The freebie trade

Popjournalism
Popjournalism

Week after week, movie passes, theatre tickets, CDs and books are delivered to newspapers and broadcasters. No, it's not an organized crime syndicate — they're media.

Free things are abundant in every broadcast and print outlet. But these review copies sometimes come with conditional gifts.

Before I became a journalist, Paramount Pictures didn't send me mail filled with glossy photos of stars in their latest blockbuster, nor was I given front row tickets for the latest play. These types of effects can be benign and are sometimes helpful in analysis, but preferential treatment loses its appeal fast.

After a while, each T-shirt sent with a CD and every button given out at a movie premiere begins to feel like an invasion of your mind. Obviously, every reporter makes great attempts to be objective and fair, but it can sometimes be difficult to ask readers to buy a $20 CD received under these conditions.

This kind of scenario is not uncommon in arts journalism. Dan Brown, arts reporter for the National Post, found the amount of superfluous items sent to the paper was enormous.

"You would not believe the amount of stuff that we got: stuffed toys, clothes, food baskets, and little knick-knacks," he said. "Whenever we get stuff like that we joked: 'I guess we're going to give this a good review.' The publicists who sent us that stuff don't realize how futile their attempts are."

While larger outlets like the Post can be overloaded with promotional material, smaller markets aren't ignored either.

Bartley Kives, a music reviewer for the Winnipeg Free Press, says he often gets additional collectibles from record companies. "I'll get junk like a t-shirt or whatever. All those extra things end up in a bin for other people to give to their kids."

So why do marketers send these items to journalists in the first place?

"We do it so that the press is aware that we're behind our artists," said Doren Roberts, sales and marketing representative for Universal Music in Winnipeg. "We'll do anything that has a hook that makes sense and doesn't break any laws."

Simon Beck, reviews editor at The Globe and Mail relates the popularity of conditional gift giving to desperate times. "Promotional items are sent out by public relations companies in an often-manic attempt to get any kind of media awareness they can, in an age when they are so many products out there."

Still, the reader could be left with the impression that a review can be "gifted" or bought.

Tim Rostron, arts editor at the Post, is quick to diffuse this notion. "We never say we like a film we dislike, or pretend a bad book is a masterpiece, because of some sort of dirty covert deal between the P.R. companies and us," he says. "Our negative copy is the price the P.R. companies pay for the enthusiastic things we say when we genuinely like something and what they are selling."

Here's an idea: perhaps media should buy the tickets, books and CDs themselves.

"That's not the way it works," responds Brown. "Either way, I don't think the review is going to be different. Let's say the Post wanted to review The Lion King. We can get the tickets for free from the publicist, or we can pay for the tickets ourselves. I think it would be the same."

The only difference is the avoidance of the aggressive product push. Marketers will keep sending trinkets with their press releases, as long they believe these efforts work somehow in influencing opinion.

"These items catch in a reviewer's mind," Roberts says. "They go back to them and remember our product."

The method may just turn off reviewers all together, however. Take Brown's experience with an overly aggressive marketer.

"I was covering the TV beat and I got sick and went to the hospital," Brown recalls. "Anyway, a publicist for a TV network found out and went to the hospital to visit and give me promotional stuff. My jaw dropped. Did it get this person any ink? No. But it's incredible what lengths publicists will go to do their jobs. I'll always remember it."

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About Robert J. Ballantyne

Robert J.Ballantyne is a senior editor at Popjournalism and Creative Director at Artsculture.ca. Previously, he was a journalist at the CBC on a number of news programs including the fifth estate, Marketplace and The National. He also worked as a staff writer at the Toronto Star.

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