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Opinion: Grist for the marketing mill

Where's our sense of humour gone?

Last Sunday I woke up full of the joys of spring, but by the time I had finished reading the Sunday Times I couldn't make up my mind whether to go back to bed with a bottle of whisky, or wander out into the street and throw myself in front of a minibus.
I am not picking on the Sunday Times as such but just about every newspaper in the country. And pretty much every online publication from B2B websites to www.sewageandkakdisposalweekly.com.

Frankly, I really have to wonder whether South Africa's editors really are a humourless lot and whether the lighter side of life just isn't on their radar screens?

Now, I am not for a minute suggesting that all our newspapers and online portals start engaging in sunshine journalism or even that they tell us the good news.

What I am saying is that there needs to be something to make us smile, maybe even laugh so that we don't go to bed with a whisky bottle or throw ourselves in front of a minibus. We need balance. Our carbo-load of political skulduggery and crime needs to be balanced by some protein-enriched smile muti.

Not a smile to be seen

There was no protein whatsoever in last week's Sunday Times, nor any other newspaper I have read in the past month.

I am also still ratty about Finweek killing its amusing Piker column and replacing it with a crossword and some gratuitous tweets all under the tile of "Laughing Stocks"

That's a laugh, to say the least.

And where are all those wonderful headline writers? Have they died or are they just gagged?

Let me hasten to say, however, that I don't blame editors at all for keeping away from humour because editors are generally obliged to take very careful note of what readership research is telling them.

And what readership research is telling them is that, in terms of business-to-business media for example, what readers want to the exclusion of all else is serious business stuff without any form of frivolity.

Trouble is, as far as I am concerned, a lot of readership research is absolute crap.

Here lies the problem

Especially that sort of readership research that asks readers what they like reading. And this is where the problem lies.

Consumers of news media enjoy a laugh or two every now and then. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Consumers of news media enjoy a laugh or two every now and then. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
It is completely contrary to human nature for any self-respecting businessman, woman or entrepreneur to sit in front of a researcher or fill in an online survey and answer the question about what the most important thing they read and say: "Oh, without doubt, I like the jokes at the back and then the cartoons and then if there is anything about who is bonking whom..."

Of course not. What they will say is: "I first look at share prices, then the leader page editorial and then global economic analyses..."

In precisely the same way that if you ask any human being what wine they like most, they will unhesitatingly respond by mentioned the most expensive brand they have ever heard of and not consider for a moment telling the truth about their economically induced preference for cheap plonk.

I have seen a lot of misguided readership research in my day.

What the readers really wanted to read first

The very first experience I had of it was way back in the 1960s when The Natal Mercury did some research on what readers really wanted. As usual, the analysis came back showing quite clearly that readers wanted politics, opinion and analysis, business news and then sport.

The editor of the Mercury duly complied and decided to move the paper's extremely humorous Idler's column from the back page to the centre of the paper, to fall in line with most other newspapers by putting sport at the back.

The Mercury switchboard was jammed for three days solid with readers absolutely incensed about the change. Bear in mind, they were not complaining that the column had been dropped, but just that it had just been moved.

What was subsequently proved was that something like 70% of Mercury readers actually rated the Idler's column as the primary reason for buying the newspaper in the first place, even if they would not dare admit this in formal research.

I am not suggesting for a minute that all readership research has massive margins of error, but what I am saying is that news media management and editors need to be very careful about what a lot of readership research is perceived to suggest.

I am convinced that consumers of news media enjoy a laugh or two every now and then.

Oh and by the way, political satire, no matter how acerbic, is not humour. While many people will enjoy seeing a columnist sticking it to a politician or two, it doesn't actually raise a laugh but rather just exacerbates the desire to go to bed with a bottle of whisky or step in front of a minibus.
    
 

About Chris Moerdyk

Apart from being a corporate marketing analyst, advisor and media commentator, Chris Moerdyk is a former chairman of Bizcommunity. He was head of strategic planning and public affairs for BMW South Africa and spent 16 years in the creative and client service departments of ad agencies, ending up as resident director of Lindsay Smithers-FCB in KwaZulu-Natal. Email Chris on and follow him on Twitter at @chrismoerdyk.
Dominique Valente
Dominique Valente
I couldn't agree more. I became a writer because of those back page humour columnists. Except, now the majority of SA publications don't feel that there is a space for them anymore.

Have turned to blogging my columns instead. It's great, but I miss the days when the back page was the best page, and when good writing wasn't just about having all your Oxford commas in place.
Posted on 2 Apr 2014 07:27
Daryl Ilbury
Daryl Ilbury
Bang on the button, Chris! Try being someone entrusted with getting more science into the media. Science, and its extension - innovation - hold so many opportunities for providing good news. And yet everytime I approach an editor I am told "our readers don't have an appetite for science". That's a bit weird seeing that we are all consumers of science. At the very least science encourages an appetite for wonder...and that has to be better than the desire to throw oneself in front of a minibus
Posted on 2 Apr 2014 13:15
Daryl Ilbury
Daryl Ilbury
Bang on the button, Chris! Try being someone entrusted with getting more science into the media. Science, and its extension - innovation - hold so many opportunities for providing good news. And yet everytime I approach an editor I am told "our readers don't have an appetite for science". That's a bit weird seeing that we are all consumers of science. At the very least science encourages an appetite for wonder...and that has to be better than the desire to throw oneself in front of a minibus
Posted on 2 Apr 2014 13:27
Herman Lategan
Herman Lategan
You should read Rapport, but it seems the English in this country are stuck in a monolingual bubble. Lots of serious writing, lots of good humour, it's a fine mix let me tell you, and I'm not one for handing out compliments.
Posted on 2 Apr 2014 14:43
Henri Hattingh
Thanks Chris, you made me smile today !
Posted on 2 Apr 2014 15:14
Richard Gee
Richard Gee
Growing up I read The Argus in Cape Town and my favourite piece in the entire newspaper was a humorous column titled 'Tavern of the Seas' (i think). It was usually 3 random pieces regarding life in Cape Town and the writers grumblings from his point of view, with a joke at the end. A bit like John Maytham (567 CapeTalk), but in print. Loved it. No idea if the column still exists.
Posted on 3 Apr 2014 09:08
Mpumie
The very first experience I had of it was way back in the 1960s?

Then how old are you madala?

You're right. I stopped reading Sunday Time when one humorous column disappeared.
Posted on 3 Apr 2014 10:22
Grant Pringle
Grant Pringle
I cant agree no more Well put Chris - despite the Sunday times I am a Cape Times fantatic - more humour = more readership !!
Posted on 4 Apr 2014 13:01
Narian Chengiah Naidoo
Indians Reborn

The angel, Gabriel came to God and said: “I have to talk to you urgently”. We have some Indians up here in heaven and they are causing problems.

They are swinging on the pearly gates, my horn is missing, they are wearing Dolce and Gabana sarees instead of their white robes, they are driving Rolls Royce, Mercedes, Volvos and BMWs, instead of the chariots, and they are selling their halos to people for discounted prices. You should know that no other nationality can beat Indians in bargaining.

They refuse to keep the stairway to Heaven clear or clean, since they keep crouching down midway eating samosas and drinking tea. Indians thrive on street food and they don’t get sick. Some of them are even walking around with just one wing. They do not believe in discipline and push their way through the line.' No matter how highly educated, when an Indian get very angry, they switch to highly effective, swear words in their mother tongue.

God said Indians are Indians. Heaven is home to all my children. If you want to know about real problems, give Satan a call who is a member of the African National Congress and always dressed in a black, green and gold outfit. Satan answered the phone, ‘Hello? Damn, hold on a minute.' Satan returned to the phone, 'OK I am back. What can I do for you?'

Gabriel replied, 'I just wanted to know what kind of problems you are having down there.’ Satan says, 'Hold on again. I need to check on something.'

After about five minutes Satan returns to the phone and said, 'I am back. Now what was the question?’ Gabriel said, 'What kind of problems are you having down there?' Satan says, 'Man I don't believe this, hold on.'

This time Satan was gone at least 15 minutes. He returned and said, "I am sorry Gabriel, I can't talk right now. These Indians are trying to install air conditioning and making Hell a comfortable place to live in by putting out the fire, which is there to keep them uncomfortably hot. Since they are so tech savvy, they were trying to start a telephone and IT connection between heaven and hell between ME and GOD. They have started a social network service for the troubled and believe in Karma and are good in convincing others.

Some were trying to start Shebeens, Spaza Shops, corner tea rooms selling pancakes and samosa, barfi, which I had to stop. Some are even selling fake name brand clothing, pirated DVDs and even selling “Showerhead” brand name condoms with Jacob Zuma’s face on it and I suspect that Mac Maharaj is the supplier.

The Indian have no trouble living in dirt as they are so used to it down on earth. We have shortage of toilets to make them uncomfortable as this is Hell, but they have no problems in doing everything outside in open. Indians only go on cleaning sprees only during Diwali/Christmas or when they have guests coming over.

Indians are excellent in corrupting everyone and my staffs are being bribed by them and I have difficulty in controlling the graft and corruption in Hell. Hell is now becoming like South Africa. You know South Africa is the most corrupted country on earth, where the Indians like the Schabir Schaik, the Guptas have just corrupted the African National Congress Party to such extent that they can never be rehabilitated.

Gabriel goes back to and says, these ignorant and arrogant Indians never complain as this place seems to be better from where they came and do as they please and have no consideration for the rule of law up here. I am having such a hard time controlling and dealing with them!! I am therefore requesting you, Oh God, please send the Indians back to earth as soon as they arrive for re-birth.

So this is why Indians are the only ones that are reborn.
Posted on 4 Apr 2014 14:54
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