Black Ops Advertising In the Digital Age: Innovative or Invasive?

April 21, 2017

Guest Article By: Carmen Mallia

As a millennial, I have been surrounded by advertising my entire life; from the large billboards encircling Yonge and Dundas Square, to traditional commercial content on MuchMusic and YTV. I feel as if I have seen it all, so I ignore most advertisements on a day-to-day basis. It is easy to change the channel on a remote control to switch off a commercial, use AdBlock software to hide online banners, and simply look away from public advertisements.

The truth is that traditional advertising does not work in the digital age, especially for tech savvy millennials who have become pioneers of ad avoidance. As a result, marketing experts have moved into what is known as Black Ops Advertising— ads that try to camouflage as non-advertising content.

Traditionally, marketers and advertisers use militaristic terms such as ‘objective’, ‘strategies’, ‘tactics’, and ‘target’ when they are talking about marketing to a consumer audience. And the natural progression in which the military has moved from traditional methods of action into black ops action has also been implemented in the digital age of marketing. Due to the fact that traditional advertisements tend to be ineffective, advertising has revolutionized into covert stealth-mode in terms of how marketers are targeting different consumer audiences.

Black Ops Advertising is trying to get around the fact that people ignore ads. So by hiding advertisements as much as possible, people are not likely to realize that they are engaging in sponsored content.

Sounds pretty invasive, right? Well, it is.

Our digital society has spent an increasing amount of media time on mobile devices and smartphones, making Black Ops Advertising the new norm. As a result, brands are increasingly using subtle and pervasive ways of placing ads. How, you ask?

Take the recent HostelWorld advertisement that swept Snapchat stories internationally and tricked users into engaging with sponsored content.

While looking through your Snapchat stories you may have come across what looked like a recent Charlie Sheen scandal. Most of the HostelWorld ads open with an image of Sheen in a scandalous position with a banner beneath the image that reads “BREAKING” or “LEAKED”.

Intrigued by what looks like a raunchy news story starring the degenerate Two and a Half Men actor, most Snapchat users probably swiped down to see what trouble Sheen has been getting into. Although once you swipe down, you realize it is all a trick. Charlie is seen enjoying all the facilities a modern hostel has to offer instead of participating in some illicit act. What looks like a raunchy news story then becomes a form of Black Ops Advertising.

Through HostelWorld’s sponsored Snapchat ad with Sheen, the brand successfully implemented Black Ops Advertising to trick viewers into thinking they were watching a legitimate news story on Sheen’s illicit behaviour, when it was just an advertisement for the hostel-based brand.

The whole structure of advertising has been completely upended and overturned by the enormous increase and fluency in the use of digital platforms, particularly by young people. The rapid emergence of the mobile smartphone and other communication applications has ultimately replaced television as a medium, and as a result, traditional advertising from older industries is crumbling and we are moving into the age of covert ads.

So, should we be critical of this increasingly invasive form of advertising or should we continue to ignore these ads and be passive users?


Carmen Mallia is an up-and-coming professional writer from Toronto. He is currently in his second year at the University of Western Ontario for Honours Specialization in Media and the Public Interest. In his spare time he loves to write, get a coffee with friends, binge-watch The Wire, and volunteer at local events. Carmen is currently looking for work in Toronto associated with advertising, journalism, marketing, public relations, broadcasting, and communication. You can follow him on LinkedIn , Twitter, and Facebook

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