Black Ops Advertising

Why Ads Don't Look Like Ads

By Mara Einstein

On October 14, 2012, Felix Baumgartner attempted the impossible -- to dive from outer space going faster than the speed of sound, wearing what looked like a battery pack out of a 1950s sci-fi movie. Millions of people watched as this Austrian jumped from a space pod surrounded by darkness to land safely in a sunlit field 128,000 feet below. Successfully traveling at 844 miles per hour, this leap was a triumph of technology and one man's fearlessness that became the talk of the world, a twenty-first century version of Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon.

But this exceedingly risky endeavor wasn't a NASA mission or a physics experiment out of Carnegie-Mellon. It was an extreme event called Stratos that had been developed and paid for by Red Bull, a producer of energy drinks popular with teens, young adults, and college students cramming for finals. Marketed with the tagline "Red Bull gives you wings," the product is all about communicating that the company is on the cutting edge of pop culture. So cutting edge that the only clues to commercialization in the video are subtle displays of the Red Bull logo that fit seamlessly into the content -- on the space pod, on Baumgartner's space suit, on t-shirts of people watching in the crowd below, and so on. The camera never lingers on these symbols, and the viewer's attention is on the fantastic achievement about to occur, so unless you know to look for them they are easy to miss.

Incredibly, then, all this work, money, and even risk to a person's life were nothing more than an elaborate, exceptionally well-executed piece of advertising.

Stunning events with arresting visuals like Stratos are part of a growing advertising phenomenon known as content marketing, a straightforward-sounding yet ultimately vague way to describe the means through which advertisers get people to spend time watching or reading "content" that the advertiser has paid for. The "content" masquerades as "news" (or entertainment) and, when executed to perfection, results in successful stunts like the Red Bull leap from space. This trend has become so pervasive that marketers are starting to proclaim that content marketing might soon become the only type of marketing left. Chances are, though, that you've never heard of content marketing, and that's exactly the point.

A key aspect of this marketing tool is to engage consumers without their realizing they've taken part in a promotional initiative. Red Bull did this brilliantly. In praising the Stratos jump as one of the best advertising campaigns of the twenty-first century, a senior executive noted in industry magazine Advertising Age: "The beauty of it was that it didn't feel like you were being sold something."

Red Bull -- and now almost every consumer marketer on the planet (close to 90 percent) -- uses content marketing. They use it because it works. In this case, 37 million people watched a short YouTube video, while others viewed longer more detailed versions, or edits in different languages, or a documentary on Discovery, or as the lede news story in print or on television -- free media for the brand that totaled in the tens of millions of dollars in the U.S. and conservative estimates suggest that this totaled more than six billion Euros worldwide in the first three days alone. This space jump is a small part of the company's larger marketing plan in which traditional advertising is shunned in favor of sponsoring extreme sporting events, funding unknown musicians, and developing cutting-edge technology. Content about these experiences appear on the Red Bull YouTube channel, a site that in 2015 topped more than one billion views, and they are presented through documentaries, magazines, and reality series produced by Red Bull Media House. But the goal is not only viewership, it is sales. And the Red Bull content initiative paid off handsomely. In the first six months after the Stratos jump, sales rose 7% to $1.6 billion.

One small step for man... one giant leap for Red Bull.

Marketers are starting to proclaim that content marketing might soon become the only type of marketing left. Chances are, though, that you've never heard of content marketing, and that's exactly the point.

Even with twenty-plus years of marketing experience, I didn't initially realize that this was an advertising ploy. I watched the jump as others had, and I never once thought that I was being sold an extreme energy drink. I thought I was watching news.

That Red Bull doesn't opt to use traditional advertising is their prerogative. But if the content is worthy of our attention, why doesn't the company attach its name to it? The answer is easy: Red Bull is well aware that if we knew an advertiser was involved, most of us would not watch it. Years of remote controls, DVRs, and now "banner blindness" and ad blockers have taught advertisers that consumers are utterly adept at circumventing advertising. In response, they have turned to new and improved forms of clandestine marketing.

Obscured persuasion, broadly known as stealth marketing, is defined as "the use of surreptitious marketing practices that fail to disclose or reveal the true relationship with the company that produces or sponsors the marketing message." While not new, these hidden marketing practices have reached new heights and more devious methods in the age of social media. And with those methods have come a multitude of names -- covert marketing, undercover marketing, embedded marketing, and more recently, content marketing, native advertising, buzz marketing, and brand journalism, among many, many others. There are few straightforward definitions for these strategies, but the goal is clear: find ways to get products in front of people subtly, so they don't realize they are being persuaded to purchase those products, as well as -- the pièce de résistance -- to push those products to their friends, creating a world where we are in a constant state of buying or selling.

Whatever the label, it comes down to the fact that advertisers can camouflage their sales message in only one of two ways: (1) hide the advertising within existing content environments, or (2) create the pitch themselves and make it look like something other than advertising. The first of these is native advertising, the second is content marketing.

Native advertising is designed to be seamlessly integrated into a website or social media feed such that visitors will click on the advertiser-sponsored content as readily as they do the nonsponsored editorial. The best example of this is BuzzFeed, a popular source for news and information online. Anyone who has spent time on the site or the app, or who's had BuzzFeed content forwarded through social media, has been privy to "listicles" like "51 Thoughts Every Lady Who Shaves Her Legs Has Had" or "12 Life Lessons We All Learned Our Freshman Year of College," as well as quizzes like "What Fraggle Rock Character Are You?" The difference with the middle article is that it is sponsored by Target, an advertiser promoting to students going back to school. How do you know this? Because of a teeny, tiny orange rectangle that says "promoted by," located on the article on top of an equally small logo. But native advertising isn't only on BuzzFeed. It's on Facebook and Twitter, and it's even on The New York Times website, which launched its in-house marketing group with a piece about women in prison that was sponsored by the Netflix series "Orange is the New Black."

On the other hand, content marketing, according to the Content Marketing Institute, is made up of "valuable, relevant, and consistent content" that is used to appeal to a specific target audience. Red Bull creates content that communicates the idea of "extreme" using alternative music, exhilarating sports, or cutting-edge technology that appeal to its audience of over- caffeinated college students who dream of doing something extreme but probably never will. Chipotle created a three-minute, tear-jerking video with an accompanying website that included a downloadable game called "The Scarecrow," all of it meant to promote the negative aspects of processed food while presenting Chipotle as a healthier and more sustainable alternative. And Pennzoil produced a documentary called "Breaking Barriers" about breaking the speed limit. While the oil company's involvement with the venture was widely covered in the advertising trade press, Pennzoil does not appear on the consumer-focused National Geographic website or on the cable channel where the programming aired. Shrewder still are the sponsored tweets, blog posts, and Vines that never mention their corporate connections.

All of this advertising -- and it is advertising, whether marketers call it native advertising or content marketing or anything else -- is entertaining while appearing informative. We waste endless hours online reading this news clip or watching that video post, only to realize in the end that we haven't interacted with anything of depth, and we can't figure out why. Here's the reason: marketing is not meant to engage our intellect; it is structured to elicit emotions. In pursuit of those emotions -- typically awe or anger or amusement -- we willingly continue to watch or read. After all, what's one more cat video, especially when it's so cute that you just have to share it with your friends? The problem is that it's like eating potato chips; you can never have just one.

That's because user interfaces are designed to keep us enraptured and plugged in. We are glued to a screen in our pocket, on our desk, or by our bedside twenty-four hours a day. Mobile devices are electronic pacifiers, designed to be incredibly addictive. Notifications, while sometimes helpful, are designed as reward cues that give our brain little jolts of pleasure that tether us to the technology. The techniques are so effective that a majority of 18 to 85-year-olds found that social media is harder to resist than smoking, drinking, spending money, sleeping, and sex.

Was the article I read this morning paid for by Apple? Was that BuzzFeed quiz a promotion? Is that post on Facebook "organic," or did a marketer pay for me to see it?

While advertising sources create content with the express purpose of giving you something you want -- advice, information, a coupon, a smile, a mindless break -- news organizations are tasked with giving us information we need. To address that disadvantage, news producers reframe their stories to feel more like advertising, luring in readers (and advertisers) by using what one reporter called "whorebait." Whorebait -- or more politely, clickbait -- describes articles with headlines like "You Won't Believe What Happens Next" or "Here's the Problem with Self-Driving Cars Becoming a Mainstream Reality" or "Everyone poops, but 2.6 billion people do it in a really crappy way." More fundamentally, publishers and advertisers are in head-to-head competition with one another, because publishers are advertisers, advertisers are publishers, and the content both of them produce is an amalgamation of whatever they think will get you to "engage" -- that is, spend time with them.

To be fair, to some extent the idea of clickbait is not new. Under the broadcast television model, we called it lowest common denominator programming. Think here of The Bachelor or The Voice or a myriad of other series -- reality or otherwise -- that are short on art and long on formula, but that are ultimately fun to watch, so many people do. The larger the audience, the more money a network makes through advertising, which leads networks to offer lots of "reality" and other mindless content while providing limited doses of news and PBS-like fare. In print, the corresponding example would be People magazine or a supermarket tabloid.

The difference today -- and this is key -- is that the race between advertisers and publishers centers on creating content that grabs our attention while hiding its corporate sales pitch. It is "black ops advertising," and it is the purposeful masking of corporate bias by either the advertiser or the publisher so that we can't discern the underlying perspective -- is it an ad? Is it an article? Can it be both? Was the article I read this morning paid for by Apple? Was that BuzzFeed quiz a promotion? Is that post on Facebook "organic," or did a marketer pay for me to see it?

The newspaper article, maybe; Buzzfeed, almost definitely; and with Facebook, any content is increasingly likely to be advertising because the company continuously manipulates its algorithm to improve profitability by forcing marketers to pay for content. Most people have begun to suspect this, at least in the case of Facebook. We have also gotten savvier about how marketers use data to promote products to us. We know that at least a portion of online reviews are fake or paid for, and Millennials, in particular, are not all that sensitive about giving up personal data for convenience if it means that they can get a discount or find out about the latest trend, lest they face the dreaded FOMO (fear of missing out).

The line between unbiased content and commercials has gotten so blurred that even the language around these concepts has changed. Advertisers no longer think of themselves as producing commercials; they produce "films." Marketing departments are increasingly staffed by former journalists who labor not in a "bullpen," but in what are offensively called "newsrooms." Few of the former journalists I spoke with have an issue with creating this biased work because they claim that they wouldn't produce a piece that would offend a consumer. Unfortunately, that right there is part of the problem.

Excerpted by permission from Black Ops Advertising, published by O/R Books.

Published March 21st, 2016


Mara Einstein is professor of media studies at Queens College, City University of New York, and an independent marketing consultant. She has been working in, or writing about, media and marketing for more than 25 years, and been an executive at NBC, MTV Networks, and at major advertising agencies. Dr. Einstein is the author of a number of books, including Compassion, Inc. (University of California Press), which examines the growing trend of promoting consumer products as a means to fund social causes and effective social change.