business handshake over blue background/apreton de manos sobre fondo azul

~ by Dimitri Garder, Global-Z Captain

I recently found myself in need of a UML modeling tool; if you don’t know what that is you should be grateful since you probably get invited to better parties than I do.  A web search brought me to a particular project’s website which looked like a good fit.  The site’s page contained a detailed description of the project along with a prominently placed “Download” button, which I obligingly clicked, only to receive a message from my Mac that the associated download wasn’t compatible with my system.  That’s strange, I’m sure the project requirements listed the Mac-OS among the supported systems.  Then I realized that the logo at the top of the landing page was for another vendor’s website altogether, and I was no longer on the website of the project I was researching.  How did I fall into that trap?  I’m normally über sensitive to bait and switch on the Internet.  Somewhat miffed, I navigated back to the original project page, and dug a little deeper, looking for the real project download link.  One click further into the page and I found what I was looking for, a Download button that was clearly the correct link; after all the look and feel of the button and accompanying text was completely consistent with the project’s website.  But again no luck, clicking the link brought me to yet another vendor’s website trying to sell me something entirely different.  Now I was really angry, how could this happen twice in one minute?  I do this for a living; I know real content from bogus marketing.  Don’t I?

Even to a professional marketer, it’s becoming harder and harder to differentiate between content and advertising.  And this is not good news, not for consumers, and not even for marketers.  It’s bad enough that misleading marketing is commonplace on commercial websites, but what’s far worse is that this is now happening with increasing regularity on news content sites and blogs.  Ads such as these are what marketers call “native advertising”; these are essentially inline ads which, rather than appearing at the top of the website and identified as advertising, are embedded subtly within the content of the web page disguising themselves as real content.  These ads are intended to appear as an integral part of the content itself, and are designed to intentionally mislead the viewer; the background and text style is identical to the surrounding copy, and not until the link is clicked does it become evident that it’s advertising and not real content.  Sometimes these ads are disguised as editorial, sometimes as reviews or as Facebook posts, and sometimes as actual news content!  So I’m reading a New York Times article, and click on a hyperlink within what looks like the story, and suddenly I land on an advertiser’s website.  Cool? Maybe to a marketer, but not hardly to a consumer.

Even Google’s getting into the game.  That yellow background that differentiates paid ads from algorithmic search results sure is a lot paler than it used to be – on two out of my four displays I can’t see it at all.  (For the rest of you color geeks, the RGB values of the “yellow” background are 255, 248, 231, which for practical purposes is white.)  Here’s an image showing text with that color value against a white background, see if you can discern the text from the background:


Can you see it?  If not, try looking from the side or top of your monitor.  I literally can’t see it at all on my display.  Not to put too fine a point on it (too late, I know), the W3C Internet standards consortium recommends color differences between figure and ground to be 500 or more.  Google’s advertising background scores a mere 31.  If you’re still reading, the yellow background’s brightness difference is only 7, compared to the W3C recommendation of 125 or more.  That’s practically “pants on fire” territory.  If traffic signs used Google’s contrast values, we would be in big trouble.

Now we all know that there’s a long history of a few bad apples in the ad business engaging in deceptive practices, but native advertising is heading in a much more sinister direction. These ads intentionally blur the line between editorial and advertising, which by itself is not new with digital media by any means.  But what’s new is that now the content providers are complicit in the lie, since the look and feel of the ad is artfully integrated with the content, intentionally misleading consumers, and with the full cooperation of the content provider (see the NPR story here for an interesting perspective on this).  Given that the media enjoy freedoms such as “fair use”, we really need to question whether the media are exercising the responsibilities that go along with those freedoms.  With native advertising, the media are clearly no longer delivering objective news, they’re now actively involved in deceptive marketing practices.

By now I probably sound quite old to a lot of readers, whining about new technology and pining for the good old days.  But here’s my point.  Deceptive marketing may work, I don’t deny that, and it may appear to make some marketers very successful.  But the best advertisers can expect is short-term results, which ultimately serves against the best interests of marketers.  Here’s why.  Digital commerce has let the genie out of the bottle – now that consumers have become accustomed to transparent access to a wealth of information, they won’t be so willing to give that back.  Consumers have more knowledge and power than ever before.  Meanwhile, consumers are finding that more and more of their personal information is out there on the web, and they have little or no control over what’s being done with that information.  So at the intersection of increasing consumer buying power and concerns over data privacy, the implication is that long-term success in advertising is fundamentally dependent on consumer trust in the system.  Marketing to consumers by trying to fool them is only working to reduce consumer confidence, and erode their trust.  Like it or not, consumers are at the helm, and smart marketers should work with them and not against them.  Social networking has essentially proven this. Deceptive marketing may generate a sale, but at the loss of the customer.

I was disappointed to hear at the recent DMA annual conference, DMA President Linda Woolley took a hard line against consumer data protection policies, arguing that the European-style model of consumer-centric data protection policies would be the death of direct marketing.  I was truly surprised not only that the DMA would take this extreme position, but also by the number of marketers I spoke with who accepted this argument without questioning the basic premise.  Using legislative policy to reduce consumer control is at best a short-term tactic.  The DMA does not seem to understand the value of consumer trust in the marketing process, which is yet another example of how disconnected the organization has become with the real world.  When we try to justify our existence, do we say that we’re in the business of tricking consumers, or in the business of delivering value to consumers?  The basic issue is this: if you need to lie to the consumer in order to get them to purchase, you have a product problem.  We need to remember that there are four P’s in effective marketing strategy, and we need to use all four of them.

There’s nothing to be gained by eroding consumers’ trust in the purchasing process.  Smart companies know this, and fully accept that the customer is a key stakeholder in the marketing process, and they engage them in that process.  By maximizing the customer experience across all marketing touch points, the best marketing organizations in the world grow their brand, increase their market share, and gain their customers’ trust for the long term.  Isn’t that what integrated marketing is supposed to be about?