The basic argument of the primitive Clevelandite content marketing pioneers went roughly as follows:
Relative to the typical advertising recipient of, say the pre-internet 1980s, the modern consumer is preternaturally gifted at ignoring advertising in its traditional form, on account of:
a) The ad-filtration functionality of the new, smarter devices and platforms on which media is consumed, as well as the tech-shrewdness of said media consumers.
b) Some semi-subliminal internal ad-filtration system necessitated by over-exposure to ad stimuli in all forms and all places.
c) A lifelong, perhaps even inter-generational fatigue that renders even the most titillating, side-splitting or heart-rending advertising totally impotent against this new breed of hyper-cynical, all-knowing, steadfast ad recipients’ mental and emotional defences.
The solution, it was decided, to this trinity of anti-ad phenomena, was to create ‘content’, the content of which is so useful or entertaining that to imbue any commercial message would be akin to accessorising the Statue of David with, say, a Fjällräven Kanken 28L everyday backpack in Dark Olive, or Redwood, or any other Pantone-approved pastel currently in stock at the low price of £95. Love my Kanken.
And so, as this trend of brands providing relevant, engaging and valuable content becomes increasingly pervasive and well-funded, it was purported that customer expectation of relevance, value and engagingness in brand communications would adjust accordingly, with two immediate effects:
1. Good old fashioned interruptive advertising would increasingly be given short shrift by customers with a newfound and insatiable appetite for advertorial relevance, engagement and value.
2. Inflating consumer expectations (and advertisers’ desire to meet these expectations) would create a veritable relevance-engagingness-value arms race whereby brands would fight tooth and nail to out-REV their competitors and keep pace with the very consumer expectations that their relevant/engaging/valuable content would be inflating.
In an article published by Harpers Magazine in 1996, the late writer David Foster Wallace, on assignment on a luxury Caribbean cruise, critiques an essay in the cruise company’s brochure by eminent author, essayist, musician and luxury cruising community-influencer, Frank Conroy, rhapsodising over his experience at the hands of the cruise company that paid for said essay:
“Celebrity Cruises is trying to position an ad in such a way that we come to it with the lowered guard and leading chin we reserve for coming to an essay, for something that is art. An ad that pretends to be art is – at absolute best – like somebody who smiles at you only because he wants something from you. This is dishonest, but what’s insidious is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill’s real substance.”
There are two distinctions between the paid cruise essay mentioned above and standard content marketing fare that are worth examining.
Conroy’s cruise essaymercial purports to be art, the apparent primary function of which is to entertain or elicit some effect. Had Conroy written the essay without financial inducements, it would stake a better claim to the label ‘art’ than would an instructional article on the importance of choosing the right rotary table thrust bearings for your semi-submersible off-shore drilling rig, penned by an independent offshore drilling enthusiast and blogger. Art is something we see as (almost by definition) incorruptible by corporate interests. And corporate-sponsored imitation art, apart from being exploitative and dishonest, is just really depressing.
The second distinction is that Conroy’s financial incentives fundamentally prevent him from delivering on the primary function of the medium – that is, to write primarily ‘for’ the reader. Transparent content marketing is, despite commercial influence, capable of delivering on the primary function of the vehicle it inhabits. Like Conroy’s essaymercial, content marketing is typically presented as being ‘for the reader/viewer/listener’, though of course ultimately exists for the brand.
Unlike the essaymercial, a listicle on, say, rotary table thrust bearing selection criteria for semi-submersible offshore drilling rigs, produced by an offshore drilling equipment manufacturer may well deliver the format’s primary function of digestible, independent, valuable advice despite the manufacturer’s skin in the offshore drilling game. While branded content isn’t created for the recipient, it’s creators are often encouraged to think like publishers, and the product often ultimately delivers the same ends as independent content produced primarily and exclusively ‘for’ the recipient.
In 1996 it might have been reasonably expected by the cruise company’s top marketing brass that maybe a small majority of brochure perusers would assume that Conroy, profoundly moved by his seven nights in the Caribbean, had authored the heartfelt, lyrical piece of his own accord. And, perhaps as an afterthought, insisted that the company simply must include an excerpt in their company brochure.
As sponsored experiences, as a proportion of all human experience, edges inexorably towards 100%, our capacity to be duped declines. But so too does our inclination towards outrage. While a 1996 edition of Conroy’s essaymercial would have duped many, those with a keen nose for commercial inducement would have been as dismayed by the underhand advertorial tactics, as the duped majority were seduced.
A hypothetical 2017 edition of the same essay wouldn’t fool anybody as far as the potential financial motivations of the essayist go, but equally, we’d be far more willing to accept the fact that luxury cruising is a cutthroat industry and this sly advertising masquerading as art situation is just the way things are these days.
Take, for example, Fearless Girl, the pseudo-sculpture of a precocious, but recklessly complacent matador created by Wall Street asset management firm State Street Global Advisors. The sculpture is set to remain on display until 2018, following an outpouring of public support for its permanent installation. Setting aside the heated debate over the effectiveness of its female empowerment message, the fact that an advertisement has become a tourist attraction is very weird, and the largely positive response to the kid says a lot about our capacity to stomach corporate weirdness pervading our culture.
Consumers also appear increasingly willing to consume branded content as part of a balanced weekly digest. A study last year from the University of Antwerp found that just 14% of visitors of to a Belgian news site found sponsored content “very annoying”, while 58% had no problem with sponsored content on the proviso that it’s clearly labelled as such.
Some 77% of respondents to a 2016 Contently study did not interpret native ads as advertising, while 41% would be inclined to trust a publisher more if they featured content from a brand they trusted. Moreover, 31% confessed to being more likely to buy from a brand as a direct consequence of viewing a native ad. An eye-opening 2013 Nielsen study reported that 69% of respondents trusted branded websites (a 15% increase on 2007) and 67% trusted branded editorial content.
The term ‘sponsored content’ has, over the past few years, seeped out of the media and publishing world and into the public lexicon, with unexpected consequences. Contrary to intuition, at the time of writing, native advertising is far more effective when the source is made clear. This is not just because our susceptibility to duping is at an all-time low, but because most us don’t care if the source is a brand – admittedly depending on what that brand is. The cost of eroded trust incurred by exposing your content as branded is outweighed by the cost of a potential backlash against the deceptive editorial practice.
The surprising willingness for the reading, spectating, web-surfing public to accept sponsored content as valid, objective and potentially entertaining would seem to bode well for the content marketing industry, though this acceptance has potentially adverse implications.
There’s never been a better time for BP, Shell or Exxon Mobil to negotiate an endorsement deal with Sir David Attenborough, for example, to promote their respective green fuel initiatives. While this may draw ire from the green left, an increasing proportion of the public are willing to accept that nothing (or very little) is sacred anymore, and everything (or very much) is for sale. But this conditioning to our hyper-commercial new reality may ultimately come at a cost to advertisers.
An endorsement deal between Sir David and BP might in the past have, despite the greater outrage, succeeded in conjuring mental images of oil-refineries co-existing harmoniously with mother nature. It seems an inevitable consequence of our constant exposure to commercially incentivised ‘content experiences’ all the way along the transparency-opacity spectrum, that a certain amount of ad-processing fatigue sets in.
As our acceptance of and apathy towards the fact that a huge amount of what we experience is sponsored increases, our propensity to make illogical associations (however conscious or sub-conscious) between endorser and endorsee, Andrex and labradorian softness, Walkers and inoffensive British charm and understated handsomeness, et al, erodes.
When OJ Simpson promoted Hertz Rent-A-Car in 1977, a certain number of dissenters cried sell-out, but equally the ads had a major impact on, not just brand recall, but favourability. Despite the total illogicality of the leap, consumers transferred the characteristic of speed associated with OJ’s then-unsullied brand to the Hertz brand. When Kim Kardashian promotes diet pills, few people are outraged at the commercial cynicism of the endorsement, but a dwindling minority of her audience associate the pills with targeted Kardashian-style weight loss.
The more we’re exposed to celebrity endorsed brand messaging, the less likely we are to transfer positive associations we have with that endorser to the brand. Associating your brand with the endorser means nothing, in the eyes of the consumer, other than that you’ve paid a celebrity to endorse your product. We’re not quite there yet, but it surely won’t be long before the value an endorser has to offer a brand is simply their audience, rather than the positive attributes and value that audience associate with the endorser.
Content marketing faces a similar predicament, but on a more niche scale. The growing acceptance of and trust in branded content as part of the modern media landscape is an indication that the media-consuming public has become conditioned to the idea of sponsored content as standard operating practice for brands. The apparent selflessness of providing truly valuable, relevant, engaging stuff to prospective customers isn’t an augury of wholehearted post-transactional customer service – it’s just what brands do these days. Unique, insightful perspectives on B2B brand X’s customers’ industry isn’t evidence of B2B brand X’s aptitude at solving the problems of B2B brand X’s customers’ industry, it’s just a marketing tactic used by B2B brand X, Y, and Z too.
Where advertising once exploited the gullibility and malleability of the ad-recipient, it’s not hard to picture a near future in which the near-future consumer exploits advertisers labouring under the delusion that not only is the customer always right but that the ad recipient is always right.
As prospective customers remain steadfast in their demand to “not be sold to”, brands may continue to provide truly relevant, engaging and valuable content that neither sells the brand, nor implicitly shapes perceptions of the brand and its product, nor differentiates the brand from its equally engagement-relevance-value focused competitors. The hard-sell is indisputably less effective than it was, and content marketing has indisputably worked, but the next solution will be somewhere in between.