The costly little secret of MSNBC's new ad campaign

In the wake of CNN’s ratings implosion, MSNBC is celebrating its rise by default to a distant second place in cable news by launching a new ad campaign this week. “You will see it on-air [sic], in promotions and in advertisements,” MSNBC president Phil Griffin told TV Newser. And according to other industry sources, they’re spending about $2 million for the television component, which MSNBC paid Spike Lee to direct.

$2 million for what?

So where’s their two megabucks going? Not into media. The campaign will run on MSNBC cable, and other NBC-Universal outlets. So the only money MSNBC and its corporate parent will have to shell out for air time will be to themselves. Moreover, when media promote themselves on other media (e.g., television networks in print media), they generally get the ad space or time by barter – so again, no cash outlay. Which suggests that the bulk of the millions went for either production costs or the director, Spike Lee.

$2 million for whom?

As a film director, Spike Lee is most famous for being famous. His most recent feature, Miracle at St. Anna, was released in 2008 to what Wikipedia describes as “mostly negative reviews from critics.” The moviegoing public seemed to agree, because its grand total domestic gross was under $8 million. Not exactly another Avatar or Titanic. In fact, as the 192nd most popular 2008 movie, it wasn’t even another Zombie Strippers! (138) or Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (86).

See for yourself

And from the first two commercials, at least, it looks like famous director Lee didn’t have anything to actually direct. The shot list – and it’s all (or maybe 95%) stock footage edited together – is well-edited, but still edited, not directed.

The first commercial, “Hard Wired,” shows (in order of appearance) sperms fertilizing eggs, a sonogram of a fetus, blurry footage of a baby crawling, a baby standing up and walking, kids running, a boy on a tricycle, a high school or college graduating class, a bride and groom, a Little League baseball game, closeup of feet on a tightrope, old footage of a man running, modern footage of a woman running, closeup of an eye, boy jumping off diving board, sky diver, teenagers on a roller coaster, white-water rafter, exhausted runner finishing marathon, suffragettes, historical footage of closeup feet marching, closeup of Martin Luther King Jr., Vietnam-era troops going into combat from a helicopter, historical footage of early 1970s peace marchers. That’s just the first 30 seconds, but you get the picture(s).

I won’t bore you by making a list of the shots in the second commercial, but the structure’s essentially the same.

A stock footage editor for the price of a big-time director?

Now, there are people whose job it is to research and edit stock film footage. They’re called editors, not directors. While they earn respectable salaries, they don’t make a million dollars per 60-second spot. Stock footage isn’t free, and what it costs varies with the length of each shot you use (and in these commercials, nothing looked like even as long as five seconds). Depending on its source and nature, stock footage costs hundreds, at most a thousand or two per shot. Again, not $2 million, even when you’re buying dozens of shots. As for casting and directing the voice-over narrations, that’s something any competent agency producer can do – and again, for just a fraction of $2 million

Maybe some of the future commercials Lee was paid $2 million to direct will actually show evidence of some directing. But until then, we can only wonder – just what was it MSNBC paid him for?

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