Dirt: When podcasts are ads

Brought to you by Procter & Gamble.

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Jason Stewart is one half of How Long Gone.

It all started a couple of years back when Malcolm Gladwell launched Broken Record, his music-themed podcast with iconic rap-metal producer turned ice-bath guru Rick Rubin. A few episodes into the series, I noticed a playful back-and-forth ad read by the two hosts for the shoe brand Allbirds. Each time I heard it, I’d tell Siri to pause while I was doing the dishes and wonder to myself, What are these well-respected, extremely wealthy grey-haireds doing shilling a shoe made exclusively for people who embroider their employer’s name on things? I wouldn’t be surprised to see Malcolm cutting the line at TSA with his Clear Pass in hand and some ‘birds on his feet, but the god Rick Rubin? I couldn’t shake the cringe. Where do we draw the line on selling out now, where would I draw mine if the opportunity arose? Am I the only person who seems to care?

The ad made me doubt my ears. Of all the endorsement deals, speaking engagements, and soul-sucking paychecks that Rick must turn down annually, why did he agree to partake in a 60-second semi-scripted commercial for a shoe exclusively worn by people he’d much rather kick in the eye? Has enough time passed on Rick out there in paradise that he actually loves Allbirds as much as he says he does on the ad? If not for money, how could he fall for such a thing?

An interesting part of podcast advertising has been the fact that brands don’t really police the content of the ads the way they do for TV or print. The listener is able to tell if the host is just bullshitting their way through the ad or not, maybe improvising a little inside joke out of it to make it entertaining. Like how loyal disciples of Triple D can tell when Guy Fieri is feeling the fried ravioli or not by a few “tells,” the realization of faking it is actually a bonding moment between host and listener. You feel like you’re on the inside, earning your spot behind the paywall with sweat equity instead of $10 a month.

But instead of inside jokes and pokes at the target demo, Rick just earnestly talks about how comfortable his ‘birds are, despite how uncomfortable he might sound appearing in a commercial for them. I imagined how Malcolm’s pitch must have gone down: Rick’s Light Phone vibrating on silent as his tai chi sesh winds down overlooking the cliffs of his Malibu estate. His old pal Malcolm has an exciting opportunity for him that could potentially net upwards of ten thousand dollars.

Did Malcolm get him out of a jam a while back and Rick knew he’d call to make good on it one day? Does he have a gambling problem and can’t bear to put one of the Rolls on craigslist? Has Rick crossed every mental health hurdle but the power of saying no?

Fast forward a couple of years and I’ve stopped listening to most of Malcolm’s pods, but on a recent episode of Revisionist History titled “Laundry Done Right,” I was tickled enough to check the episode description. “Is there a right way to do your laundry? Of course, there is.” I can read that last line in Malcolm’s signature slithering tone by now. The episode starts out on a Zoom call with some of his employees. He’s asking each one of them what their laundry vibe is, building the narrative that most of us are clueless about the concept of laundry in general. Gladwell ends each interaction by asking whether or not they have a front-loading, or top-loading washing machine at home. Malcolm plants the seed that we’re a bit lost as it pertains to water temperature, and that more or less, “top loaders” are for broke boys. 

Just like the Allbirds ad, I stopped my onion chopping to contemplate why none of Malcolm’s New York-based employees raised their hand to suggest that this tone might come off badly, boss judging employees during a pandemic about thousand dollar appliances, or simply point out that many people don’t even own washers and dryers in the Big Apple, even the rich ones.

My ears tingled more when Malcolm gets to his Brooklyn-based employee (called out slowly, with his exquisitely public radio name) “Brendan...Francis.......Newnam.” I remembered Brendan as the bright host of “Dinner Party Download,” an early podcast I admired. He begins by shaming Brendan’s pansy-ass detergent called ECOS, and says “If you Google the words Brooklyn, natural wine, farmer’s market, vinyl records... you get Brendan.” His painted picture is ready for framing when Malcolm sneaks in another dig on ECOS, calling it an “eccentric choice” before asking Brendan if he identifies as a top- or a front-loading laundry doer. Met with a brief pause, Brendan admits that he actually goes to the laundromat. Malcolm laughs and says, “Niiiiiiice...old school!” 

The “Laundry Done Right” episode clocks in at just under 37 minutes, with 5 minutes and 16 seconds from that total running time spread out over six commercials. Three of those six are the same repeating ad for Smartless, a comedy podcast currently ranked #1 in its category and hosted by three famous actors who recently signed a deal with Amazon for $60-80 million.

As the episode moves along, Malcolm travels to a Procter & Gamble factory in Cincinnati on a “snowy winter’s day.” He teaches us all about how Procter & Gamble are caring a lot more about the environment now, and why washing your clothes with Tide in cold water is going to help our planet even more. Malcolm pulls up a clickbait list from the website thespruce.com, a popular destination for HomeGoods gatekeeping. Ranked as the best detergent on a budget is ECOS, “The kind that Brendan uses. Remember him? Brooklyn Brendan,” Malcolm speaks with the tone of a Pixar villain. 

He spends some time debunking the eco brands’ jargon, perhaps rightfully so, but his words hit with an odd snap, punching down from a snow-covered Procter & Gamble office. As a whimsical music bed creeps in, Malcolm ends the second act deprecatingly by declaring that he too, his finger-wagging self, is shamefully in the most deplorable category of clothes washers: hot water hive. As the final Smartless commercial ends, Malcolm, a changed man, drives home the crux once more: only a climate-denying fool would wash their clothes in hot water. The episode's closing words are “Revisionist History is brought to you by Procter & Gamble. NO I’M KIDDING! They didn’t pay for this episode, I fell for them all by myself...” 

Malcolm’s generation doesn’t congratulate each other for “getting the bag,” so I understand his compulsion to disclaim the lack of payment. The line between editorial and commercial content is barely there now that our brains welcome advertising for “the thing” more than “the thing” itself. But was this actually because he fell head over heels for Procter & Gamble? If so, wouldn’t it be even more sinister for Malcolm to hire a talented team of educated Brooklynites to simply sucker punch the reputation of homegrown eco-friendly cleaning products on his podcast?

Why come out of pocket thousands of dollars on hotels and flights to send a crew of people with hopes and dreams to a freezing factory in Ohio during a pandemic to record interviews with a Procter & Gamble employee when Zoom is good enough for the rest of his team? Why create a playfully paced and expertly executed infomercial for a company on track to do $70 billion dollars this year, if not “for the bag?”

Maybe Procter & Gamble just got lucky that this puff piece recorded last winter drops smack-dab in the middle of P&G’s #turntocold campaign, complete with TV spots starring Stone Cold Steve Austin and Ice T, respectively.

Podcast advertising has come a long way from dick pills and mattress codes; the Wild West is being settled faster than expected, we’re in the TiVo phase now. You can still fast forward commercials, and that’s good enough for most. But if the whole episode is actually a commercial, will we skip those too? — By Jason Stewart

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