Business·Analysis

Sneaky ads: how commercials are hidden everywhere

Most commercials are easy to spot. But in 2015, marketers got increasingly sneaky – and tried to get our attention by disguising ads as apps, objects or entertainment.

Marketers are disguising ads as apps, objects or entertainment, says CBC's Ad Guy

Earlier this year, it was revealed that the Pentagon spent millions on "paid patriotism" activities at professional sports games. (Youtube / NESN)

Most commercials are easy to spot. But in 2015, marketers got increasingly sneaky and tried to get our attention by disguising ads as apps, objects or entertainment. 

Take, for example, this puck drop from a Veteran's Day hockey game. As the parents of an active-duty American soldier step onto the rink, the announcer tells the arena that their son is stationed in Afghanistan. But when they get to centre ice, it's revealed that he's no longer overseas: he's strolling onto the ice at that very moment. 

  • On mobile? Watch the video here

As beautiful as their reunion is, the moment is actually a paid commercial designed to increase army recruitment. Earlier this year, it was revealed that the Pentagon spent millions on "paid patriotism" activities at professional sports games.

The AMC series Mad Men was, in many ways, an advertiser's dream. With much of the action set in a 1950s New York ad agency, opportunities for product placement were everywhere. 

Earlier this year, as the show neared its finale, the network released an app that allowed you to incorporate your own photos into one of the series' most iconic moments. As Don Draper delivers a pitch for a Kodak slide projector, images from your personal Facebook page are superimposed onto the scene.

AMC's "Carousel" app allows you to insert your own family photos into a Mad Men scene. (AMC)

The sneaky part of the ad? Every time you shared the app with friends, they were reminded to watch Mad Men's final season.

On the other side of the pond, Sweden's Elmsta 3000 Horror Fest generated buzz this summer with a marketing strategy designed to go viral. The theme of the festival was "Evil Kids," so organizers decided to release a baptism announcement with some decidedly satanic undertones:

  • On mobile? Watch the video here

News outlets from around the world shared the fake announcement, and the festival got a huge amount of media attention. 

Perhaps scariest of all is the knowledge that marketing messages are lurking beneath the surface of almost every part of our lives. Maybe our resolution for 2016 should be to pay closer attention to what's going on around us, so we can root out the ads before they reach into our wallets. 


Bruce Chambers is a syndicated advertising columnist for CBC Radio.


About the Author

Bruce began his career writing radio commercials for stations in Red Deer, Calgary and Toronto. Then in-house at a national department store, and then ad agencies with campaigns for major national and regional clients. For the past couple of decades, he's been a freelance creative director and copywriter for agencies in Calgary and Victoria. He began his weekly Ad Guy columns on CBC Radio in 2003.

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