Advertising has reached a new low in the age of podcasts


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Russell Brand has come a long way since he sparred with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, agitating for a socialist revolution that would end the disparity between rich and poor, saying capitalism was “100 per cent corrupt” and calling profit “a filthy word”.

Ten years later and the multimillionaire wellness-guru-cum-conspiracy-influencer is cosying up to Tucker Carlson, calling Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis a “friend” and flogging the flailing Florida governor’s new book to the 6.5mn “awakening wonders” who subscribe to his YouTube channel. Brand also flogs other products — from whichever brand happens to have sponsored the latest episode of his Stay Free with Russell Brand podcast.

In his recent softball interview with DeSantis, Brand interrupted to plug a particular brand of men’s underwear. “It’s getting hot out there, and I don’t know about you Ron, but I’m getting pretty hot down there,” Brand said. “Summertime is not an issue if you wear Sheath underwear . . . There’s something for everyone’s testicles and penis.” He then proceeded to give his followers a very special 20-per-cent-off code.

This is by no means the most egregious recent example of this type of advertising I have come across. Unlike the conventional adverts made by advertising agencies, these “host-read” adverts are delivered by the presenter of a given podcast or YouTube channel, and so usually have a chatty, improvisational feel to them. This makes them particularly effective, and also means that they are often virtually indistinguishable from the content they are inserted into.

At the beginning of a recent episode of the Lex Fridman podcast, an in-person interview with Tel-Aviv-based thinker and writer Yuval Noah Harari, the host talked solemnly about some of his experiences during his trip. “I’ve travelled to some very difficult areas of the Middle East over the last two days,” he said. “It’s been a real challenge — emotionally, psychologically, physically, just all of it. The reality of war and peace, cruelty and hope, all of it together is just sobering. Sobering.”

Fridman had already read out adverts for five different podcast sponsors, and we were now eight minutes into the podcast. “If I wasn’t already grateful it makes me truly grateful to be alive, to be healthy, to have the people I love in my life,” he continued. “Anyway as part of that difficult journey it’s nice to have little tokens of home with me and AG1 is certainly that.”

If you’re a regular podcast listener you’ve probably already heard of AG1, an all-in-one health supplement that costs $99 for a month’s supply and is made by Athletic Greens. The company is one of the biggest spenders on podcast ads, spending more than $2mn in June, according to research firm Magellan AI.

Podcast advertising is big business. In the US alone, revenues hit $1.8bn in 2022, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau and are expected to more than double to $4bn by 2025. “Programmatic ads” that use algorithms to target individuals and so are different for each listener and provided by third parties have increased in recent years. But host-read ads are still the most common: they made up 55 per cent of all podcast advertising in 2021, according to the IAB. They also command higher rates, because they are thought to lend trust and “authenticity” to the advertising.

But like most things that get called “authentic”, these ads are in fact just the opposite: they exploit the trust established via a “parasocial” — or asymmetric — relationship between the host and the listener.

And it is quite disconcerting to suddenly realise that the person you’ve just been listening to speak with authority and credibility — on, say, the threat from China, or how to get over your ex — is now using that very same voice to try to convince you that being able to find a therapist on an app is a revolutionary development (I’m talking to you, BetterHelp). So revolutionary that you must immediately download the app and use their discount code.

When did we collectively decide to accept this level of grift? We would never allow such shameless shilling to be buried in, say, a newspaper article. The lines between genuine content and commercial propaganda are being blurred to such an extent that we cannot properly distinguish between the two. And this matters because it is part a wider, and graver, societal problem: the devaluing of truth.

We should see host-read ads for what they really are: a shady and deceptive bit of window dressing for the dirty business of advertising. Let’s get rid of them.

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Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden is a news writer for LinkDaddy News. She writes health, sport, tech, and more. Some of her favorite topics include the latest trends in fitness and wellness, the best ways to use technology to improve your life, and the latest developments in medical research.

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