Category Archives: Media

The most eagerly awaited birth in history


“I wonder if one of the midwives will tweet news of the baby before the official announcement on the easel.” My friend, a professional broadcaster, was wondering out loud. Naively, I hadn’t considered the possibility. “You mean subvert the monarchical protocol?” I asked. It would have meant that potentially a half-billion people would have known the sex of the baby before the official announcement. “The tweeter would’ve ended up in the Tower at one time in history.”

Of course, it didn’t happen, but I’ll bet a few anxious people at the Palace were keeping their fingers crossed while the couriers made their way from St Mary’s to the Palace, where the royal easel stands.

This has been the most eagerly awaited birth in history. I can remember 1982 when Princess Diana gave birth to William and, while I can’t remember the anticipation over the birth of Lady Caroline of Monaco in 1958, I understand this too was an international event. But both births were before social media revolutionized the way we communicate – and think.

There has never been a mediated birth on this scale. By mediated, I mean involving intermediate agencies. The traditional press and broadcast media were geared up for William’s birth. But by current standards, they were restrained, if not cautious. Today’s media are less likely to observe procedure, and, as last year’s Leveson Inquiry shows, prepared to go to any lengths, legal or illegal, for a story.

Today’s media are constituent parts of celebrity culture. And, whether she likes it or not, so is the Duchess of Cambridge. The nearest recent contenders in eagerly-awaited-births are Beyoncé’s Blue Ivy and Kim Kardashian’s North; though neither generated the global interest of the new heir to the throne.

Kate, like Diana, is a knowable figure. She has a similar regal aura, but she combines this with ordinariness. People seem to love her, but not in a worshipful way. It’s almost as if they feel they could stand next to her at the Tesco checkout and strike up a conversation: “What did you make of last night’s X Factor?”

In a way, all the royals are more human nowadays. Before Diana, they were remote, inaccessible, godlike creatures. Diana humanized royals: she gave royalty a human character (there’s a biopic due for release later this year, by the way). When she arrived in the public consciousness, celebrity culture was in its infancy. The spread of celebrities means that we are no longer in awe at prominent figures from politics, entertainment and sport: we know they are just like us, with the same kind of weaknesses, imperfections and inadequacies. We know the royals are not exquisitely, sublimely flawless. And we like them all the more for it. We feel a peculiar kind of intimacy with Kate and her new baby. Most of us will never stand within ten miles of either of them. There’s no irony in that: familiarity and distance are no longer related.

Not so dumb

Jib Fowles, an emeritus professor of communication from University of Houston in Texas, has spent his professional life researching the effects of advertising. His work is brilliantly counter-intuitive. For example, in response to the question how well do television commercials work? Fowles writes: “The answer is both not very and quite a bit, depending on how the situation is perceived.” Fowles rounds up evidence to conclude: “Not only don’t commercials make an impression on us, but as strange as it may seem, no experimental evidence exists that they get us to buy anything.”

Strange indeed; especially as companies like Unilever and General Motors regularly spend 10-12 percent of their annual sales receipts on the following year’s per advertising, with about 40 per cent on tv commercials. The size of the audience is, as Fowles puts it, the key: “All but about 10% of the money spent on television commercials is wasted.” Only that percentage of tv viewers retains product knowledge after watching an ad. Even then, only ten percent of that sub-group might actually go out and buy the product. But that percentage is from a total population of millions.

I wonder what Fowles would make of an ad currently playing on Australian television. The commercial isn’t trying to persuade us to buy anything, but simply to be careful. It’s part of a public safety campaign sponsored by Melbourne’s Metro Trains and it takes the form of a cartoon in which a blobby, androgynous character performs heroically suicidal acts to the background of a song that provides helpful suggestions on “Dumb ways to die.” Like:  Sell both your kidneys on the internet … eat a tube of Superglue … dress up like a moose during hunting season.

As I’m writing, the commercial has 52,086,475 views on YouTube. It’s ingeniously original, engagingly witty and, unlike other ads, implores consumers not to behave in the way it wants. You can’t imagine too many product manufacturers being so intrepid as to advise viewers not to buy its wares for over two minutes.

We tend to look at advertisements as works of art and evaluate their creativity, innovative freshness, and aesthetic appeal. But advertisers are interested in only one thing: do they change consumers’ behavior in the way they want? The Aussie ad wants people to behave with more caution and avoid dying – in a dumb way. I wonder what Fowles makes of it. I’ll write to him and let you know what he says.