How Advertorials Fell From Grace

The line between the advert and real-life continues to blur

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Discerning the differences between news and advertisements continues to become more difficult. Advertorials, a portmanteau of the words advertisement and editorial, continues to confuse otherwise savvy people. While we experienced an alarming rise in these advertorials, they are not a new invention. Often companies may pay to insert an advertisement written in the form of an editorial, sometimes indistinguishable from actual articles. Even when a company labels its advertorial, we might subconsciously still treat it as an editorial piece. With more and more online publications, the thin line between advertisement and news continues eroding.

If a news website or media conglomerate is struggling to survive in the digital economy, they might seek out sponsored content. However, too much of this content turn users away. Currently, the government of Canada is even resorting to bailing out failing news institutions. While journalism plays integral roles within our society, it loses value through advertorials.

If newsrooms know that their bailout comes from a specific party in the government, how certain can we be that they do not consciously or subconsciously treat them differently? If they receive money to run sponsored content for a PR campaign, will they still run hard-hitting journalism aimed at this company?

When and where did this marketing trick originate? Does this practice harm the brand or the consumers?

Advertorials in the 20th Century

Theodore F. MacManus

The 1900s brought about some of the earliest recorded instances of advertorial branding. Theodore F. MacManus wrote the Penalty of Leadership for Cadillac in The Saturday Evening Post in January 1915. In the time of emerging and competitive car brands, he cemented the brand identity without even mentioning the product. He writes:

“Whether the leadership be vested in a man or in a manufactured product, emulation and envy are ever at work.”

Elvis Presley even framed and displayed it in one of his homes because he thought it described him well too. MacManus had a unique ability to relay a narrative to readers. His language is artistic, inspiring, and deliberate. Believing in truth in advertising above all, MacManus hoped advertisements could also define the goals for a specific manufacturer. Thanks in part to the influence of MacManus, long-form articles became more popular.

The breakfast of champions

In 1926, the Wheaties brand was struggling. In a last-ditch effort, they created a jingle that ran across radio stations in Minneapolis. This jingle prevented General Mills from killing the brand. Instead, they ran this jingle throughout the United States. Placing these jingles at the beginning or end of other radio broadcasts disguised them as entertainment. But General Mills and Wheaties were only getting started.

Ever heard something being called The Breakfast of Champions? Wheaties coined this phrase. What began as advertisements in minor league baseball parks in 1927 became pictures of prominent baseball players on cereal boxes by 1934. Lou Gherig of the New York Yankees was the first athlete to appear on these cereal boxes. Later, other baseball players relayed their glowing reviews of Wheaties on the radio.

If you grow up hearing your favourite athletes heaping praise upon Wheaties, you might not realize that the testimonials were sponsored content. In the 1930s, General Mills’ Wheaties sponsored many other radio programs, and even baseball broadcasts themselves. Some of their properties developed into long-running shows. Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, emerged as a vehicle to sell more cereal. The titular character, Jack, ate a bowl of Wheaties in the morning and went about his adventures. The serial ran from 1933–1950, convincing a generation of children that they too could be daring adventurers as long as they had their morning Wheaties.

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Soap operas sell soap

The advertisers of the 1940s and 1950s took advantage of radio and TV programming. During this time, companies sponsored shows to sell soap. Today, we know these dramas as soap operas. Airing almost every day, they revolved around many people within a town or city dealing with intriguing circumstances. Soap operas remain some of the longest-running shows in television history. It is thus quite surprising that they came to fruition to sell soap.

Irna Phillips is credited with the creation of soap operas, penning Painted Lives, and many other shows. Procter and Gamble sponsored these programs, developing advertisements to target the viewers. These shows often involved affluent, dramatic characters aimed at stay-at-home mothers. Like jingles, these episodes would be bookmarked by a sponsored advertisement for soap. These values derived from the television drama formed a psychological association with the product in a viewer’s mind. Soap Operas allowed Bulova, Sun Oil, Lever Brothers, and P&G to underwrite these early shows.

The commercial and infomercial age

Later, commercials would create entertaining breaks during the intermissions of these shows. In the 1960s, short, entertaining broadcasts during these intermissions advertised programs like Kodak.

Characters embodying different brands and attitudes represented by a company became popularized. The Marlboro Man exuded masculinity to change the way the public viewed Marlboro cigarettes. Other iconic characters, like Tony the Tiger, became humanized and made their TV debut in the 1970s. These characters are so successful that they are still recognizable to this day!

In the 1980s, these exciting developments allowed for the creation of 30-minute infomercials. Paid Programming and As Seen On TV branded products, often with unintentionally hilarious commercials, became more prominent. Usually, someone would demonstrate a fantastic new product, later even allowing for viewers to call in and cash on in on the deal. Despite being labeled, it is not uncommon for people, especially our parents and grandparents, to believe the claims of this programming.

Advertorials in the Internet Age

There are several strategies used by advertisers to build their brand and market products today. While it is one of the most antiquated forms, the long-form MacManus-style advertorial lives to this day. Often these sponsored stories are published on news and tech websites. By the 2010s, digital media companies like Mashable and even news sites like Forbes craft sponsored content. As I discuss a little later, even disclosing this sponsorship does not absolve these advertorials from potential harm.

Other brands moved away from directly centering a mascot or their product within their commercials. Ads needed to generate buzz and go viral. When these advertisements fall flat, they are a truly awful sight to behold. McDonald’s Random Red Couch ad tried to capitalize on randomness and other aspects of internet culture. The HeavyWeight podcast recently discussed this ad and why it failed. But who could forget Pepsi’s recent advertisement featuring Kendall Jenner? The ad unwittingly trivialized several social movements and protests, making the brand appear out of touch and unempathetic.

Additionally, brands on Twitter and Facebook leave snarky comments, engaging with fans and followers. Similarly, playing it safe on social media might not create any engagement for your brand. But integrating within the cultural zeitgeist is difficult and could lead to embarrassment for the brand. I do not think that these brands, directly engaging with their consumers, are harmful because there is no deception. Consumers are aware that they are interacting directly with the brand.

The Long-Form Advertorial’s Fall From Grace

Do you think you could pick out the sponsored content from a glance?

A 2016 study found that while your average consumer could pick out the logo from the sponsored content, they were likely to process it as a standalone ad. The way ads disclose their sponsorship is not regulated and may look separate from the advertorial itself. Two-thirds of the 343 participants could not identify an advertorial as a piece of advertising. The participants did not like the deceptiveness of the brands either. When they did figure out an ad was disguised as editorial content, consumers perceived both the brand and the published more negatively.

While MacManus emphasized authenticity and honesty through his advertising strategies, many companies abandoned these ideals. Forbes reports that two of five publishers do not abide by the Federal Trade Commission guidelines. This lack of regulation is problematic for consumers, especially since we as consumers do not appreciate deceptive tactics. Perhaps the root of the problems is that these advertisements rely on deception at some cognitive level.

But once Pandora’s box is opened, we can’t put the advertorial back in. Advertorials may contribute to the current state of mistrust with news and the media. Inevitably, companies with more money may hire better advertisers while smaller grassroots groups might be out-competed. We need better regulations and stricter penalties in place for advertorials. Above all else, we need more honesty in advertising in the media. In addition to retaining positive brand credibility, it may also prevent more users from turning away from publishers.

Will this once-respected long-form art of advertorials recover from its fall from grace?

Written by

Neuroscientist and Science Communicator | 2020 FameLab Ireland Winner

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