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How The Onion Gets You to Click on Ads

While we’re on the topic of native advertising, here’s something I didn’t know until now: The Onion does native advertising, too.

And does it pretty well.

For those who don’t know, The Onion is an entertainment media company that deals in satirized news. In other words, don’t believe what you read on The Onion, unless you want to believe that hockey fans were treated to a rare sight of a zamboni giving birth.

So how does a website that makes fun of politics, sports, business, science, and more deal with sponsored content? By making fun of it, of course.

The point was driven home to me when a friend sent me a link to this post from March featuring a cute cat dressed in an unfortunate sweater:


The post, sponsored by Litter Genie, is written in the same jokey journalism style as non-sponsored posts. Here’s a snippet:

“DENVER—In an act entirely unbefitting his refined and dignified stature, stately local cat Smokey was placed in an adorable, painful sweater Thursday, multiple sources confirmed.”

The Litter Genie ad was dreamed up by Onion Labs, which is the advertising and marketing arm of The Onion — much like BuzzFeed has BuzzFeed Creative. Onion Labs was born in 2012 after Microsoft approached The Onion to build a humorous campaign promoting (and gently mocking) their new Internet Explorer.

The way Onion Labs works is any branded content that gets distributed by The Onion also receives its trademark voice. Content that’s not simply focuses on being funny. This helps The Onion helps protect its own brand.

Grant Jones, former director of marketing at The Onion, explained Onion Labs’ approach to native advertising in an interview with Digiday:

“The value of the banner ad is going down, and the effectiveness is going down. Through content, people can be reached, and a step further is humor. The Onion isn’t the only place trying to solve the integration puzzle, but we have a satirical twist to it.”

One of the Labs’ most successful recent native ads was called “Complete Idiot Forgot to Shave Area Between Mouth and Nose.” Sponsored by Schick, The Onion’s Facebook post about the ad drew more than 13,000 likes and over 2,000 shares. But while the concept itself was pretty great, the ad’s popularity was no doubt propelled by the fact that The Onion talks about its sponsored content the same way it does its own editorial content — that is, sarcastically. “There is a stone where our soul once was. Enjoy this #sponsored content,” The Onion dryly intoned in its introduction on Facebook.

The mockery carries across social platforms, as proven by these recent Tweets:

  • Nothing is more intellectually satisfying than reading a corporately #sponsored piece of editorial content. Try it!
  • Click to tear down the iron curtain that separates art from business. Enjoy our section #sponsored by @Overstock
  • Seek refuge from the pressure to think for yourself by reading this #sponsored content

It’s a rare thing for brands to pay for sponsored content that makes fun of sponsored content. The Onion manages to pull it off, though — and keep them coming back for more.

I’m of the opinion that content can’t be generated for free. But I admire and value integrity, too. By maintaining their sense of humor, The Onion has managed to balance two typically opposing interests (business and creative) successfully.

Have you seen any excellent examples of native advertising lately?

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