Branded content: advertising dressed up in a thin disguise?

Pity the poor marketer.  As reported in Forbes earlier this year, a lot of us simply do not trust advertising.  For example, a study called ‘Does It Really Ad Up’ from Lab 42, a Chicago-based research firm, revealed:

  • 76% of respondents said ads in general were either “very exaggerated” or “somewhat exaggerated”
  • 87% think half or more cleaning ads are photoshopped
  • 96% think half or more weight loss ads are photoshopped
  • 81% feel beauty ads are exaggerated (although – alarmingly! – 77% of men believe beauty ads are “very accurate”)

And that pervasive sense of mistrust (except for those guys watching beauty ads) helps to explain why industry has jumped all over the advertising concept called “branded content”

Sometimes known as “native content”, it’s been described as:

“Content that is developed or curated by a brand to provide added consumer value such as entertainment or education. It is designed to build brand consideration and affinity, not sell a product or service. It is not a paid ad, sponsorship, or product placement.”

Branded content may not look or smell like what we have come to believe advertising is. We expect paid ads to include a product/service along with features, benefits and maybe an attractive price thrown in – along with the name of the company paying for the ads. But make no mistake: making money is what branded content is all about – especially since marketers have wised up to how much we distrust their advertising.

There’s even an official industry association (of course there is) called the Branded Content Marketing Association, on whose website I found this little 3-minute feel-good film created by DuPont, the world’s third largest chemical company and creator of, among about a zillion other products, the Spandex in the track pants I’m wearing as I write this.  Warning: watching this pitch piece will make you want to run out and purchase DuPont products for your home. 

You may have already watched the two wildly popular branded content viral videos from Pepsi Max (each of them, ‘Test Drive’  and ‘Uncle Drew’ have passed the 20 million mark in YouTube views).  Neither talk about the product (Pepsi Max) except for occasional glimpses of a soda can.

Advertising Age profiled a number of successful branded content ad campaigns in 2012 including Coca Cola’s new corporate magazine Journey, a site that went from standard investor relations to a digital magazine, complete with infographics, stories, and opinion posts. AdAge explained:

“In a twist on ‘traditional’  content marketing, Journey is targeting Coca-Cola investors and folks who specifically want content about the brand itself. With a regular refresh rate, Coke is telling the stories it wishes the press would write: how it’s helping veterans find jobs, how its promotion of healthy lifestyle preceded the NYC soda ban, and inside looks at a Coca-Cola sponsored game to help fight AIDS.

“Unlike the average corporate blog, Coca-Cola has treated Journey as a legitimate newsroom, contracting quality writers, photographers and guest posters.”

AdAge also likes Red Bull (“miles ahead of other brands in the content game”) – the energy drink company with a reputation for featuring relentless action-sports stories on its site, its magazine  The Red Bulletin, and video series about guys like Ryan Doyle, who does backflips from the world’s great monuments.  And then of course, there’s Felix Baumgartner‘s epic skydive last fall, also championed by Red Bull. The live stream of that event became the No. 1 most watched YouTube stream of all time with 8 million concurrent viewers.

At the other extreme, in the world of non-extremes over at Kenmore and Craftsman, two brands of Sears appliances and tools respectively, Ryan Ostrom (Sears divisional Vice President of Digital) now predicts:

“Making your own content will be a key driver in every brand’s arsenal in the future. It has to be.”

Even traditional broadcast and print journalism is getting onboard the branded content bandwagon, as beleaguered media empires evolve to address a stagnant advertising climate.

And while other forms of digital advertising revenue recede, as reported in the Globe and Mail recently, media are “willing to spend on branded content as they try to engage consumers who often ignore more obvious forms of advertising.” Canada’s Global News, for example, has announced that its new website and related mobile sites will feature editorial content commissioned by advertisers, but produced by its journalists.

As the Pew Research Center Project for Excellence in Journalism explained in its State of the News Media in 2013 report:

“In circumventing the media altogether, one company, Contently, connects thousands of journalists, many of them ex-print reporters, with commercials brands to help them produce their own content, including brand-oriented magazines.

“In early March, Fortune took that step, launching a program for advertisers called Fortune TOC – Trusted Original Content – in which Fortune writers,  for a fee, create original Fortune-branded editorial content for marketers to distribute exclusively on their own platforms.”

Fortune has set a TOC price range from $250,000 to $1 million for its industry clients – the cost of having a skilled Fortune magazine writer on your marketing payroll. And by creating TOC, Fortune hopes to avoid the reality that “brand-created content can often fall short of quality editorial product.”

But the reality for us consumers remains ambiguous, according to Wally Snyder of the Institute for Advertising Ethics, who bluntly told AdAge in 2011:

“If consumers are unaware that the ‘news’ or ‘entertainment’ they are viewing actually is advertising, they are being misled and treated unethically.”


NEWS UPDATE January 3, 2014:   New York Times‘ Online Redesign Will Include Content Sponsored by Advertisers.



3 thoughts on “Branded content: advertising dressed up in a thin disguise?

  1. I didn’t watch the entire video above for long as I felt my blood pressure rising and bailed out. Brands are rushing off to spend their fortunes on branded content as distinguished from advertising but you have illustrated what distinguishes it is a whole lot of nothingness.

    I consider branded content to be an insult to my intelligence but the youth I know cotton to it. They love the viral videos that I consider to be manipulative and repulsive.

    I wasn’t aware of it until 2010 when a study conducted by Connect Insight revealed the differences in opinion among age groups are related to the early Internet experiences that older users had. Then advertising was used in an intrusive way, but now the younger generation directly interacts with brands and companies through social media. Their stats demonstrated:

    – 24 percent of the 16-to 34-year-olds do think this type of advertising is appealing
    – 50 percent of those over 55 years old said they avoid websites where ads would pop up and “interrupt their online activities”

    Chris Hogg, chief executive officer of branded content specialists Digital Journal Inc. says: “If done well, branded content can be presented in a consumption format consumers are accustomed to – so engagement, sharing and click-through rates will often outperform traditional banner ad responses.”

    And that observation does not make me smile.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful perspective. Not only do younger demographics pay more attention to branded content videos compared to older digital-naive demographics, they do indeed make them into viral success stories in a world where click-through rates are important. Brilliant ….

  2. You’re right! I almost did want to run out and buy Dupont-made stuff after watching this feel-good promo video! Or buy stocks in the company at least…

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