Learning the wrong lessons from The Atlantic’s Scientology debacle

UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism dean Edward Wasserman is dismayed over the consensus takeaway from the recent Atlantic advertising snafu, in which a glowing article written and paid for by the Church of Scientology was presented almost exactly as if it were regular journalism:

In the aftermath of this embarrassment, some of the criticism the Atlantic received was surprising, and focused on how poorly the magazine played the “native” game: Nobody, it was said, could mistake the Scientology missive for an article the Atlantic might actually have run. The magazine erred, Charlie Warzel of AdWeek wrote, by “licensing uninteresting and bizarre content that falls well outside the walls of the magazine’s brand.”

Economist magazine managing director Paul Rossi advised publishers to start thinking like ad agencies and get better at concealment: “The real issue is how do  you make content that’s compelling to a reader that doesn’t feel like an ad. That’s the real challenge.”

So the problem was that the deception was inept and easily detected. If that’s it, the solution, it seems, would be to integrate paid persuasion seamlessly into editorial offerings, so that reader resistance is allayed and the ads go down smoothly.

But that’s not it. The more basic problem, as Columbia Journalism Review’s Dean Starkman wrote, is an “existential” one. In that regard, “native advertising” succeeds precisely because it’s so skillfully wrought that it’s imperceptible as advertising, and joins the flow of information and commentary that readers accept as part of the chronicle of topical realities that they trust the news media to provide.

Are newspapers about to absorb another blow?

That’s what Steven Brill at Reuters is thinking:

The Times article describes the rise of “programmatic advertising,” in which new online tracking technologies allow an advertiser to follow a consumer whose profile fits the advertiser’s targeted demographics wherever the consumer goes online rather than just make an educated guess about the websites that consumer is most likely to visit.

Before programmatic advertising, if an upscale restaurant chain decided that its best prospects were well-to-do men who live in major metropolitan areas and travel a lot, it might buy ads in the business sections of high-end newspapers or on business travel sites. Now the restaurant chain can follow those targeted people to any website they visit. It doesn’t have to buy ads on the sites where the target is most likely to be found but can instead simply bid on an electronic ad exchange to buy the cheapest ad that will reach someone with those demographics no matter where he or she goes (a gossip site, for example).

This erodes the premium  upscale newspaper sites can charge. The individual consumer is what’s important and now identifiable, not the place where he sees the ad.

Thus, the Times reports in this article, “The shift is punishing traditional online publishers,” and that online advertising revenue at its own newspaper actually fell 2.2 percent in the last quarter as a result of a decline in the rates the Times is able to charge for Web advertising. That’s a trend reflected lately in the results of most other major newspapers.

In other words, on the heels of the Internet having destroyed the readership and advertising revenue of printed newspapers, further advances in digital technology now threaten the papers’ digital ad business.

Greed is good. Just don’t remind us too often.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fsP6XTHBwRw]

Jesse Pinho (no relation; we just have the same parents) mutes his TV every time he sees the above Levi’s commercial, and wonders why:

Levi’s #GoForth commercial is an excellent example of the intersection of individual and corporation, in which the corporation (Levi’s) more or less blatantly proclaims its jeans to be the standard-bearer of creativity, leadership, and individuality. Wear Levi’s, and you’ve staked your claim to “it.” (Exactly what “it” is, I’m not sure–but it’s certainly something good.) Add Levi’s to your curation of relationships, and it will perfectly complement your other inevitably cool qualities–your artistry, your go-getter attitude, your so-perfect-it-could-only-be-in-a-commercial haircut…

So why, then, do I find myself reaching for the remote the instant I hear “This is a pair of Levi’s”? What triggers this reaction? Certainly, annoying or poorly-done ads (I’m looking at you, 5-hour Energy!) prompt the same response, but the Levi’s commercial was neither of those. So what is it? Is the call to action too transparent? That is, does Levi’s offend me by toeing the delicate line between subtlety and overtness vis-à-vis manipulation of its audience? Certainly, someone who responds positively to being told that he is “the next living leader of the world” won’t respond so well to realizing that the compliment was proffered simply to coax him into buying some company’s product.  But then, all advertising aims to do just that: it offers the viewer something she wants (a compliment, entertainment, humor, etc.) in exchange for 30 to 60 seconds of her attention. Or, at the very least, it beats the viewer over the head with some piece of information (“5-hour Energy… every day! Every day! Every day!”) so that its message–“Buy this!”–is inescapable.

Perhaps, then, it’s that Levi’s violates the contract between viewer and advertiser, in which the viewer suspends her cynicism every time a commercial is played. We viewers know that we are being manipulated into action when watching a commercial; and we’ve come to accept that, under one condition: that the advertiser does not insult our intelligence. Levi’s, however, fails to acknowledge this basic requirement, blatantly exploiting our perception of cool and forcing us to confront it in such literal terms that we’re made to feel uncomfortable. Advertisers should take note of this interaction, and learn from it one important lesson: that we’ll gladly consent to exploitation as long as you don’t remind us that that’s what we’re doing.

Look out for more stuff from Jesse coming up on this blog (as well as on his), primarily on the tech scene and related topics.