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.