is the Globe’s financial condition. On that front, the paper’s redesign is more accurately a retrenchment. It reduces the paper’s content by about two dozen pages a week, which saves the Globe significant money at a time when its revenues are going down like the Hindenburg and its circulation is shrinking faster than your 401(k).

Given that the parent New York Times Co. has written down the value of the Globe to a fraction of the $1.1 billion the Times paid for the paper 15 years ago, this could conceivably be the Globe’s Last Stand before some really drastic changes occur.

And the Globe is not alone in its dilemma. Crosstown rival Boston Herald, which has long served as a lively index to the Globe, recently undertook a revamp of its own.

The feisty local tabloid has outsourced its printing to the Wall Street Journal presses in Chicopee, resulting in a smaller format, less late-breaking news, and layoffs of roughly 150 Herald staffers. On the upside, you can actually see the photos in the Herald now.

Problem is, there are fewer and fewer readers to appreciate the upgrade. The Herald’s daily circulation has fallen a knee-buckling nine-and-a-half percent over the past year, leading some media observers to worry about its long-term prospects.

And no wonder. With both the Herald and the Globe offering smaller papers to smaller audiences, less news is bad news in the local daily paper chase.

Actually, the Great Recession hammered a whole lot of people, as I chronicled in this early November piece about the 2008 Christmas economy.

There are three things you can absolutely count on every holiday season. First, there’s never any figgy pudding around when you need it. Second, almost no one remembers the words to Frosty the Snowman. And third, the Christmas season starts earlier every year.

Last week, two Boston radio stations began playing all Christmas songs, all the time. The program director for one station told the Boston Herald, “People are ready for a change. The holiday music really helps to erase your problems temporarily.”

Yeah, like for two minutes and thirty seconds. Then you’re back to the Economic Roll Call of the Damned. As in:

Unemployment is at a 14-year high.

General Motors is hemorrhaging two billion dollars a month.

Art auctions are coming up emptier than a Salvador Dali landscape.

And the stock market is down 35%, roughly half the great 1929 nosedive. As my father-in-law Marvin used to say, tough sledding on Wall Street. No snow.

It’s hardly better on the retail front, where October sales suffered their worst decline since 1969. The upscale Neiman Marcus, for instance, is down 28%, although that hasn’t kept their Christmas catalog from including a $1500 Steif bear dressed as Karl Lagerfeld, or that traditional $94,000 wristwatch.

No his-and-her jet planes or his-and-her elephants as in past years, however.

Macy’s, on the other hand, has gone old school, appropriating the classic “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” editorial from the old New York Sun.

One holiday TV spot features Macy’s spokes-celebrities reciting bits of the Sun editor’s reply to Virginia’s letter in 1897.

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists just as love and generosity exist. How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus.”

That last line is delivered by Donald Trump, a man long known to be filled with the buttermilk of human kindness.

Unfortunately, that’s not the only jarring note in the Macy’s campaign. The old New York Sun folded in 1950. The new New York Sun, revived six years ago, folded last month.

Want a leading indicator of where the US economy is right now?

Xmas marks the spot.

Before the year was out, there was this one thing I just had to get off my chest.

It all started with the N-word, the socially acceptable way to indicate the vilest racial slur in American parlance. Just last month the Wall Street Journal reported that some Indiana voters told Barack Obama supporters, “I am not voting for that N-word.”

But that justifiable euphemism has engendered a tsunami of copycat alphabetizing, almost none of which deserves such delicate treatment.

Just last week, for instance, the New York Times reported that Democrats on Capitol Hill have substituted the word “recovery” for “stimulus.” The piece noted that “Speaker Nancy Pelosi caught herself last week just as she was about to let the S-word slip. ‘We’re not using the word stimulus,'” Mrs. Pelosi said.

Except, of course, when they do.

Closer to home, Boston Globe word maven Jan Freeman wrote about the use of “bemused” – which has traditionally meant “puzzled” –  to describe Obama’s benign, unruffled presence. Dozens of newspapers and magazines, Freeman wrote, “[have used] the B-word this way.”

Why she used the “B-word” formulation, however, is, well, puzzling.

Then again, all the kids are doing it, and have been for a while. During the presidential campaign, torture became the T-word, impeachment became the I-word, socialism became the S-word, brand became the B-word, lying became the L-word, and landslide also became the L-word.

It’s enough to make you word-weary.

Which brings us to the G-word – as in Garfield, Bob, co-host of the weekly public radio program On the Media and an excellent columnist for Advertising Age magazine.

In his radio gig, however, Garfield turns out to be a serial alphabetizer. Here he is talking about radio personality Rush Limbaugh.

“And he has already complained on the air of how difficult it is to go after Obama lest he be tarred with the R-word.”

That word would be “racist,” for all of you keeping score at home.

Soon thereafter Garfield was at it again, talking with an editor at ProPublica, a non-profit investigative website.

“I want to ask you about the S-word – S standing for [billionaires Herbert and Marion] Sandler, the benefactors of ProPublica. They have a history of affiliation with progressive political causes.”

All due respect, there’s only one word to describe this trend. And that would be the D-word.


• • • • • • •

I began branching out at ‘BUR in 2009, starting with this Super Bowl ad preview I filed for Only a Game.

The undisputed MVP of Super Bowl ads was Coca-Cola’s Mean Joe Greene commercial, which was very much like the soft drink – sweet and syrupy.

[Kid] Want my Coke – it’s okay – you can have it.

[Mean Joe] No . . . no . . .

[Kid] Really, you can have it.

[Mean Joe] Okay.

[Jingle] Have a Coke and a smile . . .

Not much to smile about these days, especially since the price of Super Bowl advertising has risen dramatically. This year it’s $3 million for a 30-second ad. That’s $100,000 a second for those of you following along on your calculators.

But as the cost of the ads has gone up, the quality has gone down. These days Super Bowl spots try too hard, get too much pre-press, and generally wind up being over-hyped underachievers.

And that’s not including the downright offensive ads . . .

At the end of March I chronicled more cutbacks at the local dailies.

It’s bad news in Boston’s newspaper business these days. The feisty local tabloid Boston Herald just let 24 employees go, mostly on the business side. Crosstown rival Boston Globe has cut twice that many staffers – all in the newsroom.

That’s because the Globe’s parent New York Times Company is paper-shredding again. In rapid succession the Times company has slashed non-union employee pay at its newspapers by five percent, and engineered two dozen staff departures at the Globe with its umpteenth buyout offer . . .

Two weeks later I was back on ‘BUR documenting the Globe’s M.C. Escher act in covering the NYT’s paper-shredding.

The Boston Globe is in the unfortunate position of having to document its own dismantling.

The New York Times Co. jump-started its demolition derby with a demand that the local daily commandeer $20 million in union concessions. The Globe responded in its Saturday edition with a Page 1 above the fold five-column headline that read, “Times Co. threatens to shut Globe, seeks $20m in cuts from unions.”

That’s what’s known in psychological circles as repressed hostility. Or maybe not so repressed.

The next day’s Page One above the fold four-column headline read, “Threat to Globe triggers flood of feelings.” Globe reporters fanned out across doughnut shops, newsstands, libraries, luncheonettes and convenience stores to interview distressed Globe readers.

Local luminaries also piped up, from politicians suddenly enamored with the Globe, to religious, cultural and entertainment figures lamenting the prospect of Boston Globe-less.

All that Globe breast-beating, however, struck one observer as entirely counter-productive. Veteran media executive Alan Mutter, who writes the Reflections of a Newsosaur blog, said the Globe coverage “not only was vastly overplayed but also may serve to unnecessarily damage the newspaper’s already weakened business.

“The editors, who evidently let emotion overcome their news judgment, should have known better,” Mutter concluded.

No problem in that department at the Times, where the Globe-ectomy has been business as usual – and not even high-profile business at that. The only story the mother ship has run about Globe cutbacks appeared on page B5.

On Saturday.

You can’t get more buried than that unless you’re Jimmy Hoffa . . .

On the political front, the 2009 Boston mayoral race featured an unusually early ad campaign from incumbent Tom Menino, despite the commanding lead that polls indicated he held over his three challengers. This ‘BUR piece detailed Menino’s traditional approach to campaign advertising, in stark contrast to his opponents’ new-media marketing efforts.

In any election year, incumbents have a built-in advantage in both fundraising and publicity. The latter, however, has always been a mixed blessing for Boston Mayor Tom Menino, whose every public appearance is an adventure.

Here, for example, is Menino at last month’s Urban Improv charity fundraiser, in a skit where he plays Abe Lincoln — don’t ask — visiting Michelle Obama:

“Hey Michelle. How bout a little Sam Adams? And some guaca-mala?” the mayor asked.

When Menino’s not askin’ for guaca-mala, he’s askin’ for votes in a hundred-thousand-dollar advertising campaign . . .

I capped off the commentary year at ‘BUR with this Only a Game piece about ESPN’s 30th anniversary, which posited that the once-brash cable upstart did not remain that way over the past three decades; rather, it had become the Soviet Union of sports networks.

For much of its 30 years ESPN was sort of the class clown of the sports world. Smart-alecky and sarcastic, the all-sports cable outfit presented itself as the perfect antidote to the ponderous, self-important broadcast networks.

From its first cablecast in September of 1979, ESPN promised a different kind of sports coverage.

“Welcome, everyone, to the ESPN Sports Center. From this very desk in the coming weeks and months we’ll be filling you in on the pulse of sports activity not only around the country but around the world as well. If it takes an interview, we’ll do it. If it takes play-by-play, we’ll do it. If it takes commentary, we’ll do that too.”

 In fact, the guys at ESPN – and it’s been virtually all guys at ESPN – did a lot of commentary, the snarkier the better.

But how the mighty funny have fallen since the Walt Disney Company acquired ESPN in 1995. Before long you couldn’t spit without hitting an ESPN offshoot, from ESPN2 to ESPN News to ESPN Classic to ESPN HD to ESPN.com to ESPN The Magazine to ESPN The Dessert Topping.

Just kidding about that last one, but you never know.

What critics know is that EPSN is now officially Same As the Old Boss . . .

• • • • • • •

A 2009 postscript . . .

In June of that year I launched a blog called Campaign Outsider. The name reflected my lifelong resolve never to be sucked into the politico-media cocktail party that makes so many people quite reasonably suspicious of both groups.

Debut post:

I’ve filed over 4200 posts since then.

Among them was a series of items headlined It’s Good to Live in a Two-Daily Town. Representative sample: this 2011 post about Mistah Mayah busting the Newbury Street NikeTown over a window display of skateboarder t-shirts stamped with slogans like “Dope” and “Get High.”

About a year later I gave the Two-Daily Town beat its own website with the subhead, “The Globe/Herald Daily Bakeoff.”

Since then I’ve filed about 1260 posts chronicling the bakeoff between the local dailies, which have proven a never-ending source of grist for the mill. Many thanks to both.

• • • • • • •

For reasons that I totally don’t remember, in 2010 I stopped doing commentaries for WBUR and started doing two-ways. During the next decade, I did hundreds of segments on the NPR program Here & Now and on WBUR’s Radio Boston, all of which are available here.

From the fall of 2012 to spring of 2014, I also contributed a series of essays to Cognoscenti, WBUR’s ideas and opinion page. Most of the pieces examined emerging media trends, ranging from make-your-own-reality politics to ads in sheep’s clothing to the government’s tobacco-tax addiction to the digital equivalent of invisible ink.

My first Cognoscenti piece addressed the 2012 election, but was really a preview of 2016.

Reality A No-Show In 2012

Twenty-twelve is destined to go down in history as the election year in which almost all of the participants created their own reality.

We shouldn’t be surprised. In fact, we should have seen it coming.

In a 2004 New York Times Magazine piece, Ron Suskind recorded an exchange he had with a Bush administration official who derided Suskind for being part of “the reality-based community . . . We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

See the war in Iraq for further details.

Then there was this piece about the New York Times hauling its digital self into the 21st century with a revamping of its website and a new approach to selling ads.

[T]he Times has chosen the occasion of its redesign to introduce native advertising, those ads in sheep’s clothing tricked out to look like editorial content.

That initiative started last fall when the Times announced its intention to join the branded content set. The announcement was quickly followed by official reservations from Times executive editor Jill Abramson, who worried about “leaving confusion in readers’ minds” and Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, who cautiously previewed the “delicate balance” between advertising and editorial.

But Times ad execs said don’t worry — it’ll all be on the up-and-up. And native advertising’s debut on the redesigned Times website was just that: clearly labeled and set apart from the editorial stream . . .

The problem, as I went on to note, is that native advertising works best when it’s not clearly labeled and not set apart from the editorial stream. The whole point is to make the reader think that it’s editorial content. That’s what brands are paying for in the end.

(In September of 2010 I launched the blog Sneak Adtack: Tracking the Hidden War on American Consumers. The New York Times has appeared there a lot. Especially noteworthy are the paper’s innovative Russian Nesting Ads.)

I also wrote this Cognoscenti piece detailing the co-dependent relationship of federal, state, and local governments with tobacco companies.

Will Government Regulation Vaporize E-Cigarettes?

Electronic cigarettes, which deliver nicotine in the form of a vapor through battery-powered devices that often resemble traditional tobacco cigarettes, are currently on the lips not only of consumers, but government officials as well.

The dominoes are starting to fall: States are limiting both the sale of e-cigarettes and their use, placing restrictions on them that mirror the stringent regulations that have become commonplace in a zero-tobacco-tolerance world.

By all appearances, government officials are simply trying to protect the public health, as many people believe they should. But there’s another way of looking at the rush to regulation: E-cigarettes are not rendering unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s.

That is to say, taxes.

Think about it: States are receiving megabucks every year from tobacco companies thanks to the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement that requires the tobacco industry to pay 46 states approximately $10 billion annually for the indefinite future.

Then there are the extortionate federal and state excise taxes on every pack of cigarettes sold in the U.S. (Fun fact to know and tell: In 2007, states hiked excise taxes on cigarettes by $1 billion. The 2007 increase in state alcohol taxes? $3 million.)

You see where this is headed.

Let’s begin with the co-dependent relationship between tobacco companies and the federal government. According to RJ Reynolds (who should know), 2012 federal cigarette excise taxes equaled $14.8 billion out of a total of $43.3 billion in settlement payments, federal, and state and local taxes on cigarettes.

Then there are the state and local government tobacco-money addicts. According to one estimate, their excise-tax revenues totaled $17.2 billion in 2011. That’s a lot of incentive not to fund anti-smoking campaigns . . .

My final Cognoscenti piece addressed the Erasable Internet.

Where Delete Is The New Default

Tired of carrying all that digital flotsam and jetsam through life? Fed up with those photos of you wearing a lampshade forever being tagged on Facebook?

Well, my friends, just move to the Erasable Internet, where the mantra is “delete is the new default.”

It was Snapchat that put the shelf-life Web on the public radar screen. The photo-sharing service allows users to set a time limit on photos or videos they send to others, a kind of digital spontaneous combustion. It’s very “Mission: Impossible.”

From there, the apps just kept on coming — from Telegram (self-destructing text/images/video) to Frankly (text sent in a blurred box — tap it and a timer counts down to deletion) to Wickr and Blink, all of which make digital content disappear so it’s not attached to you for life.

The sidecar to the Erasable Internet is the Anonymous Web, in which content remains in the digital realm but is not attached to you at all. In other words, the content stays but you disappear.

(The sidebar to this trend is the NYM Wars, a battle over whether you need to attach your real identity to your digital activities or whether you can employ a pseudonym. Increasingly, websites and apps — from music streaming service Spotify to digital slots parlor myVegas to ride-sharing app Lyft to ESPN conversation boards — have begun requiring people to sign in with Facebook. The more that happens, the more your Facebook identity becomes a sort of digital passport. And the more Facebook founder Mark “Data” Zuckerberg likes it.) . . .

We all know WhatsApp since then.

• • • • • • •

As media analyst for Here & Now throughout the 2010s, I commented on an extremely wide range of topics.

Representative samples:

Advice to Pope: Sharpen Up Your Tweets

Would You Let Your TV Watch You?

Is That Yelp Review Legit? 

6-Second ‘Snackable’ Ads Make Their Way To TV

Politicians Set Up Fake-News Websites

As WBUR’s senior media/news analyst, I did similar chinstroking for Radio Boston. But at times I also served as sort of a one-man SWAT team for some of the show’s touchier topics, many of which involved the Boston Globe, a frequent ‘BUR content-production partner.

Chief among those hot potatoes was L’Affaire Ashbrook, triggered by a couple of dozen current and former station employees who accused On Point host Tom Ashbrook of a decade of abusive treatment and bullying behavior.

In the wake of widespread media coverage and a damning internal investigation into Ashbrook’s workplace demeanor, station management (which, by the way, had already given Ashbrook at least three last chances) finally had to toss him overboard.

Amazingly, a few months later Ashbrook resurfaced in a Boston Globe op-ed pleading for a return from exile.

Bad move, as I asserted on Radio Boston’s Week in Review.

For the life of me I don’t understand why the Boston Globe would run such a half-baked, tin-eared, self-serving semi-apology. It doesn’t make sense to me. And I may be old-fashioned but I think the thing that would be normally done here is you go into the desert and you wander around for a decent interval and then you come back and try to earn the trust back of the people you wronged . . . I just think this whole attitude of ‘what I have to say is too important for me to be sidelined more than three months’ – I just find that insulting.

Ten days later I was chinstroking on Radio Boston about another fraught situation: Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen’s suspension for wildly fabricating stories about his experience at the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

My verdict: No way the Globe should let him back, but the paper’s bonehead executives did – and, even worse, as a columnist. (Follow-ups here and here.)

There was also a segment on the inappropriate text exchanges Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory had with a subordinate. Operative word: creepy. (Follow-up here.)

Then there was the rumpus over Boston Globe opinion columnist Luke O’Neil, who wrote in one piece that “he wished he had urinated on the salmon he was serving one evening to conservative political analyst Bill Kristol, calling it one of his biggest regrets in life. He was referring to his days as a waiter in Cambridge more than a decade ago.”

On Radio Boston O’Neil got first crack at telling his side of the story. Then it was my turn: “Traditional news organizations say they want content that’s fresh and edgy, but they really don’t. They just want content that seems edgy.”

Since then,  I’ve remained media analyst for Here & Now as well as WBUR’s senior news analyst. I’m extremely grateful for both opportunities.

I’m also still banging away at Two-Daily Town and Sneak Attack and, obviously, Campaign Outsider.

As for this Great Pandemic Portfolio Project, I’ll just say . . . for now anyway . . .


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1 Response to I Was Dr. Ads: My 45 Years in the Boston Media Trenches (V)

  1. Pingback: I Was Dr. Ads: My 45 Years in the Boston Media Trenches (Boxed Set Edition) | Campaign Outsider

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