Manipulating Everything and Everyone

“Is this an ad or is it an article?”

Transcribed from the 8 October 2016 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:

The phone that people walk around with in their hand is first and foremost an advertising medium. If people thought about their phones the way they used to think about television, they would treat it a whole lot differently than they do.

Chuck Mertz: That article you just finished reading online: are you certain it was actually news and not an ad? Are you sure it wasn’t corporate created content, a commercial that subtly sold you a product without you even knowing it?

Welcoming us to the new world order of marketing that monetizes friendships and replaces journalism with covert advertising is Mara Einstein, author of Black Ops Advertising: Native Ads, Content Marketing, and the Covert World of the Digital Sell.

Mara is professor of media studies at Queens College, City University of New York, and an independent marketing consultant. She was an executive at NBC and MTV, and at major advertising agencies, and survived!

Welcome to This is Hell!, Mara.

Mara Einstein: Thank you Chuck, really glad to be here.

CM: You write about the October 2012 jump from 128,000 feet by Felix Baumgartner, and how the whole thing was paid for and developed by Red Bull and shown live to a national television audience. You write, “Incredibly, all this work, money, and even risk to a person’s life were nothing more than an elaborate, exceptionally well-executed piece of advertising.”

But couldn’t the same thing be said of any sport, whether it’s NASCAR, the NFL, or Major League Baseball? Aren’t they all entertainment that would not otherwise exist if it weren’t for advertising? Can’t we say that anything in today’s culture—but especially in the realm of sports—is an elaborate, exceptionally well-executed piece of advertising?

ME: There’s one thing in particular that makes this really different. A lot of the issue with black ops advertising has to do with how the particular piece of media content is being framed. When you sit down to watch NASCAR, you know you’re watching a sporting event, and there happens to be advertising connected to that. There are brand logos on the cars, and there are commercial breaks: the air goes black and you know you’re about to see a piece of advertising.

The difference between that and what Red Bull did with Felix Baumgartner is that people thought that was a piece of news. When I first saw it, I saw it as the opening story on my local news program. I thought that NASA might have paid for somebody to jump from outer space. But no, it was Red Bull.

The context is what’s really important. When you watch NASCAR and you see a bunch of brand logos, you expect that. You don’t expect that the content on your evening news is actually going to be advertising that is bought and paid for without your even realizing it. Red Bull paid for the jump, but they didn’t pay for the airtime—it was in fact hundreds of millions of dollars in free airtime, because it was the lead story on the news around the world.

CM: Does this reveal to us that maybe traditional advertising—stand-alone ads in any media—is losing effectiveness? Or is this more about this kind of “new school” advertising being more successful than any advertising previously?

ME: We’ve become better at avoiding advertising. It started with DVRs and TiVo. I was working at NBC when TiVo first started, and everybody was really concerned, because viewers were going to be able to watch television and speed through the advertising. Everybody thought, “What are we going to do? Nobody’s going to watch the ads.”

That’s happened much more extensively in the digital space. With the growth of ad blockers, more and more people are able to avoid watching the advertising. So marketers have had to find ways to get around the ad blockers, and to get around our resistance to interacting with advertising. They do that by making the advertising look like anything but advertising. If we know it’s an ad, we’re more likely not to pay attention to it.

That said, marketers are discovering that online advertising in the traditional sense isn’t as effective as what was being done on television and in magazines and newspapers. So there’s a real paradigm shift going on now. The traditional way was for advertisers to scream at us, saying, “Buy! Buy! Buy! Buy our product!” with huge McDonald’s arches and Nike swooshes and all those sorts of things. But now the way that marketers are trying to get us to engage with them is more subtle: by creating personal relationships with us. That’s something they can do with social media which they weren’t able to do through a broadcast medium.

CM: How successful, in your opinion, are advertisers in getting people not to notice that they are seeing an ad? The first thing that jumps to my mind is the advertising done by the military at sporting events. People don’t even realize that is advertising. People just see that as patriotism, not advertising.

ME: Advertisers have gotten really good at this. There are a couple ways they do it. One is known as “native advertising,” and most of your listeners are probably familiar with this if they ever go onto Facebook or Twitter or any of the other social media sites. These are ads that are created to be indigenous to the site in which they exist. If you’re reading Facebook, for instance, and something comes up saying Susie Smith and Jimmy Jones like XYZ company, then that’s a native ad.

What’s interesting about how it appears in your feed is that it has a little line that says either “promoted” or “sponsored” in very ghosted-back light-gray type, and it appears under the name of the company. Nobody pays attention to that, because it appears in the same place as the time stamp would if it were a post by an actual friend. The place they are alerting consumers that this is advertising is a place where we’ve been trained not to look.

That’s one form of native advertising. There is another form, which we might see on a site like BuzzFeed, where they do listicles with titles like “This is what these things would have looked like twenty years ago!” and then it turns out to be an ad for a cellphone; when you get to the eighth thing on the list, you might realize it’s actually an ad for a cellphone.

We see this even on more traditional journalism sites like the New York Times or the Washington Post and so on, when there is an article on the page that is in fact paid advertising—but there are very few indicators that it is a piece of advertising.

One of the things I am really disturbed by is the use of Big Data and the research that sites like Facebook do on us, and how they’re using that as a way to market to us.

The other thing companies are doing is what’s known as content marketing. They create websites that have all kinds of information that relates to a company, but there will be very little on the site that will clue you into the fact that it was created by an advertiser. There is a website called Van Winkle’s that covers everything that has to do with sleep. It’s very entertaining, and there are cultural stories and things about how whether or not smoking pot helps you sleep better, or about Michelle Obama having the Girl Scouts over for a sleepover at the White House and things like that. But it’s actually a site by Casper, which is a mattress company.

We’ll start to see more of those kinds of things. Intel has also created some very high-end video content, little mini movies with a social media contest around them so people interact with them—and they also have Academy Award-winning actors and directors associated with them. They are beautiful pieces of content, and therefore become more “shareable.” We’re more likely to pass those on to our friends, because we think they’re really beautiful content, and our friends and family may be more willing to look at it because it was sent by us.

CM: That’s part of how social media is turning us into marketers, and we’ll touch on that in a second. But you were just talking about these listicles and how we don’t know if something is an ad or if it’s actual news. In print newspapers every so often you’ll see an ad made to look like a news story, but it always says “Advertising,” and since the typeface and the fonts don’t necessarily match up with the rest of the paper, you can just tell by looking at it that it’s an ad.

What does this say to you about online journalism when outlets go out of their way to hide sponsors instead of being more direct, as we see in print media? Do you think this is another revelation of how poor online journalism can be?

ME: What you’re talking about is called “advertorials” in the more traditional media space, and this is an extension of it. But in the more traditional media, they were better at highlighting this as advertising. Even if you look in magazines now, they hide it more than they used to, too.

That was why I decided to write the book. There was an exercise I used to do in one of my classes where I would ask students to look at a magazine and count how many articles are in it versus how many ads—and students started coming up to me and asking, “Is this an ad or is it an article?” and I hadn’t been confronted with that before. That started happening maybe two or three years ago. So I began to see in magazines that more and more advertorials look like actual content, and they’ve gotten really good at it. So what’s happening in the digital space now is happening offline, too.

But specifically in terms of your question about what’s happening in digital: the Federal Trade Commission has not been very good about regulating how people are supposed to designate commercial content. Part of the problem is that there is no uniformity in how things need to be labeled. Should it say “sponsored”? Should it say “promoted”? Should it say “brought to you by”? Should it say “advertising?” Because of this inconsistency, consumers are very confused about what is sponsored content and what isn’t.

In terms of journalism, it’s pretty concerning. Way back when, when I worked in advertising, there was a definitive wall between church and state, and if you were in editorial, you wouldn’t let the advertisers get into your content. There was no way, no how. But now there’s been a breakdown of that wall. Condé Nast is a great example. They’ll come right out and say they let their editorial people create the advertising. Whereas the New York Times will say they have a separate department that creates the advertising content—and they do—but the people who work in that department are people who used to work as journalists, so they know how to craft a story to make it look like traditional journalism. And more and more traditional journalists are finding themselves writing this kind of content because so many newspapers have folded over the past decade or so.

CM: Do we have an idea of whether this is having any impact on the perception of journalistic integrity? Are people losing faith in journalism because of the potential that an article could be corporate-created content and not news?

ME: That’s part of the reason I wrote the book: I don’t think enough people know that this is going on. They’re starting to know. But when I interviewed people who worked in the industry, they all said to me, “People know that this is marketing. They know that it’s marketing and they can see that it’s marketing. It says ‘paid post’ on it,” and so on. But when I present this content to different audiences, the response is shock. People are really surprised that this is advertising. Now, I showed them where to look, and how to find those little keys that tell them it’s advertising. Then they say they see it. But until you show them what to look for, it is incredibly subtle.

My concern is that as people begin to know that more and more of this content is paid for, they will become more and more cynical about what content is paid for and what content is real honest journalism—which is becoming harder and harder to find.

One of the sponsored content writers I talked to said, “This is a story that we wouldn’t have covered if somebody hadn’t paid for it.” Then we’ve got to ask ourselves the question: if this weren’t a story that you would have put legitimate resources behind, is it a really a story that needs to be told? I don’t know.

CM: You mentioned the Federal Trade Commission and their role in this—or lack of a role in this. How much is journalism threatened by weakened government oversight of business?

ME: I’m a big proponent of regulation. I think the Federal Trade Commission should get on top of this in a way that they haven’t. I know it’s on their radar. I talked to people there as part of the research for my book. But it isn’t something that they have a particularly good handle on. They are starting to. Not just the Federal Trade Commission but also consumer groups are starting to take a look at this.

Because it’s also happening on places like YouTube. For instance there’s a site called EvanTube—EvanTube is a young kid who promotes different toys to kids. It’s very well produced, because his dad is a video producer; there’s very little indication that this is sponsored content. The Better Business Bureau has gone after him and said that he has to do a better job of delineating that this is sponsored content.

I want to go back to one of the things that you said before, though. You were talking about the military and how the military promotes itself. One of the things I was really disturbed by as part of all of this is the use of Big Data and the research that sites like Facebook do on us, and how they’re using that as a way to market to us. For instance, they look at who our friends and family are, and if a lot of your friends and family are members of the military, then you become a target for recruitment by the military.

The same thing also holds true for things like whether or not you’re going to be able to get a mortgage. If your friends are deadbeats (for lack of a better term), then you may be turned down for loans, because—through the information they’re able to find out by who your social contacts are—the assumption is that you, too, may not be a good financial risk, and you might be denied a mortgage.

CM: I hear from a lot of people that one of the reasons they cut the cord, one of the reasons they don’t watch TV, is because of all the commercials. Is social media more driven by advertising than any media ever? Does it have more advertising-driven content, even, than evil TV?

People are more likely to share content if they are emotionally affected by it. Anger and awe are the two things that are most likely to make that happen.

ME: Oh, gosh yes. The final idea I want people to have walking away from all of this is that the phone that they walk around with in their hand is first and foremost an advertising medium. If they thought about their phones the way they used to think about television, they would treat it a whole lot differently than they do.

Everything about the technology is created to get you to engage with it over and over again. How many times do people sign up for an app, and it asks whether you want push notifications? The reason they want you to have push notifications is that it’s going to ping you, and then you will look at your phone, and once you’ve picked up the phone, you don’t just look at the particular app that made the noise, but you start looking at everything else, too. “Well, as long as I picked up my phone, let me check out Facebook, too, and let me check out Twitter, and oh, I haven’t looked at my emails in a little while.” It becomes this neverending loop.

CM: You write, “Getting us to click on content is only part of the equation. Once we read the article or watch the video, the hope is that we’ll share it, causing the content to go viral, spreading from one consumer to another because of its entertainment value. Viral marketing is essential because it uses our social networks to sell products. We promote the brand, we tell our friends and family to watch a video or buy a product or like a page, and because the endorsement is from a known and trusted commodity, our friends and family are more inclined to pay attention. This is word-of-mouth advertising, and it is the backbone of the new digital stealth marketing ecosystem.”

Are we, then, the greatest agents of advertising? If we don’t want advertising to be so enmeshed in our culture, how much can we affect that process through consumer activism, in this case, by refusing to share corporate-sponsored content?

ME: Absolutely.

Facebook talks about itself as a “community.” And the word they use is “share.” It’s all been framed for us to think that we are coming together as a group of people and we are giving gifts to one another by sharing information and moving it forward.

But the fact of the matter is that we are pushing through content for either corporate sponsors or anyone else, and we’re using our contacts in order to do it. If we look on Facebook, we see how people try to present their best selves, or even a great self that probably doesn’t exist in reality (I once heard somebody say, “Nobody is as happy as they are on Facebook or as pissed off as they are on Twitter.” That’s really true). But beyond that, when we find some funny or interesting content, we want to pass it along to our friends.

This is something that BuzzFeed has done better than anyone else. They are looking to target the bored millenial during lunchtime. Somebody’s at work, they’re at their desk having their lunch, and they’re looking through their social media and so on; they find something that’s kind of funny and they share it with their friends, just send it forward—well, they’ve just done the job of the marketer for them.

Because it’s coming from us, because your friend or relative sees your name on it, they are more likely to click on it. Certainly more than if it came from Coca-cola or Nike. They depend on us to create these communities. That’s the whole thing. But Facebook is not about community. Facebook is about aggregating eyeballs in the same way that the networks aggregated eyeballs to get us to watch advertising. It’s all about advertising. Your phone is all about trying to sell you something.

CM: Haven’t we been this kind of agent for corporations for a while, by wearing apparel with company names on it? Paying for the clothes and not getting paid to wear the t-shirt? I’ve never understood in my life why I would give a company forty dollars to wear their advertising when I should be the person getting paid.

Were we already primed? Is our culture fine with being free advertising agents, and that’s why there’s been so much success with this corporate-controlled content on social media?

ME: It’s gotten exacerbated. A lot of this is not new. Some black ops advertising is really similar to product placement, when people would put products into television and movies and so on—Reese’s Pieces being the example that a lot of people are familiar with.

But this has grown exponentially. The difference with the social media sites as opposed to wearing the t-shirt is that people grow their followers on Twitter or the number of friends they have on Facebook and so on, and those relationships become monetized relationships. Those relationships become more involved in the consumer culture. Instead of sending information to my friends, I’m sending them an ad for an Android phone, and I don’t even know that that’s something that I’ve done. I think that’s a little bit different.

CM: You write, “As this affect-producing content mushrooms through the media pipeline, traditional news producers must compete against it and do so at a distinct disadvantage. While advertising sources create content with the express purpose of giving you something you want—advice, information, a coupon, a smile, a mindless break—news organizations are tasked with giving us information we need.

To address that disadvantage, news producers re-frame their stories to feel more like advertising, luring in readers and advertising by using what one reporter called ‘whore bait.’ Whore bait, or more politely, ‘click bait,’ describes headlines like You won’t believe what happens next or Here’s the problem with self-driving cars becoming a mainstream reality or Everyone poops, but 2.6 billion people do it in a really shitty way.”

Is feeling, then, replacing reason as a priority in the way news is reported? I’ve been noticing the human interest angle dominating the lede and first several paragraphs of a lot of news stories for a long time, and I have to go down to paragraph five or six to find the traditional lede telling me the who, what, why, where, when, and how of the story.

To what degree is this new? Is feeling replacing reason as a priority in the way that news is reported? Or have we just been on that trajectory since the seventies?

My concern is that we’re going to go back to a time that’s similar to the old days of newspapers when the only people who could afford to pay for content and information were rich people. Everybody else is going to be cut out from the information stream.

ME: I think it’s really taken off now, because of what we know about why people will share content. It goes back to the sharing part of this equation. People are more likely to share content if they are emotionally affected by it. In particular, anger and awe are the two things that are most likely to make that happen.

Jonah Berger wrote a book called Contagious. He’s a marketing professor from Wharton, and he talks about this. Things that get us really hyped up and upset—or things that surprise us, or things that are funny—are the things that are most likely to get us to send that information forward.

I almost hate to bring up Donald Trump, but I can’t help it. There is a reporter from the Washington Post who has been working incredibly hard over the last several months talking about Donald Trump’s foundation, all of its financial doings and all of the problems with that. But it was the [Access Hollywood] story that blew up. It had a video attached to it, which is part of the reason it was able to take off and garner so much anger. But also, it was a story about sex that is getting people so angry that it might put the final nail in the coffin for him. But the point is, that’s the thing that got passed along by more people. I saw that story in my feed like crazy yesterday, far more than I did the information about his foundation.

This goes back to what we were talking about in terms of Big Data and tracking data about what we look at online. Most of these companies—if not all of these companies, if we’re talking about news sites—are looking at what we spend time looking at, and then recreating it and repackaging it to us. And we tend to spend more time on things that don’t take a lot of intellectual energy to interact with, so it becomes an unending loop of those things that make us most emotional.

This has a really uncomfortable part to it: on the one hand, we’re being asked to engage with this content over and over again, and at the same time our emotions are being manipulated in order to be able to send this advertising content further and further out into the marketplace. One of the things I write about is the research that Facebook did in the summer of 2014 when they manipulated people’s Facebook feeds to see whether or not they could manage their emotions, if they could effect what’s known as “emotional contagion.” They put more negative content into the news feeds of about 600,000 people, and then looked to see whether or not that affected how they felt. And in fact they found that more and more negative content was being posted by these subjects.

This kind of manipulation, this kind of “market research” is going on online all the time. Not only is our phone a marketing vehicle in terms of sending us information, it’s also a tool for marketing research.

CM: You write, “Interfaces are designed to keep us enraptured and plugged in. We are glued to a screen in our pocket, by our desk, or at our bedside 24 hours a day. Mobile devices are electronic pacifiers designed to be incredibly addictive. Notifications, while sometimes helpful, are designed as reward cues that give our brains little jolts of pleasure that tether us to the technology. The techniques are so effective that a majority of 18 to 85-year-olds found that social media is harder to resist than smoking, drinking, spending money, sleeping, and sex.”

Is that good for you? Is it emotionally healthy to be that connected?

ME: I’m not even sure how to answer that question. Think about where all of this technology came from: here’s a bunch of young guys (it’s mostly guys, because women have had a hard time breaking into tech, and when they do they run into a lot of pushback); they’re very young, most of them, and very interested in making money. And, interestingly, it’s only now that Mark Zuckerberg has had a child that he has begun to think about what the consequences might be of the thing that he has made.

I get concerned that the horse has already left the barn at this point. There are so many consequences and fallout from what has been going on. Specifically, as a lot of the advertising money is going out of traditional media and into digital, if we look in the digital space and look at who’s getting most of that money, it’s the companies that aren’t creating content. The two places that are making the most money are Google and Facebook. Google and Facebook make no content. What we’re talking about is a significant loss of jobs and resources for people who do create good, quality content—I’m talking about both television and print journalists.

And we’re also talking about who is going to pay for this if the advertising all disappears. If we all have ad blockers, if we all find ways to avoid advertising, the primary way this content starts to get paid for is through subscriptions. And I know for myself: you pay for Netflix, you pay for HBO, you pay for Showtime, some people pay for Hulu, and all of that starts to add up. My concern is that we’re going to go back to a time that’s similar to the old days of newspapers when the only people who could afford to pay for content and information were people who had money, rich people. Everybody else is going to be cut out from the information stream.

I know that sounds extreme, and I don’t think it’s going to happen tomorrow, but it’s really something that we all need to start thinking about and taking a look at.

CM: How much do you think that would threaten the sustainability and stability of democracy in the United States?

ME: It’s serious business. It’s really serious business. If the New York Times is willing to create stories that are paid for and not make sure that people understand that there is a corporate sponsor behind it, then that’s an issue. Because that’s the newspaper of record. And I’m not saying right now that they are hiding it. They do a better job than a lot of companies in terms of that. But more and more companies are allowing the wall between church and state to go down. If we allow that to happen, then it’s going to become harder and harder for us to be able to find unbiased news content.

CM: One last question for you, Mara: how much will this interview further destroy any chances that This is Hell! ever gets a corporate sponsor?

ME: I think your odds of getting corporate sponsorship after this are very small.

CM: Well, thank you very much! Nice having you on the show!

ME: No corporation is rushing to have me come talk to them either…

Featured image source: Manchester Climate Action

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