Sponsored Content: coming to a town near you. / jpellgen
Niela Orr,  June 26, 2015

The Branded, the Sponsored, and the Native

Sponsored Content: coming to a town near you. / jpellgen
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The name of Samsung’s new advertising campaign for its Galaxy 6 and 6 Edge devices coos with the consumer-soothing cadences of a practiced therapist, or masseuse: “The 30-Minute Recharge: Connectivity Without Concern.” In reality, though, the campaign has all the subtlety of a traveling food adventure show hosted by Guy Fieri—only with none of the vicarious guilty pleasures that come with accompanying Fieri into the artery-hardening backways of American cuisine.

Instead, the lifestyle concierges behind the Samsung campaign want to tutor savvy smartphone users in the canons of higher-end hipster travel. They lavish admiring pixels on hoity-toity hotels and the off-kilter tourist attractions of major American cities yearly anthologized in travel guides like Not For Tourists. The content’s form, a series of branded editorials on Slate.com, might mimic the format of Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, and is very obviously low-stakes fare, offering uncritical praise of its host-cities, and barely veiled, conspicuously inserted factoids about the thing it’s selling: “With its flowing waterfalls, lush landscaping, and beaming sunlight, there may be no better place to recharge your batteries in all of Hotlanta.” Or if you prefer the harder sell: “With over 330 Wi-Fi access points, make sure you check-in with your Galaxy S®6 one last time before Turner Field’s final game is played when the Braves move to the suburbs in 2017.”

Yeah, man—the suburbs are for squares—squares with shitty Wi-Fi coverage!

For all their blatant hackery, Samsung’s Recharge ads achieve a marketing breakthrough of sorts: they combine the self-congratulatory exclusivity of hipsterdom with the indelible smarminess of sponsored content. In this regard, they pretty much pick up where the company’s ubiquitous Lebron-and-Jay-Z NBA Finals commercials left off, only without the celebrity Q-ratings. Instead, the limelight’s reserved for hip, cosmopolitan American cities like AtlantaMiamiChicago, New York City, and New Orleans—each bearing eloquent testimony to the footloose discernment of the Samsung’s ideal-type creative-class user base. Before-and-after style photo collages, of the sort favored by weight-loss commercials, frame each faux-article in yet another unsubtle effort to highlight the Galaxy 6’s higher pixel-count and richer resolution. The photos typically feature a hipster hot spot or tourist-chic art fixture—the sort of venues that won’t be preserved for posterity should the dreary iPhone indoctrinated masses fail to take advantage of the Samsung-branded “30 Minute Recharge” trumpeted in the series title.

The Samsung-Slate partnership may be eminently mockable, but it represents a serious trend in digital advertising. In a 2014 Fortune article about the boom in sponsored content, writer Erin Griffin defined it as “the sort of advertising that looks very much like editorial content but is, in fact, directly paid for by an advertiser.” Also known as “native advertising” and “advertorial” copy, it’s been vaunted as “the holy grail of digital publishing.” Put another way, sponsored content is the news media equivalent of product placement in the film and television world. Both are forms of what’s known as “embedded marketing,” an elaborate gimmick that’s supposed to psychologically trick viewers-cum-consumers into subconsciously associating with the brands by placing soft-drinks, computers, and cell phones into narrative spaces. The trick doesn’t always work, however: according to a study Griffin cites in her piece, most people don’t trust or entirely understand branded content.

That’s provided, of course, that the audiences encountering sponsored content are able to identify it as such—and the whole point of the genre is to frustrate such ready identification. Still, there are clues: most specimens of the genre sport a weirdly religious-sounding variation of the kind of byline-free authorial omniscience pursued by The Economist and other organs of elite reportage. And indeed, so far as marketers are concerned, the pointed anonymity of sponsored content is indeed a mark of the holy: Washington Post chief revenue officer Kevin Gentzel, echoing precisely none of the knowing irony featured in the Samsung campaign, has lauded native advertising as nothing less than “a spiritual journey.”

Such pretensions are undercut, however, by the clumsy New Age diction of the campaign’s hard-to-parse subtitle: “Connectivity Without Concern.” The slogan wizards at Samsung no doubt intended this to convey that their product allows its empowered users to achieve a blissful state of worry-free wirelessness. But it also doubles as a far-less flattering characterization of sponsored content in all its undifferentiated, self-promoting glory: Samsung and Slate will attempt to connect their brand messaging with you, without concern for the quality of its marketing product. 

The best-known outlet for sponsored content is, of course, the click-happy aggregation site BuzzFeed, which, according to the digital advertising firm Brandtale, has recently landed native-ad accounts with Netflix and the NHL. BuzzFeed is, however, making nearly as big a name for itself as a portal for unreliable journalistic content. In April, a BuzzFeed writer quit after a post she wrote criticizing Dove ads was taken down, ostensibly in a high-minded effort to weed snarky “hot takes” from the site. Not long afterward, though, BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith revealed that he felt pressure to remove the critical post because Dove advertises with the website. That’s the sad hidden truth of the great sponsored-content orgy: editors are now using the rhetoric of journalistic integrity to ensure that your online news experience is all the more seamlessly curated to serve the prime content directives of sponsors—in much the same way, one might add, that hipster urban enclaves are being packaged as little more that glorified gadget-recharging stations.

Niela Orr is an artist and writer living in Philadelphia. More of her work can be found at www.nielaorr.com.

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