The murky cycle of sponsored news articles by Ian Plenderleith
It sounds like a late-night conspiracy theory to maintain that corporate interests dictate the news agenda, especially when we’re talking about something as relatively unimportant to human destiny as football. But it’s not untrue to say that the internet has allowed the game’s major sponsors to have a say in the way that news is generated. A closer look at one of October’s headlines demonstrates why.
The story was that Inter manager José Mourinho had accused Chelsea forward Didier Drogba, one of his former players, of being a “diver”. It made for a quick and easy four-word headline (Mourinho: Drogba’s A Diver), and every major newspaper picked the story up. Drogba, of course, had won penalties for Chelsea under Mourinho when he appeared to go down rather easily, and Mourinho had said nothing at the time. And at least a thousand million columnists, bloggers and message-board contributors were eager to point this out.
It was odd, though, that Mourinho decided to suddenly get this accusation off his chest. It was hardly as though Drogba had thrown himself down in the penalty area at a vital point of an Inter v Chelsea Champions League clash and won a penalty that put Mourinho’s team out of the competition. The natural news cycle of such a story would then have seen an aggrieved Mourinho interviewed in the tunnel right after the game. But as we know, none of this has happened. So apart from an insatiable desire to see his name in the headlines 365 days a year, what could possibly have prompted Mourinho to open up to the world suddenly on this not particularly pertinent issue?
The source of the story was a previously unheard of website called Feelfootball.com. What a scoop for an unknown start-up site! Right there on the front page is the video of a journalist interviewing Mourinho at the training ground. Which raised the question: what online journalist ever enjoys this kind of one-on-one access with a manager like Mourinho? The answer turned out to be simple: one who is working for a website that’s founded and financed by Ford, one of the main sponsors of the Champions League.
The video is hilarious in a corporate wannabe hip way that’s about 15 years behind most cable-TV youth programme innovations. At least once you’ve got past the tell-tale close-up of the Ford logo on Mourinho’s T-shirt at the start of the interview. The Special Uno leans on a goalpost, as insouciant and effortlessly handsome as ever, while an ageing sold-out hack jumps nervously from foot to foot, in awe of the presence before him. And then comes the visually stunning camera trick – there’s a close-up of Mourinho in black and white for a couple of seconds, before we pan back out. This is not just a corporate video, viewers, it’s cinematic high art.
One can assume that Mourinho, and the rest of the site’s highly profiled suspects – Anders Frisk, Ruud Gullit, Stefan Effenberg and Patrick Vieira – are not wearing the Ford logo purely out of love for the automobile manufacturer. And so the genesis of the Drogba story quickly becomes clear. Ford has a deal with Mourinho which leads to him being asked to say something controversial, exclusively on the Ford website. The consequent story predictably sees journalists and fans alike swarm to the site to check the story out.
Everyone who watches the video sees that close-up of the Ford logo on José’s shirt. And everybody’s happy – journalists get to write a story without having to move from their desks, fan sites get to start a survey or a discussion thread asking “What do you think?” And José fulfils his contractual obligations with a two-minute interview as Ford reaps its requisite scads of publicity. Somewhere a young marketing and public-relations executive absorbs a hefty pat on the back.
It was only in retrospect that I realised my own complicity. Writing a daily online newsletter for another football publication, I too used an abbreviated form of the story without even pausing to think that this was not actually a story at all, just a piece of worthless manufactured news. We can only hope that next time around we might all be a little more alert.
With Feelfootball.com’s line-up, we can at least speculate what those stories might eventually be. Frisk: Collina Stole My Hairnet. Gullit: I Left LA To Escape Dinner Party Invite From Posh And Becks. Effenberg: I’ve Found Jesus And I Love Everyone. Vieira: My 12 Career Red Cards Have All Been Thoroughly Justified. You read them here first, so resist the flight of the flock to investigate further when they hit a screen near you.
From WSC 262 December 2008