We’re used to famous people plugging products within the features sections of newspapers – and increasingly on the sports pages - but is it right for them
to do so in front-page splashes?
On Sunday, The Sun touted a remarkable exclusive interview with one of the nation’s most respected sporting heroes, Sir Ian Botham. In it, the former
cricketer ‘revealed’ that he was undergoing a new kind of therapy to combat erectile dysfunction. The piece was rather wonderfully labelled a ‘Testicle
The bizarre story became one of those rare 24-hour publicity-generating phenomenons that public relations specialists can only dream of. Botham’s ‘story’
was subsequently picked up by almost every single newspaper and was posted onto almost every leading news website (The Guardian being an exception).
But is it a story or just an artful piece of advertising for a product – or what’s come to be known as content marketing?
A spokesman for News UK, which publishes The Sun, insists it’s genuine: ‘We don’t splash on stories that are plugs for products. The Botham material
definitely had serious news value.’
Indeed, it did. For within the three-page ‘story’, Sir Ian urged all men who are worried they are suffering from impotence, or are worried that they
might one day suffer from it (ie, every single bloke) to get themselves checked out and find out more about this remarkable new treatment.
He’s been having Vigore Linear Shockwave Therapy all summer and, after his final session, proudly announced in the newspaper: ‘I’m a male and men do
have problems and you have to front up to them. There’s no downside to this only a big upside.’
Which is both a brilliant double entendre and a neat way of asking: is there any other ‘upside’ to this alleged story?
For instance, what’s the relationship between Sir Ian, Vigore and Dr Sherif Wakil, who treated the former cricketing hero and now Sky Sports commentator?
Indeed, what relationship does The Sun – owned by the same company as Sky – have with Vigore, a brand which, in the space of a single article,
gets six name checks over a double-page spread together with a graphic which shows how the treatment allegedly works. (By increasing nitrous oxide
to increase blood flow within the penis and repair damaged tissue, if you must know.) How were the ‘facts’ of the story attained and then verified?
And here’s the most intriguing thing of all – Sir Ian doesn’t even suffer from erectile dysfunction. He’s fine when it comes to sex with his wife Kathy
(who has had to endure years of Sir Ian’s extramarital liaisons, now thankfully in the past he adds somewhat sheepishly at the end of the article).
So here’s a ‘story’ about a man who doesn’t suffer from something saying that all men who do suffer from it should run along to Harley Street and pay
a substantial sum of money to have their nether regions zapped by a medic who, incidentally (and according to another red-top, the Daily Star),
also offers penile enlargement operations.
A ‘story’ given credence, authority and authenticity by an editorial operation that is quite willing to plug a product without wondering if, in fact,
it’s simply giving free advertising. Or has it accepted the free advertising in return for a highly-readable Sunday ‘exclusive’ with a celebrity?
It’s certainly not an unusual way to present content, especially when it comes to health. Just a few months ago the Mail on Sunday splashed on its
front page, turning to Page 3 and then a spread in the features section, how X Factor judge Louis Walsh was getting hearing aid treatment from
Specsavers, even though he’s not yet lost his hearing.
And the day after the Botham splash, The Sun carried a ‘story’ with Cold Feet star Jon Thomson in which the ‘Telly funnyman’ admitted that he’d been
having hair transplant operations so that he wouldn’t look like such a ‘bald thug’ when out on the dating scene. His favoured Farjo Hair Institute
was name-checked in the fourth sentence.
All three celebrities, I’d argue, are helping to market products that may well benefit the wider public, yet we’re not being told if they have any
kind of relationship with the brand involved. Intriguingly, Louis Walsh has quite a history of plugging Specsavers as of its brand ‘ambassadors’.
This is content marketing brilliantly manipulated to look like editorial – and it’s everywhere at the moment. Usually, it’s accompanied by a small
banner or logo saying something like ‘In association with…’ Not long ago the Daily Telegraph found itself in hot water by plugging HSBC
bank without noting that some of the articles appearing on the editorial pages were actually marketing puff-pieces.
The separation between the two is becoming increasingly blurred and, personally, the opportunities are enormously exciting. After two decades in newspapers,
I now run my own company providing content to brands who understand the enormous power of a story well told.
Disgruntled with ineffective public relations and hugely expensive advertising campaigns, these brands want something more subtle and shareable, less
sales-like and – crucially – interesting to read. In other words, journalism that sells rather than just informs. And thus stands a decent chance
of creeping into the press by masquerading as news.
In fact, a recent report compiled by Yahoo and media experts at Enders Analysis predicted that content marketing spend in the UK will rise 179.2 per
cent to £349 million in 2020, from £125 million in 2014.
There’s no point in being sniffy about it. For instance, any journalist who’s ever written a positive travel article having benefited from a discount
or freebie has indulged in content marketing.
In a world flooded by content from who-knows-where, the best material will always rise to the top, the smartest brands will pay for it and the most
capable creators might make a decent living from it. It’s journalism but not as most of us know it – now it’s wrapped around PR and marketing.
The important element is that such material appears in traditional media outlets. A survey this month from Ogilvy PR showed that ‘three quarters of
respondents agreed that traditional media holds more sway than paid, direct-to-consumer, and social channels in North America and EMEA’.
And as The Sun showed this weekend, it’s the kind of journalism that every rival publication copies without even questioning its merits, creating astonishing
ripples of publicity.
There’s opportunity in every crisis. Just look at Brexit. While most of us have been told to sit tight and not do anything too impetuous until the initial
storm passes, some of Britain’s top executives have been – as the City likes to call it – filling their boots.
The CEOs of Britain's top 250 companies have spent £14.3 million buying shares in their own companies after the prices collapsed during the chaotic
days after the Brexit vote. According to some reports, ‘directors in companies such as Lloyds Bank, construction firm Berkeley Group, the Royal
Mail and Debenhams have bought up shares dumped on the market. A total of 33 directors in the top 100 companies spent £8.5 million over the past
Equally, the media has experienced some astonishing success that proves two things. First, that good can come out of bad. And, second, that when it
comes to seismic, life-changing events, the perspectives and analysis of dead-tree media are far more potent than those of social media.
Silicon Valley seems to take a sadistic pleasure in urging newspapers and journalists to retire early to their graves. Yet new figures suggest the
opposite. Instead of such myopic foolishness they should instead attempt to understand what the data is telling us.
First, to newspapers. Since the Brexit vote, The Times hassaid it a 100,000 copies, or 18%, on Saturday and The Guardiangained
70,000, or more than 20%. The Daily Mirrorhad a 40,000 copy uplift, making its Saturday paper the best-seller of the year. And industry
estimates suggest the Daily Mailadded as many as 90,000 with The Sungaining about 52,000.
According to Newsworks, the trade body for UK newspapers, total sales were up 724,000 across three days compared to average circulation. The average
uplift on Saturday was 7% and some titles saw increases of nearly 20% on both Saturday and Sunday. Rufus Olins, the chief executive of Newsworks,
said: "Readers have always turned to newspapers at the time of big, national events and continue to do so."
So not only did print coverage help to manipulate the campaign – particularly the right-wing press’s Brexit agenda – but it also became a focal point
for people. To understand, to learn, to share in the joy, upset and rancour. Partly, I’d suggest because of the quality of journalism on offer
and partly because people trust journalism that they buy. The transaction instils trust. If you’re paying for it, it must be good. Which is something
one must assume that advertisers have noticed – instead of moaning about Brexit, this might be a way for them to capitalise on it.
Equally interesting is what has happened to the Financial Times’s website in the past few days and weeks, proving that quality journalism is as potent
a force as shallow click-bait in attracting digital audiences.
During the day before Brexit, the FT’s publisher dropped its paywall for all news related to the referendum and naturally saw a traffic spike. Over
the weekend, the FT’s Brexit poll tracker was its most-popular-ever piece of journalism, drawing nearly 4 million pageviews.
Of course free is a wonderful selling tool but what’s interesting is that people didn’t just plunder the site’s content, they bought subscriptions.
In fact, according to Digiday, ‘the FT saw a 600 percent surge in digital subscriptions sales over the weekend (compared to the average weekend) since
the Brexit vote news broke, which equated to thousands of additional subscriptions sales.’
And the FT’s commercial department were quick to take advantage of the desire for content amid the turmoil. Its chief commercial officer Jon Slade
said: “We dialled up our marketing on a real-time basis. We were looking at buying patterns, opportunities in social, and spending our marketing
budgets in pretty aggressive ways in an attempt to try and dominate a story. We then made sure that didn’t conflict with the efforts of our audience
engagement team, so there was constant dialogue between audience engagement and editorial, and between marketing and acquisition.” said Slade.
These marketing teams sent out social media messages that helped to promote articles that were proving highly popular among the FT’s audience.
So free in this case actually made money by providing a ‘taste’ of what was on offer. Again, what really inspired people to take up subscriptions was
that they were hooked by quality journalism. At a time when the echo chambers of social media were spouting rehashed opinions, crass insults and
pathetic wailings, newspapers and their websites were demonstrating that good, well-written, intelligent stories make money.
I may not sport a beard, wear flip-flops to work or play ping-pong in my lunch hour, but that’s the kind of statistical evidence that even dead-tree
veterans like me consider to be elements of a pretty decent business plan.
Data can tell us two stories – the one its creators want to tell us and the one they’d prefer to ignore. So when a politician boasts that, for instance,
70 per cent of business leaders say the economy is better than it was 10 years ago when the last government was in power, it ignores the fact that
73 per cent say that it’s worse off than it was last year.
I’m making it up of course. Yet that is sometimes what data allows us to do. It points not to one answer but many. People – typically economists and
politicians – wield it as if it was a sword of truth when in fact it is a double-edged weapon. Proper analysis reveals several, sometimes contradictory,
Sometimes the most irresponsible interpreters of data are journalists. I speak from experience. They like to pounce on a figure and spin it for maximum
impact, ignoring anything that might get in the way of a good story.
Thus today those who like to bash the BBC at every opportunity – principally The Times and Daily Mail – and those who seek to redress every perceived
gender imbalance – principally The Guardian – have latched on to an absurd figure that suggests the broadcaster prefers men’s tennis to women’s.
I say absurd not because the data-based allegation is untrue but because it doesn’t tell the whole story. So during the first week of Wimbledon, a
keen-eyed tennis fan kept a tally of the BBC’s coverage and found that 75 per cent of it was devoted to the best-of-five set men’s tennis game.
On one day, 93 per cent of coverage was of the male game rather than the best-of-three set women’s matches. The BBC covered only 48 per cent of
Serena Williams’s first two matches, compared with 100 per cent of Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka’s first two matches.
Gender bias, scream the journalists! The BBC meanwhile responded: ‘Whilst we value all feedback, all decisions around which games will be shown are
based on editorial judgement.’
And so they should be, because this is what the data also shows. In the 64 first-round women’s matches, almost three quarters (45 of them) were straight
sets victories and 29 matches (almost a half) were walkovers in that the opponent failed to win six games.
In the men’s game, only half of the 64 first-round matches were straight sets victories and only four matches saw the opponent win less than nine games.
So by my extremely rudimentary and wholly unscientific analysis of the data (I’m a journalist by trade so I’m good at that), most of the women’s matches
were one-sided and lacking in competitive entertainment. One sixteenth of the equivalent men’s matches were walkovers.
Serena’s first two matches lasted less than an hour and were both 6-4 6-1 victories. Novak won slightly more tense games 6-4 6-4 6-4 and 6-4 6-2 6-3.
And here’s the point. When it comes to sport on television, a broadcaster should be able to show matches that are deemed exciting and competitive.
That’s what viewers want and, unfortunately, many women’s first and second round matches are simply not very competitive. They are undoubtedly
brilliant players and are paid just as much as the men for their efforts, despite playing far fewer games. First round losers picked up £29,000
last year and will take home an extra £1,000 in 2016.
But broadcasting decisions should not be guided by arguments about gender bias and certainly not by disgruntled couch potatoes armed only with a stopwatch
and a gripe.