Native advertising – disguising marketing content as editorial – has swept through the media industry like a Western virus through an indigenous population.
In the five months since I last posted my concerns about it in Native Advertising: Trust For Sale, the technique has exploded. It’s everywhere, from the first places you’d expect it (BuzzFeed, HuffPo) to the last (The New York Times, The Guardian) and everything in-between (Inc Magazine has gone wild on its new drug).
The phenomenon is big and ugly enough for Last Week Tonight With John Oliver to tackle on HBO in this very funny rant.
It’s the start of what I hope to be a big backlash against the patently dodgy premise behind native advertising: that ‘going native’ (the term that gave the tactic its name) is deception no matter how you dress it up.
And for every backlash, there is an equal and opposite response (frontlash?) as the practitioners rush in to defend the offending practice.
The native advertising apologists move in
All Native Advertising apologists (our equivalent to climate change deniers) base their defense on these four arguments:
1. “The Native Content is always clearly sign-posted.”
Except the signposting is invariably small, faint, unclear, misleading or…um… absent.
If the publisher really wanted to signpost the native content as advertising it would be really, really easy. They already know how because they’ve been doing it for ten or fifteen decades (it’s why ads look like ads and editorial looks like editorial).
But if you let an ad use your house headline font and style. And your body copy font and style. And mix it right in with your editorial stories. And use the same size and shape as your editorial stories… then some readers might think it’s editorial. Oops!
2. “Native Content can be just as valuable – even more valuable – than editorial.”
If this is true, why do you have to trick people into reading it? But it isn’t true, is it. Even the very best, highest-quality marketing content suffers from a fatal flaw: it is not impartial.
Because native advertising has a hidden agenda – to sell stuff – it can never be editorial. Like Pinocchio, it can want to be a real boy but if it gets its wish, bad shit happens.
3. “Editorial always had an agenda and always sold stuff.”
This one hits close to the bone and comes dangerously close to a good argument. But it’s also the most dangerous and cynical. Because if we accept this, a free press has no purpose anymore.
Yes, newspapers have always been edited by people and people have biases.
And yes, newspapers are owned by corporations and corporations have agendas (something Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky rammed home in their powerful book Manufacturing Consent).
So, the apologists seem to be saying, we should just give up. We should never expect a newspaper to be impartial or transparent. It was always a lie and it’s better to know it.
Sorry. This way lies fascism. And Fox News.
I’m not ready to give this one up yet.
4. “The reader isn’t stupid: people know advertising when they see it.”
Well then why go to such enormous lengths to disguise it? Won’t they just get angry once they figure out that the fair and balanced story about America’s energy future was bought and paid for by Chevron?
No, the native advertising technique, and the growing industry around it, are built on people NOT knowing advertising when they see it. Especially when that advertising looks, feels, sounds, smells and tastes very much like editorial.
Publishers, police thyself.
Sensible voices, like Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute and the George Washington of content marketing, are calling for some common sense.
His recent post on LinkedIn, Three Solutions to John Oliver’s Rant on Native Advertising, is as well-informed, thoughtful and thorough as any you’ll find.
But I still think Joe is missing the point when he calls for two ways to fix the editorial process:
“First, native advertising, while sold by the sales team, needs to be approved by the actual editorial staff of the media company.
Regardless if the content is produced by the media company (like the Chevron example above, which was produced by the New York Times) or submitted by the company itself, the media company’s editorial team has to have veto rights….”
This could only apply to the high-end, on-site, major pseudo-editorial pieces but never to the automated feeds from native ad networks that pump new ‘stories’ into publisher sites in real time.
And even if you only apply the principle at the top, this suggestion still misses the point. Even if Chevron wrote a FANTASTIC piece on the future of energy, the New York Times shouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. Or it stops being The New York Times.
If there’s a great, untold story about the future of energy, put a reporter on it. Let her talk to Chevron, by all means. But then let her DO HER JOB. Which is to create an unbiased report for readers.
Editorial approvals in the workflow and editor veto power are far too flimsy a wall to protect this feeble church from such a voracious state.
Second, brands need to stop submitting appalling content. … Most brands don’t put the time in to develop truly compelling and relevant content for the particular channel they are buying space on.
From the reader (and customer) perspective, the quality and relevance of the content are not the issue. The issue is the source of that content.
From the marketer perspective (Joe’s beat and mine), relevant, high-quality content is, of course, WAY more effective than low-quality, irrelevant content. But do you really want to sneak such great content on to a reader’s screen under false pretences?
(And, anyway, the automated native advertising platforms don’t let the marketer target the content to the site — the platform does this in its black-box click-maximiser. Relevance to the site’s or page’s content is actively discouraged.)
Where I think Joe really nails it is when he refers to Marc Andreessen’s nine different ways to fund a news media organization and suggests that advertising is probably the worst of them all. New models could protect us all from marketers going native.
The bottom line
Readers want to be able to trust their news sources — and even their entertainment sources.
Native advertising undermines that trust.
If you’re a reader, let your favourite publishers know how you feel.
If you’re a publisher, beware: you’re selling your biggest asset.
If you’re a marketer: exploit the hell out of native advertising before the publishers figure out what they’re doing (or the readers start rebelling).
If you’re an agency, learn about this. You can’t let your unease keep your clients off the gravy train. And pray for a change of climate.
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