by Rob Walker
The hottest topic in the marketing world these days is so-called “native” advertising: material created by advertisers, distributed by digital publications, and positioned to seem less like a zoned-off ad and more like just another bit of content.
It's controversial, because it seems to rely in part on blurring lines in ways that might mislead consumers about exactly who is responsible for what they’re reading or watching. Advocates counter that it’s a means of creating better advertising, good enough to spread and resonate on its own merits, rather than gaining attention through blunt-force interruption.
But about a week ago, Dove released the latest iteration of its long-standing “campaign for real beauty” branding effort, and demonstrated the real holy grail of marketing: A brand-promoting effort that spreads all over the place without the advertiser paying for placement or distribution at all. Dove and one of its ad agencies hired a “forensic artist” who made sketches of various women based on their self-descriptions, and then sketches based on the descriptions of others. Results presented in online videos (distributed through Dove’s own YouTube channel) showed that the women saw themselves as less attractive than others did.
The images were striking, and the campaign blew up, spreading largely via social media. There’s a very good chance, in fact, that you’ve already encountered it.
The stunt was so successful, in fact, that by the end of the week there was a robust backlash underway — contending that the videos actually suggested definitions of beauty that were suspiciously skewed toward the white, young and thin, or that they forwarded a counter-productive emphasis on beauty as a measure of self-worth.
That sounds like terrible news for the brand. But is it? What has unfurled is not a show or magazine “brought to you by Dove,” but a far-flung, earnest discussion of the meaning of beauty … brought to you by Dove. The medium was not any given publication granting access to a crowd; the medium was the crowd itself.
Not so long ago, lots of Very Serious People were predicting that the magic of technology, among other factors, would empower ad-hating consumers to tune out irritating marketing messages once and for all. This Dove campaign is the latest powerful example of what’s actually happened: The distinction between what we label marketing and what we accept as culture keeps getting murkier. (I’ve referred to this murky-marketing phenomenon as “murketing,” and addressed it most comprehensively in Buying In: The Secret Dialog Between What We Buy And Who We Are. And yes, I just promoted my own book in the middle of a column about metastasizing promotional culture.)
In this case, it’s remarkable not only that vast numbers of people will voluntarily participate in a debate started by the makers of a line of body washes and shampoos, but also that the brand promotes itself through starting such debates rather than saying a single word about the characteristics of its actual products. (It is less than clear, after all, what using Dove deodorant, for instance, has to do with any of this. Does using it somehow change a woman’s self-image? Is a more enlightened notion of beauty obtainable by purchasing a specific variety of lotion?)
Referring to a strain of advertising as “native” presumably suggests that it is not an invasive stranger in the land of editorial content. What, then, should we call this sort of content, which seems to raise itself wild within the social media jungle? Perhaps we’re in the age of feral advertising.
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