Adventurous marketers will learn real lessons from Decoder Ring’s fake sponsor
This contains spoilers for the episode of the podcast Decoder Ring called The Incunabula Papers. You don’t have to have heard it to understand this piece, but it's a great listen.
Like so many podcasts I listen to, I can now no longer remember where I first heard about Decoder Ring. (It was probably 99% Invisible.) But the episode The Incunabula Papers will stick with me for a while. Not only because it dissected a fascinating story, but also because the ads from one of the sponsors were groundbreaking—even though they were completely fake.
The episode in question is about Ong’s Hat, a manufactured conspiracy. To some extent, I suppose all conspiracies are manufactured; but this one was designed. It was constructed. And because there was always someone at the helm, guiding the “investigation” along, it somewhat-accidentally turned into the world’s first alternate reality game.
Decoder Ring’s host, Willa Paskin, does a great job unraveling the Ong’s Hat saga, interviewing the man behind it and discussing other games and experiences with “boundary-less play” that followed it. But something strange happens over the course of the show, and I think it shows us the potential future of podcast advertising.
The very beginning of the episode starts with an ad for a different Slate podcast. Fair enough.
Then, about six minutes in, Paskin takes a break from discussing Ong’s Hat to talk about a sponsor, Aleph Mattresses. She reads the fairly boilerplate ad copy, ending with a URL and a catchy slogan: “Dream big, dream better—with Aleph.” Ok, still very normal, especially in a medium that we know to be sponsored by mattress companies.
At around 20 minutes in, things start to get a little strange. The episode is interrupted by a short burst of static, followed by a voicemail recording from “Clayton from Aleph Mattresses.” Willa is in the middle of a sentence when this happens, so it certainly seems like an odd place to put an ad, but I’ve definitely heard poorly edited podcasts with misplaced ads before. Maybe it was a mistake? Clayton doesn’t say anything particularly sales-y, but he does identify himself as working for the sponsor of the episode. So as I first listened, I assumed that Aleph Mattresses was experimenting with a sort of guerrilla approach to the advertising in the episode, and because the voicemail solicited a response from Paskin, I expected some sort of narrative continuation to follow later in the episode.
But before Paskin can supplement this guerrilla ad campaign with a “response” to the “voicemail,” we hear from Clayton again. At around the half hour mark, he describes the near future of dream-recording technology. Paskin identifies him as the founder of Aleph Mattresses, but his comments are presented as if Willa interviewed him for the episode. And it makes sense that she might, because she’s making a point about how the advent of the Internet—an incredible technology—could have made the Ong’s Hat conspiracy more believable at the time it was circulating.
“Is it crazy to think that it might have made other, fringier kinds of science briefly seem plausible? Like, if the Internet was possible, then who was to say inter-dimensional travel wasn’t?”
Thus, it makes sense that a trendy new mattress company like Aleph would be interested in and perhaps pursuing dream-recording; that its founder would have something to say about it; and that Willa would discuss it with him as a modern analog to the backdrop the Internet provides in the Ong’s Hat story.
At this point, I realized that Aleph was using a form of native advertising, where the message from the sponsor is directly embedded in the content. Fascinating! As far as I could recall, I had never experienced this type of ad on a podcast before! It felt similar to how many companies use their blogs these days: to write articles about consumer problems and subtly (or not-so-subtly) position their product as the solution. When this is done well, the average reader might not even realize that the information they’re reading comes from a biased entity.
Eventually, the episode is again interrupted by a purported voicemail from Clayton, whose tone is more urgent this time. “I’m not kiddin’ around here,” he says. It’s starting to get a little creepy.
Near the end of the episode, Paskin finally responds to the voicemails. During a heavily spliced phone conversation, Clayton tells her that the episode she’s recorded is “a mind virus.”
“I am not threatening you, Willa, but I am telling you that if you do air this episode, you will regret it.”
What? This is too sinister to be a real ad… right? Or is it? Maybe this is just some marketer testing the limits of the medium?
Either way, I was riveted. It was thrilling to not know what was really going on, even though this was obviously something specifically constructed to match the content of the episode. The build-up to this point was was terrific.
But it wasn’t over yet! After the credits, a coworker walks into the studio and interrupts Willa as she’s recording a warning message for listeners. He says that guys in black came into their office and took his computer and all of his backups, so the podcast episode they recorded is gone. “What are we gonna do?” asks Willa. “We do exactly what they told us to do,” he says.
“We do something else. We do the conspiracy theory thing—Ong’s Hat, or whatever it’s called.”
Ah—the curtain is finally pulled back! They created their own little conspiracy for the episode about a conspiracy! Their story is that the episode they originally produced with Aleph Mattresses turned out to be a mind virus, so they had to record the Ong’s Hat episode instead.
“While people played Ong’s Hat, they got to feel like a different version of themselves. An adventurer inside of an unfolding mystery, living in a different version of reality—one full of strange possibility, where access to the truth was just one revelation away. Ong’s Hat never literally transported anyone to another Earth, but also, it did.”
What an innovative and compelling way for Aleph to advertise on a podcast! I just had to check out this company and see what they were all about. So I went to the URL mentioned in the episode, checked out their website, and finally realized…
Aleph Mattresses doesn’t exist. Of course it doesn’t—it’s a conspiracy.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I didn’t realize Aleph was fake until I went to the website that Decoder Ring set up for it. But that’s beside the point. What’s really important here is that I visited the website of a podcast sponsor because I heard their ad. How often have you gone straight to a sponsor’s website after hearing about them on a podcast? It turns out that podcast advertising boasts particularly high conversion rates, so maybe you do that a lot and I’m just particularly ad blind. But conversion can always be higher, and the effectiveness of this sponsorship in getting me to the website astonished me.
I see ad blindness as an ongoing arms race between the ad-inundated public and the marketers desperate to create something that won’t just be ignored. Something so crazy, compelling, or camouflaged that consumers won’t even think to fast forward or hit “skip.” This fake campaign by Aleph nails all three of those Cs, but its contextual camouflage in the episode is what intrigues me the most. As an incredibly personal medium that pumps content directly into your ears, podcasts could be especially ripe for native advertising. We could be about to enter a period that feels like the early days of Instagram influencer marketing, where you won’t know if someone’s talking about a product because they genuinely love it or because they’re being paid to.
TV shows have been implementing native advertising for a while now. Two examples that immediately jump to mind are Subway’s sponsorship of Chuck and Toyota’s sponsorship of Royal Pains. The product placement on these shows was a little cringey at times, but the advertising was completely embedded—sometimes even taking over the plots.
The Incunabula Papers episode of Decoder Ring demonstrated, with an albeit creepy example, the potential future of native podcast ads. Here’s what that future could look like:
Comedians making fun of each other’s terrible websites, and convincing each other to take advantage of Squarespace’s templates and award-winning, 24/7 customer support because they can’t do it on their own.
Players on a D&D podcast talking, in-character, about their Quip toothbrushes as they prepare to make camp for the night. In fact, the toothbrush’s guiding pulses are so helpful that the players get to roll with advantage to see how clean their teeth are after brushing.
The host of a dating podcast telling stories of late-night escapades on their Aleph—sorry, I mean Casper—mattress. Maybe their dates started going better after they got a more comfortable bed?
A narrative fiction podcast about a character who drives a Toyota Prius and works at Subway. I’m only half kidding!
Whether this potential future sounds good is up to you—I’m here to predict, not judge or prescribe. But it certainly seems possible.
One last thing: there’s more to the Aleph Mattresses conspiracy than I let on. That “lost” episode of Decoder Ring does actually exist. And guess whose website you might be able to find it on…
Do you want to figure it out now? That’s the power of native advertising.