Personalization at Scale: What Synthetic Media’s Rise Means for Brands

Advancement in artificial intelligence (AI) is giving rise to synthetic media. But is it something brands should lean into? Here, Christian Jones, head of marketing, Hawthorne Advertising, discusses synthetic media’s advantages and how marketers can integrate it into their brand strategy.


Synthetic Media Can Drive Personalization at Scale

Consumers expect personalization. It’s table stakes in 2022, and brands that can’t deliver the personalized content people expect are at risk of losing customers to competitors who can. But while companies of all sizes can define customer segments, it’s difficult to personalize digital content using traditional methods due to the expense. Smaller companies and startups, in particular, find the price tag impossible.

The emergence of synthetic media makes producing personalized content fast, easy, and affordable.

Synthetic media, as defined by Wikipedia, is “a catch-all term for the artificial production, manipulation, and modification of data and media by automated means, especially through the use of artificial intelligence algorithms.” In sum, it’s content produced by technology, not by humans directly. The most visible type of synthetic media at this stage is “deepfakes.” While there are countless creative examples, the Tom Cruise deepfake is often referenced based on his global familiarity and an admirable character impression. But what if customers could interact with your brand’s spokesperson or representative as a deepfake, as museum visitors in Florida did with surrealist painter Salvador Dalí? This kind of interaction could be game-changing.

Deepfakes (and their more nefarious implications) aside, synthetic media has many non-video applications that are immensely useful, including AI-written text generation, music composition, realistic human photogeneration, voice synthesis, and more. As technology advances, the toolsets for creation will become easier and more accessible.

For specific examples of how synthetic media may be of immediate use to brands, consider the avatar as a virtual spokesperson and brand representative. What if technology could render your products already on a consumer or an avatar that represents your target audience? It’s easier to see yourself buying shoes or a new hoodie if you’ve already tried it on, creating brand affinity within audience segments.

In Roadrunner, the Anthony Bourdain documentary, filmmakers leveraged synthetic media to create a realistic voice-over from Bourdain that he never actually voiced. Synthetic media also creates new possibilities for companies with a global customer base. This is deeply distressing to anyone who knew or loved the late author and television star. But it does illustrate the possibilities of editing and creating video content with synthetic media.

After developing video content with a host speaking a message in one language, synthetic media toolsets make it simple to translate a video message and “voice-over” into dozens of other languages. Creating new ad spots without additional voice-over recording, reshooting, or dubbing? It’s almost unheard of. Script changes are also a snap — edit the script, and the facial movements and VO follow along. The tools to generate synthetic media can essentially eliminate traditional “linear” production processes for localization, customization and personalization.

How Synthetic Media Will Evolve in the Near Term

The advancements in the production capabilities to generate synthetic media are evolving quickly, so it’s a good idea for brand marketers to know its advantages and understand its limitations. Currently, one of those limitations is the uncanny valley phenomenon. As the technology evolves and target audiences become accustomed to synthetically generated content, that will likely be less of a concern. But a measured approach over the next 2-4 years is probably best.

Synthetic media is already making inroads with consumers, and the acceptance rate of the emerging technology may follow a trajectory similar to photo filtering, widely popularized by Snap and Instagram. Photo filters have been a gamechanger in the photo-sharing space because algorithm-driven platforms make incredibly complex operations simple for everyday users. That’s starting to happen with synthetic media too.

Younger consumers are experts with filters on Instagram, more receptive to tools like digital face-swapping technology and more comfortable interacting through digital personas. Platforms like Rosebud let users map their facial expressions onto avatars to tell stories and bring old photos to life, giving users a “decentralized Hollywood on your laptop,” according to the creators.

Integrating Synthetic Media Into a Brand Strategy

As synthetic media usage on consumer platforms grows, the impact on brand marketing will increase because the potential advantages are massive. In addition to the ability to personalize at scale, synthetic media can fundamentally change concepts like spokesperson name and likeness usage. This provides brands with PR crisis-proof spokespeople (since non-human avatars are impervious to scandals, for now at least) and boosts the productivity of human spokespeople by reducing the need for recording sessions.

Brand marketers will need to be thoughtful about how they integrate synthetic media into their strategy. For companies that have a synthetic and/or tech-forward focus, it might be a natural fit, whereas brands that are high-touch and/or human-centered should proceed cautiously. The target customer is also a consideration; younger audiences are definitely more receptive.

It hasn’t fully escaped the uncanny valley, but synthetic media and other technologies will eventually automate many creative processes associated with video production, including scriptwriting. As the palette of tools becomes more advanced, marketing, as we know, will change; but we’re not there yet. For now, brand marketers should keep a sharp eye on the explosion of new tools to exploit this new tech and be ready to jump in when the time is right.

Why Brands Will Be Fragile In 2021 and How They Can Win Consumers

In this article, Christian Jones, head of marketing, Hawthorne Advertising, talks about changes to the traditional sales funnel in 2020, brand loyalty in 2021, and new ways to win consumers.

Brand loyalty is a thing of the past – and more fragile today than ever before. Fickle consumers, purchase path disruption, and the radically altered retail environment born as the direct and indirect effects of COVID-19 will continue in 2021 and beyond. Marketers must be prepared for the opportunity — and the threat.

2021 Consumer Experience Trends

The Fragility of Brands in 2021
The early months of the pandemic triggered an avalanche of panic buying and hoarding, resulting in empty grocery shelves and nationwide stock shortages. The alarming sight of empty shelves at some of the world’s most efficient grocery retailers was sufficient stimulus to recalibrate consumer expectations and sentiment immediately. The willingness to buy literally any brand of toilet paper, canned soup, energy bar, or hand sanitizer grew exponentially in those initial weeks and months.

The unprecedented, urgent recalibration of brand loyalty — where immediate need always trumps loyalty — has since extended from grocery into nearly all categories, including ecommerce. According to a HubSpot report, 50% of U.S. consumers left a brand they were loyal to because a competitor met their needs better. You can capitalize on this sentiment shift by ensuring your supply chain and stock is aligned with your paid media campaigns. Regularly refactoring risks or bottlenecks in your distribution and with vendors and suppliers is critical, given the array of unforeseen circumstances arising globally.

If your projections can augur potential stock shortages, then scale back on your media accordingly. Driving awareness with ill-planned media campaigns when a product is not available or delayed is a death spiral. By the same token, keep an eye on your competition. If their category-competing products are out of stock or delayed while you are flush, double- or triple-down on your media spend to seize the opportunity to convert consumers who are considering an alternative brand for their immediate needs. These competitive windows may only last a few days, so remain vigilant and agile and demand the same of your agency or media team.

The Low-Risk Transactional Environment
The ascendance of ecommerce, particularly Amazon Prime, has obliterated the traditional consumer funnel for lower price point items, generally in the sub-$50 range. The jump from top-of-funnel awareness to bottom-of-funnel conversion has exploded with the accelerants of same- or two-day shipping and free returns. Capitalize on this acceleration and this low-risk transactional environment by offering discount codes to create a sense of “exclusivity” or designing unique upsell offer configurations to sway new customers. Timely messaging that will address consumers’ immediate needs at that moment will capture impulse buys effectively.

The caveat is that if your main ecommerce channel is through Amazon and their subsidized, low-risk transactional environment, you will be missing a considerable chunk of first-party data on your customers. It is a classic Sophie’s Choice. If the long-term goal is to have a clear window into lifetime value (LTV) and the ability to pull levers to control that metric, then create a best-in-class ecommerce experience (with free shipping and free returns). Also, create a trade sales volume for valuable, long-term customer data.

The New Lenses of Assessment
America’s polarization and politicization will inevitably trickle down to brands, or at the very least brands that are targeting younger demos. Both the Millennial and Gen-Z demos have made it abundantly clear that they are seeking to align themselves with brands that are taking action to promote the greater societal good. Attracting these younger consumers with cause-based marketing, social responsibility positioning, and sustainably focused practices that eschew the current mainstream will ultimately gain traction with the target. But it may alienate large swaths of other demographics. Again, it is Sophie’s Choice. Brand loyalty is being attacked by myriad influences, and the landscape is shifting beneath us all. So, what is next?

The Next Step
We will turn a corner in 2021. Things will get better. But the effects of our collective experience as consumers, marketers, and humans will linger for many years to come. There will be decreased brand loyalty, increased customer churn, sporadic re-engagement, non-monogamous brand loyalty in every category. As a result, there will be more opportunities for brands to collaborate, cross-promote, and bundle. Ultimately, we have entered a new frontier, with an irreversible shift in consumer behavior. It will be driven by the frictionless swipes and the impulsive clicks that are enabled and driven by the low-risk, high-reward enticement of each purchase engagement.

What is the solution? Now, more than ever, it is critically important to be a brand that is “there” when the customer needs you most. Focus your brand vision, double down on your marketing investment, raise your awareness with your core and incremental audiences, and be ready to engage. If you are the friendly face and trusted voice when that brandless consumer is seeking, you will win them over in any environment.

How To Ensure Authenticity In Marketing: 12 Critical Tips

Consumers have to deal with so much advertising daily that they are very particular about the ones they listen to. Thanks to the sheer volume of marketing efforts, buyers have become clued-in to what inauthentic marketing looks like. Consumers treat businesses that try to perform inauthentic marketing with disdain, and modern cancel-culture can lead to massive PR disasters.

Forbes Agency Council

If you want to connect with your clients, you need to do it in a way that resonates with them authentically. Below, 12 members of Forbes Agency Council share several critical tips to help businesses be more genuine in their marketing endeavors.

1. Make Your Customer The Superhero

If you make your product or people the superhero, you’re putting your brand above your customer and looking down at them. This positioning makes you appear inauthentic and untrustworthy. In your marketing, the superhero is always your customer. Your product or service is the tool that enables them to achieve the superior results they’re seeking. – Douglas Karr, Highbridge

2. Understand Your Brand Promise

Businesses should first of all understand their brand promise. What is it that their consumers expect of them? What is their core philosophy? What is the brand’s DNA — not its ideal, but the truth of its culture and impact? Once that is known, any message that strays from that brand promise will be inauthentic. – Stefan Pollack, The Pollack Group

3. Project What Your Brand Stands For

Every clever marketing campaign should project the heart of the brand and what it stands for. All marketing projects must be consistent in messaging to truly connect with the consumer and showcase the values of the brand, ensuring authenticity. – Jessica Hawthorne-Castro, Hawthorne LLC

4. Develop A Brand Style Guide Early On

Branding is storytelling, and authenticity and consistency are key. Developing a brand bible and style guide early is a helpful tool to crystallize your story. You should include elements like positioning, mission, pillars, dos/don’ts, visual identity, etc. These will serve as a North Star internally and will also enable partners, agencies and other extensions of your team to know your story. – Marc Becker, The Tangent Agency

5. Gather As Much Feedback As Possible

What you think customers want and what customers actually want are not always the same. Gather as much customer feedback and engagement metrics as possible to learn how they talk about your product/service and what they want or need from it. Use that information to build a marketing strategy and you will be sure to resonate with your target audience in an authentic way. – Donna Robinson, Collective Measures

6. Focus On Providing Value And Educating

The single best way to have authentic marketing is to give value first. Instead of always trying to sell, sell, sell, make sure you take the time to educate. We pride ourselves on our blog, training and learning hub. We give access to all of them for free because we believe in value first. If we can get our customers to trust us, then the selling will come even easier later in the funnel. – Marc Hardgrove, The HOTH

7. Feature Your Subject-Matter Experts

People trust people, not brands. It’s important to look for ways to feature the subject-matter experts behind your company because it’s easier for someone to connect with a person than a brand. People want to buy from people they trust, and learning about your founders’ stories, values and experience can help build that trust. – Kelsey Raymond, Influence & Co.

8. Have A Story With A Human Touch

Make sure your brand has a story with a human touch. Showing why customers need your product or service is not enough, you have to connect with them on a deeper level — and that’s where storytelling comes in. What’s the story behind the brand? Why does it exist? When your brand has a proper story behind it, you’ll win the loyalty of consumers and that’s priceless. – Randy Soderman, Soderman SEO

9. Focus On Product Benefits, Not Features

Authentic marketing always focuses on product benefits, not product features. To ensure authenticity, first understand how your product makes the customer’s life better, easier or more enjoyable; i.e., the product benefits. Then ensure that marketing content focuses on telling that product benefit story. This approach helps your marketing content resonate and keeps it authentic. – Aliza Freud, SheSpeaks, Inc.

10. Keep Your Message And Tone Consistent

Keep your message and tone consistent. If you’re clever, be clever. If you’re snarky, be snarky. It’s the inconsistency of this tone that can sound fake. If the written content on your site is a bit casual and loose, but the videos on your site are overly “corporate,” your brand will reek of inauthenticity. Clever and catchy are OK, but don’t do it halfway. – Bernard May, National Positions

11. Always Test Before Launch

Even the best creative can have a blind spot, so it’s critical to test before launch. Test it! Too often, campaigns come out without input from a variety of demographics. If you want to be authentic, you must first test it with your internal team and collect feedback based on how it makes them feel and how they expect the outside world will react. – Kathleen Lucente, Red Fan Communications

12. Don’t Be Afraid To Be Vulnerable

Be vulnerable. Nobody’s perfect, so if your marketing suggests that you are, it will always come off as inauthentic. I saw a restaurant that advertised that its rooftop bar was “well worth the three flights of stairs.” That’s clever and self-deprecating in a way that resonates with consumers. – Scott Baradell, Idea Grove

3 Ad Campaigns That Resonated With the Gen Z Audience

Gen Z is completely shifting the way advertisers work. The long-held mindset of heritage, comfort, and familiarity is being upset by this up-and-coming generation of digital natives. Gen Z approaches the world differently than previous generations, and their way of thinking is coming to the forefront of today’s society. Their passion for social justice, demand for authenticity, and short attention spans have forced brands that target Gen Z consumers to shift their advertising strategies accordingly.

3 Ad Campaigns GenZ

Today, brands are starting to get better at picking up on what Gen Z values and learning to adapt. From a company structure perspective, this can mean implementing more corporate social responsibility initiatives; while in advertising and marketing, this can mean deploying messages, media, and strategies designed to resonate with Gen Z consumers. There are a number of one-off ad campaigns that have redefined success with this generation, as well as continuous campaigns and brand behaviors that are molding and shaping the way marketers and advertisers target this audience.

Here are examples of three very different ad campaigns that have resonated with Gen Z in unique ways, and how they did it.

Aerie ‘Real’ Campaign

Historically, clothing brands have promoted themselves with bombshell supermodels who possess unattainable beauty. It may seem simple, but Gen Z is challenging that paradigm by calling for and responding to ad campaigns that feature “normal” people, and by rejecting impossible beauty standards.

In the early ’00s, brands began receiving backlash for digitally enhancing the faces and figures of their models in noticeable ways and removing anything that might be seen as an imperfection. Once it became clear that this imagery was harmful to the development of young girls’ self-esteem and confidence, American Eagle’s intimates brand Aerie decided to connect with its target consumer, Gen Z, with a different approach — body positivity.

In 2014, Aerie’s “Real” campaign was born. American Eagle started by announcing that it would not only cease the use of supermodels, but would also refrain from digital retouching. That campaign received a flurry of attention as the first-of-its-kind and was a big success. Since then, Aerie has continued to expand the parameters by which it chooses lingerie models. Campaigns have included women with curves, cellulite, small chests, large chests, disabilities, medical illnesses, stretch marks, body hair, and more. Furthermore, the “Real” campaign has expanded by including Aerie consumers. The brand encourages people to feel positive, confident, and comfortable in their own bodies and show it off by joining in with the hashtag #AerieReal on social media.

Not only has this approach helped Aerie stand out in the market and build a positive reputation with Gen Z, but it’s also increased sales year-over-year, with a 38% increase in Q1 of 2018, alone. Overall, the “Real” campaign enabled Aerie to earn credibility in authenticity, diversity, inclusion, and body positivity spaces. Aerie was also ahead of the curve, and many brands are now embracing body positivity and inclusion in their own branding.


Casper is a new age mattress company that has completely shaken up its sector. A traditionally brick and mortar industry, Casper took a direct-to-consumer approach to mattresses that appeals to a younger-skewing audience. Casper has succeeded with this business model by incorporating selling factors that are important to Gen Zers.

Before Casper, the idea of getting a bed-in-a-box was unheard of and viewed as impractical. Casper, however, had a deep understanding of its target audience and realized a DTC approach could be effective, if the brand positioned itself as a master in the mattress space. To that end, Casper deployed a robust content marketing campaign. The company leveraged social media and retargeting to garner attention and create brand awareness. Once its audience was engaged, Casper established itself as the expert in the space, using product comparisons, customer reviews, and influencer marketing to move the consumer down the funnel toward purchasing a mattress they had never even touched before.

In addition, Casper invested in building a sense of community around its brand. Campaigns like Staycation Story Hacks, unboxing videos, “Waffle Crush Wednesdays,” and the publication Winkle were all geared toward giving consumers many different ways to engage and interact with the brand, and with fellow brand customers. Together, Casper’s marketing efforts have brought in upward of 100,000 video views; 2,000 to 10,000 likes per post; and increased its valuation to $1.1 billion, in just five years.


Revolve, an e-commerce clothing brand geared toward Gen Z, has targeted and engaged these consumers, not with traditional advertising campaigns (like Aerie), but by putting its marketing dollars toward a large group of Instagram influencers — 3,500 of the most successful fashion influencers Instagram has to offer.

When influencer marketing really began to take off, Revolve saw an opportunity to grow its relatively new brand and build buzz. The company established an ongoing relationship with Instagram’s most popular fashion influencers, including Kendall Jenner, and began throwing #RevolveAroundtheWorld events in popular destinations, including Palm Springs, Turks and Caicos, and the ever-important Coachella — a super hub for influencers and Gen Zers, alike.

These lavish trips and events are invite-only and create a space where influencers can come together and do what they do best — advertise Revolve’s products by modeling the clothing and publicizing them all over their Instagram accounts. An event exclusively filled with popular Instagrammers effectively gets the brand name out there and capitalizes on the “wish you were here” mindset that Instagram seeds in its users. Consumers have their attention grabbed by the glamorous photos and then may feel inspired to buy the trendy clothing they see. They both relate to and aspire to be like their favorite influencers. Clearly, this approach is working, as Revolve was recently valued at $1.2 billion.

Final Thoughts on Gen Z Ad Campaigns

In today’s world, it is vital that brands— old and new, alike — continue to evolve in the ever-changing advertising landscape. Brands that target Gen Z have to shape their marketing and advertising strategies to convey authenticity, relatability, consistent engagement, and progressive social values. American Eagle’s Aerie, Casper, and Revolve have each taken a highly distinct and unique approach, and each has succeeded in its own way. There are lessons to be learned from their similarities, and their differences. There are many ways to craft campaigns that resonate with Gen Z, but they won’t look like campaigns of the past.

What’s The Value Of A Sports Sponsorship Or Integration? Too Often, Brands Have No Idea.

Data-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media. 

Today’s column is written by George Leon, chief strategy officer at Hawthorne. George Leon, Chief Strategy Officer

The fall is a huge time for sports. There’s the World Series, weekend football games, the beginning of the grueling NBA and NHL seasons and NASCAR winding to a close. Sports fans dedicate significant amounts of time to watching sports – on many different devices and channels – and brands are taking advantage of the many opportunities that affords.

Across the media landscape, inventory pricing is increasing but advertising budgets are not. As interest in sports sponsorships and integrations rise, agencies must find the right ways to evaluate these opportunities. Brands must apply the same path of attribution here as they do with their other advertising efforts.

The World Series is a high-profile event with major teams. Last year, it was the Dodgers and the Red Sox, two top five market teams. The series ended in five games, and advertisers were disappointed it didn’t go through the full seven because the campaigns did so well. This year, networks and advertisers continue to hope for a competitive World Series between the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals that continues through all seven games.

The Super Bowl, in contrast, is a singular cultural event that is difficult to measure from a KPI standpoint, but it is high in consideration in terms of interest, earned media and social mentions.

Over the past few years, the sports media universe has expanded dramatically. There are the mainstream networks, such as NBC, and cable networks, such as ESPN and Fox Sports, as well as an increase in conference-specific networks, including the Southeastern Conference Network, Big 10 Network and ACC Network. These networks open up sponsorship and integration opportunities that enable brands to deliver direct messages to particular regions and consumer segments. The evolution of these networks has added incremental opportunities for advertising and revenue, and brands of all sizes are taking note.

Whatever the network, attribution and accountability are key. For example, a big NASCAR sponsor will likely see a major increase in site traffic whenever there is a mention of its brand on TV during NASCAR races. This type of lucrative advertising avenue requires that it is measurable. It’s important to align sports sponsorships and integrations with results, such as branded impressions and ecommerce sales lifts.

There are several companies that look at the impression-level performance of sponsorships and integrations, but brands need to go beyond that and evaluate the value of particular campaigns. Often when sponsorship packages are offered by Fox Sports, NBC or ESPN, a big focus is on the creative element and the impressions for the events. However, there may not be any mechanism to measure the value of each element of a sponsorship or integration and their impact on brand metrics.

With attribution methodology, a very straight and clear correlation between when a brand’s logo appears and the impact on visits and acquisitions can be seen if rigorously measured.

Say a company buys branded signage at a televised event. The proposal is then evaluated based on the channel, the number of times the signage could be seen on screen and the mentions within that. It’s also considered if there is a different value depending on whether the logo is on the bottom of the screen, part of the background or part of the signage of the particular medium. If you look at any arena or hockey game, there are at least eight to 10 different brand logos. How frequently and for how long do those images appear onscreen? What is their prominence?

During the campaign, not only is the date and time in which the logos appear onscreen evaluated, but also the data and airtime of the advertising response. Brands should be able to understand how consumers react to these types of sponsorships and integration. How do they behave after seeing it? What’s the immediate or latent response?

We know they are not going to have the same audience delivery or measurements as a TV ad campaign, but often sponsorship and integration campaigns are seen only as a branded awareness configuration. Brands should also start considering them an acquisition and consumer response channel. It’s not just about the audience – it’s also about consumer engagement.

Now that sports season is in full swing, there’s no better time for brands to explore sports sponsorship and integration opportunities and how they can be evaluated for impact.

How emotionally fueled mass communication can affect advertising and brands

Advertisers are often tempted to use sensationalist mass communication to promote their brand, which isn’t a good idea

It can seem like the news cycle these days is filled with sensationalism and attention-grabbing headlines, putting brands in a challenging and potentially compromising position.

Brands invest in advertising to attract attention, get the word out, and raise awareness about their product. In today’s saturated digital media environment, this can be a challenge because consumers have so many demands on their attention. Brands, understandably, want to meet consumers where they are—or rather, where their attention is—and find ways to break through the noise. However, this impulse can lead to the siren song of sensationalism.

Whether through advertising on sites that traffic in clickbait or by attempting to capitalize on the momentum of viral internet hoaxes, advertisers are often tempted to use sensationalist mass communication to promote their brand. This strategy is short-sighted.

Participation or affiliation with this type of advertising ultimately has a negative effect on a brand and its reputation. Brands can gain more ground by investing in accountable, ethical advertising that will drive results over the long-term.


Sensationalist communication, which can sometimes be known as “Ragebait”- or content specifically designed to provoke strong emotions – is nothing new. In fact, it has a long history in American media through what used to be known as “yellow journalism.”

Yellow journalism emphasizes sensationalism over facts. It first emerged at the end of the 19th century when competition between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, and their respective newspapers, was fierce, with each paper duking it out for the public’s attention. The publishers realized that exaggerating stories to make them more dramatic meant they could sell more papers.

However, the consequences of this approach became clear with the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. The newspapers had closely covered the Cuban struggle for independence and fanned the flames of the conflict, and while they didn’t cause the war, they played a central role in ginning up public interest and support.

Spanish-American War Coverage

Certainly, media and journalistic standards have evolved since then, but the internet is a breeding ground for sensationalist content. The internet enables anyone to be a publisher, promotes the rapid flow of information (with no gatekeepers), and floods people with so much content that headlines really have to be eye-catching to get clicks.

In the era of social media, more and more headlines use provocative messaging and promise stories that are “shocking” to attract attention. Other tactics include phrases like “one simple trick” or “what they’re not telling you.” The more people click on these headlines, the more people see the ads that are served there, and so the cycle continues.


Today, this type of content can be divided into a couple of different categories. One category is hoaxes, like the Momo challenge or Tide Pods. As explained by Vox, an image of a “devilish bird-lady” named Momo somehow became a global panic about a dangerous “suicide game” that targeted children on social media. Parents were terrified that Momo would goad their children into violence while they used WhatsApp, watched YouTube videos, or played video games. But there was no evidence that the Momo challenge ever led to any violence—it was an “overblown internet hoax,” just like the idea that teenagers were ingesting Tide Pods or snorting condoms.

Momo Challenge

Satire, conspiracy, and “health” news

The internet can be an incredible resource to find information about current events, history, health, and more. It’s also a place where misinformation thrives, and it’s not always clear what is true and what is not. The internet makes it possible for people to find information that supports whatever they already believe, which fuels conspiracy theories. Anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, and “birther” conspiracists are able to connect and share online and reinforce one another. This, in turn, leads people who don’t believe the conspiracy to try and correct the record. Each side infuriates the other. People may be mad, but they are engaged, which is what advertisers want.

Moreover, it can be tricky to discern online between what is satire and what isn’t. Sarcasm and nuance aren’t easy to pick up and people take things literally. Furthermore, many people aren’t educated on how to identify whether media sites, sets of facts, or scientific studies are truthful and valid. Content makers can take advantage of this ignorance to promote conspiracy theories and make money. One of the most notorious conspiracy mongers out there, Alex Jones of InfoWars, uses crazy ideas to shill products like nutritional supplements and survivalist gear.

Deep fakes

The lines between what is real and what is not are only going to blur further, thanks to technology that enables “deep fakes.” A deep fake is a “computer-generated replication of a person, saying or doing things they have never said or done,” as defined by The Guardian.

From celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence accepting an award to President Trump advising the Belgians on climate change, technology can make it impossible to decipher whether a thing actually happened or not. As deep fakes become more sophisticated, it will be even more important for consumers to rely on trusted platforms to parse what’s real and what’s not, and even more important for brands to focus their advertising in places not linked to falsehoods and deception.

Deep Fakes

The good (the bad, the ugly)

Certainly not all content that is designed for clicks is nefarious. Unorthodox food preparations and recipes tend to attract a lot of attention: Videos of people throwing pieces of Kraft cheese onto babies’ faces, or a bizarre-looking pot of “queso” have generated huge reactions. There are also positive challenges, like the ALS ice bucket challenge, which raised millions of dollars for disease research.

The internet has been around long enough at this point that sensationalist, viral content is not that hard to engineer. It’s a cheap laugh, and brands have to seriously question whether it’s valuable or ethical to engage with it.

While advertising alongside rage bait may garner eyeballs in the short term, it can also cause long-term reputational damage. There’s been a concerted effort from groups like Sleeping Giants to get brands to remove ads from platforms and shows that peddle in sensationalism and fear-mongering, like Breitbart and the Ingraham Angle.

Brands whose ads are associated with or run alongside deceptive or harmful content now get called out and held responsible, so companies have to weigh the value of reaching certain sets of customers with the need to preserve the dignity and positivity of their reputation. Either way, they may lose customers, so it has to be a question of ethics, integrity, and accountability.

Brands also have to make sure they know where all their ads are placed, which in a time of real-time bidding and programmatic advertising, is not always easy to keep a handle on. Brands should be very aware of where their digital advertisements get placed and where they are getting shared, perhaps through the use of a Digital Asset Management platform.

Staying on top of negative communication trends is key to a brand. By using a proprietary suite of social listening tools to analyze sentiment around the brands they represent, agencies can make their clients aware of these negative trends and how it may be impacting their customers. This can quickly affect messaging across all channels and placement that will quickly help brands navigate this negative ecosystem.

Final thoughts

In summary, effective advertising is about much more than how many people see an ad. It’s about building a brand’s reputation and developing a strategy that is sustainable in a constantly evolving landscape. There are new internet fads every day, and while they may attract attention in the moment, the next day will bring something new.

Trying to capitalize on this ephemeral, and often harmful, momentum is a losing strategy. Instead, brands should aim to optimize ROI by advertising in a way that is true to their vision and that doesn’t rely on the crutch of sensational or emotionally fueled communication to have an impact.


John Francis is Sr. Director of Digital Strategy at Hawthorne and responsible for creating digital advertising experiences for Hawthorne’s clients that emphasize conversions. He has a penchant for analyzing qualitative social and UX data in order to achieve the highest ROI for clients like BLACK+DECKER, Dexcom, Dyson, Gemmy, LeafFilter and Sengled among just a few. Understanding how people interact with information design is John’s passion. Prior to Hawthorne, John was the dean of the Keller Graduate School of Management/Information Sciences. For the 12 previous years he taught “Interactive Design, Usability, Marketing and Branding” at The Art Institute of California. Before his teaching adventures, he was the director of partner marketing with VERIO/NTT. Prior to his time with VERIO/NTT, John was Webmaster at America Online, where his team spearheaded the creation and launch of AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and strategically marketing the AIM software package, resulting in over 400M installations of the chat application.

Building housewares brands with brand response TV

Growing Unicorns with DRTV

It is time for marketers to take advantage of the DRTV expansion to solve some of their biggest advertising pain points.

Karla Crawford Kerr on September 26, 2019 at 9:51 am

Housewares and brand response television have a long and robust shared history. Over 30 years ago, the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) deregulated television air time allowing different time formats of commercial air time to be purchased. This paved the way for the live shopping channels as we know them today, showcasing many housewares products. It also opened up the airwaves to longer formats like 30-minute infomercials. Braun and Black+Decker were among the first major housewares retail brands to embrace the format, an early example of direct response television (DRTV), in which consumers are encouraged to buy directly from advertisements.

Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, longer format advertising represented about 75% of the DRTV landscape and today the industry is worth over $200 billionPopular housewares DRTV advertisers achieved an almost cult-like status by using a variety of lengths including from 30 seconds to a half hour and live shopping to promote products like the George Foreman Grill, OxiClean, ShamWow and of course, the Snuggie. However, it is brands like Conair, Cuisinart, Dollar Shave, KitchenAid, Pfizer, Shark, Wahl Clipper Corporation and WORX that have paved the way for advertising that utilizes both branding and response mechanisms or brand response advertising.

As television and media consumption habits have evolved, along with advertising and marketing technology, so has DRTV, paving the way for the next generation of brand response TV. The role of DRTV is expanding in the brand marketing world and the next generation of DRTV has opened up powerful opportunities for housewares brands seeking accountability and faster campaign ROI. As the role of DRTV expands in the brand marketing world, it is time for marketers to take advantage of that expansion to solve some of their biggest advertising pain points.

In today’s competitive media landscape, brand advertisers struggle more than ever before to earn market share using traditional approaches due to factors like cost and fragmentation. Targeting consumers and B2B customers is getting extremely difficult. Put simply, it’s hard to stand out in an environment where people are bombarded by brand messages all day, on all sides. Social media may be widely used, but it also gives brands a split second to make an impression. What marketers need is a canvas that tells a story in an attention-getting medium, which is why they are turning to brand response TV (BRTV) and connected TV with the traditional bag of tricks like retargeting.

Brand response advertising increases brand awareness, improves brand perception and drives engagement. It is highly accountable, measurable, and delivers real ROI. It features customized, relevant content and works in conjunction with other types of media and channels. The brand response paradigm leverages a strong data component and can empower brands to make better decisions around media buys, messaging, and their overall campaigns. Marketers can analyze real-time performance statistics and test strategies in an ongoing way. BRTV is also more affordable and efficient than general advertising.

Despite these major benefits, many brand marketers are reluctant to invest in brand response TV due to concerns that people aren’t watching. Certainly video content is evolving, but that doesn’t mean TV is dead.

In an October 2018 study, the Consumer Technology Association surveyed 2,000 US adults about their content consumption habits. The survey yielded four main segments: Traditionalists, Value-Conscious Streamers, Device-Diverse Viewers and Experience Seekers. Traditionalists (29%) haven’t tried new technology and are less likely to stream or binge-watch; Value-Conscious Streams (41%) are more likely to use streaming services than cable and prioritize saving money; Device-Diverse Viewers (13%) watch a lot of video content from many sources on many devices; Experience Seekers (17%) prioritize an optimal viewing experience, and are willing to spend on technology and content to get that experience.

Across all these personas, one thing is clear – TV remains the top device for viewing content and cable/satellite remains the top source for content. TV is highly relevant and a long way from becoming obsolete. Housewares brands that invest in brand response TV can get serious bang for their buck.

Housewares brands are particularly suited to brand response advertising for a number of reasons. One is the power of demonstration. Brands can show their products in action and demonstrate how they will improve people’s lives in a way that is impactful and enticing. Consider Dyson, Keurig, Leesa, Rust-Oleum and T-Mobile. Viewers can immediately see how these products address a clear pain point and offer better ease and convenience than whatever they’re currently doing.

Housewares tend to be fairly intimate since they are products people use in their homes, so creating an emotional connection with viewers is key. This is why so many of the stars of DRTV are “everyman” or “everywoman” types who viewers feel comfortable with, recognize, and trust.  Housewares brands using brand response have a natural, high-focus on their relationship with consumers. The shift from brick and mortar to e-commerce has been beneficial to brands as they engage directly with the consumer via Amazon FBM (fulfillment by merchant), as well as interactions with consumers that share their housewares experience online.

Further, using brand response for housewares creates more room to deploy creative strategies, as suggested by Dash, Sobro and Wahl Clipper Corporation executives at the aforementioned building housewares brands seminar. For example, Catherine-Gail Reinhard, vice president, product strategy & marketing for Dash and Sobro shared that she often creates recipes and/or develops cookbooks that complement a food-related houseware. At the same seminar, Steven Yde, Vice President Marketing NAC division, said that offering guides from in-house barbers helps build value and ensures greater product satisfaction.

Direct response advertising has come a long way from the days of Ron Popeil’s first TV commercials for Ronco’s housewares gadgets like the Ronco Spray Gun, the Chop-O-Matic and the Veg-O-Matic, but clearly many aspects have remained the same.  In 2019 and beyond, brand response TV is a highly effective and cost-efficient approach for any housewares brand that wants to strategically grow and have a meaningful impact.