The unappetizing future of native advertising

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Marta Kierkus via The Fulcrum(photo)

Marta Kierkus via The Fulcrum(photo)

OTTAWA — As part of promotion for Orange is the New Black, Netflix paid for a story on the New York Times website about women in the prison system. This piece of writing is well researched and interesting. It also says “Paid Post” at the top in tiny writing. The quality of the piece has many people concerned about the path journalism is taking in an effort to sell ad space.

On the Aug. 3 episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver took on the increasingly popular practice of native advertising. As media companies have moved their focus online, they have struggled to support themselves financially as banner ads have very poor return on investment for advertisers. Native advertising is meant to make advertising more appealing by camouflaging it as content with barely visible disclaimers, essentially fooling readers into reading something they would normally scroll past.

Traditionally, Oliver said, there was meant to be a separation between the editorial and business sides of news, often compared to the divide between church and state. “I like to think of news and advertising as the separation of guacamole and Twizzlers. Separately they’re good, but if you mix them together somehow you make both of them really gross.”

In the episode, he points out that although the industry has seen major changes in recent years, the practice of selling ads to pay for journalism isn’t new. For example, in the ’50s, NBC broadcasters were introduced with ads hawking Camel cigarettes.

Integrating advertising isn’t unheard of in other industries either, with athletes signing deals to endorse products on their jerseys or competing in sponsored events. And while the practise of integrating ads into sports isn’t without its critics, mixing them into reporting is more discomforting as it calls into question what journalism is supposed to be. How can readers trust reporters to present unbiased news—something that’s already difficult—when a clear conflict of interest is on display at the top of the story?

Some companies have integrated advertising with their content effectively. BuzzFeed is successful because of its lists, often created in conjunction with advertising from big brands. The site also features actual news, but most people don’t go to BuzzFeed for that (we hope), because it’s hard to trust the quality of reporting from a company that has a story about James Franco’s hair alongside a serious news piece on Baghdad.

When readers want to know what’s going on in the world, they are more likely to turn to more trusted sources, which makes it troubling that these news organizations are now integrating native advertising in with their regular content.

The Globe and Mail now wants their journalists to write branded content in addition to regularly reported stories. They claim it isn’t a conflict of interest if the story doesn’t conflict with the reporter’s regular beat, and distinguish between “advertorials”, which are pieces approved by and created about the advertiser, and branded content, which is content approved by, but not about the advertiser.

Anyone reading the news should be aware that every journalist will have a unique perspective, regardless of how hard we strive to eliminate it from our reporting. It’s asking a lot though, to expect readers to sift through content from the same journalists to try and figure out whether the story is reflective of the journalist’s point of view, or the advertiser’s.

The New York Times piece on Orange is the New Black does everything that quality online content is supposed to do: it has a solid story with accompanying video, audio, and infographics. The most successful element of this piece of native advertising is how it got people talking, writing, and most importantly, linking to the story. When people choose to click on ads, they can claim success.

But can this model continue to be successful when it isn’t new and shocking anymore? Will reading sponsored news articles become commonplace, and if so, will the tenuous trust the public has in journalists to at least attempt to present the news in an unbiased manner be completely undone? As print sales go down and media companies struggle to attract readers, a violation of trust seems like the wrong move. Readers are already suspicious that journalists have ulterior motives in their reporting. Let’s not confirm that by handing our integrity out to the highest bidder.

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