The Guardian and Lexus Cars
Emily Bell, editor-in-chief of Guardian Unlimited, writes of how the website declined to be added to the media schedule for Playboy’s website and television channel, citing “a danger that it would impact on our brand”. (Bell, ‘Advertisers pile on the pressure,’ The Guardian, June 13, 2005)
It is commonly thought that media businesses like the Guardian tailor their “brand” to target particular readers. This is true, of course, but more importantly they target readers who appeal to big business advertisers. The Guardian‘s primary business, in fact, is selling wealthy audiences to these advertisers.
This does not mean that newspapers like the Guardian are merely cautious in how they deal with their sponsors. James Twitchell, author of Adcult USA, explained the full extent of the media’s collusion:
“You name it: the appearance of ads throughout the pages, the ‘jump’ or continuation of a story from page to page, the rise of sectionalisation (as with news, cartoons, sports, financial, living, real estate), common page size, halftone images, process engraving, the use of black-and-white photography, then colour, sweepstakes, and finally discounted subscriptions were all forced on publishers by advertisers hoping to find target audiences.” (Twitchell, quoted, Sharon Beder, Global Spin, Green Books, 1997, p.181)
Bell insists “the prerogative to pick your advertisers is absolute“. But do broadsheets like the Guardian really have an absolute right to reject major sources of revenue when they are dependent on advertising for “75 per cent or more of their total take“? (Peter Preston, ‘War, what is it good for?’, The Observer, October 7, 2001)
When we asked Ian Mayes, the Guardian reader’s editor, how the Guardian could reconcile its editorial stance warning of the threat of climate change with its major support for low cost air travel, he replied:
“The environment editor, and the environment and agriculture correspondent of the Guardian were among those who saw it [American Airlines’ 2 for 1 transatlantic flight offer] as, to put it very mildly, completely in conflict with the Guardian’s editorial policies on global warming. They could perfectly understand its conveying an impression of hypocrisy on the paper’s part… [But] No one I have spoken to in the Guardian believes the curtailment of such offers, let alone airline advertising, is a serious option.” (Mayes: ‘Flying in the face of the facts,’ The Guardian, January 24, 2004)
If the curtailment of such advertising is not a serious option even in the face of a potentially terminal threat to human existence, can a newspaper really be deemed to have an absolute prerogative to reject advertising?
There is a schizophrenic quality to media discourse on this issue. On the one hand, journalists know that all media businesses bend over backwards to attract and please advertisers. Sometimes it’s conscious, sometimes reflexive, but the basic trend is not in doubt. In his 2004 book, My Trade, the BBC’s political editor, Andrew Marr, no radical, wrote:
“But the biggest question is whether advertising limits and reshapes the news agenda. It does, of course. It’s hard to make the sums add up when you are kicking the people who write the cheques.” (Marr, My Trade – A Short History Of British Journalism, Macmillan, p.112)
Note the odd contradiction – the “biggest question” remains a question even though the answer is declared obvious. So why the mind games? Because corporate journalists must be seen to be performing full body prostrations before the exalted values of Neutrality, Honesty and Balance – even as their companies are carefully shaping their product to suit the all-important advertisers!
In November 2001, the press reported that the Daily Telegraph had lost 100,000 readers over the previous year.
Richard Ingrams commented in the Observer:
“No doubt this alarming fall explains a recent meeting between Telegraph executives and advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, at which the admen attacked the poor old Telegraph editor Charles Moore for his outdated Little England attitudes coupled with homophobia.” (‘Richard Ingrams’s week,’ The Observer, November 4, 2001)
Ignoring these obvious realities, Emily Bell insists that advertisers have the right to spend – or not spend – money where they like. However, “there is nothing ethical about seeking to derail freedom of expression“, she adds from a suddenly manifested pulpit. Her conclusion:
“If an advertiser is stupid enough to ask for editorial favours in return for advertising money, and a publisher craven enough to give it, then the advertiser-funded model for news media is in serious trouble.” (Bell, op. cit)
Remarkable comments indeed, given Twitchell’s description of how newspapers are not merely influenced by, but are creatures +born+ of advertiser power.
Filling Up With Childish Excitement
In the Guardian’s G2 section (June 13), Leo Hickman wrote of the latest model to be launched by Lexus cars:
“’Display. Climate. Info.’ On a vast acreage of dashboard, these three words are embossed on large, adjacent buttons. They could have been lost against their more showy neighbours – the large sat-nav screen, the media player that shuffles six CDs and shows DVDs on the screens built into headrests, the moveable steering column that politely retreats to allow you to step out of the car gracefully – but it’s the buttons that leap out. I feel a little ashamed for filling up with such childish excitement…”
“If you read the motoring press then you might believe that the RX400h, with its part electric/part petrol ‘hybrid’ engine, has been sent from above to single-handedly slay climate change. According to much of the coverage, there is no need to feel guilty – if you ever did, that is – about driving an SUV, given that the RX400h achieves up to three times the fuel efficiency of its market rivals and an equally impressive reduction of polluting exhaust fumes. The message is clear: relax everyone, the panic’s over. A breathless review in Automobile magazine talks of a car that ‘accelerates with V-8 gusto and cradles its occupants in leather-lined luxury’. The hyperbolic review ends: ‘The Lexus RX400h provides the well-to-do with a sacrifice-free ride to social responsibility.’” (Hickman, ‘A clean set of wheels,’ The Guardian, June 13, 2005; http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,1504967,00.html)
The front cover of G2 had a full-page picture of the Lexus RX400h against a green background with the headline: “Can this car save the planet?”
Exactly one week earlier, advertising correspondent Stephen Brook had reported in the Guardian:
“Car maker Lexus has today taken the unusual step of placing an advert to promote a TV commercial to maximise the impact of the launch of its latest model.
“Taking no chances, it has taken full-page adverts in today’s papers to alert readers to a new TV slot, which will show off its latest sports utility vehicle when it airs on Channel 4 tonight.” (Brook, ‘Lexus advertises its own adverts,’ The Guardian, June 6, 2005)
Brook cited Clive Baker, a regional account director with the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi:
“When we are looking at something like Lexus… our media money is nowhere near the amount of our competitors… We really want to make a noise. It’s such a change for the motor industry, it’s very different to what’s out there.”
The Guardian has carried major advertising for Lexus cars in the past. For example, page 18 of the October 1, 2003 Guardian featured an article on the catastrophic effects of climate change. It also featured a large advert for Lexus cars that spread across two pages.
Is it possible that the Guardian’s decision to publish the Hickman article with its favourable comments was influenced, either consciously or unconsciously, by Lexus advertising revenue? After all, the former chief executive of the New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger, once admitted that he had leaned on his editors to present the car industry’s position on a range of issues because it “would affect advertising”. (Quoted, Sharon Beder, op. cit, p.181)
In an interview, writer and broadcaster David Barsamian asked Ralph Nader about the media:
“Wouldn’t it be irrational for them to even discuss corporate power, since their underwriting and sponsors come from very large corporations?”
“Very irrational… [There are] a few instances almost every year where there’s some sort of criticism of auto dealers, and the auto dealers just pull their ads openly from radio and TV stations.” (Z Magazine, February 1995)
It is clear that the pressure to please advertisers is simply enormous and must be felt and made manifest throughout a media organisation. To be sure, Leo Hickman’s piece did contain critical comments about the RX400h. The article quoted Emily Armistead, a climate campaigner for Greenpeace who is “enraged” by the claim that the RX400h is a “Green“ SUV: “It has marginally less impact on the climate, but it is demonstrably not a green car… You’re still driving two tonnes around unnecessarily to do the shopping.”
But the article carried far more strongly positive comments. Would the Guardian be as willing to publish an article that was truly damning of the Lexus car in a way that risked alienating the company as an advertiser? Recent history suggests otherwise.
Feel The Heat – James And The Apeshit Ads Department
In 1988, Guardian journalist James Erlichman wrote in the Guardian of a Greenpeace campaign to name and shame Ford motor company – then, far and away the country’s biggest advertiser – because it lagged behind other car manufacturers in adapting engines to take unleaded fuel without conversion, and also because it opposed the fitting of catalytic converters in Europe. Erlichman quoted Greenpeace campaign manager Steve Elsworth:
“Volkswagen had already announced that it was offering catalytic converters on three of its most popular models. If one company was prepared to help save the environment, why not all motor manufacturers?” (Erlichman, ‘Threat of boycotts “turns firms green“,’ The Guardian, October 27, 1988)
Greenpeace launched a poster campaign that showed exhaust fumes in the shape of a skull and cross bones with the slogan: “Ford Gives You More.”
The conclusion to Erlichman’s piece contained one of the more remarkable bombshells in the history of British journalism:
“Greenpeace booked 20 hoardings for its poster campaign. But then the advertising agency was informed that most of the sites – those owned by Mills & Allen – had been withdrawn.
“Carl Johnson, who is handling the account, said: ‘We were told that the posters were offensive, but I am sure someone was afraid of losing a lot of Ford advertising.’
“Mr Johnson attempted to book the ‘skull and crossbones’ advertisement with the Times, the Guardian and the Independent. ‘I have no doubt that they all feared losing Ford’s advertising if they accepted ours,’ he said.”
Erlichman was here openly suggesting that his own paper, the Guardian, had rejected a Greenpeace advert in order to protect its fossil-fuel advertising revenues.
We contacted Steve Elsworth, who organised the Greenpeace campaign. We asked him what he remembered about the fallout from Erlichman’s comments in 1988. Elsworth replied:
“The Ford campaign was the one I enjoyed the most, but it was also the most difficult because of the temerity of the media. We just couldn’t get our message across. I do remember that all the newspapers refused our ads attacking Ford (and all but one of the wallposter companies) and James [Erlichman] was interested in this as an example of censorship.
“He told me afterwards that the ads department went apeshit when they saw the story, and that they put pressure on his boss, saying that the Guardian was being used as a propaganda machine for Greenpeace. The clear implication was that they didn’t mind paid-for propaganda, but resented doing it for free – and like all the papers, were very aware of, and careful about, the economic clout of car advertising. James did get a lot of heat for the story from senior editorial staff, though I couldn’t say who.” (Email to Media Lens, June 14, 2005)
Conspiracy Theories? No, No, No!
On June 13, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger responded to questions we had put to him on the issue:
“’Can we be told how much money the Guardian has received from Lexus advertising in recent years?’
‘Did this money influence the decision to publish today’s article by Leo Hickman?’
‘Have discussions taken place in recent weeks between Guardian executives and Lexus on plans for the promotion of the new car?’
“NO” (Rusbridger, email to Media Lens, June 13, 2005)
We checked with Lexus (June 16) and were told that both the Guardian and the Observer are included as part of their advertising campaign for the RX400h through to September. How this was agreed without discussions between the Guardian and Lexus in recent weeks was not clear to us, so we asked Rusbridger (June 17). He replied the same day:
“I assumed you were addressing me as editor. I have no idea what discussions have or haven’t taken place between lexus and the commercial side of the paper. Why don’t you ask them?” (Email to Media Lens, June 17, 2005)
G2 editor Ian Katz also responded to the same questions (June 14):
“That’s an intriguing conspiracy theory David but just that I’m afraid. To answer your questions:
“1/ I have absolutey no idea how much money the Guardian has received from Lexus advertising in recent years (or when, or what, Lexus last advertised, for that matter). You could ask our press office that question (try anna sinfield or isabel milner) but I suspect that is commercially sensitive information that they won’t release. (Would you?)
2/ The piece had nothing to do with any advertising. Like I say I had no idea about any Lexus advertising. In any case, I don’t know how you do things at the Statesman but I have never in seven years as Guardian features editor known any piece to be commissioned to please an advertiser.
We don’t work that way. In fact Leo’s piece was originally commissioned as a look at green motoring options (specifically lpg) and it was tilted towards the new lexus when leo reported back to us that the launch of the lexus was the latest development in greener car technologies. You also neglect to quote from the end of his piece where he questions lexus’s claims about the model’s green credentials – a scepticism which we reflected in the cover line by using the word green in quotes.
Happy to help further in any way if I can.
Katz wrote of a “conspiracy theory” – an alternative description might be ‘free market economics‘. Katz commented:
“I have never in seven years as Guardian features editor known any piece to be commissioned to please an advertiser.
We don’t work that way.”
We of course accept Katz’s answers in good faith. And yet in February 2004, the Guardian launched its Spark magazine – “Positive thinking for a better tomorrow” – in association with Toyota Prius. Five of the magazine’s thirty-six pages were taken up in advertising Toyota’s car. In their introduction, the editors wrote:
“Welcome to Spark, a new magazine about the positive things that are going on all over the world, and the people working to create a brighter future for us all.”
Opposite these words could be seen a full-page advert for the Toyota Prius with the banner: “The future starts now”. The text on the front cover of the magazine read: “Positive thinking for a better tomorrow.” Toyota’s website informed visitors that Prius means “ahead of its time”.
We wrote to Spark magazine editor, Nick Taylor:
“Surely the needs and preferences of advertisers were central considerations in deciding the format and focus of the magazine.” (Email to Taylor, April 6, 2004)
“Your point is valid. But certainly not unique to my product. Ever worked on a magazine launch? The first and only real questions are: who will advertise with in [sic] product? Will it be read by people whom advertisers want to reach?” (Email to Media Lens, April 6, 2004)
Of course we cannot know that the timing of the appearance on the G2 cover of the latest Lexus, one week after a major multimedia campaign for precisely that vehicle had been announced, was anything more than a coincidence.
Similarly, in Hickman’s Lexus article, a photograph of a Prius appeared over the words “Leonardo Dicaprio in his Prius”. The article noted:
“In the US the waiting list for the RX400h is 18,000 long and said to include a number of eco-aware Hollywood A-listers. (Its smaller hybrid cousin, the Toyota Prius, was conspicuously driven by the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Orlando Bloom and Penelope Cruz to the Oscars this year.)”
And: “Andrew Davis, the director of the Environmental Transport Agency (ETA), a breakdown service that also lobbies for greener driving solutions, is pleased to see the emergence of hybrid engines. But they’re still far too expensive for the mainstream (the RX400h starts at £35,000): ‘In the ETA’s annual car buyers guide, the Prius came top…’”
This favourable reporting on the Prius may also have been coincidental. Likewise, the G2 front page headline, “Can this car save the world?”, may simply have been deemed the most appropriate regardless of the impact on advertising. We asked Andrew Rowell, a frequent contributor to the Guardian on environmental issues and author of the book Green Backlash (Routledge, 1996), what he thought of the G2 cover. He replied:
“The concept of a 4 X 4 saving the planet is a complete contradiction – it is the ultimate example of greenwash.” (Interview with Media Lens, June 14, 2005)
But, again, perhaps an innocent example.
On the face of it our questions to the Guardian editor were pretty outrageous. We were asking if money from advertisers had influenced the appearance of a major article in the paper. We very much doubted that this could have happened in any conspiratorial sense – a serious newspaper that allowed itself to be manifestly ’bought’ in this way would risk destroying utterly its credibility as an ‘unbiased’ source of information.
But we asked these questions to make a point. While Rusbridger and G2 editor Ian Katz both firmly reject the possibility of advertiser influence, the fact remains that the Guardian, like other papers, is precisely +designed+ to attract the advertisers on which it depends for its survival. If the very structure, layout and format of a paper is shaped by advertiser needs, then, as the Erlichman example suggests, the content filling these pages +must+ also be shaped by the same pressures, if only unconsciously.
In other words, Rusbridger and Katz reject, with great sincerity, the suggestion that advertisers influence content. And yet both know perfectly well that success depends on their attracting, not alienating, advertisers. This ability to embrace two contradictory ideas, without (apparent) awareness of the conflict, is a key factor facilitating journalistic self-deception and its awesome result – “brainwashing under freedom”.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. When writing emails to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Ask the editors below if they agree with Guardian Spark editor, Nick Taylor’s comments:
“Ever worked on a magazine launch? The first and only real questions are: who will advertise with in [sic] product? Will it be read by people whom advertisers want to reach?” (Email to Media Lens, April 6, 2004)
Ask them the extent to which this is also true of their products.
Write to Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger
Email: [email protected]
Write to Guardian G2 editor, Ian Katz
Email: [email protected]
Write to editor-in-chief of Guardian Unlimited, Emily Bell
Email: [email protected]