Lord, Blessed Is The Man Who Trusts in You. Forbes, Not So Much

News item: Forbes Cover Features Native Ad for Fidelity Investments

Well, I suppose I’ve lost.

Despite years of crusading -- in print and onstage and even before a major, major government agency -- I have proved pathetically impotent against the forces of so-called “native advertising,” which is so called only because “Three Card Monte in a Bordello” might raise the suspicions of regulators.

According to a recent survey by the Online Publishers Association, 99% of its membership offer “native advertising” programs, a level of participation projected to reach 167% in 2015. Among those currently embracing native are The New York Times, the Guardian, Time Inc., the National Weather Service, the Congressional Record, the atomic clock and the Bible.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. But what is eternal life? “It’s forever,” sayeth Jeffrey T. Marshalk, vice president for research and development at Interstate Battery, the world automotive powerhouse. “It’s turning that ignition key – or facing that final breath – and knowing something good is going to happen next. Something good, something dependable and something surprisingly affordable.”



Just to review, native has grown and become widely accepted for several reasons:

1)     The advertising economy has failed publishers in the digital age due to a historic shift in supply and demand and the simplicity of ad avoidance.

2)     In the midst of existential crisis, basic honesty followed classified ads and most of the editorial staff right out the door. There are no ethicists in foxholes.

3)     As easy as it is to deceive readers by camouflaging ad messages as editorial content and tricking them into reading it, it is even easier to lie to the press, the public and the government about the whole sordid process. “There are still plenty of bad apples,” Dan Greenberg of native juggernaut Sharethrough likes to say. “But the industry has gotten better.” No, it hasn’t. It has gotten much bigger and not one bit better.

A few bad apples? By its very concept, native is rotten to the core, because it depends wholly on deception. The notion that there are black-hat nativists besmirching the reputation of the ethical majority would be laughable if it weren’t so not laughable. And the scandal will continue until all players surround their native “content” with the one true disclosure: “advertisement.” But of course that will never happen, because nobody ever clicks on an ad, ever -- which is how we got into this ugly situation to begin with.

Oh, sorry. You’ve caught me crusading again. And we know how that’s worked till now. Agitating against a growing revenue source for the publishing sector is like manning the Women’s Christian Temperance Union booth at Mardi Gras. (Actually, it’s a lot worse, because most people enjoy the benefit of a cocktail or nine, whereas no consumer benefits when trusted news and information sources sell their virtue to the highest bidder. What I’ve been doing is crying wolf while the other shepherds are selling wolf-size sheep costumes.

Which gets me to the latest wrinkle: a native cover story for Fidelity on the front of this week’s Forbes.

"We view this as strong content that's part of the retirement package," Mark Howard, Forbes Media's chief revenue officer, told Advertising Age.   

Of course that’s how he views it, much in the way some people view a $50 street corner trick as romance. In fact, Forbes was so infatuated with the “content” that it didn’t even bother to use any of the intentionally obscure semi-disclaimers on the cover -- such as “sponsored content”  -- that supposedly declare the difference between editorial and advertising.

So, yes. I’ve lost…in a rout. And so has the world of publishing, which is bartering its integrity by the column inch. And most of all, so have you.



13 comments about "Lord, Blessed Is The Man Who Trusts in You. Forbes, Not So Much".
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  1. Alec Beckett from Nail Communications, February 16, 2015 at 8:39 a.m.

    Amen. The need for revenue has blinded all other priorities—much, I suppose, as a drowning man who is grabbing at a life ring doesn't concern himself with whether that life ring was manufactured in a LEED-certified factory.

    It becomes clear to me that the last bastion of true journalism may very well be donation model. Pro Publica, your local NPR station and such are beholden only to the generosity of a small fraction of their readers, listeners or viewers who are demanding the highest standards of journalism.

    So give regularly and generously. They may be our last hope.

  2. Bob Gordon from The Auto Channel, February 16, 2015 at 9:59 a.m.

    When in doubt - Punt...
    When traditional advertising stops working... Advertorial ( oh am I dating myself? I mean Native.).

    Its up to, so far failing, advertising agencies to figure out how to maximize revenue from the eyeball's looking at editorial content, not add bogus editorial.

  3. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, February 16, 2015 at 10:22 a.m.

    Right on, Bob------showing my age. We should also note that the movie industry for decades has allowed advertisers to insert themselves into "content" in exchange for cash , services and/or product perks---like free cars for the heroes to drive or highly visible hotel and travel "accommodations". Radio and TV program sponsors used to feature their brand names in many ways---like signs above the contestants' booths in the rigged quiz shows of the mid 1950s or outright star endorsements----- and this practice still prevails today. Now, advertisers are making deals with TV producers to have their products appear or be mentioned in program content and radio stations often allow their on-air personalities to read copy and even give their "endorsements"----for an added charge. I wont be surprised to see TV news eventually going down this path, with anchors paid to tout sponsor's products. So the fact that magazines are selling their "souls" to garner advertising dollars should be placed in context. Until recently, magazines were relatively "purer" in this regard than TV or radio, but now, in desperation due to tumbling ad pages, they have gone down the same path. The real question is whether consumers will fall for "native" advertising of this type or will they ----most of them, anyway-----see through it? I think that the latter will be the case and putting ads----blatantly--- on the cover, rather than trying to "hide" ad messages in the publication's editorial content, will probably speed up the process. How dumb do the publishers think their readers are?

  4. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC, February 16, 2015 at 10:32 a.m.

    Oh, Bob, you've outdone yourself! Hilarious and so true, who knew the digital advertising slope would prove to be so slippery? What the hell, might as well enjoy the ride down to complete irrelevance! Yet, somehow I have to imagine that the audience will find its way to content sources they believe they can trust . . . maybe?

  5. Lubin Bisson from Qzedia Media Inc, February 16, 2015 at 10:46 a.m.

    Bob: From the "chaos scenario" you championed so well ten years ago (as in: What happens if the traditional marketing model collapses before a better alternative is established?) to the pretty much unique crusading only you and Ari Rosenberg have been explicitly calling out in the pages of MediaPost (as in: Native advertising is bullshit), when I read this today, all I can think of is George Harrison and "My Sweet Lord" seguing into "All Things Must Pass"

  6. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, February 16, 2015 at 10:46 a.m.

    Cigarettes are good for you. Snake oil works. Written by the oligarchic lackys. There is a difference when sponsorships are labeled as such or promotional consideration are mentioned as such. Effective ways exist without going "Three card Monte in a Bordello". And Ed, the objective is to do it so often that people get used to it and stop realizing there is a difference.

  7. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein, February 16, 2015 at 11:21 a.m.

    As the Native Advertising Nazi would proclaim: No scale for you!

  8. Kaila Colbin from Ministry of Awesome, February 16, 2015 at 5:10 p.m.

    Bob Garfield, I fucking love your work. You may have lost, but you've won me.

  9. John Grono from GAP Research, February 16, 2015 at 7:08 p.m.

    Bob, I have no problem with native advertising. I think natives and indigenous people have as much right to advertise as the next person! But what gets my goat is crap advertorial - posing as content - that is not declared as such, and especially when it makes its way to the front cover. Keep up the fight Bob.

  10. Jerry Gibbons from Gibbons Advice, February 17, 2015 at 12:06 p.m.

    Hey Bob - When Mark Howard, Forbes Media's chief revenue officer says,"We view this as strong content that's part of the retirement package," he means his retirement. It depress me that publications for which I have had such regard are stooping so low in trying to generate income. You would hope that they understood that it will, in the long run, be very bad for their business.

  11. Philip Moore from Philip Moore, February 18, 2015 at 10:43 a.m.

    Allowing your advertisers to write your content is like allowing lobbyists to write your legislation. Don't be surprised when the public regards publishers with the same contempt they have for Congress.

  12. Bob Garfield from MediaPost, February 18, 2015 at 11:29 a.m.

    Philip Moore,
    Fantastic analogy. I will now use it liberally without crediting you. Many thanks.

  13. John Grono from GAP Research, February 18, 2015 at 3:03 p.m.

    I second that Bob. Philip, would you mind if I 'export' that to Australia (and just change the Congress bit to 'politicians') ?

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