Why Advertising Is Really NOT Content

Dave, Dave, Dave, you got me all wrong with your rebuttal column "Advertising Is Content." I give a lot of terrible advice to the industry to be sure :), but my column last week,  "Advertising is NOT Content," was not advice to the industry, it is the state of the industry. I am not suggesting that publishers develop methods for people to pay to avoid advertising; I am saying that publishers already are developing methods for consumers to pay to avoid ads.Have you signed up for Pandora's premium service? Do you rent a DVR from your cable company? Then you are paying a fee to skip ads. And there are a lot more pay models are coming. What I am saying is that if advertising doesn't find its footing, this trend is going to accelerate.



And why are publishers developing ways for consumers to pay to skip ads? Because the economics make more sense for publishers and for consumers right now in digital media. Unless there is something wrong with my math last week, $1.20 per hour (what advertisers are valuing people's attention at when they pay a $10 CPM for a 30-second spot) is well below minimum wage. And I for one believe that those hard-working people in the rust belt, and everywhere else in the world, value their free time and their time with their family, at a lot more than $1.20 per hour. (Side note: I do feel like I am campaigning for office now that we've brought the rust belt into things.)

And if Super Bowl Ads are such great content, why are they used to fill the spaces in the largest television sporting event in the largest market in the world? If Super Bowl ads are such great content , let's just every year have a special time where we unveil the best ads of the year and let people tune in. Then advertisers wouldn't have to pay for those really expensive Super Bowl spots. Even better, let's just put the ads on the Internet, and we'll let people share them with each other on their own.

We all know that will never happen. Those really great commercials -- and they are really great --  are very, very expensive to produce, and if they are not seen by a massive audience, then the marketers and agencies would never be able to justify the cost of production. And in the end, why would a consumer products company want to go into the entertainment business? It's not their business, and adds a whole new level of risk.

Sunday circulars are a whole different issue, because they provide value well outside of the realm of content --  monetary value in the form of cost savings. But again, I would argue that if consumers would seek those out because of their value, why stuff them into everyone's Sunday paper to get them in your home even if you don't want them? It kills an unfathomable number of trees, has a very high cost of production and makes a ton of waste.

Sure, every advertisement is technically a form of "content," but advertising is not content that people will ever value enough to seek out at enough scale to justify the production of great advertising as content. In the end, advertising will never be true content because the goal of great content creators is to create a product that people value, while the goal of great advertising creators will always be to sell products and build brands. With advertising, he content value is a means to an end only. Not saying that great advertisers couldn't be great content creators, but at what point does the goal of creating funny commercials impact the ability to sell the product or brand? This is another major issue that we haven't even touched on yet.

And here is the last point I want to make: I think that advertising has a very bright future ahead of it, although there are going to be some bumps. Advertisers shouldn't stop dreaming of producing better, more relevant advertisements, but advertising will really hit its stride in the new attention economy when it realizes its role in the value exchange between people, publishers and brands. Brands are not audience creators, but instead audience benefactors. Nike makes great shoes, and it wants people to know that. Let's put it this way: If I am placing bets on which companies will succeed in the new attention economy, I will put my money on those marketers that focus on creating great products, who work with top agencies to build effective product/brand messaging about the marketers' great products, and work with the best content publishers to engage the publisher's audience with the product/brand messaging. Sound familiar?

Loving the debate, so let me have it, people. Where am I wrong? Yell at me on Twitter at @joemarchese and add your thoughts to the conversation on the Spin Board!


13 comments about "Why Advertising Is Really NOT Content".
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  1. Russell Cross from Prentke Romich, September 28, 2010 at 1:26 p.m.

    Joe, Joe, Joe, if you're happy to say "I give a lot of terrible advice to the industry to be sure" then why oh why should I or anyone take anything you post as being worth anything? Including this post!

    Sorry, just couldn't resist that one :)

  2. Joe Marchese, September 28, 2010 at 1:32 p.m.

    Russell - Because it can't all be good, and I give so much of it.

    I just give people food for thought, at the end of the day, they need to figure out how, if at all, it can be applied for them.

  3. Mike Sprouse from Sprouse Marketing Group, September 28, 2010 at 1:36 p.m.

    Hey Joe, I enjoy this debate too. Not to ride the fence, but I think there is a gray area here. How would you classify advertising that we tab as "viral"? That is often where advertising is most creative, and where users & consumers actually do seek to view it. There are a lot of examples from corporations, small businesses and advertisers that utilize great content, that have great pass-along value, which could be - and often are - classified as advertising. That is where I think advertising is content. Not to beat a dead-horse with the Old Spice example, but that really is content. I agree, though, there are other times when advertising defined broadly could not be classified the same way.

  4. Stephen Shearin from ionBurst Media, September 28, 2010 at 1:45 p.m.

    With your clarification, I have to say I agree 100%.
    Some ads should go away, ads will never be regular prime time viewing, and success requires a better mouse trap and information about said trap that is informative and easy on the eyes.
    Mediums may change, but not sound methods.

  5. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein, September 28, 2010 at 1:48 p.m.

    Talk about circuitous logic.

  6. Jeff Rosen from Gulp Media, September 28, 2010 at 3:27 p.m.


    As you are probably aware, I am definitely in your camp but...

    ["...I am not suggesting that publishers develop methods for people to pay to avoid advertising; ..."]

    Why not?

    Wouldn't that democratize the whole digital monetization process?

    Users, accessing digital content, are not equal. Why do we treat them as such? Why do we allow a small group of paying customers to subsidize those who do not?

    I know the previous statements may appear a little off topic, but they directly apply to this debate.

    For some people advertising IS content, for others, it isn't. Why not make both sides happy?

    Always fun stuff.

    All the best,


  7. Jeffrey Stier from Blurts, September 28, 2010 at 5:36 p.m.

    Advertising or content? Sometimes the line isn't clear cut. This blurt is a case in point:

  8. Mike Mcgrath from RealXstream PTY LTD, September 29, 2010 at 2:37 a.m.

    Poorer folks value their money more than their time and richer folks value their time more than they money. As Facebook (aka Timesuck) and other activities consume more and more of peoples busy lives then it stands to reason that those who can afford it will opt out wherever possible, limiting advertisers access to those with high disposable incomes.
    This is not a question of If but When...

  9. Laura Zavelson, September 29, 2010 at 12:59 p.m.

    I would like to throw out that advertising can be content if the reader/user is looking for information related to a purchase. The fashion industry comes to mind as a good example. What if I want to know the top 5 accessories for Fall? First I need a trusted source. Maybe this is a fashion magazine (where part of the experience IS the ads) or maybe I check out the catalog of my favorite store. Often the catalogs include "custom content" which is really just trying to get me to buy -- making it in fact an ad. But if I trust them and they haven't steered me wrong in the past, why not believe them and buy the top 5 things they recommend on the spot?

    The advertising industry has for the most part lost our trust. But certain brands - through honest and useful content - may be able to gain it back.

  10. John Verdon from National Defence, September 29, 2010 at 1:09 p.m.


    Thank you for this. You have made great points and I agree. I hate being interupted from watchin good TV, having the sound immediately louder, being shown the same ad multiple times in the same spot. It makes me wonder who anyone can feel that they are providing me with desirable content.
    Even if the ad is good (most ads these days seem to say, wow look at how dump people are, if you buy this stuff you can be just as dumb/common/normal), it's like having a great tragedy interupted by a great comedy and thinking the audience will love this mashup.

    Most ads are not providing content as much as they are intrusively trying to cast an incantation on my behavior and really don't care how I feel about it or value it. Their only aim is to 'infect' me with artificially induced desires based on an ever growing spectrum of 'inadequacies'.

    I don't know if you read Umair Haque's blog because what both you write about really resonates. It seems to me that the 21st Century should be about not just building better products - but beneficial products aimed at really making life and the world more richly satisfying, heathy, and productive of human flourishing. Not simply flogging the same old crap for ever more sophisticated insecurities.

  11. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, October 5, 2010 at 9:20 p.m.

    Content is advertising. Content is selling a point of view. How fast can you tell a story? How lenthy and deliberately descriptive can you tell a story? Can that story invoke inspiration to do good things? to buy something? to adopt a certain style? idealogy? influence attitude/behavioral change?

  12. Alison Provost, October 6, 2010 at 5:56 p.m.

    I think you are totally right. Taking people's time (or even space, like on a website) to present an ad is getting less and less effective, especially when people can opt out for so little cost. We have to come up with new options.

    It is important now is to make the advertisement something of value itself... something people want whether it is stuffed in a Sunday paper or not.

    I think we can go deeper than just entertainment in exchange for attention though. We can also provide expert advice and win loyalty.... something called "online editorial video". Instead of shooting for what is clever, we can shoot for what is helpful.

    I am sure there are other ways to earn favor by giving away real value. Expert advice, entertainment... what else?


  13. Stephen Pickens from Pick Consulting, October 12, 2010 at 3:48 p.m.

    On behalf of our client,, we placed long form entertainment programming such as Million Dollar Challenge and Big Game on FOX, and North American Poker Tour on ESPN - if these programs had been produced with the sole purpose of acquiring new users, we would have fallen on our faces. But because they are high quality productions covering real-life events that deliver value to our core demographic, we have are enjoying record ratings AND an optimal volume of acquisitions

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