There’s a disconcerting trend in digital storytelling going on right now, and something that happened to me the other day made me realize just how far it’s gone. I committed the ultimate faux pas. I sent a text to a friend confirming weekend plans that read, “Yea that sounds good.” She responded (sarcastically), “Well don’t get TOO excited then!” Oops. I had forgotten to add an exclamation mark at the end of my message. Apparently, this made me sound indifferent, perhaps even discourteous.
I do appreciate that sentiment can be hard to assess in text messages. However, when an exclamation mark is expected to indicate a positive or friendly response, and the lack of one is taken as an affront, I worry about the tendency (or perhaps it is seen as a necessity, particularly as we witness marketing transformation in the age of digital storytelling) to push ourselves to extremes and lose the subtlety of our emotional communication. This is wreaking havoc in the marketing world, but it’s also destroying us psychologically. The way we communicate with each other is incredibly important and has far-reaching implications we often neglect to consider.
An Epidemic of Sensationalism
I feel a pang of regret as I write this: sensationalism has become the new norm.
Brands are so at a loss as to how they can capture their audience’s attention that, on occasion, sensationalism is employed explicitly, in gratuitous ways. Take this Sprint commercial, for instance (I apologize in advance):
It employs a degree of absurdity (in the purest sense of the term) that, for me, fall short of success.
We’re all too familiar with the reality of news outlets becoming increasingly desperate to attract traffic in this digital shouting match of “Pick me, pick me!” Headlines have become not just misleading, but sometimes completely false, designed to grab your attention so you’ll click. What happens after that (the actual journalism bit) isn’t the thing supporting the publication financially. They just need you to click on that shock-and-awe headline.
As a writer, this eats away at me. Legitimate publications are going under. Good, ethical, well-researched, and thoughtfully produced journalism is losing to fake news.
So how did we get here, and is this new norm even working for marketing?
Why Sensationalism Is a Death Sentence
Marketing and advertising agencies are no strangers to the demand for constant creativity and innovation. The need to show a solid return on investment for digital storytelling campaigns (amidst a kind of tech-driven speed we have never witnessed before) is undeniable. This cult of speed is bringing with it a narrowed realm of possibility for marketers to exercise their creative potential: their audiences are becoming tone-deaf to nuanced communications and habituated to sensationalism.
One realm that seems to dominate today is a constant barrage of images and stories of war and conflict on social media. A study presented at the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society in May 2015 found that almost a quarter of those exposed to violent and horrific images and news stories on social media scored high on clinical measures of post-traumatic stress disorder, and those who reported viewing the events more often were most affected. Sensational content is damaging us in very real ways.
But even if you’re a totally cold-hearted and malicious marketer (I don’t think you are), the apparent viral “success” of sensational content has a breaking point. The results of a study published in Communication Research indicate that audiences respond positively to sensationalism only up to a point. It’s not that sensational content stops eliciting emotional arousal, it’s that emotional arousal stops being correlated with whether we like the content or not. Think of this relationship like an inverted U.
There is a point beyond which more sensationalism actually makes us dislike the content we’re viewing. As marketers, if we continue to push the boundaries when it comes to sensationalism, we will be pushing our audiences into the realm of disliking our content. Sure, it might grab their attention, but at what cost? What is the use if the end result isn’t a positive association with our brand? We need to reel ourselves in from the extremes and stop harming our audiences with a damaging overload of sensationalism. The further we push, the more we will alienate them.
We need to recognize the ethical implications of the content we create, whether we’re journalists, content creators, marketers, or business leaders. Savvy companies already recognize that we’re fed up and are taking steps. Wikipedia recently banned the Daily Mail as a source, citing the publication’s “sensationalism and flat-out fabrication” as reasons for the move. When we are totally surrounded by our media (TV, smartphones, laptops) for hours every day, what we say and how we’re saying it is a totally different ballgame—one with much higher stakes—than it used to be just a few decades ago.
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