content alert: jargon ahead

I miss a lot of marketing-speak because I usually mute commercials. But sometimes, for whatever reason, the sound stays on, and some new bit of jargon slips through. Recently I learned that sports drinks - those brightly coloured beverages that are supposed to replenish all the precious bodily fluids you supposedly lost while supposedly working out so hard - are now marketed as hydrators.

Perhaps you can consume a hydrator in your luxury sports utility vehicle while expanding your skill set with other individuals in your demographic.

Now rewrite that sentence in English.

Today the excellent Globe and Mail columnist Russ Smith writes about jargon, and tries to articulate why writing is not content. I also reject that stupid word; as soon as a prospective editor refers to my work as "content", I know we're not on the same wavelength. As Smith says, it's difficult to explain why, but he does an admirable job.
I find it hard to explain to anyone in business why I can't stand the word "content." I've tried before and it annoys people. "Yes, yes," they say, "we're sure you're very clever and artistic and all that, but we need a word to refer to what you guys do as distinct from what the marketing people and the management people and the technical people do. Why does it bother you?"

From a literary point of view, the word "content" bothers me because it falls into the category of the pseudo-technical: It's like saying "individual" for man or woman, or "offline" for talk privately. It signals "business jargon ahead." It's a way of making old-fashioned things such as books and music seem archaic: In the speaker's brave digital world, these things become part of a streamlined, scientific system of exchange - platform, delivery system, partners, synergy, content.

I also just can't imagine Leonardo or Derrida or Jean-Paul Gaultier sitting down at the desk or studio and thinking, "Today I produce Content!" (What are you working on, Mr. Bob Dylan? "Oh, some Content.") The only people I ever hear using this word are non-creators. Every artist says I'm working on a play, a video, a novel, a sound experiment.

I don't think of my own work as content. I think of the whole newspaper - and everyone who works on it - as content. It seems strange to differentiate between the content and the product as a whole, as if anyone who buys a paper or goes to a website or buys a ticket to a concert is interested in anything but content. Yet this is the way producers of entertainment think. "You know what's great about this movie? It's got fantastic brand equity, a narrowly targeted and influential demographic, and it also has some solid content."

I have heard people who work in entertainment industries - record labels, cable-TV chains - plan new entertainment products. I have been privy to conversations about platforms and demographics and advertising opportunities that mention "content" as a necessary afterthought. "Of course," I have heard people say, "we'll have to have some really top-level content as well. We have someone who can handle that."

Most of these discussions are about new websites or Web magazines. They are conceived as platforms for advertising. You think up a target market first, then you think up a look or style you think they will appreciate. There is a lot of describing the ideal consumer for this advertising: He or she lives in this part of town, drives this kind of car and has these products in his bathroom. Printed proposals for new magazines or TV shows often have pictures of these fictitious people - usually, amusingly, cut and pasted from advertising in other magazines.

Then, once you have your ideal consumer described (you call them "Jenny" and "Aqbar"; they are smiling in the pictures, and drive hybrid cars, and drink merlot and sauvignon blanc, and know who Robert Lepage is), you talk to a designer about fonts and colours. Then you find someone with celebrity status to be attached as a host or figurehead. There is talk of A-lists and C-lists.

Once you have this juggernaut rolling, money starts to flow. It is only at this point that you can start to think about "content." You know some people who are fresh out of school to do that: They need the money and are not going to be too demanding about it. Make sure they don't get too weird with it, and you should be okay. (Their own private projects - their blogs, their bands - they tend not to call "content." They call them blogs and bands.)

Not surprisingly, projects launched this way don't all do terribly well. You know what does well? When a bunch of experts in some subject, say economics, get together and say, "Let's publish a magazine about economics that expresses our views. We'll call it, say, The Economist."

I am quite sure that when that happened, the words brand and content were never mentioned. Nobody ever thinks of a good idea as content. They think, "I am really sick of fashion magazines that don't reflect my taste and life, and I would love to publish Dave's photos, and Gail could write her brilliant articles."

The idea of media as a vehicle for "content" is a virus. It's a subtle diminution of the importance of creative people and thinkers. To talk about your cultural artifact as a brand or a vehicle is to think of its creators as paid suppliers, as small cogs in a machine. If you start thinking about entertainment in terms of ideas - stories, strong sensations, provocations - rather than in terms of vehicles for ideas, you'll make entertainment that people might voluntarily absorb. If that works, you can sell advertising in it.

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