There is a concept in the art world known as Negative Space. The basic idea is that instead of trying to draw the branches in a tree, one draws the space between the branches, and therefore, ultimately, the whole tree emerges.
So, with that in mind, last Thursday night I put on my old high school football helmet, tightened the chin-strap, and sat down to watch an hour of Sean Hannity. But here’s the catch: I had no interest in watching whatever it was that Hannity was raving about. I wanted to sketch the commercials, the negative space, to see what kind of tree might finally emerge.
My working hypothesis was that television shows pander to particular persuasions. Almost no one alive would argue with that. This pandering, by the way, is accomplished by way of big data collection, and algorithms whose sole purpose is to capture our attention. There is, in fact, on the other side of our integrated screens – television, computer, and phone — a supercomputer aimed directly at each and every one of us.
You can learn more about that at Humanetech.com, and I encourage you to do so.
Nevertheless, I thought that by paying more attention to what they are trying to sell us in the hour that they have our attention, we might learn something interesting about ourselves. In other words, if the shows pander to who we think we are, maybe the commercials would tell us who we actually are, and what we actually want – because that’s how they make their money.
Here is what I learned: Sean Hannity’s nightly show is marketed to people with droopy eyelids, people who need stinky pipes unclogged with lemon-scented fresheners, people with bad breath, people with diabetes, people selling their cars on the internet, people selling their life-insurance policies to survive retirement, newlyweds, people who can’t sleep, people who need more fiber in their diets, beer drinkers, people with computer viruses, people with memory problems, people who need blood thinners, people looking for all-inclusive beach resorts, people who need eyeball vitamins, guests of Hilton Hotels, people needing help with payroll and tax preparation, NASCAR fans, people looking for semi-tropical retirement communities featuring pickleball, windsurfing, and golf, and most importantly (based on the number of repeat suggestions) people looking for additional media platforms where Fox News can be found.
That’s the demographic roundup of the Hannity Show. From this sample it’s difficult to recognize any clear scientific patterns, but one might be able to say that, in general, the show is being marketed to older people in declining health who are worried about their finances, and who really want to get away to the tropics.
On Friday night, armed with a great pizza and hot wings from Takodas, and cozied-up for the occasion in hipster flip-flops and a Patagonia fleece, I sat down with my legal pad to watch the rival show over at MSNBC.
MSNBC’s foil for this hour of programming is somebody called Rachel Maddow. I don’t know much about her, but I am aware that she serves in the same role for the lefty news that Sean Hannity serves for the righty news. Their job is, to be clear, less about news than it is about keeping their respective political bases aflame — outraged, terrified, and indignant — and I wanted to see if I could figure out who the supercomputers think is watching her show, and how the target audience may differ from Hannity’s.
This is what I learned: Rachel Maddow’s show is marketed to people buying home security cameras, small cars, and insurance, people looking for cheap plane tickets, people learning Spanish, people who eat designer soup, people who need communication help, people looking for all inclusive tropical resorts, guests of Hilton Hotels, and people with the following medical conditions: colds, bad breath, hair loss, troublesome dentures, breast cancer, memory problems, ulcerative colitis, flat feet, diabetes, and erectile dysfunction. Maddow’s show is also targeting online shoppers, fans of anime movies, and people who need snappy business cards. And finally, it is marketed to people looking for additional media platforms where MSNBC can be found.
That’s the Maddow demographic. Again, no indisputable scientific patterns emerged, but it seems safe to say that her show is being marketed to a slightly younger crowd of security conscious online shoppers, and people saddled with a disturbing cross-section of medical conditions — who really want to get away to the tropics.
So, what emerged from this little experiment in the negative spaces of the nightly news?
Surprisingly, it wasn’t what I thought it would be. There were plenty of obvious targeting differences, some people were buying, and some were selling, but what really emerged was that the target audiences, whatever their political persuasions, just don’t feel very good. To put it bluntly, they are quite sick.
But I was delighted to see that even in the politically polarized audiences there was at least some marketing crossover. Because that’s probably where we’ll find a better starting point for meaningful discussions. And because in the end, looking at the sketches, what I had drawn from the negative space of these programs wasn’t a tree full of gnarly political branches. It was a very clear drawing of very sick people yearning desperately for some rest, and relaxation, somewhere in the all-inclusive tropics.