I am coming off four days at Internet Week, where I have learned that product companies are becoming content companies and Authenticity™ is the new Old Spice Man. In other words, what we have is the convergence, on one side, of marketing and editorial, and on the other, of editorial and advertising. Let’s start with the first side.
I went to school hoping to leave it as a magazine editor. The last magazine I read was called 10, and it was produced by Fab. It was pretty great, actually—full of interviews with people like Milton Glaser (10 New York haunts) and Tom Dixon (10 favorite materials).
Fab is, first and foremost, a product company, and along with the Waterfront Ale House, I mental noted the Hot Pot BBQ, a grill disguised in a ceramic flower pot. I think I’m going to buy it, if the weather gets nicer.
All in all, I quite like this trend. Stories have the same goal as advertisements, albeit achieved in a more roundabout way, but I don’t get supersaturated with stories, the way I do with ads. Provided their origin is clearly displayed, I don’t see any issue. There is the question of: if product companies create good stories, what will become of the (already beleaguered) content companies? Perhaps more of them will go under, or perhaps they will start making products. Some of them already do—GQ has pop-up shops, Bon Appetite has a cookware line. The content-to-product is a tougher game, of course. Fab is using a free magazine to sell products; Bon Appetite is using a paid magazine to sell products, and also to sell more magazines.
And here we enter into territory that is potentially ethically problematic, because while we expect Oreo’s Daily Twists to be driven by the need to sell Oreos, we do not expect GQ’s interview with Orlebar Brown to be driven by their need to sell his swim trunks.
You might say that product-based revenue model is more honest, the route between tell and sell easier to see. You might also say that only a fool believes the stories in magazines originate organically, that a result of the ad-based revenue model is stories that reinforce the messages of the ads. In both events, you might be right, but I’m not as interested in right as I am in what happens to the fool.
What happens? She buys a bottle of perfume based on a review she thought was done blind. Small potatoes, perhaps, but it’s still trickery, presenting a financially motivated choice as a qualitative one.
This brings me to the second lesson of Internet Week, the success of the Authentic™ as marketing device.
These days, an ad’s success depends on how authentic it feels, which is to say, how un ad-like it is. And so you have commercials that look like amature movies and sponsored blog posts that look like regular blog posts. Experience-wise, these are huge improvements on previous models, which tended to rely on disrupting chosen moments with unasked for ones. Transparency-wise, however, they raise some flags.
If you flip through a fashion magazine, it’s (almost always) easy to distinguish ads from articles. Because of this, we know what to treat with healthy skepticism and what to take as fact. Ads are there to sell, articles to inform. (Hopefully).
Except, Authentic™ ads use the latter do accomplish the former, and sometimes obfuscate the acknowledgement of bias this strategy fosters. At a panel on food advertising, TripleLift co-founder Ari Lewine gushed about ads’ ability to seamlessly integrate with the content around them.
I’m worried that the holy grail of “to seamlessly integrate with” is “to be indistinguishable from.”
If we consumers start accepting as real what is, at best, hyperreal, we cede that healthy skepticism, and with it, our agency to choose.
I’m not saying we will, and I don’t know that seamless integration will happen. All I know is that it shouldn’t happen—we need to see the seams.