Was that an ad?
In the wild and wonderful frontier of the ‘net in 2017, it’s harder than ever to tell. In days of yore, it was usually clear when you were being advertised to, and when you weren’t. Some of that can be attributed to the limited channels that advertising could take. A 30-minute tv show was a 22-minute program, infiltrated with 8 minutes of commercials and programming promotions from the station. Radio hit music countdowns were broken up by jingles, and interspersed among the columns of Times New Roman font of your local paper could be found splashy full-page ads. The tactic of celebrity sponsorships has been around for a long time, from racecar drivers to the Maybelline IT Girl, but access to the consumer was through one of a few limited channels: tv, radio, paper.
And then along came the internet. In today’s landscape of content, differentiating between ads, search results, genuine original work, sponsorships, promotions, and campaigns is rocky terrain. As end-users, we access information through more channels than its helpful to name or count. In addition to the online iterations of the traditional media (Netflix, podcasts, nytimes.com), there are new media players such as social media giants Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram. There are user-generated-content blogs such Imgur and Reddit, hybrids between user and professional content: HuffPo, Buzzfeed, new waves of professional content: Deadspin, Bleacher Report, and more. In this ad-hoc landscape, advertising is only limited, it seems, by the resourcefulness of its creator.
As a user interacting with advertising on the internet in 2017, there are three types of advertising I’d like to highlight to display the modern ingenuity of advertisers taking advantage of the multiplicity of information on the internet, often camouflaging their work so it just blends in with the crowd.
For websites like Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat, a user is a user. Rather than needing to understand which participants are advertising, anyone with an email address can utilize these platforms and post whatever content they see fit. If one is seeking to use the platform to promote themselves, their brand, or a service, so be it. Further, users tend to encourage companies by “following” them on Twitter and Instagram, welcoming the advertising into their private social space.
On Snapchat, this even goes a step further. In addition to choosing to interact with a company, stories promoting a new product live wedged between information about our national parks and cultural trending news. Indeed, the advertisement is treated no differently than the latter two, calling into question the nature of advertising and who benefits from what.
Posted by end-users who are otherwise unaffiliated, sponsored content are posts that promote a product or service, utilizing the brand of the poster to leverage the content. Two
common examples of this are #sponsored Instagram posts and Amazon reviews. On Instagram, it’s common to see users who have a large following post about a specific car, cause, or even cookie, sometimes utilizing the hashtags #sponsored or #ad. This infiltration is particularly sneaky because of the choices users make about who to follow, the advertisement thus penetrating circles that would otherwise be unreachable. One of the more nefarious iterations of the sponsored content is the Amazon review. On more than one occasion I can attest to purchasing a well-reviewed item and receiving a note with my purchased product stipulating that if I leave a 5-star review, a refill or add-in will be headed my way shortly. By leveraging the brand of an Amazon buyer, products achieve better ratings and higher sales.
Posing as the Real Thing
Finally, a popular tactic for placing advertisements is to camouflage them. Enter any search term you like into Google and the first two or three results will be ads. Rather than explicitly mark these in a different color, they’re frequently undiscernible from true results, save for a subtle marker stating “Ad.” The purpose, it seems it to dupe customers into a click, believing the result to be genuinely the best fit for their needs. Newly a problem in the searchable age, customers must be cautious in evaluating the results of online searches.
In all three categories, through placement, source, and channel, creative advertising has permeated every corner of our daily existence. To live in this world, the consumer must be ever-vigilant, questioning the reasoning for any content, and what those producing it are gaining. At times, we’re even left to question the intent of the post-er; maybe Neil Patrick Harris really loves Oreo Thins and wants me to love them, too.