Defining Ads Down

Nowadays brands like to talk more about “content” than “advertising.” The problem they end up facing with all that content is how to distribute it. Cue advertising. And yet there’s a blurring of what constitutes an ad and what doesn’t. New platforms that are powerful content distributors — think Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr — are insisting their ads are something else altogether. They’re opting out of standard advertising altogether in favor of something different.

In some ways, this is simply semantics. But in others it isn’t. What constitutes an ad is changing. Is it an ad when a brand pays Facebook to make sure people see that one of their friends checked in at the brand’s location? Is it an ad for Tumblr to highlight a post from a brand? Many of these platforms would rather not call their ads what they are. Commercial entities are paying them to put messages in front of people. That’s pretty much advertising.

Instead, there’s a lot of cuteness played around how these aren’t really ads. Part of this is the Silicon Valley antipathy toward advertising. In the minds of these tech platforms, advertising would sully the experience. Instead they’re creating “native monetization” systems that are simply giving a leg up to content that brands create on their platforms. Facebook moved to call its “Sponsored Stories” as “Featured Stories.” The change is subtle, but it’s also getting away from the fact these are ad units. Tumblr made the interesting case that its new ads aren’t really ads. And of course Twitter’s ad products exist as non-ad euphemisms like “Promoted Trends” and “Promoted Tweets.” The idea is this content already exists on the platform. That’s not entirely true. Advertisers create “promoted trends” specifically for campaigns. It’s not like these are grassroots things that are just given a boost.

This penchant for avoiding the advertising word is moving into publishing. Look around many Web publishers these days and you’ll see “recommended article” links. These are often powered by Outbrain. They also come with other stories that are frequently labeled “around the Web.” They’re actually ads. Sites like Fast Company don’t label them as ads. Other sites like All Things D do. According to another recommendation provider Taboola, labeling advertiser recommendations as ads lowers response rates by 20 percent. You can see why many publishers opt for euphemisms.

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