Native Advertising—Just Another Attempt to Con the Reader?

By Jack Limpert

David Carr, in today’s “Media Equation” column in the New York Times, sounds the alarm about how the growing use of native advertising on media websites could damage their credibility. He says:

Now the new rage is “native advertising,” which is to say advertising wearing the uniform of journalism, mimicking the storytelling aesthetic of the host site. Buzzfeed, Forbes, The Atlantic and, more recently, The New Yorker, have all developed a version of native advertising, also known as sponsored content; if you are on Buzzfeed, World of Warcraft might have a sponsored post on, say, 10 reasons your virtual friends are better than your real ones.

It is usually labeled advertising (sometimes clearly, sometimes not), but if the content is appealing, marketers can gain attention and engagement beyond what they might get for say, oh, a banner ad.

Carr focuses much of his column on Joe McCambley, founder of The Wonderfactory, a digital design firm that  helped build the first banner ads. Here’s some of what McCambley had to say:

“I completely understand the value of native advertising,” Mr. McCambley said, “but there are a number of publishers who are allowing P.R. firms and advertising agencies direct access to their content management systems and allowing them to publish directly to the site. I think that is a huge mistake.

“It is a very slippery slope and could kill journalism if publishers aren’t careful,” he said.

He’s right. Publishers might build a revenue ledge through innovation of the advertising format, but the confusion that makes it work often diminishes the host publication’s credibility.

Of course, some publishers have already gone flying off the edge, most notoriously The Atlantic, which in January allowed Scientology to create a post that was of a piece with the rest of the editorial content on its site, even if it was differently labeled. They got clobbered, in part because handing the keys to the car to a controversial religion with a reputation for going after journalists was dumb.

“You are gambling with the contract you have with your readers,” Mr. McCambley said. “How do I know who made the content I am looking at and what the value of the information is?”
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If you were a magazine editor back in the 1980s, it may sound very familiar. Back then “advertorials” were the way for magazines and newspapers to bring in revenue when the publication’s content wasn’t attracting enough traditional advertising. Advertorial sections often looked a lot like normal magazine content and the American Society of Magazine Editors tried to crack down on the worst offenders.

Here, from a May 31 post on this website, is some background on the advertorials that came before the new native advertising:

For those of us who edited magazines 25 years ago, native advertising sounds a lot like what we then called advertorials. Those were sections in a magazine—often 12 or 16 pages—that were a mix of what sort of looked like normal editorial plus ads related to the subject matter. Back then the Washington Post Magazine ran lots of advertorials on cosmetic surgery (the magazine’s editor at the time was a  talented journalist who has gone on to bigger things), and the quasi-editorial copy could be anything from helpful information to puffery about an advertiser. A half-dozen of the bigger city and regional magazines—and some national magazines— would run six or seven advertorial sections a month.

The American Society of Magazine Editors tried to police the advertorial sections—here are the ASME Guidelines–and some magazines pushed things close to or over the line by making it hard for readers to know what was real editorial and what was advertorial. At ASME board meetings there was talk about whether magazine X or Y should be barred from the National Magazine Awards because the advertorials weren’t clearly labeled or looked too much like real editorial. I took part in an ASME panel on advertorials and tried to make the case that the sections were the equivalent of Pablum, that most of the sections offered nothing useful or interesting to the reader, that they were there only as a bland excuse to sell ads.

At one ASME meeting, Ed Kosner, then the editor of New York magazine, suggested that advertorial sections were okay if the quasi-editorial material was objective (facts and figures) and not subjective (puffery about those running ads). That made a lot of sense then, and still does. One problem, of course, is what marketers see as objective may not be what editors see as objective.

At The Washingtonian we mostly avoided advertorials because we had a strong circulation base and we didn’t want to endanger that by junking up the magazine. There was another issue: At a meeting of city magazine editors, Brian Anderson, then the editor of Mpls. St. Paul magazine, called advertorial sections the dangerous equivalent of heroin. His magazine was running lots of advertorial sections and he said that the magazine’s ad staff had become addicted to the sections, that they claimed they couldn’t sell run-of-book ads, that they needed the crutch of telling the advertiser that their ad would run near copy that would mention them.

So it appeared back then that advertorials might give a short-term boost to ad sales but long-term would weaken the magazine—it was an argument that some business side people understood. As for the editorial side, we hated advertorials, thinking that they were an attempt to con readers, that they would erode reader trust in the magazine, that they were an insult to the intelligence of readers, that long-term they would wreck the magazine.

Back then long-term thinking seemed to make sense.
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Magazines that valued their credibility and weren’t desperate for revenue avoided advertorials.

That was print. The bottom line for websites today?

People come to websites seeking information. They don’t scan the screen the way they look at the pages, including the ad pages, of a magazine. Banner ads don’t work. Trying to force the reader to respond to a pop-ad doesn’t work. Trying to force the reader to watch a 30-second video doesn’t work. People who go to websites want to be free to look for what they want. They don’t want to be forced to do anything.

Websites are not bringing in enough ad revenue to support anything resembling good journalism. It’s still print dollars, digital dimes, and mobile pennies.

The answer to bringing in more digital revenue? Sponsorships? Enhanced listings? What I’d bet against is anything that tries to con the reader.

At least back then we had ASME to try to keep magazines honest. Who, besides David Carr, is going to try to keep the web honest?

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