Betoota Advocate editors Charles Single and Archer Hamilton (Image: The Betoota Advocate/Facebook)

It costs $8500 to get The Betoota Advocate to take the piss out of your brand — and none of their readers will need to know it’s an ad. 

The wildly popular satirical news site has, in recent years, openly produced branded content and other obvious forms of advertising, including live reads on their weekly podcasts, website banner ads or site takeovers. The Betoota name has become so beloved that they also sell their own merchandise (through Betoota Outfitters) and beer (Betoota Bitter).

But the site has also been selling its core material — short, funny, “news” articles shared widely on social media — to advertisers, which they call their “bread and butter brand integration”. 

Inq can reveal that some of those articles have been written for a fee “to promote your brand in a fun and humorous way which hits a key brand point in a way which is authentic to our audience”. That audience is valuable — Betoota claims to reach 88% of people between 18 and 44, and to have “the second highest engagement per person of any Australian brand”.

A page from The Betoota Advocate media kit

The Betoota Advocate mythology — that it’s a “small and independent regional newspaper from far-west Queensland” run by “Errol Parker (editor-at-large) and the homegrown Clancy Overell (editor)” who met as cadet journalists in Townsville — has helped power its success and position it as Australia’s outback answer to The Onion. In reality, the venture is run by Sydneysider Charles Single (Errol) and Queenslander Archer Hamilton (Clancy), and part of what it offers advertisers is to “let us create the headlines for your brand”. 

So, it turns out: “‘A Couple Of Chips’ Identified As Gateway To Half Of Boyfriend’s Meal” is an ad for KFC. “No Reason That Linen Cupboard Can’t Be A Third Bedroom’ Says 23-Year-Old Real Estate Agent” is an ad for Uno Home Loans.

A paid post for KFC on The Betoota Advocate

Other brands who’ve had paid content appear on the site include Subway, Koala mattresses, and Arnott’s Tim Tams. Only one article on the site is tagged as “sponsored” — a story about an Uber driver. In most instances, sponsored posts are indistinguishable from other articles on the site — though a few examples stood out to Inq as not quite matching Betoota’s trademark tone.

Two separate articles about vaping mentioned the brand Juul in the headline and multiple times in the text, and both included the following line: “The Juul became the most popular e-cigarette in Australia and the United States at the end of 2017 and has a market share of 72% as of September 2018.”

Betoota‘s editor, Clancy Overell (Hamilton), told Inq the site had never taken money from Juul and insisted the brand was only name-checked because it “currently holds enormous cultural relevance”. The repeated line, he said, was based on statistics from publicly available sources and has “simply been lazily copy-pasted across these two articles”.

Hamilton offered an article describing Sportsbet as a “predatory online gambling” app as an example of the site’s ethical standards. “Basically any industries that look like they are going to end up in front of a royal commission get left on ‘read’. Our readers know this”, he said.

Only, their readers may not. 

The Australian Association of National Advertisers  (AANA) recently updated its code of ethics to include, under section 2.7, a requirement that “advertising or marketing communication must be clearly distinguishable as such to the relevant audience”. The move was in response to the reality that paid editorial (sometimes called “advertorial” or “native content”), designed to blend in with a publication’s tone and style, is now ubiquitous across all forms of media. 

According to consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier, “the delineation between church and state, and editorial and advertising, died years ago — that hard line is now a fuzzy blur”. Adding to the “fuzziness” of that blurry line is the fact that, under the AANA’s code, there is no requirement for advertising to be labelled as such if it is “clear to the relevant audience that the content is commercial in nature”.

In some cases, Betoota‘s articles read so positively that it might be reasonable to assume they were paid for by the brand in question. Hamilton provided Inq with an example promoting the horror film Crawl, which included an article (about Bob Katter shooting his TV upon seeing an alligator in the trailer); this was supported by website banner ads and included a link in the text to the movie’s website and release date.

But in others, there’s no clue at all — and certainly no disclaimer.

Hamilton told Inq the number of articles featuring paid brand integrations was “less than 1%,” and that “you might have to dig through hundreds or thousands of posts to find branded content”, and said other commercial ventures were far more valuable to the business.

“In short, we don’t need much bread and butter at all, and it serves as more of a trickle in between our more reliable bricks and mortar revenue models — like our live shows, banner ads, corporate speaking, Betoota Bitter.”

Hamilton told Inq that “95% of brands that appear on The Betoota Advocate do so because of their cultural relevance”. He listed Tarocash, Holden and VB as examples which get the Betoota treatment simply because they’ve earned it, whether they like it or not.

Other brands might wish to be so lucky.

Ferrier said it was no surprise brands would want to get on board the Betoota train: “What’s in it for the advertiser is ironically often authenticity — in that brands are often presented in kind of, glossy hi-vis advertising, and what they sometimes need is a bit of depth or more character to that. So being part of satirical content that might lightly take the piss out of said brand can be advantageous and make the brand more likeable and relatable.”

Why Betoota would want to risk its own brand is less clear. One of the site’s favourite targets is social media “influencers” running sponsored content. Why bother doing the same, for a mere “trickle” of revenue?

What do you think about ads masquerading as news, fake or otherwise? Send your thoughts to [email protected]. Please include your full name for publication.