Quote For The Day

by Chris Bodenner

“The honest system of advertising should be but a simple announcement of the offer of goods for the information of those who desire to purchase, in such a manner that they may by seeking find. But in advertising as it now exists, exaggeration is piled on exaggeration, and falsehood is added to falsehood. The world is filled with monstrous lies, and they are thrust upon attention by every possible means. When a man opens his mail in the morning the letter of his friend is buried among these advertising monstrosities. They are thrust under street-doors, and they are offered as you walk the streets. When you read the morning and evening papers, they are spread before you with typographic display; they are placed among the items you desire to read, and they are given false headings, and they begin with decoy paragraphs. … [T]he whole civilized world is placarded with lies, and the moral atmosphere of the world reeks with the foul breath of this monster of antagonistic competition,” – John Wesley Powell, “Competition as a Factor in Human Evolution,” American Anthropologist 1, no. 4 (October 1, 1888): 297–323. Italics mine. Thanks to a reader for flagging. Previous Dish on the early history of sponsored content here.

The Tail Becomes The Dog

Jack Shafer reviews Cynthia B. Meyers’ new book, A Word From Our Sponsor: Admen, Advertising, and the Golden Age of Radio, which examines the longstanding entanglement of the media and advertising industries:

In Meyers’ view, advertising is not something appended to radio and TV broadcasts or shimmied into the pages of newspapers and magazines. Advertising has been both the dog wagging the tail and the tail wagging the dog, sometimes occupying points in between, its symbiotic relationship with popular media forever ebbing and cresting. And while the past never predicts the future, this book gives readers a peak around the media future’s corner. …

I’m no media purist. Like Meyers, I appreciate that advertising has never stood outside news creation. Without advertising, the daily newspaper, the news broadcast, the news magazine and news on the Web would scarcely exist. One of the things that has prevented advertisers and their clients from controlling the whole ball of wax in the past has been the sheer capital costs of building out a newspaper — its presses, circulation, ad sales, news collection, etc. But the affordability of Web, which has benefited such new entrants as Gawker, Business Insider, BuzzFeed, Vox and the rest, will also benefit advertisers and their clients. If the advertising industrial complex masters editorial creation in a future media season — becoming such a big dog that it needs no tail to wag — old news hands might come to regard the era in which gobs of sponsored content propped up ailing news properties as “the good old days.”

When even the lefty Guardian is now merged with Unilever, I think it’s already here. Check out this breathless piece of enthusiasm about the merging of journalism and advertizing. And, yes, it was a sponsored post.

Yglesias Award Nominee

“Basic publishing ethics dictate that fake articles be printed in clearly different type fonts and column widths, be enclosed by borderlines and be identified prominently as advertising. By contrast, as native advertising is most often practiced – and as the Federal Trade Commission has very much noticed – publishers allow their advertisers to run content strikingly similar in look and style to the real editorial. The label “advertising” is almost never applied. Instead they use confusing wiggle words like “sponsored content” or, even more obscurely, “from around the web”. The result is not merely deceiving to readers, it bespeaks a conspiracy of deception among publishers, advertisers and their agencies,” – Bob Garfield, at the Guardian, the latest publication to embrace the unethical deception of “native advertizing.”

Garfield also has a good round-up of those outlets who have now embraced whoredom: The Economist. Forbes. The Atlantic. The Huffington Post. The Washington Post. Time Inc. The New York Times, and, most recently, Yahoo.

The Other Sponsored Content …

Rosie Gray has a must-read on how the Ukraine government tried to get pro-Yanukovych op-eds into the US journalist mainstream. The usual suspects pop up. Money quote:

Huston didn’t directly deny being paid by Scoville. “I would not be open to say who pays me and who doesn’t,” he said.

Other writers who were producing incongruous pro-Party of Regions stories at the time include Ben Shapiro of Breitbart and Seton Motley, a conservative blogger. One of Shapiro’s Ukraine posts, “Hillary Sides With Anti-Semitic Ukrainian Opposition,” is nearly identical to a post that appeared four days later in a different publication under Huston’s byline: “Clinton Dept. of State Backing the Anti-Semitism Party in Ukraine?”

Shapiro said he hadn’t been paid by anyone other than his employers to do the posts.

Sponsored Content Watch

From the reader who flagged the tweet:

I can’t tell whether it’s serious, but I can tell that people are seriously pissed:

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 12.26.43 PM

But the beat will go on … and the press won’t write about it.

The Guardian Now Shares “Values” With Unilever

Much of the media isn’t covering the grotesque transformation of journalism into corporate public relations – well, they’re all in on it, aren’t they? – but the latest example is really rich. The Guardian – that lefty, anti-corporate, “comment-is-free” trans-Atlantic behemoth – is now merging with Unilever to produce “content”. What does that mean exactly? Well, follow the newspeak:

Guardian News and Media has signed a seven-figure deal to provide content about sustainability under the brand of household goods giant Unilever. It is the first deal for the new Guardian Labs division – which describes itself as a “branded content and innovation agency which offers brands bold and compelling new ways to tell their stories and engage with influential Guardian audiences”.

Guardian Labs employ some 133 staff including designers, video producers, writers and strategists who will work with The Guardian’s editorial, marketing and digital development teams.

A “content and innovation” agency. Helping “brands … tell their stories.” This is called public relations, guys. There’s nothing new or innovative about it whatsoever. What’s new is the deliberate attempt to merge this industry with journalism itself and to disguise the difference with bullshit. Smell the ordure:

The Guardian partnership with Unilever is said to be “centred on the shared values of sustainable living and open storytelling”.

Who knew that the giant manufacturer of such products as Axe Body Spray, Vaseline and Ben and Jerry’s has long been committed to “open story-telling,” whatever the fuck that means? Then check this out:

Anna Watkins, managing director, Guardian Labs said: “Our partnership with Unilever is a fantastic example of collaboration based on our shared values. Right from the start we brainstormed ideas, working across the whole of the Guardian, and built the campaign together. It represents a truly original way of working.”

So the entire paper is to be filled with a p.r. campaign disguised as journalism, in order to promote Unilever’s image as a green company. That’s called corporate propaganda. The key to all this is the old and simple trick of deceiving readers into thinking they are reading journalism when they are actually reading p.r. – especially when a single page can travel alone through the Interwebs and seem to most readers to be a Guardian article. And the end of all this will be the growing gnawing sense among Guardian readers that, unless they are very careful, they will have a very tough time telling the difference.

“Strategic Entertainment”

Chipotle has produced a miniseries about factory farming:

Farmed and Dangerous, which premieres on Hulu on Feb. 17, focuses on a fictional industrial agriculture company that devises a money-saving scheme to feed cows petroleum-based animal pellets. Lots of hijinks with exploding cattle and a nefarious PR spokesman ensue. The show exposes issues in the agriculture industry that Chipotle has publicly denounced, such as dependence on fossil fuels and overuse of antibiotics on animals. But instead of hearing about these points from the restaurant directly, viewers will learn about them by laughing at Twin Peaks star Ray Wise and a wide cast of other characters.

Could this be the future of advertising?

This is not advertising, exactly, but it’s not regular video programming either. Daniel Rosenberg, a partner at Piro, calls it “strategic entertainment.” The goal, he says, is “adding value to people’s lives rather than interrupting it with traditional advertising.” …

“I could produce an award winning ad for a restaurant. You wouldn’t be affected by the ad. You’d go to Yelp,” explains Neal Burns, a professor of advertising at the University of Texas. The Chipotle show, on the other hand, may enhance brand affinity by promoting the company’s beliefs rather than the company’s name. “It’s appropriate for our times,” Burns says. “It’s going to help establish a sense of fondness and [that] eating there is the right thing for me to do.”

Eliza Williams thinks the series might break new ground:

The term ‘branded content’ has been bandied around adland for years now, but there have been few projects that have really managed to pull off the delicate balance between creating something entertaining that also makes sense for a brand. From the trailer, this series looks promising, and it is clear that the team at Piro was fully aware of the dangers that can befall this kind of project. “When brands overextend into the story, it is a let down for everyone,” says Rosenberg. “But when they inspire storytelling everyone appreciates it.

“In truth, advertising creative is typically quite different from storytelling creative,” he continues. “It’s a different creative muscle. While ads usually focus on a single, central proposition, stories focus on broader elements like character arcs, turning points and conflict to propel action and move the story forward. Chipotle’s internal creatives collaborated with Piro and TV and film writers in writers’ rooms to create the right balance between message and entertainment. Entertainment quality was the final measure of what stayed or went, but brand strategy, values and messaging were always at the forefront.”

I don’t have any problem with brands creating innovative advertising online. In fact, more, please! But as these kinds of things proliferate, it seems to me to be even more important that journalistic outlets retain a clear editorial-advertizing distinction. When more and more content is actually advertizing, the distinction between “sponsored content” and “branded content” will be ever tougher to decipher. And magazines or websites will be increasingly confused with pure advertizing. In my view, that’s the end of a distinct Fourth Estate – and a collapse in the notion of any non-commercial speech online.

The Rumbled Grift Of “Sponsored Content”? Ctd

A reader gives Gawker some due regarding their partnership with Newcastle Ale:

I just wanted to provide this insight in case no one else has. I use Adblock Plus in my Firefox browser. When I clicked through to the Gawker post from your feed, the very first word and other words were missing from the body text – every instance of “Newcastle.” I toggled off ADP for just that page, and voila, they appeared.

I’ve used ADP for years and have enjoyed a pretty damn clean browsing experience. It’s kept me from getting too annoyed at online ads in general. But I wouldn’t have assumed it would protect my delicate sensibilities from innovative trickery such as paid content.

So, tip of the hat to Gawker. They instituted some tagging that allowed the brand they’re advertising to be made invisible if the smart visitor has taken measures to be shielded from ads. I think that’s rather ethical and deserves recognition.

For the record, the Dish has praised Newcastle Ale for its creative ads – when they are not enmeshed with editorial copy. We love ads – especially creative ones. We’ve had a Cool Ad Watch on this site for years. And yes, Gawker deserves props for tagging sponsored content as advertising. My concern is with the deceptive attempt to disguise ads as editorial – undermining the credibility of journalism, and conflating copy-writing with writing, for short-term cash at the expense of long-term viability. Another reader zooms out:

While I generally agree with you on the problem of native advertising, I have more confidence than you have that the audience can detect and separate advertising from journalism and commentary. Remember: native advertising has been around for a long, long, time.  For example:

there were the Mobil Oil ads, designed to mimic editorials, on the New York Times’s Op Ed page from its inception in 1970. William L. Bird’s Better Living and Stuart Ewen’s PR! discuss how corporations (and the National Association of Manufacturers, among others) have historically controlled, composed, produced and distributed advertising explicitly designed to imitate popular journalistic forms on the radio, in newspapers and magazines, and on television.  Go to a library and flip through old Fortune magazines from the 1930s and 1940s and you’ll see precisely what I’m talking about.

The American audience is more savvy about their media than you give them credit for.  All those Buzzfeed/Gawker/Upworthy clicks don’t represent influence, modified behavior, or much of anything in reality.  That’s why digital advertising lags so far behind the pricing of print advertising – even in 2014.  People respond to print ads and direct mail; they don’t respond to digital ads.  The audience’s unresponsiveness to native advertising will ultimately lessen its effectiveness and presence (look at how The Atlantic‘s native ads on Scientology did precisely nothing to help the Church).

So I’m not as worried as you are.  The real problem is that when native ads prove useless and disappear, their existence will have seriously degraded the credibility of journalism.  And, when you get down to it, credibility is the ONLY thing the New York Times can sell that differentiates it from everything else on the web.  That’s your point; and we agree that this short term fix is terrible in the long run.

The Rumbled Grift Of “Sponsored Content”?

Here’s an “ad/post/article/sponsored content/whatever, it pays the rent” that leaps out:

Newcastle Ale ‘bought’ me — an in-house copywriter — because actual Gawker writers can’t accept money from advertisers (not that I’m personally cashing Newcastle’s checks but you know, whatever). As someone being paid to write this, I have to say that it’s the greatest ad ever, mostly because Newcastle asked me to use those exact words. Is it the greatest ad I’ve ever been paid to call the greatest ad ever? Yes.

It’s by Stephanie Georgopulos, Senior Content Producer at Gawker Media, or more technically, a “sponsored collaboration” between Newcastle and Studio@Gawker. Yes, the newspeak deepens every time you check in.

It’s an interesting twist on sponsored content, and perhaps – or am I over-reaching? – a harbinger of its eventual collapse.

The “article” is titled: “We’ve Disguised This Newcastle Ad as an Article to Get You to Click It.” Clever, meta – meta-meta even. Even the ad/article/post is meta: “Welcome to the mega huge website we could afford for the mega huge football game ad we couldn’t afford.” But all of this pirouetting suggests to me that Gawker’s “content producers” are beginning to realize that their audience is catching on to the fact that, along with so many other sites, they routinely “disguise an ad as an article to get you to click it.” Now, it seems, to retain any sense of hipness with their increasingly clued-in readership, they have to own the lie, take off their disguise and reveal the fact that large swathes of online content is deliberately deceptive and written by people who know they’ve been “bought” by corporate interests to create propaganda.

At some point, doesn’t the whole house of cards start to tumble? When a grift is rumbled, doesn’t another grift need to be created to fill the gap?

Update here.