Naturally Integrate Me Into A Hole, Please

Because you’re normal, you probably did not read a Q&A with Ringer CEO Bill Simmons that was published yesterday. Bear with me for a moment, though, and take a look at the final question and answer, concerning The Ringer’s ad partnerships:

What’s an example of a recent partnership that has been successful?

We have a really good relationship with State Farm. I sound like a Kool-Aid drinker, but they’re just smart. We were doing this NBA draft guide. We explained it to them, and they get it. They’re like, “What if we also did a couple of videos?” Ryen Russillo did a lottery special, and we did a couple of State Farm “What if?” things in the middle. It was like a natural integration, and that was pretty cool. I like when people just get what we do and trust us because I feel like we should be trusted at this point. The days of somebody just slapping a banner on a website are long gone.

For reasons that have very little to do with what’s best for readers and a whole lot to do with what’s best for brands, digital media has spent the last few years trying to find ways for the advertising industry to subsidize editorial work that go beyond the standard ad placements of old. Brands wanted more natural integration—to be not just closer to but more closely embedded within the editorial content itself. Attempts to satisfy that desire have produced work like The Ringer’s aforementioned NBA Draft guide, which heavily features State Farm’s color scheme and logo, and even grants the insurance company ownership of the “assist” statistic in every scouting report. The integration really is all quite natural.

It’s nice enough to look at, too, and there are surely readers who appreciate the opportunity to read something online without having a big banner ad drop down from the top of their screen. But what if the garishness of a classic banner ad is a virtue, and not a sin? If we accept that ad revenue is necessary to keep digital media’s collective lights on, which it currently is, then maybe the best option is to have the ads feel as “slapped on” as possible.

An advertisement should feel somewhat intrusive, if for no other reason than to remind the reader that the ad has no meaningful relationship to the work it is appearing next to, and also that said work was created for the sake of the reader alone. When editorial products and advertisements become more “naturally integrated,” it becomes harder to determine just in whose service the work is being created. It muddles the nature of the thing you’re reading, very much by design.

Take the State Farm “What If?” segment Simmons cites in his quote:

This is a fairly frivolous thought exercise concerning alternate NBA histories, a Simmons hallmark if ever there was one, but it also raises a stubborn question about the execution of the concept. In his answer to Adweek, Simmons essentially describes an editorial pitch meeting between his site and State Farm, and while introducing the segment in the video above he seamlessly integrates the “What If?” concept with ad copy about State Farm’s insurance services.

The question, here, is whether this concept would have existed at all without State Farm’s participation. If the answer is no, or even maybe, then we’ve witnessed a somewhat alarming inversion: Instead of seeing a media company create something that it thinks its readers will enjoy and then presenting that thing to those readers alongside unaffiliated ads, we’re seeing one create something that’s meant to satisfy its advertising partner first and its readers second, if at all.

(There’s another issue to consider here: What if, hypothetically, State Farm gets involved in some sort of scandal that The Ringer would rather not be associated with? Severing a relationship as intensely symbiotic as this one is not just a matter of swapping in a new banner ad.)

Maybe this doesn’t really matter to you, because you don’t care whether the internet’s frivolous thought exercises come straight from the brain of Bill Simmons or some State Farm marketing team. That’s reasonable enough, but it doesn’t seem too much to ask to know why the thing you are reading or watching was created. (Here’s where Simmons deserves some credit: More powerful people in digital media should be more honest and open about how exactly their businesses function.)

When a banner ad for some fucking Xbox game or whatever invades the top half of your screen while you’re reading this, you’ll know that it had no influence whatsoever upon my decision to present you with a huffy and tedious blog about Bill Simmons and digital advertising. Would you be so sure of that if there was no banner ad, and all of this bloviating appeared on a blue and white background and was labeled as the Think Progressive Take of the Day? 

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