Paying for Popularity

Last December the Guardian newspaper released six articles in one week under the globalized theme: Taming Corporate Power.  After the fall of Wall Streets banks in 2009 byway of its subprime mortgage debacle, the eyes of the West began to defog and we, its citizens, began asking questions. These questions are quite different from the philosophical questions of the 19th and 20th centuries, posed by greats such as Gramsci and Marx. The individual and the State are no longer the ones solely at odds. In the 21st century the omnipresent role has switched from the state to the corporation, or their convoluted combination. To rewind back to the Guardian, in one of its shortest and least empowering articles, “Individualism at the root of the problem,” an excellent question is posed: “democracy gave capital the power to pursue its own interest. Why are people surprised it does not serve theirs?

Why are we surprised that companies don’t exist solely to make our lives better?

Humorously, my mind replays Mitt Romney’s fatal flaw during his 2012 campaign trail in Iowa State proclaiming, “corporations are people!” But his self-righteous statement is however, nauseatingly ironic. This is our problem. We’ve let corporations hide within their deconstructed forms of logos, product placement, and celebrity endorsements, all the while quietly claiming the right to dictate social formations.

In Canada we don’t have the corporate lobbying issues of American or quite the scale of corporate grip that squeezes people for profit like Walmart. Our national corporate grip lays in media and its message. Our telecommunication companies own our mediums and our messages. Don’t think they own your iPhone, ask yourself if you bought that phone outright or pay for it monthly?

Last August, John Olivier on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, tackled the most seamless form of news and advertising integration, native advertising. In the segment, Ken Auletta, a New York Times contributor defines native advertising as, “basically saying to corporations that want to advertise; we will camouflage your ads to make them look like news stories.” Before you think this is American problem, PostMedia Inc. owner of ten Canadian daily newspapers, including The Vancouver Sun and The Province, uses Native Advertising and Custom Content creation to entice potential advertisers. Postmedia Inc.’s website highlights past Native Advertising collaborations (case studies), such as The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and Shell FP Energy. In its two line summary of its collaboration with CAPP it explains it as a “year long integrated program includ[ing] 4 national Special Reports, 12 Joint Venture articles and media sponsorship of CAPP’s National Investment Symposium.” In its list of campaign elements it used during this year long integrated program, it lists “co-branded editorial drivers” and “home page takeover” as a few of its strategies. A home page takeover strategy seems similar to the strategy of popular music; constant repetition of the same song grows familiarity which is easily mistaken for favourability.  In other words, people don’t necessarily like it, but they are used to it.

The summary of the Shell FP Energy cast study states that “FP became an objective, editorially driven product soliciting participation from all stakeholders in Canada’s energy sector and covering a wide variety of topic from pipelines to power lines.”

First, I have problems with the word objective. How is a major gas provider objective about oil when its brand reputation is being favourably pushed to the limelight?

Secondly, as a British Columbian I find this most troubling that in the middle of an important public debate on pipeline production, tankers along the West Coast shoreline, and one month before the Kitimat plebiscite, the Financial Post publishes on March 7 2014 a polarized native advertisement titled, “A Joint Venture with CAPP: Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance: Collaboration for the environment.”

How can Canadian citizen’s make an informed decision on a political issue when the bias is paid for by the richest players? And most difficult to answer, are we still a democratic nation if our messages are controlled? These are the important questions facing Canadians today.

By: Caroline Brown