The wall between editorial and advertising, which had been teetering for a decade or more, has finally come tumbling down, courtesy of the phenomenon called native advertising. It’s quite obvious that the revenue pressures on media companies, particularly print, have accelerated the demise of the barrier between church and state. Yes, it stood for longer than Berlin's wall, but arguably crumbled for the same reason -- economics.
Before we all start lamenting the fall of editorial integrity, let's see if this really is a bad thing. For decades, advertising has been trying to become more "editorial" and less "ad-y." Not to fool readers into thinking that ads were actually editorial, but because the editorial approach is actually more interesting to consumers. Journalists are trained to look at information through the eyes of the reader, and to try to tell the truth -- the whole truth. The first ads that adopted these techniques and principles, like the early VW campaign, were refreshing to consumers who rewarded the brands with huge sales, and sometimes even icon status.
Okay -- but everyone still knew these were ads. What about those native ads that don't call out that they are paid for by brands? Isn't that unethical? Overtly labeling native ads as ads could be unnecessary. Consumers have a habit of labeling content themselves -- interesting or boring, credible or tainted -- then responding accordingly.
Native advertising that is poorly done, or which lacks the publication's same standards of editorial integrity, will be ignored by consumers, which weakens the advertiser and media company's relationships with each customer base. If editors look like they are shilling for brands they would never endorse, they lose their credibility with their own audience. But if they apply the same standards to advertising that they apply to journalism, then they are performing a service for the reader or the viewer equal to or better than the service that good editorial performs.
Good native advertising is not a sellout, it’s a service. Just
look at fashion. September Vogue had something like 900 pages with (I'm told) about 600 of those being advertising. But to consumers, it was all the same because the ads aren't really
much different than the editorial. Yes -- consumers divided the 900 pages into two categories, not ads versus edit but “clothes and models I like” versus “clothes and models I don't
The online site Urban Daddy makes no bones about the products it endorses. But they are selective about who they do native advertising for, and they find a way to do it that resonates with their audience. That's an example of native having more integrity and reader interest than most “journalism.” What is it anyway that makes a piece of content an ad? That it’s paid for by a sponsor? I think a better yardstick is content that has gone through an authentic editorial filter (even if paid for by a brand) versus content which has not. Consumers are buying into an editorial voice, and I don't see why that shouldn't extend to brands. It’s not perfect yet, but I have every confidence that it will be.
Editorial and advertising was a shotgun marriage. But once we get the kinks out, it may well be a happy, longstanding union.