A Critical Look on Gen-Z, Native Advertising, and Influencer Marketing with Dr. Penny Sheets Thibaut

Picture of By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

[mks_dropcap style=”letter” size=”48″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]T[/mks_dropcap]he media landscape is constantly and rapidly evolving, as media companies and influencers scramble for the eyes of the contemporary Millennials and Gen-Zers. Quynh (Stephanie) sat down with Dr. Penny Sheets Thibaut, the lecturer of The Media Landscape, to dissect recent developments in the media and the ramifications these changes bring about to our digital lives. 

Dr. Penny Sheets Thibaut, born in the U.S., has lived in Amsterdam for nine years, fulfilling one of her childhood dreams: calling Europe her home. While pursuing her interest in journalism and media, she soon became fascinated with studying how political and persuasive messages are crafted. Despite specializing in Political Communication, Dr. Thibaut also finds interest in the hyper-mediated global media landscape and how the developments of new technologies and techniques have fundamentally shaped our media experiences. 

Native Advertising in Journalism: A form of deception?

With her still-ignited passion for modern journalism, Dr. Thibaut identifies some problems with the concept of “native advertising” or “advertorial.” This phenomenon can be roughly encapsulated as advertisers sponsor news organizations to create journalistic material to integrate their product into the editorial sphere. 

Given that many news outlets and publications significantly rely on advertising revenue for their operations, native advertising came as a “creative” savior to the audience’s expertise in avoiding traditional organic ads, a true win-win situation. “It certainly works,” Dr. Thibaut exclaimed with a chuckle, “native advertising, masked as journalism, is more likely to be shared and perceived positively than traditional banner ads”, though she mentioned how skeptical audiences can become learning about the “branded content” in an article. 

However, native advertising is not a win for genuine newsreaders. Considering that native advertising sneakily disguises itself under conventional journalism, Dr. Thibaut believes that it misguides news consumers as we expect a certain degree of neutrality from journalists. Nonetheless, she also remarked: “Since [native advertising] started a while ago and is so normalized, it does not feel that deceptive and shocking anymore.” 

Therefore, Dr. Thibaut assumes that younger readers tend to be less bothered by this practice as we have lived with the media for a long period. She also noted how native advertising is a “necessary evil.” Why necessary? In this current media climate where readers are not willing to pay for their news consumption, advertising can be a substantial source of revenue for publications. So, her verdict on native advertising: Not the most transparent, but needed to sustain journalism. 

“Like, Share, Subscribe, Follow”: The Era of Influencer Marketing

Our conversation eventually shifted to the new territory of influencer marketing, which Dr. Thibaut described as “native advertising, but more advanced.” Influencers remind her of opinion leaders, the OG influencers, the powerful offline remnants of the past. 

However, with the proliferation of social media and online platforms, influencers carry the role of “prosumers” who create their own viral and entertaining content. These “newborn” influencers and media personalities, according to Dr. Thibaut, have become “mini-media companies,” where their emergence play new roles in the already fragmented media value chain. Due to their striking popularity, influencers now own the power and freedom to accept commercial sponsorships and represent brands, with many of them being able to afford lavish lifestyles. Influencers’ public appeal depends so much on these endorsements to the extent that they are willing to “fake” them. 

Amazed and intrigued by the rise of these Internet celebrities, Dr. Thibaut offers a theory as to why this practice has become so prevalent and effective. “Because [influencer marketing] is designed to not look like an ad, it is easier for advertisers to build brand loyalty,” though most influencers disclose their brand endorsements. She continued, “influencer marketing tends to find more success with the younger generation,” as she grinned and glanced at me.

“Because it does not seem to bother you guys (Millennials and Gen-Zers), to see posts and watch videos about an influencer discussing a sponsored product as much as older generations. You don’t consider the kickback problematic, and you care more about the entertainment content.” 

Do we really buy influencers’ authenticity and transparency?

We are left with a big mystery: Does Dr. Thibaut take issue in this trend? “Not necessarily,” she said with a slightly resigned sigh, 

“as long as the advertising is congruent with the content and the audience is aware of the sponsorship element, I’m totally okay with that.” 

However, she believes the problem arises when the audience is convinced that the content is “genuine” and “authentic” without knowing or being aware that it is not. After all, this “authenticity” and “neutrality” make up most of the influencers’ job and livelihood, where advertisers are concerned with how disclosure might ruin their magic. 

Research has illustrated how influencers’ recommendations, disclosed or not, in fact, do not worsen the audience’s perception of the product and purchase intention. The influencers’ disclosure instead exhibits transparency, authenticity, and expertise from their part, which further solidifies the reputation of these digital money-makers. This development also leads to another crucial social implication of influencer culture: the promotion of hyper-consumerism based on the dedicated and supportive fanbase surrounding these influencers. 

With these content creators offering access to a slice of their (scripted) lives, followers naturally and gradually develop parasocial relationships with these personas. This model reveals the perfect gateway for influencers to take advantage of and advertise products. After all, do we really care that much?

The User: Control or Controlled?

Since this trajectory is not slowing down any time, our conversation slowly steered towards direction for the future. Dr. Thibaut stresses the importance of “media literacy,” where she sincerely hopes that the youth will develop a keener interest in and awareness of the media landscape. She urges all media users to question their media use carefully, and which uses and gratifications they are supplementing by watching and following these entrancing media personalities.

Nonetheless, she remarks on how consumer culture will never cease to exist because “the media cannot function without advertisements.” Our interview, nevertheless, ended on a light note. “I don’t really see the problem with it. As long as you enjoy watching this content, there’s no harm in that. It is only problematic when, within the context, the content might be misleading to the audience where ad insertion is conflicting with the content’s initial purpose.”


Cover: Gabby Agathe Rialland

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