I am waging war against bad commercial content.

For the past 10 years, I have sought to cajole, enthuse, encourage, harass, and motivate the editorial teams I’ve led, to ensure that everything we do that involves a client is creative, of great quality and aligned to good news values, by being genuinely interesting and informative. Even, and especially, when that required some passionate conversations with clients.

But not everyone takes the same approach.

Many believe that, because a client controls the money, the way to do commercial content is to just give them what they say they want. The results are frequently dreary, painful, and an affront to intelligence. They also don’t work. And then clients get cranky and blame the medium, rather than their poor message.

It has to stop. There is enough dross parading as content in this current age without professional creatives — including journalists — selling out their talent because a marketing team is all hot and bothered about the desire to create an online viral campaign.

A case in point, I believe, are airline flight safety videos.

As Australia’s major airline, Qantas has been a sponsor of the Australian Olympic team and now the Australian cricket team. Clearly, someone in marketing decided that, given the size of their investment, they needed to leverage these dollars and do more.

With content creation the latest fad, they incorporated the Olympic team into the safety briefing, with a delivery awash with bad sporting cliches and jingoism. Servicing sponsors to this extent did not pay off for the Aussie Olympic team; many of the stars of the video failed to perform as expected in London.

I thought it was truly awful. And, with a busy travel schedule, I resented each time the video appeared and I was forced to watch it while captive in my airline seat. Then the Australian cricket team version appeared. I hate it even more.

To its sins of bad sporting cliches and jingoism, add sycophantic hero worship and faked laughter to appallingly bad jokes. My safety is actively compromised because I simply cannot watch it. And, unsurprisingly, it has not gone viral.

But hey, they are airline safety briefings, I hear you say. Lighten up! It is potentially life-saving content. It’s the message that’s important. At least Qantas is trying to mix it up.

But I disagree. And both Air New Zealand and Delta Airways are backing me up.

They, too, have repackaged the airline safety briefing message creatively. Delta uses light humour, cameo star performances, and visual gags to keep your attention.

 And the Kiwis cash in on New Zealand’s role as Middle Earth in the whole “Lord of the Rings” phenomenon by filling the plane with elves, hobbits, orcs, dwarves, and wizards, with direction from Peter Jackson. 

It’s both compelling viewing and hilarious. Neither has undermined the importance of the safety messages they contain. But they do use humour rather than patronisation to underscore the issues.

At last count, the Air New Zealand video on YouTube had more than 9 million views, while Delta’s two versions, which went up this month, had more than 100,000 views between them. Compare that to just 24,000 for Qantas.

There are salient lessons for journalists who work in commercial content here:

  1. Don’t feel obliged to interpret a clients’ brief literally.
    It’s our job to understand what clients need — not necessarily give them exactly what they say they want. Most clients need and want eyeballs for their product. Combine that need with the most interesting delivery/angle and you will succeed. Focus first on the angle the client wants and you have utterly forgettable PR.

  2. Sell the benefits not the features. Sell? Journalists don’t sell. Oh, get over yourself! Every time we pitch a story to a news desk we are in sales mode. We deliver audience and engagement around the topics we write about, and in the commercial sphere these topics can involve advertiser interests.

    Talk about ways to genuinely achieve the objectives of audience and engagement and then look at the best angles from the material available or identify what needs to be done to create great material.
  3. Avoid content non sequiturs. Just because a client has spent money on a sponsorship and has a need to create content does not mean the two can marry seamlessly. They could — and, in the case of Qantas, should — serve two separate parts of the business.

    If the client demands are too inflexible, it may be time to find a new client. Unless, of course, they will sign a waiver, recognising you have given them the advice but they will not take it and they are OK with the idea of creating content no one wants to read or watch.

Bad content does not encourage good audiences or achieve strong results, no matter how much money is spent on it or how important the client feels.

So now, please put away your tray table, place your luggage in the overhead lockers, and bring your seat to the upright position. Thank you for flying Out of the Box.