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Host-read ads: always a toughie

Sticky wickets

Rutger Bregman, a Dutch historian and author who also writes for The Correspondent, published a Twitter thread recently that raised issues with the way ads are handled on Malcolm Gladwel’s Revisionist History — specifically, how it can be jarringly difficult for him, as a listener, to tell what’s a host-read ad and what’s the actual story, and how that impacts his perception of the narrator, in this case Gladwell, who is ostensibly operating as a public intellectual and journalist.

(Indeed, I had the exact same experience as Bregman with the episode he highlights to illustrate this point: Season 4’s “Tempest in a Teacup.” I should also add: I had similar trip-ups of editorial-advertising discernment with Pushkin Industries’ other big podcast, Michael Lewis’ Against The Rules, as well.)

In the thread, Bregman also criticized a specific host-read ad, for a home security company, that was performed by Gladwell, which he points utilizes claims that can be subject to factual challenge. All these things, he points out, challenges the public intellectual-as-host’s integrity, and it’s not great. “Maybe this is my crazy socialist European perspective, but you know what I think about public intellectuals who lower themselves by reading fake science from lobby groups, just for the money?” he wrote. “It’s really embarrassing.”

I probably differ from Bergman’s position somewhat, as I think I still believe that host-read ads can be done effectively while fundamentally preserving the host’s journalistic integrity, but that it all comes down to the nature of the execution. And whatever you, or I for the matter, ultimately come down on whether host-reads ads are structurally compromising, I’m pretty sure of one thing: those ads need to be a hell of a lot more differentiated.

Then again, maybe programmatic podcast advertising will take over the pie and become the only thing podcast advertisers ever want, saving us all from this particular trouble (but I suppose, ultimately leading us to another kind of trouble.)

Ah, ads! What strange forms of human expression and commerce.