Hot Take: Why are ads disguised as content?

By Carson Lewis | Page One Editor

In accordance with the COVID-19 social distancing recommendations, I’ve been able to take a break from the frenetic pace of rushing between lunches with friends and to and from classes. As a result, I’ve been consuming a lot more content from many people’s favorite social media app: TikTok. And while I enjoy the innovative and hilarious ways in which those of my generation, but also other generations create content in a short, video-based medium, I’ve noticed something that has been more worrisome: advertisement that can often disguise itself as content.

The phenomenon is not exclusive to TikTok, becoming something that is quickly evolving with the creation of ways to share content, as old styles of advertisement in print and television become less important in a streaming-based media environment.

It’s something I’ve paid attention to more recently. This may be partially due to the prevalence of political survey advertisements on Youtube paid for by political parties or office-holders that are veiled attempts to boost a candidate’s support, instead of conducting any actual data collection, with questions that fail to conceal bias and openly attack the party’s political rivals.

This pseudo-survey is a portion of what I like to call “new advertisement,” which has largely shifted away from traditional marketing like on television, where a spokesperson or presenter will tell the viewer exactly how or what their company’s product provides. For example, a Pizza place may spend money on an ad that says that its pizzas are “stacked high with pepperoni for a low price of $6.99.”

This shift is not a new phenomenon either. I can recall back in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s, advertisement got a little weird. Shick, a razor company, at one point had a personified razor superhero, for a Super Bowl ad appearance in 2016. The atmosphere in 2016 may have been less superhero diluted, so perhaps Shick was trying to tie the brand to the power and adoration of the superhero. Perhaps they wished to hop on the Marvel train, (without copyright of course) and entice audiences into their ad and away from other Super Bowl distractions with a transforming razor with fighting prowess.

I bring up this peculiar advertising event to illustrate a point. Advertising is now in many aspects, only another way to be entertained. And it’s fine to be entertained. I would much rather watch an ad that gives me some enjoyment, than an ad that offers me the visual equivalent of wet oatmeal. My problem arises when such content moves into traditionally content-only spaces, on places like TikTok or YouTube.

Advertisement has always existed on platforms like these. It’s part of what makes such applications such moneymakers. But advertisements, before or in-between content, is where one would expect advertisement to be. Not in the middle. I’ve seen advertisements on a variety of platforms that look aesthetically similar to the content just before it. Same style and delivery. The only difference being that of a small white “ad” notation in the bottom right, that can often fade into the background. The TikTok life-hack guru’s content that you may go to for advice on nifty tips and tricks may look almost the same as the content of a paid actor who has intent to make money off of you. I don’t know about everyone else, but that’s scary to me.

The college-aged demographic is not even who I’m most worried for. My anxiety with this new aspect of advertisement comes with regard to the middle-school aged kids who frequent online spaces. I worry that children, especially those under the age of 16, may not be able to distinguish such marketing from that of normal content.

I feel as if this burden lies with the companies of these programs. More has to be done to differentiate content from advertisement. Both should be clear and recognizable, even for young children. If not, I fear that we enter into dangerous territory that may conflate content and marketing as one and the same.