The Negative Space News

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.

  1. Interesting experiment.

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  2. Some years back I noticed that the commercials that targeted the mainstream national news in the evening were almost exclusively drug companies. Especially geriatric drugs. My own conclusion? People who watch the evening news are over 50 years old. I looked at all televised programming with interest and looked at who the intended target audience was?

    The breakdown usually focuses on age groups as the primary demographic. Look at newspapers today. They’re dying. Small market newspapers and journalism is slowly becoming extinct. The Bend Bulletin can’t pay it’s bills.

    The younger generation is more consumed into their smart phones. To me, this makes me scared.

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    1. Small town newspapers are an anomaly in the newspaper business. They are thriving, which is one reason the Oracle of Omaha bought 27 of them a few years back. Journalists have become their own worst enemy by publishing and broadcasting garbage, and they have lost much of the confidence they had earned via quality and conscientious reporting.

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  3. I have to say it’s been a while since I’ve had to endure too many commercials in a row. I tossed out cable a while ago. With my brood I wasn’t watching anything more sophisticated than Disney Tween shows anyway.

    When we do watch commercials I try to ask my kids what a commercial is actually selling. When they see it they usually get irritated that somebody thinks they are that stupid. It usually boils down to a handful of things.

    1. Sex. In the form of getting that hunk or babe to look at you driving the car, wearing the shirt or getting an erection.

    2. Insecurity. You aren’t good enough, look good enough without this thing. See Sex.

    3. Fear. Usually a door knob licking parolees but also fear of failure, the future, the past, your neighbor, of loneliness, fear of some Ukrainian hacker and of course, fear of your DNA.

    4. Jealousy.

    5+… A heaping helping of pride, gluttony, avarice, wrath and sloth.

    You can sell ice cubes to Eskimos if you can tap into those, and of course they all do.

    That’s why current media outlets only have political bashing panels. Each pump up the fear factor for their political persuasion. The fear of the other. The fear of the unknown.

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  4. Love this… Aruba!!

    ________________________________

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  5. Another great article, simple experiment reveals true insight. I wonder if at some point the politicians and the media might say to themselves “ wow do you think maybe we’re driving the public away from being interested in the political landscape because we are being so outrageously petty and counterproductive?” And then I think that maybe this is their final goal. If they can get us to all be so disgusted that we can’t stand paying attention anymore, then they will have reached their ultimate objective of having no oversight. Keep the articles coming Craig, they get me thinking and make me laugh, two things I wonder which will be around in the future.

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    1. I think the goal is to undermine the institutions we have generally relied on. And it’s working.

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  6. Having recently returned from a week in Costa Rica, I can verify the tropics part of your conclusion.

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  7. And that’s the way it is…Walter Cronkite LOL

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