Surely there is something a little awkward about a website sponsored by a brand of alcohol running a series of pieces about drugs. This is the situation at the Fairfax blog The Daily Truth authored by Jack Marx, a man who stands at the crux of modern journalistic ethical dilemmas. Except he doesn’t see it as a dilemma. More of an opportunity.
Marx recently penned a beautifully written and disturbing piece on his compromised relationship with Russell Crowe, which made publishing history by appearing first on a Fairfax blog, then making its way into the hard copy editions of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. The profile raised enough ethical issues to keep students of journalism courses busy for years to come, but there was no doubting its penetration of its subject nor its punch. Part of its strength was it revealed as much about Marx and his ethical compromises as it did about Crowe.
What many of Marx’s readers probably don’t realise is that The Daily Truth wouldn’t exist were it not for Absolut Cut – the vodka premix drink that is advertised alongside Marx’s copy. The relationship goes beyond the normal one between content and advertising. The Daily Truth is not only sponsored but was actually commissioned by Absolut Cut. The company approached Fairfax asking them to commission appropriately hip online copy to provide an environment for their ads.
Last year the manager of Absolut Cut’s advertising agency, Matt Baxter, told Professional Marketing Magazine how it works. The problem Absolut Cut faced was that premix drinks were not seen as cool. The advertising agency detected two target markets “cultural creatives” and “active urbanites”. Cultural creatives, Baxter said, were people engaged in creative occupations who were not necessarily wealthy or numerous, but who provided guidance to the high spending active urbanites on “what’s in, and what’s not”.
Absolut Cut has embarked on a number of marketing campaigns in which the strategy has been to associate the product with “cool” cultural creatives. Marx is the latest of these. Fairfax has provided the platform for Absolut Cut and Marx to come together. All this is troubling enough, but in recent days Marx has created an extra level of complexity by running a series of posts examining in frank “no bullsh-t” terms the effects of a series of illegal drugs. Marx has not tackled alcohol in this series, nor tobacco.
Why not? He told me last night that he had wanted to concentrate on illegal drugs – the kind that national campaigns are run to combat.
And he pointed out that he had written about alcohol before, on his earlier blog Radar. Look up that post and you discover a searing critique of Alcoholics Anonymous in the course of which Marx acknowledges that he was once an alcoholic.
“Before I stepped into AA I was in undoubtedly in strife. I’d become a slave to booze and was drinking against my will. I’d wake each morning and plead with myself not to do it again, the afternoon finding me with a beer in my hand, as if the morning and all its thoughts had been a mere dream between drinks. One half of my life – from, say, lunchtime to bedtime – was out of control and AA was the only door I knew. “
So what on earth is he doing? I am not accusing him of hypocrisy. Read his whole piece on AA and you’ll see it’s more complex than that. But that is what Marx is. Complex. Compare Marx’s role now for Absolut Cut to his own description of his time as Russell Crowe’s “guerrilla publicist”. And think about the betrayal of Crowe by Marx, and Marx by Crowe, that followed.
Marx told me that Absolut Cut had no contact with him, and exercised no control over editorial content. He thought that they had had a role in choosing the name for his blog – a name he had in mind was rejected, and he was given the name The Daily Truth. The name has clear resonance with the Absolut Cut slogan “cut the cr-p”.
So should Marx write about alcoholism on The Daily Truth? Could he? Would he? Well, he doesn’t want to. And isn’t that convenient.
This is the way of the future – the way smart advertisers will sell to the increasingly media-savvy and hard to reach audience. Thirty second television commercials are looking distinctly old-fashioned. In the future advertisers will commission content. It’s like the soap operas of old – originally commissioned sell soap powder. Except this is more sophisticated.The lines between journalism, drama, documentary and the advertising that supports them will become so blurry that it will be impossible to separate truth from spin.
The fact that Marx is a good and engaging writer, more than intelligent enough to see the moral position he is in, and to go some way to being frank about it, only adds to the sense of spiralling ethical collapse.
Probably none of this matters to Fairfax or to Absolut Cut. The edgier Marx gets, the cooler a vodka premix appears.