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The New Viral

<p>Alex D. Epstein looks at &#8216;native advertising&#8217; in Australia.</p>

Kmart by Sharon Huang Liang

In September last year, ABC’s Media Watch investigated a series of 30 online news articles and half a dozen TV features on one of the year’s least newsworthy events—a new range of Kmart furniture. As Paul Barry’s report alleged, the stories are related to another event—‘social media influencers’ being flown across the country and offered private viewings of the very same furniture with the implied expectation that they will post positive reviews on Facebook and Instagram. One ‘Kmart mum’ claimed to have been given $60,000 worth of goods in exchange for posting about them online.

These advertising campaigns are often generously dubbed ‘native advertising’ in the industry. The implication is that the ads are integrated seamlessly into their ‘natural environment’, making them less disruptive to the typical user’s experience. But shouldn’t we be informed what is and isn’t advertising?

Native advertising can arguably trace its roots back to the days of product placement: usually undisclosed, always paid references to real products in fictional universes. We’ve probably all been witness to it in films and television, like Chandler Bing’s never-again-referenced love of a particular games console (“You’re gonna get them a Sony PlayStation?!”) or Dom Toretto’s love of a particular beer (“You can have any brew you want, as long as it’s a Corona”). It worked for Beats by Dr Dre; it’s been working for Apple since Buffy and Mission: Impossible; it worked for Google in 2013’s The Internship. It might be blatant, and sometimes even laughable, but it works. If you don’t believe me, just BingTM it yourself.

The Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) put in place new advertising standards in March last year, partially covering the practice of social media influencers like Media Watch’s Kmart mums. But as Hack’s James Purtill reported on 1 March, following the AANA’s rules is voluntary.

In the UK and the US, you are required by law to disclose sponsored posts. In Australia, consumers do not have this protection. The Competition and Consumer Act 2010 prohibits many forms of deceptive product reviews—but not all advertising takes the form of a testimonial.

One Facebook page, Bargain Mums, is an example of how the line can be blurred. “I’d give up shopping at Kmart… but I’m no quitter.” “What would you rather? Sleep and [sic] extra hour—or—go to Kmart alone for an hour?” “Adulthood is standing in line at Kmart while checking your bank account balance on your phone.” “Not all who wander are lost. Some are just mums. In Kmart. Hiding from their husband and kids.” “I’m in a really good place right now. I don’t mean emotionally. I’m at Kmart.” “My wife hates snakes. But if they sold snakes at Kmart, we’d probably have a few snakes.” “Me: I just need to pop into Kmart for one thing. Cashier: That’ll be $237.50, thanks.” “I was diagnosed with OCKD: Obsessive Compulsive Kmart Disorder. The only cure is Kmart.” “Kmart shop assistant: ‘Did you find everything you were looking for?’ *me unloading cart* First of all, I wasn’t looking for any of this.”

But the clearest example of this phenomenon must be: “Sad? Go to Kmart. Happy? Go to Kmart. Mad? Go to Kmart. Bored? Go to Kmart. Just got dumped? Go to Kmart. Dying? Go to Kmart.” War is peace. Freedom is Kmart. Consume!

All ten of these were published in—at the time of writing— the last one and a half months. Twice a week, a Facebook page with 43,000 likes posts memes about how funny it is to spend literally hundreds of dollars on KmartTM’s homewares. They are being paid to do so. The pattern of subversive advertising demonstrated by last year’s Media Watch segment should dispel all doubt about this conclusion. Existing consumer protection law is powerless to prevent this behaviour because these aren’t reviews or testimonials. Technically, they’re just jokes.

The problem with Kmart’s ‘memes’ is that their punchlines universally rely on some untrue and probably harmful assumptions: that Kmart is good, and that spending money there is funny. Even if you don’t believe this yourself at first, through the magic of Facebook’s viral algorithm, it will be repeated until you do.

In a perfect world—one without a PR industry of any kind—a corporation like Kmart would plainly represent cheap low-quality products, deforestation, destructive cargo ship emissions, and unethical, unaccountable overseas labour. And yet, somehow, it has come to represent itself as fun, young, splurgy—as pop-culture, flirty and impulsive.

Its choice of image makes sense: impulse-buying has been associated with lower rates of buyers’ remorse, even when the product is genuinely disappointing, as many of Kmart’s certainly are. Maybe even its youthful, comical brand image has its origins in the fact that millennials are more likely than other generations to spend money on experiences rather than things. Perhaps recasting Kmart not as a site to buy material goods but as a place to have a good time taps into this behaviour.

But the problem is not just limited to memes—The Urban List, Uni Junkee, Yahoo!7, BuzzFeed and Pedestrian have all recently published similar content, dressed up as either news or comedy. “The Completely Lush New Kmart Homewares Range Will Make You Flip Your Shit,” wrote Pedestrian last July. A week later, “Here’s Your 1st Proper Look At The Lush Homewares Loot Kmart Drops Tomorrow”, and a week after that, “Holy Shit, Kmart Quietly Released An App To Help You Kit Out Your Digs”. On 18 January, BuzzFeed published “79 Thoughts Everyone Has Whenever They Shop At Kmart”, a listicle pitch no sane editor would accept for free, consisting mostly of single sentences about how amaaaazing Kmart’s baaaargains are. How do you do, fellow kids?

Edward Bernays, the ‘father of public relations’, once candidly described his industry as an ‘invisible government’. Advertising is, after all, a surprisingly powerful force—and its most effective form, statistically, is word-of-mouth. We distrust strangers telling us what to do—but when advertisers and marketers enlist our friends as salespeople, we’re far more likely to buy.

Kmart’s new advertising spreads itself through you, whenever you tag your friend, send a post to the group chat, or even smash that like button. Facebook is designed for advertising, after all; it makes participating in its propagation easy—almost instinctive, subconscious. But look around at everything you own from Kmart. Does it really bring you joy? Are you still glad you bought it? Is it funny?

This question of whether we should be informed what is and isn’t advertising now seems very 20th-century. A better question—one more suited to the age of Facebook—might be whether we should be willing participants.

Farrago's magazine cover - Edition Three 2021


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