The Onion is Owning the Sponsored Content Game

And the guy behind it all, Hassan Ali, is speaking at Con Con on November 4th.

October 20, 2016

Most everyone is familiar with The Onion and its satirical take on news. But did you know that they’re also prolific at creating sponsored content for brands?

Well, they are. Take this post they created for Schick, for example:


Not only did that thing receive a ton of likes but it also got shared thousands of times. Literally an advertisement… got shared… by thousands of humans… on Facebook. That’s insane.

And guess what, people? The Onion’s Creative Marketing Director, Hassan Ali (aka. the guy in the thick of it all), is speaking at Con Con on November 4th.

We sat down with him for an interview to get a better feel for his day-to-day and what he’ll be talking about at the event. Get to know the dude below! Then buy a ticket to meet him in person.

What’s your specific role? And what’s your day-to-day look like?

I’m creative marketing director of Onion Inc, which is just a fancy way of saying I work with brands to make ads in the Onion voice that our audience will like.

Brands come to us hoping to reach our amazing audience, and we know our audience likes sharp, smart humor, and is wary of advertising. So we (like a lot of publishers) create branded content that communicates the brand’s messaging but in our hallmark Onion voice that will have our audiences saying, “Hey, that was pretty funny for an ad! Who was the super talented and handsome guy that created that?!”

But to be clear, I work with an amazing team and we all make the magic happen.

My day-to-day is typically: getting briefed in the morning on new projects; spend afternoon tending to existing projects, brainstorming ideas for new ones, or scripting/writing spots (most of what I do is video); and lately I’ve been getting into trying to use emerging tech (like VR and bots) in projects, so I’ve spent a fair amount of time tinkering and learning those brave new worlds.

Throughout the day, I channel the great Richard Branson and drink a ton of tea.

What about the Onion makes it so successful? Do you think the site’s overall approach would have worked, say, 10 years ago?

Having first been a fan of The Onion, and then having the great fortune of actually working here, it’s clear that the reason it’s so successful is because it taps into human truths we can all relate to in some way.

One of my favorite headlines from the amazing Onion writers: “Laid Back Company Allows Employees To Work From Home After 6pm.” Why is it funny? Because it’s so true. Because we read it and go, “Wow, that hits a little too close to home.”

That’s also why I think The Onion has thrived so well moving from print to digital and social media. People love sharing things that are 1) funny and 2) relatable. And The Onion accomplishes both really freaking well.

At The Hustle, one of our main focuses is transparency and giving readers this feeling of, “Oh okay, these guys get it.” Is that what companies that you partner with are trying to say, as well?

Absolutely. If a brand wants to create traditional advertising, there are a ton of agencies they can go to for that. However, we offer something unique.

With us, they know what they’re getting into. There’s a reason they’re coming to us. They want the Onion voice and Onion wit, and they want their brand essentially being given the Onion seal of approval for our audiences.

One of my favorite things I’ve done was for Scotts Miracle-Gro. The videos were testimonials from users of a fake app called Lawnbnb, which you’d use to book stays on strangers’ lawns (obviously a parody of Airbnb). These users talked about how their favorite lawns to stay on used Scotts Miracle-Gro, of course.

The videos are ridiculous, but also talk about the product benefits in a fun way. After watching, you can’t help but say “Wow, Miracle Gro was pretty cool to do something like that. They get it.” That whole “this brand gets it” factor is definitely a big part of why brands come to us.

How would you make a piece of branded content for Con Con?

The point of Con Con is to get people to make great content. And that’s AWESOME, because sadly there’s so much BAD content out there. We all find ourselves just swiping and swiping and swiping past junk in our feeds. All that swiping really does a number on our thumbs!

So the video could be an interview with a doctor who explains that carpal tunnel syndrome and torn thumb muscles are on the rise today due to the sheer volume of terrible content people are required to swipe past. In many cases, full thumb replacement operations are being performed. (Which has created a Silk Road-style black market for premium replacement thumbs, aka “The Good Shit”).

The doctor urges people to attend Con Con as a matter of public health, so that they can create better content for themselves and audiences. Content that makes people stop swiping and actually engage. After all, there are many good thumbs at stake here.

Interested in hearing more from Hassan? Come to Con Con on November 4th at the Brava Theater in San Francisco.

Hope to see you there, friend.

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