Charlotte's Editorial

Becoming Advertising

By Charlotte Raven

Like most free to access online entities we have explored the various options for monetisation, some more appealing than others. We’ve narrowed it down to three – sneaky ads, straight forward ads or a pop up feminist cat café.

Straightforward, olden day advertising was the line of least resistance but how would this play with our friends and supporters? I asked an unscientific sample – few were anti-advertising and some, surprisingly, were rabidly pro. One asked: “Why are you against advertising? Do you want to live in a Maoist state?”

Then I remembered, I’ve always loved the ads! They were the incidental music of my seventies childhood. My mum used to turn the telly off when they were on, but my brother and I preferred the ads to the programmes.

This early exposure to gender stereotyping didn’t Sindyise me as my mother feared. I kept telling her – you don’t turn into Charlie Girl or Shake n Vac woman from watching the ads. My brother and I were ad aficionados, not dupes or ironists. We didn’t buy into them or think ourselves superior to the ads or the people who were impelled to spend their hard earned money on Sure for Men or Ultrabrite.

I don’t feel as fondly about eighties advertising. The ads of that period were blunt instruments; “intimately terroristic” like Charles Saatchi and not as good or clever as everyone remembers. They were uber confident but as repetitive and ineffective as a coke addicted city boy.

When I got older I enjoyed ‘decoding’ ads in the manner of structural theorists like Judith Williamson, rather than reinterpreting them. Do people still do this? Are the ads a window on the world anymore? I’m less interested in specific ads these days than the modern malady of marketing which is constantly pushing the boundaries and overstepping the mark. Advertising is not OK when it’s delivered intravenously to children or women postpartum.

I pictured the ads in Fem T in a clearly circumscribed space that couldn’t be confused with editorial. We ruled out sneaky ads and sponsored content because we felt they broke the bond of trust we have built up with our readership. With a clear conscience, we started costing the redesign of the website and finding an ad salesperson to sell, sell sell the Fem T concept to ethical brands. (This wouldn’t take very long – the list was very short.)

The fabulously attired ad salesman on the Modern Review managed to convince a range of high end brands it was going to be a cross between the New Yorker and American Esquire in it’s heyday. They were bitterly disappointed, understandably, when issue one of Marxist Feminist monthly hit the stands.

This time round, if I sold my soul, I wouldn’t get anything for it. We were reliably informed that the revenue from banner ads would be unlikely to cover the cost of redesigning the website; the model that we’d given so much thought to was declared a busted flush by a range of media professionals. Sneaky advertising is the only game in town, unfortunately. Native advertising on Fem T would mean ads and content were seamlessly merged into a single website ‘experience’. If this is the future of publishing, I’d rather put Fem T out by carrier pigeon.

The founder and chief exec of Buzzfeed recently said:

“Nobody comes to Buzzfeed to look at the ads, but they’ll come for the content. When the advertising is content – good content they’re willing to click on and engage with, and share if it’s good – that’s the future for publishers.’

The internet will be colonised and co-opted by advertising in the blink of an eye. I never romanticised the web or thought of it as a ‘free space’; oddly the people who did are now signing it away and saying it will be good for it.

Online advertising is everywhere and nowhere – it’s the uninvited guest on every comment board and web forum that speaks your language and compliments you on your lifestyle choices. Sinister ‘urban communities’ like work.shop.play extract valuable information about our priorities and preferences which allows brands to create perfectly tailored pitches for allegiance. Modern advertising is as individual as you; it flatters and cajoles with perfect knowledge of your taste and aspirations.

I recently reread Dale Carnegie’s book How to win friends and influence people. Belatedly, brands and corporations have learned the best way to win consumers is to be genuinely interested in them, ask them about themselves, listen intently to the answers and make them feel intelligent.

This is also a failsafe strategy for winning commercial partners. The Guardian talked up its recent partnership with Unilever as a meeting minds. The company had absorbed Guardian Media Group’s ‘values’ and repeated them back… with bells on:

‘Our partnership with Guardian Labs presents us with an innovative and unique way of engaging with a greater number of consumers than ever before, in their homes and on the move, on a subject which is core to both Unilever and the Guardian’s values – sustainability.’

In this brave new world, you can’t trust anyone, enthusiasts least of all. Bloggers, hipsters and impoverished newspaper editors are contractually obliged to enthuse about their commercial partners, on pain of commercial death.

No one has asked the Guardian’s readership, or ‘highly engaged community’ as we are now called, whether we want to collaborate with corporations who ‘share our values’. We are extremely valuable; cheap at the million pound price. Unilever is buying access to skeptics like my mother and credibility by association with the former bastion of liberalism .

The last issue of Weekend magazine had several sponsored features, differentiated by a very slightly different font. I still confused one with the other.

My mum used to complain about billboards; they look increasingly retro! So many public spaces have been co-opted or colonised by a new type of advertising.

Great swathes of Angel tube station are given over to Barcardi’s rebrand. No longer a drink for teenage girls who can’t think what to order, it is the choice of renegades, non-conformists (and ruthless dictators.)

The 150 year old brand is understandably proud of its heritage! “Prohibition was a blast”; exiled to Cuba in the fifties, it was partying enthusiastically while Cuba was raped and pillaged by the US mafia and corrupt Batista regime. This “untameable essence” is unavoidably everywhere at Angel; swooping bats emblazoned on every square inch of pedestrian walkway (who knew you could buy the floors and ceilings?) Like the film character in Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo, brands are stepping off the billboards into real life, but behaving loutishly. They are invading our personal space and pretending it is a ‘blast’.

We recently lost our hearts to an all female new media company with inspirationality to spare. The feeling was mutual; they offered to host one of our events at their fabulously appointed HQ in Shoreditch. Should we do it? Yes we should – the quirkily named company were more credible and tech savvy than Fem T, but we were more serious. Would our brand essences synergise over free cocktails? I hoped so.

Arriving early on the night, it was immediately apparent that the young women were everything we’d expected; articulate, engaged and yes.. inspirational. Synergy wise, they were already spoken for. An exclusive agreement with a technology company had allowed them to go to the next level! We didn’t begrudge them; the deal had paid for the space, snazzy refurb, and wheely tables and stools with tablet computers embedded in every one. But brand ambassadors like them are marketing goldust. I suspect they undersold themselves.

Brand ambassadors are high res normal people, like you and me on a good day. Unlike adverts, they are continually on and excellent value for money. One day, they will replace logos; brands have learned that slapping their logos on everything is naff and counterproductive. They are all masters of the soft sell and have ‘debranded‘ to some extent. The logo will whither when it’s no longer needed and go the way of the jingle.

Experiential marketing, where the public encounters the brand in real life already seems arcane. You don’t need people dressed as Fruit Shoots to convey that brand’s essence; the meet and greet with advertising meme in a shopping centre has been superceded by an immersive, multi-sensory experience staged 24/7 in your ‘urban community’ by hip and alluring brand ambassadors. You can’t turn it off, or tune it out by turning up the volume on your headphones.

When reality does segue seamlessly into advertising, you won’t probably won’t notice. Come to think of it, it may already have.

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