We’ve heard a lot about fake news in the last month.
Fake news isn’t new. Rather, fake news has been stealthily seeping into editorial for the last few years—not as misleading political stories from Macedonia, but as news stories paid for by corporate sponsors from Oreos to Motorola from Shell Oil to Goldman Sachs. And, now, our president-elect.
Blurring the line between ads and news
This fakery is a new form of marketing that blurs the line between editorial content and corporate sales pitch. Specifically, publishers insert advertisements dressed to look like news articles next to actual news stories, all with the barest labeling that there is a marketer attached. Former journalists pen these ads, which makes it exceedingly difficult to discern ad from article. But it’s not just newspapers. Digital platforms and traditional TV outlets are embracing this advertising-as-content strategy.
Marketers have turned to these surreptitious forms of persuasion because consumers have gotten increasingly adept at ad avoidance. Given this, what is a marketer to do? Answer: Turn the content into marketing.
Native ads & Content marketing
The two most common forms of covert marketing are native advertising and content marketing. Native ads are commercial content created to be indigenous to the platform within which it exists. This includes in-feed ads on social media and, more deceptively, custom native advertising. Custom ads might be a video on BuzzFeed which turns out to be an ad for a Purina, or it could be an article in the Wall Street Journal about making oil and gas drilling safer paid for by BP. How can you tell? There will be some designation like “sponsored” or “promoted” but the labeling will be so obscured as to be almost invisible. Content marketing—the form most used by Mr. Trump—is editorial content produced by a marketer that gets disseminated for free to consumers, typically through social media.
How Trump used content marketing
Content marketing was the genius of the president elect. Instead of limiting this covert sales tool to the online space or leaving the dissemination of his message to consumers, Trump got more than two billion dollars in earned media handed to him by traditional news outlets. He produced the content; they provided the platform.
Some say that this is simply an extension of public relations or product placement. To a certain extent it is. However, there is a key difference: content marketing contains no overt sales message. It is information or entertainment produced to give the audience what they want. More important, it is created to push emotional buttons so that the content will be shared. The Trump campaign did this brilliantly, tapping into fears and fallacies that were readily passed on to friends and family.
Content marketing is just the beginning
Barely a week in, we see that marketing won’t stop there. Trump is filling his Administration with people meant to draw considerable press coverage and push emotional buttons. More mundanely, Trump has already implemented native advertising by promoting his properties on a dot gov website (the information has since been pulled down). Similarly, Ivanka utilized product placement when she wore a $10,000 bracelet from her jewelry line on 60 Minutes and then flogged that product through social media. She also used this tactic during the Republican Convention which she used to flog her far more downscale clothing line.
Branding the campaign
Marketers are like magicians; they use branding to show us something sparkly and fun in one hand so we won’t look at what’s happening in the other. Mr. Trump spent more than $3 million on bright red baseball caps. This was no mistake. Red was intended to signal to red states that Trump is their guy, but it is often used by advertisers because it grabs attention—think Coca-Cola or Tide. “Make America Great Again” became not simply a tagline but a battle cry. The mythology of Trump—the builder, the brilliant businessman—completed the brand that voters hung their hopes on. Those red caps alone came to embody the Trump message and were quickly circulated through social media as effectively as any friend-forwarded post. What far too many people ignored or played down was the misogyny and racism and xenophobia, because they were too blinded by the brand.
There is little doubt that our new first family is an advertising powerhouse adept at marketing tools new and old. This is fine if you are selling real estate or hawking jewelry on QVC. It is not okay for the leader of the free world.
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