Synthetic highs: a trope for corrupt content marketing?

I bought my 5-year-old daughter a pink piggybank because I wanted her to learn how to save. Then she discovered it made a splendid noise, and turned it into a nerve shredding shaker… A good thing gone bad?

Isn’t it interesting, how often something is made, invented, created, intended for a particular purpose, only to have somebody come along and use it for another, often less noble, function?

Synthetic cannabis – which is plaguing New Zealand at the moment – is a good example.

Synthetic marijuana was originally created by John W. Huffman on a United States Federal grant to study the effects of the drug’s active ingredient, THC, on receptors in the brains of lab animals.

“These things are dangerous – anybody who uses them is playing Russian roulette,” Huffman told the Los Angeles Times (2011).

Ironically morphine – originally intended for pain relief – emerged out of experiments to extract the active ingredient of opium, while heroin was intended as a cough medicine.

Ernest Rutherford split the atom because he was curious about radioactivity, but we ended up with the atom bomb.

Gunpowder was invented by alchemists looking for the potion to eternal life. First it was used for fireworks and then explosives… Curiosity killing the cat, again and again and again.

Interestingly, the Nobel Peace Prize was started by the owner of an armaments factory and the inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel, because he was horrified that the world would remember him as ‘the merchant of death’ (after he was startled by a premature obituary).

Regardless of our noble (nobel?) intentions, there is always somebody lurking in the wings ready to exploit what we have made for their own power, or profit or pleasure.

Alas, content marketing faces the same threat from a flailing and increasingly less relevant media. It’s not on the grand scale of nuclear bombs, but damaging nevertheless.

Newspapers have had a hundred years and more to get advertorials right but, while they were happy to take your money, they weren’t happy to create advertorials that people would actually read and benefit from – instead they gave you long, boring adverts written by bored junior journalists who resented getting their hands dirty with ‘salesy’ guff.

So they wrote rubbish, and you paid for it.

Now we’re in danger of media organisations dusting off the old advertorial and renaming it content marketing. In so doing they risk exploiting a good thing.

Content marketing is, for me, about creating information pieces that are interesting, informative and educational – it adds value to the recipient; it has utility.

Thanks to technology, even small companies can bypass the media intermediaries – or use them in a beneficial relationship as with Forbes – and communicate their expertise directly to their customers, to their customers’ benefit, while earning trust and credibility as they go.

But to call native advertising, or any form of clever advertising like the Old Spice ads, content marketing… blasphemy!

It muddies the waters, confuses readers and turn them off – ultimately destroying a golden opportunity for companies to earn their audience’s trust by publishing content that adds value.

It won’t take long for people to recognise that this so-called content marketing material is being used as a Trojan horse for advertising.

A good example is this native advertisement by Time magazine. Presented as an infographic, it is anything but.

The New Zealand Herald revealed to us at the recent 2014 Content Marketing Conference that it is due to roll out its own content marketing products. Good on them for moving in the direction of content marketing, but will they go down the new route of content marketing, or revert back to bad old habits?

I waited with bated breath, and not a little anxiety…

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