Question: Is this a commercial?
Question: Can you tell the difference between the real news stories and the fake ones?
Question: Why did E.T. follow a trail of Reese’s Pieces?
One more: Why should we care about something called TURNER IGNITE?
Advertising is part of the fabric of American life, especially America’s mass media life. It pays the bills for every newspaper and magazine we read, every bit of “free” TV and radio we consume (including public broadcasting where’s it’s just called “underwriting”) and more and more of what we access online.
We’ve accepted advertising as more or less a necessary evil. But that doesn’t change the fact that, with the possible exception of the Super Bowl, we really don’t like commercials at all. We hate being interrupted, distracted, diverted, delayed and sold, when all we want to do is enjoy the show or read the darn article.
Our distaste for ads didn’t matter much in the early days, because we couldn’t do very much about it. Choices were few and advertisers were in total control. Sponsors didn’t just put commercials on TV shows, they owned those shows, something they never hesitated to display in rather heavy-handed ways:
Not even the sacred news programs were immune:
But audiences got sophisticated, alternatives appeared and the sponsors’ iron grip was broken. Today’s technology enables us to zap commercials while premium cable services and streaming sites offer ad-free content.
All of which means advertisers must find new and ever-more-clever methods to attract our attention without turning us off. And they have. The savvier we become, the sneakier they get.
That video at the top of this post? Of course it’s a commercial. But how long did it take before you realized it?
That’s the point.
At first, it doesn’t look or feel like an ad. And never does it come out and ask you to spend money. Instead, it creates a “feel-good” message (“I am beautiful”) and subtly connects it to a brand, so when you go shopping and see the Dove logo, you’ll get a nice warm fuzzy feeling. And buy something.
According to the media mavens out there, longer-form videos like the Dove Real Beauty spot, which began life on the Web, are now migrating to TV where they will eventually replace conventional 10, 15 or 30-second “buy my product” commercials, which will slowly disappear.
So-called “branded content” (or “branded video,” “native ads” and a bunch of other new-agey names) is designed to look and feel like the hard news, entertainment or similar “real” content in which it is placed.
In other words, it’s supposed to fool us. It’s also hugely popular right now, which is why Turner is building the TURNER IGNITE platform to create, develop and spread this kind of ad-that-doesn’t-look-like-an-an-ad across all its properties from Cartoon Network to CNN.
The same principle is at work on websites where, for example, actual news headlines live side-by-side with matching “More From The Web” stories which are nothing more than disguised commercials. Web advertisers evolved to this point after experimenting with many other forms of advertising and coming to an inevitable conclusion about most of them:
You’ll see the same evolution on social media. Your Twitter feed, you may have noticed, contains stuff that none of the folks you follow sent out. Twitter calls them “promoted tweets.” They look just like regular tweets. Ads, once again.
(Personal note: NEWSWRITING runs ads and I hope you click on them, but I keep them separate from the posts and I don’t pretend they’re additional content or “added value” or whatever. They’re ads.)
No one who remembers Ed McMahon selling Alpo on The Tonight Show ought to be surprised by what’s happening now. Whether through the use of a host/authority figure, product placement (E.T. chowed down on Reese’s Pieces because M&M’s turned Spielberg down) or even early, possibly apocryphal attempts at subliminal messages (the infamous “Eat Popcorn” slide at the movies), manipulation has always been a key part of an advertiser’s toolkit.
So is all this a good or bad thing? The public may have already spoken. There is evidence that the red-hot native advertising arena may have already peaked, and that consumers are showing genuine disgust at being tricked into watching or reading ads masquerading as something else.
The FTC is also wary of such manipulation and recently clarified its guidelines for branded content, starting with the requirement that ads, whatever form they take, must be clearly labeled as such. We’ll have to wait and see how well advertisers comply.
In the meantime, try to maintain a critical eye and ear. Be vigilant. Be smart. And every now and then, think about the good old days: