I Clicked on an Ad in The Onion. What Happened Next Was Shocking.

5 min read

Yesterday when I was browsing the book reviews at the AV Club, the most excellent pop culture site affiliated with The Onion, a giant banner ad caught my eye. That in itself is pretty rare.

I clicked it. That’s even rarer.

Where it led was truly shocking.

The ad pictured a slick-headed, big-bearded hipster holding a computer and saying, “Cows are genetically modified to have glass eyes and wooden tongues.” The only logo was a gray speech-bubble block with the words “The Udder Truth,” with an adjacent line of text reading “(You can’t believe everything you read on the internet.)”

My first guess was correct: The ad led to a microsite developed by Dairy Management, Inc. (DMI): an organization that exists to sell you more dairy products.

The microsite is really tiny: three videos plus links to outside content and social media. Essentially, the videos are designed to make you think dairy farms are benign, wholesome places run by small businesspeople who love their cows way more than those PETA activists yelling about inhumane treatment of animals.

The videos are slick and professional. If you’re an unsophisticated viewer only peripherally aware of the issues (i.e., most of us), the message lands convincingly: Dairy farms aren’t all owned by giant corporations. The animals are well fed. People care about their cows.

If you know a little bit more, the deception is pretty evident. The Udder Truth utterly ignores opponents’ most damning charges: for example, that dairy cows live virtually their entire lives indoors, on hard concrete floors in tiny stalls; that half of the calves that can’t be milked (because they’re boys) get sold for veal; that cows are continually artificially inseminated throughout their lives to keep them producing milk; and that, when their production begins to drop after four or five years, the cows who would normally live to about 25 are led to slaughter. Other charges, it merely deflects; the charge of immediately separating calves from their mothers is met with a defense akin to, “Well, some cows may be bad mothers.”

All of this is par for the course. It’s deceptive, but that’s to be expected.

But what’s really deceptive is the rest of the campaign—the sponsored content in The Onion and Clickhole that casts doubt on the credibility of animal rights activists’ claims in the shadiest way possible.

At The Onion, you’ll find a story that looks just like a story in The Onion, except for a little logo that says it’s sponsored by Dairy Good. Here’s a regular ol’ Onion story:

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And here’s the sponsored content:

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Do you see that little “Dairy Good” logo? Also, note the headline that makes fun of all the alarmist crap out here on the Internet every day. Every crank with a keyboard is up in arms about something, amiright? We all blow everything out of proportion! The story ends thusly:

America’s dairy farmers and importers want to share the real facts about milk. Learn more here.

And there you have it. The political opposition is crushed by the satirical authority of The Onion. The same people who have made it their business to skewer and offend virtually everyone on the planet have placed themselves comfortably into the leather pocket of Big Dairy—and they’ve done it so slyly that most people won’t even notice.

Same thing happening, even more blatantly, at Clickhole, a sister site to The Onion. Here’s their sponsored content, which looks exactly like any other Clickhole post:

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The headline on item #3 reads, “The only predictor of a cow’s happiness is whether it owns Ken Burns’ entire filmography on DVD.” Ridiculous, right?

Then the copy says:

We know better—most cows can’t afford a huge DVD collection; and their happiness is actually tied to having proper farmer care, a comfortable place to live, good eats, and some quality relaxation time. However, if this fact were relayed with unwavering conviction and unbroken eye contact, we’d have a hard time telling the difference—and so would every one of your impressionable friends.

None of this is a happy accident. It’s a campaign crafted to reach Millennials; in fact, a piece in Dairy Herd Management was careful to point out that dairy farmers are not the audience, and that the campaign might “take people out of their comfort zones.” According to Indiana Prairie Farmer, “DMI is partnering with The Onion, a satirical ‘news’ site that is popular with this audience. Onion writers will publish content that interjects humor into the absurdity of dairy myths, and redirects readers to get the truth from dairy farmers at dairygood.org.

I have no real issue with what the dairy industry is doing here. It’s unsettlingly brilliant. DMI’s Scott Wallin said, “We do it to break through and get their interest, because once you get their interest, you can have a conversation with them.” I’ll take him at his word—although, as a marketing professional, I’ll also suggest that the real goal here is not to have a conversation, but to suggest that their opposition is some combination of hysterical, dumb, and evil and have the charges dismissed for lack of interest.

My issue is with The Onion. By creating sponsored content for what is essentially one side of a political cause, they’ve undermined their own authority as a satirical truth-teller. This comedy institution that has so successfully skewered the conventions of our modern culture has become just another sleazy purveyor of half-truths.

Will it work? Time will tell. It’s a terribly cynical campaign. It banks on the idea that Millennials are shallow and gullible. I don’t believe that, but maybe I’m naive.

But I think The Onion has shot itself in the face. This foray into sponsored content completely compromises their brand. It’s one thing to allow an advertiser to develop its own satirical content. It’s quite another when the content is The Onion pretending to be The Onion. We can never trust their fake news again.