A cross-history of media and advertising with Jacques Attali

🇫🇷 French Version

The We Are COM team has interviewed Jacques Attali 🤗 Not only a famous graduate of ENA and Polytechnique, he’s the founder of 4 international institutions (Action against hunger, EUREKA, the EBRD and Positive Planet), and he has also authored over 1,000 editorials for French magazine L’Express and over 80 books. These days he’s an editorialist for the daily paper Les Echos.

Having just released his latest book, Histoires des Médias : des signaux de fumée aux réseaux sociaux, et après (Media Stories: from smoke signals to social media and thereafter), Jacques Attali shared with us his analyses on yesterday’s, today’s and tomorrow’s media landscape. We Are COM is happy to share this wonderful encounter to help professional communicators navigate the new stakes advertisers are facing inside this ever-mutating media ecosystem. Let’s rewind a bit first – before we jump into the future!  

🤓 First of all, Jacques Attali, could you give us your definitions of information, communication and entertainment? 

Jacques Attali: Information represents a fact or an event that needs transmitting. Meanwhile entertainment lets us busy our minds outside of reality. This is possible thanks to literature, theatre, cinema, music… Finally, communication resides in the act of transmitting a message, whether informative or entertaining. It can take on many different shapes, remain in the private sphere, or speak to the masses. 

Nevertheless, genres are now mixing together. In fact, information can take on the guise of entertainment. And this phenomenon is nothing new! It actually depends on the will of the media or deciders who wish to constantly grow their audiences. A prince could want to keep his subjects informed of the kingdom’s current events; or a merchant might want to get the attention of potential clients. Once information started being circulated beyond the elite, is when ads and advertisements first started to appear. 

I would say that the world is, in a sense, under the influence of a dictatorship of means, forced to answer to an increasingly large and fast demand, that is most of all, very exacting and challenging. 

🔮 What does the evolution of media distribution channels tell us about their future? 

J.A.: You can only glimpse the future and understand it by closely examining the rules of the past. The past teaches us that on the one hand, there’s a growing demand for access to information to understand the world, to cope and live in it, distract ourselves, and survive by fighting it or by forgetting it. On the other hand, technologies are increasingly present and global. 

In this book I state the following rule: new communication techniques invariably arise from new techniques for producing personal messages. Indeed, mail led to press, telephone led to radio, photography led to cinema and television, and more recently email led to online and social media. Today, personal and confidential messages have regained importance. I call them digital avvisi. Online media channels are in fact more and more personalized and individualized, monetized in other ways besides subscriptions. As a reminder, the avvisi, which used to be called “gazetta,” where the first merchant letters which were copied by hand and sold during the 15th century. By understanding the phenomena of the past, we can start grasping our current day stakes.  

By the way, let us note that the media have failed to profit from new technology. Indeed, print media, radio and television, who all own databases, draw attention and have a good knowledge of economic markets, could have initiated social media. However it has been headed by new stakeholders.  

“One must never believe that a current phenomenon is a novelty” 

🤔 Yesterday’s sellers were both the media and media consumers. These days, have brands already become their own media or should they do so to prepare for a cookie-less internet?  

J.A.: I would say that brands have always been their own media. One must never believe that a current phenomenon is a novelty. Many brands have corporate newspapers. In fact, the most widely sold newspaper in the world was started by an alliance of american insurance and retirement groups. A NPO can also become a real media outlet if its cause is widely recognized. Nowadays, many brands need their own media system to share information and set themselves as a reference: websites, annual reports, sponsorships, down to internal press groups, which are more or less visible. 

🗃 You write that “the media have always wanted to know their customers’ tastes (…) to assign value to their data research as best they can.” Thanks to GDPR, it is now necessary to get user consent from citizens. But is it enough? What are the media’s strategies to circumvent laws and satisfy advertisers? Can they still keep their hold on data? 

J.A.: GDPR is not a defense strategy in itself, because users tend to click automatically. Currently, the traditional media have lost control over data: it has been taken over by social media and cloud providers. In my opinion, the big media battle has been lost already, at least by print media. Therefore, advertisers’ satisfaction doesn’t matter anymore but the real stakes are rather with the readers or audiences. The goal for them now is to survive through their customers, not through advertising. Currently, only radio operates according to a very specific paradigm, as a media that’s cheap to produce, often public and where advertising plays an important part, even though that source of revenue is at risk. 

🛠 Lincoln used photos in his electoral campaign, Roosevelt used radio, Kennedy – television, Obama – social media, and Trump used Facebook’s segmented audience and Twitter’s unfiltered platform. Throughout the ages, how have Europe’s and the USA’s roles differed? Are we still seeing the same role distribution? 

J.A.: For the most part, print media has disappeared from the European and American ecosystems, giving the prerogative to other countries like Japan, India or China. While prosperous in the past, Western press has lost its former glory and this is also true for digital newspapers. Truthfully, we are now far behind Asia. 

And yet, everything did start in the West, where media developed progressively in different countries. The Netherlands were the first to foster freedom of thought and speech. Starting in the 18th century England took the lead, then it was the United States’ turn, whose independence was partly driven by the freedom of the press. The invention of media, especially print media, was born from this game between Great-Britain and the United States during the 19th century. Afterward, the two world powers’ series of innovations relegated European countries to mere followers. Finally, Japan emerged at the end of the 20th century to become the dominant nation of print media, thanks to a specific subscription management system that effectively protects it from digital media.  

Let us note that the biggest roles were played by countries that defended sacred freedoms, such as freedom of thought, speech and of course freedom of the press. 

🔦 97% of Facebook’s revenue comes from advertising (Facebook Ads). To what degree are advertisers complicit in the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories by funding this click-bait economy? 

J.A.: I completely agree. First of all, I think we mustn’t demonize social media. They are actually quite useful, however they’ve become so essential as to become public services, all while making a few private persons very wealthy. This is problematic. 

In my opinion, there should be regulations in place to avoid that social media players act as giant machines that swallow up all innovations. For instance, the way Facebook has taken over Instagram and Whatsapp. 

It’s true that by financing Facebook, advertisers are financing a private company that’s playing a public service role. So the real question left is this: will advertisers be brave enough to band together and impose a charter for the deployment and control of disinformation? 

However, it’s also up to the customers using these new media to apply some pressure, strongly enough to implement solid regulations that will protect the truth and fight against “fake news.” 

“Our freedom of speech cannot depend on the good will of a few shareholders.”

🤐 Could advertisers be the future regulators, demanding effective content moderation by social media? Two relevant current events: Trump’s censorship by the media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.),  through the private sphere; and the Ministry of Culture’s threat to remove France Soir’s status as an information site, through the public sphere.  

J.A.: We mustn’t forget that advertisers are not in a position to be moral agents, but one would think that they’re intelligent enough to understand that their long-term interest lies in content moderation. Indeed, it would be unthinkable to replace an arbitrary decision made by the president of a social media, by another decision just as arbitrary coming from a secret advertisers committee. 

Regarding the decision made by the Ministry of Culture towards France Soir, it directly depends on the enforcement of the law. As to the infamous Trump censorship story, especially by Twitter, that is in fact problematic to me. I believe that it shouldn’t be up to a private person to declare censorship, no matter how just the decision. Our freedom of speech cannot depend on the good will of a few shareholders. Once again, we should have regulations in place, preferably at an international level. Of course we are currently very far from having this.  

👀 What’s your take on public relations, or the relationships journalists have with advertisers and corporations? 

J.A.: Journalists are increasingly proletarianized and impoverished. In the future, jobs in this field will most likely favor interim contracts. There will be less and less distinction between a member of the press and a bystander witness. So naturally, why shouldn’t journalists try new ways of collaborating? What really matters when it comes to paid arrangements, is that the reader is made aware of them. It’s crucial that paid partnerships are made public, and this can and must happen in an environment of mutual respect, not general suspicion, in the same way healthcare professionals collaborate with pharmaceutical companies. 

📊 An influencer can make a lot more than a big daily newspaper’s editor-in-chief, especially through brand partnerships. What do you predict will be the next media business models? 

J.A.: I would say that a good business model is the digital avvisi, either financed by its audience (through subscriptions) or through brand partnerships and relying explicitly on advertising. If an influencer is simply bankrolled by brands, then they are reduced to a sandwich board, and become a prescriber whipped by advertisers. 

Some newspapers can prosper by relying on their readers. Take the Canard Enchaîné for example, this centenarian weekly paper managed to stay independent and accessible, without resorting to easy advertising. In fact, a good media outlet is one read or watched for its quality information. Therefore it must generate revenue directly from its readership, and not from other people in whose interest it is that others get that information for free. And regarding direct payments to journalists in the form of bonuses, points or incentives, I find that a little dangerous. It can create both a situation of dependency and hierarchical difficulties. 

“The search for truth will be tomorrow’s biggest challenge.”

😮‍💨 From horses to 5G, by way of carrier pigeons and the telegraph, the race against time is neverending. We have reached immediateness. What comes next? 

J.A.: There is one unavoidable step, and it’s not the easiest: to find where truth resides and how to determine an article’s quality. I dream of an application that could instantly certify articles, through a digital form of fact-checking. I’ll mention a French initiative here, called Deep News, which seeks to identify articles that are accurate and qualitative.  

I believe that the search for truth is tomorrow’s biggest challenge. In truth, 5G doesn’t bring anything new. These days we have access to a range of digital solutions that simplify writing, such as proofreaders in different languages, or automatic writers that can recreate a particular style. Some articles are fully written by robots, and voices can be faked or recreated. Most recently, we’ve seen holograms that can mimic body language. Soon 3D technology will enter our homes. We’ll be able to enter reality and easily dive into a sports game, an attack or a TV show from our living room. As Guy Debord used to say: “reality is but a small spark compared to artifice.” 

🌍 Internet was dreamed up as a “global village” with unlimited access to knowledge, information, etc. Is this a utopia? Does transparency without any education become demagogy? 

J.A.: If each of us learns and manages to tell truth from falsehood, then it is not a utopia. Education is the only thing that matters! We must learn imperatively to differentiate between the three following notions: fact, belief and opinion. It’s what we call scientific epistemology and it must be taught at the earliest stages.  

Of course all of this is prey to perpetual mutations, as truth does not constitute a definitive value. The fantasy of a “global village” offering us unlimited knowledge can only happen if we are able to protect ourselves from the storm of fake news and lies. To avoid a derailing of the “global village,” we have to make it into a place for unlimited knowledge, not a place for unlimited access to possessions and self-knowledge. Social media platforms have increasingly become dedicated to narcissistic self-expression, when in fact knowledge is not accessed through a frenzied search for approval or accumulation. 

To give you a more concrete example, let’s consider the bookstore debate which occurred during lockdown. At home we have many books that we still haven’t read. But we keep buying new ones. Why is this? In truth, it all stems from our universal human fear of death. When we don’t read everything, we’re subconsciously pushing back the fatal hour. This brings us back to the idea of entertainment as a way for us to escape our fear of dying. Man will do anything to avoid facing death, understanding it or preparing for it. This is why information sites tend to become entertainment sites, in the pascalian sense. 

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