BuzzFeed is worth a lot of money, maybe $1 billion. At least, that’s what they
told Disney when the Mouse came sniffing at their hot ass earlier this year.
BuzzFeed is not worth lots of money because of its lists or
quizzes. It is worth lots of money because of its branded inline ad platform—a
version of what the media industry has dubbed “native advertising”—that helps
its “featured partners” (what they call their advertisers) rack up Facebook
share numbers with their ad posts.
BuzzFeed’s advertising team does this by creating ad posts that
mirror their editorial posts. Exactly
This is terrible for brands, self-defeating even. I will
show you exactly why.
BuzzFeed is of course not the only one using native ads. The
New York Times does it. Condé Nast
does it. (They’re calling it an “ad portal”—good one!) Gawker Media does it. About
three-quarters of all major online publications are now doing it. But nobody
weaves their branded content into their editorial content more fluidly and
successfully than BuzzFeed. See the below Kia ad, which I picked randomly a few
Note that the ad features the same typeface and same style
of headline as the content posts. It is slightly shaded to “separate” it from editorial.
BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti has repeatedly called it a “yellow background.” He
needs to consult a Pantone chip book.
Just last week, BuzzFeed changed
the layout of their ad box (above). Gone is the not-yellow background,
replaced by a small, actual yellow box with the words “promoted by." Thing is, when
you now look at their homepage, this new box layout makes the
ad content blend in even more.
The main reason BuzzFeed’s ads blend in so well visually with
the editorial content is because their three-column homepage layout is, very
purposely, butt-ugly and busy. It’s enough to make an aesthetically sensitive
25-year advertising creative vet say so in an internal meeting, with the collective
response being stares and silence.
I don’t know shit about tech or data (or journalism), but I
know a lot about advertising, making advertising, and what kind of advertising
works—certainly more than anybody currently working at BuzzFeed.
The first quote I put up on my first ad agency cubicle wall
25 years ago was this:
“If nobody notices your
ad, everything else is academic.”—Bill Bernbach.
The second quote I put up was this:
“I’d much rather
overestimate the intelligence of the consumer than underestimate it.”—Tom
BuzzFeed’s native advertising runs counter to both of these industry-famous
quotes from two of the greatest (and most successful) admen to ever create ads. BuzzFeed's ads are specifically designed to not be noticed as advertising. And their advertising goal is to reach the lowest
common denominator of consumers so that the ads are “shared” more amongst their
In an interview with Wired
last February, Peretti spouted about how they “label
everything really maniacally" (How does one label an ad post maniacally? Maybe a starburst?), and
that they “take church and state really seriously”—meaning the separation of
editorial content from advertising content. But looking at BuzzFeed’s daily
layout, it’s obvious that they're praying to God you don’t notice that their ads are
in fact yucky ads. It is purposely deceptive. And it is anti-Bernbach, and anti-creative.
The kicker is: BuzzFeed’s native advertising is really—ultimately—terrible
for brands. But it’s great for BuzzFeed. And this giddy circle jerk underway between
media sites desperate for revenue and misguided advertisers desperate to feel
instant gratification, continues.
Many Industry experts
native advertising because nobody has yet come up with a universal verifiable method
to measure it, and maybe never will. But BuzzFeed’s account gurus have created pretty
PowerPoint presentations showing prospective clients projected “results.” Peretti
has brilliant data people working for him.
If you are a marketing person and you find yourself in one
of these meetings and some BuzzFeed account smoothie quasi-promises you
increased profits, stand up and RUN out
of their Flatiron office. I know all about the bullshit behind such deceiving dog
& pony shows; I’ve sat through hundreds of them.
But measurability is not the reason why native advertising
is bad for brands.
(my new buzzword, spread that shit like Nutella).
Because of DVRs and print publication deaths and drastically
declining click through rates (a misleading stat to begin with) on banner ads,
brands are starving for instant visible validation of their existence, which is
why both native advertising and fake “prankvertising” video ads are now so
Jonathan Perelman, BuzzFeed’s VP of Agency Strategy—who looks like he was born to be a slick-as-snot,
ass-sucking account man—fired off several one-liners about
banner ads at last year’s big “media summit” in Abu Dhabi.
more likely to summit Mount Everest than click on a banner ad," Perelman
hyperbolically declared to the attendees. Did you write that one on the plane
as you flew over some majestic mountains, Jonathan?
also did this kindergarten level exercise, asking: "Has anybody been on
the internet in the past 24 hours?” (All hands shot up of course because marketing
people are fucking sheep.) "Can you remember the last banner ad you saw?” No
hands went up. Brilliant. What a valuable summit this must have been.
my former creative director would say, Perelman “doesn’t know his ads from a fucking
hole in the ground.”
The main reason why most banner ads suck is because the
creativity on most banner ads sucks, which is because most of the people
creating banner ads are shitty creatives. But then, what talented creative
wants to create belittled banner ads?
I would have asked Perelman this question: “What percentage
of people who click BuzzFeed’s ad posts remember who the advertiser was?” Their
data slicksters probably don’t put that number up on the wall, because I guarantee you it’s a very low one.
The reason that number is low is because BuzzFeed’s native
advertising runs directly against what makes a great ad great—an execution that
memorably presents a product benefit (or the brand’s image). A great ad stands
out and grabs you and entertains and informs you while delivering a message you remember, branding the
brand’s name into your brain.
But more and more big brands are robotically onboard the
BuzzFeed buzz saw, because they get to attach their commercials at the end of listicle posts that have nothing to do with their product’s
benefit and, often, have nothing to do with their product at all (click the Kia ad). But lost-at-sea marketing
managers get to show off an online thingamajig to their bosses with their brand
name on it that has tens, and sometimes hundreds, of thousands of views. “Look
at that viral lift, baby, massive eyeballs!”
What a fucking con. It’s voodoo advertising.
Peretti’s native advertising oratory from Wired continued: “Brands have a voice online as everyone has a
voice online. It's going back to the Mad
Men era, where it was about helping brands tell stories. Our goal
is to help brands create compelling, authentic stories."
“It’s going back to the Mad Men era…” that’s fucking rich.
What Peretti doesn’t know about the 1960s creative advertising revolution would
crash BuzzFeed’s servers. Their lazy, base, uncreative listicle advertising has
nothing to do with the Mad Men era. Not one fucking thing.
I know, from my interview conversation with Peretti, plus a
couple of comments he made at BuzzFeed’s cultish Thursday evening “all-hands-on
deck” meetings, that he doesn’t believe in the creative power of great
aboveboard advertising. Data scientists usually don’t, because you can’t definitively
point at it.
This Creativity vs. Science fight is as old as Think Small, an ad Peretti would have thrown in his digital garbage
can because it was “illogical.”
But really: How “seriously” does BuzzFeed take the “separation
of church and state?” During my 18 months working in their editorial department
as an ad critic —what I was hired to be—I (the “state”) was emailed three times
by three different staff account reps (the “church”) to “do anything I could”
to help promote a new video ad by a then current BuzzFeed client. I was even
emailed by Peretti (the “Pope”) to post about a Pepsi ad, where he helpfully
included a suggested (positive) editorial direction.
As I was still fairly new at BuzzFeed, I figured I had to do the Pepsi post, right? I
didn’t like the ad, I didn’t hate the ad, I would not have reviewed the ad, but
the fucking CEO sent it to me! I wrote about it, positively, and posted it.
Later that same day, my post went to the front page, and
there it sat, right below a “yellow”
“featured partner” ad post about the same Pepsi video—written by a BuzzFeed
in-house creative—with the same exact take on the ad. The headlines were even
almost identical. Did Peretti know about the in-house ad? I don’t know. Ask
Sorry, I didn’t save a screen shot of this rather egregious church/state
violation, or the email from Peretti, because I don’t think like a scumbag lawyer
when I’m working for somebody. But I did delete my Pepsi post, immediately. It seemed
the Mad Men thing to do.
I told my boss, editor-in-chief Ben Smith, about the Pepsi
post and Peretti email, and he was quite miffed. But! This was not the only
time Peretti sent me an ad to post about. He also sent me this interactive
Old Spice ad, saying “a friend” of his had worked on it. I had already
seen the ad, I even liked the ad, but I was not going to post about it. However,
again: this was the CEO emailing me directly, so I wrote about it, glowingly.
Old Spice was not a client of BuzzFeed’s at the time. But they are now.
Coincidence? Or, divine intervention?
NOTE: Are there
some sour grapes with this article? Of course! But, know this: I was thinking all
of these thoughts as I was semi-happily working in the NO HATERZ zone. And all
of the above anecdotes are true. I may have been the only BuzzFeed employee
over 50, but my memory is still fully intact.