John Oliver Is A Genius

Usually, if the entire ad industry is sharing a clip of a video online with all their co-workers, and the trade publications are covering the content on it, it’s probably a commercial that’s either so good or so horrible it’s deemed newsworthy. Not this time, though: everyone’s been talking about a segment from comedian John Oliver’s talk show on HBO, “Last Week Tonight,” in which he skewers something that on the surface might seem too industry-insidery for a talk show.

And that topic? Native advertising. And he absolutely nailed it. John Oliver's take on native advertising is flying around our industry, because in that clip he’s saying what a lot of us think but very few speak up about ourselves.

“Ads are baked into content like chocolate chips into a cookie,” Oliver ranted. “Except, it’s actually more like raisins into a cookie -- because nobody f***ing wants them there.”

He is 100% right. Consumers do not like ads. But the kicker is that it’s not just native ads that turn them off. The funny thing to me is that native ad pushes seem to go in cycles. With the advent of every new medium -- print, radio, TV -- the entire industry thinks "branded content" will be the savior (Oliver touched on this with a clip of the cigarette-sponsored “Camel News Caravan” from the ‘50s), but then an effective and scalable ad model (re: commercials) is invented, and then each party can focus on what it does best. And to someone in the ad industry, everything that Oliver’s pointing out about why he thinks native ads are silly is a potential sign that it’s not going to continue to scale in the way that will make it an effective strategy for digital in the long term.

Brands create messaging that entertains (if done well) and sells, and new people create content that entertains and informs. That’s the natural order, if you will. Media companies build desirable audiences, and for a fair price (one that, more and more, the consumer determines) they can lend that audience to an advertiser’s message. And yes, it's great if the advertiser’s message is entertaining. But let's remember what David Ogilvy said: It's only creative if it sells.

John Oliver consciously points out the fact that his show is on HBO, which means it’s uninterrupted by ads, because consumers are willing to pay for an experience of quality content and zero ads. And his epic rant about native advertising highlighted that while both publishers and advertisers are all starry-eyed about it right now, consumers don’t necessarily agree.

Not all brands can use the format authentically without seriously compromising the integrity of the publisher running the ads. And if ads are really “camouflage,” is that potentially going to be so well-masked that the consumer won’t realize it’s an ad -- and the brand will be missing that whole “needs to sell” aspect of advertising?

I want to make two things clear: One, all advertising is "branded content” when you think about it. Two, advertising content can certainly take an informative, long-form approach to interacting with consumers and be effective in the process.

But I agree with Oliver’s gripes about the drawbacks of an excessive reliance on branded content. It’s high time someone of prominence who’s not in advertising did this, and I think it’s good for us all to look at. With TV (hello, Camel News Caravan!), branded content experiments ultimately were overshadowed by forms of advertising that complemented rather than mimicked that medium. If Oliver’s sentiments are any indication, we’re going to see the same thing happen with digital, too.

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4 comments about "John Oliver Is A Genius".
  1. Tom Francoeur from Communispace , August 7, 2014 at 5:07 p.m.
    Great analysis of Oliver's fun rant. I totally agree. I think native advertising continues to gain traction is that it seems to make advertising easy. And successful advertising is never easy. Brands think they're getting more attention from a premium audience. Agencies have an easy pitch to sell. And publishers desperate for ad dollars get more revenue. All the while, consumers are smarter than all of them because they see the content as an ad right away or, get the sneaky suspicion the brand and publisher are trying to pull the wool over their eyes. And if they miss out on it altogether, the ad still fails to sell.
  2. George Parker from Parker Consultants , August 7, 2014 at 5:09 p.m.
    Never forget what Howard Gossage said many, many years ago... "People don't read advertising, they read what interests them. Sometimes, it's advertising." George "AdScam" Parker
  3. Stephen Mindich from phoenix media group , August 7, 2014 at 5:35 p.m.
    What went on in the 50's was far different than the current native advertising approach - the sponsorship was upfront and clear and to the degree that the audiences liked those sponsored (and I might add, mostly advertiser controlled) programs, the advertiser would accrue positive brand identification and sales. Native advertising is too frequently not very well done and smells of underhandedness to the consumer; resulting in negative brand identification and no sales. Unfortunately publishers, as Tom Francoeur correctly says above, are unfortunately so desperate for revenue they accept these ads and wind up doing damage to their own brands. In the end - the publishers will be the big losers, because when these types of ads don't work, advertisers will abandon them and the publishers will be even more desperate for revenues and likely to have lost readers/users along the way. It doesn't bode well for the ability of publishers to continue to provide quality content for which advertisers will pay a reasonable price to reach quality audiences as they once did.
  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , August 7, 2014 at 6:09 p.m.
    How many people still fall for scams ? Spams ? and other swindling narratives and snake oil successes ? Untruthinesses ?