Freakonomics Breaks Down Pay to Play "media" on flights

I found this great post on the Freakonomics blog via “the Cycle” from PR Week. I’m always getting asked by clients whether these ‘pay to play’ opportunities are good for them. My short answer is always, ‘no.’ For small companies with limited marketing budgets, these make no sense, no matter how cheap they are.

For big companies with huge budgets that can afford to have these run basically in perpetuity and have it show up as a rounding error on their marketing budget it makes more sense. In 1996-7, one of the client accounts I worked on was a large computer company based in Palo Alto. They made several customer video case studies that were shown on United with one of the pay to play opps, I think this one was “Bunting’s Window (is that name right?)” They produced several very professionally and then had then run in rotation for basically a year. There was value in that. It was also, a small part of their marketing that clearly served to support other initiatives, not serve as a way to introduce the company to prospective customers.

airplane-interior.jpgAfter Freakonomics got popular, it was unbelievable how many interview requests/invitations I received. I don’t think I’m exaggerating in saying there were at least 10 per day for a year, or over 3,500 in that time. Now I get “only” three or four a day. Needless to say, I got really good at saying no, much to the chagrin of my friend Dee Dee DeBartlo, who is in charge of publicity for Freakonomics at William Morrow/HarperCollins.

The most common invitation is for talk radio. I think if I wanted to I could have spent all day, every day doing local radio interviews. The next most common are invitations to speak, especially to high-school AP economics classes. Then of course there are print journalists, bloggers, and the occasional TV.

It’s rare that an interview request catches my attention. I got one today, though, that did. It read as follows:

My name is [REDACTED] and I am a independent producer for the special in-flight radio program “America’s Innovators and Entrepreneurs,” which will air worldwide on American Airlines’ “FORTUNE In-Flight Radio” Channel during the entire month of December 2007.

This special on-going radio series spotlights compelling profiles of innovators and entrepreneurs — from small businesses to large enterprises — the people and companies that make up the backbone of business in America and are rarely heard from. This show will feature stories of hope, ideas and success stories in ways you’ve never heard before.

I fly American Airlines quite a bit, I think to myself, and they have done some very nice things for me in the past. I wouldn’t mind helping them out. On the other hand, I turn down every interview, so I would need some compelling reason to do this one. Eventually, my thoughts turn to how infuriating it would be to all the economists and others who despise me to stumble accidentally onto the interview while relaxing on the airplane. I decide I will do it.

Then I read a little further:

Since we’re on deadline, we’re offering our last few spots on our December 2007 edition for only $3,995 (normally $6,995). Please note we are recording interviews no later than August 17th and due to our tight deadline, we need a commitment to secure your spot no later than Friday, July 27th.

What?! This is not an interview request, this is a sales pitch! They want me to hand over $3,995 (normally $6,995) for the privilege of doing it.

Three thoughts:

1) I will never again listen to the interviews on in-flight radio.

2) Is the airtime really worth that little? The interview plays on 29,000 planes for a month. Maybe there are 150 passengers per flight. Let’s say each plane has passengers on it 12 hours per day. They loop through the interviews maybe once an hour. If my calculations are right, that means there are 1.6 billion separate chances for a passenger to hear the interview. Even if only 1 in 1,000 times someone is actually listening, that would still mean 1.6 million interviews heard. At a price of $3,995, that would only be one-fourth of a penny per interview heard. That seems pretty darn cheap. Maybe I will tell Dee Dee to buy up the whole rotation when our next book comes out. All the listener would hear was one three-minute interview with Dubner and Levitt, played over and over and over.

3) At this low a price, is it even worth selling the space? It almost seems like American Airlines and Fortune would be better off getting real interviews if all they are earning is $40,000 a month from this.

This is another great example of how blurry the lines have become between reporting and advertising. We recently posted about how Martha Stewart sells time on her TV show. The fact that I find it so shocking that these slots are for sale demonstrates what fantastic advertising opportunities they really are. I process information differently when I think it is reporting than when it is paid advertising. So if you can trick me into thinking it is reporting, it is far more likely to change my opinion than if I know it is an ad.

Which is exactly why we are going to see more and more of this in the future. But the only way you are going to hear my voice on an American Airlines flight in December 2007 is if you and I happen to be on the same flight, and you are sitting in the row in front of me, and I apologize for the fact that my kids have been kicking the back of your seat for the last three hours straight.

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