Trust Me, You Want This

Host-read ads and rise of parasocial marketing

Full-text audio version of this essay.

In a 2019 episode of politics podcast Lovett or Leave It, host Jon Lovett reads an ad for the meat subscription service Butcher Box, characteristically mixing official ad copy with his own jokey ad-libs:

This month, Butcher Box is offering finely ground beef that is clean and delicious and taken from the most [pause] favorable sections of the animal? Okay. Wow. Very intimate. The beef consists of trimming from the sirloin — is this, is this a serious ad? That is so much information. [pause] The incredible quality of Butcher Box meat starts with a commitment to raising animals free of antibiotics and hormones — unlike me.

As Lovett lists the different combinations of meat customers can choose from — “all beef, beef and chicken, beef and pork, mixed box, or a custom box” — co-host Jon Favreau asks, “Are you sure this is food?” After Lovett pitches a listener discount for a free portion of beef, the advertisement ends in a fit of giggles and hysterical shouts of “Get your beef box! Get free beef in your box! Beef box! Beef box!”

Although the tenor of this ad — in which the hosts mock the product and obscure half the copy with contagious laughter — might seem unlikely to gain Butcher Box any new subscribers, it is actually emblematic of a current trend in digital marketing: host-read podcast advertisements. In recent years, ads read directly by podcast hosts — as opposed to ads produced externally and inserted into an episode — have become coveted as a reliable and lucrative form of marketing. A 2020 report from Morning Consult, a tech consultancy, found that podcast listeners were less likely to skip over an ad read by a podcast host than a traditional ad and more likely to try a product if it were pitched directly by a host. Host-read ads were also linked to high levels of brand recall and brand loyalty among listeners. In fact, for some listeners, the personal details, in-jokery, and riffing that podcast hosts contribute to the copy has become an indispensable part of the ethos and internal world of podcasts. Giancarlo Bizzarro, the head of sales for the podcast platform Crooked Media, claims that “people reach out to us specifically and say they never skip an ad on Pod Save America. I have listeners who write in and say they’ll skip to the ads because they’re hilarious.”

Ads appear here as a key and welcome aspect of a podcast’s community building

Marketers tend to assert that host-read advertisements work because they tap into an ineffable human factor. “There’s no technological answer I can give you for why host-read ads are the best,” Krystina Rubino of the marketing firm Right Side Up, told Morning Consult. “It’s a human thing.” But it seems possible to be more specific than that: The format manifests a world that marketers have long dreamed of, in which ads have been superseded by a benevolent network of recommenders with the best interests of the consumers at heart. Everything from the listener’s trust in the host to the affective bonds of fandom and the biological intimacy of audio (particularly headphone) consumption reinforces that experience. Whereas targeted ads and programmatic advertising can evoke the sinister world of pervasive surveillance and limitless algorithmic assessment, listening to host-read ads can register as doing a friend a favor.

By leveraging the emotional investments of listeners in their podcast communities and the seeming honesty and authenticity of hosts, marketers can overcome some of the skepticism and resentment consumers have toward advertising. Ads appear instead as a key and welcome aspect of a podcast’s community building. The infusion of a signature sense of humor and personalization in host-read ads exemplifies how readily the cognitive barriers between marketer and consumer, banter and persuasion, spokesperson and friend, profit and community participation, are dissolved.

In discussions of podcast fandom, a listener’s investment in a given podcast is often framed as parasociality — a type of one-directional friendship in which the listener feels that they are close friends with a podcast host, despite the fact that the host is unaware of their particular existence. The intensity of this relation can seem to stem from the intimacy of listening on headphones. In their 2019 book on podcasting, Martin Spinelli and Lance Dann claim that “earbuds in particular, placed as they are within the opening of the ear canal, collapse the physical space between a person speaking and a listener,” creating “a hyper-intimacy in which the voice you hear is in no way external, but present inside you.”

Headphone listening is both remarkably intimate — the voice of the host travels into the listener’s body without obstruction by distance or background noise — and necessarily solitary: No one around you can hear exactly what you hear, and you are very much engaged in a private interaction, often with someone discussing intimate details of their life.

But while this intimacy and isolation may further the listener’s parasocial connection with the host, it doesn’t mean that other bonds are not in play. The host can also be seen as an indispensable focal point for the development of fan communities, in which it is not just the “friendship” a fan may experience with the host that matters but also the inside jokes, points of reference, value commitments, memories, and affective attachments they share with other fans.

For example, “Murderinos” — fans of the true crime podcast My Favorite Murder — describe discovering the podcast as an affirmation of a part of themselves they long felt ashamed of or uneasy about: a voyeuristic joy in the grisly details of true crime. Although hosts Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff initially brought Murderinos together, there is a sense that Murderinos existed before My Favorite Murder did, and the podcast helped them recognize themselves in the community that formed around it.

Both the parasocial relation to podcast host and the sense of belonging to that podcast’s community can become integral to a listener’s sense of self. This means that host-read ads are well-positioned to circumvent one of the oldest thorns in advertising’s side: “persuasion knowledge,” as the ad industry calls it, or the consumers’ awareness that ads are ultimately trying to coax them into spending on things that they might not otherwise have thought to want. Not surprisingly, this awareness has been shown to elicit resentment, hostility, and pushback toward advertisements on the part of the consumer, a phenomenon known in industry speak as “advertising resistance.” This resistance may manifest as anything from switching channels during a commercial to mocking an ad with friends or believing oneself too smart to be “duped” by a given advertisement.

Of course, successful marketing requires overcoming this resistance and negating consumer distrust and defensiveness. While advertisers have historically deployed spokespeople, humor, and cultural trends to try to convince consumers that they are on the consumer’s side, digital marketing has more sophisticated tools.

If the empowered resistance of the listener hinged on being too smart to fall for ads, it now pivots to being smart enough to know that the host is trustworthy

While some prominent forms of advertising resistance — namely, avoidance and contestation — are rooted in opinions about the advertised product (or the nature of ads in general), what’s known as “empowering resistance” is rooted in a consumer’s sense of self. Such consumers pride themselves on what they take to be the integrity of their desires, unaffected by outside influence; they define themselves in part by what they refuse to be convinced of. Rejecting and ridiculing ads help sustain this self-image. But for empowering resistance to play out, the consumer must be able to both identify an ad as an ad and, more crucially, retain identifiable boundaries between their values and the ones evoked by the advertising climate.

One strategy for overcoming this is hyper-relevance: using data collection to populate a user’s digital feeds with “recommendations” so personalized that they might hardly seem to be ads at all. Marketing messages can then appear more as climatic ambience than identifiable intrusions. This lets them work to support a particular sense of self rather than threaten to undermine it. For instance, an ad for a new limited-edition sneaker would elicit for less advertising resistance in a sneaker collector than for everyone else. For the sneaker fanatic, the ad is not just a persuasion attempt; it is an event in their subculture, relevant information that lets them participate more fully in their community of choice.

The marketer’s utopia is one in which we each belong to some similar community, where the ads we are exposed to appear as natural extensions of our sincere interests and hobbies, our affective ties — indeed, our very sense of who we are. This is where the parasociality and community feeling of podcasts come into play.

Host-read advertisements in particular can transmute “empowering resistance” into seemingly empowering advertising. As consumers become increasingly aware of how mass surveillance helps construct their online experience, podcasts seem to offer an out: You choose to listen, often after a word-of-mouth recommendation from a friend. But podcasts also invite listeners in to a specific, well-delineated community that advertisers can key into to try to provide hyper-relevance.

A host-read ad can convince a consumer that a given product or service is not incongruent to their existing attitudes and beliefs simply because it becomes part of the show. It draws on the consumer’s desire for social validation: Familiarity with the advertised product becomes a token of both the parasocial connection with the host and the fact of belonging to the larger podcast community. The host, the listener, and the rest of the community all share an insider’s frame of reference toward the ad, as if they are all in on its necessity. If the empowered resistance of the listener hinged on being too smart to fall for ads, it now pivots to a sense of being smart enough to know that the host is trustworthy, despite their mouthing an ad’s words.

Podcast communities are built partly through banter — the type of rapid, in-joke-laden rapport one might experience with an actual friend. Far from abandoning this tonal aspect during advertisements, hosts tend to ham it up — using the ad as a vehicle for comedy, self-deprecation, or disarming sharing of personal details. Aida Osman, one of the hosts of the pop culture commentary podcast Keep It, does this with their ad-libbed copy for Hendrick’s gin: “I keep trying to resist. I keep trying to resist Hendrick’s gin. But here I am, every time, making a gin and tonic as if its not 11:00 a.m. In fact, once I’m done recording this, I’m probably gonna have to break into some early morning Hendrick’s. It’s designed for the curious, which we all know I’m not. But I do love to drink!”

Persuasion ceases to register as persuasion, becoming instead a benevolent suggestion from a trusted friend

Osman’s blending of official company tagline — “Designed for the curious” — and their own deadpan, self-deprecating, personal divulgence of pre-noon drinking suggests a familiar closeness and shared sense of humor between them and the audience. If sharing laughter and expressing vulnerability are pillars of IRL friendship, then parasocial podcasting relationships are no different — it is through the inside jokes, the personal details, and the shared memory that listeners find belonging. While traditional advertisements promise self-improvement or self-actualization to the consumer — think the avalanche of admirers a man is promised he’ll receive after applying Axe body spray — host-read advertisements affirm a belonging that already exists, like an old friend telling you a story they just know you’d love because, well, they sort of know you. The use of promo codes, which listeners are extolled to use in order to “help out the podcast,” reinforces the appeal to social validation, so that buying an advertised product becomes a way of communicating with the host “friend” in the absence of actual direct channels.

Although host-read advertisements have been shown to increase sales of anything from mattresses to mortgages to alcoholic seltzers, self-care products and services have become a staple of the medium. One of the biggest investors in host-read ads is BetterHelp, an online counseling service that offers on-demand, “affordable” therapy. It spent $4.4 million on podcast advertising in January 2021 alone and has run host-read ads and provided listener promotions for Crime Junkie (#3 on the Apple podcast chart as of August 2021), My Favorite Murder (#23), and Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! (#35), among scores of other podcasts.

The parasocial attachment of the listener to the host helps make host-read advertisements for online therapy more able to overcome the feelings of shame and stigma around seeking mental health treatment — in fact, the hosts often encourage defiance of that stigma as a way to exemplify the podcast community’s values. On comedy podcast Here’s the Thing, co-host That Chick Angel begins an ad for Talkspace with an invocation of the purpose of life: “There are certain things we are supposed to do in life. One is love the people that we are on Earth here with. And one is handling our own demons. Sometimes you need to go to a professional, like at Talkspace.” In a BetterHelp ad on OTHERtone with Pharrell, Scott, and Fam-Lay, co-host Scott Vener begins by asking listeners for a “mental health check-in” before encouraging them to seek treatment through BetterHelp: “I know there’s still a stigma around therapy, but, look, its 2021, there really shouldn’t be a stigma around it. It’s time to stop feeling ashamed of these normal human struggles and start feeling better. I mean, you deserve to be happy.”

In each of these messages, pursuit of mental health services — through the show’s sponsors — is positioned as a sign of courage, self-worth, and commitment to shared values. The fear of social ostracization that often accompanies the prospect of seeking therapy is nullified by encouragement seeming to come from within one’s own community. By the time a host-read ad from BetterHelp or TalkSpace arrives mid-episode, the listener is already primed, by way of affective attachment and aural intimacy and the celebration of vulnerability, to be open to its invitation.

But despite its ubiquity and implicit endorsement from many hosts, BetterHelp has faced its fair share of controversy and criticism. A 2020 investigative report from Jezebel found that the app shared user information with Facebook, Google, and Snapchat. Additionally, the company faced extensive scrutiny in 2018 because it didn’t “guarantee the verification of, the skills, degrees, qualification, licensure, certification, credentials, or background of any Counselor.” Though the host-read advertisements seem like general endorsements of mental health destigmitization and accessibility, they are still providing a sheen of legitimacy and trustworthiness to specific brands that may or may not deserve it. The efficacy of host-read advertisements lies not only in obscuring this reality but in transmuting consumption into an act of self-care and admirable exercise of community belonging.

Podcasts flow naturally and pleasantly into a listener’s day to day, advertisements flow naturally and pleasantly in and out of podcasts, and persuasion ceases to register as persuasion, becoming instead a benevolent suggestion from a trusted friend, an invitation to a communal experience, an opportunity to affirm that you are loyal to the community, that you “get it,” that you belong. The danger of this is that ads, host-read or not, are profit-driven, and they deserve more skepticism than a friend’s words would warrant. Advertisements are not our friends — even if they seem to spoken by them.

Camilla Cannon is a trans and technology studies scholar. They are interested in the intersection of queerness, algorithmic surveillance, and subjectivity formation in a digital world.