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The Good, the Bad, and the Uncomfortably Manipulative

You’re truly part of the media complex when a panel of outsiders arbitrarily judges you

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Sponsored content, one of the most depressing buzzwords of the 2010s, has actually been around for generations. Mid-afternoon television dramas were coined “soap operas” in the 1950s because they were underwritten by companies like Procter & Gamble. And “advertorial” sections have been pumping up magazine page counts for decades. But today’s sponsored content is often a less transparent transaction between company and consumer. Corporations are desperate to reach people where they are — which is marketing-speak for “hound users to the ends of the internet.” That’s why we’re now being subjected to corporate-branded podcasts, rap mixtapes, web series, and extremely news-like articles on a regular basis.

According to one survey, a majority of readers doesn’t trust sponsored content — and when readers get a better understanding of what the content actually is, they trust it even less. But we’re not gonna start, like, paying for the stuff we consume online right? And “don’t click the banner ads” is now a life lesson children learn around the time they’re potty trained. So this is the world we’re left with — news, entertainment, and advertising jumbled together in an ambiguous mass we call “content.” It would all be morally devastating if that Hamburger Helper mixtape wasn’t so lit.

To further solidify the corporatization of our online experience, I’m introducing the Sponsored Content Awards — the best, worst, and most desperate marketing-as-entertainment efforts that have been released on the internet since the start of 2015. Because you’re not truly part of the media-industrial complex until a panel of outsiders is arbitrarily judging your work.

Most Desperate

The Honda Episode of Community

Season 3 of Community featured a clever episode about a corporate shill for Subway who enrolls as a student at Greendale and falls in love with Britta. The show deftly satirized the pseudo-citizenship granted to corporations and their ability to destroy small businesses (R.I.P. Shirley’s Sandwiches). When Community was revived for a sixth season on Yahoo, Honda signed on as a yearlong sponsor, so the writers drafted a sequel to the Subway episode focusing on the Honda CR-V. Britta’s love interest returns as a Honda spokesman, but the product placement is overdone and the nonstop marketing-speak by the characters barely passes for poking fun at the absurdity of marketing-speak (“The 2015 Honda CR-V sells itself,” Britta says not-exactly-ironically toward the end of the episode). South Park did a much more brutal takedown of sponsored content later in the year.

Runner-up: Glued, the Comcast web series about a suburban couple that binge-watches a TV show using their Comcast cable box. Imagine one of those self-funded Netflix studies as a really, really bland sitcom.

Most Surprisingly Lit

Hamburger Helper Mixtape

Rap parodies about food aren’t new, but it’s rare that a food company actually releases an official mixtape, as Hamburger Helper did on April Fools’ Day this year with Watch the Stove. On one hand, it’s depressing to read an executive at a giant corporation like General Mills (which owns Hamburger Helper) gloating about the success of its hip hop content in Adweek. On the other hand, “Feed the Streets” has transformed college dorm kitchenettes into nightclubs nationwide, if only for two fleeting minutes.

Runner-up: Nothing from the nomination period (sorry, the Game of Thrones mixtape doesn’t do it for me), but I’d just like to take a moment to highlight The Mouse and the Mask, the excellent Adult Swim mixtape by Danger Mouse and MF Doom released in 2005. Peep the Aqua Teen Hunger Force song “Sofa King.”

Sneakiest Ad

Peyton Manning’s Super Bowl Embrace of Papa John

In February, moments after winning his second Super Bowl, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning sought a loving embrace with John H. Schnatter, better known to suburbanites as Papa John. With more than a hundred million people watching, Manning’s first thought apparently was, “all praise to the garlic sauce.” Manning is a Papa John’s franchisee and appeared in a more traditional ad for the pizza chain to kick off this year’s football season. But if you ask me, the Peyton-Papa kiss was the modern version of “I’m going to Disney World!”

Runner-up: Beyoncé also may have been up to some Super Bowl chicanery when she made a Facebook post praising the $10,000 house she rented through Airbnb for the weekend. In fact, Airbnb paid for her stay, as the company has begun doing for many celebrities. Beyoncé’s post, which didn’t indicate it was an ad, exists in an ambiguous legal gray zone for marketers that has yet to be sorted out by the Federal Trade Commission.

Most Troubling

Wired’s Pre-Scandal Volkswagen Ads

Among traditional media outlets, Wired has become a leader in native advertising, with highly interactive, news-like articles about topics like changes in television consumption (paid for by Netflix) and the potential of the Internet of Things (paid for by IBM). One such ad funded by Volkswagen sang the praises of diesel engines … shortly before Volkswagen became embroiled in a wide-ranging scandal because it purposefully cheated on emissions tests for its diesel-powered cars. Wired quietly pulled the ads after the scandal broke. This type of marketing is an especially slippery slope in the tech sector, where corporations do everything in their power to convince the public that the ways they want to reshape the world are both for societal good and part of the inevitable arc of evolution.

Runner-up: In March, Lord & Taylor settled charges with the FTC after the commission accused the retailer of placing a paid article about a new clothing line in Nylon magazine without disclosing it was sponsored content and paying 50 Instagram influencers to wear an identical dress without disclosing that the posts were ads.

Biggest Missed Opportunity

Red Lobster’s Slow Response to “Formation”

You are a marketing executive at Red Lobster. Your chain was sold off from its parent, Darden Restaurants, in 2014 due to slumping sales, meaning you’ve been decisively placed below Olive Garden in the chain restaurant hierarchy. Your last moment in the pop culture spotlight was a Chris Rock bit from 1999. Then, the day before the Super Bowl, the biggest pop star on earth drops a head-turning new song out of the sky and your restaurant is included in the most memorable line.

What do you do?

I’ll tell you what you don’t do. You don’t wait hours while Twitter is in the midst of a retweeting frenzy concerning any and all Beyoncé-related content. You don’t send out a decidedly PG tweet in response to a wonderfully explicit lyric. And you don’t make a tweet about Cheddar “Bey” Biscuits (though they are delicious). Instead, you could announce a new eggplant dish. Give Jay Z some words of encouragement. Tweet @beyonce that your shrimp is Alabama, lobster Louisiana. For the first time in history, the Twitterverse waited with bated breath for a Brand Tweet, and you blew it.

Runner-up: The Cheesecake Factory, which failed to effectively capitalize on the funniest line from Drake’s Views.

Weirdest Use of Food

Arby’s Hosts Target Practice on Its Sandwiches

As a sponsor for Turner Broadcasting’s professional e-sports league, Arby’s agreed to let some of the league’s gamers head to a gun range to try to annihilate the chain’s sandwiches with weaponry this summer. Is there anything more American than asking professional Call of Duty players to blast a caloric bomb of smoked meats with a rifle and watching the fleshy remains scatter? Here’s to Arby’s, protector of our Second Amendment right to own guns as well as horsey sauce.

Runner-up: IHOP pancakes chilling on a beach. In this post-watermelon world, we all must bow at the altar of Facebook video, and the International House of Pancakes made its first content sacrifice with an hourlong live stream of three stacks of pancakes sitting on a table on the beach. “It was about the pancakes being the hero,” an IHOP marketing exec actually said. The clip attracted 245,000 views, giving it more measurable value than anything I have ever created in my entire life.

The “Netflix and Chill” Award for Being Embarrassingly Late to an Overused Trend

Outback Steakhouse Dabbing to EDM in September 2016

We did this to ourselves.