Blurred Lines: Subtle but Distinct Implications of Native Advertising and Content Marketing

Rose McKinney
Rose McKinney



Blurred LinesWith its catchy tune, provocative video and suggestive lyrics, Robin Thicke’s popular tune “Blurred Lines” has been all the buzz. Baby boomers are just as likely as millennials to bop to this beat even if they are questioning the content.

Like many overplayed sensations on today’s airwaves, the subtleties may have far greater implications than most listeners realize. My 13-year-old son expressed outrage when I turned up the volume en route to sports practice.

“Mom, do you know what they are saying?” he asked.

To which I replied, “I just like the music.” The lyrics were actually a bit muffled and muted to my ears, and yes, upon truly listening to the lyrics, I was wide-eyed but not surprised.

In defining the integration of advertising and public relations, I’ve often used the description: increasingly blurry but distinct. The growing number of channels and tactics available to reach target audiences represents a real blurring of the lines. Where does advertising end and public relations begin? Or more accurately, where and when does one pass the baton to the other?

New concepts such as native advertising and content marketing are good examples of the blurred lines in our advertising and public relations communities — communities that come together as one more often than not.

When you toss out the notion of native advertising in agency meetings and with clients, there’s either a communal look of curiosity or a communal nodding of heads indicating familiarity with the concept du jour. That goes ditto for content marketing. I wonder whether we’re reacting to the catchy idea like a popular song that pumps us up. Should be asking ourselves, “Whose song is this?” Is it appropriate for the audience, and if so, who should be producing it and writing the lyrics?

I’ve long said that tactics don’t really belong to one marketing discipline or another, but rather, they depend on the objectives you’re trying to achieve. Sometimes a PR campaign needs the functionality of a paid placement — an advertisement — even if the message is purely about building mutual understanding or educating the recipients so they can make informed decisions. Likewise, an advertising campaign may require that stakeholders beyond the targeted consumer get involved, so this entails the use of PR strategies.

That brings us to consider not only the appropriateness of new tactics such as native advertising and content marketing but also the best resources and talent for successfully implementing these. Ah, those blurred lines — again.

Native advertising is content that aligns with digital-editorial content. It looks and feels like most of the content on the site, and it often enriches the editorial experience by providing videos, images or other value-added information. The tone and personality match, though its placement is sponsored — a subtle way of saying paid.

It doesn’t really matter whether an advertising copywriter or a PR person develops the native advertising as long as they convey the message in a way that aligns with the brand without sounding like a sales pitch. What does matter is the skillful placement of the message.

The same can be said for content marketing with the idea being to create and distribute information that supports a brand without directly containing a sales message. The success of this tactic relies not only on the copy but also on a traditional PR tool — an editorial calendar — that determines focus areas and content themes that work together over time to support overarching messages.

What I find encouraging about the new concepts of native advertising and content marketing is the opportunity to further collaborate advertising and PR in ways that advance brands and foster enhanced appreciation of our respective marketing disciplines. At the same time, what I find even more thought-provoking is whether recipients will welcome having content delivered in these new ways and whether it will strengthen affinity with the distributing brand.

When we explore the vast number of new ways to engage our audiences, we need to weigh the pros and cons of the blur we’re creating. Will it spike as a one-hit wonder? Will it be a short-term craze? Will it spur copycats? Could it evolve and become a new standard? I hope that the fast-paced tempo with which our industries are embracing native advertising and content marketing techniques will breed acceptance; if not, we’ll all hear about it.

We’ll have to stay tuned to find out if native advertising and content marketing — both examples of blurred lines within integrated marketing — are here to stay and if our multi-generation listeners are hip to the tune. To that, I’ll echo Robin Thicke’s chorus, “You know you want it.”

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