Commentary

The Natives Are Feckless: Part 2

Digital technology has yielded profound change both utopian and dystopian. On the plus side: real-time global communication, instant access to information and the democratization of content enabling a 12-year-old with an iPhone to compete with Rupert Murdoch. Plus the greatest techo-development of all time: E-Z Pass.

On the down side: terrorists can easily plot, pedophiles can easily hide and trade, governments can spy, thieves can defraud and steal. And worst of all: comments sections.

Add to the dystopia the disintermediation, dislocation and dissolution of hitherto thriving industries. On this subject I am among the world's foremost experts -- not because I have written a couple of books on the subject, but because I'm among the dislocated. You know how the Industrial Revolution and its mass-production factories rendered cobblers irrelevant?

Well, I'm a cobbler. The Internet and digital publishing tools have done to mass media and mass marketing what steam power did to bespoke shoemakers. The newspaper, broadcast TV, cable and radio industries I have labored in since 1977 will not see 2077. They most likely will not outlive even me, at least not in any recognizable form.

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This is sad for many reasons. Not just the lost jobs and vanished prospects. And not only because of the crucial social good -- professional journalism -- at risk in the revolution. What to me is the saddest aspect of digital dislocation to witness is the accompanying moral surrender. Not only have once relatively dignified institutions demonstrated a willingness to do repugnant things for the sake of survival, they have rushed to do so.

Which gets us back to the subject of this series: native advertising.

In a study released last month, 73% of the Online Publishers Association reported they accept native advertising, with another 17% considering doing so before year's end. This despite the fact that -- as currently deployed -- native advertising typically violates the most basic publisher ethics by misleading the audience into believing the marketing “content” is editorial content.

In the words of media ethicist Edward Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley: “Accelerating the push toward more sponsored content will only deepen that confusion and intensify mistrust among thoughtful readers and viewers. I used to deplore this; now I fear that in the near-total absence of resistance from the news business, it's irreversible. This may not be the media world we want, but it sure looks like the one we're going to get."

Unless.

Unless someone intervenes to save the publishing world from itself.  As I said in the first installment of this series, there is no problem with content marketing per se. Just as some independent journalism conducted at an arm's length from sponsoring advertisers is nonetheless terrible, some content prepared directly by marketers for audiences is most worthy. Indeed, I believe we are headed toward mass disintermediation, removing independent publishers from the equation altogether.

But as long as branded content lives within the confines of third-party publishers -- whether the Atlantic, Slate or Philly.com -- the charade must end. For the sake of their audiences and for the sake of their own reputations, publishers must not let the content in any way disguise itself as editorial matter.

Period.

“We believe that transparency and labeling are paramount,” says Pam Horan, president of the Online Publishers Association.

Indeed, in the above-mentioned OPA report, she says, “79% of OPA members noted that ‘clear definition and labeling as advertising content’ was part of the actual definition of native advertising, and transparency and labeling also surfaced as one of the three key best practices.”

Yet that consensus has not resulted in anything remotely like standards of disclosure, which should be about as difficult to organize as a bake sale. So permit me:

1)     All content -- whether text, video or headline link -- not created by editorial staff independent of outside influence shall be prominently labeled as “advertiser content.” (Note: the terms “sponsored” or “sponsored content” are insufficient, because that could equally describe most editorial matter or programming in mass media going back three centuries. Such terms as “From around the web” are simply obfuscations and shall not be permitted.) To make that uniform, the OPA and the Interactive Advertising Bureau should promulgate a visual identity -- an AC bug -- that affixes to all native advertising instantaneously informing the audience the nature of the material.

2)     The printed content shall have a colored screen overlaying it to demarcate that it is advertiser material.

3)     Such labels and screens shall travel with the content around the Internet, so that “content” that originally appeared on Forbes.com, for example, can't show up on another site labeled only as having originating at Forbes.com. Otherwise, it would be possible to disclose at point of origin but syndicate deception. (That is currently common practice.)

Simple disclosure, simply executed. Who could object to that?

Not a rhetorical question, alas. I offered my suggestion to an executive with a heavy stake in online advertising. I am withholding the name, because in the back-and-forth of an email exchange, I believe the executive lost track of what was and what was not on the record. But the remarks, I believe, reflect a degree of rationalization and denial that will do tremendous harm to publishers and brands both. To wit:

You say this is about using disclosure to prevent deception. But companies with an intent to deceive will not voluntarily disclose. Companies with no intent to deceive will not want to disclose, because your "scarlet letter" concept makes it seem that every colored ad is potentially meant to be deceptive. 

My response: Yes, companies which intend to deceive will not voluntarily disclose. So no publisher should accept their content.

So then you need an "objective" mechanism. What is it? From what you've written me, it seems that any use of editorial content in an ad should require scarlet letter disclosure. Does that mean every restaurant review movie review that quotes a review? Every camera ad that draws from a CNET critique? Does that mean the state of Florida can't quote a New York Times travel section story about how great Sarasota is?

My response: No. That's backwards. The problem isn't editorial content being expropriated for ads. The problem is ads disguised as editorial content. At this point in the email exchange, I accused the executive of sounding petulant.

This is not petulance. This is basically telling moral cops like you to get off your high horse and recognize that it's neither clean or easy to try to use simple technical solutions to solve complicated moral problems. 

My response: There is no complicated moral problem here. It is a simple ethical transgression: publishers selling their good name to imposters preying on audience confusion. Neither is the solution especially technical. It is a question of simple graphic disclosure.

You know, in most jurisdictions, the police are underfunded. I have the most wonderful idea. The police department should sell uniforms and badges to anyone who wishes to have them. Those folks could go around the community in uniform, sometimes helping old ladies cross the street, sometimes deterring street crime by their very presence, sometimes stopping cars for no reason and sexually assaulting the drivers.

Don't get on your high horse about that. The real cops really need the revenue.

8 comments about "The Natives Are Feckless: Part 2".
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  1. Robert Rosenthal from Rosenthal Heavy Industries, August 12, 2013 at 11:23 a.m.

    Could. Not. Agree. More.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 12, 2013 at 11:56 a.m.

    Hallelluyah !!!!! (Cardboard cops prevent some crime as I have read.)

  3. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, August 12, 2013 at 12:05 p.m.

    Why are magazines (from SI to The Atlantic to Harper's to The Nation to The Economist to Reason to The Baseball Digest) better today than 50 years ago? Better written, better graphically?
    Why are newspapers (despite the writers we miss having passed from the scene) bigger, bolder, better written in their entirety from the sports section to the gossippages excepting only the funnies which are considerably weaker without ongoing serial stuff like Dick Tracy and Dondi and On Stage?

  4. David Vossbrink from Retired, August 12, 2013 at 12:07 p.m.

    Good analogy about police, but the example is already reality. See Sarah Stillman's frightening story about the abuse of civil forfeiture in the current New Yorker. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/08/12/130812fa_fact_stillman

  5. Andrew Boer from MovableMedia, August 12, 2013 at 12:09 p.m.

    Completely agree. Moreover, at the end of the day, native advertising, when done ethically and clearly, won't make financial sense for brands, compared to branded content under their own roof..

    Only when done unethically, when native advertising leverages the built up trust of the publisher to convince or influence the reader does native advertising provide meaningful value.

    Publishers are no longer the sole stewards of distribution and audience. That is why the game is over for them. Content created directly by brands like Red Bull or Morning Joe won't need this subterfuge-- readers understand and accept that the content will be biased against, say, other energy drinks or coffees. Native advertising, long term, doesn't stand a chance against branded content--it is just the last desperate gasp of a dying industry.

  6. David Hawthorne from HCI LearningWorks, August 12, 2013 at 12:24 p.m.

    I'm afraid it's too late Bob. The last vestige of daily journalism struggles on at the NY Times, which is now likely to sell. Broadcast journalism has become one long 'The View.' I'm not sure anyone has noticed the TWC killed CBS in many markets, including NYC. The age of Big Data has rendered every bit of attention in every medium a carrier of advertising, or stuff thinly disguised as advertising. No one wants to give us information we need or can make use of -unless that need or use is itself a salable object or service, sometimes disguised a fake food or otherwise faux fashioned -not to satisfy- but to stimulate further fake needs. Now even our entertainment is fake 'reality.' If once we could tell the dancer from the dance, we sure as hell can no longer. No one even cares "what we feel,' -just that we 'feel' or rather, 'twitch' this way or that. Is it any wonder we have 'fake' politicians wrapping themselves in 'fake' issues, pretending to represent constituents for whom they couldn't possibly care less. Maybe some vote and maybe most citizens don't, but what does it matter when the politicians are fully sponsored by advertisers? -DLH

  7. Al DiGuido from Optimus Publishing, August 12, 2013 at 1:54 p.m.

    Bob...the fundamental issue here is that advertisers have lost faith over the years in the ability for quality edit/journalists to engage their customers & prospects in meaningful and relevant dialogues. As consumers have shifted their media consumption patterns to digital venues...this lack of confidence has only intensified. I don't totally blame content providers for this decline in advertising. My sense is that in their zeal to cuts costs...publishers have walked away from recruiting, training & developing quality salespeople and the set of tools required to sell the real distinction between promotional copy and engaging relevant editorial content. The industry has basically rolled over and acquiesced to the media buyer mentality that all content connections are commodities cheapening the value of this intersection. WE are all to blame here. With this lack of confidence, Advertisers now believe that they can create content that engages with their audience and sets more fertile relationship between content and their ad message. This demeans the intelligence of todays consumer and proposes that most consumers don't know the difference between quality content and promotional copy that serves as a puff piece for a brand. I believe that consumers are smarter than that these days. 95 % of the "junk mail" that comes into my inbox both online and offline goes right in the trash without opening. The same will be true with content that is seen as promotional...Advertisers are foolish to think that anything other than this result will occur. Native advertising can work if we start creating "special interest" digital magazines that are back by strong editorial and allow for a more meaningful relationship between content, reader & advertiser. We also need to return to hiring and training quality salespeople who have the chops to sell the quality of this connection.
    Al D

  8. Doc Searls from ProjectVRM, August 13, 2013 at 7:11 p.m.

    I am a writer, not a content provider. I write for readers, not for consumers (yes, there is a difference), and not for advertisers. As a writer of editorial goods, my only meaningful relationship is with readers and editors. Not with advertisers. In fact NOT having a relationship with advertisers, meaningful or otherwise, is required for the highest quality journalism. If we still want that, clearly separating church (editorial) from state (advertising) is required. Nothing less.

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