Ok, let me start by saying that, from an editorial standpoint, I am fully aware of the ethically dubious nature of native advertising. There is a 16 year old student activist inside of me that is vigorously against corporate influence in the media, battles for editorial independence and is ready to pounce on the first journalist that sells out to the capitalist machine. So surely the notion of publications camouflaging adverts as articles should be enough to make me want to slip on a balaclava and march on Fleet Street armed with a megaphone?
Well, you’d think that, but no. There are two ongoing themes that I’ve become more conscious of since I began working at AD Communications: 1) more and more journalists require commercial support in order to keep their publications up and running, and 2) the rise of the internet has spawned a generation of consumers – of which I’m part – who are used to getting what they want, when they want, for free… can you see where I’m going with this?
To paraphrase political satirist John Oliver, we cannot expect the press to be free and independent if we’re not willing to pay for it, so what are we to expect from today’s editors? Granted, traditional advertising is still an option, but while print ads and online banners are good for creating brand awareness, they are arguably not as persuasive as a well-written piece of content. When inserted into this context, native advertising becomes an appealing solution for both parties – a gateway in the proverbial wall dividing editorial and sponsorship.
As depressing an analogy as that may be, it is worth acknowledging just how many publishers and media buyers are jumping on the native ad-wagon (sorry). In the USA alone, the estimated spend was approximately $1.3 billion in 2013. It’s certainly a business model that has proven to be lucrative for media organisations on the rise – just look at what it’s done for Buzzfeed. In fact, if there’s one impressive feat Buzzfeed has managed to pull off, it’s getting users to think sharing ads disguised as listicles – yes, it’s a word, look it up – is cool (albeit subliminally so).
I am even prepared to go as far as saying that producing credible and authoritative sponsored content is a skill that journalists and agencies will need to learn. In fact, the ideal piece of native advertising should be an eloquently-written article in which the reporting is real and the branding minimal. A good example of this is The New York Times’ piece on new policies and programmes for female inmates, which undeniably makes an insightful read despite being sponsored by Netflix’ Orange is the New Black.
Is native advertising a bad influence on journalism? I’d say it’s a necessary evil that’s here to stay. We should get used to it.
Stay tuned tomorrow for a counter-argument from my colleague Patrick, who argues in his blog that native advertising is damaging for both brands and publishers alike.