How Did You Become a Product?

The Great Network News Conspiracy and Why Facebook is Now the News Leader

If you:

  • Read an article
  • Like a Facebook post
  • Watch a TV show
  • Watch YouTube
  • Search the web for products and services
  • Scroll through Instagram
  • Sift through snail mail ads
  • Glance at billboards
  • Check in at Starbucks
  • Talk to Alexa (Amazon Echo)

. . . you are what’s called a target audience. Companies try to identify specific types of audiences via advertising and media so they can sell specific stuff to them.

So, traditional media outlets like TV networks, social media sites and news publications collaborate with companies that advertise in order to make this happen.

Not exactly rocket science, ay?

If you take the reasoning a step further, one could say that YOU are the “product” that’s sold to the companies that are so obsessed with these “targets.”

The media sells you to their advertisers. The more they know about you, the better. Once they mesh a targeted ad with a targeted audience, the advertisers have a much more realistic chance of closing a sale.

You are quite the valuable commodity.

John C. Dvorak of The No Agenda show illustrates this beautifully. “ . . you see very specific audiences developed as products,” said Dvorak. “The network nightly news is a perfect example of this. They have all developed an older audience to which the drug companies can sell drugs. Ideally, they, the audience, are old and sickly.”

“Naïve critics complain that the TV network news is no good because only old people watch it,” continued Dvorak. “They go on to say it is dying because they cannot attract younger viewers. This is not true. These critics are know-nothings who should be ignored because they do not understand what is going on. Adding younger viewers to network news would cheapen the value of the audience to the real customers – the advertising drug companies.”

BINGO! So, another question might be: What kind of programming ensures that this “sick” audience stays intact and reliable?

Apparently, this decades-long experiment has deduced that a mix of fear-mongering, tragedy, health information confusion, weather issue confusion, celebrity worship and take-downs, political outrage, and financial confusion works best.

It is in both the advertisers’ and the networks’ best interests to keep this audience unhealthy and infirm. Their solutions come as 30-second “spots” between all the drama and unrest.

This is a very unique audience. Just ask the ad execs:

“One could argue that, given the long-held perceptions” about evening newscasts, “we haven’t gotten the full value that I think we perhaps should have for ‘Nightly News,'” John Kelly, senior VP of ad sales for NBC News, told AdAge, conceding that drug makers and “personal care” products make up two-thirds of Nightly‘s advertising roster.

Ad execs like Kelly even argue that this particular audience is even more unique, because they pay attention better than other audiences.

Pretty cool, huh?

There are more layers. If you extend these thoughts, it’s pretty clear why Facebook would be a center of gravity for all this. Facebook is the corner store, the gossip headquarters for fake news, real news, salacious news, outrageous news and everything in between. The whole village is there, undressed, embarrassed, bragging, smirking, trolling and joking.

People pull their friends into news stories via Facebook - whether by outrage (Trump sucks!), empathy (Raise money for _fill in the blank_ cause.), sports bragging/baiting (Tom Brady is a douche!) or health scares (coffee, Zika, opioids!). And, according to Pew Research, 62% of people get news via social media (mostly Facebook, Twitter and Reddit - I would think that LinkedIn drives a lot of business news, as well).

So that’s the town square, and Mark Zuckerberg and company control the feed with “algorithms” that are supposed to be helping you out by showing you what’s best for you according to what you like, click on, view for more than 30 seconds and so forth. They’re the data machine that’s constantly taking your temperature in order to serve up more crappy news stories and “relevant ads.”

Just remember - you are the product in systems that support and promote paid advertising. The more you take this to heart, the better you can “reclaim your time,” avoid feeling poorly because of whipped up “news,” and get on with your life.

There are a lot of great topics to dive into here. We’ll circle back for deeper dives soon. Stay tuned! And, comment below to add your 2c.

Media Rebel Part 3 – Baked-In Advertising

  • Native ads and why millenials think they’re impervious to advertising
  • Broken state of magazines and print
  • Web destinations (WSJ, Huffpo, Drudge, Google News) vs. social discovery (head forever buried in social media feed, no intentional news seeking)
  • Dynamic ad insertion: Outbrain, “brand stories,” and the new advertorial
  • Buzzfeed and Vice click-bait articles

Media Rebel: How to Stay Sane in an Insanely Ad-Driven Media World

Today’s modern media landscape is shaping and confusing the minds of young people at warp speed. They may not realize it. Even adults trained in critical thinking and academic analysis get confused with the incessant noise and suspect claims that flow freely across the multi-channel, multi-device media world.

One of the big problems is that advertising and persuasion mechanisms are baked right into the product, and it’s now easier than ever to insert it, track it, retarget consumers and generally dupe people into misinformed positions in order to cultivate:

  • Buying decisions
  • Political decisions
  • Medical decisions
  • Financial decisions
  • Lifestyle choices
  • And other related drivers of everyday living and long-term planning

None of this is particularly new. It’s just that the science of scamming, duping, cajoling and nudging is getting dangerously competent. Unfortunately, advertisers have taken wisdom from books like Robert Cialdini’s Persuasion (FEAR: “People are more motivated by what they stand to lose than by what they stand to gain.”), and turned it loose within the worlds of print journalism, TV, radio, podcasting and elsewhere. The upcoming generation of consumers is facing some of the smartest, most irresistible messaging techniques in history. The snake oil salesman is not as easily identifiable as he once was.

Savvy companies now view the media as hired storytellers to be manipulated on their behalf (many have always held this view). Donald Trump is the current master of the trade.

Today, bogus outfits like Buzzfeed and Vice rule content production, while technology behemoths like Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook control advertising delivery methods. In years past, centralized juggernauts like the CBS Evening News, The Wall Street Journal, various magazine and radio conglomerates, CNN, the Los Angeles Times, NPR and Pravda managed to guide public discourse (and the associated commercial interests) with relative ease. There was supposed to be an impenetrable wall between advertising and editorial, but those formats, by their very nature, were PR channels, as well. Large businesses, like professional sports teams, amphitheaters, movie studios, Fortune 500 companies, and similar concerns enjoyed steady coverage in exchange for pay-to-play advertising expenditures. Politicians used these old platforms to great effect, as well (and great expense).

In decades past, the editor influenced and controlled your “feed.” Now you and your friends do to some extent. The platforms that control information presentation algorithms have a significant amount of control, as well (Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple). We may soon see a day when actual headlines are customized based on your public profiles, fears, wants and individual quirks.

In order to navigate these new mine fields with some sanity, the best thing a student (young or old) can do is to get smart about how they’re being manipulated and pitched.

Highlights from our course outline and upcoming textbook follow.

Media Rebel Course Goals

How do we want the students to leave the course?

  • Ability to analyze and combat advertising strategies and be intentional about our consumer choices
  • Possess critical thinking skills that allow them to examine the motivations, economics and powers behind 1) Entertainment, 2) News and 3) Advertising media. (in order of emotional impact)
  • Ability to lucidly debate and explain the modern media landscape
  • Make better life decisions based on a clearer view of how the media world works

What are we rebelling against?

  • Advertising
  • Marketing
  • Persuasion
  • Government
  • Deception
  • Lies
  • Sleight of hand
  • Submission

Part 1 – Historical Perspective and Analysis

  • Recent media history - transitional times
  • Print => web
  • Radio => podcast
  • TV => YouTube/Netflix
  • Broadcast dominance => self-selection/YouTube
  • Basics: What’s the difference between “hard news,” “opinion,” and “analysis?”

Part 2 – Online and Offline Persuasion

  • Advertising and persuasion traditions
  • How they work in the modern web
  • Tracking cookies and personalization
  • Pop-ups, banner ads and interruption marketing
  • “Newsjacking” (David Meerman Scott); Celebrity-jacking (Charlie Houpert)

Part 3 – Baked-In Advertising

  • Native ads and why millenials think they’re impervious to advertising
  • Broken state of magazines and print
  • Web destinations (WSJ, Huffpo, Drudge, Google News) vs. social discovery (head forever buried in social media feed, no intentional news seeking)
  • Dynamic ad insertion: Outbrain, “brand stories,” and the new advertorial
  • Buzzfeed and Vice click-bait articles

Part 4 – Advertising and the Political Cycle

  • The illusion of a close race
    • The concealed landslide
    • Look at Florida Bush/Gore – actual close race
    • Who pays the advertising costs?
    • Corporate donors
    • Individual donors
    • Presidential campaign contributions on tax returns
    • Taxpayers
    • PACs
    • Looking at an IRS Form 990
  • What do donors get in return?
    • Political influence
    • Actual assets and resources
    • Favorable contracts and consideration
    • Political positions, power and appointments
    • How do the news media profit?
    • Directly with ad revenue
    • Influence and access to people, stories and “content”
    • Event coverage for productions, debates, conventions and election night coverage
  • Revenue differences
    • Tight races vs. blowouts
      • Is it more important to have an engaged or un-engaged electorate?
      • How is electoral balance maintained?
  • Dems vs. Repubs
  • 3rd party discouragement
  • How lobbying works
  • NGOs and Government agencies
  • Solving global or worldwide “problems” – NGOs, Soros, Gates, Buffet

Part 5 – Major, Mainstream Advertising

Why does the news industry exist?

What state is the audience in?

  • Hungry
  • Stressed                                               Body
  • Tired
  • Worried about health


  • Worried about personal safety
  • Worried about privacy, hackers, personal secrets
  • Worried about safety of public/nation/community                               Mind
  • Worried about the children, grandchildren, foreign hungry children
  • Worried about what they can do, how they can vote, weapons they can use.


  • Dejected
  • Hopeless                                                                                 Spirit
  • Searching
  • Scared

What time does news show? Before dinner to drive conversations. (featured in airports, restaurants, bars). Now 24x7 since CNN. 

What’s being sold? FUD-A

  • Fear – personal safety in peril
    • Murders
    • Foreign governments/terrorists
    • Disease
    • Drugs
    • Others/hungry, starving children
    • Diet, medical problems
  • Uncertainty/Doubt
    • Health – caffeine vs. decaf, carb vs. low carb, meat vs. no meat, etc.
    • Financial markets boom and bust
    • Economy and jobs
    • Computer virus/cyber/security
    • Weather, warming, cooling, storms, chance
  • Aspiration
    • Personal appearance
    • Celebrity worship
    • Better mind, body, spirit, location, job, etc.

False Solutions

  • Politicians
  • Police
  • Policy/rules
  • Initiatives/votes/elections/laws/petitions
  • Products – face creams, operations, pills, electronics, security systems, etc.

What are the networks (ABC, FOX, CNN, NBC, CBS, NPR), and what are the differences?

  • Corporate affiliations (ABC/Disney/ESPN; Murdoch; etc.)
  • Political affiliations
  • Advertiser influence
  • Public funding influence
  • Norman Lear Foundation and similar (for comedy and drama programming w/ issues baked in)

Alternative Networks (Al Jazeera, Democracy Now, The Intercept, Russia Times RT)

Who advertises? (solutions)

  • Military
  • Politicians
  • Orgs/503c/non-profit
  • Media/entertainment
  • Alarms/security
  • Pharma
  • Manufacturing
  • Causes
  • Food/market
  • Restaurants
  • Diet

Part 6 - Opportunities & Dangers

  • How the music industry used to work and how it works now. (Interview Jason Fine – Rolling Stone)
    • How does the music business now make money for artists?
    • What is a hit musician's budget like, and how do they allocate their time, $ and efforts?
    • Can you explain what it's like to deal with agents, managers and the machine behind the artist?
    • Is it true that the biz no longer picks winners and losers? Can an artist really make it with a Twitter account and chops? Or is that a complete fabrication?
    • Should pop music always be bad, and what purpose does that serve?
    • What's being sold by songs?
    • Are there political artists that are now having an impact on the times?
    • Do magazines like the Rolling Stone struggle with waning influence and the fragmented media landscape? What's the strategy behind staying relevant?
  • Eating, drinking, smoking and fraud in the consumer food industry (interview Jim Thrasher – Univ. South Carolina)
    • Food
    • Tobacco
    • Vape/Electronic
    • Marijuana
  • The senses vs. the modern world – packaging and words tell you everything before you perceive. Stories told on packages of food and other consumer items. Choice as activism. Consumers as brand ambassadors. Politics. Pre-Suasion book by Robert Cialdini

Course Reader & Recommended Texts

•    Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman

•    Sports in America, Michener

•    Confessions of an Economic Hitman, Perkins

•    Incluence, Cialdini

•    Pre-Suasion, Cialdini

•    Truth in Digital Advertising -

•    Advertising Fraud -