Ian Botham And The Secret To Turning Your Product Into Effective Content Marketing

We’re used to famous people plugging products within the features sections of newspapers – and increasingly on the sports pages – but is it right for them to do so in front-page splashes?

On Sunday, The Sun touted a remarkable exclusive interview with one of the nation’s most respected sporting heroes, Sir Ian Botham. In it, the former cricketer ‘revealed’ that he was undergoing a new kind of therapy to combat erectile dysfunction. The piece was rather wonderfully labelled a ‘Testicle Match Special’.

The bizarre story became one of those rare 24-hour publicity-generating phenomenons that public relations specialists can only dream of. Botham’s ‘story’ was subsequently picked up by almost every single newspaper and was posted onto almost every leading news website (The Guardian being an exception).

But is it a story or just an artful piece of advertising for a product – or what’s come to be known as content marketing?

A spokesman for News UK, which publishes The Sun, insists it’s genuine: ‘We don’t splash on stories that are plugs for products. The Botham material definitely had serious news value.’

Indeed, it did. For within the three-page ‘story’, Sir Ian urged all men who are worried they are suffering from impotence, or are worried that they might one day suffer from it (ie, every single bloke) to get themselves checked out and find out more about this remarkable new treatment.

He’s been having Vigore Linear Shockwave Therapy all summer and, after his final session, proudly announced in the newspaper: ‘I’m a male and men do have problems and you have to front up to them. There’s no downside to this only a big upside.’

Which is both a brilliant double entendre and a neat way of asking: is there any other ‘upside’ to this alleged story?

For instance, what’s the relationship between Sir Ian, Vigore and Dr Sherif Wakil, who treated the former cricketing hero and now Sky Sports commentator? Indeed, what relationship does The Sun – owned by the same company as Sky – have with Vigore, a brand which, in the space of a single article, gets six name checks over a double-page spread together with a graphic which shows how the treatment allegedly works. (By increasing nitrous oxide to increase blood flow within the penis and repair damaged tissue, if you must know.) How were the ‘facts’ of the story attained and then verified?

And here’s the most intriguing thing of all – Sir Ian doesn’t even suffer from erectile dysfunction. He’s fine when it comes to sex with his wife Kathy (who has had to endure years of Sir Ian’s extramarital liaisons, now thankfully in the past he adds somewhat sheepishly at the end of the article).

So here’s a ‘story’ about a man who doesn’t suffer from something saying that all men who do suffer from it should run along to Harley Street and pay a substantial sum of money to have their nether regions zapped by a medic who, incidentally (and according to another red-top, the Daily Star), also offers penile enlargement operations.

A ‘story’ given credence, authority and authenticity by an editorial operation that is quite willing to plug a product without wondering if, in fact, it’s simply giving free advertising. Or has it accepted the free advertising in return for a highly-readable Sunday ‘exclusive’ with a celebrity?

It’s certainly not an unusual way to present content, especially when it comes to health. Just a few months ago the Mail on Sunday splashed on its front page, turning to Page 3 and then a spread in the features section, how X Factor judge Louis Walsh was getting hearing aid treatment from Specsavers, even though he’s not yet lost his hearing.

And the day after the Botham splash, The Sun carried a ‘story’ with Cold Feet star Jon Thomson in which the ‘Telly funnyman’ admitted that he’d been having hair transplant operations so that he wouldn’t look like such a ‘bald thug’ when out on the dating scene. His favoured Farjo Hair Institute was name-checked in the fourth sentence.

All three celebrities, I’d argue, are helping to market products that may well benefit the wider public, yet we’re not being told if they have any kind of relationship with the brand involved. Intriguingly, Louis Walsh has quite a history of plugging Specsavers as of its brand ‘ambassadors’.

This is content marketing brilliantly manipulated to look like editorial – and it’s everywhere at the moment. Usually, it’s accompanied by a small banner or logo saying something like ‘In association with…’ Not long ago the Daily Telegraph found itself in hot water by plugging HSBC bank without noting that some of the articles appearing on the editorial pages were actually marketing puff-pieces.

The separation between the two is becoming increasingly blurred and, personally, the opportunities are enormously exciting. After two decades in newspapers, I now run my own company providing content to brands who understand the enormous power of a story well told.

Disgruntled with ineffective public relations and hugely expensive advertising campaigns, these brands want something more subtle and shareable, less sales-like and – crucially – interesting to read. In other words, journalism that sells rather than just informs. And thus stands a decent chance of creeping into the press by masquerading as news.

In fact, a recent report compiled by Yahoo and media experts at Enders Analysis predicted that content marketing spend in the UK will rise 179.2 per cent to £349 million in 2020, from £125 million in 2014.

There’s no point in being sniffy about it. For instance, any journalist who’s ever written a positive travel article having benefited from a discount or freebie has indulged in content marketing.

In a world flooded by content from who-knows-where, the best material will always rise to the top, the smartest brands will pay for it and the most capable creators might make a decent living from it. It’s journalism but not as most of us know it – now it’s wrapped around PR and marketing.

The important element is that such material appears in traditional media outlets. A survey this month from Ogilvy PR showed that ‘three quarters of respondents agreed that traditional media holds more sway than paid, direct-to-consumer, and social channels in North America and EMEA’.

And as The Sun showed this weekend, it’s the kind of journalism that every rival publication copies without even questioning its merits, creating astonishing ripples of publicity.

All because it’s a good story.

Honestly, Why Can't Leaders See That The Truth Really Doesn't Hurt?

Not for the first time, Google has got itself into a communications mess. According to widespread reports, its bosses are stifling internal debate and open discourse to try to keep the troops in line. After a series of messages on internal platforms, employees are going to be disciplined if they issue political ‘statements that insult, demean and humiliate’. How ironic that the chief enabler of our digitised open democracy should be censoring internal debate about Google policy, culture an...

Paywalls - If You Build It They Will Come

The other night I asked my teenage son to plough through his mountain of homework and finish it by the time I got home. Asked being the crucial word here. That I found him on the PS4 when I returned will come as no surprise to any parent of a teenag...

Here's How CEOs Can Truly Find Purpose

This morning I had a long conversation with my friend about purpose and it made me think about Michelle Obama. The former First Lady, writing in her new memoir, Becoming, talks about how she struggled to find 'purpose' when her husband became Presid...