Calling bullshit on John Oliver’s attack on native advertising

richard parkerYesterday satirist John Oliver launched a blistering attack on native advertising describing it as “repurposed bovine waste”. In this guest post, content marketing specialist Richard Parker calls bullshit on Oliver’s argument.     

I’m usually a big fan of John Oliver. What’s not to like? The lefty credentials? The anti-Fox news stance? The fact that he’s from Birmingham? But his latest piece vilifying native advertising leaves me a bit cold.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Native Advertising

Now, I’m no massive fan of native advertising. I’m fairly philosophically apposed to the bringing together of editorial ‘state’ and business ‘church’ (or is it the other way around? Never been quite sure). But I’m also not a big fan of picking on easy targets or the setting up of straw men – and I think this piece does both. It also shows some really dull thinking, which is even more offensive.

Let’s deal with easy targets first.

Everyone hates big old evil corporations, and everyone hates advertising and marketing. It’s the way they just force us all to buy things we don’t want, right? Because without them we would all be happy eating shit food, driving cheap, shit cars, living in really ugly homes and wearing head-to-toe velour. Balls.

Marketing just perpetuates basic evolutionary psychology that exists anyway (costly signalling theory etc) – it’s human nature to buy stuff that simultaneously says something about our individuality whilst ensuring we defiantly fit in with everyone else. Advertising plays a role, but it would happen anyway.We’re social animals. We chatter. But it’s easy to stir up an audience by banging on about evil corporations, so old Johnny does just that.

It wouldn’t bother me if he was talking about something REALLY evil and underhand, like using slaves to pick tea or something – but he’s not. He’s talking about native advertising, which, y’know, isn’t really all that evil.

Secondly, setting up a straw man.

Corporations have been controlling the news agenda for a long time – and much more surreptitiously than through native. Good old PR is nothing more than corporations controlling the news. Pharma companies have used ‘survey results’ to drum up demand for products for years. At least Chevron clearly sponsored the piece about changing energy needs in the New York Times – it seems a lot more honest to me than commissioning a market research company to ask some very leading questions and then releasing the results to journos as a press release.

And if you read ANY lifestyle magazine, the content is nothing more than marketing, really. They’re all selling something – if not a specific product, then a – you guessed it – lifestyle, which keeps the old commercial engine revolving just as wonderfully as advertising itself, native or otherwise. And don’t get me started on press owners disseminating their personal ideology through their esteemed organs, rather than reporting facts. So has anything really changed, or is this just a straw man distracting from the real story, which is that the ‘press’ has not been ‘free’ pretty much ever?

Dull thinking? Look, Buzzfeed can be a great tool, and I genuinely don’t mind sponsored content on there – as long as it’s entertaining or actually useful. But seriously, 9 Ways Cleaning Has Become Smarterchevron engergy needs new yo? Try harder, Swiffer. Try a LOT harder.

So, sorry John. You’ve lost me on this one. Can you get back to sticking it to Republicans?

Richard Parker is managing partner at content marketing agency Edge



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