We’re really working hard to avoid saying the word “ad,” aren’t we? Promoted posts, tweets, accounts and hashtags; sponsored content; “Suggested for you” links…
And we aren’t just looking for euphemisms — we’re camouflaging ads as “native content,” with tiny little disclaimers engineered to be as easy as possible to miss while still providing plausible deniability to platforms and publishers.
The goal is to make advertising look as much as possible like authentic conversation. And when we get taken in — when we think we’re having a genuine conversation with someone, only to discover we’re being led down a sales funnel — then it diminishes our trust in conversation across the board.
That’s happened to me even in the BSM* Era.
My girlfriend (this was also the BWGM** Era) and I struck up a conversation with another couple in a bookstore, seemed to hit it off, and made a dinner date.
A few nights later, we arrived at the restaurant (Vij’s, by the way — if you’re ever in Vancouver, you have to go). First sign something was up: only the guy showed up.
Second sign: he brought out logotized binders with dividers five minutes into the conversation.
Here’s a pro tip about logos, binders and dividers: not one of them augurs well for a nascent friendship. Together, they sound alarm claxons.
Sure enough, out came the pitch for his multi-level marketing company. I don’t think he’d quite reached the part about downstream revenue before we’d knocked back our fizzy lemon drinks (be sure to order them, they’re transcendent) and headed for the door.
When the subject of sponsored content comes up, I often think of our dinner companion and the bereft expression on his face as we explained why we were leaving. I think he was genuinely hurt.
But so were we. If we’d known from the start what kind of conversation he wanted to have, that would have been one thing. But we’d been deceived, and no amount of rationalization (the tiny “Sponsored link” text is the 2015 version of “I just wanted to share this marvellous opportunity with you lovely people!”) can convince us otherwise.
Rescuing authenticity from the clutches of commercial exploitation is a big task… but maybe as a tiny first step, advertisers and publishers could bump the disclaimer text up a little. Increase the contrast. And make sure their audience knows just what garden path they’re about to stroll down.
Who knows? They might even go willingly, if it’s worth the walk.
Huh! Geekiness aside, I apparently have a Romantic-era sensibility bubbling away in my subconscious. This isn’t the first time I’ve juxtaposed the wonders of nature with the blandishments of civilization, whether it’s with sunsets, hikes or kayaking.
* Before Social Media
** Before We Got Married