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.

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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.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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