Category Archives: deceptive advertising

Going native.

“Native advertising”—what we used to call advertorials in the world of dead-tree media—are having a moment, and part of me hopes it doesn’t last much longer than that.

It’s somewhat impolitic of me to say that in a public (if lightly trafficked) forum, since my agency, like most others, is dabbling in the medium for some of our clients.

The premise is simple enough: disguise the fact that your ad is an ad, make it mimic the editorial format it’s placed in, and readers will lower their guard and be more receptive to your message. People consume media for its content, right? Ads are something to be endured, ignored or skipped. Make your ad look like editorial content and people will engage.

Well, maybe.

Since this blog exists in a data-free zone, I can’t verify one way or another if this ploy works in digital media. I know, or think I know, it doesn’t work very well in print, even though you see it all the time, especially in lifestyle publications. Usually it’s what is absurdly termed a “value added” media buy: put an ad in our rag,  and we’ll put some pseudo-editorial focusing on your brand nearby.

In practice, what happens is either a) low-level creatives at the agency are assigned the advertorial, which does nothing for their portfolio and which calls for journalistic skills they likely don’t have; or b) the publication assigns its own hacks, who do an equally execrable job. To make it worse, all this ad-plus-editorial crap is usually segregated in its own free-standing section within the mag, making it that much easier to skip the whole thing. Advertisers still do it, because it feels like getting something for nothing, but most people I know just ignore this stuff, and are under no delusions about what it is.

But what about digital?

Well, the nature of the medium is such that, frankly, it’s easier to disguise your paid-media identity. Aggregating sites like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post are very busy visually, and it creates ripe opportunities for subterfuge. Here’s one example, from Buzzfeed:

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Man, you gotta look real hard to realize there’s a wolf among those sheep. That Intel…thing in the lower right looks pretty legit. And I’m guessing it got a lot of clicks. But to what end? No one likes getting played for a sucker, and clicking on what you think is a tech article and winding up looking at some bogus Intel corporate “content”—how does that build brand loyalty?

Nowhere in this screed have I even touched the ethics of all this, because advertising people talking about ethics is like 1-percenters talking about food stamps. But still, let’s be clear: native advertising is, by its nature, disingenuous–the Devil in disguise.

And while ads–real ads– aren’t always as truthful as they could be, they make no attempt to be anything but what they are: an exercise in selling, a tool of commerce. People know an ad when they see it, and whether they pay attention or not has to do with whether they care about what’s being sold and the craft of the message itself. That, ultimately, is something I believe in my bones: that good ads go naked into the world, armed with nothing but words and pictures, and, faced with indifference and scorn, somehow prevail.

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It took a lying evil behemoth to get me to blog again.

It’s no blinding insight that advertising often resorts to, ahem, a selective presentation of facts to make its case. So do we all, every day, in our dealings with others. Freshly blown-out hair and artful make-up are a selective presentation of the facts. Your resume is a selective presentation of the facts. That guy’s picture on is a selective presentation of the facts.

We live in a world of truthiness. We know our mileage may vary. We know prescription drugs have all sorts of side-effects. We get it. But there are instances in advertising, as in life, where the presentation is so utterly, fantastically deceitful, so at odds with “the facts on the ground” as the generals say, that even a lard-ass, narcoleptic failed blogger is roused to protest.

Seen this ad?

You can’t have missed it. AT&T, which was seeing big share gains against Verizon Wireless purely because of its exclusive iPhone offering, was knocked on its ass when Verizon Wireless started its “We have a map for that” counter-terrorism surge. “We have a map” isn’t going to win anything at Cannes this year, but it’s tearing a new one for AT&T by reminding everyone of a simple truth: AT&T’s coverage sucks. That they appropriate and pervert Apple’s “We have an app for that” to deliver the message just makes it nastier and more memorable. And the visual comparison of Verizon’s coverage, blotting out the entire map of the United States except that place in Idaho where the Unabomber lived, to the hollowed-out emptiness that is AT&T’s coverage, is incredibly powerful.

So how did that anemic coverage schematic grow into the vast orange, sea-to-shining-sea coverage map in AT&T’s ad?

They lied. Not in the “We can grow your penis overnight” way of low-life, unregulated advertisers. Because AT&T isn’t a corner hustler. It’s a big company, with a big legal department. So they did it the old-fashioned way: in the fine print.

As a service to readers in their baby-boom years, and to young ‘uns who read digital newspapers, let me bump it up a few point sizes, make it nice and big so you can read it:

“Map depicts an approximation of outdoor coverage. Map may include areas served by unaffiliated carriers, and may depict their licensed area rather than an approximation of their coverage. Actual coverage area may differ substantially from map graphics.”

“Actual coverage may differ substantially from map graphics.” This is not “Your mileage may vary,” brothers and sisters. This isn’t even Glen Beck on a bad day. This is lying, corporate style. For shame.