'We love it': The Onion president on articles readers believe

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Former FIFA VP Jack Warner famously thought an article from The Onion was real.
Former FIFA VP Jack Warner famously thought an article from The Onion was real.

The Onion's president Mike McAvoy details how its satire blends with brands

Editor's note: This interview was conducted in May, when McAvoy was still president. In July, McAvoy succeeded Steve Hannah as The Onion's CEO.

Is there a particular brand or person The Onion is afraid to pick on?
No one is safe. I have been written about a few times, and we have even picked on our own CEO Steve Hannah. The beauty of this business is that you need to have creative freedom and a sense of humor.

In 2012, you launched your in-house ad agency Onion Labs. Do you avoid teasing clients?
No. When we pick on a brand, we highlight something silly about it. A lot of brands we have made fun of have asked if we could do another joke about them because they like the comedy so much.

Last year, we did a video about a Coors Light party train crashing. The brand played along, posting a tweet that said: "We would like to file a missing train report. Do you know who we should speak with?"

Coors Light built favor with our audience by doing that. So it ended up being an effective marketing piece for them, even though it was done by our staff members who think beer marketing is ridiculous.

What is your approach to branded content?
We have worked with 150 brands in the past two years through Onion Labs, including  Ford, Lenovo and YouTube. Our main aim is to help them solve a business problem — such as awareness, consideration, trial or purchasing — by utilizing comedy.

It is also about helping an advertiser reach our audience, which is made up of smart Millennials who have high household income. We always clearly disclose if something is a piece of branded content.

After the terrorist attack at French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo in January, do you fear retaliation for your content?
No. We responded to the terrorist incident in Paris with an article titled, "It is sadly unclear whether this article will put lives at risk."

Although we don’t draw a line with our pieces, our approach is thoughtful and intentional. We never pick on a victim; we always pick on bullies. We’re smart about how we satirize anything. Our points are subtle. We never antagonize somebody with the comedy we create.

Occasionally, you sometimes rub people the wrong way. How do you deal with backlash?
In 2005, the White House sent us a cease-and-desist letter because we were using the presidential seal in a weekly radio address. Our then editor-in-chief, Scott Dikkers, wrote back saying, "I’m surprised the president deems it wise to spend taxpayer money for his lawyer to write letters to The Onion."

Eventually the White House realized it wasn’t the best use of its time and resources.

You redesigned your website in May. Why were changes needed?
To keep up. When you are in the parody business, you have to make sure the form mirrors the people you are parodying and the substance is the only thing that is different. We needed our site to match other news sites in terms of look, feel and functionality.

Three weeks into the redesign, our bounce rate was down 26% from the year-to-date average and down 32% from the year-over-year average. Page views per entrance were up close to 10% from the month prior.

What are your favorite Onion stories?
Looking back, the stories that ended up predicting real events are my favorite. This shows The Onion has its finger on the world’s pulse.     

We wrote a fake op-ed in 2004 from Gillette’s then-CEO James Kilts, which said, "Fuck everything, we’re doing five blades." A few months later, they came out with a razor that had five blades.

Any big plans over the next year?
We are now branching out to longer-form content creation with our next big initiative, Onion Studios. We are working on building out the development arm for the business so we can incubate more ideas we like in the form of a Web series or TV show and sell them to networks or platforms.

In May, Jack Warner, the former FIFA VP, famously defended himself against corruption charges by citing an article from The Onion. What is your take on people who think your content is real?
We love it. We always wonder how they can possibly think our stories are true.

Our most famous one is naming Kim Jong-Un the Sexiest Man Alive in 2012 and having the People’s Daily in China pick it up as a real story and complement it with a 54-page slideshow on how handsome he is.

This article first appeared on prweek.com.

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