An Open Letter To The Author Of An Open Letter To John Oliver

Dear Sergey Denisenko, Chief Executive Officer, MGID:

In your attempted takedown of HBO's John Oliver for his very funny takedown of native advertising, you made a number of interesting points I feel compelled to challenge, on the grounds that they are self-serving horseshit. You addressed, for instance, the blurring of “church and state” by advertising disguised as editorial content.

You wrote: If unscrupulous editors are placing advertorials as news, and not labeling them as such, then certainly that needs to stop and is against already well-established FTC advertorial regulations that manage our media.

However, here's where you are wrong: Native advertising is not sponsored content made to look like news. You claim that publishers are blurring the line between news and advertising and are not clearly labeling native ads as such, when in fact they are.



Perhaps I am missing your point due to unfamiliarity with advertising jargon, but when you say “is not” advertising made to look like news, did you mean “obviously and emphatically is?” Also, in my world “in fact” means “the truth is.” That’s why I’m perplexed, because the fact is that native advertising as it is normally delivered is less clearly labeled than the average car-lease offer. The ad usually appears in the same typeface as the surrounding editorial, it employs the same headline treatment, it is not demarcated by borderlines -- visual differentiation historically enforced on print advertorials -- and the wording of the actual disclaimer tends to be some vague term like “sponsored content.”

Tell me, Sergey, precisely which article in an advertiser-supported publication is not sponsored content? Here's a crazy idea! Why not get rid of the label coined intentionally to be ambiguous, and replace it with something a little clearer? Like, say, oh…I dunno…”advertisement.”

Rhetorical question. The answer is: because that suppresses clicks. Native exists for the sole reason that nobody ever clicks on regular ads. 

It is true, a number of publishers -- notably The New York Times -- are very scrupulous about disclosure. I hereby offer my right kidney to you or your assigns the very first month The New York Times native ad click-through rate exceeds the industry average. That will never happen, of course, because academic research shows that the click-through on native is a direct result of reader ignorance and confusion.

And never mind the fake recommendation engines typically labeled “From Around the Web” -- which suggests editorial curation but instead is usually just clickbait to ad sleaze.

Am I to understand that you are proud of this conspiracy of deception? Sergey, this scandalous behavior is not limited to unscrupulous publishers. What John Oliver skewered is the industry standard -- which you rationalize in two thoroughly appalling ways.

You said:  As an industry we are thrilled that, at last, we've found a balance between what a publisher needs to do to "keep the lights on," what the advertisers need to communicate, and what audiences are keen to engage around.

Let’s look at the latter assertion first. Yes, there has been some wonderful, interesting and authoritative content produced by native advertisers. How does that justify the deceit in getting people to consume it? (Also rhetorical). If the content is so worthy, you’d think advertisers would be delighted to slap their logo all over it. But they don’t. Why? See boldfaced passage above.

As for the “keep the lights on” argument, that goes beyond appalling well into immoral. The end of saving publishers businesses justifies the means of institutionalized deception? Really? Is that how you want to monetize the industry? Well, enough of the half measures. You’re selling your souls for peanuts. As long as you’re willing to drain a publication’s reservoir of trust a cupful at a time, why try something more lucrative?

Drug smuggling brings in pretty nice coin.

Meantime, keep writing stuff like your reply to John Oliver. If your goal is to insult the intelligence of the Federal Trade Commission, which is considering rulemaking that could decimate your business, you are not in Santa Monica and Kiev brandishing an open letter. You are in Pamplona waving a red flag.


10 comments about "An Open Letter To The Author Of An Open Letter To John Oliver ".
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  1. Mark Buckle from JOURNEY, August 11, 2014 at 9:39 a.m.

    Brilliant. And about time.

    It would be funny if it weren't quite so scary. And the time is now right to question this stuff in terms of its underlying morality.

    As a Brit, we have always observed the US media marketplace as a little more brazen in the way that it accommodates its clients' wishes (product placement, for example, only arrived here about 10 years ago), but we are now talking about a pan-global epidemic of deceit.

    It's time to stand up to this nonsense. (That's the English translation of 'horses##t', BTW....)

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 11, 2014 at 10:28 a.m.

    "Native" advertising is very Putinesque. It only rains when he says it is.

  3. Ruth Barrett from, August 11, 2014 at 11:36 a.m.

    Lots of wolves walking around these days looking like sheep, deceit it is and right up there with greed so let's continue to challenge "native" advertising and label it for what it is and treat it as it has been in the past to insure our readers and citizens know the difference each and every time.

  4. Bob Gordon from The Auto Channel, August 11, 2014 at 11:39 a.m.

    If no one reads a native advertising article is it still native advertising?

  5. Tony Nino from PADV Pasadena Advertising, August 11, 2014 at 3:25 p.m.

    What is the sound of one hand clapping over my mouth to keep from guffawing?
    Thank you for that, Bob. It is undeniably easier to be boring and pedantic under the guise of editorial content. And, in the same vein, just in case anybody missed it:
    Spoiler alert --- the answer is YES!

  6. Christopher Stephenson from OnWords, August 11, 2014 at 4:30 p.m.

    ??? How dare you diss my favorite content on the web… sponsored content!!? Gimme more “top 10 tattoos gone horribly wrong” and “hottest NBA star wives” and “what he doesn’t want you to do in bed”, and “top 10 reasons that newspapers are losing trust, dignity and credibility”.

    Long live John Oliver…. and Bob Garfield!

  7. William Hoelzel from JWB Associates, August 11, 2014 at 6:52 p.m.

    I agree with you and The New York Times that sponsored content ought to be clearly labeled, and i recognize that readers are less likely to click on it.

    But i have to share a comment i read yesterday on another blog, with full credit to the commenter.

    George Parker from Parker Consultants submitted this comment, and it makes sense:

    " Never forget what Howard Gossage said many, many years ago... 'People don't read advertising, they read what interests them. Sometimes, it's advertising.' "

  8. Thomas Siebert from BENEVOLENT PROPAGANDA, August 12, 2014 at 8:53 a.m.

    Shooting fish in a barrel, but that can be wonderful entertainment when the fish so clearly deserve to be shot. Very funny, well done.

  9. Andrew Boer from MovableMedia, August 12, 2014 at 10:15 a.m.

    I think you are right about native advertising and I appreciate your whacks at the dying horse. But just to complete the thought, the problem isn't really "sponsored content" by brands -- Brands can, will, and are, as you point out in the article below (with apologies to Peter Sealey) becoming credible media producers, and publishers of content, and aggregators of audiences.
    But the trend of brands as publishers is not going to save traditional publishing. In fact, it is hastening its demise, as they pimp out what is left of their editorial integrity in order to jump into "content marketing".
    As an industry we tend to lump all of these terms together: "branded content, sponsored content, content marketing, native advertising" like they are all essentially part of the same thing. They are not -- one is the future (content marketing), and the other (native advertising) is a disaster.

  10. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, August 15, 2014 at 7:14 a.m.

    Here being HERE. Is it any different from introducing Arthur Godfrey in early TV as "Arthur, 'buy 'em by the carton' Godfrey" as Tony Marvin occasionally did? Or Henry Morgan standing in a soup can as the moderator of a quiz show? Maybe it's that print is seen as cleaner than broadcast which in the early days were run by the ad agencies and their clients.

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