Dodo Award: Marketplace on the Marketing of Expelled
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
When producers release a documentary about a public affairs topic, especially in the case of a propaganda film like Expelled, they create several natural advantages over the typical news coverage that follows a policy debate.
First, in the lead up to the release of the film, the documentary generates coverage at softer news beats such as film reviews, the lifestyle pages, and in the case I detail below, the show business beat. In these contexts, the claims of the film are featured without context or absent a counter-argument.
Readers of these news zones are likely to be less familiar with the featured public affairs topic than regular consumers of the news or opinion pages. With no context to go on, for these audiences, positive coverage of the film is likely to be that much more influential.
Second, when the film is actually released, producers reach audiences directly with a potentially powerful message. In the case of Expelled, theater audiences are less likely to be heavy news consumers, with the film being one of the few exposures they might have to the issue of intelligent design, or even evolution!
(Targeting movie goers is based on the same principle that motivates political candidates to appear on Jay Leno, Saturday Night Live or run commercials during daytime talkshows. In these media contexts, candidates are able to reach a politically inattentive public who have yet to form strong opinions about the election.)
-->Overall, the advantage to a film campaign is the ability to deliver a preferred framing and interpretation of a policy issue to low information audiences with little or no counter-message.
A leading example of this documentary impact occurred last week at American Public Media's Marketplace (transcript and audio). The program which offers a public radio take on the economy and business, ran a lengthy feature on the marketing of Expelled. In the report, although we learn important details about the strategy of the producers in gaining news attention, building buzz, and attracting audiences, there is ZERO context provided to the central claims of the film. The episode basically serves as a free commercial for the movie. Notice in the opening to the story, how the reporter ducks the tougher assignment of actually providing context on the claims of the film:
STACEY VANEK-SMITH: How do you make a blockbuster out of a documentary about politics in academia? That was the question facing the producers of "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed." The film focuses on a group of university professors who say they were fired for dissing Darwin.
WOMAN IN FILM: If you have questioned Darwininsm, that's it, your career is over.
BEN STEIN: Scientists are not allowed to even think thoughts that involve an intelligent creator.
Thoughts like a higher being created the universe, and there's nothing natural about natural selection. Controversial, yes. But the stuff blockbusters are made of? After all, Darwin doesn't exactly have the mass appeal of Batman.
That's it. It's about as softball as you will find in a news report.
-->So what's the counter-strategy? How do you effectively combat the natural tendency of a film such as Expelled to take advantage of non-traditional media beats for coverage of a public affairs topic, in the process gaining free publicity for the film?
In the case of Expelled, while focusing on making sure science writers and education reporters have a counter-message on the film, these are not the most important reporters to target. Science and education correspondents are far more likely to be familiar with the intelligent design claims, to know sources to turn to for context, and are writing for an audience that is already far more well informed than the average soft news consumer.
So instead as a priority, you want to make sure that film reviewers, movie industry correspondents, and entertainment reporters at local, regional, and national outlets are also contacted and provided background information on the film's claims.
Just like the targeted public for Expelled, reporters at these soft news beats are unlikely to be very familiar with intelligent design, the Dover case, or even evolution. They have a story to file on deadline, with limited space, and a standard packaging for their audience. They are probably unaware that in the case of Expelled, the film merits a strong counter-balance to its central claims. In fact, probably the only information they have on the topic is the press packet and materials that have been provided to them by the Expelled producers. The easiest thing for them is to follow their routinized and standardized approach for reporting on a new film and to get on to their next assignment.
If soft news correspondents aren't contacted in advance of writing film reviews or soft features on Expelled, what you can expect are lot more of the type of stories that ran on public radio last week.
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