Advertising IS Content

  • by , Featured Contributor, September 23, 2010

I'm going to have some fun today and, hopefully, stir up a bit of controversy. Fellow Online Spin writer Joe Marchese wrote a provoking column on Tuesday entitled "Advertising is NOT Content."  In his column, Joe charges that advertisers, marketers and agencies are too one-dimensional in their obsession with making ads that people like. Rather, he suggests that they would be better served to recognize that media consumers don't really like ads -- advertising is NOT content.

Joe argues that industry folks should recognize that in this "attention economy" age they would be better served spending their time developing new business models where people could pay to avoid ads, rather than making them more attractive. While I generally love Joe's columns, I absolutely disagree. Joe's advice here is the worst advice the industry could follow. Here is why:



Advertising IS content, and is valued when done well. Ads and the information they contain or the emotions that they evoke are just as much a part of media communications as any editorial content. In fact, the media industry is rife with examples of media products where consumers value the ad content as much as they value the edit. Many Sunday newspapers are bought for the slick coupons, classifieds and department store promotions. Readers of glossy magazines from Vogue to Skiing to Brides will tell you they look at the ads first and foremost. What would yellow pages be without the ads? What about Super Bowl ads?

Consumers these days aren't looking for more ways to pay for something that they get for free. I come from a small coal town in western Pennsylvania that, like much of the rust belt, isn't going to come out of this recession any time soon.  Folks in Clearfield, Pa., like most of America, aren't spending much time these days looking for ways to pay bigger cable or satellite or Internet bills. In fact, they are looking for ways to pay less. We should be looking for ways to give folks "more for less," not "the same for more."

Don't give up dreams of creating better advertising.  When you ask consumers what they find annoying about ads, their biggest issues are typically irrelevance and overload. We need to make ads and all commercial communication better and more relevant. They should deliver self-evident value. Consumers should not want to avoid ads, but should embrace them. Consumers should not want to skip ads, but instead want to save them. Crazy, you say? Absolutely not.

I believe that the future of media will be about delivering content -- including advertising -- that people want and value. I don't believe that the future is about creating structures for "ad avoidance fees." The best ways to deal with an annoying ad is to kill it at birth, not to pay people to have to endure it. What do you think?

21 comments about "Advertising IS Content".
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  1. Jaan Janes from Yieldbot, September 23, 2010 at 4:36 p.m.

    Weekly supermarket circular? Definitely not content!

  2. Bryan Everett from Amobee, Inc., September 23, 2010 at 4:38 p.m.

    Atta Boy Dave!!

  3. Omar Tawakol from Blue Kai, September 23, 2010 at 4:41 p.m.

    Good topic Dave. I agree. Search ads work because they are content also. Most consumers want free content - they don't want to pay to remove ads. The latest study I saw showed that only 10% of consumers would pay to be free of ads online - even if they only had to pay $1.50 a month. The % of consumers who prefer ad supported content goes up closer to 100% as the cost of eliminating ads rises.

  4. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, September 23, 2010 at 4:45 p.m.

    I'm sorry I missed Joe's column, because you're right. Good ads, or those with value, become content.

    Weekly supermarket circular? Sorry, definitely IS content. Some people buy the Sunday paper only for the coupons and circulars. That makes it content. And often the only value of the medium.

    Ads on NASCAR cars? Definitely content. Adds to the color and atmosphere of the race. Before they were a bunch of plain-colored cars with numbers.

    Behaviorally targeted ads? Content to some, if you're shopping for what they are selling.

  5. Stephen Shearin from ionBurst Media, September 23, 2010 at 5:07 p.m.

    Though branding and ROI are ultimately joined at the hip, they have different approaches. Not all ads are content, nor can they be. There isn't enough creative genius to go around.
    Great advertising tells a story, connects emotionally, and has a call to action. Sometimes all in an image or a 30 second spot.

    Thanks for an excellent response Dave. It is right on point.

  6. Roger Toennis from Liquid Media LLC, September 23, 2010 at 5:17 p.m.

    To make Advertising into actual "content" people want you have to invent "Advertising that Doesn't Suck". Here is a first attempt at that.

  7. Chase Norlin from AlphaBird, September 23, 2010 at 5:24 p.m.

    Dave, great stuff, one small adjustment: "Advertising is becoming Content". That's our entire thesis. Users can only take so much ad bombardment. We're getting to the point where not only can they not take it, but they're getting annoyed by it. Advertising has to become content (e.g. branded entertainment as an example) in order to engage and become more relevant.

  8. Sandy Miller from Success Communications, September 23, 2010 at 5:29 p.m.

    I believe advertising is content and the proof is that ads might be all the content someone sees. I'm not making judgments on right or wrong...but the fact is that people don't have time and are used to getting their message/content in sound bites. This makes advertising all the more relevant because it might be the only way you have to get the consumer to know anything about you.
    So the goal isn't to get rid of advertising its how to do it better and deliver a better message if that is all the consmer is going to see to make their decisions.

  9. R.J. Lewis from e-Healthcare Solutions, LLC, September 23, 2010 at 6:11 p.m.

    With "advertorials", content integration sponsorships, product placements on TV, etc... it's getting harder and harder to tell what is an "Ad" and what is "true content" is there any such thing as unbiased editorial anymore? Isn't Fox just one big ad for the right and the NY Times just one big ad for the left? Yes, advertising is content but more importantly and perhaps more relevant (and concerning) content is advertising.

  10. Jeff Rosen from Gulp Media, September 23, 2010 at 7:08 p.m.

    Sorry Dave - I'm with Joe on this one.

    If you give consumers options, they will end up getting the ads that they think do not suck. So perhaps ads could become more like content, but only if they are engaging and reaching the right person at the right time.

    So herein lies the problem...

    Consumers are willing to pay for some content, but not all. But which content and how much?

    See, that's what I work on.

    You also point out that "Folks in Clearfield, Pa., like most of America, aren't spending much time these days looking for ways to pay bigger cable or satellite or Internet bills."

    That is true but by utilizing the Internet and an a la carte delivery mechanism, they may soon be able to rid themselves of those bill outright.

    Additionally, you correctly mention "Readers of glossy magazines from Vogue to Skiing to Brides will tell you they look at the ads first and foremost."

    How does that apply to more traditional content such as music, television or news?

    I spend my hours working on this topic. It is always a pleasure to see it debated amongst passionate writers such as Joe and yourself.

    Best regards,


  11. Mark McLaughlin, September 23, 2010 at 7:58 p.m.

    The debate about advertising as content is fun but not helpful. The more strategically interesting discussion is about the role of RELEVANCE in determining whether or not the CONSUMER will treat the advertising like content.

    Relevant advertising is welcomed by the consumer. If you are shopping for a minivan, a well designed ad for a minivan feels like content. If you are having a bad hair day, an ad for a shampoo might grab your attention and you have no problem with that. If it's raining this weekend and you want to see a movie, an ad that allows you to view the movie trailer can hold your attention voluntarily for two minutes or more -- so, please give me ads for movies that I might actually be interested in!

    On the other hand, irrelevant advertising is ignored by the consumer -- especially today's digitally empowered consumer. The random delivery of advertising is wasteful for everybody (marketer, publisher and consumer) while targeting strategies that improve relevance are a win for everybody. Blue chip targeting solutions available on the web that leverage lots of aggregated data about what individual web users are doing in order to improve targeting is just good common sense.

    The powers from on high in the media world can slice the semantics of "content" for all time, but the only perspective that matters is the consumer's. If they read it, tear it out, roll over it, click on it, or just stare at it with some reasonable level of alertness and interest, it is content. If they ignore it, it is not content. Same is true for a TV show, a magazine article or a web page - if the consumer ignores it or never sees it, what is the point of arguing about the fact that it is content?

  12. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein, September 23, 2010 at 7:58 p.m.

    Good piece, Dave.

    Advertising not only is content, it's the only content that pays the bills, to wit there's a newspaper in Hawaii named The Honolulu Advertiser.

    And nowhere is the advertising as content concept more appropos than on television. In fact, from a business perspective, it's always been a case of programs between commercials rather than commercials between programs. Anyone who thinks Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom was a show about animals should quit the biz. It was cute animals between insurance commercials, and rightly so.

    Put another way, ask any TV network executive if he'd prefer that his network be higher rated or better sold and I guarantee you he'll take what's behind door #2.

  13. Rob Goulet from Entertainment Sports Partners, Inc., September 23, 2010 at 9:32 p.m.

    Sorry Dave. I agree with Joe.

    Sure people don't want to find new ways to pay for things, but given a choice, consumers would prefer to go without it (advertising) by a landslide. Further, I think that the inference in Joe's column would suggest that the preferred settling point would land in the lap of embedded sponsorship.

    Why has TIVO or video recording become so popular? Most People are not taping shows so they can come back and watch the ad's, no they skip them.

    Let's also look at live events like the SuperBowl. Clearly this event has given way to advertising for obvious reasons and I'll even concede that advertising has served wonderfully in building brand awareness and a short term water fountain/buzz community with viewers--so that's the give. The take is, it results in an abnormal flow of the function of the event and frustrates the hell out of anyone competing or is in attendance. Advertising will always be intrusive.

    One final thought...With today's unanimous vote by the FCC to open up the "white space" of unused television signals and giving it ove to broadband, we've got a hell of a race on our hands...Why is no one talking about this! It will soon be game, set and match for amazing apps and access to content that otherwise was undeliverable by wireless before and it will be a huge gateway for "bundled content and new subscriptions". Once you sever the cord from traditional distribution providers, content wins again and advertising has to reinvent itself to remain relavent.

  14. Larry Allen from, September 24, 2010 at 8:41 a.m.

    Dave – I think you got what you wanted with this article…the controversy is running rampant! However, this dog don’t hunt, as everyone is looking at this from the wrong angle. Direct Marketers care much less about what people think about their ads, if they are perceived as content or not…they only care if they are performing and will use whatever creative message works to get the desired result. Mark’s comments are spot on with regards to relevance, first you must understand the current mindset of the consumer (most people call this intent), next you need to consider the trajectory the consumer is on in their current session or over the last few days to refine the intent and give you a sense of what makes them tick, then of course the environment where the marketer message appears can enhance or support the message we call this “contextual” and finally the message itself and what form it takes. If you are a brand marketer all of these things need to be in perfect alignment across the entire buy, this is no small task to get it right. For an ad to be treated as content, the format is critical. I believe this is where we as digital media professionals have let our clients down. TV works so well because the commercial is in the exact same format as the content giving the marketer a much better vehicle to deliver their message with emotion, and of course, sight, sound and motion. Contrast that with digital media, the best vehicle we provide a marketer to deliver their brand message at scale is either a box (300x250) or a rectangle (728x90 or 160x600) neither of which enable a marketer to tell a compelling story. I know everyone will scream – RICH MEDIA – but I ran a rich media shop and it is extremely hard to run RM campaigns at scale, sure you can buy the homepage of MSN, AOL or Yahoo but they are untargeted mass buys that most marketers aren’t interested in or can’t justify given the goals of the campaign. Plus, to make matters worse, we don’t even offer a standard (I don’t want this to be a standards debate so we will let that for someone else’s column) that marketers can take advantage of to deploy a single high-impact, immersive, interactive, emotionally compelling creative at scale… TV gives you that today, and has for 40 years. Dave and others are now even giving marketers the ability to overlay digital media like targeting on TV so we better do something if we want to see the shift of dollars we have been talking about for the past 10 years.

    There must be a better way … and I think there is. What is the number one most compelling digital vehicle a brand marketer has today at their disposal? Their web site. Most large brands spend the majority of their digital ad budget on their web site because it is the single best way to deliver a compelling, informative and emotional message to their consumers. Think about some of the best web sites you visit, they are produced by the marketers – they are now publishers of some of the best content on the web. Nike, P&G, Pepsi, Apple, and the list goes on. They weave video, articles, testimonials, product specs, everything you want to know about the product and in many cases the product category giving you a complete picture of what you are interested in. (granted with some marketing spin to help change your consideration) Simply awesome! The second largest expenditure is search, why? 1) it’s easy to buy and 2) they must drive traffic to that super expensive site they just built. Here’s the rub, when they try to buy traditional digital display to drive traffic the costs are astronomical in comparison to the efficiency of search. We must give the marketer a better way to leverage their most valued asset (or at least components of it) and bring it to their prospects when its relevant, contextual and most likely to support their online experience. I’ll write more on how to do that on our blog at Check it out, I think you will be surprised!

  15. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein, September 24, 2010 at 9:56 a.m.

    @Larry & Mark: Your comments reveal that you have answered question #2: What kind of advertising works best?

    You would be better served to first answer question #1: Does anyone want more advertising?

    The painfully obvious answer to question #1 renders IRRELEVANT your answer to question #2.

    A better question is: Where would Media Post be without all the self-serving ads disguised as content from guys like you?

  16. Max Kalehoff from MAK, September 24, 2010 at 9:57 a.m.

    Who cares if it's content or not? Test it and if it moves the needle, do more of it.

  17. Matt Straz from Pictela, September 24, 2010 at 1:10 p.m.

    Fantastic article, Dave. As you know Pictela has spent that last two years having precisely this conversation with marketers. Some other great examples of this Content Marketing philosophy in action are Apple's TV ads (effectively 30 second product demos), movie trailers/tune in spots, and catalogs (LL Bean, etc.).

  18. Stephen Shearin from ionBurst Media, September 24, 2010 at 5:22 p.m.

    Just because some musicians suck does not mean we should find an alternative to music.

    Ads as entertainment is perhaps a better way of putting it. Even the driest topic is better with some window dressing.
    But ads strictly as sales pitches? Talk about a colorless world. I can hear that water cooler discussion. "Did you see that great ad for cheaper cars with all the features? It was AWESOME."

  19. Adam Conduit from Conduit, September 24, 2010 at 5:24 p.m.

    Hats off to Joe and Dave, for it often takes a good debate to inspire great thinking. I find it hard to take sides. Certainly both posts offer smart perspectives on what is valuable in consumers’ eyes. From the “Conduit perspective” content optimization should be front and center for every marketer. In my humble opinion, advertising can OR cannot be content. The goal should be to match the intention with the result.

  20. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia, September 25, 2010 at 9:40 a.m.

    Thanks everyone for participating and creating such a robust discussion ... it's why Joe and I and the other Online Spin columnists write.

  21. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, October 3, 2010 at 8:04 a.m.

    Although I am late to this party, this party is never over. Dave, as usual, you are one of my most admired people. You understand the entertainment biz better than most "experts". You are so right on all accounts. And Max, your comment are the jimmies on the ice cream telling everyone that they are counting the fairies on the head of a pin....again, many of whom figure they are one of the fairies and must be counted.

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