Advertising Is Content; Content Is Advertising

from the took-'em-long-enough dept

There’s been a bunch of buzz this week over an Ad Age report suggesting that firms are finally realizing that no one pays attention to online banner ads. For all the hype about online advertising, this one point should have been obvious from quite early on. That doesn’t mean that banner ads haven’t been lucrative for some publishers who place them on their sites — but it does call into question how long that sort of advertising will last. Sooner or later the advertisers will recognize that they’re not getting much bang for the buck. For publishers (us included, mind you), that could mean that an easy vein for revenue goes away — but the end result should be better. Companies will start to learn that there are better ways to achieve their goals than banner ads.

There are a few key points in the discussion that shouldn’t be surprising to most folks around here, but apparently have just hit the consciousness of ad execs on Madison Avenue:

  1. The captive audience is dead. There is no captive audience online. Everyone surfing the web has billions of choices on what they can be viewing, and they don’t want to be viewing intrusive and annoying ads. They’ll either ignore them, block them or go elsewhere.
  2. Advertising is content. You can’t think of ads as separate things any more. Without a captive audience, there’s no such thing as “advertising” any more. It’s just content. And it needs to be good/interesting/relevant content if you want to get anyone to pay attention to it.
  3. Content is advertising. Might sound like a repeat of the point above, and in some way it is — but it’s highlighting the flip side. Any content is advertising. It’s advertising something. Techdirt content “advertises” our business even if you don’t realize it. Every bit of content advertises something, whether on purpose or not.
  4. Content needs to be useful/engaging/interesting. This simply ties all of that together. If you want anyone to pay attention to your content (which is advertising something, whether on purpose or not) it needs to be compelling and engaging.

So, for the “brand” marketers out there who are starting to worry that banner ads aren’t particularly effective, it’s time to start rethinking how you build a brand along these points. Techdirt even has a way to help you put these ideas into practice. Give us a call — we’ll explain how it works in more detail. So, yes, even this is an “advertisement,” but hopefully, it’s also useful content.

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Comments on “Advertising Is Content; Content Is Advertising”

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zhenchyld says:

I just started doing some freelance coding for a marketing startup run by a guy who totally has the whole content/advertising thing down

I hate to ‘advertise’ in comments but the guys website totally exemplefies what the article was talking about. The site serves to prove to potential customers that he knows his ish using a ‘market leader’ play but also has a lot of great tips for small businesses.

tony says:

Re: Re:

sorry zhenchyld, but justindowney does NOT exemplify what this article is talking about. The website itself is not engaging enough for someone who has iADD (like me) to stay and look at. I don’t even want to think about what the ads they produce look like. Their site is a heap of black and blue text on a white background. I would rather read a manual written in Japanese on how to install plumbing.

Mojo says:

This is something I have been noticing lately, the rise of “advertorial” content in websites… AOL & Yahoo do this a lot, you’ll see a “story” on the latest developments in anti-aging makeup, so you click on it and it turns out to be an elaborate ad for a specific brand… but less saavy users will actually think it’s a legitimate article.

Kind of like the “pull out advertising” sections we see in magazines, disguised as editorial stories… the problem is there is often no disclaimer on websites to tell you the content has been paid for by an advertiser. Are there rules and/or laws about this online?

Admittedly, erasing the line between content and advertising is the only way advertising is going to survive; but the problem of knowing when you’re reading truly unbiased content is going to become an issue.

Mojo says:

Mike, that’s bull, you can’t say all content is advertising! There is and always will be some kind of line between content and advertising; if Paramout pays you to write a “story” about a new movie on DVD and you put the article up with a link to Amazon that is advertorial, plain and simple.

Sure, in some esoteric way you can say a story about the latest find from the Hubble telescope is some form of advertising for NASA, but your article is not esoteric, it’s about how advertisers are going to survive when no one pays attention to banner ads and other obvious forms of selling a product.

Advertorials, where an ad is disguised as content, is the only way around this. How do you suggest “good” content that is advertising based? The bottom line will always be that said content is biased and “rigged” towards a point of view that benefits the advertiser and sells a product.

Your blanket statement that all content is advertising and vice versa is cute and catchy but you need to back that up with something concrete.

I find it disturbing that I thought I knew what you were talking about, a very real subject worth discussing (advertorials) but you actually had nothing in mind other than a vague statement!

Mojo says:

For the love of Elvis, Mike, GIVE US AN EXAMPLE.

Yes ok fine advertisers need to provide content that people want to read. Great idea. But if “good” content provided by an advertiser is NOT a clever diguise to sell a product then it’s not an ad!!

How can you say advertisers need to provide good, true, worthwhile content if they want to survive but that content cannot be an advertorial? If Coca-cola hires a journalist to write stories about endangered species and he is instructed in no way, shape or form to mention Coke or say anything that is geared towards making Coke look good, then yes, Coke has provided “good” content – but how is that still advertising?? It doesn’t help them.

I don’t see how you can suggest that advertisers will survive by providing good content that is devoid of any attempt to sell their product.

And yes I agree that all content is selling something, but only in a vague, esoteric way. A story about endagered species could be said to be selling tickets to the rainforest or panda bear dolls, but that would seriously be reaching.

Please give us an example of “good” content from an advertiser that is not an advertorial but still helps them sell their product. I can’t fathom it.

Mojo says:

Ok, i see what you’re saying, but what you’re talking about is still essentially an advertorial, just really shined up.

BMW is making these films to sell BMWs. Of course they are. They bring attention to themselves with “oh look, BMW is contributing to the arts” and I am sure the films are wonderful, but they are still very eloborate commercials for BMWs.

The site from an auto insurance company that shows current traffic conditions and helps you figure out lower rates based on your driving is STILL there for the sole purpose of having you decide to buy their insurance; the sole purpose of having bands and writers in your bookstore is to sell more books and coffee.

I agree that it’s great to have good content and advertising CO-EXIST in the same form, but let’s not kid ourselves – content that is designed to promote good will towards a company or put you in a position to experience the company’s product is still there to ultimately SELL THE PRODUCT.

If the bands and book signings did not help the bookstore increase revenue, they would stop. And who could blame them?

I agree that companies should stop just making blatant ads and try to provide useful content to go along with that ad, but we’re still talking about a new age of advertorials.

I know I might be sounding cynical, but it’s just reality – these companies exist to sell you a product, we’re just talking about shifting over to a soft-sell, almost subliminal model as opposed to screaming in your face.

Rose M. Welch says:

What about...

…search engine advertising? I shop on-line quite a bit. When I don’t shop on-line, I find information, stores, and service providers online. I don’t have a land land so I don’t get a phone book so if you don’t have an Internet presence, I don’t generally shop with you. If I have to wade through more than two or three pages, I’m not going to find you.

Furthermore, most of these companies know nothing about Internet advertising. I own a web design company aimed at created and hosting sites for small to medium local businesses and most of these people are experts in thier field – but clueless in mine. So they end up paying me lots extra to handle thier online advertising. Do I advise them to put up annoying as hell banners? Nope, tht’s right up there with websites that have sound effects and no off button. (Or sound effects at all for that matter.)

Advertising on the Internet is absolutely crucial. The big boys are just going entirely the wrong way about it…

BRADLEY STEWART (profile) says:



John Furrier (user link) says:

content is the ad

dude: I love the subline “it took em long dept”

sure right on that Mike.

I’ve been pounding this for over a year. Bout time they realized it. I know you guys do.

Not many people do but it’s good that they are. It just might be too late agencies are dying.

Traditional agencies are dying..

Eric says:

Too Idealistic

Before I explain, take a quick look at these examples of “content is advertising” and notice what they all have in common:

If I sell car insurance, I’d create a USEFUL widget that gives drivers better traffic info and better routes that they can use to drive safer and shows them how they can save money on their car insurance based on how they drive.

If I sell credit cards for small businesses, I’d create a forum for discussing small business topics, and how they can better achieve their goals as a small business.

If I sell music players, I give away music to increase the demand for music players.

If I’m an accountant, I start an online forum for accounting questions.

First, I don’t think any of these are BAD ideas. They are good ideas. But here’ s what they have in common – they all require a new investment in technology and/or know-how and/or personnel to pull it off.

Another example given was BMW’s new vestment into the movie biz. And with that case, I don’t think BMW engineers all went to acting classes and film production schools. No. These are not the kind of skills which BMW’s advertising personel could have “acquired”. On the contrary, they probably made a sizable investment in an already existing movie firm. So again, we have a new investment.

So taking it to it’s logical conclusion, can one imagine every car company investing in the movie business to meld their advertising with content? Or what about all the other products in the world? Are all the kitchen appliance companies, furniture companies, toilet paper companies, (you could take this out to infinity) all going to push their products into movies now?

And on yet another point, there’s no way BMW is going to drop all their standard advertising such as magazines, tv, radio, etc., and put all bets on their movies. Their movie venture, for them, simply amounts to a complementary business which contributes to the effectiveness of their automobile advertising efforts.

In the widget example:

If I sell car insurance, I’d create a USEFUL widget that gives drivers better traffic info and better routes that they can use to drive safer and shows them how they can save money on their car insurance based on how they drive.

Does anybody really think that every insurance company is going to develop such a widget (or something competitive)? And even if they did, or even if they all purchased the widget from a 3rd party, what you end up with is – once again, just as with current display ads – a level playing field. And to the target audience, 100 different insurance-sponsored widgets will probably appear just as annoying as 100 different insurance display ads.

So I believe it’s never going to be a 100% “all content is advertising” and/or “all advertising is content”. There will be some cases that come close to being one-and-the-same, but there is not enough room or resources or time for every company in the world who wants to sell a product, to try to migrate to – or even complement their current advertising with – that “ideal”. I agree with what I think you are partly claiming – that advertising CAN be more effective if it melds itself with content – but I don’t believe ALL advertising WILL get there, CAN get there or necessarily SHOULD get there.

A movie comes to mind that illustrates my last point above (that not all content/advertising SHOULD be melded). In the movie “Demolition Man” (1993), the people of the future listened to and sang along to the commercial jingles played through their car radios. Not so strange, right? But the scary part was that the commercial jingles WERE the program content! ALL of the songs (content) played on the stations were also commercials – one and the same. Needless to say, it was a very bleak vision of the possible future of advertising and content.

Hillel (user link) says:

ads = content? no... ads=software (with content mi

I’m essentially 100% in agreement with this post and especially the adage article that sparked it.

Fifteen months ago we started a new startup focused on creating branded online destinations that actually have value – Jackson Fish Market.

The only issue I take with this post (and the original adage article) is the focus on content as the new ad. I believe the new ad is primarily software (with content mixed in periodically). I don’t say this to make a geeky semantic distinction. I genuinely think it’s important.

The internet as a medium is fundamentally about interactivity. Yes, UGC is key, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Interactivity is about having software (literally code) that solves problems for users. Meeting their needs can be in the form of making them more productive, more informed, more communicative, or more entertained. But software as a medium has power in this regard like no medium before it. And while there’s tons of content on the web, it’s software that fundamentally makes it come to life.

Baby Center (an example cited in the adage article) is essentially a big magazine (with tons of user contributors) with very little unique software that makes it engaging. Nike’s offerings have a much stronger emphasis on software.

When marketers start to fully understand this final wrinkle in this evolution of internet advertising, they will get even more excited when they realize that content (even on the internet where sometimes users make it) is expensive to produce. And software is relatively cheap.

Our response to the AdAge article is at: –

Twinrova says:

Ha ha! Good one, Mike!

I see the point you’ve been trying to make and this thread did a good job of explaining it.

But do you really think advertisers will understand this? No, they won’t. Their job is to throw things in your face to interrupt what you’re doing, just what this thread did.

You interrupted my reading by placing an ad in it. Cleverly done, but also deceiving, which is exactly what advertising does.


This does not make an ad content.

Moreso, you must think about this line of thinking because I can promise you that people will become pissed that their “content” is really nothing more than an ad.

Try it out. Make an entire month’s worth of “content” which are nothing but ads. See how well people respect the site after that.

And if advertisers think this deception will work, they’ll use it to their fullest advantage so that the next time you watch the SuperBowl, you’re actually watching a 3 hour ad show interrupted by a stupid football game.

Personally, I believe it’s time that regulation be placed to limit the number of ads placed in any medium because it’s getting so damn annoying, true content is turning into a thing of the past.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Marketing is a Drug Addiction

If ads don’t work, they don’t generate money. If you put more money into something that’s not making money, you will lose money. If you lose enough money, you will go out of business. Therefore, if ads don’t work then all companies will either ditch traditional advertising, or go out of business.

Will says:


Twinrova thanks for expanding what you were talking about. Despite Mike’s statement that you disagree, I think that you are actually quite close to the same conclusion.

You point out that adding content in a “product placement” type of way can be annoying, and Mike agrees, that makes it bad content and as you said, you’ll stop watching. Same with the unskipable dvd previews, the video game, and the 30 minute commercials on TV. whether or not they pass the savings on to you with cheaper games, dvd’s, or however doesn’t change the fact that if you get pissed off, they made bad content. Bad content looses viewers in an “attention economy” and won’t thrive as you pointed out.

I think the thing you missed (and maybe disagree about) is that Mike thinks (and I am beginning to agree) that there is an unlimited number of ways to get your “ads” watched with actual useful content in the way that techdirt does (with blog analysis “advertising” their knowledge and driving customers and courting potential talent), or the Dove “real beauty” campaign, or the aforementioned BMW videos.

All of these examples are not forcing people to watch (like putting those awful flash adds up) but actually encouraging people find your content because it adds value to their lives. Ever heard of Terry Tate Office Linebacker? I actually visited the Reebok site to watch some of those, and I visit and respect Techdirt enough that I might use their services if I ever needed them, and I had friends show me the “real beauty” video online.

Of course bad content will fail, but where you and Mike are talking through each other is simply that he is assuming (correctly or not)that there are enough ways to create meaningful value and get an “advertisers” word out in a way that is not intrusive, but the opposite, wanted! This looks nothing like what marketers think of, but works just as well (or better), and means that eventually, ANY in your face advertising (Eidos included)is going to disadvantage itself against other content which could/would be created by others which is ACTUALLY valuable rather than pretending to be (like the stride gum which added nothing valuable to the story line and obviously detracted from it)

I could be wrong about this, but I think that Mike is looking ahead beyond the immediate future when shows/movies/games can trade a little bit of their credibility or worthiness by annoying in-your face placements. Eventually, however, those efforts will be drowned out because people won’t watch the shows (as you threatened) because there are plenty of things more valuable to watch (and if you do watch them, it’s because it actually give you more value than alternatives even with the IYF ads)

Come to think of it, it’s not that far away! You pointed out you wouldn’t accept it on your shows, and I don’t know about you, but I remember the web addresses that use the most annoying flash adds and avoid them next time I’m clicking. If you don’t by Eidos’s games because with adds it’s not worth $60 anymore, they go out of business, the flash adds sites lose readership, and shows loose ratings and go off the air.

Contrast this with the examples I gave, or with apple’s adds which people actually look up and view online because they think they are funny, or silly, or whatever, but they watch them despite being REALLY blatant. It is in these ways that Mike is saying that advertising is content, and viewed that way it really does seem to be an infinite number of ways to “advertise” non-forcefully (as infinite as content is anyway!).

If there are an infinite number of ways to do it, then you won’t have the problem of all marketers trying to make BMW style movies, or tv shows being nothing but product placement, or the internet being so full of banners that you can’t see the article. Anytime marketers push it to far and make the content less useful than alternatives, say by interfering with the objectivity of game reviews, or too many product placements, or to many commercials, or anything else that is not actually useful and wanted by consumers, then viewers will not choose to watch, and thus the ads won’t work.

Advertisement and consumers need not be mutually opposed, despite what current marketers think.

icon (user link) says:

Nothing new here

actually most advertisers (the ones practicing internet advertising for longer than a year) know that not many people pay attention to banners – still, i dont think this kind of advertisement will ever go away just as signs in the side of the road are still there – they simply improved in the shape of digital signs etc…

In my eyes, Banners will become much more interactive incorporating videos and other types of media which will allow the user to get mosre information without clicking.

Nikhil Khandekar (user link) says:


I beg to differ on your equation of advertising with content. The precondition that requires content to be relevant, original, fresh, interesting, and so on is the game changer. Advertisements, traditionally, haven’t measured up to that challenges by the minutest fraction.

Sure, content does advertise. But any content of any value also does much more. Much, much more than an advertisement can ever aspire to. It informs, educates, shapes opinion, entertains, awakens the faculties, and is BENEFICIAL TO A READER/VIEWER IN AND BY ITSELF and in ways far better.

A banner or billboard that advertises, say, Apple’s laptops doesn’t quite measure up to the info, specs, and presentation of those laptops on Apple’s site, relevant manuals, or even online reviews. Ads and content only share the function of promotion. That does NOT make them the same thing.

That’s what’s different about content, in fact. It’s just way better than advertisement. No need to confuse readers by putting the two on the same pedestal. They are totally, irrevocably, and decidedly different. Period.

AddOptions (profile) says:

There isn't much new on the internet

The fundamental error all web based elements is that the internet is just a virtual representation of what is in the real world. An mp3 is just a record/tape. An avi is just a DVD. And a banner ad is just a billboard.

If they didn’t serve some basic purpose, they wouldn’t exist. At their most basic level, they are the start of all marketing buzz. They inform people who are otherwise unaware of your product or service. Sure you can target customers, but if they aren’t even aware of your existence then they aren’t going to even notice your focus on them.

Advertising is marketing, but marketing is not advertising. The internet may be a level playing field, but if you don’t understand the game in the first place then you are hopelessly outmatched. This counts for those who are on the internet and don’t understand marketing and those who understand marketing and don’t understand the internet. Tactics aren’t strategies and strategies aren’t tactics.

Strazzeri Mancini (profile) says:

Marketing is Content and Content is Marketing

Great 4 points!

As an Education Marketing enthusiast, I personally view Advertising as Marketing…as Yes, I know, there is a different between the two technically…however, the basic premise of promoting a message remains the same.

I appreciate the “Captive Audience is dead” point you mentioned because we do live in a somewhat of an ADD type of society. Everything happens so fast in today’s world that finding a captive audience is quite tough. Which is why at our firm, we focus on our Education Marketing as a vehicle to be creative, appealing, and relevant to a targeted group of people that are interested in what we have to say. Thanks
– Rob

Fred Milton Olsen says:

Ads, content public media

You think it’s bad in commercial media? So-called “public” media has become little except an echo chamber for commercial media with most guests being from commercial media. “Public” media has also gone whole hog for advertising, promos and a commercial clock. Wisconsin “Public” radio is now over 1/3 advert/promo/commercial format fluffcrap in every hour. “Public” media is now a complete betrayal of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.

signalfire (profile) says:

Zeitgeist can't come soon enough..

I subscribe to the Zeitgeist Movement’s opinion RE advertising – that anyone in the business should kill themselves NOW. Commercials and Madison Avenue will be the death of this planet. Capitalism is over, having failed completely to put any thought into the obvious outcome of its greed-fest way of life.

I came to this conclusion years ago when I was reading an article in the NY Times about yet another pitiful drought/starvation cycle in Bangladesh and right next to it was an even more disgusting ad for a five million dollar house in the Hamptons and Tiffanys, right next to that. Talk about cognitive dissonance…

Wnt says:

How internet advertising should work

This is one of the sanest essays about advertising I’ve seen in some time. The whole world seems committed to a Guantanamo Bay model for ads that literally *DECREASES* my likelihood to buy a product, because I assume money spent on ads is taken away from value. In some media, like cable TV, the burden of ads is so great as to make the medium itself untenable. Where’s the profit in that?

As you can tell, I’m not the typical customer, so probably I have bad advice. But I doubt I’m truly more clueless than the social phenomena I see, so do advertising right, I would suggest:

1. ADVERTISING IS PART OF THE PUBLICATION. The ads should be marked, of course, but they should not use any scripts that are different from the publication itself (which defeats adblocks, but also prevents viruses and obnoxiousness). A print publication should strive for good old print ads that would look right at home in a 1960s newspaper.

2. ADVERTISING IS NOT AN OPPORTUNITY TO THE ADVERTISER to degrade reader privacy or track his reading. I know degrading privacy, working with the NSA, is what seems to bring the big bucks, but I think long term (judging by Facebook, *really* long term) a publication that isn’t spying on its readers and stays simple and true will come out ahead.

3. PUBLISHERS SHOULD NOT ATTEMPT TO VERIFY AD READERSHIP in any special way whatsoever. No counters, no web bugs, no nothing — they should put out their publication, see how big a mark it makes, and over time, try to persuade advertisers of what that’s worth based on reputation and non-invasive overall readership estimates without trying to prove they had exactly N impressions. Let customers fill out a survey with the advertiser if the advertiser wants more feedback, but not on the publisher site.

4. PUBLISHERS SHOULD INDEX ADS PERMANENTLY because they are a part of their publication. You should be able to look up an ad from five years ago just like an article, and if the product is still sold, you should be able to find and buy it. (Admittedly with the degradation of the “modern” web you are hard pressed to do the latter, if the trendy types have been near a site)

5. PUBLISHERS SHOULD SET STANDARDS FOR ADS to ensure they are useful to the customer. These will vary by site but could involve a requirement to include a direct SPECIFIC product link, a price, or other information, or that they be relevant to the publication’s focus, or that they be for “interesting” products. The customer should be given the opportunity and reason to learn that clicking a link to an ad from *your* site will be productive.

6. DESIRABLE/INTERESTING PRODUCTS SHOULD GET A DISCOUNT or even a free ad. The more “cool ads” salted in with the others, the more all boats rise. The publication should work to present itself not merely as a whore for every dollar but as an at least somewhat faithful guide and companion to the reader in the marketplace

Note: none of these things is a truly valid alternative to abolishing copyright and providing a basic income and encouraging non-profit organizations to take over publishing, etc. But maybe it would be an improvement.

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