27 March 2007

Letter to Friends of the ABC re brand names

To: Glenys Stradijot
Friends of the ABC, Victoria

Dear Glenys

Thanks for your thoughtful response to my piece in Crikey re ABC and brand names. Believe it or not, I am a "friend" (with a lower case "f") of the ABC, a regular ABC viewer, listener and contributor (both formally and informally as a talkback caller on radio). I would be grateful if you could share my thoughts in reply with your members – I would be interested to hear what they think.

I’m sure you are correct that a sizeable section of the Australian community supports the principle of keeping the ABC free of advertising. But you are also right when you note that, in an era of what I would call "integrated marketing communications", the distinctions between advertising and other forms of promotion are increasingly blurred. And that’s precisely what makes the ABC’s current practice look so ridiculous.

Leaving aside the Grand Prix (which simply wouldn’t exist without commercial motives), in a week where ABC announcers were not allowed to say that Tasmania had won the "Pura Cup", this "citizen" encountered the following on ABC radio, TV and internet channels:

• ABC radio business news items featuring commentary by "stock market analysts" from Goldman Sachs JB Were and "currency strategists" from Macquarie Bank and ANZ Investment Bank;
• Several minutes of TV footage and dozens of web images showing sponsors’ logos (Ford, Emirates, HSBC, Vodafone, QBE, LG, etc.) on sporting jerseys and boundary line signage across multiple sporting codes;
• Numerous interviews with visiting actors, authors and musicians, all with a commercial property of some sort to promote, like singer-guitarist Tony Joe White, whose latest album we were told "is released by Warner Music" which no doubt sponsored his tour and the limo to Southbank for the interview;
• News items – on radio and online – reporting on a poll conducted and publicised by AC Nielsen – a commercial market research company – showing that 59 per cent of Australians are opposed to the "WorkChoices" industrial relations legislation (a name for which three separate Trade Marks have been applied by the Commonwealth);
• A cerebral palsy fundraiser to be held "at Riverside at Crown", which begs the question of whether mention of a commercial property like Crown is OK when it’s for charity?
• etc.

None of these constitutes "advertising" on the ABC. That is, in none of these cases did the commercial entity pay money to the ABC in exchange for airtime, so the national broadcaster’s conscience can remain clear. Neither, to my knowledge, does National Foods Limited attempt to pay the ABC to say "Pura Cup". Yet, in every one of these instances, there is a clear underlying marketing communications objective to the provision of expert commentary, the availability of a guest for interview or the sponsorship of a charity or community event by a commercial entity. It’s a simple question that I’m asking: Why should AC Nielsen – which benefits commercially from every mention of its name in a credible news service like the ABC’s and no doubt calculates a dollar value for every column inch or second of airtime such a poll generates – be entitled to acknowledgment by our national broadcaster when Telstra and Pura are not?

It’s highly likely that many of the concerned citizens that your organisation represents also support the principle of freedom of speech and are opposed to censorship, especially when it’s arbitrary and not transparent. Unless FABC has a better classification system than I do (and I teach marketing communications to postgraduate students) and you can mount a rational argument as to which of these cases deserve to get to air and which don’t, then I reiterate that refusing ABC announcers permission to say "Telstra Dome" or "Vodafone Arena" is not only unworkable but is a form of censorship of our national broadcaster and hence should be regarded as unconscionable.

Stephen Downes

17 March 2007

Double standards at the ABC (Anti-Brand Corporation)

It's been a standing joke for years on the Coodabeen Champions' shows on ABC Radio: the ABC (so the apparent justification goes) is a Government broadcaster and doesn't carry advertising, so no brand names can be mentioned on-air. Of course, it's almost impossible to discuss modern life without reference to brands, so the Coodabeens have become experts at creating elaborate and humorous euphemisms to get around this restriction. In so doing, they clearly illustrate how ridiculous the policy is.

It seemed rather less ridiculous and a lot more bizarre when I was approached last year by ABC Local Radio to do an interview with Helen Razer about whether too much choice makes consumers unhappy (see this earlier blog entry). I was expressly cautioned by the producer not to mention any brand names! Asking a marketer to discuss consumer behaviour and decision-making without mentioning brands is like asking a football commentator not to mention the teams or the players.

But the inconsistency and hypocrisy of this policy was never more obvious than in today's 9 am news bulletin on ABC Local Radio in Melbourne. Back-to-back items referred to (1) the final of the AFL "pre-season cup" to be held "at Docklands" tonight and (2) the relative performances of the Ferrari and Red Bull teams in practice sessions yesterday for the Melbourne Formula 1 Grand Prix.

How can it be inappropriate or unacceptable for the ABC to say "NAB Cup" and "Telstra Dome" but perfectly OK to say "Ferrari" and "Red Bull" in the next breath?

It's a no-brainer that participation by a company like Red Bull in motor racing is entirely about brand positioning. It follows, therefore, that every single mention of the Red Bull racing team on the ABC over the course of the Grand Prix "festival" is a piece of marketing communications initiated by the brand owner. Significant and undeniable mass-market brand positioning objectives also underlie the participation of car makers like Honda, Toyota, BMW, Renault and even Ferrari.

And then ABC motor sports commentator Will Hagon - current holder of the world record for irrelevant, self-aggrandising name-dropping - will spend hours of airtime on "our ABC" rabbiting on about Bridgestone and Michelin tyres and Zylon anti-penetration panels (both trade marks, naturally).

Of course, names like AFL and Formula 1 are themselves highly-protected trade marks and commercial properties. So why aren't ABC announcers instructed to refer instead to "the national Australian Rules football competition" or "the elite international motor sport event being held at Albert Park"?

And, yes, I said "hypocrisy". Consider the ABC's own brands and commercial activities (while it may be "not-for-profit", it most certainly has commercial operations). The national broadcaster (see - I'm not using a brand name) has spawned a number of immensely successful brands: The Wiggles, PlaySchool, Triple J, the Hottest 100, Gardening Australia and The ABC Shop are just a few examples of brands from which the ABC earns revenue directly and through licensing agreements. Every mention of those lovable Bananas in Pyjamas on ABC TV, Radio or websites helps drive profits for a variety of commercial entities that pay the ABC to use the images of B1, B2 and Rat In A Hat.

Don't let's forget that the ABC also does tremendously well out of leveraging the equity of many other brands, both in terms of its programming and via sales through ABC stores: think Little Britain, SeaChange, Planet Earth, etc.

It's time we called things what they really are - let's name names. The bottom line (whoops, that's a bit commercial, isn't it?) is that the ABC's "policy" amounts to arbitrary censorship - it's applied inconsistently and unfairly, and it's entirely unworkable, unnecessary and unwelcome.