Return to the Index

GP 18 June 2008: Free: Heard It on the Grapevine

The Clinton Women.  Regular as sin, all the broadcast and cable networks remind us that Barack Obama has big problems with America’s women.  The damsels distressed are reputed to be flocking to John McCain, their only port in a storm.  But take a look at “Angry Clinton Women Love McCain?’ New York Times, June 15, 2008, p.wk13.  There Frank Rich reports “New polls show Mr. Obama opening up a huge lead among female voters—beating Mr. McCain by 13 percentage points in the Gallup and Rasmussen polls and by 19 points in the latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News survey.”  The standard line, which is dead wrong, is that Obama has no hope of picking up white women or white male laborers, who were ostensibly mesmerized by Senator Hillary, but won’t take to him.

This is only one glaring example of the miserable job our official media are doing on the elections and about anything else worth writing or talking about.  It’s a cruel irony that just as the master storyteller and Washington journalist Tim Russert gets snatched from us by a heart attack, we learn, in the same breath, that media, cursed by financial and ideological woes, and afflicted with some measure of laziness, are not getting its job done. Quite often the mouths and the scribblers are peddling ideas and information that have no connection with reality.

I Heard It Through the Grapevine“I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” a Motown great from 1967, is a song that is carved in the bark of memory, performed by Gladys Knight, Marvin Gaye, and so many others.  It is about the early stages of a breakup of a relationship, and could as well commemorate our very slow divorce from the bonds of the 20th century, and our reluctant affair with the 21st.  As well, perhaps, it reminds us of our breakup with the cherished media that once glued together America, drawn as we are to new channels of communication that are replacing the clogged arteries that pose as networks.  Whole truckloads of garbage circulate through the blogosphere, but, often as not, it is this virtual world of the Internet that is now also providing us accurate data, early on, on all sorts of matters that television and newspapers never touch or just get plain wrong.  The World Wide Web is filled with falsehoods and worse, but it is also the path by which information and truths get passed along, without the coloration brushed on by middlemen, with a swiftness that pays no heed to the editors of the world in politics, media, and academia. Revelations creep through the Internet, because nobody can quite control it.

The Gossip Machine.  In fact, the Internet is a giant, largely unregulated gossip machine.  Even with the dross, it serves as an efficient and effective disseminator of what’s going on.  This information flow makes it, in turn, a vastly effective, if sometimes inefficient,  catalyst for business transactions.  Because bandwidth and everything that goes with it is fairly cheap, the information can go anywhere and everywhere, making it harder and harder for producers and middlemen to charge low prices in one city and larcenous prices in another. 

Chris Anderson, editor of Wired magazine, has been pretty provocative writing about this.  His Long Tail makes clear, amongst other things, how boutique, high-quality products can be marketed on the cheap over the Internet, helping to drive the mass market out of our lives.  Custom producers of very tailored products can, with the Internet, earn a good living, enjoying better margins and sometimes better profits than traditional manufacturers who are only geared up to sell average or low quality objects to hordes of people.  At last, to quote Burger King, we “can have it our way,” casting aside the ‘one size fits all’ model that prevailed in the age of the mass market.
A New Freedom.  He is now extending his argument about the power of the Internet.  To wit, his new book Free is supposed to be out sometime in 2009.  He has previewed it in Wired, March 2008, pp. 140-149 and 194, “Why $0.00 Is the Future Business.”  He enlarges on the old notion that sometimes the best way to sell a product is to give it away, recalling that King Gillette really put his razor on the map by giving it away in droves, finally understanding that the real profit would come from peddling blades.  We have lots of that kind of thinking now, with banks and cellphone companies and others giving away free or low-priced products and services in hopes of selling us lots of extras.  RyanAir in Europe charges unbelievably low fares, but spears the customer with titanic prices for special seating, baggage, etc, exacting a steep tariff for literally everything.

The Internet allows a merchant to deliver messages to consumers at ever declining prices, according to Anderson.  For at least some products, this not only means that merchants can practice the old game of selling the razor cheap and overcharging for the blade, but that the cost of everything—the razor and the blade—can come down.  This is most easily seen in publications.  Newspapers and magazines used to make a pretty penny from circulation: now they have to give the product away online, and, often, even have to give away hard copies at very little cost.  Wired, for instance, can be had for a song.  Online publications more or less have to make their money on advertising, not circulation.  Some people have doubts about the reliability of what comes to you free over the Internet, but we are hard pressed to say that it provides anything less accurate or complete than old-line media.  The song said, “People say believe half of what you see, Son, and none of what you hear,” but in the end, much of what we see and hear from the New Media turns out to be the real story.

The Free World.  With such low distribution costs, we can expect more and more goods to be free.  Software is sold at lower and lower costs.  Open Source products such as browsers (Firefox) don’t cost a dime.  The world’s most renowned encyclopedia, Wikipedia, is free and depends on the free contribution of services for its content.  Encyclopedia Britannica is no longer standard fare in rising middleclass homes.  Skype, an Internet phone service, free in North America when it was at its best, still offers free calls if you are calling other Skype users around the globe, though its idealism and its quality have come apart since its purchase by eBay

As the power of ‘free’ becomes more self evident, freebies—worthwhile giveaways—abound.  ‘Free’ is a much bigger idea than the Internet.  Boars Head, purveyor of fine luncheon meats, recently gave away a free package of frankfurters with each one bought and provided samples of its honey mustard for those who purchased its other products.  When it was more agile, Starbucks gave away an iTunes song of the day with a purchase (now it offers rather convoluted freebies with its gift card).  The better hotels we visit across the world make sure there are abundant amounts of free sundry items that will make our stay more enjoyable.  And so it goes, with more and more merchants offering more and more free, because they are learning that ‘free’ and ‘new’ are the most powerful words in merchandising.

Convertising.  The Internet is speeding the transmission of information, revamping the nature of commerce, and, above all, making America’s traditional advertising obsolescent.  Ads no longer sell enough goods and they cost too much.  They are just part of the message clutter.  Even in its golden age, advertising never amounted to much more than repetitive dumbness occasionally relieved by a little wit.  Now it even lacks the unique selling proposition good copywriters insisted on, and it is boring in the extreme. The best advertising, increasingly, is simply no advertising. Better to give the product away to enough people and hope word of mouth will create a sensation if, that is, the product is any good.

Just a couple of years ago we were out for dinner with one of the giants of advertising and the chap who succeeded him as chairman of one of the world’s renowned agencies.  They talked about the state of the ad business.  The ‘giant’ confided in me that he simply did not understand what modern ads were trying to do or say.  But, in truth, they are not trying to say much, hoping to use graphics and music and other nonsense to move the consumer to spend a buck, since the products have so little to offer.

We expect the new rules of the Internet to displace this advertising flotsam jetsam.  The consumer can now compare prices from across the country and can hunt and peck for better mousetraps, a search done at home on the computer in a few moments.  He has become more sophisticated, and is a bit more impervious to the torrent of expensive messages being sent his way.  Advertising will have to turn into a conversation where the purveyor more straightforwardly lays out the products strengths and weaknesses, and much more lucidly makes clear how the product can be used most effectively.  And, for durables, the merchant will have to make clear how they are best maintained.  Large office equipment and computer manufacturers already foster user groups that treat customers more like informed partners and less like dumb terminals.  Smart merchandisers at all levels will begin to realize that the Internet has made commodities out of all products and services, and that only a penumbra of useful, intelligent information can make product x more desirable than product y.  Each product sale needs to be coated and packaged in a basket of information. Purveyors of very complex products are beginning to learn that they can enjoy better sales and more customer loyalty if they are utterly transparent about the codes and engineering that go into their products.

More and Better Free.  It is ‘free’ perhaps that will become the grease of modern society and modern commerce.  We need a lot more free goods, cheaply distributed.  It is not entirely clear who does ‘free’ well.  The federal government should be knee deep in the free public health business, but it has fouled up its whole public health machine.  Its bureaucracy, in fact, has not bettered our health, but has simply grown ever more cumbersome.  Private organizations are making modest attempts to provide products that should originate with public health services.

Companies with semi-public responsibilities are not living up to their charters.  For instance, universal phone service has been lost in the new world of wireless where flawed networks offer expensive fragmentary broken coverage and cellphones that are not consumer responsive, so much so that Nokia, the world’s leading cellphone company, has not made the U.S. a primary market.  It knows the wireless providers are dictating equipment and services that are not what consumers want.  Education and commerce in the United States suffer because we lack inexpensive, universal services for clear public goods.

There is a burgeoning movement to provide free or inexpensive municipal wireless.  We are unclear as to how more ‘free’ should happen, but it is clear that we need more adventuresome experiments—municipal offerings, nonprofit providers, perhaps even old fashioned political machines—to make and distribute freebies effectively.

P.S.  We don’t understand as well as we should what gossip can and does do for us.  Wikipedia, for instance, does a less than adequate job discussing gossip.  As we remember, Thoreau avoided newspapers, thinking them nothing more than mediocre purveyors of gossip, but is gossip all that bad?  It seems like you have to take the bad with the good.  When only ‘good’ is allowed, narrow minds have the power to suppress things that just might be worth knowing.  Truth has a certain randomness to it, and nobody has an exclusive on it.

P.P.S.  AVG, anti-virus software, has a free edition and is extremely popular.  Last time we looked it had been downloaded 2.9 million times.  It and other free software can be found at  www.download.com.

P.P.P.S.  Obama is even going after evangelicals, once thought to be the exclusive preserve of the Republicans and certainly the key to Bush the Younger’s last presidential victory.  In politics as in marketing, this brings out a central truth.  Segmentation marketing has gone about as far as it can go, and it is now a losing proposition.  The smart salesman will now figure out ways to go after everybody, since you don’t know who will be a secret buyer. So-called targeted marketing is often not as smart a proposition as direct marketing gurus like to claim.

P.P.P.P.S.  In this strange world, one is never quite sure what and who will turn out to be a winner.  The Huffington Post has become a popular, important blog.  Who would have thunk it?  It’s the brainchild of Arianna Huffington, who annoys us no end, who has a notoriously irritating voice, who has turncoated from conservative to liberal, but who has somehow birthed a winner.  As interesting, we think, is the fact that she has successfully re-invented herself.  The online publications of traditional media are not as fresh, burdened as they are with archaic notions of what media are all about.  They have not truly found their place in the world of the Internet, and their efforts at interactive telephony have been equally pitiful.  It is awfully hard to travel into the future when the past has provided too comfortable, too easy a living.

Back to Top of Page

Return to the Index of Letters from the Global Province

Home - About This Site - Contact Us

Copyright 2008 GlobalProvince.com