Don't Let Native Advertising Be A Fool's Errand

Let me just admit it: The story that most intrigued me in digital last week doesn’t have that much to do with social.  Instead, it's  the native advertising workshop held by the Federal Trade Commission down in Washington last Wednesday. As if stealing a line from my recent column on Chris Paul going to Edelman-- a line, which I, in turn, stole from Robin Thicke -- the FTC called its workshop: “Blurred Lines: Advertising or Content?” and set out, I gather, to start figuring out what is OK, and what’s not, when it comes to so-called native advertising.

It doesn’t look as if the FTC got very far, but at least there was a lot of fun to be had along the way, if your idea of fun is listening to people load on the criticism when native advertising simply goes too far in its aim to be, for all purposes, indistinguishable from the editorial content it shares screens with. MediaPost’s own Bob Garfield was heard to say during the hearing (which, regrettably, this not-so-intrepid reporter did not attend): “With every transaction, publishers are mining and exporting a rare resource: trust. Those deals will not save the media industry. They will, in a matter of years, destroy the media industry: one boatload of shit at a time."




But here’s another cool thing about Bob’s quote: take out the words “publishers” and “media” and replace them with “marketers” and “advertising,” and it’s just as pertinent. To wit: “With every transaction, marketers are mining and exporting a rare resource: trust. Those deals will not save the advertising industry. They will, in a matter of years, destroy the advertising industry: one boatload of shit at a time.”

It kind of works, doesn’t it?

Now, of the two entities -- publishers or marketers -- I would certainly argue that publishers have more to worry about. If their businesses aren’t withering on the paper some of them are still printed on, they are suffering online from the rush to the bottom in display. In that game, few publishers seems to be winning, though your friendly local algorithm certainly is.

For marketers, there’s a hint of desperation in native advertising, too. In the worst cases, the attempts to borrow credibility by pretending to be something that’s more trusted -- editorial content -- so obviously speaks to the fact that trust in advertising has long been broken that there’s no need to go on about it. But if going native --in the most flagrant way possible -- is any advertiser’s answer to building credibility, than they are sadly mistaken. Better to throw an ad up on the Web, surround it with a huge honky-tonk of signs that say “ADVERTISING,” and just call this so-called “content” what it actually is.

Maybe it’s a coincidence that the FTC, in the title of the workshop, looked to distinguish between advertising and content. To many in the room, given how casually the word “content” is thrown around these days, the correct question may have been: advertising content or editorial content?

But I don’t think the FTC’s wording was a coincidence at all; it did not want to start equating advertising with content. Advertisers who view their content as being on a par with editorial content are only lining themselves up to be the worst offenders in the native advertising universe. If you really think your post on “15 Things Only Peppermint Addicts Understand” is on the same level as the profound journalism that lies within “21 Signs You Had a Skater Phase,” then you’re sadly mistaken.

(OK, ha, funny. Those are actually side-by-side headlines this morning on Buzzfeed, the former sponsored by Edy’s Ice Cream and the latter by the Pulitzer Prize-aspirant Ailbhe Malone.)

Yes, Buzzfeed is exactly the wrong place to go to demonstrate the differences between what editorial organizations do, and what advertisers do, but exactly the right place to go to demonstrate how blurry all of this is getting, even if the listicle sponsored by Edy’s is clearly marked as such.

In more and more instances, the demarcation is even less clear -- and while that may warm the cockles of many an advertiser’s heart, it can’t last. The late, great David Ogilvy -- a fan of long-form copy, by the way -- once said, “The consumer is not a moron, she is your wife.”

And that truism has never changed, except, maybe, to include stay-at-home dads. People are hard to fool, and when they are fooled, well … let’s just say it isn’t great for the brand involved in the deception.

So what’s an advertiser to do? Actually, advertisers should take a page from social media and try to be authentic, not just in what is being said, but in how it is being distributed. Not all native advertising is bad, but when it blurs the line too far, no one benefits -- even if, in the short-term race for click-throughs and impressions and revenue, it looks great.

Don’t be fooled.

3 comments about "Don't Let Native Advertising Be A Fool's Errand ".
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  1. Ted Rubin from The Rubin Organization / Return on Relationship, December 9, 2013 at 2:12 p.m.

    Native content is not about pitching your product, it's about creating connection. Remember it is only native to the content consumer if it provides value to them and provides a real solution or makes an emotional connection.

  2. Paul Robinson from Viridian Development Corporation, December 9, 2013 at 4:18 p.m.

    It also helps if you do content that is not related to what you sell for a living. Mobil wasn't even trying to sell gasoline, it was trying to encourage people not to kill themselves when it did some videos where they showed that being in a collision at 40 miles per hour with another car going as fast was like driving off a ten-story building and slamming into the ground at 80 miles an hour. The commercial ended with "We want you to live. Mobil." People by the thousands responded with thank yous and requests for gasoline charge card applications. Mobil's ads like these from the 1970s gave the company a lot of positive response, and the company wasn't even trying to get people to sign up for their gasoline credit cards.

  3. Seth Ulinski from, December 9, 2013 at 5:28 p.m.

    Ideally I think a brand's messaging should be contextually relevant to a given page, carry the publisher's format, and also be fully transparent that it is indeed sponsored content. Using this framework one can still pitch/sell a product, native platforms such as TripReactor are setting this stage.

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