All the news that’s fit to share…

Have you noticed how online journalism and media purveyors have increasingly tarted up and/or dumbed down their content? Things have gotten way more visual, mimicking the look of Instagram and Pinterest. Echoing Buzzfeed and other pseudo journalism sites, we see more and more lists of dubious nature populating web pages: Top ten this. Worst 20 that. Native advertising and news stories are now slurry. No secret why. Editors want consumers. Publishers want advertisers. Both need more and meaningful clicks to survive.

Oh, and you like this shit. (Not me. I’m impervious to salacious come ons and all those sweet, sweet lists.)

In one respect, this is nothing new. Sensationalism has permeated journalism since it began. Whether it’s creepy crimes or naked ladies or both, newspapers have always flirted with the devil. Boobs sell papers. “If it bleeds it leads.”

Yet, what’s different here -and more insidious, in my opinion- is the meshing of bullshit with the news. An obscenity-laden video featuring ghetto trash fighting in McDonald’s is presented as a news story. The “ten outfits no woman over 30 should ever own” is displayed in the same space as an article about foreign policy. Throwback Thursdays. Monday Mug Shots. Fail videos. It’s stupid content just for the hell of it. Gone are the obvious markers for “advertisement” or “paid for by.” So, why would any reader-obsessed editor put this stuff on a separate entertainment-only page? You don’t hide the chum, fool. Put dat shit where people can see it. Stink up dem waters. We. Need. Clicks.

I get it. I really do. Still, it’s sad when journalists start putting inappropriate hyperbole in their copy. Suddenly, everything is “fascinating” or “terrifying” or “hilarious.” Aren’t we -the reader- supposed to be the judge of that?

The immense and growing popularity of Buzz Feed, Reddit, Devoured, Huff Post and countless other content buffets make it impossible for struggling news sites and online magazines to ignore, let alone exist.

Oh, and we like this shit.

Yes, the New Yorker.

While traveling these holidays I found myself on a 3-hour flight with only a copy of the latest New Yorker magazine. Only? I ended up reading the thing cover to cover (and not just the cartoons). It didn’t take long before I realized what a bunch of dumb fucks we’d become. Nobody reads poetry anymore, let alone essays about it. And who cares for long-form film and food criticism? Why bother with all that reading when you can just Yelp or check the meter on Rotten Tomatoes?

God bless The New Yorker. For it has staunchly stayed about important and interesting things even if much of the world, myself included, has not.

I’m a pretty smart guy. But sometimes I think I used to be smarter. And that perhaps I’ve been dropping IQ points every year starting, let’s say in 1994, around the time the Internet began changing everything. I am not alone. Perhaps this is the first great irony of the 21st century: that instead of providing people with untold knowledge the World Wide Web has merely flooded people with content. And because this creates competition for our attention all that information had to become entertaining. Ergo Infotainment. So videos instead of words… instead of even films. A whole lot of instead…

Theory of stupidity: We are getting dumber by the link.

I know. They warned us about TV when it became massively popular. “The Vast Wasteland,” one critic famously stated. What did our parents call television? The Idiot Box. The point is we got stupid long before the Internet. Still, the chasm seems so obvious and wide after reading that issue of The New Yorker. Shame crept over me as I digested an essay about the American poet, Marianne Moore. Or Patti Smith’s sincere tribute to her departed friend and sometimes critic, the rock legend, Lou Reed. Shame because while I thoroughly appreciated these finely observed and written pieces I couldn’t help but think how many years I had devoted to not, well, learning. I still devour novels and biographies, thank God. And I’ll always love movies. But like most everyone, I’ve become an eater of junk content: GIFS, Memes, Vines, Fail Videos, Funny or Die, and versions of advertisements and countless other useless links.

I tell myself I do this in order to stay relevant. After all, I’m a copywriter and a creative director. I sell this shit to my clients. But an ever-growing part of me also likes noshing on useless infotainment. Scrolling through Facebook is a bit like chewing on Kat, that leafy stimulant the wretchedly poor use to block out pain and pass the time. It’s addictive. And these days everyone (rich, poor, young, old) is chewing content. I’ve said it before. We are content zombies, recklessly biting bits and pieces of this and that, digesting little and seldom satisfied…

…until being sobered up by the New Yorker.

“She could teach us something new but what fun would that be?”

I was listening to Colin Cowherd on ESPN, while driving my oldest daughter to school the other day. He was going on about how “we are a society that craves affirmation not information.” I forget the context of his rant but the statement stuck with me. I told my 8th grader she wasn’t going to learn anything at school that day as prescient as what the man on the radio just said.

Sad but true. Americans (maybe all people) crave affirmation for beliefs, politics, and faith. Just about anything. It takes precedent over actually learning or evolving. Birds of a feather flock together.  A perfect example would be right leaning folks listening primarily to FOX News.

“Stay tuned for more of you want to hear…”

Wouldn’t the enlightened view have them listening to the Democrat’s preferred news outlets? That way they could learn something new. Find out what the other party is up to. But to Cowherd’s point, it really isn’t information people are seeking. It’s affirmation.  Obviously, the left is just as culpable. Can you say MSNBC?

Modern marketing has slavishly followed suit. If back in the day an advertiser had to inform one about a “unique selling proposition” now it need only garner “likes,” “fans” and “followers.” In other words: affirmation. Brands come off as just wanting to hang out with us, support our passions, be a part of our conversations. Frankly, it might be getting out of hand. It certainly can be annoying. I don’t want to follow Crest toothpaste on Twitter. Nor do I want them following me.

Yet, information is dull. We know what we want to know already. In the words of Kurt Cobain: “Here we are now, entertain us!”

I hadn’t completely absorbed the concept of “affirmation versus information” until Cowherd spelled it out. In my opinion, it’s a more incisive and correct analysis of modern society than simply saying we are getting lazy or dumb.

Craving affirmation defines our popular culture. If people ‘like’ us enough we get popular. Brands have modified their approaches accordingly. We all have.

I came home from work the other day and my daughter asked me how my day was. I said it was “harder” than some. She looked at me worried and said “But dad, I thought you liked work.”

I thought about that for a moment. My reply: “Just because something is hard doesn’t mean I don’t like it.”

I’m not sure she fully understood, let alone appreciated, my point. But I want her to. Many aspects in life (not just work) are hard. Hard as hell. But that doesn’t make them unlikeable. On the contrary a good challenge is often what makes life worthwhile.

Achievement and accomplishment are directly tied to mastering things that are difficult, be it work related, sporting or what have you. That is part and parcel to a purpose-driven life. Said another way easiness is not always your friend. Nor should it be. If my daughter grows up thinking ease of doing is all that matters then she might as well eat donuts all day long. Not a good plan.

I fear my daughter and many other people, including adults, take “easiness” as a euphemism for “likability.” A worrisome thought. I get that kids don’t enjoy doing hard things, like homework, chores or getting up in the morning.

But we move on, don’t we?

Maybe not. The phrase “famous for being famous” comes to mind. Without beating a dead horse our culture is inundated with halfwits and do-nothings that have achieved much without doing anything. Hard work has been replaced by being in the right place at the right time. Or some other form of pointless providence.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate a cakewalk, probably too much. Yet, I’m most happy when I’m focusing on a goal, be it in a run around the bay or tackling a tricky brief at work. I also know the feeling of accomplishment is as fleeting as it is fantastic. A new challenge is soon required. Hard work becomes its own reward and a spiritual one at that. The hunt, as they say, is more gratifying than the kill. This is what keeps me so engaged at work. Engaged period. Shortcuts, be they technological or psychological, have altered much. But not all. And for this I am thankful.

I’m convinced my daughter will figure out the path less trodden is often the more rewarding one and therefor more likable. If not my job, hard as it may be, is to teach her.

The adoration of art history!

Something wonderful happened to me the other day while I was working on a freelance project: I was able to use my modest knowledge of art history in the formation of a creative idea! Yes sir, those classes I took long ago at the University of Wisconsin actually came in handy for work. As a matter of fact, we’ll be using examples from the Renaissance and other important periods in art history not only to inform the execution of our idea but also to help sell it. It isn’t everyday you see Raphael or Tintoretto in a PowerPoint presentation. But you will in ours. We even use the word chiaroscuro…correctly!

Why does that make me giddy? Because for the entire new century we’ve all obsessed about new media ad nausea, especially those of us in advertising, or whatever the hell we’re calling it. And I’m as guilty as anyone. Maybe more so.

My point is we’re so amped on whatever the new, new thing is we often forget how brilliant certain old things are and how vital. For centuries, paintings and illustrations were the primary visual media available to Man. Instead of clicking through myriad links and cable channels, man sought inspiration or entertainment from still images, the best of which were generally paintings. Earlier generations gazed upon frescoes in their church and if they were lucky got to see masterworks at a salon or museum. Granted, lewd and crude drawing pervaded popular culture but the high road was pretty damn high for those who elected to take it.

Pause here for a second…what we make is so ephemeral, isn’t it? The best marketing campaigns in the world quickly fade into trivia. Whatever wins at Cannes this year will be entirely forgotten in 3 to 5 years. Probably sooner. Our masterpieces might be game changers for our industry and even popular culture but they have no value or meaning beyond a few ad classes and even those are fleeting. Few things are more irrelevant than the 2003 Gunn Report.

Yet, I don’t want to lecture about art versus commerce or the dumbing down of society or anything like that. For one thing I’d be a hypocrite. I haven’t been to the Art Institute of Chicago in several years, and it’s 5 miles from my house. I stay up late to watch horror movies from Europe. I blog about advertising! For all my alleged culture you’ll find me on the low road often enough. I guess all I’m saying is that it felt pretty good knowing the old masters were still relevant to the creative process, mine anyway.