Grist: Don't Read the Business Pages
BY Adam Hanft
How do you attack the morning paper? We all have our own rituals.
Jocks blitz to the sports section, nursing-home residents wobble over to the obituaries, and businesspeople -- with no time for diversion -- default to the business section. It's an understandable impulse. Isn't the business news exactly what "businesspeople" should be reading? Not really. Try skipping the business section for a week and concentrating on the rest of the newspaper, including those fly-over sections. You might learn something.
Newspaper business sections offer surprisingly little insight for those making the tough decisions. Much of the coverage is stock-market focused, which is fine for investors but provides little long-form intelligence for those leading their businesses into the future. As for the non-Wall Street news, it's a mirror of the news cycle, a daily knee-jerk reaction to the story of the moment. That Steve Case announced his resignation is, undoubtedly, big business news, but is 1,000 words revisiting the failed history of synergy and the naiveté of Gerald Levin going to make a difference to you? As for news about your industry, most of the time you know all about it long before it hits the paper.
The rest of the paper, though, is a rich resource, a trend trove that can tell you more about the economy and your business than you might imagine. Start with the style section. Normally, hard-nosed businesspeople avoid the style section the way Pat Robertson avoids the same-sex marriage notices (which, by the way, should be of real interest to those in the floral, catering, and photography businesses). But if you read the style section as a cultural detective, you might, say, observe the profound Eastern influence that is consistently displayed -- from new forms of yoga to Thai massage to cosmetics (what I call zentrification). Why should you care? If I were looking to differentiate my product or service -- an airline or a restaurant or a bed and breakfast -- I would try to understand why the Eastern ethos is so seductive and how I could apply it myself.
On to the arts pages. You read about diversity in the dryness of census data, but the vitality of the Latino and Asian cultures is snapped to life here, from painting to dance to film. Most companies still marginalize ethnic marketing by calling it...well, ethnic marketing. In 10 years, the tables will turn, and there'll be marketing and "nonethnic" marketing. Reaching these segments with sensitively targeted products and services is one of the great entrepreneurial opportunities out there.
A few more pages and we're in entertainment. Have you thought about what the reality-show phenomenon means to your business? Sensational, trashy, and irresistible, these shows illuminate an almost desperate need for authenticity, even a cheesy kind. They also betray a distaste for the prepackaged. That's one reason Fox News is scarfing CNN's lunch -- it's not the politics, it's the red-meat, go-for-the-jugular approach. If I were a tour operator, I would think about that when creating travel packages. And I would do the same if I were Michael Eisner -- maybe theme-park attendance has been soft because people are looking for less predigested entertainment.
Let's continue our journey to automobiles. Ford is reintroducing the Mustang, and muscle cars are coming back. Seems you can't kill nostalgia. It's also about wanting power, emotional and physical horsepower, to overcome the sense of powerlessness that overwhelms so many. My new electric toothbrush seems to have a bigger engine than my old VW Beetle. Altoids is another example -- wimpy mint has gone nuclear. If I were a consumer marketer I would be trying to bring more power to the people, whether in fashion or home decor or perhaps a new kind of SUV...the sport utility vacuum.
Indeed there is no section of the paper that can't torque you into thinking about your business -- travel (the hottest destinations?), religion (many businesspeople fail to consider targeting the religion market), health, and real estate. What are people featuring? Great rooms, media rooms, aging-parent rooms? It's real-time market research. I also like to see how many ads there are on the big holiday weekends, like Memorial Day. Very few people are house-hunting on those days, so anybody advertising really needs to sell. It's my personal economic indicator of desperation. I know it's not scientific. But neither is the business page.
Contributor Adam Hanft is president of Hanft Byrne Raboy, a Manhattan-based advertising and marketing firm.