Advertising and Trust

When is an ad not an ad? Does the movie Borat mock Kazakhstanis, or Americans? Is Bill Clinton really good at faking sincerity? And what does all this have to do with trust? Fasten your seatbelts for this one.

Anastasia Goodstein, over at Ypulse, posts The Chinese Wall Has Come Tumbling Down. She’ s referring to the NYTimes article “Brands Produce Their Own Shows” about the trend toward what’s called branded content—variations on the the involvement of advertisers or producers in the creation of content, blurring the traditional lines between the two.

Advertisers VS. Content

Anastasia waxes nostalgic about the disappearance of a Chinese Wall between advertisers and content. As she puts it:

The journalist in me feels like there needs to be obvious disclosure for these branded entertainment products, and as paranoid as it sounds, I worry about marketers baking in some sort of subliminal messages into these entertainment products…

I just think the "Chinese Wall" provided some sort of ethical boundary between marketers/advertisers and the content itself. With it completely gone, it feels like we’re heading down a slippery slope where marketers get to call the shots about what makes the final cut.

Is it live, or is it Memorex? Are we watching the ad, or the show?

It’s tempting to view her complaint through political eyes—right wing commercial forces vs. left-wing idealistic youth; globalization vs. protesters. But it would be wrong.

The deeper issue Anastasia raises is our relationship to reality vs. fantasy, and whom we trust to manipulate it.
Take film. Take Borat.

Writing in the NYTimes, John Tierney, in The Running of the Yokels [by subscription only] finds the movie funny, but despicable. “What bothers me most about the movie is its premise: that villagers who have not embraced Western values are violently anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic and misogynistic.”

In the same publication’s film review section, Manohla Dargis says Tierney gets it exactly wrong.

"Like Borat and Bruno, another of the comic’s similarly obtuse television alter egos who made regular appearances on the shows, the joke was equally on Ali G and on the targets of his calculated ignorance…some people are definitely not in on the joke, though only because some people are too stupid and too racist to understand that the joke is on them."

Whom is Sacha Baron Cohen making fun of—the Kazakhs, or the Americans? Is it an ad, or a TV show?

Bill Clinton is renowned for his remarkable empathic ability one-on-one; even by some people who call him Slick Willy, and note his ability to “turn it on.” When he turns on the empathy, which is he—the ad or the TV show?

When a parent reads Grimm’s Fairy Tales to a child (someone in this post-PC world must still do that), don’t we ham it up, put on a ton of inflection, and generally help “pretend” the story is real? The kids know it’s fake; if we read it to them as factual history we’d scare them to death! So, are we reading an ad, or a TV show?

Being fooled is highly entertaining. TV and movies fool us for a while, for entertainment. Movies about fooling—meta-movies—like Punk’d, or Candid Camera—are doubly entertaining. As long as it’s within bounds.

It is about trust. We trusted kindly old Alan Funt not to abuse us when he fooled us; and we trust his current incarnation, Ashton Kutcher. It’s no accident that both hosts smile enormously, all the time.

When Borat confuses us, that’s high art. To get the NYTimes to war with itself, now, that’s an artistic achievement. And no harm done, as long as it stays in the art game.

Transparency and Trust

But what about life imitating art? When that border is blurred, people get really uncomfortable. Does violence in movies cause kids to act out? Does porno desensitize sex and objectify women?

Check out John Mack’s posting at the Pharma Marketing Blog, "Influencing the Dialogue: Marketers Suck at it." Mack rants about a poster to his blog whom he feels is clearly a marketing-blogger masquerading as a customer to sell drugs for his pharma client; his indignation is palpable.

Danah Boyd makes the same point about misuse of her blog, but is in a position to furthercomment on what it means for social networking.

Mack says the issue is transparency. Anastasia says much the same thing in her “Chinese Wall” construct.

It’s subtler than that. We enjoy messing with the truth. We love a movie that blurs the lines—as long as we know we’re in a theater. We love someone to fool us a bit—as long as we can trust their motives afterward. And we love being fooled about the lines between ads and marketers—as long as we either know the name of the game that is being played, or trust the person playing it.

Trust—in particular, transparency at the outer limits—gives us permission to enjoy the fantasy. Is it the ad, or the show? We love the conundrum, as long as we can trust he who poses it.