John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: It's been a game of two media

The ill-fated and short-lived All Black abstinence campaign won't be winning any advertising awards. Photo / Supplied
The ill-fated and short-lived All Black abstinence campaign won't be winning any advertising awards. Photo / Supplied

The poor adman made an interesting point in a television grilling on the "abstain for the game" campaign though it was hard to hear it amid the scorn he was taking from all sides.

He said the campaign was designed to go out online, on social networks, YouTube and Twitter. It wasn't for the front page of a newspaper.

Mark Sainsbury ignored the point, as newspapers have, and asked did he really expected people to abstain from sex for the World Cup?

He said, of course not. He said that because he was on television.

In a more subtle medium he would have said he didn't know and didn't care. Some might really abstain, some might lie, some might have no option. Nobody would know and it really didn't matter. It would be fun.

But he knew he couldn't say that to television, radio or newspapers. We are literal folk in the mass media, we don't do subtlety, we can't afford to confuse anybody.

It is hard to know now whether the gag would have worked because we have all heard it from the wrong medium. It's about as funny as the Flight of the Conchords in print.

If the abstention call had gone out as planned it would have reached me by word of mouth. Those who spend their leisure on computers and phones would have passed it on.

Others would have got the message when they noticed young guys (probably) wearing black finger bands and asked why their mates were having them on about it.

Had it come to me by any of these means I think it would have struck me as amusing and well attuned to the droll humour Kiwis love and do so well.

It also played to the fact (or fiction) that rugby players don't let the dam burst before a match.

I'm not the type to put on a black finger band but that's my deficiency, not a fault of Saatchi & Saatchi's idea. I suspect many would have played along.

The interesting, and fairly important, element of this essentially silly subject is what it says about the way the medium affects the message.

A subtle joke can work in new media because, it seems to me, they are not mass media. Websites have a selective audience.

YouTube, Twitter, social networks and the blogosphere are person-to-person communications multiplied by infinite reach.

A tweet, a blog or a Facebook posting is written for people who know the author or are particularly interested in the subject. It is not a mass audience that needs to be engaged.

But a newspaper is like a billboard in its community. Not everyone might buy it or even notice it, just as not everyone might read or even notice a billboard, but it is there on the newsstands. It's today's paper.

That quality affects the way newspapers are written and the way they are read. Writers work under the discipline that errors of fact or judgment are certain to be exposed. Readers sense this.

When I read a website, I don't have the same sense that I'm reading reports and thoughts that many people around me might also be reading at the same time. It's less of a public experience, more of a personal and isolated one.

If I find something interesting online I don't feel I can discuss it with others unless I circulate it myself.

If I start to read something I think misinformed, crass or tasteless, I close it without concern. I don't have the sense that people are being misled, insulted or offended in a community I care about.

But when it is on the front page I care. Once broken in the Herald this gag was truly broken. It became crass, bizarre, a national embarrassment in mass media overseas. Nobody was going to take it up from new media networks after that.

Advertisers who are beginning to look for commercial possibilities in viral communications will have learned something this week. New media are not off-limits to the old. The dinosaurs have digital technology too.

New media are viral in more ways than one. Website advertising is not paying for newsgathering as we know it. A world of unedited viral news - postings by companies, governments, commentators and the like, would be a strange place.

But let's face it, if the abstain campaign had taken life online it would have been a different story in the paper.

It could have worked for Telecom and the World Cup, running for weeks and quite probably growing more popular as the All Blacks progressed.

Think of the humour it would have generated as the end of abstinence came near. Think of the compensations we could have celebrated in the event of an early All Black exit.

Oh well ...

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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