Thursday, June 05, 2014

BuzzFeed's Native Advertising Is Nothing But A Confidence Game.

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 mirror them.

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 months ago.
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 McElligott.

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 “friends”.

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 question 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.

It’s forgetability (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 popular.

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.

"You're 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?

He 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.

As 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 him.

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.


Blogger MiketheGreat said...

I like your articles. I hate the native ads, too, but wonder if they increase sales despite our disdain. Do you know?

10:49 AM  
Anonymous @piracycorp said...

Nice piece. All 'Native advertising' needs to die. As does the use of the so-called noun, 'content'. Die, die, die. Sorry, it gets me wick, it fair does.

10:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"spread that shit like Nutella" is not a nice image.

10:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Best (or worst) part about the Kia ad placement? Right over a real article about women being warned NOT TO DRIVE!

11:36 AM  
Anonymous Jen Cox said...


2:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not sure how native ads exactly increase sales. I have no data. I am sure Buzzfeed does, but I wouldn't trust their slick ass sucking snooty account men. Reading a sponsored article does not necessarily imply engagement with the brand, does it? For instance, I visited the Kia sponsored post, but so what? I still hate KIA, didn't care for their twitter feed on the page either. I hate Buzzfeed. The day Mark announced he would start working there was the day Copyranter, the character, died..

7:36 PM  

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