Mara Einstein: Black Ops Advertising

I’ve always been intrigued by advertising tactics, which led me to Mara Einstein’s book Black Ops Advertising.  Mara starts her writing by revisiting an era when companies simply placed ads on the most popular radio/television/newspaper outlets describing the product’s benefits.  Over time, inundated audiences started avoiding commercials.

In today’s entertainment atmosphere it’s no longer sufficient or applicable to seek out the most popular media outlets and put out ads in hopes of hitting your desired consumers.  With the advent of streaming content and DVR (digital video recorders), your desired targets are simply fast forwarding through your commercials.  This reality sent marketers back to the drawing board, returning with a surprisingly covert stratagem.

Sponsored Content


Mara tells the story of a well-known newspaper printing a piece that it was paid to write – a.k.a. “sponsored content.”  Readers went through the piece only to find out at the end that it was sponsored material.  The backlash was instant and wide sweeping.  Just like Ralphie from A Christmas Story, readers felt duped.  Trust had been broken and the paper quickly issued an apology explaining their actions.

Gif via Giphy

Sponsored content isn’t limited to newspapers.  Blogs, movies, television shows and podcasts use this form of advertising.  Labels or disclaimers should follow sponsored content, but in the fast-moving internet world, waters get murky.

Product Placement

Commercials have lost their prowess, so now advertisers seek to inject their product into the very storyline of the show we are watching.   Mara recounts the success Reese’s Pieces candy had employing this tactic in Steven Spielberg’s E.T.  Sales of Reeses Pieces skyrocketed up 66% after the film was released.  Now, you’ll notice product placement in just about every movie or television show you watch.

Another example of product placement is Ok GO!‘s “I Won’t Let You Down” music video.  It’s a uniquely choreographed ‘dance’ of sorts showcasing Honda’s Uni-Cub with the band members driving them.  It’s fun.  This approach is supposed to be a win-win; fans of the band enjoy a cool music video and Honda promotes their scooter.

Content Marketing

Advertising is getting more difficult to spot, on purpose, but ‘content marketing’ is a unique space where the companies create the content themselves.  Red Bull is the king of this practice.  They’ve created extreme sports circuits all in the name of promoting Red Bull.  Mara Einstein also points out what seems to be obvious:  The Lego Movie is not simply entertainment, it’s one big commercial for Lego toys.

Your Data is Not Private

This would be the ‘I told you so moment’ for the friend who’s worried the government is watching their banal daily activities.  Well, it’s not just the government, but also advertisers who are snooping.  Einstein describes a scenario where you open your Gmail but don’t sign out before you peruse the internet.  Every site and click is recorded and auctioned off to advertisers.  That’s why the purse you studied 5 minutes ago is the banner ad by the news story you are reading now.  Imagine a man, let’s call him Gene, sitting by your desk with a notepad scribbling down the URL of the site your’e on, then glancing at his watch he marks the time.  When you move onto the next site Gene repeats the cycle.  Eerie?  Yes.


Black Ops Advertising is loaded with great examples and fascinating statistics.  If you are the teeny tiniest bit curious about the advertising world, you should get your hands on this book (I’ve not been paid to say this).  Buyer beware, it’s a Neo moment – you must decide how far down the rabbit hole you want to go.  Once you become aware of covert advertising methods you will question the reality around you.  Am I being entertained?  Am I watching a commercial?  The answer is more elusive than ever.

Gif via Giphy


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