So far “native advertising” has been an inside baseball argument. Few ordinary citizens know the term, even if almost all of them get tricked regularly into clicking content they think is an informative “article” but turns out to be a shameless pitch to close a sale.
My wife complains about this regularly. A denizen of health articles and all of the latest studies on vitamin benefits (our kitchen cabinet runneth over), she resents bring misled by pieces that appear to open with objective research and only over time reveal themselves to be coming out of the mouths of supplement manufacturers who are just peddling pills. She is a computer scientist who is fond of doing the math and finding the right sum of this equation that adds editorial stylings to advertising. “I don’t know who is talking to me and why,” she sums up eloquently. The sum total of blurring these lines is the diminished credibility of any and all content.
But now people like my wife will be able to put a name to the blame as the “native” moniker starts creeping outside of industry parlance and into the mainstream. John Oliver of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight” delivered an epic takedown of the practice this weekend that not only spoke from example but named names and called out media.
Oliver began by pointing out the privileged position he occupies as a member of HBO, an ad-free “business model, which no one has been able to adequately explain to me yet.”
He characterized the business and editorial sides of the standard media model as the difference between “Twizzlers and guacamole,” because each is tasty on their own, but when mixed together ”you make something really gross.”
Oliver had great fun with the ineffectiveness of traditional banner ads. Did you know, for instance, that if you mistakenly do click on an online ad (and mistake is the only rational explanation), you will land on a page that asks if you are all right and if they should call for help? This notorious ad invisibility, of course, is what leads us to “native advertising.”
To Oliver’s credit, he chose his targets well in calling out two of the key figures in the rise of the “natives.” After showing a clip of BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti, he then described the young entrepreneur’s face as embodying Buzzfeed itself: youthful, appealing “and yet somehow you want to punch it.” Mocking Buzzfeed’s sponsored listicles, Oliver admitted that his own show used the format to promote itself before its premiere.
But Oliver saved the most direct call-outs for the big old media. Of Time Inc. CEO Joe Ripp’s claim he sees no problem with native advertising that is clearly labeled, Oliver responded with an IAB study showing most visitors “cannot tell the difference” between ads and editorial. Oliver stated the obvious that only media kingpins in deep denial can’t admit: “Of course they can’t, because it is supposed to blend in. It is like a camouflage manufacturer saying that only an idiot cannot tell the difference between that man and foliage.” Anyway, deer are too smart to be deceived: “You have to respect deer.” He sealed the deal with a clip I had never seen before, in which Ripp pretty much disavows any understanding of what “church and state” even meant in the first place. Yikes.
New York Times ad chief Meredith Levien got called out for denying any diminished consumer trust as a result of sponsored articles. “It is not meant to be trickery,” she was shown saying. “It is meant to be publishers sharing its storytelling tools with marketers.”
“And that’s not bulls**t,” Oliver mocked. “It is recycled bovine waste.”
Admitting that part of the problem is that we consumers are unwilling to fund directly independent newsgathering, Oliver’s epic takedown ended with a modest proposal: Put news into the ads. After all, if the advertising is creeping into the editorial, isn’t it only fair that the news should take a place in the ads?
The clip, which has already garnered nearly a quarter of a million YouTube views, is worth all 12 minutes of your time, if only for the mock Coke/News spot.