The build-up to the Oscars seems to start earlier and get bigger every year, now featuring the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs en route. It’s assumed everyone cares about the Oscars. We’ve been told the Golden Globes are an early indicator of Oscar success. The British Academy has jumped on the bandwagon. TV news will now break off in the middle of a story to go live to the announcement of the BAFTA nominations. The nominations. What a genius marketing initiative this is. The film industry has inserted its product into the news. It’s the ultimate in product placement, by the people who invented product placement. (It’s reported that one James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, covered its entire production budget of $100m through product placement deals. There’s a glorious James Bond product placement timeline here.) Not only do the news media take it deadly seriously, competing for ever-closer access, but we the consumers voluntarily give it our attention. It’s so entrenched that it’s easy to forget this is not news. This is commercial activity within an industry. Every business sector has its awards. Mostly they’re not on national tv. Most advertisers can only dream of that kind of attention.

While everyone else is diving headlong into “content marketing” in an attempt to be worth paying attention to, entertainment businesses – film, TV, literature, music, sport – are role models for how to do it well. You might say they start with an advantage, that we are interested in them. But maybe they made it that way. Travel, cars, property, all are sufficiently interesting to make endless tv shows of – but their industry awards are not on the news.

To earn, and keep, people’s attention you have to inform, educate or entertain – as per the mission of the BBC. Doing it well takes patience. The annual Academy Awards are, in effect, an advertising campaign for the film industry that’s been running for over sixty years. (They started as a private dinner in 1929 and were first televised in 1953.) It’s possible to grab attention short term but it won’t build trust or respect if it’s done disingenuously. That’s ok for clickbait but it won’t do a genuine business much good.

So how to explain the near-obsessive coverage of Apple product launches? They have their own rather dry style. They don’t pretend to be anything other than purely commercial. They don’t even try to entertain. Perhaps the technology sector has learned from their neighbours in Hollywood. Behave as if your products are not just for sale but are actually important to humankind, and the media start to respond as if it’s true. If you can take yourself seriously enough without laughing – Apple seem to have no problem – then you’re in with a chance.

Beyond entertainment, there are only a few times when business events can justify national news coverage. Progress in travel – a giant new plane or somebody’s rocket launch – have sufficient novelty. A breakthrough in healthcare has sufficient importance. For the rest of us, the lesson is to centre our communications in the mindset and circumstances of the target customer. It doesn’t matter if no one else has heard of your product as long as the right people have. Be useful and interesting to them. That’s the best way to create the impression that your business will be, too.

Advertising is getting harder because people can avoid it – adblockers on line, streaming TV or skipping through the breaks. The old principles are more important than ever and they still work. Be interesting, useful or entertaining. That means considering what the target audience might value, not just what a business wants to say. Advertising isn’t getting a message out. Anyone can do that. Effective communication has to land, not just be launched. Communicating with confidence helps. We can’t all have the outrageous self-confidence of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but you can still act as if you have no doubts about the value of your message. That is a lot easier if you know that, for at least some of the audience, that is true.

Comment | January 2019