Simple question: when did the Advertising Association create its first self-regulatory body – the Advertising Investigation Department? According to the History of Advertising Trust it was 1928. According to the Committee on Advertising Practice is was 1926. And according to Fletcher, in the only extended history of advertising in the UK, it was 1927 (although they changed their name after a year).
A small but perfectly formed group met to discuss the social consequences of contemporary marketing techniques driven by data and digital technologies.
First up, I introduced the challenges of social networking to the traditional ways that regulators deal with advertising. Using the example of a recent GiffGaff campaign, I argued that we are seeing a new understanding of self regulation in which the audience is responsible for regulating the ads they see. A full paper on this will be added to my academia.edu page asap. My colleague Andrew Smith reviewed his research on data mining techniques. Using one case from a customer data base he showed us the level of detail we can learn about people by tracking their purchasing habits. It was shocking to see how much you can learn!
Following this, Janice Denegri Knott and Rebecca Watkins presented their research into the ways that digital goods challenge our concept of ownership. They introduced their talk with a case in which users of a popular e-book service woke up to find that they could no longer read their digital copy of George Orwell’s 1984. It turned out they had paid for access not ownership and the provider maintained the right to remove access if they deemed it necessary. For Janice and Rebecca this is like a book retailer coming into your house and taking your books back.
After a hearty lunch, Ellen Helsper presented her on-going research into digital inclusion. She presented some startling facts. The number of people who have never been online in the UK is scary. Unsurprisingly, it tends to be those lower down the social hierarchy who miss out.
Finally, Agnes Nairn presented our keynote lecture. She focused on advergames. Agnes illustrated how these get round the usual cues that children have been found to use to distinguish adverts from non-adverts. This, she argued, means they undermine current regulations which demand all adverts are immediately recognizable as adverts.
Adam Yauck of the the Beastie Boys (RIP) took a stand against marketing in his will. He set out the following instruction: “Notwithstanding anything to the contrary, in no event may my image or name or any music or any artistic property created by me be used for advertising purposes”. Of course that’s not stopped brands from trying to appropriate his art. The remaining Beastie Boys are suing Monster Energy drinks for $2m for using their music in a promotional video and had to threaten action against GoldieBox. Interestingly, in the Guardian article about Yauck’s refusal to engage with advertising there’s quite a few ads.
Newcastle Brown Ale are offering $1 to anyone who (lives in the USA and is over 21 and doesn’t follow them already) that starts following them on Twitter. The idea behind the spot is the kind of anti-marketing appeal Bill Hicks famously ribbed. It’s almost critical marketing in action.
This campaign is smart for a number of reasons. Just buying the ad space to reach customers on traditional media, even if they could advertise there, would probably cost more and the spot has already picked up some press attention (or earned media as it’s called). And, as they pay with a cheque, they must be banking on most people not bothering to cash them.
But I’m not sure that this concept works. Criticizing marketing as your marketing campaign is a difficult appeal to pull off and I don’t think this one does it. It comes off a bit insulting. “Sure we could come up with a cool fan contest, create exclusive content or make up unique hashtag but that takes a lot of work’, the video says. And this is the problem. What’s engaging about a $1 cheque? I could not follow Newcastle Brown Ale’s twitter account, and not buy their beer, and save much more than $1. While I’m not buying their beer, I could stay home and watch a series of Alan Partridge videos for free online (as Fosters offered).
Back in 2002 the first Bumfights video came out. Basically, a group of unrepentant rich kids paid homeless men to fight with each other. They recorded the fights and posted them to YouTube. Eventually, they even paid for the “bums” to have BUMFIGHT tattooed on their forehead. There’s a Channel 4 documentary about it (here).
How quickly the worm turns. This week Grey London, an ad agency, won an award from YouTube for their FilmHack competition. The idea was for ad agencies to demonstrate they understood how YouTube communities worked. The winning entry saw Lexi, a YouTuber, play #Tattroulette. She asked viewers to sender her tattoo designs and promised to have one of the designed tattooed on her. If you watch the video, it’s pretty silly as the tattoo she gets is basically exactly the same as the picture she shows when asking for designs. It’s also striking that there’s no mention of the competition or of Grey’s involvement in the videos.
I think this is a perfect analogy for social media. We’ve gone from rich kids paying bums, to ad agencies paying rich girls to get tattoos for our viewing pleasure. Apart from showing that ad agencies can pay idiots to have bad ideas, I’m not sure what else this competition achieves.
Early in 2014 The Guardian announced a ‘partnership’ between the giant fast-moving consumer goods producer Unilever and its freshly established “Guardian Labs” Division. The Guardian reported on its website that the partnership was ‘worth £1m plus’ but, in the trade press, the partnership was described as a ‘seven figure deal’ (a figure repeated in a Monbiot piece in The Guardian). For context, The Guardian’s total digital advertising revenue for the previous year, the most relevant figure for this deal, amounted £25m.
Guardian Labs, is made up of over 130 includes creatives, marketing strategists, designers, videos producers and content specialists. It is organized as an advertising agency and is led by an experienced advertising executive. But it ‘aims to work with companies to create marketing campaigns that go beyond buying advertising space online or in the newspaper’ (guardian.co.uk Feb 13th, 2014). It is, in short, set up to exploit the growing consensus in the advertising industry ‘that the best way to advertise on the internet is to not advertise at all’ (Campaign, 18th Oct, 2013: 23). Certainly the kinds of campaigns Guardian Labs focuses on have ‘been a major growth area – across print and digital – for the past five years’ for The Guardian – with over ‘120 campaign-led brand initiatives … believed to have generated up to £10 million in 2013’ (Campaign, 21st February, 2014: 23).
So what, precisely, does Guardian Labs offer Unilever for £7m? Its creative, strategy and content specialists create what is known in the marketing industry as “native advertising”. They produce stories and articles on behalf of Unilever around the theme of sustainable living. These are published on the “Life and Style” section of The Guardian’s website. They are not edited by The Guardian’s editorial team. A freelance journalist and ‘political activist’ (Bibi van der Zee, author of The Protesters Handbook) has ‘editorial independence’ (Campaign, 21st February, 2014: 23).
While there is no single definition, ‘native ads can broadly be described as sponsored content that is relevant to consumers and fits well in the wider editorial experience. The best native ads offer content that stands on its own merit, regardless of who produced’ (Campaign, 18th October, 2013: p. 23). The foundation of native advertising, then, involves what advertisers call ‘culture hacking’. The aim is not to stand out from the news or entertainment content, so-called interruptive advertising, but to take on the mannerisms of that content. The intention is that by creating engaging content, advertisers can count on us to distribute it – in particular, young digital natives who they refer to as “Generation N”. Consequently, we become the media as we like, pin and amplify native advertising around our social graph.
When it works, evidence suggests native advertising actually does what it promises. The video of Felix Baumgartner skydiving from space is very much the template here. It was shared over 400,000 times in its first week online and broke YouTube’s records as over 8 million views took place concurrent at one point. It has been watched over 29m times on Red Bull’s YouTube channel and has been tweeted more than three million times.
In this video, almost every shot includes a Red Bull logo. But this is increasingly not the true of native advertising. Just as branding, as a process in which products become associated with specific emotions, values and attitudes, involves more than low-involvement presentations of logos that are registered subconsciously, native advertising involves a kind of cultural priming in which content is designed to produce particular emotions, values and attitudes that can later be associated with products and brand imagery. What is unique about native advertising is that it is the content that is branded not a product. So, as with The Guardian’s partnership with Unilever, you might not even see a product mentioned in native advertising. This is not want generation. It is the engineering of our experience of the world. It is cultural conditioning.
Raising churches to the ground
Media theorists have long accepted that advertising allows corporations to influence reporting. Herman and Chomsky called this “the advertising license to do business”. They argue that the implicit need to keep advertising dollars rolling in inevitably changes the way that news organizations treat corporations. In response, news organizations have insisted on a strict division between their commercial and editorial teams – the so-called separation of church and state.
But new publishing powerhouses such as Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post, that are promoting native advertising, explicitly reject the need for this distinction. In the Native Age, a report published by AOL and the Huffington Post, it is described as ‘broken’. In fact, according to this report, we are already living in a world filtered through native advertising. The report explains: ‘It’s here already – but you may not know it yet. You may not know what it’s called. You may not know what it looks like. But you’ve probably experienced it. And that’s the beauty of native advertising’.
Almost every commentary on native advertising states that the content should be distinguishable as advertising. The problem is that it’s impossible to know the difference. The very point of native advertising is that there shouldn’t be any difference – that’s the beauty of it. In this sense, native advertising extends Philip Mirowski’s recent critique of marketing as a generalized process he calls “murketing”. He defines this the technique through which powerful methods of thought control gain their power by being publicly ridiculed by the very media that rely on them. But as advertising has gone native, there’s not only another weapon in the marketers’ arsenal. It is a new type of weapon based on a new media consumer. For Generation N, the borders between church and state have become truly indistinguishable in the murk. In fact, it’s impossible to tell if they are there at all anymore.