Beware of Black Ops Advertising

By Andrew Lipstein

If the term “Black Ops” conjures images of boots on the ground, assassination plots, Rainbow Six, or Edward Snowden, you’re forgiven — but prepare yourself for evils far more banal. That is: native advertising, content marketing, big data. In Black Ops Advertising, Mara Einstein (a professor of media studies at Queens College, City University of New York) constructs a clear, if occasionally slanted, window into the world of marketing in the digital age. In Einstein’s eyes, we’re all part of an invisible warzone, with businesses battling over a trifecta of bounty: our eyes, clicks, and wallets.

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When I was 12, I discovered a tattered edition of Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders on my grandfather’s bookshelf and fell in love. This was over 40 years after the original publication date of 1957, and the book’s ideas — that ad men use psychology to tap into our unconscious desires — seemed obvious even to a preteen. But I was taken, still, with advertising’s cocktail of creativity, capitalism, and mental coercion, and when I graduated from college ten years later with no vocational direction, I found myself at an agency.

Times, apparently, change. In a digital-focused advertising agency — now the norm by a mile — you’d be hard pressed to find people that sloganize, or really write anything. At my second agency, I was one of just three copywriters out of a team of 50. So what does everyone do? Though traditional advertising (like commercials) still exists, the industry spends most of its time on far less blatant incarnations of the hard sell. This is not your grandfather’s advertising: it’s spreading brand-scented viral videos like miasma; it’s forfeiture of personal data for the sake of precise ad targeting. To an advertising lifer, that might just mean finding more creative ways to satisfy your clients. But to Einstein, it means rampant compromise of journalistic standards.

Einstein cuts a good line between our two main culprits, native advertising and content marketing:

Native advertising involves advertisers placing sponsored messages within publishers’ websites: publishers as advertisers. Content marketing involves advertisers creating messages for their owned media, which are made to look like something other than advertising: advertisers as publishers.

The most common form of native advertising are articles on sites like the New York Times or Slate that look like true editorial, but are really paid advertisements. You usually notice the qualifier in ghosted letters, sponsored — or through more ambiguous language, like featured partner, promoted, or suggested post — or maybe you don’t notice it at all. A study from the University of Georgia found that “only eight percent of participants were able to recognize content as advertising.” Some publications have more of a backbone in this department than others, but the general consensus is that native ads succeed best where the line is most blurred. Om Malik, the founder of media company Gigaom and a resident expert in the field, defined a successful campaign as “a sales pitch that fits right into the flow of information”— that is, an ad that doesn’t look like one.

At best, native advertising is innocuous: the sponsored article provides real value to the reader, who also understands it as advertising. At worst, though, it justifies enough mass media paranoia to bestow prophet status upon George Saunders. The holy grail of editorial capitulation may well be the Atlantic’s sponsorship agreement with the Church of Scientology, which resulted in its homepage announcing: “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year.” The post was pulled, and the Atlantic issued an apology that began, “We screwed up,” and ended, “We are sorry, and we’re working very hard to put things right.” The tone was more characteristic of a truant intern’s attempt to get back on track than a note from a Great American Magazine past its sesquicentennial.

These missteps should be chilling to anyone who believes in the power of objective journalism, but to call native advertising media’s death knell — as Einstein seems to do — isn’t entirely responsible. She uses the analogy of the separation of church and state to underscore the importance of a hard wall between the newsroom’s editorial and advertising departments. But then she uses it again, and again, and again, and the effect, oddly, eventually, is to undermine the metaphor’s original value — not just by how it misses but also by how well it lands.

Church and state can exist completely apart, while in the world of a publication, the editorial department will always rely, existentially, on advertising. We’ve long ago bid adieu to the concept of paying for digital news, and so the lifeblood of any editorial staff will always be the team in the other room with slicker hair and wider smiles. But despite this, the church and state allegory has a deeper ring of truth. To what else can you compare those journalistic ideals of integrity, steadfastness, and a nearly ascetic avoidance of material influence, than to those of religion? Sterling principles — in life, in religion, and in advertising — are merely theoretical; they’re something to aim for, but are rarely attainable in full. To label native advertising as the leading corruptive force in the modern digital newsroom is to ignore the industry’s most pronounced trends. What’s the influence of a sponsored post compared with the fact that a non-sponsored post is often judged solely on how many clicks and shares it garners? How often does an outlet’s success lie in partisan pandering? What modern publication can truly claim to be of the people without succumbing to the lowest common denominator?

All of this talk of journalistic standards seems quaint in the face of content that comes straight from the advertising (content marketing), and the mass harvesting and selling of personal information (big data). Unlike native advertising, which ostensibly has a credentialed organization as its gatekeeper, content marketing and big data aid and abet a free-for-all capitalist buffet of the hearts and minds of the milquetoast consumer. It’s a detonation of over- or under-branded material (Einstein can’t seem to decide which is worse), clogging the internet and our brains. If I suddenly sound sarcastic, it’s because I spent a good deal of the book being condescended to, and this is my chance to get back in kind.

Einstein delivers case study after case study of a company putting a marketing budget toward some piece of content, only to then reveal that the company was trying to sell us the whole time. When Lays sponsors a new flavor contest, we find out its sole purpose is to — spoiler alert — sell more Lays chips. “Everyone can submit a new Lays flavor,” Einstein writes, “but Frito-Lay decides the winner,” as if she expects some potato chipocracy, with the ruling party fairly representing all peoples and palates. When she discovers that OkCupid (a free service that, it should be noted, found her a husband) is collecting data on her to sell to advertisers, she declares, “So OkCupid was not actually free at all,” as if OkCupid, or Facebook, or Google, or any company that provides immense value without asking for a single dollar in return wouldn’t need to get coin elsewhere. So stuck on the idea of the evil corporate monolith is Einstein, that it’s easy to forget every single marketing strategy mentioned in this book is used not just by Red Bull and Samsung, but by small businesses too. As an advertising copywriter, I’ve written content for American Express (passing along helpful travel tips — to use with your Platinum Delta Sky Miles® Business Credit Card), and I’ve also worked with a mom-and-pop diving equipment company that spends a good deal of resources restoring coral reef.

Einstein’s nadir of respect for the reader is in numbers, as she alternately uses them without rigor or over-explains. We’re told the Red Bull Stratos jump, a marketing initiative “paid off handsomely. In the first six months after…sales rose seven percent to $1.6 billion.” She cites that GoPro was able to increase marketing costs by only $50,000 during a time period in which their income doubled. What should we make of these numbers? In truth, nothing. The inferences may be correct, but they also may not be, and should be left out without proper support. The flip side is spelling out what doesn’t need to be — lines like, “A 2014 survey by the IAB and Edelman PR said that 41 percent of consumers said the ads were clearly identified. But that means that a far larger majority — 59 percent — thought they were not.”

Einstein slides once or twice into full-blown aluminum-foil-helmet paranoia. “If you want real consumer empowerment, there’s one simple thing you can do: stop sharing content,” and then, later, “Real empowerment comes from refusing to be a consumer.” You can order the Whole Earth Catalog, sure, or you can recognize how and why the internet works: how Facebook can employ nearly 15,000 employees and not charge you a cent, why each BuzzFeed article seems to be christened with a logo, how to spot an article that isn’t, and why it seems like you’re getting the whole internet for free, while feeling like you’re constantly being sold. You are.

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