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‘Con game’: native advertising only works when it’s hidden

Like it or not, more native advertising — where lines can be blurred between paid ads and editorial content — is coming our way.

Native advertising was, inevitably, the topic that generated the most passionate discussion in the media stream of the Association for Data-driven Marketing and Advertising Global Forum in Sydney yesterday. And like it or not, you’re going to be seeing more of this advertising (often called “sponsored content”) — which is ever harder to distinguish from editorial content.

A straw poll of the audience revealed that at least a quarter of attendees’ organisations, mostly marketers and advertisers, are already involved in native advertising. Some spoke out against what they saw as the “demonisation” of native advertising. “Why would we want to buy into your brand if [our] content is corralled and tagged?” one said.

Advertisers have a powerful argument against disclosure. “It does not get the click-throughs that it would if it were undisclosed,” said veteran columnist Bob Garfield, who moderated the discussion. “So what’s happening is not a brand giving the audience the benefit of its special expertise, but rather a conspiracy between the publisher and the advertiser to mislead the audience … As it’s most often practised, with insufficient disclosure, isn’t it a con game? Isn’t it deception? Isn’t it a grift?”

Jeff Chu, editor-at-large at Fast Company, agrees. “As a journalist it makes me very uncomfortable. I don’t like blurring the lines like that.” Bruce Rogers, chief insight officer at Forbes, agrees too. “I think it’s right up there with the bottom-feeding links,” he said, referring to misleading headlines that might be accompanied by a photo of a kitten, only to take clicking users to an ad for an insurance company. “It’s always been, unfortunately, part of the web. Hopefully these things run their course, but there’s always going to be somebody willing to pay for it, certainly on the marketers’ side, and given the challenges around monetising impressions today, there’s probably always going to be publishers willing to do it.”

Rogers sees a bleak future where the web’s entire advertising inventory is sold algorithmically, and the placement of native advertising is completely mechanised and automated. That said, he is optimistic about what he distinguishes native advertising from “brand journalism”, such as Forbes’ BrandVoice, which he describes as a “meritocracy of voices”.

Marketers have information that’s valuable, and in some cases more valuable than even editors have. And so if we put marketers’ content on a platform — the same platform, the same tools that our editors use — we clearly identify it and label it as coming from a marketer, [and] we think we’re actually providing a service both to the reader and the marketer. I think it’s not a blurring of lines. I think it’s a strengthening of line between church and state.”

Garfield agrees. “If there is disclosure, and the audience knows that what they’re saying is not from an independent third party but from someone with a point of view … fine.” It all comes down to trust. “What you’re monetising is the accumulated trust in your brand,” Garfield said, but with native advertising you’re “eroding the very thing upon which you build your audience”.

Personally, I’m fascinated that there are publishers who’d even consider not disclosing that content served another master. But as Chu pointed out: “Anyone who says they’re making tons of money online is lying. Anyone who says they’ve seamlessly transitioned to digital is also lying.” In the desperate hunt for revenue, native advertising is a mightily attractive proposition.

But I’m with Garfield, who opened the day with this quip: “There’s native advertising — which we can talk about later if you want to spend the morning discussing prostitution.”

Prostitution, it seems, will be the new media business model.

11
  • 1
    Lingo
    Posted Wednesday, 30 July 2014 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Reading this, I felt like Alice in Wonderland - totally bamboozled. What is native advertising? Who aRe these people engaged in the debate? Where do we innocent consumers stand in all this?
    What is monetizing? Articles like this need footnotes or a glossary to help us ordinary mortals fight our way through Business-speak.

  • 2
    Kfix
    Posted Wednesday, 30 July 2014 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Stil, I’m not comfortable with the prostitution comparison. Prostitution is inherently an honourable and upfront activity often spoiled by exploitation. Native advertising is inherently dodgy.

  • 3
    David Hand
    Posted Wednesday, 30 July 2014 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Native advertising does not give advertising the credibility of editorial content. It gives editorial content the credibility of advertising.

  • 4
    Lubo Gregor
    Posted Wednesday, 30 July 2014 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    I agree with #2, I think that more than prostitution, it is like that guy dressed and posing as a girl that hides a rather unexpected surprise in his panties once the drunken sod takes “her” home (or into the bushes) :D

    @#1 - I believe that marketing should be included in the high school curriculum, as it is already a crucial part of our everyday life - not to be able to use it, rather than be able to discover when it’s being used and to understand it’s underhanded practices. In fact, I think it’s 50 years too late to educate our masses about how they are being manipulated everyday, but now it seems that the same strategies that were used for selling goods are now being employed to sell politicians to the electorate.

  • 5
    Posted Wednesday, 30 July 2014 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    @Kfix: I completely agree with your point about prostitution. Perhaps in a more leisurely process I’d have realised that myself at the time of writing, and skipped that quote. Sigh.

  • 6
    Elliot Sollis
    Posted Wednesday, 30 July 2014 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    Totally agree with Lingo. What is native advertising?

  • 7
    Graham R
    Posted Thursday, 31 July 2014 at 1:55 am | Permalink

    What is native advertising????? Never heard the phrase before. Have I already been conned by it? Stilgherian, please correct this in a future piece on Crikey.

  • 8
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 31 July 2014 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    Me three.. or four, how does “native advertising” differ from advertorials, as perpetrated daily by Jones, Laws et al?

  • 9
    Kfix
    Posted Thursday, 31 July 2014 at 9:29 am | Permalink

    Native advertising” is essentially a euphemism for advertorial, or “content” (how I hate the way that word is misused) supplied by an advertiser. Proponents will have you believe that it’s done in a more honest way than advertorial, but I doubt the advertiser is hoping the consumer (ugh) will notice the difference.

    There’s a good starting discussion here - http://mumbrella.com.au/going-native-191637

  • 10
    Lingo
    Posted Thursday, 31 July 2014 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    Agreed about education. I’m sure schools are working to make kids aware of what’s happening - but changes occur so fast (eg native advertising creeping up to grab us apparently overnight) that it’s hard to keep up. The ideal would be a populace able to keep one step ahead of those marketing ‘creatives’, or better still, able to resist all advertisers’ blandishments. We’re too rich of course. Eight year olds with ‘pocket money’ that would feed a family for a week elsewhere. Teens with their own credit cards. Stilgherrian, you’re helping to educate us with articles like this, but some clear explanation and definitions would have made it more effective.

  • 11
    Damien M
    Posted Tuesday, 5 August 2014 at 12:35 am | Permalink

    Prostitution? Selling sex is an honest trade.

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