When The Star newspaper confidently announced the new premier for Gauteng this week, only to find that someone else got the nod, I started wondering just what impact there was on consumers when the news media got things horribly wrong.
The conclusion I came to was that quite frankly, consumers don’t actually care. And that the reason for a decline in mass media consumption, especially newspapers, has got nothing to do with accuracy but everything to do with time, money and a lack of quality content. And that quality content does not necessarily mean accurate or even truthful content – just content that consumers’ want.
I recall writing something a decade or so ago which still holds true today – that in spite of what a lot of market research shows, I’m not sure that consumers, particularly here in South Africa, are any less gullible and apathetic than they were in the 1950’s when they believed anything and everything advertisers tossed at them.
There are all sorts of clues. For starters there’s some pretty well founded research showing the vast majority of consumers in South Africa still implicitly trust sales people in shops. It’s almost as though it was a closely guarded state secret all this widespread and openly practiced business of dishing out spivs, backhanders and outright bribery by distributors and manufacturers trying to get salesmen to flog their product instead of someone else’s
Then, of course, there are people who still invest in retirement annuity policies hawked by the life assurance industry thinking they’re going to profit when in reality that’s like asking someone to do your grocery shopping for you and paying them half the value of your monthly groceries for their trouble.
And, as they say in the infomercials, that’s not all.
Remember a few years ago when things moved beyond ‘New Improved’? The majority of South Africans still swallow that line. Every product under the sun was anti-bacterial, so much so that if you believed the ads you would get the distinct impression that the entire world we live in so infested with germs that we’re almost guaranteed to get a life-threatening disease once a month by just brushing casually past someone in a shopping centre or patting our favourite puppy. Heaven forbid trying to prepare food in a kitchen that hasn’t been nuked of every germ known to mankind.
In fact, that whole anti-bacterial thing got so out of hand a lot of scientists and medical people are advising parents to let their kids out in the garden every now and then to go and play in some good old fashioned muck just so they can build up some immunity.
Nothing like scaring the hell out of the consumer to flog products.
But then, the consumer deserves what the consumer gets. In many places in South Africa right now the quality of water that comes out of the tap is as good as and in many cases better than anything you’ll find that is bottled locally.
Yet consumers will forgo a free glass of tap water in a restaurant and rather pay R15 for something of lesser quality that comes out of a bottle.
We’ve even had people offering ‘organic water’ for heaven’s sake and it wasn’t too long ago I spotted a sign outside a filling station offering ‘organic petrol’.
Then we got on to silver. First we had silver washing machines that actually couldn’t stop at telling consumers that they were silver because this made them look good but went on to say that a silver coated washing machine made for more healthy family laundry. Amazing, in more than six decades I have never got sick from wearing clothes washed by hand, later on in and old fashioned machine with chopped up Sunlight soap or now our existing modern, non-silver Bosch. What the heck has my body been missing? I have four children, I pass water regularly and ablute with remarkable timing and precision and can still hit a golf ball past 250 metres.
I would love to know what would have happened if I’d had a silver washing machine for the past 20 years. Would I have 10 children and have won the US Masters?
Silver was flavour of the month when it went beyond washing machines and was being offered by Elastoplast. I wouldn’t haver been be surprised if we suddenly started finding silver in our corn flakes, toothpaste, anti-bacterial kitchen floor cleaner, underarm deodorant and lavatory paper.
But no, silver has just come and gone. Another fad.
Don’t get me wrong I’m not criticising these people for using all these clever marketing ploys – if they work and don’t hurt anybody why not – even if they are stretching the facts to breaking point. I just marvel at the gullibility of consumers.
May they never grow up.
So, what’s the message for the mass media? Well, I suppose it is simply to stop publishing and broadcasting what they want to say, but rather what the consumer wants to hear. Whether it is entirely accurate seems to be beside the point.
Social media and the interweb have proved that point most conclusively.
Follow Chris Moerdyk on Twitter @chrismoerdyk.
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