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.