The blurring line between commercial and creative content

Bob Ross, painting some beautiful banner ads.

The line between commercial advertising content and more organic creative self-expression is blurring. These two worlds have overlapped in the past; the idea of advertising as art, or art as advertising is not new. The more dynamic media atmosphere found in networks like Instagram and YouTube is elevating the visibility of this ambiguous content and creating new permutations.

What is native advertising?

This shift from advertising to native advertising and the distinction between organic and sponsored content is an important one. “Native” refers to advertising that does not appear to be an ad (or “sponsored content”) to a user. Instead it looks like “organic” content, created without the goal of selling a product. Native advertising is a broad category. It can range from a promoted tweet to a full “paid post” in a reputable source like The New York Times. Some argue that native advertising yields better engagement and less disruption to users. Skeptics point out users may struggle to recognize it as advertising.

We’re headed towards more native advertising and sponsored content.

Advertising is becoming more native in its approach. And, the phenomena of brands appropriating certain aesthetics as a method of signaling is becoming more widespread. Research suggests brands that use less curated, “snapshot” style photos have better source credibility. Simultaneously, the value of appropriating edgier niche aesthetics is rising. Aesthetic production costs of near zero allow advertisers to try a multitude of styles and approaches. This way, they can target a large number of small groups rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach.

It’s an example of long tail theory in action. The sum of many niche offerings may add up to a greater total sales volume than one, or a few products targeted to the median.

A graph describing the concept of The Long Tail

This doesn’t mean that brands and advertisers are all entering into unique artistic territory. In fact, one can observe an “illustrative monoculture” in certain areas of the web, and across specific products. A similar trend can be seen in corporate logos and branding – a happy, rounded sans serif font that appears unthreatening.

These are not simply sneaky emotional plays. On the contrary, many are intentional, clear appeals to an audience. They signal that an advertiser is part of the “in-group”. It’s cultural imprinting, not inception. Are you someone of fairly standard tastes, looking for something trustworthy? Here’s a friendly logo that looks the same as another company you trust. Have more niche tastes? Something with more credibility from your unique subculture might help sway you. Through targeting with unique trigger sequences and analysis of complex purchase journeys, a smart brand can be in many spaces, with many types of content.

Where it starts to get ethically questionable…

This smart, optimized content has shifted the landscape of what is and isn’t advertising. Situational persuasion knowledge enables the critical evaluation a consumer carries out after recognizing advertising. But before making that critical evaluation, a consumer must recognize something is advertising. The concept of dispositional persuasion knowledge refers to a consumer’s acquired ability to recognize what is and isn’t an ad. When the imagery and aesthetics used by both advertisers and non-advertisers look the same, that’s tough.

This problem is well recognized, and attempts have been made at creating a “sponsorship transparency scale”. Plus, this isn’t just a problem recognized by academics or advertisers themselves. Trust levels are higher for influencer posts when they include language disclosing the content is not sponsored. Survey results suggest a majority of consumers have felt deceived by native advertising in the past. However, the same survey suggested native advertising remains quite effective. The deluge of “lifestyle” photos from your favorite brand is not likely to stop anytime soon.


Case Studies

The most useful lens to examine this phenomenon through is by looking at current advertising content. Even a quick scan of some top brand names and startups reveals a flood of examples. The approaches range from stealing an aesthetic, to utilizing user generated content to sell a product, all the way to direct partnerships with creators.

Burger King vs. Pablo Rochat

A recent Instagram story from Burger King illustrates a brand stealing the work of a creator. On the left is a story format created by art director Pablo Rochat. Rochat explores new social media content formats with his art. Here, Rochat uses the “tap and hold to pause” function of Instagram story video. The features of the cat’s face move around, and briefly appear normal. Attempting to pause when the face is normal presents a challenge to a user. On the right, Burger King has taken the same idea, but used it with their corporate mascot.

Pablo Rochat's Instagram story art

Uniqlo

On the opposite side of the “partner versus steal” spectrum, clothing brand Uniqlo maintains an active sponsorship of several artist communities. In the post below, they’ve commissioned a (quite delightful) series of metaphorical illustrations depicting their AIRism line of breathable clothing. There is no direct mention of the product in the drawings.

Uniqlo Airism illustration

Pop-Tarts

Brands like Pop-Tarts have explored how to create a social media voice that fits in with a very “internet” sense of humor. Nonsensical at times, it’s targeted to elicit a “what?” reaction. This turns the brand into another person on a user’s timeline instead of a corporate entity. Consumers are more willing to share entertaining content than informational. Brands seem quite cognizant of this.

Pop Tart's Twitter account

Taco Bell

Taco Bell also explores a variety of aesthetics across its social media presence. In the posts below, they tap into the recent popularity of letterboards. This is a smart move, with almost 300,000 posts tagged #letterboard on Instagram. They combine the ironic humor social media users love with carefully orchestrated shots of their food.

Taco Bell's Instagram content

Outdoor Voices

Outdoor voices, an athleisure brand, does a seamless job of turning user generated content into advertising. The brand has been described as a compliment to “a cultural moment when improving your life style has become a job that’s supposed to be fun”. In the examples below, they’ve taken “snapshot” style photography created by users. Then, they’ve tagged it with the products worn, and employed Instagram’s shopping features. This moves a user from initial exposure to an image through purchase in a few clicks, without leaving Instagram. Impulse purchases of expensive running equipment have never been so frictionless!

Outdoor Voices on Instagram

Casper

Online mattress retailer Casper takes a similar approach. In the posts below, user _normsworld voluntarily tags the brand in a photo. Then, the brand reposts the image, tags the original poster, and re-captions it. In the far-right image, the same process unfolds. Here, there is also a demonstration of how tangible packaging artifacts can be made social media friendly. Typically, a mattress box wouldn’t provide a distinctive backdrop for a family photo. But Casper’s attention to detail has paid off with some cute, brand friendly user generated content.

Casper mattresses on Instagram

Takeaways

All of this serves neither as an indictment nor an endorsement of adapting aesthetics for commercial use. There are countless cases of innocuous uses of art or a particular aesthetic in advertising. At times, it’s resulted in a positive-sum scenario for the creative, consumer, and commercial interest. That said, when a consumer cannot distinguish between media intended to sell and media created with no commercial agenda, numerous ethical issues arise. This is a question in need of further, deeper consideration. Trends point to more, not less of this kind of content in the future.


Works cited

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Casper. “Unbox better zzzs, unbox _____. [fill in the blank]”. Instagram, 2019, June 12. https://www.instagram.com/p/BymOdvGJe5A/

Casper. “‘Running a little late. Be there soon.’”. Instagram, 2019, June 17. https://www.instagram.com/p/By0UgTzJEvE/

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Normsworld. “This bed really is fit for a king [crown emoji]”. Instagram, 2019, April 19. https://www.instagram.com/p/BwcW4wGpIew/

Outdoor Voices. “PSA: Our favorite running coach @soswanky gives the men’s OV Clifton a [thumbs up emoji]”. Instagram, 2019, June 2. https://www.instagram.com/p/ByNocIkJ8qM/

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Uniqlo UK. “As part of our ongoing support of @itsnicethat ‘s One’s to Watch, creative artist @jeeeoook has created a series of illustrations interpreting AIRism.” Instagram, 2019, June 19. https://www.instagram.com/p/By5ZQc5nIsv/

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