First published in BW Businessworld here.

On the 1st of May 1943, fishermen on a beach in Spain discovered a waterlogged corpse that had washed ashore during the night. The dead man, later identified as Major William Martin, was clothed in British military uniform and had a briefcase chained to his body. When this discovery was reported to Nazi officials stationed nearby, they coaxed the briefcase open and discovered correspondence between senior Allied commanders and key details of the Allies’ plan to invade Nazi-held territory. Based on this information, Adolph Hitler diverted significant defenses away from Sicily to the points of ingress mentioned in the letter. So, when in July, Allied forces struck southern Sicily, they met with little resistance, as the bulk of German forces had been moved away. The Germans had fallen for an elaborate ruse.  Major William Martin, never existed, the lifeless body and the briefcase full of plans and documents were all part of an elaborate misdirection, called Operation Mincemeat, designed to draw Nazi defenses away from the Allied forces’ true target; Sicily.

Like Operation Mincemeat, the word ‘content’ can be an elaborate misdirection for marketers.

Advertising’s job is creating customers, it straddles both the ‘long and short of it’ (as described by Binet and Field). It is not an easy job, may be even mundane at times, but it’s focus is clear.  But the ones distracted by ‘content’ chase esoteric metrics, peddle self-indulgent twaddle like ‘purpose’ and fluff like ‘engagement’. 

Image courtesy: marketoonist

Persistent usage of ‘content’ birthed a separate multi-billion-dollar industry called content marketing. It’s disciples, imaginatively called content marketers, consider their job distinct from advertising and advertising’s prosaic concerns like selling stuff. Blitzing past evidence-based principles like consistency (and its importance in building distinctive brand assets), confusing correlation with causation ‘content marketers’ churn content at breakneck speeds. Byron Sharp be damned.

“Content” for festivals and notable days, like Mother’s Day, are now distinctively the same across brands. YouTube creator, Sean Haney (Microsoft Sam) showed us the mirror with his pandemic supercut ‘Every COVID-19 Commercial Is Exactly The Same’. Content is our new white noise.

Internet fads with lifespans shorter than that of a Mayfly, spark off a ‘moment marketing’ frenzy. And these half-clever ‘moment marketing content’ are applauded in marketing and advertising echo chambers. (now institutionalized, with content marketing awards.) Quite often, FOMO and not clear reasoning, push brands to dive right in. Moment marketing’s sheer pace gives no quarter to old-fashioned, yet relevant, questions regarding consistency or business and brand value.

Marketing and advertising, like every field, has its fair share of mediocrity, with the occasional sparkle of brilliance; the ones that make it as IPA or WARC case studies. But in its rush to produce memes, listicles, gifs, mash-up videos, content pieces (whatever this means); content marketing has strapped jet-packs on mediocrity and the internet is awash with its detritus.

What ‘content marketing’ means is vague, because all forms of communication with the consumer, irrespective of medium will be, well, some form of content. While no Luddite is a marketer, but when tactics overwhelm, you let the tail wag the dog.  Content marketing’s casual dalliance with brand or business objectives, fascination for vanity metrics and tendency to churn quantity are issues. But in its tendency to make marketers think that their job is ‘creating content’ rather than selling stuff, is what makes its usage a misdirection and not simply a question of semantics.