Native Advertising: the apologists miss the point

Native Advertising camouflage

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.

Comments

Doug, primary example of this problem for me is the secondary quoting of that source content as “from” Forbes or HBR, (with links back to the magazine that confirm this assertion), only to discover it was native or in the blog section.

You could call me a native advertising apologist. And one who understands and even agrees with all of your points. As it’s practiced on most sites today, it blows. At least for the reader. For the marketer, well, it depends. Marketers will make hay while the sun shines.

But native advertising as it is practiced at the Guardian, the New York Times, Buzzfeed and the Atlantic are not the extent of it. Google’s AdWords are native ads, as are suggested posts on Facebook, promoted tweets on twitter and sponsored updates on LinkedIn. Somehow the back/frontlash doesn’t strike these sites in the same way. I suspect it’s because they solved the issue with *source* that bothered you. We know they’re feeds from multiple sources (and sometimes untrusted ones – who doesn’t have some dodgy friends?)

These kinds of native in-feed ads are really the new ad spot. You used to have to flip through some pages of a magazine or watch 10-minutes of TV before you had to suffer an ad. Now you have to flip through eight updates from friends or connections before you suffer an ad. And, as Facebook and twitter know, if the ads are actually helpful and desired (a big ask, I know) then they can up the frequency to one ad for every five updates (without killing the experience and losing visitors), which would mean a huge profit.

If the New York Times and its peers can’t make the transition to a feed-like set-up where they can put ads in a flow that doesn’t feel contrived or fraudulent, that’s the New York Times’ problem (not native advertising’s).

Great points.

Jim: I hadn’t even thought of the phoney secondary attribution. Again, strong evidence of brand erosion for the pseudo-quoted publication.

Ryan: I make a distinction between the social media sites and editorial sites on this one. I still find myself annoyed at sponsored tweets or Facebook posts but I haven’t (yet) seen them disguised as a message from a friend (shit, that’s next).

I don’t want or expect Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn or Google+ to interpret the world for me or even to offer their view on anything. They’re all simply platforms that help me connect with other people. They don’t have a voice or an editorial stance or a reputation for impartiality to defend.

The New York Times does. And I expect something — EVERYTHING — appearing under its masthead to adhere to certain standards of journalistic professionalism and ethics. Call me old-fashioned, but this feels important.

If ‘making the transition to a feed-like set-up’ is their only option, they’re screwed (and, as a reader, so am I).

Ryan, agree with your points, which is why I think the term native advertising is misleading — it amalgamates an old idea (advertorial) with two new ideas: in feed promotion (aka sponsored tweets) and content amplification (aka Outbrain).

I think it is fair to say that the bloom is off the native advertising rose, and the in feed and amplification people will try to distance themselves from the category, while the advertorial people will try to maintain they are something new.

I agree with your assessment of Pulizzi editorial control suggestion, but I also think it is a canard–any editorial team that would readily agree to be an approver of advertorial has already ceded any pretense to church and state. And any editorial team who still values their independence, aka the New York Times, would find a requirement to sign off on Chevron advertorial pieces anathema to what they do; they would be obstructionist, at best.

Andrew — all excellent insights. Thanks.
I agree: we shouldn’t lump all these different flavours of content promotion into one term like native advertising.

I don’t have a real problem with sponsored tweets or posts. They’re often annoying but I don’t feel duped. But the blurring of the lines between advertorial and editorial is disturbing.

I also agree that any editorial team that included ‘native ad approver’ to their job description would probably be hacks.

Doug…love your take here. I agree that my suggestion on editorial control over native is a bit controversial. What I’m trying to say is that it needs to pass the “editorial guidelines” of the media property (or why publish it all all). Media companies get into a place where if it’s paid, they don’t need to have a say in the content of the native ad. I disagree with this. Publishers need to have clear discretion that they can turn down a native piece if it doesn’t pass muster.

I’m sure Robert and I will be discussing this in our next podcast…thanks for keeping the conversation going.

Thanks Joe.
It’s ironic that in an effort to maintain editorial integrity (keeping editors out of native advertising) publications end up eroding their editorial further.

Maybe there needs to be a new ‘bridging’ role in there somewhere.
I look forward to the PNR podcast. I know you’ve covered native a lot already but this one will run and run.

Native advertisements are not misleading as there are words that indicate that it is an advertisement and because it looks similar to an editorial doesn’t make it misleading as this is just a new way of presenting advertisements. Older advert styles are no longer bringing in revenue for advertisers – people don’t click on banner ads on websites anymore, less people read newspapers & people can now fast forward through tv ads or not watch them at all via streaming websites – so new inventive methods are required like making an advert read like a story/article while promoting their goods or services.
I see them as similar to the newer tv adverts where for example, they tell the story of a guy doing good deeds for people every day and show the good things that come out of it with no product placement until the end where it’s says “Thai Life Insurance” (Chrystina Ng., 2014). I knew it was an advert as it was on in the ad break but that didn’t stop me from watching and enjoying it but at the same time it didn’t manipulate me into buying insurance. Same with these native adverts, I read one regarding when you need to buy a new bed. I found it interesting to read, learnt some things but I knew immediately that it was an advert for Beds R Us (Stuff.co.nz, 2016). There was a “sponsored” sign beside the link, it was mentioned at the beginning and the end of the piece and yet I didn’t feel like I had been manipulated or tricked into buying/wanting their beds.
To read native advertisements, you have to click on a link to view it and the links have some form of wording around them (“sponsored” “from the web” etc.) to indicate they are advertisements. The word advertisement isn’t used as this would probably detract people from using it so other words are used instead as euphemisms. But this is the same as when real estate agents say “cosy” which is a widely known code word for “tiny” and we don’t think they have misled us with such code words (Commonwealth Bank, 2012). As the advertisement has to be clicked on to be read, it is less invasive and has less impact on you as you can only see/be affected by it if you click on it, unlike other adverts (e.g. banner ads, newspaper ads, tv ads etc.) where you physically see the ad and must choose to ignore their brightly coloured, loud or seductive imagery. Also as you have to click on the link, you must have made the choice to read it while knowing that it is an advertisement but not necessarily for what. By clicking on the link, you are accepting the desire to read the advertisement so therefore have made a rational autonomous choice. This is because the desire was already in place before being induced by the advert (e.g. I wanted to read about when to replace my bed because I had already been thinking it might be time to) and the desire was carried out voluntarily (you wanted to satisfy the desire). Also because you are making an informed decision as you knew it was an advertisement. Therefore the advertisement wasn’t misleading or manipulating thereby not unethical as you got to act as a rational autonomous being. (Arrington, R., 1982, pp. 7-8) The same can be said for after you have read the article and you have the desire to buy the advertised product. As long as you already had the desire prior to reading or you accept the desire that you want the product then you have autonomy and if the advert gave informative data about the product then you will be acting rationally and so therefore you haven’t been manipulated. You also have the free will to not accept the desire and so not want the product after you have read the advertisement as you have not been coerced into buying it. (Arrington, R., 1982, pp. 7-8)
People may believe native advertisements more than other advertisements as it appears that they come from “credible knowledgeable experts” (i.e. news websites) (influenceatwork, 2012). Sharetrough recently did a study which showed that 52% of native ad readers intended to buy the advertised product compared to only 34% from banner ads (Canicas, 2015). This is what advertisers are counting on, that “the credibility of the news source rubs off on the branded content…the reader processes the branded content as on a par with the news” (The Open Polytechnic, 2015). However this is not a manipulation as the advertisement is still listed as an advertisement and is not from the actual news site.
In conclusion, native advertisements are not misleading/unethical because they have words besides their links that let the you know it is an advertisement and the advertiser is mentioned in the advert as well. Also their content may be in the style of a story/news article but other ad types are styled that way as well. You must also have a desire to read about the link topic/product otherwise you wouldn’t click on the link to read the article and since it is your own desire, you have acted as a rational autonomous being and so have not been manipulated into reading the advert. You also have the choice not to buy the product and if you want to, then you are acting rationally on your own desire.

References:
Arrington, R. (1982). Advertising and behaviour control. Journal of Business Ethics, 1, 3–12.
Canicas. (2015, September, 2nd) Native advertising: what exactly is it. Retrieved from http://www.canicas.nl/en/vision/native-advertising-wat-is-het-precies/
Chrystina Ng. (2014, April 5th). Creative ads touching heartwarming thai life insurance commercial [video file]. Video posted to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=632CHpeHYZE
Commonwealth Bank. (2012, December, 6th). The truth about real estate ads. Retrieved from https://www.commbank.com.au/blog/the-truth-about-real-estate-ads.html
influenceatwork. (2012, November 26). Science of persuasion [video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cFdCzN7RYbw
Stuff.co.nz. (2016, January 26th). Five signs its time for a new bed. Retrieved from http://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/well-good/teach-me/75906031/Five-signs-its-time-for-a- new-bed
The Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. (2015). Module 3: Employment Relations. In 71203 Business Ethics. Retrieved from https://openpolytechnic.iqualify.com/course/- K0YBLhfBMTzsnwqL783/p182

    Yikes. That’s a hell of a comment.
    I disagree with the premise (only 8% of consumers know that a native ad is sponsored content) but I admire the thoroughness of your comment (unless you just cut and pasted that is… you didn’t did you>)

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