Critics of Native Advertising miss the point: here is why

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The hilarious TV satirist  John Oliver  took a break from lampooning geo-political issues of life-and-death importance on Sunday to instead take on a media and marketing topic, namely  Native Advertising.

This new form of advertising is the hot topic getting everyone hot under the collar. Media owners welcome the new revenue stream it brings to their publications, but it worries editors because, to the purists, it feels like advertising content dressed up as independent editorial. And then of course, there are the companies, the advertisers, which love Native Advertising, because it is a highly effective form of online marketing that gets their message to a wider audience, in a credible format.

The truth, as it always tends to be, is both complex and simple. And while Oliver’s commentary is funny, he also misses the point.

Native advertising first burst on the scene largely as an online publishing innovation, created to provide extra advertising options to supplement the dominant form of online advertising, the banner ad. It’s really a type of advertising that recognises that an online publication’s reach and influence extends beyond its immediate website or app to a network of social media accounts, email newsletters and, possibly, syndication deals — all distributed centrally via an editorial news feed.

A banner, while carrying rich brand imagery, can’t easily be retweeted, shared, emailed or ported to an app by both publisher and user, whereas a native advertising article can. Similarly, from a brand’s point of view, Native advertising is the recognition that a company can distribute its own content (that being advertising) via its very own owned media properties, which could include properties like its sites, blogs, social media accounts and email newsletters (to name just a few in what is a very fragmented, option-rich digital marketing environment).

There is a reason why this is causing a fuss however. Anyone who knows anything about media, knows that editorial independence is sacrosanct for media operations. Readers trust that they are receiving independent content and advice from a publication, not commercial messages that — like it or not — are inherently biased. An insurance company will not say, “Look our products still need work, and our direct competitor is better value for money, but please sign up to us anyway because we want your business to make money for our shareholders”. They will, via advertising channels, rather say: “We have the best customer service and the best, cheapest premiums in the world, sign up for us now or lose out because we care about… YOU!”. It’s a bit cynical, but you get my drift.

So, therefore, we need journalists, credible bloggers or independent analysts/researchers to decode these messages and indeed tell us which insurance company offers the best value and the best products. Journalists, for example, can do so because they are independent and don’t have a conflict of interest when dispensing this advice. Any editor worth their salt will guard this independence like nothing else, to the point of resigning if this is ever compromised. Because if trust is broken with the reader, it’s not only their personal credibility on the line but the editorial publication’s credibility too. It’s hard to win trust back when you break it.

As a reader and consumer, I want the best product and deal for me, not to be pushed one deal or one product. When browsing, I receive independent editorial and advertising content very differently and I attach a different value to information via advertising channels versus editorial channels.

Although you should never mix editorial and advertising, they both play a critically equal role. Advertising says, “Hey remember me, look at me, don’t forget me, check me out!” and editorial gives us further insight, “This is what this product is about and how it compares to others, and why its relevant to your life”.

So both channels are mutually dependent like yin needs yang to exist, but the key here is that they need to remain strictly separate: there is a channel for content and a channel for advertising. The detractors of native advertising argue that these channels are being mixed up, and now publications risk deceiving readers. Unfortunately this argument is either a straw man or simply naive, because any native advertising programme worth its salt, on any publication worth its salt, is approached with this strong channel separation of church and state in mind.

What Oliver is really describing, is the worst possible scenario, which is possibly that of a publication publishing advertising as editorial content, not publishing advertising in editorial content format, clearly marked as advertising. There is the difference, right there.

The answer is simple really, and the media and marketing industry has had the answer for hundreds of years. Mediums and formats may be new, but the core fundamentals stay the same. The medium may change, but the ethics do not. Remember the advertorial, arguably a form of “native advertising 1.0″? Much like the practice with advertorials, it’s important to make sure that if a commercial piece of content appears in a publication it is CLEARLY marked as commercial content. That way it is not only an effective piece of advertising (because it is being distributed via a news feed like an article), but does not deceive the user into thinking it’s an independent editorial piece.

So Oliver is really critiquing poor publishing practices, not native advertising per se. He’s confusing the two. He’s funny and silly, but he is wrong. Advertising has found a new, powerful means of distributing its message, and publications a new revenue stream. So long as this is a transparent process, and a native advertising piece clearly presents itself as a piece of advertising, there is really is nothing to worry about.

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  • Jarred Cinman

    Good piece Matt. I think people are confused as to how much “branded content” and “product placement” already exists. The cleverest stuff manages to be both invisible and actually adds value – so that the reaction from readers is exactly the opposite of what the critics believe. Apple is, in a sense, and without even trying, being marketed in large part through native advertising. No-one complains because they love reading about Apple. And this is the real secret: if you give people what they want, irrespective of how its funded, you will win.

  • http://www.matthewbuckland.com/ Matthew Buckland

    We meet again :-) I think the advertising context (the medium) is important. For example we may perceive product placement in a movie as innocuous, as this is entertainment. (But it needs to be subtle so it’s not irritating), and therefore it can be “invisible”. In a documentary or news context, you’d need to be stricter about transparency and labelling advertising as advertising… here, invisibility can be perceived as deception for the reasons spelt out above.

    I agree with you on Apple… but to some extent the example is a misnomer. Apple did not need to advertise initially due to the incredible hype. This is the reward the early innovator and those that are first-to-market reap. Now that Apple finds itself in an increasingly competitive environment. As its products gets commoditised, like old IBM ’80′s mainframes, the company will need to advertise to stand out from its competitors. If I am not mistaken, they are a very big TV advertiser for example.

  • http://mgid.com/ Maria Shinkevich

    Oliver is indeed critiquing poor publishing practices, but he also asserting that the ads are not clearly marked. He wasn’t referring to an unscrupulous native ad, he was calling out New York Times and Buzzfeed so presumably, in his view, the “sponsored by” text is not sufficient. In the view of the industry it is and according to a recent IAB study, website visitors and readers are fine with it, as long as it is relevant to them. I think the discussion should change from “are the ads marked clearly” to “are the ads relevant to audiences and do audiences engage around them.”
    /Maria, MGID

  • anthony zorn

    You are dancing around what his real point is, it is that the trend has been to reduce the visibility of the difference between editorial and advertising and that when money is involved the natural trend is to move in just that direction, blur the lines, make it hard to differentiate, etc. his take on it was exaggerated and funny but unfortunately true, when left o their own devices corporate america rarely self regulates as well as we would want and largely goes straight for the dollar. if this is the case in this specific issue the public will suffer.

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