All content is advertising

It's time for full disclosure: Content by any other name still has a point of view

This publication, Campaign, a magazine I’m very fond of from the U.K. [and not only because it once named me "A Face To Watch"] has just launched in the United States.

It might suffer some of the same culture shock symptoms I did when I landed in New York six years ago. There are way more options for everything here, even advertising trade press titles. The market is so much larger — nearly half the whole world’s advertising money is spent in the U.S. — that there is room for them all.

The American trade press hosts the most vigorous debates about advertising. Traditional versus digital, media versus creative, strategy versus creative, everything versus social, holding company versus holding company and most recently, perhaps, banners versus native advertising or branded content or whatever you want to call it.

Having already made my case previously about banners, I’d like to turn our mutual gaze at the concerns about content. One of the most often voiced is that it is not appropriately labelled — that its intent to commercially persuade the audience is veiled, which disrupts the church-and-state boundaries of editorial and advertising, [is that the right way round?] and erodes the trust of the consumer in the publication, and ideed, in content overall.

One of the first things you would learn, if not the first thing, in a media literacy class is that no piece of content is objective. Everything comes with a point of view and looks to persuade you of that point of view, explicitly or otherwise.

The first clue when looking to decode the intent is to "look to the source." This is not as simple as glancing at the byline — the author, her affiliation, the masthead, the parent company and the cultural context all encode some elements of subjectivity, some hints at what is being intended.

Let’s return to the vigorous debates in our trade press. When you, gentle reader, see an op-ed I humbly suggest you "look to the source.".You may notice, as I do often do, that the most vocal opponents of the "digital fad" or "social media scam" are agents of an entity which sells traditional advertising services.

When you read an article that highlights new learnings from research suggesting the "digital experience" is of prime importance, you may discover this research was commissioned by a digital agency or publisher. Banners, you might notice, are most passionately defended by media planners, buyers and brokers. Native advertising is hailed as savior by content creators, publishers and networks.

All of these pieces of content, in any trade press publication, in any industry, have barely veiled commercially persuasive intent. Indeed, content marketing is particularly prone to itself, creating endless ouroboroses of "how to create content" content, which is content marketing for content marketing.

This is why bosses let you write them on company time — they are advertising for your company [and for your career]. That’s also why we write them without being paid. I’m trying to convince you that such binary positions are naive because that’s part of what I believe.

Our company, Genius Steals, looks at the business model of our client, be it digital, media or traditional agency, and looks to solve their problem in a way that best suits their business. Just as we do with hotel or soft drink or pet food companies. That’s our job. This piece is advertising how we think and work and our company. [That’s full disclosure for you].

It’s not just the trade press, of course. All media is the same. How the news is filtered, reported on and edited in any publication or medium reflects what is usually a political bias of the entity and its owner.

It is selling you a point of view — it’s not for nothing that they say in the UK that The Sun newspaper decides who wins elections. This political salesmanship is, of course, commercially motivated, because the Murdochs and Kochs of this world care not for politics per se, but for favorable business conditions.

We have an entire industry — public relations — whose primary function is to find ways to insert its client into non-commercial content for commercially persuasive reasons.

This brings us to the last bastion of content that does not seem to have commercially persuasive intent — art and literature and so on. These do indeed sit in a different domain but not because the are not commercial. Rather, the object of their persuasion is reflexive — they advertise only themselves.

The commercial value of art is a function of how famous it, or its creator, is. So the business of art is fame, the intent of it to commercially persuade you that it is worth something. Literature works to sell itself or its author, and music, at least now, is primarily advertising for concerts.

So perhaps rather than worrying about how we label advertorials, we might instead bemoan an education system that does not equip people with even the most basic media literacy, despite delivering them into a world in which they will spend up to eight hours of every day immersed in it.

Faris Yakob is co-founder of innovation and strategy consultancy Genius Steals.

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